Toasted Cornmeal and Salted Honey Shortbread … Goes Well With Coffee – 1st Edition

_MG_0279This post is a little different from my regular posts as I have decided that, over the next few months, I want to do a series of posts all around one theme. And no, we are not talking Christmas cookies (even if Pinterest might have you believe you should be dusting off your star-shaped cookie cutters already). Instead, this little series will be all about things that go well with coffee. And by things that go well with coffee, I, of course, mean cakes, cookies, pastries and all their various incarnations. Because, really, isn’t the whole point of sitting down for a cup of coffee the opportunity to enjoy something sweet alongside said cup of coffee?

The series is inspired by the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel produced by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. As it says on the SCAA’s website, the Flavour Wheel develops a glossary of coffee terms based on sensory science and is used by coffee cuppers to describe the coffee they want to buy and/or sell.

I first came across the Flavour Wheel in a small coffee shop in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand earlier this year and was immediately drawn to the right hand side of the two pie charts. It is that pie chart which groups together the various aromas you might find in a cup of coffee into 18 different categories of ‘umbrella’ aromas such as “floral”, “leguminous” or “malt-like”. While not all flavours or aromas can be found in every single cup of coffee given the different varieties of coffee, the different processing and roasting techniques as well as the various preparation methods, it is nonetheless fascinating to have a visual display of all the different aromas you might find in a cup of coffee. At the same time, it is a neat overview of flavours that will likely pair well with a cup of coffee (in particular those coffees that display the same flavour profile).

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While the coffee scene is constantly changing, the latest craze being cold brew coffee and lattes made with almond and other nut milks, I wish the same could be said for the pastries and cookies served alongside the coffee. All too often, a cafe’s pastry case can be a bit of a let down, with few places venturing beyond the usual suspects of almond croissants, blueberry muffins, brownies or lemon tarts which, even if well executed, do become a bit boring after a while.

One of the benefits of brewing coffee at home (other than saving a few bucks) is that you have complete freedom over what to have alongside your coffee and making sure it goes well with your chosen brew. And this is where this series comes in – over the next few months I will aim to share 18 new recipes for cakes, pastries, cookies and the like that go well with coffee – one for each of the 18 ‘umbrella’ aromas shown in the Flavour Wheel. And while I am no professional coffee cupper (let alone a lay one), I may even suggest suitable coffee pairings from time to time.*

*Before anyone shouts, let it be said that I believe in equal opportunities when it comes to coffee – I enjoy Vietnamese coffee, a pot of Turkish coffee brewed over a camp fire, a latte made with coffee from my dad’s aeropress just as much as a shot of espresso made with Jamaican Blue Mountain beans whose price per pound equals my weekly grocery budget.

To kick things off, the first recipe in this series is for Toasted Cornmeal Shortbread, made with honey, it falls under the ‘Syrup-like’ category of aromas in the Flavour Wheel.

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Toasted Cornmeal Shortbread

Note: If you are a fan of cornbread, this shortbread is for you. While in the oven, the taste of freshly baked cornbread will invade your kitchen. Once baked and cooled, you end up with a shortbread with the same toasted corn flavours and sweetness from honey of traditional cornbread yet with the buttery richness and crumbly texture of shortbread. And if you have ever sunk your teeth into one of Christine Tosi’s Corn Cookies, the flavour profile of this shortbread is quite similar, albeit more complex thanks to the toasted cornmeal and the honey.

Ingredients

125g cornmeal
125g butter, soft
25g honey
50g cane sugar plus 1 tsp cane sugar
40g cornstarch or brown rice flour
1/4 tsp sea salt plus one large pinch

Directions

Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius and line a small round tart pan with parchment paper (my small round tart pan measures 17cm across – if doubling the recipe, line a regular springform cake pan with parchment paper instead).

In a dry pan toast the cornmeal on medium heat until fragrant and just starting to colour, stirring constantly to prevent excessive and uneven browning. This should take ca. 3-5 minutes.  Set aside and let the cornmeal come to room temperature (otherwise it will melt the butter needed for the shortbread).

In a large bowl beat the soft butter together with the honey and sugar until light and fluffy. This should take ca. 5 minutes.

In a separate bowl whisk together the cornmeal, cornstarch (or brown rice flour, if using) and 1/4 tsp of sea salt. Dump on top of the beaten butter and stir with a large spoon until well amalgamated.

Press the dough into the lined tart pan, using a small rolling pin to ensure even thickness. Sprinkle with the remaining sugar and salt.

Bake for 18-20 minutes or until just starting to brown around the edges. The shortbread will seem impossibly soft at this stage, but don’t despair, it will firm up as it cools. To slice it, leave the shortbread to cool for ca. 5 minutes so it will hold its shape (if you wait until the shortbread has come to room temperature it will be too firm to slice). Leave shortbread to cool completely before removing from the pan.
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Given the strong toasted corn flavour, I think a Singaporean ‘Kopi’ (served hot or poured over ice) would be a great match for this shortbread. Kopi is the coffee traditionally consumed in Singapore. Typically made with robusta beans, roasted with butter and sometimes sugar as well, Kopi is deeply aromatic, with toasted cereal and caramel notes. Once topped up with condensed milk it tastes just the way I imagine a Cereal Milk latte would taste. And while it may not be appealing to serious coffee connoisseurs, it is delicious in its own right and I have yet to come across anyone who did not fall hard for Kopi after trying it for the first time.

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I believe humans get a lot done, not because we’re smart, but because we have thumbs so we can make coffee.” Flash Rosenberg _MG_0296

Individual Victoria Sponge Cakes with Chamomile and Macerated Strawberries

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I am not the first person to pair Chamomile and Strawberries – there is a recipe for chamomile panna cotta and macerated strawberries in one of Heston Blumenthal’s books and a quick jaunt around the internets will bring up recipes for chamomile sorbet, chamomile custard and other sweet floral delights made with chamomile. Yet, it is a rare combination. Maybe unsurprising given a lot of us will have grown up sipping tepid chamomile tea while recuperating from yet another childhood illness.

Yet with herbs finding their way into baked goods more and more, it is about time we gave chamomile a second chance. Its flavour is delicate. Lemony, even a bit grassy, and undoubtedly floral. Moderation is key when using chamomile – too generous a helping will yield a bitter flavour yet, if you show too much restraint, the chamomile will be imperceptible.

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These individual Victoria Sponge Cakes are my idea of the perfect treat for a summery afternoon tea. Quicker and less involved than baking a regular-sized version. And the addition of chamomile, the use of macerated strawberries rather than jam and the topping with whipped creme fraiche are enough to give the original recipe a delicious make-over without straying too far from the original.

Depending on how many I am serving I also like baking individual Victoria Sponge cakes, using muffin tins to bake small, cupcake sized sponges. Rather than splitting these small cakes in half, I like simply topping each with a generous dollop of whipped cream or creme fraiche and a spoonful of my favourite jam, or even some macerated berries or fruit compote.

Head on over to Food& for the recipe.

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Pistachio Olive Oil Miniature Cakes

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I once read an article about that strange feeling of returning to a city where you once used to live. To discover that this city has not been preserved in some kind of time bubble. That life in this city has moved on. Your friends have made new friends, filling that small hole your departure might have left. Shops have shut or moved. Restaurants have come and gone. How odd this is, whether or not this city has a special place in your heart or whether you were in fact glad to leave it when you did.

It feels like I have spent most of my twenties either moving to London or moving away from London. After university and law school there I spent some time in Germany, working in a law firm to save up enough cash to travel around Argentina and Chile for a few months (which, incidentally is where I met Alessandro). I came back to London for my training contract only to leave again after 18 months for a 6 months stint in Brussels where I finished my training contract. It was back to London to start life as a lawyer before moving to Rome in 2012 and, earlier this year, to Brussels. From where I stand now, I probably won’t ever move back to London permanently (even if past behaviour might indicate otherwise and although my friends are secretly or not so secretly hoping I will come back one day). And while I have always had a love-hate relationship with the Big Smoke (as amazing as London is, it is not always an easy place to live), I miss it dearly and I try to go back as often as I can.

When I do go back, London doesn’t feel any different from when I used to live there (in fact whenever I sit on the 38 bus going towards Angel I have to remind myself that I no longer live just off Essex Road but instead should get off the bus at Angel tube station for the short walk to my sister’s flat by the Regent’s Canal). But London certainly looks different. Much like New York and other major capital cities, London is in a constant flux of shop openings and closings, pop-up events, new restaurants and cocktail bars, former dodgy neighbourhoods becoming the new ‘place to be’ etc. It is almost impossible to keep up with the momentum when you live in London – it is practically impossible when you no longer live there. But when I do go back I always enjoy trying a few new places together with my old favourite hang-outs. One of those new-to-me places that I recently went to for the first time is the ACE hotel in Shoreditch.

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A few months ago my sister Helena, my friend Verena and I had spent an afternoon spent wandering around East London before getting caught in a downpour. Given where we were, the ACE hotel seemed like the closest dry spot that would also serve us a cup of decent coffee. While we didn’t stay long in the end, I do remember rather vividly the mini pistachio olive oil cake I ordered. Because it was by far the best pistachio cake, the best olive oil cake, and in fact the best nut-flour based cake I have ever tasted. It was a far cry (in a good way) from most nut cakes I have eaten – not dense at all, rather very light and moist but without being in the slightest bit greasy. Bright green from the pistachios, the flavour of the cake was surprisingly delicate – a grassy olive oil contrasting with yet also rounding out the flavour of the pistachios, a little lemon zest adding some wonderful brightness.

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Pistachio flour, whether you make your own from whole pistachios or buy already ground pistachios is expensive, likely at least twice as expensive as almond flour, so I use it sparingly. Sparingly in the sense that I do not often bake with it but when I do it has to be a recipe where the flavour and colour of the pistachios will shine. I think that these miniature pistachio and olive oil cakes are as close to the cake I had at the ACE hotel as I can get without knowing their actual recipe. What these cakes most definitely have in common with the one I tried at the ACE hotel is the gorgeous green colour (which, sadly, does start to fade after the first day or so), and the wonderful balance of flavours between the pistachios, the grassy olive oil and the bright lemon zest. They were also a wonderful way to use the pistachio flour Alessandro bought me a while ago and which I had patiently been waiting to use until the right occasion.

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Individual Pistachio Olive Oil Miniature Cakes

Makes 9 miniature cakes

Ingredients
3 eggs, separated
110ml olive oil
30ml milk
135g sugar
135g pistachio flour
135g spelt flour
Pinch of salt
Zest of 1 lemon

Glaze: 2 tsp plain yoghurt, enough icing sugar to make a thick but pourable glaze (ca. 60g icing sugar provided your yoghurt is not too runny).

Optional: a small handful of chopped pistachios

Directions

Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius and grease 9 friand tins or 9 small cake or muffin tins.

In a large bowl whisk the egg yolks with an electric whisk while slowly pouring in the olive oil, followed by the milk. Add the sugar in one go and whisk to combine.

In a separate bowl whisk together the pistachio flour, the spelt flour, pinch of salt and the lemon zest. Fold into the egg yolk mixture.

In a clean bowl and using clean beaters, whisk the egg whites until stiff. Fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the batter to help loosen it (it will seem very stiff at this stage but will loosen with the addition of the egg whites). Add the remainder of the beaten egg whites and carefully fold into the batter, trying not to deflate the mixture.

Carefully spoon the mixture into your tins. Place in the oven and bake for ca. 25 minutes or until well risen and a wooden skewer inserted into the middle of the cakes comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tins for 5-10 minutes before carefully removing the cakes from their tins and setting aside to cool completely.

In a small bowl whisk together the yoghurt with just enough icing sugar to get a thick but pourable glaze. Top each cake with ca. 1 teaspoon of glaze. If using, scatter a few chopped pistachios over each cake.

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Pistachio and Orange Blossom Turkish Delight

_MG_0217 I have been back from my holidays for just under 2 weeks, yet it feels like I have been back for much longer. Unsurprising really, given that in the short time since flying back from Italy I have spent a couple of days in Zurich at a work conference, danced my socks off till the early morning hours after seeing two friends get married in Copenhagen and been on an overnight trip to London for a meeting.

And this weekend I am travelling again – this time back home to Germany to celebrate my grandma’s 94th birthday. While I am certainly in need of a little downtime to shake off that first bout of flu that I seem to have caught, thankfully, sleeping in my own bed in my parents’ house and waking up to the sound of my dad grinding the coffee beans for the first of many espressos that day, is one of the most relaxing ways to spend a weekend.

Before I pack my bags for this weekend, I wanted to just say hi and talk about this Turkish Delight. Until my first trip to Turkey with Alessandro about 6 years ago, I thought Turkish Delight only came in a lurid shade of pink and a flavour reminiscent of hotel soap bars (I blame Cadbury’s Turkish Delight filled chocolate bars for that misunderstanding). Once in Istanbul, I quickly learned that Turkish Delight comes in a myriad of colours, shapes and delicious flavours. _MG_0173

In Istanbul we tried bright pink cubes of pomegranate Turkish Delight studded with pistachios and rolled in crushed rose petals, chocolate-filled rolls of a white type of Turkish Delight that reminded me of soft Italian Torrone, and tiny cubes of Turkish Delight, the colour of the rainbow, flavoured with orange or rose blossom water or mastic and dusted with a mix of icing sugar and starch. The flavours of these little morsels were delicate and well-balanced. Their consistency a far cry from the tough and gelatinous versions of Turkish Delight I had tried before – here, the sweets were softer and had quite a bit of give (while at the same time being unmistakably chewy). Sweet, yet not overwhelmingly so.

While you can find Turkish Delight outside of Turkey with ease, it is not always easy to find real Turkish Delight (rather than the brightly coloured gelatine-set cubes full of artificial flavouring and artificial colouring often sold under its name). However, you can make the real deal at home. I will be honest, making Turkish Delight is a labour of love as it requires one’s undivided attention at the stove to stir the mixture for the better part of an hour. Yet, the recipe itself is simple enough (provided you correctly follow the various steps) and requires only a handful of ingredients, most of which you will likely already stock in your pantry. Besides, one batch will yield enough Turkish Delight to feed a small army and Turkish Delight keeps rather well – enough for me to make up for the somewhat lengthy preparation.

I shared my recipe for Pistachio and Orange Blossom Turkish Delight as part of Food52’s Small Batch Column – you can find the recipe here.

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Before I forget, if you recently picked up a copy o the UK’s Guardian newspaper on a Saturday, you might have come across another recipe of mine. As part of their reader recipe series, I sent in a recipe for pears poached in chamomile with goat’s cheese yoghurt and shortbread fingers. If those pears sound familiar, you are right – I first made the poached pears to serve alongside a Kamut cake. I have since discovered how wonderful these delicately flavoured pears taste alongside some thick yoghurt and something crunchy like shortbread fingers or oatmeal cookies. Here is a link to the recipe.

Oat and Cardamom Chocolate Florentines

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September is usually the month where things slowly return to normality, the emphasis being on slowly. Everyone is back from their annual holidays, schools are starting again and universities are getting busy preparing for the arrival of a new intake of freshers and the return of second and third year students. Yet this year, September is quickly shaping up to be rather busier for me than usual.

Work is the busiest it has been since I started my new job in Brussels. After my first day back after my holidays, it pretty much felt like I had never left and I spent part of my first weekend back in Brussels in the office. I also realised the other day that I am away for every single September weekend for one reason or another (various work related events in Switzerland and the Netherlands, a wedding in Copenhagen, a trip home to Germany to visit my family and a weekend in Turin to see Alessandro who is studying there for the next year).

As I am really enjoying my job at the moment and I love to travel I can’t really complain. It does mean however, that, at least for this month, the time I can spend on my sofa reading a good book with a cup of tea and one or two of these Oat and Cardamom Florentines is rather limited. A pity really, because as much as I hate how rainy Brussels can be, there is hardly anything better than sitting on your sofa, book in your lap, listening to the rain drum against the window panes, warming your hands on a cup of tea and getting your teeth stuck on one of these chewy little cookies.

Florentines, little disk-shaped cookies typically studded with slivered almonds, candied peel and glace cherries, one side usually covered in dark chocolate, always feel like a bit of a decadent treat to me. Maybe because they tend to be the kind of thing overpriced delis stock. Yet it is actually easy (and cheap) to make Florentines at home. They are a one bowl affair (2 if you go for the chocolate coating, which, admittedly, you should, as Florentines are even more delicious when the sweet and chewy cookies contrast with the snap and slightly bitter flavour of a thin layer of dark chocolate on one side of the cookie). And they come together in no time at all.

Florentines come in many shapes and sizes – thin and lacy not unlike brandy snaps, somewhat thick and chewy, almost like an oatmeal cookie, and with a myriad of combinations of different nuts and dried or candied fruit. So much so that I had no qualms whatsoever with taking a rather minimalist approach and coming up with a recipe that leaves out the  fruit entirely.

I took these Florentines to a friend’s party the other day and while I was initially worried they would not be to everyone’s liking (cardamom tends to be a divisive flavour), the plate of Florentines was finished in no time at all. I clearly should not have worried whether people would like them. Instead, I should have made a double batch as one of my friends had high hopes I had only brought a sampler of these Florentines and had additional supplies hiding at home.

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Oat and Cardamom Florentines

Note: traditional recipes tend to include dried fruit and/or candied peel. I have not tried adding dried fruit or candied peel to the below recipe but I reckon you could get away with adding about 50g in total of dried fruit and/or candied peel. If you would like to add more, I would reduce the weight of oats and almond slivers in proportion (otherwise you would have to adjust the weight of the sugar, honey and butter to ensure the mixture still holds together).

Ingredients

50g butter
50g light honey (e.g. acacia)
50g light brown sugar
50g slivered almonds
50g rolled jumbo oats
50g spelt flour
A pinch of salt
Seeds of 3 cardamom pods, finely ground

For the coating: 200g dark chocolate

Directions

Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius and line 2 sheet pans with parchment paper.

In a medium-sized saucepan melt the butter, honey and light brown sugar. Once the mixture is melted completely, take the saucepan off the heat.

Add the oats, slivered almonds, spelt flour, pinch of salt and ground cardamom and stir to combine. Set aside for 10 minutes (this will help the mixture stick together a bit better, making it easier to shape the Florentines).

Using a tablespoon drop 6 mounds of the mixture on each sheet pan, leaving some space for the Florentines to spread. Using your hands gently coax the little mounds into round cookies, flattening them slightly as you go along.

Bake for 10-12 minutes until the edges are just starting to colour and crisp up.

Let the Florentines cool on the sheet pan for 5 minutes before carefully moving them to a cookie rack to cool completely.

Once the Florentines have cooled down to room temperature, melt half the chocolate in a bowl over a pot of simmering water. Remove the bowl from the pot and add the remaining half of the chocolate. Once all the chocolate is melted, spoon a generous teaspoon worth of melted chocolate on the back of each Florentine, spreading it out to the edge of the Florentines with the back of the spoon. Set aside for the chocolate to set.

 

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Alfajores

_MG_9810The weather in Brussels is starting to feel positively autumnal with cool mornings, fierce winds and long rain showers. Instead of embracing the change of the seasons, I have escaped the impending colder months for a short holiday with Alessandro in Italy. After spending some time with his family we hit the road South to Puglia to relax on the beach, grill anything and everything the ocean has to offer down here and eat our weight in watermelon.

While the barbecue is warming up for tonight’s seafood feast, I just wanted to briefly say hi and talk about these alfajores I shared on Food52 the other day.

I first fell in love with these when I was studying Spanish in Argentina when I was fresh out of law school (which, incidentally, is also where Alessandro and I met). Argentina is known the world over for the quality of its steaks, and after having spent several months in Buenos Aires, I can attest that Argentinians are obsessed with meat. Their steaks weigh over two pounds each, and grown men are ridiculed if they so much as think about ordering the ‘chica’ version (which is still close to a pound of meat).

But if there’s one thing Argentinians obsess about even more than meat, it is dulce de leche. This confection, not unlike the French confiture de lait, finds its way into medialunas (the Argentinians’ answer to French croissants), into numerous ice cream flavors, onto all dessert menus, and into my favorite Argentinian cookies: alfajores.

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At their most basic, Argentinean alfajores are nothing more than cookies made from two flat disks of melt-in-your-mouth rich and buttery shortbread that are sandwiched together with a dollop of dulce de leche. Sometimes they are also rolled in coconut or dipped in white or dark chocolate. However they are served, alfajores are the perfect sweet antidote to the rather strong and dark coffee young Argentineans drink all day long as an attempt to keep their eyes open at work despite a social life that does not seem to provide for much shut-eye.

Head on over to Food52 for the recipe.

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Apricot, Almond and Saffron Cake

 

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I turned 30 a few days ago and as birthdays go, it was a relatively quiet one. Being quite introvert, I have never been a big fan of large birthday parties. While some friends urged me to have a big celebration, what with turning the big 3-0 and all, I am glad I celebrated the way I did, with my family, Alessandro, good food and plenty of cake and champagne.

Alessandro was the first to arrive in Brussels. The first couple of days he was here, we would meet for lunch somewhere halfway between my office and my flat and in the evenings we would cook something from our trip to the farmers’ market earlier that week. Then, on Thursday, my sister arrived straight from her holidays in Greece and we celebrated her arrival with a wonderful spread of fresh bread, tomatoes, olive oil from her friends’ family’s trees in Greece and local varieties of cheese saltier than the Mediterranean.

For my actual birthday on Friday, my parents came over from Germany. There was cake, a birthday card from my sister that made me cry (in a good way), my 94 year old grandmother who sang Happy Birthday to me over the phone, a wonderful birthday meal in a former leather factory here in Brussels and that was washed down with plenty of champagne and wine and a whole pile of presents to unwrap.

Both Alessandro and my sister Helena stayed with me which meant my usual supply of fresh almond milk was finished rather more quickly (I wish I could, at least in part, blame Alessandro for this, but Helena and I managed to do that just by ourselves). Several batches of almond milk later and I was left with rather a lot of almond pulp. So the day my parents, Alessandro and Helena left, I baked a cake. This apricot, almond and saffron cake.

I am a firm believer that perfectly ripe and juicy stone fruits should not be fussed with too much and are best eaten raw. But, when it is cake you fancy (maybe because you have been going through a litre of homemade almond and there is a lot of leftover almond pulp), cake it shall be. Ever since making these saffron cookies and this saffron and polenta shortbread, I have been meaning to combine saffron and stone fruits like apricots or peaches and I am glad I finally did. It is a heavenly combination.

Apricots can be bland and even a bit dry, but bake them into a clafoutis or a cake and even the blandest apricots will suddenly burst with flavour, their soft skins barely containing the sweet apricot juice, the flavour more tart than sweet and with a hint of muskiness that goes so well with saffron.

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Apricot, Almond and Saffron Cake

Note: A couple of months ago  I stopped buying milk and switched entirely to homemade almond milk. I make 500ml every 5 days or so which leaves me with 125g of almond pulp every time. I have been using a lot of the almond pulp to make grain-free granola with cacao nibs, brown sugar and sea salt (adapting the buckwheat granola recipe from Golubka’s new book). Nonetheless, slowly but surely, almond pulp is accumulating in my freezer. This cake is the perfect way for making a dent in my stash of almond pulp. 

Serves 8-12

Ingredients

150g butter, softened
150g sugar
4 eggs, separated
30g goat yoghurt
180g ground almonds or almond pulp leftover from making almond milk
180g wholemeal spelt flour or brown rice flour
2 pinches saffron, finely ground
12 small apricots, cut in half, stone removed

Directions

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius and grease a round cake pan.

2. In a large bowl beat the softened butter with the sugar until pale and fluffy, ca. 5 minutes. While continuing to beat on medium speed, add the egg yolks one by one, beating well after each addition. Stir in the goat yoghurt.

3. In a separate bowl whisk together the ground almonds, flour and the saffron. Fold into the butter, sugar and egg yolks.

4. In a clean bowl and using a clean hand whisk, beat the egg whites until firm. Fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the batter to loosen it before carefully folding in the rest, making sure not to deflate the batter too much. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and distribute the halved apricots over the top. Bake for ca. 60 minutes or until the cake is well rise and a knife inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.

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