the hedgerows are playgrounds | strawberry - rhubarb jam scones

I joked to my sister the other day that I should write a post about where we live, north Norfolk. Its little quirks. Do it, my sister said, people will find it interesting. It'll be funny, she told me, and your writing is usually so serious. So here starts a humorous tale about every day life in a small village with a thatched church and fields all around. The antagonists are the tractors. I'll start my story with an anecdote about how I'm often on the one-lane road, headed to the highway and I'll be doing 20 miles because I'm behind a tractor carrying hay on the trailer. It'll be far beyond legal weight limits but hey, this is Norfolk, anything goes. The car in front of me will be a black Range Rover, with a personalized number plate, something like HA1 D3R, and it will be the newest model. The driver will be a woman who is bleached blonde and will attempt to overtake the tractor around one of the hairpin bends. She'll be lucky because the traffic on the other lane is probably held up by a truck transporting a shiny new yacht to one of the marinas on the Broads; the rivers that crisscross the place.  

I'll also write about how we'll be standing on a grassy verge in the village where we live, the leg of my jeans will be soaked from local drainage issues and pressing it against Prune's wet fur to stop her swerving into the road and into the path of another tractor. The tractor will be new and fancy. Farmers do ok here. The roads are already narrow and cars spill out of driveways to park on either side, it'll start to rain, scattered showers, scattered dog walkers. Our house is flanked by forest on one side and a field on the other, where a family keep two horses. I say a family, because we can't really seem to figure out how they're all related, but in north Norfolk villages seem to be made up of a couple of interconnected families. The son (we think he's the son. He could be the brother?) is the local woodcutter with two labradors a bit like ours, a wood pile to rival that of those in northern Utah, and a unimog. When was the last time you saw one of those? He also seemed to have refurbished a Mercedes SUV that his wife likes to drive, off-road style, through the horse fields next door. Maybe it's a way of keeping their two toddlers entertained.

I'll say that the tractors don't stop, the whole year, and the size of their tyres is no joke. I'll recount the time that we were just walking along a genteel country lane, when a pick-up drove out into the middle of a field. We wondered what the driver, a farmer, was doing. He promptly lowered the window of the car, pulled out a rifle and let off a few shots to scare the crows. My heart didn't stop pumping the rest of the day. The car was not further than 25 meters from the road. I'll write as I did before about how people hang pheasants from their rafters, and rabbits from the mirrors of Land Rover Defenders, and about how one of the activities at the local primary school is plucking a pheasant for pheasant pie. My sister had a shock when she walked in to the school one day and found the pile of dead birds by the door. I'll mention that the next village is the winner of RHS Britain in bloom pretty much every year, and that from February onwards as you drive through there are great groups clad in overalls with shovels, preparing the beds and planting seedlings. That the post office is also in that village, owned by a family that everyone knows; it's a local institution. I was standing in line to mail something one day and there was a woman in front of me, collecting a parcel. She was wearing jeans tighter than mine; ankle cropped, with a frayed hem, and fancy Nike hightops, a flowy white blouse and big sunglasses. She was also twice my age (at least) and hugged the man when he served her, then drove off in a white Audi saloon. I tried very hard not to roll my eyes and for my efforts was bumped out of the queue by a man with a bushel of beets in one hand; wearing muddy boots and a deerstalker cap.

But I'll also write about how the kids from the village primary school literally fall out of cars waving to my sister who works there once a week; and little Archie calls from his bedroom window to say hello. There was the time a neighbor came knocking on our door, saying a rooster was in her garden and she was looking for its owner, fearing it would be eaten by a fox. About the elderly farmer with a Norfolk accent so heavy we wonder if he's speaking English (and we doubt he understands us) who stops us to chat and ask about the dogs, then waves from his ancient tractor.  About the bushes that are so heavy with blackberries come late summer the freezer is full the whole year; and the hedgerows that are playgrounds for robins and sparrows.

That there's an older couple with a gentle black Lab who often ask us how our grandparents are doing; they became friends. That in the fall I make applesauce out of apples from our own trees which in spring explode in color, and the roads turn pink from petals. I'll repeat, again, that winter nights are white, that I've never seen more stars in any of the unknown pieces of the wild where I've found myself. That from my bedroom I hear owls call and from in front of a sink filled with dishes I watch a family of blue jays teach their babies to eat from the birdfeeder. That I've seen young pigeons take flight after falling from their nest in a wild Norfolk storm, that the coast around here is one of the rare places that Arctic Terns nest. That someone aptly named it an area of outstanding natural beauty. The silence, early morning and late evening, is so immense it's haunting. That again I'll be standing trying to shelter my face from a biting wind, keeping a dog from under the tyres of a combine harvester, and watching a deer streak across fallow fields, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.  More than anything, I'll be charmed by the beauty in the chaos and the fine layer of red sand that is forever tacked to the bottom of my jeans. 

"And the peace which I always found in the silence and emptiness of the moors filled me utterly" James Herriot, All Creatures Great and Small

Hello there :) Are you seeing an acute case of seasonal fruit fomo in this post? Particularly if I add that I am on an asparagus-for-dinner-bender? It just so happens that I really like strawberries. And rhubarb. And I wait all year for asparagus. Asparagus aside, the former are obviously a classic pairing and since these early season strawberries are not quite the sweetest yet, they work so well in a compote with the sour tang of rhubarb. I call these babies jam scones but they're really just scones with a dollop of compote (which is really easy to make). You can adjust the amount of maple according to the sweetness of your strawbs, using the lesser amount when the berries are really at their sweetest. These scones are not  typical scones - like my other scone recipes, they are more fragile and bread-like than flaky and rich buuuut no need to worry about keeping butter cold or anything like that.  The pastry/scone part is just barely sweet, so feel free to add a fat sprinkle of turbinado before baking and make sure you choose a compote you really like (whether this one or store bought) because that jammy center really sings. The spelt flour makes the pastry mildly nutty, with a little bit of whole-graininess that is so satisfying. They don't really need any shaping or anything, so I hope you try them out this spring :)

Big hugs xx


strawberry - rhubarb jam scones

makes 8 large scones & 2ish cups / 500ml compote

for the strawberry & rhubarb compote (makes one standard mason jar - around 2 cups / 500ml)

450g / 1 pound rhubarb
600g / 1.5 pounds strawberries
1/3 - 1/2 cup (80-120ml) pure maple syrup, depending on preference and your berries
Juice of one large lemon (or around 3 tablespoons natural oj)

for the scones

2 cups (230g) spelt flour, plus a little extra for dusting
1 tablespoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 free range egg
1 tablespoon (20g) honey
2 tablespoons (27g) coconut oil, melted
1/2 cup (120ml) plain yogurt (I used goat yogurt, use what you have)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) strawberry and rhubarb jam, or your favourite natural-style jam


// To make the compote

Start by prepping the fruit. Discard the ends of the rhubarb stalks and cut to 2cm / 3/4 inch chunks. Wash and pat dry. Hull your strawberries, curing larger ones in half and leaving smaller ones whole.

Place a large, heavy based pan over medium heat.  Add to it the citrus juice and the washed + diced fruit. Pour the syrup over and stir together with a wooden spoon.

Let the fruit cook for about 20 - 30 minutes over medium-low heat, stirring often and letting it bubble and reduce. Initially it will look VERY watery because the rhubarb is releasing its moisture. Don't be put off, it will suddenly thicken and you'll see the juices really reduce. The time will depend on the juiciness of your berries but look for when the liquid is mostly gone, the fruit it soft and broken down and that it slops off a spoon rather than drizzles (very technical, as ever).

Immediately remove from the heat and pour into a heat safe container. Allow to cool before closing; it will thicken as it cools. Magic. The compote will keep around a week to 10 days in the fridge in an airtight jar.

// for the scones

Preheat the oven to 180'C, 350'F and like a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and baking powder.

In a liquid measuring cup or small bowl, beat together the egg, oil and honey. Whisk in the yogurt and vanilla extract till smooth and pale. 

Draw a little well in your dry ingredients then pour in the wet mix. Stir together gently, but firmly with a wooden spoon. Once the dough becomes to come together (don't overmix), dump it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead to bring it together.

Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces - I used a scale and a bench scraper but you can just eyeball it if you prefer. Shape each piece into a round mound and place evenly spaced on baking sheet.

Dip the back of a  tablespoon measure in flour then press it into the mound of dough to create an indent. Fill the indent with a tablespoon of compote and continue with each scone.

 Bake for 16-19 minutes, till the top of each scone is golden and feels crisp to the touch. Cool on a wire rack, but or enjoy straight from the oven. Cooled and in an airtight container they'll keep well for about 3 days, but will freeze and defrost.

 


similar

the cold embrace | buckwheat rolls with blackberry, rosemary & apple - honey compote

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Winter has had Norfolk wrapped in its cold embrace this week. The village is quiet. The farmers in their pick ups have pulled wool hats low over their ears, the local tree cutter wears a tattered khaki fleece and the school kids are in their bright blue sweaters, like confetti as they run along the frozen sidewalks. The few dog walkers who are out wear hoods and scarves, any piece of skin exposed bitten by the easterly wind off the sea and echoing through the empty countryside.

It’s the empty fields and the windswept beaches that bring the place to life in the summer. It brings them here – the tourists. In cars packed to the roof with beach chairs and spades, pulling caravans and pitching tents, lighting barbecues and laughing, playing music till late. There’s traffic on every country lane, when we go shopping, we leave the house at 8am and don’t hope to be back before noon. It’s lively. The whole place buzzes with…happy chaos. New dogs to encounter on walks, the locals keep theirs on leads and wearily cross the road. Six months of long days, hope of heatwaves, beach days, the long sunshine hours giving so much. But the nights draw in, and the tourists leave. Maybe that’s why people say that winter is cruel, its grasp seems to take the life out of a place.

The squawking flocks of tourists are slowly replaced by hundreds of migratory birds. You hear the birds before you see them, in a field in the distance, circling like a low hanging dark cloud. Sometimes they fly so low overhead you can hear each wing beat, feel the warmth of their feathery bodies, admire their unity. The dogs too will turn their heads skywards, ears pricked, dew on each shiny nose from the frosty grass. They’ll listen to the other retrievers barking somewhere in the valley, busy on a hunt. The peace will be broken by stereotypically staccato rifle fire, the geese will lift off and fly, pheasants will fall. When we walk through the village, the limp bodies of the birds hang from the beams and rafters of garages and wood sheds, their rich red and green plumes still clinging onto their sheen. Ah, winter. There you go again, robbing life.

We only meet two other walkers. The usual tweed-jacketed and cheerful, Aigle-booted man, his stern wife and his wolfhounds, emerging eerily out of the frozen fog. We wait on the verge for the big, harmless dogs to pass and watch the chubby blackbirds skit about under bare hedgerows, picking at the red holly. Listen to the church bells ringing in the next village, no tractors ploughing the fallow fields, no caravans trundling through, no tourists asking for directions. After the walk and the girls are dry, curled up in two balls, I stand against the radiator and feel the burning heat on my back. Ran my fingers under the tap to get the life back into them. They’re dry and chapped from holding the dogs’ lead in the biting wind, my face is pale, my eyes used to a dim grey light and the sun setting by 4pm.

And still I’m a winter person. That cold embrace. Lots of people love the winter, perhaps up till Christmas. It’s a complicated, delicate personality that runs further than December. Further than pale skin and hunting season. It’s haunting and humbling. There’s quiet reflection. There’s life. The bird feeder on the cherry tree is in constant chaos, the robin and the little yellow birds darting in and out, swallows swooping low as the dogs chase a sheltering pheasant out of sight. The fields are empty enough to watch hares racing and deer jumping, the sky gray enough to match the doves cooing from the roof. It’s cold enough to throw a colourful quilt over my all-white bed, a shock to these weary eyes. The winter skies are clear enough to be lit by a thousand stars, it’s dark long enough to see them. When the dogs have been out first thing in the morning, they bring into the warm house a gust of bitter air, their fur is cold and their eyes smile from running on the frosty ground. You go outside and the cold burns your lungs when you laugh, it singes the wet tears off your cheeks. It reminds you that this is living, that you have lungs to burn and warm cheeks to singe.

The geese take off and fill the empty skies, going further south, perfect unison. From the wooded thicket, rifle shots fill the deafening silence. In the distance, the earliest of the year’s lambs bleats. Winter, hovering somewhere between taking and giving life.

So it’s been super cold here lately, but we don’t really get that much deep freeze in these parts so I don’t really mind. Especially when I have a box of these rolls in the house. They’re surprisingly simple to make, especially considering the compote can be made up to 2 weeks in advance! Because I like whole grains etc I usually go for spelt flour, since for being so grainy it still bakes up quite light, soft and mild, but I wanted something a bit bolder and slightly bitter, so I added a small amount of buckwheat flour. Not overpowering, but the taste is just enough to add another layer of flavour to the heady rosemary, tart fruits and floral honey. And in terms of rolls, don’t fear the yeast, this recipe is pretty much fool proof (no pun intended). In the recipe notes I link to my cardamom wreath recipe which has lots of details on proofing etc. You can of course also replace the home made compote with Store bought but just try to choose one without too many junky ingredients (I used to love Bonne Maman or St. Dalfour), but you might just want to add a little more rosemary and ginger to the dough for the fragrant, complex flavour that they give. As a side note, I have been having trouble with my domain and hosting services for the blog so I’m going to be switching providers and moving away from WordPress. This means the site may be down for a couple of days at the end of this week, but I’ll be back and hopefully things will be running smoother!
Stay warm, bake bread and have a good week xx


BUCKWHEAT SWEET ROLLS W/ BLACKBERRY, ROSEMARY & APPLE – HONEY COMPOTE

These rustic honey sweetened rolls are made with a combination of mild, supple spelt flour and earthy, slightly bitter buckwheat flour. The fragrant and complex flavour of rosemary and blackberries with Apple in the simple, spiced compote are a perfect, jammy filling. Try one straight out of the oven if you can, or heat leftovers and enjoy throughout the week.
 

//makes 9-12 rolls & about 2 1/2 cups (400ml) compote


//For the compote

1 large apple, whatever you can find where you are (about 150g)
Juice and zest of 2 lemons
8 cups (volume-wise, 2L) blackberries, fresh or frozen
2-4 sprigs fresh rosemary, to taste
2/3 cup (200g) honey
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely grated

//for the buckwheat sweet rolls

To proof the yeast

2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 tablespoon honey
Pinch salt
1/4 cup (60ml) warm* water
2 1/4 cup (260g) spelt flour
3/4 cup (95g) buckwheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, chopped finely
2/3 cup (160ml) lukewarm milk (dairy or almond milk would both be good)
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon (15ml) melted and lukewarm coconut oil (or butter, I should think)

// for the compote

Into a large, heavy bottomed pot, add the lemon juice and zest.

Core the apple and chop finely, leaving the peal which helps with setting. Add the Apple to the pot with the spices and the berries. Mix so the fruit is covered with the lemon and spices, then pour over the honey and stir to coat.

Place the pot on high heat and let the mix boil enthusiastically for about 10 minutes. The fruits should be looking pretty wet and bubbly, especially if you’re using frozen berries. Reduce the heat to a simmer and leave the compote to reduce, stirring occasionally so nothing sticks to the bottom.

There will be a layer of foam as it bubbles quickly, but no need to skim since the dark color it creates works here well.

After about 20 minutes of bubbly simmering, start keeping an eye for consistency. This is less precise than jam so don’t worry about freezing plates or thermometers etc. You want it to be fairly thick and not too liquid – there may be some juicy liquid pooling at the sides, but when you take some of the compote out on a spoon it should largely hold shape. It will also thicken up as it cools and goes into a cool container. Give it 5 minutes more, simmering, if it looks like it needs to be thicker, especially for frozen berries.

As soon as the compote is done, pour it into a heat safe container like a glass measuring jug. Allow to cool, then pour into a clean glass jar and refrigerate; it will set further. The lemon helps preserving so it will keep about 2 weeks in the fridge.  Reserve a bit for the buns.

// for the rolls

Start by proofing the yeast. Take a small bowl and 1/4 cup/ 60ml body warm water- if you have a kitchen thermometer it should register 42-45’C (110-115’F), if you don’t, just add 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon boiling hot water to 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons cold water. Stir in the honey, a pinch of salt and gently stir in the yeast. Set aside for 10-15 minutes, it varies from brand to brand.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together the buckwheat and spelt flours with the salt and spices. You can also very gently heat your coconut oil and milk together (too hot or too cold and it’ll

kill the poor yeast) then stir through the honey. Set aside. Grease a large bowl with oil and set aside.

After 10-15 minutes, if the yeast has bloomed and covered the surface of the water, you’re all set (see this page for troubleshooting). Add the yeast mix and the milk mix to the dry ingredients and gently stir together with a wooden spoon to combine. It will take some time but should come together, in a soft but firm dough. If it is too dry, add a tiny teaspoon of lukewarm milk at a time, likewise with the flour if it’s too wet.

Once it’s a handleable but sticky dough, lightly flour your work surface and dump out the bowl. Knead the dough for five minutes, till it’s supple.

Fold the dough into a rough ball and place into the oiled bowl. Cover loosely with a cloth and leave somewhere warm to proof (in an oven on the lowest setting, just outside a warm oven, in a cozy laundry room or something) for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. The dough should be double in bulk, the time will vary depending on the temperature of your house so keep an eye on it (see notes here for some help)

While you wait, you can grease a pan for baking – an 8x8inch square or 9×9 inch square will work for 9 larger rolls, a 9×13 inch pan for 12 minis. Your call. Line it with parchment paper for easily removal and find your compote (or make it now!!)

After the first rise, punch down the dough (literally punch it, to knock out the air a bit) and lightly flour a work surface once more. Knead the dough till just flexible, 2 minutes. Roll the dough into an oval/rectangle about 40cm long and 30cm wide. Keep an eye it’s not sticking.

Dollop the compote into the middle of the rectangle and spread evenly towards the corners, leaving about 2cm / short of an inch at the edges. Roll the dough from the long side, so you have a long log.

You can trim the edges of your dough where there isn’t enough jam (discard or

Keep for snacking). Use a pair of kitchen scissors to cut the dough into 9 even pieces (or 12 if using a bigger pan) and place them into prepared pan, with a little gap between. Cover with the towel and leave for a shorter second rise, 30 minutes or so till they’re puffy and likely touching each other.

Bake for about 30-35 minutes. They don’t turn particularly dark or golden so just give them a squeeze; the outside should be crisp but the inside still a bit soft.

They’ll keep for about 3 days in the fridge buuut just eat one or two out of the oven because the jam is warm and the bread is soft and yum. You might like to warm them before eating if you’re keeping them for a bit.

Notes

I made a bit of a hash of the sizes of my rolls, I was planning on doing 9 in an 8×8 square pan but accidently cut 12. My dogs were lying in front of the cupboard with my baking tins so I just did the 9 in the 8 inch pan then baked a couple more in a ramekin, so feel free to do whatever you like. Jumbo rolls maaay need a few minutes more in the oven


more winter recipes

older | Almond - vanilla bean layer cake with raspberry preserves

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It was my sister's birthday last week. 21. It's been strange because it's her last one at home, the last in a chapter. As the younger sibling I think you watch the older one near the end of the last page. You see that for them home slowly becomes - claustrophobic, heavy, too small. There's a sudden shift and they're ready for new cities, big adventures, different people. And maybe that's what you wonder the most. You wonder what more they're going to learn, where they're going to go, and with whom they're going to do it all.

Layla, remember that pink bedroom in the house on Burlingham Drive? Our first 'big girl' bedroom. We spent hours trawling the paint aisles of the hardware store with dad, looking for that shade of pink. We had those 3 lamps above the bed, the heart, the moon and the star. There were the paintings - ponies for you, piggies for me. Frames on the walls, with our drawings. We'd sit on the blonde wood floor and you'd teach me to draw people, all with crazy curls and round noses. There was our huge bookshelf and we'd sit cocooned in quilts in the bed on dark November evenings and you'd read me a book. I could read fine by then, but you could read better, and you'd read me the longer books, I liked to listen to your voice. There'd be a glow from those three lamps, hazy twilight outside. We'd play in the garden too, on those cold but crisp autumn days, in our corner sandwiched between the red brick walls of the house and the wooden fencing over which the holly grew. You taught me to spot the footprints of different animals in the mud; the night time cats and morning robins, you'd seen it on a wildlife program. We'd go out into our street, the quiet cul-de-sac, where our house was next to the little woods full of holly and big trees. Sometimes there were horses in the field that bordered the forest. You showed me how to climb the five bar gate to be right up close to the horses and taught me how to hold the sugar cubes so that only his velvety muzzle would touch my palm. In a way I'm not that surprised you want to be a teacher, you've always been teaching someone.

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Do you remember how we used to take those trips back to Holland, on the ferry? And how at first it ways always dad who mum sent to take us out on deck, or to see the magic show, or wherever. But there came a time when it was just us. I remember us standing, totally windswept, on the deck; that was when we were older, once we'd moved out of the pink bedroom. The last few years in Malaysia, when we started to wish that we'd each had a non-pink room of our own. I was still a childish ten year old wearing sports shorts and Nike t-shirts but you'd somehow moved on to dark jeans and beaded sandals. You went to your first non-pool party, at the Hard Rock Hotel, in the evening. I remember thinking you looked so grown up . I'm not sure whether or not you wore eyeliner because you're lucky with those big dark eyes but I just thought you looked so fancy, I wanted to be like you. On that ferry, too, I wished that I could be like you, I was lost on that big ship, but you could somehow steer us back to the table where mum and dad were sitting. We went to the shiny duty free shop, you gave me sunglasses to try and you told me which ones you and your friends were wearing. We were looking at the maps of Europe and you knew where we'd be going, you told me places that we'd maybe go when we were older.

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I caught up somewhere. Do you remember that cross country race - the home race, on a blistering hot Belgian summer's day? When for the first time, I left you behind, because I could go and you couldn't. I felt like I cheated you. You were the older one, always forging the path for me. But sometimes we stumble on the path; it was your turn to stumble and mine to overtake. I was suddenly more like you. It was me who was showing you the joys of shopping at Urban Outfitters, it was me who had tumblr and suddenly it was me who was calling the shots between us. Not as well as you did, but I figured it out.

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Remember Latitude last summer? How we were the only ones at that boho festival not in hipster shorts and Docs? And then how we managed to lose the car and wander around in those hot fields all afternoon. People looked us at oddly, in our presentable sweaters and me with my camera. I'll always think of us, the warm sun, zipping through golden wheat and bucolic Suffolk countryside. Next somehow you brought us back from Newmarket, after midnight. Your first time driving on a proper motorway, the roads pitch black and only a few trucks for company. How during the concert we'd stood in a quiet corner of the stands watching the revellers go wild; how someone threw champagne over us and the crowd in general so the two good clean kids we are could drive home reeking of booze anyway. How we sang to old hits from circa 2013 and started a little rave of our own in the front seats of your Mini.

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It's the countdown now. It's gone scarily fast, no? Maybe you feel like you're standing on that shaky bridge between curious excitement and the unknown. I'm supposed to be the younger one so I can't say much to help you. There'll be a new page, shiny cities, different people. But in your growing, you've done a lot of it before. The winning, the losing, the raves, the love, the loss, the teaching, the learning. You'll finish it with others but you won't forget, will you, that you did it first with me?

“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.” - Anais Nin

Happy birthday Layla, this year is yours xx

nutmeg and pear | gluten + grain free almond d meal layer cake w/vanilla bean, refined sugar free raspberry preserves + whipped ricotta frosting
nutmeg and pear | gluten + grain free almond d meal layer cake w/vanilla bean, refined sugar free raspberry preserves + whipped ricotta frosting
nutmeg and pear | gluten + grain free almond d meal layer cake w/vanilla bean, refined sugar free raspberry preserves + whipped ricotta frosting

Layla didn't want a big celebration for her birthday. Just our mum, us, and the doggies. What Layla had asked me for, was a cake. Something like the fairy cakes of childhood birthdays - typically a simple, soft vanilla sponge, a layer of jam for the sandwich, and a vanilla frosting. Layla can be sensitive to gluten so I set about making a gluten free, whole grain version of a super airy sponge cake, which isn't so easy considering whole grain cakes tend to lean towards the 'hearty' side, and gluten free cakes are usually loaded with starches that aren't great either. So, almond meal! Almond meal cakes are often seen as the 'healthy' variety because they're grain free but tbh that's weird because most recipes then call for 5-7 eggs (!!!!!) and a few sticks of butter... does that sound very healthy to you? Anyway, to combat the dryness I just use yogurt, revelation. And 2 eggs which find themselves separated; beating the egg whites to firm peaks means the cakes turn out super light, airy and fairy-like. The cake is actually very simple to make - the instructions are very long because I give a lot of detail for beating egg whites, in case you've not done it before, I do it often because it's fun for pancakes etc. so I thought I'd help the newbies out, just skim over it, and the assembly part too if you make fancy cakes often (also because I'm a pretty rubbish cake decorator. no patience). to bore you further, I wanted a simple & light but not coconut-based frosting, hence ricotta cheese which is very mild and cheese-sensitive types usually take it fine, but feel free to use something diary free if that's an issue for you. Last thing - I almost broke a cake taking it out of the pan, so let them cool for a bit because they're fragile. and then freeze them before you decorate to stop crumb problems. and use two pans exactly the same size, so unlike me, you do not have to go at them with a knife (which is why they look uneven in the photos, yours will be fine). Also, do use vanilla beans - I know they're not cheap but worth it for the beautiful flecks and the smell. Oh and you can also totally use a good, natural sort of store-bought jam/preserves (and any flavor you like) if making it yourself seems OTT. Only the best for my sistah though. Ok I know you didn't come here for me to talk and talk, so here's to little layer cakes and big birthdays.


Almond vanilla bean layer cake with raspberry preserves & whipped ricotta

makes 1, 2 layer 6 inch round cake + enough preserves/frosting for the cake
gluten free

// for the almond-vanilla bean cake

1 1/2 cups (150g) almond meal
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons  (45ml) extra virgin coconut oil, melted and cooled
2 free range eggs, separated
1/2 cup (50g) coconut sugar or light muscavado sugar
3/4 cup (180ml) plain/natural yogurt (plant based or any type)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
seeds scraped from one vanilla bean (or 1 more teaspoon pure vanilla extract)

// for the raspberry preserves (or feel free to use about 1/4 cup/60ml store bought nice tasting preserves without too many fillers)
1 cup (130g) raspberries, fresh or frozen
zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon
2 tablespoons honey
1 vanilla bean (empty – the one from the cake)

// for the whipped ricotta
125g / 4oz  nice ricotta cheese (thats about half a standard tub. Eat the rest or feed it to your begging dog that is supposed to be on a diet )
1/2 cup (60g) powdered cane sugar*
Seeds of 1/2 vanilla bean or 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
raspberries to garnish (if you like)


Start with the cake. Preheat the oven to 180’C (350’F) and oil + line 2 6inch/15cm round cake pans, dust a little flour and set them aside.

In a large bowl, combine the almond meal, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

Separate the eggs – if you have a stand mixer, crack the whites into the bowl; otherwise crack them into a large metal/glass bowl, check the bowl is very clean which helps them fluff up.

Add the egg yellows to a large bowl/liquid measuring jug with the oil and sugar, beat with a wire whisk till the sugar is moistened. Add the yogurt, vanilla bean seeds and extract (or just extract) and beat again till pale, light and creamy.

Time to whip the egg whites. Make sure they’re not cold (start with room temp. eggs – if they’re kept in the fridge, take them out 1/2 an hour before you start) and with the beater attachment of a stand mixer, or a hand held electric beater, beat the whites till they form  firm peaks. The best way to do this is to start with the beater on a low speed, and slowly increase it to high speed. Keep beating till the whites start to hold shape, but you don’t want them to be too stiff or they won’t incorporate. check every now and then on the consistency, especially if this isn’t something you do often. Hold the beaters up horizontally: if the egg white just holds its shape without flopping into a curve and without being all stiff and shiny, that’s correct.

If you overbeat the whites they will go grainy and liquid and aren’t easy to salvage, so err on the side of soft peaks**

Retrieve the sugar-yolk mix and the dry mix. Fold the wet into the dry till just combined and smooth, then very delicately  fold in the egg whites so not to deflate them. They should be thoroughly mixed through but not flat – be gentle but assertive, like you’re walking a very nervous gundog. Anyway. Once there are no more white streaks, stop mixing.

Split the batter evenly between the prepared pans (I would recommend using a scale; weigh your bowl before starting then you can weigh once the batter is ready, weigh one of the cake pans) and smooth it gently – the batter is not very thin. Drop the pan gently on the counter a few times to level it out (muffle the sound with a towel if you have x2 nervous gundogs) and so that it’s not too airy.

Bake for 25-28 minutes, till golden on top and when a skewer inserted into the center comes out without crumbs. Allow to cool in the pan first, then carefully invert and allow to cool completely on a rack. The cakes are fairly fragile and I broke mine quite badly (can’t tell though can ya) so take it slowly. Wrap with plastic and freeze till you need to assemble.

// for the preserves

This too can be prepped a bit in advance and kept in the fridge, or you can do it while the cake is baking.

In a small metal pan, add the zest and juice of the 1/2 lemon, the berries, honey and vanilla bean. Add 2-3 tablespoons water so the whole thing is moist then place on a burner on high heat.

Once the liquid starts to bubble enthusiastically turn the heat down to a simmer and smush the berries when you stir, every couple of minutes so the pulp doesn’t stick. Continue cooking for 15 – 20 minutes, till the mixture is thickened and reduced. When it’s done, take off the heat and immediately pour into a small glass jar. Leave to cool without the lid – the preserves will thicken as they cool, so if they’re not very firm, don’t worry. Once cool, fish out the vanilla bean and discard. Keeps in the fridge for about a week.

// The day of assembly

Make the frosting.

Combine the ricotta, vanilla and powdered cane sugar and using an electric beater or stand mixer, beat till light and fluffy. (or use a non-dairy frosting of your choice)

Depending on the texture of your cheese you may need to add a few tablespoons of milk or sugar  – we are looking for a consistency of cake batter, no looser. Refrigerate for a few minutes.

Take the frozen wrapped cakes out of the freezer. Cut three rectangles from parchment paper or kitchen towel.

Put a small dollop of whipped ricotta onto your cake stand or serving plate, then place one cake layer, flat side down (this is to stop it sliding around).

Place the 3 pieces of parchment under the base, to catch crumbs.

Spread about 3 tablespoons of the ricotta onto the top of the first cake layer.

Retrieve your preserves. Dollop about 1/4 cup or 4 tablespoons (this is pretty much all the jam, if you made it yourself) into the middle of the riccotta layer and spread the preserves, leaving a gap before the edges so it doesn’t smush out. It’s ok if the jam and frosting blend a bit.

 Place the second layer on top, give it a little squeeze so it is secured in place. Now for a crumb coat (so crumbs don’t color the final coat).

Take a small amount of frosting – about 4 tablespoons – and pile it on top of the upper layer. Using an offset spatula or small knife, push the frosting over onto the sides and around the sides. It’s ok if there are some crumbs in this first coat.

Once the two layers are lightly covered, allow the cake to rest in the fridge for about 5 minutes for that layer of frosting to set a bit. After a bit of fridge rest, continue to frost the whole cake.

There are different ways to do this but usually I pile whatever frosting is left onto the top then push it down and over the sides, the mess collects on the parchment at the base. The frosting is much thinner than traditional buttercream so it will not be pipeable consistency, more of a drippy cake so the end result will be more ‘rustic’ but that’s the effect, so don’t worry about being too neat. You have an excuse.

Once you’re happy with the top coat, remove the parchment paper from under the cake. Garnish however you wish.

The cake will hold up ok, frosted in the fridge for a few hours. Bring to room temperature before serving. If you garnish with frozen raspberries serve the cake like, straight away, especially if candles have been on the cake, or pink juice will start to leak and that’s just sad. I did it, not smart.

The cake will also keep in an airtight container in the fridge for about 2 days, but almond meal does tend to absorb moisture from the frosting and then dry out.

baker's notes

* I just put about 1 cup (100g) of real chunky turbinado sugar in a food processor and process till it’s powedery. You can of course always use icing sugar, which will also be lighter coloured , as you can see mine looks almost caramel so if you’re after something really white, seek out some organic icing sugar.

** this guide on the kitchn has some useful visuals for beginners 

As I mention, these cakes are tender so really benefit from an overnight rest in the freezer, which makes them handy to make ahead and assemble the day you’d like the cake.


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the birthday girl


more berries