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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…

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*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.

…by a mile and a half – Grannymar’s scrumptious Death by Chocolate! Thanks to everyone who voted 🙂

OK, it took me until 10 days until after my birthday to make it, but I’m a firm believer that any treat in the month running up to and after your birthday is fully justified for celebratory purposes.

I halved the recipe – otherwise we really would keel over – and used a 7-inch tin, which worked out pretty well.

The only tricky bit was slicing the cake into three layers (tongue stuck out of the corner of my mouth in deep concentration) and then brushing each one with melted white chocolate. I should have used the trick of freezing the layers for a short while, then brushing off the crumbs to make it easier to apply the melted chocolate and stop those pesky crumbs mixing into it.

But that’s just me needing to sharpen up my cake assembly/decoration skills and has nothing to do with how delicious this is. Nom, nom, nom!

And, since it’s my birthday cake, it’s only right to play nicely and share. Anyone want some?

Our good friend S. will be staying here for about five months, travelling up to Dublin for work and it seems un-hostlike to make her sleep on top of all our hoarded crap in the spare room. Crap, I might add, that has been languishing in cardboard boxes since we moved over last year.

Mr B and I, we’re both hoarders by nature, which made the task of deciding what we could possibly do without a bit painful. (‘But I need EVERYTHING! ALL THE TIME! Well, ok, maybe not EVERYTHING… but most of it! Including the stuff in your hands that you’re about to chuck out!’)

So, while I was rummaging through all those cardboard boxes, I stumbled across a copy of Gourmet magazine from April 2007, with the page folded back to this recipe. It looked like I was going to make it just before the big move but then got distracted by things like tying up council tax and utilities, finishing up at my last job and working out which cookbooks I couldn’t bear to part with for the duration of said move

High time then, to remedy the matter.

Fresh pineapple upsidedown cake from Gourmet magazine, April 2007

Serves 8 to 10 people, apparently.

1 2/3 cups plain flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon bicarb of soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 fresh pineapple, halved lengthwise, peeled and cored
1 1/2 sticks (165g) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2/3 cup well-shaken buttermilk

1. Position a rack in the centre of the oven, along with a baking tray*, and preheat to 180C/350F.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and soda, and salt into a bowl. Cut the pineapple crosswise into 1/4 inch thick wedges.

3. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan (2-inches deep) lightly on the side and generously on the bottom of the pan using 1/2 stick/55g butter. Sprinkle all of the brown sugar evenly over the bottom of the pan and arrange the pineapple over it, starting in the centre and overlapping slices slightly.

4. Beat together the remaining stick of butter (110g), granulated sugar and vanilla with an electric mixer at medium speed until light and fluffy, about two minutes, then add the eggs – one at a time – beating well after each addition.

5. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour mix alternately with the buttermilk in batches, beginning and ending with the flour and mixing until the batter is just smooth.

6. Spread the batter evenly over the pineapple and bake until a wooden pick inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean – about 40 to 45 mins. Cool for 15 mins in the pan on a rack, then invert the cake onto a plate and remove the pan. Cool to room temperature and then serve. 

*You’ll need the baking tray to catch any buttery-sugary drips from the side of the tin.

shortbread with dried cranberries

I’ve been umm-ing and ahh-ing over whether or not to post this recipe for cranberry shortbread. You see, it’s super duper, it’s fab, it’s melt-in-your-mouth taste-tastic, mate. But only for one day. 

Next day… meh, not so much – the problem being that this cookie goes soft very quickly. Think it’s all the icing sugar, which isn’t exactly keeping to the traditional ingredients for shortbread. Just goes to show that you shouldn’t mess with perfection. 

It’s also a little bit annoying as I was hoping to make them for a friend’s wedding later in the year – cos, oh yeah, cranberry shortbread hearts would be super cute and spot on for the occasion. And it was my wedding anniversary last week, so I was thinking, ‘Oooh, cunning plan… test out the recipe, celebrate with results at the same time, then write it up for the blog and include moving tribute to husband’. Yeah, there goes another super cute (but quite likely nauseating) idea out the window. Count yourself lucky – the way this cookie turned out has saved you from reams of gushy prose and a feeling in your tummy that isn’t so much butterflies as dry heaving. Hey, there’s always next year 😉  

But still, despite all that, if you feel the urge for shortbread and know you’re going to eat it as soon as it comes out of the oven…

Dried Cranberry Shortbread Hearts from Martha Stewart’s Cookies

Makes about 12

You’ll need:

1 cup/2 sticks/225g unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sifted icing sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups sifted plain flour
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 cup finely chopped dried cranberries

1. Preheat the oven to 325F/170C with a rack positioned in the centre of the oven. Put the butter, sugar, vanilla, flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Stir together with a wooden spoon until combined but not too creamy. Stir in the dried cranberries.

2. Press the dough evenly into an 8-inch square baking tin. Bake until firm and golden brown – around 30 minutes. Cool on a wire rack – about another 20 minutes.

3. Run a knife around the edges, remove the shortbread from the tin and transfer to a work surface. Cut out the hearts with a 2-inch heart-shaped cookie cutter. Trim any stray bits of cranberry hanging off the edges (that is such a Martha-esque thing to think about).

Cookie can be stored in an airtight container for up to 5 days, according to this recipe. OH NO THEY BLOODY CAN’T!

On another note – don’t bother cutting these into hearts unless you’re set on the idea for reasons of cuteness. It wastes a lot of shortbread – although it does create the perfect excuse to nibble away at the cut-offs and crumbs…

chocolate raisin cake with chocolate ganache

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three words: Giant. Chocolate. Raisin.

Oh boy.

How about two more? Chocolate. Ganache. (OK, I know I’ve already said ‘chocolate’ but I’m highly excited and prone to repeating things.)

Oh boy, oh boy.

That description – minus the ‘oh boys’ – is how Julie Le Clerc grabbed my attention. Chocolate raisins were one of my favourite sweets when I was a young ‘un and I’m a sucker for a good line of copy. (Julie’s exact words being, ‘Believe it or not, these little cakes actually taste exactly like a giant chocolate raisin!’. Come on – that’s someone throwing down the gauntlet if ever I heard it.)

The result is tooth-achingly sweet, more like a giant squishy brownie or a chocolate fondant that’s been allowed to cool down and slathered with more chocolately wonderful-ness. Stuffed with raisins.

Just don’t do what I did and get so excited by the prospect of all your raisin-chocolate dreams coming true that you forget to line the muffin pan and then find that you can only prise two of the little buggers out in one piece.

How many times have I said ‘chocolate’ and ‘raisin’ in this post? That’ll be all the sugar then…

Little chocolate raisin cakes from Simple Café Food by Julie Le Clerc  

Makes 6

For the cakes:

125g unsalted butter
200g dark chocolate, roughly chopped
1 cup caster sugar
½ cup raisins, chopped
4 large eggs, beaten
1½ tablespoons plain flour
½ cup chocolate raisins (optional but fun)

For the ganache:

½ cup dark chocolate, chopped
½ cup cream

1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Line 6 extra large muffin tins with circles of non-stick baking paper and grease well.

2. In a saucepan, gently melt the butter and chocolate, add the sugar and stir to dissolve, then add the raisins. Take off the heat, allow to cool a little and then carefully add the beaten eggs and finally the flour.

3. Pour into the prepared tins and bake for 20 minutes. The cakes should still be slightly soft in the middle.

4. Cool slightly before carefully removing from the tins. Serve topped with chocolate ganache…

5. Gently melt the chocolate and cream in a double boiler. Stir to form a thick sauce. Allow to cool and thicken then spoon mounds onto each little cake.
  

rhubarb and walnut muffins

If you’d been a fly on the wall, or rather in the car, at the weekend, you’d have heard this passionate defense of my native county:  

‘But, but, but… the rhubarb triangle of Yorkshire really does exist!’

Mr B. didn’t believe me. (In fact, he was laughing so hard at the idea of a triangle dedicated to rhubarb that he nearly crashed the car.) And even now, I think he’s humouring me the way you do with kids and Santa (‘Sure, honey, of course it exists… Whatever you say…’).

Ah well, us true believers will have our day 🙂  (Check out this, this and… this if you’d like to know more.)

In the meantime, we can celebrate with these plain but rather tasty muffins – the sweet/sharp tang of the rhubarb plays nicely off the walnuts, and the handful of wheatgerm makes you feel a little bit virtuous and able to justify them as breakfast treats (although I very rarely need to justify eating delicious baked goods…).

Rhubarb muffins from It’s Raining Plums by Xanthe Clay

Makes 12 muffins

You’ll need:

250g soft brown sugar
120ml vegetable oil
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
225ml buttermilk or plain yogurt
170g rhubarb, diced into 1cm pieces
80g walnuts, chopped (optional)
280g plain flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp baking powder
40g wheatgerm

1. Preheat the oven to gas mark 6/200C/400F. Grease or line a twelve-cup muffin tin.

2. In a large bowl, mix the sugar, oil, egg, vanilla extract and buttermilk or yogurt.

3. Stir in the rhubarb and nuts.

4. Sift over the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda, and add the wheatgerm. Fold together until just blended but still rather lumpy and uneven looking. Spoon into the muffin tin and bake for 20 to 25 minutes.

5. Leave for 5 minutes to cool before removing from the tin and scoffing.

Cook’s notes

I can’t find any forced rhubarb. I’ve had my eyes peeled for the last couple of months but I’ve seen nothing. Apparently, there’s no difference in taste between unforced and forced rhubarb, but the latter is much prettier for cooking with, being that much pinker. And it’s probably just my imagination but the unforced version tastes a bit more sour. Anyone else know where I can get some of the good stuff?

lemon meringue pie

When I saw the latest challenge from the Daring Bakers, I did a little skip of delight around the kitchen. We love lemon-flavoured anything around here – cakes, sweets, tarts, muffins, curd, alcohol, you name it – so having to make lemon meringue pie as DB ‘homework’ (set by Jen at The Canadian Baker) was always going to go down well at Bird Towers.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out quite as planned in the end and I would love to find out why.

The pastry came together well, no complaints there (especially easy if using a food processor). And the lemon filling turned out to be a mouth-puckeringly sharp and gorgeous treat – I would certainly make this recipe again as just a lemon tart and I thoroughly enjoyed playing with cornflour as I’d never used it to make a dessert like this before.

Nope, as you’ve probably guessed, my problem was with the meringue side of things. All looked promising as I eased the pie into the oven to cook off the topping – oh, yes, I was writing up this blog entry as a raving success in my head already. I was cruising this challenge. And it looked pretty darn good when it came out of the oven, even if I do say so myself.

But then it all went pear-shaped (or should that be pie-shaped?).

You see that picture above? Notice that little gleam of something around the edge of the pie between the meringue and the pastry? That’s not just the halogen lighting bouncing around the camera lens (curse winter night-time photography). That’s the pie starting to weep. And lo, it continued to weep – clear, unidentified liquid – for the next wee while, until the whole meringue topping was floating raft-like on a puddle of the stuff.

Eurgh. That’s not appetising by any standards.

Eventually, I took the pie over to the sink and carefully drained off the liquid before serving it up to some friends on Friday night. Luckily enough, they’re good friends and are used to having all sorts of food experiments inflicted on them, so they weren’t put off by the weeping meringue. The general consensus was that the pastry was a good ‘un and the filling was perfect – nicely sharp but not cloyingly over-sweet as you sometimes find in store-bought versions (I’m looking at you, Café Leon). Even the meringue, once you tasted it, wasn’t that bad.

So what went wrong? Could any of the following factors have affected the final outcome?

  • My kitchen was extremely warm – I was cooking a big dinner and the pie had to cool down next to the oven on full blast because there was nowhere else to put it. Did it, in effect, start to melt?
  • I think that last point might be extremely wishful thinking, so… did I do something wrong when I whipped up the meringue mixture? Definitely possible.
  • Was there some kind of reaction between the luscious lemon filling and the fluffy meringue topping? I don’t know enough about the science side of things to say, but it’s unlikely – otherwise no one would ever make lemon meringue pie.
  • Was my oven at the wrong temperature? I think this is the most likely explanation. I noticed that the meringue was browning rapidly – too rapidly for it to cook over the allotted 15 to 20 minutes and not come out looking like a charcoal lump with goo on the inside. So I turned reduced the temperature a little bit and kept an eye on it. I think I didn’t get the cooking time right for my oven after I’d fiddled with the temperature, leading to an undercooked, leaky meringue.

But if anyone else out there has any theories on how I made my pie cry, then please leave a comment below. I’d dearly love to know because, overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this challenge and would give it another go if I could work out precisely what went wrong! 

I’ll add the recipe later, but if you want to see all the wonderful and creative versions that the other DB-rs made of this challenge, then take a quick trip over to the Daring Bakers Blogroll. Enjoy 🙂

Update: OK, I’ve found out how to stop the meringue weeping, thanks to Bellini Valli at More Than Burnt Toast. You need to add cornstarch to the meringue mixture because…

“It prevents the egg proteins from overcooking which causes shrinkage, beading or weeping in the meringue. Food stylists use this technique and have used it during photo shoots to produce beautiful pies.”

Aha! Suddenly it all makes sense!

banana bread with chocolate chips

Some extremely evil, over-ripe bananas had to be used up, pronto (victims of the January health kick), so I went back to my list of blogger recipes for inspiration. I’ve tagged about a dozen banana bread variations over the last year* but this one from the kitchen goddess that is Molly at Orangette caught my eye. Which, in turn, she’s adapted from the equally fab Kickpleat of Everybody Loves Sandwiches. Small world, eh?

I’ve tweaked it ever so slightly by reducing the cinnamon a little bit** but otherwise left it the same. It’s more dense than other banana breads I’ve tried and I mean that in a good way. There’s no butter in it, which is – I think – what leads to a springier texture that’s strangely satisfying and moreish. As you can see from the picture above, we’ve been nibbling away at it quite happily 🙂 

Because it’s quite robust, I’m thinking this would be good to take along on a picnic/walking trip whenever we’re finally lucky enough to enjoy a sustained burst of sunshine. (When? When? WHEN?) Seeing as that could be a while yet, this cake is going to be my 11 o’clock slice of naughtiness in the midst of all the healthy eating 😉 

Banana bread with chocolate and cinnamon sugar adapted from Orangette and Everybody Loves Sandwiches

You’ll need:

3 large ripe bananas 
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups plain flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup dark chocolate chips

For the topping:

2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

1. Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5. Grease and line an 8-inch square baking tin.

2. In a small bowl, mix together the topping ingredients and then set aside for the time being.  

3. In a medium mixing bowl, mash the bananas well with a fork or potato masher. Add the eggs and stir well to combine. Add the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and vanilla extract, and stir to mix. Add 3/4 cup of chocolate chips and stir briefly.

4. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and then evenly sprinkle on the topping mixture. Then sprinkle the remaining chocolate chips over the top.

5. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan for 15 minutes before removing and scoffing the lot.

*You can never have too many banana bread recipes 😉  

**I know, it sounds so unlike me – must be having an off day…

…raspberry jam ripple cake.

Yeeeeeeees. So… I’m not proud about this but the thing is… the jam I bought in Ennis the other day for the in-laws… Not quite all of it is going to make it back to them. Not in the jar anyway. They’re more than welcome to have some of this gorgeous cake though. I think they’ll understand.*

It’s a very simple, lazy day kind of cake to create. The sort of thing you make with your mum when you’re too small to see over the top of the kitchen counter and you clamber onto a chair to take part in the incredibly serious business of swirling in the jam. (Of course, the jam goes everywhere but into the cake but that’s not the point.)

Homely, uncomplicated and the perfect accompaniment for a strong brew.

Raspberry jam ripple cake from the Donna Hay magazine, issue 2 (autumn)

You’ll need:

125g unsalted butter at room temperature
¾ cup caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
1½ cups self-raising flour, sifted
½ cup ground almonds
½ cup milk
½ cup raspberry jam
1 tablespoon boiling water

1. Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5 and line a 20cm round cake tin with greaseproof paper.
2. Place the butter, sugar and vanilla together in a bowl and beat until light and fluffy.

3. Add the eggs and beat in well. Stir through the flour, almonds and milk.

4. Spoon half of the cake mixture into the tin. Mix the jam and boiling water in a small bowl until smooth. Spoon half of the jam over the cake mix in the tin, top with the remaining batter, then spoon the remaining jam over the cake. Swirl the jam through the cake using a palette knife or a butter knife.

5. Bake for 50-55 minutes or until the cake is cooked when tested with a skewer.

Cook’s notes

Oops. I forgot to mix the jam with the boiling water, which I presume makes it easier to spread. Oh well, it still worked out ok.

This cake took about 65 minutes to cook in my oven, rather than the 50 or so specified.

Other good flavours that might work: blueberry, gooseberry, plum, maybe lemon curd… Just about anything!

*Besides, there’s still a lovely jar of pink grapefruit marmalade for them, so I don’t feel too bad.

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).
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