Upside-Down Caramelised Fig Cake

Regular readers will know about my passion for figs. When I wrote Fig Crumble and Trojan War it seemed at the time to be the ultimate fig recipe, it took a while to find a more delicious way of cooking figs. But another recipe came along and on Saturday I'll be making Upside-Down Caramelised Fig Cake for my neighbour who is moving out after 47 years living in the same street. As you can imagine, she has witnessed much change since the 60s.
upside-down fig cake dessert caramelised cake Easy recipe
Our street is named after the lowest deck on a boat, the deck where Nelson whispered his last words. In Victorian times this tiny street harboured people considered to be the lowest in society. Residents lived on what they could sale or scrap, 17 houses a few of them where brothels.
It had such a reputation that in the first part of the last century, Greenwichers forbid their children to step in the street. Though it had probably enough children of its own. When the 100th child was born it was celebrated with a big street party, yes still only 17 houses.
It has never been adopted by the council and often follows its own rules. Violence ruled for a while, when my neighbour moved in, it was said that if women didn't have a black eye on Saturday morning then they were either single or her husband was inside.
 Nowadays it's much gentrified, still rough and mad at the edges, it has a huge heart and strong sense of community. I first met my neighbour over the "kale incident". When, we first moved in, I was hoping to grow vegetables in the  backyard and I planted kale.
A few months later, kale appeared and was duly cooked. Except that glancing at my neighbour's garden, hers was invaded by kale. It didn't take long to register: I had just fed him weeds in white sauce. Over dinner, he had registered his dissatisfaction with the taste of the supposed-kale.
I proceeded to tell the tale to my neighbour, whose answer was, "What are you complaining about, it didn't kill you, did it?". A friendship was born. I will miss my neighbour very much, her no-nonsense approach to life, her strength, her ability to laugh in the face of adversity, her stories about her dancing days, her unconditional support to the people whom she calls "her own".
Solange Berchemin
On Saturday, when the removal vans will take half a century of memories out of the street, I'll put a brave face on, make strong cups of tea and pass slices of upside-down caramelised fig cake around.
Upside-Down Caramelised Fig Cake
For the fruit base
2tbsp butter
2tbsp Demerara sugar
2tsp mixed spice
8mini figs or 4 large ones
For the sponge
3whole eggs their weight in unsalted butter, caster sugar and plain flour
2 tbsp. milk

Preheat the oven to 200C/gas 6. To prepare the fruit base, spread the butter all over the bottom of an ovenproof dish (25cm). Mix the sugar and the spices together and sprinkle over the butter. slice the figs horizontally for the large ones cut in half for the minifigs, place them side up (open side on the sugar)

Make the sponge mix by mixing butter and sugar until pale and creamy. add the eggs one by one, last the flour.

Pour over the fruits and bake for 35 -45 minutes, do the knife of skewer trick to see if it is cooked in the middle

Take out of the oven, run a knife on the edge place a serving plate large enough to cover the cake dish and turn the latter over.

More recipes with figs

Rose syrup poached fig & pomegranate pavlova by Jeanne as in Cook-Sister

Simple Cauliflower Soup

Easy recipe cauliflower soup vegetarian low calorie diet
Vegetables have a fashion cycle like anything else and I recently noticed that cauliflower had gone out of fashion. Last year, this humble and plentiful veggie was having a revival for its association with pizza crust. Oh dear, you've missed the cauliflower crust pizza fade.

But back to reality. It's still very cold outside and heart-warming soups are here to stay for a little longer. At Pebble Soup, soupes ├ępaisses are the only soups which will pass the test.

This recipe is rich and creamy without containing any cream. The thickness is provided by the whole of the cauliflower being used, cumin, coriander and cooked garlic cloves could be added for more flavours.

So bring the old cauli back into fashion with this solid, no nonsense recipe.
Simple Cauliflower Soup
1tsp oil
1 cauliflower
1 and a half pint of vegetable stock (pref organic)
chop the leaves and the stalks of a medium to large size cauliflower. leaving only the florets.
Pour stock in a large sauce pan, boil and simmer the leaves, the stalks for 15 minutes.
In a skillet or small frying pan, add the oil and fry the florets gently. When they are tender transfer to the simmering pot for another 15 to 20 minutes. season to taste.
At the end of the cooking a few table spoon of milk could be added but make sure, you don't boil the milk or it will separate.
Blitz in a blender, return to pan for a few minutes and serve with a choice of garnish.

Blog challenge: I like the idea of a vegetable palette following the seasons
so I enter this recipe in A2K vegetable challenge as white + winter


Sopwell House Restaurants - Part 2 -

 Staying at Sopwell House gave me the opportunity to lunch ... dine....and breakfast in situs and in doing so, enjoying the full spectrum offered by the kitchens.

Sopwell House has known several re-incarnations; there is no better place to see the architectural evidence of the past than in the formal restaurant rooms. Take the bow window, it was once an outside wall and now a subtle part of the d├ęcor.
In September 2014, Gopi Chandran, international chef, was brought in, to challenge perfectly acceptable but a little too safe menus. Changes are subtle but make a whole lot of difference. The Sunday lunch menu is still  traditional British and European dishes but now with some arresting additions, the shaved Florence fennel, for example which pepped up my pan seared sea bass.
Sopwell House Spa  hotel restaurant review
For Starters, he played safe choosing a gravadlax of salmon and I went for an adventurous king scallops with slow roasted belly of pork, citus oil, purple potato and paper thin bacon. Both were perfectly executed.

Sopwell House Spa  hotel restaurant review
Sopwell House Spa  hotel restaurant review

Gopi Chandran uses an abundance of fresh local produce and herbs grown on site. Since his arrival, he has challenged the house gardeners in several ways. Gopi's next project is to tie the produce with Georgian times and to make the kitchen as self sufficient as possible which will includes setting up beehives.

Sopwell House Spa  hotel restaurant review
Pebble Soup's regular readers will know that neither he nor I are great fans of desserts. If I had my time here again I would definitely indulge in a Fresh fruit pavlova or a Bailey's cheesecake rather than selecting the cheese board which by the way was lovely but Sopwell House patisseries-chef and team are brilliant. No wonder that the afternoon teas are extremely popular.

Sopwell House Spa  hotel restaurant review
The Brasserie is  far less formal, no white table cloth here. Still all decorum is not gone, table decorations and white napkins over black table set a certain tone. There is an open kitchen and a view of the swimming pool which is rather fun. Dishes are straight forward, burgers, salads. Breakfast is served here too.

We may not think of hotels as restaurants and that is probably because "the big boys" in the industry stay away from the trouble of sourcing, preparing and serving food, I am glad that Sopwell house management has not chosen to follow suite.

Other recent review
My stay at Sopwell house
Olive Magazine reviews the restaurant

disclaimer: I was a guest at Sopwell House- words are my own and I was not asked to write a positive review.
The Restaurant at Sopwell House on Urbanspoon

Historic Sopwell House modern-luxe - Review - part 1

Brushing aside a brief visit to a hotel next to the public spa in Buda or was it Pest? I'd never stayed in a spa/hotel, until a couple of weeks ago, when at the end of an easy 50 minutes journey to St Albans, Hertfordshire, we walked up the path of a characteristic Georgian country residence which once belong to Lord Mountbatten.

Bought in 1986, by the Bejerano family. In the past two years, the hotel invested in a multi-million-pound refurbishment of its 128 suites, rooms and apartments, not mentioning an additional £1.5 million to modernise its meetings space and further plans, well on their way, to refurbish the outer-buildings to create a luxurious self-catering mews apartments, with individual Jacuzzi, tucked away like a secret garden.
Obviously, there is a plan in action and my mission was to work out why this dashing Georgian splendour was under going a modern-luxurious make over....I didn't have long to wait for the answer.

Sopwell House Spa  hotel review St Albans

At first glance, it was all a bit....well....disconcerting. The foyer, the concierge, the large reception desk with a large planter filled with orchids were to be expected. The walk-in chimney with coat of arms and plush sofas was a bonus. But guests walking about in their slippers and bathrobe had an eye-widening effect.

 "Welcome to Sopwell House" said a bright voice, if Grazia Obertelli, Guest Relation Manager, had noticed my confusion she had the good grace to brush it with a smile and a unexpected frankness,  "We are considering ways to make the spa independent from the rest of the hotel." But if you think about it, it's nice to see that guests who probably on an average day, make sure that each of their button is correctly fasten before going out are relaxed enough to walk in public in an attire usually reserved to the privacy of their bathroom.

Sopwell House Spa  hotel review St Albans
Grazia takes me on a tour. First meetings and events area. Sopwell House is a sought-out venue for wedding. A glimpse of the St Alban suite taking 700 people for a  reception, 320 banqueting, with French windows opening on 12 acres of grounds and tranquil gardens, explains it all. "You should see it when set up for a wedding, it looks amazing, the Japanese style gardens with its pound and bridge is a photographer's paradise" Grazia tells me in her bubbly elegant way. Here weddings can have their private butlers. It's time to pop the question. Not "that" question.

"Why was the hotel recently refurbished?" I am expecting a commercial smile and a change of topic, instead I get a direct answer, "We are a 4 stars hotel, we are aiming for a 5th" and for the little I have seen so far, this place with its acres of countryside, beautiful gardens, it's fully equipped meeting rooms, is well on its way.

Sopwell House Spa  hotel review St Albans Mountabatten family home
Off, we trot along corridors adorned with pictures of celebrities, family relatives and signed football shirts. The England team used to unwind here but I am under the impression that these days are well over and Sopwell House has turned a page. Which is another reason why I like it here. It's class but not brass.
Peep in the restaurant, no dressing gowns but something even more confusing. The staff smiles, real smiles. Smiles which reaches their eyes. They politely tease one another, engage the diners in long conversations. Every single person looks happy to work here, same in the brasserie and in the library where afternoon teas are served. "We are like a large family, everyone likes working here" Grazia tells me. 

The terrace bar with its over-sized windows is the room to enjoy a light snack or a cocktail and on that Sunday afternoon, it was  heaving. Sopwell house seems to already have the people's vote, it won't be long before it gets that well deserved 5th star.

Sopwell House Spa  hotel review St Albans Mountabatten family home
"and here is our spa" a serene area, beautifully decorated space including 12 treatment rooms, a state of the art gymnasium, 14.5-metre indoor swimming pool, a sauna and a steam room, sadly no smile on the beauticians faces, oh well every family has their troubled members. But that didn't stop us to enjoy the facilities and now I fully understand why people coming to Sopwell House didn't want to leave.

Our recently revamped executive suite was a fusion of classic and British modern style. 4 poster without the horrid dangling drapes, extremely comfy bed and an interesting use of brown hues, the Wi-Fi seemed to take it slow and easy too, probably not best if you want to work from the bedrooms. But what I found most romantic were the views from the balcony. This is hard to beat, first thing in the morning.

Sopwell House Spa  hotel review St Albans Mountabatten family home

There is no doubt in my mind that as a reviewer I get special treatment. Probably I did at Sopwell House too but witnessing the way the staff look after their guests, I could be easily persuaded that everyone get their own special treatment and I am not talking only about a superb leisure break. This hotel and spa gets everything right, in my opinion this well deserved 5th star should already  have been awarded. 
 Disclaimer: He and I were guest of Sopwell house - a big thank you to all the personnel who looked after us.

Activities near by:
There is a golf course.
In St Albans, the Cathedral and close by the Butterfly World project and Warner Bros Studio offering tours _the making of Harry Potter.

Cottonmill Lane, St Albans AL1 2HQ
01727 864477
price: standard double room starts at £134

If you enjoyed reading this review, see you soon for part 2 - the foodie opinion -

Chicken K'dra

One more argument to add  to the correlation between smell and memory may not necessary. Everything which needed to be said has been said, even proven, here is why:
"the olfactory bulb is part of the brain's limbic system, an area closely associated with memory".
But if there was one smell which could define childhood, for me it would be that of grilled peppers. One whiff of it and I am back in my grand-dad's flat among the hubbub of a Moroccan family and Chicken K'dra bubbling in a large pot with powerful flagrances of clarified butter and cinnamon.
I love this dish which really calls for a whole chicken but can be made with breasts or even better tights, it's certainly neater than to have to fish for the meat among the bones when dishing it out.

 Chicken K'dra
60g clarified butter or ghee
1 chicken (approximately 1.4kg), jointed into 8 pieces
1 cinnamon stick
3 large onions, finely sliced
2 to 4 pinch of saffron, soaked in 2 tbsp of hot water for 5 min;
300ml chicken stock or water
One large can of chickpeas
Bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Freshly squeezed juice of ½ lemon
Salt and ground black pepper
Place the saffron in a little warm water and reserve
1. Melt the clarified butter in a large saucepan and add the onions. Cook until softened. Add the Chicken pieces
 2. Add the chicken stock, saffron and cinnamon stick to the pan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, for 45 minutes.

3. Drain and add the chickpeas and cook for a further 15 minutes or until most of the stock has evaporated.
Serve with a slice of lemon and couscous



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