Irish Chocolate Cake

Everybody needs a good chocolate cake that they can conjure up to appreciative groans and lip licking smiles.  Because, let’s face it, there are times when only chocolate will do!  As for the Irish part well that would be the use of either buttermilk or Guinness (depending on preference/age group) both of which are very Irish ingredients and each giving a very tender crumb to the cake.

You can have this cake with a cuppa or as a pudding served with creme fraiche.  You can decorate the ganache icing anyway you choose.  Or leave it plain.

Of the two “Irish” ingredients well, If you choose to use Guinness it gives the chocolate a slightly spicy, sophisticated kick and if you use buttermilk it becomes slightly lighter and fresher   As well as Guinness/buttermilk and chocolate the cake uses dark brown sugar to give an extra fudgey taste.

Ingredients

The cake

  • 225g  butter, softened, plus extra for greasing
  • 225g soft dark-brown sugar
  • 4 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 275g self-raising flour, sifted
  • 4 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp baking-powder

Buttercream filling

  • 75g butter, slightly softened
  • 75g icing sugar
  • 75g soft dark-brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 2 tbsp Guinness/buttermilk

Buttermilk icing

  • 150g good-quality plain chocolate, broken into small pieces
  • 75ml  buttermilk
  • 75ml double cream
  • 4 tbsp soft-dark brown sugar

Method

  1. Set oven to 175c.   Bottom line and grease 2x 20cm sandwich tins
  2. For the cake beat together sugar and butter until light and fluffy
  3. Slowly add eggs until all incorporated then add vanilla extract and beat again till well mixed
  4. Fold in flour, baking powder, cocoa and either the Guinness or buttermilk
  5. Divide mixture between the two tins, spread out evenly and bake in preheated oven till done (about 30 mins)
  6. Leave  to cool in tins for 5 mins before turning out to cool completely.
  7. For the buttercream – beat together sugars and butter until fluffy
  8. Add cocoa powder and Guinness/buttermilk and beat again until thoroughly mixed
  9. For the icing – warm together all the ingredients stirring until glossy. Leave to cool and thickened
  10. When cakes are cool, put buttercream on one half of cake and spread to edges
  11. Place the other cake on top and pour over icing.   Decorate and serve     Listen to the appreciative groans and watch people lick their lips as they eat it!!

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Banana Icecream

This is has got to be the easiest icecream ever   Its almost instant and very tasty (I promise I am not just saying that because because it’s good for you!). It’s also vegan, raw, paleo, refined sugar free, gluten free and dairy free so you can cover almost all dietary requirements!  To make it you just need a freezer and a food processor or blender   It sounds too good to be true?  Well prepare to be amazed

You can make this taste creamier by adding a little milk of your choice (oat/soya/almond/cows) and if you make it flavoured with one of the variations from the suggestions I give below,  even those who don’t like bananas will love it.  (Mind you I actually really like it as plain banana).

I usually make it in batches of 6 bananas at a time because that suits my food processor but if you have a smaller blender and want to make lots of different variations, allow two bananas per person. Do remember though some of the variations are not suitable for some dietary requirements so if that’s a consideration make your choice carefully

When I eat it I don’t think of all the benefits because it is so tasty but, on the odd occasion that I am on some sort of health kick I feel pretty smug!!  I can almost feel a red swimsuit coming on as I run over sandy beaches in the sunshine!  And on top of that you can feel pretty thrifty as it uses up really ripe bananas!

Ingredients

  • 4-6 ripe bananas

Method

  1. Peel the bananas and slice into chunks.
  2. Put into freezer bag and freeze until solid
  3. Place frozen bananas into blender/food processor and blitz until creamy. You can add a little milk of your choice should you want it smoother and richer
  4. At this stage it is a soft scoop consistency which you can either eat as is or go onto one of any variations you fancy.  Just blend the different flavours in. Freeze whatever combo you’ve gone for an additional half-an-hour if you want a firmer texture

Variations

Really these are as many as you can think of but these ones are some to get you started

  • Chocolate – add a tablespoon of cocoa per banana
  • Chocolate Peanut Butter – add a tablespoon of cocoa and a teaspoon of crunchy peanut butter
  • Berry – add 25-40g of frozen berries per banana
  • Banoffee – add a tablespoon of dolche de leche per banana. Try adding crushed ginger biscuit crumbs on top as garnish
  • Nut – add a tablespoon of any nut butter you fancy (almond, pistachio, peanut) per banana. A few toasted crumbled nuts on top as a garnish is nice
  • Coffee – add quarter of a teaspoon instant coffee powder per banana. Maybe put chocolate chips on top?
  • Vanilla – add a few drops of vanilla extract per banana
  • Ice lollies – freeze into lolly mounds with sticks and dip into dark chocolate.

 

Mediterranean Salad

I love this salad with crusty bread for lunch as the combination of flavours is sooo good.  It’s great as a starter, or serve it with simply grilled or BBQ’d meat, poultry or fish – but you do need the bread to mop up the juices.  If you think salads are boring then this will change your mind as this Salad positively oozes sunshine and sings of summer holidays in the Med

It is, what is apparently called, a “composed” salad.  This, I think,  is just a cheffy word for a salad that’s arranged beautifully on a plate.  It does take a little work to prepare all the different vegetables but nothing too onerous.

Here I used aubergines, courgettes (sorry Chloe, you have my permission to leave those) roasted peppers, tomatoes and soft fried red onion. I also added olives, Parmesan, thyme, garlic and, of course, basil.  (You could leave out the Parmesan or use a vegan cheese if you wanted this to be vegan) I then soaked it all in a fragrant balsamic dressing.   But that could just be a starting point.  You could add all sorts of other things leaving out what you don’t want (see there is hope Chloe! ) or just layering up more to up the complexity.  How about adding thinly sliced fennel, those roasted aubergine hearts you have in a jar  and scattering over toasted pine nuts?

Ingredients

  • 2 medium aubergine
  • 2 small or 1 large courgette
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 yellow pepper
  • 1 red onion
  • 12 black olives (approx), halved
  • 12 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 tsp thyme leaves
  • handful torn basil leaves
  • parmesan shavings
  • slivers from 1/4 clove garlic
  • olive oil

For the dressing

  • 8tbsp olive oil
  • 2-3tbsp balsamic vinegar (to personal taste)
  • 2tbsp water
  • salt and pepper

Method

  1. Slice aubergines to thickness of pound coin. Put on baking sheet.  Drizzle with olive oil.  Season with salt and pepper and roast in hot oven (190c) foe approximately 25 mins, turning once until soft and browned.
  2. Slice courgette into discs of pound coin and cook in boiling salted water for approx a minute. Drain, rinse with cold water and pat dry with kitchen towel
  3. Char the skins of red and yellow peppers using either gass ring, blowtorch or Aga plate and roast at top of oven for a further 10 minutes before sealing into a plastic bag to cool whilst steam releases skin.  After 5 mins skin should slip off easily. Tear into strips after reseeding
  4. Slice red onion into thick rings and sauté in olive oil until soft and slightly browned
  5. Arrange slices of aubergine and courgette on serving platter.  Add cherry tomatoes and olives as well as strips of roasted pepper.  Scatter over thyme leaves, garlic slivers, parmesan shavings and torn basil
  6. Whisk together ingredients for dressing, tasting to adjust seasoning and vinegar quantity
  7. Pour over arranged vegetables.
  8. Leave to marinate for at least 30 mins although 6 hours or overnight is optimal.
  9. Serve at room temperature with bread to mop up the juices

 

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Gorgonzola, Rosemary and Pinenut Foccacia

Banana Loaf Muffins

My friend Rachel – she of Christmas cake icing fame – asked me to blog about what I do with very ripe bananas.  This banana bread recipe is the first of two things I do and certainly the more traditional of the two.   The second, which will follow tomorrow, is an almost instant banana icecream which is vegan (though you’d never know it as it tastes so creamy) and refined sugar free.

It can be baked as a loaf or in muffin cases.  I invariably choose to do it in individual muffin cases as it freezes so beautifully and can be microwaved for a minute from frozen to taste as fresh and delicious as it was when it came from the oven which is really useful.  Plus, if you call it a muffin it means that it somehow is ok to have what is essentially a cake for breakfast (as well as with a cuppa or anytime really)!  In fairness it does keep in a tin for a few days but as this recipe makes 2 small loaves or 12 individual Muffins freezing works for me

If you are making Muffins I use an icecream scoop to portion them and to make sure that they are all the same size.  It’s really useful to not have to try and even them up at the end taking bits off one and adding to another which is always what happens to me when I divide the mix with a spoon

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The bananas themselves do need to be ripe and have at least a few dark brown splodges on them or else the end result will not have that sweet almost fudgey taste so important to banana bread.

The other important point is that when you add the bananas to the mix it will go all curdled looking.  This is because the bananas go lumpy and are not absorbed by the egg/butter/sugar mix but don’t despair it all comes right when you add the flour.  Have faith!!

i always add a topping of crushed nuts and Demerara cigar as I love a crunchy top  I have cut down on the sugar in the mix so if you aren’t going to do this top up the caster sugar by 50g

Ingredients

  • Finely grated zest of a lemon
  • 100g sultanas
  • 4tbsp black tea/rum/whisky depending on preference
  • 100g soft butter (room temperature)
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 4 mashed bananas
  • 100g chopped walnuts or pecans if preferred
  • 300g plain flour
  • 3tsp baking powder

For the topping

  • 50g Demerara sugar
  • 100g crushed walnuts/pecans

 

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Method

  1. Put sultanas, tea/rum/whisky and lemon zest in a bowl to soak
  2. Beat butter and sugar together till pale and fluffy
  3. Add eggs and beat until combined
  4. Add peeled bananas and mix thoroughly remembering not to panic when mix looks curdled!
  5. Fold in flour and baking powder followed by soaked sultanas and their liquid and the chopped nuts. If mix is too stiff for an easy dropping consistency add a little milk
  6. Divide mix into either 2 lined 1lb loaf tins or twelve muffin cases
  7. Scatter over Demerara sugar and crushed nuts for topping
  8. Bake at 180c for 25 mins for Muffins or 45 mins for loaves.

Cooking in a Woodfired Oven

On Saturday I went on a course to learn how to use our rather elderly pizza oven properly.  We have had it for 18 years now so, although I had been doing pizzas in it, I was sure I could do more and better!

Mike, who is the pizzaiolo of Lucca Enoteca in Manningtree, is a third generation Italian chef and turns out something like 800 pizzas a week from his woodfired oven certainly helped me look at things differently.

Rather than make this an extra long post, I will post how to make and shape dough another time as well as giving some ideas for different combos of toppings and how to make calzones.   I must, however, mention Nutella pizza   Just cook a plain base and spread with Nutella once out of the oven   I found today the Nutella had mysteriously disappeared so I used praline paste and chocolate drops instead   Delicious with an espresso to sip on

The photos are from today, Sunday, when I put what I had learnt to the test   I think I got the best results ever and am no longer worried about putting the pizza directly on the oven floor as I know how to control the ash

Top Ten Tips for using a Woodfired oven 

  1. Woodfired ovens can take a long time to heat up – particularly if they haven’t been used for a while.  The amount of time varies with the type of oven. Mine, which is a small oven, took about 3 hours.  You can often see a colour change in the colour of the base to a white-ish hue
  2. Use well seasoned wood. I favour fruit woods – particularly Pear, apple or cherry.  You can use oak or ash. Remember the type of wood does influence how the food tastes
  3. Welders gloves are really useful for putting on extra logs and protecting your hands when using fire tools to move the fire about
  4. When you are ready to cook, push the fire to the side or back.  You want a slow burn at this stage not fierce flames.  Try and vary where you leave the fire burning on different occasions so the base doesn’t crack.
  5. Sweep the floor of your oven with a long handled oven proof brush.  I also sacrificed a golf ball sized piece my uncooked dough to roll over the area I was going to cook on using the back of the peel, to pick up a lot of the ash.  “Dirty” pizzas shouldnt mean completely covered with ash.
  6. You can use the heat of the oven to roast vegetables that you may use as part of your meal now or in the future.  They get a really lovely flavour.  I roasted cubed aubergines and courgettes on a metal baking sheet to turn into a salad later.  (When cool I mixed them with white beans, chopped tomatoes, parsley, lemon juice and olive oil)
  7. You can roast peppers directly on the floor of the oven so the skin blackens, remove and pop them in a plastic bag, sealing whilst hot, so they steam for 5 mins in the residual heat making the skin easy to peel off and giving them a lovely smokey taste.
  8. When you cook your pizza use a peel (like a metal tray with a handle) to place the pizza directly on the oven floor.  Do try and position it close to the oven wall so it gets maximum heat.  Turn it when the pizza base (skirt) starts to crisp so that it cooks evenly. The pizza is ready when the rim is crisp and blistered and the centre bubbling. A few darker patches on the dough are good but you don’t want too many dark “leopard spots”
  9. Use semolina flour rather than 00 flour to shape your pizza dough leaving a rim round the outside and the filling in the middle.  Don’t overload your toppings.  This will help keep the base crispy. Remember you can add cold toppings such as Parma ham or Parmesan once the pizza is cooked. The semolina flour makes it easier to put on the peel.
  10. You don’t have to have a tomato sauce as a base.  Pizza bianca is very popular.  My favourite is very thinly sliced potatoes coasted in olive oil with chopped Rosemary leaves and Parmesan.  Four cheese pizza is also very good.

Salted Chocolate Caramel Mousse

This recipe makes me feel very sophisticated and very French, particularly if I serve it in small, elegant coffee cups. I can easily imagine myself as a very chic Parisian Madame as I eat it. It doesn’t need cream as the hint of salt cuts through the richness of the chocolate  The caramel element adds a lusciousness and depth that is often missing from mousses.  It can be dressed up with almond biscuits or berries or even a madeleine on the side – this time I added a mini chocolate praline egg for Easter   For entertaining it is a perfect recipe as it can be made in advance and keeps – providing you can repel marauders – for up to a week in the fridge.   In my opinion its intensity probably makes it a pudding more suited to grown ups,  but lots of children have such sophisticated palates nowadays I wouldn’t like to count them out!!

Now this isn’t one of my creations, not even a recipe I have tweaked, as it belongs to the wonderful David Lebovitz, whose food blog, based in Paris, is one I follow eagerly.  He is an American who writes such evocative posts and photographs that are a delight on their own even before you get the recipes that inspire him ……. I would strongly recommend following him, particularly if French food interests you   His website is http://www.davidlebovitz.com

This particular recipe isn’t difficult and after the first spoonful you’ll be wondering why you ever made any other chocolate pudding at all….

Ingredients

  • 100g granulated sugar
  • 50g  salted butter, cubed
  • 180ml double cream
  • 170g dark 70% chocolate, chopped
  • 4 large eggs, separated
  • 1/4 tsp flakey sea salt, Maldon or, by preference, fleur de sel

Method

  1. Put granulated sugar in bottom of a heavy pan and over a medium heat wait until it forms an amber caramel
  2. Add the butter and stir in to halt the cooking process and then stir in the double cream.  It may take some time for it to amalgamate stirring constantly. Dont despair, return to heat if necessary to help it all come together.
  3. Add cream and mix well before adding chocolate and combining
  4. When mixture has cooled to blood temperature add the egg yolks
  5. Whip egg whites with the salt until soft peaks are formed and fold into chocolate mixture
  6. pour into small glasses or coffee cups and chill for a minimum of 4 hours
  7. Serve with a couple of flakes of sea salt on top if desired

Bliss ….

 

Hot Cross Buns

Q: What do you get if you pour a kettle of boiling water down a rabbit hole?

A: A hot cross bun!

A truly dreadful joke I admit but homemade hot cross buns are wonderful I promise   They are time consuming but most of that is because you have to wait longer than normal to let the dough rise, partly because it is an enriched dough and partly because the spices seem to slow the yeast down

Mind you, I cheat and make and shape my dough the day before and leave to prove in fridge overnight, then remove from fridge an hour before baking so we can have them for breakfast on Good Friday without getting up at the crack of dawn!!!

I confess too, that I use a jar of specially saved mincemeat from Christmas for my hot cross buns. The fruit is already full of spices and, as it doesn’t have to be added until the end of kneading time, the fruit doesn’t keep popping out as you work the dough!  The recipe for mincemeat is on an earlier post but if you don’t have any a mix of sultanas and raisins soaked in orange and lemon juice with cinnamon and left overnight works well.

I don’t know about you but I have never really liked the texture of the crosses  on hot cross buns.   I went to an Easter Baking Workshop at The Suffolk Foodhall with the brilliant Sue Hudson last week and she made her hot cross buns with ready rolled shortcrust pastry which is a brilliant idea and one I have copied here  She also taught me that you can vary the darkness of the finish of the top by using either a beaten whole egg for a medium brown colour or an egg yolk heated with a couple of teaspoons of cold water for a dark one.  Sue does all sorts of bread workshops in East Anglia – if you get a chance I’d certainly recommend going on one  I’ve been on 3 so far!!  Her website is http://www.breadworkshops.co.uk should you be interested.

Ingredients

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 10g yeast (or 7g dried dissolved in the warmed milk)
  • 75g butter
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 5g salt
  • 250g milk
  • an egg
  • 175g mincemeat
  • part of a pack of all butter, ready rolled, shortcrust pastry
  • beaten egg to glaze

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Method

  1. Mix together flour and sugar in a bowl.
  2. Crumble in fresh yeast if using and rub in
  3. Stir in the salt
  4. Melt butter in small pan and add milk.  Mixture should be slightly warm.
  5. Remove from heat and beat in egg
  6. Pour wet mix into flour, and combine until a dough is formed.
  7. Turn out onto worksurface and knead for 10 mins (no cheating).
  8. At end of time add mincemeat to dough and knead for another 2 mins until well incorporated
  9. Put dough into lightly oiled bowl, cover and leave to prove for 90 minutes or until doubled in size
  10. Turn out dough, shape into 12 buns and place on baking tray cover and leave to rise again. It is here I put mine into the fridge as detailed above, but if you aren’t it takes about another 60mins till buns double in size
  11. Heat oven to 190c/170c fan
  12. Brush buns with beaten egg (see above) and put on strips of pastry to form crosses on each bun, snipping pastry between each bun
  13. Bake in oven for 16-18 mins till cooked

Tip: for a shiny glaze combine 150g sugar and 150ml water in small pan and heat until sugar has dissolved  Brush over buns as they come out of oven