Halwa Carrot Cake

I came up with this cake a few years ago for a friend from Pakistan who said he was missing carrot halwa (gajar ka halwa), and who also loves carrot cake. So, for his birthday I decided to try and combine the two… After a few test runs, and a lot of texting my friend Viv to ask about correct consistencies, I ended up with this; a take on a traditional carrot cake mixed with cardamom, saffron, pistachios, golden sultanas and a large helping of sticky, sweet halwa that’s good enough to eat on its own. This is one of favourite recipes, actually, and a perfect comfort food for dark, chilly winter nights. I’d be really interested to hear about other recipes or methods for carrot halwa too!

Ingredients

For the halwa:

  • 8 cardamom pods
  • 40g butter
  • Handful golden sultanas
  • Handful of cashews
  • 250g of carrots (about 4-5), peeled and grated
  • 200ml condensed milk (about half a tin)
  • Pinch of saffron

For the frosting:

  • 250g mascarpone
  • 200g cream cheese
  • 150g icing sugar (to taste)
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • zest of 1 orange

For the cake:

  • 200g butter
  • 200g golden caster sugar
  • 250ml milk
  • 2 free-range eggs, beaten
  • 200g carrots, peeled and grated
  • 350g self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • A generous grating of fresh nutmeg or ¼ tsp ground
  • Handful of golden sultanas
  • Handful of pistachios, roughly chopped (save a few for the top)

Method:

  1. First make the halwa. Smash open the cardamom pods, scrape out the seeds and grind them into a powder in a pestle and mortar.
  2. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pan and add the cardamom. Stir for about a minute until fragrant.
  3. Tip in the sultanas and cashews, followed by the carrot. Stir together well, and gently fry over a medium heat, stirring often, for around 5 minutes or until the carrots are wilted and beginning to tangle together.
  4. Tip in the condensed milk and the saffron. Stir well. Reduce the heat and stir regularly until the mixture turns puddingy and almost all of the liquid has evaporated, about 5-10 minutes, depending on your stove. Remove from the heat, cover and set aside.
  5. Next make the frosting. Place the mascarpone and cream cheese in a bowl, and sift in the icing sugar. Stir or whisk together. Stir in the lemon juice and orange zest, saving a little zest for decoration. Cover and put in the fridge to firm up.
  6. For the cake, preheat the oven to 160C/325F/Gas Mark 3. Line a 23cm cake tin.
  7. Place the butter and sugar together in a pan and stir together over a medium heat until both are melted.
  8. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool for a few minutes. Then, add a large spoonful of the halwa and the milk and stir to combine. Whisk in the beaten eggs.
  9. Place the grated carrots, flour, bicarb, and nutmeg in a large bowl and mix. Pour in the butter mixture and fold together until no streaks of flour are showing. Stir in the sultanas and pistachios.
  10. Tip into the cake tin and bake for around 40-45 minutes, or until golden and risen and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. If your oven is browning the top too quickly, cover in foil to allow the rest to catch up. Cool on a wire rack.
  11. Assemble by spreading the halwa in a layer across the top of the cake, then spooning over the frosting. Decorate with orange zest and chopped pistachios.

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Blackberry Madeleines

Autumn is now officially here; the tomatoes have turned orange on brittle stems, the courgettes are finally ending their reign, and now is the time for golden quinces, autumn apples, and a few last, late blackberries clinging to brambles.

It was when we were on our way home, the sun sinking low and golden, that we found the blackberries. Hedgerow upon hedgerow, heavy with fruit. They squashed between our fingers, on our tongues. I still remember their taste, perfumed and sweet. Not the bright, Mat sweetness of a strawberry , but deeper, more mysterious, as if they’d drawn the cold, smoky nights into their juice, as if they’d seen midnight. – From Where the Wild Cherries Grow.

I love working with ingredients that are simple, that sing to people’s memories. The taste of blackberries, to me, will always be picking them with my father, or the taste of my grandmother’s crumble, the scratches and the beads of blood that you always have to pay for the fruit with. There is no sense in buying blackberries; commercially grown blackberries are too big, too tart, and never have the musky, almost feral sweetness that makes them so timeless and evocative.

So here we are, a nod to my own memories, and to Monsieur Proust’s, and a recipe for Blackberry Madeleines.

Blackberry Madeleines

Ingredients

  • 2 free-range eggs
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 100g butter, plus extra for greasing
  • 100g plain flour
  • ¾ tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp vanilla bean extract, or 1 vanilla bean pod
  • Large handful of blackberries (one for each cake)
  • Icing sugar, to decorate

Method

  1. Pre-heat your oven to 200C / 400F / Gas mark 6. Brush your madeleine or bun tin with melted butter and dust with a little flour.
  2. Whisk together the eggs and caster sugar until light and frothy. 
  3. Melt the butter and leave to cool slightly, then stir in along with the flour, baking powder and vanilla bean extract.
  4. Leave to rest for a few minutes, then spoon into the prepared tins.
  5. Press a blackberry into the middle of each madeleine.
  6. Bake for around 8-10 minutes, or until risen and pale golden.
  7. Transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly, dust with icing sugar, and serve warm.

P.s. If you don’t have a madeleine tin, you can use a shallow bun tin or similar. This’ll make 12-14, depending on the size. Just keep an eye on your cakes as they cook.

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Fig Cake with Fig Leaf Cream

In Tangier, at the very edge of the casbah overlooking the strait, is a house called Dar Zero. An old property, with white, crenelated walls, this is where Samuel Pepys lived in 1683, during the English occupation of Tangier (1661-1684), when he was employed as a secretary to George Legge, Lord Dartmouth, who had been tasked with abandoning Tangier and destroying its fortifications. In Dar Zero, Pepys wrote sections of his famous diaries, often seated beneath the shade of a huge fig tree that continues to grow in the garden to this day…

Dar Zero, in the Casbah

Dar Zero is very much an inspiration for Dar Portuna, the grand house in An Echo of Scandal. So, in honour of Pepys and his fig tree, here’s a recipe that uses ripe, seasonal figs, alongside fresh fig leaves. It’s a riff on my favourite Smitten Kitchen strawberry cake. Fig leaves have a wonderful aroma, somewhere between floral vanilla, coconut and tobacco. Here, they’re made into a syrup and mixed with whipped cream, to create a gentle, fragrant indulgent pudding that’s perfect to eat as the last golden rays of summer sink into autumn.

Fig Cake with Fig Leaf Cream

Ingredients:
For the cake:

  • 100g butter, softened
  • 190g golden caster sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 190g self-raising flour
  • 120ml milk
  • 1 tsp of vanilla bean extract
  • 2-3 fresh figs (if you can’t find fresh you can used tinned, or dried figs soaked in a little water to plump them up a bit)
  • 1 tbsp of caster sugar

For the syrup and cream:

  • 2-3 fresh fig leaves
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 250ml double or whipping cream

Method
The Cake:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350/gas mark 4. Grease or line a 10in pie dish, or a 9in springform cake tin.
  2. Beat the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy.
  3. Add the egg, along with a tablespoon of flour to stop the mixture from splitting and beat in.
  4.  Stir in the milk and vanilla extract.
  5. Gently fold in the remaining flour until no streaks remain.
  6. Pour the cake batter into the prepared tin.
  7. Cut the figs into halves or quarters, depending on size, removing any woody stems, then press gently into the surface of the cake at regular intervals.
  8. Sprinkle the surface with the remaining sugar, so the fruit turns jammy.
  9. Bake for 10 minutes before turning down the heat to 165C/325F/gas mark 3. Bake for another 35-40 minutes, or until the surface is golden brown and a skewer comes out cleanish.

The syrup and cream:  

  1. Rinse the fig leaves, pat dry, and cut off any remaining stalk. Place them under the grill for a minute or two, keeping a close eye on them and turning when necessary: you want them to be gently toasted/browned but not burned. This releases the scent of the fig leaves.
  2. Place 2 tbsp of caster sugar in a pan along with around 8 tbsp of water and the fig leaves (don’t worry if they crumble).
  3. Press the fig leaves into water and stir about until the sugar has dissolved.
  4. Bring to a gentle boil for 3-4 minutes, until the water starts to reduce to a syrup.
  5. Leave to cool, before straining through a tea strainer or muslin into a jug.
  6. Spoon 2-3 tbsp of syrup over the cake while it is still warm, so that it soaks in.
  7. Pour the double cream into a clean bowl.
  8. When the syrup is completely cool, stir 4 tbsp (or more, to taste) into the cream, then whip until soft peaks form.
  9. Serve the cake cut into wedges, with a dollop of fig leaf cream alongside.

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Dandelion Syrup Cake

This is a cake I first made earlier in the year, when spring dandelions smothered my allotment in bursts of bright yellow. They looked so beautiful and healthy (I’m very good at growing weeds) that it seemed a shame to dig them up and chuck them on the compost heap. So, I picked an entire bag full, with vague memories of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine swirling around my head:

“And there, row upon row, with the soft gleam of flowers opened at morning, with the light of this June sun glowing through a faint skin of dust, would stand the dandelion wine… Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass… change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in.” (Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury).

As someone who has absolutely zero home-brew experience (apart from sloe gin), actual dandelion wine was a little beyond me. So I was delighted to discover dandelion syrup. The following recipe is a two-parter: how to make a syrup out of dandelion flowers, and then – of course – how to use it in a cake recipe.

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Dandelion Syrup

Ingredients:

  • Large bowl of dandelion flowers (between 50-100, depending on size)
  • 1 large apple, chopped
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 500g caster sugar

Method:

  1. Wash the dandelion flower heads and spread them out to dry on kitchen paper or tea towels
  2. Use a pair of scissors to snip the petals away the green stalks (doesn’t matter if a few green bits find their way in)
  3. Place the petals in a large pan with about 700ml of water, the chopped apple and the lemon juice
  4. Bring to a rolling boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for around 15 minutes
  5. Remove from the heat, and leave to cool and steep, with the lid on, for a few hours (at least 2)
  6. Strain the liquid through a muslin or a fine sieve into a bowl, pressing all the liquid from the petals and fruit
  7. Return the clear liquid to the pan
  8. Add the sugar, and bring to the boil. Simmer on a low heat for around 1 hour to 1 hour 30 mins, stirring occasionally, until the syrup thickens
  9. Pour into sterilised, sealable bottles or jars. The syrup should keep in the fridge for a few weeks to a month.

Thanks to The Nerdy Farm Wife and the Traditional Scandinavian Dandelion Syrup recipe for the inspiration!

Dandelion Syrup Cake

Now, a use for that beautiful syrup! To me, dandelion syrup has a delicate, floral taste, somewhere between dried hay and honey. It’s just what’s needed when the weather is grey and drizzly (which is more often than not, here in the UK) and you need something that tastes of the sun.

Ingredients:

  • 175g softened butter
  • 175g golden caster sugar
  • 3 free-range eggs
  • 175g self-raising flour
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste (or a vanilla bean pod)
  • zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • 2 tbsp dandelion syrup

For the drizzle:

  • 2 tbsp dandelion syrup
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 tbsp caster sugar

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C / 350F / Gas Mark 4. Grease and line a 900g loaf tin.
  2. Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.
  3. Beat in the eggs one at a time, adding a tbsp of flour with each to stop the mixture from splitting.
  4. Fold in the rest of the flour.
  5. Gently stir in the vanilla, zest, juice and syrup.
  6. Spoon into the tin and bake for around 35-40 minutes, until risen and golden and a skewer inserted comes out clean. (If the top starts browning too quickly, cover it with some foil).
  7. While the cake is still warm, poke holes in it with a skewer and spoon over the dandelion syrup so that it soaks in, followed by the lemon juice and finally the caster sugar, to give it a drizzle-cake style topping.

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Plum and Hazelnut Frangipane Cake

On my allotment, there’s a huge plum tree that overhangs the fence. Every year it sags almost to the ground under the weight of all the fruit and since I can’t bear to see them rotting on the branches, I, err, tend to liberate a fair few. (It’s not scrumping if no one else cares, right?!) I came home with a bag full the other day, and of course had to figure out a use for them.

My haul made three jars of blackberry and plum jam and this: a Plum & Hazelnut Frangipane cake.

Since this cake is part frangipane, it’s heavy on ground nuts and light on flour. (You could easily make this gluten free by substituting the flour for a GF alternative). Hazelnut frangipane is far superior to almond in my opinion: hazelnuts have such a comforting, warm, rich flavour, especially when toasted. And combined with ripe plums, vanilla and cinnamon, this cake is pretty damn addictive.

Plum & Hazelnut Frangipane Cake
Ingredients

  • 100g whole hazelnuts (or use pre-ground if you can find them)
  • 140g butter, softened
  • 140g golden caster sugar
  • 3 free-range eggs
  • 60g ground almonds
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 60g self-raising flour
  • 4 or 5 fresh plums, depending on size
  • Half a tbsp of honey
  • Icing sugar and a few more chopped hazelnuts, to decorate

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 160C / 325F / Gas Mark 3. Grease and line a 23cm round cake tin.
  2. If you’re using whole hazelnuts, place the nuts in a dry saucepan and set over a medium heat to toast for around 3-4 minutes, shaking frequently to make sure they don’t burn.
  3. Tip out onto a clean tea towel and rub vigorously to remove the hazelnut skins. Don’t worry if some don’t come off.
  4. Use a hand-held blender or similar to finely grind the hazelnuts. Set aside.
  5. Cream together the butter and caster sugar until pale and fluffy. 
  6. Beat in the eggs one at a time, adding a tbsp of ground hazelnuts with each.
  7. Stir in the rest of the hazelnuts, almonds, vanilla and cinnamon. 
  8. Gently stir in the flour until just combined. 
  9. Spoon the mixture into the tin.
  10. Slice the plums into halves or quarters depending on size and press gently, face-up, into the mixture. Sprinkle with a little caster sugar. 
  11. Bake for 40-50 minutes until a skewer inserted comes out clean. 
  12. Cool in the tin for a few minutes
  13. Dilute the honey with a splash of hot water and – while the cake is still warm – poke a few holes in the surface and spoon over the surface.
  14. Decorate with icing sugar and chopped hazelnuts.

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