Baking challenge: raspberry friands, pistachio and rosewater madeleines, and another attempt at macarons

Pistachio and rosewater madeleines

As the longest and hottest summer I have ever known in the Northern Hemisphere stretched through August and into September, then past the first week of October, the chorus of voices wishing away the heat and the long lazy days grew ever-louder. It’s now cold and dreary once again, and dark, so very very dark, at 4pm, where a few short months ago it was light and shimmery past 10 o’clock. The only real upside to cold nights in, frankly, is that it becomes tolerable to bake again, whereas flicking the oven on over the summer was torturous.

People often gravitate towards the rich, heavy, sticky and chocolatey in winter – and why not? – but I think there’s a place for light, refreshing and zesty, too, if only to remind one of summer days past. This trio of petit fours showcases some lovely floral, fruity and sharp flavours that are lovely together, but would work beautifully on their own too.

Trio of petit fours

I decided to make friands (and influence people) because, as usual, I had a large jar of egg whites sitting in the back of the fridge, waiting for their day (I don’t know quite how I manage to acquire so many egg whites, but a recipe which uses up a great quantity is always useful). Coincidentally I picked up a Waitrose recipe card for friands around the same time I was planning my three bakes and have just tweaked the recipe a bit to showcase raspberries – I think the sharpness of raspberries works so well with the richness of butter and ground almonds which are a feature of friands.

I’ve been trying to crack macarons for years, though I have admittedly not applied myself particularly diligently to this task. As usual, the results were pretty inconsistent, although this batch produced better shells than usual and I got a few very pretty, completely perfect macarons out of them for a change. I used this recipe for macarons with honey buttercream, tinting the shells butter yellow with a dab of food colouring paste.

The prettiness of the pistachio rose water madeleines, and the opportunity to use my mini tin, were reason enough to try them out. They were my favourite of the three bakes – the good pinch of salt balanced out the sweetness and mouth-filling floral notes and made them incredibly moreish.

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 nine (patisserie week) of series three: three types of petit fours – twelve of each

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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 challenge: nostalgie des pique-niques

Twisted red pesto loaf

When it came to this challenge, and the making of a celebration loaf, I tried to think properly about what kind of bread I’d make to mark a happy occasion. In winter, I doubtless would have thought of rich enriched breads like chocolatey babka, cherry-studded strudel or marzipanny stollen. But it’s summer, and hot, and I was wondering if there were savoury breads I could celebrate with, and immediately this came to mind.

Shortly after my second year of university, with exams over, I organised a picnic in Regent’s Park. All my friends came, and they brought their friends: we sprawled out on the grass and laid out heaps of food. It was very hot (like now!), and very sunny (like now!), and the grass was very green. It was a golden, joyful afternoon, still one of the happiest ever in my memory. I was not always very carefree at university but I was completely happy that day, laying on the picnic blankets, nibbling at the sausage rolls and clementines and crisps and watching my friends climb trees.

red-pesto-twisted-loaf.jpg

Like with many joyful things, it is an atmosphere I have tried to recapture, but no other picnic has ever been quite as wonderful as that one. Time has generated fissures and fractures between groups of people, which mean you can no longer bring them together (or if you do, you spend a lot more time managing relationships and pouring oil on troubled waters than feeling the grass shoots tickle between your fingers and looking up at the blue, blue sky). More pertinently, the challenge of gathering such a large, happy, uncommitted group together on a bright, hot, sunny day in the middle of London would probably be impossible. We rolled on the grass from noon until early evening that day; now we’d scatter much earlier, all the better to visit parents, or study for professional exams, or simply prepare for the long working week ahead. Between second and third year, I had no such professional timetable to worry about.

The food, that day, is both memorable and completely unimportant: I can remember smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwiches, cheddar and onion crisps – but most of it blends into a happy blur of salt and sweet and juicy citrus. The food did what food should do: it was not the centrepiece, it did not attract attention: it brought people together to eat and talk and run around and eat some more, until the sun went down and the evening grew cool and deep blue.

I do remember what I made for this picnic, which was a Jamie Oliver recipe for something called a rolled bread sandwich – bread dough stuffed with ham and basil and cheese (the recipe also includes hard-boiled eggs but I didn’t include those). I also made a vegetarian version with feta and spinach, i.e. a bread spanakopita, which was much appreciated by the vegetarians present, which in my group of friends is about half.

What I’ve learned from my many attempts to recreate that golden afternoon on the grass is that you can’t go back in time again; you can’t recapture a flavour and a feeling and the ease of pleasurable conviviality simply because you want it. And, similarly, I have opted to not recreate the recipe exactly, but to make a savoury bread which would remind of that day, and yet be something different. This recipe for sundried tomato pesto bread is adapted from one in ‘Het Hartige Bakboek’ [‘The Savoury Baking Book’] by Rutger van den Broek, the first winner of Heel Holland Bakt, the Dutch version of the Great British Bake-Off. I was attracted to this particular recipe because of the use of semolina, which gives the otherwise basic white bread recipe some character and a more robust, chewier texture that stands up well to the nubbly, salty filling.

The swirl looks impressive but is incredibly easy to do. It amazed everyone at the house party to which I brought this loaf, and I felt slightly guilty about the skewed effort-to-amazement ratio.

Recipe 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 showstopper challenge for week seven of series three: a celebratory loaf.

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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: krautstrudel

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 six (pudding week) of series three: a large strudel.

Krautstrudel

Although this blog is packed with sweet recipes, in my day-to-day life I don’t eat a crazy amount of sugary food, in the name of my waistline and my teeth and my pancreas. Sometimes I get a bit wearied from the steady procession of sweet things made in the name of this (actually very fun) challenge over the years: when there’s a savoury option in sight, I will often take it. So it was exciting to find out that there was more to strudel than the apple or cherry versions found in my local Lidl at Christmas (though there’s nothing wrong with those). So although this was nominally made for ‘pudding week’, this cabbage strudel (don’t click away, it’s delicious!) is actually a hearty main course. The tender cabbage is studded with salty shreds of bacon, and both are wrapped in flaky, buttery, crisp strudel pastry, which retains its toothsome, very slightly chewily crispness for several days without descent into sogginess.

The recipe for krautstrudel comes from Luisa Weiss’ encyclopedic, beautiful labour of love Classic German Baking. It’s a gorgeous and fascinating book – meticulous as you’d want a baking book to be, and both informative in a more scholarly way as well as personal. Weiss is an enthusiastic ambassador for German cuisine, particularly the country’s baking heritage. (Weiss herself is, as she notes, half Italian, half American, although she lived in Germany as a child and now again as an adult; I recognise some of the feeling of her delight with her adopted country’s cuisine and culture, as a Belgian living in Britain. The love of a country which both is and isn’t your own is, for me anyway, as strange – and sometimes melancholy – as it is lovely).

Cabbage strudel slice - close up

I did adapt the recipe slightly: I didn’t have caraway seeds in the house when I was making this, and used a good scraping of nutmeg instead. While the bright aniseed flavour of caraway would be utterly delicious, the warming muskiness of nutmeg works very well too. I think it’s a little more wintery than caraway. While a cabbage strudel does sound like winter food – brassicas are very much considered winter vegetables in Britain – Weiss does write that this kind of thing is eaten in Germany in the summer months when the first fresh, tender new cabbages start to emerge from the field. And it makes sense: a European (and British) summer is a fragile, changeable thing, one day hot and muggy, the next cool and blowsy with rain and high winds and shivering under thin blankets at night.

Strudel filling
The strudel filling – such bright cabbage!
Rolling up the strudel filling
Rolling up the filling, using a tea towel to guide it

My top tip when making strudel dough, if making it for the first time, is not to worry too much about any holes or tearing as you go, and definitely do not do what I did and try and scrunch your stretched-out dough back together to re-stretch. The stretching process makes the dough a little more brittle and dry and it will break apart rather than coming back together into a silky dough. I had to make the dough again from scratch (not actually that hard) – it certainly isn’t reusable once stretched. Even if it tears or holes form, once you roll the strudel up, any patchiness is adequately compensated for by the layers you’re forming. But I do highly recommend making the dough yourself rather than using filo, which many recipes recommend as a substitute. Filo pastry is brittle and shatters with every mouthful, and a strong buttery flavour from being (typically) soaked in the fat before baking; strudel dough is also crisp, buttery and rich, but it has a bit of tenderness and is more pliant and chewy than filo.

Recipe below the jump, as ever.

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