Lemon, Almond and Pistachio Loaf Cakes

Sometimes baking is all the better for a close connection with nature. I remember several years ago, cycling to a nearby farm from my parents’ house to buy duck eggs, then collecting primroses out in the woods to be painted and sugared at home. It was a delicious cake, the duck eggs adding a rich golden lustre to the sponge, so simple yet wonderful.

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Although it’s been a while since I last popped out for a walk just because, this Spring the weather has been so glorious that I couldn’t quite help myself. It’s just wonderful to be outside right now. Mossy little dells carpeted with tiny golden and white flowers, violets peeping between hedgerows, and clusters of primroses everywhere.

So really, I just felt like baking something sweetly simple. A citrussy cake, laced with ground pistachios, almonds, drenched in zesty lemon syrup, and finished off with some flaked almonds.

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Next time I would put the flaked almonds straight onto the cake before baking, instead of toasting and sprinkling on afterwards.

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Lemon, Pistachio and Almond Loaf Cakes

Adapted from River Cafe Cookbook Easy

For the cake:

  • 125g lightly salted butter
  • 125g golden caster sugar
  • 2 eggs, lightly whisked
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 20g plain flour
  • 50g pistachios, finely ground
  • 60g ground almonds
  • flaked almonds

For the syrup:

  • 30g golden caster sugar
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • juice of 1 lemon

Preheat the oven to 150˚C.

Beat the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Then gradually whisk in the eggs until completely incorporated. Whisk in the lemon zest and vanilla extract, then fold in the flour and ground nuts until completely mixed in. Spoon the mixture into mini loaf cases and sprinkle over the flaked almonds. Bake for 25 minutes until golden and springy on top.

Set the cakes aside to cool.

Meanwhile, make the syrup. Combine the lemon juice, zest and sugar into a small pan. Over a medium heat, cook the liquid until it has reduced and become syrupy. Using a teaspoon, spoon the syrup over the cakes.

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The Perfect Dark Chocolate Cake

Chocolate cake, universally loved around the world. With so many recipes, which one honestly comes closest to perfection?

Firstly, I had to choose sides. Chocolate cakes fall into two distinct camps. The first – fluffy spongy cakes that are perfect for layering, icing and Birthday parties. Popular, pretty, actually pretty good – but not what I wanted to go for.

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I’m referring to the second category. The dense and the dark; the tortes and rich slivers of 70% cocoa, requiring minimal adornment. They’re given seductive names in restaurants, they never lose their place on dessert menus, and I simply wanted to try more.

The recipes all startlingly similar, relies on the heady combination of butter and melted chocolate , with whisked egg whites for airiness. Some add ground almonds, others just a touch of flour. I’ve made and loved Sophie Dahl’s recipe, but was curious to try out some others to find out just how different the results could be. I tested in total five popular recipes, to see how they differed and which one (would I be able to decide?) would be closest to perfection? Most of these recipes are designed to serve at least 8 people, so I halved the ingredients to bake the cakes in a 15cm tin. It worked very well, so if you are baking for smaller numbers I can happily recommend this.

  1. Sophie Dahl’s Flourless Chocolate Cake
  2. Chocolate and Zucchini’s Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cake
  3. David Lebowitz’s Chocolate Cocoa Nib Cake
  4. River Cafe’s Chocolate Nemesis

Sophie Dahl’s recipe is one that I have made a few times, and I have always been happy with the results. The cake is very, very rich, but delightfully satisfying. The method is very failsafe, and although a food processor or blender is needed, there’s no lengthy use of hundreds of mixing bowls. A deep crater forms in this cake, which forms a great receptacle for cream and fresh fruit, and there is a textural contrast between crisp exterior, and melting, almost mousse-like interior.

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David Lebowitz’s recipe was actually adapted from one he found scribbled inside the men’s toilets inside an upmarket Parisian restaurant. You can read the full story here.

This cake doesn’t sink as much as Sophie Dahl’s. The combination of less sugar, and a shorter baking time means you don’t get the development of that very crisp crust, but I quite like it this way, and the cocoa nibs provide textural contrast.

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Although this recipe requires 3 bowls, it was remarkably quick and simple. With an electric whisk, you can easily whip this up within an hour. I enjoyed it very much, but I think Sophie Dahl’s cake won this particular contest by a narrow margin.

Next up is this recipe from popular French blog Chocolate and Zucchini. The results are very, very good. It is adapted from another popular recipe by Trish Deseine, but Clotilde Dusoulier has reduced the sugar, and cut out one egg. The method was even easier – no electric appliances needed – and the whole thing could be made in 1 pan, which is always a bonus.

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The cake was utterly delicious – unctuously dark and rich, with Clotilde’s genius addition of a sprinkle of salt flakes on top. At first I was sceptical, but the way the salt dissolves against your tongue produces a magnificent burst of chocolatey flavour that I think would be impossible to replicate any other way.

The fourth and final recipe I tried was the most infamous chocolate cake of them all. River Cafe’s Chocolate Nemesis is notorious for its difficulty, and I approached it with considerable apprehension. I opted to use the recipe for the Easy Small Nemesis, which still seemed pretty complex  – making syrup, whisking eggs for what felt like hours, and boiling the kettle three times for the deep water-bath that the cake luxuriates in as it bakes. I had a bit of an issue with the water-bath, and my cake tin not being watertight, but all was well in the end. The finished result was full-blown chocolate intensity. It doesn’t get richer than this.

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There were a lot of other chocolate cake recipes I wanted to try, but for the sake of my wallet, waistline, and sanity, didn’t get round to baking. In particular I omitted flourless recipes incorporating ground almonds, such as Elizabeth David’s Chocolate Cake, but I have no doubt they are just as good.

So best cake out of them all? I would have to stay that Chocolate and Zucchini’s Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cake is a resounding winner. It’s a combination of two very good things – easy to make, and absolutely flipping delicious. The Chocolate Nemesis is impressive stuff, but oh so complicated. The others? Still delicious but ousted!

Chocolate Nemesis Cake

I’d like this year to be the year I restarted running. After marathon plans fell through, my efforts tailed off last year due to a combination of lack of motivation, extensive travelling, and a lack of time.  Anyway, one of the best feelings after a long run is the knowledge that you can stretch out your aching muscles, and curl up to a thin sliver of chocolate luxury.

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The River Cafe’s Chocolate Nemesis Cake is well-named. It is notorious for its difficulty, yet despite this, remains incredibly popular thanks to its reputation for being one of the Most Delicious Chocolate Cakes Ever. I thought it was about time I tried out a new challenge, and so this cake came into being.

It certainly lived up to its reputation. I found this cake rather complicated in its method.  It needs to be baked in a water-bath, and I have yet to acquire the skill of wrapping my cake tins so they don’t leak. There was a little water leakage onto the edges of the cake, not enough to affect the texture, but enough to make me think twice about baking this again. If anyone knows a foolproof way of wrapping cake tins so they are watertight, I would be delighted to know a good trick or two!

On first taste the Chocolate Nemesis was actually slightly disappointing – lightly moussey, which wasn’t what I was looking for. However, I went back to it a few hours later and was sold. It had settled into a very dense, almost fudge-like texture of chocolatey intensity.

I turned it out onto the cake stand upside down, but this is what it looks like once baked:

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The image is pleasingly similar to the picture in the cookbook, but I am keen to know how it looks at the actual River Cafe restaurant.

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Chocolate Nemesis Cake

Slightly adapted from River Cafe Cookbook Easy

  • 272g dark chocolate
  • 180g unsalted butter
  • 112g +56g caster sugar
  • 80ml water
  • 4 eggs

Grease and line a 23cm cake tin. Wrap around the tin securely with tin-foil. Preheat the oven to 120˚C.

Melt the chocolate and butter together in a bain-marie and set to one side. In a small saucepan, heat 56g caster sugar with the water so the sugar dissolves into a light syrup. Bring it just to the boil, and take off the heat. Pour the syrup into the chocolate, leave for 1 minute, and stir together. Allow the chocolate mixture to cool.

Whisk the eggs with 112g sugar until quadrupled in volume. Pour the cooled chocolate mixture, and beat on a very slow speed until it starts to come together. Finish mixing with a spatula.

Boil a large pan of water for the water bath. This probably works out better than having to boil the kettle three times in a row.

In a large roasting tin, fold a tea-towel and place it on the bottom. Place the cake tin on top of the tea towel. Then pour in the water until it comes three-quarters up the sides of the cake tin, and bake for around 50 minutes (it took 49 in my oven) until set. Leave the cake to cool in the water before turning it out of its tin. Leave it aside for a few hours to settle before serving.  Cut into thin slices with a hot sharp knife.

Lemon and Pistachio Mini Cakes

I’ve been thinking about baking with pistachios for some time, and I really wanted to replicate a gorgeously damp nutty cake I sampled when I went to Franco Manca’s several months ago. Browsing in the blogosphere, I came upon this divinely tempting looking recipe on The Little Loaf  for Pistachio and Lemon Loaf Cakes…. and it looked like it was exactly what I was hoping to make!

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I made some very slight modifications, halving the recipe as I didn’t have quite enough nuts, and using cardboard square cake cases instead of a loaf tin. It was, without doubt, an absolute joy to eat, beautifully moist, and full of flavour. Definitely a recipe certainly to make again and again in the future!

Lemon and Pistachio Mini Cakes

Original recipe from River Cafe Cookbook Easy and adapted from The Little Loaf

  • 125g soft butter
  • 165g caster sugar
  • 2 medium eggs, whisked
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 20g plain flour
  • 50g ground almonds
  • 60g ground pistachios
  • 30g pistachios, roughly chopped

Preheat the oven to 150˚C. Whisk together the soft butter and 125g sugar together until pale and fluffy. Then gradually whisk in the eggs until completely incorporated. Whisk in half the lemon zest, then add the flour and ground nuts and whisk in until incorporated. Put the cake mix into small cases and bake for 20-25 minutes until golden and springy on top. Or you can bake the mixture in a lined 1lb loaf tin for approximately 40 minutes.

Set the cakes aside to cool.

Meanwhile, combine the lemon juice, remaining zest and sugar into a small pan. Over a medium heat, cook the liquid until it has reduced and become syrupy. Mix in the chopped pistachios. Using a teaspoon, spoon the syrup over the pistachio-topped cakes.