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 Advent: tender plum and poppy seed muffins

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

Plum and poppy seed muffins

It was in Morden, on a bitter cold day, hands tinged red with cold even underneath my gloves, that I found a shop selling quince: large, fragrant, knobbled, with firm skin and hard flesh. In both Lewisham and Elephant and Castle, shops like this – selling all manner of interesting food not necessarily found in local supermarkets, serving various communities – were fairly common. Less so in my neck of South West London, and indeed I’d never expected to find quince at the end of the Northern line.

In addition to a large bag full of yellow fruit, I came away laden with a bag of prune plums (also known as Lombard plums), the deep purple of a tired evening, covered with a delicate, icy bloom that mimicked the frost on the ground. Inside their flesh was soft and golden.

Yet how rapidly these plums became my millstone. They quickly ripened, but then I fell ill; by the time I recovered, they were past their best for eating out of hand. I turned to baking. I did end up baking a lot of things, because I had a lot of plums, but the first recipe which intrigued me was Deb Perelman‘s recipe for plum and poppy seed muffins. For one thing, she specifically called for the prune plums I had bought. For another, she used browned butter. And, most importantly, I had every single ingredient necessary to make them in the house already, without having to take a single step outside the house. When you are recovering from a feverish few days, this is important. (And yes, this does mean I have a bag of poppy seeds just hanging out in my cupboards. This is why my cupboards are overflowing).

Plum, hazelnut and poppy seed brown butter muffins

Perelman is probably best known as the author of the Smitten Kitchen blog, which I have read for years and years; I consider her to be, basically, the most successful food blogger in the world. The story of how she devised this recipe has been well-reported, often cited as an example of her perfectionist approach to recipe development. In the end, Perelman was partly inspired by a desire to free poppy seeds from their usual culinary twin, lemon. Poppy seeds have a slight bitterness, she notes, which contrasts well with sweet and juicy plums. Actually, my boyfriend commented on the bitterness of the seeds and said that he would have preferred the muffin without them; you may wish to follow.

For her muffins, Perelman uses sour cream; I had half a tub of sour cream, half a tub of buttermilk, so used a half and half combination of them in order to use them up, and I think it worked perfectly. The buttermilk gave the muffins a very delicate tenderness, almost a fragility – not something usually associated with muffins. Finally, inspired, I topped each muffin with a few hazelnuts, letting them get toasty and browned in the oven, mimicking the sweet nutty flavour of the browned butter in the muffins.

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Baking challenge: sticky, syrupy, sweet – rum baba

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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 one (cake week) of series three: rum baba.

Paul Hollywood’s rum babas are an exercise in indulgence. An enriched, yeasted cake is drenched in acutely sweet syrup, the little cakes being turned and turned again until each crumb is soaked through. The cakelets were topped off with creme Chantilly, cream to which vanilla extract and even more sugar is added, resulting in it being stable and stiff enough to pipe. In truth, the very sweet cream atop the syrup-drenched cake was too much for me, and had I not been following the recipe exactly I would have gone with my instincts and chosen the cool lactic contrast of unsweetened cream. This is what I suggest you do.

070_edThe recipe also suggests serving with ‘red fruit’. Strawberries wouldn’t be quite right, as wonderful as they are; something acidic and tangy is needed. I used sharp-sweet raspberries but red currants would be ideal.

Hollywood’s recipe yields four cakes and is intended to serve four, but the babas are quite hefty in size, and when I served them to friends, we halved them. The incredible sweetness of the syrup also mitigates against eating a whole one, I reckon.

Finally, lacking savarin moulds, and unable to find any of the required size anyway, I used a mini bundt tin, greasing it and dusting carefully with caster sugar, and despite the warnings that these delicate cakes may stick, they turned out beautifully. It gave the cakes an attractive whirled pattern, too. In Dutch bundt tins are referred to as ‘turban shaped’ because the swirls of the cake tin recall the swirls of a wrapped turban.

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You can see the generous amount of syrup pooling at the base as it soaks in

All in all, this recipe was straightforward enough to put together and makes a manageable number of sweet, sticky, buttery treats which can’t easily be found in high street – or even fancy – bakeries in the UK.

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Itsu-inspired salmon and edamame rice bowl and matcha choux puffs

About once a month, a select (ha) group of culinarily adventurous friends and I meet up to cook and eat together. We rotate between each other’s homes and each evening has a theme. It is, in short, a supper club, or dinner party club, except that not every gathering is actually in the evening.

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Sun-dappled, a Middle Eastern feast

Our very first themed dinner was ‘Harvest Festival’ and, as you might expect, it was held in early autumn. Themes which have been particular favourites of mine have included ‘Middle Eastern Afternoon Tea’, particularly memorable because I served up muhammara according to Diana Henry‘s addictively good recipe from Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, and I read up a lot about Anglo-Indian food and heritage for our ‘Indian Summer’ themed lunch – anything which combines food and history is going to be all right by me. (In case the name seems odd, it was an homage to the Channel Four show ‘Indian Summers’, which dramatised the final years of British colonial rule in India.) In January this year I hosted a Burns Night themed evening in which anti-haggis prejudices were overcome by suspicious southerners, and even the vegetarian haggis was well-received. (I love haggis – if you love a big, spicy, crumbly meatball I urge you to try it when the weather cools down). A friend’s boyfriend gamely read Robert Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis’ in a broad Scots dialect, a feat which was all the more impressive considering a) a Scottish amount of alcohol had been consumed and b) it was the first time he’d met us, and standing up in a room full of strangers to read a poem in Scots dialect sounds like the worst kind of trial. (Indeed, as a little girl I ran sobbing out of a room full of people at the Belgian and Luxembourg Association of Singapore‘s annual St Nicholas’ Day party when asked to read a poem in Dutch – i.e. my first language).

More recently we had a Japanese-themed lunch, although it was called ‘Cherry Blossom Festival’, and was a celebration of both the warmer weather as well as the elegant, simple yet satisfying flavours of Japanese cooking. My friend Tina served us miso soup and stickily sweet chicken yakitori in her tiny Covent Garden flat; the windows were thrown open wide to embrace the sun and warmth coming in. I brought a salmon and edamame rice salad which was inspired by one of my absolute favourite bought lunches from Itsu, a chain which specialises in light, healthy Asian takeaway meals: teriyaki salmon on a bed. In addition to salmon (obviously) and rice, this dish includes edamame beans, which you can buy in the frozen section of most supermarkets, usually labelled ‘soya beans’. I much prefer them to the more British broad bean because they do not require a second podding after cooking. The components of fish, rice and bright green beans are easy to bring together. Such is the popularity of Japanese food that the ingredients can be bought at any standard supermarket.

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Salmon rice bowl – we had already tucked in!

It’s 047my friend Juliet, however, who shines in preparing food which is delicate (never quite as twee as ‘dainty’) and beautifully presented. She loves Asian food and predictably stole the show with some beautiful matcha cream puffs. The matcha creme diplomat used to fill them was rich, but the addition of whipped cream made it one of those dangerous foodstuffs whose saturated fat content is belied by the absolute lightness on the tongue. The floral taste of the creme diplomat was a perfect match(a) for the delicate texture of the puffs. Juliet also had some extra matcha creme diplomat with her and I can attest that, in addition to cream puffs, it is utterly divine piped or spooned into raspberries cavities or squiggled onto frozen yoghurt.

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In addition to the crisp little choux buns, there’s extra textural interest provided by a layer of craquelin, which gives the tops of the buns a pleasing giraffe-like pattern. Craquelin is effectively a pressed Francophone crumble topping – a disc of flour, butter, and brown sugar – which somehow makes the whole thing sound a lot less like you need a Cordon Bleu qualification and more like something that can be achieved at home.

 

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Baking challenge: upside down world – chocolate and walnut banana upside-down cake

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 one (cake week) of series three: upside-down cake.

To many people, now, not least myself, I think the world has become a strange upside-down place. A lot of certainties we have relied on have been upended: everything from the inevitability of capitalism as the best system to secure rewards for all; the progression towards a more tolerant society; the place of Europe in the world; the inexorable rise of property prices; and the fact that each generation is healthier and wealthier than the previous, have been thrown into doubt. Some of these disruptions have of course bubbled under the surface for decades, unnoticed or perhaps ignored out of expediency, but it is destabilising to have so many social, political and environmental schisms exposed all at once.

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As much as we may resist an upside-down world, in the culinary realm, the cooking together of fruit and sugar to form the base of a cake, over which batter is poured and baked, produces a much more agreeable effect. The resulting cake is then flipped over to present the fruit at the top. The most classic of all the upside-down cakes is, I think the pineapple upside-down cake: rings of tinned pineapple cooked in a pale and insipid caramel and decorated with artificially dyed, lurid maraschino cherries. Just looking at it is enough to make me feel delicate: I grew up eating home-grown pineapples picked out of our back garden (they tended to be tiny and ferociously spined), and all tinned and artificial food was non grata. The pineapple upside-down cake in its classic form represents all the food my yoga teacher mother tried to keep me away from as a child, albeit with limited success. Still, some lessons have stuck, and while I am happy to eat tinned tomatoes and beans, I have not yet come around to either sweetcorn or pineapple out of a can (to be clear, we did not grow corn in the garden).

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So when it came to making my own upside-down cake I knew I would go for a different fruit. I ended up making this cake for my dear friend Juliet’s birthday, and this inspired me as to the final flavour combination. Juliet makes a delectable bread and butter pudding with bananas, walnuts and chocolate chips; it’s a buttery, bronzey, gooey-in-the-middle, crisp-and-crunchy-with-sugar-round-the-top, studded-with-chocolate kind of thing, so delicious that Juliet appeared with it in the BBC’s The One Show. So the upside-down cake I made for her was basically her bread and butter pudding in cake form: bananas cooked in caramel, and a banana cake base through which chocolate and walnuts had been swirled. The resulting cake was absolutely enormous, and carting it from SW to Central London for our brunch at Dirty Bones was pretty hairy; in fact the top did crack a little, which I don’t think would have happened had it remained stationary. But the staff at Dirty Bones were really kind and took the cake off my hands almost as soon as I arrived, and returned it at the end of our absolutely filthily, gorgeously, stupidly indulgent meal of deep fried chicken atop waffles (absolutely not something I ever thought I’d eat but UTTERLY DELICIOUS OMG), all ablaze with the candles I’d brought. Although it was a very good cake, and really reflected the flavours of Juliet’s amazing bread and butter pudding, the three of us at brunch could barely manage a tiny slice each. The moral of the story is don’t try to each cake after eating chicken and waffles; the physics of it just doesn’t work. (I did offer it to the kind Dirty Bones waiting staff, though most of them declined. Possibly they had just eaten the waffles too).

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After brunching on eggs, chicken, waffles and a shot glass of syrup, I think moderation when it came to the cake was to be expected

Now, classically an upside-down cake is made by cooking up a caramel and adding the fruit to cook in an overproof pan, over which the cake batter is poured, and the whole thing is popped in the oven. For this recipe, however, the bananas are cooked in a pan (I used my trusty cast iron skillet) and then transferred to a springform pan. While I appreciate that bananas might be a fruit which is a little difficult to extract, this transferring method did result in a lot of the caramel oozing out, which was a shame. The caramel is made with maple syrup so it also wasn’t a particularly cheap waste. If making this again I would be tempted to try it out as an all-in-one-pan method.

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You will need a mix of firmer, just-ripe and soft, very ripe bananas for this recipe; the former for the caramelised topping, the latter for the cake itself.

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Baking challenge: a platter of treats, perfect for Wimbledon and a British summer

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 eight (the final) of series two: petit fours.

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You would be forgiven for not having even noticed that the Wimbledon Championships had started, what with everything else hogging the headlines at the moment. In any other year, Djokovic crashing out in the third round would be the upset of the summer and Andy Murray would probably have had a nervous breakdown from the pressure, given that this is possibly the first Championship game he’s gone into as a favourite. The scrutiny, however, is off him this year. He could probably play his next match naked and it would barely get a mention.

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Around a year ago I made a strawberry meringue pie for a Mens’ Final viewing party; this year, I’m suggesting a very British platterful of petit fours to see out the final matches. I made the petit fours as part of my very, painfully slow progress through my Great British Bake-Off challenge. The brief for the finale of series two was to make petit fours – meringue, pastry, and cake – twelve of each, with the theme of the Great British Summer. Only I kind of messed up because I didn’t check my notes and thought one of the petit fours was biscuits, rather than pastry, but frankly I was so pleased with the outcome that I’m not going to quibble.

083The British summer usually means three things: rain, blustery wind, and the bitter taste of disappointment in your mouth as you huddle in the sweaters you haven’t yet packed away for another year. Or! It can mean watching the Wimbledon Finals, drinking Pimms and eating strawberries, strolling down to the park and lying on the grass, visiting gaudy seaside towns and the ubiquitous 99 Flake ice cream. Those days are, in their rarity, all the more precious.

For the biscuit petit fours, I was inspired to make mini 99 Flakes, those soft-serve ice creams crowned with a Cadbury’s Flake chocolate bar. For the cone I used a pliable tuile recipe, draping them around pastry cone mounds when just baked and holding them in place until they hardened in a cone shape. This is work for those with robust hands. I find tuiles a somewhat difficult biscuit to master: I have never managed to make them truly thin and shatteringly crisp, and they tend to brown a little too quickly in my somewhat unreliable oven (everything goes a bit too dark around the edges in there). Still, once they were shaped and cream piped in through a star nozzle, and decorated with a sliver of chocolate to resemble the Flake, they tasted just great: buttery, tender-crisp biscuit, soft pillowy cream, bite of dark and bitter chocolate.

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Unbaked meringues

Strawberry and cream, cream and meringue: so classic as to be unoriginal, perhaps even dull, but there’s nothing half-hearted about people’s response this combination. I piped out nests of meringue and filled them with dollops of cream and slices of strawberry in the shape of butterfly’s wings; to give them that something extra, and emphasise their Britishness (or perhaps simply Englishness?), I filled the centres with a wibbly, electric jelly of Pimms and lemonade. I actually used the special strawberry and mint Pimms rather than the classic version. By adding the jelly, the meringue and cream also hearkened to the classic British child’s birthday party favourite of jelly with ice cream. (Fun fact: I was not allowed to eat jelly as a child and now, as an adult, don’t enjoy it very much, and certainly what enjoyment I have pales in comparison to that of my British friends, for whom jelly and cream is the taste of childhood).

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Raw ingredients for Pimms jelly

But my absolute favourite part of the petit four platter was the cake – in the conception, the baking, and the eating thereof. I very much wanted to use my cake pop pan – partly to justify the fact that I even own such a thing – and immediately two things came to mind: one was Wimbledon and tennis balls, the other the classic British summer flavour of tangy rhubarb combined with soft, cool, vanilla-flecked custard. To capture both, I baked a custard-flavoured sponge in the cake pop tin, released the perfect little spheres, let them cool, and then doused them in a white chocolate ganache flavoured with rhubarb extract. I had dribbled a mixture of yellow and green food colouring into the ganache to capture the yellow of the tennis balls – you will need quite a bit to identifiably colour the ganache and it didn’t really come together for me until I added the green food colouring, drop by careful drop, swirling through carefully each time. I drew in the white seams with a white chocolate icing pen, bought commercially, which was about ten thousand times easier than trying to melt white chocolate and make a little paper icing cone. With the icing pen, I had a lot of control over the end product. I mean, I know the icing lines are squiggly, but it would have been so much worse with a DYI product.

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Finally, to capture the look of the grass surface which tennis at Wimbledon is played on, I doused a handful of dessicated coconut in green food colouring until it was as green as the lawn and rested the tennis ball cakes on a bed of this.

I will not lie: this platter was quite time-consuming to make and is the kind of thing you might only do if you are hosting a Wimbledon-themed party, but the end results elicited gasps of admiration from my friends and, most importantly, all were delicious as well as super cute.

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Baking challenge: Sachertorte is painless

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 eight (the final) of series two: sachertorte.

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I bake quite rarely these days. I still enjoy it, but diet plans, the intense busy-ness of new horizons (they take a lot of work…), holidays and the quiet but now, I think, definitive, shrivelling to death of my book club, where I brought the odd treat, having peopled my baking schedule with significant pauses. At the same time, though, I’m rediscovering a new enjoyment for cooking, inspired by A Girl and Her Greens (it’s the perfect book to get stuck into in the spring and summer, when harvests become bountiful), Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (an inspiration to eating locally and living as lightly as possible, even if the UK’s food supply system is markedly less toxic than that of the US), and vegetable delivery boxes, so it doesn’t feel so much like a loss as a shift away from a certain kind of eating.

For quite a long time, well past the time I knew the Sachertorte’s origin story in an Austrian hotel backwards, I mentally pronounced this classic chocolate cake’s name in the French style: Zache-tohrte. In fact, it’s closer to Zacker-torte, as I discovered when a friend casually mentioned this Viennesse dessert as a particular favourite.

Vienniese patisserie is so renowned for its beauty and intricacy, the heart of a coffeehouse culture that’s taken extremely seriously, that I’d always thought of a sachertorte as a very complex cake. Without casting my eyes over any recipes (oh, not I!), I had somehow gotten it into my head that sachertorte was a complicated, multi-layer fiddle, involving the slicing of sponges and requiring significant technical expertise to produce the glassy, shiny chocolate icing that tops the cake. The night before one of the last book club meetings held (an extremely well-attended meeting, ironically!), I was feeling mutinous at the prospect.

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Well, some recipes doubtless are very complicated, but luckily, Mary Berry’s was not one of them. A single layer of fine-grained sponge of ground almonds and flour is brushed with warmed apricot glaze, after which nothing more complicated than a classic ganache is pooled over it, resulting in a singularly sticky, smooth confection with a hint of welcome sharpness from the apricot jam, which cuts through the richness of the glaze. The cake itself requires nothing more complicated than the separate beating of egg yolks and whites, not too much of a hardship with even the cheapest of electric whisks.

Piping out words with icing was equally something I imagined to be enormously and undelightfully tricky. I think I mention this every time I refer to baking but lord, do I abhor a fiddle. However, with a small enough piping bag and confidence, it was surprisingly easy to spell out the traditional ‘Sacher’ atop the cake. The key is to take a deep breath and just let go, writing smoothly and without hesitation; it’s the pauses that will cause the writing to go funny and jerky. My attempt was a little off-centre but the cursive script was, if anything, more readable than my ordinary handwriting.

Simple, delicious, and lovely to look at, this is a cake worth breaking a diet plan for with a sliver or two. Its deep, rich flavour is very satisfying.

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Video: April 2016 Food Favourites

It’s Sunday the 15th of May today, so pretty much bang on halfway into the month, but I have put together another video of my favourite food and cooking items from the month of April (see my first video of March favourites here). I talk about things to read, a fabulous recipe for a wonderful white loaf, my new breakfast obsession (handy hint: it’s skyr) and a lifechanging cooking implement (hint: I’m holding it in the thumbnail). I hope you enjoy it!

Friday Food Things, Part III: of magazines, portion sizes, and tahini cookies

Good Food magazine

075This month, Good Food magazine launches its new look, and the May issue’s dazzling front cover showcases beautiful eclairs dressed in spring-bright shades of icing. There’s also a 16-page Nigella collection (though I doubt it will be anything new for me as I actually already own all of her cookbooks). As a further bonus, if you buy the magazine from Sainsbury’s, you will receive a Lakeland duo-colour icing kit, which will enable you to pipe two different colours at once and comes with 6 nozzles, 8 disposable icing pages amd a coupling set. This is an extra exclusive to Sainsbury’s so it’s worth holding out on your purchase to get it from there.

 

Portion control

This postcard from the Imperial War Museum is affixed to my kitchen cupboards
This postcard from the Imperial War Museum is affixed to my kitchen cupboards

When I decided to reassess my diet and work towards losing the weight I’d progressively gained over the course of work and, especially, my part-time MA, the first thing I took in hand was portion sizes. For the first time in my life, really, I started paying attention to the portions of a recipe and limiting myself to a single share; no longer would I consume half a recipe of something which said ‘serves four’. At first it was difficult and I was very hungry, but it’s become much easier. I feel like I now have a much more intuitive grasp of how much I should be eating of any given food. These – I hesitate to call them insights, but I suppose they are – meant I read this Guardian article on portions with interest. The article is written by Bee Wilson, who is a fabulous writer, and thanks to my avid and greedy reading of her books, a lot of the information wasn’t new to me, but I still enjoyed it and it’s a very useful summary of what has happened to portion sizes in the last 50 years (they’ve gotten bigger). Jay Rayner, Gizzi Erskine and Tamal Ray’s contributions on how they approach portion control were engaging, too; of the three I’m most sympathetic to Gizzi’s approach but none of the three experiences overlaps exactly with how I approach food.

Cleaving

078I’ve been reading Julie Powell’s Cleaving. I remember when Julie Powell was a huge deal in the food blogging community, though I was never an avid reader of her Julie and Julia blog back in the day (I was a Chocolate and Zucchini girl). I did read Julie and Julia when it came out and found it riveting; she’s a compelling writer and I missed Tube stops reading this (which resulted in missing a train to my station and having to trek back in the dark). Cleaving was not such a success, partly I think because it’s about adultery, which I am, I realised, not really comfortable with, but more importantly, I think the central conceit of the book – that butchery, adultery and the ties of love and obsession are interconnected – does not work. I could have bought the elaborate metaphor in a work of fiction, where suspension of disbelief in these things is essential, but not in autobiography. It stretched my credulity to imagine that, as Powell sliced pork or beef, that the elaborate thoughts and memories of her marriage and obsession with her lover came as perfectly to mind as she portrays.

Salted tahini chocolate chunk cookies, via My Name is Yeh

050I have baked two batches of the salted tahini chocolate chunk cookies I found via Molly Yeh’s beautiful and considered blog; to my surprise my boyfriend adored them too. I thought that perhaps the tahini would put him off, because he doesn’t tend to like nut butters, but he is as obsessed with them as I am. They are utterly delicious: crumbly, salty, absolutely packed with chocolate.

My observations: the recipe states that you must not skip the step of resting the cookie dough overnight in the freezer. The first time I made these, I chilled the dough for about half an hour. The cookies baked up crisp, crumbly and short, which is how I like them actually. For the second batch, I rested the dough overnight in the fridge and only then scooped the dough out onto the baking tray to bake. My fridge is tiny and I don’t have a freezer, so this is how it has to be. The rested batch is indeed softer, slightly doughier and cakier, though not in an undercooked way. My boyfriend prefers them this texture; I like them crunchier, as per the first time, without resting.

The recipe has salted in the title but I thought 1 teaspoon of Maldon salt flakes a little too much. Three-quarters of a teaspoon, as per the second batch, is much better. The recipe also supposedly makes 12 but I find this inconceivable, since I made at least 18 large cookies using a pretty sizeable cookie scoop. If making 12 I can only imagine they would be unreasonably large.

Finally, cup measurements are annoying. If you want to make them the metric measurements (I weighed as I went) are as follows (I haven’t included the full list of ingredients, just the ones that benefit from being weighed out rather than measured in cups):

  • 113g butter
  • 140g tahini
  • 120g sugar (I did reduce this from the original recipe, which calls for a whole cup; I measured out three quarters of a cup because I thought the ratio of one cup sugar to just over a cup of flour to be excessive)
  • 190g flour
  • 260g dark chocolate chunks (I didn’t use the Valrhona feves; I just used Sainsbury’s dark chocolate, cut up into squares to retain the spirit of very large chunks of molten chocolate striated through the dough)