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Lamingtons

In years gone by I had traditionally written about something from Scotland in honour of Burns Night which falls on 25 January. This year I thought I’d do things a little differently. As Australia Day falls on 26 January, how about something Antipodean instead?

If we’re doing Australian, it just has to be lamingtons. This is not a cake that I see very often, even in a city like London with a decent Aussie population, but I do remember seeing them on Neighbours when I was young and being introduced to the concept of the “lamington drive”. This involved making and then selling lots of these little cakes, and it was pretty much the way of raising money for a good cause. From what I knew, they were pieces of sponge, dipped in chocolate icing and coated in coconut.

They were apparently named either for Lord Lamington, who served as Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901, or after his wife, the surprisingly named Lady Lamington. You can understand why they used his title when looking for a cake name, as his full name (Charles Wallace Alexander Napier Cochrane-Baillie) didn’t really trip of the tongue.


So I set about making a batch of lamingtons. First question: is there some single authentic recipe for making them? It would seem not. There are various different recipes for the sponge (such as genoise, Victoria or pound cake) and chocolate glaze ideas range from a smooth proper ganache to something sweeter and more obviously icing-like. I ignored suggestions to use pink icing on the basis I never saw the Robinson household or anyone else in Ramsay Street making them that way.

I settled on genoise, but then had to decide if I would try to make a deep cake and cut it into pieces, or would I try to include some jam element? Again, I don’t remember seeing jam on Neighbours but I think the right tangy, fruity jam is a good complement to sweet chocolate icing. I decided to make one large thin sheet of cake, which I would cut in two and sandwich the pieces together with apricot jam. That decision was based on what I had in the cupboard, but I think anything that has some sharpness to it would work well, such as raspberry or blackcurrant jam. Something more muted like strawberry would just add more sweetness but no contrast, but if that’s what you like, then go for it.


Many of the recipes that I did see suggested not using cake which was very fresh – you want the cake to be ever so slightly stale (whatever that means) and apparently this was best done but wrapping the cake in cling film and letting it sit in the fridge overnight. I’m not sure whether this really made a difference, or just ensured that the cake really was properly cooled, but it did cut neatly and cleanly into pieces. Given you will be glazing these guys and rolling them in coconut, neat slicing is not really that important as icing can cover a multitude of sins, but I was happy that the pieces didn’t just start falling apart. I took this as a good sign for when I was going to ice them.


For the glaze, I quickly discounted the idea of a ganache. While I have not been to Australia (yet), it is fair to assume it is a warm place for most of the time, and so it would be rather daft to make a cake with an icing that would melt easily in warm weather. So the icing I came up with is made from a warm mixture of milk, butter, dark chocolate and cocoa powder to which you add the icing sugar, then keep the lot warm over a pan of hot water. This keeps the icing smooth and makes it easier to coat the cakes, but then it will set fairly quickly after you’ve rolled the cakes in coconut. While most recipes use just cocoa powder, I also added some dark chocolate to the icing which seemed to help get a good colour and flavour.

The actual glazing process was quite fun – not something I would want to attempt in a hurry, and the first couple of lamingtons took a bit of time to get right. I found it easiest to gently drop one into the icing, then used a spoon to pour glaze over the cake. Once it is coated, you just slip a fork underneath, then allow the extra icing to drizzle off the cake. Then comes the fun part – you need to quickly transfer the cake onto the desiccated coconut, which you have on a large plate right next to you. Then you have to use your hands to form a coconut mountain around the cake, and press it a bit so the coconut sticks to the glaze. Then you need to flip the lamington over, so that all sizes are covered, and then move it to a wire rack. And all the while, the glaze is a bit soft, so you will probably have to fix the shape a bit with your fingers so it looks presentable. After you have done a few of them, you’ll defiantely develop a “lamington technique”.


And speaking of coconut…I was not sure if I should use plain or sweetened coconut for this recipe, so I bought both types. As this is a traditional recipe, I thought it might be made with the sweeter stuff, but to be sure, I tested them both before using them, and this taste test told me that the sweetened coconut was not right. Yes, it was softer and seemed more tender, but it had a rather peculiar aftertaste that I did not like at all – and then I checked the ingredients, it turned out it was just 65% coconut. All that apparent “tenderness” was coming from propylene glycol. I’m not a Luddite, and looked into what this was – it’s safe for food (which I would hope, since it was in that coconut!) but the impact on the flavour meant it was going nowhere near my lamingtons, but straight in the bin. Back to good old-fashioned unsweetened desiccated coconut we went! If you want to try something a bit different, you could toast the coconut, but that’s as far as I would go. You could use chopped nuts if you’re not a coconut fan, but then I think you’re veering away from what a true lamington is.

Finally, I should say that my recipe basically recommends you have a whole packet of coconut on a plate for dipping, but you won’t use all of it. I just think that you’ll struggle to get a good finish if you try to use less, so don’t be puzzled if you have lots left over after your icing escapades.

And how were they? I was all prepared for them to be a bit naff, but I must confess I really liked them. The cake, the set-but-soft icing, the coconut and the jam come together into a really lovely cake. They also looked great piled up high on a plate, so I will definitely be making these again. And not just for 26 January!

To make Lamingtons (makes 16)

For the sponge:

• 2 large eggs
• 100g white caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 100g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 60g butter, melted and cooled
• 130g tangy jam (apricot, raspberry, blackcurrant…)

For the icing

• 120ml whole milk
• 30g unsalted butter
• 50g dark chocolate

• 50g cocoa powder
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• generous pinch of salt
• 450g icing sugar
• extra milk, to thin the icing

To finish

• 250g desiccated coconut

1. Start wit the sponge. Preheat the oven to 180˚C (350˚F). Line a 20 x 30cm tray with greaseproof paper.

2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a low heat. Put to one side to cool. In a bowl, combine the flour and baking powder and mix well. Set aside.

3. Put the eggs, sugar and vanilla into a large bowl. Beat with an electric whisk until pale, thick and fluffy (around 3-4 minutes). Gently fold in the flour mixture using a spatula. Finally add the melted butter and gently fold it into the mixture. Pour the batter into the prepared tin and gently level off the mixture as best you can.

4. Bake the cake for 15-20 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven and cover with a tea towel. Allow to cool completely, then cover with film and refrigerate overnight.

5. The next day, time to prepare the sponge. Cut the cooled cake sheet in half. Spread one piece with jam, then place the other piece on tip. Leave to rest for an hour so that the jam holds the two layers together.

6. Cut the cake into pieces – trim the edges with a sharp knife to get good, clean edges. Now cut into 4 equal strips, and cut each strip into 4 pieces. They should end up roughly cube shaped.

7. Make the icing. Put the milk, butter, chocolate, cocoa powder, vanilla and salt into a medium saucepan, and heat gently until the butter and chocolate have melted. It will become very thick. Add the icing sugar, and beat vigorously until smooth.

8. Transfer the icing to a bowl, and balance it above a pan of warm water (this will keep the icing warm, and it should set more quickly when coating the lamingtons). Now check the icing consistency – you will need to add more milk to get it to a smooth but thick icing which pours easily – you don’t need much though, I only added a further 3 teaspoons of milk.

9. Tip the coconut onto a large plate.

10. Time to decorate. Drop a piece of the sponge into the icing, then use a spoon to coat it with the glaze. When done, put a fork underneath, lift it up and allow excess icing to drop off. Wipe the base of the cake on the edge of the bowl, then transfer it into the coconut. Coat it in the coconut, then transfer to a wire rack and leave to set (allow 30 minutes).

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Scottish Food: Dundee Cake

We might be in the New Year, with all manner of good resolutions, but this is a recipe that I really could not resist posting. We’re about to hit Burns Night, when there are celebrations of Scotland’s most famous poet up and down the land. And yes, that’s him on my header, along with a few lines from one of his most famous poems Tam O’Shanter, a cautionary tale about drinking too much and the ghouls and spirits that a man might see in the wee hours.

As part of this celebration of Scottishness, I thought I would have a go at making something that comes from near to where I grew up, the Dundee Cake. This is a rich fruit cake that is most notable for how it is decorated – concentric circles of whole almonds are arranged on top of the cake before baking, which will toast gently as the cake bakes.

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As with all good cakes, there are various stories about who created it and the right way to make it.

Some stories say that Mary, Queen of Scots did not care for cherries, and Dundee Cake was created as a version of fruitcake that did not contain them. This may or may not be true, but I think this is a bit boring, and besides, I quite like cherries in cakes, so I’m not convinced.

The version of the story that I subscribe to is that this was created by the Keiller family in Dundee in the late 1700s. They are famous as the founders of the first commercial brand of marmalade, said to have been the result of a flash of inspiration when a boatload of Seville oranges arrived in the port and they were perhaps a little past their best. In a flash of inspiration, Janet Keiller turned the lot into marmalade, and a legend was born. The Keillers are also famous as bakers of the Dundee Cake, and in this version, I’ve added orange zest as well as a generous amount of marmalade as a nod to their orange endeavours, so I think this story could well be true (or perhaps have some elements of truth to it). Indeed, so much is marmalade tied up in the history of Dundee that it is famous as the home of the three “Js” – jam (marmalade), jute (from textile mills, weaving hessian from the East) and journalism.

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Now, I have to admit that I am no expert in making Dundee Cake (even if I grew up not that far from the city itself), so if you’re sitting there quietly fuming, thinking we dinnae make it like that, laddie! then I suggest you calm down!

I’ve made the sort of cake that I prefer – I’m not a massive fan of cake which is too dark and heavy, so I’ve made a fairly light version. There is also no spice in here, but if you want to play around and add things like treacle or dark muscovado sugar, or even mixed spice or crystallised ginger, then be my guest. The only thing you cannot miss out on are those rings of almonds on top of the cake!

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A couple of little tips to finish – this is not a cake that needs to be fired for hours and hours and hours. In fact, when you bake it, you really only want it to be just done. When you test with a skewer towards the end of the baking time, it is fine to turn off the oven if you only have a few little crumbs sticking to the skewer, as this will help make sure the cake remains soft and moist. This is also a cake that keeps well, so it’s probably best to make it a few days before you need it, so that it can rest for a while.

How you finish this cake off is up to you, but I used a glaze made from sieved apricot jam mixed with marmalade. I brushed this over the warm cake, then covered the lot loosely with tin foil and left the cake in the (switched off!) oven until it was cool. The glaze will dry a bit, and the cake will have a glorious rich brown colour. Nae bad as they might say in Dundee!

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To make a Dundee Cake:

For the cake

• 100g whole almonds
• 160g butter

• 160g light muscovado sugar
• zest 1 orange
• zest 1 lemon
• 3 tablespoons marmalade (approx 100g)
• 225g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 3 large eggs, beaten
• 75g ground almonds
• 2 tablespoons milk
• 100g glacé cherries, rinsed, dried and halved
• 250g sultanas
• 100g raisins
• 50g currants
• 50g candied peel, finely chopped

For the glaze

• 2 tablespoons apricot jam
• 1 tablespoon marmalade
• 2 tablespoons water

1. Start by skinning the almonds – put them in a pan of boiling water. Simmer for 5 minutes. Drain, allow to cool for a moment, then remove the skins (they should slip off). Leave the blanched almonds to dry.

2. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Grease a loose-bottomed 20-23cm cake tin and line the bottom and sides with greaseproof paper.

3. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the orange zest, lemon zest and marmalade and mix well.

4. In a separate bowl, sieve the flour and the baking powder and fold in the ground almonds.

5. Add one of the eggs plus a tablespoon of flour to the butter/sugar mixture. Beat well. Repeat with the other two eggs, adding a spoonful of flour with each, until you have a light, fluffy mixture.

6. Add the rest of the flour, mix well and then fold in the milk. The mixture should be soft and drop slowly from a spoon, but definitely not runny.

7. Add the cherries, dried fruit and candied peel and fold gently to distribute the fruit.

8. Carefully spoon the mixture into the tin and level with the back of a spoon.

9. Arrange the blanched almonds in concentric circles on top of the cake, pressing lightly into the cake mixture. Put in the oven and bake for 45 minutes at 150°C (300°F). In the meantime, make the glaze – heat the apricot jam and marmalade in a saucepan with two tablespoons of water, and sieve to make a smooth glaze.

10. After 45 minutes, lower the oven temperature to 130°C (265°F) and bake for another 40-60 minutes, checking the cake after 40 minutes using a skewer – it should be just clean, or even come out with a few crumbs (so the centre remains slightly soft). If the cake looks like it is browning too quickly during baking, cover loosely with tin foil.

11. When the cake is done, remove from the oven, and brush generously with the apricot-marmalade glaze. Cover loosely with tin foil and pop back into the (switched off) oven to cool completely. When cold, wrap in foil and store for a few days before cutting.

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{7} Saffron and Almond Buns

Right, enough with the biscuits! I think it’s time to broaden the festive fare, and move over the buns, and what buns they are! I’ve decided to make a “twist” on traditional Swedish lussebullar, the famous saffron buns served around St Lucia on 13 December, but I’ve made them in a spiral rather than the usual scroll shape. If you want to know more about this, I recommend this article on Foodie Underground by Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall (who also did the fabulous illustrations) for some history on the buns and the Scandinavian traditions around the celebration of St Lucia.

This is actually an adaptation of my cinnamon bun recipe, but without the usual spices. Instead, the dough contains saffron, so it turns the most glorious shade of golden yellow when you’re making it. Really, it is almost worth doing just to see that bright, glowing colour. It will make you happy, honestly! Not only is it a treat for the eyes, but the aroma of the saffron is also quite intoxicating (if you happen to like saffron, of course).

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You could just make these without any filling (usually there is none in authentic lussebullar), but I got a tip from a reader, suggesting using grated almond paste and sultanas per a family recipe. In all honesty, I was  sold on this idea the moment I read about it, but could not resist a peek into my copy of The Flavour Thesaurus to check whether saffron and almonds are a “thing”.

Well, it turns out they are, the book confirming that almonds and saffron are a good combination. Apparently, it’s the bitter notes in saffron that marry well with the sweet-bitter flavours in almonds. I also happened to have half a bar of almond paste from making Bethmännchen a few days ago, so a perfect way to make sure it didn’t go to waste. In a nod to the original recipe, I skipped the sultanas in favour of currants, and I think they worked well – their smaller size suited these buns, and the contrast of the yellow and black looks really quite jolly.

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Of course, the important thing here is the taste test, and I am happy to report that my fake Scandinavia festive saffron buns are utterly, ridiculously delicious!

The saffron and almonds are fragrant, and they were amazing while fresh and still warm (or cheat – 10 seconds in the microwave if you’re a little late to the party). They also don’t need much by way of decoration – nothing more than a quick glaze when they come out of the oven to give them a lovely shine, but otherwise, they look stunning as they are. Bright and sunny, such a contrast to the grey chill outside. These would be a perfect addition to a festive brunch!

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In all honesty, I have to say that this is a bit of  cheat’s version of proper lussebullar. They are normally shaped into intricate scrolls or other shapes, and my roll-and-slice approach just skips all that. However, if you’re busy around Christmas and want something a little different, I really cannot recommend these highly enough.

To make Saffron Buns (makes 12):

For the dough:

• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 50g white caster sugar
• 60g butter
• 150ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 0.5g saffron threads (a teaspoon)
• 2 eggs
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 325g strong white flour

For the filling:

• 100g currants
• 120g almond paste

For the glaze:

• 50g white sugar
• 50ml water

1. Put the milk in a saucepan. Bring the boil, remove from the heat, crush the saffron strands, add to the milk and leave the lot until lukewarm.

2a. If using a bread machine: put one of the eggs, the saffron milk and the rest of the dough ingredients into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

2b. If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the butter has been incorporated. Fold in the salt, sugar and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk mixture and one egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

3. Once the dough is ready, turn it onto a floured surface. Roll into the largest rectangle you can. Sprinkle over the currants, and grate the almond paste directly onto the dough. Roll up into a sausage. Use a sharp knife to cut into 12 slices.

3. Lay each slice, cut face up, on a bun case. Cover with cling film or a damp cloth and leave to rise for at least an hour until doubled in size.

4. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Beat the remaining egg, and use to brush on the buns.  Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden, turning half way if necessary. If they are browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil.

5. In the meantime, make the sugar glaze. Put the sugar and water into a saucepan, bring to the boil and cook for 1 minutes.

6. When the buns are done, remove from the oven and brush them while still warm with the hot sugar glaze.

Worth making? Just one word – sensational!

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Scottish Food: Selkirk Bannock

You’ll probably know by now that I’m Scottish, and that often comes through in a lot of the food I make. Well, it’s certainly been an interesting few months concerning the future of the nation (but of course, as a resident of London, I was an observer rather than a voter) and I get the feeling that this “interesting” period is only going to continue.

So how to deal with this disconnection? Make something Scottish of course! I decided that I really should turn my hand to making a traditional bake called the Selkirk Bannock, a rich bread made with dried fruit – and sometimes spices – which originates from the Royal Burgh of Selkirk in the Scottish Borders. Truth be told, I made about four of these over the last couple of weeks. Symptomatic of a touch of homesickness perhaps?

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Now, the name name “bannock” usually means something a bit more like a flatbread, often cooked on a griddle. Well, this really could not be more different. The Selkirk Bannock was originally a festive bake, but is now available all year. It is an enriched bread, made with milk and butter, but no eggs (at least in my version) and not a crazy amount of sugar. Most of the sweetness comes from the sultanas, so it can be eaten either as a savoury bread with cheese, or toasted and topped with butter, or jam if you want something very sweet. It’s certainly an easy and tasty bake to enjoy on these nippy autumnal days as the final days of summer pass quickly.

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I tried making a couple of versions before settling on my recipe below. From what I could see, most recipes did not use a lot of yeast and a limited amount of liquid, but this meant that my first attempt did not have much of a rise. While this seemed to chime with bannocks that I remember eating in the past, it was not quite what I was looking for. Flat flavour and a flat look! Fortunately, this was easy to fix – in my next attempt, I added more milk to make the dough softer, and I doubled the amount of yeast – I figured that it would be quite acceptable to have a light and tasty Selkirk Bannock that veers towards being a Celtic take on a panettone.

One thing to point out about the flavours in here – it’s traditional to stick just to dried fruit like sultanas, but more modern versions also include candied peel and/or spices (or even the ubiquitous cranberries!). I’ve stuck with a fairly traditional recipe, but I did add a dash of garam masala for a little extra flavour. Perhaps not quite what the purists would like to see, but I’m happy to face the wrath of some gnarly Scots master bakers – I’m rather happy with my bannock, with its light texture, a lovely golden soft crust, and lots and lots of fruit. I think it worked a treat – it was a big hit at brunch, sliced, toasted and spread with salted butter.

 To make a Selkirk Bannock:

• 60g butter, plus extra for greasing
• 150ml milk, scalded
• 250g strong white flour
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon instant yeast
• 2 teaspoons caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice (optional)
• 200g sultanas
• 30g light brown sugar
• milk, to brush

1. Melt the butter and add to the milk. Leave until lukewarm.

2a. If using a bread machine: Put the flour, salt, yeast, caster sugar and mixed spice (if using) plus the milk mixture into the bowl and run a dough cycle. Simples!

2b. If making by hand: Put the flour, salt, yeast, caster sugar and mixed spice (if using) plus the milk mixture into the bowl. Stir with a spoon, then knead with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

3. Knead the sultanas and brown sugar into the dough, then shape into a round and put into a buttered and lined cake tin. Leave to prove until roughly doubled in size (ideally spritz lightly with water, put the whole thing in a plastic bag, then leave somewhere warm).

4. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Brush the bannock with milk and bake for 40-50 minutes until the bannock looks risen and well-browned. You might need to turn it round at some point to get an even colour, but if it like it is getting too dark, cover loosely with tin foil. When done, the loaf should sound hollow when tapped lightly.

5. Let the bannock cool for 10 minutes in the tin, then transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

Worth making? Delicious – easy to make, and a good all round bread for breakfast or a little snack.

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Kulich

Have you been able to enjoy some good weather recently? In the last few weeks, things seem to be warming up, and my garden is full of the joys of spring – the clematis is heavy with pale pink blooms, and the tulips that seemed only a week ago to be tentative at best are now adding extravagant bursts of colour – reds, golds and purples. A few other more traditional flowers are also starting to peek out from the sea of green, and it really does feel like summer days are not far away now.

Actually, I’m under-selling this time of year. I have just spent Easter in Scotland, and against all expectations was able to enjoy some spectacular sunny weather – clear blue skies and lovely views. Walks in the countryside, a picnic by a loch, a ride in a hot air balloon and visits to ancient castles, all in the blazing sunshine. The result of all this excitement was that, eh, I actually got a little behind on blogging and did not get round to posting some of my Easter baking. So I’m afraid you’re going to have to bear with me as I write about some seasonal bakes with a slight time lag. Better late than never!

Easter offers quite a lot of options when it comes to baking. The most obvious thing to do is whip up a batch of Hot Cross Buns, rich with spice and finished with a sticky honey glaze. Well, it would be, except the bakery round the corner makes amazing buns, so I’ve been tucking into plenty of those rather than making them myself. So that left me with the task of trying something a little different, and I though I’d have a go at making traditional Russian kulich. Something like this!

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The most striking thing about kulich is the shape of the loaf – tall and slim, with domed top drizzled with a little icing (or in my case – slathered with lots of icing!). It is topped with a few slivers of candied peel, or more traditionally, some edible spring flowers. To get this shape, the easiest way is to use a large-ish tin can, then just wash it out, and line it well with greaseproof paper on the bottom and the sides, and you’ve got a good makeshift kulich tin. One little tip though – don’t use a can that held garlic cloves or strong curry – they can hold the flavours of their original contents, and I think an curry-garlic kulich is a flavour experience that I can happily live without. In my case, I used a tall milk pan, which had a useful handle that made putting it into the oven a little easier.

Now, I have seen this refered to in a few places as “Russian Panettone” which I think does a bit of a disservice to this bread. You find enriched, spiced, fruited breads across Europe, but I guess that the Italian version is so well-known that they’ve got that market cornered. While there are some superficial similarities, kulich has different spices, including cardamom as well as a little saffron for the adventurous. I find saffron and cardamom a curious combination, one that I really have not seen together very often at all, although I did make an Estonian Christmas wreath last year with that flavour pairing, and I can assure you that it really is very, very delicious. That, and the dough will have the most amazing golden colour!

That said…the recipe I’ve used is actually my own Panettone recipe, as it is one that I have made many, many times and I am very happy that it works well, with a good but not overwhelming amount of fruit and candied peel. Well, it’s Panettone, albeit tweaked to reflect the usual Russian ingredients, and baked in the traditional shape. Matryoshkas and babushkas might find this a little bit strange, but it works.

When faced with such a tall loaf, you might wonder how on earth to cut it. Well, rather than trying to cut it like a cake, lay it on the side and cut it into slices. Hey presto – circles of kulich! This does of course mean that some lucky person will get the last slide, smothered in sweet icing. Kulich is traditionally served with pashka, a sweetened cream cheese mixture prepared in intricate moulds. However, it is equally delicious on its own, or served toasted and spread with butter and jam or honey.

To make one large or two small kulich:

• 80ml milk
• Large pinch freshly ground nutmeg
• Large pinch saffron strands
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1 egg
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 35g butter

• 25g sugar
• Pinch of salt
• Zest of 1/2 orange
• 3/4 teaspoon dried yeast
• 200g strong white flour
• 75g dried fruit (such as currants and golden sultanas)
• 40g candied peel, diced
• 25g slivered almonds

1. Put the milk in a small pan. Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat. Add the spices, then leave to one side until lukewarm.

2. Mix the egg and vanilla into the milk and blend well.

3a. If using a bread machine: Throw everything into the mixing bowl (put the fruit, peel and almonds into the raisin compartment). Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

3b. If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the butter has been incorporated. Fold in the salt, sugar, orange zest and yeast. Add the milk/egg mixture. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). Work in the fruit, peel and almonds. Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

4. Once the dough is ready, prepare either one large or two normal tin cans by lining with greaseproof paper (make sure to leave a high collar around the top, as the dough will rise a lot). Take the dough out of the machine, form into one or two balls as needed, then drop into the tin(s). Leave in a warm place covered in cling film for about one hour until the dough has reached to top of the tin.

5. In the meantime, preheat the oven at 180°C (350°F). Put the kulich into the oven, baking for around 15-20 minutes for smaller loaves or 25-30 minutes for a larger loaf (they should sound hollow when tapped). If the top is browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil. Remove from the oven and leave to cool before icing.

For the icing:

• 100g icing sugar
• 4 teaspoons water
• slivers of candied citrus peel

6. Mix the icing sugar and water until smooth. Spread on top of the kulich being sure the encourage a few dramatic drips down the side.

7. Finish with a few slivers of citrus peel on top.

Worth making? Definitely. This is a delicious, aromatic loaf which makes a lovely teatime treat. This is equally delicious slices and toasted for breakfast.

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Gingerbread

When I moved house, I vowed that I would have the sort of garden that you might see in one of the glossy magazines. Nothing incredibly elaborate mind you, but with a nicely-kept lawn, and strategically planted bushes heavy with flowers (and hopefully fruit) amid herb plants and old-fashioned roses. The sort of place to laze on spring and summer days…

Fast forward eighteen months, and I can assure you that I’m certainly not a shoe-in to appear in Homes and Gardens or Elle Decor. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from being the shame of the neighbourhood, but somewhere along the way I’ve kind of forgotten that a lovely garden tends to be the result of rather a lot of work. That has meant the last couple of weekends have necessitated rather a lot of work outside, removing weeds, trimming borders and fixing some of the damage that has occurred over winter (it seems the result of the polar vortex in the US was that a lot more storms were hitting the southern parts of Britain, and here we experienced a lot of windy weather).

I am telling you all this because when you’ve been working it the garden, it’s one of life’s great pleasures to take a break and enjoy a cup of tea and a slice of cake. When it is still rather fresh outside, as it has been here, I find the best option in my opinion is something that is sticky and spicy, and I am a massive fan of a good piece of gingerbread.

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It is interesting how this recipe seems to pop up when you travel. Similar spiced loaves and cakes seem to exist everywhere, from Dutch ontbijtkoek to French pain d’épices. These are also often made with honey, and while I do enjoy the flavour that this can add, I have experimented with both honey and golden syrup, and for some curious reason, the result is better in my experience with golden syrup. The texture is lighter and more delicate. However, to make up for the fact that golden syrup is not as aromatic as honey, I also swap a few spoons of syrup for some black treacle, which gives the cake a darker colour and some extra flavour. For a bit of extra oomph I’ve also added some dark marmalade and fiery preserved ginger.

How you want to finish gingerbread is up to you. These sort of cakes are sufficiently robust in the flavour department to handle thick icing or creamy frosting, but I much prefer them either with simple water icing or a light glaze of marmalade or ginger syrup, with a few pieces of preserved ginger on top. However, if you do want to add icing, it is worth bearing in mind that while the cake will last for quite some time (indeed, becoming better with time) the icing will start to colour from the brown muscovado sugar in the cake, so if you are not serving this cake until  few days after baking, then ice it the evening before or the morning of serving. The flavour is not affected, but you want to make sure you have the dramatic contrast between the dark cake studded with sticky ginger and the brilliant white icing.

Right, that’s that…I can see the garden outside, beckoning me to go back and sort out the rose bushes…well, maybe at the weekend…

To make a gingerbread loaf:

• 50g muscovado sugar
• 75g butter
• 125g golden syrup
• 2 tablespoons marmalade
• pinch of salt
• 75ml milk
• 1 large egg, beaten
• 2 generous teaspoons chopped preserved ginger
• 150g plain flour
• 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger
• pinch ground cloves
• 2 tablespoons marmalade and 2 teaspoons chopped preserved ginger

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a 1 kilo (2 pound) loaf tin with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the sugar, butter, golden syrup, marmalade and salt into a saucepan. Heat gently until everything has melted. Stir well and put to one side.

3. In another bowl, combine the milk, egg and preserved ginger. Check the syrup mixture is just warm, and add the egg mixture and mix well.

4. In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients, and add to the wet ingredients. Whisk briefly to ensure everything is well-combined, and pour into the prepared loaf tin.

5. Bake for around 40 minutes. The loaf should be risen, springy to the touch and an inserted skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven, allow to cool for 5 minutes, then brush with rest of the marmalade and sprinkle over the remaining chopped ginger.

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Rava Kesari

I’ve always found Indian sweets rather daunting. I put this down to the fact that I really do not eat them that often. When you go for Indian food, by the time you’ve filled up on rice, bread and delicious curry, the last thing you are looking for is something sweet and heavy to finish the meal. Maybe, at a stretch, I could manage a little mango sorbet at most, but certainly not fried milk-rich sweets like gulab jamun or rasmalai.

However, I was keen to have a go at making some Indian sweets as I’ve had a hankering to try them for a while. I’ve done some digging recently, and it seems that a lot of them are actually incredibly easy to make. And so it is with rava kesari. There is a little work to be done in preparing some of the ingredients, but you’re not required to do much more than prepare a sweet, spiced syrup and then add it to a ghee/semolina mixture. You’re essentially making a white sauce, but one that is brightly coloured and sweet, which is then cooked until thick, then left to set and cut into fancy shapes. But doesn’t it look pretty?

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If you were trying to guess the ingredients here, you would probably not guess that this is mostly made from semolina. Forgot the nasty, grainy stuff you might have suffered at school. In this recipe, the result is firm but smooth. And you’re probably already guessed how these sweets get their brilliant yellow colour. They are flavoured with saffron, and I must confess that my pictures don’t really do it justice. The colour is amazingly vibrant. The saffron is balanced with ground cardamom (which seems to be to Indian sweet treats what vanilla is to British baking), and they are finished off with some toasted almonds and sultanas.

One of the other vital ingredients is ghee, and so I had to have a go at making it. I was able to buy it in a local shop, but I was going all-out on this one. Recipes often say you can switch ghee for clarified butter, but a quick peek in a Madhur Jaffrey cookbook confirmed that it is slightly different, but not unfamiliar – in fact, it’s simple browned butter. Just throw butter in a pan, leave over a gentle heat, and then wait until the solids darken and the butter has a delicious toasted aroma and flavour. This is well worth doing, as it adds a subtle nuttiness to whatever you are making. It is also so ubiquitous in Indian cooking that it would be a shame not to use it here.

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Frankly, I could not have been happier with how this turned out. Sure, there is a little faffing about with skinning some almonds, making the ghee, leaving the saffron to infuse the milk and in grinding the cardamom seeds, but nothing is too taxing, and all of these steps could be easily done ahead of time. The actual process of making rava kesari is a doddle – just cook the semolina in the ghee, then add the liquid and sugar, cook until thick and spread in a tray.

My version was not too sweet (which was the first shock, I was expecting something tooth-aching) and the combination of cardamom and saffron was light, fresh and aromatic, a combination of resinous and slightly minty with the warm flavour of saffron. I remember at Christmas being pleasantly surprised by this spice combination in a festive loaf, so it was a welcome reappearance for this duo in these sweets. I also loved how the pieces looked when cut – you can see pieces of sultana and almond, flecks of black cardamom and flashes of orange from the saffron threads.

Before service this, I had kept the rava kesari in the fridge. This had an unexpected but welcome impact on the flavour, and it meant these sweets had a very cooling quality. Served like this, I can see how they would be welcome at the end of a meal. In the interests of culinary exploration, I also tried a piece when it had come to room temperature, and while it was still delicious, on balance, I think the chilled version is better. Now, all I have to hope is that I’ve done justice to this delicious sweet!

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To make Rava Kesari (makes 24 pieces):

• 80g unsalted butter
• 3 generous pinches saffron strands
• 360ml whole milk
• 360ml water
• 200g white caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon finely ground cardamom seeds
• 160g semolina
• 30g toasted slivered almond
• 35g golden sultanas
• 24 whole almonds, to decorate

1. Put the milk into a saucepan until warm. Add the saffron and leave to sit for at least 30 minutes.

2. Make the ghee: melt the butter on a low heat, and watch it. It will hiss and spit, then calm down. The solids will turn light brown and the butter will develop a nutty aroma. Strain and put to one side.

3. In a pan, combine the milk, water and sugar. Heat until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is just starting to foam. Add the cardamom, stir and remove from the heat.

4. Prepare a large tray (20 x 30 cm) for the rava kesari. Brush with a little of the melted ghee and set aside. I used a glass tray with no other lining and had no problems with sticking.

5. In a large pan, add five tablespoons of the ghee. Heat until melted, then add the semolina. Cook on a low heat for two minutes, stirring all the time (it should not go brown).

6. Now start to add the liquid mixture to the semolina. This is a bit like making a white sauce, so start with a ladle of liquid, and stir well. Repeat two more times, then finally add all the liquid. At this point, whisk the mixture until smooth and there are no lumps. It should be bright yellow and smell glorious!

7. Cook the mixture on a medium heat until it is very thick and starts to come away from the sides of the pan. You can test whether it is done by dropping a small piece onto a cold plate – it should quickly become firm.

8. When ready, stir in the almond slivers and sultanas, then pour the whole mixture into the tray. Flatten the mixture (a rubber spatula is ideal). Use a knife to score diamond shapes, and place a whole almond in the middle of each piece.

9. Leave the rava kesari to cool, then chill in the fridge. Before serving, use a sharp knife to cut along the score marks to separate into individual pieces.

Worth making? This is a really different and delicious sweet. It’s fairly easy to make, and you get a really good result from ingredients you might have in the cupboard already. Recommended!

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Swedish Pancakes

When it comes to Scandinavian food, it’s all to easy to fawn over the cool aesthetic of places like Noma or think that it’s all about cinnamon buns. However, something that I really like is one of the simplest things you can make – straightforward Swedish pancakes, served the merest dusting of icing sugar and topped with lingonberry jam.

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These are made with one of those handy-to-remember recipes, based on a ratio of 2-3-6. That’s 2 decilitres of flour, 3 eggs and 6 decilitres of milk. Yes, the decilitre. Odd, huh? This is something that you come across fairly rapidly if you dare to venture into Swedish cooking, but it does at first prompt a little confusion if you’re not used to it. It’s equivalent to 100ml, but as you might have worked out by now, I’ve got a bit of an aversion to volumes-based measurements. I’ll happily measure our liquids in a jug, but when it comes to dry ingredients, I always go with my natty set of digital scales. If you’ve never tried, you really need to get a set! So much easier for getting precise quantities. Never again do you need to worry about whether flour needs to be compacted or not before adding to batter…anyway…

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These pancakes are similar to crepes. The batter is very thin (you would think that the flour is not enough for all that milk, but it is!), so when you add the batter to the frying pan, you need to make sure you quickly spread the batter to get them thin and round. When it comes to flipping, you need to be quite confident with these little fellows. If you use a non-stick pan, then the butter in the batter will stop them from sticking. It’s then just a case of shaking the pan to loosen the pancake, and then you need to flip them with a firm, confident motion. Do it this way, and the pancake with do a mid-air somersault that should impress onlookers. However, if you lose your nerve, then you’ll end up with a pancake that folds itself in half and sticks into a big, doughy mass. Be confident!

The lack of sugar in the batter also means that these pancakes work equally well with savoury or sweet flavours. If you’re trying the keep with the Swedish theme, I’d add some cheese or mushrooms. Otherwise, jam is a favourite, with lingonberry being the classic.

Now, you may or may now know that I am a bit of a compulsive collector of all manner of edible berries. I subscribe to the school of thought that says you should never pick things that you are not completely sure of, so if you’re going to don your country finest and go foraging for berries this weekend, just stick with what you know.

Anyway, I was on a trip to Finland and managed to come away with a decent amount of lingonberries from the forest to the west of Helsinki. They made it back to London, and have been hidden in the back of the freezer for a while now. I thought they would be perfect with these pancakes – I just popped the berries into a saucepan, added some water and a little sugar (one quarter of the weight of the berries) and within minutes, I had a simple lingonberry compote. If you’re not familiar with the flavour, it’s sweet and tart, but less sharp than cranberries, and it’s great on top of pancakes. If you’re in Sweden, you’ll even find the stuff served with meat and potatoes. Sadly it was too much like jam for me to think of it as something to eat with savoury dishes!

These are great for breakfast – I make the batter the night before, so you can whip up a batch first thing in the morning.

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To make Swedish Pancakes (makes 16):

• 200 ml (100g) plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 600ml milk
• 3 eggs
• 3 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled

1. In a bowl, mix the flour and salt with half the milk until smooth. Add the rest of the milk and eggs, and beat well. Leave to sit for 30 minutes (or overnight in the fridge).

2. Add the melted butter to the batter in a thin stream, stirring constantly.

3. Heat a non-stick frying pan on a medium heat. Add enough batter to make a think pancake, tilting the pan to make sure the batter is evenly spread. Cook until set, then shake to loosen the pancake. Flip and cook the other side.

Worth making? Of course. Who doesn’t like pancakes?

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Independence Day Cake

It’s the Fourth of July, so here is a little cake in honour of US Independence Day! It’s my take on a recipe for the late 1700s – based on a bundt cake, and finished with gold in honour of the big day.

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independence_cake_1

There is a little bit of a story behind this recipe. I found the original in one of my cookbooks, which features cake recipes from around the world. Among them all was a gem of a recipe of Herculean proportions and with little by way of directions. The limited information was all down to the fact this recipe originated in the late 1700s. Rather than just updating it, the author cleverly presented in all its glory, with original directions as follows:

Independence Day Cake by Amelia Simmons (1796)

The Cake:

• 20 pounds flour
• 15 pounds sugar
• 10 pounds butter
• 48 eggs
• 1 quart wine
• 1 quart brandy
• 1 ounce nutmeg
• 1 ounce cinnamon
• 1 ounce cloves
• 1 ounce mace
• 2 pounds citron peel
• 5 pounds currants
• 5 pounds raisins
• 1 quart yeast

Topping

• crushed loaf sugar
• box cuttings
• gold leaf

Sadly, the temperature of the baking oven was not given, but I would imagine it would need to be cooked slowly. If you do try and succeed do let me know.

And you know what? It was that last sentence that got me. This was not a “tested” recipe of the sort we’re all used to…but…what if I were to take that recipe…convert into measurements that are not so voluminous, and try to make this into a cake? With that, a challenge was set.

Before I could convert this lot, I was faced with a few decisions that were going to test my culinary knowledge. First off, I had to get the types of ingredients right. The butter was pretty easy (it’s a safe bet that the butter we have today is not unlike the butter available back in the 1700s), but the sugar was less clear. Should it be white or brown? While I like to use muscovado sugar in baking, this was supposed to be a celebratory bake, so I opted for sparkling white caster sugar. Next, the flour. In cakes, it should be plain flour. However, when making yeasted doughs, I use strong white flour that gives a light, springy texture. I didn’t know which to go with, so given this was more cake than bread, it would be plain cake flour. Luckily the spices, citrus peel and dried fruit did not require much thinking, otherwise I would have been in the kitchen all day fretting!

The method also presented something of a challenge. I started by weighing everything out into bowls, and then I was own my own – pure guesswork territory. I creamed the butter and sugar, added the eggs, then the flour and the yeast mixture. After that, the fruit was worked into the batter, and I left the cake to rise for a few hours.

Sadly…the cake had other ideas, and decided that it didn’t really want to puff up as I had hoped. Instead, it remained dense. All in all, a bit of a failure.

I was deflated but not defeated. A few days later, I had another go at the cake, but this time embraced the fact that the world of baking has moved on since the 1700s, and we now benefit from a magic substance called baking powder. I could skip the whole yeast thing, and instead rely on the white stuff to do the job. And this time, the cake worked like a dream. The crumb is tender and moist, and the cake has a rich, velvety texture that works very well with the spices, citrus peel and dried fruits.

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Now, we also need to keep in mind that this is a cake to celebrate Independence Day. The original recipe suggests loaf sugar, box cuttings and gold leaf. I’ll freely admit that I have no clue was is meant by box cuttings (leaves from the box hedge plant?), and I didn’t have loaf sugar to hand. So again, I improvised – a simple glaze, drizzled in loops on top of the cake, and then finished, as was intended, with some flakes of gold leaf. Very celebratory!

So what do you think? Suitably impressive for the Fourth of July? I’d like to think so, and I hope that Miss Amelia Simmonds would too.

To make an Independence Day Cake (modern version!):

• 4 tablespoons rum
• 60g citrus peel, chopped
• 90g currants
• 90g sultanas
• 190g butter
• 280g sugar
• 2 eggs
• 350g self-raising flour

• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon cloves
• 1/2 teaspoon mace
• 150ml milk

For the glaze

• 85g icing sugar
• 4-5 teaspoons double cream
• gold leaf

1. Put the rum, raisins, sultanas and citrus peel into a bowl. Mix, cover and leave to sit overnight (or if you’re in a hurry, heat quickly in the microwave and leave to sit on the kitchen top for an hour).

2. Prepare a cake pan. If using a bundt pan, brush with melted butter, then dust with plain flour. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).

3. Cream the butter and sugar, then add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition, until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the spices and mix well.

4. Combine the flour and the baking powder. Add half of the flour mixture and half of the milk to the batter, and mix until smooth. Repeat with the rest of the flour and the milk. You should have a smooth batter that drops slowly from the back of a spoon.

5. Finally, fold in the currants, sultanas and citrus peel.

6. Spoon the mixture into the cake pan and bake for around 45-60 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Once baked, remove from the oven, allow to cool slightly, then turn out onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely.

7. To finish the cake, make the glaze by combining the icing sugar and cream. Mix until smooth – it should be soft, but not runny. Drizzle on top of the cake, then add flakes of gold leaf to finish the cake.

Worth making? In spite of all this history and the fact I’ve had to convert this cake into modern quantities, this is a great cake – spicy and fruity, but not heavy. This would make a great and lighter alternative to traditional fruit cakes.

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Midsummer Cardamom Twists

If you’re in London right now or have visited recently, it may come as something of a shock to learn that it is midsummer. Sure, we’ve had a few warm days, but the skies are still leaden, with oppressive dark clouds threatening rain at the drop of a hat. However, the threat of bad weather on a summer’s day is never enough to stop us enjoying the Great British Summer – I’ve just spent the day at a garden party in Primrose Hill where we spend most of the day rushing between the house and the garden depending on whether the rain was falling or some rays of sunshine could be spotted.

Given the state of the weather, midsummer is not a huge event in Britain, but in honour of this point in the year, I’ve made cardamom twists as a nod to our Scandinavian cousins, for whom the middle of the summer season is a very big deal indeed. And when you have warm, sunny days by the sea with little (or no!) night like the do in Sweden, Norway and Finland, you can understand why.

This is a variation on my recipe for cardamom buns, but rather than rolling the dough into a sausage and slicing it, you cut it into strips, twist and form into a bun, then hope for the best as the yeast gets going and they expand into all manner of strange shapes. Not one for those obsessed with getting even-looking buns, but I think they’re pretty fun to make and eat.

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To make cardamom twists (makes 12):

For the dough:

• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 50g sugar
• 60g butter
• 150ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 1 egg
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg or mace
• 325g strong white flour
• pearl sugar, to finish

For the filling:

• 60g butter, soft
• 60g caster sugar
• 2 teaspoons ground cardamom

1. Whisk the egg and divide in two. You need half for the dough, and half for the glaze.

2(a). If using a bread machine: put one portion of the egg and the rest of the ingredients into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

2(b). If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the butter has been incorporated. Fold in the salt, sugar, nutmeg/mace and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and one portion of the egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

3. Once the dough is ready, turn it onto a floured surface. Roll into a very large rectangle getting the dough as thin as you can. Make the filling by mixing all the ingredients until smooth, then spread across the dough. Fold the dough in half. Use a sharp knife to cut into 12 strips.

4. Take each strip and start twisting the edges in opposite directions until you have a spiral. Form into a coil, tucking the ends underneath, and place on a bun case. Cover with cling film or a damp tea cloth and leave to rise for at least an hour until doubled in size.

5. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Take the remaining egg (remember that?) and mix with a tablespoon of water. Brush the buns with the egg wash and sprinkle with pearl sugar. Bake the buns for about 10-12 minutes until golden.

6. When done, remove from the oven and cover with a clean tea-towel (this will catch the steam and keep the buns soft).

Worth making? These buns are amazing. It’s a very unusual flavour in terms of baked goods, so it’s nice to have something different. They’re buttery, zesty and fragrant. They also last for a few days if stored in a sealed container, so can see you through several breakfasts, mid-morning snacks and afternoon treats.

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