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Sticky Date & Amaretti Crumble Bars

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Sticky Date & Amaretti Crumble Bars

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A trip to Toronto when I was seven years’ old is anchored for me by one thing: not the CN tower, or Niagara Falls or my cousin’s wedding, but a visit to the farmers’ market, and in particular, a potentially life-changing stall.  A tall, russet-cheeked man was in command, his floured apron stretched taught over his protuberant belly. 

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And on his table lay not the garish, sprinkle- speckled swirls that would have drawn a normal child. Instead, tray after tray of rubbly slabs of oat and date crumble bars were arrayed. 

The date layer of the bars was jaw-clenchingly sticky, and thick – not like the mean, shop-bought equivalent. The oaty outer layers were both crunchy and then soft, golden and not overly sweet, allowing the natural date sweetness to shine through. 

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. For the last seventeen years I’ve been raiding bakeries and markets, seeking to relive the experience, but the date and oat crumble bars always disappoint – too saccharine, too solid, too floury. In between raids, I’ve been working on my own: these are the closest I have come to Toronto’s best kept secret. I added the crushed amaretti to give them a little twist. Feel free to leave the sugar out of the crumble if your palate is adjusted to the less-sweet. 

It’s incredibly hard to resist them when they emerge from the oven golden and crisp, but I think they taste even better when they have cooled and the flavours are more distinct (or maybe try them both ways, just to be sure…).

NB. They can be made gluten-free by substituting gluten-free flour for spelt. 

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Ingredients

Date filling

400g medjool dates, pitted & roughly chopped (about 20)

3 tbsp fresh orange juice

120ml water

2 tsp vanilla extract

½ tsp mixed spice

½ tsp finely grated orange zest

 

Crumble

250g oats

120g butter

100g wholemeal spelt flour

50g dry amaretti biscuits

40g light brown muscovado sugar

¼ tsp mixed spice

½ tsp vanilla extract

¼ tsp salt

A square 20cm baking tin (or tin of equivalent area), lined with baking parchment, with sides and base fully covered.

Method 

1)    Preheat oven to 180°C

2)    Place all ingredients for the date filling in a pot and place on a medium heat. Stir as the mixture begins to simmer. After about 5 minutes, when the dates have broken down into more of a paste and all the water has evaporated, remove from the heat and set aside.

3)    Pour all the crumble ingredients into a blender and pulse until the mixture still has some texture  and is slightly coarser than sand.

4)    Pour 2/3 of the crumble mixture into the base of the tin, and, with your fingers or the back of a spoon, press the mixture down evenly across the base of the tin until firm and compact. Pour the date filling over and spread evenly across the base. Then pour over the remaining crumble mixture and press down until even and as compact as possible.

5)    Place in oven to bake for 15-20 minutes until golden and firm to the touch.

6)    Slice and allow to cool before devouring. Keeps well in an air tight container in fridge for up to 5 days, or in freezer for 2 months (also tastes delicious when frozen).

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HUNGRY FOR MORE?

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Morroccan Spiced Linzer Jam Cookies

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Morroccan Spiced Linzer Jam Cookies

Afternoon tea.  What do you think of when someone says those words? Tiers of fluffy isosceles sandwiches, miniature entremets layered with fruit, caramel, and chocolate, and maybe a scone glistening with strawberries.  Crisp napkins, high ceilings, the tinkling of fine bone china…

Near where I live there is an Austrian tea room.  The window is filled with garish glace cherry- adorned, deflated pastries, crusted squiggles of festering cream, and opera cake melding into a brown sludge. It opened 60 years ago, and the décor and pastries appear not to have been refreshed since.

Morroccan Spiced Linzer Jam Cookies

Inside, it is dark and cramped, and the airless atmosphere is thickened with hot breath and the oversweet smell of fat and sugar.

Their Linzer biscuits, however, remind me of Jammie Dodgers – those jam-filled, shortbread biscuits of my childhood that only other people’s mothers allowed – and inspired me to re- interpret them. 

These have a slight Moroccan edge: spiced, delicate with a slight chewiness, filled with the tangy conserve of your choice.

I like marmalade for the tart/bitter contrast against the sweetness of the pastry, but strawberry also works well.  Of course, you can go for any shape, but I am rather taken by the cog-like –quirky take on a Jammie Dodger look.

Ingredients

290g (10.125 ounces) white spelt flour (or plain flour if unavailable)

140g (5 ounces) ground almonds

100g (3.5 ounces) caster sugar

¼ tsp salt

2 ½ tsp cinnamon

¼ tsp ground cloves

¼ tsp almond extract

1 tsp grated lemon zest (about ½ lemon)

1 tsp grated orange zest (about ½ medium orange)

225g (8 ounces) unsalted butter

200g (7 ounces) marmalade or jam of choice (I used marmalade and strawberry)

30g (1 ounce) icing sugar

Large and small cookie cutters (I used 7cm and 3.5cm diameter rings)

2 large baking sheets, lined with baking parhcment

Method

  1. Pour flour, ground almonds, caster sugar, salt cinnoman, cloves,orange and lemons zest, and almond extract into a food processor and pulse until fully combined.  Add in the chopped butter and pulse again until the mixture forms a damp sand-like texture.  Keep pulsing until it clumps tighter to form a dough.
  2. Divide the dough into two rounds and flatten both onto sheets of baking parchment, wrap them and place them in the freezer for about 20 minutes or the fridge for an hour.
  3. Preheat the oven to 160˚C (325˚F). Remove the disks of dough from the freezer/fridge – if they are too firm to roll, let them sit for a few minutes.  Ona thoroughly floured board, roll one disk out to a 3mm (1/8 inch) thickness. Cut out as many cookies as possible and set aside the scraps.  Space the disks out on the baking trays as you go. Repeat with the second disk and use the smaller cutter to cut out small holes from the rounds.  Press together the accumulated scraps and roll out again.  Make sure there are an equal number of whole circles to circles with a cut out circle.  A tip to avoid the cutter sticking in the dough is to dip it in flour first.
  4. Place the trays in the oven and bake for 12- 15 minutes until the cookies are golden but still soft to the touch – they will continue to cook as they cool. When cool, for aesthetic effect, sieve the icing sugar onto the rounds with the circles cut out of them. Then spread a teaspoon of the jam/marmalade onto the complete circles, and lightly press the cut-out layer on top.  Devour, delicately, of course…
Morroccan Spiced Linzer Jam Cookies
Morroccan Spiced Linzer Jam Cookies

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Strawberry Crumble Bars

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Strawberry Crumble Bars

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Strawberry Crumble Bars What’s your crumble-to-fruit ratio?  If you’re the kind who favours a preponderance of stewed fruit with an insubstantial fairy dusting of oaty-flour, turn away now.  If you lean towards the lavish when it comes to crumble proportion - good.  Read on…

Strawberry Crumble Bars

Strawberry Crumble Bars Strawberry Crumble Bars

I have experienced many a crumble: from damson to mulberry to cherry to apple, from autumn to winter to spring to summer. But regardless of the lusciousness of the interior, the crumbles that garner the most attention, that leave people scratching way at the remaining crumbs that have become forged to the side of the pan in yearning for more, are the ones with a superabundance of crumble topping.

Strawberry Crumble Bars

Crunchy, nutty, warming and eminently comforting – this is what a good crumble should be.  Enough so that you don’t worry about rationing the crumble in your bowl to suit the amount of fruit – enough so that every mouthful has a good proportion of both.

IMG_5024A good crumble, as with so many things, should leave you wanting more.

Strawberry Crumble Bars

But what if you don’t want to have to face the risk of eating the whole pot by mistake – or at least you if do want to be able to eat the whole lot, do so in a more measured way?

Strawberry Crumble Bars

What if you want to extend the experience beyond the comfort of your kitchen i.e. a portable crumble?

Strawberry Crumble Bars

Try these – fruity, nutty, fresh, and summery, with a subtle tang and not overly-sweet.  They are extremely quick and easy to make and, more importantly, the crumble–to-fruit ratio is verging on perfect…

Strawberry Crumble Bars

 

Ingredients

Base

115g sugar

½ tsp baking powder

210g white spelt flour (substitute any flour of your choice: plain, gluten-free or otherwise)

115g unsalted butter, roughly chopped

½ egg

¼ tsp salt

Finely grated zest of 1/2 orange

Juice of ½ orange

2 generous cups of strawberries, quartered

1 tbsp sugar

2 tbsp cornstarch

1 tsp vanilla bean paste (substitute with 1 tsp of vanilla bean extract if unavailable)

 

Crumble topping

20g unsalted butter

40g sugar

70g oats

30g finely chopped walnuts (remove if allergic)

50g white spelt flour (substitute with any flour of your choice, plain, gluten-free or otherwise)

Pinch of salt

20cm x 20cm tin lined with baking parchment (or a pan of similar area)

 

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 190˚C. Pour sugar, baking powder, flour, salt, and zest in a blender and pulse to combine.  Add butter and egg, and pulse until fully combined and has reached a slightly clumpy, damp sand consistency.  Pour this into the lined baking pan, and press down to create an even base layer.
  2. In a bowl, stir together chopped strawberries, orange juice, orange zest and cornstarch. Sprinkle evenly over the base layer (including the fruit juices.)
  3. Make the topping by pulsing together the butter, sugar, oats, flour and salt until fully combined and sand-like in texture. Stir in the walnuts, then sprinkle the mixture over the strawberries.
  4. Bake in oven for 30 – 40 minutes until the top is golden brown and the base is cooked through. Make sure to check after 20 minutes - you may need to cover the crumble with tin foil to prevent the top from catching (depending on your oven’s temperament). Once cooked, remove from the oven and slice into squares.  Eat immediately or later.

Strawberry Crumble Bars

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The Best Bircher Muesli

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The Best Bircher Muesli

'Oats: a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’ Samuel Johnson, The Dictionary of the English Language, 1755

If I were the type of person that leafed (ironically) through Cosmo, and stumbled across one of those lazy, page-filling content, tree diagrams which happened to ask “what is your spirit animal?”, I know what mine would be. A horse.  Well, at least that’s what it would have been during the second year of my time at university in terms of comestibles…

Essay crises necessitate fuel in order to feed the adrenaline and, for me, that fuel came in the form of oats.

When you have a 9 am deadline approaching, and there is only one hour remaining, every minute is precious - so there is no time to spare for cooking oats over the hob until they break down into a creamy mulch.

The Best Bircher Muesli

That’s the excuse I gave myself.  Instead, I developed the rather grotesque habit of eating oats straight from the packet, raw and desiccated. In my maddened and pressured state, I savoured the clagginess of the oats, where you can’t quite conjure up enough saliva to swallow them.  Ideal.

I have since moved on from this stage (with the very occasional relapse) to a more acceptable way of dealing with my love of oats: Bircher muesli, invented by Bircher Benner, a pioneer of raw foodism, in the late 19th century as a way of curing his jaundice.  It worked.

I feel, somewhat justifiably, that it runs in my blood (thick & creamy): my great-great-uncle was a frequent patient at Benner’s rather avant garde  Swiss raw food clinic and, one sunny day, he stepped down from a plane on an impromptu visit from Scotland to South Africa with no clothes besides the ones on his back, a vegetable juicing contraption which he trailed behind him on a rickety little cart, and a proselytising passion for Bircher muesli.

The Best Bircher Muesli

I have tried many a Bircher muesli, from Swiss versions to Vietnamese attempts, but I feel I have concocted the ultimate version (excuse my arrogance).  Creamy, healthy, juicy, and exotic, it’s effectively manna, and I would happily have it for every meal of the day (jaundiced or not).

The Best Bircher Muesli  (Serves 5)

Ingredients

2 Braeburn apples, grated

Juice of 1/2 lemon

200ml orange juice

200g natural yogurt

200g almond and coconut milk (can be substituted with dairy or non-dairy alternatives)

3 tbsp maple syrup

1 tsp vanilla bean paste (if you can’t get hold of this, omit it, or substitute with ½ tsp vanilla extract)

50g desiccated coconut, lightly toasted in a pan on a low heat until pale gold)

200g porridge oats

Pinch of salt

200g of fresh fruit of your choice (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, figs, sliced banana work well)

40g coconut chips (optional but adds great texture)

Method

  1. In a large bowl mix together all the ingredients apart from the fresh fruit and optional coconut chips. If you are making this the night before, cover the bowl with cling film and place in the fridge overnight to let the oats soak up the flavours.  If you are serving the muesli immediately, stir the mixture for a couple of minutes to break down the oats until they are creamy.
  2. If you are leaving the muesli overnight, allow it to come to room temperature before serving. Scatter mixed berries and fruits and coconut chips over the top and serve.

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Spiced Blueberry Tart

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Spiced Blueberry Tart

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Is it just me, or is anyone else sick of logging on to Facebook, innocently hoping to drain away half an hour of one’s day (minimum) by looking at pictures of people one may or may not have half met once trying to prove how much fun they are having by posting pictures of themselves with friends/family, strained smiles stretched across their faces, and who are clearly not that immersed in the fun as they have had to spend half an hour trying to get one decent picture out of the hundred they’ve taken to emblazon it across their Facebook wall and maybe, just maybe, turn it into a cover photo?

And then – BAM - your gaze is diverted,

and you are staring down into the depths of a garishly coloured plastic bowl filled with some unidentifiable artificial gunk, pink fleshy hands massaging some other substance into it to form some putty-like emulsion which is then mushed and squeezed and squidged into a plastic mould, whizzed up, and extruded through a bag and…… oh look, it’s that Gooey Oreo, Jellied Eel and Green Marshmallow Mini Coffee Cup that “you’ve always wanted to make for your slumber party with the gals”.

Here’s an antidote.  It is simple yet sophisticated, humble yet sumptuous, tangy but not cloyingly sweet, and light yet not so light when you’ve had 4+ pieces….

Ingredients

Pastry

200g white spelt flour (can be substituted with plain flour)

100g butter, roughly cubed

2 tbsp icing sugar

¼ tsp salt

1 small egg, beaten

12 x 36cm tart tin, greased and dusted with flour

Blueberry filling

800g frozen blueberries

250g caster sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

½ tsp nutmeg

2 tbsp cornflour

Zest of ½ medium sized orange

Method

  1. Place flour, butter, icing sugar and salt in a food processor, and blitz until it resembles damp sand. Pour in the beaten egg, and pulse until the mixture combines to form a soft dough.  Remove from the processor, wrap in baking parchment and place in the fridge for half an hour (or freezer for 10-15 minutes) – this will prevent the dough from shrinking when it bakes.
  2. Preheat the oven to 180˚C. Lightly dust a surface with flour and roll out the dough in a rough rectangle to 0.5cm thickness. Roll the pastry around a rolling pin and transfer to the tin, pressing it into the fluting (if, indeed, your tin is fluted). Run a knife along the top edge of the tin to remove excess pastry. Prick the base of the pastry a few times with a fork, and place back in the fridge for 30 minutes (or freezer for 10 minutes).
  3. Prepare the pastry for blind baking by lining the inside with a sheet of tin foil and filling it with baking beads to weigh it down while it bakes and to prevent it from shrinking. Place in the oven for 15-20 minutes until the pastry is dry and beginning to turn golden.  If it is cooking too slowly, you can remove the beads and tin foil after 15 minutes and continue to bake.  Remove from oven and set aside to cool.
  4. To make the spiced blueberry filling, place a large pan over a high heat and pour in all the ingredients. Stir continuously until the sugar is dissolved in the juice that runs off the blueberries. When the mixture begins to boil, reduce the heat to medium-high and allow to simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent it from catching, until the liquid is almost completely reduced and with the viscosity somewhere between a syrup and a jam. Allow to cool to room temperature, then pour into the pre-baked pastry case.
Spiced Blueberry Tart

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Tarta de Santiago

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Tarta de Santiago

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When life gives you … quinces Tarta de Santiago

 

The scent coming from the paper bag was soft and sweet, and old fashioned rose-like, and when I turned out its contents, eight yellow, somewhat misshapen apple-pears tumbled out.

Tarta de Santiago     These quinces were the unwanted fruit of an unappreciated tree in someone else’s garden.  Beguilingly biblical in appearance, their uncompromising hardness metamorphoses into something utterly different after cooking.

Tarta de Santiago

Tarta de Santiago Originally referred to as the Kydonian melon, and mentioned in 6th Century BCE Greek poetry, the quinces we recognise today are believed to have been indigenous to Kydonia on the island of Crete. The Ancient Greeks dedicated the quince to Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, who was often represented with the golden apple of Hesperides in her right hand – that apple, in all likelihood, a quince.  Indeed, quinces symbolised love and fertility, and Plutarch refers to the ancient wedding ritual whereby a bride would take a bite from a quince before retiring to the bridal chamber with her husband – possibly to freshen her breath, too.

Tarta de Santiago The path of the wedding procession of Helen and Menelaus was said to have been strewn with quinces, myrtle leaves and crowns woven from violets and roses. The fruit was also said by Pliny to have warded off the malign influence of the evil eye, and its medicinal value as an aid to digestion was also noted.

Tarta de Santiago

The Byzantines made wine from quinces as well as kydonaton, a thick quince jelly, probably the ancestor of French cotignac or condoignac, a delicacy made with honey, wine and spices that was considered a worthy gift for kings.

Tarta de SantiagoApicius, the first extant Roman cookbook writer, of the first century CE, preserved quinces whole in honey diluted with a spiced wine reduction, and also combined them with leeks, honey, and broth in hot oil in a dish known as Patina de Cydoniis. In the 4th Century CE, Palladius, an agriculturist and writer, composed a recipe for baked quince strips, possibly the first stirrings of membrillo, the Spanish quince gel that we know today.

Tarta de Santiago

During the 16th and 17th centuries, cooks in England prepared many variations of quince preserves which they called quidoniac, quiddony or paste of Genoa.  Often the preserve paste was thick enough to be moulded into animal or flower shapes. Nowadays, many cultures use quinces in their cuisine: in India, a quince sambal is made by making a puree out of quinces, onions, chillies, orange juice and salt. In Iran, quinces are sometimes cored and stuffed with minced meat, and Moroccan tagines often include quince along with dried fruit and spices.

Tarta de Santiago

Despite its pertinence in history and mythology the quince has rather fallen out of fashion.  Now the prized aphrodisiac and breath-freshener has been reduced to an unloved (except by the cognoscenti), knobbly peculiarity.  I hereby am starting a quince appreciation campaign and when life gives you quinces, make membrillo, and with the membrillo make Tarta de Santiago.

Tarta de Santiago

Membrillo is the rose-tinted translucent and slightly grainy gel that miraculously results from boiling quinces with water, sugar and citrus.  Its perfumed exoticness makes one think of orange groves and balmy breezes, and when combined with the citrus infused almond cake and pastry layers, one is transported right to the Alhambra.

Tarta de Santiago

 

Recipe

Ingredients

Pastry

150g white spelt flour (substitutable with any flour of your choice including gluten-free to create a gluten-free dessert)

40g caster sugar

1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp salt

Grated zest of ½ unwaxed orange

100g butter, roughly chopped into small cubes

1 egg yolk

25cm x 25cm square tin (or round tin with similar dimensions) at least 8cm deep, lined with greaseproof paper

Filling

250g quince paste (membrillo)

2 tbsp lemon juice

Grated zest of ½ unwaxed orange

Grated zest of ½ unwaxed lemon

65g ground almonds

Cake layer

150 ground almonds

100g caster sugar

1 tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp salt

Grated zest of 1 unwaxed orange

Grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon

150g butter, melted and allowed to cool slightly

100ml triple sec

3 eggs

Optional candied orange decoration

Follow instructions from my recipe for Citrus Syrup-Soaked Cake

Method

  1. In a blender, blitz together sugar, cinnamon, flour, salt and butter until the mixture resembles damp sand. Add in the egg yolk and blitz until the mixture comes together into dough.  Flatten into a disc, wrap in greaseproof paper and chill in a freezer for 15 minutes or refrigerate for ½ hour.
  2. On a well-floured surface, roll the dough out to a 3mm thickness and transfer to the tin to line the base. Refrigerate while you prepare the filling.
  3. Preheat oven to 180°C. To make the filling, place the quince paste (membrillo), lemon juice and zest in a small pan over a medium heat and stir until smooth and fully combined.  Remove from the heat and stir in the ground almonds.  Remove the tin from the fridge and spread the quince mixture evenly over the pastry.  Refrigerate once more.
  4. To make the cake layer, whisk together ground almonds, sugar, cinnamon, salt and zest in a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together melted butter, triple sec and eggs.  Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and whisk until combined in a loose paste.
  5. Remove the tin from the fridge and pour the cake layer mixture over the quince layer. Bake in the preheated oven for 35-40 minutes until golden brown, springy to touch and a skewer comes out clean.  Allow to cool before serving.

Tarta de Santiago

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Citrus syrup-soaked cake

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Citrus syrup-soaked cake

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IMG_3830 This citrus syrup soaked almond cake takes me back to the Jemaa el-Fnaa, the central square of Marrakesh: the teeth pullers ready to pounce with their pliers, the snake charmers forcing a writhing snake scarf on your neck, and amongst this the orange juice vendors lined up, the citrus scents suffusing the air…

 

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Incredibly easy and quick to make, this cake will last for several weeks if kept in a sealed container.

It can be made gluten free simply by using gluten-free bread crumbs.

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The candied orange topping is optional.

 

Ingredients

 

Cake

50g stale/toasted white bread crumbs (gluten free can be used)

175g caster sugar

100g ground almonds

1 ½ tsp baking powder

200ml vegetable oil

4 eggs

Finely grated zest of 3 medium /2 large unwaxed oranges

Finely grated zest of 2 unwaxed lemons

1 tsp cinnamon (optional)

½ tsp vanilla extract

¼ tsp salt

 

Citrus syrup

Juice of 2 oranges

Juice of 1 ½ lemons

75g sugar

6 cloves

1 cinnamon stick

 

Optional Candied Orange

1 cup water

½  cup caster sugar

2 small unwaxed oranges sliced across the diameter 2mm thick

 

20cm diameter tin, lined with baking parchment

 

Method

Cake

  1. In a large bowl whisk together oil, eggs and orange and lemon zest until combined.

 

  1. In a separate large bowl mix all dry ingredients together.

 

  1. Pour wet mixture into dry and stir until combined. Pour into lined tin and place in cold oven & turn heat to 180˚C.

 

  1. Bake for 40-50 minutes or until skewer comes out clean.

 

Citrus syrup

  1. While cake is cooking pour all ingredients into pan & place on medium high heat. Stir until sugar has dissolved then let it simmer for 4 minutes until it has reduced slightly to a thin, non-viscose syrup.

 

  1. As soon as the cake is removed the oven stab it all-over with a skewer , don’t hold back. Pour the syrup over.  It may initially look like it’s drowning, but it will rapidly be absorbed.

 

  1. Serve when cool.

 

Optional candied orange layer

  1. In a large frying pan stir together sugar and water until sugar has dissolved.

 

  1. simmer for 3 minutes then add orange slices. Don’t worry if they overlap.

 

  1. Simmer on medium-low heat for 15 minutes, or until the skin of the orange is translucent.

 

  1. Arrange as desired.

 

 

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(recipe influenced by Sophie Grigson)

 

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