Place of the Month: Fitzbillies, Cambridge

A crisp, shining February morning makes a little jolly to Cambridge all the more enticing so off we popped. Heading back to a University city always makes me nostalgic and with this being a reading week and half term, there were plenty of mums-and-daughters lunching around us and wandering the gorgeous streets of Cambridge. A trot down to the original Trumpington branch of my place of the month gave us a great start to our afternoon.

We headed straight to one of my favourite spots; Fitzbillies although Mum will kill me if I don't mention her favourite, the Michaelhouse Cafe - situated in a stunning church in the heart of the city centre. However for me, Fitzbillies, so called (presumably) due to its proximity to the Fitzwilliam Museum is one of the lovelier places to sit down for a lunch or one of their great coffees and a Chelsea bun.

Sadly by 1pm they'd already sold out of their goats cheese and red onion tart, which comes with some of the Chef's seasonal salad for a reasonable £9 and so we opted for a large portion of the salad, the 'Buck' rarebit and the obligatory Baker's potatoes to share between us. The salad itself was a perfectly seasonal affair - bitter radicchio and other leaves, blood orange and pickled walnuts tossed through with an excellently seasoned dressing. The Buck rarebit (the Welsh kind with an added poached egg) had only one little niggle, you used to just add the egg but now it comes with as standard, which is fine if the egg itself is poached to perfection. Ours however was a hard boiled one - rock solid throughout and while it may have just been poached in a little 'poachlet' contraption, the shape and texture was certainly not of the usual kind. Do not let this detract however! With a fluffy doorstop wedge of white bread, nutty stout and spiced cheese atop and a healthy green salad on the side lightly dressed in a mustard dressing this is a treat and a half! Splitting it between two, with some of the Chef's salad added too made for a delicious lunch. 

The Baker's potatoes (although now called something else?!) - crispy thinly sliced potatoes and onions cooked slowly in ham stock and baked to perfection in duck fat - were as yummy as always and a meal at FB isn't complete without them! Believe me, you can always squeeze them in. 

The English Breakfast tea is from Kandula, which is a particularly fragrant type but I would recommend the loose leaf Earl Grey to go with your Chelsea bun for afters. Prepare for your teeth to ache too! I always grab a tap water alongside to help it all along as the gorgeously spiced syrup can get a little much after a while. The currants they use in the buns have a wonderfully long time to soak up all of the flavour from the bun and syrup mix making them particularly juicy yet still retaining the slightly bitter taste that makes currants so good in all baking - I'm a big fan of bringing it back in a big way; 'currants are for life, not just for Christmas cake...' etc etc. 

Do make sure you wander through the 'shop' side of the cafe and grab a look at all of the delicious bakes available - the buns are at the bottom of the cabinet in huge silver trays, shining with syrup. You can order cakes for special occasions or with a bun only £2 to take away, it's a no brainer for a quick snack on the go, whether you're a hungry student or a ravished shopper. 

There's always plenty of room with 60 or so seats in the large cafe out back and if you're lucky enough to sit under the skylights, the blue tiles around you along with old school decorations create the most relaxing vibe. The staff are always lovely and are always more than happy to give you a little extra hot water for your tea or bring you an extra portion of Baker's potatoes if you're not up to sharing... We left full and happy for under £30 including service and it's not only this great value but the bright feeling you get every time when you leave having had a wonderful experience. Not even a little poached egg can put me off this place...

 

Gal/Val-entines Baking

I've collected three of my favourite bakes here to inspire you to do a little Galentine's or Valentine's baking. There's something for everyone with delicious chocolate, zesty blood orange and fragrant almond flavours making themselves known. In particular, the almond biscuits are so easy to whip up with the simplest of ingredients. 

These gorgeous little guys were created for my Uncle Phil who sadly passed away last month and used a very special Belgian beer brought over to us from his best friend Bernie. Uncle Phil lived in Belgium for the best part of a decade and enjoyed some of his best years over there and for Bernie to bring us some of the best beers over was a fitting tribute to the times they shared out there.

It made perfect sense for this cherry number to be paired with chocolate and these are the most wonderful mix of a fudgey brownie and boozy rich chocolate cake. The flavour of Lambic beer, Lindemans brings a fruity element and works really well with the super dark chocolate its best to use in the cakes. Although ours were brought across the Channel, they can be found for a measly £1.35 from this website so you can stock up too...

This one is as pink as you like which gives the buttercream not only its delicious flavour but also a wonderful dusky pink hue. 

After playing around with some decorating ideas I kept it simple for the day and allowed the darkness of the cherries to shine right through, although those white chocolate drizzled ones made for a yummy afternoon snack! 

With a gorgeous bowl from my lovely friend Ana at Kana London to hold my extras for more snacking I decided to keep the cakes themselves without cherries and let the beer do the talking. Using a hybrid of a trusted Guinness cake recipe and my favourite ever brownie recipe made for the fudgiest, gooiest middles but a light crisp edge to please all those who prefer either a middle, corner or edge bit of the brownie tray.

Find the recipe here if you fancy making these guys for someone equally as awesome as Uncle Phil.

Now these truly are a sweet for your sweet. Inspired by traditional Italian pasticcini, a simple biscuit of ground almonds, I've infused mine with seasonal blood orange zest but you could easily use any citrus you like: particularly clementines are gorgeous at Christmas. 

Ground almonds are always welcome with me and using them here as the only 'flour' makes them naturally gluten free which is always helpful if your beau isn't a wheat fan. Make sure you roll them entirely in icing sugar before they go in the oven so you can really bring out the cracks that form beautifully over the surface while they bake!

A basic ball and thumb print in the middle is the traditional way to shape pasticcini but hearts are as equally easy to do - just tap the back of a knife in at one side and slightly pinch the opposite side to a point. Flatten a little with a light touch and adjust the baking times slightly to account for any extra height. A couple of these with a morning cuppa will definitely pop you in the good books... 

Grab the recipe here!

Shortbreads are one of the most simple biscuits to start with and the best technique is only using the very tips of your fingers to rub the butter and flour together. With these lemon and almond 'broken' hearts, adding ground almonds and using a proportion of golden granulated sugar also gives them a wonderful bite to help you along with that short texture. 

Don't panic if they're a little soft on taking out of the oven, just let them cool on the tray for about ten minutes before moving them to the cooling rack and sprinkling with caster sugar. Don't make my mistake of sugaring them on the baking tray and reusing it for another batch or you'll end up with a rather burnt caramel as the base for your next few biscuits! 

Switch up the citrus to whatever you've got to hand and don't be shy! Almonds and zest make great bedfellows.

Recipe's here!

Almond & Lemon Shortbread Hearts Recipe

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The shortbread biscuit is something with which I have an infinite love affair. I cannot find a better biscuit to top with icing, nor to have plain with a cup of tea or to dunk in chocolate when a particular harsh storm knocks at the door. They are as famous in a tartan tin as anything else you'd find at your gran's house and are all the better for it. These little lovies are changed ever so slightly with the addition of zesty lemon and fragrant almonds but don't fret as there's more than enough butter in here to keep them as crisp as you like!

Makes: 12-15 (depending on size)

Ingredients:

60g golden granulated sugar

40g caster sugar

2 lemons, zest

170g butter

200g plain flour

110g ground almonds 

Extra caster sugar, for dusting

Start by beating together your sugars, lemon zest and butter to release the lemons' essential oils. Keep going for a solid 5 minutes or until the butter is nice and fluffy. Pop in the fridge to harden for around 20-30 minutes. Sift your flour in, and gently rub together with your fingertips using a quick twisting motion to ensure your hands don't stay in the bowl too long and warm it up. Sprinkle in your ground almonds and use a knife to cut it through the dough, adding a splash of water if it needs a little help coming together. Wrap the dough in cling film and leave to chill for another 30 minutes or so in the fridge.

Meanwhile, sprinkle some flour on to your work surface and if you're using a metal or marble rolling pin, pop it in the freezer for a few minutes to ensure it's super cold. Preheat your oven to 180c. 

When the dough is nice and chilled, roll out to around 1cm thick and cut whatever shapes you'd like from it - for Valentine's I've done some lovely hearts but also some broken ones to stand in solidarity with those who indeed aren't looking for any type of love this year! Freehand is always fun with a sharp knife too. Transfer to a lined baking tray and bake for 10 minutes. Leave on the tray to harden for a good 10 minutes after they come out of the oven or they'll fall to pieces. When nearly cool, transfer to a cooling rack and sprinkle caster sugar over them from a height to ensure it sprinkles thinly and in a nice even layer. Leave to cool completely and then devour straight away with a cuppa!

Almond & Blood Orange 'Macaroons' Recipe

For want of a better descriptor of these little delights, I've gone with macaroons as baking them for around 12 minutes gives you a gorgeously squidgy centre which I much prefer. The hearts as they're thicker take another 3 or 4 minutes to cook all the way through so bear that in mind too.

Makes: 12-15 (depending on size)

150g ground almonds

75g icing sugar

1 egg

1 blood orange, zest

Preheat your oven to 180c. Pop everything together in a bowl and mix thoroughly until combined. Dust your hands with icing sugar completely and roll small balls of the mixture in them. Coat more in the icing sugar and pop on your baking tray. Using your thumb, make an impression in the centre or for hearts, use the back of a knife to tap a indentation in one side and pinch the other to a point. Place on a baking tray and bake for 10-12 minutes for fudgy centres and 14-15 minutes for any larger ones or for a crisper chew.  

Chocolate and Cherry Beer Buns Recipe

A wonderful blend of fudgy brownie and intense chocolate Guinness cake, these little buns with added oomph of cherry beer make for a perfect addition to an afternoon tea spread or as a gift for a loved one. The beer brings a subtle fruityness to the background which works equally well in the buttercream too, giving it this lovely dusky pink colour and awesome flavour. Midsummer is of course the best time of year for British cherries so if it's not too hot for choc, these are equally great on an afternoon picnic... You can grab the Lindemans Cherry beer here at a very reasonable £1.35 a bottle. Order at least 4, believe me, you'll love it that much. They also do a raspberry beer which could be equally lovely or indeed the favourite beer of the recipient could be added - play around! Beer and cake is definitely a winning combo...

Makes 12

Ingredients:

200g 80%+ dark chocolate

175g unsalted butter 

200g golden caster sugar

125g light soft brown sugar

130g plain flour

3 eggs

150ml Lindemans Cherry Beer

Icing:

200g unsalted butter, softened

300g icing sugar

100ml Lindemans Cherry Beer (you may not need all of it)

12 cherries

 

Start with your cakes and melt the chocolate and butter together by either popping in the microwave at 30 second intervals or in a bowl over a boiling pan of water until it's lovely and smooth. Add your sugar and stir through until melted (don't fret if it's still a bit grainy!). Sift in your flour and fold through before adding your eggs one at a time. Slowly pour in your beer so as not to make it froth up too much and give a good whisk/stir to ensure it's a lovely smooth batter. 

Using cake spray or butter, thoroughly grease your 12 hole bun tin and then using an ice cream scoop divide the mixture evenly between the holes. About 3/4 of the way up does the trick for me. Bake for around 20-25 minutes, checking with a skewer after 20 to see if the centres are done. For a fudgier centre, the skewer can come out with a bit of mix on and they'll be deliciously gooey in the middle.

Leave to cool entirely in the tin and then upturn your cooling rack on to the top and flip over in one solid motion. Give a little tap to each bit and they should all come out in one - if not run a knife around the edges and they should loosen nicely.

While they're cooling, pop your softened butter and icing sugar in a mixer and beat together vigorously for around 10 minutes- it seems ages but it should be super fluffy and perfectly white by this stage. Add the cherry beer bit by bit until you have a wonderful dusky pink colour and the desired flavour coming through. Don't worry if it looks like it's split - just leave it to harden and then beat up again to re-fluff and it should be as good as new!

Fit a piping bag with a simple large circle nozzle and pipe a dollop of icing on each of the cakes. Top with a cherry and a sprinkling of icing sugar if you wish. Give to someone you love.