Tunis Cake

What a mild, sticky, damp start to December. It doesn’t feel cold enough to be approaching Christmas, yet the Nativity scene in Lichfield Cathedral suggests otherwise (note the absence of the Three Wise Men – they have yet to arrive in Bethlehem and can be found hiding next to an altar in an adjacent chapel).

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The nativity at Lichfield Cathedral

I love religious buildings of all denominations, from churches and cathedrals to temples and gurdwaras. There is always stillness and a sense of higher purpose to be found, plus endless extraordinary feats of architecture and craftsmanship. We popped into Lichfield’s magnificent cathedral on Saturday having visited Packington Moor farm shop to order my Christmas gammon, game pie and pigs in blankets – a promise of the feast to come.

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Candles light the dark December days

In her wonderful book Four Hedges, Claire Leighton describes December as a time of “friendly loneliness” – a time of quiet in the garden and the fields, where countryfolk hunker down in front of the fire. I am yearning for the stillness of deep winter: for sheets of blue sky painted with white cloud, chilly country lanes and evergreens against the brown earth.

No such luck in Birmingham, home of perpetual busy-ness, concrete and Christmas shopping. But there is solace if you know where to look: the trees are singing with birds, invisible to the eye, though I did catch sight of the robin in our cherry tree this morning, chirruping proudly. On the allotment, the winter greens are quietly doing their thing (apart from the cavalo nero, which are embarrassingly bad). It’s far too wet to work the soil now, it sticks and melts onto the garden fork as chocolate truffles do in a child’s palm.

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Winter lettuce mix: rocket, mizuna, mustard spinach

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The variegated chicory is still cropping

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My pathetic little cavalo nero plants: next year, must try harder!

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Creeping ivy looks healthy

Now that the shops are heaving with Christmas abundance, it’s a good time to take inspiration in the kitchen.  I popped into M&S last week for a pint of milk and came across a boxed Tunis cake – madeira cake topped with a thick layer of chocolate fondant. I dimly remembered that this was a recipe on the Great British Bake Off a few years ago so went home, Googled it, and had one on the table within a few hours.

According to The Internet, Tunis cake is Christmas cake from the Edwardian period – however some claim it was invented by McVities, so who knows. The basic premise is that you make a madeira sponge flavoured with lemon zest, then top it with chocolate before decorating with marzipan fruits.

I fancied a little more aroma to my cake so subbed the lemon for orange zest, and also added ground cinnamon to the mix. I have no interest in marzipan flowers so kept the citrus theme going by decorating with crystallised peel.

So to make Tunis cake, simply cream butter and sugar together, then add in flour, ground almonds, cinnamon, orange zest and eggs to make a classic sponge.

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Butter, sugar, orange zest, flour, cinnamon, ground almonds and eggs

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Cream together to make a madeira cake

The cake is baked in a round tin then left to cool in said tin. An important point – the sides of the tin need lining with baking parchment, to make life easier later. I did not do this but will learn from my mistake next time.

The topping is a ganache: hot cream is poured over dark chocolate and stirred until melted. Actually my ganache was on the point of splitting so I added a drop of boiling water to bring it back to smoothness. Reader, it works.

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Melt chocolate and cream for a rich ganache

You then pour the thick luscious ganache over the cool cake, decorate as you wish, then leave entirely untouched for a few hours to set.

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Pour the ganache on the cake whilst still in the tin then leave to set

Then remove from the tin. This is the point when you realised that you should have lined the edge of the tin with parchment – mine came away OK, but it wasn’t as neat as it should be.

Tunis cake is wonderful! A lovely moist and fragrant sponge, topped with an indulgent chocolate layer. It is special enough for Christmas (or any celebration come to think of it), but easy enough for everyday. A great addition to the cake repertoire, so thank you GBBO and M&S.

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Tunis cake with its characteristic thick chocolate icing

Tunis Cake

Adapted from Mary Berry’s Great British Bake Off recipe, here: www.bbc.co.uk/food

175g softened butter

175g caster sugar

175g self-raising flour

50g ground almonds

3 large eggs

1 orange, zest and juice

Pinch cinnamon

For the ganache:

200ml double cream

200g plain chocolate (55% solids) or a mixture of plain and milk chocolate

Optional – small knob of butter

crystallised peel, or marzipan fruits, to decorate


A 7-inch spring-form or loose-bottomed round tin

Baking parchment

Preheat the oven to 160c (fan). Grease the base and sides of the cake tin and line with parchment.

Make the cake: cream butter and sugar together until light and pale, then add the eggs one by one, adding a little flour with each addition. Finally add the rest of the flour, ground almonds and cinnamon along with the orange zest and juice. Beat together until entirely light and smooth. Tip into the tin, smooth the surface and bake in the centre of the oven for about 40 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin until totally cold.

For the ganache, break the chocolate into a bowl. Warm the cream in a saucepan until just below simmering point, then pour over the chocolate and leave to melt – you can nudge the chocolate on its way with a spatula. Stir until smooth and add the butter, if using (it helps give a shine to the ganache). If the mixture looks likely to split, add a splash of hot water and beat like billy-oh, and it should come back together. Leave to cool slightly, but use whilst it is still runny rather than set.

Pour the ganache over the cake, add your decoration of choice, then leave for several hours until set. Remove the cake from the tin, peel off the parchment and serve.

Christmas pudding

I got my wish: the mercury has plummeted! The first frosts of the year (in these parts anyway) coincided with Stir Up Sunday, which feels fitting. We can let autumn go now and go headlong into winter, with proper open fires, hearty cooking and the legitimate excuse to pack up work at 4pm as it’s dark outside and it’s surely what nature intends.

Stir Up Sunday, of course, is the day that we’re meant to make our Christmas puddings and cakes, so that they can sit for a month for the flavours to develop before the big day. It may be an old tradition but it’s a worthwhile one – who wants a bland Christmas pud?

For the record, I can’t fathom why anyone would buy a Christmas pudding. It is the EASIEST thing in the world to make – you just need a bowl, a spoon and a pudding basin. It’s child’s play. Which is why I invited my friend Helen to bring her 3 and 7 year old boys to help me with this year’s Stir Up Sunday. (Except we did it on Saturday, but no matter.)

The Stallard family Christmas pudding recipe comes from this gem of a pamphlet, published by Home & Freezer digest in 1977 and edited by one Mary Berry.

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Freezing for Christmas, from Home & Freezer Digest, 1977

People in the 1970s were in love with their freezers, hence the book is full of mad instructions for things like pre-made fruit salad, frozen until Christmas. According to Mary, by the end of October we should have filled the freezer with brandy butter, mincemeat, turkey, breadcrumbs, red cabbage and gingerbread cookies. Obviously I LOVE this.

A really good recipe book is actually a social history document. This book, like so many of this time, was written for the new breed of women who went out to work but were still expected to do all the chores – hence the need to “get ahead for Christmas”. The tasting notes include an enthusiastic comment from one woman that “My husband liked it so much, I’m going to make him a pud for his birthday dinner in March”. I don’t think it crossed hubby’s mind to don an apron and help his wife with the stirring.

Christmas pudding stir-up

A classic is a classic, and Mary Berry’s christmas pudding recipe is up there. Except….I do indulge in a bit of updating. The 1970s recipe uses sweet stout as its booze element, which I used to use, but I find the bitter notes of the beer off-putting. I have seen recipes that substitute milk and cold tea for beer, but I now substitute the dark stuff for something altogether more luscious: deep, dark pedro ximenez sherry and a drop of 1919 Jamaica rum. The dust on the bottles indicates how often I get these beauties out of the cupboard.

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2015 secret weapons: PX sherry and 1919 rum

The fruit is also updated for 2015. Mary uses candied peel, sultanas, currants and raisins in her recipe, to which I also add dried cranberries, cherries, apricots and figs. In the 1970s these exotic fruits would have cost a small fortune, but now they are an affordable treat. I soak the fruit in the sherry and rum for a day or two so that it plumps up to fatness.

Currants, sultanas, raisins, cranberries, cherries, figs, apricots and candied peel

After a day’s soaking, the fruit is puffed and glistening

All that’s left to do is stir up the fruit with grated apple, eggs, breadcrumbs, suet, flour, sugar, treacle, spice and citrus…a job that a child can do. Don’t forget to make a wish!

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Helen and Joe get stuck in on Stir-up Saturday. Yes, Joe is dressed as an elf.

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This mixture makes enough for two large and one medium Christmas puddings

The mixture then gets transferred to pudding basins – I like the proper old-fashioned ceramic ones. The puddings need to be covered with greaseproof paper and foil, then steamed for about 4 hours. Covering a traditional pudding basin is a bit of a faff but you can read how to do it here:  www.bbcgoodfood.com/videos/techniques/how-steam-pudding

Leave the puds to cool before storing in a dark place until Christmas. On Christmas Day they get cooked again until they are dark, moist, fragrant and delicious. I’ll give an update on how they turned out in a month or so. Actually they will last for months – over a year – so you could make a batch now for Christmas 2016 if you are so inclined.

Incidentally – every year, without fail, the Christmas Pudding recipe goes missing and my parent’s kitchen gets turned upside down as we try to find it. One infamous year I was even accused of THROWING IT AWAY. By committing it to the internet such defamation can never happen again.

The Stallard Christmas Pudding Recipe

Adapted from Freezing for Christmas supplement in Home & Freezer Digest, 1977

Makes 2 x large puddings and 1 x medium pudding

1 lb 8 oz dried mixed fruit (I use sultanas, raisins, currants, chopped figs, chopped apricots, cranberries and cherries)

2 oz diced mixed peel

1/2 pint soaking liquid: dark sherry and dark rum (or dark stout, cold tea or apple juice)

1 large bramley apple or 2 eating apples, cored, peeled and grated (note: my Mum prefers carrot, which also works well)

3 oz self raising flour

1 tsp ground mixed spice

Grating fresh nutmeg

1/2 tsp salt

8 oz fresh white breadcrumbs

8 oz suet (I use Atora beef suet. I have never tried veggie suet but I am sure it would be OK)

6 oz muscavado sugar

2 tablespoons treacle

3 eggs, beaten

Finely grated zest and juice of one orange AND one lemon

Oil or butter, for greasing

Soak the fruit and peel in the soaking liquid for a day or so. In your biggest mixing bowl, simply mix everything together until well blended (don’t forget to make a wish as you do so). Have ready your pudding basins and grease them lightly with oil or butter. Divide the mixture between your bowls and cover with greaseproof and foil (see above for a video showing how to do this).

Place an upturned saucer in the bottom of each of your steaming pans, to prevent the basins scorching. Place the basins on the saucer, then fill with boiling water until it reaches half way up the sides of each basin. Place on the heat and steam gently for 4 hours, checking every so often that the water hasn’t boiled dry. Cool and store until Christmas or longer, as you wish.

To serve: Steam again for 2 to 3 hours, then invert onto a serving platter. To flame your pud, warm brandy in a ladle over a flame, set alight and pour on the pudding.

Water water everywhere nor any drop to drink

‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well if one has not dined well.’ Virginia Woolf

‘Water water everywhere nor any drop to drink.’ Samuel Taylor Coleridge

We’ve both been busy and as a result, it’s been a Bad Food Week:

Tuesday night noodles went into the bin on the discovery that the fish sauce I’d used was rank with old age, a taste that may well haunt me for some weeks.

Pasta with tomato sauce fished out the freezer tasted mouldy and old, not a patch on those fresh summer dinners from just a few weeks back.

Last night I worked late and came home to discover that Matt had cooked himself a pizza and left me diddly squat, nada, zilch. Dinner was readymade custard with sliced banana – which actually is brilliant, just perhaps lacking in some major vitamins and minerals.