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: jam doughnuts

Jam doughnuts

When I was a child, summer holidays were spent catching up with family in Belgium. Some of my most relished moments were the evenings spent at a local kermis (funfair), where I’d ride on shiny plastic horses on the carousel, or we might have a go on the bumper cars as a family. I liked being paired with my dad because he properly embraced the spirit of terrorising fellow drivers on the electric floor, driving very fast and crashing into friends and hapless strangers very hard. Between rides we’d eat the usual fairground food: a box of fries doused in mayonnaise, and for afters, a puntzak (paper cone) of smoutebollen, simple doughnuts made of a plain, deep-fried batter, coated in a powdery layer of icing sugar so thick you could see teeth-marks in it. Smout means ‘lard’ in Dutch, referring to the fat the batter was traditionally fried in; in the Netherlands, similar doughnuts are called oliebollen. I’ve never heard them called that in Belgium, though.

Sugared doughnut

Aside from these seasonal treats, I don’t remember doughnuts being a fixture of my childhood. That’s probably all for the best, in the long run.

Jammy doughnut filling

If I picture a doughnut, what comes to mind is one of those glazed American-style ring ‘donuts’, glossy with a chocolate-flavoured or pink icing and scattered with sprinkles. I didn’t know that traditional British doughnuts were round, sugar-dusted, and filled with jam until I was in my late teens. The doughnuts made for this recipe are this old-fashioned kind, sticky with jam and the caster sugar which coats them – and your lips – with sparkling shards. They are delicious – at their absolute best fresh, but they keep well for a few days. It turned out, too, that they resonated deeply with my British friends, who commented with delight on my obligatory Facebook photo. I hadn’t known people loved doughnuts so much. They are truly the original way to make friends and influence people.

Doughnuts in frying basket

Final observations: I used a deep-fat fryer for these because I was much too anxious to risk frying in a pot of oil on my gas stove. Please be careful making these, whatever method you choose. Also, deep-frying in summer is hot and difficult. Make these for people you really love who will be truly grateful.

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 technical challenge for week seven (sweet dough week) of series three: ten jam doughnuts.

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Baking challenge: crème caramel

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 (dessert week) of series three: crème caramel.

Mary Berry's creme caramel

Crème caramel is an old-fashioned dessert, isn’t it, belonging almost to the realms of the (sadly, now) imaginary bistros of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, with those heavy leather-lined seats where you are comfortably ignored once delivered of your food (and, of course, alcohol). In a more modern context I can imagine buying a small plastic tub of it from the supermarket, the caramel staining the bottom of the container deep brown, and inverting it at home. But these are acts of the imagination alone: I don’t know if I’ve eaten creme caramel before making it for this baking challenge. It does feel like the kind of gentle, nurturing nursery-type food I should have eaten as a child, however.

Crème caramel is a sister to crème brûlée: both are softly-set, only very lightly sweetened custards, composed of wholesome and nurturing ingredients: whole milk, eggs. But what a difference the outside makes: the crème brûlée is the flirty, dangerous show-off in the family, with her tempting crackled-burnt sugar crust, which has required the application of the naked (ooh la la) flame of the blowtorch (if you’re a cowboy cook who’s not using the grill, anyway) and dares you to crack into it. No one would mistake this dessert for an inhabitant of the nursery. The crème caramel is a bit more homely and dutiful compared to her glamorous sibling.

Creme caramel

You start off by making a caramel, which coats the buttered ramekins, and then a custard which bakes gently in the oven. The cups of custard must then chill completely, to be turned out a la minute. The chilled custard is silky-quivering in its delicacy, lightly drenched in a cloak of caramel syrup which adds some much-needed sweetness and intense depth to this dessert, which would otherwise be simply milky and jiggly and bland. (This contrast is especially, deliciously pronounced if you are brave enough to cook your caramel properly dark). Custard always walks a fine line between homely, nursery food and sensual indulgence. This definitely leans towards the latter – although easy to eat, it’s a dessert that celebrates rich, soft smoothness and contrast of innocently sweet custard and earthy caramel.

Don’t make the mistake I did and forget to immerse your custard-filled ramekins in their hot-water bath. I had to make these twice because I missed this vital instruction first time round. I must have skipped over the line completely because, as I transferred my first batch to the oven, I did think to myself that I would have expected a water bath to coddle the custards. In the absence of the water bath the custard took much longer to cook, surprisingly, but also set quite rubbery and hard, and had large air bubbles running through, which ruined the silky texture. A few were edible but most were relatively grim eating and were given to the worms via our compost box. This mishap aside, it was fairly easy to pull together and the desserts were exceptionally satisfying to turn out – they came out easily after a bit of coaking with a palette knife (just be careful not to angle the knife in such a way that you cut into the set custard).

Recipe below the break as always.

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Baking challenge: latticed treacle tart

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 three (tart week) of series three: a lattice-topped treacle tart.

Lattice topped treacle tart

Treacle tart, a classic British dessert, bears some of the strange hallmarks of traditional British baking and cookery. To start with, like many traditional sweets, its unpromising-looking ingredients list is based on breadcrumbs, joining old-fashioned dishes like brown bread ice cream and Queen of Puddings. It’s safe to say that treacle tart eclipses both, however, in the popularity stakes – while the other two may have a sort of ‘retro favourite’ status, to taste them you’ll probably have to make them, whereas treacle tart is accessible commercially: it appears in almost every museum cafe, doubtless selling for £4.50 a flat slice, but it can also be easily purchased in even the smallest of supermarkets.

Secondly, treacle tart is one of the British linguistic oddities which can seriously throw non-native speakers, inasmuch as the titular ingredient – treacle – makes no appearance in the tart. Perhaps the original tarts were made with this coal-black, iron-tasting sweetener (one of those sugar-based products which inexplicably taste like they’re good for you), but it’s long been superseded by very sweet, light-coloured golden syrup, which gives treacle tart its agreeable sunny colour.

 

Mary Berry's lattice topped treacle tart

Mary Berry’s treacle tart is well-balanced: enough breadcrumbs to soak up the syrup and give the dessert some ballast, but not so many that it’s heavy and dry: the filling has a touch of agreeably sticky fluffiness. There’s enough lemon to balance out the aching sweetness of four hundred grams of golden syrup without turning it into a tarte au citron (avec chapelure). The only annoying thing about the recipe is weaving together the lattice top, for which she offers no real method. There are those, like the studiedly-unpretentious Simon Hopkinson, incidentally, who critique the lattice top as unnecessary, but actually a bit of additional plain, unsweetened pastry is no bad thing as a foil against the intensity of the filling.

A tip: Mary Berry would have you spoon your breadcrumb filling straight from the saucepan into your pastry case, to top immediately with the lattice, but of course the heat of the still-warm syrup made the pastry start to ooze. While it wouldn’t be practical to go to the other extreme and let it cool down completely (the golden syrup would solidify around the breadcrumbs and make it impossible to shift), I recommend letting it cool a little before filling the tart case.

I’ve mentioned a few times the unmitigated sweetness of the tart and, in the interests of further balancing this out, I urge to eat your slice drizzled with a good puddle of unsweetened double cream, or a good thick dollop of the clotted stuff.

The recipe and method (including actual steps on making a lattice top) is below the jump.

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Baking challenge: sweet and spiced pineapple tarte Tatin

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 three (tart week) of series three: tarte Tatin.

Pineapple tarte tartin

I have very fond memories of making my father a classic apple tarte Tatin – at his request – from Linda Collister’s reliable and good The Baking Book when I visited him in Dubai as a teenager. It was a bit of a struggle in some respects – I cooked the apples and caramel in a standard baking tin on the glass stove-top rather than in an ovenproof frying pan, and lacking a scale I had to approximate the amount of butter used in the pastry by eye. The result was more like shortbread than shortcrust, but it was, as you might expect, utterly delicious against the fragrant, caramel apples, and my father very kindly gave me his copy of The Baking Book which so entranced me all of that summer. Linda Collister is still one of my go-to cookery writers and The Baking Book my first port of call when looking for a baking recipe. This book is no longer in print (though you can regularly find used copies via online retailers, and it’s well worth seeking out), but fittingly enough Collister is actually the author behind the Great British Bake-Off branded cookbooks (they do include handfuls of recipes from the contestants and judges, but the majority are Collister’s – and I think she should get more recognition for this than she does).

According to the stipulations of The Great British Bake-Off challenge, the tarte Tatin could be sweet or savoury, but contestants were instructed to use rough-puff pastry. I thought this was quite interesting; most recipes guide the cook towards using store-bought puff pastry, but of course rough puff is not something you can commonly buy. I don’t know how regularly it’s used in professional kitchens: at a party, my friend Juliet’s boyfriend, who is a trained chef (Cordon Bleu, bien sûr), told me they hadn’t been instructed on this pastry. ‘Rough puff’ certainly sounds a bit amateurish, but you can style it out by calling it ‘pâte demi-feuilletée’.

(Another interesting thing about tarte Tatin is that – despite being named for its inventors, the sisters Tatin, it seems perfectly acceptable to write the ‘tatin’ in lowercase).

Pineapple tarte tatin serving

Despite my happy memories of the classic tarte Tatin, I opted to make something a bit different. My first attempt was a pear tarte Tatin, using Collister’s recipe as a guide. Unfortunately it didn’t work with the pears: juicy as they were, I couldn’t cook out sufficient liquid, and the resultant caramel was extremely thin and overwhelmed the somewhat delicate rough puff pastry, resulting in pear-caramel-soaked layers (yes, delicious). I did intend to try it again and perfect the pear Tatin but, as so often happens, I became first distracted and then obsessed by the idea of a chilli-spiced salted caramel pineapple upside-down cake. From there it’s a short walk to a pineapple tarte tatin.

The juiciness of the pineapple pieces is retained even after cooking into caramel sauce and baking, and their intense, tropical sweetness contrasts beautifully with the slightly salted caramel. The idea of adding salt and chilli to the pineapple was inspired by the typically Malay way of eating it with these additions. I grew up in Singapore and there’s truly nothing like eating a pineapple that has ripened in the sun to honeyed perfection, cool from the fridge, sprinkled with salt, sticky juice running down your face and arms and chest, under a humid sky. In Singapore we grew tiny, perfectly round, pink-skinned pineapples in our enormous garden for many years. It seemed so normal. Of course in the UK you can really only get your hands on the large, oval pineapples whose skin is yellow when ripe but is typically sold hard and green, straight off the plane from Costa Rica. They can still be delicious when the craving hits, but they are undeniably a little monotonous in taste and fibrous in texture.

Pineapple tarte tatin slices

A lot of recipes calling for pineapple will used tinned chunks. I used fresh, but I honestly don’t think that it makes a huge amount of difference after cooking. If buying fresh pineapples, you will have to buy them in advance and coax them into ripeness (not to mention the peeling and winkling out of the eyes); if using tinned, ensure you have drained the chunks thoroughly of their juice.

The pastry recipe is a scaled-down version of the recipe from the master of patisserie, Michel Roux Senior, a man whose very rare appearances on television utterly captivate and charm me.

The full recipe is below the jump.

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A coyly-clothed pistachio, candied quince and orange blossom cake

Orange flower water, honey, and quince pistachio cake

In December, I candied batch after batch of quince, those rock-hard, gleaming yellow knobbled fruit which are related to apples and may indeed be the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden, not to mention the golden apples which sparked the Trojan war. Once cooked with sugar, the crunchy slabs of quince become tender and take on an ambrosial honeyed flavour which is mouth-fillingly fragrant. I wanted to use some of my quince pieces in a cake, especially the tender, pale yellow cubes made by parboiling the fruit in plain water before cooking in syrup; the glowing red wedges of quince in syrup were too beautiful not to decorate with.

Candied quince, three ways
Clockwise, from bottom left: red, firm-candied quince pieces; candied slices; amber-tinted candied quince cubes

The elegant, perfumed flavour of quince made me think of honey and orange flower water; I toyed, too, with the idea of using rose-water, which would bring out the quince’s romantic floral notes. I chose orange flower water in the end because I had a beautiful tapered-glass bottle of it sitting in the fridge. So far, so aromatically Middle Eastern; to complement the flavours, I decided to make a pistachio cake, for this gleaming verdant nut is native to Syria. In addition, its fat content means it produces a cake with a soft, tender crumb. The recipe I went with was actually Italian in style and includes a decidedly un-Middle eastern ingredient, sour cream, although of course Middle Eastern cuisines are no stranger to tangy dairy products.

Candied quince spiral

I wanted to frosting element of this cake to be luxurious, tempting, but at the same time didn’t want something cloying, like buttercream, or richly sharp like cream cheese icing, as I thought they would compete too much with the delicacy of the nut cake and subtle ambrosia of the quince. For this reason I went for double cream, mixed with honey and flower water and whipped up into soft, billowing clouds. Three hundred millilitres is just enough to fill the cake and decorate the sides and top in a lacy, coyly veiled ‘naked’ style – I’d been wanting to try one of these trendy peekaboo cakes for a while. I actually whipped the cream a little bit more than desirable: you really want very soft, blowsy cream, beaten juuuuust to the point of holding its shape, but I was packing the cake up and taking it to my book club meeting. I was terribly anxious about it surviving the Tube, which can be hot even in winter, so whipped the cream quite stiff to give it a bit more stability. The result is that it looks a little grainy once iced, but it wasn’t overwhipped at all (no butterfat had solidified in the cream).

I was extremely gratified – since this was a very experimental cake – that everyone at my book club said they thought it delicious. However, don’t feel that it is out of your grasp because you don’t have a stash of syrupy quince in your fridge; I’ve given suggestions below for alternative fruits you could use for the filling and topping. Although they’d be different, they’d be none the less delicious, bringing the required sweet juiciness. I love cooking from recipes and following steps precisely: after a long and freeform day at work, surrendering myself to the instructions of a recipe is strangely relaxing. Yet cooking and even baking are also about freedom, exploration and substitution. This recipe came about by happy and delicious happenstance; there’s no reason it couldn’t do the same for you.

Sliced pistachio cake
Hasty, not very well-lit action shot of the sliced cake

Pistachio cake
Adapted from this recipe by Rose Levy Berenbaum

  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 160ml sour cream
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 85g peeled and blanched pistachios (i.e. with shells and papery outer skins removed before weighing)
  • 175g golden caster sugar
  • 265g plain flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 170g unsalted butter, at room temperature

Orange blossom cream

  • 300ml double cream
  • 1 TBS clear, runny honey – an orange blossom honey would be wonderful here
  • 1/2 TBS – 1 TBS orange blossom water (use more or less depending on the strength of your flower water)

To assemble

  • One batch of candied quince cubes, from one quince, candied by parboiling and then cooking in syrup (instructions in this post)
  • One batch of candied quince slices in syrup, from one quince (instructions in this post)

or

  • Two peaches or nectarines, peeled, one chopped, one sliced into wedges
  • A handful of fresh, intensely ripe and fragrant apricots, half chopped, half sliced, halved or quartered
  • A bagful of sweet red cherries, stoned, half chopped and the rest halved
  • A drained tin of lychees, half chopped, half quartered (if using lychees, replace the orange blossom water with rose water, and throw in a box of raspberries in the filling and to decorate the top to capture an Ispahan-like flavour)

Equipment

You will need three 20cm cake tins, ideally shallow (I used three of the 20cm Wilton layer cake tins), to make the recipe as written. However, you could cake up the mixture in standard 18cm sandwich tins or 23cm springform tins – you just might end up with fewer layers and you will need to adjust the baking time.

  1. Grease the cake tins and line the base with baking paper
  2. Preheat the oven to 180C
  3. Whisk the eggs, 3 tablespoons of sour cream and vanilla extract until just combined (set aside the remaining sour cream).
  4. In a food processor, mini chopper or jug blender, grind the pistachions together with the caster sugar until finely ground but not a powder – the texture should be nubbly and grainy with a few larger chunks throughout.
  5. Using an electric beater, mix the flour, pistachio-sugar mixture, baking powder, baking soda and salt together on low for about 30 seconds, until throughly combined (you could always do this by hand using a balloon whisk, but the elctric beaters will come in handy for the next steps)
  6. Add the butter and set aside sour cream to the flour mixture and mix on low speed together until the dry ingredients have been thoroughly moistened by the dairy products. Increase the speed of the mixer to medium and beat for about a minute and a half. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  7. With the mixer on medium-low, add the egg-sour cream mixture to the mixture in your bowl in two batches, beating the egg mixture in for 30 seconds on medium speed between additions so that it is thoroughly combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  8. Scrape the batter equally into the prepared tins (if you are keen and determined to have them be absolutely equal, you can weigh the batter). Smooth the top of the batter with a small offset spatula.
  9. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or a little longer depending on the number of tins you have divided the batter into and the dimensions of the tins. Test by inserting a skewer or cake tester into the centre of each cake; it should come out clean, and the centre of the cake should spring back when pressed gently. The edges will be slightly darker and will be pulling away from the sides of the cake tins ever so slightly.
  10. Let the cakes cool in their tins for ten minutes on a wire rack, then gently unmould and let cool completely.

For the orange flower and honey cream

Note: make this only when the cakes are completely cool and you are ready to fill and decorate

  1. Stir together the cream, honey and orange flower water until combined. Taste a little and adjust as needed by adding a little more honey or orange flower if you think it’s required.
  2. Using an electric whisk or handheld balloon whisk, gently beat the cream mixture on low speed until it just holds firm peaks

To assemble

Note: the assembly instructions are for three layers; if you have cooked fewer layers, just adjust them as required.

  1. Place one of your cake layers in the middle of a cake board or your serving plate, upside down (i.e. so that the flat side is up). If your cake layer was very domed, you can level off the top with a sharp serrated knife, though proceed carefully.
  2. Dollop a scant quarter of the cream mixture onto the centre of the cake layer and spread it to the edges using an offset spatula. Sprinkle over half of your candied quince cubes or your chopped prepared fruit evenly over the cream.
  3. Top with the second cake slice (again, upside down so the flat side is up) and repeat with the cream and remaining half of the chopped quince cubes or prepared fruit.
  4. Top the cake with the final cake layer, again upside down so the flat side is up.
  5. Smooth over a quarter of the whipped cream over the top of the cake using your offset spatula. Smooth the final quarter of whipped cream over the sides of the cake using your spatula, spreading it as evenly as possible. I used my metal bench scraper to smoothen the cream evenly over the sides as a final step by running it over the edges to wipe off the excess.
  6. Decorate the top of the cake by placing your candied quince slices or your sliced or quartered fresh fruit in a pattern over the top

 

Baking Advent: sticky, syrupy gingerbread loaf with rum

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

Sticky gingerbread loaf

This ginger cake is another recipe I have used for a long time, again gleaned from avid food blog reading. The recipe makes a small cake, a simple unadorned loaf that could even be called humble; certainly homely, with all the comforts associated with that word.

What I love about this cake is that I’ve very rarely been without the wherewithal to make it at a moment’s notice. If I only have a scrap of butter, a lick of golden syrup and a single egg rattling in the cupboards, I can make this cake. I’ve baked it in a loaf pan and a square brownie tin, and doubled it for bake sales; it is incredibly forgiving. Once, I added the egg too quickly to the sticky mixture of syrup, butter and sugar which is first melted together, and the egg coagulated in the mixture. I strained out the bits of cooked egg white and continued as normal; the cake baked up perfectly.

Homely, homey, and delicious

Straight out of the oven a slice is warm, sweet and mild: the gingery flavour and stickiness develops over the next few days, and is enhanced if you wrap it in foil between servings. Personally I like my gingerbread the way my grandmother eats it, which is to say sliced and buttered.

It’s a flexible and infinitely adaptable gem. You could add additional spices, or add-ins such as sultanas soaked in a little brandy or apple juice, or even small chocolate chips if you like the combination of chocolate and ginger. The version I made below includes a splash of rum and some chopped preserved stem ginger to add an additional warming, spicy backnote. It doesn’t require any embellishment to be a lovely little cake, but it makes a nice change. Recipe below the jump, as always.

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