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Saturday, 19 July 2014

What to do at the end of the broad bean season

Our broad beans are getting to the end of their season now. When you first harvest broad beans, the little "hats" that attach the beans to the pod stay on the bean when you pod them and they cook to have beautifully tender skins. As they mature, the little hats come off as you pod the beans and then, later, under the hats the "scar" becomes black. At this point, it is inevitable that the beans will have tough skin, no matter how long they are cooked, and will taste better if this tough skin is removed before eating - a fiddly job!

It is best to harvest all your broad beans before they reach the black scar point. It is easy to prepare them for the freezer. Just pod them and then drop them into a pan of water on a rolling boil. Boil them for 2 to 3 minutes, until you see a colour change then drain them and run them under a cold tap to cool them quickly. Lay them onto open trays and place them in the freezer. Once frozen, remove them from the tray into labelled bags to use in the autumn or winter.

When you have harvested all your beans, chop your broad bean plants down so that there is about 10 cm of stem left above the ground and give them a good watering. If you are lucky then the plants will regrow from these stems and flower again to give you a second small crop of late broad beans before the season ends.

Of course, you may by now have past the point of perfect maturity for freezing your beans and only have old beans left that will be unpleasant to freeze. If this is the case then you might like to try making broad bean pate or hummus. These recipes requires cooking the beans first and then removing the tough outer skin to use the middle of the bean only. It's a bit fiddly but it does make use of beans that might otherwise go to waste.

Bean and Pea Pate

260g broad beans
100g peas (frozen are fine)
¼ teaspoon each ground cumin and coriander
Salt and pepper
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons of natural yoghurt or soya alternative

Boil the broad beans for 5 to 10 minutes then drain and allow to cool. Remove the outer skin from the beans and place in a food processor. Boil the peas for 3-5 minutes and allow to cool before putting them in the food processor too. Finely chop the garlic and fry in a little oil for about 3 minutes then add to the peas. Add the spices and salt and pepper to taste, along with the yoghurt. Blend all the ingredients until a smooth pate forms. Decant into suitable containers. Refrigerate for up to 4 days or freeze.

Broad bean hummous

650g podded broad beans
100g tahini
½ teaspoon ground cumin
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
Good pinch salt
Pepper to taste
Clove of garlic

Cook the broad beans then drain, cool and remove the outer shell. Put all the ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth. Can be frozen.

If you have reached this stage of maturity, it is also possible that your broad bean plants are past their best too and there is probably no point cutting them down for a second flush. Instead, if you can afford the space, leave at least some of the plants to stand until they die back and turn into dead, dried stems. Broad beans are one of only a few plants that grow hollow stems so come the winter you can chop them up into short lengths, pack them tightly into a cut off drinks bottle and hang them up in a tree so that insects can crawl into them to overwinter.

One thing that is worth bearing in mind at the end of broad bean crop is that they are part of the legume family. This family has nitrogen-fixing bacteria living in nodules on their roots. These bacteria can do something quite amazing that humans can only do by complex chemical process that require a great deal of energy; they can extract nitrogen from the air. As a result, nitrogen levels in the soil increase and this in turn improves the fertility of the soil. It is therefore important when clearing away old broad bean plants to leave the roots in the soil so that you leave these nodules (and the associated nitrogen) in the soil too. It is very easy to pull a broad bean plant out of the ground completely, roots and all (I sometimes do this by accident when trying to harvest the beans!), but instead, you should chop the plants down to soil level and fork the roots over into the soil to help improve the soil.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Making an elephant

Back in February, I got a couple of Lakeland hemisphere cake tins for my birthday from my parents. As much as I love to make cakes, I'm not at all keen on making elaborate, highly decorated cakes, made to resemble something else. I'm much more concerned about how a cake tastes and whether it is nutritionally worthwhile rather than its appearance. If a cake "looks too good to eat" then it's probably best not eaten anyway as it will be smothered in icing and maybe marzipan as well as being an overly sweat, spongy affair. Nonetheless, I was now the owner of a pair of cake tins, the shape of which means their purpose is to make a decorated cake. Who, after all, would make a hemisphere cake when a normal shaped cake would do?

I "like" Lakeland on Facebook and have seen other Lakeland customers posting pictures of the cakes they have made with these cake pans on their page. There is no denying that there are many talented cake decorators out there and a huge amount of imagination. One cake that particularly caught my attention was an impressive 3D affair in the shape of an elephant money box. My youngest daughter is elephant-mad and she reckons she now owns over 100 of them in various forms, including 2 elephant money boxes. Oh, how I would love to make a cake like that for her birthday but, having never made a decorated cake before this was clearly too ambitious, particular as all I had to go on was a photograph!

The thought of the cake stayed with me over the next few weeks and every now and then I would bring it back to the front of my mind and mull it over again until eventually I decided that I just had to give it a go. I read the Lakeland webpage instructions on how to make hemisphere cakes into owl cakes, I watched Youtube videos on the subject and I discussed it with my friend until I felt confident that I could do this. So here I shall share with you my experiences, not because I am some kind of experienced, all-knowing expert, but because I'd never done anything like this before but I did manage it and I hope it would encourage you that you could try it too.

My original plan was to use a basic Victoria Sandwich Cake recipe. However, at the beginning of June, as the soft fruit suddenly became available, I found myself with 6 over-ripe bananas on the windowsill, rejected in favour of fresh strawberries. So I made a batch of banana and maple syrup muffins to use up two of these bananas. My youngest daughter particularly loves the flavour of these cakes so I found myself wondering if the same recipe could be used to make the hemisphere cakes. Although my daughter's birthday was still a month away at this point, I was not deterred as the muffins do freeze very well. So one afternoon I made a batch of muffin recipe and spooned it equally between the two hemisphere cake tins. To my surprise, it didn't file the cake tins enough so I used the last two remaining bananas to make another batch of batter. This was more than enough so I got on and baked the cakes (using fried egg rings to keep the tins level in the oven). The remaining batter I cooked up in my cake-pop machine to make 7 little spherical cakes. I didn't have any particular ideas for those so I just popped them into the freezer. The main cakes took 75 minutes to cook in the end, which was longer than I expected, so I was glad I wasn't trying to go out. Once cooled, I  trimmed the top of each cake until it was flat (and ate those bits just to be sure the cake was tasty!), wrapped them in greaseproof paper and put them into freezer bags and froze them.

Banana & Maple Syrup Cake (half this recipe makes 12 muffins)

8 oz soften butter
8 oz caster sugar
1 lb plain flour
4 tablespoons maple syrup
4 eggs
4 over-ripe bananas, mashed
2 tablespoons baking powder

Preheat over to 180°C, gas 4 and lightly grease two hemisphere tins, Cream together the butter and sugar then add the eggs, one at a time, and then the syrup. Stir in the mashed bananas. Sift in the flour and baking powder and stir until just combined. Spoon into the cake tins until two thirds full. Bake for 75 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Cool in the tins on a wire rack.

The next step was to shop for the other things I would need to make this cake. After a bit of research, I determined my cake would need approximately 750g of icing to cover it and the cheapest place to buy icing seemed to be ebay. So I purchased 4 (just to be safe) packs of 250g Renshaw ready to roll out lilac icing, plus a pack of white. I also bought, from ebay, 10 chocolate coins. I already had a cake drum/board left over from another project so I didn't need to buy that too. Finally, whilst doing a jam delivery to Woodstocks Artisan Bakery in Stony Stratford, I popped into the party supply shop next door and bought a "1" and a "0" candle.

My daughter's party was on a Saturday so on the afternoon of the Wednesday before I took the cakes out of the freezer to thaw. After I'd got my girls to bed, I then made up a batch of butter icing, following the Lakeland instructions (minus the cocoa powder) and spread this evenly over the two hemisphere cakes to make an anti-crumb layer that would stop crumbs coming off the cake and getting into the icing. I sat each cake on a saucer, flat side down whilst I did this and then put them both into the fridge, uncovered, over night to harden. There was still a bit of butter icing left so I kept that.

Butter icing anti-crumb coat

125g softened butter
250g icing sugar

Mix 100g of the icing sugar into the soften butter in a small bowl then add the remaining icing sugar and beat until smooth.

In the morning the anti-crumb layer had set beautifully so it was now time to sandwich the two halves together with butter icing and jam. Deciding what sort of jam to use had been a big decision that I had contemplated for days! If it had been a Victorian Sandwich cake then I would have used raspberry jam but I thought that would clash with the banana flavour of this cake. I considered using mirabelle jam as this is a mild jam and similar to apricot jam, which is often used in cake decorations. But in the end I decided that my orchard fruit jam would work best because the slight spice flavour would complement the banana and maple syrup flavours in the cake.

So I spread the flat surface of one hemisphere with jam and the other one with the remaining butter icing then stuck the two halves together and placed them on an upturned side plate. Unfortunately, there was a big gap all the way round the middle of the cake where the two halves met and I figured this would show when I iced it. So, I made some more butter icing and cemented in the gap with this and put the whole thing back the fridge to chill for a bit.

At this point I took out the cake board and started to wonder how I would make 4 stumpy legs for the elephant's body to rest on. I had originally thought I would do this with solid balls of icing but at this point I realised that if I did that I wouldn't have enough icing to finish the job and that the icing was too soft to support the weight of the cake. I then wondered if I should just ice something non-edible but suitably sturdy but on discussing it with Steve, he thought the whole things should be edible. So I decided to retrieve from the freezer the 7 cake pop cake balls I had made from the leftover batter. They seemed to be the right size so I quickly covered 4 these with butter icing and put them in the fridge to chill.

About an hour later I came back to the task, took the cake balls out of the fridge and unwrapped the first block of lilac icing. From what I had ready on the internet, I was expecting to have to knead this stuff like plasticine to make it workable but it was already nice and soft. It did say on the packaging that it was ready to roll so maybe that was why. So I rolled some out and, without too much care, I cut out rectangles that looked about the right size for each ball cake and wrapped it around the cakes, trimming and smoothing as I went. It was surprisingly easy to wrap each one completely in icing. I then made up a small amount of icing sugar in water "glue" and dolloped this onto the board and then stuck each leg down, placing them so that they were touching each other.

The next step was to ice the main sphere. I removed it from the fridge, still on its upturned side plate. Then I put 3 of the blocks of icing together and rolled it out until it was about 5-8mm thick. Carefully I draped this over my rolling pin and then moved it over the top of the cake. At this point I felt that I needed to put on some thin vinyl disposable gloves so as not to leave sweaty fingerprints all over everything. Then slowly and gently I smoothed the icing down and around the ball until I couldn't reach any more and felt as it I needed to turn it over. So I took a cereal bowl out of the cupboard, lined it was a soft t-towel and then some Clingfilm and then put the sphere upside down into it.

I was then able to carry on using two hands to bring the icing up and around, trimming and smoothing as I went, until the cake was completely encased in the icing. I put a few splodges of the icing glue onto the top of each leg then I took the sphere out of the bowl and carefully placed it on top of the legs.

The next jobs were to mould a trunk, tail, eyebrows and ears out of the off-cuts of lilac icing. These I stuck on simply by brushing with a little water. Then I made some flowers using a tiny flower cutter. And I made eyes using a tiny lid as a cutter and just slightly reshaping it to make ovals. The pupils I made from white icing, coloured with blue food colouring. Having got blue colouring on my gloves, I decided now was a good time to throw those away and continue without them. Next I cut a slot out of its back and push one of the gold coins into that then I used little bits of icing glue to stick the remaining coins to the board. Finally I stuck a block of white icing to the board and pushed the candles into it.

It was at this point that I noticed that the whole thing was collapsing under its own weight. I seemed that I had positioned the main sphere slightly off centre on the four legs, putting more weight on the back legs. The cakes that made these legs had then compressed under the weight and the elephant now appeared to be slowly trying to sit down. I hoped that as the icing dried and hardened it would strengthen but in the meantime I needed to stop the sagging. This I managed by firstly sliding my wedge-shaped cheese grater under the board from the back so that the cake was tilted forward, shifting the centre of gravity, and secondly, by gently supporting the elephant's bottom with my rolling pin. I then quickly took some photos of it just in case the whole thing had collapsed before my daughter got to see it!

I left the cake where it was for the rest of the day, expecting the icing to harden. By the end of the day it was still quite soft and it remained softer than I had expected all the way through Friday too. I noticed too that over time the icing gently sagged downwards due to gravity so that the "skin" on the elephant's body hung over the top of the legs. This was actually a pretty good look for an elephant but I think I would have been disappointed if I had made a football cake and that had sagged. I'm wondering if this ready to roll icing is just a little too soft. It does make it easy to use but it could do with hardening up more quickly.

By Saturday lunchtime I had to remove the supports and carefully package the cake into a box so that I could move it to Chiki Ceramiki, the ceramic painting cafe where the party was being held. It was certainly nerve-racking and added to my list of stresses that generally go with organising a kid's birthday party. However, it survived the journey and unpacking and my daughter was really pleased with it. I'm pleased to say that the cake inside tasted great too and was still ok to eat a couple of days later too.

So there you go, I hope my experiences are helpful should you wish to make an elaborate cake too. I would say it's not something I intend to do again but of course my other daughter is now hugely jealous of the cake I made for her sister and seems to think I should go to a similar amount of effort for her birthday in October!

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Raspberry & White Chocolate Cheesecake

It was my daughter's 10th birthday this Wednesday. Wednesday is an awkward day of the week for celebrating your birthday, being not closer to one weekend than the other, making it difficult to decide when to have the main celebration. Last weekend we held a party of her, at Chiki Ceramiki, ceramic painting with her school friends. For this I made a rather spectacular birthday cake. Then this weekend I invited my parents over for a meal, but having already done the whole birthday cake and candles bit, it didn't seem necessary to make another one for this occasion. Instead, I made for her her favourite cheesecake recipe - Raspberry & White Chocolate. With the raspberries in full swing it seemed only appropriate. And to make it birthday-special, I topped it with a 10 made out of freshly picked raspberries. Needless to say, it went down extremely well all round.

White Chocolate Raspberry Ripple Cheesecake
For the base
150g digestive biscuits, crushed
75g butter, melted

For the topping
200g white chocolate
30g butter
1/4 vanilla pod
250g cream cheese
90ml whipping cream
100g raspberries
25g caster sugar

For the biscuit base combine the crushed biscuits and the melted butter in a bowl then press into the greased base of a 20cm circular tin or dish. Place in the refrigerator for at least half an hour to solidify. Next, melt the chocolate, butter and the seeds from the vanilla pod in a bowl over a pan of simmering water. Leave to cool. In another bowl, mix together the cream and cheese and beat until smooth. Once the chocolate mix is suitably cool add it to the cream mix and stir thoroughly. Spoon onto the biscuit base. Reserve a few raspberries and place the rest in a saucepan with a couple of tablespoons of water and the caster sugar. Heat gently, squashing the raspberries with a spoon to break them down. After about 5 minutes remove from the heat and strain through a sieve to remove the seeds. Spoon the raspberry sauce over the cheesecake then gently swirl it through the upper surface of the creamy layer with a skewer or spoon handle. Return to the refrigerator to chill for a few hours or over night then place the reserved raspberries on top before serving.