Baaack.. to basics

Aaand, we’re back!

A bit brown, a little well fed and a whole lot more relaxed, B and I recently spent 7 blissful days in Bali, courtesy of the company he works for. We swam, ate, engaged in pingpong battles (we couldn’t remember the rules, so we made them up. In hindsight, I think these new rules were not to my advantage because I never did end up winning a single match) and occasionally saw sights like this. On the flight home, I cried, only for the end of Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, but also to quietly mourn a return to reality. A return which marked the end to freewheeling days with the boy, an end to bucketloads of tempe goreng and the end to an otherwise endless supply of chilled frangipani scented towelettes (oh how good those were!).

Now we are back, with the boy still proudly displaying the tiny patch of apricot coloured skin at the back of his neck which he claims is something akin to a tan (his first ever). The piles of laundry have been suitably dealt with and the swimsuit folded away for another day. It is time to bake.

This one is an incredibly easy cake recalling the simple pleasures of taking tea and enjoying a little time out. It is also a cake with which to thank our neighbour, who cared for our plants while we were away.

Black/blueberry and cinnamon crumble cake :
(serves 8-10; from Mix & Bake by Belinda Jeffery)

150g plain flour
110g stone-ground wholemeal plain flour
220g castor sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
80ml light olive oil
180ml milk
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
200g fresh or frozen blueberries [I used a mixture of blackberries and blueberries]
icing sugar (optional), for dusting

Topping :

35g plain flour
55g brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated or ground nutmet
70g pecans or walnuts
30g cold unsalted butter, cut into small chunks
100g fresh or frozen blueberries

Preheat your oven to 180’C. Butter a 24 or 25cm springform cake tin, line the base with buttered baking paper, then dust with flour and set aside.

For the topping, put the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg into a food processor and briefly whiz to combine. Add the nuts and scatter the little chunks of cold butter over the top. Pulse just until the butter is incorporated and the nuts are the size of coarse breadcrumbs. Tip this mixture into a bowl and keep it in a cool spot.

Put both the flours, the sugar, baking powder, salt and cinnamon into the food processor and whiz them together for 20 seconds. Tip this dry mixture into a large bowl. Scoop out 1 heaped tablespoon of it into another bowl.

Whiz the oil, milk, egg, vanilla extract and lemon zest together in the processor until they’re well combined. Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture and pour in this wet mixture. Stir them together until they’re well mixed. Toss the blueberries in the bowl with the reserved spoonful of dry mixture, then gently fold them into the cake batter; I always find it fascinating that this fine, floury coating is just enough to help stop the blueberries from sinking to the bottom of the cake as it bakes. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared tin. Sprinkle spoonfuls of the crumble over the top and give the tin a little shake to even it out. Press the blueberries for the topping gently into the crumble.

Bake for 50-55 minutes or until a fine skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Cool the cake in the tin on a wire rack for 12 minutes. Release the outer ring of the tin and gently lift it off. Sit another rack (or a flat plate) on top of the cake and carefully invert it onto this. Remove the base and paper and then invert the cake again onto the rack to cool.

Dust with icing sugar just before serving. You’ll find that any leftover cake freezes really well for a couple of weeks. I usually just sandwich the slices of cake between sheets of freezer wrap or baking paper. To defrost, you can microwave them gently, warm them in the oven or just let them sit out at room temperature for about 40 minutes (by way of this, I discovered that the cake is terrific served warm, rather like a pudding, with a little cream). Otherwise, it keeps well stored at room temperature in a tightly sealed container for 2 days.

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Yet another apple crumble?

Being an avid baker ever since I was a kid, I have attempted making many things over the years, often with varying degrees of success and failure. I have impatiently attempted filo pastry from scratch, struggled through bagels and crumpets, pulled a triumphant pan of slightly singed flapjacks out of the oven, fried cinnamon donuts, cannoli and churros, made apple tarte tatin, and watched my thighs swell with pride at the sight and taste of sticky date pudding, pineapple upside down cake, banana bread and carrot cake. I have also baked scones (some heavy like rocks, some light as a feather) and chocolate chip cookies (repeatedly!), and slathered homemade strawberry jam on homemade bread. However, there are still some things that manage to slip past my radar, whenever I find myself in the kitchen.

I recently compiled a mental list of things I have yet to make, and that I would consider a crime if I never got round to attempting at least once in my lifetime. Things on that list include :

– Portuguese tarts
– Seville orange marmalade
– a marble or chequerboard cake
– panettone
– Michel Bras’ chocolate coulant
– a salad bowl of ice-creams (I bought some Dodoni feta the other day and am now obsessed with the idea of making a frozen Greek salad. Tomato sorbet, cucumber sorbet and black olive sorbet with Dodoni feta?)

(If anyone out there has very good and authentic recipes for any of the above (especially the Portuguese tarts), feel free to share! Please. 🙂 )

So with that list in mind, you’re probably thinking, what on earth am I doing making yet another apple crumble? Actually, this crumble is a little different, and does feature something I’ve been meaning to try.

I used to work with a French Canadian waitress who apart from being a fantastic waitress, also had a great love for food (it seems only fitting that she now runs her own cafe). I still recall her stories about the best maple syrup she would get back home, about the feasts she would have with family and friends and how she loved eating apple pie with a big slice of cheddar cheese. Serving apple pie with cheese was a new thing to me then, and I screwed my face up at the thought of it, having grown up with apple pie and nothing else but scoops of vanilla ice cream. Over time, I kind of warmed to the idea, so when I saw Elizabeth Falkner’s recipe for Apple of my eye, featuring tarte tatin apples, cheddar crumbles, cinnamon ice cream and a balsamic-apple reduction, I knew I had to try it. After making a few alterations (I included blackberry in my balsamic-apple reduction, and used a macadamia ice-cream instead of the suggested cinnamon one), I ended up with the dessert as pictured above.

The verdict? The balance of flavours is great and the resulting dish isn’t overly sweet. The cheddar crumbles, which also has bits of chopped pecan through it, is very tasty, even on it’s own, and I especially love the balsamic reduction which I foresee myself incorporating into other desserts in the future. In other words, I now know that I like apple pie (or crumble) and cheese as a combination, but I also know that it’s never going to replace the heavenly combination of apple pie and vanilla ice-cream that I have loved so much, ever since I was a kid.

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Just the way it crumbles

There is a particular section at work that seems to defeat most people. I haven’t been working in this restaurant for terribly long and already I’ve seen more people come and go, than any other place I’ve worked in. The latest casualty, was a bit of a surprise to us all, considering he was a lovely guy and seemed to be going really well. One morning when he was supposed to be in for a shift, he rang up saying he didn’t want to work here anymore because he wasn’t enjoying it.

What happens when someone does this is, they look like a complete wanker (for lack of a better word) for starters. Also, the recently departed usually forces everyone else to pick up the slack by having to work extra shifts.

I mean, sure, it’s a tough kitchen. One of the toughest I’ve ever been in, and I know I would struggle too, if I was working on any section but pastry. So you don’t blame people when they decide the place isn’t for them. Rather, what annoys me is the way in which they choose to leave. At least the guy mentioned above rang up. Most just don’t bother turning up the next day, after a difficult shift the evening before. When they pack away their knives, saying that they’re taking them home to be sharpened, it’s highly likely they won’t be back. The one that really takes the cake is the guy who arrived for a trial, and having decided after two hours that he wasn’t interested in working here, just kind of gathered his tools up and disappeared. No thank you, goodbye, nothing.

Does this happen in any other industry? If not, what is wrong with this industry! Forget menu planning – maybe they need to teach How to Leave your Place of Employment In a Professional Manner 101 at cooking school.

All this ranting has left me without much idea of what to say about the dessert pictured above. The hunter-gatherer instinct is strong in the boy, even if it only extends as far as bringing home sushi and the occasional pretzel from our favourite German bakery. A couple of days ago, he came home with a handful of green apples. We both love apples in either tarts or crumbles, and this time I thought we could incorporate the best of both worlds. Yesterday evening, he cracked open a bottle of wine, I put on Nina Simone, made pasta, we watched Son of Rambow, and later there was apple crumble tart for dessert. One of those good days… 🙂

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