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).

2015-12-05 15.38.58

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.

2015-12-05 15.57.18

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.

2015-12-07 12.37.31

Winter lettuce mix: rocket, mizuna, mustard spinach

2015-12-07 12.38.06

The variegated chicory is still cropping

2015-12-07 12.38.18

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

2015-12-07 12.57.18

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.

2015-12-03 11.21.26

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

2015-12-03 11.32.25

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.

2015-12-03 13.07.03

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.

2015-12-03 13.14.07

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.

2015-12-03 15.58.18

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.

Thinking ahead

My time and attention has been sucked into a brochure-shaped vortex. It’s like that when you work on festivals. Rather like the pain of childbirth (so I’m told), you forget the intensity of concentration and negotiation and emails and headaches (both literal and metaphorical), start work on a new one, then fall into the rabbit hole once more until it’s all over and you emerge back into the light blinking. To organise an arts festival requires at least eight hands spinning 80 plates. There are perks to brochure creation though: I get to be pernickety about the placing of commas and apostrophes, and designers feed me fish-finger sandwiches and key lime pie.

2015-08-12 14.09.46

Key lime pie whilst brochure editing

It’s at these times when the allotment is a god-send: after a full-on day, the knowledge that I have to go and water the tomatoes gives a bit of structure, makes me step away from the computer. Fresh air blows a hole through the most hideous of bad heads. In these late afternoon wanderings, I’ve been spotting season’s changing: Autumn is rearing its head.

2015-07-31 18.46.24

Plumping blackberries

2015-07-31 18.49.36

Swelling hips

At the weekend, the fruit farm had the first plums and apples of the season. The plums gave off that particularly plummy-smell, at once sweet and spicy and vaguely rotting, but in a good way. The wasps buzzed around hoping for their next meal.

2015-08-08 12.16.23

The first plums are ready

2015-08-08 12.16.13

So too the first apples

On the allotment, our dahlias are out and that pesky artichoke has come good with particularly brilliant flowers. The bees dive into the purple spikes and get drunk on pollen, sloping around-and-around on their bellies in a satisfied stupor.

2015-08-08 12.04.10

Our first zingy lemon meringue dahlia

2015-08-09 16.49.59

Artichoke shows its punk credentials

2015-08-09 16.49.10

First tomato from the greenhouse

I’ve been thinking about my winter culinary wardrobe. The cavalo nero seedlings are plump and healthy, the thinnings great when wilted into chunky courgettes.

2015-08-10 18.49.48

Cavalo nero thinnings, lovely wilted with hot salty courgettes

Those rubbish corns were ripped out to make space for the cavalo nero, which I’ll plant out in a couple of weeks. Next to them I’ve put in more chard and spring onions, and in seed-trays I’ve sowed winter lettuce, mustard mix, mustard-spinach and red Russian kale. Fingers crossed for a decent crop to take us through the cold months.

2015-08-10 18.35.54

Winter lettuce, mustard, mustard-spinach & red Russian kale

Sowed: Winter lettuce, mustard mix, mustard-spinach, Red Russian kale, white stemmed chard, spring onion

Harvesting: Sunflowers, sweetpeas, calendula, green and purple beans, spinach, chard, red Russian kale, courgettes, blueberries, raspberries, first tomato