Monday, May 26, 2014

Plain Fruit Cake - No Icing Required

Is it just me that is fed up with cupcakes surmounted by voluminous froths of icing? Sometimes I feel like the Grinch when I have yet another request for cupcakes at school and I know that mine will be the humble Cinderellas of the parade... in my day (hrmph, bah humbug and all that) they were called fairy cakes and had a thin glaze of glacĂ© icing and some hundreds and thousands sprinkles for decoration. If you were going all out for glamour you could add silver balls or Smarties. While today’s elaborate creations are undeniably beautiful, I find the rich, very sweet icing overwhelming and would rather just eat the cake underneath.

I’m finding myself more and more attracted by the plain, un-iced cakes of old-fashioned tea-times. Not hotel teas or birthday teas but family weekday ones. The kind of cake that keeps all week in a tin and that you eat in front of the fire with a mug of tea, after having polished off the crumpets dripping with butter. When I was a child and we visited my aunt, there used to be two or three cakes on the go at any one tea-time. Usually a fruit cake, perhaps a ginger one and some sort of light sponge. We’d come in from walking the dogs and tea would be taken along to the sitting room on a trolley to have by the fire: bread and butter first, then a piece of cake or two and then biscuits to fill in any corners. I don’t know how we managed it all, as there would be supper a couple of hours later. Maybe the plethora of cakes was just when family was visiting, but I’m pretty sure that my aunt always had a cake of some description on the go. Here we go with the nostalgic childhood memories, I must be getting old!

My mum’s old-fashioned ginger cake recipe is a good un-fancy cake that lasts for days, and after our Easter Simnel cake was finished I went looking for a plain fruit cake recipe that would also do as an everyday cake. This Dundee cake recipe fits the bill perfectly. It’s light with a citrus freshness, and improves with keeping a few days. I thought about adding some spices to the mix, but am glad I resisted as the orange and lemon zest is all the flavour you need.

Dundee Fruit Cake recipe

150g/5oz soft butter
150g/5oz caster sugar
3 eggs, beaten
225g/8oz plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
450g/1lb fruit cake mix (sultanas, currants, candied peel)
2 tablespoons ground almonds
Grated zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
50g/2oz whole blanched almonds
2-3 tablespoons milk (if needed)

20cm/8 inch cake tine, greased and lined
Preheat oven to 150C/300F

Cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Add eggs, a little at a time and beat in well.
Sift together flour and baking powder. Carefully fold it into the mixture.
The mixture should now be of a soft, dropping consistency. Add  a couple of tablespoons of milk if too stiff and dry.

Fold in the dried fruit, ground almonds and zest.
Spoon mixture into the lined cake tin and level with the back of a spoon.
Gently place the whole almonds in a circular pattern on the top of the mixture. Avoid pressing down, as the cake will rise up to meet them!

Bake until the centre is firm and springy and a skewer comes out clean, about 2 hours.
Cool in the tin, then store in an airtight container.

What about you? Do you have any favourite plain cake recipes to share?

Monday, May 19, 2014

It Ain’t Cornish, But It’s A Pasty

Cornish pasties are one of those food conundrums. Born as a convenient and rather humble packed lunch for those out working in the fields or mines, with no pretensions to grandeur, they are now a cherished part of the Cornish heritage and guarded by a PGI (Protected Geographical Indication), with heated debate and irate comments lathered around the web under any recipe that dares to call itself a Cornish pasty, if it breaks any one of the number of rules. One of those rules being that it has to be made in Cornwall, I’m putting a disclaimer in right from the start. This is not a recipe for a Cornish pasty.

I’ve broken too many other rules in creating a tasty version of a pasty anyway; the most important of them is that I’ve used carrot instead of swede – a huge No No among the defenders of the Cornish pasty heritage. In fact I’m wondering if when we visit Cornwall next we’ll be met by a pasty posse at the River Tamar and be refused entry on the grounds of defiling the reputation of the pasty. (Oh and don’t tell anyone Cornish, but I used mince rather than chopped beef skirt here, because it’s easier and cheaper and after all I’m making a meal for the family here, not re-enacting a historical event.)

Another hotly-defended rule that I’ve kept to, is that the pasty should be crimped along the side, not over the top (which is apparently a habit of those in the next county along, Devon). If you want to adapt this recipe to make the genuine article, you’ll need to use finely sliced beef skirt and swede, rather than mince and carrots, then, as long as you are in Cornwall at the time, you may be justified in calling it a Cornish pasty!

My latest pasty showing my best efforts at crimping

So with all that said, my main aim was to find a pastry recipe that would do the job. It needs to be strong enough to hold the filling and be easily transportable without breaking open, with a hint of a flake for lightness once you bite in. Don’t even think of using puff pastry here though, you want the firmness and crispness of shortcrust. I tried several recipes before coming up with one that I think is just right and my investment in really good lard paid off. Now I just need to find a more affordable source of that homely fat and convince the kids that it’s not too gross for words!

All in all the pasties were a big success with whole family and are a wonderful example of how you don’t need fancy ingredients to make something really scrumptious.

Cornish pasties are a D-shape, crimped at the side. This is my second attempt with rather dodgy crimping!

Not a Cornish Pasty Recipe
500g white bread flour
100g lard
45g butter
5g/1 teaspoon salt
175g iced water

350g beef (mince or finely sliced skirt)
350g potato
200g carrot
200g onion
Salt and pepper
25g butter
Beaten egg to glaze

Makes 6 pasties

Rub the lard and butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs. Gradually mix in the cold water and knead until it comes together in a pliable dough. You may need slightly more or less water depending on your flour.

Roll the pastry into a long cylinder shape and wrap in clingfilm. Chill for at least an hour in the fridge to rest.

Finely chop the vegetables. I’ve made them into fairly small dice, but the more traditional method is to cut them in thin slices. Whichever you choose they should be small enough to cook through evenly without any pre-cooking.

Mix the meat with the vegetables and season generously to taste with salt and pepper. There is no other added flavouring so don’t stint here.

Divide the pastry into six even pieces. Roll each disk out to a circle roughly 22cm/8 inches in diameter.
Divide the filling between them.
On each heap of filling place a generous sliver of butter.

Use a little of the beaten egg to moisten the edge of the pastry and fold one side over to meet the other.
Press to seal.
Now crimp the edges. Start at one corner and fold the bottom piece over and pinch it together all the way along the edge to make a good seal.
Brush the rest of the beaten egg over each pasty.
Pierce a hole in the top to allow steam to escape

Bake at 200C/400F for the first 25 minutes, then reduce the heat to 180C/350F for another 25 minutes. Allow to rest for about 5 minutes before serving, as they are hot! Also good eaten cold for picnics and haymaking.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Easter, Simnel Cake and Stuff

A rather rustic Simnel cake
Easter is all but a distant memory already, the only witnesses to it actually having happened are the three baskets still overflowing with chocolate eggs in the larder, which have to be shifted off my box of flour and dry ingredients every time I bake. Oh and the Easter trees still dangling decorated blown eggs, even though I told the kids that we’d take them down again the weekend after Easter.

April has gone by in flurry of life happening too fast. First George had biliary fever, (not unusual for young dogs living on a farm here where ticks are an inescapable part of life, but it can be fatal if you don’t treat it) which luckily we caught early enough for one visit to the vet to cure quickly. Then that was put out of our minds by Middle Daughter getting sick, and staying slightly sick with a low grade fever for over a week. The first visit to our GP/homeopath revealed nothing more than a sore throat, even with blood tests, the second visit with X ray and more blood tests had us despatched post haste to a specialist physician in the hospital. He dictated an overnight stay, as she had an atypical pneumonia, sneakily lurking at the top of one lung where it’s hard to hear.

Never having been in hospital with any of my children (since Middle Daughter’s fall from a kitchen counter as a 6 week baby, don’t ask! – even more scary than this occasion) it was both an experience I never want to repeat and one that we both found an interesting learning experience. She was feeling tired but not all that sick and was completely stalwart about the horrors of having an IV drip put in, not once but three times, when they couldn’t find a vein that would do; this after undergoing the earlier blood tests, where it took them four goes to get a vein, and two lots of blood type thumb pricking, which seems to be just part of the admissions procedure. There was a whole lot of waiting around, very nice friendly nurses, who got us into a single room, so that I could stay with her, even though she is now old enough to be in the adult ward. Then there was the fun of ordering from the menu for the next day and pretending we were in a posh hotel (for the cost of an overnight stay it certainly felt like we should be!).

The lunch menu

Luckily our physician was very sympathetic and let us go home the next morning with a huge goodie bag of antibiotics, nebulising capsules and probiotics, and she got progressively better. After another week off school she had recovered enough to gather her Easter bounty of way too many eggs without staggering under the weight of them all! And now she just gets irritated when we check how she’s feeling, as she is completely better, back to school, riding again, as if nothing happened. Thank goodness!

About to set off on a farm-wide Easter egg hunt

We always have a Simnel cake at Easter, with its balls of marzipan enclosing a heap of speckled eggs. It’s a family tradition, one that my mother used to make, though now she says she hasn’t made one for years. My brother in Australia went all nostalgic when he saw my picture of it on Facebook and asked for the recipe, so I’m sharing it here and have promised to make it for him when we meet up in the UK in July at my Mum’s for a family reunion. I always use Delia Smith’s recipe from her Book of Cakes, but over the years I’ve found a couple of little tweaks make a difference, so here is her recipe with my adjustments.

Simnel Cake Recipe
175g/6oz butter
175g/6oz sugar
3 eggs beaten
500g/18oz mixed dried fruit/fruit cake mix
zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
225g/8oz plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon mixed spice
3 tablespoons milk

350g/12oz ground almonds
350g/12oz icing sugar sifted
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon either brandy or sherry
1 tablespoon apricot jam
1 egg beaten for glaze

20cm/8inch cake tin lined and greased
Preheat oven to 150˚C 300˚F

First make the marzipan.
Combine the ground almonds and icing sugar in a bowl and mix well.
Beat the egg yolks with the lemon juice and brandy and mix the liquid into the dry ingredients.
Mix and stir and knead until it all comes together in a pliable ball.
You may need more lemon juice. Try not to overwork it with your hands as this can make the marzipan oily, especially on a hot day.
Divide the ball into three equal parts, wrap in clingfilm and keep cool until needed.

Now to the cake mixture.
Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Beat in the eggs one at a time.
Fold in the dried fruit and orange and lemon zest.
Sift the flour with the mixed spice and the baking powder.
Fold the flour into the mixture, alternating with the milk. You may need another tablespoon of milk if the mixture is too stiff.
Spoon half the cake mixture into the lined cake tin and smooth it out so it is level.

Roll out one portion of the marzipan to fit the cake tin.
Lay it gently on top of the cake mixture.
Spoon on the other half of the mixture and level it out.
Bake in the centre of the oven for about 2 hours until the centre is firm and springy.
Cool on a wire rack

When the cake is cool, prepare the rest of the marzipan.
Roll one piece out to fit the top of the cake.
Divide the other piece into twelve and roll into small balls.
Brush the top of the cake with apricot jam.
Lay the circle of marzipan on top and press down gently.
Brush the top with beaten egg.
Make twelve small crosses (arranged like the hours around a clock face) with the point of a knife and fix the balls around the edge of the cake.
Brush them with beaten egg too.
Put the cake under a hot grill for just long enough to toast it to a golden colour, perhaps 5 minutes. Keep an eye on this as it is very easy to go dark tan rather than golden glow(see my picture!)
Cool and store in an airtight tin.

And just a few pictures of our early morning Easter egg hunt:

The final haul being audited and re-distributed where numbers aren't even.