A photo of this recipe can
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For around the last month or so, I have been mucking around in the sticky part of the kitchen, trying to come up with fresh ideas for our dessert menu. Sadly, my inspiration lately has been less than stellar, so anything I came up with was either too damn fiddly and intricate to be bothered with, or just outright boring.

I hate dealing with a barren well-spring of ideas, but hell, it happens to me often enough, so I really should by now be used to the cyclical nature of my inspiration by now. Sort of like a creative El Nino effect if you will. To make matters worse, the time of year is rapidly approaching that places limitations on exactly what type of dessert I should be serving. I'm not talking seasonal availability of produce here, although that does play a part. More importantly, it is heading toward Christmas – the silly season. This is a time of huge work functions and damn lots of them. For plenty of people walking through our restaurant doors over the next few months, this will be one of the few times they will dine out at a restaurant all year. Let's face it – without sounding harsh – a good proportion of these customers will only be looking for one thing – (Well, two.. if you count Joanna from HR), and that is arm-loads of free food and booze, all on the company's shekel. This enthusiastic and opportunistic consumption, coupled with the sheer number of these functions we will see towards the holidays adds up to a unique and at times unsavoury situation that my old mate JD refers to as “..Churn and burn, baby..”.

What JD was referring to are huge amounts of vittles that need to be prepared quickly and easily. Churn and burn indeed. Still, this needn't necessarily mean sub-par grub. Ideally, the menus we will write should include tasty and interesting dishes that are forgivingly easy to serve up, and serve up in quantity. That is why I am so happy my shortcake experiments worked so well tonight. Come December, when I'll be churning and burning like nobody's business, this gaspingly easy and sinfully delicious sweet will be taking a starring role without doubt.

More often than not, it is the simple, traditional and time honoured dishes that prove themselves under these circumstances. Strawberry shortcake is an old standard as well as a comfort food favourite for many a sucrose enthusiast. By taking the spirit and essence of the original recipe, then cranking it up a notch by substituting deliciously novel ingredients, a new and fresh take on the old theme is the wickedly sticky result. It's still as simple as good old strawberry shortcake ever was, but the nifty twists and turns keeps the interest level up and the churn and burn process cranking along at a smooth clip.

Instead of sponge cake, this revamped rendition sneaks a complex, feather-light and lip-smacking almond “cake” onto the plate. Cake is a slight misnomer, as it actually has more in kin with the yummy almond frangipane so beloved in French country tarts. The almond cake is baked on a flat sheet so once cooked and cooled, it is only 1cm or so in height. Take a cookie cutter of any shape and press out little shortcakes, or simply cut any shape you like with a sharp knife. A voluptuous and satiny cassia bark infused custard, with its cinnamon-like flavour is liberally slathered on top, followed by a bright red shock of sweet berries that have been quickly simmered in the delicious strawberry-laced French liqueur, Crème de Fraise. A neat topping of more almond cake rounds out this damn-near addictive ensemble, and a simple scatter of crunchy, nutty praline completes the picture. It's so very simple, it looks absolutely stunning, and it's jam-packed with contrasting, yet complementary sweet and heady flavours. It might be wise to jot the recipe down for when your own “churn and burn” silly season comes around.

Ingredients for 6

Almond cake

Cassia crème and berries

To finish


Start with the almond cake. Preheat your oven to 180° C (360° F). Separate the eggs, placing the yolks in one bowl and the whites in another. Add half the sugar to the yolks and whisk very well, until they are pale and ribbony. Use a mix master if you have one. Add the almond meal and mix until combined. Whisk the whites until they form soft peaks, then add the remaining sugar in a thin stream. Continue whisking until the whites reach stiff peaks and they look smooth and glossy. Again – the use of a mix master here will save you time and effort. Fold one third of the whites into the almond mixture. Mix well. When fully combined, fold in the remaining whites, this time with a lighter hand. Pour onto a greased and lined baking tray (or sheet) and bake for 20 minutes. Check to see if it is golden brown. Cook for another 5 or so minutes if need be. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

Make the crème patissiere using my recipe there, but add some cassia bark to the cold milk and bring slowly to the simmer so the moo juice takes on masses of the exotic cassia flavour.

Next prepare the strawberries. Hull the berries and wash well. Cut in half if they are large. Place the sugar, Crème de Fraise, star anise if using, along with 250ml (1 cup) of cold water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to simmer – and cook for 5 minutes. Add the strawberries, then immediately remove them from the stove. Cover the pot and set the berries aside to cool.

When ready to assemble, place a small dollop of crème patissiere on the middle of 6 plates. Cut 12 shapes of your choice out of the almond cake. Place 6 directly onto the crème, then generously smother the top with the cassia patissiere. Place 3 or 4 strawberries on top of this. Dust the top of the remaining almond cakes with icing sugar, then place on top of the strawberries to complete the stack. Scatter over praline if you are using and serve forth.

A rich, almost unctuous botrytis affected semillon would be a good pick here, as the densely-layered flavour spectrum will match up the heady and spicy sweetness of the dessert. Are you a lot more flush than me? Then why not lash out on an aged bottle of Château d'Yquem. However, if you are not so liquid with the folding assets, then a bottle of De Bortoli Noble One from Australia should get you 90% of the thrills for 10% of the asking price.

And for the benefit of EstragonBleu, and all her northern noding compadres who have no berries right now, try corella pears poached with a splash of Poire William, or slow-baked quince, or roasted rhubarb, or peel and dice a few cox's orange pippin apples, toss them in melted butter and brown sugar with 2 or 3 cloves and quickly roast at 220° C (440° F) until they are golden brown at the edges and just soft. Cool, and proceed, my rugged up friends.

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