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Thursday, 29 August 2013

food: decadent chocolate cake

I hardly ever make chocolate cake.

I'm much more of fresh, light type of cake girl. Lemon drizzle cake is a particular favourite, as is carrot cake with a lime mascarpone topping.

I knew then, that when I promised M a chocolate cake, it had to be a good one.

After scanning the Internet (and most of my cookbooks) for recipes, I chose to follow this one. Although I never usually pick American recipes (as I can't be bothered with converting the units from cups to grams), the feedback for this cake was so good that I couldn't resist.

I'd bought some chocolate especially for making the topic and as the recipe above didn't use real chocolate (only cocoa powder), I borrowed a Nigella recipe for icing. The icing itself is like a lovely ganache - beautifully soft.

Finally I decided to add a layer of apricot jam between the icing and chocolate cake. My friend Lucy did this on a birthday cake she made me and I liked it so much that I couldn't resist adding it myself.

So yes, the recipe below really is a mismash - but the result? Amazing! Such a decadent chocolate cake without being too rich. I may have eaten several huge slices.

Feeds at least 12

300g plain flour
450g caster sugar
140g cocoa powder
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp sodium bicarbonate
1 tsp salt
1 tsp instant coffee granules
240 ml milk
120ml vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla extract
240 ml boiling water
2 large eggs

1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius. Prepare two 25cm sandwich tins with greased baking paper.
2. Add the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, sodium bicarbonate and salt to a large bowl. Mix with a wooden spoon to combine.
3. Add the milk, vegetable oil, egg and vanilla to the flour mixture and mix together with either a wooden spoon or an electric mixer until well combined.
4. Dissolve the coffee in the boiling water and carefully add to the cake batter. Beat on a high speed for around a minute. Don't worry if the batter seems very wet to you - it's meant to be!
those are air bubbles, not lumps!
5. Distribute the batter evenly between the two cake tins.
6. Bake for 31-35 minutes, by which time a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake should come out clean and the cakes will have begun to shrink away from the sides.
7. Remove from the tins and allow to cool on a wire rack.

For the icing:

5 tbsp apricot jam (warmed in a saucepan for a few minutes)
125 ml water
30g light muscovado sugar
175g butter
300g dark chocolate

1. Brush your cakes with the melted apricot jam.

2. Place the water, sugar and butter into a saucepan and heat gently until the sugar and butter have melted.

3. Remove from the heat and add your chocolate. Stir until it has all melted.

4. Leave for approximately an hour (stirring occasionally).

5. Spread the chocolate icing generously over the top of one of the cakes and place the other cake on top. Finally cover the top and sides of the cake with the rest of the icing.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Restaurant review: Brasserie Zedel

Brasserie Zedel is a fabulous place to visit if you're after a meal which is a real occasion. Situated near Piccadilly, it's also the perfect place to go for a pre or post theatre dinner.

After walking down a large flight of stairs, a huge dining room awaits you. The surroundings are incredibly opulent with perfect waiters and waitresses attired in classic uniforms bobbing around. To finish it off, there was a live pianist. It really feels like you've been transported back to Paris in the 1920s.

And the best thing about Brasserie Zedel? The price tag. All the dishes are reasonably priced - main dishes only really hit £15 at most, but it's the prix fixe menu which offers the best value at 3 courses for £11.75

Being cheap skates and very unoriginal, we all plonked for the prix fixe menu.

plentiful free french baguette
Unfortunately, my photos don't do it justice - I really ought to have used the flash.

We started with celeriac remoulade - this was really like a fancy coleslaw.

For main, it was chopped steak in a rich peppercorn creamy sauce accompanied by fries.

Then on to dessert - my favourite part of the Brasserie Zedel menu.

The prix fixe menu dessert was cafe gourmand - a cafetiere of coffee complete with mini desserts. Really great, but I simply had to order a floating island as well - a chilled custard with a poached meringue and praline slithers. This is quite possibly my most favourite dessert of all time. Light, yet luxurious and perfect to finish dinner with.

Cafe gourmand
floating island

My friend Sharenja picked the Brasserie's signature lemon tart. Probably the best lemon tart I've ever tried - a lovely thin pastry filled with a super zingy lemon filling.

If you have a special occasion coming up or just want a reasonably priced meal in opulent surroundings, then I can't recommend Brasserie Zedel enough.

Where's your favourite place to visit when you're celebrating a special occasion?

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Food: apricot flapjack

I was determined to make some energy rich snacks to take along to the Lake District as I knew I'd be doing lots of really difficult walks.

M ate a delicious apricot flapjack in Cornwall the previous week, so that immediately sprung to mind. Rich in slow release oats, natural sugar and apricots, apricot flapjack really is the perfect walking snack. Coupled with this, flapjacks retain their freshness for quite a while when compared with other baked goods and are relatively easy to package up.

I spent a while scanning through recipes, before choosing this one. I was so pleased with the result. It's possibly the best flapjack I've ever made. I particularly like the apricot running through the middle of the flapjack which keeps it beautifully most. Obviously feel free to use any combination of dried fruits; dates and figs also work very well.

Makes 12 squares

225g dried apricots
175g butter
3 tbsp golden syrup
75g light muscovado sugar
300g rolled porridge oats

1. Preheat the oven to 190 degrees celsius.
2. Chop the apricots finely.

3. Heat the apricots in a saucepan with 2 tbsp of water for 5 minutes.
4. In a separate large pan, melt the butter, sugar and syrup.
5. Stir in the oats and mix together thoroughly.

6. Spoon half the mixture into a greased baking tin (I use an 8 inch square tin) and press down the mix.

7. Spread your apricot onto the oats and level.

8. Add the remaining oats to the top and press down.

9. Bake for 20-25 minutes.

 What's your favourite high energy snack? Do you prefer your flapjack with fruit or without?

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Life: the Lake District

I absolutely love camping.

Ullswater - you can see our campsite nestling by the lake
I love the simplicity of it - waking up to a hopefully(!) beautiful morning, cooking on a stove and basically enjoying all the simple pleasures in life. My life is so dictated by technology these days - my mac, phone, kindle etc, that's it great to go away and forget that the rest of the world exists and that lack of signal really doesn't matter!

For me, one of the most annoying things about living in London is how tiny our flat is. This means literally no storage space which I find is a great excuse for not owning an ironing board, but also incredibly irritating when you want to store camping equipment.

Luckily, M's parents live in Manchester which is just over half way to the Lake District so it all worked out very nicely. We collected all the gear, and had a nice long break at theirs to break up the hugely long 5 and a half hour drive.

When I was younger I did an Outward bound course on Ullswater. I still remember this as one of the best weeks of my life - endless canoeing, rock climbing, abseiling, raft building, wild camping, river scrambling.....all against the beautiful back drop of the Lake District. I was therefore very keen to return to this part of the lakes.

We chose a campsite in Glenridding called Gillside Farm, mainly because it's a great place to start from for the huge Hellvelyn walk. Hellvelyn is the second highest mountain in the Lake District at almost 1000m high.

We decided to tackle Hellvelyn on our first day. The print out of the walk specified that it was 'hard' and yes it was, it really was.

Here are some pics of the scenery we passed on our walk. M painstakingly tried to teach me about glaciation and how the tarns (lakes) were formed.

Just before you reach the peak of the mountain, there's this crazy part called 'Striding Edge' so called because it's literally just a narrow ridge with no discernible path which you have to scramble along and sometimes even rock climb with your hands. Both sides of the ridge fall steeply away. As I said, it's pretty damned scary.

The picture below doesn't really represent its narrowness. We were far too busy avoiding falling off the side to take pictures where it narrows but you can kind of get an impression if you look towards the background of the photo.

the start of striding edge
Striding edge from a side view
There were lots of wives berating their husbands for bringing them up there, but personally I loved it. It was so exciting and the view at the top was incredible.

Isn't that tarn amazing? I have no idea what makes the water look like that

Success! Summit reached

5 hours later when we returned to camp, it was time for dinner. I cooked a variant on egg fried rice. A really great day, only slightly marred by the fact that our air bed got a puncture so we ended up sleeping on the stony ground all night. Although I've been rained out of a tent twice in my life (in Wales and Cornwall - singularly the two most unpleasant nights of my life), so compared with that, sleeping on the floor really wasn't that bad.

We spent a total of 5 days in the Lake district hiking, visiting cute the cute local towns of Keswick, Grasmere and Ambleside (all highly recommended).

One particular highlight was stumbling across this gorgeous tea garden which was so isolated and would only ever be found if you went on this particular walk. The kind lady served us a pot of tea for two for just £2 - such amazing value.

We spent our last day canoeing on Ullswater.

It was such a lovely week - I love exploring England when it's at its best.

Have you ever visited the Lake District?

What's the best walk you've ever been on?