Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Banoffee Cake. For Grandad, we miss the laughter.

My grandad loved puddings. In fact his love of cakes, puddings and all things sweet helped to establish a long-cherished tradition in my family: why have one pudding, when you can have three? He was a tall, slender man, having only been on a diet once in his life. After retiring, he put on a few pounds, but he didn't opt for any faddy raw food-only or zero-carb rules. His diet involved eating a small, ordinary main meal, followed by an ENTIRE milk pudding. ALL to himself. Rice pudding, macaroni pudding, semolina, tapioca, ground rice with a big blob of jam... And, you know what? It worked! He discovered the pudding diet, decades before Uma Thurman came to it, with her post baby struggle to wriggle into her yellow, skin-tight, Kill Bill jumpsuit in time for filming.

Before the diet police start getting their tiny knickers in a twist, I'm not suggesting for a minute that sitting watching telly all day stuffing down cream horns is going to help anyone lose a dress size, but cakes come on plates made of joy and joy keeps you young and youth keeps you active and activity keeps the blubber at bay. Grandad was always extremely active, taking five mile walks daily and never missing his morning stretches. He discovered he could swing his legs higher if holding on to the bannisters at the top of the stairs and, after a particularly eager swing, he tipped himself over and managed to accidentally back-flip down the stairs. He was 78. He was absolutely fine. And, of course, he thought the whole episode was hilariously funny.

He loved nothing more than treating us to lunch out and there was always a cupboard full of goodies stacked high with cakes, biscuits and chocolate. It was great going to Nanny and Grandad's. We had carte blanche to eat party food whatever occasion, or lack thereof, but we'd always play it off in the garden afterwards.

He always used to ask me what I thought. And he always really listened and really respected what I said. Even when I was very young. And even when he disagreed with me. There was never any fear of getting anything wrong with him, it was all about asking questions and working out what I thought or I believed. He made me question everything, but never once bullied me into aligning my views with his. He told me always that I could do, be, think whatever I wanted. He told all of us that, and he believed it. He believed in all of us, waved our flags high and he made us laugh our heads off while he was doing it.

He was a great champion of women - lucky really, being the grandfather of four girls. He believed in equality and always shared household chores with my Grandmother. In the early '60's, when my mother was first applying for jobs, she came across an advert for an admin post "for men only". My Grandad's reaction was to say, "Men only? Bugger that! You could do that job with your eyes shut". So she applied and got to interview, due largely to the firm's curiosity, where they apologised for not being able to offer her the job because they only had a men's toilet. My Grandad laughed and said, "I told you you could do the job though!"

My Grandad was never the sort of man to become stuck in his ways. He embraced and interrogated all things new and got a mobile phone long before I did. He brought it to a restaurant to show us and it turned out he'd accidentally brought the TV remote along with him instead, but so what? That just meant we had something else to laugh about. It didn't surprise me at all when he told me he'd got himself a new PC. "Have you, Grandad, what sort?" I asked. "Prostate cancer", he said. And he fell about laughing and was so pleased with his joke that there was absolutely no way to resist laughing along with him. He was 87 when he died. It was the 11th April 2003. It took him days longer than they expected for him to go, so strong was his heart, from all his walking, laughing and pudding-eating. His particular favourite was banoffee pie, so here is my recipe for banoffee cake, in memory of my Grandad - one of the greatest men I have ever known and the greatest man I have ever lost.

Banoffee Cake

This banoffee cake tries to keep as true to the structure of its pie namesake as possible, with a sticky toffee base, topped with sticky toffee butter cream and sticky toffee sauce. The top half of the cake is banana sponge with a layer of bananas, topped with vanilla cream cheese icing and a grating of dark chocolate. If time is short, you can buy a jar of dulce de leche ready made, but please don't be tempted to boil an unopened tin of condensed milk. It is extremely dangerous and unnecessary.

Preheat the oven to 180C (160C Fan assisted) and grease and line two 8" sandwich tins.

Sticky Toffee Cake

  • 8 oz/ 200 g Medjool dates, chopped
  • 1 mug of fairly weak black tea
  • 4 oz/ 100 g soft unsalted butter
  • 4 oz/ 100 g light muscovado sugar
  • 1 oz/ 25 g dark muscovado
  • 1 tbsp golden syrup
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 heaped tsp mixed spice
  • A generous splash of vanilla extract
  • 7 oz/ 175 g self raising flour
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • Place the dates and tea in a saucepan and place over a medium heat. Allow to boil for about 5 minutes, then take the pan off the heat and reserve for later.
  • Cream the butter and sugars together until pale and fluffy.
  • Gradually add the egg, whisking between each addition.
  • Add the golden syrup, vanilla extract, mixed spice and date and tea mixture and mix well.
  • Sift over the flour and bicarbonate of soda and fold in until thoroughly combined.
  • Pour the mixture into one of your prepared sandwich tins and bake for around 45 minutes or until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven but leave the oven on for the banana cake.
  • Place the cake, still in its tin, on a wire rack and stab all over with a skewer, before pouring over a few tablespoons of hot sticky toffee sauce (see below), that you will have had time to make, along with the buttercream, while the cake was in the oven.
Sticky Toffee Sauce

  • 5 tbsp light muscovado sugar
  • 2 tbsp dark muscovado sugar
  • 1 1/2 tbsp golden syrup
  • 4 oz/ 100 g unsalted butter
  • 5 fl. oz/ 150 ml double cream
  • Place all the ingredients except for the cream in a saucepan over a gentle flame and stir until the butter and sugars have melted.
  • Turn the heat up and let the syrup come to a rolling boil for about 3 minutes.
  • Turn the heat down and add the cream.
  • Stir the sauce over the heat about about a minute.
  • Turn off the heat and leave the sauce in its saucepan until you're ready to drizzle some over your cake.
  • Once the cake has been drizzled, allow the sauce to cool properly before using it for the buttercream.
Sticky Toffee Buttercream

  • 4 oz/ 100 g soft unsalted butter
  • 8 oz/ 200 g icing sugar (preferably sugar cane rather than beat)
  • A generous splash of vanilla extract
  • 3 or so tbsp sticky toffee sauce (see above)
  • A splash of milk, if needed
  • Place the butter in a large bowl and whisk for about a minute.
  • Sift over half the icing sugar and whisk again until combined.
  • Sift over the remaining sugar and whisk for about 2 minutes.
  • Add the toffee sauce and vanilla and whisk again.
  • Taste the buttercream and decide if it's toffee-y enough and add extra sauce if you wish, whisking after any addition.
  • Whisk in a splash of milk to slacken the mixture if needed.
  • Place some clingfilm over the bowl to prevent the top from crusting and reserve for later.
Banana Cake

My recipe contains ground almonds but, if you have a nut allergy or take objection to almonds (you won't be able to taste them in the cake, promise), you can substitute the almonds for more flour. The almonds help keep the cake moist and help prevent the layer of bananas on top from sinking, but the cake will still be delicious without.

  • 2 bananas
  • A squeeze of lemon juice
  • 4 oz/ 100 g caster sugar
  • 4 oz/ 100 g soft unsalted butter
  • 2 large eggs
  • A generous splash of vanilla extract
  • 1 oz/ 25 g ground almonds
  • 4 oz/ 100 g self raising flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • A splash of milk, if needed
  • A tbsp of demerara sugar
  • Slice one of the bananas, place in a bowl and squeeze over the lemon juice to prevent the banana from browning. Reserve for later.
  • Mash the other banana and place in a mixing bowl with the butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla extract and ground almonds (if using).
  • Sift over the flour and baking powder and whisk the ingredients together for a couple of minutes until well combined, pale and fluffy. Add some milk to slacken the mixture if necessary and whisk again.
  • Pour the cake mixture into your prepared tin and smooth over the top.
  • Place the sliced banana over the top of the cake in concentric circles, sprinkle over the demerara sugar and place in the oven for 25 - 30 minutes or until an inserted skewer comes out clean. If the bananas on top start to catch, place a sheet of greaseproof paper over the top of the cake for the remaining cooking time.
  • Once baked, place the cake, still in its tin, on a wire rack to cool completely before turning out.
Vanilla cream cheese topping

You can reduce the quantities by half if you don't want quite such a billowing topping.

  • 6 oz/ 150 g cream cheese
  • 2 oz/ 50 g soft unsalted butter
  • 1 lb/ 400 g icing sugar (preferably made from sugar cane rather than sugar beat)
  • 1 tbsp of vanilla extract
  • A splash of milk if needed.
  • A generous grating of dark chocolate (optional)
  • Place the cream cheese and butter in a large bowl and beat together for about 30 seconds.
  • Sift over half the icing sugar and whisk the mixture together.
  • Sift over the remaining sugar and whisk for a good 2 minutes or until everything is thoroughly combined and fluffy.
  • Add the vanilla, whisk again and taste for vanilla-y-ness and add some more extract if you feel it needs it, whisking after each addition.
  • You can add a splash of milk to slacken the mixture if necessary.
  • Place your sticky toffee cake on a serving plate and spread your sticky toffee buttercream over the top.
  • Spread a generous helping of sticky toffee sauce on top. Don't worry if some of the mixture drips down the sides of the cake, it all adds to its deliciousness. 
  • Place the banana cake, sliced banana side up, on top.
  • Spread over the cream cheese icing, making swirls with your palate knife or a fork, if you prefer.
  • Grate over some dark chocolate (optional), stick the kettle on to make a nice cup of tea and your banoffee cake is ready to serve.


If you have any sticky toffee sauce left over, it is excellent as a topping for ice cream or you can gently reheat it in a saucepan and pour it over some Scotch or American pancakes.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Chocolate-smeared cheeks

For non-religious types, like me, Easter is only really about one thing. And one gloriously decadent and indulgent thing at that. Chocolate! Chocolate eggs, chocolate cakes, chocolate shredded wheat nests and, possibly best of all, the chocolate-smeared cheeks of children. OK, so traditionally it's Simnel cake that people make at this time of year, but marzipan and candied peel just don't cut it for the under 10s. And I'm not sure they really do for me either, if truth be told.

I can't think of many greater pleasures than bursting open a hollow chocolate egg using only the power of your jaws. Which brings me on to one of my biggest Easter gripes. Why do so many eggs, nowadays, come in two halves? That's not the point at all! You're supposed to be able to bite the top off. AND this action absolutely must contain a small element of struggle (if only in the discovery of the least ungainly approach) to maximise feelings of chocolate-conquering pleasure. Once the top of your egg's off, you can push and pull at pieces of fractured chocolate, so that some fall inside and rattle around like loose change in a piggy bank, which can, of course, only be retrieved by holding the egg upside down and shaking it over your wide open mouth. I like Easter.

This year, I cooked for 13 (including two small boys) which inevitably included various hurdles concerning dietary obstacles: allergies, intolerances and general fussiness. There were at least two options for every course to ensure that everyone there could find something to sate them. Pea and ham soup or pea and mint soup to start. Kleftico lamb with lemon sticky potatoes or rosemary and garlic studded roast lamb with Madeira gravy and gratin dauphinois, both served with various vegetables, for main. Pistachio meringues with passion fruit cream topped with fresh berries, or vanilla roasted pears (made with xylitol - a natural sweetener made from wood or berries rather than sugar cane or beat). All of this was then followed by chocolate Easter cake.

Almost everyone loves chocolate cake and those that don't can't have had a good one. It is entirely possible to go your whole life in Britain, mistaking chocolate cake for that quintessentially British abomination that I like to call brown cake. Brown cake starts its sorry little life with great potential: butter, eggs, caster sugar and self-raising flour. If, at this point in its cakey journey, a slug of vanilla extract was thrown into the mix, I'd start to get interested. But, alas, it isn't to be, as brown cake has a far less joyous fate. Instead, a dusting of cocoa is added, just enough to dye the cake a pale and pathetic shade of brown, but not enough to actually add much in the way of flavour. I can't abide anything which tastes of nothing. Lemon cakes should be lemon-y, vanilla cakes should be vanilla-y and chocolate cakes should taste of chocolate and not of the colour brown. The chocolate cake below contains actual chocolate and actual cocoa and, as a result, actually tastes chocolate-y, but don't be scared. This cake is a crowd pleaser with all, from dark chocolate lovers and children, right through to the "everything's a bit rich" brigade. In essence, this cake targets a wide demographic. It is pleasingly dark in colour due to the dark muscovado sugar, which also lends a toffee-depth to its character. The cake is sticky, but in no way sickly and it is chocolate-y without a trace of bitterness. It is a cake as happily scoffed by two year olds as ninety year olds and has converted many over the years who have professed not to be chocolate cake fans. For Easter, there could only be one appropriate topper: an egg-filled chocolate (shredded wheat) nest. I couldn't seem to get my hands on any mini eggs this year, so I had to opt for mini salted caramel sugar coated eggs from Artisan du Chocolat instead. Shame. You can stick to mini eggs if economy is necessary, but if you have got the means to splash out a little extra, I'm not sure there is a more delicious way to spend it.

This cake is incredibly versatile and has been made for countless birthdays and parties and all the other times when nothing else but chocolate cake will do. Halve the quantity for 6" sandwich tins, double it for 10" or use the amount given below for cupcakes. It will make more than 12, but this cake batter is unusual in that it doesn't seem to suffer much for sitting around for a bit and, besides, this is a fast-cooking cake and if made into cupcakes, they won't need much longer than 10 minutes in a moderate oven.

Chocolate Easter Cake
Preheat the oven to 180 C/ 160 C for Fan-assisted. Grease and line two 8" (20 cm) sandwich tins.


for the cake

4 oz/ 100 g good quality dark chocolate
9 oz/ 225 g dark muscovado sugar
7 fl. oz whole milk
3 oz/ 75 g unsalted butter, softened
2 eggs, beaten
A generous splash of vanilla extract
1 oz/ 25 g good quality cocoa (I used Green & Blacks)
5 oz/ 125 g plain flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
A pinch of salt

for the buttercream

4 oz/ 100 g good quality dark chocolate, melted
4 oz/ 100 g softened, unsalted butter
7 oz/ 175 g icing sugar (made from sugar cane rather than beat)
A splash of milk

for the chocolate nest

2 oz/ 50 g good quality dark chocolate, melted
2 shredded wheats, broken up


for the cake
  • Place the chocolate, 3 oz/ 75 g of the sugar and the milk in a saucepan over a low flame, until the sugar and chocolate have melted. Allow to cool slightly.
  • Beat the butter with the remaining sugar.
  • Gradually beat in the eggs and stir in the vanilla and salt.
  • Whisk in the melted chocolate, sugar and milk.
  • Sift over the dry ingredients and fold in.
  • Pour the batter into your prepared tins and bake for 20- 25 mins, or until an inserted skewer comes out clean.
  • Leave the cakes to cool in their tins for 10 minutes on a wire rack, before turning them out to cool completely.
for the buttercream
  • Beat the butter until really pale and creamy.
  • Sift over half the sugar and beat again.
  • Sift over the remaining sugar and beat until thoroughly combined.
  • Whisk in the melted chocolate and beat with an electric whisk for a couple of minutes, add the milk to slacken the mixture if necessary and whisk again.
  • Place one sandwich of your cake on your serving plate and spread 1/3 of the buttercream over the top. Place the other cake on top and use the remaining buttercream to coat the entire cake.
for the chocolate nest
  • Stir the shredded wheat into the melted chocolate, until thoroughly coated. If you get a child to do this bit, make sure the chocolate has cooled sufficiently first.
  • On a piece of baking parchment, shape the shredded wheat to look like a bird's nest, with a hollowed dip in the centre to rest your eggs in.
  • Leave to set.
  • Once set, carefully transfer the nest to the top of your cake and place some pretty chocolate eggs inside.
  • The cake will keep in an airtight container for up to a week.