The Bunting Cake

It was Big Daughter's 5th birthday recently. Due to maternal guilt over moving her around and taking her from her friends and depriving her of the comforts of home - come to think of it, I'm not sure if the deprivation is hers or mine - I went a little birthday preparation nuts.

While I barely slept for a week save for a few fleeting hours in between cutting out butterflies and crafting bunting flags from sugar paste, I did enjoy every minute. 


Despite the hat and the cold, Tilly even managed to enjoy herself for a minute or two.

I do need to mention that my sister, Kate, made the strawberries for my Cath Kidston inspired birthday cake which she and my mom made. I recycled them.


No Knead Olive Oil Pizza Dough - Kitchen Workhorse

Sometimes you happen upon something that makes your previous efforts seem like a colossal waste of effort. Years spent altering a bit of this and a bit of that, wondering which combination will be just right are looked back on as misguided and foolhardy. Now, I do know that life, and all it entails are about the journey, not about where you end up but, I have decided, that as far as pizza crust goes, we have arrived and reflection on the past will not be happening.

I have had a pretty decent pizza dough recipe that I have used for about twelve years. It makes a divine focaccia, which is really all about the olive oil and salt ratio. The pizza crust it makes, if your oven is hot enough and you are lucky enough to be using “00” flour, is pretty good. I have spent many hours kneading this dough, in all its flour combinations, trying to come out with just the right taste and bite. Rarely with overwhelming success and, when successful, rarely repeatable which I chalk up to our nomadic tendencies.

I like kneading bread, I love it in fact. I love it more when I have no one underfoot and something good to listen to, and by good I don’t mean Sharon, Lois and Bram. Under these circumstances, I don’t even mind the clean-up. It used to be a retreat, the morning bread making, hiding out in the galley before anyone woke and broke the silence. Sadly, or happily, these circumstances are pretty much a thing of the past and I look to simplifying, even if it means giving up on cheap therapy.

When I saw this recipe and heard about the the book it came from, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, like my friend Kate when I told her about it, said, ‘I don’t believe it.’ I still haven’t read the book but if this pizza crust recipe is anything to go by, it holds great promise.

I have made it with several different types of flour, all resounding successes. Our favourite is making it with all Speerville Mills Whole White flour. It has a great crunch and a nice toastiness on the crispier bits. The half white bread flour, half whole wheat was really good too. I wouldn’t go more than 50% whole wheat personally but to each his own.

I know what I am about to say will leave pizza purists reeling. Don't get me wrong. I love perfect pizza. I have been lucky enough eat it here and here and here repeatedly (I apologize for the music). I spent four months working in and out of Naples and when in Rome, er, I mean Naples, you do as the Neapolitans do. I also think that when you are not in Naples and you don't have a 200 year old oven or family tradition to carry on, you can use a little license.

We have been topping pizzas with everything and have discovered fruit pizzas. The first was a caramelized shallot, fresh mango and brie number with a bit of fresh chive that was scrummy. The next, a few days later, was the same caramelized shallots, apple and cheddar and I think I almost liked it better simply because the apples held a slight crunch.

The girls are loving their pizza bianca. Our version is a smear of garlic scape pesto with feta or cheddar. It’s also so good with spinach and artichokes.

While we haven’t been, and don’t, eat pizza everyday, this dough is great because a batch makes enough for about five or six thin crust pizzas. You can divide it after it rises and put it in bags in the fridge for up to twelve days. I am sure it would freeze really well but, I have to admit, we haven’t had to yet.

Tell me, what is your favourite pizza topping. Are you a traditionalist? Can you stomach pineapple? What’s your most adventurous?

Olive Oil Dough from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day

Makes enough for five to six thin crust pizzas (about 4 pounds of dough)

2 3/4 cups warm water

1 1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast

1 1/2 tablespoons salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

6 1/2 cups flour (be adventurous)

In the bowl of a stand mixer, if you have one, or a large mixing bowl, mix the water, yeast, salt, sugar and olive oil together.

Mix in the flour until it all comes together.

Turn into a large bowl and cover, I use cling film because I know it will reach the top of my bowl. If your bowl is big enough, use a damp tea towel.

Let rise at room temperature until it falls back on itself (it rise so much that the bubbles burst and it collapses), or until it flattens on top.

Use immediately or divide, if you want, and refrigerate for up to twelve days, or freeze.

If you freeze it, although I haven’t tried, thaw it in the fridge without opening the bag or container.

Prepare it as you would your usual pizza.


It's a Hard Life

In the past, you know those very few times I remembered to actually do it, Recipeless Wednesday was a photo and just a photo. While all this travel, as I have discovered, leaves little time for anything other than tea, I thought at least I could take pictures and tell you a bit about it. Luckily, the daughters and I have being very well cared for. Meals and laundry and comfy beds abound.

I could use a little more wi-fi access to the interweb, all available at the cafe down the road but the likelihood of accompishing anything other than a MacBook swimming in spilled hot chocolate is slim. My less optimistic visions of the mayhem involve Tilly jumping across the tables, lattes and cappuccinos spilling every which way as she shouts, 'Mine, mine, mine,' wielding a spoon reaching for the chocolate sprinkles of strangers and other terrified small children.

We started out on a high note, with our very own fashion dos and don'ts on Wills' and Kate's big day. We decided that hats are back unless, of course, they are really just nude coloured fancy Minnie Mouse ears. Not sure anyone could pull that/those off. All this royal telly watching with cups of tea to fuel the six am start.

Then we enjoyed an amazing day here where we, and our cupcake smeared gaggle of cousins, didn't venture past the dining room but, after a quick internet squizz, I am determined to go back for longer than an afternoon. We were treated to a Royal Wedding Tea Party complete with wedding cake and, more importantly, Pimm's. It was all served in idyllic English surrounds on a day straight out of July. After tea and cakes and little cucumber sandwiches delivered to the garden by icing-wired offspring, I almost couldn't bear the thought of returning to bathe and put to bed my children.

Then, there was more tea, and more cake, in the form of Annabel's Marmalade Cake, recipe and more children happily playing together while their mothers determined the best and worst dressed. I will post this in due time. I am starting to worry that this will become a blog about delicious things to eat with a cup of tea and, consequently, I'll need to let my trousers out.

Later that week, we had coffee with Rosie in Appleby. Her and her husband, Andrew, run The Courtyard Gallery. Stephen would have been most impressed with my restraint, Poppy's Deborah Hopson-Wolpe bowl almost got a mate and I could hear my cupboards crying out for Dartington pottery. Rosie makes the cakes for the gallery cafe so we were treated to a walnut cake and Tiffin squares and some other things that my children devoured before I got to try.

The next day we got to Cornwall, after a most stoic, if I may say so, eight hour car journey on my own with the girls. For that day, our gustatory experiences were enjoyed on a path of least resistance basis and somewhat limited by and to motorway service stations and coffee (lots of) with bribes of chocolate and sweets, like they hadn't been eating all that for the last ten days.

Crossing the Tamar, into Poppy's birthplace, as she'll all too readily explain, is a bit of a homecoming. It is our English home. Cornwall has brought us asparagus by the literal bucket load. Said asparagus gets itself drizzled in just shy of a bucket load of melted butter and a generous salt and peppering and calls itself supper. I have absolutely no problem with that.

Poppy has been begging for rhubarb, she has only had it once since we got here, and Eton Mess, that too has also only been had once. She has determined it is better than pavlova, it is essentially smooshed pavlova. Luckily for her, we managed to not get lost, stuck or drive the car into a hedge on some single track Cornish lanes leading to the farm shop where, as their sign four miles back promised, they had not only rhubarb, but fresh strawberries too.

We drove back to the grandparents' as fast as our out of practice Cornish lane navigating would allow and set about the yummiest of English puds and roasting our rhubarb. All the pictures and instructions to come in the first installment of 2011's Rhubarb Trilogy. All this, just as soon as I find some wi-fi.


Chocolate Paté - Happy Birthday Pops!

My dad’s birthday is today. He is turning 60. 60 years young, he would say. My dad has taught me some pretty valuable lessons in the past few years.

He has taught me the value of being unconditional with those you love. I missed that for a long while. Along with that came learning the value of being loved unconditionally. He has taught me that sometimes it is okay to give in and to admit that you can’t do it all. He has taught me that it is okay to receive and that sometimes just being thankful is enough. He taught me that we don’t always have to agree to have a relationship. He has taught me that even when we haven’t seen each other or spoken in an age, that there is always someone who will listen and enjoy or talk and disagree or just say, ‘thanks for sharing that.’ He has taught me that I am stronger than I think I am.

He has taught my daughters a few things too. They have learned that he is a little crazy sometimes but that he loves them, even when they don’t want a bar of him and that that in itself is okay. He has taught Poppy how to drive, the windshield wiper controls and horn being an integral part of those lessons. His alter-ego, Stewart Martha, has taught them how clean a floor should be to eat off of. Most importantly so far, for them, he has taught them that chocolate is a food group on its own and that, when part of a meal, one should always eat it first so as not to spoil it by the lingering flavours of anything else or, heaven forbid, by not having enough room at the end of a meal. 

With that in mind, the girls and I set out to make what is potentially my dad’s favourite food, chocolate paté. I have made it for him before, in various guises. I once put some dried sour cherries in it which were eaten, but to his mind were definitely not proper, interfering with what was meant to be a chocolate experience. The nuts were greeted in much the same way. White chocolate would be unthinkable and milk chocolate is just about tolerable. 

Finding the recipe we would use became a challenge but I eventually happened upon a Bernard Callebaut recipe which, with a few tweaks was going to be just fine. I omitted the white chocolate layer. I kept the milk chocolate layer because the dark chocolate I was using needed a sweet lift for this to really be perfect, and so that my children would eat it. I normally make a baked, in a water bath, chocolate paté which uses eggs but it also uses 1 1/2 pounds of chocolate and makes a ton. It was not an eating challenge I felt the girls and I could, or should, take on. A big plus was the simplicity of this recipe. Sometimes you just can’t be worrying about temperatures and timing and with this, in three hours you have something amazing.

What came out was a little lighter than a usual paté but no less chocolatey for it. The Just Us chocolate I used was perfect. The dark gave a smoky depth and the milk chocolate had a caramel note that was the perfect foil for the barely sweet dark. I macerated some raspberries, which means I added some sugar and let them sit for a bit, and served it with that and some white chocolate sauce. You could do that or purée the berries and pass them through a sieve to remove the seeds for a finer presentation. With white chocolate or not is up to you as well. Some like it served with a dollop of whipped cream. In Cornwall, it would have a blob of the ubiquitous clotted cream. Really, I think, anything goes.

The only note on the method I would like to add is that of you stop to take photos, distribute evenly sized spoon licks to onlookers or otherwise faff about during the folding in of the cream, you too will likely end up with some tiny little chips of chocolate in your paté. They taste great but don’t help in the achieving of a silky smooth texture.

With all that, Happy Birthday Dad/Papa! 

Chocolate Paté (adapted from Bernard Callebaut)

200 grams good quality milk chocolate chopped

200 grams good quality dark chocolate chopped (try for at least 70%)

3/4 cup unsalted butter 

2 cups (500 ml) heavy (whipping) cream

Line a 22 x 11 cm loaf pan with cling film.

Melt each of the chocolates separately in a double boiler. When melted add 1/4 + 1/8 cup butter (1/2 of what the recipe calls for) in each, stir until butter is melted. Remove from double boiler and heat and let cool to room temperature.

When chocolate mixtures are cooled, whip cream to soft peaks. Divide evenly between the two chocolates and gently fold the cream into each chocolate.

Spoon the milk chocolate mixture into the pan, tap gently to, hopefully, get rid of any big bubbles and smooth top. The do the same with the dark chocolate layer.

Cover it with cling film and refrigerate for at least two hours.

Carefully unmold by gently tugging on the cling film lining the tin and invert it onto a plate.

With a hot knife (put the knife in a container of hot water for a few seconds), slice the paté.

Put slices on a plate and serve with some macerated raspberries or raspberry coulis and/or some white chocolate sauce.


THE. BEST. CHOCOLATE. CHIP. COOKIES. - Really,They are That Good

I have one sentence for you. It is really quite simple. No fuss, no muss, just one little sentence that may just change your life, or at least your baking. These are the best chocolate chip cookies ever. Yes, I said EVER.

The recipe hails from a New York Times article from 2008. Before you get all excited thinking I have the time to read the New York Times and how you must have my time management tips and secrets, I don’t. I was just lucky enough to stumble upon Orangette, who wasn’t reading the New York Times either, but has a news-reading friend who told her she needed to read this article.

If you care, at all, about cookies or baking or recipe development or Dorie Greenspan, who, along with David Lebovitz (I know I’m name dropping but I love them), is teaching me how to make perfect macarons, then you should read the original article by David Leite. If you care about them being really beautiful, and arranging the chocolate pieces, Jacques Torres uses made-especially-for-him fêves, chocolate disks that create layers of chocolate through the cookie, so that they are just so, you can do that to. All I know is that Torres clearly does not have twenty fingers reaching up from between him and the countertop trying to pinch his cookies while he arranges his fêves. I eliminated this challenge by using really good quality chocolate chips which tasted just fine.

Now, not all, but lots, maybe even most good things come with a caveat. Some make it a deal breaker and, to be honest, it almost was for me. I wasn’t sure we, pretty much meaning me, could cope with a bowl of cookie dough sitting in our fridge. Yes, that’s right, sitting in our fridge for thirty-six, that’s 3-6, hours. It may seem like an age, especially when you are waiting for cookies, but you can just push it to the back and come back a day and a half later. 

Do it. Don’t let the time defeat you. You will love them. They are delicious. They are crispy. They are chewy. They are salty sweet perfection.

As I mentioned, I used chocolate chips instead of disks. Try and use the best quality you can find or afford. I used fine sea salt instead of coarse salt in the dough, I couldn’t see that this would make a difference. I used Maldon sea salt for the tops. The original recipe is given in cups and in ounces. I used cups because I don’t have a scale here in San Diego. My cookies were a little smaller than the recipe wants.

The. Best. Chocolate. Chip. Cookies. adapted from Jacques Torres, David Leite, Orangette (makes about 28 4-inch cookies)

2 cups minus 2 tablespoons cake flour

1 2/3 cups bread flour

1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt

1 1/4 cups unsalted butter

1 1/4 cups light brown sugar

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

2 large eggs

2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract

3 1/4 cups good quality chocolate chips

Maldon sea salt

Sift flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt together.

Cream butter and sugars together for about five minutes, or until very light.

Add eggs, one at a time and mix well after each egg. Beat in the vanilla.

Add the dry ingredients and mix until just combined. 

Mix the chocolate in. 

Press cling film against the dough and refrigerate for 36 hours, or up to 72 hours.

When you are ready to bake, preheat oven to 350º.

Scoop large golf balls of dough onto the baking sheet a couple of inches apart.

Sprinkle each with sea salt and bake until browned but still soft. It took about 16 minutes for me, you will want to keep checking.

Cool on baking sheet for ten minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack.

Repeat until you have baked all your dough. Eat, you may want to use a napkin.


Cornmeal Biscuits or, My Story of Late

Last week, I was bemoaning my recent lack of kitchen enthusiasm. I had made some biscuits, but I didn’t want to post about it because I had posted some other biscuits not so long ago. Then, today, the girls and I made some more biscuits, because we love them and Cook’s Illustrated said they were really good, so we had to. The whole time I was thinking that I should be making something I could write about without making you all think we eat nothing but butter and flour with a bit of stuff to hold it together.

Then, I started thinking about what Denae at The Back Ordered Life said on the weekend. She said you should always write about what you know, you should write your story. And, while I know that I am using this pretty literally, right now I know all about biscuits. All sorts of biscuits, all sorts of fluffy, light and airy little puffs of buttery carb. They are a part of my story. If you make these, they could be part of your story. And, a fine story it will be.

I rarely happen upon a cornmeal based recipe I think I would enjoy. I am not a cornbread lover, most are too sweet. For the same sugary reason, I don’t care for cornmeal muffins. If something looks savoury enough, I may give it a go, but usually not to wind up raving about it. This little number from Cook's Illustrated looked just like the thing I needed to change my mind about cornmeal bakery plus, they are biscuits.

It was raining here. In the rest of the world, one would put on a slicker and brave the elements. This is Southern California, and I was doing like the locals do and chose to act as though a category three hurricane was upon us. Or, you could argue, I had found the perfect excuse to stay in my pyjamas and not brush my hair, let alone actually get in the shower.

All this to say that the recipe calls for buttermilk, I didn’t have any and, although the nearest shop is 100 metres away, I wasn’t going there. I used the old tablespoon of lemon juice in the milk trick and it seems to have worked a treat.

The good person at Cook’s Illustrated, Cali Rich, says to knead the biscuit dough 8-10 times before patting it out. I did not do this, which was fine. However, I did notice that those last biscuits that I cut from the scraps that were smushed back together in a kneadish kind of manner were a little fluffier than the ones cut from the unsmushed dough. So, if you want to knead your dough a few times, I think it would be a good thing. If, like me today, you can’t spare the extra nine seconds it will take, then don’t knead. I leave it up to you.

The other thing the girls and I discovered about these little lovelies I was planning on having for supper is that warm from the oven and drizzled with honey, it is almost impossible not to want to make these a frequent part of your breakfast, lunch and tea time story.

Cornmeal Biscuits adapted from Spring Entertaining from Cook’s Illustrated (makes 12)

1 1/4 cups whole milk

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 cup cornmeal (avoid coarsely ground)

1 tablespoon honey

2 cups all purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

12 tablespoons (3/4 cup) cold salted butter cut into 1/2-inch pieces

Preheat oven to 450º.

Whisk milk and lemon juice together in a large bowl. Let stand until thickened, about ten minutes. Add honey and cornmeal, whisk together. Let stand ten minutes again.

In the bowl of a food processor add flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda and pulse to combine. Add butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. 

Add the flour mixture to the cornmeal mixture. Stir until a dough forms.

Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and if you are kneading, knead. Otherwise, pat dough out to about 3/4-inch thickness. Cut into 2 1/2-inch rounds with a cutter or a floured glass or cup. Place on baking sheet.

Bake for 5 minutes, reduce heat to 400º and bake for a further 8-10 minutes.

Let cool for a few minutes on baking sheet before you devour them all.


Recipeless Wednesday

With extra sprinkles.


Hummingbird Cake 

A little less than a year ago, the girls and I had the honour of attending a very special third birthday party. There were all the usual birthday party requirements including friends and family and games and a pinata. There was lots of party food including three cakes made by three generations of the birthday girl’s family.

One of the cakes had been made by her great grandmother, the traditional chocolate. One was made by her mom. And one, made by her grandmother, was her mom’s favourite. Coconut, not traditional as far as I know but I add it, and pineapple, bananas and nuts combine with cream cheese icing to make a cake far more delicious than the most perfect of carrot cakes or the moistest of humble banana muffins.

We said goodbye to this bright spark of a three year old recently on a grey day in a little church in a beautiful hamlet when I can only imagine the rainbows and sunshine and butterflies and fairy dust that were being sprinkled down on that space in the world; this little girl who has touched the lives and hearts of friends and family and so many people she didn’t even know. She has certainly caused me to cuddle my girls a little tighter and to give thanks for my blessings. Her mama has inspired me to be a stronger, more courageous person and to pack as much joy into every minute with my children as I can possibly muster.

I got back to San Diego and decided that I would make a Hummingbird Cake. I don’t have Mama B's recipe, nor could I even imagine mine would be as good but the thought of a certain little three year old eating it is food for the soul.

Hummingbird Cake (adapted from Joy of Baking)

1 cup toasted unsweetened shredded coconut (you can gently toast it in a pan over low heat, just keep an eye on it)

1 cup chopped pecans

3 cups all purpose flour

2 cups granulated sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3 large eggs

3/4 cup vegetable oil

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups finely chopped fresh pineapple (yes, fresh, tinned pineapple gives me itchy hands)

2 cups mashed banana

Preheat oven to 350º. Butter and flour two 8 or 9-inch cake pans.

Mix dry ingredients together.

Beat wet ingredients together.

Mix wet and dry ingredients together and pour into pans.

Bake for about 40 minutes, until a tester inserted comes out dry. It may be a bit quicker for 9-inch pans, a bit longer for 8-inch.

Let cool on a cooling rack.

Split layers, if you feel like having four layers. I do because I like to pack a little more frosting in there. If not, just use the two. Trim the tops of the layers, before splitting, if they are uneven.

Frost with cream cheese frosting, recipe follows.

Cream Cheese Frosting

1 1/2 cups soft, room temperature butter

1 pound (450 grams, 16 ounces, 2 blocks) room temperature full fat cream cheese - Don’t even try it with the light kind, not only will it not taste as good, it will be a runny mess. Really, just don’t do it.

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups icing sugar

1/4 - 1/3 cup milk

Cream butter. Add cream cheese and cream together until smooth. Add the sugar and vanilla extract and beat until incorporated. Add milk, by the tablespoonful, if the frosting is too stiff. Add just as much as you need to for the frosting to be a nice consistency for icing the cake, think buttercream.