Santiago Tart

Santiago Tart

Santiago Tart

On 25 July the citizens of Santiago de Compostela help themselves to another slice of pie as they celebrate the feast day of St James (Sant Iago). The apostle is believed to have sailed to the rain-lashed north western shores of Spain and his bones are claimed to be buried in the depths of the magnificent cathedral of the beautiful capital city of the region of Galicia.  Since medieval times pilgrims have walked hundreds of miles, along various routes, on the picturesque Camino de Santiago (watch Martin Sheen in “The Way” to get a feel for the landscapes) to seek remission of their sins. Still today, during the summer months, a steady stream of dusty sunbaked travellers of all ages stumble their last few tired steps through a narrow corner opening out into the vast plaza, where they gape, astounded both by the towering cathedral and by the enormity of their achievement. If one has walked at least the last 100 kms one may collect an official Certificate, after which a comforting piece of the almond pie of St James is available in every cafe and restaurant to restore one’s depleted energy. I confess that my visits to Santiago of the Field of Stars have hereunto been made by plane but maybe one day I will step up to the walk.

The recipe for the Tarta de Santiago is easy to make, and an online search comes up with little variation in the suggested ingredients. I made the full version below to feed a crowd earlier this week, and then made a reduced version for small-family use by exactly halving the ingredients.  We enjoyed a slice with a cup of Earl Grey, but there is no reason I can think of why a glass of Galician Albarino Rias Biaxas would not enhance the experience.

  • 250g caster sugar
  • 250g ground almonds
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon almond extract
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon
  • Grated zest of 1 orange
  • 6 eggs

Mix all the ingredients – I whizzed them all together in the food processor.

Bake in a loose-bottomed 22cm cake tin at about 160 C until golden and firm.

When it has cooled and you have taken it out of the tin you will need to place a stencil of the Cross of St James on the cake and sift a nice thick layer of icing sugar over the whole of the surface. After you have carefully removed the stencil there will be a lovely clear image of the Cross. A moistened bit of kitchen paper picks up any inappropriate incursions of sugar. For the stencil there is a picture on Wikimedia Commons that you can print and cut out. Having the intention of making at least two tarts I thought I would cut the stencil out of a piece of transparent plastic so I could rinse and re-use it, but, oh boy, what a struggle – that was 25 minutes of my life I’m never going to get back – and in the end I gave up and made it quickly and easily from the printer paper.

Galicia’s wild romantic individualism, reflected through its ancient oral story-telling traditions, has much in common with those other edgy territories, Brittany, Cornwall and Wales, but it’s better at cake.


Crocheted Baby Cocoon and Hat

Cocooned jellybaby

I just couldn’t say no to the new parents’ request for a cosy crocheted cocoon and hat, but the concept was new to me. So I had a trawl through some rather amazing patterns on the internet, most of them displaying considerable feats of imagination and nearly all of them requiring a degree of bravery to which I simply failed to aspire. In the end I settled on a free Red Heart pattern and proceeded to tone it down to make it a bit more West London, UK. Take a look at the photo attached to the original pattern and you will see what I mean.

In fact it is a lovely pattern, very easy and quick to work up. All I did was to modify the colours and simplify the hat. The end result, modelled here by a plastic jellybaby, went down well with the parents, although baby has already grown out of it, as they do.

Rhubarb Pudding

Rhubarb Pudding

Proving the proverb that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, but I’ll admit that it’s not the most photogenic of desserts, even if I had remembered to take a photo before the spoons were grasped.

Down at the bottom of my garden the sturdy shoots of pink rhubarb, under their umbrellas of dark green leaves, have been responding to days on end of sunshine and to the contents of the rain water butt. Cooked within moments of being picked, this year’s croppings have already resulted in a few good bake mixes. Some recipes invite you to cook and sweeten your rhubarb before adding it to the other ingredients but I prefer to leave it au naturel and experience the exquisite burst of tartness embedded within the sweet surrounding dough, such a decadent pleasure.

This recipe makes a pudding or a cake or individual muffins.

  1. Cream together 120g butter or vegetable margarine and 170g soft brown sugar. For added richness I like to use muscovado sugar, which resists amalgamation, but melting the butter and sugar gently together while stirring briskly is worth the faff.
  2. Mix in a quarter of a teaspoon of ground ginger. Yes, only a quarter, for a subtle buzz. I have had a go at alternatives here such as a few drops of vanilla or almond essence, but again keeping it mean, letting the rhubarb’s light shine.
  3. Mix in the grated zest of one lemon.
  4. Add 3 beaten eggs.
  5. Mix in 100g soured cream.
  6. Fold in 170g self-raising flour (or, for the wheat-fearing, spelt flour with a teaspoon of baking powder).
  7. Fold in 200g rhubarb sliced into 1cm pieces.
  8. Put the mixture into a pudding dish, cake tin, or muffin tin depending on what you decide you are going to call it. This decision will also affect the oven temperature and length of cooking time. I would recommend a little lower temperature and a little longer than you would bake a Victoria sandwich cake.

The above can be followed conscientiously and meditatively, or steps 1-5 can be achieved all at one, carefree, rapturous, go in the food processor, but the flour needs as little mixing as possible, so as not to beat the air out of it, just a few pulses, and the rhubarb pieces just a pulse or two so as not to lose their identity.

I served the pudding, warm, with spoonfuls of crème fraiche, to a recent jolly gathering which included a poet from Bloomsbury, who savoured a second helping and said some appreciative words, although they did not rhyme.

Goosnargh cakes

966 Goosnargh cakes

Goosnargh Cakes

Slow-Baked Easter Biscuits from Lancashire

Long ago in the village of Goosnargh (pronounced “goozner”), in the heart of the peaceful Ribble valley in the north of Lancashire, the village baker produced a new biscuit for Easter. I imagine him thinking it up as a frugal opportunity of using the residual heat from the dying oven after the last batch of bread came out on Holy Thursday.  After a long day farming the fields by the river Ribble my ancestors would return home to each take their shift at weaving cotton on the hand loom in the farmhouse. Perhaps they ate these biscuits to keep them going. I have found my forebears’ births, marriages and deaths recorded by the Jesuits at their chapel at nearby Stonyhurst. Then, in the 1840s, when the first cotton factory was built further along the river, putting the hand loom weavers out of business, records show that the younger members of the family left to seek work on the new railways in Liverpool. There, these strong country boys, slow and sparing of speech, met the hungry Irish girls yattering and skittering off the boats, the Great Famine a rough sea away. Did they, I wonder, woo them with biscuits?

  1. Mix 110g butter or margarine with 20g caster sugar and 180g plain flour and 1 tablespoon caraway seeds and 1 teaspoon of ground coriander, using the method you would use for shortbread. (I lob it all into the food processor.) Spelt flour works perfectly here for those who wish to avoid wheat flour.
  2. Chill the dough if you have time and inclination then roll it out to 5mm. The traditional Goosnargh cake is cut into plain-edged, not fluted, rounds, which can be achieved with an upturned glass tumbler. This quantity makes a little over a dozen biscuits. Place on a floured baking tray.
  3. The crucial element of the Goosnargh cake, its USP if you will, is that it is baked slowly on a low heat and should never turn brown. I put them in the fan oven at 150 degrees for about 25 minutes, taking them out while still pale, and sprinkling a little more caster sugar on them.

Best enjoyed with a cup of tea (and this might be one of very few occasions when a native Lancastrian will be tempted to partake of a brand of tea from the adjacent county*) they make an interesting contrast to the unrelenting sweetness of the usual paschal comestibles.

I also found an ancestor on the other side of my family tree who is buried at Goosnargh, having died at the nearby Lancashire County Lunatic Asylum. I would have hoped that here, too, the biscuits would have found their way on to the inmates’ tea plates. I thought at first that this ancestor was a servant at the asylum, but no, the record showed that her occupation had been a servant prior to her incarceration for lunacy. Thankfully the DNA has become diluted across the intervening years, such that her descendants now evince only a mild eccentricity.

* an elucidation for our non-UK readers: “Yorkshire Tea” is a best-selling brand throughout the country, but the denizens of the contiguous counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire maintain a good-natured rivalry which goes back to the Wars of the Roses in the 1480s, the red rose being the symbol of the Lancastrians and the white rose the symbol of the Yorkists, whose leader, Richard III, slain on the battlefield, was reburied this week in Leicester Cathedral.

Beetroot and Chocolate Cake (wheat-free)

932 Beetroot Cake

“Be true to me” my father would sing in a mock romantic tenor voice when welcoming the vivid root vegetable to the table. The bold duplicitousness of this cake might however cause the most ardent admirer’s trust in the cook to wobble: it simply doesn’t taste of beetroot, but it does possess a sophisticated and complex range of flavours which are most beguiling.

I started with a recipe from a health food store magazine (beetroot earning plaudits for antioxidants, potassium, folic acid and lots more), trawled through a number of other recipes for cakes and brownies, and, having experimented with a couple of ideas, am now pleased with the smooth and moist texture of this easy-to-make version. It is wheat-free and dairy-free.


  1. Pair of rubber gloves
  2. 200g grated raw beetroot – Some recipes propose boiling or roasting the beetroot first, and then grating it or making a puree. I put on the rubber gloves, peel the raw vegetable and cut it up to fit it into the food processor, with the fine grater attached. I poke about and discard any stringy or woody bits, not least because they would give the game away in the finished cake. I make sure I have 200g of grated product, and then I put it back in the food processor, having replaced the grater attachment with the mixing blade.

At this point I attempt to make the work surface look a little less like a forensic science investigation, and I remove the rubber gloves.

Now I add all of the remaining ingredients to the food processor. If I were to mix the cake by hand I would thoroughly mix items 3 to 6 together first, gently warm and stir the sugar and treacle together, whisk the eggs together, mix the oil, liqueur and zest together, and then combine everything.

  1. 175g flour – I have been using spelt flour but wheat flour will be fine when there are no tolerance concerns.
  2. 2 teaspoons of baking powder
  3. 50g cocoa powder – I like to use Fairtrade organic cocoa.
  4. 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
  5. 75g sugar – The browner the sugar the deeper the flavour – I like Fairtade muscovado sugar, although it demands attentive mixing to achieve full amalgamation.
  6. 75g black treacle – Having recently borrowed, for a chocolate sponge cake, the whizzo idea from of substituting some treacle for some of the sugar, I am hooked on the treacle/chocolate combination, and here it seems both to mask and to complement the earthiness of the beetroot, in rather a cunning fashion.
  7. 3 eggs
  8. 200ml oil – Sunflower oil or rapeseed oil, for example.
  9. Grated zest of 1 orange – After scrubbing it to remove any preservatives.
  10. 1 tablespoon of orange liqueur

The combined mixture will look decidedly peculiar, but after about 45 minutes in a greased 20cm cake tin at about 170 degrees in a fan oven (you’ll need to rely on your experience with your own oven) something truly beetreautiful emerges. I invert it to get a nice level top, which can be dusted with icing sugar before serving. I feel that icing or frosting would interfere with the high-end bitter-chocolate vibe, but the cake would make a scrumptious dessert served warm, with good Madagascan vanilla ice cream, or with whipped cream flavoured with orange liqueur, or with creme fraiche, and then dusted with cocoa powder, or scattered with shavings of the darkest chocolate.

Another recipe I noted had coffee granules (which would replace the orange zest) and coffee (instead of orange) liqueur, which I will try, and I am further toying with the notion of chopped tea-soaked prunes or dates.


Sweet Baby Crochet Blanket

873 yellow stripe blanket

There’s a sweet baby in the pipeline so here is an 80 cm square blanket I have just finished crocheting. Too early yet to know whether this sweet baby will require pink or blue accessories, and mummy-to-be likes yellow, so I have made it white with pale yellow stripes and a pale yellow edging, worked in a simple V stitch which gives a firm but pretty texture on both sides and a cosy warm depth.

After a few minutes of purposeful pushing and pulling a crochet hook  through soft yarn, in an easy sequence of moves, the brain slows down and produces a physical calm which lends itself to contemplative processes such as meditative reflection, or thinking through a problem, or preparing a new post. This straightforward repetitive pattern, with no counting involved, is also ideal for working at while watching my crime dramas (except for the Nordic ones where I need to read the sub-titles).

I used baby double knitting yarn and a size 3.50mm crochet hook. Tension and gauge do not matter as long as they are consistent all the way through. Sometimes on this kind of project I will use a smaller hook for the edging in order to neaten and firm up any slackness that may have eased into the tension (perhaps during a particularly complex episode of CSI, for example).

1. I started with a foundation chain, and then

2. a first row of treble crochet (known as double crochet in the US), then

3. starting the second row with 3 turning chains and a treble into the top of the first treble, then missing one stitch then continuing in this V stitch pattern (of two trebles in the top of every second treble and missing the stitch in between), then

4. the third row continuing the V stitch, with the two trebles inserted into the top of the second treble of each pair in the second row, then

5. repeating the third row (as long as you want, changing colour if and when you want to),

6. finishing with a row of trebles to match the first row, and

7. a row of trebles down each side, and

8. finally one row of single crochet in yellow round the whole blanket.

(teddy bear George likes it a lot)