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 challenge: hidden design rainbow zebra cake

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

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Eat the rainbow

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 showstopper challenge for week one (cake week) of series three: a hidden design cake.

Although I like to bake and cook, I am not the person who brings in homemade goods to the office. It happens occasionally, but when I bake it’s usually for me and my boyfriend, or friends, and I don’t always have much time to bake extra for work. Shortly after starting my first big grown-up job post-university, I coincidentally read a few articles which warned that, in fact, women should avoid bringing baked goods to the office to avoid being written off as domestic rather than professional, but I don’t work in that kind of high-level, male-dominated, hyper-corporate environment where those issues would be at play. And I do have friends who work in tough corporate jobs with 18-hour days and billable hours and clients and liability issues and they bring in baked goods nonetheless, because their work speaks for itself in terms of their professional abilities. That, to me, seems like a good sign in the context of debates about women’s roles in the workplace. My issue is less office politics, more lack of time.

Chocolate cream cheese frosting
How to hide a rainbow surprise (but still hint at the promise of colour)

A while ago, however, I did bring in a homemade cake for a colleague’s leaving do. I work in quite a small organisation, and I’ve said goodbye to many colleagues over the last five years, as they find opportunities outside of our tiny, very specialist institution. My colleagues are immensely talented, lovely people, and it’s always sad to see them go. Everyone seemed surprised and delighted by the cake – but I think it would be hard to avoid being charmed by it, with its bright colours revealed in every slice, belying a velvety-smooth but traditional-looking exterior of plain, creamy chocolate cream cheese icing.

The first showstopper challenge of series three of the Great British Bake-Off required the bakers to make a hidden-design cake – that is, a cake which, when cut into, reveals a pattern or image cunningly baked or carved into the centre. There are three basic ways of making a hidden-design cake: chiselling out the centre of a baked cake and replacing it with a filling, modelling chocolate, more baked cake or similar; pre-baking sponge cake into slices and pouring cake batter over and re-baking; or, thirdly, creating a design using cake batter in the pan entirely before baking.

Rainbow zebra cake inside
A hasty ‘action shot’ of the cut cake at the party

As I’m really not very good at fancy designing and decorating, I opted for the third method; I also thought that avoiding fiddling around with pre-baking would avoid the possibility of ending up with a dry cake. Also, by choosing this method, I managed to put a cake together that looked exciting but is actually do-able on a weeknight (I did it, so I know it is possible!).

I liked the idea of a zebra or giraffe cake, and when I saw the rainbow zebra cake on the Youtube channel My Cupcake Addiction, I decided to make it, excited by the combination of a crazy colour scheme but also a fairly simple technique. I followed the basic instructions from that video, although I didn’t use a boxed cake mix; instead, I opted for a plain yet buttery sponge with sufficient structure and density to support the addition of plenty of colouring paste. I covered and filled these cakes with a rich, creamy chocolate cream cheese icing. Because this recipe replaces some of the usual icing sugar used to stiffen the cream cheese frosting with cocoa powder, it’s less sweet than many cream cheese frostings and also darkly delicious. I couldn’t resist then flinging the cake with some coloured dragees I had in the cupboard, to give a hint as to the colourful inside.

Slice of rainbow zebra cake

Of course, the first design cake I ever made has come with a learning curve. I would use more cake batter than I did the first time around, because I ran a little low, which resulted in the layers of colour merging rather than being sharply delineated, as I had to scrape and scrimp towards the end. I think, if you want to bake a zebra cake of your own, that an additional half-portion of batter would work well (I have the recipe below, both as I baked it and my suggested measurements for a greater volume of cake batter).

Secondly, I think the pictures illustrate well the difference between using professional food colouring paste and colouring paste aimed at domestic consumers. In my cake, the black and blue colouring came from Lakeland, and once baked the colours are vibrant and true; the green and pink colours were from Dr Oetker (picked up at the supermarket) and, while the colour looked vibrant when the cake was raw, they baked up much paler.

Black, blue, pink and green food colouring

There are quite a few steps to making this cake – although none of them are hard in and of themselves – so I have, unusually, included some photos in the instructions below.

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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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Baking challenge: chocolate hazelnut mousse cake. Oh yes

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 seven (patisserie week) of series two: a layered mousse cake.

Chocolate hazelnut mousse cake with hazelnut crunch base
Chocolate hazelnut mousse cake with hazelnut crunch base

Think a crisp, rice-cereal-marshmallow-and-hazenut base, bound together with melted chocolate. Think a silken, rich yet feather-light mousse that melts in the mouth like snow, leaving behind the impression of chocolate and hazelnut. Think a soft, buttery cake which adds another layer of contrast to the delicate mousse and robust, crunchy base. That is this cake and it is absolutely stunning, and completely worth it.

Lest you think the above is sheer hyperbolic food porn, I assure you that everyone I served this to thought it was utterly divine. It’s a special cake, rather than an everyday, cut-and-come-again cake, that would be perfectly well-suited to being served as a dessert at the end of a lovely dinner party (perhaps served with some of the Frangelico that lends it its hazelnutty, smoky flavour).

Slice of chocolate and hazelnut mousse cake, in layers
Slice of chocolate and hazelnut mousse cake, in layers

The baking ladies of series two of GBBO (who were tasked to make mousse cakes) almost all used gelatine in their mousse, but this one relies on just the cream for aeration and lift. This is of course what gives the mousse its delicate, melting quality, but also means that it isn’t as structurally strong as one reinforced with gelatine, hence lengthy chilling is essential. The mousse is prone to melting, as well, because of the soft texture and structure, so chill it between serving.

It's just absolutely got to be done!
It’s just absolutely got to be done!

The recipe I used is adapted from a Bon Appetit recipe which I found on Epicurious. Apart from a few additions and adaptations based on the reviews (for example I added marshmallows to the base because a lot of the reviews said the base was too hard) and adapting it for ingredients easily found in the UK, I have also tried to streamline some steps as it was quite a fussy and fiddly recipe, which required odd things such as baking the cake in a particular-sized tin and then trimming it to fit another size of tin. Just say no. I didn’t do it and I didn’t need to.

For the hazelnut flavour, this mousse cake relies on a good dose of Frangelico – hazelnut liqueur – in addition to the use of hazelnuts in the base. You can occasionally find hazelnut liqueur which is not Frangelico, but it’s not easy and the price is around the same. It’s definitely quite a niche product and I know how wearying it can be to be guided towards an ingredient which is expensive, sometimes difficult to find, and not very versatile. In my defence, though, this cake is really delicious and very special. If you want to try it but are desperate not to buy in the Frangelico, dark rum could work.

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Baking challenge: on a profiterole – crackpot croquembouche

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 showstopper challenge for week six (dessert week) of series two: croquembouche.

A profiterole tower is for life, not just for Pinterest
A profiterole tower is for life, not just for Pinterest

Is there anything more gloriously, resplendently French than a croquembouche? Delicate, perfectly crisp profiterole shells encasing soft cream, with a crisp and shattering glaze of caramel holding them all together, piled high, served at weddings and other celebratory communal events, a creation from the dazzling and spectacular mind of Marie-Antoine Careme. And the showstopper challenge of dessert week.

There is a reason croquembouche was selected as the showstopper challenge: it is not a simple task and I admit I was not, strictly speaking, worthy of it. I didn’t really make a croquembouche, more a piled-up tower of profiteroles stacked up into a peak. As it was I found the experience of building exceptionally stressful and can’t imagine how I would have felt had I opted for a proper croquembouche experience.

I also eschewed making a full-on croquembouche, with the little profiteroles stuck to a cone mould, delicately removed at the end of the assembly-job, on cost grounds. A proper metal croquembouche mould is expensive and would have been a pointless piece of kitchen kit to own, even by my admittedly relaxed standards on what exactly constitutes ‘pointless’. A lot of recipes on the internet suggested using, instead, a foil-wrapped polystyrene cone, which sounds like an excellent solution, but I had a window of free time and didn’t want to wait for something ordered online to arrive, and just couldn’t face traipsing to art shops around London to find one (I did have a quick peek in a local art shop). I recalled that Holly Bell, one of the series two finalists, had actually piled her profiteroles up and just decided to do that. However, because of this decision, my profiterole tower can hardly claim to have reached the lofty heights of a true croquembouche. On the other hand, I would have run out of both profiteroles and stomach capacity had I opted for one of traditional height.

Although as I’ve said above the croquembouche is a quintessentially French dessert, I added a Belgian twist by making a speculoos paste filling, using a recipe from a book I picked up on impulse a few trips ago. Juliette’s Speculoos is all about speculoos, those ubiquitous spiced Belgian biscuits, and the flavours are translated into a variety of different desserts, such as tiramisu. Regrettably the instructions aren’t as clear as they could be (even in the original Dutch book which I have) and I definitely overcooked the paste, making it a little harder, drier and more candy-like than I would have wished. So I’d say definitely go slow when making this and don’t let the mixture boil. Instead of using caramel to bind – as speculoos already has a caramelised flavour – I used a chocolate ganache, made with a little less cream than usual to ensure it was firm. When using chocolate for binding, I would recommend letting it cool carefully between layers and ensuring the croquembouche is kept in a cool place, because if the chocolate melts everything will slide around.

Contestant Mary-Anne Boermans’ croquembouche was balanced on a praline base; to tie the flavours together I made a chocolate shortbread base to balance the profiterole tower on. I will say that shortbread probably isn’t the ideal choice because the texture is very tender and breakable, but it is a very good recipe.

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Baking challenge: deep and dark and velvet – chocolate cheesecake

Denser than a black hole...but probably smoother
Denser than a black hole…but probably smoother

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 six (dessert week) of series two: a baked cheesecake.

I’m not a cheesecake lover, especially not the ice-cold, slightly crumbly wodges of dense cream cheese served up by chain cafes around the world. And yet cheesecake is, simultaneously, very dear to me, because, since childhood, my father would always order me a slice of cheesecake, or Black Forest cake, when we were in a cafe together. It became so routine that, despite not particularly liking either bake (chain cafe Black Forest cake being typically sandy, somewhat dry, punctuated by a gloopy layer of tinned cherries of cheap cherry jam), I would ask for either whenever I was with him. Even a few years ago, when we were at the British Library cafe, I asked if he wanted cheesecake. “You’ve always really liked cheesecake,” he said happily, as he polished off about 99% of the little cake. I smiled to myself and kept mum – but really, I have no idea how this conviction that I love cheesecake began.

It took a bit of work to find a cheesecake recipe I wanted to bake, and eat, for my little baking challenge, still chugging along. I’ve owned Marian Keyes’ Saved by Cake for a pretty long time, and in fact I bought it (after borrowing a copy from the library) without having read a single of her novels (I’ve since read Watermelon). I was equally charmed and bemused: Keyes is a vibrant writer and this cookbook certainly showcases her voice and dark humour. Well-known for her struggles with alcoholism, Keyes came to baking as a hobby when she was suffering an intense depression. She started to bake and it became a sort of lifeline or pressure valve, bringing her back from the brink of suicide. Cake is serious stuff – although she is clear that baking wasn’t a cure, but a way of occupying herself until such time as she became well again. Indeed, Keyes has said she no longer bakes as it reminds her of the terrible depression she suffered.

And yet, despite the unusual, and dark, provenance of this cookbook, there is a deftness and a lightness of touch, and an unashamedly acquisitive joy in baking and in the fun and sheer silliness of it. Keyes likes bright colours and edible glitter and uses them with abandon: her bakes sparkle. She is not one for pretentiousness or being bogged down in pared down, minimalist portions of dessert, and she is not above using commercial products such as packets of lime jelly. The idea that sloshing in half a bottle of blue icing into whipped cream might be a touch declasse is not one that would resonate with Keyes. And there is a reason Keyes is a popular, bestselling author: she has that uncanny ability that many writers lack to pin down an exact word or phrase which describes something perfectly, and allows you to build a perfectly clear picture in your mind of what something is like. It was her description of her Black Hole Chocolate Cheesecake – “like being punched in the stomach by a chocolate-flavoured fist” – what made me decide to make it for the baked cheesecake part of my baking challenge.

Crust, oven, table. Plus added chilling time
Crust, oven, table. Plus added chilling time

I was rewarded, because it was worth eating, despite not being a natural fan of the cheesecake. The texture of this is delightfully smooth, without any jarring, dry crumbliness, with interest provided by the crisp crust, which is made with both traditional digestives and melted dark chocolate. I sometimes find cheesecakes, especially commercial ones, to be somewhat acidic, but the sharpness of the cream cheese was tempered by mascarpone and double cream, so that it complemented, rather than competed with, the chocolate then poured in. I was surprised that the final colour was somewhat light – a deep and polished chestnut rather than chocolate labrador, but the taste is gratifyingly rich.

This is a recipe that comes together relatively quickly and easily. The only potential pitfall is that, because the base is quite dark to begin with, it can be difficult to tell if it is catching – mine did blacken a little (my oven’s calibration is really off and it is running very hot), which was unfortunate. Also, the crust does set very hard and is somewhat difficult to cut as a consequence. Patience and a hacksaw…

Study in blue, and cheesecake
Study in blue, and cheesecake

This cheesecake is traversed with cracks – difficult to avoid with a cheesecake – and like many dense cakes it sinks in on itself. It’s also not a half hour job; though simple to put together, a lot of lengthy chilling is required at various stages. A good one to do if you have snatches of time to yourself over the course of a day.

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