Thursday, 28 April 2011

Simnel Cake

There are many versions of the story of how the Simnel cake originated, but as I'm not sure which one is actually true, I'll save confusion and not go into the details. What I do know is that nowadays it is made for Easter and decorated with marzipan balls to represent the eleven disciples. Yes eleven not twelve, Judas is left out and if you know your Bible stories, I think you'll have worked out why.

Simnel cake is very much like a lighter version of Christmas cake and I think I prefer it. Dotted with juicy fruit and fragranced with a dash of cinnamon it's perfect for any celebration, but you need to like marzipan to enjoy it, there's lots of it – on the top – and my favourite part, the seam of gooeyness in the centre.

There probably isn't an authentic recipe left in existence as my research found a multitude of different ones using varying quantities of fruit and even nuts, but I've put together one that appeals to my tastes.

225g butter, softened
225g sugar
4 eggs
225g plain flour
335g dried mixed fruit
110g glacé cherries, quartered
grated zest of 2 lemons
2 tsp ground cinnamon
450g almond paste
2 tbsp orange marmalade
1 egg, beaten

Pre-heat oven to 150°C /Gas 2.
Butter a 20cm diameter deep round cake tin. Line with the bottom and sides with baking parchment making sure you leave a collar of paper sticking above the rim of the tin.

Place the butter, sugar, eggs, flour, mixed dried fruit, glace cherries, lemon zest and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl and beat together until thoroughly blended

Place half the mixture into the cake tin and smooth over the surface.

Take one-third of the almond paste and roll it out into a circle the size of the tin. Place it on top of the cake mixture. Spoon the remaining cake mixture over and smooth the surface.

Bake the cake for about 2 hours 30 minutes until well risen and firm to the touch. Cover with foil after 1 hour if the top is browning too quickly. Allow the cake to cool in the tin for 10 minutes before turning out on to a wire rack to cool completely.

When the cake has cooled, brush the top with the warmed marmalade and roll out half of the remaining almond paste to fit the top. Press firmly on the top and crimp the edges to decorate.

Mark a criss-cross pattern on the almond paste with a sharp knife. Form the remaining almond paste into 11 balls (to represent the 11 disciples). Arrange the balls around the outside.

Preheat the grill. Brush the marzipan with a little of the beaten egg. Place the cake under the preheated grill to turn the almond paste golden. Keep an eye on it and turn the cake around to prevent burning.

Photo: ©childsdesign 2011

Monday, 25 April 2011

Aromatic Spiced Chicken and Apricots with Giant Couscous

I think I prefer giant couscous to the usual fine grained type, it has an interesting texture with plenty of bite. I've never cooked it myself before and have only previously enjoyed it as a pre-prepared salad, so when I received a packet from Merchant Gourmet to try, I couldn't wait to make a full meal out of it.
Merchant Gourmet have an extensive recipe section on their website which gave me the opportunity to cook a dish recommended by them.
It was easy and very tasty, reminiscent of something Moroccan with the moist apricots adding sweetness to the earthy and zingy spices.

1 tbsp sunflower oil
2 onions, sliced
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp mild paprika
1 tsp chilli flakes
4 chicken breast fillets, cut into chunks
300ml warm chicken stock
200ml boiling water
250g pack dried apricots, halved
300g giant couscous
200g fine green beans
bunch of fresh coriander, roughly chopped
juice of half a lemon
grated lemon zest of 1 lemon

Coat the chicken in all the spices, and leave to marinade for 20 minutes.
Heat the oil in a medium pan and cook the onion for 3-4 minutes on a gentle heat until softened.
Add the chicken and fry for a further 3 minutes.
Pour in half of the stock, bring to the boil then cover and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the apricots, giant couscous and remaining stock and simmer for a further 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure the couscous doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
Add the beans and boiling water and cook with the lid on for a further 5 minutes until the beans are cooked to an al dente texture.
Season with salt and pepper, lemon juice, and then sprinkle the chopped coriander and lemon zest on top. Serve.

For more information about Merchant Gourmet's products, visit their website:

Food photos: ©childsdesign 2011

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Pure Pastures, Rare Flavour

My third article published in the local magazine, Letchworth Living. (April 2011 edition) www.letchworthliving.co.uk

Cheeky Spouse gets acquainted with her food at Offley Hoo Farm.

I wanted to find out just what a real farm is actually like, especially as I'm very much a 'towny', but I feel I need to see more than just an idyllic portrayal of one. Today was to be very educational, to say the least, as I set out to build more of a relationship with what I eat.

If you live in Letchworth, you'll no doubt have driven along the A505 between Hitchin and Luton and seen the wide expanses of countryside, with its undulations covered in lush green or the golden glow of oil seed rape, this landscape is the product of a good farming ethic carried out by Offley Hoo Farm’s award-winning farmer Jon Birchall. Of the 7000 acres covering the King's Walden estate, Jon manages 2000 acres following practices to fulfill the requirements of the High Level Stewardship Scheme.

Sunday morning is blessed with some fine sunshine, a brief but welcome brightness in what has been a largely dull week. Turning the car in to the entrance, I spot Jon hosing down the yard, as I get out, a friendly and inquisitive Border Collie trots up to greet me. When I bend down to stroke the dog, I get the feeling Jon nearly always takes second place when visitors arrive.

Jon is an extremely affable chap and is more than happy to tell me about the farm he manages. Although I've lived in the area for over 20 years, there's always something new and interesting to learn. The vast King's Walden estate covers two distinct soil terrains one lies just over the very end of the chalk of the Chilterns and both give rise to prime pasture.

I’m shown a map dating from around the 1920’s which clearly marks out all the fields. Knowing in the past, many fields were enlarged by grubbing up the hedgerows, I ask if the landscape has changed much over the years. Jon explains that even today, little has altered and in fact many of the smaller fields have endured modern farming.

We get into the truck for a tour of the estate, this is also a good time to check on the animals out in the fields – the native rare breed cattle, sheep and pigs produce some of the best local beef, lamb and pork. Our journey takes us out onto a muddy farm track past a rapeseed oil crop, where a clever device mimicking a bird of prey, swoops over the field to deter pigeons making a meal of the new shoots. When this crop is mature its seeds will be crushed to extract the oil which can be used for cooking or to make margarine.

The trip takes in a huge area and Jon points out his various fields describing how he’s transformed some of them from arable crop land to grass pasture. He explains how boundary margins (uncultivated strips around fields) prevent overspill of fertilisers and pesticides into the surrounding hedgerows and also points out a beetle bank, a long, low grassy mound. Areas like this are left to allow wildlife to flourish, particularly insects. Being part of the Stewardship Scheme means that farmers are actively involved in maintaining and improving countryside habitats throughout their work on the land.

It is easy to take our local landscape for granted, but only now do I fully appreciate how and why it looks the way it does. Hedge planting is carried out and land left to naturalise so that the native flora can return.

You may be asking, “what has this got to do with meat?” Well, good grazing and great care make for superior tasting meat.
At Offley Hoo, Jon has chosen livestock that are well suited to the environment. The animals are relatively easy to care for and economical to rear, but superior in every way.
Jon stops at a barn where Longhorn cattle have been brought in for the winter. They are truly magnificent animals. They do indeed have long horns, but seem gentle enough. Not often having had the opportunity to see cows this close up, I’m surprised at how thick and wavy their coats are. There are a few calves still suckling from their mothers and despite their cuteness I don’t feel at all fazed by the fact that I’m looking at what is potentially my dinner.

Offley Hoo’s Wiltshire Horn sheep roam happily in fields over the farm and when I visit, many of them are pregnant, so by the time you read this they may have already given birth to their lambs.
They grow to quite a heavy weight without putting on excess fat and the meat is full flavoured which makes it very desirable to discerning consumers.
After returning to the yard, Sarah (Jon’s wife) takes me to see the piglets. They are Large White/ Middle White crosses and perfectly adorable as they run around and climb all over one another. I’m relieved they are locked in a stable as mother pig looks quite protective.

It may seem odd to be eating rare breeds, but if we didn’t, they simply wouldn’t exist. The rearing of old native breeds for meat, is in effect a conservation programme which in turn is better for the animals, environment and us.

For more information about the farm and meat sales visit:

Open Farm Sunday
Each year Offley Hoo opens its gates to the public as part of a nationwide event to give people the opportunity to get in touch with the land that feeds us. There will be lots of activities including a chance to meet the animals, tractor rides and a food market.
This year it will be held on the 12th June and should be a great day out for all the family.

Photos: ©childsdesign 2011

Friday, 8 April 2011

Muesli Cake

The trouble with collecting recipes in the form of magazine clippings, ancient scrawls on bits of paper and in this case, a hastily typed up family favourite, is that they often get mislaid in a huge pile.
Having no library system as such, to find my 'lost' notes, it involves some patience as I trawl through a big box of cuttings until I can locate them.
The mountain has become my recipe Everest, but I'm determined to conquer it to reach the culinary gems hidden within its crevasses.

Many years ago I typed up a cake recipe that my Mum used. I think it came from some kind of wholefood cookery book, from a time when my family were subjected (I think that's the right word) to trying out healthy hippy meals, that she wanted to try out. Our enjoyment of some was questionable, but one in particular was a real winner. This muesli cake is sticky, moist, fruity and wonderfully malty. I would say it is best described as being something like bread pudding and malt loaf.
The cake does not contain any dairy products, so no eggs or butter, in fact no fat at all, just the oil used to grease the tin, so it would be suitable for vegans.

It is very easy to make and I probably don't need the recipe anymore, but I'm glad I've now rescued it in this blog post. The type is beginning to fade and the paper is stained, but I might just keep it for its nostalgia value.

6 oz muesli
6 oz sultanas
8 fl oz apple juice
6oz wholemeal flour
3 tblsp baking powder
4 oz molasses sugar
2 tblsp malt extract
2 cooking apples, peeled and cored
8 walnut halves

Preheat the oven to 180C / 350F / Gas 4. Line and grease a 7 inch cake tin.

In a large bowl, tip in the sugar, muesli, sultanas, malt extract and apple juice and mix well to combine and leave to soak for 30 minutes.
Then grate the apple into the bowl and mix well.
Sift in the flour and baking powder and stir thoroughly until well mixed together.
Turn the cake mixture into the cake tin, smooth over the surface and decorate with the walnut halves. Bake in the centre of the oven for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. A skewer inserted into the centre should come out clean when the cake is cooked.
Let the cake cool slightly before removing from the tin and placing on a wire rack to cool completely.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Chocolate Festival, London 2011

Recently I was invited to a press launch of The Chocolate Festival, where I was treated to some talks and tastings to promoted the event which started in Oxford last weekend. Next stop is London when the South Bank plays host to three days of chocolate pleasure. From the 8 – 10 April, the area around The Royal Festival Hall will be lined with stalls filled with some of the finest chocolate and chocolate related products to try and buy.

For true devotees of this glorious substance there will also be live demonstrations and tutored tastings from some of the best Chocolatiers; from William Curley and Bill McCarrick to Damian Allsop and Paul Wayne Gregory.

This a very appropriate time of year for the festival as Easter is only a couple of weeks away, when most people are thinking about chocolate. The Chocolate Festival is the place to visit if you're looking for that special gift or are even thinking of treating yourself.

For more information about the event visit www.festivalchocolate.co.uk

The Big Chocolate Tea Party
On the Sunday 10th the event will be hosting The Big Chocolate Tea Party in support of The Sick Children's Trust. They will be joined by Channel 5 Milkshake! Presenters Derek Moran and Jen Pringle and celebrity cupcake maker, Lily Vanilli, is hosting a free children's chocolate workshop and there will be goodies galore.

Click here to find out more about the charity event

Photo from The Chocolate Festival website
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