Pumpkin

A pumpkin is a cultivar of a squash plant, most commonly of Cucurbita pep, that is round, with smooth, slightly ribbed skin, and deep yellow to orange colouration. The thick shell contains seeds and pulp. Some exceptionally large ones are derived from Cucurbita maxima. In NZ and Australia, the term pumpkin generally refers to the broader category called winter squash elsewhere.

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Native to North America pumpkins are widely grown for commercial use and are used both in food and recreation. Pumpkin pie is a traditional part of Thanksgiving meals in the US although commercially canned pumpkin puree and pumpkin pie fillings are usually made from different kinds of winter squash than the pumpkins frequently carved as for decoration at Halloween. Pumpkins, like other squash, are thought to have originated in North America. The oldest evidence of pumpkin-related seeds dating between 7000 and 5500 BC was found in Mexico. Since some squash share the same botanical classifications as pumpkins, the names are frequently used interchangeably. One often-used botanical classification relies on the characteristics of the stems: pumpkin stems are more rigid, prickly, and angular (with an approximate five-degree angle) than squash stems, which are generally softer, more rounded and more flared where joined to the fruit. Pumpkin fruits are a type of botanical berry known as a pepo. The word pumpkin originates from the word pepon which is Greek for “large melon”, something round and large. The French adapted this word to pompon, which the British changed to pumpion and to the later American colonists became known as pumpkin. Traditional C. pepo pumpkins generally weigh between 3 and 8kg (6 and 18 lb), though the largest cultivars, C. maxima, regularly reach weights of over 34 kg (75 lb). The color of pumpkins derives from orange carotenoid pigments, including beta-carotene found in carrots, provitamin B compounds converted to vitamin A in the body.

Pumpkins are a warm-weather crop that are usually planted in early July. The specific conditions necessary for growing pumpkins require that soil temperatures 8cm (3 in) deep are at least 15.5C (60F) and soil that holds water well. Pumpkin crops suffer if there is a lack of water or because of cold temperatures and sandy soil with poor water retention or poorly drained soils that become waterlogged after heavy rain. Pumpkins are, however, rather hardy, and even if many leaves and portions of the vine are removed or damaged, the plant can very quickly re-grow secondary vines to replace what was removed. The thing I most fear for our pumpkins is powdery mildew – Powdery Mildew

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A courgette with powdery mildew – the white spots that grow on the leaves before the plant shrivels and dies.

Pumpkins produce both a male and female flower. Bees play a significant role in the fertilisation of the flowers. Pumpkins have historically been pollinated by the native squash bee, Peponapis pruinosa, but this bee has declined, probably at least in part to pesticide sensitivity. Today most commercial plantings are pollinated by honeybees. One hive per acre (4,000 m2 per hive, or 5 hives per 2 hectares) is recommended by the US Dept. of Agriculture. If there are inadequate bees for pollination, gardeners often have to hand pollinate – inadequately pollinated pumpkins usually start growing but abort before full development.

To grow pumpkins, plant one seed in a tall yoghurt container filled with good compost, puncture a hole in the bottom of the pot to allow water to drain through, in April. Plant 1.5cm, 1/2 inch, deep (deep as your thumb) and firm the soil over the top. Keep well watered and put on a warm, sunny windowsill in your house. Take it off the windowsill at night to keep it warm. Transplant outdoors in May or when the frosts are over, spacing 1.2m (4’) apart. Keep moist and well fed – I feed mine lots of manure throughout the season because of my sandy soil that leaks away the nutrients – pumpkins are hungry plants. To prevent the fruit from rotting, gently lift from the ground and place a brick or large stone underneath them. Careful not to damage the stem. Harvest once they are turning orange all over, September – November and before the first frosts. The most obvious clue is to look at the stem as if it has died off and turned hard you know that the fruits are ready. Other ways of telling that the moment of truth has arrived is to slap the fruit (it should sound hollow) and to push your thumbnail into the skin, which should dent but not puncture. Cut the stalks a good 4 inches from where it joins the fruit. Wash the fruit with soapy water containing one part of chlorine bleach to ten parts of water to remove the soil and kill the pathogens on the surface of the fruit. Make sure the fruits are well dried. Then you need to cure it. Curing involves the hardening the skins to protect the flesh inside from deterioration. Do it properly and you can expect fruits to stay in top form for at least three months, comfortably taking you to the first harvests of next spring.  Remove the fruits to a greenhouse or as sunny a windowsill as you can find having first brushed off any dirt. Allow your fruits to sunbathe and develop a tan! This should take about two weeks for the top of the fruit then once carefully flipped over, another two weeks for the bottom. Pumpkins and winter squash prefer a well-ventilated, dry place. Keep the fruits raised up off hard surfaces on racks or wire mesh with a thick layer of newspaper or straw. Keeping them off the ground will allow air to circulate around the fruits while the extra padding will prevent the skin softening and becoming vulnerable to infection.

The best pumpkin variety I’ve tried so far are ‘Racer’.

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The practice of carving pumpkins for Halloween originated from an Irish myth about a man named Stingy Jack. The turnip has traditionally been used in Ireland and Scotland at Halloween, but immigrants to North America used the native pumpkin, which are both readily available and much larger, making them easier to carve than turnips. Not until 1837, does jack-o’-lantern appear as a term for a carved vegetable lantern and the carved pumpkin lantern association with Halloween is first recorded in 1866. In the United States, the carved pumpkin was first associated with the harvest season in general, long before it became an emblem of Halloween. In 1900, an article on Thanksgiving entertaining recommended a lit jack-o’-lantern as part of the festivities to encourage families to join together to make their own jack-o’-lanterns. Association of pumpkins with harvest time and pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving reinforce its iconic role. Pumpkin chunking is a competitive activity in which teams build various mechanical devices designed to throw a pumpkin as far as possible. Catapults and air cannons are some of the common mechanisms. Some pumpkin chunkers breed and grow special varieties of pumpkin under specialized conditions to improve the pumpkin’s chances of surviving a throw.

Pumpkin seeds, leaves, and juices all pack a nutritional punch. Pumpkin has a range of health benefits, including being one of the best-known sources of beta-carotene and are a good source of fibre -one cup of cooked pumpkin is 2.7kg of fibre. Pumpkins have been found to reduce blood pressure, reduce risk of cancer, combats diabetes and supports your immune system.

Here are some yummy pumpkin recipes and ideas to get you started:

You can simply roast them at 180C in the oven covered in olive oil for 45 minutes. You can use them in soups, stews. Grate them up and add them to any casserole or bolognese, stir fry etc. Make pumpkin pie, try inventing a new dip…

Pumpkin Coconut Curry

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What to do with left over pumpkin? – make pumpkin seeds taste like popcorn

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Happy Halloween! Recipe Flashbacks – pumpkin cake anyone?!

Pepper Pasta

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Anyone have too many peppers? Any one at a loss of what to do with them? Try my new recipe…

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Pepper Pasta

(Serves 2)

-2 servings spoons of pasta -Olive oil -1 red, 1 yellow and 1 green bell peppers -2 handfuls of cheddar cheese, grated

  1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Add the pasta and then leave it to simmer for about ten minutes, or until the pasta has cooked. Drain and set aside.
  2. Add a generous splash of olive oil to a frying pan.
  3. De-stalk, de-seed and slice the three peppers into long, thin strips. Scrape  them into the frying pan and bring to a high heat, stirring. Once they start to char slightly, turn down to a simmer.
  4. Scrape the pasta into the frying pan and mix into the peppers. Bring the heat up briefly for a minute or two and then remove the frying pan from the flame.
  5. Divide the mixture in half and serve onto two plates. Sprinkle a handful of cheddar cheese over the top of each helping. Serve.

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Beetroot

The beetroot is the taproot portion of the beet plant, usually known in North America as the beet, also table beet, garden beet, red beet, or golden beet. It is one of several of the cultivated varieties of Beta vulgaris, grown for their edible taproots and their leaves, beet greens. Beta is the classic Latin name for beets, possibly Celtic origin before becoming bete in Old English in the 1400s. 

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Other than as a food, beets have use as a food colouring and as a medicinal plant. From the Middle Ages, beetroot was used as a treatment for a variety of conditions, especially illnesses relating to digestion and the blood. Bartolomeo Platina recommended taking beetroot with garlic to nullify the effects of “garlic-breath”. Many beet products are made from other Beta vulgaris varieties, particularly sugar beet. During the mid-1800s, beetroot juice was used to colour wine. Beetroot can also be used to make wine nowadays completely, no longer just an addition to the drink made from grapes.

I’ve only ever used ‘Bolthardy’ but I think that it is a brilliant variety. Very rich, dark pinky-red colour, tastes pretty good and lasts in the ground for a long time. I grew too many two years ago and had loads left over in the ground (seeing as only three people in my family liked beetroot then). I thought they would just rot and I would give them to the pigs in winter, but they didn’t. I have been pulling them up two summers on. The outside is as rough as I thought it would be so I discard them, but the inside is still usable. Of course, I would recommend harvesting them in their first season as that will be when they are most delicious!

Another variety I have seen in a vegetable garden lately is candy coloured beetroot – white with pink swirls in it, called ‘Chioggia’. It is very pretty and tastes good too.

To grow beetroot seeds, sow thinly, March-July, where they are to crop, 2.5cm (1″) deep, directly into finely-prepared, well-cultivated, fertile soil, which has already been watered. Allow 30cm (1′) between rows. I discovered that mine grew so much better when the ground was fed with well rotted manure. Beetroots can be grown in shade, but they seem to prosper more in direct sunlight. Keep them shaded when starting off with horticultural fleece. Regular sowings every three weeks should ensure a continuous supply of young beetroots. Harvest June-October. Harvested roots can be stored in dry sand for winter use.

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Usually the deep purple roots of beetroot are eaten boiled, roasted or raw, either alone or combined with any salad. A large proportion of the commercial production is processed into boiled and sterilised beets or into pickles. In Eastern Europe, the beetroot soup borscht is popular. In India, chopped and spiced beetroot is a delicious side dish. A traditional Pennsylvania Dutch dish is picked beet egg. Hard-boiled eggs are refrigerated in the liquid left over from pickling beets and allowed to marinate until the eggs turn a deep pink-red colour. In Poland and Ukraine, beet is combined with horseradish to form popular cwilka. This is traditionally used with cold cuts and sandwiches or added to a meal consisting of meat and potatoes. In Serbia cvekla is used as a winter salad, seasoned with salt and vinegar, alongside meat dishes. As an addition to horseradish it is also used to produce the “red” variety of chrain, a popular condiment in Eastern European cuisine. A slice of pickled beetroot is combined with other condiments on a beef patty to make an Aussie burger. When beet juice is used, it is most stable in foods with a low water content, such as frozen novelties and fruit fillings. Beatnins, obtained from the roots, are used industrially as red food colouring e.g. to intensify the colour of tomato paste, sauces, desserts, jams and jellies, ice cream, sweets, and breakfast cereals.

Oldest archeological proofs that we used beetroot in ancient times were found on the Neolithic site of Aartswoud in the Netherlands and in Saqqara pyramid at Thebes, Egypt, which dates from third millennium BC. There are Assyrian texts that say that beetroots were growing in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in 800 BC. We can be positive that Mesopotamia knew about beetroots at that time because of these texts. Ancient Greeks cultivated beetroot around 300 BC but didn’t use the roots of the plants, only eating the leaves. They still respected the root and offered it to the sun god, Apollo, in the temple of Delphi and also considered it to be worth its weight in silver. Hippocrates used leaves of beetroot for binding and dressing wounds while Talmud, written in 4th and 5th century, advises eating beetroot, among other things, for longer life. Romans ate the roots but mainly for medicinal purposes. They used it as a laxative or to cure fever. Some used it as food as Apicius, the famous Roman gourmet, wrote a book called “The Art of Cooking” and in it gave recipes with beetroots used in broths and salads with mustard, oil, and vinegar. The root part of the beet was cultivated for consumption in either Germany or Italy, first recorded in 1542. The Elizabethans enjoyed them in tarts and stews. Medieval cooks stuffed them into pies. All these uses were an old variant of beetroot which was long and thin like a parsnip. This variety is thought to have evolved from a prehistoric North African root vegetable. The one that we know today appeared in the 16th and 17th century in Europe. It needed a few hundred years more to become popular in Central and Eastern Europe where new cuisines with beetroot started appearing. In 1747 a chemist from Berlin discovered a way to produce sucrose from beets. His student, Franz Achard, perfected this method for extracting sugar, leading him to predict the inevitable rise of beet beer, tobacco and molasses, among other products. The King of Prussia subsidized a sugar beet industry. The first plant was built in what is now western Poland. Today, around 20 percent of the world’s sugar comes from sugar beets. Beet sugar production requires 4 times less water than sugar cane production, making it an attractive crop throughout Europe. In Victorian times, beetroot was used to bring color to an otherwise colorless diet and as a sweet ingredient in desserts. Industrialisation allowed for easier preparation and conservation of vegetables, so beetroot became more available. The rosy betalain-rich juice of red beets was used as a cheek and lip stain by women during the 19th century, a practice that inspired the old adage “red as a beet.” Food shortages in Europe following World War One caused illnesses, including cases of mangel-wurzel disease. It was symptomatic of eating only beets. After the Second World War, because of the rations in some places, the most available vegetable was pickled beetroot in jars.

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The beet greens (leaves) are also edible. The young leaves can be eaten raw as part of a leafy salad whilst the older ones are better boiled or steamed, like cooked spinach. I find that the leaves are very strong tasting and don’t particularly like them. But my poultry love them. Do not cut the leaves, but twist them off to prevent the colour ‘bleeding’.

Many complain that beets have an “earthy” taste, which isn’t far off the mark. Beets contain a substance called geosmin, which is responsible for that fresh soil scent in your garden following a spring rain. Humans are quite sensitive to geosmin, even in very low doses, which explains why our beet response ranges from one extreme to the other.

They are rich in antioxidants, folic acid, potassium, and fiber. They also contain unique antioxidants called betalains, which are currently being studied as a potential weapon in the fight against cancer. Beetroot can lower blood pressure and may increase blood flows to the brain thereby preventing dementia. A 2010 study carried out by Queen Mary’s University in London found that drinking just one 250ml glass of beetroot juice a day dramatically lowered blood pressure for several hours. Nitrates lower blood pressure because bacteria in the mouth and gut convert it into the gas nitric oxide, which relaxes and widens the blood vessels, allowing blood to circulate more freely. Tests were conducted to see if beetroot would effect athlete’s performances. Athletes could run faster after drinking beetroot juice and cyclists racing in high altitudes had quicker finishing times, averagely 16 seconds quicker after drinking beetroot juice too. Betacyanin, the pigment that gives beetroot its rich hue, is a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to possess anti-cancer properties. In 2011, a study carried out by Howard University in Washington, USA,  found that betacyanin slowed tumour growth by 12.5 per cent when exposed to prostate and breast cancer cells. I remember reading an interview a while ago in the Telegraph about tennis player Ross Hutchins who suffered from a variety of cancer. He had beetroot and orange juice every morning and evening. ‘Even when I was feeling really ill, I made sure I nailed eight beetroots a day,’ he says. The red colour compound beatnin is not broken down in the body, and in higher concentrations may temporarily cause urine or stools to assume a reddish colour, in the case of urine a condition called beeturia.

I really didn’t like beetroot. I really intensely disliked it. The first time I got myself to like beetroot was when it was grated with a leafy green salad alongside a baked potato with cheese and baked beans. I had to finish everything on my plate, including the beetroot, but surprisingly, I actually came round to it. It was ok grated into tiny pieces, not so earthy and overpowering. I was pretty happy as it meant I could grow it in the garden and actually eat it. They didn’t convert me into a radish or fennel fan, but beetroot was good enough. I have been harvesting my two year old beetroots and enjoying them at last.

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Grated beetroot on top of poached egg yolk on toast

Sprinkle grated beetroot over mashed avocado on toast, it looks beautiful. Another thing I like is grated beetroot sprinkled on top of toast that has been covered with butter and a poached egg yolk (I don’t like egg whites. I’m sorry I’m so fussy…).

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Avocado on toast with beetroot – this is two year old beetroot!

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What to do with left over pumpkin?

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For anyone who is debating throwing out their pumpkin after Halloween – stop!

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Start by cutting it up into chunks.

Any seeds you have saved from the inside, pat them dry and follow this recipe:

Pumpkin Seed Crisps – smell and taste like popcorn

– Seeds from a pumpkin – Salt and pepper – Olive oil

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
  2. Scrape out the seeds from the inside of a pumpkin and pat dry with kitchen roll. Place them on a pan and sprinkle salt and pepper generously over the top along with a little olive oil.
  3. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until golden brown.

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For the pumpkin flesh, put the chunks on large roasting trays and drizzle with olive oil. Pop them in the oven at 180C and roast for about 40 minutes or until they are cooked.

Eat them like this alongside other veggies or dishes or use these roasted slices for another recipe…

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Pumpkin Curry

(Serves 4)

– 1 onion, finely sliced – 1 tsp ghee or oil for frying – 1 tbsp mustard seeds – 1tbsp nigella seeds – 1 tbsp fenegreek seeds – 1 handful curry leaves – 1 tsp cumin – 1 tsp ground coriander – 1 1/2 tsp ground turmeric – 1 1/4  tsp ground garam masala – 500g roasted pumpkin – 1 large garlic clove, diced  Rice, chapatti, popadom, naan or a mixture, to serve – Freshly cut coriander and parsley, to serve

  1. Oil a large frying pan. Peel and slice the onion into thin strips and place in the pan. Heat high for a few minutes before turning down to simmer, stirring the onion. Let the onion simmer to a golden brown before adding the mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fenegreek seeds and curry leaves, stirring in the ingredients to combine. Allow the contents of the pan to simmer for a few minutes to absorb the flavours.
  2. Add the other spices: cumin, ground coriander, turmeric and garam masala, quickly followed by the pumpkin.
  3. Add the diced garlic clove, stir in.
  4. Serve hot on its own, with rice, an Indian bread, chutneys and freshly picked herbs from your garden, like parsley or coriander, torn and sprinkled over the top.

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Pumpkin Dahl 

(Serves 4)

– 1 onion, finely sliced – 1 tsp ghee or oil for frying – 1 tbsp mustard seeds – 1tbsp nigella seeds – 1 tbsp fenegreek seeds – 1 handful curry leaves – 1 tsp cumin – 1 tsp ground coriander – 1 1/2 tsp ground turmeric – 1 1/4  tsp ground garam masala – 300-400g roasted and food-processed/ raw, grated pumpkin – 1 large garlic clove, diced – 250g red split lentils -Boiling water from the kettle – Rice, chapatti, popadom, naan or a mixture, to serve – Freshly cut coriander and parsley, to serve

  1. Oil a large frying pan. Peel and slice the onion into thin strips and place in the pan. Heat high for a few minutes before turning down to simmer, stirring the onion. Let the onion simmer to a golden brown before adding the mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fenegreek seeds and curry leaves, stirring in the ingredients to combine. Allow the contents of the pan to simmer for a few minutes to absorb the flavours.
  2. Add the other spices: cumin, ground coriander, turmeric and garam masala, quickly followed by the finely grated pumpkin. Place a pan lid over the top of the frying pan and leave until the pumpkin is slightly cooked. Lift the lid occasionally to stir to encourage the ‘sweating’ of the vegetables.
  3. Add the diced garlic clove, stir in.
  4. Meanwhile, boil a kettle of water. Put the red lentils into a glass or other microwave dish, large enough to hold all of the contents of the Dahl. Scrape the contents of the frying pan into the dish along with the lentils, followed by the boiling water, enough so that it is covering the ingredients. Stir to combine.
  5. Place a lid over the top of the Dahl and microwave for 15 minutes before checking and stirring. If the lentils have absorbed all of the liquid, it is ready. It will probably need around half an hour before this happens. If the lentils look too dry, add a dash of more boiling water.
  6. Serve hot on its own, with rice, an Indian bread, chutneys and freshly picked herbs from your garden, like parsley or coriander, torn and sprinkled over the top.

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Pumpkin Cake with Citrus Cream Cheese Sauce

Originally a River Cottage Veg Patch Cupcake recipe from a free booklet that came in my grandma’s paper. This is the first year I altered it slightly by making it into a Victoria sandwich styled all in one cake rather than individual cupcakes – it was little quicker and 12 pumpkin cupcakes can be hard to shift sometimes. The great thing about this recipe is that you really don’t know that there is pumpkin in it. I didn’t tell my family what the magic ingredient was the first time I made the cupcakes and they could not tell. Even my brother eats it and he is not the most ardent vegetable lover, let along pumpkin lover. Best cake to use a pumpkin in and the cream cheese icing is the perfect compliment. Who knew that citrus and pumpkin were such a lovely match? I also increase the amount of pumpkin…

A little note about the cream cheese sauce/icing: you might want to halve it as I always have too much but I just offer it as an addition as most people like to put extra with their slice. Also, mine never seems to set into icing hence why I have called it ‘sauce’. Looks prettily/spooky when it runs down the sides anyway…

Edit: After reading into it, I now know that the icing insists on using full-fat cream cheese otherwise it doesn’t set. I did use full-fat but very cheap stuff. So if you make this icing, go for full-fat, EXPENSIVE real cream cheese!

(Serves 10)

– 200g self-raising flour -1 tsp baking powder  – 3 medium sized eggs – 175g caster sugar – 300g roasted pumpkin – Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

For the cream cheese filling and topping: – 100g full-fat cream cheese – 25g butter, softened – 170g icing sugar – Finely grated zest of 1 orange

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Line two 20cm sandwich tins with baking parchment.
  2. In a food processor, whizz the roasted pumpkin so it is finely grated.
  3. Beat the eggs and sugar together in a large bowl using an electric whisk until the mixture is thick, creamy and pale.
  4. Fold in the flour and baking powder. Scrape the pumpkin out from the food processor and fold in, followed by the lemon zest.
  5. Spoon the mixture into the cake tins evenly and smooth down the surfaces. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until lightly golden and springy to the touch. Insert a cake skewer into the centers to check that they are done. If it leaves clean, they are ready. Leave the cakes to cool in their tins for at least ten minutes before turning them out onto wire racks to cool completely. This is very important as the icing will run if spread on the cakes when they are too hot.
  6. To make the icing: beat the cream cheese and butter in a large bowl using an electric whisk until the mixture is smooth.
  7. Add the icing sugar and zest. Beat until it is very light and creamy. The mixture should be slightly thickened. If it is not, add a little more icing sugar and mix in well. Cover the bowl with a plate or cling-film and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before use. This is also important as it needs to be thickened or it will continue to run off the cake.
  8. Once the cake is completely cool and the icing has been left to chill, turn one cake upside down on a serving plate and spread half of the cream cheese icing over the base. Place the other half of the cake upright on top of the iced sponge. Ice the top of the other half, spreading and smoothing it over the surface carefully.
  9. Serve cut into slices. It should keep for about 3-4 days in an air-tight container.

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