Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Blueberry Lavender Birthday Cake

London and surrounding cities are experiencing something of a heat wave at the moment. So what does that make me want to do? Right, turn on the oven. In a house with no fans or air conditioning, nonetheless. But it had to be done so I answered the calling from above, strapped on my apron and got to work.

The very original idea for this cake came from Nashville when I ate a piece of Blueberry Lavender cake with my friend Leah at Fido Coffee shop. It was fragrant and sweet and tasted much like a spring dessert should taste. I've since kept the idea in the back of my mind hoping that one day I would make my own version.

Skip to a few months later where I'm sitting out in the sun with Ben (remember Marmite guru?) and we are intensely discussing our birthday cake options. Since we share a birthday (June 25th) and are both obsessed with all things confectionary we had to come up with the perfect cake to make for ourselves. Fresh lavender is abundant at the moment and can be smelled all over the place. I am noticing more and more lavender everyday and am always the nerd who stops to smell it while nearly snorting bumble bees up my nose. It's always worth the risk, trust me. At the very least snag some and make a tiny arrangement with it in your house: I have been putting little stalks in clear glasses here and there which have significantly improved the decor (and smell) of my mismatched, 'on the go' student house.

Chocolate lavender cake was on topic for a while- it's one of my favorite flavor combinations- but then the light bulb went off in my head when I remembered the cake shared with Leah. From there the important bit was how to go about it- how to make it original. Maybe white chocolate pieces in the batter? Icing or no? Pistachio's were insisted upon and to make the cake layered was a must. Then there were the discussions of exactly how to infuse the lavender flavor so it would not overpower, yet still have a presence. Whew. In the end we added some chopped pistachio's which gave a nice subtle crunch to every bite, and by mistake only put dried blueberries in the mix. I had the idea of putting in fresh berries for color but clearly that has to wait until next time. That was all my fault actually. Drinking wine while dancing around the kitchen sometimes leads to losing a train of thought.....but! it turned out to be a great mistake as we had blueberries for garnish and the dried ones stood up nicely in the batter and still added pretty flecks of blue in the cake. The infusion of lavender in the jam center layer was perfect and as was later discussed, maybe a hint of citrus zest was all it was missing.

The basic cake recipe came from this great little bake book I have called '200 cakes and bakes' by Sara Lewis. It's the perfect little book full of wonderful recipes and photos to match. The measurements are metric, but easily converted thanks to google calculators. The recipe I used was for a victoria sandwich cake which is just a plain vanilla cake with jam filling. I have made the recipe for you here in American measurements, but they stay true to the original recipe.

And guys, this is no vegan, sugar free cake. In my defense, vegan baking is much harder in London as health food shops require special trips all around town, the items are quite expensive and I am lacking a lot of the equipment necessary to pull it off. That being said, I'm not upset about eating this full fat, full sugar confection with conviction. It was the perfect dual birthday cake and I suspect it's one that will become a tradition.

And even if this is not for a birthday celebration, I know this cake would be welcome at any summer party. They would make nice cup cakes too. Decorated with tiny flowers? Yeah, that's just over the top adorable. Don't do it!

This cake will take you about 30 minutes to prepare and 20 minutes to cook. Serves 8.

You will need:

2 8 inch cake tins, greased
one large mixing bowl

For the cake:

3/4 C butter, at room temperature
3/4 C caster sugar (white or brown sugar is fine)
3/4 C unbleached white flour (the original recipe calls for brown rice flour, but I used white and it turned out fine)
3 large eggs
1 T baking powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 T milk


1/4 C finely chopped pistachios
1/3 C dried blueberries
1 T fresh lavender chopped into the smallest possible pieces

for the jam layer:

3/4 C good quality blueberry jam
1 large sprig of lavender

fresh blueberries for garnish, approximately 1 C
powdered sugar for dusting

To make:

-Heat the jam in a sauce pan on lowest possible temperature. Place the lavender sprig in and coat with jam. Gently press the top of a spoon on the lavender to release the flavor. When throughly heated (about ten minutes) turn heat off but keep it on the eye, and keep pressing the lavender when you get a chance.

- Cream the butter, sugar and milk together. set aside

-Whisk the flour and baking powder together

-Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and stir a couple of times. Add the rest of the ingredients until just mixed. Please don't over mix!

- Bake in greased baking tins for twenty minutes or until golden brown

-Let cool in cake pans for about ten minutes, then turn onto cooling racks and let them finish cooling- about 30-40 minutes

- Decide what your bottom layer is and place on desired serving plate. Gently and evenly spoon the jam in the center, being careful to discard the sprig of lavender.

- Add top layer and decorate as you wish. A nice dusting of powdered sugar and blueberries worked for me- but I'm sure there are tons of great spring and summer options. Happy eating:)

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Marmite Strategies 101

"Next time you spread Marmite your toast, I'm going to need to see a little bit more conviction"

The above quote was said to me during a lesson in Marmite strategies of consumption 101 by a certain Marmite guru named Ben. Several mornings had passed by of me opting to put everything but Marmite on my toast. "Would you like some Marmite?" No, I would not. "Do you even like Marmite?" Um, no, I don't. Usually, when it comes to food, I can get by without the British rolling their eyes at me and thinking "Stupid American", but claiming to not like Marmite is a situation you don't want to be in when there are a bunch of Brit's around who love love love their Marmite. "Try it with meat!" Some stickers say.....yeah, probably not.

I was peer pressured into trying it and I had no valid reason not to eat it. It's vegan, high in B vitamins and is sort-of unassuming in it's brown bottle with yellow stickers. Why not eat it? Well, smell it, that's why. Put your nose to a jar of Marmite and instantly something in your spine will tingle and there may or may not be a certain lurch in your stomach. It's dark and sticky and smells of old yeast and musk. Not impressive.

I've been avoiding Marmite since I moved here. My roommates don't eat it too much and my British friends thus far have not pressured me into eating it. Not liking Marmite is one of those secrets you can hide pretty easily. But when all eyes are on you and you must speak truthfully, it can be a sticky situation for sure. Especially when you are trying to impress people!

So, there happened to be someone at the table who took pity on me (Marmite guru Ben) and was pretty proud to show me his Marmite Strategy. Eager to please, I complied. What's the worst that could happen? And here's how it went down...

1. If opening the jar for the first time, make a wish before opening it. Very important.

2. Lightly butter your toast which should be warm, but not too hot. Either white or brown (yeah, they say 'brown' for wheat. strange) toast is okay.

3. Dip your butter knife into the jar and lift out enough Marmite to cover about a centimeter or two of the end of the knife. It was pointed out to me from another table member, "Remember, you can always add more, but you can't really take it away". No pressure or anything.

*Note- it's ok to not clear all the butter off your knife before inserting it into the Marmite jar. Often remnants of butter are found in the jars and this is not at all considered a taboo. I imagine that toast crumbles are not okay though. Just don't lick the knife or anything.

4. Evenly spread the Marmite on the toast creating a nice marbled effect with the butter. It will be a nice brown and yellow (sort of like the bottle???)

5. Enjoy your by-product of beer brewing on toast just like a true Brit!

I did all of the above with a lot of concentration knowing that I was being closely watched by the other natives at the table. "Don't fuck it up" I kept telling myself. "But be honest, that's all you can do at this point".

My first bite was ambitious and big. A large portion of white toast, butter and Marmite went down the gullet....chew chew chew....hmmm, not bad! Honestly, it just reminded me of soy sauce. (Which is quite similar, actually)

My liking the Marmite took reign in excitement over the table for a few seconds. Whew. Yes! I like Marmite! Watch me take another giant bite! But then, as quoted earlier, to really be convincing of my love for Marmite, I need to learn to spread and smear with more conviction- more authority. It's one thing to say it, it's a completely different thing to show your love. Life lessons in a jar of yeast extract. Who knew?

And of course, it's not just enjoyed on toast with butter (or on meat???) but another favorite way of eating it is with cucumbers. I tried this in the comfort of my own home, alone, and found it really delicious. The salty flavors of the Marmite combined with the cool cucumber was reminiscent of how the flavors of feta and cucumber pair so nicely. Salty, cool, crunchy-a nice combination indeed. Which reminds me, I've also heard it's good with cheese. And of course, Marmite advertises snacks of cheese, cashews and rice cakes flavored with it. I imagine they are pretty amazing.

So when confronted with a jar of Marmite and a bunch of pushy Brits sitting around the table egging you on- don't be scared. Kick ass, smear that shit with confidence and wipe the bread crumbs from the corners of your smile. It's good, dammit, and you don't have to have a silly accent to enjoy it.

Also, I'm sure there are millions of strategies for enjoying Marmite. I've seen it smeared on thick (barf), without butter and on various foods. Everyone will have their way of consuming it (just google it- everyone has their own firm opinions on this matter) but I agree with Ben that this is the best way; for beginners and novices alike. Do you love it or hate it? Let me know!

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