>> Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The other day I noticed a few apples sitting in our fruit bowl looking dejected. They were starting to develop that sweet-honey smell that means their past their eating best but are perfect for baking.

Apple cake? I had a lovely, simple recipe I’d used a few times; a fairly basic butter cake with apple quarters scored and pushed gently into the soft batter and coated with apricot jam, which I’d found in one of my mum’s Australian Women’s Weekly cookbooks. I hunted through my handwritten recipe journal and file of cut-outs with no success. It was 3 o’clock in the morning in New Zealand, so I couldn’t ring my mum and get her to read the recipe out to me over the phone. Sometimes it’s so frustrating not living in the same time zone as your family. It makes the distance even harder since you feel so completely disconnected. Eating a slice of homemade apple cake would make it slightly easier to bear though. So I set about finding a new recipe to try.

I decided to look for one that was a bit different from my original recipe – trying to find one similar would surely only lead to disappointment. On the Waitrose website I found a recipe for ‘Organic Apple Cake with Honey and Cinnamon Crème Fraîche’. It was the layer of caramelised and finely sliced apple that really grabbed me. It looked shiny and delicious; this was the one.

First of all, I have to tell you that I chose this recipe despite the fact it claimed to be ‘organic’. Anything can be organic if you stick the word ‘organic’ in front of every ingredient listed. I also chose it even though everything in the ingredients list is measured in grams rather than cups or mls. Something which is particularly frustrating for me as I don’t yet own a set of scales.... It’s on my ‘to do’ list. Luckily I’ve found a great website which converts weights of different ingredients into various units. It’s pretty hard to get completely accurate though – 0.66 of a cup anyone? Electronic scales will be my next kitchen purchase. I just need to find some I like. It’s harder than you would think.

So – even though this cake was teetering on the edge of the ‘too-hard basket’ and had me scoffing at it’s ingredients list, I persevered. Lucky cake.

A very, very easy cake to make. (As long as you ignore the fact that I was continually running back and forth between the kitchen and my laptop on the dining room table trying to remember conversion quantities!) The batter couldn't be simpler and while the apples are slightly fiddly to arrange, they look pretty and it only takes about 5 minutes. The cake itself actually improves after a day or two, so I would recommend baking it the day before you intend to serve it. If not, it's a lovely light cake fresh from the oven.

I ended up taking this as a dessert for dinner at Anna and Carl’s house. I’m so glad I did, as had I not, I would never had tried the Honey and Cinnamon Crème Fraîche (which would have been a bit of an extravagant addition just for the two of us). Flavoured creams have never really caught my attention before, and they’re definitely not something I would usually make on a regular basis – save the Chantilly cream my family makes instead of ordinary whipped cream. (I don’t think I can remember a time when we’ve whipped cream to go with something sweet and not included a teaspoon of castor sugar and a small splash of vanilla essence. Infinitely better than plain.)

This Crème Fraîche is worth the little extra effort it takes to assemble - particularly with a delicately flavoured cake such as this. It transforms what could be an ordinary tea cake into something special and worthy of dessert. If you can't get hold of crème fraîche, whipping or double cream will be fine. Just make sure it's whipped to a thick consistency before adding the cinnamon honey.

Just to let you know; I tried this twice - the first time with whipped double cream because that was all the Tesco up the road had in stock, the second time with crème fraîche. I can't decide which is better. I liked the double cream; it was lighter and sweeter and allowed the taste of the cinnamon and honey to stand out. Chris preferred the crème fraîche; he said he liked the slight lemony tartness alongside the apples in the cake. So the jury's out on that one - but which ever you choose, be rest assured it's good no matter what.

While I know that no cake will ever be wonderful enough to keep the homesickness blues completely at bay, the comforting smell of any cake gently baking in the oven will always help - at least a little.

Chris and I are off to Paris for the Easter holiday weekend! So no more posting until next week sometime, but I'm sure I'll bring back lots of photos of amazing confections and french delights to share. À bientôt!

Apple Cake with Honey + Cinnamon Crème Fraîche
(adapted from the Waitrose Website)

For the cake:
2 eating apples
225g demerara sugar (or raw sugar)
200g butter, softened
3 room temperature free range eggs, beaten
200g self-raising flour
150g pot natural yoghurt

For the crème fraîche:
500g crème fraîche
2 tbsp liquid honey
1/2 tsp cinnamon

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C, gas mark 4. Lightly grease a round 20cm loose-bottomed cake tin, line the base with baking parchment, then grease the top of the parchment.

2. Core the apples and slice thinly (no need to peel). Put them in a large bowl, add 25g of the sugar and toss well to coat. Arrange the slices in the tin, overlapping them slightly to form circles. Make sure there are no gaps between the apples as this will result in uneven areas where the batter will show on the top of the cake.

3. Beat the butter and remaining sugar together until light and fluffy, using an electric hand whisk or wooden spoon. Add the eggs, a little at a time, until they are fully incorporated and the mixture is smooth. If the mixture begins to curdle, simply add a spoonful or two of the flour and continue to add the egg. This should not happen if your ingredients are at room temperature and you make sure to add the eggs only a little at a time.

4. Fold in the remaining flour and yoghurt, then carefully spoon the mixture over the apples. Place the cake tin on a baking tray and bake for about 1 hour, or until golden and springy to the touch. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for 20 minutes or so. Turn the cake out onto a wire rack and leave to cool completely.

5. Spoon the crème fraîche into a serving bowl. Beat the honey and cinnamon together, then stir gently through the crème fraîche. Chill. Serve the cake in slices, with the honeyed crème fraîche.



>> Thursday, March 25, 2010

Chris and I try to eat vegetarian meals for at least half the week. We're not vegetarians - not even close. We love meat far too much to ever even contemplate abstaining in the long term. Crispy, golden bacon and juicy, rare steaks we could not live without. But there's also something tempting and refreshing about an entire meal revolving around vegetables and herbs. We use eggs and dairy products frequently and try to discover new recipes and different ways of approaching individual ingredients.

For one of my vegetarian cooking nights this week I found this recipe for Courgette and Aged Cheddar Slice. It's from one of my favourite New Zealand cooks, Julie le Clerc. I have a few of her books, but Viva Food is one of the ones I probably cook from the least. In an effort to validate it's presence on my book shelf, I took it down, flicked through the pages looking for some inspiration and found this recipe.

First off, aside from having to grate and drain the courgettes, this slice is straightforward and quick to assemble. If you're looking for something to cook on a rushed weeknight, this is exactly what you need. While it requires almost an hour in the oven, the preparation is speedy and once you’ve mixed the batter together, all you need to do is relax until it’s done.

I'd recommend using a fairly strong cheddar - a sharp cheese which will cut through the creaminess of the egg. You could even double the cheese if you're feeling daring - I think it could handle a little more. After the requisite 40 minutes in the oven, make sure you double check the filling is done before switching off your oven. I found that it took at least another ten minutes before the centre was entirely set.

I think I'll cook this again in summer; maybe we’ll take it up to the heath for a sunday picnic when it will taste even better because the courgettes and tomatoes will be in season. Eating warm slices in the sun and reading. Perfect.

Courgette + Aged Cheddar Slice
(slightly adapted from Viva Food by Julie Le Clerc)

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely sliced
500g (4 medium) courgettes, grated
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano (I used a small bunch, picking off the leaves, leaving some whole and chopping the rest)
1 cup grated aged cheddar
1 cup self-raising flour
4 free-range or organic eggs
1 cup milk
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 medium tomatoes, thinly sliced

1. Preheat the oven to 200ºC. Line a 17x27cm slice tin with non-stick baking paper, allowing overhang on all sides. You could alternatively grease the tin generously with butter, though you will get better results and the slice will be easier to remove from the tin if you line it with paper.

2. Heat oil in a frying pan and cook the onion for 5 minutes until softened but not coloured. Remove to cool. Squeeze any excess liquid from the grated courgettes and add to the cooled onion with the oregano, cheese and flour.

3. In another bowl, lightly beat the eggs with the milk and season with salt and pepper. Stir wet ingredients into dry ingredients and mix to just combine. Pour into prepared tin. Arrange tomato slices on top.

4. Bake for 40 minutes or until firm in the centre. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes to firm before turning out to slice. Lasts up to 3 days if stored in the fridge.



>> Saturday, March 13, 2010

I love eggs. They seem to radiate a sense of peacefulness and calm. A promise of good things to come.
Seeing a half dozen jumbled into a white bowl makes me happy. (It doesn’t take much. I’m a fan of the ‘little things’.)

After we moved to London, I discovered a whole array of different varieties of eggs I’d never been able to get a hold of easily in New Zealand. Muted shades of pale turquoise, watery green, soft honey and tan. A multitude of creams.

And seeing these eggs sitting quietly in our kitchen, I just had to bake a cake. A cake with six eggs and a hefty quantity of butter.

This recipe for Sour Cream Lemon Cake was discovered by my mother, Maeva. It is featured in a cookbook called "Best Recipes” by Annabelle White* which she bought several years ago. Something you should know about my mother; she loves recipe books, cook books, cooking magazines, interior design magazines and magazines in general. She has piles around the house, and boxes and boxes of them dating back to the early 80’s in storage. I love this about her (though it frustrates my father no end, who can’t understand why she needs so many….). Every time I was bored and wanted something to entertain or inspire me, I would pick up a magazine from the pile in the lounge and settle into the couch and read; flicking through the recipes and beautiful photographs. It is probably safe to say that her obsession with buying magazines and cookbooks helped to start my own obsession.... Like mother like daughter.

This recipe is described by Annabelle as “the ultimate lemon cake”. And I think she's right. This is the only lemon cake recipe we use in our family. It’s pretty much fail-safe as long as you make sure to cook it slowly until the centre is just firm and a skewer comes out completely clean.

It’s light and dense at the same time. Has a wonderful, subtle lemony perfume and always looks impressive.

It’s the perfect accompaniment to a milky cup of hot tea but equally wonderful served slightly heated with lemon curd and softly whipped cream for an elegant and simple dessert.

Sour Cream Lemon Cake
(slightly adapted from Best Recipes by Annabelle White)

250g softened butter
2 cups sugar (can use castor, though regular white sugar is fine)
6 lightly beaten large eggs
4 teaspoons finely grated lemon rind
2 cups sifted flour
2 teaspoons sifted baking powder
1 cup sour cream

Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup castor sugar

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and lemon rind, blend well.
Fold in flour and baking powder alernately with the sour cream. Mix gently until smooth and pour into a well greased 20 cm round tin.
Bake at 160ºC for 60 minutes or until a skewer comes away clean when tested.
After baking, leave the cake in the tin for a few minutes, pour on the glaze. Leave until mostly cool and then remove from the pan.

*Annabelle White is a New Zealand cook who writes good, solid traditional recipes from a kiwi perspective.



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