S1, Ep 5: Monks House, Pecans and Complicated Love-lives

Gillian's sponge cake and lemon curd tart

Gillian's sponge cake and lemon curd tart



Gillian dreams about lemons and Virginia Woolf’s garden while Annabelle is preoccupied with surprise cats, Navaho pecans and the love-lives of the Bloomsbury Set.

The sitting room at Monks House. Image: National Trust Images/Caroline Arber

The sitting room at Monks House. Image: National Trust Images/Caroline Arber

An embroidered bird's eye view of the vegetable garden at Monks House by Caroline Zoob, who lived at Monks House as a National Trust caretaker for 10 years.

An embroidered bird's eye view of the vegetable garden at Monks House by Caroline Zoob, who lived at Monks House as a National Trust caretaker for 10 years.

The kitchen at Monks House. Image: National Trust Images/Caroline Arber

The kitchen at Monks House. Image: National Trust Images/Caroline Arber

Surprise kittens

Surprise kittens

Freshly picked pecan nuts. Six years in the making!

Freshly picked pecan nuts. Six years in the making!

My pecan assignment on this year's harvest, with the different varieties grown on our farm.

My pecan assignment on this year's harvest, with the different varieties grown on our farm.

Oh dear god, how can I say no?

Oh dear god, how can I say no?

Sunset on the farm

Sunset on the farm

Lemon curd tart and sponge cake

Lemon curd tart and sponge cake


Gillian's sponge cake

I think you could tell from my dispatch how much I love lemons. And the sponge cake (or genoise) – well, I think it’s my very favourite. Just as its name suggests, it is a delightful foil to whatever filling your heart desires. And then you get to mop up your plate with the last sweet, feather-light bite on your fork. Finished with a light dusting of icing sugar and fresh flowers, it makes my heart sing with joy!

Tip: because this sponge cake doesn’t contain any fats, it is best made and eaten on the day. But it’s so quick and easy, you can whip it up at very short notice.

This recipe will make 2 x 20cm (8”) standard round sandwich tins.

4 large organic eggs (room temperature)

170g caster sugar

60g cornflour

60g self-raising flour (self-rising). *If you only have plain or all purpose flour, add 2 tsp of baking powder. Sift it through at least 2 times. Even distribution is paramount!

freshly, whipped cream and homemade lemon curd for serving


Heat your oven to 180°C/350F. If you have a fan-forced oven, and you can’t turn off the fan, heat to 170°C. Otherwise, turn off that fan!

Cut 2 circles of baking paper and place one in the base in your baking tin and grease the sides of your tin with butter.

In a large bowl, sift all the flours together to aerate and to combine thoroughly.

Whisk eggs and sugar on high until foamy and light-coloured. You want it to look like a foamy, pale mousse. (approx 6 mins in a free-standing mixer).

Sift the flours again over the top of the egg foam.

With a large spoon or spatula, gently fold the flours into the egg foam until you can’t see any more flour. Stop at that point.

Use large spoon to spoon the mixture into cake tins. Jiggle tins gently to even out mixture and place another paper circle on top of mixture in the tin.

Bake for approx 23 mins. DO NOT OPEN OVEN UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE. Sponge should be golden and spring back when gently poked in the middle.

Place on wire rack and release from tins, leaving paper intact. After about 10mins, gently peel the  papers off.

When the sponges are completely cool, spread one of them generously with the lemon curd and dollop the fresh, whipped cream on top of the curd. Place the other sponge cake on top to form a ‘sandwich’. Finish with a light dusting of icing sugar and fresh garden flowers or fresh berries.


Lemon curd

You can keep this curd in a screw top glass jar for up to two weeks in the fridge. Use it on your toast, pancakes .. anything really. Well, perhaps not on the roast;)

zest of 3 or 4  lemons

120ml of lemon juice (approx 3 lemons)

75g of butter

75g of caster sugar

4 large eggs

Mix everything together in a saucepan except the eggs. Beat the eggs with a fork in a seperate bowl until they are combined. Heat the saucepan mixture, stirring all the time until the sugar has dissolved and the butter melted. Pour some of this hot mixture over the eggs in the bowl, whisking all the time. When all is combined well, add the remaining mixture from the saucepan into the bowl. Then pour the lemon/egg mixture back into the saucepan and return to the stove. Now, you are only going to heat this until the egg is cooked. Think about how quickly an egg cooks in a frying pan, so it won’t take long. Stirring continually with a wooden spoon, heat the mixture over a medium heat. As you sense it start to thicken, turn the spoon over and run your index finger down the back of a spoon. If a line is created, you’re done! Pour the mixture back into the bowl and cover with clingfilm. Allow to cool then refrigerate.


Lemon tart

Another dessert that I love. It’s those lemons! Try to find local, unwaxed lemons. I know that may be difficult depending on where you live in the world, but the longer a lemon is stored, the more the beautifully perfumed, volatile oils in its skin are lost, and its juice loses its sharp tang.

Tip: You can grow a lemon tree easily in a pot, near a window in a room with lots of sunlight. Imagine, your own indoor citrus orchard!


Pastry shell

This is the same sweet, shortcrust pastry recipe as the one I used for my chocolate miso tart in episode 4. I think it’s a good one for you to have up your sleeve. It tastes good, it’s crisp and it’s easy to roll out and handle. But feel free to use your own favourite recipe, or buy a good shop bought one that is made with real butter.


23cm/9” round shallow pastry tin. The fluted ones are nice to use for this recipe, but I have used my 20cm/8” sponge cake sandwich tins for this too. Most of us don’t own a squadron of baking tins and we don’t have room for them either. The tins just need to have a loose base to enable you to remove the tart easily without breaking it.

Tip: because of the butter content in this pastry, you don’t need to grease your tin.


225g /1 ½ cups of plain (all purpose) flour

1 tablespoon of icing sugar (you can use icing mixture or confectioner’s sugar)

140g of cold butter , chopped coarsely

1 large egg yolk (in Australia, a large egg is 60g)

2 tablespoons of iced water (approx)


Here’s what to do:

Buzz the dry ingredients in your food processor  until the butter is evenly distributed, then add the egg yolk (buzz,buzz), then the iced water. Buzz until it has come together in a ball. Or make it by hand. Crumble the butter and flour together with your fingertips until you have the mixture that looks like sand, and then pour in the egg yolk and water, and bring the mixture together with a rounded knife. 

With you hands, knead the pastry together until you have a smooth ball. I then like to roll it out between two sheets of baking paper. Roll it out  until it is slightly larger than your tin. Ease it into the tin, pressing it gently into the corners. Trim it up but keep the trimmings for later. Prick the floor of the pastry case with a fork. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 180°C/350F and place a large baking sheet in your oven.

When the pastry is chilled, remove it from the fridge and line it with a piece of used baking paper that you have crumpled up into a ball then smoothed out.  Fill the case with baking beads (or rice or dried legumes). Place it on the hot baking sheet in the oven and bake it for about 30 mins, then remove the paper and beads, and put it back in the oven for about 10 mins, until it is golden brown.

Remove from oven and leave aside, still on the baking sheet.  Use little bits of the pastry trimmings as polyfilla to fill in any cracks or gaps that have developed in your pastry shell.

Turn the oven down to 150°C/275F


Lemon filling

4 large eggs
200g castor sugar
200ml lemon juice, about 3 large ones
Zest of 3 lemons
125g double cream or crème fraiche


Whisk all of these ingredients together and pour them into a saucepan. Heat on your stovetop until they are quite warm. You are not cooking them, just warming them up before they go into the oven.

Place the baking sheet and pastry tin back in the oven, and carefully pour the warm lemon filling into the pastry shell. Bake for approx 20 mins, but your filling still needs to be wobbly when you remove it from your oven. Allow it to cool completely in the tin.  Then chill in the fridge. Remove gently from tin and dust with icing sugar and serve. Enjoy! x

Gillian’s natural lemon cleaner

Don’t throw out those lemons and lemon skins! Just add them to a large mason jar of equal parts white vinegar and water, throw in a few sprigs of fresh rosemary, leave on your counter for a day and then use it to clean everything! Bench tops, sinks, bathrooms, floors, fridges and on and on it goes. I even add it to may washing machine in the final rinse, or rinse out my hair with it. It’s completely safe. You could even add some olive oil to it and use it as a vinaigrette! Along with bi-carbonate of soda (which I also use in my cakes), these two natural products are cheap and safe to use.

Such a pleasing sight; a bowlful of lemons

Such a pleasing sight; a bowlful of lemons

Sponge cake and lemon curd

Sponge cake and lemon curd




Monks House - now under the care of the National Trust  - is open to the public. Click here for the link.

Virginia Woolf's Garden by Caroline Zoob with wonderful photos by Caroline Arber is a book I highly recommend.

Although in the podcast I am preoccupied with the love lives of Virginia Woolf, her sister Vanessa Bell and the Bloomsbury set, I probably should have focused on some - ANY - of the wonderful work they left in their wake. Here is an interesting story about a 50 piece dinner set Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant painted with portraits of women from history.

Another fascinating perspective on Virginia Woolf and Monks House is through Annie Leibovitz' book Pilgrimage, (which we mentioned last episode) in which Leibovitz documents the objects and tableaux that her chosen subjects have left behind. There are no people in the book, but it feels hauntingly personal. She visits Monks House and photographs Woolf's enormous writing table and the River Ouse. She also goes to Emily Dickinson's house and has included a detail shot of a lovely white cotton dress. Can't recommend it highly enough. And here is a great article about the book too.