Saturday, January 5, 2013

Apricot and Almond Cake


There are times when one needs a good solid cake. Claudia Roden's orange and almond cake, while spectacular, has been done to death in our milieu, and yet I am still an absolute sucker for cake made with almond meal. This month, casting about for something to take to dinner with friends, my eye lit upon the latest bucket of apricots sitting in the kitchen. I stewed them up, took out a great dollop and, using the formula from pear and almond cake, made an apricot and almond cake.

Mmmm. The cake came out tinted gold, and was deeply redolent with apricots. We ate it for dinner with double cream and it was spectacular; it was also very good over the next day or two, demolished in great chunks until there was nothing left. The almond meal renders it very moist, and so the cake keeps well.

The recipe calls for slightly fewer apricots than a Fowler's No. #20 jar, so if you have already preserved apricots, particularly as purée, the cake will take only minutes to prepare. The remaining apricots in the jar are a perfect addition to plain yogurt – or indeed, you could warm them slightly and serve them with the cake.

You can see from the photograph that I cooked my cake slightly too long. My dinner companions, old friends all, reckoned they loved the slightly chewy bits; they're the bits I call overcooked. However, I'm never entirely convinced by the enthusiasm of good and faithful friends, so I recommend you check your cake from 35 minutes; don't leave it too long!

Apricot and Almond Cake

- 8 eggs
- 325g ground almonds
- 275g lightly stewed apricots
- 275g golden caster sugar
- a squeeze of lemon
- 40g slivered almonds

If you have not already stewed your apricots, do so now and leave them to cool. (I recommend making extra and using it as a sauce on the cake, or dolloped onto tomorrow's muesli, or swirled into a late night yogurt.)

Grease and line a 25cm spring form pan. Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Place everything bar the slivered almonds into a food processor, and whizz until you have a batter. Pour the resulting glop into the pan. Sprinkle with slivered almonds. Slip into the oven.

Bake for 40 minutes or until golden and a cake tester comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin on a baking rack. Eat plain for afternoon tea; with cream for dinner; or with a black coffee for elevenses.

Adapted from a recipe by Nigella Lawson in her terrific book, Feast: Food that celebrates life, itself a variation on Claudia Roden's orange and almond cake in The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.

(Backyard: apricots, eggs, lemon. Somewhere in Australia: almonds, sugar.)

Feast: Food that celebrates life The New Book of Middle Eastern Food

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Apricot Jam, Simple and Perfect


It's rather eccentric, I realise, to use a food blog to talk about vomit, but here in the real world that's how life is. The quote of the week goes to my nine year old. Her father called, 'Don't put apricots in the vomit bucket!' And she looked at him and yelled, 'What? This bucket's been vomited in, that bucket's been vomited in, what am I supposed to use?'. It's true, folks, all four of our plastic buckets have been vomited in these holidays. God, I love small children. But I assure you that the buckets had been washed out in hot soapy water and left in the sun for a few days before she used them to collect apricots; and now I've been making jam.

What says summer more clearly than jam? Backyard trees are covered in fruit, far too much to eat fresh... so I'm busy stewing, canning, and jamming it up. Most instructions for jam call for perfect, unblemished fruit. Perhaps there are people who buy boxes of perfect fruit for jam, but in this house jam is made from the imperfect, quite blemished fruit off the trees in the backyard. We have two apricot trees. Some of the fruit is surprisingly large and unblemished, and that is eaten straight off the tree – why waste effort on something that is already perfect? But most of the fruit is small, some of it is parrot-pecked, and a little is even wormy. And it's the small, pecked and wormy fruit that is thrown into buckets ready for preserving.

Jam is easy. An hour in the kitchen leaves you with something several hundred times better than anything you can buy in the shops; if the fruit is already stewed, it will take only twenty minutes. I admit that large perfect fruit will give you much more jam for your time than the small blemished fruit, but it all works.

I find the easiest way to make jam with the small fruit is to prepare the fruit one evening, and make jam the next. I don't make large quantities of jam anymore, as we eat very little sugar these days; but it makes a nice sometimes food, and a lovely gift. The following instructions make about four jars of not too sweet jam, decadently fruity, which, because of the low sugar content and sealing method, should be eaten sooner rather than later.

The jars are sealed using a traditional French method. Use pop top jars (you know, those jars with bumps in the middle of the lids), wash them in very hot soapy water, allow them to dry, pour in the jam, screw the lid on tightly, then flip the jar and leave it to cool upside down on the bench for 24 hours. The lid will seal very tightly. It is a reasonably safe method, but not one approved by any modern government department.

If you are concerned about food safety or plan to store your jam for a long time, then use a 50/50 fruit/sugar ratio and sterilise the jars properly. The easiest way to sterilise small quantities of jars is to use a baby bottle steriliser; in lieu of that, you'll need boiling water and ovens... go find instructions, and good luck!

Apricot Jam

- 1.5kg apricots (approximately; you will need to weigh them once they are prepared to gauge how much sugar to use. Slightly underripe fruit will give better results - firmer jam - than slightly overripe.)
- white sugar (jam made with brown sugar tastes gross and goes off)
- 2 tbs lemon juice

Prepare the apricots. Remove the pits and quarter the flesh. If the apricots are, like mine, a bit wonky, cut out any pecks, wormholes, or bruises. Throw the good stuff into a large pot. Don't worry if there are big bits and little bits; we are making real food, not exhibits for the royal show.

Add the lemon juice. Turn on the heat low, and gently cook the apricots until they have collapsed. Stir from time to time to ensure they don't stick. You do not need to add water; apricots produce plenty of moisture as they cook.

When the apricots are lightly stewed, you can either turn off the heat, allow them to cool, and continue tomorrow; or you can continue now.

Wash the jam jars and lids in hot soapy water and place them in a cool oven (ie the lowest temperature setting) while you finish the jam.

Weigh the stewed apricots. You will need 70% of the weight in sugar (ie 1kg apricots = 700g sugar). Warm the apricots, then add the sugar in five or six batches, stirring between each batch to help it dissolve. Bring to a gentle boil, and let it plop away for 15 minutes or so, stirring occasionally to ensure it doesn't stick.

While the jam is cooking, put a ceramic plate in the freezer.

After 15 minutes, the jam should be looking quite glossy. Fetch out your chilly saucer, put a blob of jam on it, and leave it for a minute. Now run your finger through the middle of the blob. If the now-separated-blob remains in two well formed blobs, amoeba-like, the jam is ready; if the two halves run back together, give it a few more minutes.

Place the hot jars on a wooden surface or board. (Careful: they really are hot!) Ladle or pour the jam into the jars. (I use a stainless steel jug.) Using a clean cloth, wipe any drips off the rims of the jars, then screw the lids on and invert the jars. Leave to cool upside down for 24 hours. The next day, flip the jars right side up and clearly label. Store in a cool dark place – NOT above the fridge or anywhere else high in the kitchen as that's where all the heat sits.

Should keep for a year, but jam never lasts long in our house.

(Backyard: apricots. Gleaned from a laneway: lemons. Bought from afar: sugar.)

Jam Mummy's an astrophysicist, Daddy's a house husband, and makes very good jam - if a little too much!