A coyly-clothed pistachio, candied quince and orange blossom cake

Orange flower water, honey, and quince pistachio cake

In December, I candied batch after batch of quince, those rock-hard, gleaming yellow knobbled fruit which are related to apples and may indeed be the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden, not to mention the golden apples which sparked the Trojan war. Once cooked with sugar, the crunchy slabs of quince become tender and take on an ambrosial honeyed flavour which is mouth-fillingly fragrant. I wanted to use some of my quince pieces in a cake, especially the tender, pale yellow cubes made by parboiling the fruit in plain water before cooking in syrup; the glowing red wedges of quince in syrup were too beautiful not to decorate with.

Candied quince, three ways
Clockwise, from bottom left: red, firm-candied quince pieces; candied slices; amber-tinted candied quince cubes

The elegant, perfumed flavour of quince made me think of honey and orange flower water; I toyed, too, with the idea of using rose-water, which would bring out the quince’s romantic floral notes. I chose orange flower water in the end because I had a beautiful tapered-glass bottle of it sitting in the fridge. So far, so aromatically Middle Eastern; to complement the flavours, I decided to make a pistachio cake, for this gleaming verdant nut is native to Syria. In addition, its fat content means it produces a cake with a soft, tender crumb. The recipe I went with was actually Italian in style and includes a decidedly un-Middle eastern ingredient, sour cream, although of course Middle Eastern cuisines are no stranger to tangy dairy products.

Candied quince spiral

I wanted to frosting element of this cake to be luxurious, tempting, but at the same time didn’t want something cloying, like buttercream, or richly sharp like cream cheese icing, as I thought they would compete too much with the delicacy of the nut cake and subtle ambrosia of the quince. For this reason I went for double cream, mixed with honey and flower water and whipped up into soft, billowing clouds. Three hundred millilitres is just enough to fill the cake and decorate the sides and top in a lacy, coyly veiled ‘naked’ style – I’d been wanting to try one of these trendy peekaboo cakes for a while. I actually whipped the cream a little bit more than desirable: you really want very soft, blowsy cream, beaten juuuuust to the point of holding its shape, but I was packing the cake up and taking it to my book club meeting. I was terribly anxious about it surviving the Tube, which can be hot even in winter, so whipped the cream quite stiff to give it a bit more stability. The result is that it looks a little grainy once iced, but it wasn’t overwhipped at all (no butterfat had solidified in the cream).

I was extremely gratified – since this was a very experimental cake – that everyone at my book club said they thought it delicious. However, don’t feel that it is out of your grasp because you don’t have a stash of syrupy quince in your fridge; I’ve given suggestions below for alternative fruits you could use for the filling and topping. Although they’d be different, they’d be none the less delicious, bringing the required sweet juiciness. I love cooking from recipes and following steps precisely: after a long and freeform day at work, surrendering myself to the instructions of a recipe is strangely relaxing. Yet cooking and even baking are also about freedom, exploration and substitution. This recipe came about by happy and delicious happenstance; there’s no reason it couldn’t do the same for you.

Sliced pistachio cake
Hasty, not very well-lit action shot of the sliced cake

Pistachio cake
Adapted from this recipe by Rose Levy Berenbaum

  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 160ml sour cream
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 85g peeled and blanched pistachios (i.e. with shells and papery outer skins removed before weighing)
  • 175g golden caster sugar
  • 265g plain flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 170g unsalted butter, at room temperature

Orange blossom cream

  • 300ml double cream
  • 1 TBS clear, runny honey – an orange blossom honey would be wonderful here
  • 1/2 TBS – 1 TBS orange blossom water (use more or less depending on the strength of your flower water)

To assemble

  • One batch of candied quince cubes, from one quince, candied by parboiling and then cooking in syrup (instructions in this post)
  • One batch of candied quince slices in syrup, from one quince (instructions in this post)

or

  • Two peaches or nectarines, peeled, one chopped, one sliced into wedges
  • A handful of fresh, intensely ripe and fragrant apricots, half chopped, half sliced, halved or quartered
  • A bagful of sweet red cherries, stoned, half chopped and the rest halved
  • A drained tin of lychees, half chopped, half quartered (if using lychees, replace the orange blossom water with rose water, and throw in a box of raspberries in the filling and to decorate the top to capture an Ispahan-like flavour)

Equipment

You will need three 20cm cake tins, ideally shallow (I used three of the 20cm Wilton layer cake tins), to make the recipe as written. However, you could cake up the mixture in standard 18cm sandwich tins or 23cm springform tins – you just might end up with fewer layers and you will need to adjust the baking time.

  1. Grease the cake tins and line the base with baking paper
  2. Preheat the oven to 180C
  3. Whisk the eggs, 3 tablespoons of sour cream and vanilla extract until just combined (set aside the remaining sour cream).
  4. In a food processor, mini chopper or jug blender, grind the pistachions together with the caster sugar until finely ground but not a powder – the texture should be nubbly and grainy with a few larger chunks throughout.
  5. Using an electric beater, mix the flour, pistachio-sugar mixture, baking powder, baking soda and salt together on low for about 30 seconds, until throughly combined (you could always do this by hand using a balloon whisk, but the elctric beaters will come in handy for the next steps)
  6. Add the butter and set aside sour cream to the flour mixture and mix on low speed together until the dry ingredients have been thoroughly moistened by the dairy products. Increase the speed of the mixer to medium and beat for about a minute and a half. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  7. With the mixer on medium-low, add the egg-sour cream mixture to the mixture in your bowl in two batches, beating the egg mixture in for 30 seconds on medium speed between additions so that it is thoroughly combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  8. Scrape the batter equally into the prepared tins (if you are keen and determined to have them be absolutely equal, you can weigh the batter). Smooth the top of the batter with a small offset spatula.
  9. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or a little longer depending on the number of tins you have divided the batter into and the dimensions of the tins. Test by inserting a skewer or cake tester into the centre of each cake; it should come out clean, and the centre of the cake should spring back when pressed gently. The edges will be slightly darker and will be pulling away from the sides of the cake tins ever so slightly.
  10. Let the cakes cool in their tins for ten minutes on a wire rack, then gently unmould and let cool completely.

For the orange flower and honey cream

Note: make this only when the cakes are completely cool and you are ready to fill and decorate

  1. Stir together the cream, honey and orange flower water until combined. Taste a little and adjust as needed by adding a little more honey or orange flower if you think it’s required.
  2. Using an electric whisk or handheld balloon whisk, gently beat the cream mixture on low speed until it just holds firm peaks

To assemble

Note: the assembly instructions are for three layers; if you have cooked fewer layers, just adjust them as required.

  1. Place one of your cake layers in the middle of a cake board or your serving plate, upside down (i.e. so that the flat side is up). If your cake layer was very domed, you can level off the top with a sharp serrated knife, though proceed carefully.
  2. Dollop a scant quarter of the cream mixture onto the centre of the cake layer and spread it to the edges using an offset spatula. Sprinkle over half of your candied quince cubes or your chopped prepared fruit evenly over the cream.
  3. Top with the second cake slice (again, upside down so the flat side is up) and repeat with the cream and remaining half of the chopped quince cubes or prepared fruit.
  4. Top the cake with the final cake layer, again upside down so the flat side is up.
  5. Smooth over a quarter of the whipped cream over the top of the cake using your offset spatula. Smooth the final quarter of whipped cream over the sides of the cake using your spatula, spreading it as evenly as possible. I used my metal bench scraper to smoothen the cream evenly over the sides as a final step by running it over the edges to wipe off the excess.
  6. Decorate the top of the cake by placing your candied quince slices or your sliced or quartered fresh fruit in a pattern over the top

 

How to candy a quince

Candied quince, three ways

Over Christmas, I finally got to grips with the taut-skinned yellow quince sitting in the fruit bowl, for which I had trekked all the way to Morden to buy. Some of them were turned into a classic crimson quince paste – often known as membrillo – which is thick and set and traditionally served, in Spain at least, with cheese. It goes particularly well with manchego, unsurprisingly.

There were other beautiful ideas for what to do with quince in my sizeable cookbook collection – lots of poaching and baking – but instead I went off-piste and played around with candying them. I used a different technique with each quince to see which worked best. Since I was just experimenting/playing at this point, I don’t have exact measurements and haven’t converted them to metric – most of the recipes I used were American and used volume rather than weight measures. However, having found my favourite candying method, I will be using this in the future and will provide clearer instructions and measurements then.

Candied quince trio

Candied quince 

I made this three ways and funnily enough the first, and simplest, was most successful.

Method One: Classic candied pieces

candied-quince

This method was the simplest and produced quince pieces which were truly candied, as citrus fruit peel might be: gummy-textured all the way through, chewy and fragrant, with the bold, blood-red shade which is the hallmark of quince cooked with sugar, while still capturing their evocative, perfumed-apple flavour. It is also a true preserve, as sufficient moisture is driven off to enable the pieces to keep for some time, lightly dusted in granulated sugar and tucked away in a sealed box.

This was very simple: I peeled the quince and sliced it into eighths, removed the core from each segment, and sliced the quince crossways to make smallish, fairly evenly sized pieces. I then followed the Bon Appetit recipe for candied grapefruit peel (which is very successful for its original purpose, too!) but skipped the blanching stages (which remove some of the peel’s bitterness, which doesn’t apply in the case of quince) and simply put them straight in the syrup. I had to simmer a bit longer for the quince than for the grapefruit peel (25-28 minutes) and to top up some extra sugar and water, so perhaps start with 1.5 cups of sugar and 3/4 cup of water if you want to try this. I also simmered it quite gently to ensure the pieces didn’t get mushy and lose their shape. Once finished, I drained the pieces with a wire-mesh sieve and placed them on a drying rack lined with baking paper to dry out for eight hours. Once dry, they were tossed in granulated sugar and packed in a sealed, airtight box.

Method Two: parboiling and candying

Golden candied quince

For this method, I peeled, cut and cored the quince pieces as above and sliced them into small cubes, but simmered them in plain water for 5 minutes prior to cooking in syrup – a lot of candied quince recipes called for this stage so I wanted to see the effects. These fell apart much more easily and did not go that deep purple-red colour, only achieving an elegant amber shade. Once drained and dried, they were still very damp and need to be stored in the fridge. They are tender and almost melting.

Method Three: parboiling and candying larger pieces

For this method, I peeled, cut and cored the quince pieces as above but sliced them into large chunks. I parboiled them for 5 minutes as above before cooking in syrup. The larger pieces did not candy well; already spongey from the parboiling, it took too long for the syrup to penetrate the pieces and make them translucent, resulting in the syrup boiling to caramel and producing slightly soggy – though bright red – chunks of quince within a crunchy caramel shell. Not what I was after.

Candied quince slices

Candied quince slices

To make the syrupy candied quince slices, I followed this recipe on the Dervish Rosary blog, but scaled down the quantities significantly! I peeled and cut the quince into eigths as above and removed their hard little cores and parboiled the slices for 7 minutes as directed by the recipe. I then used 2 cups of sugar and 4 cups of water to make a syrup, brought this to simmering point, and added the slices. I cooked them until red, glossy and slightly translucent, about 30-40 minutes, on a low simmer (continuously). The low simmer is essential to keep them intact and stop them going mushy. I would start checking after 20 minutes and keep the heat low, topping up with water and sugar as necessary. Once cooked, I gently removed them with a slotted spoon. These need to be preserved in their syrup and I think it’s best to keep in the fridge.

 

Baking Advent: little plum friands

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with a different daily baked good.

Plum and almond friands

I went to the gym yesterday, for the first time in…a while. I’ve been busy, and sick, and social, and taking a French course, all of which has disrupted my usual gym-going routine, which was pretty settled and well-established. Once dropped, I felt too intimidated and apprehensive to go back, even though I knew that the tension in my shoulders and recent difficulty sleeping could have been resolved with some exercise.

Well, I finally managed to get to gym, albeit much later in the evening than I planned and on the strength of two glasses of wine from a work function (oh yes), and I’m pretty much back to square one in terms of fitness, which is pretty annoying. However, once finished, I did feel better, more focused, my thoughts less troubling, and I slept well. Having exercised, I also let myself indulge in one of my plum friands, serving it up with a trickle of double cream.

Plum friand

Friands are egg white and ground almond-based mini cakes, oddly popular in Australia, and very similar to French financiers. Friands tend to be baked in round shapes, unlike rectangular financiers, whose shape is said to resemble gold bars; for financiers, the butter is typically browned until it picks up toasted hazelnut notes; and friands typically have additions and flavourings such as chocolate, coconut, and fruit, whereas the financier is unadulterated almond. These differences aside, both recipes involve ground almonds, icing sugar, melted butter, and egg whites, so I think it’s safe to say they are related in some ways, cousins at least even if they’re not close enough to be siblings.

I made this recipe to use up the last three plums in the house – conveniently, that’s all that was needed. It also helped me finish off my stash of ground almonds, which had grown to ludicrous proportions thanks to a brief macaron phase; and there were egg whites in the freezer compartment (they just about fit) which just needed a brief thawing. So this recipe was serendipitous in some respects.

Buttery vanilla friands

I did make two tiny tweaks to the recipe as printed by Waitrose Weekend, a free newspaper distributed in Waitrose supermarkets. Firstly, I did not line the bottoms of the muffin tin with circles of baking paper, because the idea of cutting them out made me feel deflated. Instead, I greased the bun tin thoroughly – and I mean thoroughly – with melted butter, let the friands cool for a good while, and then eased them very gently out of the tin with a flexible palette knife when they were barely warm (I think if you let them cool to absolutely cold the plums might adhere). You do need to be careful when doing this because the plums can stick to the tins and cause the cake to break when prised out of the tin, but I genuinely think it’s a million times better than cutting out baking paper circles. But to each their own. Secondly, I replaced the called-for almond extract with vanilla extract, because I was serving them to a friend who doesn’t like the pronounced, cloying bitter-kernel taste of almond extract (although she likes almonds). In fact, I think the vanilla extract was a good choice as it brought out the soft, buttery tenderness of the cakes rather than highlighting the almond.

Recipe after the jump.

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Baking Advent: plum and ginger traybake

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with a different daily baked good.

Ginger and plum traybake with crumble topping
Ginger and plum traybake with crumble topping

After I had made a batch of tender plum and poppy seed muffins, there was still a bag full of beautiful – but ever so slightly soft – purple plums winking at me. I hunted through my cookbooks and magazines looking for an appropriate recipe (greatly aided by cookbook indexing tool Eat Your Books) and found a recipe for a plum and ginger traybake, based on oats. Plum and ginger are two tastes which go together beautifully, and the oats add a wholesome nubbliness that makes these treats seem almost breakfast-appropriate – although, conversely, the combination of butter, golden syrup and oats also brings to mind the mighty flapjack. In any case, there’s little not to love.

Plums and oat traybake
Cool winter light and plums

The recipe is quite clever in saving some of the batter used for the base of the traybake and mixing it with additional oats and flour to make a delectably crunchy topping. It’s such an easy idea – much simpler than putting together even the most basic extra crumble  – that it makes me wonder why I’ve never seen it before. The recipe was written by Jane Hornby, who is the author of the beautiful and instructive What to Bake and How to Bake It, and she is really very good at breaking down recipes into simple steps that make them achievable for anyone without – for lack of a better word – dumbing them down to the extent where they are simple and plain. The oats used are standard porridge oats, rather than the jumbo oats often called for in baking, and this was particularly satisfying because we always have these in the house for morning winter breakfasts.

Sticky oat, plum and ginger squares
Each peach? pear?…plum

The only slightly awkward thing about this recipe was fitting the oat base into the suggested 17x23cm tin – the dough couldn’t fit over this large space. I ended up using a 21x21cm square Pyrex dish, and this worked perfectly, though I’m sure a metal tin of a similar size would work well too.

Recipe below the jump, as always

Continue reading “Baking Advent: plum and ginger traybake”