Birthday bake #2: A cake fit for an Emperor

After the bright and breezy Sunken Cherry Cake, something altogether more grown-up and seductive – Altwiener Schokoladentorte.

Altwiener Schokoladenkuche

Altwiener Schokoladenkuche: note the chapter heading, top right: Big Cake-Nostalgia. That’s what this cake is all about. That and chocolate, apricot jam, hazelnuts, coconut and sherry.

Those lovely compound nouns need some unpacking. Schokoladentorte is really not that hard:

Schokoladentorte = Schokoladen Torte = Chocolate torte

Not a cake – a torte. That means barely any flour, and layers of tasty goodness in between and around the cake – sorry, I mean torte – layers. In some tortes these layers are buttery, creamy fillings. In this cake it’s apricot jam which goes unbelievably well with chocolate.

Altwiener is a bit harder to unpack, because it’s not about the individual words, it’s about a whole host of associations that go with the individual words. Let’s start with the basics, and then embellish:

Altwiener Alt + Wiener = Old Viennese

Old Viennese? Eh? An old man with bad teeth, little round glasses and bow tie? A hotdog that has been left to wrinkle at the back of the fridge?

Old cold sausage

No, no, no. It’s like this.

‘Old’ as in the good old days, times that have passed forever and are out of reach, but can just be glimpsed in the rear view mirror as you turn the bend, in the faded photos in a shoe box in the attic. The good old days when life was comfortable and secure. People, horses and dogs were more elegant, and had better manners. Houses and cars were beautiful and things were made of wood, stone and metal, not plastic. In spring the birds sang, in summer the sun shone, in autumn all the trees turned to bronze and gold, and the winter was frosty and blue…Vienna as in, well, Vienna. The capital of Austria, and once – in the good old days – capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which for a monarchy, and a nineteenth century empire, was not all bad – certainly an impressive number of different nationalities, languages and religions rubbed along reasonably well between the borders most of the time.

The Austro-Hungarian empire.

The Austro-Hungarian empire.

I have never been to Vienna and I was born long after the Austro-Hungarian Empire was finished (at the end of the First World War) but I have read some Joseph Roth (try The Radetzky March), I have been to Budapest and Prague, and whether it’s accurate or not I have a powerful idea of what it might have been like. In my mind’s eye there are long avenues lined with trees and wide pavements. There are tall white palaces, hotels and apartment blocks. Parks with fountains, low hedges, gravel walks and flower beds. There might be a brass band.

A park like this.

A park like this.

There is certainly the Spanish Riding School where the riders and horses show off the elegance and good manners.

Ballotade

And there are cafes. Cafes with high ceilings, gilt mirrors, small marble tables, long banquettes, waiters in white aprons, overgrown pot plants and people talking and drinking coffee, having a brandy and talking, having a cigarette and talking, and certainly having cake. Or torte.

Officers sitting in a lovely garden eating cake. In the good old days.

Officers sitting in a lovely garden eating cake. In the good old days.

An Austrian lady sitting alone in her apartment, looking forward to meeting up with her friends at the cafe later and eating some cake.

An Austrian lady sitting alone in her apartment, looking forward to meeting up with her friends at the cafe later and eating some cake.

So those two medium-to-long words, Altwiener and Schokoladentorte, convey many images and ideas beyond their basic components. And so it is with the cake (or torte). Because – and don’t take my word for this bake it yourself – the flavours of this cake really do capture and convey what the name suggests. It’s a rather delicious form of time travel.

Cake the Second: “Altwiener Schokoladentorte”

[NB You need to let the cake stand overnight to dry a little before you fill and cover it so unfortunately this is not a cake you can bake on a whim.]

Ingredients for one 26cm diameter spring-form cake tin:
8 egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon [top quality] vanilla essence
pinch of salt
180g caster sugar
8 egg whites
100g biscuit crumbs [I use Bonne Maman galettes which come wrapped in threes – you can crush them with a rolling pin before you take them out of the wrapper to avoid losing precious tasty crumbs]
100g grated dark chocolate
100g ground hazel nuts
butter for the tin

Filling and topping
2 shot glasses of sherry [+ a glass for the cook]
300g apricot jam [take any large bits out and stir until smooth]
100g grated dark chocolate
1 egg
200g icing sugar
60g creamed coconut
[the kind that comes in a block and looks far too much like soap for something you are going to eat]

Lightly grease the cake tin with butter. Preheat the oven to 180C [reduce to 170C for a fan oven].

Beat the egg yolks with the vanilla, salt and half the sugar until they are foaming.

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until they form a stiff snow [in English we say peaks – I prefer snow]. Bit by bit sprinkle over the remaining sugar, and keep beating until it’s all mixed in. [Literally:] It should form a knife-firm ice-snow [i.e. it should be like icy snow, so stiff that you could stand a knife up in it].

Fold the ice-snow into the egg yolk mixture. Stir in the biscuit crumbs, grated chocolate and nuts. [Do this quickly but gently].

Pour the mixture into the cake tin, lightly smooth it, and bake it on the second shelf from the bottom for 30-40 minutes.

Place the torte base on a rack and leave to cool overnight.

Cut the cake into three layers. [I have only ever managed two.]

Sprinkle each layer with sherry. Spread jam on two of the layers, and place one on top of the other, with the third layer on top.

Melt the chocolate in a bain-marie, and leave it to cool a little. Stir in the egg and icing sugar. Melt the coconut and stir it into the chocolate drop by drop. It should become creamy. Spread the topping over the top and sides of the torte. With a wide knife raise the topping into a wave pattern on the top of the cake.

Let the topping set completely before cutting the cake.

[Eat from your best china, with coffee.]

Emperor Franz-Joseph in hunting clothes.

The Emperor Franz-Joseph dressed for hunting. After a long day in the forest he probably had a nice piece of chocolate cake to cheer himself up before dressing for dinner.

Birthday bake

Hello, blog. Long time, no see. I missed you, and I should have called, or at least sent you a text or something but I’ve been ridiculously busy – setting up as a freelancer, starting a new part-time job on the side, watching DVD box sets and going to the pub.

Another thing I was busy with was turning 40. It’s a big number, so big you have to use all your toes and fingers twice, and I decided to have a party. There was country dancing, Pimms, sherry, tea and a number of cakes. Also a huge amount of washing up, which to my shame was not done by me but by Others.

Some of the people who came along have asked for cake recipes so that’s what the next few posts will be. None of them are inventions and most of them are from this book:

The Big Brown Book

The Big Brown Book – we used it so much that the spine came off.

The Big Brown Book is a family treasure, and the reason why I know the German words for ‘whisking’, ‘heating’, ‘folding’, ‘sifting’, ‘kneading’ and ‘greasing’ despite being ignorant in most other areas of German vocabulary. It was published in 1987, and I assume my mother was given it or bought it around that time. Ever since then it’s been the book to turn to when the baking urge is strong. Because I’m a messy cook it’s easy to find my favourite recipes: the book naturally opens on pages thickened with sugar and a dusting of flour, and decorated with stains of egg and butter that spread a few fractions of a millimetre with each passing year.

Cake the First: “Versunkener Kirschkuchen”

Versunkener Kirschtorte: Sunken Cherry Cake

Versunkener Kirschtorte – the original recipe. ‘Versunken’ sounds so very much more deeply sunk than ‘sunk’.

This is basically a sponge with juicy summer fruit embedded in it. It’s not fancy or complicated, in fact quite the reverse – beautifully simple.

The name literally means “Sunken Cherry Cake” and it is good with cherries but for the party I made it with a mixture of raspberries and blueberries – you get more variety of colour and flavour and you don’t have to spend ages stoning cherries. If you do use cherries weigh them after stoning, not before.

The soft fruit won’t last long at room temperature so in warm summer weather I would recommend keeping this cake in the fridge or eating it within the day. Bear in mind the Brown Book’s helpful note that this cake has a nutritional value of around 2500 calories – be nice and share it with your friends.

My adds to the original recipe are [in square brackets].

Ingredients for one 26cm diameter spring-form cake tin:
300g [mixed raspberries and blueberries]
5 eggs, separated into yolks and whites
180g caster sugar
80g soft unsalted butter
180g plain flour
5g baking powder
4 tablespoons icing sugar
A little butter and flour for the tin

Wash the fruit and leave it to drain [or pat it very gently dry with kitchen roll]. Grease the baking tin with butter and dust it with flour. Pre-heat the oven to 200C [reduce for a fan oven].

Whisk the egg yolks, half the caster sugar, and the butter until the mixture foams. Gradually sift the baking powder and flour into the egg mixture, stirring as you go.

Beat the egg whites with the rest of the caster sugar until they are stiff, and fold them into the yolk mixture.

Pour the dough into the cake tin and scatter the fruit on top. Gently poke it down through the dough with the handle of a spoon. [Make sure it’s completely covered – any exposed fruit will burn.]

Bake the cake on the second shelf from the bottom for 50-60 minutes [it’s ready when a skewer pushed into the centre comes out clean], cool it on a wire rack, then decorate with the icing sugar [sprinkled through a sieve].

[Serve with whipped cream.]

Next time: a few of my favourite things, including chocolate, sherry and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Chocolate Mouse

I recently discovered that my dog had been moonlighting from his job as under-desk foot-warmer by helping out on my friend Noon Observations blog. I wouldn’t have minded if he had asked but he didn’t. By way of apology he has written a recipe for me. You might like to share it with your children, nephews and nieces, small cousins or grandchildren.

Chocolate Mouse for Burmese Cats
by Zephyr in the Kitchen

Apart from a smooth-coated lurcher, the Burmese cat is one of the most intelligent and beautiful pets a human can have. 

Sitting Burmese cat

Burmese cats are almost as good as dogs

Burmese cats originally came from Burma and Thailand in south-east Asia. They lived in the grounds of Buddhist temples where the monks took care of them.

Buddhist temple

A Buddhist temple

Buddhists believe that all living things have souls and that when they die the soul moves on to a new body. Burmese cats are so clever and friendly that it’s easy to believe they used to be human. Or lurchers.

Nowadays the natural habitat of a Burmese cat is a sofa, armchair or possibly a silk cushion within easy reach of a radiator and the remote control. Burmese cats are luxurious beasts. If they could cook this is what they would make. It’s as silky-soft and gorgeous as they are, though less fun to chase.

Burmese cat

A chocolate brown Burmese cat

The recipe has a lot of steps but each step is quite easy. You just have to keep going and be patient; as patient as a cat waiting at the entrance to a mouse hole.

Ingredients

125g chocolate
(you can use dark, milk or white; a Burmese cat would choose dark chocolate, but the other types will be tasty too)

25ml water from a freshly boiled kettle

15g unsalted butter

25g caster sugar for dark chocolate
(you don’t need any for milk or white chocolate which are sweeter than dark)

2 large eggs

whole almonds

currants or sultanas

pieces of clean string, 8-10 cm long

egg cups or small glasses to serve

Preparing the chocolate

  1. Find a glass bowl or small saucepan that will rest in a larger pan without touching the bottom.
  2. Break the chocolate up into squares and cut the butter into little cubes. Put them both in the smaller bowl or pan.
  3. On the hob warm 2-3 cm of water in the larger pan.
  4. When the water is just simmering rest the small pan on top.
  5. Add the 25 ml of freshly boiled water from the kettle.
  6. Leave the chocolate and butter melt without poking and prodding. When the chocolate looks melted give it a few gentle stirs to combine the ingredients and turn off the heat.
  7. Wearing oven gloves put the chocolate pan on the. Stir until the mixture looks smooth and then leave to cool. 

Preparing the eggs

  1. Separate the eggs into two bowls. Put the whites in a big bowl. The yolks can go in a smallish bowl.
  2. With an electric or hand whisk beat the egg whites until they start to thicken.
  3. Now add the sugar if you are using it and carry on beating until the egg white is really white and fluffy. When it’s ready it should be so stiff that you can tip the bowl upside down over your head without any falling out!
  4. Use a fork to beat the egg yolks to a smooth pale yellow liquid.

Combining the eggs and chocolate

Beaten egg yolk, egg white and melted chocolate

Egg yolk, beaten egg white and melted chocolate ready to mix

  1. The chocolate mix should have cooled down by now. Feel the bowl with your hand. If it’s not uncomfortably hot to touch try dipping the very tip of your little finger into the chocolate. Ideally your finger won’t feel cold or hot because the chocolate is just the same temperature. If it’s too hot wait a bit longer.
  2. Stir the egg yolks into the chocolate. Do it quite slowly to keep the chocolate mixture smooth.
  3. With a large metal spoon or a spatula and scrape the chocolate mix into the egg white bowl.
  4. You are now going to ‘fold’ the egg white over the chocolate. This is NOT the same as stirring – it’s much more delicate than that. Slide the spoon down the side of the bowl. When you get to the bottom lift as much chocolate as you can and turn your spoonful over. Turn the bowl a few centimetres and do it again. As soon as the chocolate and eggs are combined stop folding. If you have folded carefully the mixture will be runny but light and airy.

Nearly there…

  1. Put your egg cups or small glasses on a tray or large plate.
  2. Dangle a piece of string into each egg cup, leaving one end trailing over the side.
  3. Using a dessert spoon, or pouring very slowly fill each one to the top with mouse.
  4. Clear a space in the fridge for the mouses. If there is anything smelly in the fridge cover the pots with cling film. Leave the mouses to cool for about an hour. As they cool they will thicken and set.
  5. Use almonds and currants to give your mouses noses and ears. Now for the really patient part: put them back in the fridge for another hour at least, and ideally two before you eat them. The longer you wait the more delicious they will be.
Chocolate mouses

Chocolate mouse and friends

How to eat

Eat with a teaspoon, taking small dainty bites, just like a Burmese cat. You don’t have to eat the tail.

Seeing double…

If you are one of the people who is kind, generous, enlightened and beautiful enough to follow this blog you might be interested in following a new blog/project at http://www.cowleyroadcookbook.com

Two blogs! Outrageous, I know, but I did it anyway. 

This is going to be way more interesting if you live (or have ever lived) in or around Oxford but you might find it mildly interesting even if you don’t. You won’t find any recipes or food news there yet, but you will soon…

Thanks for reading!

Potatoes for cold toes

Over the last week or so there has been snow in England. We English are well aware that it is not ‘real’ snow – not like American snow, Canadian snow, Alpine snow or Russian snow. It is not deep enough to bring the Trans-Siberian Express to a creaking halt, bright white enough to send a polar explorer mad or blind, or make a grizzly bear think twice about popping out for a bite to eat. Nonetheless, much like all the other snow it is somewhat cold.

As the proud owner of an energetic lurcher I do not get to stay in when it snows. It’s wellies on and up the field for the same walk as normal – only with colder toes.

zephyr

Due to an administrative error my wellies have steel toe-caps. In ordinary damp, muddy weather this is unfortunate because the toe-caps are heavy and when combined with a good coating of mud on each boot it can become quite difficult to walk. I have on occasion ground to a halt in the middle of a particularly muddy field, weighed down by the accumulation of mud. In winter weather the steel toe-caps are a disaster because they radiate the heat of my toes out of my boots and into the snow. I’ve tried successively warmer and thicker pairs of socks but it doesn’t help. And I’m not upgrading the wellies till they spring a leak. So the toes continue to freeze for a solid hour, twice a day, every day.

After this evening’s walk my toes had reached a new level of icy agony. Other parts of my body were cold too. Most of them to be honest. I warmed them up with potatoes, bacon, leeks and cream. This is so simple it barely qualifies as a recipe. It’s more of a therapeutic remedy.

For each person you will need:

Potatoes – It’s not for me to tell you how many. If you’re really cold and really hungry I suggest you have as many as you like.
Splash of olive oil – just enough to stop the bacon sticking to the pan
Leek – 2 small or 1 medium-sized
Streaky bacon – 4 rashers
Salt & pepper
Generous splash of single or whipping cream

Peel the potatoes and put them on to boil. If they’re big cut them into chunks about the size of eggs or slightly smaller.

In a frying pan heat the oil.

Cut the bacon into little squares. For goodness sake use scissors. It took me years to realise how stupid it is to cut bacon with a knife. Throw it into the pan.

Cut the leek into rounds. When the bacon’s cooked but not yet crispy add the leeks to the pan. Add pepper but no salt yet – you don’t know how salty the bacon is. Stir and put a lid on to soften up the leeks.

When the potatoes are done drain them. Take the leeks and bacon off the heat. Add enough cream to just moisten them and stir it through. Put the potatoes in a dish and crown with creamy, leeky, bacon.

Eat immediately for maximum heat gain, with a bit of salt if you need it. Feel the warmth spread from your belly to your happy, warm toes.

Man harvesting potatoes with long row of sacks running down the field

Just potatoes…

Women in a field packing leeks into boxes

leeks…

Woman feeding large sow with piglets in foreground

bacon…

Cow being milked with historic milking machine.

…and cream.

The Twelfth Night Diet, or, How Baking Elisen Lebkuchen Could Kickstart Your Year

This is a Christmas recipe, but I make no apology for posting it today. Today is 6 January, or Twelfth Night so a) Christmas isn’t over yet, b) as it’s Twelfth Night I shall turn the world upside down and do as I please. The doing as I please part will include making a tenuous claim that baking these deeply delicious, nutty, fruity, gingery, chocolatey, and – yes – sugary biscuits could help you lose weight. So there.

Twelfth Night revels

This is what we should be doing, not sitting around worrying about work on Monday

You have almost certainly had Lebkuchen of one sort or another. The term encompasses a wide variety of gingery German Christmas biscuits. The Elisen Lebkuche is the Queen of Lebkuchen. Her capital is at Nürnberg (also spelt Nuremberg), so they are also known as Nürnberger Lebkuchen.

Nurnberg Nuremberg

The lovely city of Nurnberg. Please ignore the gibbetty things in the foreground.

While the good people of northern Europe have been baking spicy, gingery biscuits to celebrate the good times since they finally got the trade routes sorted in the middle ages, this particular variety of Lebkuchen was first sold in the early 1800s. I have seen many claims on the Internet that  Elisen Lebkuchen were named after a gingerbread maker’s beautiful daughter Elise and not one shred of substantiation but it’s a nice story, so let’s go along with it.

The distinguishing feature of these biscuits is they contain no flour, a lot of nuts, and generous quantities of mixed peel and my personal favourite, crystallised ginger. They are simultaneously chewy and melt-in-the-mouth gorgeous. They are so good and keep so well that I would like you to very seriously consider doubling the quantities below.

The ‘real’ biscuits from Nürnberg come in beautiful tins and boxes and have the magnificent gravitas that only a food that’s been made by a guild of incredibly serious bakers for hundreds of years can carry off. This recipe doesn’t offer you that kind of authenticity but it does present you with the opportunity to eat Lebkuchen any time of year. If you wanted to make them less Christmassy you could use more crystallized ginger and less mixed peel.

Lebkuchen UFO Nuremberg 1561

If you Google ‘nuremberg 1561’ you will find a number of websites claiming that this news sheet records a flight of UFOs passing over Nurnberg. Those aren’t UFOs you crazy people – they’re quite obviously Lebkuchen.

So here’s the diet part: After you’ve made the mixture you have to wait 24 hours to bake these little beauties. And after that you can’t eat them straightaway. In fact you have to wait another TEN DAYS. I hereby challenge you to go the whole eleven days without eating anything sugary. With Elisen Lebkuchen to look forward to at the end that should be easy. Says the Lady of Biscuit Misrule.

Elisen Lebkuchen (makes 30ish)

250g caster sugar
3 large eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla essence
100g chopped hazelnuts
160g ground almonds (ideally ground at home in the blender, so they are gritty rather than powdery)
25g walnuts, roughly chopped
1 tbsp. crystallised ginger, finely chopped (if you are a ginger fiend like me leave some lumps)
100g mixed peel, finely chopped (or whizzed but not pulverised in the blender)
½ tsp. cinnamon
⅓ tsp. each of ground cloves, coriander, allspice, nutmeg and cardamom
finely grated zest of ½ lemon and ½ orange
rice paper cut into 8cm circles (you will need about 30 – make 20 at first then see how many more you need)
1 apple
200g dark chocolate

Beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla essence until the eggs are foaming and all the sugar has completely dissolved. Then stir in the nuts, ginger, spices, mixed peel and grated orange and lemon zest.

spicy mix

Stir for just long enough to combine the ingredients. The mixture will look runny. That’s fine. You’ll see.

Cover the bowl and leave it in the fridge for 24 hours.

Next day preheat the oven to 200 C. Arrange some of your rice paper circles on a baking tray. You need to leave at least 2 cm between circles, so you won’t get many on a tray.

paper circles

These are 5 cm circles. They were too small. Go for 8 cm, maybe 12 cm.

After a day in the fridge the biscuit mix should be nice and firm – more like dough. Take a large pinch and roll it into a ball. It should be about 7 cm in diameter – so when you set it on a piece of rice paper there’s half a centimetre of paper left showing all the way round.

When you’ve filled a tray pop it in the oven. Leave the Lebkuchen in for 12-15 minutes until they are light brown. It’s very important not to overdo them – the middle needs to stay soft and sticky. Transfer to a wire rack to cool and load up another tray. Repeat till all your mix is used up.

baked

When the biscuits are room temperature take a large piece of greaseproof paper and line an airtight box or tin. Put the biscuits in and tuck the paper over so they’re loosely wrapped.

Now – weird but true – lay the peel of an apple on the paper. This helps keep the biscuits moist and will eventually make them smell like a very beautiful medieval orchard.

biscuits and peel

Seal up the tin, put the tin in the cupboard, close the cupboard and forget they are there for ten whole days.

Almost there.

To finish them off gently melt the chocolate and use it to coat the biscuits. Wait a bit longer for the chocolate to set.

Elisen Lebkuchen

And then devour.

Checkout Workers, I Salute You (with cranberry sauce)

This post is dedicated to everybody who worked on supermarket tills over Christmas, and maintained their good humour while all around them lost their cool at the crowded aisles, the effort and the expense. In particular this post is dedicated to the woman with bronze-coloured cornrows and a Caribbean accent the absolute opposite of winter, who was working at the local Tesco when I did my Christmas shop.

She put my fresh cranberries through the scanner and asked me what I do with them. Thinking they looked delicious she had bought a punnet for lunch and tried eating them raw. Of course they were hard, sour and an all round disappointment. It’s a natural mistake to make. They look gorgeous: redder than strawberries, shiny as cherries, bite-size as blueberries. The fruit that combined all those qualities would be a wonderful thing.

raw cranberries

Sweet to behold, sour on the tongue.

I explained I had bought the cranberries to make a sauce with sugar and orange peel and… but there was a big queue of shoppers inching their trolleys towards me in a menacing fashion and I couldn’t go into detail. So here’s the full version. Too late for Christmas Day, but not too late to have with turkey left-overs, or cheese on toast, or ham, or cold venison, or even porridge – I had it with porridge this morning along with a dollop of cream and some golden syrup. Greedy, but it’s only the third day of Christmas…

IMPORTANT: this is a sour, tangy sauce and nowhere near as sweet as the sauce you get in jars. If you want something that sweet you will need to double or even triple the sugar. Which might be spoiling good cranberries.

300g fresh cranberries
2 small eating apples
1 large orange
75g golden caster sugar*
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. allspice

cranberry sauce ingredients

Raw sauce. Those chunks of apple are bigger than they ought to be.

Wash the fruit. Peel and core the apples and chop them into cranberry-sized pieces. Carefully peel the orange with a vegetable parer so you end up with one long, thin strip.

Squeeze the orange juice into a pan, and add the orange peel, apple pieces and cranberries. Stir in the sugar and spice.

Heat gently until the mixture is just simmering and cover. Heat, stirring occasionally. The cranberries will pop at uneven intervals like slow-motion popcorn. The sauce is ready when the apples are soft and all the cranberries have popped.

Fish out the orange peel and transfer the sauce to a serving dish. Let it cool, then keep it in the fridge. If you keep it covered it should be good for the rest of the Christmas season.

cranberry sauce.

Sauce. Good with all manner of things cooked and raw. Spoon it on.

Salad for one

It’s been a while since I posted, mainly thanks to the onset of pre-Christmas baking madness. More of this in a forthcoming post.

Meanwhile here’s a quick post on a somewhat peculiar salad. I started out thinking, ‘Mmm… avocado and spinach,’ then added some other ingredients. It  may not be to everyone’s taste, hence ‘salad for one’, but I enjoyed it. It’s savoury, warming and fresh all at the same time and feels like a good antidote to too many late nights baking, too many of those mince pies I eat out of politeness at work, and too much winter.

Salad for one
Serves one

150g baby spinach
1/4 cucumber
1 ripe avocado
2 cooked beetroots
1/4 jar anchovies
25g walnut pieces
olive oil
sherry vinegar
salt and pepper
a shake of Tabasco

Wash and slice the cucumber into half or quarter-circles. Peel and chop the avocado into cubes. Cut the beetroot into sticks or chunks. Cut the anchovies into the smallest pieces you can. Mix all this up with the walnuts in your salad bowl. Season with olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper and Tabasco.

Leave the salad on the side till all the ingredients are room temperature and have had time to get to know each other.

Enjoy.

Spinach, walnut, avocado, beetroot, cucumber, anchovy salad

It’s ready when all the ingredients are a little bit purple

Open-arse tart

This is a sad story. It was forged in ardent romantic illusion and quenched – this very evening – in the cold mud of disappointment. There will be a flutter of redemption and solace at the end, but not enough to match the initial high hopes. I was in love with something I had never seen or touched. I had heard great things, of its soft scent, its delicious flavour, its near magical powers to transform from something hard, cold and green to tender, giving, open flesh almost in the blink of an eye. The object of my imaginary desires was the medlar.

Medlar blossom

Let’s start with a pretty picture of medlar blossom to represent the dream.

My appetite was whetted by occasional references on Gardeners’ Question Time and a short account of the fruit in Andrew Dalby’s excellent The Shakespeare Cookbook. The attractive and intriguing traits of the medlar are these. It does not ripen like ordinary fruit – or at least it does, but it’s not ready to eat until it’s rotted, or more properly ‘bletted’. It is like an apple in miniature, arranged around five pips, but while these are larger than apple pips, the fruit is smaller. But best of all, it sounds like a fruit with a sense of fun and humour, for it was known, in the sixteenth century as an ‘open-arse’. If you look at it from a certain angle you can see what those jolly Elizabethans meant.

medlar open arse

This is the bottom of the fruit

My interest in the medlar was not easy to satisfy. It’s not for sale in shops. But then, at the beginning of this month, it was for sale at the farmers’ market, so I bought a punnet and took it home. I laid the little greeny-brown fruits out on the dining table and waited for them to blet. And waited. And waited. Not only did they take ages to blet, they did it one at a time. About one a day. It has taken almost three weeks for the whole lot to reach the edible stage. What happens is the firm apple-like greeny-white flesh turns a soft dark brown.

Medlars bletting

Medlars stubbornly waiting to blet

This was my first indication that the medlar might be hard to love but there were two redeeming features. The bletted fruit had delicately spotted skin and smelt exactly like an orchard on a damp morning, a smell I happen to like.

This evening I set to making a bastardised version of the medlar tart in The Shakespeare Cookbook. And this led to by second disappointment. The medlar did not give its flesh up easily. Maybe my medlars were smaller or more bletted than the ones Andrew Dalby had in mind. His suggested method was to “cut the medlars in half and scoop out the soft flesh with a teaspoon”. I ended up with a tiresome mixture of pulp, pips and skin on my hand and not much in the bowl. For me, grumpy squeezing and picking out the pips worked best in the end.

Will there be a third disappointment? Will the medlar be as fragrant and delightful to eat as they all promised… Find out in a few short lines after the recipe:

Pastry
225g plain flour
grated zest of ½ lemon
tiny pinch of salt
110g unsalted butter
½ tbsp caster sugar
2-3 tbsp cold water

 Filling
at least a dozen bletted medlars*
2 tbsp soft brown sugar
2cm3 fresh ginger
150ml whipping cream1 egg, separated
1 tsp cinnamon
* If you don’t have medlars, and you probably don’t, you could try replacing them with a large peeled and grated Bramley apple.

Preheat the oven to 180°C (reduce for a fan oven). Butter a tart or flan case.

In a mixing bowl stir together the flour, salt and lemon zest. Lightly rub in the butter. When you reach the rough breadcrumb stage stir in the sugar. Add the water one tablespoon at a time and stir with a fork until the crumbs start to bind. Give them a quick squeeze to bring it all together as pastry. Press this into the tart case, prick the base all over with a fork, and bake for twenty minutes.

Pricked tart case

When it’s done remove it from the oven and turn the heat down 20°.

Meanwhile, get the pulp out of those medlars any way you can. Put it in a saucepan with the brown sugar and grate in the ginger. Heat gently and stir till this mixture is smooth. Add the cream and heat again until it’s hot but not boiling. Beat the egg yolk and stir it in. Keep heating and stirring until the mixture thickens.

Pour this custardy mix into the cooked flan case. Bake for another fifteen minutes.

tart baked but not covered

Baked filling

I felt uncomfortable with the nakedness of my tart so I whipped up the egg white with a spoonful of caster sugar to make a soft topping. Spread this on and bake for another ten to fifteen minutes.

Tart with meringue topping

Less of an open-arse, more of a full moon

Tasting notes: Actually not bad. I’d cook it again if somebody brought the medlars round to my house ready-bletted and got the pulp out for me.

Soul cakes: food for the quick and the dead

If you like beer, golden syrup and releasing tormented souls from Purgatory you’ll love soul cakes.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/53/Folio_113v_-_Purgatory.jpg/552px-Folio_113v_-_Purgatory.jpg

People still make soul cakes in Britain today but they used to make them with a purpose. In Merry England – that is the days before Henry VIII deprived us of all the best architecture and fun superstitions by falling out with the Pope – they were set out on the evening of 1 November with a glass of ale or wine in remembrance of the souls of the dead. The following day, All Souls Day, children, poor people and mummers (the medieval version of the village amateur dramatic society) went round begging for the uneaten cakes, singing or chanting:

Soul, soul, a soul cake! I pray thee, good missus, a soul cake!
One for Peter, two for Paul, three for Him what made us all!
Soul cake, soul cake, please good missus, a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry, any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul and three for Him who made us all.

The tradition was that every cake eaten released a soul from Purgatory. Presumably giving it away to those who came asking for it was also good for the soul of the ‘good missus’ who gave it away. And presumably eating it was a pleasure for those who ate it and good for their souls too because they were helping a soul out of Purgatory. That’s some powerful cake.

There are alternative names for soul cakes. I’ve seen them referred to as Thor’s cakes which sounds very thrillingly pagan, but as the big Norse celebrations of Thor were held in midwinter not the start of winter this is probably a fanciful mishearing of harcakes, a name still used in Lancashire today. Potter fans may wonder if JK was thinking of harcakes when she came up with the term ‘horcrux’, a place for keeping little bits of soul.

There are a variety of recipes floating around the internet for soul cakes. The common ingredients are spice and butter. Some are made with oats, others with flour. Some are made with golden syrup, others with sugar. After I’d made these I realised honey would have been a much more likely sweetener for medieval bakers. Something to try next time.

This somewhat flapjacky recipe (based on one I found at www.historicalfoods.com) includes beer – a good dark flavour to offset the sweetness and spice, and a reminder of the drink set out for the souls of the dead.

60g unsalted butter (at room temperature, not straight from the fridge)
500g oatmeal
350 ml golden syrup
2tsp ground ginger
½ tsp allspice
1 egg, beaten
200ml dark ale (maybe a bit more)

Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease a shallow baking tray and line it with baking parchment.

Rub the butter into the oatmeal. Unlike rubbing butter into flour this does not result in something that looks like fine breadcrumbs, rather something that looks and feels a lot like wet sand. Sprinkle in the spice and add the syrup. Stir vigorously to get the syrup evenly distributed. Finally add the beaten egg and beer and stir vigorously again until you have an even, thick batter. Pour this into your baking tray and stick it in the oven.

After forty-five minutes take the tray out and use a table knife to score lines horizontally and vertically across the cake about 5cm apart.

soul cake or harcake

The whole soul cake

Return the cake to the oven and bake for another 15 minutes.

Remove and cool for at least half an hour before turning out of the tray. When the cake has completely cooled cut it into small squares. If you have your lines nicely spaced you will end up with a cross over each square – the sign of food destined to be given away as alms.

Store the pieces for 3 days or longer in an airtight tin to let the flavours settle and combine. If you make it today it will just be ready in time for All Souls’ Day on Friday

soul cake

Soul-sized bites.