Baking challenge: Miss American (Pecan Malt) Pie

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 five (pie week) of series three: an American pie.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds pecan pie

There are many types of people in the world, and many ways of sorting through them. One of them is what I think of as ‘the bruschetta test’. Bruschetta is an Italian word, and, in Italian, the ‘ch’ is pronounced as a hard ‘k’ sound: brus-ketta. There are people who know this, and people who don’t; and people who are very relaxed about how to say it and people who deliberately pronounce it, with much pleasure, in the most authentic way possible.

Which is all well and good, if you’re speaking Italian, but if you’re saying ‘pass the bruschetta’ at a dinner party in the English-speaking world, I…do not think it matters at all if you pronounce it ‘broosh-etta’. It’s inevitable that when a word is borrowed from another language that its pronunciation is massaged a little to fit more readily into the borrowing language’s flow and rhythm. I actually find that pronouncing ‘bruschetta’ in the Italian style sounds a little jarring in English. Maybe this relaxedness about ‘mispronunciation’ comes from me being a native Dutch speaker: if there’s one language a native English speaker mangles to distraction, it’s Dutch, with its plethora of guttural, back-of-the-throat sounds, its rolled Rs, and the spattering of French-style inflections.

Chocolate pecan pie

I was thinking about this because there’s a super-snarky comment on the Wikipedia page relating to this episode of GBBO which notes that ‘During the broadcast, Ryan’s pie was identified as a key lime pie. However, it was made with ordinary limes rather than key limes, and thus was not a key lime pie. Moreover, the pies described as American-style were actually tarts. American pies are baked in a smooth, slant sides pie pan, not the fluted tart pans that were used.’

This really is taking pedantry to the next level – in the UK, at least, ‘key lime pie’ now just refers to a particular style of pie: I doubt most people would even know that ‘key’ refers to a particular type of lime grown in the Florida Keys – and even if we do know, getting hold of them is very difficult. It did make me smile, not to mention shake my head, because Brits have had, after all, to accept that they’ve lost the battle on how to pronounce Worcestershire.

The pie I chose to make was a recipe from Brooklyn-based pie shop Four and Twenty Blackbirds: a malted chocolate pecan pie. I love a traditional pecan pie, with its translucent, almost gelatinous filling of brown sugar custard holding cupfuls of pecan pieces, but the Four and Twenty Blackbirds version has depth and gravitas, anchored by the addition of deep dark chocolate and the sticky, comforting flavour of malt.

Chocolate malt pecan pie

It was a wonderful pie, but I would add that you do need to follow their (meticulous!) instructions on chilling the pie crust. I don’t have a freezer, and my fridge was broken and consequently not very cold when I made this; as a result the pastry started melting before it set in the oven and I had to perform some hasty surgery. Nonetheless, it was absolutely delicious: sticky, chocolatey and much less sweet than a typical pecan pie.

You will need to buy malt extract for this recipe, which I bought ages ago at Holland and Barrett, but I see it a lot in almost all health food shops.

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Baking Advent: zeitgeist cookies

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

Banana, oat and chocolate no-sugar-added cookies
Banana, oat and chocolate cookies

Well before the current fad for food characterised mostly by what it isn’t – gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, vegan, plant-based and so on – Heidi Swanson, author of the blog 101 Cookbooks (and four cookbooks of her own) published a recipe for Nikki’s Healthy Cookies. Based on a mixture of oats, ground almonds and coconut, and free from added sugar, these cookies had been developed by her high school friend Nikki as a treat she would be happy to give to her children who, Swanson notes, had been largely nourished on whole foods. The recipe is from 2008, but the philosophy of these cookies couldn’t be more au courant – again suggesting, perhaps, that it is the progressive, trend-seeking and setting enclaves of New York, California and the Bay Area that dictate food trends in Europe, albeit sometimes years later.

Bite-sized banana, oat and chocolate cookie

I’ve adapted the recipe below – primarily by substituting the desiccated coconut called for, as I didn’t have any in the house and didn’t feel inclined to buying a packet of something that would then sit, unused and dusty, in the cupboards for an age – and, with my tweaks and metric measurements, and reflecting on how very of-the-moment this recipe is, I’ve renamed my version ‘Zeitgeist cookies‘.

These cookies aren’t just for appropriate those voluntarily choosing exclusionary diets: I made them to bring to a gathering of friends, one of whom has been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. For her, the lack of high-GI flour and inclusion of wholegrain, lower-GI rolled jumbo oats and almonds (which do not affect blood sugar) and lack of added sugar made these a treat she could enjoy more easily than baked goods based on refined ingredients. She also said that the inclusion of dark chocolate was (relatively speaking) fine for her as dark chocolate has less sugar than other kinds, and the fat means the sugar is released more slowly into the bloodstream.

Big chunks of chocolate play off a moist, craggy interior
Big chunks of chocolate play off a moist, craggy interior

These are not thin, crunchy, crisp cookies: the banana makes them moist and soft all the way through, although they hold their shape well and are not particularly cakey in texture. The taste of the banana carries well and plays off nicely against the chocolate. Given that the original recipe was developed by a whole-foods-orientated mother, I’m not sure to what extent children would like these. The texture is nubbly, maybe even slightly chewy, from the oats, and they’re studded with dark, rich chocolate which adds a faint hint of bitterness. While these tastes and textures would be welcomed by adults, I do doubt somehow that children would really fall on these – particularly if they’re used to more conventional treats. My friends and I considered this as we nibbled and concluded that using milk chocolate instead of dark would make them more child-friendly (and still probably lower in sugar than most cookies).

Healthy chocolate and banana cookie

Recipe below the jump.

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Baking challenge: hidden design rainbow zebra cake

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

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Eat the rainbow

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week one (cake week) of series three: a hidden design cake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slice of rainbow zebra cake

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

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

Black, blue, pink and green food colouring

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

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Baking Advent: crispy truffle cookies

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

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Crisp-edged, with a dense, intensely chocolatey centre and, the icing sugar they’re rolled in before baking adding a dose of sweetness as well as a crackling top in a contrasting colour, there is much to recommend about these biscuits.

I first found this recipe on a blog many, many years ago. Although I couldn’t find the recipe there, it may have been from Jennifer Hamilton’s Domestic Goddess blog, and she stopped posting in 2012 (it appears to have originated in a Williams Sonoma baking book, but Williams Sonoma is not a Thing in the UK so I’ve never seen the books). I thought the recipe was lost forever, but found a version I’d printed off in a ring binder, to my great relief.

Unbaked crispy truffle cookies

I was going through a phase then of printing off a lot of the recipes I used and saving them. It was a somewhat sad time for me: I had just returned to university after a year off between my first and second years and was feeling very rootless during that period of readjustment. Leaving home for university is often dislocating anyway, and I had travelled very far to go to my dream subject at my dream university in London. Of course things were exciting, and I’m still so close to the friends I made there, but once the initial excitement wore off and life caught up (as it does for so many students between the first year – all structured halls of residence and navigating essay deadlines in the knowledge that the first year rarely counts towards your final degree, and second year, where the marks start to count and you become responsible for your own housing and bills and sometimes even food, if you were living in catered halls before), I felt a little unfettered, and not necessarily in a good way. The recipes in a ring binder were, for me, an attempt to create a kind of anchoring domesticity, trying to capture and codify the things that will mean home – different ways of roasting chicken, a frequently-used recipe of jhal faraizi which used leftover beef, and crispy truffle cookies, captured and bound. Now, I cook quite differently to those days and reading through the binder is a reminder of what we ate, and when and where we ate it. The jhal faraizi, cumin seeds sizzling in our kitchen in Lewisham, trying to avoid breathing in the green chilli fumes, pressing the potatoes flat; salmon fishcakes in our flat in Bloomsbury, peas escaping through the gaps in the electric coils on the stove; the truffle cookies which my boyfriend couldn’t stop eating as they came off the baking sheet.

Dark chocolate crispy truffle cookies

But even if you don’t share this nostalgia, the cookies speak for themselves. There are a lot of recipes out there for ‘crackle cookies’, and many of them seem to use vegetable oil. I have no real beef with vegetable oil – I use it in my cooking and baking from time to time – but I think the rich butteriness is part of these cookies’ charm and simple perfection. They are quite intensely sweet and rich – perfect for sharing, although I will admit I hardly shared this batch at all. I’m sure you could easily dial back the sugar if wished.

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Baking challenge: 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: 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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A new thing: my first food video!

I recently made a video where I talk about the food and food-related things I’ve been enjoying recently  – restaurants I’ve been to, dishes, and particular food products. It’s a new departure for me since I’ve always been very focused just on writing, but it was a lot of fun to make – although the editing process was admittedly a slog! Anyway, if you like discovering new food things it would be lovely if you’d take a look; I hope to make them a more regular thing as and when I have the time. I anticipate it will be a new and fun way to get to know the food community!