When I was young, and my dad was away working a lot of the time and my mum was in college getting her Fine Art degree, my brother and I were looked after by au pairs. There were four of them, and they each lived with us for a year, so we were covered from when I was six to when I was ten. I presume that once I was ten my parents decided I could look after myself (or maybe they were around more, I’m not sure – I find my childhood memories all tend to blend into each other quite indistinctly, and I have a hard time remembering exactly what happened when).

Anyway, the au pairs were Eszter, Petra, Daša, and Eva. After looking after us, Eszter eventually moved to England permanently and had two lovely kids, and I still see her occasionally. She’s Hungarian, but Petra, Daša, and Eva were from the Czech Republic.

I grew up hearing lots of odd snippets of different languages as, while my parents were both born in England, we lived in Russia for a while when I was young and a lot of my mother’s family were German. My parents had also lived in India before having my brother and I in Canada, and we had a lot of friends who came to stay with us from all over the world. Then there were the au pairs: part of the reason they came to England was often because they wanted to improve their language skills, but my mother particularly was always keen to learn snippets of Czech from them. To this day, my mother will often greet people with a loud ‘dobré ráno!’ and throw occasional Czech phrases into conversation. I have no idea how accurate they are, but it sounds fairly impressive.

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We’d also end up eating the occasional bit of Czech cuisine. Again, I have no idea how authentic any of this was, as it was my mother’s interpretation of whatever she’d been told, but when I was little we ate a lot of bread dumplings, which I think we called knedlíky. My brother and I loved the chocolate and hazelnut Czech Kolonada wafers, and I remember there being a lot of Czech beer around.

So I have a fondness for what I know of the Czech Republic and the wonderful people I’ve met who hail from there, and happy memories of the few bits of Czech food I tried as a child. When I saw a recipe for blueberry bublanina, a Czech ‘bubble’ cake, in Anne Shooter’s Sesame and Spice, I wanted to give it a try. A lovely friend of our had a glut of gooseberries in her garden and kindly donated some to me for ‘research purposes’, and this recipe was born.

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Source: Sesame and Spice, by the way, is fantastic – probably my favourite of all the cook books I have bought this year so far. Recipes that are delicious and unusual, yet achievable, are presented in a well laid out and accessible book full of beautiful pictures. I have adjusted Anne Shooter’s bublanina recipe a fair bit, adding hazelnuts and switching blueberries for gooseberries and playing with some of the quantities, but the basic principle is similar.

Notes: As with all cakes filled with berries, which give out a lot of liquid, it’s sometimes tricky to tell when this cake is cooked. I would advise you to err on the side of caution and leave it in the oven until you’re completely sure it’s done (and you won’t normally hear me say that) because it’s quite hard to dry out this cake, but very easy to leave an uncooked mess of berries and cake mix in the middle.

This is a wonderfully adaptable recipe, and will take well to any number of fruits and nuts you care to combine.

Ingredients:

115g butter
115g light brown soft sugar
3 eggs, separated
2 tbsp milk
4 tbsp hazelnut butter
150g plain flour
1 teaspoon salt
400g gooseberries, tossed in 1 tbsp plain flour
4 tbsp chopped toasted hazelnuts
icing sugar, for dusting (optional)

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 190c/170c fan/ Gas 5. Grease a 23cm loose-bottomed or springform tin with butter, and line with base with greaseproof paper. Cream your butter and sugar together until light and fluffy – it will take three to five minutes. Mixing continually, add your egg yolks one by one, followed by the milk and hazelnut butter.
  2. Whisk your egg whites to stiff peaks in a separate bowl. Fold them gently into your wet mixture, then sift and fold in the flour and salt. Gently fold in the gooseberries, then carefully put your mixture into your cake tin (trying not to knock all the air out of it), and sprinkle it with the hazelnuts.
  3. Bake your cake for around 40-50 minutes, or until it is golden and risen and passes the skewer test. Let it cool for fifteen minutes before taking it out of the tin. Dust with icing sugar if desired.