At Easter, I am always in the mood for comfort baking. Madeira cake and custard, warm chocolate chip cookies, double chocolate sheet cake, oozing melted chocolate sandwiches. I make it festive with Easter spices, candied and sugared fruits, crushed up day-old hot cross buns and, of course, a little California twist.
Easter sits at a time in spring when we are still waiting for strawberries to come, forced rhubarb is on the way out, outdoor rhubarb just coming in. But we have oranges, other candied citrus fruits and spices to use up. We give them a different treatment than in winter and pair them with fresh cheeses, such as ricotta, and maybe leave out the stronger cloves and darker sugars. A little orange brightens up cookies, cakes and custard making them fresh for spring.
I began sugaring fruits and flowers when I started making wedding cakes more than 20 years ago. Then, I was focused on delicate rose petals, raspberries, the odd bay leaf, keeping it minimal. Now, I Iove whole fruits that look top heavy and sculptural, like Italian and French fruits made out of marble, suspended in their glittering, sugared glory.
Some of the recipes take more than a day from start to finish, and some take less than an hour, so whatever your level of ambition, there is something here for you and your Easter table.
Hot cross bun chocolate chip cookies (pictured above)
These are my favourite chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever made. The base recipe has my signature use of egg yolks for richness but with added crunchy bits of hot cross buns and all the chocolate for texture and flavour. Make and freeze the dough, baking off individual cookies as and when you want them for optimum satisfaction and that fresh-baked cookie smell in your home.
Makes 18 cookies
unsalted butter 250g, softened
soft brown sugar 200g
white sugar 100g
vanilla extract 2 tsp
egg yolks 4
plain flour 315g
fine sea salt 1 tsp
bicarbonate of soda 2 tsp
stale hot cross buns 200g (2-3 buns), toasted and torn into 2cm pieces
chocolate 300g, broken into different sized chunks (I use a mix of white, milk and dark. You can also use chocolate Easter eggs and random bits of bars you have, which makes it fun to eat)
Line a small baking tray or baking tin (one that will fit inside your freezer) with parchment paper.
Beat the butter and sugars in the bowl of an electric mixer until combined but not too creamy – you are not aiming for light and fluffy here, as that would make the cookies too cakey. Add the vanilla and the egg yolks, and mix well.
In another bowl weigh out the flour, salt and bicarbonate of soda, and whisk together well. Add this to the butter and egg mixture, and mix until combined.
Add the hot cross bun pieces and all the chocolate chunks.
Scoop individual portions of cookie dough on to the lined baking tray or tin. If using spoons, pat each portion into a little ball. Cover with clingfilm and freeze for at least 1 hour, or up to a month.
When ready to bake, preheat your oven to 170C fan/gas mark 5. Line a large baking tray with parchment paper and arrange the cookies evenly on the tray, leaving enough space between each one so they have room to expand during baking (they will almost double in size). If you are baking from frozen, allow the cookies 5 minutes out of the freezer before placing in the oven.
Bake for 14 minutes or until the centre of each cookie is slightly soft and underbaked but the edges are crisp and golden. Remove from the oven, rap the tray on your counter to flatten them a little and allow to cool on the tray for 10 minutes before serving.
Double chocolate sheet cake with sugared fruits
Sheet cakes for gatherings are easier to portion and the ratio of icing to cake is perfect. My grandma Betty championed the sheet cake and everyone looked forward to her arrival at a picnic, foil-wrapped Pyrex dish in hand.
For the sugared fruit, choose underripe fruits that are fresh and plump. I love to use odd-shaped fruits, and tropical fruits work well for a retro feel. I recommend sugaring the fruit the night before or the morning of your event. It gives the egg white a chance to set and dry out. If using berries, do them just before using or they will weep.
For the decoration
whole fruits such as small bananas, figs, prickly pears, kiwis, clementines, grapes etc
egg whites 2 organic
For the chocolate cake
plain flour 200g
cornflour 70g, or tapioca flour
caster sugar 350g
baking powder 1 tsp
bicarbonate of soda 1½ tsp
fine sea salt 1 tsp
Dutch cocoa powder 75g
unsalted butter 160g
vanilla extract 1 tbsp
creme fraiche or sour cream 200ml
eggs 3 large
For the icing
dark chocolate 250g
unsalted butter 180g, cut into small pieces
vanilla extract 1½ tsp
golden syrup 1 tbsp
icing sugar 300g
creme fraiche 300ml, or sour cream
salt a pinch
Start with the sugared fruits. You will need a pastry brush, or a small paint brush, and a cooling rack. Separate your eggs and use the yolks to make the Easter Spice custard for the madeira cake. Whisk the whites in a small bowl.
Wipe the fruits with a dry cloth and lay on the cooling rack placed over a baking sheet to catch any drips and the excess sugar. One at a time, pick up a fruit and delicately brush it with the thinnest layer of egg white possible. It needs to be fully coated, but paper thin. Then, holding the brushed fruit by the stem, use your free hand to sprinkle over the granulated sugar. Work swiftly so the egg white does not dry before the sugar sticks to it. You may need to sprinkle it with the sugar a few times. Use this technique, rather than rolling the fruit into the sugar, for a finer, smoother finish.
Grease and line a 23cm x 33cm oblong baking tin and set aside. Heat the oven to 150C fan/gas mark 3½.
Weigh out all the dry ingredients into a large bowl, sift together twice and set aside. Melt the butter and pour into a large bowl. Add the water and vanilla to your melted butter. Whisk in the creme fraiche and finally the eggs until smooth and incorporated. Gradually whisk this into your dry ingredients until smooth, being careful not to overmix.
Pour the mixture into your prepared baking tin and bake for 30-35 minutes or until a skewer inserted comes out clean and the sponge springs back to the touch. The low oven temperature allows the cake to rise slowly and evenly without peaking in the middle. Cool for 10 minutes before removing from the tin to cool completely.
To make the icing, melt the chocolate, butter, vanilla and golden syrup in a bowl over barely simmering water. Scrape into a food processor and process until cool. Add the remaining ingredients and beat until smooth. Chill for 30 minutes. Transfer to a stand mixer and beat with a paddle until creamy and of a spreadable consistency – about 5 minutes.
When ready to assemble the cake, place the sponge on a flat surface, such as an upturned baking sheet, or you could use a cake drum from a party store, or a lovely large serving platter. Split the cake through the middle with a large serrated knife, like a bread knife, being careful to cut evenly. Use a removable tart or cake tin base to lift the top layer off and set it aside. Fill and ice the middle, replace the top layer of cake, and ice the top and sides. Pipe a little border around the base and top edge of the cake. Chill until 30 minutes before serving.
Decorate with the sugared fruits and serve immediately. Any remaining cake can be kept in the fridge for up to 5 days, but remove the sugared fruit. The sugared fruits last about 2 days – they are not really for eating but for decoration.
Chocolate Easter toasties
A quick home version of pain au chocolat for Easter, these can be made with hot cross buns or slices of the Italian colomba di pasquale bread, which is baked in the shape of a dove. They both make great options; hot cross buns are packed with sultanas and spices, while the colomba has candied citrus peel and is similar to panettone in flavour and texture.
double cream 350ml
dark chocolate 250g, chopped into small pieces
hot cross buns 6, or a loaf of colomba di pasquale
Heat 250ml of the cream gently to just under the boil (I never take my eyes off it). Turn off the heat and stir in the chopped chocolate until smooth. Sometimes this can split, so this is where your extra 100ml double cream comes in. Add cold cream little by little until the ganache is smooth. You can also use a stick blender or food processor to save a broken ganache by gradually adding the extra cold cream while the blender or processor is running. All chocolates are different so this accounts for the irregularity in results. Put the ganache in a bowl or container and place in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Split the buns or slice the bread and heat a heavy bottomed frying or griddle pan over medium heat.
Spread a thick layer of ganache on to your bread, staying a few millimetres in from the edge. Top with another piece and place on to your pan. Griddle on each side for just a few minutes as these sweet breads brown very fast. Be really careful when you flip it so you don’t lose too much filling. Serve straight away.
Cassata with glacé fruits
I first tasted a true cassata on a road trip in Sicily with my daughter when she was four. We drove for hours in 40C heat to find the famous hilltop bakery, Café Sicilia.
You will need to start the day before you plan to serve this cake.
caster sugar 50g
Grand Marnier 2 tbsp
pistachio marzipan 200g, or green marzipan (available online and in large supermarkets)
madeira cake 1 (about 900g), 1-2 days old (see recipe below)
ricotta cheese 1kg, strained through a cheesecloth for 12-24 hours
vanilla extract 1 tsp
fine sea salt ½ tsp
orange juice 1 tbsp
lemon juice 3 tbsp
caster sugar 100g
icing sugar 250g
glacé fruits such as cherries, melon, kiwi, citrus (available online and in speciality delis and food halls such as Fortnum & Mason)
Line a 30cm pie plate (with angled sides) with clingfilm.
In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the 50g of caster sugar with the water. Once dissolved, take off the heat and stir in the Grand Marnier and cool.
Roll the marzipan out to about 3-4mm thickness if it is not ready rolled. Cut into strips that are the same width as the depth of your pie dish. Line the sides of your dish with the marzipan, overlapping slightly where you have to patch the strips together to form one continuous ring.
Slice the madeira cake into ½cm thick slices and arrange half of them on the base of the pie plate. Drizzle half the Grand Marnier syrup evenly over the cake slices and set aside.
In a large bowl whisk together the strained ricotta, vanilla, salt, orange juice, 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice and the 100g of caster sugar until smooth. Spread the ricotta mixture evenly over the soaked cake and then top with the remaining cake slices, trimming where necessary to fit the dish. Drizzle over the remaining syrup and cover snugly with clingfilm. Chill for two hours.
Whisk together the icing sugar and the remaining 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. Invert the chilled cassata on to a serving dish, carefully removing all the clingfilm. Spoon enough of the white icing on to the top to cover, containing it within the border of the marzipan. Decorate with the glacé fruits.
Refrigerate again for a further 2 hours before serving.
Milk chocolate and orange milk biscuits
Tender orange-flavoured biscuits sandwiched around creamy milk chocolate – these are fun to make and much easier than they look. Put them on a plate of paper doilies, like in an old-fashioned shop, to catch the sprinkles.
Makes 20 sandwich biscuits
plain flour 385g
milk powder 100g
baking powder 1 tsp
fine sea salt ½ tsp
unsalted butter 250g, softened
cream cheese 120g
oranges zest of 2
caster sugar 200g
orange juice 1 tbsp
vanilla pod 1, seeds scraped (save the pod for another use)
milk chocolate 300g
chocolate strands or hundreds and thousands to decorate
Line two large baking trays with baking parchment. Heat the oven to 160C fan/gas mark 4.
Whisk together the dry ingredients and set aside. Cream the softened butter and cream cheese with the orange zest until smooth. Add the caster sugar, orange juice and vanilla seeds, and mix well. Add the egg, mix well and finally add the dry ingredients. Mix until just incorporated.
Scoop the mixture into a piping bag fitted with a large star tip, such as Wilton No 6B. Pipe in shapes on to your prepared baking tray. I like simple oval or S shapes. Whichever shape you choose, keep them about 6cm long and be sure to pipe them in matching pairs (that reflect each other), so you can sandwich them together harmoniously.
Bake for 12-15 minutes until golden. Cool for 10 minutes then turn half of them upside down.
Meanwhile, put the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a water bath and melt gently. Or melt the chocolate in a microwave, being careful not to burn it. Using a small knife or offset spatula, spread a thin layer of chocolate on the flat side of the upturned biscuits, doing just a couple at a time so the chocolate does not set before you sandwich each cookie with their partner. Finally, use the knife to spread a swoosh of chocolate on to the end of each sandwich and sprinkle with your chocolate strands or decoration of choice.
Serve in flattened cupcake cases or on a plate lined with paper doilies. They will keep in an airtight container for a week.
Madeira cake with Easter spice custard
This madeira cake is my attempt at a supermarket classic. It gets the soft brown crust just right and, soaked in warm, delicately spiced custard, I dare you not to eat two portions. The lavender and rose is optional but I really recommend trying it. Mixed with the citrus and spice, it all comes together in an unusual yet beautifully balanced silky custard delight.
Makes one large loaf (6-8 portions)
For the cake
unsalted butter 150g, softened
vegetable oil 50ml
caster sugar 200g
eggs 4 large
plain flour 200g
cornflour 50g, or tapioca flour
baking powder 2 tsp
sea salt ¼ tsp
whole milk 120ml
For the custard (makes about 600ml, enough for the 6-8 portions)
Ceylon cinnamon ½ stick
nutmeg a few fresh grates
vanilla pod ½
orange peel 1 strip (use a potato peeler to get a few strips from each, avoiding as much of the white pith as possible)
lemon peel 1 strip
lime peel 1 strip
lavender buds a sprinkle (optional)
dried rose petals a sprinkle (optional)
whole milk 250ml
double cream 250ml
sea salt a pinch
egg yolks 3
Grand Marnier a splash (optional)
Butter and line a 1kg loaf tin with baking parchment and set aside. Heat the oven to 170C fan/gas mark 5.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter, oil and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder and salt. Add half of the mixture to the butter-sugar mixture and beat well. Add half the milk and beat well, repeating with the remaining dry mixture and milk. Scrape the bottom of the bowl to make sure nothing is stuck there, mix a final time.
Tip the mixture into your prepared baking tin and tap on the counter a few times to remove large air bubbles. Bake until golden, a skewer inserted comes out clean, and the madeira cake is springy to the touch – about 45-50 minutes.
While the cake is cooling, you can make the custard. I love to serve the custard hot, just cooked with the freshly baked cake, but both will last well for up to 5 days and can be eaten cold, room temperature or reheated. Basically, any which way you eat this cake and custard combo is delicious.
To make the custard, put all the ingredients except the egg yolks and Grand Marnier in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Bring to just under the boil, turn off the heat, cover with a lid and steep for at least 20 minutes.
Place the egg yolks in a large bowl (save the whites for the sugared fruits or another use) and place a fine sieve over the bowl. Pour the steeped cream over the yolks and discard the spices. Whisk together the yolks and milk mixture until smooth. Rinse out the saucepan before pouring the custard back in. Place over a medium-low heat and whisk continuously until the custard is thick. Remove and decant into a jug or bowl and add the Grand Marnier, if using. If not using straight away, put it in an airtight container and leave at room temperature for up to 2 hours or chill.
Claire Ptak is the owner of Violet Cakes, London