Hazelnut meringue with roasted apricots and lavender

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I have historically had a very difficult relationship with making meringue. I am always painstakingly careful, diligently carrying out all of the ‘tricks of the trade’ that I’ve read up on: I whisk the meringue with spotlessly clean apparatus, ensuring there’s no fat; I use a metal bowl; I only use room temperature egg whites. And yet, more often than I like to admit, something goes wrong. My kitchen has seen all too many runny meringue mixtures or collapsed pavlovas, and a few tears of frustration along the way. This recipe, however, is fairly foolproof in that it doesn’t really matter what the meringue looks like. Mine collapsed a fair bit when it came out of the oven, and there were a few patches of meringue which had caught. None of this was a problem, of course, since it was destined to be slathered in cream and piled with fruit, and, being a flat ‘sheet’ meringue, it wasn’t as exposed as a normal pavlova.

This recipe is based on one written for Waitrose magazine by the lovely Georgina Hayden. The finished meringue has a perfect layering of flavour profiles: the combination of sweet, nutty, marshmallowy meringue, with the pillowy, tangy yoghurt-cream, finished with semi-sharp and floral apricots. Apricots are at their best at this time of year, and invariably taste better when cooked; if you can, roast them in a really floral honey (such as heather or orange blossom honey) to bring out the delicate flavour of the apricots. I’m not the biggest fan of using flowers in cooking, but lavender has a bewitching affinity with apricots – just be sparing with it so that your meringue doesn’t taste like soap!

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Serves 10-12

Ingredients

500g apricots, halved

3 tbsp floral honey

50ml white wine or rosé

250g caster sugar

5 large egg whites

1 tsp cornflour

1 tsp white wine vinegar

100g pack roasted, chopped hazelnuts

300ml double cream, softly whipped

1 tsp vanilla bean paste

200g Greek yoghurt

Fresh lavender flowers (optional)

 

  1. Preheat the oven to 220°C. Put the apricots in an oven-proof dish and drizzle with the honey and wine. Roast in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes until soft but not falling apart. Set aside to cool and lower the oven temperature to 180°C.
  2. For the meringue, line a large, rimmed baking tray (about 25cm x 30cm) with baking parchment. Put the egg whites in a large bowl with a pinch of salt and whisk until stiff peaks form, then gradually whisk in 250g sugar, one teaspoon at a time. In a small bowl, stir together the cornflour and vinegar, then whisk into the egg whites. Finally, fold in the hazelnuts. Spread the mixture out on the prepared tray.
  3. Bake the meringue for about 45 minutes, or until set and golden. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool completely.
  4. Stir together the whipped cream, yoghurt and vanilla bean paste, then spoon it over the meringue. Top with the roasted apricots and any roasting juices, and sprinkle over a few lavender flowers to finish. Serve immediately.

 

Lemon, almond and polenta cake

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There’s certainly a time and a place for multi-tiered, elaborate cakes. Over lockdown, I’ve particularly enjoyed devising increasingly complex and embellished celebration cakes for a number of quarantine birthdays and graduations, relishing the challenge of combining the perfect crumb structure with the right flavour profile, icing (cream cheese frosting, Italian meringue buttercream, or ganache?) and decorative finishing touches. However, I also find that there is equal – or even greater – joy to be found in simple, plain cakes; the kind you can cut and come again whenever the kettle is boiling. Over the last few years, social media platforms have been awash with ‘satisfying’ videos documenting cakes being cut, moulded, iced and decorated beyond recognition – think rainbow cakes, drip cakes, or cakes that have a hidden confectionary centre. While all of this is well and good, the phrase ‘style over substance’ comes to mind; these creations seem to consist primarily of saccharine icing and not much else. Yes, they look beautiful, but do they actually taste nice?

In my own kitchen, the most simple cakes are the most requested: Victoria sandwich, lemon loaf, maybe the odd carrot cake. It’s true that the simpler the cake, the less room there is to hide, but with the right recipe there’s little that can go wrong. This iconic River Café lemon, almond and polenta cake is the type of cake which is as at home alongside a cup of strong coffee as it is as an elegant dinner party pudding with a dollop of crème fraîche. It’s not iced, glazed, or soaked in syrup, but its beauty lies in its simplicity. The tender, damp cake is heady with lemon, and the polenta gives it a wonderful bite. It’s a one-bowl, one-tin kind of cake, and it’s flourless, too, so it’s naturally gluten free. For me, it’s the perfect cake for summer – moist, zesty, and somehow light despite the outrageously high butter content.

The original recipe (taken from the first River Cafe cookbook) makes a 30cm (12 in) cake, which is uncommonly large, so I’ve converted the quantities to make a standard 23cm cake (hence the slightly random measurements).

Torta di Polenta, Mandorle e Limone

338g unsalted butter, softened

338g caster sugar

228g ground almonds

1 tsp good vanilla essence

4 very large eggs

zest of 3 large, unwaxed lemons

juice of 1 lemon

169g polenta

1 heaped tsp baking powder

pinch of salt

 

  1. Preheat the oven to 160°C/325°F/Gas 3. Butter and flour a 23cm springform cake tin.
  2. Beat the butter and sugar together until pale and light. Stir in the ground almonds and vanilla. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Fold in the lemon zest and lemon juice, the polenta, baking powder and salt.
  3. Spoon into the prepared tin and bake in the preheated oven for 50-55 minutes or until set. The cake will be a deep brown on top.
  4. Leave to cool in the tin before releasing.