Friday, 27 August 2010

Honey and Lavender Cake

It’s August and the air is full. Of dancing spores and dandelion clocks, of lavender scents brushed from the flowers by bees too busy to stay with their fleeting wanton caresses. The sweet tang of muck spread on nearby fields occasionally reigns. Big Norfolk skies swirl overhead, punctuated by weather-fronts and their breezy boundaries, gigantic sheep-like clouds an endless parade of shapes; summer is busying about with a threat of packing up and shipping out. Like the dog helplessly watching its beloved owner pack for a holiday, I am hoping that there’s been some mistake. Surely it’s not leaving so soon, whatever the Met Office says.

Severe weather warnings aside, there are signs of autumn’s impending bounty: bright ornaments sprinkled amongst the foliage in trees and hedges, the flowers fading, making way for the berries. We are just a couple of weeks away from frenzied pilfering sessions – of plums, apples, blackberries and early sloes. But right now, patience must be deployed. Until the hedgerow harvest, why not take inspiration from the bees? The lavender’s in abundance – it seems a shame not to use it. It’s great studded into lamb, rosemary-style.

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I attempted lavender cake once (bastardized from some sponge recipe or other) and it was amazing, even if I do say so myself. It was one of those rare times when improvisation paid off. God knows how. However, I am not a fool – I know this happens only once if you’re lucky, so I nicked a failsafe formula off someone who probably knows a lot better. Inconveniently, it’s written in American, which if you don’t understand you can decipher courtesy of Delia’s conversion table; as everyone knows, you can’t go wrong with Delia.

To decorate, you can really go all Laura Ashley on it. I promise you it won’t taste like pot pourri. if you still don’t believe me, you can just infuse a pot of sugar with a stalk for a few days beforehand, discard it and use the sugar, rather than grinding the flowers themselves.

Serves 6–8

2 stalks lavender flowers (or 2 tbsp  lavender flowers)

½ cup caster sugar

250g unsalted butter, at room temperature

¼ cup honey

3 eggs

1½ cups self-raising flour

¾ cup buttermilk

2 tbsp sifted icing sugar, to serve

lavender flowers (extra), to decorate

thick cream, to serve

1 Preheat oven to 180C. Grease and line a 22cm spring-form cake tin with greaseproof paper. Grind lavender flowers and sugar together with a mortar and pestle until finely ground.

2 Using an electric beater, beat lavender sugar, butter and honey until light and creamy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift flour into mixture. Using a large metal spoon, gently fold flour and buttermilk into mixture. Spoon into prepared baking pan. Smooth top. Bake for 1 hour or until cooked when tested with a skewer.

3 Stand for 5 minutes before releasing clamp and inverting cake onto a wire rack. Dust with icing sugar and sprinkle with flowers (extra) if you wish. Serve with thick cream.

Note: it’s important to use lavender that is home-grown and pest free, not commercially grown lavender that may have been sprayed with chemicals. 

I am challenging the best baker I know, Jemima, to make this (she also happens to be my sister-in-law but these facts are unrelated). Just because. Because of those ethereal Honey Buns (courtesy of Valentine Warner) she treated the BSG and me to the other week, drenched in an orange-y nectar. That was indeed a feast that warrants its own post…


Friday, 20 August 2010

There’s no place like home

After several blissful years in our crow’s nest overlooking the big ship Sadler’s Wells we are putting it on the market. And what an exercise in set-dressing it is. For three evenings in a row last week we edited our possessions, leaving only the most shiny and sleek objects behind (when it came to the kitchen gadgetry, lined up like a row of X Factor finalists, there was a minute’s silence as we made our selection). They aren’t leaving us forever, just having a sabbatical - well-earned in the case our overworked bread maker - in Ma BSG’s attic. Thank you!

You may well ask why we’re moving from this heavenly spot that is a short stagger from Exmouth Market and culinary shrines that include Moro, Caravan and Medcalf, not to mention the pioneers of the modern gastro pub at The Eagle.

P1070576 Why indeed?

Because we know there’s some ladder we’ve got to climb and talk of ‘when there’s room to plant vegetables’ is taking over. The BSG and I would like a kitchen that we can both cook and sit in – a big ask in London we know, but we’re determined to find it, even at the expense of this plum location.

So, for the next few weeks we are using subtle touches – the flat scrubs up pretty darn well on its own really – to create just the kind of atmosphere that induces love at first sight in the beholder. Think dusty old Neal’s Yard bottles glowing blue on the bathroom windowsill (aspirational – and well past their best before date), the BSG’s recently preserved plums, pears and peaches in chunky Kilner jars residing against the black tiles of the kitchen (rustic) and my recently acquired and ever-so-slightly OCD-driven desire to arrange all our books by colour (stylish, though I had to send my beloved Slash autobiography to the charity shop).


Recent top tips to seduce the unsuspecting viewer have included coffee beans in a low temperature oven, freshly baked bread and a fridge full of champagne (a chance would be a fine thing). Funny though that nearly all of these suggestions have appealed to senses other than sight. So love at first sniff, perhaps?

Interesting further because the lucky buyer will not get the aforementioned coffee bean included in the purchase price (well, maybe they will, judging by how rarely I find myself cleaning our dear oven), so why do these things matter? Because they are what make a house a home; people want to be presented with the immediate suggestion that they will spend many happy times within these four walls, and you don’t get that from a cold, dark place, scented strongly with week-old bin (thank you, Zara Home with your ‘posh glade’). In that case, I reckon we go the whole hog and roast a chicken - home epitomised - then we can be sure to get some food lovers in to take up the apron. We can’t abide the notion of our old chum the kitchen being neglected.


Friday, 13 August 2010

Caponata, crackling and cake


Since I was very young, the mishmash of late summer vegetables that is ratatouille has been atop my list of food favourites; a cast iron pot of soft yielding courgettes, rags of stewed tomato and slow cooked onion instils a nursery-style comfort. I cannot get enough of it and it screams August.

Until embarrassingly recently I was unacquainted with its sassy Italian cousin, Caponata. A ‘grown-up’ version of the Provençal vegetable stew, it contains the more sophisticated capers and olives which lend a savoury slap round the chops, whilst the vinegar sounds a sharp ring-a-ding on the back of the tongue. It is the perfect summer accompaniment, which last night played best supporting role to a loin of pork slow roasted in fennel, garlic and chilli (for 22, naturally).

Happy Birthday BSG, Happy Birthday blog!


I got this recipe from Katie Caldesi, though there are all sorts of variations.

This one serves 4.

4 medium aubergines, chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper

3-4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling

1 onion, chopped

2 celery sticks, chopped

400g/14oz chopped tomatoes

100g/3½oz green olives, pitted and sliced

3 tbsp capers, drained and chopped

30ml/1fl oz red wine vinegar

1½ tbsp sugar, or to taste

handful flat leaf parsley, chopped

extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

Sprinkle the aubergines with salt and leave to drain in a colander for 30 minutes.

Heat some of the olive oil in a saucepan and brown the aubergine on a moderate heat for 10 minutes.

When cooked, set aside and allow to cool, to room temperature.

In a separate saucepan, heat the remaining olive oil and sauté the onion along with the celery and tomatoes, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Add the olives and cook for 20 minutes. Add the cooled aubergine and the capers.

In a separate bowl, mix together the red wine vinegar and sugar. Add this to the pan and cook for 10 minutes. It is ready when the red wine vinegar has been absorbed.

Transfer to a large bowl, add the chopped parsley and mix well.

Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil to serve. Serve hot or cold.