What do we talk about when we talk about cake?

White chocolate and cardamom rosewater sponge

We went to Victoria and Helder’s for dinner. I told her I’d been to watch my nephew Angus play rugby. This is how long we’ve known each other. He was born just after we met. He’s now well over six feet tall and learning to drive.

Candle lit drinks

In those seventeen years, we’ve been each other’s autodial for crises large and small, deadlines and hemlines, heartbreak and house hunting, mortgages and marriages. She held my hand on my wedding day; I made the cake and a speech (complete with quotations from the Mary Tyler Moore show) at hers.

On this most recent sunny evening, we tucked into Helder’s barbecued cauliflower and spatchcocked chicken. He’s Portuguese. He knows his way around a grill. And I brought along a cake for pudding.

Helder's BBQ

Cake: the shortest measurable distance between now and then, something about its comforting sweetness pulls memories from their recesses better than any truth drug. Cutting into a big, soft slice is the culinary equivalent of ‘Once upon a time…’

Slice of cake

Our husbands really like each other, which is great as when they go off on some kind of techno gizmo riff, V and I can indulge in all of our ‘Remember when…’ conversations.

Like the time when, in our single days, we used to take each other out to dinner on Valentine’s Day.

Like the time when I was being pursued by a Nigerian musician and I forced her to come with me to an Ogoni wedding in a community centre in Dollis Hill. In a wedding album far, far away there are pictures of us drinking neat gin out of the bottle cap with the band.

Like the time we hitched a ride in a lorry up the Holloway Road with a French waiter we’d kidnapped from our favourite local restaurant. We were headed for a snooker club. This was in the days of stricter licensing laws and it was one of the few places you could get a drink after midnight, but you needed a bloke to sign you in.

Like the time she was invited to a reception at Number 10 and spent all day working out what her perfect opening line to the Prime Minister would be. When the moment came, what came out of her mouth was ‘Gordon, do you realise you have ink all over your sleeve?’

Like the time when I got a call for a job I really, really wanted and was so stressed out, over prepared and sleep deprived by the time I got to the interview, when the questioning got challenging my best retort was a tetchy ‘Look, you called me. If you think you’re going to make me cry, you’re not.’

Eyjafjallajökull fortold?

Victoria and Helder’s son Luca, my gorgeous godson, spent a lot of time in April making volcanoes. Then Eyjafjallajökull erupted. We are watching very closely for what he next moulds in clay, in case it’s a Tory government.

White chocolate and cardamom rosewater sponge

White chocolate and cardamom rosewater sponge

This recipe is from Fiona Cairns’ cake-alicious book, Bake and Decorate: Tea Time Luxury (Quadrille, £19.99). It’s full of fabulous sweet treats, from fondant fancies and rosebud fairy cakes to gilded chocolate tiffin and strawberry, mint and balsamic cheesecake. It’s also crammed with Fiona’s great cake decorating tips, finely honed after years of being baker to the stars. It’s beautiful too, with photographs by the wonderful Laura Hynd. Laura took gorgeous pictures for Mark Diacono’s book, Taste of the Unexpected, which comes out in the autumn and for which I wrote the recipes.

Serves 8

130g unsalted butter, softened, plus more to grease the tin
20 green cardamom pods (or 1 tsp ground)
170g self-raising flour
100g white chocolate, chopped
130g white caster sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract

FOR THE GANACHE:
100g white chocolate, finely chopped
100ml double cream
2 tsp rosewater

FOR THE GLACE ICING:
150g icing sugar, sifted

Preheat the oven to 180C/Fan 170C/350F/Gas mark 4. Fiona Cairns makes this cake in a heart-shaped tin measuring 23cm at its widest point and 6.5cm deep, as did I, but she suggests a 20cm round, 7.5cm deep tin as an alternative. Butter the tin very well, then line with baking parchment.

Cardamom pods

Deseed the cardamom pods: split them with the point of a knife, empty out the little seeds and grind them to a powder in a pestle and mortar. There may be a few pieces of husk mixed in, so sift the cardamom powder together with the flour to remove them. (My note: or use 1tsp ground cardamom. I like the one from lovely spice company, Steenbergs,  – they do mail order.)

Place the chocolate in a food processor with half the sugar. Process until as fine as possible. Take 2tbsp hot water – not boiling or the chocolate will seize – and leave it until you can just dip in your finger. Dribble it into the chocolate, processing until most has melted. Add the remaining sugar and butter, cut into knobs, and process well. Add the eggs, flour and vanilla and mix again. Don’t worry if there are tiny pieces of chocolate left in the batter.

Pour into the tin and bake for 25-30 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Rest in the tin for a few minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack, removing the papers. Leave until absolutely cold.

Meanwhile, make the ganache. Place the chocolate in a bowl and, in a pan, bring the cream and rosewater to the boil. Pour the cream over the chocolate, leave it for a few seconds, then gently stir until smooth. Leave until cold, chill slightly, then whisk until it thickens.

White chocolate

The ganache is delicious and would be wonderful in other cakes too.

Filling

Filled

Sandwiched

Split the cake in half and invert so the flat base forms the top. Fill with the ganache and top with the second layer of cake. Place the icing sugar in a small bowl and add 1 ½-2 tbsp water until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Pour it over the cake and allow to trickle down the sides. (My note: I found it took about 3tbsp to get the icing trickle-able, but also that it was perhaps a little sweet, so sweet it overwhelmed the delicate cardamom and rosewater flavours. Next time, I might add a little lemon juice or rosewater to the water to thin it.)

To decorate, I scattered some sugared rose petals over the top. In summer, it would be lovely with real rose petals, if you have a good, unsprayed source.

Wayward tarts. It’s not you, it’s me.

DSCN1406

Look, I tried my best. I’m sure it was my fault. Two days of fizz-fuelled festivities blunted my baking arm. I’d promised Lady de B two tarts for Easter Sunday lunch, Blood orange meringue pie and Black bottom pie from Lindsey Remolif Shere’s Chez Panisse Desserts so I got up at 6.30am on Sunday to make good on my promise.

Can I start by saying I love this book? Many a summer evening has ended with scoops of its Beaumes-de-venise ice cream melting alongside slices of apricot tart. In autumn and winter, its apple crisp or espresso cognac mousse are to be found on my table almost as often as salt and pepper. But I just couldn’t get my tarts to behave. The blind-baked tart shells cracked like river beds in a drought, requiring patching, cursing and coaxing into usefulness. I struggled on. They were fine but not the perfection I was seeking.

But no matter. I was playing to the home crowd, those most likely to forgive my failings. Besides, after a feast of Lady de B’s homemade gravadlax with mustard sauce, barbecued shoulders of lamb, cheese and salad, the tarts vanished quickly enough so they can’t have been too horrible.

DSCN1498 Barney and Patrick play in the garden.

DSCN1413 So many glasses, so little time…

DSCN1405 Richard made collages of parties past and laminated
them into placemats.

DSCN1529 Tucking in.

DSCN1479 Lady de B’s home-cured gravadlax with mustard sauce
and cucumber salad

DSCN1507 Barbecued shoulder of lamb with roast potatoes and
cauliflower gratin

DSCN1514 I think Kim and Steve raided a particularly fine French restaurant to come up with all of these fabulous cheeses.

DSCN1532 The smell of the cheese brings Patrick to the table.

DSCN1556 Wayward tart No. 1: Blood orange meringue pie

DSCN1561 Wayward tart No. 2: Black bottom pie

DSCN1612 Naughty Claudia feeds Barney at the table.

Chez Panisse blood orange curd

DSCN1398

What was delicious and easy was the blood orange curd I used to fill the meringue pie so at least I can offer you that. I’ll try the tarts again and post them later.

Makes about 1 ½ cups

2 blood oranges (about 275g/10oz)
1 tbsp lemon juice
¼ tsp cornstarch/flour
¼ cup/55g caster sugar
1 egg
4 egg yolks
6 tbsp/85g unsalted butter

Wash the oranges and finely grate the zest into a non- corroding bowl. Juice the oranges, strain 7tbsp of the juice into the bowl, and add the lemon juice. Mix the cornstarch/flour and the sugar – this prevents lumps from forming when it’s mixed with the eggs. You may omit the cornstarch/flour unless you are filling a tart that you want to brown. Put the egg and yolks in a small, non-corroding saucepan and whisk the sugar-cornstarch/flour mixture into them. Stir in the juice and zest mixture. Don’t be alarmed if it seems to curdle; it will smooth out later. Cut the butter into several pieces and add to the mixture.

Cook over a low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon as for crème anglaise. Remove from the heat and stir for a minute or two until the heat of the pan dissipates so the custard won’t curdle on the bottom. Pour into a small container and chill.

I’ll raise a tart to that…

The table's set By the way, we never eat anyone’s health, always drink it. Why should we not stand up now and then and eat a tart to somebody’s success?

Jerome K. Jerome

So I’m still picking glitter out of the floorboards and suspect I will be for some time.

We returned from my parents’ just in time to prepare our New Year’s Eve party, planned as an elegant dinner for six – all (bar one heavenly Portugeezer) people we’d spent Millennium Eve with. I was looking forward to it, rather loving the fact that in a world where things change at a terrifying pace, some friendships remain constant. Those who were dear to us then are dear to us now, their presence woven like the weft through the (time) warp of our lives. But then, over the course of the morning, the party grew to twelve adults and four children. More linens, more glasses, more food, more fun. More angels at my table.

Sean and I spent a happy day getting everything together. We chilled champagne, roasted meats, peeled vegetables, whisked dressings. I made a delicious chocolate cake, but given our increased numbers I needed a second pudding I could pull together from things in the larder.

I made some mincemeat in November. Not just any mincemeat either, the world’s best mincemeat, from Pam Corbin’s River Cottage Handbook No2: Preserves, fat with fruit and fragrant with brandy. I’d used up half the jar making mince pies for the highlight of my social calendar, The Dog Walkers’ Christmas Party in Clissold Park, but I still had quite a bit left.

Mince pies in the parkA cold party......with warm mulled wine At least someone dressed up!The dog walkers’ party in Clissold Park

I threw together a quick tart, with pastry from the freezer, a couple of thinly sliced apples and a walnut-y crumble topping. If you have any mincemeat left over, it’s a great way to use it up.

At 4am, surrounded by a flotsam of plates and glasses and ends of cheese, I sat at our marble counter with my dearest friend in the world sipping the last of the champagne as our husbands and her children dozed in beds and on sofas around the house. We’ve known each other for almost twenty years. Our lives have changed a lot. But the one thing that drew us together in the first place remains constant. Neither of us ever wants the party to end. We may not be dancing on the speakers any more, we may have swapped the night bus for taxis and (sometimes) cava for premier cru, but we’re always there, ‘talking nonsense’ when less doughty, more sensible souls are tucked up in their beds. How lucky I feel to be entering a new decade doing the very thing that has brought me so much happiness over so many years. So here’s to nonsense, here’s to old friends and new ones, here’s to constancy and here’s to change. I’ll raise a tart to that.

Happy New year!The spreadA bit of beefHoping for some beef... Damian's new motto

Mincemeat crumble tart

Mincemeat crumble tart

1 sheet of ready-roll all-butter shortcrust pasty
2 crisp eating apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
About 200g mincemeat, enough for a nice thick layer
180g plain flour
70g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
50g finely chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Butter a 22cm loose-bottomed flan tin.

Line the flan tin with the pastry, letting the excess hang over the sides, and place on a baking tray. Line with baking parchment filled with baking beans and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the paper and baking beans. Brush some egg wash over the base and put it back into the oven for eight minutes. Trim off the excess pastry with a sharp knife.

While the tart shell is baking, make the crumble. Whisk together the flour and sugar. Rub in the butter until it is the texture of coarse crumbs. Stir in the walnuts.

Line the tin with a layer or two of sliced apples, spoon over a good thick layer of mincemeat and sprinkle on the crumble topping. Bake until golden, about 35-40 minutes. Serve warm or cold with custard, cream or crème fraîche.

Happy endings

Lemon Possets When I brought these to the table, Beth instantly took a picture and sent it to her husband Tom. As he was on stage trying to make people laugh at the time, I’m sure he was thrilled.

It was my turn to host my book club. Normally, we have a wild and wonderful smörgåsbord, with everyone bringing a dish, but what with it being at my house and me being a control freak and everything, I couldn’t resist making the whole meal.

Some of us had been to see Julie and Julia together, so I decided on a simple French feast which would give me a chance to make Julia’s Boeuf Bourguignon again. (Do you do this too? If I love a dish, I often make it a few times in quite rapid succession so that my hands and eyes can ‘learn’ it.)

Dining Table Reading is thirsty work.

Figs

As a nibble to go with drinks, I made warm Rosemary Cashews from Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris. They’re so simple, they’ve become a staple in this house – as essential to the cocktail hour as ice and good vodka. I scattered 500g of unsalted cashews on a baking sheet and toasted them at 180C/350F/Gas mark 4 for eight minutes or so until they were golden and then tossed them in a tablespoon of melted butter, a tablespoon of flaky sea salt, two teaspoons of light Muscovado sugar, two tablespoons of finely minced rosemary and half a teaspoon of sweet, smoked paprika (Ina uses cayenne, but I didn’t have any in the drawer, so paprika it was). Serve warm and watch them vanish.

To start, I made a quick salad of leaves dressed in mustardy vinaigrette and put a couple of little toasts topped with grilled goat’s cheese and some finely sliced pickled sweet chilli peppers scattered over the top. For our main event, of course it was the glorious boeuf bourguignon with boiled fir apple potatoes and buttered peas (thank you, Louisette Bertholle).

As a sweet finale, I made lemon posset, that most traditional of English puddings. To create a little entente cordiale on the plate, I served them in those little glass yoghurt pots I hauled back from France in the summer and David Lebovitz’s flawless Lemon-Glazed Madeleines on the side. Just like the boeuf bourguignon, they were so meltingly delicious, they sent me into obsessive-compulsive overdrive and I couldn’t resist making them again the next day. I took a batch to the park as a Friday treat for my 9am dog walking posse (pack?) and they vanished quicker than you can say ‘fetch’.

Madeleines 2 My second batch of madeleines in two days.

PS We read Raymond Chandler’s Farewell my Lovely. By some miracle, when Séan came home from the football (Arsenal 2 Olympiakos 0 – come on you Gooners!) at 10pm, we were actually talking about the book.

Lemon Posset

Lemon Posset ‘It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.’

I made 75 of these for Paula and Jack’s wedding a few weeks ago. They’re the perfect dessert in my opinion, tart and sweet, rich but refreshing, so simple to make and yet they taste as though you’ve spent hours in the kitchen. Also, you can make them the day before, which is always a good thing.

600ml double cream
150g caster sugar or vanilla sugar
The juice of 2 large lemons

Serves 6

Pour the cream into a large saucepan (it will bubble up very enthusiastically – you have been warned) and add the sugar. Warm gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar, then bring to the boil and boil for exactly 3 minutes, without stirring. Remove from the heat and whisk in the lemon juice. Strain the mixture into a jug then pour into 6 small glasses. Cool, cover then refrigerate for 4 hours before serving.

Chocolate, cherries and secrets

Cherry Clafoutis

My gorgeous nephew is coming to stay for a few days. We have a busy itinerary – a football match, a comedy show (Tom, we’re expecting big laughs. No pressure.), restaurants of course, and a day strolling around some of Oxford’s beautiful colleges. Naturally, there will be food, lots of it, given that this is the 4,000 calorie a day boy. Angus loves chocolate, so I’m planning on revisiting a pudding we made together in France. It’s decadent, delicious and easy. If you’re not on a 4,000 calorie a day diet, then my tip is not to eat the whole thing at once.

Chocolate and cherry clafoutis

I’ve tweaked this recipe from one I discovered in a heavenly book I bought on our trip to France, Le B.A-ba du Chocolat by France’s own Nigella, Julie Andrieu. I overcooked it slightly as I was waiting for the slivered almonds to brown a little. When I make it again, I’ll either leave them out altogether or toast them a bit before sprinkling them over the top.

Serves 4-6

The ingredients

80g of plain chocolate, about 70%
200ml single cream or crème fraîche
50g caster sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
30g plain flour
100g ground almonds
40 cherries
1tbsp Amaretto, kirsch or crème de cacao (optional)
20g slivered almonds, very lightly toasted (optional)
A little butter, softened, for greasing
A good pinch of salt

Whisking Whisking…

Stirring Stirring…

Folding Folding…

Pouring Pouring…

Serving Serving.

Preheat the oven to 150C/300F/Gas mark 2. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water.

Beat together the cream and sugar in a bowl, then stir in the eggs and liqueur if using. Fold in the flour, salt and ground almonds, then the melted chocolate. Butter four ramequins or one baking dish and distribute the cherries evenly in the dish/es. Do not stone them, unless you are serving them to children or the very absent minded – the cherries are much more juicy and flavoursome cooked whole. You could even leave the stalks in, as they look quite marvellous sticking out of the batter, though I’d only do this if I weren’t adding the slivered almonds. Pour over the chocolate batter, sprinkle on the lightly toasted almonds if using, and cook for 18-20 minutes, until just set but still a bit wobbly. Allow to cool slightly before serving.

And now for the secrets. Two of my favourite bloggers, Catherine at The Unconfidential Cook , and Lady P at Madly Creative recently passed onto me these two lovely awards, the Kreativ Blogger Award and the Honest Scrap Award. I’m supposed to share seven things about myself and then pass on the award to seven bloggers I admire.

Kreativ Blogger Awardhonest_award-300x290 I hope you all enjoy my nominees as much as I do. They are:

Cookie Pie, because her blog is a warm, friendly place to land on a frantic day.
Gratinée, because she writes exquisitely and her deep understanding of and love for food shines from every paragraph.
Nora the Kitchen ‘Splorer, because I love her recipes and am near addicted to her Wednesday Round Up of Deliciousness.
Real Food Lover, because she makes you think, she makes you cook, what could be better?
Syrian Foodie in London, because I want to make every single one of his recipes.
Through My Kitchen Window, because Mariana is just wonderful, even though every trip to her blog gives me a severe case of lifestyle envy.
Writing Junkie, because Avril writes so inspirationally, so clearly, so beautifully about the writing life.

As I received two awards at around about the same time which require me to do the same thing, please take your pick of the one you would like to receive. If you don’t participate in awards, then do accept this as a very small thank you for the pleasure your blogs have given me over the past few months. If you would like to participate, then post the award, link back to me and send it on to seven more people. Finally, and most interestingly, list seven curious, crazy, interesting things about yourself…

Here are mine…

1. In 1990 and 1991, I lived in Moscow. I watched tanks roll down the street, heard Pavarotti sing in a sports hall, bribed policemen with cartons of red Marlborough and learned that -20C in dry-aired Moscow feels less cold than -1C in damp old London town. I went to tea parties at embassies and met jittery young anarchists in Gorky Park. I watched Soviet statues being pulled down and Tesco supermarkets going up. And this is where I really, really learned how to cook.

2. My secret vice is vice. If I hadn’t followed the ink-splattered path into journalism, I would have loved to be a detective. Instead, I’m addicted to cop shows, crime shows, and have an unsavoury weakness for anything billed ‘based on a true story’. If I go to bed before my husband, it’s testament to his courage that he’ll curl up beside me as I fall asleep watching Snapped: Women Who Kill.

3. I have a difficult relationship with change. Hot, angry tears pricked at my eyes when the balsa-headed philistines at Hackney Council replaced the lovely old lampposts in our high street with hideous modern ones. I realise this attitude has its drawbacks. If all humankind were like me, we’d still be living in caves. But what wonderfully appointed and well catered caves they would be.

4. Sean and I met and married so quickly, when I went to apply for our marriage licence, I had no idea what his middle name was.

5. After a lifetime of owning cats, two years ago we got a dog. When he snuggled onto my lap, I found myself questioning whether he was happy or not. Subconsciously I was waiting for him to purrrrrr.

6. I’m a pretty easy-going person but I feel primal, violent, seething rage when I see people dropping litter. Come the Licked Spoon Revolution, they’ll all be buried in a pit of their own filth.

7. As a young graduate working in the slave-wage environment of book publishing, my idea of wealth was being able to afford black taxis, good cheese, cut flowers and hardback books whenever I wanted them. Twenty years on, this is still my definition of luxury. I pinch myself every time I jump into a cab with a slab of Colston Bassett, a bunch of billowy roses and some artfully jacketed tome tucked into my market basket.

It takes a village …

Patriot jellies
Our friend Stuart could be the sweetest person I know. He has a supernatural ability to divine whether an occasion merits a cup of tea or a stiff gin, he remembers birthdays, charms small children, sends puppies and kittens into paroxysms of joy just by his gentle presence. He’s also gloriously handsome, a quality he wears as carelessly as an old overcoat. Stuart’s always taking care of everyone else so we couldn’t let his 30th birthday pass by without, for once, taking care of him, fêting his fortuitous presence in our lives in a fittingly exuberant manner.
Lady de B and I decided a few weeks ago that we would host a party for him in her garden. He’s Australian, so we thought a posh surf and turf barbecue would be appropriate, a late lunch starting at three o’clock. Simple.
Lady de B and I spent days connected by the umbilical cord of telephone, email and Blackberry discussing the merits of raspberries over passion fruit, marinades or rubs, platters or bowls. We knew we couldn’t do it alone, so we called in the troops. Helder and Steve wired the garden for lights and sound; Kim sent over a restaurant’s worth of white china; Séan got up at 5am to collect flowers and fruit from New Covent Garden market; James spent Saturday morning blowing up inflatable kangaroos and hanging them from the trees along with enough flags and bunting to do an ocean liner proud; Paul ran around town collecting loaves, meringues and prawns; Sarah graciously served up lychee martinis and elastoplasts into the early hours; Alex and the beautiful seňoritas washed a mountain of dishes. We ate and drank and danced until three in the morning.
P1160281Sunny startTime to stop taking pictures!
And then, on Sunday, we did it all again. Ten of us assembled to tidy up and rehash the scandals of the night before. It was a beautiful day so we laid the table in the garden and served up a banquet of leftovers and gossip. By seven o’clock, as we sipped reviving glasses of Sauternes and spooned soft Valençay cheese onto slices of walnut bread, I think we all felt very lucky indeed, blessed in the friendships that have steered us through heartbreak and triumph to find us all together, sitting in the dappled sunshine on a Sunday afternoon in July.

Feet up the next day…All relaxed
Stuart’s birthday menu
Stuart’s birthday spread ~
Bellinis and Kir Royale
Champagne
~
Muhamarra ~
Muhamarra
Bagna Cauda
Radishes with butter & sea salt
Marinated olives
Roasted Chickpeas
~Rib of beef with mustard & horseradish crust ~
Rib of beef with mustard & horseradish crust
Roasted Carliston chillies
Hard core prawns
Director & Lincolnshire sausages
~
Sweet potato gratin
Roasted aubergine & tahini salad
Roasted beetroot & feta salad
Mange tout, green bean, hazelnut & orange salad
Minted new potatoes
Green salad
~
Pavlova with summer fruits
Patriot jellies
Chocolate dipped strawberries
Lychee martinis
~
Colston Bassett Stilton
Parmesan
English & Irish goat cheeses
Homemade de Beauvoir pear chutney
Figs and sultana grapes
Saturday’s pavlova becomes Sunday’s Eton Mess, eaten from one big plate in the middle of the table, with ten spoons.
Eton messEton Mess going.......gone

Slices of heaven

Cake

After three hold-your-breath busy days, I was thrilled to spend this morning with one of my favourite people, my godson Luca who is four, no, sorry not four, ‘Nearly FIVE, Auntie Debora’. He’d spent yesterday with his godfather and had a lovely time at ‘Pizza Express, where there’s a POOL on the ROOF!’ Now I know for a fact that they had lunch at Shoreditch House, the chi-chi-la-la members’ club down the road where annual membership costs the equivalent of 70 Pizza Express pizzas.

Luca loves to be in the kitchen. Since he was old enough to sit on one of our high stools, he has done a hero’s job of washing up at our sink. A heap of plastic picnic cups and plates bobbing in the suds would absorb him for long enough for his mum and me to have a cup of tea and catch up.

Baking Cupboard These days, we’re a long way from Fairy Liquid and soggy sleeves. Luca has a patissière’s eye for detail and insists on tasting and testing at every stage, particularly when there’s chocolate involved. There’s always chocolate involved. My baking cupboard is Luca’s Garden of Earthly Delights, with its tubs of sprinkles, crystallised flowers and bags of rainbow sugar. Each container has to be examined and pondered over, before we cut it down to a shortlist of three or four which will make it onto the final cake. Today, our chocolate cake was resplendent with vermicelli, a few yellow sugar roses, a sprinkling of purple sugar and a twinkle of silver balls. We’re nothing if not exuberant.

Luca mixes and Barney watches Luca mixes it up
We also made pizza, proper pizza with a real, thin crust (Richard, I promise I’m not entering into a wicked game of Godparents: The Rivals). Just as we’d debated over sprinkles and sugar roses, so we discussed our toppings in enormous detail. Arrabiata sauce, olives (well, Luca’s Daddy is Portuguese) some dollops of fromage frais and a grating of Parmesan, then some basil leaves and a drizzle of basil oil when they came out of the oven. I have to say, they were a little pizza perfection and when I suggested saving a slice for Mummy, Luca was most emphatic. ‘I am going to eat it ALL. I’m nearly FIVE.’

Great pizza crust

The pizzas

This is a simplified, slightly adapted version of my friend Daniel Stevens’ recipe for pizza from his book River Cottage Handbook No.3 Bread. If you are at all interested in baking bread – and certainly if you think you’d ever like to build a brick oven in your back garden – I’d highly recommend it. He’s a baker from his flour-dusted shoes to his elegant, dough encrusted fingertips. You couldn’t be in safer hands.

Makes 4 large pizzas

Slice of pizza 
250g plain flour
250g strong bread flour
5g powdered yeast
10g salt
325ml warm water
About 1tbsp olive oil

A small handful of semolina or polenta for dusting the baking sheets

In a mixer with a dough hook attachment, mix together the flours, yeast, salt and water on a slow speed then stir in the olive oil. Mix for about 10 minutes until smooth and silky (you can certainly do this by hand, it will just take longer). Put your dough into a warm, lightly oiled bowl, cover with a plastic bag and leave to rise until doubled in size. Luca and I recommend Finding Nemo while waiting for the dough to prove.

Whack your oven up as high as it will go and let it come to temperature before you tip the risen dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide into four. Mould each quarter into rounds with your hands then roll them out as thinly as you can and place them on your semolina-dusted baking sheets. Add your toppings – as Coco Chanel famously said, ‘Elegance is refusal’, so add them thoughtfully and sparingly. An overloaded pizza is not a good thing (the same principal does not apply to chocolate cake, just so you know). Put them in the oven and bake for about 7 minutes, until golden and bubbling. Eat quickly, in thin slices, with your hands. I could never trust a person who eats a pizza with a knife and fork.

End of pizza days

Luca’s baby brother Leo arrives to help, and looks very fetching in a mixing bowl.

Leo