Wednesday, 25 March 2009

My Bunny Cakes

Of all the Holiday Seasons, Easter is by far my favourite one. Not only is it a time to eat more chocolate than is good for you, but for me it also a time when I can give flight to my baking fancies. All of the pretty pastel colours which are abundant this time of year, lend themselves wonderfully to lovely tea-time treats. Plus, with the shops filled with eggs, bunnies, chicks and lambs, both real and candied, I am always so inspired to create my own Easter treats, that I cannot help but get an early start on it all.

This year is no different, and although we are still a couple of weeks away from Easter weekend, I just had to bake my special Bunny Cakes when I came back from the shops this afternoon with a big bag of fresh carrots. These delightful little cakes are essentially small carrot cakes, but with the addition of honey, use a lot less sugar and oil than the traditional big cakes. Frosted with a low fat cream cheese and orange icing they are a much healthier and lighter option, and give a welcome break from all the chocolate.

Now that I've made mine and they are ready to eat, I thought that I would share my recipe with you and hopefully inspire you all to make your own :)

My Bunny Cakes:
(makes 12)
  • 280g plain flour
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 0.5 tsp salt
  • 1 large free-range egg
  • 75 ml semi-skimmed milk
  • 120g light brown soft sugar
  • 2 tbsp clear honey
  • 350g carrots, peeled and finely grated
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 90 ml vegetable or seed oil
  • 75g chopped pecans nuts (optional)
Preheat the oven to 190°C/ gas mark 5. Prepare a 12 bun muffin pan by either greasing or lining the trays.
Sift all of the dry ingredients, except the sugar, together into a large mixing bowl, and make a well in the centre.
In another bowl, lightly beat the egg and then stir in the milk, honey, sugar and vanilla followed by the carrots and lastly add the oil. Mix everything well.
Add this wet mixture to the dry ingredients, and with a large metal spoon, mix everything together until just combined and none of the dry flour is visible. Finally add the nuts to the mix. It is really important not to over-stir this mixture, you ideally want a bit of a lumpy batter.
Working quickly, spoon the mixture into the waiting tins. Bake the cakes for 20-25 minutes or until they are golden brown and the tops spring back when lightly pressed.
As soon as you can handle them, take the cakes out of the tins, and let them cool completely on a wire rack.

Low-fat Cream Cheese and Orange Icing:
  • 70g Low-fat cream cheese, softened and at room temperature
  • 115g icing sugar, sifted
  • 1 tbsp softened butter
  • zest of 1/2 an orange
Beat the cream cheese, butter and icing sugar together until smooth and thick. Add the orange zest and mix really well to distribute it throughout the frosting. Put into the fridge for about 30 minutes before frosting the cakes.

Once frosted, you can adorn these sweet little cakes as much as your imagination allows. Sometimes, I go the whole nine yards and make tiny little candied carrots to place on-top or using marshmallows and liquorice strands, will turn the entire cake into a bunny's face. Today, I felt that they needed nothing more than perhaps a small glace cherry on top to make them hop :)

Monday, 23 March 2009


It is said that each family has a recipe that is passed down from one generation to the next. A dish, that when made, immediately transports you back to your childhood years. Something that you can't make without missing family members far away and reflecting back on days long lost.

This is as true in my family as it is in any other, and although there are quite a few recipes that had been handed down to me, the one that makes me miss my youth the most is my Mum's potato salad. Whenever I make this salad, I am so lost in nostalgia that I can hear my sisters and mum talking and laughing around me again, can smell the woody-smoke from my dad's barbecue wafting through an open window and can feel the hot summer sun caressing my skin. This salad is the one thing that makes me miss my childhood home more than any other.

As I was walking down my local high-street this weekend, I saw a little sign in the butcher's window displaying the South African flag. Overcome by curiosity, I went inside to be greeted with an " 'ello Luv" by a burly Cockney butcher, busy wrapping bangers into packages. Imagine therefore my surprise when, my inquiry into whether they had Boerewors in stock, was met with a big smile and this butcher actually knowing what I was talking about. As he wrapped the dark red sausage into a package for me, I just knew that this was the real thing, made from 100% beef, pork fat and ground spices. I could hardly wait to get it into the frying pan! However, before I could hurry home I had just one more stop to make, the green grocers. Here I hand-picked a bag full of mini new potatoes, each no bigger than bite-size, for there was one thing I had to make today, the salad mentioned above.

Once home, I straight away started preparing the salad, for it needs to be prepared at least a few hours before being served to taste at it's best. In fact, it tastes even better the next day:) After giving this recipe such a build up, I feel that it should expend pages of instructions, but as it is, this is one of the simplest salads in the world to make. The most strenuous part is peeling the potatoes; which, once they have been boiled, requires nothing more than pulling away the papery skins with a sharp paring knife. I could also have used large white potatoes, but then I would have to first peel them, cut them into squares and then boil them. Therefore I prefer to make it with these tiny potatoes, which not only cuts down on the workload, but also gives a bit more bite to the end result, and just looks prettier. While the potatoes were cooling after being peeled, I started making the all important sauce. Combing a few large spoonfulls of mayonnaise, a spoon of milk, a squirt of tangy mustard and a small spoon of condensed milk is all that was needed. After seasoning the potatoes with a few grinds of sea salt and black pepper, pouring over the thick and creamy sauce, and sprinkling a few parsley leaves over the top, all I had left to do was to exercise some will power and not devour the salad before its had a few hours in the fridge.

As we sat down to dinner, with the kitchen filled with the delectable smell of the frying boerewors and I helped myself to a huge serving of salad, I was suddenly back in South Africa with my whole family around me again as I remembered the good old days...

Friday, 20 March 2009

Strawberry Indulgence

I know that I have previously waxed lyrical about seasonal, local produce and I still stand by my opinion on this matter; However as I walked into my local convenience store yesterday I was again tempted by a display of beautiful, bright red, imported strawberries. The fruits looked so full of early summer sun and bursting with freshness that I could not leave the store without a punnet in my shopping bag.

When I got back to my kitchen and unpacked my shopping, I was immediately overtaken by the urge to make something special with these ruby beauties. At first I though of making a strawberry coolie to pour over a couple of scoops of ice-cream, but then realised that this will not do justice to these amazing fruits. They deserved nothing less than to be the star of the show, the centre of attention and to inspire awe in those enjoying their splendour. For me, there are few desserts as simultaneously pretty and delicious as an Eton Mess and I knew that this will be my inspiration for what I was going to make.

Firstly I made a giant meringue disk, spreading the glossy white mixture onto a wax-paper lined baking sheet. Not wanting the egg yolks to go to waste, I used them to make a creamy, vanilla flecked crème anglaise to pour over the dessert instead of the usual whipped cream. Once the first two components of the dish were cooked, cooled and sufficiently rested, I got started on preparing the strawberries. Leaving them whole and with the leafy tops still intact, I dipped them into dark melted chocolate to turn them into a true indulgence.

After we finished our dinner of steamed asparagus tips and yoghurt marinated chicken bites, I took out my most colourful bowls to serve the final course. Making a last minute addition, I scooped some vanilla ice-cream into each bowl, broke the meringue over the top of it, poured over the custard and finally placed the strawberries on-top. It did not really resemble the dessert that had been its inspiration, but after the first taste we all agreed that it tasted just as good and named it "Elle's Mess"

Friday, 13 March 2009

Do Something Funny For Money

I don't recall ever actually hearing the words, "If you're going to do something, you might as well do it well" growing up, but this was definitely a philosophy that my parents lived their lives by. Nothing was ever done by halves in our home. The accidental discovery of parquet wood floors underneath the wall to wall carpet turned into a three day marathon of DIY, which involved a hired industrial floor sander. My mum deciding to cook some jam or chutney, did not mean going to the supermarket to buy a few bags of fruits, but rather going to the wholesale market and buying entire crates of fruits. Making samosas and meat pies for the church fete turned our kitchen into a production line, each family member assigned with a task, all working towards the mass production of little food parcels. There are many more such memories from my childhood, and for a long time I thought that they will be just that, long ago memories. That is until I realised that I have my parents' genes, and that I too cannot do things by halves...

Today is Red Nose Day here in the UK, a day of laughter and general silliness, all to raise as much money as possible for charity. Every year top celebrities do their part to help with the fund raising, all with hilarious results, and the rest of the nation is asked to join in. Children all over the UK went to school dressed in home-made cartoon costumes this morning, office workers braved the tube in red afro wigs and red noses, shop owners hopped all the way down our highstreet on red space-hoppers, all in the name of Comic Relief. Not wanting to be left out of the fun and with only the best of intentions, I sent an email to my old office offering to bake cupcakes for them all to raise funds for this great cause.

Hoping to get about 30 orders or so, I was completely knocked off my feet when I received orders for 66 cupcakes!!! Now, this might not seem like a huge number of cupcakes to bake, but please bare in mind that I live in a small rented London flat with a tiny little gas oven and a space saving food processor. I had a moment of panic when I started going through the numbers and worked out how many hours I will need to get all of this done. Just as I was about to run screaming for the hills, I remembered all those days spent with my family in our kitchen running our own little production lines, and immediately I felt better knowing that I can do this!

I started unpacking the eggs, butter, flour, sugar and vanilla and turned on my little oven. As I made batch after batch of fluffy, golden, sweet-smelling little cakes I got into some sort of a zen-like state and could not believe it when I realised that more than three hours had already passed when I took out the final pan-full from the oven. Still running high on energy I started creaming the butter and icing sugar and got out my red food colouring paste, now came my favourite part. Piping the brightly coloured icing onto the cupcakes took up another couple of hours, but I was not going to stop here. Grabbing the tubs of glace cherries and a bag of mini marshmallows from my store cupboard, I started getting creative, these were after all me doing something funny for money. As I decorated the very last cupcake and saw all of the little faces looking back at me, I was overcome by a happy exhaustion and a great feeling of accomplishment.

This morning, with every plastic container I own packed full of cupcakes, loaded into carrier bags, I got onto a bus and headed for the central London office. My smile got bigger and bigger as more and more bus passengers came up to me to compliment me on the lovely little cakes. By the time I had delivered the cakes to the office, and I could hear the "oohs" and "aahs" spreading around the room, I could hardly stop the smile from going all the way around my head. But as I sit here now, with it all over and done, I have an even bigger smile on my face as I transfer the money I raised over to the charity's account. Happy Red Nose Day everybody!!!!

Monday, 9 March 2009

An Italian Vine

March is a month full of promise and new beginnings. As the wind picks up and playfully tugs at our hats and scarves, we notice that the evenings are getting longer and the days are getting warmer. London parks are transformed by fields of blue, yellow and pink Crocus chrysanthus and the odd early daffodil poking their flowering heads from the soil. Bird song rises you from your bed in the morning, to be greeted by the clearest of blue skies enticing you outside, only to be caught in a rain shower later in the afternoon. All these things put a skip in my step and a song in my heart, for I know that we are finally saying goodbye to the cold grip of Winter and hello to the beauty of Spring!

As we move into a new season, I find myself automatically changing the food I purchase and prepare. No longer do I crave heavy, starchy meals to warm me from the inside out, but find myself enthralled by new green veggies, bright eyed and white fleshed fish and soft pink and red fruits. As I walked through the fresh produce market this morning I was surrounded by baskets full of beautiful purple sprouting broccoli, brilliant little green salad onions, huge bunches of sorrel leaves, prickly-haired kiwi fruits, soft green fennels and gem like chicory. All this was already enough to make my mouth water and set my mind to work on creating amazing dishes to prepare. As I selectively filled my basket, I came across my favourite product of early Spring, Italian vine-ripened tomatoes. Cherry, baby, plum and dei moro varieties were all trying to catch my attention with their bright red little cheeks hanging from their deep green, aromatic vines.

Grown and ripened in the Mediterranean sun, these super-sweet little tomatoes are bursting with flavour, asking for nothing more than a grind of rock salt and black pepper. Eaten fresh, roasted, grilled or fried, they are the perfect accompaniment to white meat, their acidic sweetness cutting through the fattiness of pork, thrilling your tongue with their umami taste and leaving you eager for the next mouthful. With my brown-paper bag full of tomatoes and other spring greens, I headed home with ideas for dinner racing through my head.

After much deliberation and raiding the kitchen cupboards, I started by thinly slicing pork loin, and marinating the strips in a smoky barbecue sauce bought from a local deli. While letting the pork rest in the fridge, I cut a few of the larger tomatoes into cubes, added tiny slivers of Spanish onion, drizzled some balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil over it and gave it a good pinch of seasoning, to make a fresh salsa. After everything had marinated for a couple of hours and we were ready for dinner, I heated the customary tablespoon of oil in a large pan to quickly fry the meat, to which I added some bright yellow corn kernels and roughly chopped spring onions. Spooning the meat and salsa onto warm tortilla wraps, folding it into one neat little package and taking a big bite, I could not stop a smile from spreading across my face, Spring is in the air!

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Cheers to 4 Years!

Today is a very special day. On a beautiful and snowy March morning, exactly four years ago, I walked into the Marylebone Registry office together with my mum and two sisters, wearing the most special dress I have ever owned and the biggest smile I have ever smiled. Waiting for us in the foyer of this breathtaking building were my soon to be brothers- and mother-in-law as well as a couple of very close and dear friends. Today is my fourth wedding anniversary!!

Growing up I did not have dreams and aspirations of big white dresses, confetti strewn church floors, three tiered royal iced cakes or a lavishly decorated reception hall filled with more people than you could ever manage to even say "Hello" to. In fact, I did not even really entertain the idea of getting married at all. That is until I moved to London, started working in a little hotel in Kensington Gardens Square and was lucky enough to meet the one person who was placed here on Earth just for me :) A couple of months after my 21st birthday, I was wearing a sparkly diamond ring on my left hand and another few months later I was saying "I do" in the same room that Paul and Linda McCartney did back in '69. After the moving and emotional ceremony, we all got into a couple of cabs and headed to Zizzi restaurant in Notting Hill where I had booked the reception lunch. The restaurant staff were amazingly accommodating and had set up a massive table for us in the window, away from all the other guests. After a Champagne toast on us happy couple, our orders of creamy pastas, gourmet pizzas and billowing calzones arrived at our table. The afternoon was spent in a happy haze of delicious Italian fare, generous glasses of wine and the comforting company of our family and friends. I would not change a single thing from that day, except for our dads to have been there also. It was, for me and my husband, the Perfect Wedding Day.

To remember and celebrate this momentous day in our lives, I wanted to create a romantic, beautiful and truly wonderful dessert for our anniversary dinner. I toyed with several ideas, paged through numerous cookbooks and food magazines and even searched the Internet for inspiration. There were so many amazing desserts that I could choose from that, once again I could not make a choice. Then it struck me, on an occasion as special as this, there is no need to choose and you can have it all. I wanted to re-create a fine-dining experience and yet have homely desserts on the plate, and I wanted it all to taste like little bites of Heaven. So I started by making tiny little Vanilla Meringues, whisking fresh vanilla seeds into the glossy cloud of egg whites and caster sugar and dropping espresso-spoonfulls of the mix onto a greased baking sheet. While these little delights were baking in the low heat oven, I started making a red cherry jelly, which I poured into tall shot glasses to set in the fridge. Next I melted some dark, bitter, 80% chocolate together with a few mini marshmallows and a knob of butter in a bain-marie. This I then folded into soft peaks of whipped cream, which I piped into small Chinese soup spoons. Lastly, I crushed some pale-green, waxy pistachio nuts and mixed some chopped, black cherries into a tub of Greek yoghurt. This will go on-top of the jelly to create a mini-cherry trifle shot, served with a dark chocolate spoon with a vanilla meringue lid. The perfect dessert to celebrate the perfect marriage :)