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!


Baking challenge: chocolate hazelnut mousse cake. Oh yes

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 seven (patisserie week) of series two: a layered mousse cake.

Chocolate hazelnut mousse cake with hazelnut crunch base
Chocolate hazelnut mousse cake with hazelnut crunch base

Think a crisp, rice-cereal-marshmallow-and-hazenut base, bound together with melted chocolate. Think a silken, rich yet feather-light mousse that melts in the mouth like snow, leaving behind the impression of chocolate and hazelnut. Think a soft, buttery cake which adds another layer of contrast to the delicate mousse and robust, crunchy base. That is this cake and it is absolutely stunning, and completely worth it.

Lest you think the above is sheer hyperbolic food porn, I assure you that everyone I served this to thought it was utterly divine. It’s a special cake, rather than an everyday, cut-and-come-again cake, that would be perfectly well-suited to being served as a dessert at the end of a lovely dinner party (perhaps served with some of the Frangelico that lends it its hazelnutty, smoky flavour).

Slice of chocolate and hazelnut mousse cake, in layers
Slice of chocolate and hazelnut mousse cake, in layers

The baking ladies of series two of GBBO (who were tasked to make mousse cakes) almost all used gelatine in their mousse, but this one relies on just the cream for aeration and lift. This is of course what gives the mousse its delicate, melting quality, but also means that it isn’t as structurally strong as one reinforced with gelatine, hence lengthy chilling is essential. The mousse is prone to melting, as well, because of the soft texture and structure, so chill it between serving.

It's just absolutely got to be done!
It’s just absolutely got to be done!

The recipe I used is adapted from a Bon Appetit recipe which I found on Epicurious. Apart from a few additions and adaptations based on the reviews (for example I added marshmallows to the base because a lot of the reviews said the base was too hard) and adapting it for ingredients easily found in the UK, I have also tried to streamline some steps as it was quite a fussy and fiddly recipe, which required odd things such as baking the cake in a particular-sized tin and then trimming it to fit another size of tin. Just say no. I didn’t do it and I didn’t need to.

For the hazelnut flavour, this mousse cake relies on a good dose of Frangelico – hazelnut liqueur – in addition to the use of hazelnuts in the base. You can occasionally find hazelnut liqueur which is not Frangelico, but it’s not easy and the price is around the same. It’s definitely quite a niche product and I know how wearying it can be to be guided towards an ingredient which is expensive, sometimes difficult to find, and not very versatile. In my defence, though, this cake is really delicious and very special. If you want to try it but are desperate not to buy in the Frangelico, dark rum could work.

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Baking challenge: on a profiterole – crackpot croquembouche

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 six (dessert week) of series two: croquembouche.

A profiterole tower is for life, not just for Pinterest
A profiterole tower is for life, not just for Pinterest

Is there anything more gloriously, resplendently French than a croquembouche? Delicate, perfectly crisp profiterole shells encasing soft cream, with a crisp and shattering glaze of caramel holding them all together, piled high, served at weddings and other celebratory communal events, a creation from the dazzling and spectacular mind of Marie-Antoine Careme. And the showstopper challenge of dessert week.

There is a reason croquembouche was selected as the showstopper challenge: it is not a simple task and I admit I was not, strictly speaking, worthy of it. I didn’t really make a croquembouche, more a piled-up tower of profiteroles stacked up into a peak. As it was I found the experience of building exceptionally stressful and can’t imagine how I would have felt had I opted for a proper croquembouche experience.

I also eschewed making a full-on croquembouche, with the little profiteroles stuck to a cone mould, delicately removed at the end of the assembly-job, on cost grounds. A proper metal croquembouche mould is expensive and would have been a pointless piece of kitchen kit to own, even by my admittedly relaxed standards on what exactly constitutes ‘pointless’. A lot of recipes on the internet suggested using, instead, a foil-wrapped polystyrene cone, which sounds like an excellent solution, but I had a window of free time and didn’t want to wait for something ordered online to arrive, and just couldn’t face traipsing to art shops around London to find one (I did have a quick peek in a local art shop). I recalled that Holly Bell, one of the series two finalists, had actually piled her profiteroles up and just decided to do that. However, because of this decision, my profiterole tower can hardly claim to have reached the lofty heights of a true croquembouche. On the other hand, I would have run out of both profiteroles and stomach capacity had I opted for one of traditional height.

Although as I’ve said above the croquembouche is a quintessentially French dessert, I added a Belgian twist by making a speculoos paste filling, using a recipe from a book I picked up on impulse a few trips ago. Juliette’s Speculoos is all about speculoos, those ubiquitous spiced Belgian biscuits, and the flavours are translated into a variety of different desserts, such as tiramisu. Regrettably the instructions aren’t as clear as they could be (even in the original Dutch book which I have) and I definitely overcooked the paste, making it a little harder, drier and more candy-like than I would have wished. So I’d say definitely go slow when making this and don’t let the mixture boil. Instead of using caramel to bind – as speculoos already has a caramelised flavour – I used a chocolate ganache, made with a little less cream than usual to ensure it was firm. When using chocolate for binding, I would recommend letting it cool carefully between layers and ensuring the croquembouche is kept in a cool place, because if the chocolate melts everything will slide around.

Contestant Mary-Anne Boermans’ croquembouche was balanced on a praline base; to tie the flavours together I made a chocolate shortbread base to balance the profiterole tower on. I will say that shortbread probably isn’t the ideal choice because the texture is very tender and breakable, but it is a very good recipe.

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Baking challenge: return on a roulade

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 six (dessert week) of series two: Mary Berry’s chocolate roulade

Roulade slice
Roulade slice

Well, another round. I admit to having lost a bit of my baking and blogging mojo for a while. Not because I don’t still love baking – every time I do it I am reminded of how much I really do love it; and not because I don’t love the writing, because again when I get down to it it’s exciting and stimulating and time just flies by. And not even because of being in the fourth month of my diet, even though sweets and 1200-calories-a-day really don’t go at all (I have to spend a lot of time at the gym to earn myself some cake, but the results have absolutely been worth it!). No, it’s been something much more prosaic: simply not having much time between work and social commitments. Once upon a time, I did a part-time MA (well, I only graduated in April!) and I can’t imagine how I did that, in retrospect. No wonder I was always ‘very tense’, as my boyfriend delicately put it (he meant prone to lashing out in angry, tearful snaps in lieu of words).

Whenever I look at other blogs I see beautifully styled and well-lit photographs that glow from within. I tend to take my photographs in artificial light (because most of my cooking and baking is done when I get home from work) seconds before I start digging in. So I hope I can describe how really lovely, and simple, this roulade is, even if my photos may not do it full justice.

The making of the roulade
The making of the roulade

First of all, this Mary Berry is utterly unfancy, and, compared to many rich, exotically-flavoured cakes which are absolutely packed with nuts and fruit and alcohol and what have you, actually quite plain. Its appeal is based on the almost universally loved contrast between bitter chocolate and soft, fluffy white cream, which cuts the bitter edge despite not being sweetened. I found the sponge had a tendency towards dryness – you will need to watch it like a hawk to ensure it doesn’t overcook because, with a sponge this thin, it can easily happen. But even if you do it’s quite frankly not so much of an issue because the cream will provide the requisite moisture. There is something quite old-fashioned about it, even though the generous quantity of eggs, sugar, chocolate and cream mean it would have been quite a luxury in days gone by.

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Baking challenge: deep and dark and velvet – chocolate cheesecake

Denser than a black hole...but probably smoother
Denser than a black hole…but probably smoother

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 six (dessert week) of series two: a baked cheesecake.

I’m not a cheesecake lover, especially not the ice-cold, slightly crumbly wodges of dense cream cheese served up by chain cafes around the world. And yet cheesecake is, simultaneously, very dear to me, because, since childhood, my father would always order me a slice of cheesecake, or Black Forest cake, when we were in a cafe together. It became so routine that, despite not particularly liking either bake (chain cafe Black Forest cake being typically sandy, somewhat dry, punctuated by a gloopy layer of tinned cherries of cheap cherry jam), I would ask for either whenever I was with him. Even a few years ago, when we were at the British Library cafe, I asked if he wanted cheesecake. “You’ve always really liked cheesecake,” he said happily, as he polished off about 99% of the little cake. I smiled to myself and kept mum – but really, I have no idea how this conviction that I love cheesecake began.

It took a bit of work to find a cheesecake recipe I wanted to bake, and eat, for my little baking challenge, still chugging along. I’ve owned Marian Keyes’ Saved by Cake for a pretty long time, and in fact I bought it (after borrowing a copy from the library) without having read a single of her novels (I’ve since read Watermelon). I was equally charmed and bemused: Keyes is a vibrant writer and this cookbook certainly showcases her voice and dark humour. Well-known for her struggles with alcoholism, Keyes came to baking as a hobby when she was suffering an intense depression. She started to bake and it became a sort of lifeline or pressure valve, bringing her back from the brink of suicide. Cake is serious stuff – although she is clear that baking wasn’t a cure, but a way of occupying herself until such time as she became well again. Indeed, Keyes has said she no longer bakes as it reminds her of the terrible depression she suffered.

And yet, despite the unusual, and dark, provenance of this cookbook, there is a deftness and a lightness of touch, and an unashamedly acquisitive joy in baking and in the fun and sheer silliness of it. Keyes likes bright colours and edible glitter and uses them with abandon: her bakes sparkle. She is not one for pretentiousness or being bogged down in pared down, minimalist portions of dessert, and she is not above using commercial products such as packets of lime jelly. The idea that sloshing in half a bottle of blue icing into whipped cream might be a touch declasse is not one that would resonate with Keyes. And there is a reason Keyes is a popular, bestselling author: she has that uncanny ability that many writers lack to pin down an exact word or phrase which describes something perfectly, and allows you to build a perfectly clear picture in your mind of what something is like. It was her description of her Black Hole Chocolate Cheesecake – “like being punched in the stomach by a chocolate-flavoured fist” – what made me decide to make it for the baked cheesecake part of my baking challenge.

Crust, oven, table. Plus added chilling time
Crust, oven, table. Plus added chilling time

I was rewarded, because it was worth eating, despite not being a natural fan of the cheesecake. The texture of this is delightfully smooth, without any jarring, dry crumbliness, with interest provided by the crisp crust, which is made with both traditional digestives and melted dark chocolate. I sometimes find cheesecakes, especially commercial ones, to be somewhat acidic, but the sharpness of the cream cheese was tempered by mascarpone and double cream, so that it complemented, rather than competed with, the chocolate then poured in. I was surprised that the final colour was somewhat light – a deep and polished chestnut rather than chocolate labrador, but the taste is gratifyingly rich.

This is a recipe that comes together relatively quickly and easily. The only potential pitfall is that, because the base is quite dark to begin with, it can be difficult to tell if it is catching – mine did blacken a little (my oven’s calibration is really off and it is running very hot), which was unfortunate. Also, the crust does set very hard and is somewhat difficult to cut as a consequence. Patience and a hacksaw…

Study in blue, and cheesecake
Study in blue, and cheesecake

This cheesecake is traversed with cracks – difficult to avoid with a cheesecake – and like many dense cakes it sinks in on itself. It’s also not a half hour job; though simple to put together, a lot of lengthy chilling is required at various stages. A good one to do if you have snatches of time to yourself over the course of a day.

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Baking challenge: 24 chocolate raspberry cupcakes

If you haven’t yet read Wolf Hall or Bring up the Bodies, could I recommend it? I just finished the latter and feel shivery and sad, obviously two emotions everyone should feel regularly. I’m so glad that the head of state can’t summarily execute people anymore where I live.

I’m on to the first of the challenges for series two of my ‘bake my way through the Great British Bake-Off challenges’ challenge! Very excited to have crossed this Rubicon (not this one – not big on mango). (Note from my personal musical history: I first heard the phrase ‘Cross[ing] the Rubicon’ in this song by Aimee Mann.

As always, the first episode of the series was cake week. The signature challenge was to bake 24 cupcakes with the sponge and icing in different, yet complementary, flavours (up to two varieties – I only made one). Looking over the challenges for series two in my notebook, I note several patterns: one, the introduction of stipulations on quantities in almost all challenges, and the requirement that various elements of the bake be in ‘different’ flavours, indicating that they were eagerly scouring out those with a talent for combining flavours in unusual ways. The second series of the show was much more polished than the first; for example, Mary and Paul used to wander round the tent during the technical bakes in the first series, but the judging really was ‘blind’ from the second series onward. When re-watching the episodes a while ago (when they were on the iPlayer) so entrenched had the technical challenge as ‘judged blind’ become in my head that I was really shocked by this!

Anyway, creative cuppety cakes. One of the limitations I face when making the challenge is that I want the things I make to be pleasing to people around me, and also eaten by them, so while I had lots of ideas for lime and mint cupcakes and similar, I thought they wouldn’t be particularly appealing to the people I was serving them to (boyfriend and his two siblings), and I didn’t want to be responsible for eating lots of cake myself, so I chose a relatively classic, even safe, combination, that of chocolate and raspberry. Unusually for me (!) I made a ‘normal’ buttercream, that is, just butter and icing sugar, rather than attempting a Swiss meringue. This was because I thought the raspberries would add too much extra liquid for the Swiss meringue buttercream to take, but excess moisture is easier to adjust in a standard buttercream. I didn’t like the texture as much as a Swiss meringue buttercream, though it was nice enough if I pretended to forget how much sugar went into it. I used quite a bit of the raspberry coulis, which made the frosting quite soft and spreading: it only held its piped lines for a few hours. I do think the addition of raspberry extract or liqueur is necessary for a punch of flavour.

The recipe I made was based on a cupcake recipe from the blog Annie’s Eats, and it states that she couldn’t remember how many cupcakes the batch of batter yielded, but it was probably around sixteen with a little left over. I therefore erred on the side of caution and made the cakes in shallow, small bun trays rather than larger American-sized cupcake tins, and I just about managed to eke out 24 as per the dictates of the challenge. More likely you will get 16-18.

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Baking challenge: tea party in the sun

I’m a bit behind on posting up my progress on my personal baking challenge. For the final challenge for the series one challenges, I baked up a tea party’s worth of treats for some friends, which we enjoyed in my sun-dappled flat sometime in July. In the meantime I’ve been on holiday and when I returned it was raining heavily. However, a tea party in the rain could be just as good. Especially as, when I made everything, it was extremely hot and actually a little uncomfortable to bake so much. However, it did mean the bread rose incredibly fast.

The final challenge (and also Finals challenge) for the first series of the Great British Bake Off was to make brown and white bread for sandwiches; a miniature pastry; and scones, all coming together in a traditional afternoon tea. I made cucumber and ham and cheese sandwiches, using Nigella Lawson’s recipes for bread; chocolate meringue tartlets; and maple scones (a North American twist on a British invention to be sure). The maple scones were the standout hit; when I baked them, my friend exclaimed “what is this amazing smell filling the room?” With so many baked goods, there were leftovers, which tasted fine the next day, even the scones.

Series four of the Great British Bake-off is now showing, and I caught up on the first episode yesterday (I was away when it first aired) (also, some spoilers below). I was surprised at how simple the first challenges were after the technically demanding and complex challenges of series three (sandwich cake, angel food cake, chocolate cake for series four, versus upside down cake, rum baba and hidden design cake in series three). Maybe the show wants to go a bit more ‘back to basics’? Or maybe they were running out of ideas for challenges – there is, perhaps, a limit on how you can challenge people with cake. Still, despite the simplicity, there were quite a few screw-ups as people struggled under the challenge of time pressure, cameras and (probably) little sleep. Paul was up to his usual antics, and if anything seemed to be playing up to type more than ever: he criticised the concept of a grapefruit cake (why? grapefruit is delicious!) and then said “annoyingly, I really like that”, which is a line he pulled when judging a bacon, peanut butter and chocolate pie for the American Baking Competition, the US version of GBBO. The space engineer who was Star Baker was amazing: the chocolate cigarettes he made looked stunning.


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