Simplest (four-ingredient) almond cake

6 September 2021

I wish I could wax poetic for hours about this cake, but that isn’t really my style, and the cake fulfills such a basic role in my life that basic is probably how best to write about it.

It features just four ingredients (lemon zest optional), comes together practically instantly, and not only does it keep for days but even improves with time. So it can be made ahead, and, as Imen McDonell suggests, always be on hand.

The recipe is from Imen’s The Farmette Cookbook. She calls it Claire’s Frangipane and has a lovely story to accompany the recipe, which like most others in the book is alluringly personal, one that transports straight into a chair pulled up to the kitchen table of her fabulous friend Claire. But, as I don’t know Claire, to me the cake has just become the simplest almond cake.

I’ve made this cake more than any other in the past few years and always serve it with either a rhubarb compote or stewed gooseberries, because, though delicious on its own, the cake truly transforms when accompanied by something luscious and puckeringly tart. At this time of year I might stew some early apples (unsweetened), or perhaps plums with cardamom?

Simplest almond cake recipe from Imen McDonnell’s Farmette Cookbook
The recipe given here is double the original — I often double recipes for cakes, especially ones that keep so well and improve with time.

275g sugar (slightly reduced from the original)
300g butter (softened at room temperature)
4 eggs
300g almond flour or freshly ground almonds (I like both blanched or whole)
Zest from one lemon (optional)

Preheat the oven to 175C (350F). Line a 23cm (9-inch) cake tin with parchment paper and butter the bottom and sides.

In a large mixing bowl (or stand mixer), beat the sugar and butter vigorously, for a long while, about 5 minutes.

Add the eggs one at a time, so each is assimilated before adding the next. Add the lemon zest if using.

Blend in the ground almonds until completely combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake tin and bake for 45 to 50 minutes (it could take a bit longer), until a knife or skewer comes out clean, and the cake feels firm to a light touch.

Dust with sugar and let cool completely before serving.

Serve with rhubarb, gooseberry, or another tart fruit compote, and optionally and quite decadently with a spoonful of crème fraîche too.

Can be stored at room temperature for a day and in the refrigerator after that.

Gooseberry sauce

25 July 2021

The secret, not so surprisingly, is butter.

This gooseberry sauce is closely linked to one of my favourite cakes, which I have yet to record here. It is a simple five-ingredient-recipe almond cake, from Imen McDonnell’s excellent book Farmette. I have made this cake more times than I can recall, I love it, and I think it truly soars served alongside very tart fruit. Often I have accompanied it with rhubarb compote, which pairs very well, but a couple of years ago in June, during their blink-of-an-eye season, I decided gooseberries.

Which is how the almond cake led me to the luscious secret of gooseberry sauce — butter.

The idea comes from the Riverford Farm Cookbook that I picked up by happenstance nearly ten years ago as a memory from a trip to Devon. It is still a book I turn to for easy inspiration with fruit and vegetables. I leant on the recipe for ‘Gooseberry Sauce for Oily Fish or Pork’ which is barely sweetened and delectably tart. It goes so well with the sweet almond cake.

Gooseberry sauce idea from the Riverford Farm Cookbook

400g gooseberries
2 Tbsps butter
2 Tbsps sugar

Wash and top and tail the gooseberries.

Place the gooseberries, knob of butter, and sugar in a smallish saucepan and cook over medium to low heat until the gooseberries have burst, to be somewhere between a sauce and a compote.

Let cool before serving, ideally with almond cake.

Our weekly bread | Truly easy seeded sourdough loaf

5 July 2021

I’ve been avoiding and postponing writing about sourdough for a long time, because it seemed so tricky and mined by details and intricacies and the space already inhabited by so many others. But I have shared this recipe privately so many times now that it makes sense to write it down here, once and for all, for those friends — and any others who might be interested — to have.

The first time I created a sourdough mother (starter) was in May 2014. It was easy and worked immediately but my dedication to bread making was patchy at best, in the end I spent more time making pancakes to use up the starter discard than actually baking loaves. After some months the experiment was waylaid.

In early March of last year, in a scramble to devise self-sustaining food sources in light of the impending lockdowns, again I created a starter (closely followed by salt beef, duck confit, pickles, etc etc). Of course, the irony became that everyone had the same idea at the same time and, while freshly baked bread remained readily available throughout, getting flour in London required constant adaptive creativity including ordering directly from mills, which — even they — soon rationed availability to one kilo of flour per order.

In any case, I created a mother, again, and started baking, this time at an all-consuming rhythm. Within weeks I experimented with different methods of sourdough breads (knead and no-knead), made bagels and baguettes, pizzas and enriched doughs. It was great fun and a steep learning curve. I traveled with the mother, continued baking in Brittany with different flours, different ovens, a not-so-different climate…

When we came home, life returned (briefly) to its more normal, hectic rhythm — bread making needed to be slotted in. And I had a number of stray bags of flour to use up (in particular einkorn, which is a low gluten flour that requires some creativity in bread baking). So I started experimenting with tin loaves, using a basic recipe from the E5 Bakehouse‘s Breadmaking Manual (they have since published a book).

In the Manual, the Seeded Rye is the first recipe, the easiest introduction to baking with sourdough. Taking it as a baseline, I used different flours, different seeds and nuts, adapting the water quantity slightly. It became not only the easiest bread to make, but also the most popular in the house. When, occasionally, I summoned up the effort to make a boule, folded meticulously over many hours, it ended up neglected, languishing in the bread box. Because the other top quality of the seeded loaf, in addition to its simplicity, is that it stays moist and delicious for at least 5 days, and probably up to week.

I usually make two loaves weekly, hand in hand with the rhythm of the starter, about which I will write in more detail soon (including how to revive one neglected in the fridge for a month!). The method today presumes the use of an active, recently ‘fed’ sourdough mother, often called ‘levain.’

Truly easy seeded sourdough loaf

Makes one 25cm x 12.5cm (10in x 5in) loaf

200g ‘levain’ or active, fed sourdough mother/starter
400g warm water (warm, not hot, to the touch, about body temperature)
100g dark rye flour
100g white rye flour
270g white spelt flour
160g of a mix of seeds and nuts: pumpkin, sunflower, flax, sesame seeds, walnuts, hazelnuts, …
12g salt
Olive oil for the tin

In a medium to large bowl, mix together the starter with the warm water.

Add all the other ingredients (the flours, seeds and nuts, and the salt) and mix well to obtain a homogenous, wet dough, with no more traces of flour. Let sit for 10 to 15 minutes to firm up slightly.

Meanwhile, oil the bread tin with a little olive oil (if using a cake tin that is not non-stick, line it with parchment paper and oil the parchment).

To transfer the dough into the tin: scrape the dough off the sides of the bowl, wet your hands with lukewarm water and, with wet hands, roughly shape/spin the dough into a long-ish oval (somewhat resembling a giant slug), and place it into the tin. Leave at room temperature, covered with a tea towel, for one hour.

Sprinkle the loaf with seeds, and slide the tin, ideally, in a ziplock bag large enough so it can close with the tin inside (otherwise cover with clingfilm or a barely damp tea towel) and place in the fridge overnight (anywhere from about 8 to 15 hours, as convenient).

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 230C (450F) and place a small dish with 2cm water on the lower shelf rack (the steam helps improves the consistency of the crust).

When the oven has reached its temperature, take the bread tin out of the refrigerator, score the top with a sharp knife, and place it in the oven. Bake at this high temperature for 25 minutes.

After 25 minutes, remove the tray with water, lower the temperature to 200C (400F), and bake for a further 15 minutes.

Once out of the oven, remove the bread from the tin immediately. The bread should sound hollow when tapped. If it doesn’t seem completely ready, return to oven (out of the tin) for a little while longer.

Let the bread cool completely on a wire rack. If possible, wait for a few hours before cutting!

Stewed Pakistani dried apricots with a spoonful of double cream

22 June 2021

The advent of summer (yesterday — ?) is no reason to shun dried fruit. These tiny, intensely fragrant apricots — which must be soaked and briefly stewed — make the most perfect dessert to punctuate a hot evening outdoors with friends. There was one just a few weeks ago, before it started to rain, again. (Now even my garden, sopping, seems to say ‘enough!’)

I first saw mention of these remarkably small apricots, famously from the Hunza valley in northern Pakistan, by the food writer Jenny Linford on Instagram some weeks ago. They are dried directly on the trees and become so hard that they need to be soaked — coaxed — overnight back to tenderness. I am quite a fan of dried fruit, as a couple of recipes on these pages can attest, and started hunting for them immediately.

It is no hyperbole to say these are entirely unlike any apricot — fresh or dried — I have ever tasted. Emphatically, they justify breaching the attempt to eat as locally as possible. Some exceptions are worth it.

To accentuate the aroma of the apricots I created a faintly sweet, barely cardamom syrup.

Stewed Pakistani dried apricots recipe

These apricots are sold with kernels, and I left them in so the fruits stayed round and plump when cooked, but opinions differ. If you wish to remove the kernels the best time to do this is after soaking and before cooking.

400g apricots
3 Tbps golden caster sugar (or similar)
2 whole cardamom pods
Thick double cream to serve

In a bowl, soak the apricots overnight in about double the amount of water needed to cover the apricots, as they will swell and soak up the water. Add water if necessary so that all the abricots stay submerged.

The next morning, transfer the apricots to a saucepan and simmer gently for 15 to 20 minutes.

Remove the apricots with a slotted spoon or ladle and set aside. Add 3 heap tablespoons of sugar and the seeds from two cardamom pods, lightly crushed in a mortar. Simmer for 10 minutes (or longer for a more intense cardamom flavour).

Strain the syrup and pour over the apricots. Let the apricots cool completely then place them in the fridge for at least a couple of hours and before serving.

Serve with spoonfuls of thick double cream.

Green asparagus with spring onions

10 June 2021

Some dishes are ideas more than recipes, they creep into our lives unawares.

I have had a few favourite asparagus recipes, and written about them, each time touting their priviledged status and every time I was completely sincere. And here I am, with yet another ‘favourite’. Seasons and appetites change, new preferences do not preclude lasting affections.

I made this simple dish last year, probably guided by the entrails of our fridge: asparagus and spring onions being (again this year) our spring staples. It remained etched in the margins of my cook’s memory. This year, it’s all I’ve wanted to do with asparagus.

Perfect company for an easy barbecue, it could also be cooked on the fire, but our balcony-intended cast-iron grill is too small and barely fits steak for six, so I make it in a skillet on the stove.

Asparagus with spring onions recipe

A rule of thumb for quantities is one third spring onions to two thirds asparagus

Asparagus (see note on quantities above)
Spring onion (see note on quantities above)
Olive oil
Soya sauce
Flaky sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Trim the tough ends of the asparagus stalks; rinse in cold water.

Trim the roots and leaf tips of the spring onions (I like to also remove one layer if it’s starting to wilt). Rinse the onions to remove any grit. With the blunt side of a wide knife, flatten (crush) the spring onions lengthwise.

In a large bowl, combine the asparagus and spring onions with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, a discreet splash of soya sauce, pinch of salt, and lots of black pepper. Toss to ‘dress’ the vegetables.

If using a barbecue, grill the vegetables / if using a skillet, add a bit of olive oil and fry over high heat for 5 to 7 minutes until the vegetables are nicely coloured and still firm.

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