Squidgy chocolate-chestnut roll

Today is the first day of meteorological winter. The winter solstice, the shortest day, the darkest night.  It’s natural at this time of year to pause, reflect, and perhaps shed ourselves of that which we no longer need. I’ve been sifting through boxes of old papers, letters and cards, some of which date back to the 1980s and 1990s…the ghosts of years past. Some mementoes I’ll keep, but most have been ditched; it’s so liberating, deciding to let go of the old.

As of tomorrow, we work ourselves back towards the light. When I was younger and less attuned to the natural world, I didn’t realise that although it’s dark now in mid-December, true winter (i.e. the really cold bit) doesn’t tend to get going until January or February. Get outside and you’ll find that there’s still loads of life out there; early daffodil shoots are pushing through, the trees have set their buds ready for spring; the ivy is in full flower and the squirrels are still gathering up their nuts. Yesterday I went to Woodgate Valley Country Park for the first time, a haven of wildlife just a stone’s throw from the M5 – great respite for any city-dweller desperate for some country air. Were it not for the tower blocks in the distance, I could believe myself to be back in the Shire.

2016-12-20 11.19.26

Woodgate Valley Country Park

2016-12-20 11.21.26

Believe it or not, this is Birmingham!

2016-12-20 11.21.55

The nosey robin is the only shot of colour on an overcast December day

Some ‘old’ things are worth getting rid of, but others should be cherished. If it’s an old recipe, then I’m definitely interested. This dessert is inspired by the 1990s Queen of Christmas, Delia Smith: a squidgy chocolate log filled with a light chestnut cream. Delia’s original uses chocolate mousse and whipped cream, but I’ve swapped the chocolate for some chestnut puree, which feels appropriately seasonal. It’s kind of like a yule log, but without the rich icing; a great way to feed a crowd, or just a greedy couple.

(Note: As is a recent theme, the images on this post are terrible. I blame my dark kitchen. Santa, if you want to bring me some decent lighting for Christmas, that would be marvellous).

First, make the sponge. This is a flourless cake, so it’s super light and squidgy. (It’s just occurred to me that the new phrase for flourless is ‘gluten free’. That phrase hadn’t been invented in the 90s!) First whisk egg yolks with caster sugar until pale and thick, then fold in sifted cocoa powder and stiffly whisked egg whites until the batter is smooth and super light.

2016-12-18 13.19.07

Beat sugar and egg yolks until thick

2016-12-18 13.14.57

Whisk egg whites until stiff

2016-12-18 13.23.06

Fold cocoa and then the stiff egg whites into the egg yolk and sugar mixture

Spread the batter into a prepared swiss-roll tin and bake for about 20 minutes until risen and cooked through, but be careful not to overcook else it will never roll.

2016-12-18 13.26.41

Smooth into a swiss roll pan and bake for about 20 minutes

Whilst the sponge is baking, place a piece of baking parchment onto a tea towel, and sprinkle a little caster sugar onto the paper. When the cake is cooked remove from the oven and leave to stand for two minutes, to take the extreme heat away, then tip the cake upside down onto the baking parchment. Whilst the cake is still warm, roll it up from the short side, using the baking parchment and tea towel to help you, then leave to cool on a wire rack. Rolling the cake now makes it easier to re-roll later. It may crack a bit; that’s just the way it is.

2016-12-18 13.51.42

Put the cooked sponge upside down onto sugared baking parchment and a tea towel, roll up and leave to cool

Whilst the cake is cooling, make the filling. Loosen some chestnut puree in a bowl (if you’re using unsweetened puree then you might like to add a little sugar) and whisk some double cream until light and thick. Fold the chestnut into the cream along with a shot of rum (or brandy), then leave in the fridge to chill.

2016-12-18 13.47.06

Beat chestnut puree to loosen

2016-12-18 13.52.41

Fold chestnuts into whipped cream with a tot of rum

Finally, finish the cake! Unroll the sponge, and if the ends look scruffy then trip them with a bread knife. Spread the cream mixture on top of the cake, then re-roll as tightly as you can. It you use LOADS of cream like me, it is impossibly to roll it tightly and the cake will be like a cream-filled log. If you go easy on the cream, it will be easy to roll tightly and will look more like a swiss roll…it’s up to you. Pop back in the fridge for a few hours to firm up then serve.

This is an indulgent dessert that manages to not be overtly sweet and cloying. I think is actually gets better the next day, especially with a few raspberries on the side to cut through the richness. Enjoy!

2016-12-21 13.35.11

Spread the cream onto the sponge and roll up into a log. Chill for several hours then serve.

Squidgy Chocolate-Chestnut log

Inspired by the Squidgy Chocolate Log in the Delia Smith Complete Cookery Course (1989)

6 large eggs, separated

150g caster sugar

50g cocoa (I use Bournville)

300ml double cream (or 200ml if you’d prefer a tighter roll)

150g chestnut puree (I use Merchant Gourmet)

1 tablespoon rum

Extra caster sugar, for sprinkling and to serve

Pre-heat the oven to 180c. Grease and line a swiss-roll tin. In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks with the caster sugar until thick and light (ribbon stage). Sift the cocoa on top and fold in gently but thoroughly. With a clean whisk and in a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff. Fold the whites into the yolks; it’s easiest to do this in three stages. Gently spread the cake batter into the tin, level with the spoon or spatula, then bake for 15 to 20 minutes until risen and springy to the touch.

Whilst the cake is baking, place a sheet of baking parchment over a clean tea towel, then sprinkle the paper with caster sugar. Remove the cake from the oven, leave to stand for two minutes, then turn out onto the paper. Roll up from the short end and leave to cool.

Loosen the chestnut puree with a spoon. If using unsweetened chestnuts, add a spoon of sugar until sweetened to your liking. Whisk the cream until thick, then fold into the chestnuts and rum. Place in the fridge to cool.

When the sponge is quite cold, unroll. You may wish to trim the edges of your cake to neaten them. Spread the cake with cream, then roll from the short end as tightly as you can. Place back in the fridge to firm up for several hours, then serve.

Matt’s favourite sausage rolls

It’s the winter solstice and – briefly – the sun has come out. It’s a welcome respite from the seemingly never-ending grey and rain. Yesterday morning we took a stroll around Edgbaston Reservoir, which at this time of year is noisy with overwintering geese. Amongst them is their silent friend, the heron.

2015-12-20 11.57.55

Spot the heron

The reservoir is a green lung only five minutes from our flat. The regular flow of joggers, dog-walkers, sailors and rowers have plenty of views to keep them occupied: there’s Tolkein’s two towers (or at least, the towers that inspired the book); the city-centre with its sky-scrapers and new library; the post-industrial land surrounding the Birmingham canal and, my favourite, a gold-topped Buddhist temple. Chuck in the Tower Ballroom and a car park full of teenagers smoking illicit substances, and you have a microcosm of Birmingham as a 21st century city.

2015-12-20 12.18.09

View across the water to St Augustine’s church

2015-12-20 12.20.46

Plenty of Canada geese at this time of year

2015-12-20 12.28.35

Winter fungi on an old tree stump

The winter solstice happens to coincide with our first-date-aversary, which we mark by eating some kind of meat, covered or topped with some kind of pastry. (This is because on said first date we had a memorable steak and oyster pie).

This year I made sausage rolls, the kind I usually make at Christmas anyway so it was just a question of bringing the baking day forward a little. Cheap, claggy sausage rolls are an insult to the pig that died to create them. But a proper, home-made sausage roll, fresh from the oven: this is the stuff of the Gods.

I actually got the recipe for these from Delia Smith years and years ago, and have just adapated them a little to my taste. The most important thing is to make a flaky pastry with a lot of butter, and to flavour the sausage meat with fresh lemon and herbs.

For the pastry, you need to grate the butter and then get it super-super cold before mixing it into the flour; I usually stick it in the freezer for fifteen minutes or so. The idea is that it stays in larger lumps than normal, so that when the lumps melt the steam gives the pastry that lovely, flaky texture.

2015-12-19 15.01.24

Grate your butter then freeze it for ten minutes to firm back up

If you’re feeling indulgent, you can go BIG on the butter: the best rolls I’ve made had a 75% butter to flour ratio. If that sends you over the edge, just use 50% butter to flour – this is the same ratio as in regular shortcrust pastry. So take your butter, add it to plain flour and gently combine, before making into a pastry with cold water. Voila.

2015-12-19 15.03.57

Work the butter into the flour, keeping large lumps of fat

2015-12-19 15.07.37

Add cold water to work into a dough, then pop it in the fridge for an hour or more

The pastry needs for chill for an hour or so, so make the filling next. I use good quality sausagemeat from a local farm shop, and turn up the flavour with fresh herbs and lemon zest. Thyme, sage and rosemary all work well.

2015-12-19 14.52.55

The farm shop is your friend: sausagemeat from Packington Moor

2015-12-19 14.55.00

Flavour the sausage with lemon and herbs

Next we need a small onion, finely diced and softened in a touch of olive oil.

Add a chopped, softened onion

Add the chopped herbs, lemon zest and onion to the sausagemeat, season with a touch of salt (not a lot) and black pepper, then chill the mixture in the fridge until you’re ready to make the rolls.

2015-12-19 15.13.09

Then just mix it all together

Assembly is a question of rolling and splodging. Roll the pastry out to about the thickness of a pound coin, then slice into straight-ish rectangles. Place a line of sausage down the centre, leaving a good gap either side. I never measure anything so can’t offer any guidance here, but you want them to look like this:

2015-12-19 17.18.41

Roll the pastry, cut into strips, then put a line of sausage meat down the middle

Then we just roll them up, using a touch of egg wash to seal the seams, and chill again for ten minutes. The chilling is important as if the butter gets too warm the pastry will be oily rather than flaky when baked.

2015-12-19 17.33.27

Roll up, using a slick of egg wash to seal the seam, then chill before slicing and baking

Last step is to brush the rolls with egg-wash and slice to the desired size. Go small for cocktail hour, or large for lunch. Bake at 190c until golden and oozing with glorious butter.

2014-12-19 18.48.28

Cocktail-size, fresh from the oven

2014-12-24 13.32.13

If you really love him, go super-size

Matt’s favourite sausage rolls

Makes about 40 cocktail-sized rolls

For the pastry:

200g butter (or 300g if you’re feeling indulgent. I use salted butter)

400g plain flour

Cold water – about 100ml

For the filling:

1 pack sausagemeat, about 400g

Zest of 1 lemon

handful of herbs – try thyme, sage and/or rosemary

1 small onion, finely diced

Salt and pepper

olive oil

1 egg, beaten, to glaze

First make your pastry. Use a box grater to grate your butter onto a plate, then freeze it for ten minutes or so until very firm. Put the flour in a bowl, add the butter and use a scraper or table knife to work the butter into the flour. We’re looking to distribute the fat into the flour without breaking it up too much. Add a splash of cold water and bring the pastry into a ball – use more water as required. When it’s a pliable pastry, wrap in film and put in the fridge for an hour minimum.

To make the filling, empty the sausagemeat into a bowl, finely chop the herbs and add them to the sausage along with the lemon zest. Fry the onion in a splash of olive oil until soft but not brown, about 15 minutes. Add to the meat, season to taste, then mix together. Refrigerate until needed (this is important, else the warm onion could melt your pastry.)

To make the rolls, lightly flour a work surface then roll the pastry into long rectangles, about three times as long as wide. Trim the edges to neaten them up (see picture above).

Place a line of sausage down the middle of each rectangle. Paint a little egg wash along one edge, then roll the pastry over and seal the seam.  Repeat with each rectangle, place on a baking tray and refrigerate again for 10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 190c. Brush egg wash over your rolls then cut to the desired size and bake. Cocktail sausage rolls take about 25 minutes – larger ones will take a little longer. Cool slightly then EAT.