Crazy Cake #2, 2023

My husband’s birthday cake request this year was simple—make something I’d never made before.

Little did I know how difficult that would be—let’s face it, I’ve made a lot of cakes. I pored over my cookbooks and googled ‘unusual cakes’. So many of the cakes I came across were simply variations on a theme. An ordinary butter cake, but with unusual ingredients—rose water and pistachios, beetroot and sour cream, tomato soup. 

I considered some of those cakes—they would certainly be different from my usual cakes. But to really comply with his request, I felt I had to do something outside my comfort zone.

So I went for a chocolate mousse cake—there is no flour in this cake, nor are there ground nuts to replace the flour. 

No.

This cake is a chocolate souffle with chocolate mousse on top, garnished with cocoa nibs and ganache. Eggs, chocolate, and sugar constitute the bulk of the cake (and honestly, there’s not much sugar—it’s mostly eggs and chocolate).

It’s not the prettiest cake I’ve made, by a long shot, and I would definitely do it differently next time to avoid some of the unnecessary faffing around in the recipe. 

It is rich. If you like chocolate—I mean really like chocolate—it’s definitely a cake for you. I’m not certain it’s my kind of cake, though. It’s more fluffy candy bar than cake, and while I like chocolate cake, this is a bit much for me. I like a bit of flour, some nuts—something to cut the chocolate a bit, something to give a cake a little more substance.

That said, I am happily doing my part to get rid of this cake, and I’m glad I gave it a go. Next year, though, if he makes the same request, I’m going for the zillion-layer apple spice cake in which each layer is about 5 mm thick and the filling is essentially apple butter. 

Crazy Cake Season 2023

Crazy Cake seasons have become far less crazy, now that the kids are out of the house. Last year, my daughter didn’t ask for anything specific, but this year she slyly said, “I’ll be happy with any cake … but a peripatus would be cool.”

Behold, the velvet worm cake!

Naturally, I made a red velvet cake for the body. The legs are walnut shortbread cookies, usually shaped into crescents, but in this case shaped into peripatus legs. The antennae are cinnamon sticks. I covered the whole thing with light blue cream cheese frosting, and then piped dots of coloured white chocolate on top. The moss is coloured coconut.

It’s not the most biologically accurate peripatus–I couldn’t fit all 30 legs on (I couldn’t even fit in all the legs into the inner loops of its body)–but the extra legs I made gave me something to snack on as I decorated the cake.

Zucchini and Tomato Tart

We’re in the bountiful days of summer right now. And while I’d like to be sitting in a chaise lounge enjoying that bounty all day, someone’s got to pick it and process it. At the moment, the processing mostly involves making pickles and chutneys, but there’s a lot more to come. Then there’s the necessary watering, weeding, tying up of tomatoes, planting of winter crops (because as John Snow says, winter’s coming)…

zucchini tomato tart

But at the end of each day, we do get to enjoy the fruits of the season. Last night I made one of my favourite mid-summer meals—zucchini and tomato tart.

The beauty of this tart belies its simplicity—just tomato and zucchini, embellished with a little parmesan cheese, garlic and basil. 

Back when I had dairy goats, I’d spread a layer of chevre on the bottom, too, which was divine. It also had the bonus of preventing the crust from getting too soggy. These days, without an unlimited supply of goat cheese, I put up with a soggy crust—the tart is still amazing.

This tart relies on having the best tomato and zucchini possible—it’s not a dish to make with out-of-season vegetables—so if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, hang in there and enjoy this gem in July and August instead.

Download the recipe here.

Black Currant Icing

bowl of black currant icing

I made chocolate cupcakes yesterday and wanted to make use of some of the last of the fresh back currants in them. Instead of tossing a handful of black currants into the batter (which would have been lovely), I used the fruit to make a black currant icing—tart, sweet, and shockingly pink! 

You could do this with frozen currants, too, and it’s not difficult. The result is worth the bit of extra work.

100 g softened butter
3/4 cup fresh black currants
1 cup icing sugar

Place the black currants in a sauce pan and cook until soft—3-5 minutes. Press them through a sieve to remove seeds and skins. Set the puree aside to cool to room temperature.

Beat the butter until fluffy. Add 3 tablespoons of the black currant puree and beat until uniformly mixed. Sift the sugar over the butter mixture and beat until smooth. Adjust by adding more sugar or puree until the icing is spreading consistency.

Salad Trifecta

Holiday cooking is always special. And with the holidays falling during the summer here, it’s easy to create stunning meals without a trip to the grocery store.

For Christmas Day, I made homemade linguini, and my husband topped it with a delicious selection of garden vegetables—a fabulous, festive meal.

But Boxing Day’s dinner sort of blew Christmas Day out of the water.

It was a simple meal. Just three salads.

A potato salad made with purple potatoes, sparked up with celery, spring onion, parsley, and homemade pickles.

An Ottolenghi-inspired roasted cauliflower salad made with purple and white cauliflower and toasted walnuts. A dressing of vinegar, oil, maple syrup, cinnamon and allspice added complexity to the flavours, and fresh red currants added crunch and zing.

A fruit salad made with the many fruits gushing from the garden these days.

The overall effect was a riot of colour and flavour. Best of all, nearly everything came from the garden. Holiday meals don’t get much better than that.

Biscuit Stars (a.k.a. Starry Scones)

It’s been a long time since I blogged about biscuit stars (or Starry Scones, as I call them here in NZ, since ‘biscuits’ are cookies here). It’s been a while since I made them, too.

I was feeling whimsical on Sunday morning, though, and whipped one up for breakfast. As usual, it turned out beautifully and took minimal effort. It struck me as the perfect ‘fancy’ breakfast for the coming busy holiday season.

Try making one of these yourself—everyone will ooh and aah over your amazing culinary skills, and you never have to let on that it’s dead easy (I won’t tell …). 

Here’s the recipe. Enjoy!

Accidentally Perfect

I didn’t set out to make a spectacular cake.

lemon cake with blackcurrant puree

I actually set out to whip out something simple and quick—a Covid cake—because I had little energy for baking last week as I recovered from the virus.

So I chose a tried and true recipe. My favourite lemon cake is a recipe I came up with years ago when my daughter asked for a lemon birthday cake. It draws on components of a good lemon scone recipe, an orange cake recipe, and a coconut cake recipe. 

It’s a recipe I’ve honed over the years, and one I could probably make in my sleep.

And this iteration of it was one of the best cakes I’ve ever made.

The butter was at the perfect temperature to whip up light and fluffy. And maybe I gave it a little extra time with the mixer, because I was bored of Covid isolation. And because I wasn’t up for much work, I added a little extra liquid to the batter to make the egg whites easier to fold in.

The recipe always makes a cake with good texture, but this one was a step up from the usual. Whether it was perfectly whipped butter or a wetter batter, something worked in my favour, and the finished cake’s texture was positively sublime—soft and fluffy, but with body like a good butter cake should have.

When it came time for a topping, I took the lazy way out. I topped and filled the cake with black currant puree I happened to have in the fridge. No measuring, and no additions to it—I simply spread it between the layers and poured it over the top. The puree spread out thickly, dripping down the sides and drying to a shiny, soft, fruity layer. Not only did it look great (and appropriately bloody-looking for Halloween), but the tart, unsugared black currant was the perfect foil for the sweet cake underneath.

It was a cake I could have served to anyone.

Unfortunately, because we were in isolation, only my husband and I got to enjoy this perfect cake, but I’ll definitely be trying to replicate it in the future.

Winter Culinary Adventuring

One of the best things about winter is the excuse to try unusual foods. During every other season of the year, there are so many vegetables coming out of the garden, it feels wrong to buy any fruits or vegetables. And as a rule, I only buy local produce, even during the winter, but once in a while it’s fun to splurge.

can of jackfruit

A few weeks ago I bought a can of jackfruit. This tropical tree is related to mulberries and figs, and produces large fruits with stringy flesh. The young fruits (before they ripen and become sweet) are used as a meat substitute, because the texture is somewhat meat-like.

I’ve eaten jackfruit in restaurants, but never cooked with it before, so it seemed like a good winter splurge.

Jackfruit itself has little flavour—its intrigue is in the texture. Most of the jackfruit recipes I found online take advantage of this texture by using it in dishes most commonly made with shredded pork.

After scanning a number of recipes, I decided to make gyro-inspired jackfruit wraps.

flatbreads fresh from the oven

I started by making flatbreads based somewhat loosely on a naan recipe I have.

Then I made a hash of shredded jackfruit, mushrooms and onions, heavily spiced with paprika, smoked paprika, and chipotle. A dash or two of vegetarian Worcestershire sauce gave it a little tang, and a handful of fresh cilantro tipped it towards Asian flavours.

Finally, I made a yogurt and tahini sauce to go with it, generously flavoured with fresh mint.

I’m not sure what cuisine the final Greek/Indian/Southeast Asian wraps would fall into, but they were absolutely delicious. The hot and spicy jackfruit hash was balanced beautifully by the yogurt sauce, and the fresh flatbreads, still warm from the oven were everything a good flatbread should be.

jackfruit has cooking on the stove

It was fun to cook with a new and unusual ingredient, and the results were well worth the effort. I won’t be adding jackfruit to my regular grocery run, as it’s not exactly a local food (the can I bought was imported from Thailand), but I’ll definitely consider it next time I’m looking for a little winter splurge.

Frangipane Frenzy

plum frangipane tart

I don’t often use almonds, because I can’t get them locally grown (they are grown here in NZ, but it’s hard to get hold of them, as demand outstrips supply). Instead, I tend to use locally grown walnuts or hazelnuts when I’m baking.

So when I do splurge on almonds, it’s a real treat.

A few days ago, while I was rummaging around in the freezer for a container of frozen black currants in order to make a pie, I came across some frozen damson plums I’d completely forgotten about. When the fresh plums were given to me mid-summer, there was so much fresh fruit around, I couldn’t possibly use them, so I froze them, dreaming of plum tart.

So instead of black currant pie this week, I opted for a plum tart. The quantity of plums I had was smaller than I would have liked, so I looked for a recipe that would bulk them up a bit. When I came across a recipe for plum frangipane tart, I was hooked. 

I had some ground almonds left over from my last almond splurge, so I whipped up some frangipane and spread it in my tart crust, layering plum halves on top, and sprinkling them with just a tablespoon and a half of brown sugar. 

The resulting tart is a flavour sensation, the sweet almond filling contrasting with the sharp tang of the plums on top. It’s rich and flavourful enough that you should cut it into thin wedges and savour it slowly, but it’s so delicious, you really want to cut a big slab and gobble it down.

I’m doing my best not to inhale the entire tart. And while I’m contemplating when I can justify another piece, I’m scheming. Could I make the same nutty frangipane by substituting walnuts or hazelnuts for the almonds? Of course I could (I’m sure it’s been done, and probably has a name). How would a walnut frangipane with apple slices on top taste? Or hazelnuts with apricots? What nut frangipane would go best with the black and red currants still in the freezer?

The possibilities are tantalising. I’d better finish off this plum tart quickly so I can try something new …

Magic Meringue Mushroom Making

I’m not fond of meringues. Somehow I never taste whatever they’re flavoured with—only egg white, a flavour I’ve always found unpleasant.

I do, however, enjoy making meringue mushrooms. This week I had the pleasure of making a large batch of meringue mushrooms without having to eat any of them.

Two of my husband’s PhD students are graduating, and they gave a celebratory seminar today. Naturally I had to make some mushroom-themed treats (to match their research subjects) for the occasion. Sixty mushroom shaped cookies, two dozen Amanita muscaria cupcakes and 50 meringue mushrooms later I dusted off my hands and stepped out of the kitchen.

The cookies and cupcakes are cute, but it’s those meringue mushrooms that excite me. 

meringue mushroom caps in the oven

I love piping the little stems and caps and dusting them with cocoa powder. I love how they look during their long slow cooking in the oven. I love the crisp-hollow sound they make when you pick them off the baking parchment.

But best of all is the process of gluing the caps to the stems with molten chocolate. Each mushroom seems to come to life—short plump ones, tall thin ones, some that bend or sit wonky on their stems. Each is different and has its own character. There’s something magical about it.

meringue mushrooms on cooling rack

I wish I had more excuses to make meringue mushrooms. I wish I liked eating them. But that’s alright—maybe I appreciate the magic of meringue mushroom making more because it is such a rare treat. (Alternatively, alliteration acts as an attraction?)