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: 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: a thousand splendid macarons (or 60, at least)

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 four (biscuits week) of series two: make three flavours of macarons, twenty sandwiched macarons per flavour, for a total of sixty pairs (i.e. 40 shells per flavour, a total of 120 shells).

Macarons. My bete noire.

There was a veritable fashion, some years ago, for food bloggers to write about conquering the mighty mountain of macaron baking. The challenges were epic, the trials and misfortunes of misshapen batches amply documented and the subsequent triumphalist posts, full of tips and tweaks on how to make perfect macarons, were long and technical.

That time – of refined and elegant biscuit, of brutal perfectionism – is now past. Blogging and foodie tastes now run to the simple, the artisanal, the rustic, the thrown together. No less delicious than the delicate refinements of the macaron but also no less stylised and no less of a statement. What it says about the world as it is could be anyone’s guess – does the hankering for the handmade, rough and ready baked goods signify a desire for security and a rejection of the trappings of materialism at a time of global austerity signified by the ornately fussed and primped-over patisserie tray?

Macarons: caramel popcorn, Earl Grey salted caramel, and chocolate and peanut butter
Macarons: caramel popcorn, Earl Grey salted caramel, and chocolate and peanut butter

I’m no social anthropologist. All I know is that I am relatively relaxed about macarons, for the simple reason that I find them very difficult to make. If they bake all the way through and don’t stick stubbornly to the baking sheet, I’m pretty satisfied. My macarons may resemble cottage cheese to some – lumpy and bumpy – but I’m happy to have something more than a scrap of crisp shell and a handful of (almond) dust beneath, to be honest.

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Baking challenge: it was a (brandy) snap

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 (biscuits week) of series two: brandy snaps.

So I completed the technical challenge a while ago. What’s a while, you may ask. Well, I made these on Christmas Eve, while watching Skyfall with my boyfriend. Skyfall was amazing, if – as someone living in London – somewhat chilling, especially the chase scenes in the Underground. And yes, I have checked, and it would have been possible for James Bond to make the jump onto the back of that Tube train. If, you know, monumentally risky. Don’t try this at home.

Mary Berry's brandy snaps
Chunkily crocheted brandy snaps

Anyway, baking and rapidly revising one’s estimation of the Bond genre simulataneously is quite the juggle! And these brandy snaps were by no means perfect. The idea was to have twelve perfectly evenly-sized, lacy, delicate biscuits, shaped into loops, around a fatty, contrasting cream filling. Instead, I think my initial dropping mixture was too thick and they were all different sizes and very thick; the fine honeycomb lacing was more like chunky crochet. However, considering my dislike of fiddle and faff – something I am having to rapidly overcome with this baking challenge – I don’t think it was a terrible first effort. Doubtless Mary and Paul would have disagreed and sent me to the bottom of the row. I also think they were a little too dark – but actually I liked that darkness, the depth of caramelly flavour the extra baking time imparted. I can’t say I wouldn’t do it again.

Shaping the brandy snaps - easier than it seems
Shaping the brandy snaps – easier than it seems

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