Spiced persimmon upside-down cake

Spiced persimmon upside-down cake
 It's funny: I've always though of persimmons (also known as 'sharon fruit') as somehow faintly exotic. It's not that persimmons are particularly uncommon - they're not, maybe it's just seeing their tangerine hued skin and heart shaped-fruit in bleak February that seems to call of warmer climes.
So when I saw some persimmons in the shops (ashamedly not a local farmer's market) I thought I'd try some. Although I have had them before, I wasn't sure what they tasted like, although I remember them being quite sweet. So before I did any baking or photography, I sat down and ate one, cutting it into quarters and thoughtfully ate it. As it happened, it tasted somewhat like a spicy, honeyed apricot with sweet, delicate flesh with a slightly waxy skin.
Apparently, there are two main varieties of persimmon: the Fuyu and Hachiya. Fuyu have the appearance of a slightly 'squashed' tomato and can be eaten whilst still slightly firm, like an apple; whereas the heart-shaped Hachiya must be ripened until soft and can be simply halved and eaten with a spoon. For the cake, I used the firmer Fuyu since it had to be sliced fairly thinly and I didn't want it to turn to mush.

The cake itself is a twist on the retro upside-down cake, with fresh persimmons in place of pineapple rings and those gaudy glacé cherries. The almond sponge is spiced with cloves, ginger and cinnamon and has a tender persimmon topping - serve warm with a generous scoop on ice cream.
Spiced persimmon upside-down cake

Chocolate hazelnut bundt cake with nutella glaze

chocolate hazelnut bundt cake
Usually, I don't know what I'm going to bake at first: normally I start with an ingredient then think about what I'm going to make with it later. I get out all the cook books, spreading them out across the table and flick through their glossy pages looking for inspiration. By the end they've inevitably sprawled out across the whole kitchen and there's already a mess before I've even got out the measuring scales.

Flicking through the cook books I went through a lot of hazelnut recipes: a hazelnut truffle torte (River cafe) - too rich I thought, spelt and cobnut fairy cakes (short and sweet) - too dainty maybe, and a gianduja gelato (the perfect scoop) - which would have been perfect, but I didn't have any cream on hand unfortunately. In another cookbook I also saw a bundt cake and, taking the idea of the gianduja (a chocolate and hazelnut paste like an Italian nutella) from the ice cream recipe, I thought I'd make a chocolate and hazelnut bundt cake. The cake is nicely moist from the ground and chopped hazelnuts, though still light and fluffy, with just a hint of chocolate from a little cocoa and drizzled with a smooth nutella chocolate glaze. The cake has quite a long baking time (1 hour 15 minutes) but stick with it - it's worth it.bowl of hazelnuts
I actually have a hazelnut tree (although for some reason I've always known it as a cobnut) in the corner of the garden. It's quite a pretty tree, with slightly furry lime green leaves and tall, slender stems, holding delicate catkins at this time the year, coppiced into a crude circle.
 Though it's not bearing any nuts at this time of the year, in the autumn, around early October, we go out to pick the hazelnuts - hopefully before the squirrels have got to them. Then we spend an afternoon on ladders and buckets trying to pick as many as we can, which becomes increasinlgy difficlt as the low branches are picked and only the just-out-of-reach branches are left. You actually pick the hazelnuts when they're still a pastel green because they have to be matured,until they turn an ochre brown, before they can be used. Once matured they just have to be cracked open, by which time you begin to suspect that it would have been easier to just buy a pack of hazelnuts from the shops. They don't last long though, with most being eaten as they are and only a few actually making it to the kitchen. Those that do are used simply so not to lose the subtle hazelnut flavour that was worked so hard for.
Hazelnut and chocolate bundt cake
Hazelnut and chocolate bundt cake

Ginger, chocolate and pear streusel muffins

Ginger, chocolate and pear streusel muffins I'm very particular about pears, they have to be just ripe. More often than not, bought from the shops they're rock hard. Although some people like them like this, with their crisp, granular texture like a tear-shaped apple; I prefer them when they're melting soft and so juicy that they weep their honeyed juice at the slightest bruise. However, there is a fine line between perfectly ripe and over, at which point they start to become ever so slightly fermented and have a slightly alcoholic whiff (which could be a good or bad thing) which could be as short as just a day or two.
Ginger, chocolate and pear streusel muffins
Pears come in an array of shapes and varieties: from the tall and slender Conference to the more bulbous, round Comice but they all have the characteristic sweetly floral and juicy flesh, though some have a noticeably more grainy texture. Here, I've used the rocha variety, though I admit that they were chosen more for the merits of their small round size rather than anything else.

If I'm prepared, I'll leave them out to ripen in a fruit bowl on a sunny window sill for a few days until they're ripened to my liking (putting them in a bag with bananas apparently also speeds this up). If I'm not prepared though (or too impatient to wait) baking or poaching them brings out their juicy sweetness too. Just sprinkle halved pears with a little brown sugar or honey and bake in a moderate oven or poach in a light syrup until soft and tender. I poached the pears in the muffin recipe for this reason, but if your pears are softer then simply omit this step.
pears for poaching
I first had pears tinned with (instant) chocolate custard as a treat for dessert as a child, and although I like to think I've grown up a bit now (though I'm still partial to custard powder on occasion) the combination of rich, slightly bitter chocolate and sweet, buttery pear still holds. These muffins carry on the pairing of chocolate and pear, with the addition of warming ginger and topped with a spicy streusel and are wonderful, warm for breakfast.
Ginger, chocolate and pear streusel muffins

Chocolate and blood orange tartlets with mascarpone cream

Chocolate and blood orange tartlets with mascarpone cream
 Although it's only February, it seems the first signs of spring are appearing: the pastel green tips of daffodils are poking up from the ground, the first sticky buds are beginning to unfurl and the snowdrop's delicate white bells have come up to brave the frosts.
daffodils poking throught the ground
snow drops
Despite this, I'm feeling a bit under the weather and so I'm not quite ready to wholeheartedly embrace spring quite yet. So to try and kick this cold I've been taking in lots of citrus fruits this week. I'm not so sure this added vitamin C is making too much of a difference but all the same I'm still quite enjoying the citrus bonanza.

In a way, this cold came just in time for the brief season of citrus fruits, blood oranges in particular. Admittedly, blood oranges aren't the cheapest fruit but they have a sharp, citric tartness, crimson red juice and almost raspberry like flavour which you'll only find for a short time in the year, so just buy a few and savour them simply. Equally, you could substitute any citrus fruit for the recipe or use a mix of several instead.
blood orange segment
Normally, I don't actually cook with blood oranges but have them as they are: lazily peeling the knobbly, ruby skin skin. I debated on making a sorbet or ice cream (I almost wish I had) but I wanted something more substantial so I decided on making tart. It's not a difficult recipe: a chocolate tart shell, some mascarpone cream and orange slices: just make sure you chill the dough well and handle it lightly since it's a bit crumbly.

As I sliced the oranges, I was amazed at the range of colours. The first, disappointingly, was a standard orange colour, maybe occasionally tinged with red, the next two were a light scarlet streaked with ruby and the last was a deep, burgundy red - almost maroon. I'm not sure what varieties they were but I bought them from two different places so I guess they must be different varieties.
candied blood orange peel

After peeling the oranges I had quite a lot of peel (I used the river cottage recipe) left so I made it into some candied peel. If you've only ever tried the pre-chopped peel then you'll be amazed at what the homemade is like. It's zesty and almost tangy - a world a way from the bland, waxy shop bought stuff. I don't normally use it in cakes (but if you are going to, don't dip it in the sugar once it's been cooked in the syrup), usually just having as it is or I might even dip it into dark chocolate if I'm feeling luxurious - it's surprisingly addictive.
overhead shot of chocolate and blood orange tartlets with mascarpone cream

Squash and apple crumble with a spelt and ginger streusel

Squash and apple crumble
I could never go on a diet. It’s not that I’m unhealthy: there’s nothing more that I like than some   freshly steamed asparagus (albeit with a knob of butter) but it’s just the idea of restraining  myself at a meal or having to say no to a slice of cake that doesn’t appeal. Anyway, not all desserts are made the same: a slice of chocolate fudge cake is never going to be as healthy as a granita. I like to think I go somewhere in between: a small portion of this squash and apple crumble smothered in custard with a dollop of low fat crème fraiche.

Squashes Squash and apple crumbleAlthough it’s the mid-winter we still have some home grown squashes left. At first I thought 
we’d used them all up so when I found another box, they were too good to resist. They’re easy to grow too and by the end of August their sprawling vines have taken over their patch of the garden (and usually all the other veg). Then, when kept somewhere with a relatively cool and constant temperature – we keep ours in a box on the garage floor, they last for the rest of the winter. Use any type of squash (or even a small pumpkin) that takes your fancy: butternut, acorn or summer; to be honest once chopped and cooked they’re pretty indistinguishable from each other.
A box of winter squashes

Of course squashes are great roasted or baked and in velvety soups but they can also be used in sweet things. Obviously they could be used just as a substitute for pumpkin puree in pumpkin pie but the sweet flavors that make them so good roasted, also make them great in a host of baked goods: muffins, in a tea bread or in a crumble, as here. When used in baked goods, it also gives them moisture and so you can cut down on the butter or oil in the recipe (although for reasons mentioned above that doesn’t worry me too much), as well as giving them a sweet nutty flavor and a sunny hue.