On the platform of the underground station last Monday evening, I heard the strains of a violin playing Massenet and as the train was pulling in, a small child wearing a striped hat screamed with joy. There was just one more working day left before my holiday and already I felt that lightness in my step, knowing it was finally in my reach.
Before my departure on Wednesday, I carefully assembled a lunch of tomato and mozzarella sandwiches made with the fresh white bread bought the previous day from Lafayette, an Italian chocolate cake shaped like a dog's paw, oranges and Manner Schnitten wafers. I had not flown from Tegel for four years. The last time, I remember the exhilaration of flying over the centre of Berlin, a place which was not yet my home, hoping that one day I could know it a little better. I had forgotten how small it is and in the waiting room, families around me played card games or read quietly while a little, blonde boy wandered around clutching a large cheese pretzel.
Forgotten books like these old editions of Proust's letters with their cut pages and dusty smell
Whenever I take the plane, there's a strange feeling of disbelief and wonder that in just two hours, I can go from a bustling capital city to the old, familiar streets where I spent many years of my life. The only connection between them is myself. The pavements marked so often with my footprints, every corner where I know where to turn, the rooms filled with memories of distant conversations from another time still ringing in my ears. Returning here makes me conscious of how much I've changed and yet I seem to adapt effortlessly again. There are piles of books by the bed which always comfort me, the silence when I wake up in the morning, taking a shower in the bathroom full of orchids and then the hot, buttered toast for breakfast. Most welcome of all though is the ritual of teatime and returning home to a pot of coffee and hot scotch pancakes spread thick with apricot jam. Despite calling my blog coffee and pie, I remain a die hard tea fan with only the occasional latte every week but when I'm on holiday, I can't get enough of it. It reminds me of getting up early in Vicenza, going down to the breakfast room in the hotel still bleary eyed and being served a pot of strong hot espresso and another of creamy, frothy milk and it tasted better than anything I've ever had before or since.
On Thursday, we visited Hardwick Hall, calling first at the nearby mill where they still grind their own flour which is for sale. Inside, you could smell the grains and hear the steady rhythm of the nearby water wheel. In Berlin, there was the feeling that spring is just around the corner but it seems to have bypassed Derbyshire for the moment we stepped out of the car, everywhere was lashed by a hail storm and my hands became numb and raw. Inside, the rooms of the hall were filled with antique furniture, carved wooden chairs and enormous tapestries covering a vast amount of the walls. Yet it was also damp and cold and the longer I went on, the colder I became until only food and drink could help me. The charming cafe there was filled with copper saucepans and served exquisite coffee and walnut cake and the most delicious tea (black tea with milk never tastes as good in any other country, no matter what I use). In the garden, just a few spring flowers were out as we looked at the dramatic sky overhead, washed clean by the rain.
Delicious coffee and walnut cake at the cafe in Hardwick Hall
The ubiquitous daffodil photo but somehow, I never get tired of seeing them
The gardens of Hardwick Hall
After the storm...the loveliest sky at the end of the afternoon
One of my best meals ever. Grilled organic salmon with herbs served with Molly's brilliant braised cabbage - pure genius! Even if you think you hate cabbage, you have to try this, believe me.
Yesterday was spent in the best possible way - in the kitchen. This is the place where I made my first cake (a chocolate honey one) at the age of 17. Sometimes I forget what it's like to have the time to savour every minute of cooking and baking and to make things for those closest to me who appreciate it so much, ignoring the large raindrops which kept falling steadily all day. But today the sun reappeared and we headed off for Newstead Abbey, former home of Lord Byron, a man once described as mad, bad and dangerous to know. Beside the waterfall and the rush of the cascade, a line of white and yellow daffodils were standing to attention. In the grounds, the piercing cry of a peacock could be heard close to the Gothic arch of the old abbey. Groups of children played and ran by the stepping stones in the Japanese garden. In the house, there was the charming exoticism of Byron's bedroom, the long gallery where he used to pratise shooting and the skull in the study which he used to meditate upon. I envy the silence and beauty of his surroundings.
In the grounds of Newstead Abbey
Swans on the lake where Lord Byron's grandfather used to have sea battles with his boats
The only remaining part of the old Abbey
The famous peacock there
In the gardens of Newstead
Inside the house, Lord Byron's pistols on display
Some stained glass in the house
Our innocent Lidt bunnies, unaware of the cruel fate awaiting them
To finish, no post about Easter would be complete without cake or chocolate so I'd like to give you two recipes with personal significance for me. The first is for an orange tart. Some years ago, we used to visit exhibitions in the Le Musée du Luxembourg. One day, wandering close to the gardens, there was a wonderful bakery selling tarte à l'orange. I noticed it had also won an award for its croissants and as we savoured the tart on a park bench, the crisp pastry crumbled delicately in the your mouth, blending perfectly with the sharper citrus flavour. Sadly, I was never able to find it again but perhaps one day...
This recipe is one I found in the Sunday Time Style section. For the first time in my life, I even managed to make delicious pastry which didn't shrink when it was pre-baked. If this reason alone doesn't make you try it, the finished tart is wonderfully creamy, tangy and caramelised on top.
Orange tart (from a recipe by Lucas Hollweg)
For the pastry
1 whole egg
A splash of vanilla essence
50g icing sugar
200g plain flour
A good pinch of salt
125 cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
For the filling
2 large oranges
2 lemons, zest and juice
200g castor sugar
6 medium eggs
200ml double cream
1. Whisk together the egg, vanilla and icing sugar and 1 tbsp of cold water. In another bowl, mix together the flour and salt. Add the cubes of butter and rub in with your fingertips until you have a texture like breadcrumbs. Add the egg mixture a little at a time and blend until the mixture sticks together.
2. Tip it out onto a work surface and press it together into a flattened ball. Wrap in clingfilm and leave to chill in the fridge for at least 1 hour.
3. When the time's up, roll the pastry out onto a floured work surface until it fits a 23cm loose bottomed pie tin, leaving an overhang as thick as your finger. Repair any holes with leftover pastry, prick the bottom all over with a fork, press a piece of non-stick kitchen foil into the tin so it covers the pastry case and chill in the freezer for 20 minutes.
4. Fill the foil with dried beans, rice or pasta and bake in the oven at 180C for 10 minutes, then remove the foil and beans. Push the sides back up with your finger if they've drooped, then bake the uncovered case for another 15 minutes or until golden brown and crisp. Remove from the oven, trim off the excess pastry with a sharp knife and leave to cool to room temperature. Turn the oven down to 150C .
5. To make the filling, combine the zests and juices of the fruit in a bowl. In a different bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar until well combined, then beat in the orange mixture and double cream. Pour the mixture into the pastry shell and carefully place it into the oven. Bake for around 40 minutes, until there's just the slightest wobble in the middle. Decorate with orange peel and icing sugar.
Easter egg nest cake (from Nigella Lwason's Feast)
This beautiful cake is one I've often gazed longingly at while flicking through the pages of Feast, one of my favourite cookbooks but somehow I'd never appreciated it was the same Chocolate Cloud cake recipe from Nigella Bites but this cream and Cadbury's mini eggs. When I was still a student, I didn't have much money and couldn't afford cookbooks but desperately wanted to make this cake for my Mum. So I went to Waterstones and wrote the recipe by hand into one of my notebooks. The Easter cake combines two of my favourite things, chocolate and cream along with the satisfying crunch of the mini egg shells, although if you don't want to eat this cake straight away, it's best not to put the eggs all over it because the dye runs and it doesn't look so photogenic anymore.
250g good quality dark chocolate, broken up
125g unsalted butter, softened
5 eggs, 2 whole, 4 seperated
175 caster sugar, 75g for the yolk mix & 100g for the whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
250ml double cream
2 teaspoons castor sugar
1 packet small sugar coated chocolate eggs
Preheat the oven to 180c. Line the bottom of a 23cm springform tin with baking paper.
Melt the 250g chocolate with the butter in a double boiler & set aside to cool slightly.
Whisk the 4 egg whites until firm, then gradually add the 100g sugar & whisk until the whites are holding their shape & peak gleamingly but not stiff.
Remove this bowl & set aside while you whisk in another bowl the 2 whole eggs and 4 egg yolks with the 75g sugar & vanilla extract, then gently fold in the chocolate mixture. Lighten the egg mixture with some of the egg whites and then fold in the rest of the whisked whites gently, a little at a time.
Pour into prepared tin and bake for 35-40 minutes or until the cake is risen and cracked and the centre is no longer wobbly on the surface. Cool the cake in its tin on a wire rack, the middle will sink.
To finish, carefully remove it from the tin and carefully transfer it to a plate.
Whip the cream until firm but still soft, then add 2 teaspoons of sugar and whip until thick but not stiff. Fill the crater with the cream & arrange the eggs on top.
Have a wonderful Easter dear readers!