The scents of a season

(Quince brown butter cake)

Two months into Autumn and I’m finally getting a sense of the season we’re in. Chestnuts are in the shops, along with fuzzy yellow quinces, mandarins and gorgeous ripe persimmons. It strikes me that chestnuts and quinces in particular are two things that require a bit of work before they bridge that gap between why-bother and food-nirvana. I couldn’t resist combining the two in a dessert for friends recently, and know just how laborious it is to cook with them.

Prior to being taught more about quinces, I’d only ever thought of them as the sugary rubbery stuff usually served with cheese. Now every year, I cook them slowly in a not overly sugary syrup, and store them in jars, to be folded into steamed puddings, ice-cream or baked as tarts. When the last bit of cooked fruit has been scooped from the jar, the remaining liquid is then used to soak a sponge, make a custard (Eliza Acton’s recipe for quince custard uses the poaching liquid, egg yolks and not much else. No dairy!) or even reduced to glaze a ham. If you don’t have the patience or the dessert gene, try the lamb and quince tagine from Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Fruit instead. The fragrant fruit makes such a statement even in that simple savoury dish.

Today, I really wanted cake, so I made one based on a recipe by Claudia Fleming in her book, The Last Course. This cake is somewhat like an over-sized financier, and has a tight crumb with a deep caramel-like flavour of brown butter. You could serve it with cream or ice-cream, but really I think it’s perfect with just a simple cup of tea.

Quince brown butter cake :

115g butter, browned, strained and kept warm
120g icing sugar
130g buckwheat flour
pinch of sea salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground long pepper (if you don’t have this, use a spice of your choice)
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
150g egg whites
finely grated zest of 1 mandarin
1 large slow-cooked quince, sliced

Grease and line the base of a 7.5″ round pie tin. (see note below)
Preheat the oven to 190’C.

Combine the icing sugar, flour, baking powder, salt, spices and zest in a bowl. Whisk in the eggs whites thoroughly, then gradually whisk in the warm brown butter. Pour the mix into the prepared tin. Top with slices of quince. Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean. Once cooked, allow to cool on a wire rack. Brush the cake with some of the quince cooking liquid, and just before serving, dust the top with a little icing sugar.

[To cook quinces : Wash and peel the quinces, cut in half and place them into a pot with a solution of 3 water : 1 sugar. Add sliced lemon, 1 cinnamon stick, a few crushed cardamom pods, and a split vanilla bean if you wish, and bring to a boil. Once it comes to a boil, turn the heat down, place a cartouche (circle of baking paper) over the quinces and continue to cook on very low heat for several hours until the fruit is completely cooked through and have turned a deep ruby colour.]

[Note about baking tin : I used an unusual sized tin for this cake. You can use a larger one or bake individual cakes, and adjust the baking time accordingly.]

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In case of Spring, mini strawberry buckwheat cakes

As if life isn’t confusing enough, these past couple of August days have been so warm, I have been wondering if we aren’t being set up for an early Spring. I almost wish Winter wasn’t disappearing so quickly. Not a single chestnut or perfumed quince managed to pass through my kitchen this season and the thin film of dust on my favourite braising pot remains.. undisturbed. Besides, I still haven’t made a decision on which slow cooker to get and don’t think I’m ready for the smell of sun screen lotion or the sight of people walking to their city offices in business suits and flip flops.

But the great advantage of living in a country with temperate weather is this is often the best time of the year to be expecting luscious strawberries. They aren’t exceptionally cheap at the moment (but then again, berries rarely are), however I did manage to buy enough recently to make a very delicious strawberry and vanilla pie.

This weekend, I wanted something a little simpler, hence these little cakes which are like bite-sized nuggets of brown butter, vanilla and juicy strawberries. A plateful of these and you know what, I think I’m almost ready to give up Winter.

Mini Strawberry Buckwheat Cakes :

125g butter
150g icing sugar, sifted
55g plain flour
90g buckwheat flour
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
4 egg whites

1 x 250g punnet of strawberries (eat the extras while you work!)

Cook the butter in a pan on medium heat until it turns a nut-brown colour. Carefully strain through a sieve into a bowl and allow to cool to room temperature.

Sift the icing sugar and flours into a bowl. Lightly whisk the egg whites and vanilla essence together to combine. Whisk this into the sugar and flours, then add the cooled browned butter.

Line a mini muffin tin with little squares of baking paper (or grease the tin well and dust with a light sprinkling of flour). Spoon the mixture (or pour with the help of a jug) into each muffin hole. Top with half a strawberry (or quarter the strawberries, if they are especially large). Bake in a preheated 205’C oven until a skewer inserted into a little cake comes out clean, about 15-18 minutes.

Dust with extra icing sugar and eat while they’re still warm.

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Skillet Cakes

(Spiced cherry and yogurt skillet cake)

My love affair with skillet cakes began a long time ago, when B and I used to make apple pancakes on a regular basis. The recipe for those pancakes originated from a newspaper cutting that has since been misplaced and is still dearly missed. My attempts to recreate the recipe have so far failed. Or maybe whatever we make now will never taste the same because we were younger then and more inexperienced in the kitchen, and it was a wonder to be able to combine shredded green apples with cinnamon, a pat of butter and a leavened batter to yield a large fluffy pancake which we proceeded to devour with vanilla ice-cream.

(Sourdough pancakes)

But as it turns out, I still have the capability to be in awe of how simple but soul-satisfying pancakes can be. If you’re in need of a boosted start to the day, I can’t recommend pancakes highly enough. I’m quite fickle when it comes to pancakes. Sometimes I like them thick and fluffy. Other times, I prefer them thin, drizzled with lemon juice and sugar, then rolled up and eaten without cutlery.

(Prune and buckwheat skillet cake)

This week, I resuscitated my long forgotten omelette pan from the depths of the pot drawer, to whip up some sourdough pancakes and other skillet cakes. Of all the recipes I’ve been trying out, this gluten-free prune and buckwheat skillet cake is probably the most unusual. It is worthy of an attempt by anyone reading this because I think it has great potential to be tweaked according to your own tastes. To my surprise when I first saw this recipe, the cake contains no added sugar apart from the mere tablespoon of honey, and no butter or oil either. The sweetness contributed by the prunes is amazingly all the cake needs to make it the perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea, when you’re craving something that’s not loaded with sugar. That is, as long as you don’t proceed to ruin things by pouring over a hearty dose of maple caramel sauce. That was just me trying (and failing) to resist the temptation to dessert-ify my breakfast.

Pain aux Pruneaux :
(from Home Baking by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid)

1 cup pitted prunes
1/2 cup cognac or Armagnac
1 tablespoon honey, heated until runny
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups light buckwheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup whole milk

Chop the prunes into 2 or 3 pieces each. Soak them in the cognac for 8 to 24 hours.

Place a baking stone or unglazed quarry tiles, if you have them (or a heavy baking sheet) on a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 190’C. Butter a 9-inch cast-iron or other heavy ovenproof skillet.

Whisk the honey and eggs together in a medium bowl until tripled in volume. In a small bowl, mix together the flour, salt, and pepper. Stir 1/3 cup of the flour into the egg mixture, then stir in 1/3 cup of the milk. Repeat, alternating until all the flour and milk have been stirred in. Fold in the prunes and any remaining cognac.

Pour the batter into the skillet. Bake for 20 minutes, or until a faint line of brown forms around the edges of the cake and the cake is starting to pull away from the sides of the skillet. There will be small bubbles or holes on the surface.

Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 or more minutes before serving. The top surface of the cake will be tacky, but the crumb will be firm and spongy. Serve from the skillet, or flip onto a plate.

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