Autumn Days When the Grass is Jewelled and the Silk Inside a Chesnut Shell*

I'm going to sound terribly British when I say this, but hasn't the weather been just beautiful recently? Clear, bright skies with a crisp rosy-cheeked chill. On days like these everything is in such sharp focus; it's as if the leaves and the trees have been cut out of photos and stuck onto a backdrop with glue. Reading some of my favourite blogs** I see I am not the only one coming over all Keats. Food and the change of seasons seem to go hand in hand, much like crispy leaves and my desire to cycle over them (seriously, the thrill of the crunch has me swerving all over London).

As the clocks go back (you had to love that extra hour in bed this morning) it also means the start of legitimate hot-pudding-eating weather. It's not like I haven't had a warm pudding all summer (hell, after six weeks of eating rice and fruit in Thailand I ate an apple crumble on a sun-scorched beach) but it's like girls who insist on going out on the town in the wind and rain wearing vest-tops and bare-legs; it just doesn't look right. So, while others bemoan the dark nights and the ceremonial switch-on of the heating, I rub my hands with glee and think of all the stodgy delights ahead.

If I was forced into a Sophie's Choice decision about hot puds, I think Sticky Toffee Pudding ("STP") would accompany me to the camp. Some pudding novices confuse STP with treacle sponge (such people also confuse treacle sponge with treacle tart, so they clearly can't be trusted) but, for me, STP should be dark, dense and drenched with a rich toffee sauce.

I normally advocate eating STP in a country pub, in a comfy chair next to an open fire, but sometimes one must forgo the traditional context and get a hit elsewhere. And so, it was in Flaneur Food Hall in Farringdon that I succumbed. After surreptitiously removing my fluorescent cycling tabbard around the corner, I entered the restaurant through the shop. Unfortunately, I was the last to arrive, otherwise I would have had a chance to browse the shelves (laden with produce, the shop looked like a fabulous, if expensive, place to pick up some new ingredients).

My savoury courses were both delicious but, as P sagely told us, we had to save room for the puddings. I hadn't expected to sample my first STP of the season but when my toffee and banana cake arrived warm and sitting in a moat of toffee sauce I knew that Autumn had arrived. I must admit that the banana was unorthodox for a true afficinado, but marbling the spiced sponge it worked well. Together with the vat (seriously, go see for yourself) of Chantilly cream, it was definitely enough to create pudding-envy amongst P and C.

The following night was my Irish pals' fancy-dress birthday party. With the memory of the pudding fresh in my mind, I wanted to make some STP inspired cupcakes, complete with banana. I'm not normally that much of a Jamie Oliver fan (his matey-matey thick tongued banter gets a bit wearing) but he does have a great recipe for STP in his "Jamie's Dinners" book. I took this as my starting point and did some tweaking to get a sponge not dissimilar to the one from Flaneur, if not more moist. Unfortunately, the rich toffee sauce wouldn't have worked a-top a cupcake so I opted for a moussy, brown sugar icing instead.

Toffee Banana Sponge
225g fresh dates, stoned
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
85g unsalted butter
170g dark brown sugar
170g self-raising flour
1/4 tsp ground mixed spice
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
2 tbsp Ovaltine
2 tbsp natural yoghurt
2-3 freckled bananas mashed (I used my potato masher)

Malty Brown Sugar Icing
1 large egg
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
75g butter at room temperature
1 tbsp Ovaltine
1tsp vanilla extract
  1. Preheat your oven to 180 degrees.
  2. Put the dates into a bowl and sprinkle with the bicarbonate of soda. Cover with 200ml of boiling water so that they can plump up ready for cooking. Leave them for a couple of minutes then drain them before whizzing them in a food processor to make a puree. Resist the urge to eat the date paste straight from the mixer's bowl.
  3. Meanwhile, cream the butter and sugar using a wooden spoon. Add the eggs then fold in the flour, spices and Ovaltine. Mix together, then fold in the yoghurt, dates and bananas.
  4. Spoon into muffin cups (about 3/4 full) and bake in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes (or until a cake-tester comes out clean).
  5. Allow the cakes to cool while you make the icing.
  6. Fill a saucepan with an inch or so of water and bring it to simmering point. Put a bowl over the simmering water and then break the egg into the bowl. Whisk the egg over the heat until it is light and frothy (the simmering water should not touch the bottom of the bowl).
  7. Whisk in the brown sugar until it has dissolved and the mixture is warmed (1-2 minutes). Remove the bowl from the pan and allow it to cool.
  8. Meanwhile, beat the butter in a separate bowl until it is light and fluffy. The more elbow-grease you use, the better the icing will be. Gradually beat in the egg/sugar mixture and then the vanilla extract. Don't panic if it starts to curdle, you can always use some icing sugar to bind it. Add the Ovaltine and beat well.
  9. Once the cupcakes are cool you can ice them. I was intending to sprinkle some crunched up dime bars over the top of the cakes, unfortunately our local Best One was all out. Such is life!

* From the primary school classic, "Autumn Days" by Estelle White.

** Smitten Kitchen, Orangette and Oswego Tea to name a few.

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