The run-up to Christmas is traditionally a time for baking delicious cakes to enjoy and share over the holiday season. If someone in the family is a coeliac sufferer or has a gluten intolerance, it makes most sense to make a bake all the family will enjoy. This cake recipe I’m sharing with you is certainly not lacking for the want of wheat flour. It is simply bursting with flavour and will be relished by all at the table whether they need to avoid gluten or not.

This light, but luscious, chocolate cake would be the perfect indulgence to enjoy as a festive afternoon treat. It’s important to beat the eggs and sugar together for ten minutes, as this adds volume to the mixture creating an impressive light bake. The cake will naturally sink in the centre while it is cooling. I’ve simply smothered the top with chocolate ganache, but this crater-like centre could easily be filled in with some softly whipped cream, as cream and chocolate cake marry so perfectly together. 

Chocolate Pecan Cake
Ingredients
150g pecans
200g dark chocolate, approx. 55% cocoa, broken into pieces 
175g butter
200g caster sugar
4 medium-sized free-range eggs
Chocolate Ganache
100ml double cream
200g rich milk chocolate, 35% cocoa, broken into pieces
Topping
½ pomegranate, seeds only

Method
1. Preheat the oven to 190°C/fan 170°C/Gas mark 5. Thoroughly brush a 26cm springform tin with some melted butter.
2. Place the pecans on a dry pan, over a low heat and toss regularly until lightly toasted. Remove to a board and finely chop. 
3. In a saucepan, over a gentle heat, melt the chocolate with the butter. Stir well to avoid the chocolate sticking. Once melted and well combined, take from the heat and leave to cool.
4. Using an electric mixer on a high speed, whisk the sugar and eggs together for 10 minutes, until the mixture is pale yellow and fluffy.
5. Slowly pour in the chocolate mixture and fold well to combine.
6. Fold in the half of the pecans, reserving the rest for the topping.
7. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and cook in the oven for 35-40 minutes. The top will have set, but the mixture will still be a little gooey. 
8. Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely in the tin.
9. To make the chocolate ganache, place the cream in a small saucepan and heat gently. Once it begins to bubble, remove from the heat and add the chocolate pieces. Whisk well with a fork until combined and the chocolate is completely melted.
10. Once the cake has cooled completely, pour over the ganache and top with the remaining pecans and a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds. 
11. Serve with a generous dollop of whipped cream. Place any remaining cake in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 3 days. 


We are well aware this will be a Christmas like no other, but as I hear of cancelled carol services, abandoned school nativities, no visits to Santy and the uncertainty whether or not we’ll be permitted to visit loved ones’ homes over the festive season, it’s difficult not to be a little forlorn for our traditional Christmas celebrations. I suppose the past eight months have prepared us well for honouring important occasions, while still staying within our own home. We’ve all had to become more dependent on home-based activities and making the most of what is under our own roof. Even though baking together with the children was always something I loved to do, I definitely homed in on this as a pastime a little more consciously over the past few months. 

For years, I have taken great joy in baking the cakes, puddings and mincemeat in the run-up to Christmas, and with the help of Millie, since November we had this year’s batch made, wrapped up tightly, and packed into the pantry. Each November, I dedicate a weekend to Christmas baking, and it’s a ritual I really relish. Only recently did I come to realise why I love upholding this tradition so much and it is because these couple of days of baking are always pencilled in and therefore are never rushed. The recipes are in place, the ingredients in the press and all that’s needed are a few Christmas tracks, and maybe the odd hot chocolate, to heighten the experience to something very special. 

Such traditions are what I hope my children will recall when they look back on their childhoods. When I remember my own Christmases past, the memory most etched is that of time spent baking with my own dear mother, when we would be side-by-side with only Perry Como for company on those dark November evenings. 

As a parent, we can sometimes forget, the greatest gift we can give our children is time. They yearn to be by our sides and gain the most pleasure in helping us even with the simplest of tasks. Creating something simple but scrumptious together in the kitchen is a marvellous example of this. 

Normally once December is upon us, crazy season starts, with endless lists to achieve and countless Christmas-orientated activities and dates to attend. In their place, this year, I've decided to start some new traditions which I hope will hold firm even after our busier lifestyles are reinstated. 

I still yearn to see loved ones and pray for a pinch of normality this Christmas, but if this new normal has taught me anything it’s to live more mindfully and appreciate every moment of slowness that comes my way, because within those moments, without even being aware, we are creating memories which have the potential to last a lifetime. 




Cinnamon & Cranberry Cookies

These oaty cookies are the perfect snack to serve alongside a glass of hot milk. I’m using coconut sugar in this recipe, as a less processed sweetener, but light brown sugar can easily be used in its place. 

Ingredients

150g porridge oats

150g wholemeal flour

1tsp baking powder

75g dried cranberries 

200g butter, softened

80g coconut sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 egg

Topping

50g coconut sugar

1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon


Method

1.  Pre-heat the oven to 190°C/ fan 170°C/gas mark 5. Prepare two large baking trays by lining them with greaseproof paper.

2. Using a food processor, blitz the porridge oats until fine. Add to a large bowl with the wholemeal flour and baking powder. 

3. Using the food processor again, give the dried cranberries a quick blitz until roughly chopped. Add to the flour and stir through to combine. 

4. In a separate bowl, add the softened butter, sugar and vanilla extract, and cream together until light and fluffy.

5. Add the egg and a spoonful of the flour mixture, and mix for a few moments to combine.

6. Fold in the remaining oat, flour and cranberry mix. Combine well until the dough can be gathered together into a ball. 

7. On a plate, mix together the coconut sugar and the cinnamon for the topping. 

8. Divide the dough, about one dessertspoonful for each cookie, making approximately 16 cookies, and roll each one in the cinnamon-sugar mixture. Place the cookies evenly spaced on the baking trays and cook in the preheated oven for 12-15 minutes, depending on their size, until golden brown. 

9. Allow to cool slightly on the tray before carefully transferring to a wire rack to fully cool. Store in an airtight container for up to three days. 


This recipe was shared in my Home Nurse Column in Irish Country Living November 2020. 

I'm not a huge chocolate fan, therefore I normally bake goodies which aren't exactly chocolate-orientated. However, even as an on-the-fence chocolate admirer, I must admit there is something about chocolate lamingtons that make them rather tempting. I had this recipe in my file for ages. It's one I shared on an old Easy Parenting column, so when I stumbled upon it and suggested to Millie we give it a go, she was pulling the ingredients from the press before I had the chance to change my mind. My slight reluctance was somewhat heightened when I remembered making them last, and just how messy I had found them to assemble, however later that night, when I was tucking into one with a large cup of tea, I deemed them worth the hassle. Chocolate and coconut always work so well together, but they're particularly nice when paired with a slightly chocolatey cake. These chocolate lamingtons are lovely and light, and are perfect with a cuppa or parcelled up to bring along to a winter picnic in the park.  




Ingredients

225g butter, softened 
225g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 large free-range eggs
250g self-raising flour, sieved
25g cocoa powder, sieved 

To Assemble 
100g raspberry jam
200g milk chocolate 
100g desiccated coconut 

Method

1. Pre-heat the oven to 200°C/fan 180°C/Gas mark 6. Prepare a 20cm x 30cm swiss roll tin with a high lip by greasing with a little butter and lining with parchment paper, leaving a slight overhang to help with removing the cake from the tin.
2. Place the butter, sugar and vanilla extract into a bowl and cream together for about 5-7 minutes.
3. Add the eggs, one at a time with a little flour- to prevent the mixture from curdling. Mix well after each addition.
4. Add the remaining flour and cocoa powder and mix to combine. 
5. Pour the mixture into the swiss roll tin. Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown in colour. If unsure, test using a skewer - if it comes out clean, the cake is baked. Cool on a wire tray.
6. When completely cooled cut into 24 squares. Then cut each square in half diagonally.
7. Spread one side of each mini cake with jam and sandwich the cake back together. 
8. In the microwave or over a pan of simmering water, melt the chocolate. 
9. Place the coconut into a bowl. Dip each square into the chocolate and then using two forks dip them into the coconut. Turning the squares to evenly coat. Place some kitchen paper under the wire tray and transfer the coated squares back onto it. Allow to set before serving.

During the summer, my talented son, Jack, converted, with the permission of New Island Books, my cookbook, Apron Strings, into an ebook. If you have a subscription to Kindle Unlimited, it’s free to read, otherwise, it’s currently on sale for £2.99. I would just like to note, as the book is a 'print replica' it is not compatible with all Kindles. The book is available to read via the Kindle app on phones, tablets, iPad and computer. The list of compatible devices is available on the book’s Amazon page, which can be found HERE

I would like to sincerely thank everyone who has contacted me again over recent months to say they're still cooking from Apron Strings. I really appreciate your continued support and words of encouragement. 

This chicken noodle broth recipe is one I've previously shared in my Irish Country Living Column. It's a real favourite of mine, as it merges deliciously fresh ingredients into something tasty and wholesome. It can be prepared and made with little effort and time and it is packed with lots of lovely nutrients. 





Chicken Noodle Broth

Ingredients
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 red chilli, finely sliced
Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
900ml chicken stock
1tbsp soy sauce
2 chicken breasts, very finely sliced
100g fine egg noodles
150g sweetheart cabbage, finely sliced
Handful coriander leaves, roughly chopped

To Serve
A handful of raw cashew nuts
1 red chilli, thinly sliced
2 scallions, thinly sliced
Coriander leaves

Method

1.    Heat the oil in a large saucepan, over a medium heat. Add the onion. Turn down the heat and cook for a few minutes, until softened. Add the garlic and red chilli, and stir through for about a minute. Season with a little sea salt and a few grinds of black pepper.
2.    Pour in the hot stock and soy sauce. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.
3.    While the broth is cooking, place a small frying pan over a medium heat. Add the cashews, and dry-fry them for about five minutes until lightly toasted. Toss occasionally to avoid burning. Transfer to a plate and roughly chop. 
4.    Add the chicken to the saucepan, and bring the broth back to a simmer. Place the lid on top and simmer gently for about 5 minutes.
5.    Add the noodles. Stir well to combine and continue to simmer for 5 minutes, before adding the cabbage and simmering for another minute or two.
6.    Just before you're ready to serve, add a handful of roughly chopped coriander. Stir to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary.
7.    Serve straight away. Ladle into four bowls and top each with a few slices of fresh red chilli and scallion, plus a scattering of cashew nuts and a few coriander leaves. Enjoy.

Even though this Halloween was like no other, as a family, we still managed to have a lovely fun-filled evening. Sweet treats and scary movies were obligatory, and we even managed to squeeze in a few old-fashioned party games. My mind is already meandering towards Christmas recipes, but I've one last Halloween bake to whip up. I shared the recipe for these delicious pumpkin muffins last year, or possibly the year before, in my Irish Country Living column, and I thought I must share it here, in case somebody is searching for something scrumptious to make with their Halloween pumpkins. You may even be lucky enough to have a few left growing in the garden. If so, I'd urge you to give these muffins a go.


Spiced Pumpkin Muffins

These muffins are deliciously moist, due to the addition of the pumpkin puree. They are also incredibly effortless to make, simply adding the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, making these muffins the perfect treat to make with young cooks.

Ingredients

125g plain flour
125g wholemeal flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp ground nutmeg
250g light muscovado sugar
4 free-range eggs
200ml sunflower oil
250g pumpkin puree, see below
1 tsp vanilla extract

For Icing
100g cream cheese
50g butter, softened
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
300g icing sugar, sieved

To Decorate
50g pecans     

Method:
1. Preheat the oven to 190°C/fan 170°C/Gas 5.
2. Sieve the flours, baking powder, spices and sugar into a large bowl. Tip into the bowl whatever remains in the sieve from the wholemeal flour.
3. In another bowl, add the eggs and lightly beat with a hand whisk. Add the sunflower oil, pumpkin puree and vanilla extract, and combine.
4. Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl with the dry ingredients. Stir well until all the ingredients are combined together.
5. Divide the mixture between 16-18 muffin cases.
6. Bake the muffins, in the preheated oven, for 25 minutes and they are risen and golden.
7. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on a wire tray.
8. To prepare the pecans, add them to a baking tray and place them in the oven for 3-5 minutes. Transfer to a plate and once cooled finely chop.
9. While the muffins and pecans are cooling make the creamy topping by combining the cream cheese, butter, vanilla extract and icing sugar in a bowl. Beat together until smooth and creamy. Scoop into a piping bag ready for decorating the muffins.
10. When the muffins have completely cooled, pipe some of the cream cheese topping on each and add a generous sprinkling of chopped pecans.


Pumpkin Purée

Tinned pumpkin purée is hugely popular in the US, but I've found it rather difficult to source in my part of the country. There are however any amount of fresh pumpkins to buy in the shops, and turning one into a purée easily achievable in a few handy steps. A small pumpkin, approximately 2kg in weight, when roasted and pureed will provide enough puree to make at least three batches of these delicious muffins. Just be sure to use a nice fresh pumpkin. 

Method
1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/fan 180°C/Gas 6. 
2. Cut one small pumpkin into half and then each piece into four. Using a spoon, scoop out the seeds and pulp from each piece. 
3. Place the pumpkin pieces on a large baking tray and place in the hot oven for about 40 minutes, the pumpkin will be tender and it will be slightly browned. 
4. Take from the oven and once it has cooled a little, peel away all the skin, and any bits that may have charred, and pop the pumpkin pieces in a food processor. Blend until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and allow to cool before using in the muffin recipe. 
5. The pumpkin purée will keep well for 3 days when covered in the fridge. Alternatively, it can be frozen in small batches.






This nutritious and filling spicy tomato mixture is so versatile. It can be made a day ahead, and used for topping baked sweet potatoes or simply served alongside brown rice or pasta. A good grating of parmesan cheese also makes for a delcious topping.  

Spiced Tomato Topped Sweet Potatoes

Ingredients
2tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
1 leek, peeled and finely diced
1 stick celery, finely diced
1 red pepper, finely diced
2 carrots, finely diced
Sea salt and black pepper
2tbsp Thai red curry paste
2 x 400g tin of tomatoes
1tbsp sugar
4 medium-sized sweet potatoes
1 x 400g tin of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
Handful kale, tough stalk removed, roughly chopped
200g plain natural yogurt

To Serve
Fresh parsley, roughly chopped

Method
  1. Preheat the oven to 220°C/ fan 200°C/gas mark 7.
  2. Add one tablespoon of the olive oil to a large saucepan, and place over a low heat. Add the onion and leek and sauté for 10 minutes, stirring regularly.
  3. Add the celery, red pepper, and carrot. Season with a little salt and pepper. Stir to combine and sauté for a further 3 minutes.
  4. Stir through the curry paste and add the tomatoes and sugar.
  5. Bring to a simmer over a low heat for 30 minutes, but regularly stir to avoid the mixture sticking to the bottom of the pan.
  6. To prepare the sweet potatoes, scrub them well, and cut them in half, diagonally. Drizzle the cut side with a little olive oil, and place, cut side down, on a baking tray. Place in the hot oven for 35-40 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes. When cooked, they will be caramelised on the edges and if you were to squeeze them, cautiously, they’d have a little give.  
  7. To the saucepan, add the chickpeas and kale. Stir to combine and simmer for an additional 10 minutes.
  8. Before serving, stir through 150g of the natural yogurt.
  9. Once cooked through, take the sweet potatoes from the oven. Place two halves on each plate and top generously with the spiced tomato mixture. Sprinkle over some of the chopped parsley and add a dollop of natural yogurt.