Baking Advent: bakery-style oatmeal-raisin cookies

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with baked goods.

Bakery-style oatmeal raisin cookies and milk

I had lots of ambitious plans to post up a baking recipe every day in December – partly to clear my drafts folder full of half-finished posts – but as the exercise became more stressful, my boyfriend talked me out of it with this dry comment: “You’re a grown-up with a sensible job. No one expects you to put yourself through this.” Then he made me go to bed.

I sometimes doubt how sensible my job really is (usually when filling in a bizarre piece of paperwork), and for sure I often doubt that I’m really a grown up. My job is characterised by tight and sometimes unexpected deadlines and a dizzying set of regulations – internal and external – that are introduced in frenetic spurts between long consultative periods, and I mostly see myself as floundering in the midst of this soup. (It’s also characterised by lovely, warm colleagues who habitually fish me out of said soup). I often – often – worry about whether I’m actually coping, or doing things right. You know the swan metaphor, about how they look calm on the surface but no one sees them paddling like hell underneath? I’m sure everyone can tell I’m paddling.

Oamteal and raisin cookies

Only occasionally have there been moments when I have felt assured and in control (granted, most of the time you’re not observing yourself, you’re just getting on with the day). One of those moments was when I was delivering a goodbye speech for a colleague – I caught myself, as if having an out-of-body experience, speaking calmly and fluidly about her and her contributions to the organisation, and managing a few in-jokes about corporate documents and policy papers. It was a grown up moment, however brief.

I’m sure it seems an awkward segue to go from paddling through adulthood to cookies, but in fact I think there is a connection. Baking, making lovely things to share, is also soothing, therapeutic, and just fun – and can even make me feel more in control. I may not have finished the day’s spreadsheet (yes, this is my life now), but if I bake a batch of cookies it not only gives me some time to myself but gives me a feeling of mastery over this tiny domain. The oatmeal-raisin cookies below are also deliciously easy to put together, they are made from storecupboard staples, and they result in palm-sized, bakery-worthy sweet snacks.

Bowlful of oatmeal raisin cookies

I found this recipe on a delightful blog, aspoonfulofsugar.net (it sadly no longer exists), which I read avidly as a teenager, completely compelled by these adults who, in their spare time, cooked and baked and then wrote about it. This was in the early days of food blogging, just past the heyday of Julie Powell’s blog Julie and Julia, when a young Parisian (or should I say Parisenne?) launched her blog Chocolate and Zucchini and became a rising star in the food blogosphere. Back then, the online food world was a somewhat small close, tightly-knit place (bloggers used to actually regularly meet each other in Real Life) – and blog photography was sometimes (not always)…basic. Things were quite homely and sometimes slapdash and pictures of dinner clearly taken – gasp – at night, with flash, under artificial light. This particular recipe is apparently from the TV tie-in cookbook ‘Cooking with Friends’, featuring recipes for foods seen in the iconic programme. Angela, the authoress of aspoonfulofsugar.net, converted the recipe’s American measurements into metric, but over time her original measurements have been tweaked a little by me.

Cookies and milk

These are big, rich, and crisp cookies – almost crunchy – not too sweet, but wonderfully buttery, studded through with raisins that somehow remain plump and juicy after baking. You can get a softer texture, if wished, by baking them on the lower end of the recommend baking times, about 12 minutes, and you could also experiment with turning down the temperature to the more standard 180C. Myself, I like a cookie full of crunch and texture, and tend to cook them for the full fifteen minutes so they are crisp all the way through. Perfect with a cup of tea, though a cookie as all-American as this surely deserves to be dunked in a glass of milk.

Recipe below the jump, as always.

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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 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: 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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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)

 

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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