The life artistic – Mini plum and muscovado pavlovas

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I’ve been getting lost in cookbooks again. It’s a favourite habit of mine, second only to buying cookbooks. There’s something wonderful about discovering a new cuisine or way of thinking about food that helps us to learn something more about what makes us human. After all, the theory goes that it was cooking that really enabled us to evolve into what we are today (yes, I’ve also been reading Cooked by Michael Pollan). My latest cookbook crushes have been Gather by Gill Meller and Samarkand by Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford – both wonderful in different ways. Gather evokes the British countryside in a way I’ve rarely seen in food writing; the mix of poetry, archetypal landscapes and dishes created from simple, beautiful ingredients makes this book more of a work of art than a cookbook. Samarkand is at the other end of the scale; part cookbook, part travel essay, but again, wonderfully evocative of place.

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Despite all this newness, I’ve actually been finding the most inspiration lately from a cookbook that’s been sitting on my shelf for a few years: The Modern Pantry Cookbook by the wonderful Anna Hansen. I’ve visited The Modern Pantry on a couple of occasions and loved everything I’ve tried. The way Anna uses ingredients to create explosive flavour combinations regardless of their provenance is fascinating, if a little difficult to imitate (depending on your budget). Naturally, I turned to her book when deciding on a dessert to bring to a friend’s BBQ, and, with some heavy adaptations, ended up with a winner! So here is my homage to The Modern Pantry, using various parts of different recipes from the cookbook to create mini muscovado pavlovas with plums and grapes. I’m hoping Anna won’t mind, after all, as she says in The Modern Pantry Cookbook:

” … if there’s an ingredient you cannot find, why not take the opportunity to have some fun experimenting? To me that is what cooking is all about.”

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This recipe works well if you need to make a dessert in advance and is naturally gluten-free, so will keep just about everyone happy. The meringues will keep well in a tin for up to 1 week, and the fruit can happily be stored in the fridge for the same amount of time. I made and transported the component parts separately and let everyone assemble their own. The meringues aren’t strictly speaking your traditional pavlova meringues, being chewy rather than marshmallowy in the middle, but the flavour of the muscovado sugar really shines through to make this dessert extra special.

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Mini plum and muscovado pavlovas

Individual muscovado meringues served with vanilla cream and roasted red grapes and plums.

For the roasted fruit:

1 punnet of red grapes

4 very large plums (or 8 Victoria plums)

2 tbsp demerara sugar

50ml white wine

3 tbsp pomegranate molasses

Juice of half a lemon

For the meringues:

4 egg whites

300g icing sugar

Juice of half a lemon

80g muscovado sugar

To serve:

300ml double cream

1tbsp golden caster sugar

1tsp vanilla bean paste

  1. First make the roasted fruit: Remove the stones and cut the plums into eighths (or quarters if using smaller plums).
  2. Place into a roasting tin with the destalked grapes. Sprinkle over the sugar, lemon juice, white wine and pomegranate molasses, and roast, uncovered at 140°C (fan) for 20 minutes.
  3. Remove from the oven and leave to go completely cold.
  4. For the meringues: Sift the icing sugar well to make sure there are no lumps. Wipe down the bowl and whisks of the mixer with lemon juice to ensure no traces of fat remain on the surface, as this can make the meringues collapse.
  5. Whisk together the egg whites, icing sugar and lemon juice for 15 minutes on high with a free-standing electric mixer. If, like me, you only have a handheld mixer, I suggest whisking the egg whites on setting 2 for ten minutes, having a break for a couple of minutes, then whisking again for five minutes. This doesn’t seem to have a detrimental effect on the meringues and stops the motor on the whisk from burning out.
  6. Push the muscovado sugar through a sieve and fold through the meringue mixture.
  7. Dollop the mixture onto two lined baking sheets – it should make 12 good-sized meringues – and bake at 100°C (fan) for 2 hours.
  8. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
  9. To assemble: Whip together the double cream, caster sugar and vanilla bean paste, taking care not to over whip.
  10. When ready to serve, top each meringue with a good blob of cream and spoon over the roasted fruit and juices.

 

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The life artistic – Cooking up a blast from the past

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They say that nothing conjures up memories better than smells, a fact that anyone who has ever taken the Christmas box out of the attic and found old decorations made from cinnamon sticks and dried oranges will attest to.  For me, taste should definitely be included here.  Most of our sense of taste is really smell anyway, so I think it’s OK for me to stretch the definition of smell slightly.  I also think that the process can work in reverse; with the memory of the way a food smells and tastes being able to conjure up feelings that we associate with it.  This is why every time I feel ill I crave Knorr Austrian Cream of Herb soup, unusual, I know, but when I was little Mum always used to make it for me if I was ill, and the mere memory of the flavour is now enough to provide me with some comfort when I’m off colour.

Unfortunately for me, they discontinued it about ten years ago, and my sick days have been just that little bit worse ever since.  Not anymore though, as I think I’ve finally managed to come up with a recipe that just about reproduces it.  It takes a bit of effort, but it’s well worth it for the yummy, creamy, herby goodness that you end up with.  If, like me, you were once a fan, give it a go and see what you think.  If you’ve never heard of it, give it a go anyway.  I think you’ll like it.

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Cream of Herb Soup (à la Knorr Soups of the World)

Rich, creamy soup made with herbs, mushrooms and sweetcorn

Ingredients:

10g dried wild mushrooms

150ml boiling water

3 shallots, diced finely

2 cloves garlic, diced finely

25g butter

50g flat-leaf parsley, chopped

100g frozen spinach (or wilted fresh spinach)

20g basil, chopped

3 or 4 stalks of thyme, leaves stripped from stems

3 or 4 stalks of dill, chopped

500ml vegetable stock

100ml white wine

Bay leaf

170g tinned sweetcorn

150ml double cream

1 tsp lemon juice

Salt and Pepper

Method:

  1. Place dried mushrooms in a bowl and pour over 150ml boiling water.  Set to one side and leave for 30 mins.
  2. Melt the butter in a large pan and sweat the onions and garlic over a medium heat until soft and translucent.
  3. Drain the mushrooms, saving the liquor.  Chop finely, add to the onions and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes.
  4. Add the parsley, basil, spinach, dill, thyme and bay leaf, and cook for a couple of minutes.
  5. Add the white wine and bubble for a minute or so, before adding the veg stock, mushroom liquor and sweetcorn.
  6. Give it a good stir, bring to a simmer and cook for ten minutes.
  7. Remove from the heat, fish out the bay leaf and blend with a plunge blender.  If using a goblet blender, allow to cool first.
  8. Return to a low heat and stir through the double cream.
  9. Add the lemon juice and season to taste.
  10. Heat through, but do not boil.  Serve with crusty bread and some decent cheese.

Note: The soup won’t be completely smooth, which I quite like.  If you want something with fewer bits, try using creamed sweetcorn instead of kernels.

The life artistic – When in Rome (and I mean actually in Rome)

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I often forget that this well known phrase comes with a second part, in which we are instructed to “do as the Romans do.”  I’m not sure that I managed this on my recent visit, as I didn’t meet or see a single Roman while staying in Rome.  Thousands of tourists, and plenty of people attempting to sell them things, but no true Romans.  It was as if the entire city were populated with visitors, and people that were just passing through.  The transience and short attention span of the crowds, the constant parry and riposte between tourist and hawker, and the emptiness of the back streets if you dared to wander away from the tourist trail, gave the entire city a sense of being one giant theme park.  I think that the queues to see the sights might have had something to do with it too …

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Time and again as I walked the streets, dodging raindrops, I would see people taking selfies beside beautiful buildings to prove to the world that they had seen Rome, and would wonder if they really had.  I certainly feel like I barely scratched the surface of the city during my visit.  So much of it felt window-dressed, a show put on to amuse visitors, a facade to hide the realities of what the city is really like and the problems it is facing. Historic squares were packed and bustling, but moving just one block away, the side streets were deserted.  Walking down them felt like sneaking backstage, as if this was the part of Rome that you weren’t supposed to see.  Not that they were unloved, or had the feeling of pure functionality that backstage areas often possess.  Quite the contrary. In fact I wish that all cities had side streets that were quite so beautiful.

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No, they just felt closed off, as if tourists were welcome to come and see the sights, and were certainly welcome to spend their money, but were not welcome to see anything more intimate than that.  Visiting had to be purely transactional – you were there to marvel at Rome, not to become acquainted with its people or its customs.  Visitors were a commodity to be exploited, not potential friends, yet to be made.

And yet, this begs the question of why we have allowed this closing-off to happen to what is arguably, one of the most beautiful and historically important cities on the planet?  Why have we turned it into a place of spectacle, where visitors work their way through a tick-list of monuments, but miss out on the heart of the city; its people?  And who’s fault is it anyway?  Are the people of Rome to be blamed for treating visitors as commodities, or are successive generations of tourists to blame for using and abusing the city, taking away with them cameras full of memories, and leaving behind piles of rubbish?

Personally, I feel that most of the blame lies on the sunburnt shoulders of the tourist, and is a problem that has been developing over centuries.  Tourists are consumers at heart, and so much of the time we chose to consume the sights, the food, the monuments, and overwhelmingly nowadays, the alcohol, of a nation that we visit.  How few of us visit a country with the intention of getting to know the people and their customs, even though they are the lifeblood of every nation?  I am to blame for this as much as anyone.  As an unashamed ancient history geek, I often overlook everything in the pursuit of getting to see an ancient monument.

But I have found that on every occasion in which I take the time to seek out the places less visited, to speak to the locals, to try the food that I can’t pronounce, and to learn about the country or city from those that live there, that I have gained the most.  It is only through attempting to understand a country through the eyes of a local that you can truly form an opinion of it, or truly appreciate it’s beauty or accomplishments.  The cycle of exploitation that exists between tourist and local is not an easy one to escape from, but it is worth trying to rise above.  Only by reaching out to people with an open and inquisitive mind can we learn to love them, and it is only by loving its people that we can truly claim to love a city.

I shall have to return for a longer stay and fight through the crowds of tourists, looking for locals not yet jaded by the transient hordes, because I really really want to be able to say that I love Rome.  Unfortunately, at the moment, I honestly cannot say that I do.

The life artistic – Carpe jugulum

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I’ve got to admit that I was slightly apprehensive about travelling to Romania on my own. I blame a combination of studying Gothic literature at A-level and an overactive imagination.  I’ll admit to having compulsively checked the locks on all the windows before going to bed, because everyone knows the window is Dracula’s preferred mode of entry, but I’m pleased to say that apart from that nervous tick I not only survived the trip unscathed, but left with a new found respect for Romania.

I was feeling pretty sorry for myself upon arrival, having travelled with one of the worse colds I’ve ever had, and wanted nothing more than to bury myself in my hotel room and pray that my ears unblocked themselves soon.  I was not, however, prepared for the journey from the airport into the centre of town, where I was to be staying that night.  As the bus negotiated the dense, rush hour traffic, the sheer beauty of the buildings and parklands that were passing by blew me away.  Vague memories of Bucharest being described as the ‘Paris of the East’ came floating back as we crawled past stately mansions decked out with balconies and turrets.  Needless to say, all, well, most feelings of illness and fatigue fell away (it was a nasty cold after all), and I was keen to go exploring.

For a while I just revelled in the wonderfully forgotten freedom of being able to walk the streets alone after dark.  Europe definitely has one up on South Africa in that respect. The old town has a buzz to it at night, with restaurants spilling out onto the streets and late night revellers sipping drinks inside painfully trendy bars.  The streets in this tiny district (it’s less than 1km²) are tangled enough for you to feel delightfully disorientated, without the risk of ever actually being lost. Crumbling buildings rub shoulders with those that have been beautifully restored, and every corner holds a surprise in terms of architecture, whether it be a 4-storey art nouveau apartment block or a 16th Century Orthodox Church, like the Old Court Church of St Anton pictured below.

WP_000586Hanul_lui_Manuc,_1841Of all the beautiful buildings I discovered on my wanderings, my favourite has to be Manuc’s Inn, a 19th Century caravanserai that occupies a whole block on the edge of the old town.  Having been rebuilt several times, it is currently being lovingly restored to it’s former glory, right down to the quirky wooden pavements that apparently used to cover the whole of the city.  I spent a glorious hour cocooned in the coffee shop located in a corner of the building, soaking up the spring sunshine and watching people pass by in the modern city square outside.  People watching here is fun.  I seemed to have stumbled upon one of the trendier locations, and saw a curious mixture of old ladies selling flowers, well-dressed business men, students chatting in groups, and young women dressed up to the nines in killer heels and bright red lipstick.  What I really liked was the idea that just by shifting my seat to the terrace, I could escape the modern world entirely and dream away as I gazed upon the interior of the old courtyard of the inn.

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If you ever come to Bucharest, I cannot recommend the free walking tours too highly. My guide was studying to be an architect, which was perfect for a city where you find so many different styles nestled together.  Wandering on my own was fun, but getting to hear the history behind my discoveries was even better.  It gave me a deeper understanding of the people I had watched go by, and of the lives they live in the city.

But, as anyone who has ever been to London will know, you can never judge a country based solely on its capital city.  Escaping from the bustle of Bucharest, I ventured into the beautiful countryside of Buzau County.  This is where I expected my rude awakening to occur.  The big city had been a surprise, but surely now I would find the Romania of my foggy childhood memories.  The one full of under-funded orphanages, where we send shoeboxes of toys every Christmas.

Thankfully, I was disappointed in this particular expectation.  I won’t deny that there is poverty there, but it seems far less raging than I had been led to believe.  Either that or I’ve become acclimatised to seeing a certain level of poverty from the last 18 months living in Southern Africa.  The villages were by no means wealthy, but every house had a patch of land that was bursting forth with what would become food for the summer.  It may just be the way I’m wired, but what I see as poverty in the city, in the countryside I see as simplicity.  To my mind, people were living as my grandparents may well have done when they were children.  Life was less complicated, and there were fewer things that they felt the need to acquire, but I’m not sure if they were any less well off because of that.

Lump me in with the French aristocracy of the 18th Century, who used to enjoy playing at being peasants, if you like, but I found the simplicity and beauty of the countryside refreshing.  Everywhere I looked the trees were in blossom, the sun was warming, and gentle hills rolled out, blending into the horizon, green and inviting.  Just being there you could feel the weariness dropping away.  All I wanted to do was go and get lost in one of the many patches of woodland that surrounded me.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay there forever and had to head back to Bucharest to continue my journeying.  My abiding memories of Romania will be of the wonderful warmth and hospitality I received from the locals, and of the slightly shabby beauty that I encountered everywhere I went.  It was a great reminder that something doesn’t have to be new and perfect in order to be beautiful; the beauty of character creates a striking impression that stays with you far longer than anything something clinically beautiful could produce.

The life artistic – When in Rome …

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A major part of settling in to any new place is working out what the locals like to do, and joining in.  Here in Muizenberg, the thing to do on a Friday night seems to be to go to the Friday Market at the Bluebird Garage.

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Set in an old light-aircraft hangar at the edge of the town centre, the market acts as a meeting and eating place for what seems like the entire town.  It’s a wonderful mix of stalls selling fresh fruit and veg, bread and locally made treats, hot food, local craft beers and wines, and clothes and jewellery made by local craftsmen and women.  The vibe is great, and the friendly atmosphere is exemplified by the long tables that fill the hangar, crammed with people from all walks of life, happily squashing up to make room for each other.  Everyone here seems to live by the motto written on the table tops …

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I couldn’t agree more.  And with an ever changing line up of food stalls to choose from, the big problem is going to be tasting them all before they’re gone!  I’ve decided, in the true spirit of exploration, to make it my mission to try them all before I leave, and then to tell you all about them here.  These past two weeks, I’m afraid to say, I was drawn back to the same stall, Grub, but their menu looked so good that you can’t really blame me.  Last week I tried the slow roasted pork belly with mushroom spaetzle.  I couldn’t resist.  After living in Switzerland, any mention of spaetzle, golden little squiggles of noodley goodness, and I’m sold.  These were excellent.  They perfectly complemented the mushrooms and soaked up the juices from the moist, tender, crispy on the outside, pork belly.  I really wish I had a picture to show you, but suffice it to say that I had a moment with this particular plate of food, and it will remain a fond memory.

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OK, so it was quite an effort to resist buying it again this week, but I was determined to try something new.  Admittedly I didn’t get too far with that, returning to Grub once more with my eyes fixed firmly on their fried chicken, but the delay to my exploration was so worth it.

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The chicken was moist and juicy, the coating was crisp, and the combination of rich blue cheese and spiky Sriracha hot sauce was a revelation.  I have never thought to mix blue cheese and chilli, which is probably a huge flaw on my own part, but it was great.  I’m not sure every type of chilli would work, but the vinegary tang of the Thai Sriracha sauce worked so well to cut through the creamy richness of the blue cheese.  All in all it got 2 very enthusiastic thumbs up.

I’m going to have to try very hard next week to choose something from a different stall.  Or possibly just come back to Grub for, er, savoury dessert, afterwards.  I haven’t tried their BBQ ribs yet …

 

The life artistic – Chocolate & Ginger Slump Cake

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So, admittedly this isn’t the best timed post in the world, what with the seemingly universal post-Christmas desire to imbibe huge quantities of fruit and never again touch another slice of anything baked.  However, for those, like me, that are blessed with a birthday in the middle of national diet month, something is needed to make our special day a little extra sparkly, without being forced to eat an entire cake on our own because no one else can face it.

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This little number is rich (so you only need the teeniest of slices), decadently chocolatey, gluten-free (so you can feel a little bit self-righteous), and has a lovely zingy kick from the ginger.  The brandy can be quite easily left out too, if you’re going for the full January dryathlon effect.  Just to be extra virtuous, I also used a rather wonderful bar of chocolate that I brought back from Cape Town.  It’s from a local company called Honest Chocolate, who specialise in handmade chocolate created from raw, organic cacao, with no added dairy or sugar.  For something that is supposed to be healthy, it really packs a punch, and you find yourself feeling like you’ve just had a double espresso after a couple of pieces.  You can find out more about Honest Chocolate and the brilliant collaboration they have with local artists for their wrappers, here.

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OK, so this cake may not be the prettiest in the world, but to me it is a thing of beauty.  The idea is that the cake rises in the oven, and then collapses back in on itself as it cools, putting the slump into slump cake.  This process creates a dense yet slightly marshmallowy centre, surrounded by a crisp outer shell.  It is reminiscent of a brownie, but lighter somehow.

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I first came across this recipe in a magazine at my friends house, and diligently copied it over.  Unfortunately, when I came to make it this time round I discovered that I had left my recipe book on another continent, so I had to go rummaging around online.  I found it here, but was once again frustrated when only half of the recipe appeared unless I subscribed to The Sunday Times.  I decided instead to turn the experience into my own version of a GBBO technical challenge, and went with the ‘lets make it up as we go along’ spirit that has made this country great.  It seemed to work pretty well, so for all of you that would like to make this wonderful cake, originally by Lucas Hollweg, here is my version of the recipe.

Chocolate & Ginger Slump Cake

Rich, dense gluten-free chocolate cake, spiked with stem ginger and brandy

For the Cake:

80g stem ginger (approx. 4 balls)

2tbsp syrup from the stem ginger jar

3tbsp brandy

200g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids)

100g unsalted butter

4 eggs, separated

125g caster sugar

1tbsp cornflour

pinch of salt

icing sugar for dusting

Method:

  1. Chop the stem ginger into small-ish pieces, then, using a blender or food processor, blitz it with the syrup and brandy to make a sort of slush.
  2. Place the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water and melt together, stirring occasionally.
  3. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
  4. While the chocolate is melting and cooling, whisk the egg yolks together with 100g of the sugar until the mixture pales and thickens slightly.
  5. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form (this will work better if you wipe the bowl and whisk over with lemon juice before starting).
  6. Add the remaining 25g of sugar to the egg whites and whisk for another minute.
  7. Add the cornflour and salt to the egg whites and whisk again until you have shiny peaks (approx. another minute).
  8. Add the ginger slush to the chocolate mixture and fold in until mixed.
  9. Carefully fold the egg yolk mixture into the chocolate mixture.
  10. Add one spoonful of the egg white mixture to the chocolate mixture and fold in to slacken it off, then pour the chocolate mixture into the egg white mixture and fold in carefully.
  11. When evenly mixed, pour into a bottom lined and greased 23cm springform cake tin and bake at 180°C for 30 minutes.
  12. Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool in the tin for 15 minutes before carefully removing and allowing to cool completely (it will sink – don’t worry, it’s supposed to).
  13. When cool, dust with icing sugar and serve.  It’s really good with some clotted cream if you’re feeling naughty.

 

The life artistic – Rooibos, Peach & Honey Cupcakes

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So, tea may not seem like the obvious choice for a flavour of cupcake, but you’re going to have to trust me on this one.  The idea came to me during a worship session, so I think I can probably claim that it was God-inspired.  The flavour has certainly been described as heavenly by my willing taste-testers, but you’ll have to try them for yourself to decide.

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I have to admit that these never would have come about if I hadn’t gotten ridiculously homesick earlier in the week.  A wonderful friend came to my rescue and offered me some therapy in the form of free access to her kitchen.  After spending eight out of the last ten months in South Africa, I thought it was high time that I tried to incorporate some of the essence of this beautiful country into my baking, and these were the result.

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Rooibos is becoming more and more popular in the UK, but is still a distinctly South African flavour.  To me, it evokes beautiful African sunsets over the Drakensberg, even though I’ve been normally drinking it to stay warm on freezing cold Cape Town nights.  The peaches add a subtle depth to the flavour, but are really there to add texture and to keep the sponge moist.  The real star of these cupcakes is the combination of the delicate rooibos flavour with the honey frosting, which lifts the whole thing to another level.

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I’m not claiming that these are in any way an authentic South African delicacy, just one Brit’s take on some traditional South African flavours.  They seemed to go down well with the locals, so I’m taking that as receiving the official seal of approval.

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I found myself making these in a beautiful kitchen that lacked but one thing; an electric mixer.  It was at that point that I thanked the Lord that my Mum used to bake with me the old-fashioned way as I grew up, so I just adapted the method as I went.  I’ve included both versions below, so you can have a go if you find yourself mixer-less, or just fancy a bit more of a workout as you bake.

Rooibos, Peach & Honey Cupcakes

Light sponge flavoured with rooibos tea and studded with pieces of peach, topped with a honey whipped cream frosting.

For the Cupcakes

3 Rooibos teabags

3tbsp boiling water

80g unsalted butter

280g caster sugar

240g plain flour

1tbsp baking powder

pinch of salt

190ml milk

2 eggs

1 tin of peaches in syrup

For the Frosting

500ml double cream

4tbsp runny honey

To make the Cupcakes

  1. Soak the rooibos teabags in the boiling water for 30 minutes.
  2. Slowly beat together the flour, baking powder, salt, sugar and butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
  3. Mix together the milk, eggs and rooibos extract in a jug, squeezing out the teabags to get every last drop.
  4. Using a mixer on low speed, add 3/4 of the milk mixture to the dry ingredients.
  5. Scrape down the sides of the bowl well and mix in the remaining milk mixture.
  6. Once incorporated, beat on a medium speed until smooth.
  7. Drain and rinse the peaches, then chop into small pieces and stir through the cake batter.
  8. 2/3 fill muffin cases (I find it usually makes 18), and bake at 170°C (fan oven) for 18-20 minutes.
  9. Remove from the oven and allow to go completely cold.

And here’s the method for if you don’t have an electric mixer

  1. Soak the rooibos teabags in the boiling water for 30 minutes.
  2. Cream together the butter and sugar until pale.
  3. Beat in the eggs one at a time, adding a tablespoon of flour with the second egg.
  4. Sieve together the flour, baking powder and salt.
  5. Mix together the milk and rooibos extract, squeezing out the teabags to get every last drop.
  6. Fold in half of the flour, then mix in half of the milk.
  7. Fold in the remaining flour, then mix in the remaining milk.
  8. Drain and rinse the peaches, then chop them into small pieces and stir through the cake batter.
  9. 2/3 fill muffin cases (I find it usually makes 18), and bake at 170°C (fan oven) for 18-20 minutes.
  10. Remove from the oven and allow to go completely cold.

To make the frosting

  1. Add the honey to the cream and whip until stiff (be careful not to over whip, as it turns very quickly).

To assemble the Cupcakes

  1. Top each cupcake with a generous dollop of frosting.
  2. Enjoy!