August 15, 2018

GINGER AND APRICOT CAKE and how a new garden led to a new cake stand.

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We are spending August in the UK because we needed a new garden.

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You may remember that last year we re-upsized our UK home (having downsized in 2014) and bought a 1960’s bungalow that needed a lot of work to bring it up to date.  We spent most of the winter having new doors and windows, a new kitchen, a new drive, new plumbing, new staircase, carpets and decorating.  Then we anguished over what to do with the back garden.

It was a mess of worn out patio tiles, hugely overgrown shrubs, little paths, low crumbling walls and a leaking pond.  We came to the conclusion that it would take us months of work if we tried to sort it out ourselves and in fact hardly any of it was worth saving.  What we needed was a very low maintenance garden so that we could spend our summers in France not worrying about it.

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The company that did the front drive do that kind of work so we hired them to start at the beginning of August, that being the best chance of a dry month to get it done.  By the end of day one they had turned what was a mess into a wasteland, much to the disgust of our cat Daisy, who was wondering where her adventure playground had gone.

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Gradually all the garden features were demolished, scooped up and removed but this process is extremely time consuming, messy, noisy and disruptive.  After three days I could stand it no longer and had to get away from the house.  We opted for a trip to Waitrose.  (We needed some shopping anyway.)

Our nearest Waitrose is an hour away so we only make pilgrimages a few times a year.  Compared to our local Tesco it’s such a peaceful, calm and civilised environment with nice staff and nice customers.  A visit there usually restores my faith in human nature and we come away refreshed and with something a bit different.

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It was there that I spotted and fell in love with this cake stand to add to my collection.  The collection is now so huge that we are having to operate a one in, one out, policy.  Nobody in their right mind needs as many cake stands as I have but I found that if I owned up to my obsession and called it a “collection” it didn’t seem so weird.  The problem is that we are, frankly, running out of space to display them.  Even I realise that there is not much point in having them if they’re simply hidden away in a cupboard.  This one, however, matches the colour of my new kitchen just perfectly……

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The garden is taking shape.  When the contractor proposed the design I couldn’t really visualise what it would look like but as each painful day passes and a little more is done, I can see what the end result will be.

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We will have a nice, modern, easy to look after garden that will not go rampant when we are not around to look after it all summer.

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Daisy and Hugo are still mystified and I suspect they liked the old garden better.  At the end of each day’s work they inspect the progress.

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A new cake stand deserves a nice cake to go on it and as I have mentioned before, Nick is not that fond of cake.  Ginger cake is on the very short list of cakes that he likes.

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The recipe comes from a little book published by Delicious magazine, simply called “Baking”.  As per usual, I didn’t have all the required ingredients in stock so improvised a bit, the major difference being to put apricots in it instead of prunes, although I think prunes would have been really nice (if I had had any).  It was moist with a close and even texture and just the right amount of spice, enhanced by the crystallised ginger pieces on top.  The little morsels of chopped dried apricots added a nice chewy element.  Delicious it was.

Ingredients

100g butter

100g dark soft brown sugar

75g golden syrup

100ml milk

1 egg, beaten

150g plain flour

1 tsp bicarb

2 tsp ground ginger

2 tsp ground cinnamon

75g ready to eat dried apricots, chopped

2 heaped tblsp icing sugar

juice of ½ lemon

a few pieces of crystallised ginger, chopped small, to decorate

Method

Put the butter, sugar and syrup into a small saucepan and heat gently to melt together, stirring all the time.  Stir in the milk and set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 150° C / 130 °fan / gas mk 2.  Grease and line the base of a 20cm springform tin.

Sift the flour, bicarb and spices into a large bowl and make a well in the middle.

Stir the beaten egg into the sugar and butter mixture then pour into the flour.  Add the chopped apricots and mix well to combine.

Pour into the tin and bake for 50 minutes or until done.  Cool in the tin.

When the cake is cool, remove from the tin and place on a board.  Sift the icing sugar into a small bowl and mix with enough lemon juice to make a runny icing.  Drizzle over the cake in any pattern you like, scatter the crystallised ginger pieces over the top and transfer to your favourite cake stand.

Cuts into 10 – 12 slices and, like most ginger cakes, keeps well for several days in an airtight tin.

July 25, 2018

COURGETTE AND TOMATO GRATIN – ways of using a glut of courgettes #3

courgette gratin

Our courgettes and tomatoes just keep on coming!  This way of using them is an alternative to the usual ratatouille – a kind of baked ratatouille.  The idea came from my friend Ken’s blog – they seem to be having a glut of courgettes this year too.  You can see his post here.

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Essentially you put a layer of sliced onions in the bottom of a suitable dish, arrange sliced courgettes and tomatoes standing up on their edges on top of the onions, add some sliced garlic and bake.

This gratin dish came from a local French brocante a couple of years ago.  It’s a well used Le Creuset style cast iron gratin dish and cost me the princely sum of 1€.  The brand is actually Cousances, another maker of cast iron cookware made in France that often turns up at brocantes and vide greniers for next to nothing.  I find it odd that the French seem happy to virtually give away such valuable items.  Is it because this kind of cookware is no longer fashionable or that the French have abandoned home cooking like we have in the UK?  Well, a lot of us have, judging by the huge variety and volume of ready meals for sale in every UK supermarket. 

These days it’s much easier to buy a ready meal in France than it was say ten years ago.  Friends who live in France full time report that French housewives – and the cooking around here does still seem to be done mainly by the lady of the house – use as many ready meals and convenience foods as the British do.  For microwave cooking you don’t need a cast iron dish that fifty years ago would have been a prized possession in the kitchen. 

Not that I wish to be judgmental.  When we were working we cooked from scratch most days because that’s what we were used to.  We cheated by using convenience ingredients but mostly our meals were uncomplicated, home cooked affairs.  However, I dare say that if we had had kids or jobs where it’s not possible to feed everyone around the table at the same time - or even a sensible time, as is often the case in modern families – we would probably have used ready made foods and convenience items much, much more.  We had the luxury of both of us arriving at home at around the same time early evening and we enjoyed creating something nice to eat over a glass or two of wine.  Not everyone is that lucky and let’s be honest, not everyone loves food that much and most can find much more exciting things to do with their time.

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We baked our gratin for about 45 minutes, adding some chopped tomatoes thinned with a splash of white wine after about 20 minutes to stop it from drying out or becoming too crozzled round the edges before the middle was done.  We served it alongside some green beans and a chicken traybake and it was delicious.

Ingredients (quantities variable according to your dish)

4-5 medium green and yellow courgettes

1 aubergine (optional)

3-4 tomatoes

1 large onion

4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

Olive oil for drizzling

1 tin or box of chopped tomatoes

1 glass white wine

salt, pepper and dried herbs to taste

a handful of grated cheese, eg emmental or cheddar (optional)

Method

Preheat the oven to 180°C / 160°fan.

Peel and thickly slice the onion and lay the slices in a gratin or other shallow dish.

Wipe the courgettes, aubergine and tomatoes and cut into slices about the thickness of a £1 (1€) coin.  Arrange standing in their edges in rows on top of the onions.

Peel the garlic and tuck slices in between the other veg.  Drizzle with olive oil, season, sprinkle with herbs if you like. 

Bake in the oven for 45 minutes or until the veg are soft and browned. 

After about 20-25 minutes cooking add the chopped tomatoes thinned with the wine to stop the veg from drying out.  Sprinkle with grated cheese if you like.  Serve hot.

Serves 4-6 people as a side dish.

July 24, 2018

ROASTED COURGETTE AND THREE CHEESE QUICHE–ways of using a glut of courgettes #2

roasted courgette, ham and three cheese quiche

This is really one in a series of “fridge bottom quiches”, i.e., a quiche made from whatever I have in rather than something bought especially for the purpose.  Lately I have been making a lot of courgette quiches, varying the ingredients to include lardons, various cheeses, smoked salmon trimmings, even sliced cooked new potatoes.  They were all amazingly tasty and the success is in the fundamental basic way of making a quiche – well my way anyway – and an excellent way of using some of our glut of courgettes.

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Here in France I use shop bought pastry more often than not.  It comes in a ready rolled circle just right for my 23cm Pyrex flan dish with hardly any waste.  You can now get it in two thicknesses in French supermarkets and I usually get the thicker one for quiches these days.  Then it’s just a matter of layering up the ingredients before adding the liquid filling.  Easy peasy.

The secret to using courgettes is to roast them first.  Soggy sliced courgettes are not good in a quiche but if roasted in a little olive oil, salt and pepper they work really well. 

The other constant ingredient in my quiches is onion, either a sliced red or white onion, a few spring onions, or a spoonful of caramelised onion chutney.  Last but not least would be some kind of meat or fish, usually fried lardons or bacon bits, a few slivers or chunks of smoked salmon or other smoked fish, or some sliced cooked sausage.

I usually blind bake the pastry but on this occasion I didn’t, largely because the oven was already occupied and I wanted to be getting on with making lunch without delay.  In any case, I think the soggy bottom issue is overrated.  They were the norm when I was a child as my mum would never have wasted the gas on just an empty pastry case and we never felt shortchanged as a result!

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The quiche looks a bit puffed up in the first picture and I took that one to show that it does puff up whilst in the oven, then collapses back down as it cools.  I then picked up my camera to take a picture of the collapsed, normal looking quiche but was distracted and took one of our eleven month old puppy Hugo instead, forgetting about the quiche.  Hey ho!

This is not so much a recipe as a guide to how to build your own quiche using what you have in the fridge.  Below is a picture of another roasted courgette quiche where the filling included sliced new potatoes and smoked salmon offcuts, decorated with slices of red pepper.  Delicious!

quiche

Ingredients

1 pack of ready made, ready rolled shortcrust pastry

2-4 green and yellow courgettes, depending on size of your courgettes and tart dish.

1 onion, peeled and sliced

1 pack lardons

Various cheeses, sliced, grated or crumbled.  I used goat’s cheese, Cantal and Emmental

3 large eggs

double cream and whole milk

Method

Preheat the oven to 200°C / 180° fan.  Grease a 23cm tart dish or tin.

Wipe the courgettes and slice them, unpeeled, to about the thickness of a £1 coin.  Slice the onions.  Drizzle a little olive oil into a baking tray and scatter the vegetables on top.  Season with salt and pepper and drizzle again with oil and put into the oven to roast while you do the rest of the preparation.

Use the pastry to line the tart dish or tin, line again with baking paper, fill with baking beans and put in the oven to blind bake for about 15 minutes while the veg are roasting.

Beat the eggs in a jug with a good dollop of cream and enough milk to make up to about 400ml.

Fry the lardons in a small pan until brown. (You could fry the onions at the same time if you haven’t put them in the oven with the courgettes.)

When the veg are golden brown arrange on top of the pastry and add the lardons.  Arrange the slices of cheese on top of that and sprinkle any grated cheese evenly over all.  Carefully pour the egg mixture over the filling.  Do not overfill – better to have some liquid left over than overflowing the pastry case.  At this stage you could sprinkle on a few fresh or dried herbs.

Add a sliced tomato for that retro look if you like and put back in the oven.  After about 10 minutes turn the heat down to 180°C / 160° fan and bake for about 30 minutes or until the filling is cooked and slightly browned.  It will be puffed up but there should still be a slight wobble in the middle.  After a few minutes it will collapse down and the filling will be set.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves 6.

July 16, 2018

COURGETTE CAKE - ways of using a glut of courgettes #1 and the tale of things that go bump in the night.

courgette cake

Our courgette plants are doing really well at the moment, to the extent that we can hardly keep up with the supply of them.  We have been giving them away (as you do) and eating loads in the usual favourite recipes.  In an effort to avoid temptation to put them on the compost heap, I have been looking for other ways of using them.

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A courgette cake is hardly a radical concept these days and I remember taking my first chocolate courgette cake to work and feeding it to my astonished colleagues at least fifteen years ago.  None of them guessed that the “mystery ingredient” contained therein was courgette, despite the flecks of green in the cake!

This time I was looking for a recipe that used more than just one or two skinny little courgettes and when consulting the internet, Nigella’s recipe was alluded to as a good one more than once.  Luckily I had availed myself of a copy of her relevant cookbook, “How to be a domestic goddess” in a local charity shop only recently so was able to follow the recipe on paper – so much easier than on my iPad where I keep having to reload it at crucial moments – goodness only knows how anyone manages to cook from their mobile phone.

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As usual I had to adapt the recipe a bit for what I had in stock.  I used her tip on using shop bought lemon or lime curd and sharpening it with a dash of lime juice.  I didn’t have any raisins to hand (they were a casualty of the “things that go bump in the night” incident recently) so used a tablespoon of home made mincemeat that I had in the fridge.  I had no pistachios so decorated the top with slivers of lime zest.  Last but not least, I found the quantity of cream cheese icing to be rather a lot so didn’t put all of it on the cake.  About two thirds of the stated amount would have been enough.

After adding the flour the mixture was rather stiff and my instinct was to add a splash of milk to loosen it a bit.  But I have found that Nigella’s recipes always work so soldiered on and hey presto – once the courgettes are added the mixture becomes sensible again.  I should never have doubted…….

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So there we are, one courgette cake, or in my case, courgette, lemon, lime and mincemeat cake, but that is rather a mouthful.

It was delicious.  Thinking about it, there was no actual flavouring in the cake.  Courgettes have no flavour and there was no vanilla, spice or zest of any kind.  It was all in the filling and topping.  However, it had a lovely moist texture and went down really well at a gathering where the boys watched France win the World Cup on TV and the girls sat on the terrace sipping chilled rosé wine.  Some say the French won the day but personally I think it was us girls…….

As for the “bump in the night” incident, we were watching TV late one evening and got to a tense action part of “Designated Survivor” when there was an almighty crash and the sound of breaking glass coming from the other end of the house. 

All four of us (me, Nick, our visitor and Hugo) dashed to see what was going on and peered cautiously round the door of the utility room, fearing – who knows what.

The tiled floor was covered in a sea of broken glass, jam, olives, gherkins and other miscellaneous contents of the wall cupboard.  Including, as it turns out, my packet of raisins.  The doors of the cupboard were still closed.

The culprit was not Daisy this time, or even a burglar, but the two little front top shelf supports that had broken, tipping the shelf and its contents out of the cupboard and onto the floor with such force that the doors having been flung open bounced back again and remained closed.

Weird.

Ingredients

250g courgettes, weighed before grating

2 large eggs

125ml vegetable oil

150g caster sugar

225g self raising flour

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1/2 tsp baking powder

1 large tblsp mincemeat

For the topping and filling

2 tblsp home made lime or lemon curd OR shop bought lemon curd sharpened with a little lime juice

200g cream cheese*

100g icing sugar*

juice and zest of 1 lime

Method

Preheat the oven to 180°C / 160° fan / gas mk 4.  Grease and line the bases of two 20cm sponge tins.

Wipe the courgettes clean but do not peel them.  Grate them using the course side of a box grater.  Squeeze small handfuls and place in a sieve over a bowl to allow any more liquid to drip out.

Beat together the eggs, oil and sugar with an electric whisk until light and creamy.  Sieve in the flour, baking powder and bicarb and beat again to combine.  Stir in the courgettes and mincemeat until combined. 

Divide evenly between the two tins and level the tops.  Bake for 30 minutes until firm and golden brown.  Cool in the tin for a few minutes then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

For the filling, take two tblsp of shop bought lemon curd and add a dash or two of lime juice to sharpen it to taste, mixing well.

In a small bowl, beat the cream cheese until smooth and sift in the icing sugar, beating well.  Add lime juice to taste.

When the cakes are cold, sandwich the two together with the lemon curd.  Spread the cream cheese on top and scatter a few slivers of lime zest over to decorate.

*consider using about a third less cream cheese and icing sugar for the topping as I found the above quantity too much.

Cuts into 8-10 slices.

July 14, 2018

RASPBERRY SLICE–a request for a recipe.

raspberry slice

This is not a recipe, but a request for one!  The raspberry slice or pavé framboise is a delicious thing that I sometimes buy from our favourite boulangerie in Descartes.

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I would really like to know how to make it!  It comes as a large square which I usually then cut into four smaller squares to serve as a dessert or with a cuppa.  A whole slice takes some eating but a small one is quite manageable – in fact we can usually manage a couple!

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Its type is very much a throw back to my childhood and I’m sure that either my mum used to make something similar or it was served for pudding at school dinners.

I have looked in my cookbooks and on the internet and none of the recipes I have found seem quite right.  Some have a pastry base, some have coconut in the topping, but this has neither of those.

The top and bottom are the same, a bit like a firm but crumbly cake or soft biscuit texture.  Definitely not pastry yet the top looks like it has been given an egg wash glaze.  In between there is a raspberry layer which could be jam or just fruit.  Either way it is delicious!

So, if anyone out there has any idea how to make it, I would be very pleased to hear about it!

SPANISH ALMOND CAKE

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Nick made this cake for our very last Clandestine Cake Club meeting.

You may or may not know that the CCC is closing down at the end of this month.  It seems that the club became immensely popular and with free membership costs spiralled out of control and so those at CCC HQ decided to call it a day.

There is a CCC Facebook group that seems to be thriving but in our Loire Valley branch of CCC not all of the members have a Facebook account so that was a non-starter for our club.

For us the cakes were the central point yet almost incidental – a reason to get together for tea and cake (or more usually wine and cake) and have a good old chinwag about this and that and life in the Loire Valley in general.

Numerous spin-off cake clubs have been formed to continue the tradition and there was never any possibility of our members hanging up our aprons for good.  So we formed the Loire Valley Cake and Bake Club and have our own blog which you can see here.  The major difference between our former club and the new one is that members opted overwhelmingly to abandon the “cake only” rule and be able to bring any baked item that fits with the theme of each meeting.  Personally I confess to being slightly disappointed about this. 

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The sight of as many as fifteen absolutely drop dead gorgeous cakes on the table at every meeting was simply amazing, beyond my wildest expectations when I started the club.  Even the odd plain and humble offering blended in well and was always appreciated.  As in life, looks are not everything and it was often the plain, old fashioned cakes that disappeared first.  I can’t really see how a plate of buns or flapjacks can compare to all of that but am more than willing to be convinced!

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Anyway, the theme for our last meeting was “Cakes of Europe” and it was appropriate that for it Nick should choose to bake a recipe from one of the CCC cookbooks.  He chose a Spanish Almond Cake, a traditional Mallorcan cake containing lots of eggs and almonds and flavoured with cinnamon and lemon.

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It was a great success and went down well at the meeting.  Nick only used to bake occasionally before the Loire Valley CCC was formed but has turned into an accomplished and adventurous baker.  In fact the club has a number of male bakers, prepared to have a go and not miss out on the fun.

Ingredients

300g ground almonds

1 lemon, zest only

1 tsp ground cinnamon

300g caster sugar

7 eggs

icing sugar for the top

Method

Preheat the oven to 190°C / 170° fan / gas mk 5.  Butter and line the base of a 23cm springform tin.

Combine the almonds, lemon and cinnamon in a bowl and set aside.

Separate the eggs and beat the yolks with the sugar, using an electric whisk, until light and creamy.  In a separate bowl whisk the whites to the soft peak stage.

Fold alternate spoonfuls of the egg whites and dry ingredients into the yolk mixture until all is used up.  Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 40 minutes or until done.

Cool in the tin.  Turn out onto a plate or stand and dust liberally with icing sugar before serving.

Cuts into 10-12 slices.

July 4, 2018

APRICOT UPSIDE DOWN CAKE

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This is one of those cakes that doesn’t look much but is really nice.  I was actually looking for a recipe for something else entirely when my book fell open at this page and I remembered the five apricots in the fridge.  Just the right number for the recipe.

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You simply halve and stone the apricots and lay them cut side down on a layer of creamed butter and sugar, then add the cake mixture.

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The cake looked lovely when I took it out of the oven – until I turned it upside down and the bottom, now the top, looked rather unappealing.  However a good sprinkling with icing sugar soon turned it from an ugly duckling to a very tempting dessert.

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Ours was still very slightly warm when we had it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of single cream.  It was delicious.  The slight tartness of the apricots went well with the lemon sponge and the texture was moist but not dense.

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It’s an easy, quick recipe that I expect would work well with other fruits and I will certainly be making it again.  I adapted it from Annie Bell’s Baking Bible, where it also includes instructions for a honey and lemon sauce to pour over the cake for extra moistness and sweetness if you like.

Ingredients

For the fruit layer

30g light muscovado sugar

30g softened butter

5 apricots, halved and stoned

For the cake

150g softened butter or baking spread

150g golden caster sugar

2 eggs

finely grated zest of 1 lemon

125ml whole milk

200g plain flour

1½ tsp baking powder

For the sauce (optional)

100g set honey

juice of half a lemon

100ml water

1 tsp cornflour

Method

Butter a 20cm loose bottomed deep round tin and line the base with baking paper.  Preheat the oven to 200°C / 180° fan.

To make the fruit layer, beat the muscovado sugar and butter together and spread the mixture in the bottom of the tin using your fingers.  Arrange the halved apricots cut side down on top of the sugar mixture.

For the cake, put the caster sugar and butter in a food processor and cream together.  Add the eggs and process again, then the lemon zest.  Sift in the flour and baking powder, add the milk and process again until smooth and blended. 

Dot the mixture on top of the fruit and smooth over, levelling the top.  Tap the tin on the worktop a couple of times to make sure the mixture settles into the gaps around the fruit and leaves no air spaces.  Put a baking sheet on the shelf below and bake for 45-50 minutes or until done, covering with a loose layer of foil if it looks like it is browning too much.  (The baking sheet will catch the drips if the tin leaks the sugary layer and save the oven floor!)

Cool in the tin for about ten minutes.  Then run a knife round the outside of the cake, place a plate on top and tip it upside down.  Release the clip if using a springform tin and push the base down onto the cake before removing the tin completely.  Remove the baking paper and transfer to a cake stand or plate if you wish.  Either dust with icing sugar or serve with the optional honey and lemon sauce.

(To make the sauce, bring the honey, lemon juice and water in a small saucepan and bring to the boil.  Blend the cornflour with two tablespoons of the liquid and stir back into the sauce.  Simmer for a minute or two until it thickens then set aside to cool before serving with the cake.)

Cuts into 8-10 slices.