Seville orange cake

2020 has hit us with a bang. This past week I’ve had a cold so bad that a hole in the head to alleviate sinus pressure would have been welcome. Matt’s working all hours so I am single-parenting whilst also putting in the hours on my own projects. Harry’s in the terrible twos. Yah-de-yah-de-yah, moan moan moan. The other week I took myself over to Leamington Spa for a special lunch date with my friend Tune and – more importantly – Tune’s mum, Mrs Roy, who is from Calcutta. Mrs Roy is not confident with her English, which is fair enough as my Bengali is somewhat lacking. But good cooking crosses all borders and languages, and I was fascinated as she expertly toasted her daal and rolled her parathas from scratch. Who would have thought that cabbage curry could be so delicious? Well in the hands of a Bengali cook it really can (the trick is more salt than I ever thought feasible).

Mrs Roy’s vegetarian lunch

I’ve also been busy with the seed catalogues, planning and plotting. I’ll post about this another day but there are to be some new additions to the allotment this year, with yet more cut flowers and a few varieties purely for drying. And despite the cold, there is sowing to be done: the chill of our sun room is the perfect place to start off a few sweetpeas, deceptively tough as they are, plus there’s the first of many sowings of broad beans. I’ve also filled a drain pipe with mustard mix for an early crop of spicy leaves; it’s the perfect size for a windowsill salad bar.

Amidst the chaos, sweet peas, broad beans and mustard leaves have been started on their way

January food writing seems to be entangled with veganuary and being booze free, which is all well and good, but seems to me to be at odds with what’s actually good to eat right now. I like a salad as much as the next person but surely January is the time for root vegetables, slow cooking and rib stickers? Or citrus for that matter, which is now bountifully in season. I came home with other week with a box of Seville oranges, lovely for marmalade but with potential for so much more. I enjoy their citrus astringency, and use the juice in stir fries or stuff the whole fruit into the cavity of a roast chicken so that the sharp orangey fug can permeate the flesh.

This recipe for Seville orange cake could also be called marmalade cake, for that is what it tastes like; the alchemy happens when the gooey orange syrup melts its way into the just-cooked crumb, making a cake that is sweet and sharp and dense and damp all at the same time. Perfect on its own with a cup of tea but also – my preference – with a fruity compote and a dollop of thick double cream.

Seville Orange Cake
Recipe adapted from Waitrose & Partners Food magazine, January 2020

200g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar
1 Seville orange, zest and juice
2 eggs
300g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
150g natural yoghurt
50ml sunflower oil

For the syrup:
2 seville oranges
75g caster sugar
40g clear honey

Grease and line a 900g loaf tin and pre-heat the oven to 180c.

Beat together the butter, sugar and orange zest until pale and fluffy; I use electric beaters for this. In a separate bowl, sieve together the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda to combine. In yet another bowl, measure the yoghurt, oil and orange juice (squeeze the fruit through your fingers to get rid of the pips) and stir to combine.

Add the eggs one at a time to the butter mixture along with a spoonful of flour between each addition, mixing thoroughly. When all is combined, beat in the remaining flour and the yoghurt mixture until you have a smooth dollop-able batter. Spoon into the cake tin and bake for 1 hour 10 minutes or so, until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Keep an eye on the cake as it may brown too soon; if this happens, cover with foil and also maybe reduce the heat to 170c.

Leaving the cake in its tin, leave to stand for 10 minutes whilst you make the syrup. The centre of the cake will probably collapse in on itself but no matter. Warm together the juice, sugar and honey until the sugar has dissolved, then raise the heat and bubble for a few minutes until it looks syrupy. Stab the cake several times with the skewer, then carefully and slowly pour the hot syrup over the cake, allowing it to soak into your holes. Leave to cool entirely before removing from the tin.

Seville orange cake

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Yet more cinnamon buns, this time made with 50% spelt flour, 50% strong white flour. I can never get enough of them. Sausages with lentils stewed with red wine, which pleasingly gives me a glass of something in the evening. Trying to find nourishing things to feed Harry with and am brought up short by the realisation that all he really wants are baguette, biscuits, shreddies and chocolate.

Reading: The Consolations of Food by Valentine Warner, which is essentially the book that I would like to write myself, and Dick Strawbridge’s book about bread, borrowed from the library, which reminds me that I can actually bake and should do it more often. Revisiting Vajragupta’s Buddhism: Tools for living your life in an effort to regain mental clarity.

Also: Sowed broad beans, sweet peas and mustard salad mix. Ordered my seeds for this season, plus several plug plants as I don’t have space to propagate. Made myself go for my first solo swim in something like 5 years as I rarely find the space to exercise these days.

First frosts and whiskey cake

Our house needs a big red cross on the front door: once again we are diseased. Well actually it’s not that dramatic – potentially a bit of hand, foot and mouth, except Harry’s spots are on his bum, knees and mouth. I haven’t googled “bum, knees and mouth childhood illness” as I’m pretty certain it’s new to science. Whilst Harry’s potentially infectious and therefore off nursery, I’ve been mentally bouncing off the walls at being nearly-housebound. The worst is over so today we even went to Ikea out of desperation.

In the meantime, autumn has taken hold and Birmingham is bathed in golden colour. It’s good to pay attention to these things…the changing light roots me into the passing of the seasons. We’ve had a few frosts now which have finally meant the end of the cosmos – the Cosmos Purity and Dazzler gave me blooms from June to November, which is pretty impressive.

My allotment visits look like this now, meaning it’s almost impossible to get anything done

Cosmos have finally been zapped by the frosts

A week or so back I managed to take out the remaining plants from the one veg bed and get some black plastic down, to protect the soil from the worst of the winter weather and limit the weeds. Keeping the plastic in place is always a feat of “that’ll do” – pegs and staples are useless here, so I use any bits of heavy material I can find including, this year, the hopolisk, some discarded fencing and (my favourite) a marrow.

The one veg plot has been covered in plastic, though the brassicas are still going strong

Without really meaning to, I have become the proud owner of a gazillion dahlias – none of which are in the right place. The ones at home have now been dug up so that I can over-winter them indoors and replant in the spring. The allotment ones also need to come up (just need to find the time) and they will get the same treatment.

First crate of dahlia tubers for over-wintering

All this is diversion from what Harry and I spend most of our poorly time doing, which is cooking. Every morning I plonk him in the high chair so he can watch me concoct something – today it was a lentil and vegetable stew, which he later scoffed very happily, and yesterday it was a parsnip and cheddar soda bread. I know that he’s very young to be indoctrinated into Stallard cookery but I like to think that he will learn by osmosis.

One of his favourite treats of recent weeks has been an Irish Whiskey Cake that was leftover from the cake table at our wedding. He (and I) liked it so much that I pumped my friend Felicity for the recipe, which she in turn had to get from Mrs Audrey Flint from Smethwick Old Church. Audrey very kindly came up with the goods, and I discovered that my naive assumption that the whiskey would have been baked into the cake was wrong wrong wrong. It’s actually a tea bread, and the key ingredient is drizzled on after cooking to increase the moisture content…which means that my son has started his boozy life extremely young.

Here is Audrey’s fine typed-up version, which I see no reason to re-type as I can not improve on this excellent piece of food culture. Thank you Mrs Flint for carrying on the fine tradition of simple yet richly fruited, boozy loaves that keep forever.

Irish Whiskey Cake courtesy of Mrs Audrey Flint of Smethwick Old Church

Also this week:

On the allotment: Covered one vegetable bed with plastic. All the cut flowers are now finished, but still harvesting chard, beet spinach and cavolo nero.

Cooking and eating: Chocolate Eve’s pudding, parsnip & cheddar soda bread, banana muffins, lentil and vegetable stew.

Clementine Cake

I’ve been reading up on baby weaning lately and in so-doing, was prompted to revisit Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat. There’s a chapter buried in the back devoted to the feeding of babies….ten days later I’ve yet to get to said chapter for it turns out that this is the most distracting of books, a calming balm for the sleep-deprived cook.

A 1990s classic: How to Eat

Putting to one side the fact that Nigella drops into her introduction that she wrote How to Eat whilst pregnant / nursing (note, this is a whopper of a book with 500+ pages of dense prose. Already I feel inadequate, as I consider it a success if I manage to check my email in the course of a day, never mind write a classic. I suppose being monied helps), I am struck by how ahead of its time How to Eat was. The pages are full of foods that, as a student in 1998, I had heard of but would never dream to encounter: pomegranate molasses, marsala, quince. There is talk of Lebanese supermarkets and popping out for brioche and challah. Meat comes not with a dollop of mash, but with chick pea’d couscous and polenta.

At the time I felt myself to be terribly unsophisticated for not cooking like this on a daily basis (I was, but then so was 99.99% of the population). This was the food of the London sophisticate, recorded unapologetically, in a fashion that is now unpopular in the age of austerity and clean eating. I think I can thank Nigella for widening my culinary horizons… Twenty years on I can remember making some of her dishes – including walking three miles to the Co-op to try to find an aubergine (they didn’t have any) – and was beside myself the first time that I went to an actual real life Lebanese supermarket (it was in north London in about 2006 and the celery was amazing, in full leaf like the most over-the-top floral display).

In homage to Nigella, here’s her clementine cake, which I first made for a New Year’s Eve gathering in the early 2000s. It manages to be sweet but with an element of bitter, which comes from the inclusion of the whole fruit in the batter. I wasn’t so keen on it then, but I now prefer bakes that aren’t too sweet and I think it’s marvellous. Incidentally Sarah Raven has a similar cake in her Garden Cookbook, which I also turn to from time to time.

Clementine Cake
From Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat

First, put 5 clementines in a saucepan and simmer for about two hours, until completely soft. Leave to go cold, then remove any bits of stalk and pips, and whizz to a pulp in the food processor.

Simmer five clementines until totally soft then whizz to a pulp

Next, oil and line a 21cm springform tin and preheat the oven to 180c. Beat 6 eggs until just combined, then add 225g caster sugar250g almonds and 1 teaspoon baking powder. (If you’re short on almonds, you can use 150g almonds and 100g plain flour or, even better, a mixture of almonds and breadcrumbs. The cake will be lighter in texture but still good.) Stir in the orange pulp.

As well as your clementine pulp, have ready eggs, almonds and caster sugar (& baking powder, not shown)

Whisk eggs with the sugar and almonds

Add the clementines

Pour the lot into the tin and bake for about an hour. The cake will likely need to be covered with foil after about 40 minutes to stop it browning too much. Cool in the tin and then turn out, to be served naked or with cream and a dollop of fruit (rhubarb compote would be excellent).

Once baked – a not-too-sweet cake for tea or pudding

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Pear (or apple) pudding cake

Working in the arts was meant to herald a life filled with glamour, parties, intellectuals and Interesting People. To be paid to write for a living, what a privilege! And all that is true – in part – but most of the time life is rather more mundane (think freezing cold workshops, too-much-time at the computer, that kind of thing). And then once in a while I’ll be called upon to be an actual MODEL in a shoot that I’m working on, donning a smelly old wig from the costume store, and will have to ACT for a camera. Oh the joy! This pic is for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new exhibition The Play’s The Thing, which opens this weekend. You can read about it in this Telegraph article. And that’s another career highlight ticked off the list…

The Play's The Thing

The photoshoot for the RSC’s exhibition The Play’s The Thing

In the rather more prosaic world of allotments, things have sloooowed right down. I’ve pulled out the squash and courgette: they probably all had another couple of weeks left in them, but really, enough is enough. The cosmos have come to the end of their insanely-good four month life, but the dahlias and chrysanthemums are still producing several bunches of colour a week.

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Pink and apricot on one side…

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…pumpkin shades on the other!

With so many wonderful English apples and pears around, it’s good to have at least a few fruity cake recipes up one’s sleeve. This one is a favourite – an apple and almond sponge, dense with caramelised fruit and damp with almonds. The original recipe comes from the River Cottage Every Day book, and it’s fabulous, but occasionally I’ll sub the apples for pears and will chuck in a few chunks of diced marzipan for an extra hit of almond-goo.

First, prepare a 20cm springform or loose-bottomed cake tin, and pre-heat the oven to 170c.

Next we prepare the fruit. Peel, de-seed and chop into wedges 2 firm pears or dessert apples (use more or less, or a mixture of both, depending on how large the fruits are. If using pears I don’t always peel them). Melt 25g unsalted butter in a frying pan, add 1 heaped tablespoon caster sugar and heat until the butter begins to bubble. Add the fruit and let it all cook together over a medium heat until the caramel begins to brown, then remove from the heat.

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Caramelise the prepared apples or pears then leave to cool slightly

The batter is very simple. Cream together 150g unsalted butter with 125g caster sugar until very light and pale. In a separate bowl, mix together 75g self-raising flour and 75g ground almonds. Alternatively beat the flour into the butter mixture along with 2 eggs and a drop of almond extract, if liked. You’ll end up with quite a stiff cake mix.

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Prepare the cake batter

Pile the cake batter into the prepared tin, smooth the top, then stud the batter with the fruit, drizzling over any buttery-caramelly juices that remain. If you want an extra hit of goo, dice some marzipan and arrange the chunks on top.

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Arrange batter, fruit, juices and marzipan in the tin

Then bake for about 45 minutes until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. I usually cover the cake after about 30 minutes to prevent it getting too brown (you can see that this one still managed to get slightly singed). Allow to cool in the tin before turning out.

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A gooey pear and almond pudding-cake

This is called a pudding-cake as really it’s best served warm with a dollop of creme fraiche or vanilla ice-cream, but it’s also good at room temperature. This is a damp cake so it doesn’t keep brilliantly – try to gobble it up within a day or two. If eating it for pudding, the cake can be successfully reheated in a low oven (150c) for ten minutes or so.

Rhubarb upside down cake

The first allotment architecture of the 2016 has been raised! First the sweet pea poles went up, at which point we were on a roll and so the bean sticks were installed too. It’s a tricky thing, choosing where to put the sticks – we’re stuck with them now for a good 8 months – and they provide the height and structure for half the plot.

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First garden architecture of 2016 is raised: bean and sweet pea poles

Meanwhile the hops are needing their own supports; this one has shot up a foot in the past week.

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The hops are crying out for the hopolisk

The sorrel that I chopped down to the ground a few weeks ago have grown back with gusto! I love its lemony freshness and given that my lettuce seedlings are pathetic, this is a great salady perennial to have in the veg patch.

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Sorrel ready for cropping

Matt came home from Tamworth on Sunday with a ‘small amount’ of rhubarb from his parent’s allotment – yup, it’s that time of year when we enter the rhubarb glut! Our rhubarb plant is still small but will be cropping well within a fortnight.

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The first of the rhubarb glut

What to do with all this pretty pink fruit (and yes, I know that technically it’s a vegetable)? I’ve made two versions of this pudding-cake in the past week, once with frozen stems (rhubarb freezes particularly well) and once with fresh. It comes out with a pretty pink top but the caramel turns the sides of the cake treacly, which helps to offset that mouth-stripping acidity of rhubarb. This upside-down cake is now a permanent addition to my rhubarb repertoire.

Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

Adapted from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook

500g rhubarb, fresh or frozen (no need to defrost), sliced into 5cm pieces

60g soft brown sugar

60g butter

Grated zest of 1 large orange

125g soft butter

175g caster sugar

3 eggs (though if using massive eggs from Chappers, use only 2)

175g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tbsp milk

Toasted flaked almonds

Grease a 8-inch round non-stick springform or push-pan tin and place it on a baking tray to catch any drips. Preheat the oven to 180c.

First make the caramel rhubarb. In a large frying pan, melt the butter and brown sugar together, then tip in the rhubarb. If using frozen rhubarb, allow the fruit to sit in the caramel on a very low heat until defrosted, about 10 minutes. If using fresh rhubarb, allow it to cook in the caramel until just softened, about 5 minutes. Add the orange zest. Remove the rhubarb with a slotted spoon and place in a pretty pattern on the base of your cake tin. Bring the caramel to the boil and bubble until reduced and sticky, then tip over the rhubarb.

Now make the cake. Beat the butter and caster sugar until pale and light, then alternatively beat in the eggs and flour until well mixed. Add the baking powder and milk. You want a light, pale batter with a soft dropping consistency. Spread the batter over the top of the rhubarb and smooth the top.

Bake for about 50 minutes but keep an eye on the cake and cover with foil if it’s looking too brown. It’s ready when a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.

Leave the cake to rest in the tin for about 20 minutes and  then turn out directly onto a plate. Sprinkle with the toasted almonds.

This is lovely served warm with a dollop of thick fresh cool cream.

Blueberry crumble cake

Despite the past week of rain and cloud, the allotment flowers are perky and sunshiny. I don’t even particularly like marigolds, but these ones look great in an impromptu arrangement with sunflowers and bishop’s flower (that’s the white frothy stuff).

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Allotment blooms

But there are early signs of autumn. Apples are swelling on the boughs and on Friday I spied cobnuts ripening in the grounds of Compton Verney, the art gallery in Warwickshire.

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Ripening cobnuts at Compton Verney art gallery

Plus it’s really not very warm. At this rate I’ll be lucky to get a raspberry or blueberry harvest, the chill wind stopping any ripening in its tracks. Not so for my mother, who came at the weekend with these beauties:

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Moody blue: blueberries from Mother’s veg patch

So on a rainy Monday morning I whipped up a blueberry crumble cake, good for late breakfasts, lunch, afternoon tea and pudding.

First you make up a really stiff batter. Take flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and sugar, then rub in butter until finely mixed. I use my hands but you could use a food processor if you’re that way inclined.

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Crumble flour, sugar, baking powder, bicarb and butter

Next the wet ingredients: simply whisk a large egg with buttermilk and vanilla extract. If there’s no buttermilk to hand, use yoghurt or even cream, loosened with a splash of milk.

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Whisk an egg with buttermilk and vanilla

Then mix the two together to make a really stiff batter. It needs to be stiff in order to take the weight (and juice) of the fruit and crumble.

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Combine the two to make a stiff batter

For the crumble, simply take flour, caster sugar, muscavado sugar, butter and cinnamon and rub it all together.

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For the crumble, take flour, sugar, butter…

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…and rub together

Then it’s time to bake! Spread the batter into the base of a spring-form tin, pile the fruit on top, then sprinkle the crumble on top of the fruit. I’ve used a bowl of blueberries plus a few alpine strawberries but I think most summer fruits would work well here: raspberries, sliced strawberries, peaches, apricots, plums.

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Spread the batter in your tin and top with berries, then sprinkle the crumble over the top

Bake for about an hour, until a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool for at least an hour before removing from the tin (else it’ll likely fall apart). Serve it up warm or cold, perhaps with a dollop of cream on the side. Yum! Incidentally, this is not a cake that keeps well, so eat it up within a day or two.

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Blueberry crumble cake

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Eat with cream

Blueberry crumble cake

Adapted from this: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/recipes/11755276/Strawberry-cake-recipe.html

190g plain flour

100g caster sugar

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

115g cold butter

1 egg

115g buttermilk (or cream or yoghurt, loosened with a splash of milk)

1 tsp vanilla extract

400g or so blueberries (or other summer fruit, such as raspberries, strawberries, etc)

For the crumble topping:

50g muscavado sugar

50g caster sugar

60g plain flour

1/2 tsp cinnamon

60g cold butter

Preheat oven to 180c and grease and line a 22cm springform tin.

Combine flour, baking powder and bicarb in a bowl then rub in the butter until the mixture is fine, with no lumps. Beat the egg with the buttermilk and vanilla,  then mix it all together to a stiff batter. Spread in the base of your tin then pile the fruit on top.

For the crumble topping, rub the butter into the flour, sugar and cinnamon until well distributed, though a few lumps are OK. Pile on top of the fruit.

Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Cool in the tin for an hour or so before serving.