Ridiculously Amazing Rosewater and Cardamom Cake (Egg White Free)

Cardamom and Rose Cake 3670 sm

And a Valentine’s Day discussion you probably don’t care about (in which case, feel free to scroll to the bulleted ingredient list), but if you do, by all means, read on!

Yes, I know.  It’s February the 14th in two days.  My wonderful boyfriend is away for the next four on a business trip, and I am despondently eating a cake all alone and miserable, full of thoughts of abandonment and … ok, all right, I’ll stop – I can’t write that straight any further without laughing anyway! – apologies about the sorry joke.  It’s just that I’ve been assaulted with some much Valentine’s Day garbage, both of the pink-and-heart variety and the I hate Valentine’s Day! variety on the internet for the past month, that I had to.  I think The Oatmeal expressed it best in his cartoon regarding Valentine’s Day, and I don’t really need to add much to it.  Maybe a little.  And the cake.

The part of the above that isn’t a joke is that T actually is out of town for the next four days, and that I do miss him – same way I miss him on any occasion when he travels and I don’t (which isn’t that often).  It has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day, and, truth be told, neither does the cake, exactly.  The trip was planned months ahead and neither one of us made any notice of the dates being anything in particular, except as we are planning a (late) housewarming party for this apartment for weekend after next, since he’d be away part of this one.  Then, about three days before the trip, and probably upon seeing Valentine’s Day stuff all over the net, T went “oh… I just realized I’d be away for Valentine’s Day”.  So I shrugged and said, whatever.  We can have cake and romantic dinner and anything else it’s supposed to be any day.  That’s what the usually-present jar of trout caviar and a box of good white wine are doing in our fridge.  (P.S.  I will write about the trout caviar and Finland in another post.  It deserves it.)

What I mean to say is that I don’t hate Valentine’s Day.  Neither do I love it.  Cake happens every few weeks, not any day (I’d get hugely fat if that was so, I don’t have T’s metabolism!), and usually when there is an occasion to feed it to someone (other than me).  Or on occasions when I suddenly realize that my honey-hoarding is getting ridiculous and that I don’t actually need 2kg of honey at home, and should use some of it up.

I’ve heard (here, as it happens, which is a really great beekeeping blog) that Saint Valentine, whoever he was, may be a patron saint of bees and beekeepers.  So, with that in mind, let this be a cake for Valentine’s Day – it has a good amount of honey in it, after all!

The true reason this cake came into being was that the local gourmet market had a huge fridge-box full of tubs of mascarpone last weekend, at a steal of a price.  I had no idea what I need or want it for, but listen, it was mascarpone.  On sale.  So, I bought a 250g tub of it and decided I’ll figure out what to do with it later.  Then, I typed mascarpone into google search and hit ‘image’ – and the need for cake was realized.  Mascarpone, if you don’t yet know, is an Italian triple-cream cream cheese – a description which really does it no justice.  It’s like a lovechild of Cornish clotted cream and cream cheese that died and gone to heaven – ok, this comes closer.  You get the idea?

So, T was leaving for 4 days, and I was at home with 2kg honey and a tub of mascarpone.  And that is why cake, for us to have before he went off for a few days of meetings.  The egg-white-free thing is because T is allergic (mildly) to egg whites, but not to yolks, even if just hand-separated.  Making a cake without egg whites is always a bit of a challenge, but I’ve been practicing for a while, and I have to say that this recipe, it is my cake-crowning glory so far.  And not just because eating it feels like truly eating roses – it tastes the way roses smell on a sunny morning, all aromatic, and spicy and honeyed, but because it’s moist, and just dense enough without being chewy, and every bite of it, covered in its cloud-smooth frosting, is the sort of ambrosia that ancient Greeks imagined their gods drank.  Or so say I – by all means, make the cake (it’s reasonably easy, to boot!), and try it for yourselves!

Note:  if you aren’t allergic to egg whites, by all means, chuck the whole egg in and reduce the amount of rosewater or cold water added by 2 tablespoons.

I think I ought to reiterate my usual caveat for all food, since I haven’t been blogging lately and not nattered about it enough – how amazing the result will taste depends as much or more on the quality of ingredients, than on one’s cooking prowess.  Please, please do invest in good quality rosewater.  Spice and essence shops will have it, or if your source for it is an ethnic-food supplier (any self-respecting Indian, Pakistani or Mid-Eastern shop has rosewater – and orange flower water, too!), I recommend 1&1 brand.  It’s what I use by preference.  Same goes for eggs and honey – they vary widely in quality, and the result exalts or suffers thereby.

So, without further ado, here’s the very simple recipe and instructions.

What you need:

  • An approximately 9″ (22cm) round pan or a cake pan of similar volume.
  • A handheld or stand mixer.  I use a small handheld and it’s quite enough.
  • 2 cups (250g) plain flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 flat teaspoons baking powder (I use a measuring spoon for this, more precise than a random teaspoon out of a drawer)
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp cardamom kernels, pounded and ground in a mortar – or 1-1.5 tsp pre-ground cardamom (cardamom, like black pepper, loses its aroma very quickly once ground)
  • 50-60g butter, softened and cut into small pieces
  • 110g white caster sugar
  • 90g honey
  • 250g box of quark cheese (10% fat kesella)
  • A few tablespoons of rosewater (there isn’t a precise amount – I used 4 tablespoons last time, but it depends on how dry your air/flour is)
  • 1 egg yolk (from large egg)

For the frosting:

  • 250g mascarpone cheese, cold
  • 2.5dl whipping cream, cold
  • About 5 tablespoons powdered sugar (I used a random soup spoon and scooped twice out of the box with a pyramid of sugar taller than the spoon was deep on each spoon).
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla essence (Please, use real vanilla!  Don’t use the horrible fake stuff – just make your own, it’s inexpensive and absolutely wonderful!)

What you need to do:

  • Preheat your oven to 170°C.
  • Grease and flour your cake form. You can line the bottom with baking parchment, it helps get the cake out.
  • Mix all the dry ingredients other than sugar in a bowl with a whisk to mix.
  • In another bowl, using whipping blades of the mixer, cream butter with sugar and honey till it’s light and soft, a bit sticky.
  • Add the quark cheese, the yolk and rosewater, and mix till smooth (a few seconds).
  • Add the dry ingredients carefully and mix into a thick batter. At first it’ll look like clumps. If batter is too thick and doughy, add rosewater or cold water 1 tablespoon at a time until batter comes together enough to be scraped with a spatula into the form and sort of even out the top. Note, the batter should not flow, nor should it be at all runny.
  • Place the form into the preheated oven and bake for 40-50 minutes until the top is golden-brown and a toothpick comes out dry if inserted into the middle of the cake.  Ovens vary, please watch it the last 10 or so minutes – recipes containing honey are a little more prone to darkening quickly!
  • Remove from oven, cool in pan for a while and then turn out onto a rack to cool further. If you plan to frost the cake, make sure it is cooled completely before you do.

Whitel the cake is cooling, make the frosting.

  • Put the cream into a large mixing bowl and whip to soft peaks.  Do not overbeat.
  • Put the rest of the ingredients in another, smaller bowl.  Mix the latter until smooth and slightly loosened (mascarpone is very thick coming out of the tub, but will soften a little with sugar and vanilla added).
  • Fold the mascarpone mixture into the cream – start with a spatula (you’ll need it to get it out of the bowl!), then give it a short burst with the mixer to make it smooth.  Do not overbeat!
  • Scoop into a piping bag, or if you are like me and don’t own one, spatulate it all over the cake like it’s going out of style.

Pour yourself a glass of bubbly, or a coffee, or whatever floats your dessert.  Eat.  Feel like a Greek god sipping ambrosia.  Rejoyce.

A Mushroom Ambush


I would like to open today’s post with a public service reminder.  The reminder is about the fact that while I am always glad to have wild mushrooms arrive in my fridge by a happy accident, you must never bring any mushrooms home that you have not either bought from a supermarket, or picked knowing them to be non-poisonous.

With that off my conscience, I ought to explain the ‘ambush’ part of the title.  You see, while I love wild mushrooms and whenever I know a spot, gleefully pick them as much as I have time to, this time I hadn’t set out to pick mushrooms at all.  In fact, I hadn’t even gone to a forest.  Instead, two days ago, after moving into our new apartment with the last of suitcases, I had grabbed T and decided to march 2km to the nearest large supermarket for such prosaic things as a wireless router, a bottle of distilled vinegar to disinfect and clean the fridge in the new apartment, some laundry detergent, and a few boxes of milk.  Imagine my happy surprise when on the way to the supermarket I chanced across a newly-grown birch bolete just by the side of the sidewalk (a bit away from the actual driven road – the sidewalk is separated from it by a tree strip).  I picked the mushroom carefully, stuck it in my bag and continued onwards to the shopping centre.

In the supermarket, I bought things as necessary, grabbed a spare plastic baggy and carefully put the shroom on top of my shopping for the way home…  and that is when the rest of his age-mates have ambushed me, and I had no choice but to gather them all up, put them in the same bag, and march triumphantly home.  I hadn’t weighed them, but they are all young and firm, so they may have been as much as half a kilo or even more altogether – and without any worms, which is a rarity for boletes (they are delicious – insect larvae think so, too).

If this is a sign of things to come, I say, let them keep going in this manner.  I take this as a sign of welcome from the local forest deities, and shall offer sacrifices.  In fact, since I am not yet unpacked enough to experiment, but do know where my quinoa is, and actually  have some locally-grown sunchokes (topinambours), I will recreate Mushroom, Quinoa and Topinambour Salad I’d written for Ping’s Pickings what seems ages ago – with wild mushrooms instead of white button ones.  The original is a lovely thing in itself, but adding the wild mushrooms into the mix cannot be anything but a good thing.



Contrary to the popular belief, I have not, in fact, dropped off the face of the Earth.  All right, I have been awol from the blog for entirely too long, but I promise, I had a good excuse reason:  my other half and I have been busy with work and school respectively, and then all of a sudden we up and moved to Central Finland.

This sort of thing happens to me.

There are a couple of reasons why it does, the main one being that I am not afraid of it – and in the case of this move, I have managed to share that lack of fear of new places with T.  He is actually the one who got the job offer here – but I was the one who told him to take it, of course – because, well, “I’ve never lived there before.  It’s a new place!”  And also that I’d done this moving thing (a few times) before, and it’s not the end of the world or anything.  And so it came to be that at the end of this turned-suddenly-very-cold September we ended up another 300km closer to the polar circle than at our previous location.

We visited here in August to see the town, scouted out the apartment scene and did bureaucratic stuff, and I returned to Stockholm to pack, with T following soon after to help, and then back to here in return order, with 11m^3 of luggage and a shipment of furniture from IKEA arriving on my heels – and straight into what passes for ‘autumn’ in this part of the world.

It snowed yesterday.

But, my luggage includes down blankets, fur coat and hats, and gloves, and the apartment we found has triple-glazed windows with a vacuum-seal layer and what looks like a 10-15cm frame aperture, and district heating.  We’ll be ok.  I think.  Ask me again in a few months once it hits below -25C and stays there.

In the meantime, the leaves are turning amazing jewel-bright oranges and reds, and the lake reflects the surrounding hills like a lead-colored mirror.  We don’t understand a single word the locals are saying in their very beautiful and unrelated-to-pretty-much-anything language. The weather reports are promising us some glimpses of the sun come next week, and I am in full nestmaking mode again – time to unpack, fluff up the cushions, and bake cookies.  With cardamom.  And buy and try and eat all the interesting local food.

I also plan to write about it all.  Soon.  Just let me dig myself from under the packing paper and find a knife and a frying pan and we’ll be all set!

Orange and Chili Tiger Prawns with Lemon Thyme

JätteräkorAlthough I have posted about prawns before (and here, and here, too), I still don’t feel that I have done this amazing, healthy and luxurious food justice.  In my opinion, crustaceans in general, and giant prawns in particular, are among the best things to eat – and easiest to prepare as well.

Besides, it’s early March, which here, in Sweden, is still technically winter – if you count -12C overnight temperatures and snow piles not yet melted outside as winter.  I mean, we have flowers now, too – the snowdrops are blooming their white little hearts out – but it’s still winter.  Not for much longer, though – and while I love the Scandinavian winter, I long for summer warmth.  And nothing screams summer like citrusy prawns with just a touch of heat and bite from chili.  When consumed, they instantly transfer you to a sunny spot in a garden – provided that you’ve remembered to shut the windows against the bright sunny -5C day outside after freezing airing the apartment out.  What I am trying to say, is that these aren’t just for when it is summer out – they are even more wonderful when you wish it already were.

The best part about these (after how divinely they taste – the clean, bright flavors are such an antithesis to all the winter soups and stews and roasts!), is how amazingly easy and fast these are to prepare.  You know me.  I will not wiggle a lazy little toe more than I have to, and yet I want to eat and I want to eat healthy and gorgeously.  And these prawns are it.  And you can start with a bag of them deep-frozen, like I have, because prawns are one of those foods that defrost quickly and well when submerged in a sealed bag in a bowl of cool water.  You can have these prawns out of the freezer and on the table within 30 minutes if you want – although I would recommend taking closer to an hour during which you do something else – like take a shower, read a book or vacuum the apartment out – while they marinate.  But because seafood soaks up flavors so fast, an entire 40 minutes of marinating is not strictly necessary – these will be fine just after ten.

Ready?  Here’s what you need for a summer-invoking lunch for two:

  • 6 giant tiger prawns or 10-12 regular-sized ones
  • 1 orange, zested and juiced
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, stripped off twigs and chopped (I just took scissors to my lemon thyme pot on the window with some rigor)
  • 1 teaspoon of chili flakes (more or less depending on how hot your chili flakes are and how much heat you like)
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of salt to taste
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic, pressed
  • A squeeze of lemon (entirely optional – I added this because my orange was very sweet and lacked any hint of citrus tang.  If you are blessed with a tangy orange, this is not needed)
  • 2-3 tablespoons of neutral cooking oil – I use rapeseed (canola) because it has a similar fatty acid profile to olive (very good for your health!) but not the strong olive taste
  • A cast iron griddle
  • Makings for a green salad and/or some bread – whatever you like with your crustaceans

JätteräkorHere’s what you do:

  • Put your frozen-solid prawns into a plastic bag and submerge it while holding the top above water, into a bowl of cool water.  Clip top shut after the air is forced out.  Let float.
  • In meantime, juice and zest your orange.  Discard pulp and put the zest and juice in a bowl.
  • Press garlic into same bowl, add chili flakes and chopped thyme and swirl with a spoon to dissolve salt and taste, then adjust seasoning if needed.  Set aside.
  • Poke your prawns.  They should be defrosted or nearly so.  Rinse them in cold water and using sharp kitchen shears cut through their backs and devein them if needed.  Devein if needed, cut through backs in any case unless they are already pre-cut.
  • Drain on paper towel where they can finish defrosting if they are still a little stiff inside.
  • In meantime add the oil to your marinade and swish with a spoon or fork to mix.  Add prawns one by one to the bowl, poking them about so that marinade gets inside the cut  backs of shells.  Push them into the liquid as far as they’ll go (mine stuck out some) and let sit 10-40 minutes, depending on how hungry you are.
  • Five minutes before you take the prawns out of the marinade (or nearly right away if you are opting for the 10-minute marinade), preheat a heavy cast iron frying pan coated with a thin layer of lard (if you are against lard, use non-hydrogenated shortening, coconut or cooking oil, whatever floats your cookware!) on medium heat.  I use setting 6/9 on my induction stove.  The pan should get hot enough to sizzle if you splash a drop of water on it, but not nearly hot enough to smoke.
  • While pan heats, arrange your salad on plates, toast bread, etc.
  • When ready, fish prawns out of the marinade (I use a pair of steel kitchen tongs), shake excess marinade off, and set them onto the hot pan.  Prawns (over)cook very quickly, so don’t walk away!
  • Cook without moving on one side until the prawn flesh has gone opaque at least to the halfway point in the cut you made in back of shell, and the shell on the underside has turned gorgeously pink.
  • Flip the prawns and cook until the prawn is opaque throughout and no bits of shell are ‘uncooked’ grey.  Do not cook longer than that, because overcooked prawns, which you have all met in many restaurants and family dinners, are rubbery.  And that’d be a shameful thing to do to such wonderful food!

JätteräkorPour yourself a glass of sparkling or just a good white wine, and sit in a sunny spot in your room.  Instant summer!

Seasoning Mixes and A Very Easy Grilled Salmon Lunch

Rajah Seasonings I know, I have been remiss at posting in the past few months – life got busy again, and when that happens, blog, sadly, takes second place to immediate priorities.  And then, on top of it all, both T and I got a terrible case of influenza together, and spent the two weeks over the winter holidays in bed with thermometers, cold-and-flu drugs, and endless pots of tea, instead of out in the beautiful snow.  I’ll stop about that here before the blog post degenerates into whining.

As a result of it having been winter holidays and us having been sick, I have decided to post about two things which came as holiday presents, and came to be needed.  The first thing is that my wonderful beloved, among other things, bought me a set of seasoning mixes from Rajah, which is a very nice English brand of seasonings – not for English food.  In the United Kingdom, they are mostly found in ethnic shops and the ethnic food departments of supermarkets.  The other thing – a result of us having been so sick – is that I am cooking a lot of rather simple, everyday food that is easy on the stomach and short on prep and effort. As far as the seasonings are concerned, I am not really worried – I have bought many Rajah brand mixes before (in particular their curry powders), and they have always been of great quality.

The ones I received this Yule – none of which I’d tried before – are Jerk Seasoning (insert immature giggle here), Barbecue Seasoning, Hot and Spicy Seasoning and Lemon and Chili Seasoning.  I also got a pack of good Ras-Al-Hanut mix which isn’t by Rajah and isn’t in the picture, but I’ll write about that separately once I have tried it.

The thing about seasoning mixes bought in bulk like this is that they aren’t at all the same as the single-portion packets of ‘taco seasoning’ and ‘dressing mix’ that are sold in supermarkets.  It so happens that I think those ‘shortcut’ packets – which are mostly not made of spices, but of cheap filler – are vile.  This is not to say that all seasoning blends are bad – quite the opposite.  Good quality spice blends found in the spice department of your supermarket, at your favorite ethnic shop or at the spice traders’ are incredibly good to have around the kitchen for when you just aren’t up for standing and measuring and mixing and grinding and… you get the idea.

So, out of these four packets so far, I’ve only tried the Lemon and Chili and the Jamaican Jerk Seasonings.  The latter was used as it was intended, as a rub for a roast chicken, and the former I have used for simply the easiest lunch of grilled salmon.  Now, as I’ve mentioned before, salmon fillets should be on everyone’s list of things to buy when you can get them for a good price  (with the reasonable exceptions of allergic people or those who hate salmon with a passion).  Why?  Because not only are they healthy and really, really good for you, but they are also one of the easiest things in the world to make into hot, delicious food in under 20 minutes.


Salmon 3288

It’s really simple.  So simple, in fact, that you don’t need a recipe.  All you do is:  preheat the oven to about 200-220C, and smear a small drop of cooking oil over the bottom of a small baking dish.  Blot your salmon fillets with a paper towel and smear them in … well, any seasoning you like.  I used my new lemon and chili seasoning from Rajah.  It worked great.  However, you can use your favorite mix, or you can simply season the salmon with salt and pepper and rub those into the surface.  Put the seasoned fillets into the oiled baking dish, and place the baking dish into the middle of the oven and grill for 15-18 minutes (depends on how large your fillets are and how done you prefer them).

Salmon is a fatty fish and so while it can handle glazing really well, it doesn’t even need that – the oil in the fish itself will mix with the seasoning as it grills.

Salmon 3293

See the salmon fat pooling down there in the bottom of the baking dish?  Like so!

Toss some greenery onto the plate, chop a cucumber or ball a melon or something – or both, season that with a drizzle of good olive oil, spatulate the salmon over to the waiting plates and you have a gorgeously elegant, healthy and tastebud-tingling meal in less time than it would take to get takout pizza (even if you live above the pizzeria!).

Grilled salmon - plated with melon and cucumber salad

As to seasoning mixes – I definitely recommend the Rajah Lemon and Chili, and the Jerk one isn’t half bad (it’s meant for chicken, not fish, however), but this post is not a plug for Rajah brand as such.  Most fish-friendly seasonings will work here – it is simply that if you have one on hand premixed – either bought or compounded by your very self, it makes a great meal come together without any effort.  And that is a worthy thing in itself.

Combined with a chunk of baguette, or a couple of boiled baby potatoes with peel on, and a glass of white wine or bubbly, this makes for a great dinner as well.

P.S. In case you are wondering, the salad here is just a handful of greenery topped with cucumber and melon, with some flaked sea salt, chili flakes and dried oregano sprinkled on top, and drizzled with a good olive oil.  Melon and chili work wonderfully well together, and I tend to think that anything more complicated than that would be entirely unnecessary.

An Autumn Love Story: Golden Nectarine Cake

As it is no news to those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while, my other half is allergic to egg whites.  And while, at first it doesn’t seem like a huge deal – I mean, egg whites aren’t the most exciting foodstuff on their own, it is also an incredibly annoying allergy – because, among other things, it tends to deprive him of cake.

Now, do you understand the depth of misery that this sort of allergy is?!  I mean, no real birthday cakes when growing up, no nice slice of chocolate cake at the cafe, no brownies, no… combine this with his pretty wide nut allergy and you get the full scope of the sadness of a food-allergic dessertless existence.

Till he met me, that is.  Now, I am a persistent creature and for a while now I’ve been trying, really trying to make him a good, non-dry simple cake.  The sort that we, non-allergic types, able to eat anything in a random coffee shop without a second’s hesitation (other than perhaps wondering what this amount of sugar will do to my waistline), and certainly without any fear for our life, take for granted.  Well, I take my ability to eat whatever and not fear for my life for granted no longer – it’s amazing how quickly acquiring a significant person with an allergy adjusts one’s perspective!

The search took me through alternatives such as milk-and-hot-water cake (which turns out pretty lovely with saffron and which I should write about at some point too), and the coconut and orange cake with egg yolks (which was also lovely but not very moist so required good frosting to make it really work), and after a while I nearly gave up on real cake – until I stumbled across a cheaty shortcut which I feel the desire to share with you, along with the recipe for this easy, gorgeous and absolutely delicious cake somewhat adapted to said cheat from a recipe found on Gourmet Magazine website.

And let me tell you – if you only make one autumnal dessert this year, please, do make it this cake!  It’s aromatic with orange flower water and cardamom, it’s moist (even with the egg substitute), and the nectarines dry and caramelize under their coat of sugar and spice into a stained-glass-like beauty.  The smell as it bakes is like the very essence of Fall, the sort of thing you’d dream of when imagining yourself on a swing with a mug of hot coffee or tea, wrapped in a thick sweater and a blanket and looking out over the colors of the turning leaves.  Well, I don’t know about you, but to me, that is how it is.

The cheat in question is a vegetarian egg substitute by Bob’s Red Mill (purveyors of high-quality grains and flours and the like).  I have chosen it after reading about a lot of different egg substitutes, and checking their ingredients to find the least objectionable one.  This one is made from wheat, soy and algin (extract from seaweed), and while I am not a huge fan of soy, the small amount of soy this would add to our diet is not something I will quibble with when it allows me to simply mix and substitute this in any baking recipe where beaten eggs are called for – and have it work so wonderfully.

To top it, the cake transports without falling apart (great when you want to bring a dessert to a party!), and it keeps very well in the fridge wrapped in cling film (plastic wrap) for 1-2 days.  I can’t say if it would keep any longer as I simply don’t know – it’s not survived longer than till the morning of the day after the day it was made here.  And that was with me avoiding helping with the eating of it, too.

What you need to make it:

A bowl, a handheld (or stand) mixer or a wooden spoon, some baking paper and a standard-sized springform cake pan.  Oven doesn’t hurt either.

  • 2.4dl (1 US cup) all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1g (1/5 of a teaspoon) salt
  • 125g (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small bits and softened
  • 180ml (3/4 US cup) sugar + 1 tablespoon sugar (divided)
  • 2 large eggs (lightly beaten) or 2 tablespoons of egg replacer whisked with 6 tablespoons room-temperature water
  • 1 teaspoon real vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon orange flower water
  • Zest of 1 lemon or orange (optional but very recommended!)
  • 2 nectarines, pitted and sliced into wedges.  I used a golden and a white one in the cake pictured, but the golden ones have a better flavor (more acidic), so the second cake (that got devoured without getting a photoshoot) only used golden and I liked it better.
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

What you do:

  • Preheat oven to 175C.
  • Butter the cake pan lightly and line the bottom with a round piece of baking paper (you’ll thank me later!).
  • Mix the egg substitute with water in a small bowl and set aside to stand.  It will thicken a little, but it’s not essential that it does.
  • Whisk together flour, 3/4 cup sugar, baking powder, salt and citrus zest (if using).
  • In a separate small bowl, mix the cardamom and the remaining tablespoon of sugar, set aside.
  • Beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then pour in the egg substitute (or beaten eggs) slowly in 2 stages, beating well after each addition.
  • Beat in vanilla and orange flower water.
  • Add the flour mixture and beat on low speed until just combined.
  • Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and level the top with a butterknife or a spatula.
  • Push nectarine slices into the top of the batter in a circular (or any other) pattern, and sprinkle the top of the cake (batter and fruit slices) with the sugar-cardamom mixture.
  • Place on a middle rack of preheated oven and bake for 40-45 minutes (ovens may vary so check after 40 minutes and keep an eye on the cake afterwards), until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
  • Cool in the pan on wire rack for 20-30 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan, and cool completely.
  • Carefully loosen the bottom of the cake with the parchment paper off the bottom of the pan with a spatula, and slide the cake onto the serving platter.  The parchment bottom will help avoid screeching noises when cutting the cake on the platter, and the cake slices come off it effortlessly.

Slice, pour up your hot drink, grab that blanket and go sit on the balcony in the chill wind watching the leaves turn.  Happy Autumn!

Preserving the Bounty: Easy Spiced Plum Jam for Beginners

One of the things I adore most about autumn is the fruit – a generously wide variety of it, beautiful, ripe and inexpensive – in some cases even free, unless you count picking it and hauling it home.

Obviously, as the time and stomach volume permits, I munch away at all of this glorious bounty raw, or in pies and tarts, but there is something incredibly comforting about preserving some of the perfectly ripe fruit at the peak of its flavor in jam jars, to keep for when the landscape turns white and blue, to remind us (and the lucky recipients of such jars) that winter is not forever.  And that, for all it’s -20C and pitch dark at 6pm outside, at home there is warmth and candlelight, and in the meantime, there’s jam.

Best thing about plum jam is that of all the jams I’ve ever tried to make (with the possible exception of the very pectin-rich quince), it’s the one that sets the fastest and most reliably, without the need for any added pectin.  So all you really need to make it is sugar and plums.  And if you’ve got whole cloves or star anise or cardamom pods in your pantry, it’ll be that much better.

The second best thing about it (though not unique to plum jam in my experience) is that you can make it in tiny batches, and you can make it fast – far faster than the hours-spent-at-the-stove image a jar of homemade jam might evoke, so that you can cook a tiny batch of it whenever you have a couple of handfuls of plums on hand, and be able to gift (or keep to yourself greedily) the jam jar the very next morning, and channel the domestic goddess without much effort at all.

I sincerely recommend using the spices listed (one of, not all three together!) in the cooking process.  They do not detract from the plum flavor, but in fact enhance it and elevate your jam to heights far above the regular off-the-shelf shop-bought stuff by giving it that extra-fancy complex scent like the really expensive gourmet stuff you might or might not have tried – or the best-ever homemade jam that I hope you have.  If you haven’t – just do it, you won’t regret it!

Star anise or cinnamon stick can be used in either golden or purple plum jam, as they are easy to see and therefore get out at the end of the process.  Cardamom is harder to see in purple plum jam, but is easy to remove from golden (unless you tie it in cheesecloth, in which case it’s easy either way), and cloves can be left in the jam after cooking, so use them in either.

A note about ripeness of plums:  you should use mostly or only ripe fruit.  If one or two of your plums are hard, it is no trouble, but if all of them are just slightly underripe, your jam will set so hard, you could slice it with a knife – underripe fruit are too rich in pectin, making them ideal to add to overripe ones to set a jam, but not to make a jam of on their own!

And then, of course there’s the problem of canning apparatus and tools.  Or not at all, as it happens – if you use small jars (250ml ones are great for gifting!), you don’t need much at all, and all you need is probably already there in your kitchen.  That is because the plums have high acidity, and so boiling-water processing is all it takes to make plum-based preserves shelf-stable for about a year (or more, but don’t quote me – most reputable canning websites suggest eating homemade jam within 1-3 years of preparation).  What this means is that you don’t need any fancy apparatus to process the jars – a stockpot, a silicone trivet and a pair of jar tongs (or if you are like me and don’t have those, a silicone spatula and a wooden spoon to place jars inside the pot and fish them out) are all that is needed.

So, if you’ve ever thought that in order to have lovely rich-tasting jam, you either need to empty your wallet and hit the gourmet store, or have a country estate with a huge kitchen equipped like a miniature canning factory, you’ve been terribly misled.

So, how do you go about it?  It’s all really very simple!

This will make approximately 750ml jam (3x250ml jars of it).


  • A 2L+ pot for cooking the jam
  • A wooden or nylon spoon
  • 3x 250ml canning jars, washed.  I use the sort with screw-top lids by preference, they seem to work best for me and seal reliably – though I’ve also made and processed jam in washed-out honey jars, it’s not generally recommended to reuse those.  Thicker-walled jars for home canning have a far lesser chance of cracking during processing or when filled with very hot jam.
  • Your glasses (if you have them), or a pair of goggles such as pictured (mine are my old laboratory eye protection gear), which are entirely optional – but I like the safety that having something between my eyes and hot sugar syrup provides.
  • A timer/thermometer is helpful, but not necessary.  If you want one, you should get a cheap and good dual-function one at IKEA – I love mine and it’s worth every one of the pennies (not many!) it cost!  (No, I don’t work for IKEA’s ad department.  Sadly.)

If you plan to gift the jam or store it outside the refrigerator, you will also need the following to process the jars:

  • A 4L+ pot for boiling-water processing the jars
  • Something (like a silicone trivet) to prevent jars from knocking about too much in the processing pot.  Some people use a 100% cotton tea towel, or a metal rack-style trivet.
  • Jar tongs or something you can use to lift the jars out of boiling water.  I would recommend the jar tongs for safety – I’ll buy a pair myself as soon as I can find a good one for a decent price!


  • 500g ripe plums of any sort, pitted and sliced or chopped into small pieces.  I quarter the plums, and then slice them crosswise into pieces about 0.5cm thick
  • 300-350g sugar (I would not recommend using less than 250g or half the weight of the fruit as the jam may not set)
  • 1 cinnamon stick (be careful what sort you buy!), OR 3 stars of star anise, OR 12 whole cloves OR 4-6 cardamom pods (all optional, any are recommended)

That’s all!  Now, what do you do?

  • Put your jars and lids opening-down on the oven rack and set the oven to 75C.  This will sterilize and dry them while you make the jam.
  • Put your plums and your sugar in the smaller pot and turn on medium-high heat.  I use 6/9 setting.
  • Set the larger pot with 3L of water in it on the back burner.  Stick your glasses or goggles on if using those, and feel like a scientist tinkering in his or her lab!
  • Stir the plums with sugar and mash them a little until sugar dissolves.  Add the whole spices.  Keep stirring until the jam boils.
  • Set a timer for 15 minutes.  This is a guideline, not an absolute measure.  Keep watching and stirring the jam so that it does not stick and burn (it isn’t prone to that, really, but you don’t want to chance sugar burning – it’ll ruin the entire batch).
  • Reduce heat a little if the jam boils too vigorously – it should boil but not spit.
  • To know when the jam is ready to be jarred, you can follow this easy guideline courtesy the National Center for Home Preservation:

Jelling Point Spoon Test

  • At first the syrup will drip off the spoon in a single drip (not pictured so well), then after a while it’ll drip in two simultaneous drips (it really does!), and then, after a little while longer, it will sheet or drop off the spoon in blobs (see rightmost picture).  At that point your jam is going to set.
  • Once you’ve reached this point, turn off the heat, stir the jam well and remove the cinnamon stick, anise stars or cardamom pods.  If you used cloves, feel free to leave those in the jam, they will do it no harm.
  • Take your jars out of the oven using potholders.
  • Pour or scoop the jam into the prepared jars, and screw the lids on thoroughly.  The lids and jars will be hot, so use a tea towel.
  • If you plan to eat the jam within 2 months and store refrigerated, go no further.  Allow the jam to cool to room temperature and place in the refrigerator.
  • If you want to make the jam shelf-stable and/or plan to give it away, bring the larger pot of water to a boil if it’s not yet boiling.  Place the trivet inside.  Carefully lower the jars into the water using jar tongs (or whatever contraption you come up with), and time 10 minutes.
  • Take the jars out, place them on a wooden board, and allow them to cool.  Once cooled, the tops of the screw-top lids will ‘ping’ into the depressed position, indicating a vacuum seal – that’s your sign that processing succeeded.

Note:  If a lid does not depress after cooling, store the jam in refrigerator for up to 2 months (I don’t recommend re-processing), and eat it or use it in dessert.

Tian Provencal, Revisited (and simplified while at it)

Thanks to the changeable and on-and-off awful weather, I’ve been on some sort of oven-cooking kick.  Or, to skip excuses, I am back to all my favorite colder-weather dishes which I have avoided in the summer, and I want to cook and eat them all, now, as soon as possible – there is only half a year of cold weather left!  So, oven on and om nom nom nom nom nom!

I’ve written about Tian d’aubergines before, and therefore it may well be superfluous to write about this again, but I am of the opinion that anything worth doing, is worth doing well (and again), at least where food is concerned – and besides, this is a far less fussy preparation, which will take a lot, I repeat, a lot less of your time, which makes it entirely worth writing about.  And in its golden, savory wonderfulness, it is a vegetarian dish to make even carnivores such as myself weep with joy – and put away a giant bowlful of, not wanting a single thing more for lunch.

You can, of course, serve this alongside some roast fowl, or with a well-marinated piece of grilled meat, or a quick-fried good quality steak, and it’ll make a large and filling celebratory dinner.  Or you can plate this into small ramekin-sized containers (or, indeed, as mentioned here, bake it in individual casserole dishes – but this is making things more complicated again!), and serve as starters at an autumn dinner party.  And, should there be leftovers (and there were some – far less than one’d expect! – from my large casserole dish), you can always stuff them into a sandwich (cold as they may be from the fridge), or between two tortillas with a little cheese and chipotle paste, and dry-fry into amazing quesadillas.  Although, if you serve this at a party, I doubt there’ll be any leftovers – and you will wish there were.

The main difference with the aforementioned recipe is the aubergines – both, the variety and the preparation (or lack thereof).  The method of baking remains very much the same (how much can one simplify the instruction of “put in oven, leave in there for X time“, really?), but is still gloriously simple and forgiving.

What makes the big difference, is using not the giant purple-skinned aubergines, which are notorious for having a bitter off-taste more often than not, and require a slicing-and-salting to leech the bitter juices out, but the adorable striped and/or tiny egg-shaped white ones, the latter of which, I believe, is what gives the vegetable its English name, ‘eggplant’.  I’d be surprised if there was another reason for it – just look at them!

The white and the striped ones, unlike their shiny purple cousins, are not bitter at all.  I know.  I licked them after slicing just to be sure, even though I’ve been told so before.  Which means, you can dispense with the pre-salting, and pre-frying of aubergines, and can, in fact, assemble the whole shebang as you slice and go along.

Note – the cornucopia of vegetables in the above photo was me having bigger eyes than a casserole dish, for all it was a large one.  I had to leave out a couple of the potatoes, 2 of the mushrooms, and 2 of the little white aubergines because they simply didn’t fit.  Since I cannot predict the size of your vegetables (they don’t come in standardized shapes and sizes, thank the gods!), my advice regarding quantities will be – take out more than you think you need.  Washing and drying vegetables and then putting the leftover ones in the fridge washed and dried does them no harm.

What you need to make this:

  • Time: 2 hours.  This bakes for 1.5 of those.
  • A large casserole dish.  I use a cast-iron shallow thing I bought ages ago.  Use whatever size you want the tian to be, so long as the thing fits into your oven!
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Rosemary (recommended), fresh, 2-3 large sprigs, leaves stripped
  • Sea salt
  • Aubergines, sliced
  • Tomatoes, sliced
  • Squash (zucchini or golden, not winter squash), sliced
  • Onion, sliced
  • Garlic – I used a generous handful of cloves, outer papery skin removed, clove shells left intact, root tips cut off
  • Cheese to top, if desired (I always desire cheese)
  • Other optional vegetables – some small potatoes, firm large mushrooms (baby portobello, for example), fennel bulbs – also sliced thinly

What you need to do:

  • Preheat oven to 200C.
  • Oil the casserole dish with olive oil generously.
  • Grab 3-4 of your vegetables – I usually start with aubergine, tomato and zucchini, and start alternating slices of those in a repeating pattern:  zucchini-tomato-aubergine, zucchini-tomato-aubergine – in whatever order you like, and leaning them against the side of the casserole dish, going around the outside.
  • When you have covered about 3/4 of the circle, begin inserting onions every repetition (easiest way I found is ‘after every vegetable x’), and moving the other veg along a bit as needed.
  • Stick other vegetables into the spacing in order to close the circle as necessary.  Begin the same rotation with whatever is left, adding optional vegetables if needed.  Slice more if you run out as you go along.
  • When you have filled the entire pan with concentric circles or rectangley-things (if your pan is rectangular), gently wiggle garlic cloves into the available spaces, and slip all remaining sliced-up veg into whatever sections look flatter than the rest of the pattern, evening it out.
  • Scatter rosemary leaves over the vegetables, pushing some into any nooks, drizzle generously with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt.
  • Cover with lid or foil, and place in the oven for 1 hour.
  • After an hour, check and remove lid – the vegetables should be cooked through and steaming.  Add cheese if using (do, do, you know you want to!), sprinkling evenly over the tian, and place back in the oven for ~30 minutes to finish browning.
  • Remove from oven when cheese is bubbling and browned.

Like so.

Shovel into plates while steaming-hot, add a bit of green salad (or nothing), grind some black pepper on top if you like it (it’ll do it good!), and celebrate autumn in all its colorful glory!

P.S. I tend to fish the garlic cloves out in my plate by the tail end, squeeze them out with the side of a fork, and spread the velvety-soft flesh on my vegetables.  Yes, I suck the shells clean, too, if it’s not in public.  You do as messily or as politely as you will!

Potato and Mushroom Gratin – Real Quick (for a Gratin!)

The weather had turned autumn-ward several weeks ago.  And while I wish we’d have had our full share of summer, and not had it truncated at the end of July (I mean, where DID the August go, really?), I also can’t say I am unhappy about the excuse to get out pretty and warm clothes, drink hot drinks, and cook cold-weather comfort food.

Most comforting dishes such as my beloved cassoulet and various beef stews, are long-and-slow cooked creations that require thinking ahead and preparation.  Happily, this one is not one of those – the entire prep and initial cooking takes maybe 15 minutes, and then it is 40-45 minutes of doing nothing while the oven does its job.  An hour may not sound like it’s a very fast dish, but when you consider that most potato gratins take more like an hour and a half or two to achieve that perfect consistency, then an hour from start to finish with only a quarter-hour of active involvement really isn’t so much of an investment.  Especially – especially!!! – when the results are so creamily, comfort-heavenly good.

This generous portion will serve two for a generous dinner, or four as a decent side dish to steak or roast chicken.  The recipe is somewhat adapted from Nigella Express – quantities changed a little, and I chose to use heavy cream for part of the milk specified, black pepper instead of white, and a little more wine than was called for.  The results were just the right thing to take the edge off a tiring Monday night grown rapidly chill with sunset.

A word about the potatoes – the main star of this show:  I bought the pre-washed shiny golden ones that ambushed me in the entrance to the supermarket.  But really, any will do.  Don’t bother peeling, but if they are dirty, do give them a good scrubbing in addition to the non-optional rinse.

What you need:

  • 700g potatoes, rinsed and patted dry, sliced into 3-4mm thick slices
  • 150-200g mushrooms, sliced thinly
  • 2.5dl full-fat milk
  • 1dl heavy (36%+ fat) cream
  • 0.5dl white wine
  • 2-3 tablespoons butter
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • Garlic granules or powder (optional), to taste

What to do:

  • Preheat oven to 220C.  Butter a large casserole dish thoroughly.
  • Put potatoes, milk, cream and wine into a pot.  Place on medium-high heat, bring to a boil and add salt and garlic granules if using (I did, and they worked wonderfully well).  Cover, turn heat down a little to avoid burning the milk, and let simmer while you prepare the mushrooms.
  • Melt the butter in a non-stick frying pan on medium-high heat.  Dump mushrooms into the pan and saute until they are giving off a tiny bit of liquid and are turning soft and a little translucent, maybe 5 minutes.
  • Pour the entirety of the mushroom pan into the pot with potatoes and stir carefully, avoiding breaking the potato slices.
  • Pour the contents of the pot into the buttered casserole dish, and pat gently with a spatula into a uniform layer.
  • Place casserole dish on a rack in the middle of the oven and set timer for 40 minutes.  Go take a bath, power nap, or finish that last bit of business for the day to get it off your mind.
  • When timer goes off, check the gratin.  If it is not quite golden enough on top for you, turn the broiler (top grill) on for a few minutes while you watch it (watch it, it will brown FAST!).
  • Take out of oven, and shovel into plates (warm the plates if you want to be really decadent).  Eat on sofa off your lap, or serve with half a glass of white wine for a luxury workday dinner.

P.S.  I’d like to note that the clean-up for this isn’t half bad – if the casserole dish was buttered well (mine was), all it takes to loosen the browned dairy bits off the sides is a bit of soaking in water, and a light brushing.  No heavy scrubbing required!

Green Salad with Honey-Roast Figs and Kabanos

In addition to studying for my law degree, I tend to take entirely too many projects on.  Mind you, I am not some sort of workaholic with insane work-ethical worldview that makes me run around doing stuff like crazy – far from it.  I am lazy at heart.  But, there are just so many interesting things to visit, see, read, do, make, write, cook, grow and eat out there!  And as a result, I run around trying to juggle the schoolwork and hobbies like a madwoman.

Like this morning – I just got done watering all the orchids and picking up around the kitchen, and it was already lunchtime!  Where did the bloody time go, tell me?!

Guess where I take the shortcut?  Lunchtime.  More often than not, I end up opening the fridge and staring into it in fascination trying to figure out what I can take out and prepare in 20 minutes or less.  No, ramen noodles aren’t on the menu – ‘something to eat’ in our household which consists of myself and a spoiled other half needs to be healthy, delicious and fresh.

Unless I realize (in horror) that we’d run out of our resident packet of greens, what we end up eating on a daily basis, is some permutation of a green salad.  Frankly, I don’t have a single set ‘recipe’ for a green salad – I just grab all that looks promising out of the fridge: greens, vegetables, cheese of some sort, and cured or cooked meat of some description, and then figure out what sorts of seasoning and dressing it would go well with.

This salad, however, was memorable enough in its semi-accidental nature, that I think it ought to be written down and shared, for it turned out lovely and fresh and full of rounded flavor without any component overpowering the whole.  The delicate sweetness of roast figs goes oh-so-wonderfully with the smoky meat, and the freshness of the mint and basil set it all off to perfection.  I could wax poetic about how great it is to have fresh potted herbs on my windowsill, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Anyway, the salad!  The quantities given were enough for a large lunch salad for two people.  If you want to feed four, feel free to double the recipe as main dish for lunch or light supper, or use below quantities and have smaller portions as starters.

What you need:

  • Two large handfuls of baby salad greens
  • 1 red sweet paprika – I used the long sweet variety that are thinner-fleshed and a little less watery than typical bell peppers, but using a bell pepper here would harm the salad not at all
  • 1 good-sized tomato
  • A chunk of cucumber 10-15cm long
  • 8 very fresh mint leaves, rolled and chiffonaded
  • 4 sprigs of Greek basil, snipped – a large sprig of regular basil, chiffonaded, will also work.
  • 150g white brined curd cheese (I use a German white cheese which is a bit less salty than feta, but feta or anything like it will work too – you might need to reduce the amount of salt)
  • 1-2 figs
  • 1-2 teaspoons of honey
  • Kabanos sausage, or other smoky-flavored dry-cured or smoked sausage, sliced into easily edible bits.
  • A large (or small) pinch of sea salt flakes and a good grinding of black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons of white wine vinegar
  • 2-4 tablespoons of good extra-virgin olive oil

What to do:

  • Slice the figs into quarters nearly all the way through, so that the four quarters remain attached at the bottom.  Drip a teaspoon of honey into each fig, place in a baking dish and bake at 225C for approximately 10 minutes or until the figs are open and bright-pink inside and ooze a little bit of pink syrup when prodded.
  • Remove from oven.
  • While the figs roast, toss the greens, chopped peppers, cucumber and tomato, finely snipped/chiffonaded fresh herbs and cubed brined curd cheese to the bowl.
  • Sprinkle with vinegar, season with salt and pepper, and toss thoroughly.
  • Add olive oil and toss again.
  • Plate the salad out, and garnish with roast fig or figs on top, and smoky sausages on the side (or wherever the heck you want them!).

Enjoy.  The entire ‘cooking’ process for this takes approximately 15 minutes.  In fact, there’s even time to make a couple of cups of honeyed mint tea to go with it.

You don’t know how to make mint tea?  Nothing easier!  It is one of my favorite non-caffeinated hot drinks out there, and probably the easiest to make – and it is lovely, lovely, lovely for your throat if you are down with a cold!

Take a large (500ml or so) coffee or soup mug.  Place inside it a sprig of fresh mint, and a teaspoon of honey.  Pour over boiling water and let steep about 10 minutes.  Stir honey in and remove the sprig.  And it’s good with nearly any Middle-Eastern or Mediterranean-style dish you I can think of.  Try it, you definitely won’t regret it!  (Unless you hate mojitos or something.)