Category Archives: Baking

Baking – Daniel Etherington’s bread experiements

Maltese Easter figolli

Small figolli

I was introduced to figolli by friends down the road, Anoushka and Francis and their boys Alexander and Casper. Anoushka is half-Maltese, and they make these every Easter. They called them biscuits, but they’re more a pastry, almost an iced pie, consisting of two layers of pastry sandwiched with an almond paste, then iced and decorated.

Figolla cut in half

When I’m studying Italian recipes, there’s so much information online, and I can read some Italian, so I can usually work out the story. But Malta has a population of less than half a million, so its culture isn’t the most widely discussed thing online. And even my fairly reasonable collection of books about feast day foods doesn’t include any mentions of figolli. Which I deduce is the plural, with figolla the singular.

Some history
Francis told me that Malta has a complex history not unlike that of Sicily. It was Greek and Roman, with the Carthaginians and Phoenicians also having an influence. Like Sicily, it was subsequently Arab, then conquered by the Normans in 1091. The Norman reach in the 11th century always amazes me. Aragon and France followed. The Brits had a big influence during their imperial period, with the island famously a fortress port that suffered heavy bombing in the Second World War.

Anyway, so the language is complex and the culture is mixed. The presence of ground almonds and citrus flavourings in figolli would seem to indicate the Arab legacy, as similar ingredients are found in other recipes from Sicily and across the Eastern Mediterranean.

Francis gave me the recipe they use in their household, which I subsequently found online. It’s here. Its instructions aren’t the clearest, and its almond paste is fairly heavy duty. Watching videos of Maltese and Maltese emigrant cooks online, their paste is much lighter, more like frangipane than marzipan. So I’ve made some tweaks.

Not napping
This project has been a bit rushed. I was hoping to have it up sooner, but as you can see from the inactivity on my blog, I’m finding it hard to update it. Keeping the blog going with two pre-schoolers was always a challenge, but now they’re not really napping any more, I simply don’t have much time – or headspace. Researching, testing, photographing, sorting photos and writing up recipes is fairly demanding, and when I have a two year old and four year old also (yelling) their demands at me (bless ’em), it’s tricky. It’s especially tricky to be really satisfied with the results. So I’m not claiming this is a perfect recipe.

The Raver, aged 2, doing the decorating

As for the decoration of the figolli – that’s not exactly authentic or traditional. Fran and the kids took over for that bit. The kids do love sprinkles, and the opportunity to readily lick icing.

Figolli templates

The Maltese versions were traditionally shaped like men, women, fish and baskets. They would use large cutters. We don’t have any enormous cookie cutters, despite Fran’s somewhat obsessive collecting, so I drew shapes and made templates in cardboard. I went for a bunny, a heart and a fish. Other shapes are sheep, butterflies, and eggs – most of which are of course some kind of fertility symbol.

Recipe
The quantities here are fairly substantial. We made three large ones and a dozen smaller ones. If you don’t want to get so carried away, halve it.

For the pastry
800g plain flour
400g butter
Zest of 1 lemon
320g caster sugar
4 egg yolks, beaten
Cold water

For the almond paste
300g caster sugar
300g icing sugar
600g ground almonds
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lemon
3-4 egg whites, approx, lightly beaten
A few drops orange flower water (optional)
A few drops of almond essence (optional)
Orange juice or similar
Cold water

To finish
Icing
Confection eggs
Sprinkles

1. Make the pastry by rubbing the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs, then stir in the sugar and lemon zest.
2. Add the egg yolks and enough cold water (but not too much) to form a dough. Knead briefly then wrap in plastic and rest in the fridge. You could use a food processor, but it would have to be a big one.
3. In a large bowl, make the almond paste by mixing the sugars, ground almonds and zest. Some recipes also include a little spice, such a cloves and cinnamon – so go for it if you like.
4. Lightly beat the egg whites, add the essences (if using) then start combining with the ground almond/sugar mix. I got in there with my hands. I added the lemon juice and even squeezed in some Clementine juice until it was reasonably soft, as noted above.
5. Cover the almond paste while prepare the shapes.

Cut out pastrySmear with paste
6. Roll out the pastry to about 6mm thick. Cut around your shapes, creating pairs – one for the bottom, one for the top.
7. Place the bottom pieces on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicon.
8. Cover the pastry shapes with a layer of the almond paste.
9. You can brush the edges of the lower piece of pastry with water, then put the top, and lightly press together. You don’t have to crimp firmly, as the filling isn’t that runny. Indeed, some of the pics online show the layers are barely pinched together at all. I tried both ways, and both were fine.
10. While you’re doing this, preheat your oven to 180C.
11. When you’ve filled all the shapes and topped them, put the baking sheets in the oven for around 20-25 minutes, until slightly browned.

Large heart figolla ready to bakeLarge heart etc baked

Small heart figolli ready to bakeSmall heart figolli baked
12. Allow the figolli to cool on the trays. I tried to move one too soon and it cracked badly.
13. When cool, transfer to a rack or tray for decorating.
14. You can decorate with elaborate royal icing piping and suchlike, but we just used a simple glacé icing – that is, icing sugar, water and colourings.* As well as eggs and sprinkles. It seems commonplace to include small chocolate eggs or half-eggs in their foil, but I couldn’t find any that suited, so we used candied mini eggs.

Misc figolli, decorated

Happy Easter!

 

* It amuses me that natural blue food colouring these days is made with spirulina. About 20 plus years ago, I remember spirulina, a green-blue algae, being the superfood du jour, but it’s decidedly out of fashion these days.

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Filed under Baking, Biscuits, cookies, Feasts, Pies & tarts, Recipes

Madeira cake

Madeira cake with clotted cream

A while back, I just had one of those urges – very specific, for something somewhat old-fashioned. Madeira cake. It’s one of those English cakes the Victorians, or possibly even the Georgians, would have tucked into, accompanied by a glass of Madeira. Madeira is a fortified wine from the Portuguese island archipelago of the same name, located in the Atlantic 880-odd km west of the Moroccan coast. The cake itself isn’t from Madeira.

Madeira cake is a basic concoction, not unlike pound cake: dense and satisfying. Checking my cookbooks, I found several different recipes. It’s amazing how something so simple can have so much variation. A unifying feature seems to be some lemon flavour in the form of zest in the batter and sometimes candied peel or zest added on top too, part-way through baking. Except that when I checked Mrs Beeton, she had none of this. No flavouring whatsoever – not even the inclusion of ground almonds, which several recipes use.

Mary Berry Madeira cakeJane Grigson Madeira cake

I tried several. Mary Berry’s, which has almonds, was good. I found it a bit dry, but possibly I over-baked a tad. The recipe in Jane Grigson English Food was basic and reliable. The recipe in Leith’s Book of Baking by Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave was pleasingly crumbly and unusually had a pinch of cinnamon. I’ve not seen this elsewhere, and Leith and Waldegrave give no preamble, so the rationale for the spice will remain a mystery. Perhaps it was just a whim on their part.

Leith Madeira cakeDuff Madeira cake

I also tried a few more recipes from Cakes Regional and Traditional by Julie Duff, which worked well, but was particularly nice as I had such good eggs with bright orange yolks, and The Sainsbury Book of Home Baking by Carole Handslip. This was no-nonsense and fine. Plus, it was a trip down memory lane as the book, published in 1980, was one of those I used in my mum’s kitchen in my childhood. I also used another book from my mum: Geraldine Holt’s Cake Store, published in 1983. The cake was also tasty but the mixture wasn’t enough for the 18cm tin she recommended. It’s important that this cake has some verticality, rather than being too flat. It’s a tall cake not a disc.

Books

Having done all that important research, here’s my version. I’m not claiming it’s the perfect Madeira cake but it suits my requirements for flavour, ingredients and shape.

210g butter, softened
180g caster sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
3 large eggs
225g plain flour
7g baking powder
110g ground almonds
90g milk
Pinch salt

1. Grease and line an 18cm tin.
2. Preheat the oven to 170C.
3. Beat together the butter and sugar until light.
4. Beat the eggs then add slowly to the creamed mix, combining all. If it starts to curdle, add a dash of flour.
5. Add the lemon zest.
6. Sieve the flour and baking powder into the mixture.
7. Add the ground almonds and pinch of salt and fold to combine.
8. Add the milk. If the mixture is too stiff, add a little more until it’s quite soft.
9. Put the mixture in the tin and bake for about an hour, until a skewer comes out clean. If the cake is starting to brown but the interior isn’t baked, cover with foil and leave in the oven a bit longer.
10. Cool on a wire rack.

Madeira cake in tin

I doubt many people drink it with Madeira wine these days. We certainly don’t. I’ve never even tasted the stuff, though we were just finishing off some pleasant Portuguese Vinho Verde when we had this one, eaten as dessert for Sunday lunch, accompanied by that ambrosial West Country delight, clotted cream. It’s also great, more modestly, with a cuppa.

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Santa Lucia crown

Santa Lucia crown

The feast day of Santa Lucia,  St Lucy, is celebrated on 13 December. Her name derives from the Latin lux, as in “Fiat lux!” – “Let there be light!”. We also have a cat called Lux. She’s not divine in any way, she’s a needy, bony scrag, but we still love her.

Lucia was supposedly born into a wealthy family in Syracuse, Sicily, in 283AD, a time when the Roman Empire was still officially devoted to Zeus, Apollo and co. Christianity only won out a century later. The Emperor Diocletian was old-school, and she was killed during his reign, in 304AD. Medieval accounts of her death are grim, and involve her eyes being gouged out before she was burned at the stake. She remains the patron saint of the blind. As well as salesmen, oddly.

The facts are, of course, uncertain, but her veneration spread to Rome by the 6th century, and had even reached Britain by the 8th century. Today, she’s mostly celebrated on her home island and in Sweden. Her namesake role as a bringer of light was particularly important in the mid-winter gloom and her feast day may previously have been celebrated on the solstice, the shortest day of the year: now 21 December and more bound up in Christmas itself.*.

Santa Lucia crown cut in half

Anyway, this is based on another recipe from Cooking with the Saints by Ernst Schuegraf, “The Most Unique Catholic Cookbook Ever!”. It’s purportedly based on a traditional Swedish bake, but I can’t guarantee that. I’ve made Swedish inspired Santa Lucia buns before, which feature a similar enriched dough with saffron. And in the book Scandinavian Baking, Trine Hahnemann has a saffron bread recipe and recounts a Swedish legend about a man being woken by beautiful singing on the long, solstice night, 13 December 1764. It was St Lucia, bringing light, food and wine, and adding herself to the pantheon of Swedish annual traditions.

125g water
125g full-fat milk
A few sprigs of saffron
6g active dried yeast
250g plain (all-purpose) flour
250g strong white bread flour
2 eggs
120g caster sugar
50g butter, softened
3g salt

Plus
1 extra egg to glaze
100g icing sugar
30g milk, possibly more
3g vanilla essence
Candied fruit, lightly toasted flaked almonds, nibbed sugar or sprinkles to decorate

1. Combine the milk and water, warm slightly, add the saffron and leave to infuse for at least 20 minutes, even overnight.
2. Warm the liquid again then add the yeast and leave to froth up.
3. In a large bowl, combine the flours, sugar, salt, softened butter and two of the eggs.
4. Add the yeast mix and bring everything together to form a rough dough.
5. Turn out onto a lightly greased surface and knead to combine and create a smooth dough.
6. Form the dough into a ball and put in a clean, lightly oiled bowl.
7. Leave to prove until doubled in size. This will depend on the temperature. I don’t have a prover or warm cupboard, and our kitchen was about 19C; the doubling took a couple of hours.
8. The total dough should be about 1030g. Cut off a piece weighing about 350g, leaving the other at about 680g. Form these into balls, rest them for 10 minutes or so.
9. Stretch the balls slightly then slice each one into three equal sized pieces.
10. Roll the small pieces into snakes around 40cm long, and the larger ones into snakes about 80cm long.
11. Braid the three longer pieces, then form into a circle, pinching the ends together. Put this circle on a greased baking sheet.
12. Braid the three smaller pieces and go through the same process. Put this smaller circle on top of the larger circle.
13. Cover with a clean cloth then leave to prove again until doubled in size.
14. Preheat the oven to 190C.
15. Whisk the final egg, then brush over the dough to glaze.
16. Bake for about 15 minutes then turn down to 180C. Keep an eye on this bake as the glaze can brown then burn easily. If it does, cover with foil. Bake for another half hour or so.
17. Cool on wire racks.
18. Sieve the icing sugar, then add the milk (adding more as necessary) and sugar to create a basic icing.
19. Drizzle the icing over the crown and decorate as you wish – you could use glace cherries, I suppose, but they’re the Devil’s work. The kids like sprinkles, so I’m using vermicelli and nibbed sugar.
20. Serve the crown with birthday candles for Lux, Lucy, Lucia, light.

Enjoy in the pre-Christmas mayhem of Advent, close to the solstice.

St Lucia crown baked

* I’m talking about the northern hemisphere of course. The shift from the old Julian calendar to the new Gregorian calendar involved removing between 10 and 13 days, depending on when the transition took place. Strongly Catholic countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and Poland made the switch in 1582. Britain, Canada and most of the US didn’t until 1752.

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Martinshörnchen – St Martin’s day crescent rolls

 

Martinshornchen

When I started this blog – blimey, five-ish years ago – it was because I was loving the products that appeared in Roman bakeries during certain periods of the Catholic calendar, for feast days and whatnot, notably Carnevale. I miss Carnevale, that indulgent period after Christmas and before the fasts of Lent when I gorged myself on such things as frappe and castagnole.

Anyway, for a spell, I researched and made several Italian feast days bakes, then continued to try and do the same, with British and international products, when we moved back to England at the end of 2013.

Soon after that, we started the adoption process, and in early 2014, our two wonderful kids moved in with us. Since then, I’ve been doing a lot of childcare. Almost full-time childcare. Now, some people manage to have children, jobs and involved blogs. And acclaimed books. Not me. That’s effing superhuman. Hats off to them. I’ve struggled to keep my blog going, let alone research new feast day bakes.

Martinshornchen

But my diary keeps on reminding me. I noticed Martinmas – 11 November – was coming up, the feast day that celebrates the life of one-time soldier St Martin of Tours and is conflated in the UK with Remembrance Day.

OK, I won’t shirk. I need to get things moving around here. So I reached for my spreadsheet and pile of books. I’ve made a couple of other things for St Martin’s day. This time I nearly tried the Sicilian biscotti di San Martino, which are not biscuits, but rolls with a ricotta filling. But, well, it looked like it might break me when the kids rejected them for the aniseed flavour after the hard work. So I’m trying Martinshörnchen instead.

These are crescent-shaped rolls from Saxony in Germany, literally “Martin’s little horns” or “Martin’s little crescents” (thanks Pa). I hesitate to call them croissants, as they’re not laminated. Without lamination (layering the dough with fat multiple times) they’re a lot easier to make, but don’t have the wonderful flakiness of laminated doughs and pastries. They are, however, made with a dough enriched with milk, butter, sugar and eggs. I love anything made with an enriched dough – you know, brioche, panettone, challah, doughnuts, hot cross buns, currant buns, saffron cake, babka etc etc etc. Yum.

So here we go. This is adapted from a recipe in Cooking with the Saints by Ernst Schuegraf. The original recipe has a slightly counter-intuitive method where you’re supposed to try and make a dough with 200g of milk and 500g of flour, then add the enriching ingredients later. I’ve revised this to make it more logical and straightforward, and less likely to carbonise the results.

200g full-fat milk
3g active dried yeast or 6g fresh yeast
250g strong white flour
250g plain (all-purpose) flour
35g caster sugar
3g fine sea salt
3 eggs, that is around 155g beaten egg
100g butter, softened

Plus
100g butter, melted
2 egg yolks
100g-ish nibbed sugar

1. Warm the milk (to about 35C) stir in the sugar, then add the yeast. Leave it to froth up.
2. Put the flours and salt in a bowl, then add the yeast mix, beaten egg and softened butter.
3. Bring to a dough, then knead well. It’s soft and sticky, but that’s good.
4. Form a ball, using flour sparingly to help, then leave to rest in a clean, lightly oiled or greased bowl. Leave to prove until doubled in size. Note, fat (butter and egg yolks) can slow the fermentation. It’s at this point I wish we still had our old hot water cylinder in the cupboard, or an oven with a prover… Hi ho.

Dough

5. When it’s proved, melt the second 100g of butter and preheat the oven to 200C.

Rolled out

6. Roll out the dough to about 3mm thick. I made a sheet about 48cm square, then cut this into 16, ie pieces at 12x12cm. Approximately… This being dough, of course it stretches and shrinks.

Cut into squares

7. Brush with the melted butter and sprinkled with the nibbed sugar.

Form crescents

8. Roll up the squares, starting from a corner, then curl the ends in to make a crescent shape.
9. Transfer to baking sheets, lined with parchment or silicone mats.

Brush with egg yolk

10. Brush with beaten egg yolk and sprinkle with more sugar.
11. Put in the oven and bake for about 15-20 minutes. Keep an eye on them – if they start browning too much, turn the oven down to 180C and/or cover the Martinshörnchen.
12. Cool on a wire rack.
13. Feel free to eat them with butter and jam, though I’ve no idea if that’s traditional in Saxony. Happy St Martin’s day!

Martinshornchen spiral

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Canterbury apple tart

Canterbury tart

My copy of the Roux Brothers on Patisserie is inscribed as a gift from my parents for Christmas 1995. They posted it out to me in New Zealand, where I enjoyed an antipodean summer Christmas. As summer gave way to Autumn, we began the Old Man Mountain apple harvest. In was in that orchard that I got, aged 24, my first ever bee sting. It descended liked a Stuka and stung me just below the eye.

I made a lot of French apple tart that Autumn. Mostly successfully, until the one time when I was helping my host, mentor and friend Nadia with a catering job. I made three or four in large trays, but failed miserably to get the liquid for the glaze to setting point. I’m still ashamed of that cock-up. Nadia wasn’t happy with me. I still love the Roux French apple tart, too. Though these days I’m possibly more keen on Canterbury tart.

We’ve lost so much of our culinary tradition in this country. I’ve said it before, but the combination of urbanisation, two world wars, the industrialisation of farming practices and the rise of the supermarket homogenised much of our food. Furthermore, we have a long history of food fashions and fads, such as royals employing French chefs. More recently, thanks to the work of food writers and immigrants, we’ve embraced Indian subcontinent and Italian-inspired food to the point where most families eat pasta more than they eat traditional British stodge, for example. We probably do. I’m not sure what I’d do without pasta to fill up T-rex most lunchtimes.

It shouldn’t need saying, but British food can often rival anything from our continental neighbours. We had our Dutch friend Annely visiting this weekend, and as she loves cheese treated ourselves to some pricy local fare. One was Lord of the Hundreds, a sheep’s milk cheese as good as any Sardinian or central Italian pecorino. Another was Lord London, a soft cows’ milk cheese as good as any French brie.

So when you discover a recipe like Canterbury tart, it’s worth noting that it’s as good as if not better than a classic French apple tart, and more straight-forward to make too. Now, I’m loathe to say Canterbury tart is an old, traditional Kent recipe as I can’t find much information about it. Several websites cut and past the same blurb saying the first recorded recipe was written by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1381 but I’m doubtful. Kent is certainly the heartland of apple growing, so let’s say it likely has some history. I got the recipe from my mum. Googling, it looks like one from Mary Berry. I wish Berry had told us where she got it from but her recipes are somewhat lacking in preamble.

Pastry
100g butter
225g plain flour
25g sifted icing sugar
1 egg, beaten

Filling
4 eggs
225g caster sugar
2 lemons, zest and juiced
100g melted butter
2 large cooking apples, peeled & cored, about 350g
3 dessert apples, peeled, cored & thinly sliced
25g Demerara sugar

1. First make the pastry. If making by hand, rub the butter into the flour and icing sugar until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, then stir in the beaten egg and bring together to form a dough.
2. If making the pastry in a processor, combine the flour, butter and icing sugar in the bowl then add the egg and mix until the dough starts to form.
3. Form the pastry into a smooth ball, wrap in plastic and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
4. Roll out the pastry and line a flan tin, leaving an overhang. Chill the tin for a further 30 minutes (or longer if you need to).
5. To make the filling, beat the eggs, caster sugar, lemon rind and juice together in a mixing bowl. Stir in the warm melted butter, then coarsely grate the cooking apples directly into the mixture. Mix well.
6. Have the dessert apples ready sliced.
7. Preheat the oven to 200C, putting t a heavy baking tray in to heat up. (You don’t bake the pastry case blind, so this will help cook the bottom.)
8. Remove the pastry case from the fridge and spread the runny mixture in the bottom. Level the surface and arrange the dessert apple slices on top, neatly overlapping.
9. Sprinkle with Demerara sugar.
10. Put in the oven and bake for about 40-50 minutes, until the centre feels firm and the apples slices are slightly browned.

Serve warm, with cream or ice cream obviously. Though I would say I prefer it when it’s cooled and firmed up more. Even after a night in the fridge. Yum. The citrus/apple combination works so well.

By the way, I’m aware my pastry looks a bit messy. Although I can be somewhat perfectionist in some areas, I’m long reconciled with my shortcomings as a pastry chef. The important thing here is that it tasted good.

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Banana and date muffins

You know something I hate? The school summer holidays. I used to love them as a child. Unlike today, when we seem to get our best weather in May and June, before schools even break up, in the seventies and eights, summer seemed to really happen in August. It went on and on and was a delight. Thinking about my childhood now, it sounds like something from the thirties or fifties – long games of French cricket, roaming in the water meadows and Downs, chasing round the garden with brother trying to catch stag flying beetles (successfully) and bats (unsuccessfully) with a minnow net attached to our long bamboo laundry prop.

Obviously, my kids are a lot younger, but I can’t imagine them forming any particularly fond memories of this summer just passed. Aside from the summer weather seeming to end the moment school broke up, to be replaced by weeks of grey, the whole experience seemed very unsettling for my three-year-old son, T-rex.

After nearly a year at nursery, he was thriving. He’d made a lot of friends and by and large seemed settled and happy. He was sleeping well, making decent progress with his food fussiness, pretty much out of nappies, and getting excited about the prospect of “Big boys’ Lego” for his fourth birthday later in the year. Then suddenly all the routine disappeared and things regressed, became increasingly unsettled.

It’s hard to create a routine when you may be away for a spell, may be visited by family, may be able to grab a bit of sunshine, but then get wrong-footed by rain. As most organised summer holiday activities are for ages 5-6 plus, I had to try and create my own. But three-year-old boys aren’t the biggest fans of arts and crafts. Mine certainly isn’t. All he wants to do is watch The Lego Batman Movie.

I try to cook with them, and the Raver, now aged two, enjoys that – well, some “mix-mix” and the licking spoons at least. As T-rex has decided he doesn’t like “nana shake” – one of his long-time breakfast favourites – any more, I had to come up with other solutions for over-ripe bananas. Googling didn’t really satisfy, so I reached for my vintage copy of Fresh and Natural, a New Zealand hippy classic, published in 1980 and gifted to me by my old friend Nadia the final time I saw her at her home in the Malborough Sounds in October 2013, a year before her untimely death. It includes a nice flexible recipe for banana muffins, one I remember using when I lived with Nadia in 1994-95 and helped feed her large family in the Yellow House at Old Man Mountain in the Buller Gorge.

I tried to get T-rex interested in this project, but even before making or seeing the finished product he said “I won’t eat those.” It’s a protest and control tactic he’s using quite a lot currently. Refusing tea before I’ve even put it on the table, before I’ve even made it.

We hoped the return to nursery would settle him, but instead we underestimated the shock of how much his class would have changed. Loads of his friends have gone up to reception. I realise now he’s a boy who feels particularly settled when he slots into a social group of older boys, whose more alpha ways give him guidance and stability. The teachers had said the older kids often get into the role of being in charge, being the guides themselves. I hope T-rex does. I hope he likes these muffins.

This isn’t a parenting or adoption blog, so I want to keep things light, but T-rex is, in the technical term my wife taught me, dysregulated. England isn’t like France or Italy where people may take the whole of August off and hang out at the beach with family. Here, primary carers can face a long slog through the summer and sometimes children struggle. And it’s not like we need this Victorian institution of long summer holidays that freed up children to help with the harvest. The most my kids harvest is under-ripe tomatoes. So anyway, I also dearly hope that politicians move to adjust the length of the summer school holidays. Though if those in power are all wealthy, reactionary deadbeats who never even change their own kids’ nappies, I suspect it’s unlikely.

So yes, a slog – hence this blog has been a bit quiet lately. And even now I’m posting, it’s for something very undemanding. Not sure I’ll be able to muster any fancy stuff any time soon…

Here’s the recipe. Converted to new money, with added dates. The original uses nuts. You can use either or both, or neither.

50g butter, softened
50g golden syrup
1 egg (that is, about 50g without shell)
5g vanilla essence
2 mashed bananas (that is, about 200g)
105g milk
4g baking soda
300g plain flour, ideally stoneground or even wholegrain
5g baking powder
50g chopped dates

1. Preheat oven to 200C. Like a muffin tin with cases, or just grease it if you don’t have any.
2. Beat together the butter and golden syrup until creamy.
3. Add the egg and vanilla and beat well.
4. Dissolve the baking soda in the milk.
5. Mash the bananas.
6. Alternately add the milk and banana to the mixture.
7. Sieve together the flour and baking powder and add.
8. Add the dates.
9. Equally divide the batter into the muffin cases (or not).
10. Bake for about 20 minutes, until nicely browned.

Nice for breakfast, with some butter and maybe a drizzle of golden syrup or honey.

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Peanut butter buckwheat cookies

Peanut butter buckwheat cookies

Our kids are now three and two. The older one has a sweet tooth, the younger one isn’t too fussed. One thing they both do like is peanut butter. But not just any peanut butter, so I ended up in that situation where the shelf was littered with open jars of rejected spreads.

Now, nut butters are a great ingredient for cookies – eg here are some I made a few months ago. So that was the ideal solution for using up some of the extraneous stock. A quick browse of my cookbooks and good old Dan Lepard had a recipe for peanut butter cookies in Short and Sweet. His recipe uses wholemeal or spelt flour combined with rolled oats.  All ingredients I love, but I fancied making some buckwheat flour cookies, not because I’ve suddenly decided I can’t eat wheat or gluten, but just because buckwheat is yummy.

This is one of those great recipes that can handle tweaking. We did a batch that was half buckwheat, half plain flour, then I did another that was 100 per cent buckwheat. They worked very well. I reduced the sugar (as I always do) and used coconut sugar for one batch. Then in this one I used cocoa nibs and chocolate chips.

Peanut butter buckwheat cookies

200g peanut butter
125g unsalted butter, softened
125g caster sugar
140g soft brown sugar
8g vanilla essence
1 egg
250g buckwheat flour
6g baking soda
80g cocoa nibs
80g dark chocolate, chopped into rough chunks

1. Preheat the oven to 170C.
2. Prepare baking sheets by lining with parchment or silicone.
3. Put the peanut butter, butter and sugars in a large bowl and cream together until soft and light.
4. Beat in the egg and vanilla.
5. Sieve together the baking soda and flour then add to the bowl.
6. Add the nibs and chocolate and combine well.
7. Fall balls about the size of a walnut, around 30g each.
8. Place, spaced out, in the baking sheets.
9. Bake for about 15-20 minutes until nicely browned.
10. Allow to firm slightly on the sheets then move to a wire rack to finish cooling.

Enjoy. In our case, quite possibly in a playground or on a walk up the hill.

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Orange honey buns

This is a slight adaptation of a recipe by Valentine Warner, from his book What to Eat Now, published in 2008. I believe I saw him making it on telly, and had a flurry of using the recipe back then. It was forgotten for a few years, but for some reason popped up in my memory. Possibly because, well, it’s for yeasted buns that are soaked in a citrus syrup, and I’m just loving citrus syrup soaked goodies (see also this).

The result is a bit like a rum baba; he does include booze in his recipe, but I didn’t. Beacuse A) we don’t generally stock orange-flavoured liqueur and B) my bambini are the main recipients of these treats and I’m not sure they’re ready for the hard stuff.

It’s a yeasted mix – though it’s more like a cake batter than a dough. You don’t need to worry about kneading it at all. The original recipe involves easy mix yeast, just thrown in and mixed up. I don’t really use easy mix yeast, so I’ve adapted it slightly to be made with active dried yeast or fresh yeast. I also doubled the quantities, making about 18 buns. It’s nice to make them in heart-shaped silicone moulds but if you don’t have such things, normal 12 hole muffin tins are fine too.

6g active dried yeast or 12g fresh yeast
30g caster sugar
60g warm water or milk
300g plain flour
4g fine sea salt
5 eggs, lightly beaten, about 250g
150g butter, melted and cooled a bit

For the syrup
500g sugar (caster or granulated or mix)
250g freshly squeezed orange juice
250g water
Zest of one orange, in long strips
100g honey
2g orange-flower water (optional, to taste)

1. Grease the wells of a couple of 12 hole muffin trays or similar.
2. Activate the yeast in the water (or milk) with the caster sugar then mix in a large bowl with the flour and salt.
3. Beat in the beaten egg and butter.
4. Mix until smooth then cover and rest for about 15 minutes.
5. Divide the dough into the muffin tins, filling about 1/3rd.
6. Cover and leave to prove unit double in size. In a warm place, this may take about an hour. In a cool place, longer.
7. Preheat the oven to 220C.
8. Bake the buns for 12-15 minutes, or until well risen and pale golden-brown.

9. Remove from the tin and set aside to cool on a wire rack.
10. While the buns are cooking make the syrup. Heat the sugar, juice, water and rind in a pan over a low heat, stirring well. When the sugar has dissolved, increase the heat and boil for five minutes or so, until it thickens and becomes slightly syrupy.
11. Reduce the heat and dissolve in the honey. Remove from the heat and add the orange-flower water, if using.
12. Set aside until cooled slightly.

13. Put the buns in a bowl or deep plate and pour over the syrup.
14. Enjoy. Lick sticky fingers. Wipe messy children.

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Buttermilk chocolate cake

Buttermilk chocolate cake

If I’m craving a cake, chances are I’m craving chocolate cake. Were someone, well Fran probably, to ask me what kind of birthday cake I want, I’ll say chocolate. Yes, I like chocolate. I like cake. I like chocolate cake.

But strangely, despite decades of baking and consuming chocolate cakes, I’ve never found a go-to recipe. A recipe so easy, reliable and rewarding that I don’t even have to think about it. Discussing this with my mum the other day, she asked if she’d ever given me an old Katie Stewart recipe called Quick-mix chocolate cake. Not that I recalled.

I like Stewart’s recipes. She died in 2013, and was somewhat out of fashion. But if you’ve ever seen or owned one of her recipe books, chances are it’ll be well-thumbed. She was one of those British writers food writers of a certain age, along with Prue Leith and Delia Smith1, born in or just before the Second World War, who produced practical, no-nonsense recipes.

Sometimes I like my recipes with a little more context and colourful images, but often I just want to reach for the recipe, forgo any preamble, grab the ingredients from store cupboard and fridge and get on with it. Stewart wrote for The Times from 1966, a year before my parents married and four years before I was born. She continued to do so until 1978, and my mum assiduously collected the cuttings in a yellow ring binder and used them a lot during my childhood. She still has it, still uses it. So yes, I had to try this recipe. Stewart was a big part of my upbringing and food education.

What is buttermilk?
Buttermilk is readily available from supermarkets these days – or at least the cultured version, as opposed to the liquid left from churning cream to make butter. This is what I first learned was buttermilk, when making butter while living at Newton Livery then Old Man Mountain farms in New Zealand in the early-mid 1990s. This is called “traditional buttermilk” and is unlikely to be available to you unless you’re churning cream.

If you really can’t find cultured buttermilk, I suspect (though I’ve yet to try. Watch this space*) you could make this using yogurt. A little Googling suggests a ratio of three parts yogurt thinned with one part milk. As you’re using alkaline baking soda as a raising agent, it needs an acid to react with, to produce the carbon dioxide that gives lift. Both cultured buttermilk and yogurt are acids, though they’re fermented with different bacteria giving rise to their different qualities2.

Here’s the recipe. I’ve converted it to new money and reduced the sugar.

225g plain flour
55g cocoa powder
5g bicarbonate of soda
2g fine salt
250g caster sugar
112g butter, softened
140g buttermilk
2 large eggs (about 120g beaten egg)

1. Grease and line two 18 or 20cm. (Smaller will be taller, larger will be flatter.)
2. Preheat the oven to 180C.
3. Sift the flour, cooca and bicarb into a bowl.
4. Beat together the sugar and softened butter.
5. Add the buttermilk and beaten egg.
6. Add the sieved powder and stir in.
7. Beat to combine thoroughly, for about a minute.
8. Divide between the tins.
9. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until firm to the touch.
10. Cool in tins for 10 mins then turn out and cool on racks.
11. “Sandwich the layers with buttercream or chocolate frosting.”

Slices of buttermilk chocolate cake

I had some chocolate frosting in the freezer. I can’t remember what recipe I’d used to make it. I also had some cream cheese frosting left over from the Raver’s birthday. Both needed using up. I mixed them and added a dash more cocoa. Twas delicious, and probably fairly unrepeatable. I love those using-up-leftovers accidents. Any good frosting or buttercream will do.

I’m not entirely sure this will become my go-to chocolate cake recipe. As Stewart said in the cutting, it’s a “light-textured cake”, and sometimes I want rich and fudgy, sometimes I just want the ground nuts goodness of a Sachertorte or torta caprese. But I will be using this again, as it is indeed easy and reliable. Good old Stewart.

 

 

 

Notes
1. Obviously not everything. The earlier stuff by Smith, notably The Complete Cookery Course (c1980) is essential. How to Cheat at Cooking (2008) not so much.
2. Lactococcus lactis or Lactobacillus bulgaricus for buttermilk, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subspecies bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus and others for yogurt.

* I tried it. 105g yogurt mixed with 35g milk. It worked fine. Can’t quite put my finger on how different it was.

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Citrus honey cake

Citrus polenta cake

Fran, my wife of these past eight years and partner of nine more before that, isn’t really much of a cake person. Or a pudding person. Or a chocolate person. We’re quite Jack and Mrs Sprat in our food inclinations. I was a vegetarian or pescetarian for 20 or so years, she’s pretty much always been a keen carnivore.

When we got together, our dietary habits met in the middle somewhere, but I still don’t have a great sense of what her favourite cake is. Personally, I’m all about the chocolate, so a rich chocolate cake is what I always hope for on my birthday. As her birthday approached last week, however, I wasn’t sure what do bake her. I hinted for some guidance, but it didn’t really manifest. So I looked through old recipes and took a punt.

This isn’t exactly what you’d call a celebration cake. It’s not slathered in icing or exactly suitable for candles. But it’s rich and yummy, and a bit different.

Special honey… or not
It’s originally from a recipe by Nigel Slater in The Observer. His piece was all about the honey, which is here used to make the citrusy syrup. I enjoy honey, and always like to have a jar of special honey in the house. A few years ago, some friends from New Zealand came for a visit, and brought a jar of Tutaki Manuka honey, produced by Trees and Bees, up the Mangles Valley, in the Buller Gorge, South Island. This was my stomping ground on and off in my youth, so a mere sniff of the jar is hugely evocative.

Just as that jar was reaching emptiness, my friend Alex “Kabak” Marcovitch gave me a jar of honey from the bees he’d kept on his allotment in the Coombe, just on the eastern side of Lewes, about half a mile from home.

The Coombe is a try chalk valley that cuts into Malling Down, which is a reserve managed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. It’s farmed to preserve the ancient Downland ecology, an essential task as Britain has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows since the 1930s, when the Second World War food shortages meant vast amounts of grazing land was put under the plough for grain and potatoes.

It’s a special place, especially at this time of year when not only are the orchids (common spotted and pyramidal I believe) out, but the wild thyme and wild marjoram are starting to flower. Before moving to Lewes I didn’t even realise these herbs grew wild in Britain. I grew up on the Downs, but at the other end of this ridge of chalk hills, in Winchester, 80 miles to the west. I don’t remember seeing thyme and marjoram growing wild there. Perhaps Sussex is just that bit sunnier and dryer (it has some of the most sun and least precipitation in the UK).

Anyway, Alex’s Coombe honey evokes Malling Down with one sniff, the thyme, marjoram and innumerable other flowers the bees visited in their time there. Alex subsequently lost the allotment, so the Coombe honey is extra-special, as it was only produced for one year. The bees are now in his back garden, feeding off more domestic flower species, but apparently doing well.

I’ll admit I didn’t use special honey for Fran’s cake. Don’t tell her. I used cheap rubbish, which I buy for making granola. I know, I know, it’s probably made by bees who are fed sugar syrup, but… well, home economics. Plus, I just prefer to keep the good stuff to enjoy simply with a piece of bread or toast; I don’t want to lose its qualities in the melange of cooking.

So yes, I’d love to make this cake with special honey, but I defaulted to the cheap stuff. Don’t tell Fran.

220g butter
180g unrefined caster sugar
300g ground almonds
3 large eggs, beaten, approx 175g beaten egg
150g polenta
5g (1 tsp) baking powder
Finely grated zest and juice of a large orange
Zest of one lemon
12-20 green cardamom pods, to taste

For the syrup:
Juice of 2 lemons, juice of 2 oranges, approx 320g juice
100g honey

1. Grease and line the base of 20cm round, loose-bottomed cake tin.
2. Preheat oven 180C.
3. Beat the butter and sugar till light and fluffy.
4. Add the beaten eggs and combine.
5. Add the ground almonds.
6. Mix the polenta and baking powder, then fold into the mixture, together with the zest and juice.
7. Crush the cardamom pods and extract the black seeds. Grind them to a fine powder. Add the spice to the cake mixture and combine.
8. Put the cake mixture in the tin.
9. Bake for 30 minutes, turn down the heat to 160C for a further 25 -30 minutes or until the cake is firm.
10. To make the syrup, put the honey and juice sin a stainless steel saucepan, bring to the boil and dissolve in the honey. Keep the liquid simmering until it has formed a thin syrup, about 5-10 minutes.
11. Spike holes into the top of the cake (still warm and in its tin) with a skewer then spoon over the hot citrus syrup.
12. Leave to almost cool, then remove from the tin.

Serve with Greek or other thick yogurt, crème fraîche, or even thick cream. It’s up to you. It doesn’t really need the dairy blob though. With its dense, ground-almond texture and dowsing in syrup, it’s not unlike the Greek cake Greek revani or Claudia Roden’s Orange and almond cake, which Rachel Roddy talks about here, or is also available here (scroll down a bit).

Yum. T-Rex, three and a half, rejected it on the first bite. The Raver, almost two, went mad for it. Fran seemed content with it too.

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