Saturday, 27 September 2014

Sticky Toffee Cake

All of a sudden, the kids have started to want to do things at the weekends - structured activity type stuff. Pink is going to a little stage school thing which she loves, and Blue has sailing and sometimes kayaking too. 

This is all very irregular. It's bad enough that our Monday and Wednesday evenings are tied up in a whirl of orchestras, brownies, scouts and more kayaking, involving incredibly complicated after school arrangements.

Of course it's not bad that they want to do these things - it's all good stuff - but I always swore I wouldn't be the harassed mother in the car, ferrying her children from activity to activity, and certainly not the tiger mother filling up every spare minute of her children's time, but somehow, driven by the children, this has happened. Not the tiger mother bit - this is all stuff the kids want to do - but definitely the harassed mother bit. And especially on the Mondays and Wednesdays I mentioned. I won't go in to the intricacies of it all, but sometimes it makes my head hurt.

They did stuff before we moved, although it was all in the village, so no need to get in the car, and only during the week - never on a weekend - and if they had wanted to do things on the weekend? Well we'd have just said no. But somehow, all of a sudden, since we've moved, it's crept into the weekend - by stealth - and here we are now...

To be honest, the children wanting to do things on the weekend that don't accord with what we want to do makes life a little awkward. There's an element of confining ourselves to barracks - fitting in around them a little when previously we have pretty much made them fit in with us and our plans. 

On the other hand it was inevitable that they would grow up and start vocalising a desire to do "other things"- I'm just not sure I was expecting it to happen so early. But may be I'm kidding myself that it's 'early' for this to happen. Blue is not far off 11. He no longer goes to bed, Gina Ford-like, at 7 p.m. In fact neither of them do. They are 'up'. And about. When the Husband and I want to collapse in a big heap, Pink is playing her recorder; when I finally finish work which should have been done 'after the kids had gone to bed' except they don't go to bed early enough now, Blue is inevitably sprawled on the sofa watching Top Gear on BBC 3. It's a new phase, clearly - one that we'll have to get used to as we did all the others. Although this one is unlikely to end any time soon (unless we cast them out into the street) and the continued presence on my screen of Messrs Clarkson, Hammond and May is unlikely to ever be something I'm going to get used to.

Anyway the flip side of being at home at the weekend to accommodate all their activities is that there is a bit more time to be more relaxed and recover from the week. To get the washing done, do a bit of sorting out - to bake a cake, leisurely fashion, Radio 4 on in the background...

If you find yourself similarly with time on your hands, I recommend this cake. One of the better ones I've made recently, although don't leave the icing too long before spreading it over the cake - otherwise you will end up doing what I did, gently reheating it, then finding that it split, so I added some icing sugar to it, a bit of sour cream and then desperately beat it in to get it finished before heading off to pick a child up from an activity... I haven't included that part in the recipe.

Sticky Toffee Cake

1 teabag - flavour of choice - I used my fave, lapsang
200g prunes, finely chopped
125g unsalted butter at room temp
200g soft brown sugar
2 tbsp golden syrup
3 large eggs
250g self raising flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

110g unsalted butter
397g tin condensed milk

Butter and flour a 20cm springform cake tin & pre-heat the oven to 180C (160C fan)

Make up the tea bag to 250mls with boiling water, then soak the chopped prunes in the tea for at least 10 minutes.

Cream together the butter and sugar till pale and fluffy, then beat in the syrup.

Beat in the eggs one at a time (add a little flour if the mixture looks like it is splitting) then mix in the flour and bicarbonate of soda, then finally beat in the tea-soaked prunes and any remaining tea.

Scrape the mixture into the prepared tin, then bake for around 55 minutes or until a skewer/cake tester comes out clean.

Leave to cool in the tin before unmolding and icing.

To make up the icing, melt the butter in a heavy based saucepan, then pour in the condensed milk. Stirring vigorously (or whisking) all the time, bring the mixture up to the boil and bubble for 5-10 minutes till it thickens and turns a golden brown colour.

Pour the thickened icing into a bowl and press some greaseproof or clingfilm over the top so that it doesn't form a skin as it cools.

Once the cake is cold and icing is warm (rather than napalm hot) spread the icing over the cake and leave to cool.

Make a cup of tea and enjoy...

If you can wait that long

Friday, 26 September 2014

Apple & Almond Bake

While I don't follow a recipe for crumble topping in terms of the ingredients themselves, I never hold the proportions of flour to sugar to butter in my head. My 'go to' sanity checker (as I may have previously mentioned), is a Delia recipe from her Complete Cookery Course. She recommends flour, sugar and butter - and if you fancy going out on a limb (go on, you know you want to) you could replace some of the flour with oats.

Well, I like to go completely crazy and use ground almonds too, as well as oats, and although I always start off with Delia's proportions, I usually reduce down the sugar especially if I've added sugar to the fruit - which I did on Sunday in fact as I was using up the last of the bullace plums with some more of the apples.

You might say that it's a pointless exercise me even opening the book at all - but I feel like it's become part of the ritual of making crumble, which is after all the pudding I make most often from September to March.

Or it was.

While I was ignoring Delia's crumble instructions in preparation for said crumble last week (it was a very good crumble by the way - a sprinkle of all spice and some brown sugar over the apples & plums - yummers), my eye strayed north on the page to the method of a recipe the ingredients for which are listed on the previous page. Specifically to the phrases "...gently fold in the ground almonds...spread this mixture over the apples...equally good served warm or cold - either way it's nice with some chilled pouring cream"

So yes, you guessed it. Sold to the lady with the insatiable love of all things almond and a bag of windfalls to deal with.

I made this the next day and it is a LOVELY pudding for Autumn or Winter. A bit more faff than a crumble, granted, but the combination of the cooked apples with the almost frangipane topping - well, it's my idea of heaven. 

I expect you'll enjoy it too.

Apple & Almond Bake

4-6 medium/large cooking apples
50g soft brown sugar
110g ground almonds
110g soft, unsalted butter
110g caster sugar
2 large eggs, beaten

You'll also need a baking dish, about 1 litre capacity - butter this.

Pre-heat the oven to 180C

Peel, core and slice the apples. Put them in a pan with the soft brown sugar and a couple of tablespoons of water and cook down till they are starting to break up and go soft and fluffy - how long this takes will depend on the apples you are using. Keep an eye on them and make sure they don't burn.

When they've reached the required state of fluffiness, spread over the bottom of the buttered dish.

Cream together the butter and caster sugar till pale and fluffy, then add the egg a little at a time, beating after every addition. As with a sponge cake, it pays to go slowly here to stop the mixture curdling. But don't worry too much.

Using a metal spoon, fold in the ground almonds, then spread the mixture over the top of the apples, making sure they are evenly covered.

Pop this in the oven on a high shelf and bake for around an hour till golden on top and cooked.

As St Delia says, equally good served hot or cold, and exceptionally good with some cream...

Monday, 22 September 2014

The 2 Minute Beach Clean

No, no cake. Not today at least. After another fabulous weekend enjoying the Indian Summer (yes folks it's alive and well in West Wales) I'm taking 5 minutes to concentrate on one of my other favourite topics.

As you might have guessed from the pics that I manage to sneak on here as frequently as possible (thank your lucky stars you're not my Facebook friend, that's all I can say, if you're getting a little bit sick of them) - I love the beach. In rain, in sun, when it's howling a gale, chucking it down with rain that whips in across the shore, or flat calm. I love swimming in the sea, the feel of the silky water, the salt in my face, sand - or pebbles under my toes. 

Give me a bad beach over a shopping centre, a junk shop, the cinema, a bar absolutely ANY DAY of the year. Although a good beach with either a cup of tea and a piece of cake or a cold beer is even better.

But I digress. The thing is, that even the wild, beautiful, isolated beaches that I'm lucky enough to be frequenting at the moment on the West Wales coast are blighted by one thing. Litter. It may not be litter that's been left by other people who were on the beach, but it's there, washing up from the sea, blowing in on the wind. These wild and beautiful places where you find mars bar wrappers, plastic drink bottles, rope, broken up polystyrene, fishing line. It's no good.

At the risk of sounding super smug, we always take our litter away with us - wherever we are. It's become something of an obsession, making sure that we leave nothing behind, picking up anything that's there regardless of if it came from our picnic bag or not - but it's not enough. There is always someone else's litter, and yes, may be they should have picked it up, but you know, may be they were grappling with a recalcitrant child who didn't want to leave the sandcastle and just didn't notice that the crisp packet had blown away. And if you're a fisherman dealing with the matter of catching fish to earn a living, may be the fact that the offcut of rope was swept into the sea was the least of their worries at the time. The fact is that the litter is there and if it's not picked up, it will stay there - not just blighting the beautiful beach, but acting as a hazard for wild life.
All bagged up and ready to go

So what are the options? Well, you can walk on by. Tut at the state of humanity that leaves its litter lying around but essentially do nothing (smug in the knowledge that your own litter is safely bagged) or you can do what Martin Dorey and Beach Clean encourage us to do and take part in your own 2 minute beach clean.

It makes complete sense. When you're leaving the beach - or perhaps as part of your day, your afternoon, your run or dog walk, spend 2 minutes picking up any litter you find, take it away and dispose of it as you would any rubbish - recycle if possible, or bin it safely. Of course you could extend it to anywhere, too - it's not exclusive to the beach, the damage litter does. Parks, hills, even the street where you live. It's about showing a bit of respect for the environment we live in, taking care of it.

And really, 2 minutes to pick up litter - is that really a problem?

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Bullace cheese

If you didn't know (I didn't), a bullace is somewhere between a damson and a plum. Smaller than the latter, not as sharp as the former - certainly not the 5kg or so I managed to scrump from a friend's trees yesterday morning...

When I say 'scrump' - I was invited - but I really didn't intend to take so many. But the sun was warm, the mood peaceful - the type of weather that literary types might refer to as 'replete' - replete with mellow September sunshine, redolent with birdsong, with the hum of bees, with goodwill and with the sense of a good thing coming gracefully to an end - as summer must eventually do, Indian or otherwise.

The bullaces were literally dropping off the trees as we picked - and although I only had one bag with me, it was too easy to fill as we chatted.

I wasn't in the least prepared, so popped in to the local 'low end' supermarket for sugar and cheap vodka, safe in the knowledge that the best place to start would probably be a little something to cheer up the dark winter nights that I expect are to come. I also bought some gin, but once home realised that I didn't have 2 appropriate receptacles. So I used the vodka and the gin can wait for the sloes...

500g down (enough to pimp a 75cl bottle of average to low-grade vodka), I cast around for other likely ingredient combinations.

3 jars of bullace and stem ginger jam (thanks Sarah Raven) later, and I still had nearly 3 kilos to go. I'd taken the recipe for damson cheese - very similar to 'membrillo' of Spanish cuisine - from my friend. If you haven't come across this before, it's a set fruit 'jelly', to be eaten, sliced rather than spooned, as a savoury - with cheese - or, as we discussed while I was sampling hers, perhaps stirred into gravies and the like. It would taste delicious with lamb as an alternative to redcurrant.

The process is relatively straightforward and has none of the setting point stress I associate with making jam - make a purée, then add sugar and bubble gently down. The recipe even helpfully describes how to tell if the mixture is ready in terms of the sound it will make ("a plop") as well as what it will look like. Marvellous.

As my friend advised, I didn't bother stoning the bullaces before embarking on the cheese. I'd already stoned over a kilo to achieve the required weight for the jam making, and it was a total pain (not to mention making my already inelegant fingernails look even worse - I had some vivid cherry flashbacks as I cursed my way through them) - and as you sieve the purée anyway, I decided to heed her advice. I'd noted that about 1.25kg of whole fruit yielded a kilo of stoned when making the jam, so worked on that basis.

It takes a little time, but the resulting cheese is really delicious, and I can see it cheering up many a winter evening to come. I could also venture to suggest that the little packages of fruity delightfulness would make appropriate offerings for that festival beginning with C that comes up in 3 months time. But as it's only September, I can't bring myself to elaborate further on that subject...

Bullace (or Damson) cheese


- 2.5 kg bullaces, washed, stalks and any stray leaves etc removed.
- granulated sugar (exact amounts depend on the amount of purée you achieve after the first stage - you need 450-600g sugar for every 600ml (1lb for every pint if you're imperial) of purée depending on how tart the purée tastes - and perhaps how tart you think you'd like your finished product)
- 50g unsalted butter (optional)


Put the bullaces in a large heavy based pan - if you're a jam maker, the jam pan will do nicely, and add 600ml water.

Bring to a boil and simmer, occasionally mashing the bullaces with a potato masher, until you have a thick, syrupy pulp which will be beautifully pink - this takes about 30-40 minutes.

Sieve this pulp in batches. I must confess to sieving it all and then going to bed because it was late and I was tired. So if you're still going at this point, measure as you go to work out how much sugar you need. If you're a lightweight like me, when you're ready for stage 2 (and I expect the puree would freeze well if needed) measure the puree.

Add sugar accordingly - 450g for each 600ml of puree - then return to the pan and add the butter (if using - apparently it makes for a mellower cheese). 

Heat gently to dissolve all the sugar, then bring to a simmer and continue to cook gently for as long as it takes to achieve a thick glossy paste that "plops and sticks to a wooden spoon or will levae a clear trail is the spoon is drawn across the bottom of the pan". It took mine closer to 11/2 hours before I was confident I'd reached the right point.

At this point, you need to oil whatever receptacles you are going to use to set the cheese in. Ramekins will work, jam jars to make bigger portions, or you could make a big slab in a loaf tin. You could also, I guess, make 'cubes' using ice cube trays if that doesn't re-open any Annabel Karmel babyweaning type scars for you... *

Sterilise your pots, dry and lightly oil them, then spoon in the cheese and leave to cool.

Turn the cooled cheese out of the moulds and wrap in waxed paper. 

Apparently, you should leave it for 6-8 weeks before eating. And it'll last for up to 2 years.

Well, it's always good to know the theories, isn't it?

* I didn't have quite enough to fill a final ramekin, and because the Pink one was home, 'poorly' and gave me the idea for it, I spread the last bit out on a piece of greasproof paper to see if I could re-create the 'fruit leather' that is so popular in my children's peers' lunch boxes and which I refuse to buy...

When it was cool, I cut it into strips and rolled it up. Eat your heart out, Annabel Karmel...

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Fodder for Foodies - the Llwynhelyg Farm Shop

Such an unassuming entrance but don't be fooled - the Llwynhelyg Farm Shop is a veritable treasure trove of fresh meat and veg, local produce - cheeses, fish, home made 'ready meals and desserts, and 'storecupboard' staples. In the summer months, the car park is also home to the wonderful El Salsa Mexican takeaway (sadly now closed till next year)

The shop absolutely lives up to its Twitter moniker '@FooderforFoodys'.

What I love most is that this is a shop that caters for your every need. I use it mainly for veg and eggs - being as it is on the way to the children's school (indeed, it supplies their school with fruit for break) so very convenient to drop in. However, if you didn't want to cook, they also sell home made 'ready meals' and desserts - which I have on good authority are brilliant. And I know it won't be long before I succumb to the temptation of the pie fridge...

Not only can you get everything you might need to cook dinner - from sausage and mash to something far more sophisticated, it's a fantastically friendly shop too which makes it a joy to go in to, even with fractious post-school children (who welcome the days we drop in as it offers them an opportunity to plead with me to buy them olives there!). Not only are the people happy to help and chat, but the shop is full of great touches - such as pronunciation notes:

and what fantastic 'caws' it is...

No wonder then that its won loads of awards

If you're in the area - on holiday or because you happen to live round here - it's definitely worth a visit - indeed, I'd say it's a destination in itself, but then I am probably biased.

You'll find the Llwynhelyg Farm Shop on the A487 at Sarnau, north of Cardigan. You can also follow them on Twitter and find them on Facebook. They didn't ask me to write this post, and all views expressed are my own. It's a great shop. You should go there! 

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Blackberry & Apple Cake

So the weather is perfect Indian Summer weather here in West Wales. 

There's a definite Autumnal chill to the mornings - mists and mellow fruitfulness abounding (more about the mellow fruitfulness to come, as you'd probably guessed).

You can tell the seasons are on the turn - the swallows are massing, chattering noisily before swooping off to make a few turns then returning to the telephone wire, eventually to push off to warmer climes. 

The holidaymakers have dwindled with the return to school, leaving the roads clearer and the beaches emptier - but the sun is still shining

Someone, I can' t remember who, queried whether there'd be blackberries here, this close to the sea, but I'm pleased to say that there are - and they are beautiful. One of the things about moving house is that it's the little things that you have to rediscover that can be the most tricky - where to get your tyres changed, where to go to the dentist, where to pick your blackberries... Believe me, the blackberries were a great concern.

But I needn't have worried. The lanes where the dog gets his standard walk (counting down the days now till we can hit our favourite beaches again) are full of the most fantastic blackberries.- luscious and plentiful. I am scratched and stung, but can't resist another 'pick' each time we go out.

Not only blackberries, but apples are also plentiful, and we've been in receipt of various bags of locally grown bounty. It's fantastic.

This cake came originally from a Good Food recipe, but my cake tins are slightly bigger than those required by the original recipe, and after much bitter complaining (well, perhaps I exaggerate) by the Husband that there's never any cake left by the time he gets to the tins, I decided to make not just one cake (which I was going to do, to take to a new friend who has invited me round for a coffee tomorrow), but 2. So I've increased the recipe accordingly to give two 23 cm cakes. If you want to just make one cake, the link is above, but when has having 2 cakes ever been a problem? I think this will probably freeze well - although perhaps leave off the hazelnuts and icing sugar.

What makes this cake is the ground almonds, I mean I know I'm a fan and everything, but it really does make a delicious moist sponge, a perfect foil to the tangy fruit. The hazelnuts make a good crunch, and eaten warm with a blob of cream, well, it's just a taste of the Welsh - English - British Autumn.

Blackberry & Apple Cake

juice of half a lemon
4 small- medium sized cooking apples
290g unsalted butter, softened
290g caster sugar
7 large eggs
230g self raising flour
70g ground almonds
230g blackberries

For the topping
4 tbsp demerara sugar
50g unsalted butter
a good shake of cinammon

50g peeled toasted hazelnuts
icing sugar for dusting

You also need 2 x 23 cm springform tins, greased and lined.

Pre-heat the oven to 160C.

Put the lemon juice in a bowl, peel and core the apples and cut each into 12 slices and toss the slices into the lemon juice - this will stop them going brown before you fold the slices into the cake batter.

Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.

Whisk together the eggs, then slowly add 2/3 of the mixture to the butter & sugar, beating all the time. If the mixture looks curdled, add a little of the flour.

Once 2/3 of the eggs have been beaten in thoroughly, fold in the remaining eggs, then the flour and ground almonds. 

Fold in the blackberries and most of the apple slices to the batter, then divide between the 2 tins.

Bang down the tins and smooth down the batter gently, then scatter over the remaining apple slices.

Put the sugar and cinnammon for the topping into a  bowl and chop through the butter as if you were making a crumble topping. Sprinkle this over the 2 cakes then bake them for 50-60 minutes till a skewer comes out clean.

When the cakes come out of the oven, sprinkle over the hazelnuts, then leave to cool, dusting with icing sugar before serving warm with the breath of the oven and some lovely cream (although feel free to eat it cold with a cup of tea too).

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Spicy Marrow & Coconut Soup

It is indeed that time of year where I gnash my teeth and wonder yet again what I am going to do with all those bloody courgettes - particularly as the kids would rather pull out their fingernails than willingly eat them aren't keen. Yet, as every year, we planted the plants, so only have ourselves to blame.


While we've managed to mostly keep on top of the crop, a couple of marrows snuck in under the radar. With one, I cooked up a rather potent marrow and apricot chutney, spiced with one of the Husband's fiery chillis, and with the other, a marrow & coconut soup, inspired by a Sarah Raven recipe, laced with harissa and mint, perfect for lunches (although just a shame that the salting of the marrow meant that I didn't get said lunch today till about 2 p.m....

You might suggest that with all the harissa and mint, you can't actually taste much of the marrow in this soup - but I'd hazard that this is not necessarily a bad thing... In fact, when I made this, I started off with half a tablespoon of harissa but frequent tasting dictated the addition of more. Feel free to add less or more as you like.

Spicy Marrow & Coconut Soup

Makes just over 2 litres (that's a lot of lunches)

1.4kg marrow
1 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 large onion
1 large clove of garlic
1.5 tbsp harissa paste
good handful of mint leaves
1 litre chicken stock
400ml can coconut milk

Peel and de-seed the marrow, and chop into 2 cm cubes.

Put the cubes of marrow into a colander over a bowl or dish, salting the marrow as you go. Leave for at least 30 minutes to drain out at least some of the liquid from the marrow. Rinse the salt off, then tip the marrow out onto a teatowel and pat dry.

Heat the rapeseed oil gently in a large pan. Finely chop the onion and garlic, then sweat in the oil for a few minutes before stirring in the harissa and adding the marrow. Cook for a few more minutes while chop chop up the mint, then chuck the mint in the pan, add half the stock, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 10 minutes or so.

Whizz up the soup with a hand held blender, taste for seasoning and add salt & pepper as necessary. Add the rest of the stock and the coconut milk, whizz again, taste again and serve, if necessary warming gently beforehand.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Cardamom Blackberry Chai Cake

We had a month off from the Clandestine Cake Club in August, and so September's meeting crept round rather quickly (a bit like the start of term), with the theme of 'Indian Summer'.

I used up some of the first of the blackberries I picked a couple of weeks in a Signe Johansen Blackberry & Almond Cardamom cake that I found on the Guild of Food Writers website. The original is gluten free but I didn't have enough ground almonds, or baking powder, or even ground cardamom for that matter, but it was still delicious. However, what it also inspired was the cake I took along to cake club, combined with the Seldom Seen Chai Cake that I made ages and ages ago. 

I made the chai up first thing, and the Husband complained that it made the house smell horrible, but I think it was because it was combined with the smell of vinegar soaking chutney ingredients. Not a great odour to greet the day with, I'll accept.

Anyway, I was pleased with the resulting cake: less gingery than the original, more cardamom and run through with blackberries, covering the theme 'Indian Summer' both meteorologically and geographically to provide a gently spiced cake bursting with the best the British (well, in the case, the Welsh) hedgerow has to offer at this time of year.

Cardamom Blackberry Cake with Lemon Icing

For the Chai

350ml semi-skimmed milk
12 cardamom pods, bashed in a pestle and mortar
2 cloves
1 cinammon stick
2 regular tea bags

For the Cake

170g unsalted butter
200g golden syrup
50g dark soft brown sugar
30 cardamom pods
300g wholemeal self raising flour
1 tsp ground ginger
pinch of salt
2 large eggs
200ml chai (made as above)
200g blackberries

For the Icing

200g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
200g icing sugar
lemon juice - about 3/4 of a lemon's worth

You'll also need a lined 20cm cake tin


Make the chai first by pouring the milk into a small pan, adding the rest of the ingredients and simmering gently for 10-15 minutes.

Remove from the heat and leave to cool, then strain in to a jug. You need 200ml for the cake so add a little more milk if necessary.

Pre-heat the oven to 170C.

Put the butter, syrup and sugar into a pan and melt gently, then remove from the heat and leave to cool.

Bash up the cardamom pods, scrape out the seeds, discard the husks, then grind the seeds up in a pestle and mortar.

Add the ground up seeds, the flour, ground ginger and salt  into a bowl and stir together. Pour in the melted butter and syrup mixture, stir in the eggs and finally the chai, then fold in the blackberries.

Bake for around an hour till a cake tester comes out with a few crumbs on it, then leave to cool before icing.

Make the icing by creaming together the butter and icing sugar then slowly adding the lemon juice till you have a delightfully spreadable icing that also zings with lemon. This will lift the cake to new heights that are well worth reaching, believe me!