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

 

Baking Advent: bakery-style oatmeal-raisin cookies

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with baked goods.

Bakery-style oatmeal raisin cookies and milk

I had lots of ambitious plans to post up a baking recipe every day in December – partly to clear my drafts folder full of half-finished posts – but as the exercise became more stressful, my boyfriend talked me out of it with this dry comment: “You’re a grown-up with a sensible job. No one expects you to put yourself through this.” Then he made me go to bed.

I sometimes doubt how sensible my job really is (usually when filling in a bizarre piece of paperwork), and for sure I often doubt that I’m really a grown up. My job is characterised by tight and sometimes unexpected deadlines and a dizzying set of regulations – internal and external – that are introduced in frenetic spurts between long consultative periods, and I mostly see myself as floundering in the midst of this soup. (It’s also characterised by lovely, warm colleagues who habitually fish me out of said soup). I often – often – worry about whether I’m actually coping, or doing things right. You know the swan metaphor, about how they look calm on the surface but no one sees them paddling like hell underneath? I’m sure everyone can tell I’m paddling.

Oamteal and raisin cookies

Only occasionally have there been moments when I have felt assured and in control (granted, most of the time you’re not observing yourself, you’re just getting on with the day). One of those moments was when I was delivering a goodbye speech for a colleague – I caught myself, as if having an out-of-body experience, speaking calmly and fluidly about her and her contributions to the organisation, and managing a few in-jokes about corporate documents and policy papers. It was a grown up moment, however brief.

I’m sure it seems an awkward segue to go from paddling through adulthood to cookies, but in fact I think there is a connection. Baking, making lovely things to share, is also soothing, therapeutic, and just fun – and can even make me feel more in control. I may not have finished the day’s spreadsheet (yes, this is my life now), but if I bake a batch of cookies it not only gives me some time to myself but gives me a feeling of mastery over this tiny domain. The oatmeal-raisin cookies below are also deliciously easy to put together, they are made from storecupboard staples, and they result in palm-sized, bakery-worthy sweet snacks.

Bowlful of oatmeal raisin cookies

I found this recipe on a delightful blog, aspoonfulofsugar.net (it sadly no longer exists), which I read avidly as a teenager, completely compelled by these adults who, in their spare time, cooked and baked and then wrote about it. This was in the early days of food blogging, just past the heyday of Julie Powell’s blog Julie and Julia, when a young Parisian (or should I say Parisenne?) launched her blog Chocolate and Zucchini and became a rising star in the food blogosphere. Back then, the online food world was a somewhat small close, tightly-knit place (bloggers used to actually regularly meet each other in Real Life) – and blog photography was sometimes (not always)…basic. Things were quite homely and sometimes slapdash and pictures of dinner clearly taken – gasp – at night, with flash, under artificial light. This particular recipe is apparently from the TV tie-in cookbook ‘Cooking with Friends’, featuring recipes for foods seen in the iconic programme. Angela, the authoress of aspoonfulofsugar.net, converted the recipe’s American measurements into metric, but over time her original measurements have been tweaked a little by me.

Cookies and milk

These are big, rich, and crisp cookies – almost crunchy – not too sweet, but wonderfully buttery, studded through with raisins that somehow remain plump and juicy after baking. You can get a softer texture, if wished, by baking them on the lower end of the recommend baking times, about 12 minutes, and you could also experiment with turning down the temperature to the more standard 180C. Myself, I like a cookie full of crunch and texture, and tend to cook them for the full fifteen minutes so they are crisp all the way through. Perfect with a cup of tea, though a cookie as all-American as this surely deserves to be dunked in a glass of milk.

Recipe below the jump, as always.

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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

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Baking challenge: hidden design rainbow zebra cake

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

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Eat the rainbow

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week one (cake week) of series three: a hidden design cake.

Although I like to bake and cook, I am not the person who brings in homemade goods to the office. It happens occasionally, but when I bake it’s usually for me and my boyfriend, or friends, and I don’t always have much time to bake extra for work. Shortly after starting my first big grown-up job post-university, I coincidentally read a few articles which warned that, in fact, women should avoid bringing baked goods to the office to avoid being written off as domestic rather than professional, but I don’t work in that kind of high-level, male-dominated, hyper-corporate environment where those issues would be at play. And I do have friends who work in tough corporate jobs with 18-hour days and billable hours and clients and liability issues and they bring in baked goods nonetheless, because their work speaks for itself in terms of their professional abilities. That, to me, seems like a good sign in the context of debates about women’s roles in the workplace. My issue is less office politics, more lack of time.

Chocolate cream cheese frosting
How to hide a rainbow surprise (but still hint at the promise of colour)

A while ago, however, I did bring in a homemade cake for a colleague’s leaving do. I work in quite a small organisation, and I’ve said goodbye to many colleagues over the last five years, as they find opportunities outside of our tiny, very specialist institution. My colleagues are immensely talented, lovely people, and it’s always sad to see them go. Everyone seemed surprised and delighted by the cake – but I think it would be hard to avoid being charmed by it, with its bright colours revealed in every slice, belying a velvety-smooth but traditional-looking exterior of plain, creamy chocolate cream cheese icing.

The first showstopper challenge of series three of the Great British Bake-Off required the bakers to make a hidden-design cake – that is, a cake which, when cut into, reveals a pattern or image cunningly baked or carved into the centre. There are three basic ways of making a hidden-design cake: chiselling out the centre of a baked cake and replacing it with a filling, modelling chocolate, more baked cake or similar; pre-baking sponge cake into slices and pouring cake batter over and re-baking; or, thirdly, creating a design using cake batter in the pan entirely before baking.

Rainbow zebra cake inside
A hasty ‘action shot’ of the cut cake at the party

As I’m really not very good at fancy designing and decorating, I opted for the third method; I also thought that avoiding fiddling around with pre-baking would avoid the possibility of ending up with a dry cake. Also, by choosing this method, I managed to put a cake together that looked exciting but is actually do-able on a weeknight (I did it, so I know it is possible!).

I liked the idea of a zebra or giraffe cake, and when I saw the rainbow zebra cake on the Youtube channel My Cupcake Addiction, I decided to make it, excited by the combination of a crazy colour scheme but also a fairly simple technique. I followed the basic instructions from that video, although I didn’t use a boxed cake mix; instead, I opted for a plain yet buttery sponge with sufficient structure and density to support the addition of plenty of colouring paste. I covered and filled these cakes with a rich, creamy chocolate cream cheese icing. Because this recipe replaces some of the usual icing sugar used to stiffen the cream cheese frosting with cocoa powder, it’s less sweet than many cream cheese frostings and also darkly delicious. I couldn’t resist then flinging the cake with some coloured dragees I had in the cupboard, to give a hint as to the colourful inside.

Slice of rainbow zebra cake

Of course, the first design cake I ever made has come with a learning curve. I would use more cake batter than I did the first time around, because I ran a little low, which resulted in the layers of colour merging rather than being sharply delineated, as I had to scrape and scrimp towards the end. I think, if you want to bake a zebra cake of your own, that an additional half-portion of batter would work well (I have the recipe below, both as I baked it and my suggested measurements for a greater volume of cake batter).

Secondly, I think the pictures illustrate well the difference between using professional food colouring paste and colouring paste aimed at domestic consumers. In my cake, the black and blue colouring came from Lakeland, and once baked the colours are vibrant and true; the green and pink colours were from Dr Oetker (picked up at the supermarket) and, while the colour looked vibrant when the cake was raw, they baked up much paler.

Black, blue, pink and green food colouring

There are quite a few steps to making this cake – although none of them are hard in and of themselves – so I have, unusually, included some photos in the instructions below.

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Baking Advent: crispy truffle cookies

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

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Crisp-edged, with a dense, intensely chocolatey centre and, the icing sugar they’re rolled in before baking adding a dose of sweetness as well as a crackling top in a contrasting colour, there is much to recommend about these biscuits.

I first found this recipe on a blog many, many years ago. Although I couldn’t find the recipe there, it may have been from Jennifer Hamilton’s Domestic Goddess blog, and she stopped posting in 2012 (it appears to have originated in a Williams Sonoma baking book, but Williams Sonoma is not a Thing in the UK so I’ve never seen the books). I thought the recipe was lost forever, but found a version I’d printed off in a ring binder, to my great relief.

Unbaked crispy truffle cookies

I was going through a phase then of printing off a lot of the recipes I used and saving them. It was a somewhat sad time for me: I had just returned to university after a year off between my first and second years and was feeling very rootless during that period of readjustment. Leaving home for university is often dislocating anyway, and I had travelled very far to go to my dream subject at my dream university in London. Of course things were exciting, and I’m still so close to the friends I made there, but once the initial excitement wore off and life caught up (as it does for so many students between the first year – all structured halls of residence and navigating essay deadlines in the knowledge that the first year rarely counts towards your final degree, and second year, where the marks start to count and you become responsible for your own housing and bills and sometimes even food, if you were living in catered halls before), I felt a little unfettered, and not necessarily in a good way. The recipes in a ring binder were, for me, an attempt to create a kind of anchoring domesticity, trying to capture and codify the things that will mean home – different ways of roasting chicken, a frequently-used recipe of jhal faraizi which used leftover beef, and crispy truffle cookies, captured and bound. Now, I cook quite differently to those days and reading through the binder is a reminder of what we ate, and when and where we ate it. The jhal faraizi, cumin seeds sizzling in our kitchen in Lewisham, trying to avoid breathing in the green chilli fumes, pressing the potatoes flat; salmon fishcakes in our flat in Bloomsbury, peas escaping through the gaps in the electric coils on the stove; the truffle cookies which my boyfriend couldn’t stop eating as they came off the baking sheet.

Dark chocolate crispy truffle cookies

But even if you don’t share this nostalgia, the cookies speak for themselves. There are a lot of recipes out there for ‘crackle cookies’, and many of them seem to use vegetable oil. I have no real beef with vegetable oil – I use it in my cooking and baking from time to time – but I think the rich butteriness is part of these cookies’ charm and simple perfection. They are quite intensely sweet and rich – perfect for sharing, although I will admit I hardly shared this batch at all. I’m sure you could easily dial back the sugar if wished.

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Baking Advent: tender plum and poppy seed muffins

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

Plum and poppy seed muffins

It was in Morden, on a bitter cold day, hands tinged red with cold even underneath my gloves, that I found a shop selling quince: large, fragrant, knobbled, with firm skin and hard flesh. In both Lewisham and Elephant and Castle, shops like this – selling all manner of interesting food not necessarily found in local supermarkets, serving various communities – were fairly common. Less so in my neck of South West London, and indeed I’d never expected to find quince at the end of the Northern line.

In addition to a large bag full of yellow fruit, I came away laden with a bag of prune plums (also known as Lombard plums), the deep purple of a tired evening, covered with a delicate, icy bloom that mimicked the frost on the ground. Inside their flesh was soft and golden.

Yet how rapidly these plums became my millstone. They quickly ripened, but then I fell ill; by the time I recovered, they were past their best for eating out of hand. I turned to baking. I did end up baking a lot of things, because I had a lot of plums, but the first recipe which intrigued me was Deb Perelman‘s recipe for plum and poppy seed muffins. For one thing, she specifically called for the prune plums I had bought. For another, she used browned butter. And, most importantly, I had every single ingredient necessary to make them in the house already, without having to take a single step outside the house. When you are recovering from a feverish few days, this is important. (And yes, this does mean I have a bag of poppy seeds just hanging out in my cupboards. This is why my cupboards are overflowing).

Plum, hazelnut and poppy seed brown butter muffins

Perelman is probably best known as the author of the Smitten Kitchen blog, which I have read for years and years; I consider her to be, basically, the most successful food blogger in the world. The story of how she devised this recipe has been well-reported, often cited as an example of her perfectionist approach to recipe development. In the end, Perelman was partly inspired by a desire to free poppy seeds from their usual culinary twin, lemon. Poppy seeds have a slight bitterness, she notes, which contrasts well with sweet and juicy plums. Actually, my boyfriend commented on the bitterness of the seeds and said that he would have preferred the muffin without them; you may wish to follow.

For her muffins, Perelman uses sour cream; I had half a tub of sour cream, half a tub of buttermilk, so used a half and half combination of them in order to use them up, and I think it worked perfectly. The buttermilk gave the muffins a very delicate tenderness, almost a fragility – not something usually associated with muffins. Finally, inspired, I topped each muffin with a few hazelnuts, letting them get toasty and browned in the oven, mimicking the sweet nutty flavour of the browned butter in the muffins.

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