Hit the sweet spot: Skye Gyngell's perfect puddings

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After-dinner reward or teatime titillation? With treats this simple and tasty, it doesn't matter what time you choose to eat them, says Skye Gyngell

There really is no better way to give yourself a lift when it's freezing outside than a slice of cake. I prefer to have my treat at teatime rather than after the evening meal, when often I am too full to partake – but I know many who can't do without a certain something to finish their dinner! For that reason, I've split the four choices here from my new book, How I Cook, between afternoon pleasures and after-dinner refreshers.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627, petershamnurseries.com

Chocolate cake with cream-cheese icing

This cake is sweet, dark and sludgy, with a contrasting American-style icing of whipped cream cheese, icing sugar and butter. It is not the sort of smoky-rich chocolate cake you find in a restaurant, but rather one that should be eaten at home as a teatime treat.

Makes 8–10 slices

150g/5oz good-quality dark chocolate
185g/6oz unsalted butter at room temperature, plus extra to grease
375g/12oz plain flour, plus extra to dust
1 tsp baking powder
185g/6oz caster sugar
185g/6oz soft brown sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
185ml/6fl oz whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract

For the icing

300g/10oz soft cream cheese
75g/3oz unsalted butter
600g icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 160C/325F/Gas 3. Break up the chocolate to encourage it to melt evenly, then place in a heatproof bowl set over a pan containing about 5cm of gently simmering water. The bowl should not be in direct contact with the water, or the chocolate is liable to overheat. Don't stir, as this can dull the shine. When it is melted, smooth and glossy, remove from the heat and set aside to cool slightly.

Now lightly grease and flour three 20cm sandwich cake tins (or two 25cm cake tins) and line with baking parchment. Sift the flour and baking powder together and set aside.

Using an electric mixer, cream the butter until light and pale – this will take about three minutes. Add the caster and brown sugars and cream until light and very fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Now incorporate the chocolate, mixing until they are evenly combined. Finally, fold in the flour alternately with the milk and vanilla, using a metal spoon or spatula. The batter should be smooth and glossy.

Divide the mix between the prepared cake tins and bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 20 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean.

Place the tins on a wire rack and leave to cool for five minutes or so, then turn out the cakes on to the rack and leave to cool completely before icing.

For the icing, using an electric mixer, beat all the ingredients together until soft and completely smooth. Spread the icing over the cake while it is still soft. Place in the fridge for an hour or so before serving.

Lay one sponge on a board and spread generously with a third of the icing. Place the second sponge on top and spread with another third of the icing. Position the final sponge on top and cover with the rest of the icing. Grate a little dark chocolate over the top to serve.

Rice pudding with poached prunes

Sometimes I dream about rice pudding. Properly made, it is sweet, gentle and always alluring to me (though it might be too much after a proper meal). It has the added advantage of taking very little effort. I like to use risotto rice – its small, plump grains absorb the flavours better than long-grain or short-grain rice. If you're not a fan of prunes, this also goes exceptionally well with a dollop of jam.

Serves 4–6

250g/8oz risotto rice
900ml/11/2 pints whole milk
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
Peel of 1 lemon
Small pinch of salt
150g/5oz plump, soft prunes
4 tbsp Pedro Ximénez sherry
5 tbsp boiling water
150g/5oz caster sugar
200ml/7fl oz double cream

Start by rinsing the rice well under cold running water, then tip it into a heavy-based saucepan. Add the milk, vanilla pod, lemon peel and salt and bring almost to a simmer over a medium heat. Now turn down the heat as low as possible (a heat-diffuser mat is useful here) and put the lid on, placing it slightly off centre, so it isn’t quite covering the pan. Cook, stirring every now and then, for 20 minutes, or until the rice is cooked but still retains the slightest bite.

In the meantime, stone the prunes and place in a small bowl. Pour over the sherry, followed by the boiling water and leave to steep for 20 minutes. When the rice is cooked until al dente, stir in the sugar and cream and cook for a further 10 minutes. The pudding needs to be creamy with a soft consistency – you can test this by loading some on to a spoon and ensuring it drops off easily.

Transfer the rice pudding to a serving dish and allow to stand for five to 10 minutes. Serve warm, not piping hot, topped with the poached prunes.

Crème caramel with Pedro Ximénez sherry

I love the silky texture of a baked rich, creamy custard and the way it wobbles prettily on a plate. The bittersweet caramel that sits atop adds a real intensity. The deep, mellow flavour of Pedro Ximénez sherry – trickled over just before serving – is a lovely enhancement but you can serve the crème caramel just as it is if you prefer.

Serves 6

500g/1lb caster sugar
500ml/17fl oz whole milk
500ml/17fl oz double cream
2 large eggs
9 large egg yolks
6 tsp Pedro Ximénez, to serve

Preheat the oven to 160C/325F/Gas 3. Have ready six dariole moulds or ramekins (200ml/7fl oz capacity).

To make the caramel, put 300g/10oz of the sugar into a medium-sized, heavy-based pan and melt over a medium heat. Swirl the pan occasionally as the sugar begins to colour and remove from the heat as soon as the caramel is dark golden; this will take about five minutes. Don't let it darken too much, otherwise it will taste bitter. Quickly, but carefully (the caramel will be hot) spoon two tablespoons into the base of each mould. Stand the moulds in a roasting tin and set aside.

For the custard, pour the milk and cream into a saucepan and bring just to a simmer over a medium heat, then take off the heat. Meanwhile, lightly whisk the whole eggs, egg yolks and remaining sugar together in a bowl, just to combine. Slowly pour in the warm milk, whisking as you do so.

Pour the custard into a clean, heavy-based saucepan and stir over a very low heat with a wooden spoon for 10 minutes or so until it is thick enough to lightly coat the back of the spoon. Ladle the custard on to the caramel base in the prepared moulds, filling them almost to the rim.

Pour enough hot water into the roasting tin to come halfway up the side of the moulds. Cooking in this way, with a bain-marie, is a way of protecting a delicate dish (or individual dishes) from the direct, intense heat of the oven; it is also used to keep sauces warm once they are cooked. A bain-marie (literally a water-bath) surrounds the dishes with gentle steam.

Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for one hour. To test whether it is done, insert a small, sharp knife into the centre of one of the puddings; if it comes out clean, the custard is set. Leave the dishes in the bain-marie to cool slowly to room temperature, then take them out and chill in the fridge overnight.

To serve, run a knife around the inside of each mould and invert on to a plate – the set custards should slip out easily. Spoon a teaspoonful or so of sherry over the top of each one and serve.

Citrus tart

The sharp, tangy flavour of this tart filling is the perfect contrast to the rich, buttery pastry. A lovely way to finish a celebratory meal – and you can make it in advance.

Serves 8

For the pastry

250g/8oz plain white flour, plus extra to dust
140g/5oz chilled, unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 tbsp caster sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 organic free-range medium egg yolk
A little iced water

For the filling

Finely grated zest and juice of 5 oranges
Juice of 2 lemons
300g/10oz caster sugar
5 medium eggs
9 medium egg yolks
300g/10oz unsalted butter, cut into cubes

To make the pastry, tip the flour into a food processor and add the chilled butter, sugar and vanilla extract. Pulse until you have the consistency of coarse breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk and one tablespoon of iced water and pulse again; the pastry should begin to come together. Add a little more iced water as necessary, pulsing until the pastry forms a ball. (Be careful not to add too much water, as wet dough is difficult to work with.) Wrap in baking parchment or clingfilm and rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.

For the filling, put all the ingredients, except the butter, into a large heavy-based pan. Whisk over the lowest possible heat until the sugar has dissolved; don't let the mixture overheat, or it will curdle. Add half the butter and whisk until the mixture begins to thicken – it should coat the back of the spoon. Add the remaining butter and continue stirring until the mixture has become very thick; this will take about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and pour into a cold bowl. The mixture will continue to thicken as it cools.

Now roll out the pastry on a floured surface to a large round, about 3mm thick. Carefully lift the dough on to the rolling pin and drape it over a 25cm fluted flan tin, about 3cm deep. Press the pastry gently into the fluted sides and prick the base with a fork. Return to the fridge to chill for a further 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Line the pastry case with greaseproof paper and baking beans and bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 20 minutes. Remove the paper and beans and return to the oven for a further 10 minutes until the base is dry. Remove from the oven and spoon the filling into the pastry case. Turn the oven setting up to 220C/425F/ Gas 7 and return the tart to the oven. Cook for eight minutes, or until the top has browned slightly. Place the flan tin on a wire rack and leave the tart to cool. Serve in slices, with crème fraîche.

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