Wednesday, 14 December 2011

A sight for sore mince pies.

For the last few weeks, I've been providing cakes to a little cafe which resides in a lovely shop called Nomad Books in Fulham. This came about because my friend Jan - a great ambassador for Urban Cakes - was in there one day enjoying a very good cup of coffee, but with a pretty manky slice of carrot cake. She told them about me, so to cut a long story short (no bookshop pun intended), I've been shooting up there once a week laden with muffins, banana breads and flapjacks, and so far it seems to be going quite well.

The other day, they asked me if I could supply them with mince pies to give out at a book signing that they were hosting. Without hesitation I said I would, despite the fact that I've never actually made one in my life. Mince pies occupy the same space in my baking arsenal as cheesecakes; I make a decent cheesecake, but concede happily that there are plenty who do them better, not least the Jewish delis who are unsurpassed as far as I'm concerned. And if I'm really honest, a stodgy Mr Kipling mince pie - washed down with a little snifter of Baileys - is something of a guilty pleasure on Christmas Eve.

But I'm always up for a challenge, and wasn't about to let 50 of the buggers get the better of me. So after giving it some thought, I did what any self-respecting west Londoner would do faced with a similar dilemma: I called Eugene Manzi.

Eugene is the Godfather of the mince pie. He starts assembling the ingredients for the filling around July, and prepares the mince so early that it's positively humming by the time its unveiled in December. But the recipe is a closely guarded Manzi family secret and, despite years of cunning attempts to extract it , I have never succeeded in breaking him. Believe me, this mincemeat is sensational and worth the effort. Last Christmas, Eugene gave me a big jar of it, assuming that I'd put it to good use in various seasonal offerings, and of course I intended to do this. But in truth - and I'm not proud of this - I stood at the kitchen counter late one night (probably having blubbed through It's a Wonderful Life or some such) and shoved most of it in my gob using a very lady-like teaspoon, which somehow made it seem slightly less gluttonous. It's what generally happens when there's Ben & Jerry's in the house as well; I'll meander by the open freezer door, and delicately spoon little shards of the cold ice-cream into my mouth until there is none left. Which is why it is banned from my life forever. But enough of my sordid confessions.

Generously, and after after some very undignified begging on my part, Eugene agreed to give me a couple of jars as he felt that he just had time to prepare some more before the festivities commence. So with a new-found confidence, realising at the very least that the filling would be really good, I set about finding a recipe that would lend itself to the volume that I had to prepare.

I ended up resorting to my all-purpose pastry recipe - which only uses a tablespoon of icing sugar - as I feel that the filling is rich and sweet enough, and I made little stars of the lids. As you'll see from the snap, they really do look rather pretty. And it was actually a very useful exercise in pastry- making as I had to do several rounds, and found that the dough was better, more rollable and consistent with every batch (regular readers will know that pastry is my nemesis.)

As it turned out, there was way more mincemeat than was necessary, so I'm going to do a whole lot more of the little beauties for Eli's birthday party this weekend. I've sort of got the hang of it now, and am really looking forward to cranking up the mince pie conveyor belt again.

But no recipe to share this time, I'm afraid. Because if I gave it to you, I would have to kill you.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011


One Christmas, when I was about 11, my fabulously eccentric German grandmother gave me a present which I'll never forget. For all the wrong reasons. It was Bill Maynard's autobiography, Yus my Dear (his catchphrase apparently.) To this day, I'm perplexed as to why she thought that I'd appreciate it, but I kept it of course, and every now and then would spot it on the bookshelf and experience once again, that same sense of wonder. Of all the books in all the world, why had she bought me the memoir of a third-rate comedian, whose minor TV shows I had never actually seen?

I experience a similar feeling these days, when I taste a chocolate cake with a dry sponge. I just don't understand it. I fail to see how a recipe wasn't tweaked, the balance of ingredients altered, the batter experimented with, until moistness was achieved. There really is no excuse for it.

In the last few weeks, I've made tons of chocolate cakes. One to sell at the Portobello Film Festival, another for the Oakstock Market, one for my neighbour for painting a wall, a birthday cake for the gorgeous and hugely appreciative 4-year- old Arthur, and several more besides. This was my light chocolate cake, the one that never fails to rise, the one that I can knock out in an hour or two and which always garners the highest praise. The one that is unfailingly MOIST. So by the time my nephew Stefan's big day came around, I was a little bored of it, and fancied a change. I've lost enthusiasm for the square cake that I talked about in my last post. Even though, with its liberal girth, it's fantastically practical for decorating purposes, flavour-wise it doesn't knock my socks off. So once again, it was Dan Lepard who provided the divine inspiration with his sour cream chocolate cake. For starters, those two words Sour and Cream will always make me a little misty-eyed. I love the stuff - I've used it copiously in cheesecakes and icing, and soaked poppy seeds in it overnight to use as the basis for a coffee cake. I love that it tastes delicate, slightly off-kilter and yet its as indulgent as the double variety. When I saw the recipe in the Guardian a few weeks ago, there was no possibility of not giving it a go.

It was a joy to bake as well, everything mixing together just so. And the glossy ganache-like icing was - well, the icing on the cake I guess. It's pictured at the top of this page, and in all its moist glory on the right here. Despite the fact that many of the posher recipe books recommend 70%- and- over cocoa solids in the chocolate used, I dispute this. I prefer Sainsbury's own- brand fairtrade variety, which is around 52% and does the job just as well, if not better - I nearly always use it in my brownies and chocolate frosting, and may only concede that a higher cocoa volume be necessary if I'm making a torte, where the sheer amount of chocolate required makes the finished result more susceptible to the scrutiny of one's taste-buds.

My cousin Xanthe made a sensational cake last weekend for her son's birthday. Apart from the fact that it was shaped like a number 9, and she had somehow managed to weld it on to the surface of one of his footie shirts (genius), it tasted great, and was wonderfully moist. She had used an American cupcake recipe and was extolling the considerable virtue of buttermilk as an ingredient in chocolate cake. I absolutely concur with her here - it appears in both my favourite recipes, and makes a massive difference to the texture, as well as diluting any surfeit of sweetness.

I'm not a great one for short cuts; I usually prefer to take the more labour intensive route with virtually everything I do, if only to moan about it afterwards (yes, it's my Jewish genes rearing up once again). And nothing horrifies me more than when a TV 'chef' rolls out some shop-bought puff pastry with the cheeky assertion that it 'tastes just as good as if you do it yourself'. Pah to that! But I do admit that melting chocolate and butter in the pan really is a perfectly acceptable alternative to putting them in a bowl over barely boiling water. Unless it's white chocolate, in which case don't even go there: the bowl and steam routine has to occur for that (something to do with the added sugar, I'm guessing, but I'll leave the science bit to someone else who knows or cares.)

So if you can feel a chocolate cake coming on, I'd absolutely give this one a whirl. Delicious. And delightfully moist. Or tell me it's your birthday, and I'll rustle one up for you myself.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Let the bread rule your head

I've had a very busy baking month, in which I have (amongst other things): sold cakes and cookies at a community event in Harlesden; made a commissioned birthday cake on which I had to replicate a Picasso-esque illustration of a man with two heads, using a sheet of marzipan and some writing icing; baked the most perfect carrot cake I've ever tasted, let alone had a hand in myself; upgraded my kitchen to include a new shiny stainless steel work surface, and a whole array of spice jar- sized shelves (thanks to Wyn); found a new, very evil chocolate cake recipe which I've been fine-tuning, and attended my second course, this time on bread making.

Once again, the tutor for the morning was Ghalid Assyb, my baking mentor. I admit that I sauntered into the demo kitchen rather over-confidently and had to stop myself from high-fiving Ghalid, or worse - air kissing him on both cheeks. But I wanted the other students to be under no doubt that I was his star-pupil - an artisan pastry-maker - and someone who had remained in contact with him on a regular basis by email and text. Yes, that's right. The poor man has been politely answering my endless questions, responding appropriately to random photographs of brownie batter that I've sent him and in a slightly desperate tone - acknowledging a picture of a semolina tart - exclaimed, 'Yes, that looks great, but I'm in Morocco!' Rock stars get knickers thrown at them. Ghalid gets fuzzy cake pictures.

So back to the course. It was wonderful, again. Light bulbs were flickering above my head every few minutes, as yet another revelatory tip was imparted; using dried yeast and not the quick sachet variety, keeping the mixture wet and sticky until the later stages of kneading, and my favourite - putting the dough in a barely warm oven - around 40C - to rise. Brilliantly effective. We were given the choice of making a classic granary loaf, cinnamon buns, foccacia or a chollah. I of course went for the last option, deciding that not to play the ethnic card would be churlish. And anyway, I LOVE chollah. The loaf that was made in class was perfection - big glossy knots of chewy, slightly sweet white bread.

We were given our barely risen dough to take home to finish, and it was here that I managed to bugger it up. Losing focus and rushing the process are no-no's, and I did both. I blame University Challenge. You try plaiting strips of wet dough, while attempting to identify portraits of late 18th century philosophers (just say Kant repeatedly, and eventually you'll be right.) As a Facebook pal pointed out, it looked more like a loofah than a chollah (it's pictured above - bless). I also managed to ruin the cinnamon buns that I tried out a few days later - multi-tasking doesn't really work with yeast-based products. I got up at the crack of dawn, measured out the ingredients with eyes barely open, shoved the wet ingredients into the dry ones far too quickly, kneaded the sloppy mixture which covered my hands in a gloopy grey mush, and slapped a load more flour into it in an attempt to dry it out a little. I of course realised it wouldn't work but covered it and put it in the oven to rise anyway, then left the house for a morning run, hoping that when I returned the power of positive thought would have helped to transform it into something quite presentable. It hadn't. I doggedly continued though, fashioning the little buns and finishing with a slick of cream cheese and caster sugar brushed on whilst hot, as suggested by Ghalid. I actually thought they tasted quite nice, though there wasn't anything terribly bun-like about them. They were more like little tea cakes, as you will see in the snap. Oddly enough, considering how I usually chastise myself for baking failures, I didn't really mind too much on either of these occasions. The reason for my lack of success was obvious and will be easily remedied: more time, less hurry. It's when I can't quite figure out the problem that I become vexed.

My other significant baking event this month was adding a new chocolate cake to my repertoire. In order to pull off the Picasso moment, I needed something with a nice wide flat surface, and an icing that wasn't too fancy. So I scoured the internet and came up with this one. It is almost embarrassingly simple.

Very naughty square chocolate cake
For the cake - 250g self-raising flour, 250g soft brown sugar, 50g cocoa, 250g plain chocolate, 250g butter, 4 medium eggs.
For the icing: 400g plain chocolate, 284ml single cream, 25g butter, 150g Icing sugar.
  1. Line the base and sides of a 20cm x 20cm square baking tin with parchment. Heat oven to 160c.
  2. Mix the flour, sugar and cocoa in a bowl (I added another half teaspoon of baking powder)
  3. Melt the chocolate and butter with 200ml of water in a pan, cool slightly before chucking it into the dry ingredients.
  4. Add the eggs one at a time and beat it all up till there are no lumps.
  5. Pour it into the tin and bake for about an hour, but check at regular intervals after about 50 mins to make sure it doesn't overcook. A skewer should come out pretty much clean though. Leave in the tin to cool.
  6. To make the icing, melt the chocolate, cream and butter until smooth then cool to a spreadable consistency. Beat in the icing sugar to stiffen.
  7. Cut the cake in half and spread the icing generously over the bottom half before sandwiching together and dolloping over the top and sides. Cool in the fridge until the icing's as firm as you want it. Dredge with cocoa powder before serving, or top with fresh summer fruit and a strainer-full of icing sugar as I did for my friend Simper's birthday (as seen here).
Oh might be wondering why there's a photo of a brownie at the top of this post. Well, just look at it. I rest my case.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Back to school

I've just attended a pastry course at the Cookery School in the West End. I have, on other posts, alluded to my fear of pastry. Despite several attempts - and some have been quite successful (those heavenly little lemon and poppy seed tartlets for example) - there is something worrying about a process that relies so heavily on the elements surrounding it; the heat of the palms of one's hands, the temperature of the water, the quantity of flour to put down on the surface to stop the dough from sticking (too much and it will impair the flavour.) I could go on and on. And yet, my appreciation of a perfectly turned-out pastry case has propelled me to try it again and again.

So when my friend Rachelle bought me a voucher for a couple of courses as an incredibly thoughtful gift, my choices were immediate: pastry and bread - my two nemeses. When I arrived and clocked our teacher for the evening, I started feeling a wee bit giddy. I noticed that his name - displayed on a badge on his chefs' whites - was Ghalid, and I immediately thought of Ottolenghi and his renowned pastry chef...Ghalid Assyb. A man who actually has a chocolate and chestnut bar named after him. For me, this was like signing up for guitar lessons and discovering that your tutor is Jimi Hendrix. Yes, it's THAT BIG.

At first Ghalid seemed genuinely chuffed at having such an admiring student on his course that evening. However, when I started excitedly reciting his recipe's back to him verbatim I could have sworn that I saw him backing away ever so slightly, and what could conceivably be described as a look of fear passed across his features. Still, I was enjoying being the nerdiest girl in the class - shooting my hand up at every available opportunity and relishing the moment when he instructed the other students to observe my rolling technique. Frankly, with my academic record this was an entirely new experience. In my youth, I was more often to be found behind the toilets puffing on a No.6, while trying unsuccessfully to pluck the eyebrows of my best friend Abigail with my spare hand, than sitting in class trying to impress the teachers.

And the course didn't disappoint either. We all got a fantastic amount of one-to-one supervision (OK, there were only three of us) and a front-row view of Ghalid and his quite astonishing pastry skills. Hell, he just made it look so easy: choux paste was effortlessly beaten, puff was rolled into perfect buttery rectangles, shortcrust was draped delicately over pie dishes and pinched daintily atop the most heavenly looking Cornish pasties. And we all had a go, and were amazed by the positive results.

I left with a box containing some of the wares I helped produce, including an apple pie which me and the kids ate the following evening with lashings of whipped cream.

We also each had a sizeable square of our own unused puff to take home. So a few days later, I had a go at my own cheese straws - made with Gruyere and caraway seeds - and lovely, delicate palmiers. I also wanted to make something else with sweet pastry, so chose another one of Ghalid's masterpieces from the Ottolenghi book - a raspberry and semolina tart. All of these are pictured.

While working, I realised - slightly depressingly - how the shortcomings in my kitchen affect the outcome of my pastry attempts. The slippery stainless steel surfaces at the Cookery School aided the process and made it so much more effortless. It was positively enjoyable to roll out the dough, unlike the laborious task that befalls me at home, where toasters, kettles, bread bins and a whole array of other kitchen detritus impair the activity unless they're removed - which is hardly practical. And wooden worktops - though high on rustic charm - are pretty rubbish for anything other than chopping vegetables. I may well have to do something about this.

So I've got the bread course next week and once again, I believe that it's with my baking mentor. Be afraid, Ghalid. Be very afraid....

Thursday, 9 June 2011

It's NOT a gas.

I've just come back from Thorpeness. Regular readers of this blog may recall that this is an annual and eagerly anticipated family holiday, and a great excuse to bake copiously for the fourteen people who attend each year. As usual I spent more time planning my baking schedule than packing, and upon arriving at the new house (where we haven't stayed before) headed for the kitchen to check out the facilities.

I was buoyed by the presence of a massive double oven, and imagined getting two or maybe three things on the go at once. How was I to know of the wiping of sweat and wringing of hands that would ensue?....

Saturday: Poppyseed coffee cake.
This was a recipe from the Guardian magazine a few weeks ago. I apologise for my naked bias towards that publications food columnists, but there is no doubt that I am singing from the same culinary hymn sheet as messrs Hugh, Yotam and Dan.

So the prep began with soaking the whole bag of poppy seeds in sour cream overnight, which for some intangible reason, thrilled me to my core. The recipe also required a hefty shot of double- espresso, which I proceeded to imbibe at regular intervals throughout the rest of the day causing a minor caffeine psychosis. Perhaps then, it was the eye-bulging, nail-biting, teeth-grinding effect of the coffee which contributed to my first diva-esque tantrum of the week; the cake didn't rise properly. It tasted nice enough, though oddly not as strongly of coffee as I'd have liked or expected. But the dense poppy seed mix gave the cake a lovely texture, and the assembled masses gave it a thumbs up. I wasn't happy though. Something wasn't right. 6/10

Sunday: Rye hazelnut brownies.
I've banged on enough about these brownies in previous posts, and feel no need to mention again how great they are, how utterly foolproof and, because they are prepared entirely in the pan, how they keep the washing up to a minimum too. The plan was to have them for pudding with some vanilla icecream and summer fruit salad. I've made them a million times, and was therefore horrified when I checked on them after the usual 20-odd minutes to find them overdone. No gooey centre (essential for a decent brownie), but a crumbly cakey texture.

It was when my friend Louise checked on the roast chickens a little later to find that the one on the left side of the oven was basting nicely, but the bird on the right looked like it had only just left the abattoir, that things starting shifting into place...we had a gas problem. Lunch was subsequently 3 and a half hours late, by which time no one really gave a toss whether the brownies had a perfect finish or not. And they did go brilliantly with the icecream and berries. But I wasn't happy. 5/10

Tuesday: Sour cherry and beetroot cake.
I've made this once before - for my friend Rachelle's birthday. It's a madly eccentric cake - topped with crumble and held together with a thick layer of cream whipped up with cherry jam. It shouldn't really work but it truly does. Or did. Having boiled the beetroot (I will always do things the hard way), grated it, prepared the crumble and put the two halves of vividly pink batter in their tins in the oven, I was dismayed to then discover that the one on the right had not risen. Not even a teeny bit. But it had cooked, so I was stuck with a bottom layer that resembled some sort of carmine tortilla. Or a raspberry naan bread. I did my best to repair the damage by adding a little cosmetic improvement, but as soon as it was sliced, the whole thing more or less fell apart.

The critics, however, were undeterred and raved about its flavour. One of them even went so far as to declare it one of their favourites ever. But by now my confidence was plummeting - this was not the perfect result that I'm accustomed to, and I was about to get extremely stroppy. 4/10.

Wednesday: Honey treacle loaf cake.
This was a recipe that appeared in Dan Lepard's column quite recently, and not making it was simply not an option. Rye flour, lemon icing and packed with a whole raft of spices? Bring it on. I have to say this was a joy to prepare - everything just smelt so damn good - and again, a lot of it involved merely melting the ingredients in a saucepan. So this time, I put the cake on the hotter left side of the oven, and hoped for the best.

And at last, something went right. It was a truly yummy cake, with a real kick. But it was overdone - the edges were distinctly crusty, but I was relieved that it at least resembled a loaf, and the middle bit was a spicy, treacly delight. 7/10.

Thursday: Apple berry almond tart.
So this was my swan song for the week. And in the spirit of facing my demons all at once, I decided to attempt some shortcrust pastry. Rolling dough, dicky oven...what could possibly go wrong? But actually, five days in and I think I had at at last got the hang of the oven's strange idiosyncrasies. The tart - which is pretty much a bakewell, only nicer - came out really well. You can see it at the top of the page. I added some fresh blueberries to the base to give it an extra fruity dimension, and you can spot them straining for freedom through the frangipane. 8/10.

Contrary to appearances, I did - from time to time - escape the kitchen in order to wander down to the beach, stand at the very edge of the sea, which on that particular bit of coastline remains cold and grey even when the sun is shining, and daydream about my childhood, with my parents, and Paul and Joanna and our friends. And consider how lucky I am, despite everything.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Cakes for Paul

On February 13th, my older brother Paul died after battling cancer for 3 years. I'm not keen on words like 'battling' - there is very little option but to fight under those circumstances - and I have always objected to the expectation that anyone with a terminal illness is judged by how 'brave', 'courageous' and 'positive' they happen to be about the whole wretched business. If ever there were a justified reason for despair and self-pity it is surely this. But Paul was indeed all those affirmative things and more, and I miss him terribly.

As anyone who has experience of cancer will know, the illness itself and the toxic treatment used to control it, can have a horrible effect on digestion, appetite and the patients overall approach to food. Chemotherapy induces dreadful nausea and sickness, and mouth sores are common, making the simple act of eating an arduous and unpleasant chore.

This was especially harsh with my brother, because he absolutely loved food - the eating, the mealtime rituals, the need to recover afterwards! In fact, this applies to my whole family - not in a 'foodie' sense - occasions when we'd all get together were never spent discussing ingredients and comparing recipes (God forbid!) - I'm talking about something a lot less pretentious than that; Seaside fish & chips, Chinese takeaways, Christmas dinner, or even the unique pleasure of a bowl of salty tortillas and jumbo bags of Haribo's shared out whilst watching the Eurovision Song Contest!

Paul also loved my cakes. He was always the first to head to the kitchen at one of my kids birthday parties to see what I'd come up with, and would praise loudly if there was something that particularly impressed him.

It was therefore a lucky coincidence that the one thing that he was able to enjoy for longer than most other food, was cake. He could stomach sweet, stodgy puddings and buns and even craved them. I therefore became mildly obsessed with baking him different muffins and cookies every time I went to see him. I wanted to make stuff that he could manage but which would also provide some vaguely nutritious benefits too; so I would replace white flour with wholemeal, rye or buckwheat, add nuts and seeds wherever possible, use oil instead of butter and pack as much fruit in as was humanly possible.

You don't need to be a shrink to recognise that baking for Paul took on a greater, more symbolic significance for me than merely providing something for tea. Watching him become weaker, and feeling powerless to really do anything useful to help, I employed one of the only skills that I was capable of. And of course, being Jewish, the habit of throwing vast quantities of comfort food at a problem is both common and often pretty effective (our cousin Xanthe was tipping up with vats of chicken soup on a weekly basis). His ability to eat, and more importantly, his enjoyment, became a wider barometer for how he was feeling. He (and I) would be hugely buoyed if a muffin were wolfed down. I'd often give him half of one, and if the other half were requested, this was a considerable triumph. Conversely, it was heartbreaking if he were unable to get it down, even if he wanted to.

Two recent recipes that hit the spot were some deceptively virtuous blueberry bran muffins and a truly delicious wholemeal orange and apple cake from an old Nigel Slater book. He also loved some raspberry, white chocolate and cinammon blondie's made with rice flour and butternut squash, lifted from the same tome from which my favourite chocolate cake originated - incredibly moist and moreish. I remember him grumpily batting away his wife Vivi's hand when she tried to nick a bit off his plate - the last time I saw him do this I think.

The weekend after he died, I saw a recipe for a hemp and ginger cake with cinnamon icing (top photo). He would have loved it, so I made it anyway for Vivi and their girls and it was magnificent. An edible tribute.

White chocolate, cinnamon and raspberry blondies

Ingredients: 3 medium eggs, 120g unrefined caster sugar, 250g butternut squash - finely grated,
50g rice flour, 100g ground almonds, 1 tsp cinnamon, 2 tsp baking powder, 1/4 tsp salt, 150g fresh raspberries, 100g white chocolate, chopped, 30g flaked almonds, a little icing sugar for dusting.

  1. preheat the oven to 200c/gas mark 6. Line the base and sides of a 20-23cm square tin with baking parchment. Brush with a little oil.

  2. Beat the eggs and sugar in a large bowl until pale and fluffy. Add the squash and beat again before adding the flour, ground almonds, cinnamon, baking powder and salt. Beat it all together.

  3. Pour half the mixture into the tin and scatter over the raspberries and white chocolate before covering with the remaining mixture.

  4. Sprinkle over the flaked almonds and bake in the top of the oven for 25 minutes.

  5. Cool the blondie in the tin for 20 mins, then sieve a little icing sugar over the top before cutting into 9 squares.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Sugar and spice.

So Christmas came and went in a haze of icing sugar, dried fruit and mixed spices. It's an odd one, that. Are we all pre-conditioned to start craving strange seasonal anomaly's the moment the clock strikes midnight on December 1st? Is our sudden desire to add handfuls of cloves and grated ginger to everything some primal response to the certain knowledge that at some point in the ensuing weeks we will catch a cold? Or is it merely a sinister marketing ploy by the likes of Starbucks to ensure that our custom remains constant as long as the aroma of a gingerbread latte wafts forth every time we pass their door?
Whatever the reason, I embrace the inclusion of festive ingredients very happily indeed.

So I began my countdown - unremarkably - with a Christmas cake (pictured above). This was another wonderful Dan Lepard recipe which distinguished itself by using as its base a creamy caramel, and was, as you'd expect, packed with tons of fruit and nuts (though I actually forgot to add the walnuts due to a sudden violent eruption between my sons in the room next door which required immediate attention. This despite the fact that the nuts were sitting , weighed and chopped, blinking at me on the kitchen counter.) I iced the cake with a cardamom infused lemon drizzle, and decorated it with leftover glacier cherries and those discarded walnuts. It was really good, though also the heaviest cake I've ever made - it must've weighed half a stone. My arm literally ached from carrying it!

The build-up to Christmas is universally stressful, but my month was further complicated by Eli's 9th birthday and his insistence that we have a family tea party to celebrate it (this is something that I've always managed to swerve, based on its proximity to December 25th). So I gamely set about concocting a menu which would honour the occasion but with a seasonal twist. Thus, little stem ginger macaroons spiked with almonds and dusted with icing sugar were produced, as well as those marzipan, cinnamon and plum muffins which I tried last year (but worked much better this time around), and also from Ottolenghi the most decadent chocolate fig bars ever which elevated the simple tray bake to a new and exciting level (pictured on the right). I also knocked out that seminal apple loaf again (any excuse) as well as a birthday cake (obviously).

At some point, I had the bright idea of making a Stollen. I personally love Stollen, but acknowledge that in some households its right up there with bread sauce, brussel sprouts and Christmas pudding as something which is tolerated rather than enjoyed. It is also a cake which can often be found, half eaten, at the back of a cupboard sometime in April.

Making the Stollen was really good fun - like baking bread but without all the tedious hanging about. And rolling out the marzipan to create that perfect almondy circle at its epicentre was a challenge. The final stage was dredging it (I love that word!) with tons and tons of melted butter, brandy and icing sugar before wrapping it tightly and leaving it for the best part of a week. That last bit was torture. I'm far too greedy and impatient to bear such a lengthy period of 'resting', and couldn't resist prodding the thing every time I wandered into the kitchen. It was finally unveiled on Christmas day, and although everyone were suffering the groaning pains of over-indulgence , several generous slices were force fed at tea time.

The Stollen subsequently accompanied me on every visit to family and friends for the remainder of the holidays, a bit like a needy pet that couldn't be left alone, shrinking slightly every time.

I polished off the final dregs a few days later, accompanied by an indecently huge glass of Baileys. The main course of this last supper had been a stack of stilton, cranberry sauce, ham and cold red cabbage tottering precariously between two fat bits of bread. Heaven. But thank God Christmas only comes around once a year.