Baking challenge: a fine fettle of flatbreads

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the signature challenge for week two (bread week) of series three: twelve flatbreads; six leavened and six unleavened)

Parathas and green flatbreads_sm

I have not written about my baking challenge in a while.

I have not really been doing much with it for a while. Mostly because baking resulted in a plethora of delicious but high-calorie food which I have been loathe to consume en masse (the exception was Christmas, but there’s so much going on then that there’s always someone to pass on baked goods to). My urges to create in the kitchen have been channelled through the medium of jams and marmalade, which have the virtue of not going stale.

My reluctance to make and then eat so much sugary food is why coming to the bread week challenges in the Bake-Off challenge is such a pleasure. For bread is often savoury, and even when sweetened, the sweetness is usually restrained enough for your loaf to be acceptable for breakfast. This particular signature challenge called for the making of two types of flatbreads, one leavened with yeast and one unleavened: six of each.

Making flatbreads - dividing and shaping
Top left: dividing the dough; top right: rolling each paratha; bottom left: dividing paratha into three joined strips; bottom left: buttering the dough before twisting and braiding

For the unleavened bread, I opted to make parathas, a buttery South Asian flatbread. I was guided, initially, by my friend Mehrunnisa’s guide and recipe on her blog. She uses wholewheat flour, which reflects the kind of parathas she grew up eating; interestingly, she mentions sweet applications, not something I have seen myself. However, I wanted to create the soft, butter-saturated, silky parathas of my childhood in Singapore. Curry and parathas with teh-oh (hot black tea without milk, but sweetened – and heavily at that – with sugar) was an infrequent ritual with my mother. There were numerous places we’d frequent; we actually liked the little hawker in the Botanical Gardens because we could then digest the rich, oily meal with a walk. For this reason I used white flour when making the parathas and used the proportions from Ruby Tandoh’s reliable baking book Crumb – although I used much more butter, more by accident than design at first. I served it with a fish curry, as I might have had in Singapore, although they were redder and richer in gravy, and more likely to be made with fish heads rather than fillets.

Making flatbreads - braiding, coiling, rolling and frying
1st row L-R: preparing to braid; twisting strips; braiding. 2nd row, L-R: coiling; finished coil; set of 6 completed coiled dough rounds. 3rd row, L-R: rolled out paratha; laminated layers; sizzling butter, for cooking

For the yeasted flatbreads, I adapted one of Nigella Lawson’s glorious bread recipes from How to be a Domestic Goddess. Often remembered for its cakes and biscuits, I think the savoury recipes in this book are all too easily overlooked, but they are wonderful. The original recipe is soft and pillowy as foccacia, baked with a warming, mellow topping of roast garlic and a paste of parsley. My version was altogether sprightlier, blending together parsley, coriander, raw garlic and a bit of lemon juice for a fresh, zingy paste. A dash of fresh chilli – green or red – would also not have gone amiss. They do tend to bake to a more muted green but the brightness of the flavour carried.

Unbaked green herb flatbreads
Unbaked flatbreads, daubed with bright green herb paste

Parathas
Recipe adapted from Crumb, by Ruby Tandoh

Note: almost every single step is illustrated in the collage images above.

Parathas and fish curry

  • 250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 125g unsalted butter, melted
  • 135ml water
  1. Combine the salt and flour in a mixing bowl; add two TBS of melted butter and rub in to combine thoroughly. Add the water to the flour mixture and knead for a minute or so until well combined.
  2. Set aside to rest for 15 minutes.
  3. Divide the dough into six pieces. Roll each into a ball. Dust a work surface and rolling pin lightly with flour.
  4. One by one, roll each ball out into a disc of about 15-20cm. Using a knife or bench scraper, cut two long incisions into each disc, but do not cut through the top, to leave three strips of dough joined together (see collage image). Using a pastry brush, brush over the surface with melted butter, generously (you will however be using some of the butter to cook the paratha, so don’t worry about using all of it).
  5. Lightly twist each strand of the dough (see images above) and then roughly braid them together. Roll up the braids into a coil, like a snake, and tuck the ends under. Prepare all the parathas this way until ready to fry. You will probably need to lightly dust your work surface and folling pin between batches.
  6. Once ready to cook, take one coiled braid of dough and roll out to 15-20cm diameter circle. Heat up a frying pan over medium-low and coat the pan with a light surface of your remaining butter. Lightly butter one side of your rolled-out paratha then cook in the pan for two minutes, buttered side down; lightly brush the top with butter. Once cooked on one side, flip and cook for an additional two minutes, until lightly speckled with dark brown spots on both sides. If they are darkening too quickly or blackening in any way, turn down the heat; if they are blonde and pale still, turn it up a smidgen.
  7. While cooking the paratha, roll out the next circle. Repeat the cooking steps, adding more butter to the pan as required. Serve with curry; eat immediately

Green herb hearthbreads
Recipe adapted from How to Be a Domestic Goddess, by Nigella Lawson

This makes six quite large flatbreads – big enough for sharing – rather than individually-sized ones, if I’m honest. You could easily halve them, but watch the baking time.

  • 500g strong white flour
  • 7g instant yeast
  • 1 TBS flaky salt
  • 300-400ml water
  • 5 TBS olive oil
  • 3-8 TBS extra-virgin olive oil (if you really don’t want to use extra-virgin, you don’t have to)
  • 1 bunch parsley
  • 1 bunch coriander
  • 10 cloves garlic, or even more if wished
  • Squeeze of lemon juice
  • seasoning for the herb paste
  1. Combine the flour, yeast and salt in a bowl; mix together the five TBS olive oil with 300ml water in a jug and add to the flour mixture to make a firm but not stiff, supple-soft dough. If it is dry at all or very hard and stiff, add a little more water a bit at a time.
  2. Turn out to a lightly oiled surface and knead for ten minutes until the dough is elastic and springy, very soft to the touch, and stretches out without breaking when you pull it. If you want, you can do the windowpane test.
  3. Pat the fully kneaded dough into a ball and clean out your bowl (yes), dry it and lightly oil it. Turn the dough in the bowl so that it’s oiled all over. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and let rise for an hour or a bit more until doubled in size.
  4. For the herb paste, combine the parsley, coriander and peeled garlic in a food processor and add three tablespoons of the extra-virgin olive oil; blitz until all is finely chopped. Add a little salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice, and then process with additional extra-virgin olive oil until it forms a runny paste. If you want chilli heat, add a chilli here too. I used about six tablespoons but you might need more or less depending on how big your bunches of herbs are. Taste the herb paste and if it’s lacking in anything – salt, garlic pungency, peppery heat, acidity – add salt, pepper, garlic or lemon juice to taste. This paste is the heart of the breads so it must taste delicious. Once you can’t stop tasting it, it’s ready to anoint your breads with.
  5. Once the dough has risen, punch it down gently and let rest for 10 minutes. Line two or three baking sheets with baking paper. Divide the rested dough into six equal portions. Roll each portion out into a rough oval or oblong shape. Press them out a little more using your fingers.
  6. Transfer the breads to the baking paper and cover with clingfilm; leave for 25 minutes for the second prove until they are puffy. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200C.
  7. Remove the clingfilm from the proved breads and, using your fingers, dimple the surface of the breads. Stir your herb paste together briskly in case any of it has settled, then divide over the flatbreads, smoothing it out evenly over the surface of each using the back of a spoon.
  8. Bake for 15-20 minutes until the breads are cooked: the green paste will have dulled slightly in colour, and the dough will have deepened in colour and be golden and slightly bronzed in places. Remove from the oven, sprinkle over some good flaky salt, and eat, warm and comforting, as soon as cool enough to touch.

 

A coyly-clothed pistachio, candied quince and orange blossom cake

Orange flower water, honey, and quince pistachio cake

In December, I candied batch after batch of quince, those rock-hard, gleaming yellow knobbled fruit which are related to apples and may indeed be the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden, not to mention the golden apples which sparked the Trojan war. Once cooked with sugar, the crunchy slabs of quince become tender and take on an ambrosial honeyed flavour which is mouth-fillingly fragrant. I wanted to use some of my quince pieces in a cake, especially the tender, pale yellow cubes made by parboiling the fruit in plain water before cooking in syrup; the glowing red wedges of quince in syrup were too beautiful not to decorate with.

Candied quince, three ways
Clockwise, from bottom left: red, firm-candied quince pieces; candied slices; amber-tinted candied quince cubes

The elegant, perfumed flavour of quince made me think of honey and orange flower water; I toyed, too, with the idea of using rose-water, which would bring out the quince’s romantic floral notes. I chose orange flower water in the end because I had a beautiful tapered-glass bottle of it sitting in the fridge. So far, so aromatically Middle Eastern; to complement the flavours, I decided to make a pistachio cake, for this gleaming verdant nut is native to Syria. In addition, its fat content means it produces a cake with a soft, tender crumb. The recipe I went with was actually Italian in style and includes a decidedly un-Middle eastern ingredient, sour cream, although of course Middle Eastern cuisines are no stranger to tangy dairy products.

Candied quince spiral

I wanted to frosting element of this cake to be luxurious, tempting, but at the same time didn’t want something cloying, like buttercream, or richly sharp like cream cheese icing, as I thought they would compete too much with the delicacy of the nut cake and subtle ambrosia of the quince. For this reason I went for double cream, mixed with honey and flower water and whipped up into soft, billowing clouds. Three hundred millilitres is just enough to fill the cake and decorate the sides and top in a lacy, coyly veiled ‘naked’ style – I’d been wanting to try one of these trendy peekaboo cakes for a while. I actually whipped the cream a little bit more than desirable: you really want very soft, blowsy cream, beaten juuuuust to the point of holding its shape, but I was packing the cake up and taking it to my book club meeting. I was terribly anxious about it surviving the Tube, which can be hot even in winter, so whipped the cream quite stiff to give it a bit more stability. The result is that it looks a little grainy once iced, but it wasn’t overwhipped at all (no butterfat had solidified in the cream).

I was extremely gratified – since this was a very experimental cake – that everyone at my book club said they thought it delicious. However, don’t feel that it is out of your grasp because you don’t have a stash of syrupy quince in your fridge; I’ve given suggestions below for alternative fruits you could use for the filling and topping. Although they’d be different, they’d be none the less delicious, bringing the required sweet juiciness. I love cooking from recipes and following steps precisely: after a long and freeform day at work, surrendering myself to the instructions of a recipe is strangely relaxing. Yet cooking and even baking are also about freedom, exploration and substitution. This recipe came about by happy and delicious happenstance; there’s no reason it couldn’t do the same for you.

Sliced pistachio cake
Hasty, not very well-lit action shot of the sliced cake

Pistachio cake
Adapted from this recipe by Rose Levy Berenbaum

  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 160ml sour cream
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 85g peeled and blanched pistachios (i.e. with shells and papery outer skins removed before weighing)
  • 175g golden caster sugar
  • 265g plain flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 170g unsalted butter, at room temperature

Orange blossom cream

  • 300ml double cream
  • 1 TBS clear, runny honey – an orange blossom honey would be wonderful here
  • 1/2 TBS – 1 TBS orange blossom water (use more or less depending on the strength of your flower water)

To assemble

  • One batch of candied quince cubes, from one quince, candied by parboiling and then cooking in syrup (instructions in this post)
  • One batch of candied quince slices in syrup, from one quince (instructions in this post)

or

  • Two peaches or nectarines, peeled, one chopped, one sliced into wedges
  • A handful of fresh, intensely ripe and fragrant apricots, half chopped, half sliced, halved or quartered
  • A bagful of sweet red cherries, stoned, half chopped and the rest halved
  • A drained tin of lychees, half chopped, half quartered (if using lychees, replace the orange blossom water with rose water, and throw in a box of raspberries in the filling and to decorate the top to capture an Ispahan-like flavour)

Equipment

You will need three 20cm cake tins, ideally shallow (I used three of the 20cm Wilton layer cake tins), to make the recipe as written. However, you could cake up the mixture in standard 18cm sandwich tins or 23cm springform tins – you just might end up with fewer layers and you will need to adjust the baking time.

  1. Grease the cake tins and line the base with baking paper
  2. Preheat the oven to 180C
  3. Whisk the eggs, 3 tablespoons of sour cream and vanilla extract until just combined (set aside the remaining sour cream).
  4. In a food processor, mini chopper or jug blender, grind the pistachions together with the caster sugar until finely ground but not a powder – the texture should be nubbly and grainy with a few larger chunks throughout.
  5. Using an electric beater, mix the flour, pistachio-sugar mixture, baking powder, baking soda and salt together on low for about 30 seconds, until throughly combined (you could always do this by hand using a balloon whisk, but the elctric beaters will come in handy for the next steps)
  6. Add the butter and set aside sour cream to the flour mixture and mix on low speed together until the dry ingredients have been thoroughly moistened by the dairy products. Increase the speed of the mixer to medium and beat for about a minute and a half. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  7. With the mixer on medium-low, add the egg-sour cream mixture to the mixture in your bowl in two batches, beating the egg mixture in for 30 seconds on medium speed between additions so that it is thoroughly combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  8. Scrape the batter equally into the prepared tins (if you are keen and determined to have them be absolutely equal, you can weigh the batter). Smooth the top of the batter with a small offset spatula.
  9. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or a little longer depending on the number of tins you have divided the batter into and the dimensions of the tins. Test by inserting a skewer or cake tester into the centre of each cake; it should come out clean, and the centre of the cake should spring back when pressed gently. The edges will be slightly darker and will be pulling away from the sides of the cake tins ever so slightly.
  10. Let the cakes cool in their tins for ten minutes on a wire rack, then gently unmould and let cool completely.

For the orange flower and honey cream

Note: make this only when the cakes are completely cool and you are ready to fill and decorate

  1. Stir together the cream, honey and orange flower water until combined. Taste a little and adjust as needed by adding a little more honey or orange flower if you think it’s required.
  2. Using an electric whisk or handheld balloon whisk, gently beat the cream mixture on low speed until it just holds firm peaks

To assemble

Note: the assembly instructions are for three layers; if you have cooked fewer layers, just adjust them as required.

  1. Place one of your cake layers in the middle of a cake board or your serving plate, upside down (i.e. so that the flat side is up). If your cake layer was very domed, you can level off the top with a sharp serrated knife, though proceed carefully.
  2. Dollop a scant quarter of the cream mixture onto the centre of the cake layer and spread it to the edges using an offset spatula. Sprinkle over half of your candied quince cubes or your chopped prepared fruit evenly over the cream.
  3. Top with the second cake slice (again, upside down so the flat side is up) and repeat with the cream and remaining half of the chopped quince cubes or prepared fruit.
  4. Top the cake with the final cake layer, again upside down so the flat side is up.
  5. Smooth over a quarter of the whipped cream over the top of the cake using your offset spatula. Smooth the final quarter of whipped cream over the sides of the cake using your spatula, spreading it as evenly as possible. I used my metal bench scraper to smoothen the cream evenly over the sides as a final step by running it over the edges to wipe off the excess.
  6. Decorate the top of the cake by placing your candied quince slices or your sliced or quartered fresh fruit in a pattern over the top

 

Baking Advent: Apricot and amaretti fruitcake with Marsala and clementine buttercream

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with baked goods.

Apricot, amaretti and marsala fruitcake

In my last post I mused about being, becoming, a grown-up; and the changing tastes of adulthood were something I thought of when making, and then eating, this fruitcake.

For some tastes are the ones we grow rather than the ones which come to us instinctively. The liking of certain foods – the bitterness of wine and beer among then – mark the undeniable transition from picky child and wary adolescent. Jay Rayner predictably called it for the oyster, which, in a slightly icky (and, it must be said, heteronormative) 2011 article which I have never really liked (I like a lot of his other writing), he describes as “the truly female tastes of adulthood” (yawn). Then there are olives – salty, briny; blue cheese – pungent, moudly; even the raw, iron, undeniably fleshy taste of rare steak.

Apricot, amaretti and marsala fruitcake with marzipan stars
Marzipan stars on a naked cake for a modern look

Fruitcake, to me, is a grown up food, too. As a child, its dense, sticky richness was something best avoided in favour of, say, a predictable slice of chocolate cake. It sits heavily on the stomach and coats the palate in a thick wave of raisiny sweetness almost as a dessert wine does. A fruitcake is assertive; it is strong; it is not really that sweet and can be nibbled with cheese as much as eaten as pudding after a meal. It requires a bitter drink of some kind – hot black coffee; unsweetened, tannic tea; even ale – to offset the rich taste and texture. After years of remembered aversion and dislike, those same failings have become, in my eyes, the fruitcake’s very virtues. It is filling, it is rich, it is unapologetically traditional in vine-fruited taste and dense, even at times stodgy, texture.

Christmas fruitcake with clementine and cinnamon buttercream
Christmas fruitcake with clementine and cinnamon buttercream

I wasn’t intending to post this recipe, mainly because the photos I took weren’t very good. But this cake is so very delicious; I brought it in to work (a rare enough event) and my colleagues were full of praise – one even said he feared it would put all other Christmas cakes this year in the shade. That’s the kind of thing someone who brings in a homemade cake likes to hear…

The dried apricots in the fruit mix add a lighter, sharper taste and texture than the traditional combination of raisins, currants and mixed peel alone, and the pulverised amaretti biscuits which are included in the batter mix replace the more conventional breadcrumbs: they are dryer and, again, lighter, as well as adding a delicate almond perfume which complements the marzipan shapes the cake is decorated with. A few biscuits are held back to decorate the top of the cake. The sweet Marsala wine which plumps up the fruit and is used to feed the cake at regular intervals naturally imbues it with moisture, but also sweetly echoes the taste of the dried fruit within the cake. The clementine buttercream is of course deeply seasonal and adds a burst of freshness to proceedings. I added a dash of cinnamon to it too.

Apricot and amaretti fruitcake
Action shot – the cake getting dug into at work, in its tin

I went for a ‘naked’ look for this cake, partly because naked cakes are so very fashionable; partly because I don’t really like the royal icing that usually tops fruitcakes; and partly to avoid the awkwardness of buying sufficient quantities of marizipan and carefully rolling it over to drape the cake. I liked the look very much, in the end – though having said that, the original cake, as decorated by BBC Good Food magazine, looked absolutely glorious – with a coating of (edible) gold spray paint, it was fantastically Louis Quatorze.

Recipe below the jump, as ever.

Continue reading “Baking Advent: Apricot and amaretti fruitcake with Marsala and clementine buttercream”

Baking Advent: bakery-style oatmeal-raisin cookies

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with baked goods.

Bakery-style oatmeal raisin cookies and milk

I had lots of ambitious plans to post up a baking recipe every day in December – partly to clear my drafts folder full of half-finished posts – but as the exercise became more stressful, my boyfriend talked me out of it with this dry comment: “You’re a grown-up with a sensible job. No one expects you to put yourself through this.” Then he made me go to bed.

I sometimes doubt how sensible my job really is (usually when filling in a bizarre piece of paperwork), and for sure I often doubt that I’m really a grown up. My job is characterised by tight and sometimes unexpected deadlines and a dizzying set of regulations – internal and external – that are introduced in frenetic spurts between long consultative periods, and I mostly see myself as floundering in the midst of this soup. (It’s also characterised by lovely, warm colleagues who habitually fish me out of said soup). I often – often – worry about whether I’m actually coping, or doing things right. You know the swan metaphor, about how they look calm on the surface but no one sees them paddling like hell underneath? I’m sure everyone can tell I’m paddling.

Oamteal and raisin cookies

Only occasionally have there been moments when I have felt assured and in control (granted, most of the time you’re not observing yourself, you’re just getting on with the day). One of those moments was when I was delivering a goodbye speech for a colleague – I caught myself, as if having an out-of-body experience, speaking calmly and fluidly about her and her contributions to the organisation, and managing a few in-jokes about corporate documents and policy papers. It was a grown up moment, however brief.

I’m sure it seems an awkward segue to go from paddling through adulthood to cookies, but in fact I think there is a connection. Baking, making lovely things to share, is also soothing, therapeutic, and just fun – and can even make me feel more in control. I may not have finished the day’s spreadsheet (yes, this is my life now), but if I bake a batch of cookies it not only gives me some time to myself but gives me a feeling of mastery over this tiny domain. The oatmeal-raisin cookies below are also deliciously easy to put together, they are made from storecupboard staples, and they result in palm-sized, bakery-worthy sweet snacks.

Bowlful of oatmeal raisin cookies

I found this recipe on a delightful blog, aspoonfulofsugar.net (it sadly no longer exists), which I read avidly as a teenager, completely compelled by these adults who, in their spare time, cooked and baked and then wrote about it. This was in the early days of food blogging, just past the heyday of Julie Powell’s blog Julie and Julia, when a young Parisian (or should I say Parisenne?) launched her blog Chocolate and Zucchini and became a rising star in the food blogosphere. Back then, the online food world was a somewhat small close, tightly-knit place (bloggers used to actually regularly meet each other in Real Life) – and blog photography was sometimes (not always)…basic. Things were quite homely and sometimes slapdash and pictures of dinner clearly taken – gasp – at night, with flash, under artificial light. This particular recipe is apparently from the TV tie-in cookbook ‘Cooking with Friends’, featuring recipes for foods seen in the iconic programme. Angela, the authoress of aspoonfulofsugar.net, converted the recipe’s American measurements into metric, but over time her original measurements have been tweaked a little by me.

Cookies and milk

These are big, rich, and crisp cookies – almost crunchy – not too sweet, but wonderfully buttery, studded through with raisins that somehow remain plump and juicy after baking. You can get a softer texture, if wished, by baking them on the lower end of the recommend baking times, about 12 minutes, and you could also experiment with turning down the temperature to the more standard 180C. Myself, I like a cookie full of crunch and texture, and tend to cook them for the full fifteen minutes so they are crisp all the way through. Perfect with a cup of tea, though a cookie as all-American as this surely deserves to be dunked in a glass of milk.

Recipe below the jump, as always.

Continue reading “Baking Advent: bakery-style oatmeal-raisin cookies”

Baking Advent: little plum friands

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with a different daily baked good.

Plum and almond friands

I went to the gym yesterday, for the first time in…a while. I’ve been busy, and sick, and social, and taking a French course, all of which has disrupted my usual gym-going routine, which was pretty settled and well-established. Once dropped, I felt too intimidated and apprehensive to go back, even though I knew that the tension in my shoulders and recent difficulty sleeping could have been resolved with some exercise.

Well, I finally managed to get to gym, albeit much later in the evening than I planned and on the strength of two glasses of wine from a work function (oh yes), and I’m pretty much back to square one in terms of fitness, which is pretty annoying. However, once finished, I did feel better, more focused, my thoughts less troubling, and I slept well. Having exercised, I also let myself indulge in one of my plum friands, serving it up with a trickle of double cream.

Plum friand

Friands are egg white and ground almond-based mini cakes, oddly popular in Australia, and very similar to French financiers. Friands tend to be baked in round shapes, unlike rectangular financiers, whose shape is said to resemble gold bars; for financiers, the butter is typically browned until it picks up toasted hazelnut notes; and friands typically have additions and flavourings such as chocolate, coconut, and fruit, whereas the financier is unadulterated almond. These differences aside, both recipes involve ground almonds, icing sugar, melted butter, and egg whites, so I think it’s safe to say they are related in some ways, cousins at least even if they’re not close enough to be siblings.

I made this recipe to use up the last three plums in the house – conveniently, that’s all that was needed. It also helped me finish off my stash of ground almonds, which had grown to ludicrous proportions thanks to a brief macaron phase; and there were egg whites in the freezer compartment (they just about fit) which just needed a brief thawing. So this recipe was serendipitous in some respects.

Buttery vanilla friands

I did make two tiny tweaks to the recipe as printed by Waitrose Weekend, a free newspaper distributed in Waitrose supermarkets. Firstly, I did not line the bottoms of the muffin tin with circles of baking paper, because the idea of cutting them out made me feel deflated. Instead, I greased the bun tin thoroughly – and I mean thoroughly – with melted butter, let the friands cool for a good while, and then eased them very gently out of the tin with a flexible palette knife when they were barely warm (I think if you let them cool to absolutely cold the plums might adhere). You do need to be careful when doing this because the plums can stick to the tins and cause the cake to break when prised out of the tin, but I genuinely think it’s a million times better than cutting out baking paper circles. But to each their own. Secondly, I replaced the called-for almond extract with vanilla extract, because I was serving them to a friend who doesn’t like the pronounced, cloying bitter-kernel taste of almond extract (although she likes almonds). In fact, I think the vanilla extract was a good choice as it brought out the soft, buttery tenderness of the cakes rather than highlighting the almond.

Recipe after the jump.

Continue reading “Baking Advent: little plum friands”

Baking Advent: zeitgeist cookies

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with a different daily baked good.

Banana, oat and chocolate no-sugar-added cookies
Banana, oat and chocolate cookies

Well before the current fad for food characterised mostly by what it isn’t – gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, vegan, plant-based and so on – Heidi Swanson, author of the blog 101 Cookbooks (and four cookbooks of her own) published a recipe for Nikki’s Healthy Cookies. Based on a mixture of oats, ground almonds and coconut, and free from added sugar, these cookies had been developed by her high school friend Nikki as a treat she would be happy to give to her children who, Swanson notes, had been largely nourished on whole foods. The recipe is from 2008, but the philosophy of these cookies couldn’t be more au courant – again suggesting, perhaps, that it is the progressive, trend-seeking and setting enclaves of New York, California and the Bay Area that dictate food trends in Europe, albeit sometimes years later.

Bite-sized banana, oat and chocolate cookie

I’ve adapted the recipe below – primarily by substituting the desiccated coconut called for, as I didn’t have any in the house and didn’t feel inclined to buying a packet of something that would then sit, unused and dusty, in the cupboards for an age – and, with my tweaks and metric measurements, and reflecting on how very of-the-moment this recipe is, I’ve renamed my version ‘Zeitgeist cookies‘.

These cookies aren’t just for appropriate those voluntarily choosing exclusionary diets: I made them to bring to a gathering of friends, one of whom has been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. For her, the lack of high-GI flour and inclusion of wholegrain, lower-GI rolled jumbo oats and almonds (which do not affect blood sugar) and lack of added sugar made these a treat she could enjoy more easily than baked goods based on refined ingredients. She also said that the inclusion of dark chocolate was (relatively speaking) fine for her as dark chocolate has less sugar than other kinds, and the fat means the sugar is released more slowly into the bloodstream.

Big chunks of chocolate play off a moist, craggy interior
Big chunks of chocolate play off a moist, craggy interior

These are not thin, crunchy, crisp cookies: the banana makes them moist and soft all the way through, although they hold their shape well and are not particularly cakey in texture. The taste of the banana carries well and plays off nicely against the chocolate. Given that the original recipe was developed by a whole-foods-orientated mother, I’m not sure to what extent children would like these. The texture is nubbly, maybe even slightly chewy, from the oats, and they’re studded with dark, rich chocolate which adds a faint hint of bitterness. While these tastes and textures would be welcomed by adults, I do doubt somehow that children would really fall on these – particularly if they’re used to more conventional treats. My friends and I considered this as we nibbled and concluded that using milk chocolate instead of dark would make them more child-friendly (and still probably lower in sugar than most cookies).

Healthy chocolate and banana cookie

Recipe below the jump.

Continue reading “Baking Advent: zeitgeist cookies”

Baking Advent: sticky, syrupy gingerbread loaf with rum

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with a different daily baked good.

Sticky gingerbread loaf

This ginger cake is another recipe I have used for a long time, again gleaned from avid food blog reading. The recipe makes a small cake, a simple unadorned loaf that could even be called humble; certainly homely, with all the comforts associated with that word.

What I love about this cake is that I’ve very rarely been without the wherewithal to make it at a moment’s notice. If I only have a scrap of butter, a lick of golden syrup and a single egg rattling in the cupboards, I can make this cake. I’ve baked it in a loaf pan and a square brownie tin, and doubled it for bake sales; it is incredibly forgiving. Once, I added the egg too quickly to the sticky mixture of syrup, butter and sugar which is first melted together, and the egg coagulated in the mixture. I strained out the bits of cooked egg white and continued as normal; the cake baked up perfectly.

Homely, homey, and delicious

Straight out of the oven a slice is warm, sweet and mild: the gingery flavour and stickiness develops over the next few days, and is enhanced if you wrap it in foil between servings. Personally I like my gingerbread the way my grandmother eats it, which is to say sliced and buttered.

It’s a flexible and infinitely adaptable gem. You could add additional spices, or add-ins such as sultanas soaked in a little brandy or apple juice, or even small chocolate chips if you like the combination of chocolate and ginger. The version I made below includes a splash of rum and some chopped preserved stem ginger to add an additional warming, spicy backnote. It doesn’t require any embellishment to be a lovely little cake, but it makes a nice change. Recipe below the jump, as always.

Continue reading “Baking Advent: sticky, syrupy gingerbread loaf with rum”