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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.