Baking challenge: honey-walnut rolls

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 seven (sweet dough week) of series three: 24 yeasted buns.

honey walnut breakfast bun

As the aim of this challenge was to bake twenty-four sweet rolls or buns – a not insubstantial number – I wanted to make something as suitable for breakfast as for an afternoon snack, which, in my book, means relatively light on refined sugar. My breakfasts are usually yoghurt, homemade granola and fruit, or homemade wholegrain sourdough, or very occasionally a spinach smoothie. Cornflakes just leave me hyperactive, then hungry. For this reason, I turned for inspiration to Joanne Chang’s ‘Baking with Less Sugar’. It’s an interesting book; Chang is not driven by worthiness, but instead adopts a scientific approach to low-sugar baking. This means appreciating the scientific and chemical qualities of sugar and what taking it out does to cakes, cookies and breads. In addition to the obvious addition of sweetness, sugar’s hygroscopic quality mean it keeps baked goods moist. I knew about this, but what I didn’t realise was that sugar also has gluten-inhibiting properties, contributing to the tenderness of the final product.

To make these buns, I adapted Chang’s recipe for Honey cashew morning buns. It might seem obvious to say that buns made from a cookbook called ‘Baking with Less Sugar’ are not very sweet, but here we go: they’re not very sweet, and the dough, based on oil rather than butter, is not very rich. The muted sweetness and richness of these means that they really, truly, are at their absolute best on the first day, warm and sticky from the oven. They stale more rapidly than extremely sugary buns and become quite dense. If you are eating them over a few days, a blast in the oven or microwave (and perhaps a sprinkle of water beforehand) will revive them.

Honey walnut buns

This is a good recipe to showcase a bold, flavourful honey; I used a piney, resinous Spanish honey. I replaced Chang’s cashews with toasted walnuts because I like their bitter notes, which complemented the smokiness of the honey. If you want a more buttery, naturally sweeter flavour, pecans would work well. I swapped out some of the cinnamon Chang calls for with cardamom and adapted the honey ‘goo’ (as she calls it) that the buns are soaked in, as the original recipe is extremely thin and boils over in the pan too much. Bake these buns in your largest roasting tin: I had to stack them almost upright, making for an interesting (but not Bake-Off-worthy) pull-apart effect, but having them as flat as possible for proving and baking would be best.

Recipe below the jump, as ever.

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Baking challenge: dethroning the Queen of Puddings

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 six (pudding week) of series three: a Queen of Puddings.

Queen of puddings

I like British food. I always feel bad that it has such a poor reputation globally, since the decline of British cooking really comes from the hardship of rationing during – and after, of course – the Second World War, when British cooks had learned to rely on powdered egg, corned beef and old heels of leaden bread to keep themselves and their families fed. Before that, British food was creative, adventurous, and even sustained a good reputation in Europe – it wasn’t all the boiled vegetables of popular imagination. I’ve leafed through plenty of original magazines from the 1910s in the British Library and some of the recipes are surprisingly fresh and modern sounding. Contemporary British cooking, of course, draws on influences from around the world as well as relying on local, seasonal and traditional flavours and techniques.

Mary Berry's Queen of puddings

But for all that I believe British food is irrationally maligned, I don’t like, or even understand, Queen of Puddings (and this ain’t my first time at the Queen of Puddings rodeo). Like many recipes with a long history, it is breadcrumb-based, consisting in this case of a lemony breadcrumb-thickened custard, topped with a river of red jam, topped with a crown of lightly toasted meringue. The end result is gloppy, sticky, and very sweet, and it doesn’t keep well, either, as the meringue starts to droop and weep into the other components if it sits out for a bit. For me, this is no queen, but a mere pretender to the throne – the Perkin Warbeck of British desserts, if you will. On account of its acute sweetness, however, I can imagine children liking this. And if you do like Queen of Puddings, Mary Berry’s recipe (below) is certainly a good and reliable one, producing pretty picture-perfect results.

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Baking challenge: little marmalade and sticky toffee fig steamed puddings

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 six (pudding week) of series three: two different sponge puddings, each served with a different sauce, six of each.

Mini marmalade steamed puddings
Mini marmalade steamed pudding

Running through almost every Belgian I’ve ever known, like a seam of quartz through rock, is an inexplicable Anglophilia – inexplicable because it seems to pulse through Belgians who’ve never visited Britain and have no immediate familial or cultural links to the country. Is it because of Britain’s eventual support for our little country following the 1830 Belgian revolution, when a sentimental song at the opera spurred patriotic (anti-Dutch) riots? Because Britain housed 250,000 Belgian refugees fleeing the German invasion during the First World War? Because Belgians really, really enjoy EastEnders?

Whatever the cause, Belgian Anglophilia is matched by no little bemusement towards British habits. After all, Brits eat stew with mash, rather than the proper accompaniment of frites; they drink pint after pint of weak beer, rather than a modest glass of 8% ABV; and when they do eat chips, they fry them to a crisp toasty brown and sprinkle them with malt vinegar to add insult to injury. But most bemusing of all is…the pudding.

“In Britain,” my grandmother declared one day, “They call everything PUDDING.” As I digested this statement, she leaned forward and added, “Here, the only thing WE call pudding is…PUDDING.”

Figgy sticky toffee pudding
Figgy sticky toffee pudding

You see, like in North America, ‘pudding’ in Dutch (same word, though it sounds slightly different) typically refers to custard (or sometimes jelly)-based soft desserts (like Angel Delight or those Alpro Soya long-life custards), whereas in Britain, of course ‘pudding’ usually means simply a dessert course. This terminology is, for some reason, endlessly amusing. (Notwithstanding this general bemusement, one of the most masterly books on the market about British puddings was in fact written by a Belgian).

For my twelve steamed puddings, I chose to make a marmalade pudding – mostly, admittedly, for the very smug-sounding reason of having an excess of homemade marmalade on my shelves after preserving fever hit me. I adapted a recipe from Justin Gellatly for this, adding orange zest for additional freshness and zip, and baking them as mini puddings rather than one large one. It’s served with an alcohol-spiked custard for absolute indulgence. The other recipe is Gizzi Erskine’s, and is a deliciously fig-laden version of classic sticky toffee pudding, accompanied by a lusciously sticky sauce. (Yes, both are pretty wintery, but although it’s high summer for now, British summer evenings can still get pretty cold, you know…).

Recipes are below the jump, as always.

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Baking challenge: crème caramel

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 technical challenge for week four (dessert week) of series three: crème caramel.

Mary Berry's creme caramel

Crème caramel is an old-fashioned dessert, isn’t it, belonging almost to the realms of the (sadly, now) imaginary bistros of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, with those heavy leather-lined seats where you are comfortably ignored once delivered of your food (and, of course, alcohol). In a more modern context I can imagine buying a small plastic tub of it from the supermarket, the caramel staining the bottom of the container deep brown, and inverting it at home. But these are acts of the imagination alone: I don’t know if I’ve eaten creme caramel before making it for this baking challenge. It does feel like the kind of gentle, nurturing nursery-type food I should have eaten as a child, however.

Crème caramel is a sister to crème brûlée: both are softly-set, only very lightly sweetened custards, composed of wholesome and nurturing ingredients: whole milk, eggs. But what a difference the outside makes: the crème brûlée is the flirty, dangerous show-off in the family, with her tempting crackled-burnt sugar crust, which has required the application of the naked (ooh la la) flame of the blowtorch (if you’re a cowboy cook who’s not using the grill, anyway) and dares you to crack into it. No one would mistake this dessert for an inhabitant of the nursery. The crème caramel is a bit more homely and dutiful compared to her glamorous sibling.

Creme caramel

You start off by making a caramel, which coats the buttered ramekins, and then a custard which bakes gently in the oven. The cups of custard must then chill completely, to be turned out a la minute. The chilled custard is silky-quivering in its delicacy, lightly drenched in a cloak of caramel syrup which adds some much-needed sweetness and intense depth to this dessert, which would otherwise be simply milky and jiggly and bland. (This contrast is especially, deliciously pronounced if you are brave enough to cook your caramel properly dark). Custard always walks a fine line between homely, nursery food and sensual indulgence. This definitely leans towards the latter – although easy to eat, it’s a dessert that celebrates rich, soft smoothness and contrast of innocently sweet custard and earthy caramel.

Don’t make the mistake I did and forget to immerse your custard-filled ramekins in their hot-water bath. I had to make these twice because I missed this vital instruction first time round. I must have skipped over the line completely because, as I transferred my first batch to the oven, I did think to myself that I would have expected a water bath to coddle the custards. In the absence of the water bath the custard took much longer to cook, surprisingly, but also set quite rubbery and hard, and had large air bubbles running through, which ruined the silky texture. A few were edible but most were relatively grim eating and were given to the worms via our compost box. This mishap aside, it was fairly easy to pull together and the desserts were exceptionally satisfying to turn out – they came out easily after a bit of coaking with a palette knife (just be careful not to angle the knife in such a way that you cut into the set custard).

Recipe below the break as always.

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Baking challenge: strawberry almond cake cream torte

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 four (dessert week) of series three: a three-layer torte cake.

Strawberry mousse cream cake

Cream-based desserts always have my heart – notwithstanding the danger all this dairy fat doubtless poses to said heart. A trickle of liquid cream or dollop of the airily whipped variety – or even, dare I say, a pump of aerosol-whipped foam from a ‘squirty cream’ can – rarely fails to perfect a baked good or even a simple piece of baked or poached fruit.

Anecdote: I once bought a can of squirty cream for a Wimbledon Finals viewing party (yes, very bourgeois) from Tesco (actually, from the Tesco in Wimbledon itself!) and the woman at the cashier rang through my summer-standard purchases – Pimms, strawberries, napkins – without comment. When she came to the can of cream, she picked it up, waggled her eyebrows, and rasped out (Marsha-from-Spaced-style) “Are you going to be having play-time when you get back?” followed by a hearty chuckle. Even if I actually preferred the sugary, airy taste of the canned stuff to the voluptuous purity of hand-whipped double cream, the memory of this moment would be enough to put me off any purchases of aerosol cream for fear of another such encounter.

Strawberry mousse almond cream cake

There is nothing fake or sugary about this cream torte. The almond cake which forms the foundation is somewhat austere on its own: dense but not particularly sweet, and quite dry. The orange liqueur-spiked syrup it’s brushed with adds some flavour and moisture, but the purpose of the cake is to provide a contrast to the extremely creamy strawberry and orange liqueur mousse which fills the middle. With 500ml – half a litre – of double cream providing body to the mousse, the cake needs structure and a little dryness to hold it together and provide a textural contrast to all that soft, voluptuous sweetness.

There are a number of steps, and skills, associated with making this cake (you can see why it was a suitable challenge on Bake Off). There’s the baking of the sponge and the making and setting of the filling, which involves gelatine. (Most of the gelatine you can buy off the shelf in the UK is beef rather than pork gelatine, so bear that in mind if you want to serve this cake – or even just the mousse – to someone with medical or cultural dietary restrictions. I have not tested this with vegetarian gelatine and would suggest following the packet instructions if you want to try this as it works slightly differently). Fortunately both can be done ahead of time. The assembled cake and mousse structure then has to chill for a good amount of time in the fridge – if not, you will have sponges floating on a strawberry-cream slop. Not very appetising, and I can imagine it must have been a struggle for the Bake Off contestants to set a gelatine-based mousse in time. (Incidentally, this cake is a good test of faith, inasmuch as you have to believe that you will pass through the ‘cakes-on-slop’ phase to get to the ‘elegant Mitteleuropa cream torte’ stage when shoving it in the fridge to set).

Almond torte with strawberry mousse

If it really all does seem like too much work for a summer’s day – and with so little of summer left I won’t blame you – do try making just the mousse, which is pure and delicate and delicious – it melts delicately on the tongue and tastes like a child’s memory of strawberries and cream. As a bonus, you won’t need to turn the oven on.

The almond cake I made is an amalgam and extensive adaptation of several recipes I found online; the syrup and mousse are based on a recipe for Erdbeeroberstorte from Rick Rodgers’ magnificent book Kaffeehaus, which is well worth a look at if you love cream-based desserts, which are also so beloved in Central Europe. The instructions given to the bakers was to make a three-layer cake, but this did not require three layers of sponge, simply that the entire piece be composed of three layers – in this case two of sponge and one of mousse; the tortes themselves should not contain any flour. Strictly speaking, also, the instructions in the challenge did suggest that the bakers should not using leavening agents in their cakes – with all the rise coming from well-whipped egg yolks and whites – but as all their torte recipes on the BBC website include baking powder, I took the same liberty of sidestepping this instruction.

Full recipe below the break, as always.

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Baking challenge: dressed-up gooseberry and almond cream tart

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 three (tart week) of series three: a designer fruit tart.

Gooseberry almond tart

Last week, Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins made some waves with an article he wrote sneering at the idea of learning languages in school as a general, rather than specialist, skill, unimportant compared to learning about history, culture, the economy, and even urban planning. As Jenkins and his editors no doubt planned, the social media backlash (and subsequent linking to his article) was robust: the article was decried as ‘stupid’, ‘foolish’ and ‘narrow-minded’. Proponents of language-learning pointed out that learning languages is inherently linked to learning culture; expands our worldview and horizons; develops the intellect; and is, often, still, even in a world in which English is often spoken globally, a very practical skill.

I work with a lot of academic researchers, and I’d like to be one myself one day, and many, many people I know would not be able to do the research they do without speaking one or more languages. The relative dearth of language skills among British scholars in my own discipline of history is considered pretty crippling by some people I know. But in addition to such lofty considerations, learning a language gives us an everyday understanding of the world that adds so much colour and interest. For example, the etymology of the word ‘gooseberry’: in English, one theory for the name of these tart, hairy green summer fruits is that they were served as a sauce with roast goose, and that this marriage was so commonplace, so ordinary, that the link became embedded in language. This theory becomes ever the more tantalising once you know that in French these berries are called ‘groseille à maquereau’ – mackerel berries – because gooseberries have often been served as a tangy, sharp foil to rich, oily mackerel. (I have tried this before – it is delicious and surprising).

Fresh gooseberries

The gooseberry in English cooking – sweet cooking, anyway – is almost always wedded to its seasonal partner, the fragrant elderflower, most often present in cordial form. There’s no harm in this partnership, but once I knew I wanted to make a gooseberry tart, I quickly decided the berry must have the opportunity of a dalliance with other flavourings. I embarked on extensive, slightly panicky research in which I contemplated various states of creamy, custardy fillings. However, I have a very slight aversion to the rich egginess of many custards, while loving the mouth-filling silkiness and delicate vanilla flavour of creme patissiere. I had more or less settled on the final recipe when I got the brainwave to make an almond creme pat – cue more frantic research until Michel Roux’s unparalleled book ‘Pastry’ showed me the way.

Slice of gooseberry almond tart with cream

The stern injunction when announcing this showstopper challenge in series three was that it had to be the kind a top French patissiere would be proud to sell in his (or her) shop. You’d be hard-pressed, I think, to consider my offering a ‘designer’ fruit tart ‘fit for a top quality patisserie display window’. My creation is more of a paragon of elegant simplicity – even possibly leaning towards rusticity – than, say, a rose-scented tart topped with macarons as baked by eventual series three finalist (but not winner) James Morton. And yet – perhaps because I have been reading Elizabeth David recently, and enjoy her terse, bright prose much more than when I was younger – I can’t help but feel that there is something right and true about this tart, with its crisp, not-too-sweet pastry, substantial filling, and generous portion of fruit. It is unpretentious without actually being humbled for it. It cuts cleanly and showcases the bright sharpness of this seasonal fruit – and is absolutely killer with a substantial mountain of cream. But what isn’t?

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Baking challenge: latticed treacle tart

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 technical challenge for week three (tart week) of series three: a lattice-topped treacle tart.

Lattice topped treacle tart

Treacle tart, a classic British dessert, bears some of the strange hallmarks of traditional British baking and cookery. To start with, like many traditional sweets, its unpromising-looking ingredients list is based on breadcrumbs, joining old-fashioned dishes like brown bread ice cream and Queen of Puddings. It’s safe to say that treacle tart eclipses both, however, in the popularity stakes – while the other two may have a sort of ‘retro favourite’ status, to taste them you’ll probably have to make them, whereas treacle tart is accessible commercially: it appears in almost every museum cafe, doubtless selling for £4.50 a flat slice, but it can also be easily purchased in even the smallest of supermarkets.

Secondly, treacle tart is one of the British linguistic oddities which can seriously throw non-native speakers, inasmuch as the titular ingredient – treacle – makes no appearance in the tart. Perhaps the original tarts were made with this coal-black, iron-tasting sweetener (one of those sugar-based products which inexplicably taste like they’re good for you), but it’s long been superseded by very sweet, light-coloured golden syrup, which gives treacle tart its agreeable sunny colour.

 

Mary Berry's lattice topped treacle tart

Mary Berry’s treacle tart is well-balanced: enough breadcrumbs to soak up the syrup and give the dessert some ballast, but not so many that it’s heavy and dry: the filling has a touch of agreeably sticky fluffiness. There’s enough lemon to balance out the aching sweetness of four hundred grams of golden syrup without turning it into a tarte au citron (avec chapelure). The only annoying thing about the recipe is weaving together the lattice top, for which she offers no real method. There are those, like the studiedly-unpretentious Simon Hopkinson, incidentally, who critique the lattice top as unnecessary, but actually a bit of additional plain, unsweetened pastry is no bad thing as a foil against the intensity of the filling.

A tip: Mary Berry would have you spoon your breadcrumb filling straight from the saucepan into your pastry case, to top immediately with the lattice, but of course the heat of the still-warm syrup made the pastry start to ooze. While it wouldn’t be practical to go to the other extreme and let it cool down completely (the golden syrup would solidify around the breadcrumbs and make it impossible to shift), I recommend letting it cool a little before filling the tart case.

I’ve mentioned a few times the unmitigated sweetness of the tart and, in the interests of further balancing this out, I urge to eat your slice drizzled with a good puddle of unsweetened double cream, or a good thick dollop of the clotted stuff.

The recipe and method (including actual steps on making a lattice top) is below the jump.

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