No bake: Watermelon cake

watermelon cake

This week saw the return of The Great British Bake Off to our TV screens, it’s one of my very few must watch programmes and i’m very excited to be tuning in every wednesday over the next few weeks to watch the competition unfold. It was great to see the series kick off with some magnificent cakes, (And some less so!) its also a hot topic of conversation amongst my foodie friends, so strangely enough all this baking got me thinking about not baking.

Sometimes there just isn’t time, sometimes one of these fabled warm weather days arrives in the UK and the thought of turning the oven on is just a little too much to bear and sometimes its good to have a healthy cake on the menu. It just so happened that this weekend the weather has been a little brighter and a summer BBQ was called for to celebrate this momentous occasion. C and I planned a feast, pork belly, burgers, sausages, meat, meat, meat basically! So we decided watermelon would provided the perfect antidote for desert

We live on the Narborough rd in Leicester, Aka “the Narb” to us locals where one can pretty much acquire anything your heart desires, it’s entirely possible to exist solely on the offerings of the Narbourgh rd, should you want to.

I’ve spotted quite a few enormous watermelons on my weekend strolls and decided that this was to be the weekend to purchase the largest watermelon I could find. 10kg to be precise.

So, I carried the Watermelon,

In a blue plastic bag Down the Narbourough rd, it wasn’t terribly glamorous but my head was spinning with ideas of what to make. Watermelon vodka is always a winner at adult BBQs but I was tempted to try something a little different and created this refreshing three tier watermelon cake instead.

watermelon cake 1watermelon cake 5

The good news is watermelon cakes are pretty simple to make, all you really need is a good sharp knife. Here follows an explanation of how to achieve this for next time you have an enormous watermelon handy. There are many virtuous qualities to this cake also. It’s vegan, refined sugar free, gluten free, nut free so no need to feel guilty about diving in!

Slice your watermelon across the middle into 3 even slices to create the three tiers. Cut circles out of the flesh inside the watermelon, for this I used bottomless cake rings, 8″ for the base, 6″ for the middle and 4″ for the top tier. once you have the three tiers cut you can sharpen up any edges or straighten the tops of each tier if necessary so each layer stacks evenly. That being said, if the cakes are a little wonky this adds a little drama so don’t worry too much! Stack the layers on top of each other. No dowels needed as the watermelon itself is pretty sturdy. Once stacked, it’s time for the fun bit, get creative and decorate your watermelon cake with fresh fruit and berries and if you have any to hand edible flowers work a treat. Here i’ve used nasturtium, lavender, sweet peas, fennel and dahlia petals so the cake is entirely edible.

So next time you fee like baking consider this colourful, refreshing and above all healthy option, and of course you could also douse the cake with vodka too if you wanted to liven things up a bit!

watermelon cake 2watermelon cake 3watermelon cake 4

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Bake: Masala Chai macarons

macarons colours

Macarons are quite possibly my favourite sweet treat ever. I can’t think of anything that makes me happier than a display of these brightly coloured almond delights all lined up in an array of exciting flavours. That being said when it comes to making them they have long eluded me. I’ve had so many failed attempts from french to Italian meringue base experiments which have often resulted in some very tasty biscuits and on one occasion, during an experiment with powdered egg white, some very peculiar miniature cakes. Through all the experiments I had never quite managed to achieve that perfect bake profile with a crisp shell and chewy centre, that is until now…..

A few months ago I decided it was time to get serious about this, how can any self respecting baker not be able to master the art of macarons? I poured over recipes and researched other peoples success stories, it seems I was not alone in my plight and a suitable method for these little tinkers is often a personal journey of trial and error.

It was around this time that I remembered a recipe given to me by my friend Liz. Post a disastrous weekend of baking Liz had offered me the french meringue recipe she used whilst working as a pastry chef in a restaurant run by her family high in the mountains of Morzine. Liz had assured me that this recipe had never let her down, even baking them at a high altitude in the heart of the French Alpes, so this was an encouraging place to start.

I followed Liz’s recipe to the T and when the first batch came out reasonably well I had to have another crack, and then another, Raspberry and chocolate then lemon and pistachio followed by chocolate and hazelnut, I was churning them out and by the time I stopped I spent around two days baking nothing but macarons! It had been a long old slog but finally I was making macarons to an acceptable standard.

I decided a masala Chai tea party was in order to celebrate my new found skill.

spice blend

To Make Masala Chai spice blend you will need:

  • half a cinnamon stick
  • 1 & 1/2 tsp powdered ginger
  • half a tsp powdered cardamom – or the seeds from 3 pods
  • 2 white peppercorns
  • 1 clove
  • 1 head of star anise – or 1/2 tsp powdered star anise

Place all ingredients into a spice blender or pestle and mortar and rind to a fine powder. For Masala Chai tea with this spice blend place 1 tablespoon of the mix into a saucepan along with 750ml milk and two black tea bags, bring to a simmer, then transfer to a teapot to infuse. To serve, strain the mix through a fine sieve or tea strainer into tea cups.

stiff whites

To Make Liz’s Macarons you will need: 

  • 1 Tbls Chai spice blend
  • 1 black tea bag
  • 120g icing sugar
  • 80g ground almonds
  • 2 large egg whites at room temperature
  • 50g caster sugar

This recipe makes 18-20 macarons

Pre-heat the oven to 120°C. Sift the icing sugar and ground almonds together with the chai spice and the contents of the tea bag, discard any large lumps of almond that aren’t fine enough to go through the sieve. 

Whisk the egg whites along with a pinch of salt until stiff, then add the caster sugar a spoonful at a time and bring the whites up to stiff peak, and when I say stiff, I’m talking hold the bowl over your head stiff, this is key to getting the crisp shell and lift. This may take around 5 minutes.

Fold the almond mix into the whites in two halves, add the first half to lighten the mix, then add the second. Transfer the mix to a piping bag and pipe even circles around an inch in diameter onto a baking tray lined with silicone paper. Once piped lift the tray up and drop it onto the work surface, this will encourage any air bubbles in the mix to rise to the surface, repeat this 5 times. If after slamming the tray there is still a point where the macaron has been piped this can be removed by placing a dampened finger onto the macaron to level it off. Allow the macrons to sit for 15 to 20 minutes to skin over.

Place the macarons into the pre-heated oven 1 tray at a time. All ovens have hot spots so the positioning of the tray in the oven can also affect the finished result of the macarons. I experimented with different shelves in the oven and for me the second shelf up from the bottom gave the best results. Bake for 10 minutes, turning the tray around after 7 minutes to ensure an even colour all over.

Once cool the macarons can be filled with a filling of your choice. I use nutella as a filling for this batch, but chocolate ganache works very well also.


macarons 1

chai teamacarons 2the end

A big thank you to Liz for letting me share her recipe. Further macaroon tips and tricks are available at Coco Cake Land and food 52

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Bake: Sour Cherry and Peach crumble

AmereneThere were many highlights to our Italy adventure but one of my favourite discoveries appeared in the garden just outside our apartment in San Benedetto.

We took a small apartment in the grounds of an ‘agritourism’ farm set in the mountains of Emilia Romagna where we arrived as weary travellers on a sunny saturday afternoon and our host greeted us with free wine before showing us to our home for the next 4 nights.

The apartment was small and almost perfectly formed but we planned on spending our time outside, relaxing by the pool and eating alfresco. So once our bags were dropped we set about exploring the grounds, beginning with the garden.

The garden had many hidden treasures, plenty of fragrant herbs and flowers including lavender, sage and thyme, apple trees with the beginnings of fruit getting ready for autumn and trees bearing what appeared at first glance to be suspicious red berries. “Are those cherry trees?” I asked our host who confirmed that they indeed were and went on to describe them as “Amerene” or “bitter cherries” it was then that the penny dropped, our garden was filled with at least half a dozen sour cherry trees with just ripe fruit.

Having only ever encountered Amerene dried and packed into vacuum sealed bags on supermarket this was pretty exciting and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to bake with these little beauties. Self catering always presents interesting challenges when it comes to cooking, we were of course without scales, whisks, a sharp knife or a fully functioning oven, so this recipe was developed without these tools and the question of what to make became a difficult one as it needed to be kept simple. Never the less I was determined that there would be dessert and it would include our newly discovered amarene.

The peaches were acquired from the local supermarket in San Benedetto, a modest store – imagine your local co-op but fill it with freshly baked sourdough loaves, freshly made pasta, every variety of cheese you could hope for and all those illusive vegetables you can never track down such as courgette flowers, aubergines the size of your head and heritage tomatoes, all in a shocking array of different sizes. Yes, we ate like kings in Italy, they just do food so stoning sour cherries

To Make Sour Cherry and peach crumble you will need

  • 2 peaches
  • 100g sour cherries
  • 2 sprigs lavender
  • 180g honey
  • 200g butter
  • 130g semolina
  • 300g plain flour type ‘0’
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  • lavender and sage flowers to garnish
  • yoghurt to serve

Remove the stones from the cherries and slice the peaches, mix together with 80g of the honey and the flowers from the lavender sprigs. Place all together in an ovenproof bowl and set aside.

Place the remaining honey, butter, semolina, flour and the leaves from the thyme sprigs together in a bowl and rub the ingredients together until the mix resembles fine breadcrumbs. Scatter the crumble mix over the top of the prepared fruit and place in an oven pre-heated to 160°C. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown.

to finish, scatter over the sage and lavender flowers and serve with yoghurt.

peach and sour cherry crumble

This is a simple dish that celebrates fruit, it’s definitely best enjoyed in the sunshine!

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Explore: Italy

DSC01829 Italy is seemingly the place to be this summer! Following on From B’s trip to Positano, C and I also headed to Italy this year. We went on a little tour of Emilia Romagna region in northern Italy with our friends who shall be known as Lizard and Wizard. (Their allotment featured right here a little while ago.) We basically ate our way through the region. From the hills of San Bernedetto to the street markets of Bolognia there was plenty of pizza, pasta and gelato. I’ve whittled down my photos from 600, which was quite a challenge so apologies, this is a long one, and photo heavy. (Actually, i’m not sorry at all!) DSC01680 We began our tour with four days in the restorative hills of San Bernedetto. Via the wonders of Airbnb we took a little apartment in an old stone house on the grounds of an agriturism farm with a pool, restaurant and Amerene trees in the back garden (we will talk more about these sour cherries another time, needless to say this was one of the most exciting find of the holiday!) We walked in the forest, drove along weaving mountain roads, explored nearby towns and even ventured over the boarder into Tuscany. We swam in the pool and battled it out at dominos and trivial pursuits. We cooked pasta, drank prosecco and ate alfresco. Low points, towards the end of our stay we found a scorpion in the sink and a mouse drowned in the pool so were glad to be moving on! DSC01682DSC01691DSC01747DSC01764DSC01754DSC01759DSC01799MenuDSC01826 DSC01824DSC01728DSC01838DSC01785Firenze During our stay in San Benedetto we took a train to Florence and spent a very hot day exploring the city. Along with several thousand other tourists we climbed Giotto’s Bell tower so we could view the city and the Duomo from above. This involves 414 step climb through narrow corridors so not for the faint hearted, but the panoramic views of the City are spectacular. Duomo, on the approachFlorence from aboveModena Our next stop was Modena, the home of Balsamic vinegar. Modena is just lovely. A  peaceful, elegant City with narrow streets lined with umber and pink town houses. We were here for just one day and managed to pack in a light lunch at an incredible vegan restaurant, the most amazing Gianduja gelato i’ve ever tasted and finally, diner at Massimo Bottura’s 3 star Michelin restaurant Osteria Francescana currently rated number 2 in the world. I didn’t take my camera into the restaurant as I just wanted to relax in the moment and enjoy the meal, but this was truly a once in a lifetime foodie experience. We meet Massimo, C and I were a little star struck so fortunately Lizard and Wizard were there to maintain the conversation! He wore New Balance trainers which are made specially for him by the manufacturers, so he told us. We opted for the tasting menu which featured some of Massimos famous dishes such as “Oops! I dropped the Lemon Tart” and “The Crunchy Part of the Lasagne” Italian classics re-interpreted in molecular gastronomy through Massimo’s unique creativity, wit and imagination. climbingModenapostModenaGelato GiandujaapricotsBologna Our Final stop was Bolognia, the capital of Emilia Romagna. Bolognia is a vivacious medieval city with bustling streets lined with arched colonnades. It is, as the name would suggest, the birth place of that popular ragu bolognase sauce, though traditionally this should be served with a tagliatelle or penette to allow the ragu to cling to the pasta. Spagetti bolognase is essentially a bastardised version of this classic Italian dish that has been lost in translation. There is of course quite a bit more to Bologna’s food culture also!  This was to be my second visit and I was excited at the prospect of revisiting a few remembered places, not least the cook wear/hardware shop Castaldini which sells unique pasta making equipment and a host of bakewear delights. We had been told that Bologna’s food markets were a must see, after a false start which landed us at Bologna’s rag market we finally tracked down Via Drapperie and unearthed some culinary treasures. Parmisan, pasta, buratta and Mortadella were all on the menu, all at extremely reasonable prices too. There is so much to do in Bologna that two days probably wasn’t quite enough, we went to the outdoor cinema outside the San Petronio Bascilica in the Piazza Maggiore where we watched Don Giovanni on the big screen. Bologna also boasts  not one but two leaning towers, one of which is open to the public for climbing, never one to turn down the opportunity for a panoramic view I was all for the 498 step climb though strangely this time no one else was keen, I went it alone and climbed the rickety medieval wooden staircase to the top of the tower. We also managed to cram in as much pizza as possible before it was time to head home, and a little Chianti also! Bologna tourismDSC02218Castaldinioffertarag market findsPasticceria mignon Bolognafresh vegpomidoriVia Draperietortellini freshissimiParmisanWizard + BalconyChiantiwood fire pizzaPepperoni pizza

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Do: Strawberries, Jam and Tarts

strawberry season It’s that time of year again. So far we have had a traditional rainy Glastonbury, the heatwave we all hoped for (yet in reality, perhaps not so much fun?!) Sunburn, Wimbledon, and of course, the arrival of the celebrated English strawberry. Now available at a farm shop near you by the punnet load. This is British Summertime. B, C and myself headed out on a sunny Monday morning to Whetstone Pastures for a pick your own stint. A little local knowledge for the people of Leicestershire, Whetstone pastures is closed on Mondays. This is clearly stated in the small print on the website, yet all three of us failed to pick up on it. No to be perturbed we headed to the nearest farm shop, saved ourselves a few hours picking and headed on to play crazy golf in the sunshine. (I Won!) Yes, I forgot my suncream. yes, I got sunburnt. Armed with several punnets of English strawberries and for me a winners glow (Quite literally) we went our separate ways, each with a few ideas of what to do with our strawberry hoard. Have you ever eaten a strawberry in winter and been left with an underlying feeling of utter ‘meh’ disappointment? The reason behind this is simple. Apart from the summer months our strawberries are imported from far reaching continents with warmer climes. Warmer climates mean fast ripening strawbs, fast ripening strawbs means the flavour of our treasured fruit doesn’t quite ripen at the same pace. Therefore the strawbs are lack lustre and a little bland. One thing that our delightfully unpredictable summer months are perfect for is slow ripening strawberries. A little rain, a little wind, possible blizzards and perhaps a little sunshine means only one thing. No one does Strawberries like British summertime. No one. Of course it makes perfect sense why we love them so, but really, don’t buy them out of season. Seriously, don’t even sniff them. No! So, whether scones and clotted cream are your poison, jam tarts, or maybe you’re planning an afternoon tea party in celebration of Wimbledon, here are a couple of ideas for hoarding strawberries over the coming months and even take these very English summertime fruits into winter also….. English strawberries To make  Strawberry, Black pepper and balsamic jam you will need:

  • 3 250ml- 300ml capacity jam jars and lids800g of strawberries
  • 400g jam sugar
  • 30ml balsamic vinegar
  • 1tsp black pepper

Place the strawberries and sugar into a heavy based sauce pan and bring to a rolling boil. Heat gently at boiling point for around 25-30 minutes until the jam reaches a temperature of 104°C. Skim off any froth that forms on the surface of the jam as it comes up to temperature. Thoroughly wash the jars and their lids in hot soapy water. Rinse clean and place the jars on a baking tray then transfer the tray into an oven pre-heated to 180°C for 5-10 minutes. Once the jam is heated to setting temperature, add the balsamic and black pepper, stir well to combine. Decant the jam into the measuring jug and pour straight into the prepared jars while they are still hot. Place a silicone paper circle onto the top of the jam to create a seal and then screw the lid tightly onto the jam jar. DSC02394 To make Strawberry jam tarts you will need:

  • 60g butter
  • 40g caster sugar
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 120g plain flour
  • 1/2 a jar of Strawberry jam

Using a handheld mixer or Kitchen aid with beater attachment, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolk and blend to a smooth light batter. Scrape down the sides of the bowl during mixing if necessary. Add the flour and mix until the pastry comes together to form a smooth dough. Wrap the dough in cling film and place in the fridge for 25-30 minutes to relax. jam tarts pre-oven Pre-heat oven to 160°C and roll the dough to a thickness of around 3mm. Cut out discs of the pastry and place into a muffin tray. fill each tart with jam, about half full- the jam will bubble up on baking. Use the remaining pastry to make decorations for the tarts, this can be anything you like, lattice, shapes, letters, get creative! tarts in the oven Bake the tarts for 10 to 15 minutes until golden brown, allow to cool and serve. strawberry jam tarts

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