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Sometimes you come across a beautiful ingredient and it’s a pleasure to just spend some time thinking about how best to use it.

I found these figs in Beshoffs* in Howth on Saturday, along with the jaw-dropping array of fish and shellfish that the shop is better known for. (Living a few miles inland, I just don’t get to see that kind of fishy feast very often and it was tempting to go a bit bananas in there.)

After a knock-out lunch at Ivan’s next door and a post-prandial stroll along the pier to shake off some of the food-induced snooziness, we returned home – Mr B with a big parcel of fish, me clutching my paper bag of dusky-purple fruit, dreaming of all the possibilites…

Fig, mozzarella and prosciutto salad… that would be nice. Or maybe I would roast them and then drizzle honey over the lot, accompanied by a dollop of something sharp. What about making a jam or compote? Although did I really have enough for that…

Cake.

Yes. Definitely cake. (Although, let’s face facts, it’s always cake with me.)

 
So I spent Sunday puttering around the kitchen, the comforting hum of the oven in the background, roasting hazlenuts, before skinning and pulverizing them for this cake.

Normally, that would seem like too much effort to me but it was more relaxing than anything else, in the way these sorts of activities can be when you don’t have any plans for the day and time magically expands to fit your needs. Now, if only I could apply that trick to my working day as well (answers on a postcard or blog comment please).  

Hazlenut and fig cake from Holiday by Bill Granger

(Serves 6-8)

You’ll need:

125g unsalted butter, softened
150g caster sugar
75g plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 eggs, lightly beaten
100g ground hazlenuts
50g hazlenuts, chopped into small pieces
8 fresh figs (not too ripe), halved
2 tablespoons honey

1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gask mark 4. Cream the butter and the sugar in a large mixing bowl until pale and fluffy.

2. Sift together the flour and baing powder. Use a large metal spoon to fold the flour and eggs alternately into the creamed mizture. Fold in the ground hazlenuts and then the chopped ones.

3. Grease a 20cm/8-inch cake tin and line with baking paper,  leaving the paper hanging over the sides to help you lift out the cake. Spoon the mixture into the tin. Arrange the figs, cut side up, in a neat layer on top of the cake. Bake for 55 mins to 1 hour, or until a skewer poked in the middle of the cake comes out clean.

4. Leave to rest in the tin for 10 minutes before turning out. Drizzle honey over the top of the cake just before serving.

(Bill notes that this is lovely both as a cake and as a dessert with lightly whipped cream.

*Beshoffs doesn’t appear to have a website – how can that be? However, the also-excellent Wrights do…

… and I never want to.

Chopped salads weren’t a feature of my childhood. Run-of-the-mill lettuce n’ tomato combos (tomato ignored by me at the time) and coleslaw were regulars on our table. But chopped… Not that I remember. And I’ve always flicked past them in cookbooks because copious amounts of mayonnaise always seem to be involved and that just makes me feel a little queasy. Teeny tiny pieces of unidentifiable food drowning in an ocean of gooey dressing does not make for an appetising dish.

Also, somehow, in my brain, chopped salad equalled egg mayo salad. Don’t ask me why.

Well, that’s one prejudice well and truly demolished. I don’t know what drew me to this recipe the most – the promise of the salty feta or the contrasting lighter flavour of the cucumber, along with the herbs. But all of a sudden, there I was at the kitchen counter, crumbling cheese, chopping red onion and rifling the fridge for whatever herbs I could find like my life depended on it.

The result was a crunchy, tangy revelation. To the point where I just stood there, scooping one spoonful after another onto a hunk of bread and shovelling it greedily into my mouth. Scoop, shovel, chomp, repeat. Followed by small sighs of contentment.

Joanna Weir’s Cucumber and Feta Salad via the incomparable David Lebovitz.

*Coughs quietly* So, er, anyone still out there?

Turns out, I just needed three straight weeks of sleep. Amazing what a few early nights can do. In the meantime, this place has started to look a bit neglected, a little sad and cobwebby in the corners, so it’s probably time to set that right.

With chocolate cupcakes.

These babies definitely come from the no-frills school of cupcake baking but are none the worse for that. One day, I will dust off that piping kit I bought when I was full of good intentions about doing some schmancy-pants decorating – but this recipe from Ottolenghi, The Cookbook will somehow get me through in the meantime.

Ottolenghi is the kind of deli/bakery/food nirvarna I would give my right eye, firstborn child and, well, anything really, to have at the bottom of my street or preferably next door. But I live in deepest, darkest 
commuters-ville, and the only thing at the end of my street is… another housing estate. So Ottolenghi is allowing me to indulge a little daydream about tripping down the bustling city street to my new favourite place and lingering over the mouthwatering selection of salads, mains and baked goods. Cucumber and poppyseed salad, cauliflower and cumin fritters, sweet potato galettes, plum-marzipan muffins, two-textured chocolate cake…

Oops – did I wander off there for a minute? Now, clearly I’m a sucker for a bit of good photography and a great concept. I have been sold a little slice of the urban living fantasy with this book and I know it. But no recipe feels too complicated for a school night and the friendly voices of Sami and Yotam, the owners, flow off every page like they’re old friends just hanging around in your kitchen, talking about what they’d like to make next.

Hmmmmmmm…. what to make next…     

Chocolate cupcakes from Ottolenghi, The Cookbook

Makes 12

2 free-range eggs
115ml soured cream
80ml sunflower oil
20ml black treacle
20g unsalted butter, melted
60g caster sugar
60g light muscovado sugar
120g plain flour
35g cocoa powder
1tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/4 tsp salt
40g ground almonds
200g dark chocolate, cut into small pieces

For the icing:

165g dark chocolate, cut into small pieces
135ml whipping cream
35g unsalted butter, diced
1tbsp Amaretto liqueur

1. Heat the oven to 170C/gas mark 3. Line a muffin tray or bun sheet with 12 paper cases.

2. Whisk together the first seven ingredients in a large mixing bowl until they are just combined – don’t overmix. Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder and bicarb. Add them to the wet mix along with the salt and almonds, and gently fold together. Fold in the chocolate pieces.

3. Spoon the batter into the cupcake cases, filling them up completely. Bake for about 20-25 mins – if you insert a skewer in one, it should come out with quite a bit of crumb attached. Remove from the oven and leave to cool, then take the cupcakes out of their tins.

4.  While the cupcakes are in the oven, start making the icing. It will take time to set and become spreadable. Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Put the cream in a small saucepan and heat almost to boiling point, then pour it over the chocolate. Use a rubber spatula to stir until all the chocolate has melted. Add the butter and the Amaretto and beat until smooth.

5. Transfer the icing to a clean bowl and cover the surface with clingflim. Leave at room temperature until the cupcakes have fully cooled and the icing has started to set. You want to catch it at the point when it spreads easily but isn’t hard. Do not rush it by refridgerating!

6. Spoon a generous amount of icing on top of each cupcake and shape with a paleete knife.

Cook’s notes

I may have had the oven turned up too hot, as these were done and a little dark around the edges at bang-on 20 mins. Icing, however, covers a multitude of sins.

I left the icing to set for too long – easily distracted, see – so my efforts don’t look as luscious as they do in the book.

Hello

I'm short of stature (a family trait) but big of appetite (also a family trait). If you're reading this then you're probably big of appetite too. Or a member of my family (hello Mum).
October 2008
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