Flourless Butternut Squash Loaf

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I roll out of bed each day thinking about food. I love starting my day with cooked cinnamon banana steel cut oatmeal, boiled egg on avocado toast, any of Nature Path’s gluten free cereal with Califia almond milk, and of course organic decaffeinated green tea. Ever since I started eating and living a healthier lifestyle, I’ve been interested in incorporating what I learn about “green food” in baking: such as looking for recipes that are naturally sweetened, gluten free, and focused on vegetables or fruits as main ingredients instead of butter, sugar, and dairy.

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People always ask me if I’m vegan or on a constant “diet” but the truth is I don’t follow a specific lifestyle because I love eating healthy whole foods and enjoy everything in moderation. Nothing gets me more excited than plant-based recipes like wholesome salads made with seasonal ingredients, fish or lean meats, beans, and nuts. Eating this way gives me a better body image and makes me feel great inside out. Don’t get me wrong, I still love eating cakes, cookies, and ice cream in small quantities but I’m more mindful about the quality of food that I put in my body everyday.

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This butternut squash loaf is a new favorite and totally guilt-less. It’s made with pureed squash, honey, ground almonds, oat flour, eggs, and cinnamon– basically everything that’s good for you! I love eating a slice in the morning or as an afternoon snack with a tiny sliver of butter or jam.

Ingredients:
120g (1 cup) ground almonds (grind in food processor until a meal forms)
60g (2/3 cups) oat flour (you can also grind rolled oats in a food processor)
113g (1/3 cup) honey
180g (2/3 cup) puréed butternut squash*
2 large eggs at room temperature, lightly beaten
1½ ground cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp sea salt
Extra rolled oats/chopped walnuts/sliced almonds/pumpkin seeds for garnish (optional)

*Can be replaced with sweet potatoes

Directions:

For the butternut squash purée: (can be made 5 days in advance)
1. Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C). Cut a medium squash in half and remove the seeds.
2. Place the squash facing up on a lined baking sheet and roast for 45 minutes until the flesh is fork-tender.
3. Take out of the oven and let it cool down for 15 minutes.
3. Scoop out the flesh and place in a food processor, then purée until smooth.

For the cake:
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C and grease a xx-xx in /cm? loaf pan with vegetable oil and line with parchment paper.
2. In a medium bowl, mix all the ingredients together until homogeneous.
3. Pour the batter into the loaf pan and add your preferred garnish.
4. Bake for 35 minutes until the cake is browned, slightly cracked at the top, and a tester inserted into the middle comes out clean.
5. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan for 15 minutes before transferring to a wire rack.

Braided Easter Bread

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Each year for the Easter holiday, my mom bakes small raisin bread rolls that are usually braided in 2 or 3 strands. It’s a family tradition that’s been around for many years, so I wanted to post a similar recipe that’s bit less sweet and dense but just as good. I came across a very similar breaded raisin bread recipe in Kamran Siddiqi’s book Hand Made Baking that uses honey as a sweeter instead of refined sugar. What also caught my attention is that the whole dough is braided into one big circular loaf instead of several small loaves. So I decided to give my mom’s classic recipe a twist and the result is spectacular! It’s a slightly sweet and fluffy bread with a brioche-like texture that’s dotted with juicy raisins soaked in apple juice.

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We traditionally serve this bread for the Greek Orthodox Easter (which is a different day than western Easter). It is actually based on the Julian calendar–introduced by Julian Caesar–instead of the Gregorian calendar, and it’s always the first Sunday after the first full moon AFTER the spring equinox which will be April 4th this year. That’s an easier way to remember it. I actually had to look up this information, because my friends always ask me why we celebrate Easter on a different date… Well there you have it.

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The steps in this recipe might seem daunting at first, but believe me it’s not as hard as it seems. It just needs a little bit of patience – and that is the hardest part for me. You basically mix some warm water, yeast, oil, eggs, honey, flour, and raisins together and wait for the dough to double in size then put it in the fridge overnight. The next day you’re going to punch the dough down, braid it into a beautiful round loaf, wait for it to double in size again, and then bake until it’s golden. The loaf will be slightly flaky on the outside and delightfully tender in the middle. You can even use some leftovers stale pieces for French Toast!

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Braided Easter Bread (recipe adapted from Hand Made Baking)

Ingredients:
¾ cup (180ml) warm water (100°F/38°C)
2 tsp active dry yeast
1 tsp granulated sugar
5 Tbsp (75ml) vegetable oil
1/3 cup (80ml) honey
3 large eggs, room temperature
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp sea salt
3¾ cups (470g) all purpose flour
1 cup (160g) raisins, soaked in simmered apple juice for 5 minutes then patted dry

Egg wash:
1 small egg
1 tsp water

Directions:
1. In a large bowl, pour the warm water and then add the yeast and sugar. Let it sit for 5 minutes without stirring until a foamy surface forms. Then stir until the yeast dissolves in the water.
2. Add the vegetable oil, honey, eggs, vanilla extract, and salt into the yeast mixture and whisk until homogeneous.
3. Stir in the flour and raisins with a wooden spoon.
4. Tip the mixture on a floured surface and knead with your hands for 10 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic. If the dough is too sticky, add more flour until it just comes together.
5. Shape the dough into a round and put it in a lightly oiled large bowl, turning it a few times to coat it with the oil.
6. Cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel and let it rise in a warm place for 2 hours. (I like to preheat the oven for a minute or two to place the bowl in it). The dough will double in size.
7. Remove the damp towel and cover the dough in plastic wrap and place in the fridge overnight.
8. The next day, take out the dough from the fridge and let it sit on the counter for an hour to come to room temperature.
9. Meanwhile, line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
10. Punch down the dough and divide it into three equal portions.
11. Roll out each portion into 20″ (50 cm) ropes. Lay them parallel to each other, pinch one end together and braid the pieces, then pinch the other end. Roll the long braid into a circle to form a round loaf.
12. Transfer the loaf to the lined baking sheet.
13. Whisk the small egg with 1 tsp of water and brush it all over the loaf. Wait for the egg wash to dry for 5 minutes then brush it again.
14. Place the loaf in a warm place and let it rise for one hour until it doubles in size.
15. After 45 minutes, preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C) and adjust the rack to the center of the oven.
16. Bake for 35 minutes, rotating the pan halfway, until the braided loaf is a deep golden color and sounds hollow when you tap it on the bottom.
17. Let cool for 10 minutes on the baking sheet then transfer on a wire rack to cool completely.
18. Store in a plastic bag or tupperware for 3 days (this bread can be frozen too).

Flourless Almond Ricotta Lemon Cake

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When I wrote this post yesterday afternoon I was listening to some classical Arabic songs by Fairuz and Abdel Halim Hafez (my best friend Wihane can back me up on this because she called me and noticed the background music). I remember my childhood days when I used to beg my mom to turn off “that boring music” but I take that back. As a Lebanese expat, I sometimes feel out of place in NYC and the American culture in general so I guess that’s what drove me listen to music that is familiar and that is grounded in middle eastern culture. I decided to forget all preconceptions I had about classic Arabic music and just focus on the rhythms and meaningful lyrics. Abdel Halim Hafez’s songs in particular are incredibly rich and they go on for up to an hour! Can you believe that? It’s also quite interesting how different melodies are repeated throughout the same song, rendering distinctive characters each time yet tying the whole song together. Is that an expat thing, reminiscing on old Arabic music and the good old days?

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Anyway! Back to this lovely Almond Ricotta Lemon cake: it is undoubtedly my favorite recipe this winter season. In fact, I love it so much that I lost count of how many times I baked it within the last two months! It’s THAT good. You guys, my grandma even wrote it down in her recipe book and bought a kitchen scale just to make this cake, which is A FIRST for sure. That makes me feel proud of myself.

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It’s a mixture of whipped butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla bean, almond meal, ricotta cheese, and of course lots and lots of lemon zest. The first time I did this I thought the cake will turn out very dense because it is flourless – but to my surprise it is the lightest, moistest cake I ever tasted. It also has a beautiful, irresistible ground almond texture that melts in your mouth bite after bite.

Ingredients:
120g unsalted butter, softened
250g granulated sugar
2 vanilla beans, split and seeds scraped (I found that 1 vanilla bean is too little, you can also use vanilla paste)
3 tablespoons lemon zest (Around 2 medium lemons)
4 large eggs, separated and at room temperature
225g almond meal
320g high quality fresh ricotta cheese

Optional:
Flaked almonds for decoration
Icing sugar for dusting

Direction:
1. Pre-heat oven to 160°C  (325°F) on convection bake. Line the base of a 9 inch (23 cm) round cake tin with baking paper and set aside.
2. Place the butter, sugar, vanilla seeds, and lemon zest in an electric mixer and beat for 10 minutes until pale and creamy.
3. Scrap down the sides of the bowl and gradually add the egg yolks one at a time continuing to beat until fully combined.
4. Add the almond meal and beat to combine, then do the same with the ricotta cheese.
5. Beat the egg whites in a clean bowl with a hand-held electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Gently fold half of the egg whites into the cake mixture. Repeat with the rest of the egg whites.
6. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin, smooth the top, decorate the cake with almond flakes (optional).
7. Bake for 40-45 minutes or until cooked and firm to touch. Allow to cool completely in the cake tin.
8. Dust with icing sugar before serving.

Halawet El-Jibn (Sweet Cheese Rolls)

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Making Lebanese desserts may seem impossible – especially if you live in an Arab country where the best sweets are readily available. But it’s not as hard as you think, and all the ingredients used for this Halawet El-Jibn recipe are not hard to find.

I bet you’ll be surprised to know how easy it is to recreate this fabulous dessert at home: it’s simply a mixture of mozzarella cheese and fine semolina melted together to form a smooth dough that’s rolled out and filled with fresh kashta cheese or this whipped ricotta cheese mixture. It is then served cold with ground pistachios, rose petal jam, and simple syrup.

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The traditional process of making this dessert is very delicate and requires a precise ratio of ingredients that are cooked using specific utensils. It is said that some of the best Halawet El-Jebn can be found in the city of Tripoli in Lebanon, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t make it from scratch if you’re craving Arabic sweets or feeling adventurous in the kitchen!

Ingredients and Directions: Makes about 12 rolls

Simple Syrup:
1 cup water
1 ½ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
¼ cup rose water
¼ cup orange blossom water

• Place the water, sugar, and lemon juice in a saucepan over a low heat, and stir until the sugar dissolves.
• Turn off the heat and stir in the rose water and orange blossom water.
• Let cool to room temperature.

Cheese Filling:
250g fresh kashta cheese
(or halve this whipped ricotta cheese mixture)

Cheese Dough:
420g grated mozzarella cheese
160g fine semolina
175ml water
2 tbsp orange blossom water
2 tbsp rose water

• Generously coat a 30 cm x 40 cm (12″x15″) baking sheet with simple syrup.
• In a non-stick pan or saucepan, heat the fine semolina for 3-4 minutes until fragrant and evenly heated.
• Stir in the mozzarella cheese until just combined.
• Immediately add water, orange blossom, and rose water to the pan.
• Keep stirring quickly (to prevent the cheese from burning) until a smooth and elastic dough is formed.
• Take the pan off the heat and turn the dough onto the baking sheet.
• Using a small rolling pin or the back of a wooden spoon coated with syrup, roll out the dough to cover the whole baking sheet.
• Refrigerate for 15 minutes then cut the dough into 11 cm x 13 cm (4″x5″) rectangles.

Assembly:
• Take a rectangular cutout, place 2 tablespoons of kashta (cheese filling) on the short side. Slightly fold the long sides towards the center, then roll the cheese dough and place seam side down on a plate.
• To serve, sprinkle each piece with ground pistachios, rose petal jam, and a drizzle of syrup.

Apple Cranberry Pie

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I feel like the last to post an apple cranberry pie recipe. This should’ve been posted before Thanksgiving, but I’ve been too busy whipping up pies for family dinners (yes – there were several) and that allowed me to experiment with creative decorative pie crusts: crimped edges, braided edges, cut out shapes, honeycomb pattern, lattice tops. The variations are so pretty and endless!

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I couldn’t find a cookie cutter with this specific leaf shape so it was time to improvise. Using a paring knife, I “cut-out” same sized leaves and drew in veins. It was a bit challenging to work with the dough for the first time because the buttery crust gets warm and melts fast while working – not fun. But let me assure you, it gets easier the second and third time around when you get comfortable with pie baking. You also learn (or come up with!) a few tricks that make decorative pie crusts a breeze to work with. For example, I always keep a chilled ceramic plate by my side to place the cut outs on, or pop the dough in the freezer for a few minutes in case it gets hard to work with.

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Just like everything else in life, the key to success in any field is a matter of practice, practice, practice! So if you want to become a better baker then go to your kitchen, put on that apron, and turn your oven on. The hardest part is always taking that first step, but the results are always priceless.

Recipe adapted from Williams-Sonoma

Dough Recipe (Pâte Brisée): Yields 2 single 9″ (23 cm) pie crusts – Serves 10 people.

2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. sugar (optional)
1 cup (2 sticks, 226 grams) unsalted butter cut into small cubes and chilled
1/4 to 1/2 cup ice water

Using a Pastry cutter:
1. Cut butter into cubes and place in the freezer to chill.
2. Meanwhile, whisk together the flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl.
3. Add the cold cubed butter and, using a pastry cutter, blend the butter into the flour until
pea­-size crumbles form.
4. Gradually add 1/4 cup of ice water and mix together the dough with your hands until it holds together when squeezed. Add more ice water by the tablespoon if needed.
5. Form dough into 2 disks, wrap individually in plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight before using. Dough can be stored up to 1 month in the freezer.

Using a Food Processor:
1. Pulse the flour, sugar, and salt a few times to combine.
2. Add the cold cubed butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse sand, and pieces of butter are still visible.
3. Slowly add 1/4 cup water while pulsing until the dough holds together when squeezed. If needed, add more ice water by the tablespoon until the dough reaches this consistency. Do not over-process!
4. Form dough into 2 disks, wrap individually in plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight before using. Dough can be stored up to 1 month in the freezer.

Apple-Cranberry filling:

3 lb. (1.4 kg) Braeburn and honey crisp apples, peeled, cored and
cut into thin slices (¼” or 0.5 cm)
½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
¼ tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
10 oz. (285 g) fresh cranberries
¼ cup water

1 egg white, beaten with 1 tsp. water
2 tsp. granulated sugar

Directions:
1. In a 5 Liter Dutch oven, toss together the sliced apples, light brown sugar, ¼ cup of the granulated sugar, spices, salt and cornstarch until the apples are evenly coated. Set over medium heat, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the apples are just tender but not mushy, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and vanilla extract. Let cool for 45 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, mix the cranberries with the remaining 1/2 cup granulated sugar and water. Set over medium-high heat and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the cranberries have broken down slightly and the liquid has thickened to the consistency of jam. Let cool for 45 minutes.

3. Add the cranberry mixture to the apple mixture and stir to combine.

4. While both mixtures are cooling, prepare the pie shell. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out half of the dough into a 12″(30 cm) round about 1/8″ (0.3 cm) thick. Fold the dough in half and then into quarters and transfer it to a 9-inch deep-dish pie dish. Unfold and gently press the dough into the bottom and sides of the dish. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. On a large sheet of lightly floured parchment paper, roll out the remaining dough disk into a 12-inch round or use a cookie cutter to create a decorative crust. Refrigerate the dough round/cutouts for 30 minutes.

5. Position a rack in the lower third of an oven, place a baking sheet on the rack and pre-heat the oven to 400°F.

6. Transfer the apple-cranberry filling to the pie shell and gently place the dough round over the pie and press the top and bottom crusts together to seal with crimped edges. Cut in a few slits in the center of the pie for the steam to release. Alternatively, cover the pie with dough cutouts.

7. Brush the entire top crust with the egg wash and sprinkle with the granulated sugar and place the pie dish on the preheated baking sheet.

8. Bake until the crust is crisp and golden brown for 1 hour, covering the edges with aluminum foil if they become darker than the center.

9. Transfer the pie to a wire rack and let cool for at least 2 hours before serving.

Butternut Squash Scones with Dates and Walnuts

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Let’s talk about scones shall we?

I’m no expert at scones, but I learned a few tips and tricks that will help you make great scones every time. And since I go completely crazy over butternut butternut squash every fall, I decided to post a recipe that combines a few of my favorite things. So here it is a light and flaky scone recipe with a subtle hint of butternut squash, walnuts, and sweets dates.

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The first thing to keep in mind when making these is to handle the dough gently and as little as possible. Start off by sifting the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt twice. Yup, twice. Why do you ask? Sifting helps in breaking up existing clumps which will produce lovely light pastries. It also blends the dry ingredients which gives more consistency and therefore better results.

Then proceed in grating the frozen butter and mixing it with your fingers until it resemble crumbs. When adding in the chilled wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, you don’t want to mix it more than it all just coming together or the scones will turn out chewy. As soon as the dough comes together, tip it onto a floured surface and form it into a thick round circle, and slice it into eight wedges. If you prefer small scones (like the ones pictured) then continue reading the directions below. Now, the dough may be sticky and that’s totally okay. If it is too sticky, I found that putting the dough in the freezer for a few minutes makes it easier to handle.

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It is very important to keep the whole mixture cold all the time because you don’t want the butter to melt. These cold bits of butter will create pockets of air when they’re in the oven, therefore making the scones airy, light, and flaky. If you have some extra time, chill the sliced wedges for 20 minutes before placing them in the oven: this will help in making the scones flakier and rising higher.

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Serve the scones as soon as they’re out of the oven with some jam, butter, or cheese!

Ingredients: Makes about 24 mini scones

1 large egg, cold
1/2 cup butternut squash or pumpkin puree*, chilled
3 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt, chilled
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
310g (2+1/3 cups) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
55g (1/4 cup) packed brown sugar
113g (1/2 cup, 8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, frozen
175g (1 cup) chopped dates, tossed in flour (to avoid pieces to stick together)
100g (1 cup) chopped walnuts

*To make butternut squash puree, simply cut a squash in half, discard the seeds, and bake in a 400°F (200°C) preheated oven until tender (about 45-60 minutes). Scoop the softened squash in a blender and puree until smooth.

Directions:

1. In a small bowl combine egg, pumpkin, yogurt, and vanilla extract and mix well and keep refrigerated.
2. Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C)
3. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices twice. Mix in the sugar.
4. Using the largest holes on a box grater, grate the frozen butter into flour mixture and mix with your fingers until it resembles coarse meal.
5. Stir the chilled wet ingredients into flour mixture. Using your hands, mix all the ingredients together until just combined then turn out onto a floured surface.

For regular sized scones:
Using the palm of your hand, shape the dough into a 7″ (18 cm) circle, 1″ (2.5 cm) thick, and cut into eight equal wedges. Then transfer each wedge to a lined baking sheet spacing them apart and brush with cream or egg wash (a mix of 1 tablespoon of water or milk with a whole egg). Bake for 20-25 minutes or until just golden then cool. Serve immediately.

For mini scones:
Pat the dough with the back of your hand and shape into a large rectangle, about 10″ (25cm) long, 7″ (18cm) wide, and 1″(2.5cm) thick. Straighten the sides with a dough scraper. Cut the rectangle into 3 long rectangles, and then each into small triangles using diagonal cuts. Place them on a baking sheet 1/4 inch (1cm) apart. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until just golden then cool. Serve immediately.

Apple Rum Raisin Walnut Loaf

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Freshly ground cinnamon, apple cider, dried fruits, roasted nuts, spiced rum. That’s the lovely smell of Fall and damn it is GOOD.

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I’m kicking off fall baking season with the classic Apple Rum Raisin Walnut Loaf. It is one of my favorite cakes, and seriously the reason why I love fall. It is an unbelievably moist cake swirled with cinnamon coated apples, crunchy walnuts, and bursts of rum soaked raisins. In other words, pure happiness.

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Now that the weather is cooling down and the colors of the leaves are changing, the best thing for you to do is to bake this loaf and fill your apartment with a cozy autumnal smell. Then cuddle up on the couch and enjoy a hearty piece of cake while sipping some tea or coffee. Nothing gets me more excited than baked good– I hope you do too!

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On a side note, you can follow me on Facebook and Instagram for the latest updates (don’t forget to let me know if you have any recipe requests!).

Ingredients:

100g (2/3 cup) dried raisins
75ml (1/4 cup) Rum or Orange Liqueur300g (2 ¼ cup) all purpose flour, sifted2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1½ teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
150ml (1/2 cup+2 tablespoons) walnut oil or vegetable oil
170g (3/4 cup) caster sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
400g (about 3 medium) apples, peeled and cut into small cubes
Zest of 1 lemon
100g (1 cup) chopped walnuts

Directions:

1. Bring to a boil the dried raisins and rum in a small saucepan, remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
2. Preheat the oven to 340°F (170°C).
3. Grease and line a 18×9 cm (3.5″ x 7.5″) loaf cake pan.
4. In a medium bowl, sift the flour, cinnamon, bicarbonate of soda, and baking powder and set aside.
5. In a large bowl beat together the oil and the sugar with a hand mixer. Add the eggs one at a time and mix well after each addition.
6. Add the sifted ingredients and beat just until incorporated. Fold in the raisins, apples, lemon zest, and walnuts with a spatula.
7. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and level the top with a spatula.
8. Bake for 90 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
9. Let cool for 15 minutes then turn onto a wire rack.