Sunday, 30 October 2011

Italian Bean Soup

Farrow and Ball, paint purveyor to the tasteful, cultured and upwardly aspirational (and yes, clearly I really want some), prides itself on its paint names. Some are quirky, like "Elephant's Breath"; others show off their heritage, like "Manor House Grey"; others appeal to a very specific sense of place, like "Oxford Stone". Some sound like something out of Jamie Oliver - "Smoked Trout", yum - while others sound more appropriate for The Inbetweeners ("Clunch", anyone?).  But my favourites are those which conjure up a very British sense of weather. And today, our Sunday experience was sponsored by paint number 266, a muted greenish grey. Or, in their own words, "Mizzle".

The major downside about dogsitting is that you really can't get out of walking the bloody thing - even when it clearly doesn't want to go either, even when it's drizzling and misty and you know there are slippers and the Sunday papers waiting inside.  So you go, and you kick over the soggy leaves, and the dog looks at you with "I never asked for this, you know" eyes, and you're both thoroughly miserable for about twenty minutes. Then you come back, dry at least 10% of the mud off the dog's coat (whoops, there go the carpets!) and decide you need a huge, steaming bowl of soup for lunch. That is the story, amid the mizzle, of today's Italian bean soup.

I spotted the recipe in my best-beloved Waitrose magazine and decided to give it a go, spurred on by the twin motivations of convenience (we already had all the ingredients, for once) and healthiness. Don't mention the cheese. It was very quick and easy and I quite liked it, although my co-diner wasn't hugely enamoured. I'm not sure it was life-changing, to be honest. Hot, hearty and healthy, yes! Enough to defrost my toes? Well, not yet.

But in much more exciting news, the Dine at Mine household has Found a House (capitals entirely necessary)! No more whingeing about being homeless - with fingers crossed for estate agents, lawyers and banks all doing their thing, we have a new home! Or we will have from January next year, but let's not split hairs. This news IS life-changing and we could not be more thrilled, albeit thrilled with a scattering of nervousness and quite a big spoonful of "oh my god please let it go through please let it go through". 

That's why I'm already trawling the Farrow and Ball catalogue (mmm, number 270, Calluna), gleefully decorating everything in my head and going over and over the photos, trying to work out where all our furniture can go and exactly how long it will be until we can have a housewarming party. We have dreamed of this moment for months and with all the wood touched and fingers crossed, we have a house! We've bought a house! If you'll excuse me, there are paint charts to flick through and photos to dream over. Never mind the mizzle, it's all going to be "Borrowed Light" from now on.

Italian Bean Soup
From the Waitrose Magazine, October

- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 carrot, chopped
- 1 stick of celery, chopped
- a few sprigs of thyme
- olive oil, salt and pepper
- 1 fat clove of garlic, chopped or crushed
- one tin of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
- 600ml vegetable stock
- 1 tin of tomatoes
- a handful of kale or spinach
- some parmesan to serve

In a large saucepan, gently fry the onion, carrot, celery and thyme leaves in a bit of oil until softened - about five minutes. Then add the garlic and beans and fry for another minute or so before adding the stock and tomatoes. Add a few good grinds of pepper and simmer it for 15 minutes. Stir in the kale or spinach until it's wilted and soft, then serve with a few shavings of cheese on top and some bread on the side. Warning - they say this serves 4, but we were hungry and finished it between 2. Good thing it's all vegetable!

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Toad in the Hole with Dark Onion Gravy

On a wet, blustery day, when sunrise officially falls after your morning train, and it's properly dark by the time you get home in the evening, it's time to break out the big guns. Bangers. Mash. Yorkshire Pudding. Gravy. This is hard-core Autumnal food and god, we really needed it tonight. Particularly when we knew that we would still need to take the dog out later. There's only so many times that you can fool him into thinking a quick trip to the corner and back is the same as a half hour walk.

Yorkshire pudding was one of my Granny's superlative dishes, and she used to serve up great swollen trays of it to hordes of ravening grandchildren, each clamouring for an equal share of crisp edge and squodgy middle. Doused in gravy or just on its own, hers was legendary and no grown up "Yockshirreh" has ever managed to match it. That was a Polish accent, by the way. You try writing phonetically based on a twenty-year-old memory! 

This recipe from Nigel Slater is a perennial favourite of ours and even if it doesn't quite reach the heights of Granny's, it comes pretty damn close. Nigel recommends some kind of fandango peeling the sausages then wrapping them again in parma ham, but we never bother with that and just use them unadulterated.

The gravy, incidentally, is another winner from Jamie Oliver's 30 Minute Meals. You might think "pff, who needs a recipe for onion gravy?", and three months ago I would have echoed your "pff"ing and raised you a "tchuh". But that was before I tried this one. With a few odd-sounding ingredients like garlic, honey and rosemary, you end up with something like like the best ever Bisto gravy - thick, strong, flavourful and savoury. I have been known to eat this with a spoon.

Served up with parsnip mash, peas and carrots, this dinner acted as insulation for our insides - warming us to the bottom of our soggy toes and fortifying us for the dark juggling act with dog, lead, umbrella, and torch. Even better, the leftovers are now tupperwared up for lunch tomorrow and they are already making my Thursday morning better. Now if only they could stop my hair from frizzing, we'd have a perfect day.


Toad in the Hole
Adapted from Nigel Slater's Real Food

- pack of 6 good-quality sausages
- 2 eggs
- 125g plain flour
- 150ml milk
- 150ml cold water
- 1 tablespoon of grainy mustard
- some salt, pepper and oil

Preheat the oven to 220C and find a roasting dish big enough to hold the sausages surrounded by a swelling pillow of batter. Put a good sloop of olive oil - or dripping or lard if you have such things - into the dish, then heat in the oven until really hot and smoking.

Whisk together the flour, eggs, milk, water, mustard, and a pinch each of salt and pepper in a big bowl until smooth. It should be about as runny as double cream. Then leave the batter aside to rest for 10-15 minutes.
Chuck the sausages into the hot roasting dish, shaking gently to spread them out evenly, then pour the batter in and around. Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes or until bronzed and puffy, and serve with lots and lots of onion gravy.

Dark Onion Gravy
Adapted from Jamie Oliver's 30 Minute Meals (the Liver and Bacon meal)

- an onion, red or white, halved then finely sliced
- a clove of garlic, crushed
- the leaves from a sprig of rosemary, finely chopped
- a teaspoon of honey (or golden syrup, or any kind of sugar)
- 1 heaped tablespoon of flour
- a glass of red wine if you have one - we often skip this step
- a good swig of balsamic vinegar
- 300ml of beef stock (a cube is fine)

In a medium sized saucepan, gently fry the onion in a splash of oil for 5-10 minutes or until soft and golden. Add in the rosemary, garlic and honey, cook for a few more minutes, stirring, then add the flour. Mix well then add the red wine if you're using it, letting it cook off. If you're not using it, add the balsamic, let the liquid cook off (trying not to inhale the vinegar fumes) then pour in the beef stock. Let it all simmer for 5-10 minutes until it's thickened to the consistency you want. Then pour it all over your sausages, yorkshire pudding and mash.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Baked Kale Crisps

Now I know that all the cake around here may, just may, have given the opposite impression, but to tell the truth I prefer savoury to sweet. Put something in a bowl covered in salt, and I will not be able to keep my fingers away until it's all gone. Crisps, nuts, wasabi peas, little cheesy biscuits, olives, breadsticks, crostini - savoury snacks float my boat every time. As far as I'm concerned, the mark of a truly indulgent meal isn't the pudding, it's the cheese course. Well, actually, let's be honest. A truly indulgent meal needs both.

But this is not the way of the healthy. I might dress it up by saying that I have low blood sugar, that sometimes I need some kind of snack while hungrily waiting for dinner - but as persistent nibblers know, it's all too easy to finish a big bag of crisps without even noticing. Determined to find some kind of nibble that wasn't too boring, and wasn't too unhealthy, I spotted this crisp-substitute online and thought it had to be worth a go. 

Now I know that it sounds like lunacy. Surely baking kale in the oven would make it tough, or soggy, or burnt, or just plain disgusting? My nose wrinkled at the thought of it, as no doubt yours is now. But I had nothing to lose, and tried them in the spirit of experimentation and they were completely and utterly fantastic. They totally blew me away. As my partner-in-crime put it, they taste exactly like crispy shredded seaweed from a Chinese takeaway, which means that they tasted very good indeed. I'm already plotting a dusting of cashew nut and brown sugar the next time I make these - is that whatever they put on seaweed? But you can trust me, there will definitely be a next time. No matter how disgusting they look, I am going to bulk-buy kale from now on. Crisps! Made of kale! Nope, still can't get over it.

Baked Kale Crisps
From Smitten Kitchen

- curly kale, washed and cut into pieces
- olive oil
- salt, pepper and any other flavourings you like

Preheat the oven to 150C and line a big baking tray with parchment.

Drizzle a small spoonful of olive oil over the kale - you don't want it swimming, just faintly glistening. Then scatter with a few grindings of salt, and any other flavourings you want. I tried a few drops of balsamic vinegar, which was really good, and next time I'm going for some smoked paprika or cayenne. 

Toss it all together then spread out the kale in roughly a single layer over the baking tray, and bake for 20 minutes or until crisp.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Butter Beans with Chorizo and Tomato

As I may have mentioned once or twice around here, we're currently homeless. Wandering nomads without fixed abode, footloose, fancy-free and free for anything fancy. We've cast off the shackles of yesterday our mortgage and we're shamelessly freeloading off family until we find a home of our own. Preferably one that we can afford, that we want to live in, and that someone wants to sell. We're just fussy like that.  

Living with family is great in many ways, but in food terms it has shown us how our diet has changed and adapted in the years we've lived together. We both eat more beans and pulses than our parents, and about three times as many vegetables. Chorizo is one of our staples - there's always one on the go in the fridge - and we tend to cook from fresh, raw ingredients almost every evening. That sounds horrendously smug, and I should point out that we also have major crisp and pudding habits and love a Chinese takeaway. But the fact remains that we now eat in a different way to our parents, and while we've been homeless we've been missing our normal routine.

This bean and chorizo dish is one of our favourites and we love it alongside fish in particular (or steak, if you can resist the call of chips). It's a bit like posh baked beans, with plenty of flavour, but still relatively healthy. The recipe comes from the beef hash meal in Jamie's 30 Minute Meals, so you know it's going to be quick and easy. We generally swap smoky bacon for chorizo, and we barely ever have his (Greek) basil to scatter over the top. But it's still delicious, and to us, it still tastes like home. Fingers crossed we'll soon find a home for it to taste of.

Butter Beans with Chorizo and Tomato
Adapted from Jamie Oliver's 30 Minute Meals

- about 8cm of chorizo, cut into small chunks (or use a few rashers of smoky bacon as he suggests)
- a tin of butter beans (we've also tried it with aduki, cannellini and chick peas, all good)
- about 15 cherry tomatoes (quartered), or four big tomatoes (cut into chunks)
- salt, pepper, olive oil
- splash of red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar
- fresh basil if you've got it (we didn't)

Fry up the chorizo in a dry frying pan until browned and sizzling, then pour in the tin of beans in their liquid along with the tomatoes. Let it simmer and thicken for about ten minutes, then season with plenty of black pepper (you probably won't need any salt), a drizzle of olive oil and a splash of red wine  vinegar or balsamic. Serve alongside hash, meat, sausages, fish, or with a fried egg on top as a kind of posh Full English. Actually, that sounds great. There's my plan for next Sunday brunch!

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Slow Roast Shoulder of Pork and Spicy Pepper Goulash

Whoa there. There's been a lot of cake around here recently. In my defence, there were extenuating circumstances - three parental birthdays, not to mention an invitation so tempting, I defy anyone to have turned it down - but nonetheless, four cakes in a week does seem, well, a trifle excessive. And that totally wasn't a deliberate trifle pun, I promise, but now it's all I can think about. You should put me in custard-y. Groan.

Good cake and bad punning aside, it was time to reacquaint our taste buds with the savoury, spicy and meaty (if not, alas, the healthy). Step forward this slow-cooked pork goulash, a gorgeously rich stew for a Sunday night after three hours of gentle hands-free cooking in the oven. To be precise, three hours of heavenly smoky, spicy smells while you read the Sunday papers in front of a roaring fire (you don't get them in zone 1) and doze with the dog. It was perfect.

The recipe comes from Jamie at Home and like his slow-roasted lamb shoulder (which we should definitely make again soon, now I come to think of it), long slow cooking adds up to gorgeously juicy shreds of meat and intense flavours. In this case, a hulking great pork shoulder is swaddled in a spicy, traffic-light-coloured mix of red onions, tomatoes, green and yellow peppers and roasted red peppers, along with a hefty dose of spice and a few chillies. Three hours later, it collapses into a tender stew, still packing a punch with the spices but mellowed and enriched by time and the oven.

We once again used our new best friend the food processor, having enormous fun slicing our onions and peppers slightly too finely(it was our first time!). We also nixed the caraway seeds because we just don't like them and swapped in a few fennel seeds, on the basis that they go well with pork in sausage rolls so might have something to bring to the party here. 

We also added more vegetables than he says because, well, we like vegetables. But you know what? I would still add more. This came out pretty meat heavy and while the meat was amazing, I wanted more of the peppery oniony mush on my plate. Vegetables in stews are always the best bit! Next time, we'll definitely double his amounts. But given how much our pot overflowed, we'll, um, need a bigger casserole dish. Or a smaller bit of meat.

Either way, this was a spectacular Sunday night dinner, warming and hearty and hot. Followed by Strictly results, Downton, more roaring fire and more snoozing dog, it was pretty much the most restful Sunday evening possible. It didn't actually manage to stave off Monday morning but we can't expect miracles here.

Slow Roast Shoulder of Pork and Spicy Pepper Goulash
Adapted from Jamie at Home

- 2.2kg skinless pork shoulder joint
- olive oil, salt and pepper
- 4-5 red onions, finely sliced (he says 2 but we wanted more)
- 2 tablespoons of hot smoked paprika
- 2 red chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons of dried oregano (he says fresh, we didn't have any)
- 2 teaspoons of fennel seeds (or use caraway like he says)
- 8 peppers, mixed colours and finely sliced (finally an excuse to use the rubbish green ones which supermarkets chuck in the mixed bag. Again, Jamie said 5 peppers but they're so good, it's a shame not to do more)
- a jar of roasted red peppers in oil, drained and roughly chopped
- 1 tin of plum tomatoes (don't worry about chopping them, they magically disintegrate while it cooks)
- 4 tablespoons of red wine vinegar

To serve
- plain yoghurt or soured cream, a small bowlful
- some freshly chopped parsley
- zest of a lemon

Preheat the oven to 180C and find a deep, ovenproof casserole dish to fit your meat with a bit of spare space - ideally one that will go on the hob as well, but if not then you can always prepare it in a big pan then transfer to the dish for the oven.

Add a splash of oil to the pan and put in the pork, fat side down. Cook over a medium heat for about 15 minutes or until the fat has rendered out and is bubbling. It will spit, so be careful!

After fifteen minutes take the pork out and set aside, then add the onion, chilli, spices and a good hefty pinch of salt and pepper to the pork-fatty pan. Turn the heat down and cook for about ten minutes, then chuck in the peppers and tomatoes as well. Stir it all around then add the pork back in. Put in the vinegar, then pour over cold water until the meat is just covered.

Bring it to the boil then cover and put in the oven for 3 hours, sticking a baking tray on the shelf underneath to catch any overflowing juices. Enjoy the smell!

Serve with fluffy basmati rice, some kind of green leafy vegetable, and the yoghurt/lemon/parsley mixture (just stir it all together in a bowl). Hopefully you'll have enough for leftovers. Like all stews, this only gets better with time.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake

The third and final cake in the birthday baking bonanza and one of the Dine at Mine household's all time favourites - Nigella's Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake. This is Mr Wine at Mine's favourite cake, his choice for his own birthday (and in this case, his choice for his dad's birthday). Nigella herself describes it as "essence of chocolate cake", in the best possible sense. You see where I'm going with this. It is good cake.
INow I say that it's good cake but, let's be honest anyone can make a chocolate sponge (with or without wine). In all honesty, it's the icing that really makes this cake. This icing is rich, thick, chocolatey heaven, so good that we used it for my sister's home made wedding cake, the year before ours. Containing prodigious quantities of pure dark chocolate, a hell of a lot of sugar and some golden syrup and vanilla for good measure, it's definitely rich. But I promise it's worth it.

In practical terms the icing goes on like a dream, gooey and glossy. But, cleverly, because the chocolate hardens as it cools, it's surprisingly practical to transport and serve. If the eaters around our table were anything to go by, you may find yourself eating the sponge first and leaving a shell of icing on your plate for that perfect final bite. I repeat, there's nothing wrong with the sponge! The icing is just that good.

For years, I've made this cake the boring way by creaming butter and sugar, adding ingredients one by one, yawn yawn. This time, still revelling in the unaccustomed luxury of a food processor, I was able to follow her recommendations and just chuck it all in the food processor at once. Once again, it blew my mind. I was done and dusted in about three minutes. I won't divulge how much time I spent licking the bowl, but I think it's safe to say that it was longer than it took to make the cake.

As all my baking paraphernalia is in storage, I didn't have anything attractive to decorate the top so it was left somewhat austere. But luckily the restaurant provided a hefty number of candles and anticipation did the rest.

Cake mission - complete. Birthdays - celebrated. Food processor - revelatory. Sugar rush - overwhelming. Waistbands - expanded. Diet - necessary.

Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake
By Nigella Lawson
For the cake
- 200g plain flour
- 200g caster sugar (golden, vanilla, whatever you fancy)
- 1 teaspoon of baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
- 40g cocoa
- 175g soft butter
- 2 eggs (large)
- 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
- 150ml sour cream
For the icing
- 75g unsalted butter
- 175g of good dark chocolate (ie: at least 70% cocoa), broken or chopped into small bits
- 300g icing sugar
- 1 tablespoon of golden syrup
- 125ml sour cream (or realistically, just use up a 300ml pot without scraping it out too assiduously)
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 180C and line two 8 or 9inch tins with parchment (I normally use 8inch, this time only had 9inch).
For the cake, just put all the ingredients in a food processor and whiz until it's smooth and well combined. Pour into the two tins, levelling the surface as much as possible. Then bake for around 25-35 minutes or until a tester comes out clean, the cakes are well risen and shrinking from the sides. Cool in their tins for 5-10 minutes, then de-tin and leave them to cool properly on a wire rack.
For the icing, start by melting the chocolate and butter together in a small bowl in the microwave (do it for 10-15 seconds at a time, stirring between goes) or over a pan of bubbling water. Leave them to cool a bit, and whiz the icing sugar in the food processor to get rid of lumps.
Add the vanilla, sour cream and golden syrup to the mostly-cooled chocolate gloop, then pour the whole lot down the funnel of the food processor while the icing sugar is whirling around inside. Whizz until it's all smooth, glossy and tastes amazing. If it looks too runny, add more icing sugar (or a bit of boiling water if it's too thick) but I've never actually needed to do either.
To stack the cake, just turn one cake upside down onto your serving plate or bit of foil, if you're planning to move it, and smear a third of the icing on top. Cover with the other cake then put half of the remaining icing over the top of the cake, half around the sides. Try to make it look half way decent but remember that it'll taste amazing so it doesn't really matter.
Eat a big slice, go back for seconds, feel a bit sick and swear off cake for a while.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Cream of Coconut Cake

Part 2 of this fortnight's Parental Birthday Cake Trifecta and the request this time was for coconut - less than popular with my husband, who objects to all forms of nut and to coconut in particular, but the Birthday Boy's favourite and therefore non-negotiable. Now normally, coconut cake would be a simple matter of adding desiccated coconut to a vanilla sponge - in Jamie Oliver's words, bish bash bosh, job done and how's your father - but not this time. This time, we were breaking out the big guns.

This ludicrous looking bottle was a present from my sister and contains squeezy cream of coconut! No, I had never heard of it before either, but apparently it's designed for the kind of cocktails that come with little paper umbrellas (see illustration). More importantly, it comes in such a tacky bottle that I couldn't resist trying it. May I add that I'm particularly pleased with how photoshopped this picture looks? Considering that it's called "COCO REAL", I like that the photo has come out so artificial. 

My sister pointed me towards a recipe using this stuff on a blog which she, I and my mum are all a bit obsessed with - the Caked Crusader. Very excitingly, my sister actually knows someone who knows someone who knows this mythical superhero, and my sister had tried out this particular cake only last week with great success. Inspired by her exploits, and duly warned to double the coconut quantities, I found the recipe and got started.

At this point, I would like to sing a paean of praise to the food processor. As I've banged on about incessantly, we are currently staying with family so I'm using their kitchen while we await our dream house as soon as someone puts their bloody house on the market (ahem, not that we're bitter). Obviously I took the opportunity to experiment with making a cake all in one in the food processor and oh my god, it was a revelation. It was done in about three minutes. No splashing, no sore hand, no cake-related blister and very little muss or fuss. Incredible! I cannot blooming WAIT until we have a kitchen of our own and can unpack our wedding present food processor.

As for the cake it made, this was an exemplary sponge - moist, crumbly and light, delicately flavoured with coconut and perfect with a creamy, fruity filling. Even my nut-hating husband loved it, so much so that he actually went back for seconds, claiming that it was the absence of desiccated coconut which had made all the difference. Something about the off-putting texture, apparently. Don't ask me, I'm not the one making up all these flimsy excuses to get more cake.

The Birthday Boy was suitably pleased, the cake disappeared with gratifying speed, and even the restaurant staff (who couldn't work the tupperware, but did provide candles) said that it looked very nice. I'll be honest, I thought it looked pretty ropey but it tasted lovely and as we tell all 72 year-olds, it's what's on the inside that counts. Well, apparently.

Cream of Coconut Cake
Adapted from the Caked Crusader

For the cake
- 175g soft unsalted butter
- 175g caster sugar (she recommends golden caster sugar but I only had plain. The world did not end)
- 175g self raising flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
- 3 eggs
- 4 tablespoons of coconut cream (she says 2, but I doubled it because I'd skipped the desiccated coconut. If you did want to use it, she says 50g).

For the icing
- 280g icing sugar
- 100g soft unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons of coconut cream (to be exact, I just gave it three or four long squeezes and tasted until it was coconutty enough)

- 5 tablespoons of raspberry or strawberry jam (she says rasp, I only had strawberry. I reckon any red jam will do, to be honest. In fact, cherry could be delicious! Try it)

Preheat the oven to 180C and line a couple of 8inch tins with baking parchment. Although I only had 9inch ones, so my cakes were slightly thinner and flatter than hers.

If you have a food processor, this is going to be incredibly quick. Just chuck the butter, sugar, flour, baking powder and eggs into the processor and blitz until smoothly combined, then add the coconut cream and pulse to combine.

(If you don't have a food processor - and I don't normally, although I definitely made the most of the one in the kitchen I'm currently using - then cream together the butter and sugar, then add eggs, then flour and baking powder, then coconut cream. Yawn. The food processor is so much more fun and a hell of a lot quicker).

Pour into the prepared tins, try to level the top then bake for around 25 minutes or until risen, golden, shrinking away from the sides and a tester in the middle comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.

To make the icing, just zizz it all in the food processor until smooth and creamy. I always do the icing sugar on its own first to get rid of the lumps, but that's because I'm too lazy to wash up the sieve.

To finish the cake, plonk one cake on the serving plate (or tupperware base if you're taking it to a restaurant like we did), top down to give a flat surface for stacking. Spread over half of the icing, then the jam, and top with the other cake. We actually did it jam then icing, and it slid about all over the place, so I reckon icing then jam will be more structurally stable. Spread the rest of the icing over the top of the cake, trying to smooth it with the spatula, then stick candles on top and sing embarrassingly. 

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Red Wine Chocolate Cake

I received a spectacular email from a partner-in-crime a few days ago. One that simply said "omg who'd've thought?!x" The email was followed by another, making allowances for our homelessness and inviting us over to bake and eat the cake in her flat, accompanied by the leftover red wine and a steak dinner. What could I say? That is pretty much Dine at Mine's ideal invitation. There was only one possible answer.

So today is Dine at My Friend's Flat, and that's what we did last night. My friend Rebecca had spotted this recipe on Smitten Kitchen and as it fell at the intersection of red wine, chocolate and cake - or in other words, of three of our favourite things ever - it had to be tried. I do admit that it sounded so unlikely (red wine? in a cake?) and yet so delicious. And accompanied by the rest of the wine, and a dollop of mascarpone cream? Perfect.

As the recipe promises, this is gorgeously tender and rich, and tastes very adult - definitely a pudding, rather than an afternoon cake. You can just about taste the wine, but you can taste the chocolate more, somehow deepened and subtly spiced. At first the cake tasted almost plain - definitely not sickly sweet, despite the two types of sugar - but with the sugared cream it was perfect, smooth and complex and comforting all at once.

If you think about it, there's no reason why this should be weirder than the Chocolate Guinness Cake which is still officially my mum's favourite cake in the world ever (don't tell her how unhealthy it is). But for some reason, the use of wine just seems more exciting. I don't think I've ever had a wine cake before and now I'm all intrigued. Could you use white wine with berries? Rose wine with rhubarb? Think of the possibilities!

Although it might sound like a gimmick, this was delicious in its own way, on its own merits and in its own right. It was a perfect Friday evening of baking, eating and drinking with the sort of old friends who don't mind if you turn up early or late, and will willingly wait while you pose poncy pictures for your blog. Definitely a do-again candidate! Both the evening and the cake. 

Red Wine Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

For the cake
- 85g soft unsalted butter
- 3/4 cup or 180g dark brown sugar
- 1/4 cup or 50g granulated sugar
- 1 large egg and 1 large egg yolk, at room temperature
- 3/4 cup or 175ml red wine, any kind - we used Malbec (soon to be reviewed over on Wine at Mine!)
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon of plain flour
- 1/2 cup or 40g cocoa powder
- 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon table salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the cream
- 1/2 cup or 120g mascarpone 
- 1/2 cup or 120g double or whipping cream
- 2 tablespoons or 25g granulated sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 160C and line a 9 inch cake tin with baking parchment.

Beat the butter in a large bowl until smooth, then add the sugars and beat again until it's light and fluffy. Add the egg and egg yolk, beat it all together well, then add the wine and vanilla and beat again. Sift in all the dry ingredients, then mix until just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake tin, try to level the top then bake for 25-30 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Cool on a wire tray.

For the topping, just beat everything together until you've got soft peaks. 

Serve the cake warm or cold, topped with a dollop of cream, and marvel at the fact that you've got cake with wine in it! Crazy.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Vanilla Sponge Cake with Double Cream Buttercream and Raspberries

One of the saddest things about growing up - says this 26 year old - is that people seem to care less about birthdays. For most in our parents' generation, except for the big landmark years, the attitude to birthdays seems to be "stuff and nonsense, fuss over nothing, pish and pff". Well, that just won't do. 

I feel very strongly about birthdays and, specifically, about birthday cakes. To clarify, I simply feel that every single birthday boy or girl, no matter how old or busy, deserves to have a cake baked for them on their birthday. It's the one day a year when everyone is allowed, nay encouraged, to think that the world revolves around them and quite frankly, a shop-bought cake is never going to cut it. This time of year sees the birthdays of one of my parents and both of my parents-in-law, and as far as I'm concerned that means lots of baking. This was the first of the three, and the requested flavour was a vanilla, victoria-style sponge cake like our wedding cake. And her wish was my command.

As all my own cookbooks are in storage (sniff!), I turned to my mum for help and she provided the recipe (that's why it's all in ounces). The cakes in question were pretty standard sponges, but the icing was a bit of an experiment. While I normally love using white chocolate buttercream to pair with berries, this time I wanted something a lot lighter to follow what I knew would be a pretty gargantuan Sunday lunch.

I followed one of my mum's recent experiments and whipped some double cream into a plain vanilla buttercream, producing a light, smooth icing that nestled into the raspberries beautifully. It also stayed soft and creamy for hours, rather than hardening into a sugared crust like buttercream sometimes does. With jam, fresh raspberries and a few curls of white chocolate, this added up to a delightfully fresh, delicate, lady-like cake. Perfect for the birthday girl! 

Vanilla Sponge Cake with Double Cream Buttercream and Raspberries
Serves 12 people generously

- 8 ounces of unsalted butter, softened
- 8 ounces of caster sugar (vanilla sugar if you've got it)
- 4 eggs
- a teaspoon of vanilla bean paste
- 8 ounces of self-raising flour, sifted
- a teaspoon of baking powder

For the icing (basic ratio found on the internet, hence the switch to metric)
- 175g soft unsalted butter
- 300g icing sugar, sifted
- half a teaspoon of vanilla bean paste
- about 100ml of double cream (that's a guess, I just kept pouring some in and whipping it until it had the sort of consistency I wanted)

- raspberry or strawberry jam
- 2 packs of raspberries, washed
- some curls of white chocolate (Jamie Oliver shows you how to do this in 30 Minute Meals, but grated would also be fine)

Start off by lining two 9 inch cake tins with baking parchment, and preheat the oven to 180C.

Cream together the butter and sugar in a big bowl until light and fluffy (kudos if you do this by hand, I used electric beaters. I LONG for a Kitchen Aid). Then add the vanilla and, one by one, the eggs, beating well after each addition. If the mix looks like it's going to curdle, add a spoonful of flour, but to be honest curdling doesn't seem to affect the finished cake at all so I don't know why we always fret. Once the eggs are all beaten in, add the flour and baking powder and use a spatula or metal spoon to fold them in. My mix came out quite stiff so I added a couple of splashes of milk to get it to a smooth dropping consistency.

Divide the mix between the two cake tins, smoothing and levelling the tops, then bake for 30-35 minutes or until risen, gold and springy. Cool them on a wire rack.

To make the icing, beat the butter until very soft then add the icing sugar and vanilla and beat until smooth and combined. Pour in the cream and beat well - it should be light and fluffy.

To assemble the cake, I plonked one cake upside down on a cake stand, slathered it with jam, then about half of the icing, then about a third of the raspberries (going right round the edge, which will be visible, then just a few in the middle). Carefully place the other cake on top, trying not to press down too much - you want the oozing squish to come when you cut into the cake, not now.

Smooth the rest of the icing over the top of the cake, not worrying too much about getting a perfect finish because you're going to cover it in raspberries anyway. Scatter a few curls of white chocolate over the raspberries, then just add candles and an out-of-key rendition of Happy Birthday.
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