Food & Drink

Recipe: Chocolate vanilla cream meringue cake

[First published on Yahoo! Lifestyle, 06/06/2013]

I’m a chocoholic – first to admit it, and in no way ashamed of it. During the winter months, I crave warming comfort food like chocolate pudding and custard, or warm chocolate brownies with chocolate sauce.

Come summertime however (even a mild British summer), lighter desserts are the order of the day, but if I can get chocolate into them, so much the better.

The following recipe is based on a cake I hadn’t even heard of until October of last year. I’d gone on holiday to Spitsbergen, a Norwegian island in the High Arctic (because who needs a warm holiday, right?).

After several hours spent taking photos of snow-covered mountains and other extremely cold things, we’d stumbled into a café and huddled into a corner to thaw out. My other half went to the counter, returning a short time later with steaming hot drinks and mystery cakes.

“It’s called verdens beste kake – it means ‘world’s best cake’,” he said, as if that explained anything.

Still, what the name lacked in informative value it made up for in accuracy. Verdens beste kake, also known as kvaefjordkake, is an amazing combination of flavours and textures.

Comprising meringue, sponge cake, chopped almonds and a gorgeously creamy-custardy vanilla filling, if this cake isn’t actually the world’s best then it’s a serious contender for the title. I’ve made this a few times at home and it always goes down extremely well.

Nevertheless, it was inevitable that at some point I was going to attempt a chocolate version. Chocolate meringue, chocolate cake and vanilla cream should have made for a hefty dessert, but the result is surprisingly light: crisp chocolate meringue that melts on the tongue; two thin layers of light, soft chocolate cake; and fluffy whipped vanilla cream holding it all together.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s the perfect summer dessert and one that reminds me of good times in faraway places.

Being in three parts, the preparation of this cake looks like a bit of a hassle, but I can promise you firstly that it isn’t (just be sure to have everything measured out before you start) and secondly that it is utterly worth the extra time.

Verdens beste kake – the world’s best cake

Ingredients (Serves 6):

Cake:

50g softened butter or margarine

60g light brown soft sugar or light brown muscovado sugar

2 egg yolks

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

70g plain flour, sifted

20g cocoa powder, sifted

½ tablespoon baking powder

A splash of milk

Meringue:

2 egg whites

100g caster sugar

2 tablespoons icing sugar

2 teaspoons cocoa powder

Filling:

200ml double cream

3 teaspoons caster sugar

Few drops vanilla extract

Method:

Preheat your oven to Gas Mark 4 / 350°F / 180°C.

Grease and line a 30cmx20cm / 8″x12″ baking tray with baking paper.

Separate the eggs, setting the whites to one side.

Cake:

Using an electric whisk, blend together the butter and brown sugar until creamy, then add the egg yolks and vanilla extract and whisk until incorporated.

Mix in the flour, cocoa and baking powder, and then add a splash of milk – you should have a fairly thick chocolate batter. If it’s too stiff, add a bit more milk.

Spread the batter in a thin, even layer over the baking paper and set aside.

Meringue:

Making sure that your whisk beaters are completely clean and dry, whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks, then gradually whisk in the caster sugar until the mixture is glossy.

In a separate bowl stir the icing sugar and cocoa powder together and add a tablespoonful at a time to the meringue mix, gently folding the sugar and cocoa in until well mixed.

Carefully spread the chocolate meringue over the cake base and then lightly pat the surface with the back of the spoon so that little peaks are formed (these will become crispy little points once cooked).

Put the meringue-cake into the preheated oven on the middle shelf and cook for 25-30mins.

Remove from the oven and leave to cool for a few minutes, then remove the cake from the baking paper using a palette knife and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Filling:

Whisk the double cream until it begins to thicken. Add the caster sugar and vanilla extract and continue to whisk until soft peaks form.

Cut the cake in half, right down the middle. Put one piece, cake-side down, on a plate, and spread the sweetened whipped cream over the meringue surface. Top with the other half of the cake (again, cake-side down). Best eaten the same day, but it will keep nicely in the fridge for a day or so.

 

Homemade korma-style curry experiment

A delicious yoghurt-based korma-style curry recipe that’s creamy and slightly spicy

[First published on Yahoo! Lifestyle, 16/04/2013]

Up until a few years ago, I didn’t make curries at home. They looked too complicated, I had no understanding of how the combinations of flavours worked, and, well, there’s an amazing takeaway place just down the road from me.

But then I went to visit a friend for a few days, who announced one evening that she was going to make a really easy curry and that I was going to help her. I got a crash course in how to use curry spices, and when I came home I started trawling the internet for similar recipes, intent on building upon what I’d learned.

The following recipe is how I currently make this type of curry, which is a yoghurt-based, creamy, not-too-fiery, korma-style curry. This recipe has gone through several changes (the most recent being the addition of curry leaves) and will no doubt be tinkered with again soon. The ingredients list is quite long, but I promise you it’s worth the effort.

The great thing about this recipe is that you can muck around with the amounts of spices and change the overall taste without ruining it, and I encourage you to do so, as it really improves your confidence in your cooking.

Korma-style curry recipe

Makes 3 good portions or 4 diet-conscious ones

Ingredients:

For the marinade:

Three quarters of a large (600ml) tub of Greek yoghurt

30g ground almonds

20g desiccated coconut

2 large cloves garlic, crushed or finely chopped

2 tablespoons tomato puree

1 tablespoon ketchup

2 flat tsps chilli powder (less if you don’t want it hot, more if you do!)

8 cloves, crushed

1tsp ground cinnamon

1tsp ground ginger

2tsps garam masala

2tsps ground coriander seed

6 cardamom pods, seeds crushed and pods reserved

Half a teaspoon asafoetida

Half a teaspoon salt

Half a teaspoon ground black pepper (freshly crushed peppercorns are best)

2tsps turmeric

1tsp cumin seeds, crushed

Other bits:

2 medium onions, diced

2 large splashes of single cream (if you buy a 150ml pot you’ll probably use about half to two-thirds of it)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander leaves

Juice of one lemon

3 chicken breasts

Butter and oil for frying

1 large bay leaf

Small handful curry leaves

For the rice:

100g basmati rice per person (or whatever amount the packet suggests, if you prefer a smaller portion)

1 cinnamon stick

Half a teaspoon of turmeric

1 bay leaf

The empty cardamom pods from earlier

4 whole cloves

Curry preparation:

Chop the chicken breasts into chunks and set aside.

Using a mortar and pestle, crush the cloves, cardamom, cumin and black peppercorns into little pieces – pick out the cardamom pods (making sure you’ve got all the seeds out) and keep them to one side. The pods will be used to flavour the rice.

Measure out the chilli powder, ground cinnamon, ground ginger, garam masala, ground coriander seed, asafoetida, salt and turmeric into the mortar and pestle and give the whole lot a bit of a mix.

In a small casserole dish (or a large bowl), combine the Greek yoghurt, ground almonds, coconut, tomato puree and ketchup, and give it a good stir until all blended together. Then add the garlic and your spice mix, stir again, add the chicken and stir until all the pieces of meat are well covered. Cover the bowl and leave to marinate in the fridge for several hours if possible, but minimum 30mins.

Rice:

Measure out the rice and water as per packet (or rice cooker) instructions, then add the cinnamon stick, bay leaf, the empty cardamom pods, a few cloves and a bit of turmeric, give it a bit of a stir and cook as normal.

Cooking the curry:

Put a bit of butter and a splash of oil into a wok or high-sided frying pan and heat, then fry the chopped onions for a few minutes. Add the bay leaf, the curry leaves and half the coriander leaves (about one tablespoon’s worth) and cook for another few minutes, keeping everything moving so that the leaves don’t stick and burn (though they should wilt).

Tip the chicken and marinade into the wok and cook for about five minutes, stirring frequently to keep it from sticking. Then turn the heat down, put the lid on the wok and leave the curry to simmer for about ten minutes more, stirring every few minutes. Once the chicken is cooked through (cut into a couple of pieces to make sure), stir in the lemon juice, the rest of the coriander leaves, and the single cream. Keep on the heat for a couple of minutes longer, then serve (with the remainder of the yoghurt, if you’ve made the curry spicy).

 

Does it really matter which glass you drink out of?

Does the right wine glass make the wine taste better? Is whisky smoother from a tumbler than a coffee mug? Should you really drink champagne out of a shoe?

[First published on Yahoo! Lifestyle, 26/09/2012]

I was quite confused about alcohol, growing up – the presence of a drinks cabinet full of strangely-shaped glasses that never seemed to get used, combined with early exposure to Jilly Goolden’s alarmingly enthusiastic approach to wine tasting on the BBC’s Food and Drink, gave me an odd picture of the adult world.

I’ve since learned, of course, that there are many types of alcoholic drinks around and they are often paired with a particular glass, said to enhance the drinking experience. But how much can a glass affect a drink?

Red wine

To really bring out the full flavours of a red wine, it’s essential to serve it at room temperature and to aerate the wine, or let it “breathe”. The rounder, wide-mouthed bowl and shorter stem of a red wine glass facilitate swirling the wine, which aerates the liquid, releases bouquet and gives other clues to its character, all with minimal risk of spilling it everywhere. The shorter stem also allows the heat from your hand to bring the wine to ambient temperature (in fact it’s absolutely fine to hold the glass by the bowl for just this reason).

The slight tapering towards the mouth of the glass is said to help direct aromas towards your nose and also to guide the wine to the optimum part of the mouth for full appreciation of its flavours. Austrian company Riedel has designed an impressive range of glasses that are shaped to bring out the character of each wine. While this may seem to be taking things a bit too far, many connoisseurs swear by these tailored receptacles, and I’m inclined to trust the experts.

White wine, rosé, amber and fruit wines

In contrast to red, white wine and other pale wines taste better when chilled and do not need swishing around to release flavours. They are therefore served in a longer-stemmed glass with a smaller, narrower bowl. The extended stem allows you to hold your drink without heating it up, while the reduced surface area at the mouth helps to keep the wine nice and cool.

The flute

As anyone who has ever had to resort to drinking champagne out of a plastic mug will tell you, the thin glass of a champagne flute makes all the difference when drinking this famous fizzy white. Champagne’s delicate flavours come into their own when kept cold in this tall, very narrow glass; additionally, the flute prevents the bubbles from escaping too quickly, which helps to maintain the light and airy experience of drinking Champagne.

The pint

Contrary to the tacit assertion of your average pub, the ubiquitous pint glass is not always the best vessel to put your beer in. The fairly straight, wide glass lets the heat in and the gas out quite readily, often leaving you with a warm beer before you’re quite finished. This type of glass is much better suited to serving ale, which is at its best when drunk at (or slightly below) ambient temperature. Get yourself one with a handle attached, however, and your hand will never get close enough to warm your drink up, making it good for lager and cider too.

The Pilsner

This glass has a narrower mouth and is usually sharply tapered towards the bottom. Supposedly this slender lower half stops the bubbles in light lagers and wheat beers from departing too quickly, thus maintaining a good head of foam throughout the drinking experience. Personally, I don’t like my final mouthful of beer to be all froth, but I guess it’s all a matter of taste. The narrower glass again helps to keep the beer cold.

Of course, there is an argument that we have such a plethora of shapes for beer glasses because every manufacturer likes their product to stand out in a crowded bar, but I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s too cynical…

The whisk(e)y tumbler

The chunky, sturdy tumbler, rolled between warm palms, is perfect for heating, mixing and enticing the full gamut of flavours from Irish whiskey or Scotch, whether you’ve chosen to add water, ice, or drink it neat. It’s also a glass that won’t tip over too readily – reassuring when you’re drinking spirits.

The balloon

There really is only one way to comfortably hold this glass, and it provides plenty of contact for gently warming and swirling brandy. The wide mouth also allows the various aromas to rise, enhancing the drinking experience. Balloon glasses are equally well placed to aerate a full-bodied red wine, while the bulbous stumpy bowl is fine for nursing whisky too.

… just a lot of fuss?

I’m fairly convinced that the shape of the glass does enhance the drinking experience, but obviously the quality of the alcohol, not to mention personal preference, also have their parts to play. So if you’re looking to learn more about what your favourite drinks have to offer, by all means experiment – you’ll be pleasantly surprised. But if you’re happy with how your drink tastes already and you don’t care what it comes in so long as it doesn’t leak, that’s fine too. Enjoy.

 

Family favourite: Nan’s sponge cake

[First published on Yahoo! Lifestyle, 20/09/2012]

My nan was an excellent cook – creative, enthusiastic and resourceful. She was the perfect hostess, ever eager to ascertain whether you’d had enough to eat, and plying you with more food at the slightest hint that you weren’t anything other than completely full.

One of my favourite memories of her cooking was the traditional Sunday roast – her motto was ‘better to have too much than too little’ and subsequently there were always leftovers to be had. She would ask if we wanted anything more to eat, and if we said “no thanks, Nan” she’d proceed to run through a list of what was still available, just in case one of the items prompted a change of heart. “More potatoes?” “No thanks, Nan.” “More chicken?” “No, thank you.” “More carrots?” It still makes me smile.

But however good she was at the main courses, she really excelled with her baking, in particular the cakes: huge slabs of fluffy chocolate cake and gingerbread, lemon drizzle loaf, and the classic Victoria sponge. I must have been very young when she first taught me how to make Victoria sponge, because I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the recipe and method by heart. My mum also makes this cake exactly how Nan taught her, as does my sister, whose 4-year-old daughter likes to help her.

I can’t say for certain how far back in the family the recipe goes, as I haven’t yet found a written record of it in my nan’s vast collection of cookery scrapbooks – a mixture of handwritten notes, mail-order booklets and clippings from magazines – but it’s definitely been made by three generations of women in my family, and my niece will make four (as soon as she can be trusted to be in the kitchen on her own).

This recipe is very simple, easy to follow and produces a well-aerated sponge that manages to be both moist and light. The cake itself is not too sweet and so is complemented nicely by the jam and icing sugar. It’s extremely popular with friends and family, and the recipe can also be easily altered to incorporate other flavours.

Ingredients and equipment

3 eggs

self-raising flour

margarine

caster sugar

strawberry or raspberry jam

icing sugar for dusting

2 x 7″/18cm round cake tins

a sieve

wire rack (for cooling)

Method

Preheat your oven to gas mark 4 / 180°C / 350°F.

First of all, you need to weigh the eggs (in their shells) – whatever their combined weight, that’s how much you’ll need of margarine, sugar and flour. (So, if your three eggs weigh seven ounces altogether, you need to measure out seven ounces of margarine, seven ounces of sugar and seven ounces of flour. Apologies for all the talk of ounces, I am using an old recipe!

Using an electric whisk (or a hand whisk if you’ve got the upper arm muscles), mix the margarine and sugar together until very pale (almost white) and fluffy.

Measure out the flour and keep this in a separate bowl.

Crack an egg into a mug (this is a safeguard against having to fish out bits of shell from your cake mix), pour it into the margarine/sugar mixture and sift a couple of tablespoonfuls of flour over it. (My Nan always told me to hold the sieve quite far above the bowl, as the flour falling from a greater height meant that more air would be incorporated into the cake mix. Not sure how accurate this is, but I still do it!).

Whisk until just blended, then repeat until you’ve added all the eggs. Fold in (do not whisk) the last few tablespoons of flour and stir gently until combined.

Put a bit of margarine into the cake tins and stick them in the oven for a couple of minutes to melt the fat, then take them out and use a piece of kitchen paper to spread the melted marg evenly around the tins.

Divide the cake mix equally between the two tins, smooth the tops and cook on the middle shelf for at least 20 minutes (up to 25 minutes, depending on your oven). Please resist the temptation to open the oven door before the 20 minutes are up, or your cakes will sink in the middle.

To test whether it’s done, press a fingertip lightly on the thickest part (usually the middle) of the cake – if it springs back, it’s done, but if it leaves a dent, it’ll need a few more minutes in the oven (or you’ve just pressed too hard). The cakes should also be a light golden brown colour.

Turn the cakes out on to the wire rack and leave to cool completely. Then sandwich the two halves together with jam and sift a bit of icing sugar over the top. Done!

 

Classic British food with a twist

[First published on Yahoo! Lifestyle, 06/07/2012]

Despite the plethora of foodstuffs on offer nowadays, many of us still love to get stuck into a classic British favourite – be it roast beef with Yorkshire pud, fish and chips, treacle tart and custard, or a good old-fashioned Victoria sponge cake. These hefty dishes have been national stalwarts through good times and bad, not to mention excellent comfort food in our notoriously changeable climate.

Sadly, many traditional British recipes have acquired a bad reputation for being unhealthy, stodgy and bland. But for anyone who thinks that British cooking is nothing but grease-soaked carbs, here are a few ideas to spark your interest.

Bangers ‘n’ mash, again?

The beauty of this traditional British meal lies in its simplicity: meat, mash and a topping of either beans or gravy. You can tinker with any one of these component parts to create a new and exciting version of this family favourite. I prefer duck or venison sausages (which you can get from Sainsbury’s or Waitrose) and making the mash using a mixture of sweet potatoes and regular potatoes.

Add a splash of plum sauce to the gravy and serve with steamed broccoli or green beans. A few drops of Lea & Perrins or Henderson’s Relish in the mash will make it more flavoursome without adding to the fat content.

Lemon-lime brined roast pheasant

Some people find game birds a little tough, so brining is a great way to soften up the meat prior to cooking. To make a traditional brine, you just dissolve 30g salt and one tablespoon of white sugar in a litre of boiled water, then add a few sprigs of thyme and some juniper berries or cranberries – but for a more tangy variation, try swapping out the berries and instead adding a few teaspoons of lemon and lime juice. Leave the brine to cool, then immerse the pheasant, cover, and refrigerate for several hours.

Before putting the pheasant in to roast, I like to make up a rub for the skin using the zest from the lemon and lime, some honey and olive oil, and then stuff the cavity with the citrus fruits. Draping a few rashers of bacon over the bird and basting regularly during cooking will help to retain moisture. Roast the pheasant on a high heat for the first 10 minutes, and then turn the oven down to a moderate heat for the duration of the cooking time.

Saffron, garlic and chilli roast potatoes

Roast potatoes can be pretty bland, but parboiling the potatoes in slightly salted water with some strands of saffron added will give them a golden tinge and that fragrant, distinctive taste. In the meantime, pour a mixture of sunflower oil and light olive oil into a deep roasting tray and add a few crushed cloves of garlic, some more strands of saffron, a bit of salt, some black pepper and chilli flakes (if you want spicy roasties), then put this into the oven to heat up.

Once the potatoes are parboiled, discard the water and (keeping the lid on the pan!) give the potatoes a good shake around. This will rough up the edges, which will then crisp nicely during cooking. Carefully add the potatoes to the oil once it’s really hot and roast for at least 45 minutes, turning occasionally.

Orange and lemon Victoria sponge

This is a delicately flavoured, citrus version of the classic Victoria Sandwich, filled and decorated with buttercream rather than jam and sugar, and named for a certain old English nursery rhyme. Summery, sweet, creamy and light, this cake is perfect for a picnic in the sunshine.

Blend 150g each of butter, caster sugar and sifted self-raising flour with two large eggs until creamy, then divide the mixture in half and add the zest of a lemon to one half and the zest of an orange to the other.

Grease two 7” (18cm) round tins, put the lemon mix in one and the orange mix in the other and smooth over. Bake for 25 minutes on the middle shelf of an oven preheated to Gas Mark 4/180°C/350°F (20 minutes if using a fan-assisted oven). Resist the urge to open the oven door to check how they’re doing, or you’ll end up with sunken cakes. Well-cooked sponge should be fairly firm but springy to the touch.

Turn out on to a wire rack and leave to cool.

To make the buttercream, blend 100g unsalted butter with 200g sifted icing sugar. Again, split the mixture in half, but this time add lemon juice (to taste) to one half and orange juice to the other (if this makes the buttercream too thin, add sifted icing sugar a tablespoon at a time until you get the right consistency).

Sandwich the two cake halves together with the lemon buttercream and use the orange buttercream for the topping (or the other way round, it’s up to you). Decorate with orange and lemon jelly slices, or citrus zest.

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