The trees turn a myriad of colours unseen at other times of the year. The hedgerows sparkle with ruby red autumn berries. And my own garden displays the fruits of my labour with green tomatoes desperately soaking up every last ray of sunshine to ripen up before winter sets in. Green beans keep coming day by day appearing as if out of nowhere. Courgettes are pushing on to grow a few more centimetres before being picked. And the bright yellow heads of sunflowers proudly shine their faces towards the sun knowing it won't be long before they will be sadly drooping their heads allowing their seeds to fall like tears to the ground ready for next year.
And it was these autumn treasures from my garden that gave me the inspiration for my Denby Cake off afternoon tea.
Afternoon tea is a way of taking some precious time out of an otherwise busy day to relax with a cup of tea and by doing so tell yourself that you matter. That it is important to make time for yourself. It can also be a time to socialise with friends or loved ones and share the experience of tea and cake together. After all, as Julia Child once said 'A party without cake is just a meeting.'
I love the variety of a 'proper' afternoon tea - the selection of sandwiches, the variety of dainty cakes on a cake stand to choose from.
But the practicalities of re-creating all those different types of cake at home on a regular basis would turn afternoon tea from a pleasure to a chore. So I wanted to create the feeling of variety without the time consuming burden of making many different types of cakes or entrements.
So what I did was make a larger cake to slice along with mini ones on a tiered cake stand to enjoy.
The little edible 'accessories' of strawberry ladybirds and marzipan bees add to the variety with minimal effort.
As do having a couple of sandwich options available cut into fingers and hearts (without crusts of course!) Here we have cheese and cucumber fingers and ham hearts.
The big autumn inspiration for my afternoon tea came from this year's bounty of courgettes and sunflowers growing in my garden. What better way than to reduce a little of the cake-guilt associated with eating cake in the afternoon than to enjoy the goodness of courgette and sunflower seeds inside your cake.
I have made these dairy-free so that they can be enjoyed with friends who are dairy intolerant but simply substitute butter in place of the dairy-free spread if you wish to.
Sunflower Seed & Courgette Cake (Dairy-Free)
320g self-raising flour
300g caster sugar
300g dairy-free spread (I used 'Pure' sunflower spread)
400g courgette (so 1 large courgette or 2-3 small ones)
60g sunflower seeds
juice of a lemon
1tsp rice flour
for the buttercream:
200g Pure dairy-free sunflower spread
650g icing sugar
half tsp vanilla paste
a few drops of yellow food colouring
for the centre of the sunflowers:
dark chocolate chips (use dairy-free if you need it to be dairy-free)
chocolate vermicelli (again check it is dairy-free - some brands are and some aren't)
1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease an 8 inch silicone 'tin' with sunflower oil spray. Grease a 12 hole non-stick muffin tray with sunflower oil spray.
2. Cream together the Pure dairy-free spread with the sugar. Add the eggs one at a time and a little flour at a time after each egg is added.
3. Add the remaining flour and mix.
4. Grate the courgette and squeeze out some of the liquid using your hands. Add the grated courgette and mix.
5. Add the sunflower seeds and the lemon juice and mix. As my mixture looked quite wet, I added a teaspoon of rice flour to stop it being such a wet mixture.
6. Pour the mixture into the silicone cake 'tin' and into the muffin tray.
7. Bake in the oven until cooked through. This is around 30-35 minutes for the larger cake and around 20 minutes for the smaller ones in the muffin tray.
To make the buttercream, cream together the icing sugar with 200g of Pure and a drop of vanilla paste. I added a very light yellow food colouring to mine as the buttercream looked very pale without it so you can add as much colour as you wish to make your sunflowers very yellow or a more mellow yellow as I have done.
Pipe using a 'wide ribbon' icing nozzle attachment to make your sunflower petals and then sprinkle some chocolate vermicelli in the centre.
For the large cake I also used some dark chocolate chips in the centre.
For the smaller cakes, I wanted to leave them 'naked' around their sides to show off some of those flecks of green from the courgette and the goodness of the sunflower seeds. So the buttercream is sandwiched between two cakes and then the flower piped on top.
Now for those simple little extras to make this autumn afternoon tea extra special and pretty.
Maple, Lemon & Rose Marzipan Bees
I had seen some gorgeous little marzipan bees on Frances Quinn's website with a video of how to make them. Frances uses honey & orange blossom to flavour the bees. I wanted to create our own flavoured bees so these are the ingredients I used to make 8 bees:
10g maple syrup
15g icing sugar
25g ground almonds
flaked almonds - 16 pieces
edible gold paint
melted dark chocolate - to pipe on stripes and eyes
a few drops of lemon juice
a few drops of rose water
I think they look rather cute!
Strawberry and chocolate Ladybirds
What else would look pretty alongside bees? Why ladybirds of course! So these are just strawberries cut in half with dark chocolate piped on as spots and a head to look like a little ladybird.
So simple and yet they look so lovely alongside the bees and the cake.
And then we were ready. It was time to enjoy afternoon tea. Not just any afternoon tea but one that really utilised nature's bounty and the treasures of autumn found in my garden.
This is my entry to the 2015 Great Denby Cake Off - more details here!
'Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadows. It's what the sunflowers do.' * Helen Keller quote