Sachertorte is my favourite chocolate cake, but since it’s based on flour, you can’t serve it at Passover. You can, however, serve this flourless chocolate almond cake, whose recipe was passed down to us by my late mother-in-law and is a firm family favourite (Joan was much loved, by the way – very much the opposite of the Les Dawson stereotype).
100g dark chocolate (as usual, my favourite is 70% Chocolat Menier)
100g ground almonds
100g butter, plus some for greasing
15ml (1tbsp) brandy or rum, optional
A small cup of espresso coffee (I made 60ml or so). An alternative would be a teaspoon of instant coffee dissolved in 30ml or so of water
Preheat oven to 135℃ fan
Line the base of a 23cm (or so) cake tin with baking paper, grease the sides with butter
Melt the chocolate in a double boiler. If the butter is hard, chop it into small pieces.
Add the butter and mix until melted
Reserve 25g of the sugar in a small bowl
Add the remaining 75g of sugar, ground almonds, coffee and brandy to the chocolate mixture and stir until smooth
Remove the top of the double boiler from the heat. If you’re feeling impatient, cool it in an ice bath. Otherwise, just wait for it to be not too much above room temperature: you don’t want it scrambling the egg yolks.
Separate the eggs into two bowls
Whisk the whites until soft, add the 25g of sugar, and whisk until you have a stiff meringue
Whisk the yolks until foamy, then add the chocolate mixture and stir
Fold in the meringue until you’ve got rid of any blobs of egg white and any swirls of dark chocolate.
Pour into your cake tin and bake. Everyone’s oven is different: I gave the cake around 40 minutes, opened to check it with a skewer, and then gave it another 10 when the skewer didn’t come out quite dry.
Cool on a rack for as long as you can bear it.
Serve (with whipped cream, if you’re feeling Viennese).
There have been several dark rye breads in this series, but after a recent visit to Estonia, I felt compelled to make the Estonian version, known simply as “Leib” (bread) or, if you’re feeling loquacious, “Must Leib” (black bread). It’s a soft, earthy and aromatic loaf that immediately hit the top of family favourites of any bread that I’ve made, displacing its Russian cousin Borodinsky bread; it also seems to keep particularly well. You need a couple of days elapsed time and it’s fairly hard work compared to many breads, not least because the dough is very sticky so you spend masses of time on washing up, but it was well worth the trouble and it’s definitely going to become a regular.
As ever, recipes vary: the common theme is the use of dark rye, caraway seeds and various other seeds (pumpkin and sunflower here; I’m sure others are possible), as well as the use of a fairly long fermentation time. I’ve started with a post on Deutsche Welle from their EU correspondent Georg Matthes, taking down the quantities around 20% to suit the size of my bread tin and changing a couple of ingredients to the ones readily available to me. By the way, my bread tin measures around 29cm x 11cm x 10cm, so around 3 litres, probably not far off an American 10 x 5 inch loaf pan.
Georg is surprisingly precise about fermentation time and temperature – 17 hours at 24℃ – which is fine if you are a professional baker with access to a temperature controlled environment but sounds scary to us amateurs. I have the choice of room temperature (around 20℃ in winter) or the cupboard containing my boiler (more like 30℃), so I ended up doing a kind of mix and match. It worked fine, so I suspect that things really aren’t all that sensitive.
I’ve given you the timings and sizes that I used successfully. Obviously, adapt as needed to your schedule, kitchen and available equipment.
Day 1 – around noon
You’ll start by making three separate mixtures and leaving them to ferment. In each case, combine all the ingredients in a bowl, mix thoroughly, cover and leave.
50g sourdough starter (mine is dark rye)
200g dark rye flour
280g dark rye flour
300 ml water
50g pumpkin seeds
75g sunflower seeds
120ml boiling water
Day 2 – around 9am – mix and first rise
200g wholemeal wheat flour
10g dried yeast
35g malt extract
7g caraway seeds
Put all ingredients into the bowl of your stand mixer.
Add all three doughs from the previous day.
Mix thoroughly at medium speed for around 10 minutes using the normal paddle (the dough hook won’t work). You may need to stop and scrape the sides a few times to make sure that you incorporate any flour at the bottom that hasn’t blended in, as well as ensuring that the sticky malt extract and molasses are evenly distributed.
Cover the bowl with cling film and leave to rise until doubled in size (in my relatively cold kitchen, this took close to two hours).
Day 2 – around 11am – shape and second rise
Melt the butter and brush your baking tin with it.
Press the dough into the pan, getting it fully into the corners and making as even a shape as you can. Don’t worry about maintaining gluten structure: the preponderance of dark rye flour means there won’t be much.
Leave to rise until the bread is nearly level with the top of the tin. This took another two hours, but in all honesty, the time is completely variable (disclaimer: I should have left mine about half an hour longer than I did for the loaf photographed here). You just have to be patient and keep watching the bread at regular intervals.
Day 2 – around 2pm – bake and glaze
8g potato starch
30ml water (this is a guess – Georg doesn’t specify)
Around half an hour before you think your loaf will be fully risen, preheat your oven to 250℃ fan.
Spread the potato starch thinly over a Silpat sheet or sheet of baking paper over a baking tray. When the oven is up to temperature, put it in the oven and roast until golden (this took me around 15 minutes). Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
When your loaf is risen to your satisfaction, score the top and brush it with a little water. If you have a thermometer probe that you can use in the oven, stick it into the loaf.
Put the tin into a larger roasting pan with some water and put the whole assembly into the oven.
After 10 minutes, turn the oven temperature down to 180℃ fan and open the oven briefly to let off the steam.
Bake until the internal temperature reaches 98℃ (this took me around 50 minutes).
Around 10 minutes before the end of the baking time, put the roasted potato starch and the water into a saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer for five minutes or so. Take off the heat.
Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack. Brush it all over with the potato starch and water mixture.
And here’s the hard part: leave the bread to rest for 24 hours before eating!
As far as I can see, the real definition of a spring roll is “anything you like that has vaguely Far Eastern flavourings, wrapped in a cigar shape of very thin pastry”. However, this being a baking blog with pretensions of authenticity, I started off with an actual Malaysian recipe – and one that specifies how to bake them rather than the more usual deep fry. If like me, you try to steer clear of deep frying, the use of cooking spray – not something I’d come across before using this recipe – seems to work pretty well, getting a result that’s crisp, non-greasy and holds its filling, even if you don’t get the classic “golden all over” look of the fried version.
The recipe will be very forgiving as to quantities: shown here are what I had easily available. The original recipe specifies jicama, a root vegetable that I couldn’t get hold of, so I substituted with a couple of cans of water chestnuts. I believe that mooli (aka daikon) also makes a good substitute, but with a more distinctive flavour of its own.
500g lean pork mince
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
Ground black pepper to taste
2 cloves garlic
Oil for frying (I used groundnut oil, any neutral oil will do
450g water chestnuts
2 large carrots
3 spring onions
Combine pork mince, soy sauce and black pepper in a bowl, mix well.
Chop garlic and onion finely
Peel the carrots, grate them and the water chestnuts – I did this in a food processor.
Warm a small amount of oil in a wok, add the pork mixture and fry for a couple of minutes
Add onion and garlic, fry until the meat is browned and the onion is soft
Add the water chestnuts, carrots and cabbage, and keep cooking until the vegetables are cooked through and most of the water has been cooked out of them.
Chop the spring onions and add them.
Put the whole lot in a colander or sieve for ten minutes or so (or as long as you like) to allow more of the excess moisture to drain away.
Assembly and baking
Although I usually try to make my own pastry from scratch for this blog, I just couldn’t see a good reason for doing so here – and as far as I know, none of my Asian friends can be bothered either: the supermarket-bought wrappers are just fine. I couldn’t find fresh ones, so I bought a frozen pack: it was important to defrost them well in advance, because otherwise, peeling a wrapper off the frozen block would have been impossible without tearing it.
How many spring rolls this makes is a function of the size of your wrappers and how much filling you want to put into each. If you put a large amount of filling into each wrapper, you’ll have thinner pastry and a less carb-heavy dish; if you put less filling, you’ll have multiple layers of pastry, which will make it easier to get a crisper outside. I used wrappers that were 190mm square and put quite a lot of filling in, so the quantities here made about 20. Next time, I think, I’d go for two thirds of the filling I used here and make 30 rolls.
You want to work as quickly as you can manage, because the moisture from the filling will soak into the pastry faster than you would like.
1 packet spring roll wrappers (20-30)
Cooking spray (I used a sunflower oil spray)
Preheat oven to 225℃ fan
Have ready a baking tray with a rack above it – I used a rack that I would normally use for cooling cakes or biscuits. Also have ready a small bowl of water and a pastry brush.
Place a wrapper on a clean work surface so that you’re looking at a diamond rather than a square (i.e. the thing furthest away from you is a corner, not an edge).
Spoon some filling into a cigar shape in the middle of the wrapper, going left-to-right as you see it.
Tuck the corner furthest from you over your cigar of filling
Tuck the left hand right corners into the middle
Brush the remaining flat part of the wrapper with water, and tuck it over your filling to form the completed roll.
Repeat for half a dozen or so rolls, spray them generously with cooking spray, transfer them onto you rack, turning them outside down as you go. Now spray the other side.
Repeat until your rack is full. You’ll probably need to do the whole process twice: if you have a second pan and rack, you can bake them all at the same time; otherwise, you’ll have to wait until the first batch is backed.
The Japanese may not have centuries worth of baking tradition: their traditional cuisine is more likely to involve steaming or cooking in a pan. But they’ve taken to the Western idea of baked desserts with a vengeance and added flavours that are characteristically Japanese. Green matcha tea cookies are a favourite for many, but as I’m not particularly fond of matcha, so I’ve gone for a different flavouring: black sesame seeds. These cookies (黒胡麻クッキー or Kuro goma kukkī) are very popular in Japan, they’re easy to make, not too sweet and have a distinct taste that I remember from trips to Japan but not from anywhere else. Thanks to Nami and her blog justonecookbook.com for the recipe.
I’ve followed Nami’s recipe reasonably accurately for my first effort (she gives an option of keeping the sesame seeds whole or grinding them – I went for keeping them whole). Next time, I might go for grinding them and using a few more to get a bigger hit of sesame flavour. I might also take the sugar down a bit, although these aren’t extremely sweet by any means. If you’re looking at the photos, it’s clear that I should probably have sliced the cookies a lot thinner to get a crisper result.
40g black sesame seeds
160g plain flour
40g ground almonds
80g caster sugar
120g unsalted butter
Toast the sesame seeds in a pan until fragrant, leave to cool slightly.
In the bowl of your food processor, weight out the flour, ground almonds, sugar and salt. Stir until evenly mixed (or, if you dare, pulse the food processor briefly).
Take the butter out of the fridge and cut it into cubes. Add to the food processor and run until you have an even crumbly mix.
Add the egg and sesame seeds and pulse for a few seconds until everything is even.
Now take the mixture out of your food processor into a bowl and bring together with your hands until you have a smooth dough.
Form your dough into a long sausage. (Nami’s recipe says to cut the dough into two and do two sausages – I forgot). Wrap them in cling film and refrigerate for around an hour. Ideally, the sausage(s) should be round, but it’s fairly hard to avoid having a flat edge.
Meanwhile, prepare two baking trays with baking paper (or silicone mats) and preheat oven to 175℃.
Take the sausage of dough out of the fridge and cut it into circular slices around 5mm in width. Lay these out on your baking trays, allowing room for a bit of expansion.
Bake for around 15 minutes until a light golden colour.
Leave to cool on a rack for as long as you can manage without scoffing them.
The styles and sizes vary, but most food cultures have a filled parcel that you can eat on the street: China has bao dumplings, Japan has onigiri, most Latin countries have empañadas, and so on. The Maltese version is the pastizz, which is somewhere in size between a samosa and a Cornish pasty. Its case is flaky pastry which is made by creating a spiral cross-section of dough and shortening (the same trick, roughly, as used in Portuguese pastéis de nata); the filling can be pretty much anything but is often either based on ricotta cheese or peas.
Starting from a Maltese Youtube video and halving the quantities, I chose a lightly curried pea-and-tomato filling, which is pretty straightforward and comes out rather like one of my favourite Indian dishes, mutter paneer (without the paneer, but I can’t see a good reason not to include that if you want). If you are looking carefully at the photos, you’ll see that I ran out of peas on one of my runs and substituted some mixed veg.
As with all versions of puff pastry, getting the layers right is tricky, and I got it spectacularly wrong on my first attempt, not least because the ratio of flour to water in the recipe is way off what it needs to be. This isn’t the most time consuming puff pastry recipe you’ll ever see: there’s a lot of elapsed time for resting, but it’s not too bad on actual work. But it’s fiddly to get the layers thin enough and roll them up into a good shape without breaking them. If you’re like me, you’ll need practise.
Anyway, the results are well worth it: they make a really good mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack, tasty, filling and nutritious.
Although I’m giving the filling recipe first, you’ll almost certainly want to start the dough first and make the filling during the extensive resting times.
You could add any of garlic, ginger or chilies to this if you want a spicier version. I like adding curry leaves, too, which isn’t exactly Maltese but adds aroma.
Sunflower or other neutral oil for frying
2g (1tsp) cumin seeds
7g curry powder (or your own favourite mix of ground coriander, cumin, turmeric, chili powder)
70g double concentrated tomato paste (my favourite brand is Cirio)
350g frozen peas
Take the peas out of the freezer. You can do this in advance, but you don’t have to.
Chop the onion finely
Heat cumin seeds in oil in a wok or medium size pan
Once the cumin seeds are spitting, add the onion and stir fry for a couple of minutes
Add the curry powder and continue frying until the onions are soft
Add the tomato paste and 100ml or so of water, stir until blended.
Add the peas, bring back to the boil, turn the heat down and simmer until the peas are cooked and the sauce is very thick.
Turn the heat off and leave until needed.
420g flour +40 second time, + 15g sunflower oil
125g shortening – Maltese recipes specify a vegetable shortening like Trex or Crisco, but you can almost certainly substitute ghee or melted butter if you prefer the taste (or use a mixture)
A little olive oil
Mix flour and salt in the bowl of your stand mixer; add water and knead on low to medium speed with the dough hook until you have a smooth but fairly stiff dough. You need enough water that you don’t have lots of uncombined flour, but not so much as to make the mixture sticky.
Form your dough into a thick cylinder, spread with shortening, wrap with cling film and leave to rest for around 30 minutes.
Roll the cylinder into a reasonably long and thin rectangle, spread with more shortening on both sides, place cling film over the top and rest again for another 30 minutes.
Now roll the dough as thin as you can possibly make it – still in a long, rectangle. Spread with shortening over the top.
Starting from one end, roll your dough into a long cigar shape, pulling the pastry as you go and making sure you get all the air out. You will need to go from side to side and back again, pulling and rolling. Leave to rest for another hour or two. Towards the end of this, preheat your oven to 200℃ fan.
Pull your cylinder so that it’s now very long. Cut the resulting cylinder into around twelve pieces.
Have a small bowl of olive oil ready. Dip both thumbs in oil, then pick up a piece of dough, dig both thumbs into one end and shape and stretch it into a cup – this may or may not remind you of primary school pottery classes.
Flip the cup inside out (so that the bit with the olive oil is on the outside, spoon a dollop of filling into it, and pinch the outside together to seal. When it’s done, put it on a baking tray, lying it roughly flat (don’t try to leave the seam pointing upwards). Repeat for the other eleven pastizzi.
Bake for around 30 minutes. Take out of the oven when golden (and, we hope, flaky).
While leaving to cool, attempt to sing Maltese folksongs. Or not.
With apologies to ciabatta-lovers, focaccia is the Italian bread par excellence. Its pillowy, soft texture, coupled with a crisp outside, a slight crunch of salt flakes and the aroma of olive oil simply can’t be beaten.
My focaccia recipe is, to be honest, a bit of a mongrel. Prior to this strange year, I was visiting Italy around twice a year, but the best focaccia I have ever had was not made by an Italian but by an Indian chef at a hotel in the mountains of Oman who swore by a triple proving. The softest, most pillowy dough – my ideal focaccia consistency – comes from the kneading method in the Persian flatbread recipe in Sabrina Ghayour’s Persiana. I’ve gone for Giorgio Locatelli’s recommendation for flour (from his Made in Italy, via Felicity Cloake’s round-up recipe in her excellent “The perfect xyz” series in The Guardian), and done toppings as suggested by Italian-American Maurizio, aka The Perfect Loaf. Personally, I think the results are well worth the extra effort, but there are certainly shortcuts available if you’re pushed for time.
Two important variables are the salt and oil content. I eat a fairly low salt diet and the amount in here is about the maximum I can take. For some, even this will be too much; for others, this won’t be nearly enough compared to the salt hit they expect from a focaccia. My focaccia is also relatively low in oil: you may prefer to drizzle on a lot more than me. You’re just going to have to experiment until you get these to your taste.
Also, I’ve opted for a 40cm x 30cm tray, which gives a flattish focaccia with a relatively short, hot baking time. A variation would be to use a smaller, higher-sided tin and a lower temperature (say 200℃) for a loaf with a higher ratio of inside softness to outside crust.
400ml warm water (around 40℃)
8g dried yeast
375g strong white bread flour
375g OO flour
100ml olive oil, plus 30ml for the drizzle
A tablespoon or so semolina flour (optional)
12 cherry tomatoes
24 black olives, pitted
Half a dozen sprigs of rosemary
20ml cold water
10g sea salt flakes
There are some options as to how to prepare baking trays. You’re trying to get high heat onto the base of your focaccia as soon as you can, so Cloake suggests that you preheat a pizza stone in your oven and “transfer” the focaccia to it. That’s all very well, but it’s difficult to transfer a large rectangle of dough while keeping its shape, without the toppings falling off. I opted for a metal baking tray placed onto the stone: metal is a good conductor and this did the job just fine. An alternative is to lay out your focaccia on baking parchment: if you don’t have a pizza stone, you’ll want to preheat the metal tray and then move your dough to the heated tray while still on its parchment base.
As ever, rising times depend completely on the temperature in your kitchen, and the alternatives should be obvious if you don’t have a stand mixer.
Combine water, sugar and yeast; leave for a few minutes until frothy
In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the flours and salt and stir until mixed evenly
Add the wet mix and 100ml olive oil to the dry mix
With the standard paddle, mix for a minute or so until you have a smooth dough: you should find that it comes away cleanly from the sides of bowl
Switch to the dough hook and knead for 5 minutes
Leave to stand for 10 minutes, then knead for another 2 minutes. Repeat this.
Brush a little olive oil over the surface of a large bowl, transfer your ball of dough to it, cover and leave to rise for around 60-90 minutes.
If you’re using baking parchment, line your baking tray with it. Optionally, dust a tablespoon or two of semolina flour over this.
Knock back the dough and shape it into a rectangle covering the whole tray, Make it as even as you can: you’ll get some resistance, but you can pull it around with little danger of tearing.
Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for another 45 minutes or so.
If using a pizza stone, put it into your oven now. Otherwise, slide the parchment sheet off your baking tray and put the tray into the oven.
Preheat oven to 250℃ fan (or as near as you can get).
Leave the dough for its second rise, around 45-60 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare your toppings: chop of blitz the rosemary very fine, halve the cherry tomatoes. If your olives came in brine, wash them thoroughly to remove the salt.
Uncover the dough and with a finger, press a pattern of 6 x 8 indentations into it with a finger, going deep. Press the cherry tomato halves and the olives into the indentations in a chequerboard pattern (that’s why I’ve been fussy about the numbers). Sprinkle the rosemary evenly over the top.
Cover with a tea towel again and leave for another 30-45 minutes.
Prepare a mixture of 30ml olive oil and 20ml water, whisking with a fork until emulsified. Spread this evenly over the focaccia.
Sprinkle the sea salt flakes evenly over.
Now work quickly: open the oven, take out the stone or tray, transfer your focaccia to it, replace it in the oven and close. Now reduce the oven temperature to 225℃.
Bake for around 20-25 minutes until golden brown.
Remove from the oven, slide the focaccia onto whatever board or tray you’re going to serve it on, and leave to cool for a few minutes before eating. This may be the hardest thing in the recipe, but you don’t want to burn your mouth!
It’s been a strange Fourth of July this year: the poison of the Trump era has made it harder than ever to summon positive feelings for the United States. Still, I’ll use the occasion to celebrate happy days in the past and hope for happier ones in the future, with some close family members and numerous friends in the USA firmly in mind.
I lived in California for a couple of years in the early 1980s and one of my fondest memories is of whiling away hours at Printers Inc., a bookshop-plus-café that was a kind of prototype Borders. Long before Starbucks had started to expand outside Seattle, Printers Inc. served really good coffee and superb brownies and carrot cake. Cake lovers would invariably spot some book they liked, while those in search of a book, with equal inevitability, would be entrapped by the aroma of fresh coffee and cake.
Sadly, I never did get the recipe for the best carrot cake I ever had, baked by Gigi Ellis, the wife of my boss at Fairchild, and I lost touch with Frank and Gigi decades ago. So this recipe, which is close to the Printers Inc. version, comes from the cookbook I bought at the time, a model of Californian eclecticism entitled San Francisco à la Carte. I’ve turned everything metric, because I just don’t see how you can bake accurately using measuring cups, or indeed why you would want to when digital scales are cheap, accurate and generate less washing up.
The quantities here will work for a single cake in a 23cm x 23cm square tin. That will do for 16 small portions (or 8 very generous portions, or whatever you pick in between). If you prefer, you can use more than one tin, which avoids the tricky process of slicing the cake in half, at the price of leaving you with an internal crust that you don’t really want.
Make the cake:
250g carrots (weight after peeling)
250g plain flour
10g baking soda
150g corn oil
Preheat oven to 175℃.
Grease the bottom of your cake tin, line it with baking paper, then grease the bottom and sides.
Mix together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. There’s no need to sift the flour.
Peel and grate the carrots.
Beat the eggs (I use a stand mixer). Add the oil and beat until the eggs and oil have combined into a smooth mixture.
Add the flour mixture to the egg and oil mixture and beat until smoothly combined.
Add the carrots and stir until they’re evenly distributed.
Pour the whole mixture into your baking tin, ensuring that you spread it evenly including the corners.
Bake for 30 minutes – use the usual skewer test to ensure that it’s done. I’m always surprised by the way the cake can be really raw at 25 minutes and just fine at 30. By the way, some people like their carrot cake sticky: if you’re one of them, make sure the skewer *does* come out with some mixture sticking to it.
Cool in the baking tin for 5-10 minutes and then on a wire rack.
Make the frosting:
200g cream cheese
150g icing sugar
Vanilla essence to taste (optional)
Beat these together thoroughly until very smooth.
Cover and leave in the refrigerator: especially if it’s summer, the frosting will be very runny and you want it to hold its shape when you spread it.
Assemble the cake:
90g pecan halves
Reserve 16 of the best pecan halves for decoration (this will use around 40g). Chop the remainder into small pieces.
Transfer the cake from the wire rack to whatever you’re going to serve the cake on: cake plate, board, tray or whatever.
With a long knife, slice the cake horizontally into two approximately equal parts. Take the top half off and set aside – I do this by sliding a plastic chopping mat between the two halves, sandwiching the top half between the mat and a wire rack and lifting it off.
Spread half the frosting over the bottom half. Scatter the chopped walnut pieces evenly across the cake.
Put the top half of the cake back into place.
Spread the remaining half of the frosting over the cake and decorate with remaining pecan halves, in whatever pattern takes your fancy.
It’s probably a good idea to chill the cake at this point, because the frosting really is quite liquid. Take it out of the refrigerator half an hour or so before serving.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, there have been calls for black history to be taught in our schools. I’m broadly in favour of this, but I’m unconvinced that it’s the most important step in the fight against racism: it’s all too easy for the racists to brush it off as “someone else’s story”.
To confront racism head on, I believe that the most important step is to teach the history of empire and colonialism the way it was, which includes not only white-on-black violence but also white-on-yellow, white-on-brown and white-on-white. Only in that way can we persuade children to repudiate the racist behaviour of our forebears at a time where they held supreme power over swathes of the globe.
Most Chinese remember the British Empire not for any of its beneficent qualities but for Opium Wars, in which we burnt down their capital to support our drug runners in the havoc they wrought on Chinese society. Many Indians remember us not for their railways but for the Salt Tax and the Amritsar Massacre; Ireland remembers us for the Potato Famine. And that’s without mentioning our genocides of the Aborigines or Maoris or our invention of the concentration camp during the Boer Wars.
Inasmuch as British imperialism is taught in schools, it tends to be in the context of “we may have done a few bad things, but we glorified our nation and brought good to the world”. This way of representing the past must no longer be permitted: from an early age, potential racists must be made to understand the consequences of the evil wrought in the days where racism was normality pure and simple. Racist instincts may be built into all of us in some shape or form, but the mark of a truly civilised society is the ability to overcome those instincts. And that starts with being taught that they are evil and have always been so. Humanity should trump glory every time.
By the way, it’s not like we British are uniquely dreadful in this. The Americans with their native population, the French in Algeria, the Belgians in Congo, the Spanish in South America, the Japanese in Korea – I find it hard to think of a rich nation that’s untainted and that has ceased to glorify these episodes in their murky past. Of course, it’s more comfortable to focus on the good things in our past and erase our misdeeds. But that’s not the way to fight the cancer of racism today.
It’s time for this blog to cross a few time zones and head to the Caribbean coast of South America. “Torta negra” is the go-to cake for family celebrations in Colombia, if the Internet is to be believed. It’s a fruit cake darkened by caramel (the name means “Black cake”) and it’s lighter in weight and darker in colour than a typical English fruit cake. On the basis of the recipe I started with, from Colombian expatriate Erica Dinho, Torta Negra is a lot less sweet than the average fruit cake over here – although this may vary, since it seems to be another of those bakes where every family has its own recipe.
Erica must have a large family or friendship group, because her recipe is for two substantial cakes at a time. I therefore started by halving her recipe; I’ve also turned the measurements into metric and the US names into English ones. That left the thorny question of the caramel: Erica recommends baker’s caramel or dulce quemado, neither of which I knew how to find (even in the foodie land of North London, where you really can get most things) or molasses, which make me nervous because they have a strong and distinctive flavour of their own which tends to overpower everything else. So I decided to go for making my own caramel, which is messy but not all that hard.
Since there’s a very long waiting time in the middle of this recipe, I’ve split the ingredient lists up according to stage.
Stage 1 – get some fruit macerating
120g pitted prunes
120g dried figs
120 ml port
60 ml rum
Chop up the prunes and figs, then put everything into a tightly sealed jar (I used a Kilner of the sort you use for making jam). Before sealing the jar, do your best to press the fruit down so that as little as possible pokes above the surface of the liquid.
Now leave the fruit to macerate for at least two weeks, turning it every few days to make sure that none of the fruit is simply drying out.
Stage 2 – make some caramel
If you do this immediately before starting to make your cake mix, it will be not too far off the right temperature to add to the mix: you don’t want the caramel to cool past its freezing point the second you add it to your mix, but you also don’t want it so hot that it’s baking the mix the moment it touches it. (By the way, this might be a good time to start preheating your oven, and to get your butter out of the fridge and softening).
15 ml water
15g butter (optional)
Choose a small stainless steel pan. Put in the sugar and water, mix thoroughly, and heat it up, fast at first and then more gently as you’re trying to find the right caramelisation point. It’s going to bubble furiously, but keep stirring it and you’ll eventually get to a point (around 175-180℃, if you have a sugar thermometer) where it turns very dark. Take it off the heat and add the butter and mix thoroughly (the only point of this is it keeps it a bit more liquid).
By the way, you’ll have way more caramel than you needed. When I had used what I neede for the cake, I poured the rest onto a sheet of baking paper: once it had cooled, I broke it up and kept in a jar for future use.
Stage 3 – mix your dry ingredients
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cloves
Mix all these together in a bowl.
Stage 4 – make your cake mix and bake
Grease a cake tin and line the base with baking paper. Mine worked fine on a 20cm diameter round springform tin, but I imagine you can use any shape you like.
250g butter, softened
6 medium to large eggs
½ tsp vanilla extract
Cream your butter and sugar together (I use a Kitchenaid stand mixer for this, but if you don’t have one, elbow grease and a wooden spoon works fine). Add the eggs, two at a time, mixing well at each stage. Add the vanilla extract and mix in. Next, put in your dry ingredient mixture and mix thoroughly: you don’t want lumps and you don’t want bits of dry raw flour.
Now add around 2 tbs of the caramel you made above. If you’ve left the caramel long enough for it to solidify, warm it up until it’s the consistency of toothpaste before trying this, or you’ll merely end up with shards of caramel through your mixture.
Take your macerated fruit out of its jar, giving it a squeeze so that you’re keeping as much as you can of the soaking liquid in the jar. Add the fruit to the cake mix and do your best to mix it evenly through the mix.
Put the mix into a tin and bake until the cake passes the usual test of a skewer poked into the middle coming out clean. Erica’s recipe says 1h45: mine was done in 1h15 in a 175℃ fan oven. Everyone’s oven is different, I guess – and I suppose hers might not be a fan oven.
Leave the cake to cool for 10 minutes or so, remove from the tin and leave to cool for another 10, then brush your remaining wine/port mix over the cake, letting it seep in.
Wrap the cake in cling film and foil, leave it to mature for a few days, and serve.
To end with: a few more of the usual in-process shots…
I would love to change our country and our world for the better. But there’s one overriding reason that I don’t go into politics: there are too many things that I think should be done that will never get taken up by any of our major political parties. So whether you agree or disagree with me, I’d love to hear from you.
The UK has a pensions problem. Everyone would agree that it’s a bad idea to let the elderly die in penury, and you have to go a very long way right to find someone who doesn’t think the state should play a part. But the level of the basic state pension is derisory (£4,566 per year in 2019, compared to a median pre-tax income of £29,400). At the same time, the cost of the old age pension is one of the biggest items of government spending – in 2019-20, it’s expected to be £101 billion or around 12% of total government expenditure (which is higher, for example, than education).
And it’s getting worse. People are living longer and requiring more money to be spent on their healthcare. Increased labour mobility has broken up families, destroying the model of multi-generational households and making it hard for people to care for elderly relatives who are now distant.
But there is little political agreement on what to do about it: in fact, there are hardly any ideas for a comprehensive solution. Rather, successive governments of all political flavours have provided a series of kludges: the Thatcher-era push towards private pension provision with “contracting out” and the “state earnings-related pension scheme”, the Blair-era “stakeholder pension schemes”, the “auto-enrolment” workplace pension system of the Cameron-Clegg coalition.
Each of these kludges has piled legislation upon legislation into the pension area. More regulation came about in response to scandals like Equitable Life (where a major pension provider became non-viable because it had not anticipated changes in the financial markets); more still resulted from the decreased trust in financial institutions in the wake of the 2007-8 global financial crisis. The result is a morass of complexity so great as to be almost totally impenetrable to the overwhelming majority of the population. To give you a flavour of how bad it is, here is a typical extract:
The trivial commutation rule will only apply to defined benefit schemes. This is because defined contribution benefits may be taken as an ‘Uncrystallised Funds Pension Lump Sum (UFPLS). You have to add all the benefit values of all types of pension (company pensions/personal pensions/stakeholder pensions/retirement annuities/buy-out plans, but not any state pension) together. If they do not exceed £30,000 trivial commutation may be a possibility. In addition, trivial commutation can apply from age 55, or earlier, if in ill-health.
Do you have the foggiest idea what this is talking about? Because I don’t. I’ve run multi-million pound businesses including subsidiaries of major public companies and I’ve done my own tax return and company VAT returns for years, which I figure puts me in the top 1% of financially literate people in the country. But when it comes to pension documentation, I don’t even come close to understanding enough to make a reasonable decision about anything. I currently have four pension schemes, none of them enormous, accumulated from different jobs. They all send me masses of mandated documentation, all of which is largely incomprehensible. I have no idea whatsoever how to manage these schemes wisely.
Many of the reforms, from Thatcher onwards, have been made in the name of giving consumer choice. But when consumers are utterly unequipped to make any kind of informed choice, that’s a nonsense. The official response to this is to suggest that you get professional financial advice, but that’s simply shifting the problem: consumers are equally unequipped to make a good choice of financial adviser. Take a look at a “find an independent financial adviser” page like this one: I defy you to give me a reliable set of grounds for working out which of these providers are any good.
My one good pensions experience has come not in the UK but in the 18 months that I worked in Singapore in the early 1980s. The system was really simple: I paid what felt at the time like an alarmingly high percentage of my salary into an account held in my name in the “Central Provident Fund”. Had I stayed in Singapore until retirement age, my pension would have been paid out from the fund (since I left the country, they paid out early).
I believe the UK should have a National Pensions Service: a single fund in which every individual has a named account, into which they make substantial contributions from an early age. Everyone should get the same investment return rate: the whole concept of consumer choice and the morass of documentation around it should be abandoned. The concept of a workplace pension should also be abandoned, getting rid of the massive risks for pension-holders of the bigger schemes and the recent onerous bureaucracy of auto-enrolment for small businesses.
This isn’t to say that the private financial services sector has no role to play. I have no problem with anyone being able to make private investments: I just don’t see why they should be subject to any special tax relief. And I also think there could be a role in the National Pensions Service for private investment managers: the NPS could parcel out chunks of the fund for management by private companies, who would tender for the work and would be assessed according to their performance. Their fees, however, should be a small fraction of the 1-2% of capital per year currently charged by the industry.
The level of contribution – and to what extent the state should top up the contributions of those at the lower end of the income scale – is a matter for the usual left-right political debate. But the principles are clear: (a) have a system where the investment returns are the same for everyone; (b) get rid of the titanic confusion levels; (c) get rid of the titanic waste of money currently expended in the financial institutions on management, marketing and compliance as well as on their own salaries and profits.
The transition plan would need a lot of attention (and is probably the hard part of all this). Most probably, a deadline would be set for people to migrate any private schemes to the new NPS, or face loss of their tax advantages – but a softer transition may be more viable.
Are you listening, UK political parties? In the Labour Party, are you too mired in the past glories of the workplace pension to countenance such an idea? In the Conservative Party, are you too much in bed with the Financial Services sector? Or are you both too timid to tamper with something that is so long term and won’t translate into an easy vote-catching slogan?