As I type this, I’m sitting on a fold out camping chair with the sun beating down, under a big outdoor umbrella and a wide brimmed straw hat. I burn easily – a jandal tan line is already emerging. But I’m not camping, or looking out at the ocean, or at a barbecue – the view is of a busy suburban street and the chair is on the footpath. Morning traffic crawls past. Red and green buckets line the fences, and even though I’ve just swept the sidewalk, it feels like it is already covered in a carpet of pine-needles again. It’s a Tuesday, so this job is quiet – a few people have stopped by to choose their Christmas tree, and I’ve sold a few dozen homemade fruit mince tarts to bypassers. I wonder sometimes if I look in any way festive to people driving by: face hidden by my hat brim, typing away madly on a laptop, and occasionally donning long sleeves through the heat – scratchy pine tree needles give me a wicked rash!
We get a mix of buyers: my favourite are the families with young children who are dead set on finding a Christmas tree, no matter how pretty it is. They can’t wait to decorate it, and their parents are focused on getting them home as quickly as possible – they’re not picky. The people on the opposite end of the spectrum are the worst: we have competition down the road, and yesterday someone drove back and forth between the 2 tree sellers about 5 times before finally making a decision. I’m not exaggerating. Let’s be honest, once a tree is covered in baubles and fairy lights, you’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart. It’s a study in human nature – and I think I’d rather be like the easy going folk who make Christmas tree shopping a breeze, than the picky, anxious, fussy people who turn it into an nightmare ordeal in an almost certainly fruitless search for perfection.
At least it’s sunny: I’ve done this for a the past few summers, and sometimes the chair is in the garage as rain buckets down while I’m soaked to the skin from lifting sodden trees. On the other hand, the sun makes the trees droop and gives them a forlorn appearance by late afternoon – so there are downsides to both. It’s a very different job to cafe baking bulk doughnuts last year and accidentally burning huge and expensive batches of biscotti – much cruisier, really. I just keep reminding myself how much I’m saving for future brunch trips and holidays next year!
Last week I catered a dinner for 12 with chermoula-rubbed butterflied lamb cooked on the barbecue, a lentil pomegranate salad, smoky babaganoush and homemade mottled turkish pide to mop up bowls of the smoothest hummus I’ve ever made. The secret was to make it properly – and by that I mean to soak and boil the chickpeas with baking soda, rather than the quicker option straight from a can. Thank you, Ottolenghi!
With all that going on, it was a relief to have dessert prepared ahead time with this raspberry, rhubarb & dark chocolate bread & butter pudding cake. It’s a step-up from your traditional casserole pan of pudding, and would make an ideal Christmas day dessert made the night before. Brioche slices (I made my own, but you could buy it) are layered up in a cake tin along with roasted rhubarb, tart raspberries, dark chocolate chunks and almond meal. It’s all soaked in a rich, eggy custard, and then baked until slightly puffy, springy and golden. When cut into, pale pudding is broken up with wavy lines of melted chocolate and raspberries, and the enriched brioche gives a lovely creamy texture, contrasted with the crunchy flaked almond & raspberry topping. Drizzled with a vanilla bean custard, it’s heavenly.
- You need a very tight springform cake tin – mine leaks a little, so I lined it with baking paper that extends underneath the springform rim for a tighter seal, then wrapped the bottom of the tin with foil to catchy any extra drips.
- Brioche is the best bread to use – white bread risks a gluey texture. Make your own, or buy it.
- It’s a big cake , serving 10-15 easily with generous slices.
- Make or buy a vanilla custard, but it is very easy to make a much-better-than-storebought custard ahead of time and keep in the fridge (1-2 days) until ready to use.
- 4-5 stems rhubarb
- finely granted zest of ½ orange
- 1 teaspoon vanilla essence
- 1 large brioche loaf- I used 1.5 loaves from this recipe and it was about 900g total
- 6 eggs
- 1 cup cream
- 2 cups whole milk
- ¾ cups caster sugar + 4 tablespoons, divided
- 1 teaspoon vanilla paste
- 180g dark chocolate, roughly chopped
- ¾ cup ground almonds
- 2½ cups raspberries, fresh or frozen
- ½ cup flaked almonds and 1 tbsp caster sugar to top
- Vanilla Custard, to serve (recipe below)
- Preheat oven to 180°
- Cut the rhubarb into 2 cm segments. Place in an oven dish lined with baking paper. Sprinkle with 3 tablespoons of the caster sugar, orange zest and vanilla essence. Bake for 15 minutes or until just tender. Place in the fridge to cool.
- Grease and line a 23cm spring form cake tin. Make sure it is really watertight to prevent leakage (I find that having a base of baking paper going under the springform edge helps to seal it tighter, and then I wrap the whole bottom of the tin in foil to catch any drips).
- Beat together eggs, ¾ cup caster sugar, cream, milk and vanilla paste in a jug
- In a small bowl, toss together the raspberries, dark chocolate, ground almonds and cooled roasted rhubarb.
- Cut the brioche loaf into 2cm thick slices. Layer half the bread into the lined baking tin, cutting into halves and smaller bits to fit tightly without gaps.
- Top with half of the fruit mixture.
- Layer with remaining bread in a tight layer, then the rest of the fruit mix.
- Gradually pour over the cream custard - this might take a few minutes as it slowly soaks through the layers. I pour a bit, then leave it to stand for a few minutes, then pour over the remainder.
- Top with the flaked almonds and the remaining tablespoon of caster sugar.
- Leave to stand for 15min.
- Change the oven temperature to 160°C. Bake for the bread & butter pudding cake for about 75 min, or until it is golden and a skewer inserted comes out mostly clean.
- Cool for at least 30min before serving
- Serve with vanilla custard (recipe below)
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 teaspoons vanilla paste or seeds of 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped out
- 4 egg yolks
- 1 tablespoon cornflour
- ⅓ cup caster sugar
- In a bowl, beat the egg yolks and cornflour with an electric beater. Add the sugar and beat until pale and thick.
- Meanwhile, combine the milk and vanilla paste/vanilla bean seeds in a saucepan over medium until, until just simmering.
- Gradually pour the hot milk mixture onto the egg yolks, whisking continuously until fully combined.
- Return the egg yolk and milk mixture to the sauce pan and stir continuously over a low heat until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes. (remember that the custard will thicken further as it cools).
- Cool until ready to serve.