Chocolate Plum Cake

IMG_7560.jpg

We spent last week in Budapest, Hungary, and it was great. Budapest is like a budget version of Vienna, where all of the buildings are just as gorgeous but slightly abandoned and with just enough wabi-sabi that you feel like you're the first one to ever find them. Highlights of the trip included a lot of amazing Hungarian food (who knew?!) and some crazy 'acquired taste' kind of cocktails. My favourite food we tried was a chilled plum soup served with marzipan shavings and toasted cinnamon crumble, and the best drinks we had were apricot palinka (a grappa-type brandy) and Unicum Szilva, a bitter cordial aged in oak barrels lined with dried plums. Notice a theme? I think the reason I was so in love with the fruits, desserts, sweets and drinks in Hungary is because it just so happens that the fruits that grow best there are all stone fruits- my favourite kind. So when I got back to Edinburgh, the first order of business was making a cake inspired by all the amazing fruit I had in Budapest.

But, well, just when you thought I had officially gotten past the rubbish recipes in the Box, here we are with this cake. It's not a terrible cake. The crumb was silky soft, which went nicely with the smooth, intensely fruity/chocolatey flavour of the frosting. The issue is more that I don't think either the cake or the frosting were supposed to have those textures.

IMG_7552.jpg

Let's start at the beginning, shall we? In an effort to use up all the 'ingredients' in my pantry (you know, things like 'half a bag of cashews from making homemade cashew butter a month ago' or 'a handful of dried cherries leftover from some trail mix I made for our last long-haul flight'), I've been searching out weird recipes from the box and from my own cookbook collection. Last week this resulted in a massive success when I riffed on a Julia Child recipe to end up with a shallot, broccoli and roquefort quiche that used up my leftover frozen broccoli from this dip, some shallots about to go bad and the tiniest rind of roquefort that would otherwise have gotten... well, even stinkier in my fridge.

This week, it didn't. This time I had half of a bag of dried plums (read: prunes) that I bought for a recipe or cocktail or jam or something ages ago and was looking for a way to use them when I remembered a recipe for Chocolate Prune Cake with Prune Frosting in the Box. While they're not typical ingredients in many recipes these days, prunes have a decadent, sticky flavour like a date mixed with dried cherries, and I was excited to see how they'd taste in a chocolate cake.

IMG_7550.JPG

First issue: the recipe (for both the sponge and the frosting) called for strained prunes, something I didn't have, didn't know where to get and definitely had never tasted before to be able to attempt to make my own. So MY first step in making this was to make my own strained prunes...which I did by soaking the prunes in 1 part boiling water/1 part brandy until they were plump and soft, then blending the whole thing (liquid and all) in the food processor until it was smooth. Super boozy and fruity, the mixture turned out to be great spread on toast and we've been eating it like jam for breakfast the last few days.

But the flavour of the prunes didn't carry over into the cake- instead, it just tasted like Chocolate Raisin Cake and have we discussed before how much I hate raisins? I'm pretty sad about how this turned out, though I have a suspicion that the texture would have been perfect for rolling up to make a Swiss Roll, something that's been on my baking phobias list for ages... so maybe this will be the earliest version of a successful Swiss Roll yet to come.

The verdict:

3 spoons out of five. It wasn't an awful cake. If you like the taste of chocolate and raisins, you'd love this. But for me, it just didn't hit the spot. Those strained prunes, though? They're the jam, literally.

Two years ago: Corned beef sandwiches and continental salad

the recipe:

Chocolate Plum Cake

the directions:
cake:

Preheat oven to 175C/350F.
Line a 13x9-inch pan on bottom with paper, then set aside.
Beat egg whites until stiff, then set aside.
Cream shortening and sugar until light and fluffy, then add egg yolks and beat well.
Add prunes, cooled chocolate and vanilla and beat on low speed for 45 seconds.
Sift together dry ingredients, then add these to the chocolate mixture alternately with water.
Beat until smooth, then fold in egg whites.
Bake 12-15 minutes until a pick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Cool completely, then frost and decorate with walnuts.

 

Frosting:

In saucepan, mix sugar, prunes, chocolate, butter, milk and salt.
Bring to a boil and cook until a small amount of mixture forms a soft ball when dropped into very cold water.
Remove from heat, add vanilla extract, allow to cool then beat well before frosting cake.

the ingredients:
the cake:

2 eggs, separated
½ c shortening or Stork
1 c sugar
5 oz strained prunes (from 3 oz prunes plus 2 oz brandy and 2 oz very hot water, blitzed in food processor until smooth; use the extra in the frosting)
2 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
1 tsp vanilla
1 ¾ c flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 c warm water
½ c walnut halves for decorating

the frosting:

1 c sugar
¼ c strained prunes
2 oz unsweetened chocolate
2 tbsp butter
1/3 c milk
1/8 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla

Tangy Broccoli Dip & Philly Orange Dip

DSCF0671.jpg

When I was a teenager, the first kid I ever babysat was a three-year-old boy with a predilection for stripping his clothes off at a moment's notice and a passion for 'dip.' Only to him, any food that was liquid was dip. Syrup, salsa, ketchup, soup, honey, yoghurt and even some solids like cereal all qualified as dip, and his parents used this fascination to get him to eat anything he didn't otherwise want to eat. (Refuse to eat broccoli? Here's some cheese 'dip' for it and now Ben is loving it!). I adored that kid and recently realised he's now old enough to be out of college, so clearly I am an old lady.

In the spirit of that adorable kid, I present to you two pleasingly retro but still tasty dips: one savoury, perfect for spreading on crackers, toast points or veggies, and one sweet, great for dipping berries or other summer fruits. Also the sweet one is literally the only sweet dip I think I've ever tasted in my life, so chances are you've had it before, at least if you grew up in the US in the 1990s.

I had to go to four different grocery stores to find water chestnuts, but I persevered because they seemed like an integral part of a recipe I otherwise had my suspicions about, and I'm glad I powered through, because the water chestnuts provided a much-needed crunch to contrast the creamy smoothness of the dip.

(As a sidenote, why are water chestnuts so hard to find here in Scotland? Chinese restaurants have them, because they come in takeaways all the time so they're obviously not illegal, but my Tesco, Sainsbury's and ScotMid all don't carry them, so I had to go to Waitrose, the rich people grocery store, where I spent more than probably anyone ever should on the wee-est can of water chestnuts I've ever seen.)

DSCF0674.jpg
DSCF0678.jpg

I made these both for the same party recently, and the veggie dip was the biggest hit by far. The bread bowl was also a good decision- everyone at the party loved it, and by the end of the night the entire bread bowl and its contents was gone. And honestly, a bread bowl might be the most retro food this side of curly parsley, but I challenge you to find a serving vessel that easy that doubles as a snack in itself.

DSCF0713.jpg

The fruit dip, while tasty, was definitely the bigger letdown- I guess maybe as a grownup you just realise that fruit is sweet enough on its own and doesn't really need to be dressed up. It was still lovely, but I'd probably bypass it next time (unless I was working with off-season fruit that needed the extra bit of sweetness). Also, probably this is down to the weather, but when I mixed the ingredients as listed in the recipe, the dip was far too thick, so I added some additional orange juice, and by the time I served it, it was too runny to dip, leading to a last minute trip back out for more cream cheese to thicken it back up.

The verdict:
Broccoli Dip:

4 spoons out of five. Although if you were asking our party guests, I think they'd give it 5 spoons.

Orange Dip:

3 spoons out five. It was tasty, but given the issues listed above and the fact that I just feel like fruit doesn't need additional sweetness makes me think this dip was just unnecessary.

Two years ago: Wind Pudding

the recipe:

Tangy Broccoli Dip

the directions:

Cut slice from top of bread loaf, then scoop out bread from inside, leaving a crust at least 1-inch thick.
Cut bread removed from inside into slices or cubes and toast at 175C/350F until golden.
Combine cream cheese, yoghurt, mayonnaise and Tabasco, mixing until well-blended.
Stir in soup mix or spices, water chestnuts and broccoli.
Spoon into bread shell and serve with reserved bread pieces or crackers, and fresh veggies.

the ingredients:

1 round sourdough bread loaf
8 oz cream cheese, softened
1 c plain yoghurt
½ c mayonnaise
Dash of Tabasco (or, if you're in the US and have access, hot pepper sauce)
1 pkg vegetable soup mix (or, if you don't have this, then ¼ tsp of each of the following: salt, black pepper, dried garlic, garlic salt, dried parsley, dried chives, onion powder, dried dill)
8 oz water chestnuts, drained and chopped
10 oz frozen broccoli, chopped, thawed and drained
Radishes, cucumbers, carrots and celery for dipping

the recipe:

Philly Orange Dip

the directions:

Stir cream cheese, sugar, orange juice and zest together until well-blended.
Chill at least one hour before serving with fresh fruit.

the ingredients:

8 oz cream cheese, softened
3 tbsp sugar
¼ c orange juice
Zest from one orange, minced
Strawberries, pineapple, and melon for dipping

Florida Pie

I was born and raised in Florida. Eleanor spent the last half of her life in Florida. My parents spent their entire childhoods in Florida, and honestly, it's a place I still miss on days when I have to put on a scarf and a jacket to go outside in August.

When I was a kid, my parents would drive me around and point out subdivisions and shopping centres and parks around our central Florida town and tell me 'when I was your age, that was all orange groves' or 'when I was learning to ride a bike, that was a construction site and I wiped out on my bike trying to rescue a turtle from there.' As a kid, I did not care and was convinced all these stories made my parents ancient. But now I'm the same age my mom was when I was born, and every time I go back to that city, all I can see is places that used to be orange groves, and subdivisions that used to be swamps, and candy shops where my mom used to take me when I got a good report card.

Maybe Florida is special to me because it's stuck in a time warp since I haven't lived there since I was a kid, or maybe because it's so totally opposite of the city where I live now in climate and culture, but I really love visiting there: hanging out with my family, eating all the seafood I can get my hands on and swimming in the Gulf of Mexico until my fingers are prune-y and my manicure has all but chipped off.

When we had the chance to visit and stay at my family's house on the beach for a week in July, we were excited. A friend of ours from Atlanta who happens to be from the same town came down to stay with us, and we filled our days with sunshine and beach time and our nights with seafood and rainbow-coloured cocktails. Highlights included drinking the most incredibly expensive martinis at the Don Cesar, an all-pink super-fancy Art Deco hotel down the street from our beach house, finding starfish and sand dollars and a whole load of conch shells at Fort DeSoto when the tide was out, eating ice cream from The Candy Kitchen and most of all, visiting Universal Studios and Disney World- you know, all the things you do on a Florida vacation if you're a proper tourist. We finished the trip physically exhausted but mentally rejuvenated, hungover and in need of some green vegetables and lots of hydration, but so happy to have gotten to see many of the people we love most in the world.

Crackers can be broken by hand to the size demonstrated here- you want a mixture of small pieces that will blend into the meringue and slightly larger pieces to provide a salty crunch.

Crackers can be broken by hand to the size demonstrated here- you want a mixture of small pieces that will blend into the meringue and slightly larger pieces to provide a salty crunch.

Lumpy meringue base straight out of the oven.

Lumpy meringue base straight out of the oven.

The only downside of living away from the country where we grew up is that our friends are split up all over the globe. Coming back to Edinburgh was bittersweet- bitter to leave some of our best friends but sweet to come back to our adorable dog, our lovely flat and all of our friends here in Scotland.

So of course, my first order of business whenever I'm feeling a little homesick is to head into the kitchen- and this time I knew exactly what I'd make: Florida Pie. This recipe sparked my interest when I came across the handwritten card two years ago as I sorted through the Recipe Box, but it wasn't until I sat down to make it last week that I actually read the ingredients. I anticipated loads of citrus would be included- a tart grapefruit curd or a bright lime custard... or maybe it would be an icebox pie layered with ice cream and meringue, something cold and frozen and perfect to eat after a day in the hot sun. Imagine my surprise when I realised there was no fruit in this recipe, and instead it was just a basic meringue with nuts and Ritz crackers (or, over here, Tuc crackers because good luck finding Ritz in Bruntsfield) mixed in? I was horrified, but it was too late to go back now; I had already decided to make it.

But then something wondrous happened: this pie was incredible. I know I've been on a roll of recipes lately that I assume will be gross and I tell you how weird they are and then I have to spend a whole blog post trying to convince you they are tasty, but this time you're not only listening to my opinion- you're listening to the opinion of all the coworkers who tasted this pie and were equally into it. It's the perfect combination of salty-sweet, crisp and fluffy, and it's served cold- perfect for a summertime dessert. Maybe it is more Florida than I realised.

The verdict:

5 spoons out of five. I would make this again right now if I had any more Tuc crackers to hand.

two years ago: Simple, Classic Cheesecake

the recipe:

Florida Pie

the directions:

Preheat oven to 175C/350F.
Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form.
Add sugar and baking powder gradually and continue blending until glossy and smooth.
Gently fold in vanilla, crackers and nuts until of uniform consistency.
Spoon into a 9-inch round pie plate and gently smooth the top.
Bake for 20 minutes until crisp.
Remove from oven and allow to cool completely at room temperature.
Once cool, beat whipping cream (and optionally 1 tbsp powdered sugar and additional tbsp vanilla) until fluffy.
Top meringue with whipping cream and refrigerate overnight before serving.

the ingredients:

3 egg whites
1 c sugar
½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla
18 plain Tuc crackers or 20 Ritz crackers, crushed
1 c pecans, roughly chopped
1 c whipping cream
Optional: 1 tbsp powdered sugar and 1 additional tbsp vanilla