what the fig?

The first time I tried figs I thought that they were the worst. I was at university and my mum included a packet of dried figs in a package she sent me because she knew they were disgusting and thought it would be funny. Thanks Mum, happy Mother’s Day.

Years later, when I had put this trauma behind me and built up the courage to try figs again (fresh this time), I was shocked to discover that I had been giving them a bad rap for far too long. They are really unlike anything I had ever tasted before; a perfect balance of nectary sweetness while still seeming wholesomely savoury.

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In this part of the world they can be a bit pricey so I have always been a little reluctant to experiment with them but went out for dinner s few weeks ago and had the most incredible baked figs that I could resist giving them a go in my own kitchen.

This is a great dish and so versatile! You can serve it as a snack, a starter or even a dessert, and it looks beautiful!

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Slice as many fresh figs as you like in half, I would say about two per person as a constraint against over-indulging. I’m still not a fan of measuring anything properly so this recipe is really measured in pinches and dashes. Top with a tiny dollop of butter, an equal amount of honey and a sprinkle of sugar and cinnamon. Admire their beauty and take in the scent of the flavours melding together.

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Bake at 180°C for 15 to 20 minutes – it really depends on the ripeness of the fruit you’re using but in my opinion, this is a prime example of when the saying ‘low and slow’ applies.

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A couple of minutes before I took my oozing little beauties out of the oven, I topped each with a tiny ball of goats cheese – it adds a savoury element to make it not-just-a-dessert food and the chèvre compliments the honey and cinnamon oh so well.

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The one problem I find with these bite-sized morsels is how moreish they are – I honestly believe I could eat my bodyweight in them!

 

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what i ate for christmas

Now that Christmas is done and dusted, we can all get back to blogging.  But first,  I need to get back into the habit of knowing what day of the week it is.

So before I do anything that strenuous, and before I got into any such detail of my Christmas creations, I will leave you with a little teasing taster of what’s to come..

Breakfast begun with champagne and toast; I know that you’re thinking toast doesn’t really constitute a fanciful meal. It does when the array includes walnut and date conserve, confit duck, gorgonzola, roasted tomatoes and honeyed ricotta.

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The afternoon meal included a lemon-crusted lamb rack beside a bundle of home-grown new potatoes. These were accompanied by a fresh, zingy salsa verde and pungent olive tapenade. Rounding out the meal with a salad of roast butternut, crunchy spiced almonds and creamy homemade feta and button mushrooms stuffed with blue cheese. Safe to say, we were all in dire need of a nap afterwards.

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The day ended with chocolate-coated strawberries, salted caramel chocolate tart and muffin puddings. All while sipping fresh, minty limoncello cocktails.

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All in all, a fun, relaxed day in the sun, lying by the pool and gorging ourselves on chocolates… all without anyone throwing a plate or any other object at another family member… this year.

christmas countdown: stollen

The meaning of Christmas varies depending on where you are in the world. I’m not just talking about the way you celebrate it, or what it means to you – spiritually or otherwise. In every corner of the world, Christmas varies on all sensory levels; the way to looks, tastes and sounds, and the way it smells.

In New Zealand, a typical Christmas is a barbeque of sizzling sausages and an ice cold beer in the evening sun. On the flipside, my Christmases in France revolved around roasted goose and mulled wine, Christmas sweaters and staring out the window at the dreary, grey gloom. I know which one I prefer but here is something about a winter Christmas that is leaps and bounds ahead of the antipodes in festivity.

And that is the Christmas smells.

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This year I have found myself craving those warm, comforting smells; cinnamon, cloves, pine needles and ginger. Instead of brewing up a batch of mulled wine – which I didn’t think would go well with the temperature in the mid-twenties, I decided to try my hand at making stollen.

Stollen is a dense, festive bread from Germany, it is full of nuggets of sweetness and all of the flavours, textures and emotions associated with Christmas. Traditionally made with almonds, candied fruit and lemon zest, I decided to mix things up a bit by substituting in cashews, crystalized ginger and dried citrus peel.

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First things first, you need to get your dried fruit nice and drunk. I mixed a cup of raisins and a cup of candied ginger and fruit peel, chopped, with three tablespoons of Pimm’s – or orange juice if you’re not one for baking with booze. You could also use rum but I like the rich, fruity undertones of Pimm’s and use it in cooking often.

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Next up is the yeasty sponge; combine a tablespoon of yeast powder with ¼ cup of warm water, ¾ cup of warm milk, a teaspoon of clover honey and a cup of flour. Mix into a thick paste, cover with cling film and leave the yeast to do its thing. If your house isn’t too warm, then sit the bowl next to a heater for 30 minutes or until the surface of the mixture is speckled with bubbles.

In a separate bowl, whisk one egg and combine with ¼ cup of honey, ½ cup of butter and a pinch of salt. Toast ½ cup of chopped cashew nuts and add to the mixture, along with ½ teaspoon of nutmeg and 2 cups of flour.

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Add the yeast mixture and the boozy fruit and combine into a thick, wet dough. Slowly add another 1 ½ cup of flour until the dough isn’t so sticky. Knead for five minutes of a floured surface.

Once the dough has come together, roll it in a little vegetable oil and leave to rise. What I hate about so many bread recipes is that it always says the dough will double in size; mine never does and it makes me nervous for the end product. Nervous without cause, in fact.

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Divide the dough in half and roll into flat ovals. Brush the surfaces with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. I used granulated sugar, but you could use icing sugar or even a layer of marzipan. Fold the ovals over on themselves and knit the edges together, making sure no air is trapped inside and the seams are tightly secured so they don’t rip open in the oven like one of mine did!

Leave to rise for another 45minutes before baking at 190°C for 25 minutes.

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As soon as you take the loaves out of the oven, baste them again in melted butter and dust with a thick layer of icing sugar which will melt and be absorbed into the breads outer crust. Delicious!

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Serve it hot as it is, or cold next to a steaming cup of coffee. On the rare chance you have anything left past a day or two, smear each side of a thick slice in butter and pan-fry until crisp and golden. A decadent, toasty holiday treat!

salted caramel chocolate brownie tart

Since we are in December now, it’s totally okay to start talking about Christmas, and by that, I mean what we are all planning to eat on Christmas. In my family I am put in charge of the menu each year and the pressure to start planning is applied as early as September.

Even though I like to use Christmas as a time to experiment with new recipes, I know there is a lot riding on everything coming off as a success. Desserts are always the area that make me the most anxious – it’s not as easy to wing it with something that requires a strict set of ingredients, so I decided to do a test run of my planned salted caramel chocolate brownie tart.

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The name of this recipe is a bit of a mouthful, and it’s just as much of a process making it – a chocolate biscuit base, a layer of gooey caramel topped with a rich, dark chocolate brownie and glazed with a layer of even richer chocolate ganache.

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I adapted a recipe from the Akaroa Cooking School and used a sweet pastry base for my test run because I had some I needed to get rid of and wasn’t sure if all of the chocolate was going to be a sensory overload.

While the pastry was blind baking, I heated a can of condensed milk with 75grams of butter and several tablespoons of honey. I also added a teaspoon of sea salt because I love that salty juxtaposition. Once the butter was melted and the condensed milk had morphed several shades darker, I poured it over top of the base and baked for 10 minutes at 170°C. The caramel comes out another shade darker and had thickened nicely.

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While the caramel was cooking I got started on the brownie – 150grams of melted butter, ½ cup of cocoa powder, ¾ cup of sugar combined to a thick paste. I whisked in two eggs and folded through a cup of flour, a pinch of salt and another of baking powder. This makes a rather thick mixture and since I want it to pour evenly over the caramel layer, I might thin it with a bit of water next time.

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I popped it back into the oven for another 20 minutes before leaving it to cool.

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The ganache is simple enough; ½ cup of warm cream and 200grams of dark chocolate poured over the cooled brownie and refrigerated until set.

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This slice of heaven is definitely a chocolate lover’s fantasy, and while the pastry base is a nice touch I think I will be making a chocolate base come Christmas time – in my mind, you can never have too much chocolate!

 

aquafaba meringues (how the internet lied)

I am not one for ‘health foods’ or self-enforced dietary ‘requirements’, I steer clear from trendy health regimes and stick to food that just tastes good. But I recently stumbled across a fad that was just too intriguing to pass by – aquafaba.

I know that it sounds a little like a low-impact form of exercise for senior citizens, but aquafaba is actually the salty, gelatinous brine that chickpeas are stored in. I have often pondered at how to use it; I attempt to be as zero waste as possible and chickpea brine was the one thing that I couldn’t find an appropriate use for. Cue vegan meringues…

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Aquafaba meringues are a great example of why you shouldn’t believe everything that the internet tells you; after scrolling through countless pictures of cute little tarts topped with crisp and egg-free meringue, I thought I was on to a fool proof new dessert. It appears I was wrong.

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First step – drain the liquid off of a can of chickpeas and eat the chickpeas for lunch. Next, whisk the brine until it forms firm peaks, like you would if you were making meringue in an ordinary universe. Surprisingly, it works – and as the liquid plumps up with air bubbles, the salty flavour seemingly evaporates.

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Whisk through ¾ cup of sugar and a pinch of baking soda until the sugar has dissolved and the meringue is nice an firm. Spoon dollops onto a tray of baking paper and bake for 30 minutes at 140°C. Or so they say…

I opened my oven, hoping to see a tray of crunchy white globes. Instead, I was greeted with this:

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A tray of sticky sugar syrup, amber in colour and bubbling at the surface. I don’t know if I hadn’t beaten the aquafaba long enough, or hadn’t added enough sugar. Maybe it can only be used like Italian meringue, or maybe the internet had lied to me. If anyone can help me with my vegan-induced dilemma, I am all ears!

speculoos – belgian spice cookies

What I love about travelling is how easy it is to carry on dreaming about the holiday long after it has finished; flicking through an album of photos on a rainy day, recreating dishes in your own home, or getting really desperate and taking a tour through a city on street view on Google Maps.

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My first trip when I arrived in Europe was to Brussels, where I discovered the magic that is speculoos – a bronze coloured treasure that I was delighted to find, accompanied almost any cup of coffee ever served in France. They were so readily available that it never occurred to me that I was more than capable of giving them a whirl in my own kitchen.

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I am happy to announce that I have since remedied this problem.

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Speculoos, also known as Belgian Spice Cookies, are dark caramel in colour, sweet and gingery in flavour and brittle in texture. Describing them almost as a crunchy piece of gingerbread may not be the most glamourous of definitions, but it is certainly the most accurate. The perfect consistency for dunking into a cup of coffee or steaming hot chocolate, they are also decorated with the cutest little pictures.

For this recipe, you will need:

  • 2 cups of flour
  • 3 teaspoons of cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon of ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon of nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon of allspice (or you could use ground cloves)
  • ½ teaspoon of salt
  • ¼ teaspoon of baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon of baking soda
  • 1 cup of butter
  • ½ cup of white sugar
  • ¼ cup of raw sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla

I know it sounds like a bucket load of ingredients but that’s all part of the punch of flavour that comes hand in hand with these biscuits!

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Begin by sifting the flour with the spices, baking soda, baking powder and salt. In a larger bowl cream the butter with the two sugars and vanilla extract. Even though I have used raw sugar here, you can use brown sugar if you wanted; it will give it a smoother finish but I like them a little granulated for extra crunch.

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Gradually combine the dry ingredients with the creamed butter until you have dough that is soft, yet firm. As with any dough mixture; if it’s too dry, add a bit of water; and if it’s too wet, add a bit more flour. You shouldn’t have this problem because it is almost saturated with butter, keeping it smooth and silky.

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Form into a ball, wrap in Clingfilm and refrigerate from at least an hour.

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On a layer of baking parchment, roll your dough into a thin, flat rectangle. For a nice finishing touch, roll over the layer with a patterned rolling pin (aren’t these so cool?!)

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Baking at 175°C for 25 minutes, the dough will still be soft and spongey when it comes out – don’t continue baking it! It will harden as it cools down, and it’s at a perfect consistency to slice into squares with a pizza cutter (or a knife, should that be easier).

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Enjoy with a cup of coffee at break, or after lunch, or as an afternoon pick-me-up. Perfect for a bit of happiness when the weather is grey and dreary.

boysenberry and peppermint sorbet

How to make ice-cream without an ice-cream maker” is one of my most common Google searches. I love ice-cream, I could eat it every day and often do. Because of its relatively similar content to a glass of milk and a bowl of fresh fruit, I have no objection to eating ice-cream for breakfast. My one problem, something that has haunted me for years, is that I can’t make it myself. I know that they say you can leave a tub of fruit and cream in the freezer and store every 10 minutes for an hour to break up the ice crystals, but I just don’t think it’s the same. You aren’t going to get that smooth, creamy texture not will it be as light and fluffy as anything you can buy. I was stumped.

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As much as I rejoiced when I discovered how to make an ice-cream-esque substitute out of frozen bananas, I didn’t want to limit myself to just one flavour. I didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on an ice-cream machine (or increase my dairy intake by 3000%), but I didn’t have an alternative to satisfy my ubiquitous cravings.

By the grace of god, or by pure accident, I made sorbet and it couldn’t have been easier! You may recall my recent cake catastrophe involving a large quantity of Italian meringue; the silver lining of that puffy raincloud of sugar was the leftover meringue. Not only is it delicious and very tempting to eat by the spoonful, it is also an excellent base to sorbet.

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The hardest part was already done; all I had to do was decide how to flavour it. Peppermint is an interesting and difficult flavour to pair anything with – you want to avoid creating something that tastes like toothpaste, but you don’t have to overpower the fresh, warming sensation of the mint. I opted to boysenberries – they are tart and tangy; a nice compliment to the sweetness of the meringue, but they also possess a freshness of their own that I thought would work alongside the peppermint beautifully.

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For each egg white of meringue, you want at least one cup of fruit puree. Because I had two egg white worth of meringue before I lathered my cake with it, I wanted about two cup’s worth of stinging purple boysenberry gloop – the equivalent of 500grams of frozen boysenberries. I whizzed them up in the food processor and stirred through 120mls of sugar syrup. Done.

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Upon combining the meringue and the berries, I left the tub in the freezer to set and thicken. Unlike ice-cream, it doesn’t really need to be stirred to break the ice crystals – it pays to if you want it nice and smooth, but you can run a spoon through the shiny purple icebergs just before serving and it will still be perfect.

The flavour combination is a match made in heaven; with each mouthful I was greeted with the raw freshness of the fruit, followed by the sweetness of the meringue, rounded out by a lancing hit of the peppermint – a whole meal in a single mouthful. Silky and smooth, dotted with bursts of boysenberry seeds, I was amazed at just how creamy it was, especially because it is actually dairy-free!

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Now that I know just how easy it is to make sorbet, the world is my oyster; I am unstoppable in my quest for ice-cream domination!

peppermint chocolate cake – an experiment with italian meringue

Recently, a friend of mine and I decided that it would be a good idea to establish a local chapter of the Clandestine Cake Club but following my recent botched attempts at cake-making, I thought it wise to give myself a little more practice before unleashing any more of my creations onto the general public. I was also recently gifted a bottle of peppermint syrup. These two mutually exclusive factors coincided over the weekend into a chocolate sponge cake with peppermint meringue icing. I can now say that I will never be making Italian meringue ever again.

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The cake itself turned out rather well, aside from forgetting to add any baking powder to the batter. I actually think I prefer it without too much spring, the batter still comes out light and fluffy; pillowy like a sponge cake but not as aerated – it still feels substantial as you sink your teeth into it. Unlike the last attempt at sponge cake, the sea of pots and pans that is my kitchen cupboards parted to reveal the electric mixer, which makes beating together eggs, flour, sugar and butter easy and breezy. I definitely recommend it.

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The failures began with the cake icing. For starters, I didn’t have any icing sugar so I wasn’t able to make a standard icing. Instead, I opted for an Italian meringue icing because I could use regular sugar to make syrup and I like how it spreads like a thick layer of cloud.

Whisk one egg white to firm peaks, soft peaks won’t cut it and you will end up whisking for what seems like days. I added a teaspoon of vanilla essence and a tablespoon of peppermint syrup.

Heat 200grams of sugar with a ¼ cup of water to make a boiling simple syrup. Once it is as clear as glacier water and looks like molten glass, it’s ready. One of the (only) draw cards of Italian meringue is that there is no need to cook it, so you need the syrup to be terrifyingly hot to cook the egg whites. The heat also gives the egg fluff that little shock it needs to puff up nicely.

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I thought that was the final step; ready to lather over my perfect chocolate circle. Not the case. The meringue needs to be whipped until room temperature; by getting as much air into it as possible we get the fluffiest, smoothest result. This result is not achievable in less than 15 minutes, by which stage my arm was numb and my kitchen was covered in pale flecks of meringue from each time I lost control of the beater.

What an ordeal. And after all of my struggle, I realised that I had far too much meringue – out of fear of having too little, I doubled the recipe. Isn’t it always the way?

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Luckily for me, it freezes well and coincidently makes a great base for sorbet… watch this space!

crystalized ginger

Another sporadic post.

You may have noticed my lack of consistency lately, it’s because of a couple of things; I am back in New Zealand and I am in the midst of rehearsing and performing in a show.

A show that involves me descending from the roof with my head pointing towards the ground in a rather artistic tumbling fashion.

While I am sure this visual spectacle is awe-inspiring for the audience, for me it induces a different sensation – one of mild motion sickness.

Which brings me to today’s kitchen experiment; candied ginger.

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There have been many occasions when, as a child, I have been out in boats – whale watching or visiting close offshore islands, where the inconsistent bobbing of the dark blue swells has upset my stomach just enough to have me hanging over the side of the boat, silently praying to be standing on solid ground. My prayers were never immediately answered but we were always given sugary gingernut biscuits to crunch on while we sipped syrupy cordial.

Candied ginger has this same effect, it is a lot more practical while flipping through the heavens, and makes a great decoration. On top of that, it is so simple to make!

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To begin, thinly slice as much ginger as you like, I made a rather large stash because I knew I would need it in bulk. The internet does say that it will keep for about six months, so there is no need to worry about it going to waste, but if you are planning on using it solely for decorative purposes, you may not feel the need to go all-out like I did.

A mandolin could come in handy for this task, but it probably won’t. I think mandolins are the most overrated kitchen utensil (followed closely by a potato peeler) and I prefer to slice it with a sharp knife, the results will have the same accuracy. Weigh the ginger (or make an educated guess), measure out an equal quantity of sugar and set aside for later.

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Add to a saucepan with just enough cold water to cover the ginger, bring to the boil and simmer until the water is all but reduced – this should take about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom, and because I cannot be near a boiling pot without the urge to stir it overcoming me.

Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Leave it to simmer for another 20 to 30 minutes. Drain off any excess sugar syrup – it is lovely and sweet, and infused with the ginger’s flavour so don’t let it go to waste, I swirled mine through a tub of softened vanilla ice cream. Delicious!

Place on a tray of baking paper and sprinkle with a bit more sugar. Leave your ginger slithers to dry overnight, I rotated mine after a few hours and placed them in a hot oven that I had just turned off to give them a bit of encouragement.

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They are sweet and chewy, with just enough crunch. It’s a great high-energy snack, and even though it’s also high in sugar, I don’t need to worry about overindulging because of the subtle spiciness which means I don’t even feel like eating more than a couple of pieces at once.

today i made a cake

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I get this burning desire to bake a cake. And that is what happened today.

I enjoy eating cake as much as the next person, probably more. Even though I am completely adequate at making them myself, my experimentations don’t always work out. I don’t think they even equate to failure, more often I would describe it as a lack of success. Delicious as it was, my latest cake lacked the finesse and technical completion that I was ideally after.

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Oftentimes my cake’s shortcomings occur because of my lack of discipline with my measuring cups, but this time it was a prime example of my ideas not being totally thought through from the get-go. I was trying to get creative with the simple concept of a Victoria sponge cake. Fluffy clouds of sunshine yellow batter cut in half by a thick layer of sweet cream and crimson strawberry jam, elegantly topped off with a dusting of icing sugar. What could be better?! I thought my idea was going to be better; I wanted to replace the layer of cream with a layer of meringue.

I hate cutting a cake in half to add the centre; I brilliantly decided to bake the meringue in between two layers of cake batter and safe myself some time.

Here’s how it played out.

The whole event was a bit of a trial – to begin with I couldn’t find my electric beater. Even though sponge is so light and fluffy when its cooked, the batter is unusually dense and I had a very difficult time incorporating the butter into the sugar and flour with an old-fashioned beater – a task similar to mixing cement with a wooden spoon. I fought back tears and curse words, and gave up at least twice before I was ‘happy’ with the batter. And then I moved on to the meringue with as much positivity as I could muster.

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I love making meringue, even when I have to use a hand-held beater; I love watching the egg whites fluff up and adding the sugar teaspoon by teaspoon makes it seem like there isn’t that much sugar going into it. As I added the final dash of sugar and a whisper of vanilla, a new sense of optimism had been whipped into me. That feeling didn’t last long.

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After smearing the bottom of my cake tin with half of the sponge batter, I topped it with the meringue and dotted it with flecks of blood-red jam. It was at this precise moment, as I stood there admiring the how smooth and plump my meringue layer was, that I put two and two together – I was about to cover my meringue, silky and light, with this thick and heavy cake mix.

Gravity is a thing that we have known about for centuries; what goes up must come down and all that jazz. Like a multi-coloured cocktail, a heavier substance will sink to the bottom of a lighter one. I almost lost it as I watched the top layer of cake getting swallowed up into a pure white sea of sugar. I baked it anyway.

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It was edible, it was delicious, it was not at all what I had wanted to create. The base was light and spongey, bright yellow from all of the egg yolks that I had used and the top was sweet and crunchy. It was kind of like a spongey, jammy version of my meringue cake, funny that!

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Even though the main event was a bit of a fail, each component worked relatively well, here are the recipes I used:
1 cup of self-raising flour
1 cup of diced, slightly warmer than room-temperature butter
1 cup of sugar
2 eggs and 2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon of baking powder

2 egg whites and 1/2 of a cup of sugar made more than enough meringue. Because of the meringue, the cooking time was longer than a usual sponge – 40 minutes at 170°C as opposed to 20 minutes normally.