Baking challenge: building the Great Gingerbread Pyramid

Kamut gingerbread pyramid

When I was in year three, we ‘studied’ the Ancient Egyptians for a term or two. In art class, we made papier-mache sarcophagi; in maths we added up the number of stones used to build pyramids; we drew pictures of the ancient gods and goddesses of Egypt and wrote little descriptions about them in what must have been history lessons. These endeavours culminated in an end-of-year assembly in which we pretended to be the workers who built the Great Pyramid of Giza and sang about our pay being merely “bread and beer and radishes”. No one thought anything of it back then, but I wonder if the spectacle of a group of highly privileged, mostly white, children playacting at being slave labourers would raise eyebrows now (I think…probably). (In any case, the theory that the workers who built the Great Pyramid were slaves has been thrown into doubt, but that was definitely the prevailing view back in 1995).

Even though I have two (!) degrees in history, my education in Ancient History didn’t get much further than my year three classroom. So I was at a bit of a disadvantage when I was introduced, at a work social, to an Eminent Classicist, which then required a bit of one-on-one small talk. Casting about, I ended up asking “What are the key debates occurring in your field at the moment?” (If you are ever caught in a lift with an academic, this question is a good one).

“Like in any other field, really,” said the Eminent Classicist, “we’re revisiting the idea of empire. Recasting Rome and really examining it as an imperial power and assessing its structural impact on the ancient world. Looking at the relationship between the metropole and the outer reaches of empire and their relationship to those centres of power. And with Egypt, too.” Immediately the ancient world became material and real, a place of power relations, trade routes, supply lines, not a hazy place of mythical creatures and roaming gods. Inspired, I read Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War. And then I started researching how to build a gingerbread pyramid. Both reactions, I feel, tell you everything you need to know about me.

Kamut gingerbread

I wanted to pay a bit of homage to Ancient Egyptian agriculture in my gingerbread. The principle grains grown in Ancient Egypt were barley (for beer); for bread, the ancient wheat varieties grown were most similar to emmer wheat or einkorn. The problem was that it was difficult for me to get hold of these except by ordering them online, which for the sake of speed I did not wish to do. So instead I turned to khorasan wheat, also known as kamut (which is a trademark), an ancient grain which is said to have been reintroduced in modern times by an American airman who sent grains which had been found in an Egyptian tomb back to his family. Like all good stories, it is apocryphal, but the grain is likely to have originated in the Fertile Crescent – good enough for me under the circumstances.

In addition to a (tiny) bit of Ancient Egyptian credibility, khorasan wheat adds a nutty flavour and sandy texture to the gingerbread which works well with the rich depth of the spices. If you want to forgo making a gingerbread house, pyramid, or any other structure and instead stamp out shapes using cookie cutters – or indeed just roll out and flatten balls of dough straight onto a baking sheet – the compulsive taste of this gingerbread would be worth it.

This post is part of my challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week eight (biscuit week) of series three: making a gingerbread structure (not a house!)

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Baking challenge: chocolate teacakes

chocolate-marshmallow-cakes.jpg

One of my fonder memories of little school is of our music lessons, which is to say, a few hours a week of banging a glockenspiel or singing. My music teacher for several crucial, formative years was Mrs Bailey – first name unknown – a proudly Scottish woman. If it were revealed to me that she was an ardent, SNP card-carrying nationalist, it would not surprise me in the slightest. Thanks to Mrs Bailey’s dedication, I am familiar with the patriotic music of Scotland and (to a lesser extent) Wales: we sang Loch Lomond and Scotland the Brave and the Skye Boat Song and Men of Harlech in her classes, and I’m fairly sure that my love of British folk music is entirely a result of those happy hours of lusty nationalist singing. I thought this kind of musical inculcation into the culture of Scotland was entirely typical for British schoolchildren, but it turns out almost none of my friends educated in England grew up singing these songs.

Chocolate teacakes

I was reminded sharply of Mrs Bailey and her love of Scottish ballads when I made chocolate teacakes for my baking challenge (bear with me here) because I associate chocolate teacakes very strongly with Scotland, primarily, I assume, because of the Scottish company Tunnock’s, whose red and gold packaging encases teacakes, snowballs (chocolate teacakes with coconut – divine) and, of course, caramel wafers. Indeed, in England, teacakes often refers to fruited, yeasted buns, which are toasted and eaten with butter. Perfectly good, of course, but austere compared to the idea of a biscuit topped with bouncy marshmallow and encased in a crisp shell of chocolate, very slightly bitter and dark to offset the intense sweetness of the white goo within. Scots are often stereotyped as dour and austere, but these national characteristics do not extend to their taste for teacakes.

Teacakes which, as it turns out, were fiddly and somewhat time-consuming but ultimately not that hard to make. Yes, you require a specialist mould to make the teacakes, though given my love of baking kit, this wasn’t particularly off-putting to me (it helps that you need a silicone mould – much easier to store than rigid metal tins). Yes, there are several components: the biscuit, the marshmallow (which happens to be vegetarian, which is exciting news), the chocolate shell. But on their own none of them are hard and you can break up the tasks and do them over different parts of the day.

I made these on a boiling hot day and was obliged to refrigerate them so that the chocolate would set; if you can, avoid chilling them, however, because once you do the chocolate loses its shine. However, if needs must, a dull homemade chocolate teacake is probably going to be better than no teacake at all.

The recipe is below the jump, as ever.

This post is part of my challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the technical challenge for week eight (biscuit week) of series three: six chocolate teacakes.

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Baking challenge: buttery chorizo, almond and manchego biscuits

Chorizo, manchego and almond biscuits

Sometimes, standing sweat-drenched in my kitchen at quarter past midnight, surveying the mess of piled-up dishes and clumps of flour tracked on the floor, I wonder why I like cooking so much. A lot of people are, after all, completely indifferent to the act of cooking; some don’t like it at all; and even among my friends who are committed to making wholesome, fresh meals regularly, I’m an outlier for my ridiculous dedication to the kitchen.

For me, cooking has been a way of bringing people to me: I live in deepest darkest south-west London, and a key way of convincing friends to come all the way to the end of the Northern line has been to make food for them. But it’s not just the social side: there’s the act itself, the feeling of doing something useful, hands-on, something that involves physical skill and manual dexterity after a day where my head feels soggy from checking budgets, reviewing reports and writing strategy papers. It’s part of why I like following recipes so much: I have to do the physical work, but the thinking through and invention has been someone else’s problem. All I have to do is follow the instructions, which is welcome given how much of my day job involves thinking and judging and assessing and strategising and deciding. And at the end of all of it: dinner! British Prime Minister Theresa May was recently much-mocked for her claim that she enjoys cooking “because you get to eat it as well as make it” but I do get what she meant – if you enjoy the process of cooking itself as a craft, you’re at least pouring your time and effort and skill into something which you get to eat at the end of the day: and we all have to eat. Some people use their spare time to do crafts like cross-stitch, or knitting, or decoupage (something my mother was very good at, actually); but with cooking you get an end product that satisfies the body as much as the spirit.

Buttery chorizo, manchego and almond crackers

In the July heat wave that hit London I was still cooking, albeit reluctantly, and doing as little baking as possible. It’s turned cooler now, however, and it once against feels plausible to turn to stove and oven. However, we are still in summer – despite the best attempts of social media to convince me that it’s virtually autumn – and therefore still in the season of casual, unhurried entertainment, the long stretch in the evening over wine. I think these crisp, buttery, salty chorizo and manchego biscuits are perfect for entertaining. You don’t need to make them at the last minute: kept in an airtight container, they stay crunchy and delicious for a good while. The recipe is clever in using the oil the chorizo gives off as it cooks as well as butter, enhancing the flavour of the final dough. I adapted the recipe partly by adding plenty more scarlet spices – paprikas smoked and sweet, brick-red chilli – to make the dough as delicious as it can possibly; I always love punchy flavours. It doesn’t hurt that the additional spices make the dough such a beautiful, inviting orange colour.

And if you really feel that it’s still too hot, and you don’t want to spend your summer making savoury biscuits – even ones as easy and forgiving as these – then please bookmark the recipe and save it for the autumn and winter months. These are going to be perfect with a glass of champagne (or, more likely, prosecco).

Recipe below the jump, as ever.

Chorizo, manchego and almond crackers

This post is part of my challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the signature challenge for week eight (biscuit week) of series three: 48 savoury crackers. 

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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.

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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.

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Baking Advent: plum and ginger traybake

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

Ginger and plum traybake with crumble topping
Ginger and plum traybake with crumble topping

After I had made a batch of tender plum and poppy seed muffins, there was still a bag full of beautiful – but ever so slightly soft – purple plums winking at me. I hunted through my cookbooks and magazines looking for an appropriate recipe (greatly aided by cookbook indexing tool Eat Your Books) and found a recipe for a plum and ginger traybake, based on oats. Plum and ginger are two tastes which go together beautifully, and the oats add a wholesome nubbliness that makes these treats seem almost breakfast-appropriate – although, conversely, the combination of butter, golden syrup and oats also brings to mind the mighty flapjack. In any case, there’s little not to love.

Plums and oat traybake
Cool winter light and plums

The recipe is quite clever in saving some of the batter used for the base of the traybake and mixing it with additional oats and flour to make a delectably crunchy topping. It’s such an easy idea – much simpler than putting together even the most basic extra crumble  – that it makes me wonder why I’ve never seen it before. The recipe was written by Jane Hornby, who is the author of the beautiful and instructive What to Bake and How to Bake It, and she is really very good at breaking down recipes into simple steps that make them achievable for anyone without – for lack of a better word – dumbing them down to the extent where they are simple and plain. The oats used are standard porridge oats, rather than the jumbo oats often called for in baking, and this was particularly satisfying because we always have these in the house for morning winter breakfasts.

Sticky oat, plum and ginger squares
Each peach? pear?…plum

The only slightly awkward thing about this recipe was fitting the oat base into the suggested 17x23cm tin – the dough couldn’t fit over this large space. I ended up using a 21x21cm square Pyrex dish, and this worked perfectly, though I’m sure a metal tin of a similar size would work well too.

Recipe below the jump, as always

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Baking Advent: crispy truffle cookies

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

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Crisp-edged, with a dense, intensely chocolatey centre and, the icing sugar they’re rolled in before baking adding a dose of sweetness as well as a crackling top in a contrasting colour, there is much to recommend about these biscuits.

I first found this recipe on a blog many, many years ago. Although I couldn’t find the recipe there, it may have been from Jennifer Hamilton’s Domestic Goddess blog, and she stopped posting in 2012 (it appears to have originated in a Williams Sonoma baking book, but Williams Sonoma is not a Thing in the UK so I’ve never seen the books). I thought the recipe was lost forever, but found a version I’d printed off in a ring binder, to my great relief.

Unbaked crispy truffle cookies

I was going through a phase then of printing off a lot of the recipes I used and saving them. It was a somewhat sad time for me: I had just returned to university after a year off between my first and second years and was feeling very rootless during that period of readjustment. Leaving home for university is often dislocating anyway, and I had travelled very far to go to my dream subject at my dream university in London. Of course things were exciting, and I’m still so close to the friends I made there, but once the initial excitement wore off and life caught up (as it does for so many students between the first year – all structured halls of residence and navigating essay deadlines in the knowledge that the first year rarely counts towards your final degree, and second year, where the marks start to count and you become responsible for your own housing and bills and sometimes even food, if you were living in catered halls before), I felt a little unfettered, and not necessarily in a good way. The recipes in a ring binder were, for me, an attempt to create a kind of anchoring domesticity, trying to capture and codify the things that will mean home – different ways of roasting chicken, a frequently-used recipe of jhal faraizi which used leftover beef, and crispy truffle cookies, captured and bound. Now, I cook quite differently to those days and reading through the binder is a reminder of what we ate, and when and where we ate it. The jhal faraizi, cumin seeds sizzling in our kitchen in Lewisham, trying to avoid breathing in the green chilli fumes, pressing the potatoes flat; salmon fishcakes in our flat in Bloomsbury, peas escaping through the gaps in the electric coils on the stove; the truffle cookies which my boyfriend couldn’t stop eating as they came off the baking sheet.

Dark chocolate crispy truffle cookies

But even if you don’t share this nostalgia, the cookies speak for themselves. There are a lot of recipes out there for ‘crackle cookies’, and many of them seem to use vegetable oil. I have no real beef with vegetable oil – I use it in my cooking and baking from time to time – but I think the rich butteriness is part of these cookies’ charm and simple perfection. They are quite intensely sweet and rich – perfect for sharing, although I will admit I hardly shared this batch at all. I’m sure you could easily dial back the sugar if wished.

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