March 2014

March 2014

Monday, December 23, 2013

Bake ahead Christmas 2013 - Part II - Edible gifts

Christmas hamper
This year, I made jars of apricots which had been simmered slowly in vanilla syrup – perfect for eating with a scoop of ice cream, or used as a topping on porridge or cereal. I also included cellophane cones of white chocolate, dried cherry and pistachio ‘Snow Bites’ – the basic recipe was courtesy of Ruth Clemens (The Pink Whisk) but with one or two touches of my own. 

Mincemeat cakes
Then, rather than biscuits which I made last year, I opted to bake several Mincemeat Cakes, which is a Mary Berry recipe that I have had for some time. It is such a simple mix but it produces a fabulous, quickly produced but moist cake, which could easily be eaten as a Christmas Cake or perhaps made using left-over mincemeat, baked and then frozen to be eaten in the New Year. 

Christmas patchwork bauble
Finally, I opted to include one home-made crafted decoration – a patchwork bauble.

I do hope my little foodie treats are well received – there’s something rather nice about sending out a little bit of homespun goodness in the spirit of goodwill.

Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

CCC 'Christmas Sparkle'

Cakes on parade
Our latest Clandestine Cake Club meeting last week certainly lived up to the theme of the evening in that we had the most glittering, twinkling shimmering, shining and sparkling array of cakes brought by 18 fabulous and enthusiastic member bakers. Our lovely hostess, Carmela, welcomed us to her home and we all nibbled the beautiful and tasty Italian savouries that she had prepared, before we actively demolished our festive cake display.
It was such a relaxing evening for me and so heart-warming to welcome members, old and new, to such a happy occasion.

Our bakes contained all the numerous styles and flavours of Christmas, including warm spices, tangy oranges, delicious chocolate, cool peppermint, as well as an abundance of classic dried fruit and nuts which are synonymous with this time of year. It was so hard to know where to start and, more importantly perhaps, when to finish!

Thank you, Carmela, for your warm hospitality, and thank you members for your continued support this year. Rest assured, I have many more fabulous venues ‘up my sleeve’ for us to visit in 2014 but, meanwhile, I do wish all Northamptonshire cake clubbers a truly happy and healthy Christmas.

Happy baking! Gillian x

PS A few photos taken at the event can be found here:

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Bake ahead Christmas 2013 - Festive Welsh Cakes

Festive Welsh Cakes ingredients
OK, it’s 1st December, so it’s time for me to plan a little Christmas ‘bake-ahead’ baking. However, as I am still attempting to lose a few pounds before the big day and, not having a great iron will, I am not too keen on having too many sweet treats in my cupboards ahead of time. So, one of my fail-safe recipes is my version of Festive Welsh Cakes. It’s an ideal tea-time favourite when unexpected visitors call, as they take less than 30 minutes or so to prepare and cook. They are best eaten straight away when warm but they will happily also store in an air-tight tin for several days. Even better would be to freeze a batch, as they can be defrosted and warmed briefly in a microwave. 

Festive Welsh Cakes

250g self raising flour
Pinch of salt
125g butter (I didn’t have any today, so I used marg.)
75g light soft brown sugar (or caster if you prefer) plus a little extra for topping
Zest of 1 orange
1 beaten egg
1 tablespoon mincemeat
½ tsp cinnamon or mixed spice
Milk if needed

Sift the flour, salt and spice into a large bowl then rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
Add the sugar, zest, and mincemeat, along with the beaten egg. Mix to form a soft dough. If necessary, add a drop or two of milk. 

Ready for rolling
Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and roll to about 1cm thickness. Using a scone cutter, cut into rounds, re-rolling any trimmings.

Cook for 2/3 mins each side
Heat a heavy-based frying pan or griddle on a low/medium heat - NO NEED TO GREASE. Cook the cakes in small batches for two to three minutes each side, or until golden brown.
Dust with caster sugar whilst still warm.

Ready to enjoy!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Caramel almond cake

I am told that Scandinavian countries don’t have a tradition of afternoon tea but they still have an incredible array of recipes for breads, pastries and cakes. I, for one, can close my eyes and certainly visualise rye bread open sandwiches filled with smoked salmon and sweet mustard, followed by freshly made cinnamon buns and slices of sponge cake filled with lingonberry jam. It’s such a pity that I am unaware of any establishments in Northamptonshire that can satisfy my Nordic tea-table dreams - and I just don’t think that Ikea in Milton Keynes will do!

Princess cake
So, I had to make my own Swedish treat and, after a little research, discovered that one of the major flavours in this part of the world is cardamom but all sorts of fruits and nuts and spices are used and almonds are a favourite. I would love to try, one day, to make the famous Princess cake with alternating layers of sponge, whipped cream and vanilla custard topped with marzipan but for today decided upon attempting a much simpler “Toscakaka” – a light cake with a yummy praline topping.

The result was amazing and ridiculously moreish – in fact it tasted even better the next day when the caramel topping had seeped into the sponge. This is one that will firmly remain a family favourite.

Toscakaka - Swedish caramel almond cake

There are many recipes on the internet but I used the following one, having adapted it slightly.

For the cake: 70ml milk 1 tsp lemon juice 75g unsalted butter 3 eggs 150g caster sugar 1 tsp vanilla extract (or paste, powder or seeds from pod) 150g plain flour 1 tsp baking powder 1/4 tsp fine sea salt

For the topping: 150g flaked almonds 125g butter 125g light brown sugar 50ml milk 1/2 tsp sea salt 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 160C/320F. Grease a deep 9" round tin (preferably with a removable bottom) and line the bottom with baking parchment.

Stir the lemon juice into the milk and leave to sit to make buttermilk (you can replace with 75ml if you have it on hand).

Toast the almond flakes on an oven tray for 5-7 minutes until they're a light golden brown, then set aside.

Melt the butter in a saucepan then pour into a bowl and leave to cool (keep the pan to use later).

Whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla together for 5 minutes, until the mixture is a yellowy-cream colour and very thick. Sieve the flour, baking powder and salt together.

Place 1/3rd of the flour mixture into the egg bowl then gently fold in with a big metal spoon or large spatula. Drizzle half of the milk over the top and fold in. Repeat with the next 1/3rd of flour, the rest of the milk, then the rest of the flour. Finally drizzle half of the butter over the top, fold in, then repeat with the remaining butter. Be gentle but thorough, scraping the bottom - it's easy to get little pockets of flour.

Carefully transfer to the tin. Tap on the counter once to remove any big air bubbles. Bake for 25-30 minutes until golden and set - when 15 minutes have gone, start making the topping. Place the toasted almonds, butter, sugar, milk, salt and vanilla into the saucepan and stir as the butter melts. Keep heating for a few minutes - it should bubble and thicken slightly.

Turn the oven up to 200C/390F, then remove the cake to a rack and pour the glaze over the top. Spread the almonds out into an even layer. Place back in the oven and bake for 8-10 minutes until the glaze is dark brown and bubbling. Cool for a few minutes then slide a knife around the edge of the tin to loosen it and remove the cake to a rack.

It keeps well in an airtight tin for two days and is still alright on the third. (Makes about 8-10 slices).


Saturday, November 9, 2013

Christmas cake

There are so many versions of Christmas fruit cake and most have evolved, having been tweaked over the years, as traditional family recipes. Whether it is light or dark, crumbly or moist, square or round, we all have our favourite combination of luxurious dried fruits and nuts, eggs, sugar, flour, and heady spices. A celebration cake, of course, also has some form of alcohol - in my family it has to be brandy!

Thanks to some of my Northampton Clandestine Cake Club members, we recently collected sufficient donations towards the cost of the ingredients to make a Christmas cake to raise funds at a local Charity Food Festival in aid of Cynthia Spencer Hospice and the Haematology Unit at NGH. 

Ready for the oven
So, several weeks ago, using my usual recipe, I soaked the fruits overnight in brandy and made the cake the following day, making sure that the tin was well insulated with several layers of paper – inside and out – so that the mixture wouldn’t burn during the long (4 ½ hr) cooking time.

Marzipan coat
Once baked, I ‘fed’ the cake several times with extra brandy over a 2 week period before it was covered in marzipan, ready for icing. Meanwhile, as decoration, I made several sizes of snowflake and my daughter Laura and I spent a cosy evening painting the flakes with edible sparkly glitter before covering the cake with fondant. Finished, with silver ribbons, it was ready to be displayed at the Charity Food Festival.
Finished Christmas cake

Around 100 or so people attended on the day and it was such an interesting and enjoyable mix of cookery demonstrations – including one from our own CCC member Carmela who is an Italian cookery tutor ( - together with a variety of Northamptonshire food stalls, all selling their local produce. 

Our CCC cake was used in a game of ‘Guess the Weight’ and was won by a lovely lady called Anne Marie Wright, who correctly judged the cake to be 6lbs 4oz in weight.  Including our meagre proceeds, around £2,000 was raised on the day - such a wonderful result for hard-working organiser Jenny Dicks of Bay Tree Cottage Workshops -

Our CCC cake at Charity Food Festival

Monday, October 21, 2013

Apple, cinnamon and sultana scone loaf

Afternoon tea
Afternoon tea has been a British institution since Anna Maria, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, asked her footman to bring her a pot of tea and light refreshment one afternoon in 1840. The ritual caught on and afternoon tea became the corner stone of high society dining. These days taking tea as a light afternoon meal has become much more accessible, but has not lost a crumb of its charm.

A full Afternoon tea is commonly composed of sandwiches – usually cut delicately into ‘fingers’ – scones with clotted cream and jam, sweet pastries and cakes. Interestingly, scones were not a common feature of early Afternoon Tea and were only introduced in the twentieth century.

Today, luxury country hotels and traditional tea rooms will provide welcoming surroundings for this decadent treat which really is a special experience to take your time over, an occasional indulgence and a treat to be had on special occasions.

However, at home, what is nicer than a scaled-down afternoon tea – simply a cup of tea and a scone or slice of cake? In the following recipe you have the best of both worlds. It’s an Apple, cinnamon and sultana scone loaf. Serve sliced when warm and butter generously.

100g wholemeal self-raising flour
125g white self-raising flour
75g butter
40g golden caster sugar
100g sultanas
50g grated apple
4 tsp ground cinnamon
A pinch of salt
1 large egg
4-5tbs milk

Also, for the topping  - 1 tbsp milk, ½ apple sliced, a little demerara sugar for dusting and a little ground cinnamon for dusting.

Preheat oven to 200C, 400F, gas mark 6. Grease and dust with flour a 2lb loaf tin.

In a large bowl, place flours and salt. Rub in the butter until it resembles breadcrumbs. Then add caster sugar, sultanas, apple and cinnamon. Stir until everything is well mixed. In a jug whisk the egg with the milk and then pour into dry ingredients.  Mix well before turning out to lightly knead together. Roll into large sausage shape and place in tin.

Brush with milk and decorate with a little sliced apple down the length of the loaf. Dust with demerara sugar and finish with a generous sprinkling of ground cinnamon.

Bake for 30-35 mins. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Latest cake with fondant icing - in pictures!

Ready to roll!

Preparing blossom decorations
Ready for detail
Sparkle added
Ready for transport

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The mysterious Marlborough bun.

Marlborough bun
When we moved to Higham Ferrers in 2010 it was more luck than judgement that we found it had a huge Waitrose store not more than ½ a mile away. Since then, needless to say, we have visited on many an occasion and have taken to partaking of a free coffee (a Waitrose cardholder scheme) and sometimes – when we are feeling the need – accompanying it with a rather tasty Marlborough bun. 

Kneading fruits into sweet dough
Sweet bun dough, enriched with good things like milk, butter, fruit and sugar, has for centuries been made at celebratory times but buns, as a whole, I believe are diminishing in favour and more refined treats like cupcakes and muffins appear now to be more popular. What a pity – I think there should be a Great British Bun Revival

I have always thought that traditional English buns - like the Chelsea, Bath, or Hot cross - are second to none and now, thanks to Waitrose, the ‘Marlborough’ has joined their ranks  but can I find it elsewhere or, better still, can I make it myself?

Second rise before baking
Now, where to find a recipe? I have scoured the internet and, although the Marlborough bun does get a mention now and again, I can’t for the life of me find too much on the subject. Even books by baking high priests Dan Lepard and Paul Hollywood also drew a blank and so a little experimentation was called for and I have started with a recipe found on the BBC food website for ‘Dried fruit and almond buns’. 

Hot buns
The buns turned out to be just about acceptable but were nothing like the mysterious Marlborough and so I must now tinker with the recipe, visit Waitrose when the need arises, and my research will undoubtedly continue.  Watch this space!

Friday, September 27, 2013

An (incr)edible experience – a masterclass with Ben Frazer

Pink Macarons

Last Tuesday, we – daughter Laura and I – were greeted warmly by Ben at ‘The Cake Artisan’ in Adnitt Road, Northampton for our evening macaron masterclass. Now, it’s one thing to bake in the privacy of one’s own kitchen but altogether another cooking challenge to be entrusted with someone else’s tools, ingredients and equipment.  Not only that but it was a brand new kitchen, with sparkling new utensils and an oven that had hardly been warmed…..yes, I was nervous!

Ben Frazer
But, I shouldn’t have been, as Ben put us quite at ease with his friendly, encouraging and knowledgeable manner, and we were soon undertaking his favoured delicate and delicious macaron recipe. 

At this point I think my trepidation started to disappear and my ‘have a go’ attitude returned as Ben instructed and we followed the step-by-step stages. 

He imparted so many fabulous tips along the way and we both left that evening totally enthused and encouraged to try making our own French-style macarons at home. 

Laura processing almonds
Ben, a Great British Bake Off 2011 contestant, will now be producing his beautiful cake creations – as well as running further courses - at his new couture cake boutique ‘The Cake Artisan’ in Northampton – if interested, take a look at the website

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Clandestine Cake Club September 'The Hedgerow'

Question: What would be the one thing that would drag you away from the television on a Tuesday evening and hence miss Great British Bake Off?

Answer: A Clandestine Cake Club meeting of course!

Our latest event was held on September 17th at Bay Tree Cottage in Farthingstone and hosted by Cake Club member and Bay Tree owner, Jenny Dicks. It was a cold, rainy and murky evening and, for those that hadn’t visited this village before, they must have wondered where on earth the narrow and winding roads would lead. However, the warmth soon returned to everyone’s cheeks when all 14 of us sat in the comfortable super-sized kitchen, around a super-sized table, and the tea was poured from a super-sized teapot!  
Our theme – ‘the Hedgerow’ – had been embraced by our bakers and the deep colours, richness and beauty of all late summer/early autumn foraged fruit was in great evidence. The cakes looked so appetising and we were soon happily slicing and tucking in to the display.
Bay Tree Cottage is the home of a wonderfully diverse range of ‘Country Living Workshops’, including art, craft, gardening, floristry, foraging and cookery. Take a look at their website to learn more

Thank you, Jenny, for your hospitality and thank you members for baking, for your company, and for supporting our local club. I look forward to seeing you all again at our next meeting on October 10th. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Plums by the bucketful!

Plums by the bucketful!
What could be better on a warm September day than picking fruit or harvesting ripe and ready vegetables? My garden this year has borne pounds of small, sweet tomatoes - thanks to a good friend presenting me with two young plants in early summer – and they will continue, hopefully, to do so until the threat of a frost makes me pick the remainder to make my favourite chutney. We have also had a good year with strawberries, blackcurrants, tayberries and now, finally, the cultivated thornless blackberry is giving us lush, dark and juicy specimens, which are going straight into the freezer for winter consumption.

Victoria plums ready to be picked

Whilst on holiday in Norfolk last week we had the brilliant experience of visiting family-run P.M. Farming, a fruit farm which specialises, primarily, in the growing of plums and gages. Our visit was timed perfectly for the main Victoria plum harvest and the trees were simply dripping with fruit. The young lady behind the weighing-counter and stall confirmed that this year the Victoria was a little late to ripen but they were certainly, as we could see, in abundance!

Several varieties for sale
This large orchard produces many varieties of fruit during the season and prefers to sell mainly to local suppliers and, of course, direct to the likes of me as, of course, I couldn’t resist plucking several kilos of warm and ripe plums and greengages from the trees to bring home. What a joy to pick healthy, British-grown fruit, on a farm.

Greengages ready to simmer with vanilla

So today I made several jars of Greengage and Vanilla jam and the same amount of Plum and Cinnamon jam. We also have a beautiful Greengage Crumble for tonight’s dinner, plums that are going to be used in a Plum Cake, and some will also be frozen for winter days when I need to remember the September warmth. As any Norfolk person would say……it was all just boootiful!


Plumbe and Maufe Farming on the North Norfolk Coast can be found on Facebook here

Monday, September 2, 2013

'Bread Making' by Ruth Clemens

I can bake cakes, and even the odd sourdough loaf, but when it comes to using yeast I am a complete novice. I felt I needed encouragement and so I was truly excited to learn that Ruth Clemens has added another volume to her ‘Pink Whisk Guide’ series, this time it’s Bread Making.

As with her ‘Guide to Cake Making’, these yeast recipes are so clearly set out, each step accompanied by colour photographs, and she has also added oodles of tips throughout. 

I couldn’t wait to bake and decided upon making some tasty-looking Iced Lemon Fingers. The ingredients were mainly already in my store-cupboard and I had only to buy some fast action yeast.

Ruth has the clever knack of breaking-down the instructions into simple stages and I found the dough easy to prepare – although I did take the angst out of kneading it by hand by using my trusty stand-mixer. The dough rose beautifully, in the time Ruth said it would, and the only hiccup after that was my clumsiness with the shaping of the fingers, as mine when completed didn’t look quite like Ruth’s neat row of dough sausages.

However, after the second rise, baking, cooling and icing, I was so very pleased with the result - not so perfectly uniform in shape but the texture and taste were great! Thanks to Ruth and her clever, simple, but effective recipe this ‘yeast-baking novice’ had produced a bun which wouldn’t have looked out of place in any baker’s shop. Of course, I have now been inspired to have a go at all manner of other breads – so watch this space!

There may be a plethora of home-bread baking books on the market already but ‘The Pink Whisk Guide to Bread Making’ by Great British Bake Off finalist, Ruth Clemens, is the one that I would thoroughly recommend as an essential for your cookery book shelf.


This hardback is published by David & Charles and is priced at £12.99.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Vanilla biscuits

A short while ago I  bought a mini tyrannosaurus biscuit stamp, which I thought would be ideal to use to make some cookies when we next saw my great-nephew, Ruben, who is mad keen on dinosaurs. 

The opportunity came last weekend and I used the cutter to make simple Vanilla Cookies.

150g unsalted butter softened
150g caster sugar
1 small egg, beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
a pinch of salt
300g plain flour, sifted

1. Line a baking tray with parchment.

2. Preheat the oven to 180C or gas 4.

3. Cream together the butter and sugar until light and creamy. Add the beaten egg, vanilla and salt and mix well. Gradually add the flour and mix until incorporated. Bring together into a dough, wrap and chill for 1 hour.

4. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured work surface to a thickness of 3-4mm. Dip cookie cutter in flour before each use. Arrange them on the prepared baking tray.

5.Bake the biscuits on the middle shelf of the pre-heated oven for about 12 minutes, or until firm and golden. Leave to cool for 10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

Ruben was given his dino-shaped cookies, together with one or two mini icing tubes and some sweeties, so that he could decorate them at home. As you can see, he did a fantastic job! 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Banana and spice loaf

Bananas defrosting from the freezer
A short posting today as I am preparing for this evening’s Clandestine Cake Club event ‘Use your loaf’, i.e. all cakes must be baked using a loaf tin and, with no suggested flavours this time, it’s all about the shape!

Whilst trawling my old recipes a fortnight ago, I came across an old favourite which is a Banana and Spice Loaf - ideal for tonight’s theme - and, as I had about 20 bananas in the freezer ready to be used in baking (a perfect place to store over-ripe examples that are left in the fruit bowl), I didn’t have to buy too many ingredients.

The recipe is as follows, easy as chips, and a real winner for those that like warm, dark, sweet and fruity flavours together with a sumptuous chocolate ganache topping - you can’t go wrong!
Banana and spice loaf

For cake:
100g raisins
50ml brandy (if preferred use orange juice)
185g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
Pinch of salt
2 tsp cinnamon
125g unsalted butter (I used soft marg)
150g soft light brown sugar
2 large eggs
4 small very ripe bananas (defrosted if frozen – cut off tops and squeeze out flesh from skin)
1 tsp vanilla extract
For topping:
90 ml or 3fl oz double cream
20g unsalted butter
100 grams dark chocolate, grated
Edible gold glitter to dust (optional)

1.    In a small pan pour the brandy (or orange juice) over the raisins and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and leave to cool and soak (I prepare this the night before baking).

2.   Preheat the oven to 170C/150C fan/Gas 3. Sieve together flour, baking powder, bicarb, salt and cinnamon in a large bowl.

3.   In a separate bowl mix the butter and sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs a little at a time, beating well after each addition. Then stir through the mashed banana, soaked raisins and vanilla extract.

4.   Fold in the flour and place mixture into a 900g (2lb) loaf tin. Bake for 1 – 1 ¼ hrs – or until a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool on a wire rack.

5.  To make the topping, heat the cream and butter in a small saucepan to just boiling then take off the heat. Add the grated chocolate and leave for a couple of minutes to melt before gently stirring into the cream. Leave to cool and thicken slightly before pouring over the cooled cake. Sprinkle with edible gold glitter (if using).

Monday, August 5, 2013


Wild cherries
From childhood, cherries have always been a favourite fruit for me and I have almost loved them even more than the quintessential English strawberry. I remember hanging double-stalked specimens over my ears to mimic earrings and a treat bag full of fresh cherries was, for me, just as good as a quarter pound of sweeties from the local shop. It’s sad that the cherry season is usually fairly short but, this year, due to the wet spring and long hot summer, I’m told that supplies have been a little late but unusually abundant.

We recently travelled to Brogdale Farm in Kent, home of the National Fruit Collection, and timed our visit to coincide with the annual Cherry Festival. I was in my element as the Collection holds an incredible 320 different varieties of cherry. We toured the many planted acres on a tractor ride and sampled numerous fat, juicy examples of fruits before buying some to bring home. I was especially amazed to discover that, according to one study, cherry juice contains more antioxidants than 23 portions of fruit and vegetables! I wonder why fresh cherry juice isn’t more widely available in the supermarkets?
Lucia Stuart

One of the highlights of our Brogdale visit was an introduction and cookery demonstration by forager Lucia Stuart into using wild fruits, such as cherries, as well as edible flowers in the kitchen. She actually runs several courses from her company ‘The Wild Flower Kitchen’ and has published a book on the subject. 

And so, with Lucia’s inspiration – she said ‘wild food has vitality and freshness’ - when I got home I foraged sufficient wild cherries from our local park to make some jam. 

Simmering cherries
I cooked the cherries first, until softened, and then strained them through a sieve to remove the stones. I finally measured the resulting juice and added the same amount of sugar before bringing it all up to a boil for a couple of minutes. The result is a thick, dark and unctuous preserve, just perfect for a slice of toast or warm scone, but would be equally good added to a sauce for duck or game.

“Life is just a bowl of cherries
So live and laugh, aha!
Laugh and love
Live and laugh,
Laugh and love,

Live and laugh at it all!”