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Thursday, 21 February 2013

almost-spring cake

See? Sun. Photographic evidence of sun.

Yesterday, something peculiar happened: I went to post a letter. For me, that alone is rather unusual- I still have a stack of Christmas cards (addressed and stamped) languishing in a kitchen drawer, along with two lovingly-penned letters to a friend in Australia that are now so outdated that I'll have to write a third. Which I'll probably forget to post. But putting my own anecdotal scattiness aside, I went to post a letter, and it wasn't cold. Windy, certainly. Balmy? No. But it wasn't cold. I was in a t-shirt and pyjama bottoms- inappropriate on several of levels- firstly, it was two o'clock. Secondly, they had sheep on. And I was wearing them in public. Thirdly, it was, and still is, February. I should have been cold. But it seems it's nearly spring... and we can all feel it; there's a contagious and palpable uplift in the national mood that gains momentum with every additional minute of daylight that's creeping in. However, judging by the ominous grey of today's sky (not to mention the return to near sub-zero temperatures this morning), I'd say we're not quite there yet. There's no spring lamb, no asparagus, and no new Game of Thrones on the telly- because what heralds the advent of Spring quite like the annual arrival of more bloodshed, pelts and dragons than you can shake a stick at?

So what am I eating? I'm bored of stews, and done with stodgy steamed puddings. And because I haven't given up cake for Lent (instead I opted for bread AND potatoes- what was I thinking??), I'm eating this. A lot.

Almond St Clements Cake

... or essentially a tarted-up Lemon Drizzle.

This recipe has come about after years of tweaking, adjusting, and screw-ups. A lemon Drizzle was the first of many things I learned to cook with my mum, and is quick, easy and relatively fuss-free to cobble together. It won't win any awards for gastronomic originality, but it might just pinch first place in a quaint rural bake sale of some sort. I can't say for sure, I've never tried.

What You Need:

  • 4 oz (or 113.398g... this one works better in ounces, it seems) caster sugar
  • 4 oz salted butter, at room temperature
  • 3 oz self-raising flour
  • 1 oz ground almonds (or for a nut-free version, just up the flour measurement to a full 4 oz)
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 eggs from happy chickens
  • 3 unwaxed lemons- you're using them for the zest too, so unwaxed is infintely better
  • 2 oranges
  • 1 tbsp (or more) of milk or cream
  • 3 tbsp (or more) of icing sugar
  • A sprinkling of poppy seeds

What You Do:

1. Preheat your oven to 160 degrees fan, or 180 degrees otherwise. It's just occurred to me that I never give a gas mark instruction- that's primarily because I've never used one, nor would I have a clue how to. Sorry.

2. Grease a 7" tin (with a removable base, or else you'll be gouging the finished cake out with your hands, which is never classy), and line with baking parchment or greaseproof paper. I find it helps if you grease the base, and then stick the paper on. It makes trimming easier.

Butter and zest. Lots of zest.

3. Cream your butter with the zest of two of your lemons, and one of your oranges. You'll need the rest for the 'drizzle' part. Beat for at least two minutes.

NB. I'm lucky enough to have a big shiny Kitchen Aid, which my husband bought me in lieu of paying the rent one month. No joke- they aren't cheap, but they make light work of exhausting tasks like this. Working on the assumption that most people don't own one, a handheld electric mixer (about a tenner from Argos) works well. Only resort to using a wooden spoon if you're either some kind of masochist, or looking to offset the calories from actually eating the cake itself.

Not a noteworthy picture, but just one to illustrate what
I mean when I say like yellow whipped cream. Because that
doesn't really paint a very nice picture.
4. Gradually add your caster sugar, and continue to beat. I really can't emphasise enough just how important this step is: it's the foundation of the entire cake. Do it carelessly or hastily, and your cake will be as solid and appetising as a breeze block. The process allows the sugar crystals to beat air bubbles into the fat, creating the light, airy sponge that's the mark of any good drizzle cake. Cream for at least five minutes- the mixture needs to be significantly paler, and almost have the appearance of a yellow whipped cream.

5. Add your eggs, one at a time. If your mixture looks as though it might split or curdle, add in a spoon of sifted flour between each egg.

6. Sift your self-raising flour (even if it says something along the lines of 'No Need To Sift!' on the front- it's always worthwhile), and add your bicarbonate of soda. This gives the cake an extra bit if oomph.

7. Fold in gently using a metal spoon or spatula (both minimise air-loss in the mixture, whereas a chunky wooden spoon is more likely to knock the bubbles out).

8. Add in your ground almonds, and fold in gently. Again, your aim is to retain as much air as possible, so do this lovingly.

9. Add a splash of milk or cream to your mixture- just enough to loosen it so that it falls from a spoon when nudged. Do this gradually-you can't take it away once it's in.

10. Place in the centre of your oven for 25-35 minutes. I appreciate that these timings are a bit vague, but it all depends on your oven, the mixture, your tin... I would suggest spending a fiver on an oven thermometer, because oven calibrations are nearly always wrong. Check it at the twenty-two minute mark- and not before! Opening the oven any earlier will cause the temperature to drop, your cake will sink, and you'll be the laughing stock of whichever provincial cake competition you've entered it into.

The cake is done once a skewer comes out without any wet batter clinging to it. Mine took twenty-seven minutes.

11. While it's in the oven, crack on with your syrup and the icing. Squeeze the juice of two lemons and one orange into a bowl, and grate in the zest of one lemon and one orange. Add caster sugar- a teaspoonful at a time- until you get the desired level of sweetness. I like mine quite tart, because it has the sweet sponge and the icing sugar to contend with, but it's up to you. Stir to make sure the sugar crystals dissolve.

12. For the icing, place your icing sugar in a bowl, and squeeze the juice of you remaining lemon inside. Mix feverishly until a paste forms- it should be quite thick, and retain a bright white colour. Adjust as necessary with lemon juice or more sugar to get it just right.

13. Once your cake is out of the oven, prick it all over with a cocktail stick, and drizzle the... err... drizzle... over in stages. Wait for the first lot to soak in before continuing. How much you use is up to you- I love a sticky, wet cake, so I go all in. Leave your cake to cool for a few minutes until you can handle the tin safely, and remove the outer ring


14. Once the cake has cooled, drizzle your icing over in a way that strikes you as attractive. Top with a sprinkling of poppy seeds, and then try to refrain from eating it entirely. Saving a slice or two for the cat is always nice.

Happy Almost-Spring,

mrs hunt.x

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

an ode to butter

In case it had escaped your notice, this is not a diet blog. It's not even a healthy eating blog- it's just an eating blog. To me, food isn't just fuel- whatever 'healthy eating gurus' such as Gillian McKeith et al. say. It's worth pointing out that I also find the idea of taking nutritional advice from someone who looks so haggard and, frankly, miserable, absurd. Food is there to be enjoyed- there's nothing more satisfying than sharing a beautiful meal with people you care about, and the contentment that follows- a feeling that all is right with the world. A feeling, presumably, that you won't quite achieve from tucking into Quorn (other pretend mince is probably available...), washed down with a side of pallid, marge-coated bread.

Now seems as good an opportunity as any to embark on a bit of a rant. Not about chocolate this time- it's 'health foods' (note the inverted commas) that are in the firing line. By now, most faddy January diets are out the window. After three weeks surviving solely on maple syrup or fruit juice, people tend to slip all too easily back into the same food routines, and fall for the same old 'health' traps- time and time again. So with Lent beginning tomorrow, I figured I would use the chance to compile a guide to:

Things You Think You Should Be Eating That Are Actually Really Bad For You, And What You Should Probably Swap Them For

For the sake of credibility, I should mention these aren't just my musings; I haven't simply decided that since I happen to detest the taste of margarine, we should all avoid it. Steve Harrison, a very close friend of mine, (whose job title I've never actually managed to nail down- the Chandler Bing of the fitness/nutrition world, if you will...) has long been indulging me with lengthy rants about how us Brits in particular have food so very wrong. And having done a bit more research of my own, I'm inclined to agree. I don't just mean our capacity for over-cooking steaks, or our nationwide obsession with microwave meals- and all that's without even mentioning the horse meat. I'm talking about the so-called 'health-food' industry, something we spend millions of pounds on each year.

And so, here are just three things you could try giving up for Lent, if not permanently, and what you should be eating instead- alternatives that billions of pounds, and many years of marketing have gone into convincing you are bad for your health.

Fake Health Food #1: 

Can I put this here? Will I
get sued? We'll see, I suppose.

.. and other veg oils, for that matter. We've only had the technology to extract oils from crops (and thereby make margarine or other synthetic spreads) for 150 years. It's not something our bodies are well adapted to breaking down, and without sounding like a  hypochondriac, can cause cell mutations, and clog arteries. It's also been linked to skin cancer. But more importantly- and something the foodie side of me is more preoccupied with than anything else- it tastes crap. It smells crap. It has none of the beauty or richness of butter, and will always be a pale substitute.

And What You Should Replace It With...

Well, BUTTER. Obviously.

It tastes... like butter. Which is the point, surely? It also contains Lecithin, antioxidants, vitamin A, vitamin E, Selenium (all good things- google them if you don't believe me), and cholesterol. Which is also good. Yes, good. Flora and the like may spend a great deal of time and money telling you otherwise, but it's all rubbish. See here, here and here,  and spread the word.

Fake Health Food #2:

Don't even get me started. Again, I have the foodie objection to proffer (it's tasteless, has the texture of a thirty year old rubber band, and looks about as appetising as one too...), but for me, it's far more complex an argument than just this. 

I won't go into huge detail about the legal wranglings of Monsanto (a company that have patented 'soy' and sue anyone that tries to grow and sell it themselves), but it's well worth reading up on if you're interested- if only to hear about Oprah putting them in their place like only she could. For now, let's just focus on the nutritional side: The fermented stuff- the staple of Asian cuisine for thousands of years- is lovely. Go for it. Who doesn't love soul-soothing Miso every once in a while? But the processed, unfermented stuff that's used in cheap fake meat brands and other processed foods? No. Avoid it like the plague, because it interferes with digestion and pancreatic function, and contains high levels of aluminium, which is toxic to the nervous system and the kidneys. Since mine are pretty busy filtering copious amounts of gin from my system, I wouldn't want to add to the burden any further, even if the stuff did taste half decent. I don't know about anyone else.

And What You Should Replace It With...

Meat. Lots and lots of meat. Or fish. Just protein, really- it's all good for you, and if you genuinely do want to lose weight, what you should be basing your diet on. Ignore the Daily Mail's ramblings about steak leading to premature death/unemployment/the end of 'Great' Britain as we know it, because again, it seems to come down to some very successful indoctrination (not to mention bad journalism). Meat is good.

And if you're vegetarian? Well, just stick to the natural, unprocessed stuff.

Fake Health Food #3:

Sticking a moderately attractive, skinny brunette in a nice red dress on the front does not a health food make. In fact, if there was to be an award  for 'the most unhealthy product to have somehow permeated the mass market by pretending to be healthy' (it's catchy, give me that) then 'healthy' cereal brands would be neck and neck with margarine. I'm not saying they're worse than soy, I'm merely noting that both have been inordinately successful at convincing 99% of the British populace that they're good for us. 

Surviving on a diet that is two-thirds grain based (if you're mental enough to try eating cereal for two of your three meals a day, as the marketing push of a popular brand would have you doing, that is), which in itself is 77% carbohydrate, and 1/4 sugar is clearly not going to do you any good. That much is obvious. We need to get our heads around the idea that whilst cereal isn't excessively bad for you- it does have vitamins and fibre- it's no health food, and should be regarded as a treat in much the same way sweets or crisps would be.

And What You Should Replace It With...

A fry-up. The works- egg, bacon, black pudding, sausage, mushroom, tomato... all cooked in butter or olive oil. Eggs are one of the best things you can be giving your body, and the fats here are all good. If you really feel like being healthy, forgo the toast and baked beans.

So I hope that brightens up your February- or at least assuages any lingering post Christmas/failed diet January guilt.

And if not, next week I'll be doing cake. That'll make everything better.

mrs hunt.x