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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Baking challenge: sticky, syrupy, sweet – rum baba

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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 one (cake week) of series three: rum baba.

Paul Hollywood’s rum babas are an exercise in indulgence. An enriched, yeasted cake is drenched in acutely sweet syrup, the little cakes being turned and turned again until each crumb is soaked through. The cakelets were topped off with creme Chantilly, cream to which vanilla extract and even more sugar is added, resulting in it being stable and stiff enough to pipe. In truth, the very sweet cream atop the syrup-drenched cake was too much for me, and had I not been following the recipe exactly I would have gone with my instincts and chosen the cool lactic contrast of unsweetened cream. This is what I suggest you do.

070_edThe recipe also suggests serving with ‘red fruit’. Strawberries wouldn’t be quite right, as wonderful as they are; something acidic and tangy is needed. I used sharp-sweet raspberries but red currants would be ideal.

Hollywood’s recipe yields four cakes and is intended to serve four, but the babas are quite hefty in size, and when I served them to friends, we halved them. The incredible sweetness of the syrup also mitigates against eating a whole one, I reckon.

Finally, lacking savarin moulds, and unable to find any of the required size anyway, I used a mini bundt tin, greasing it and dusting carefully with caster sugar, and despite the warnings that these delicate cakes may stick, they turned out beautifully. It gave the cakes an attractive whirled pattern, too. In Dutch bundt tins are referred to as ‘turban shaped’ because the swirls of the cake tin recall the swirls of a wrapped turban.

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You can see the generous amount of syrup pooling at the base as it soaks in

All in all, this recipe was straightforward enough to put together and makes a manageable number of sweet, sticky, buttery treats which can’t easily be found in high street – or even fancy – bakeries in the UK.

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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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London Bites: late-night desserts at Gelupo and Cutter and Squidge

Some time ago my friend Ariadne and I had one of the most middle class nights on the lash you can imagine, by which I mean we drank cocktails in Soho until I reeled and then, instead of piling into a greasy, garishly coloured meat palace for a late night kebab, we stumbled (literally in my case) into Cutter and Squidge on Brewer Street for some sweet pick-me-ups.

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I had heard of Cutter and Squidge before, and knew their bakery USP is their ‘biskies’, which they describe as a ‘unique, handmade sandwiched dessert’ and I call a sandwich cookie. So was I keen to try one. My lovely, much-less-drunk-than-I friend (I had in fairness drunk up most of her Negroni when she took a sip and said “It’s really bitter.” “Yeah…it’s a Negroni, dude,” I slurred, halfway through my Breakfast Sour already, to which she responded, “Umm…I thought that meant a sweet cocktail.”) and I dithered for a while in front of the display of ‘biskies’ before deciding that the Salted Caramel S’more was the only way to go. We also knew that we had to order a slice of cake to share as well because RULES, so we moved on from dithering over biskies to dithering over cake. We were clearly onto a kind of theme because we chose a wodge of the Peanut Caramel Pretzel cake, agreeing that to the marriage of salty and sweet we must admit no impediment. Note: the portions of cake are generous.

We parked ourselves in the corner of the bakery and proceeded to rip open the packaging to try our (almost) midnight treats. Sadly, we were both underwhelmed by both the bisky and the cake, which was a shame. I have read so much praise for this bakery, and the story behind it is sweet (it’s founded by two sisters) that I’d expected to absolutely love it.

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Bisky business

The bisky was all right: the base (and top) is a slightly soft-textured cookie, which the bakery refers to as a ‘cookie-cake’ hybrid but reminds me of slightly spongey whoopie pie shells (despite their protests to the contrary on their website!), or cakey snickerdoodles. It was dabbed within with salted caramel buttercream, which was really light-textured, which is Cutter and Squidge’s signature approach to buttercream. As so many buttercreams are, to my taste, overly cloying and heavy, sometimes even (gasp!) grainy, I did appreciate this. The gelatine-free salted caramel marshmallow had a hint of brown sugar and a floral depth that testified to good-quality ingredients; the texture was denser and stickier than the jet-puffed supermarket versions. There was also a slathering of salted caramel sauce topping off the fillings. But overall, I confess, it was not particularly distinguished. I am a pretty experienced caramel-maker and I bring my caramel so close to the brink of being burnt that it takes on a powerful, smokey complexity, a bitterness than belies the mass of sugar used to create it. Very few commercially-made recipes containing caramel will do this – I am very aware that my personal preference for caramel might be too dark for many – and consequently I always find them very sweet, unchallenging, and undistinguished. Overwhelmingly the impression was of a uniform sweetness applied over a variety of textures, and the promised ‘salt’ part of the caramel didn’t particularly materialise for me. Because the bisky was billed as a S’more, I would have expected, also, a toasted element, which was lacking.

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The Peanut, Caramel and Pretzel cake suffered similarly from sweetness and surprising blandness. The texture of the cake was lovely – soft, fluffy – and the buttercream texture was, as before, light and entirely suited to my taste. But the peanut butter buttercream tasted on the whole sweet and slightly bland, carrying too little peanut flavour, and the most memorable part of the whole thing was the commercial pretzels on the side. Kind of a shame, and I was surprised to come to this conclusion. The cake is damn beautiful to look at, though. Apparently the mission of Cutter and Squidge’s founders is to make cake cool, and visually their baked goods are entirely enticing.

But Cutter and Squidge is not the only place we have frequented in search of a late night sugar rush. We have also visited Gelupo, the gelato-focused offshoot of Jacob Kenedy’s regional Italian restaurant, Bocca di Lupo. The only thing I have ever eaten at Bocca di Lupo is a sweetened coffee dessert in 2012, which was delicious and memorable all these years later; Gelupo has been on my list for pretty much as long. I had a ricotta, coffee and honey gelato, and Ariadne had a flavour referred to, elusively, as Crema 101.

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Ricotta, coffee and honey, and the elusive Crema 101

I expected my gelato to be slightly sweeter and creamier than a standard, straight-up coffee gelato, and indeed it was. I couldn’t particularly pick out the ricotta and honey flavours, exactly, despite the recipe apparently using the powerhouse that is chestnut honey (the ‘castagno‘ sold by From Field and Flower at Borough Market is markedly, distinctively bitter and smokey – just the way I cook my caramel, in fact!). The gelato overall was mellow and milky; a comforting flat white rather than a bitter and punchy espresso. The texture was soft and delicate, which complemented the flavours. Overall, there was nothing wrong with this gelato, but it wasn’t to my personal preference, which, I discovered with each bite, is for a very singular, robust and pure flavour carried through the medium of cream or milk. The coffee flavour was too diluted for me, and I prefer the ever-so-slightly firmer set of gelato I’ve eaten in Corsica and Croatia (I have been to Italy. I just didn’t eat gelato there). In actual fact, my very favourite iced dessert texture is the slightly chewiness of Turkish ice cream, which contains gum mastic, making it stretchy. It’s very unusual and recommended, if you can find it.

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The ‘Crema 101’ was a very pure, creamy flavour, like a sweetened, cold, rich milk. There was something simultaneously nostalgic about it – recalling a memory of drinking unhomogenised gold-top milk straight from the fridge in Belgium (God knows where my mother found it) –  and yet it also being very plain and, if I’m honest, a little dull. It’s the kind of thing that might come to life set against, say, a syrupy slick of ripe red strawberries diced and macerated with a teaspoon of sugar and a drop of balsamic vinegar, but on its own fails to sing.

Baking challenge: a platter of treats, perfect for Wimbledon and a British summer

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week eight (the final) of series two: petit fours.

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You would be forgiven for not having even noticed that the Wimbledon Championships had started, what with everything else hogging the headlines at the moment. In any other year, Djokovic crashing out in the third round would be the upset of the summer and Andy Murray would probably have had a nervous breakdown from the pressure, given that this is possibly the first Championship game he’s gone into as a favourite. The scrutiny, however, is off him this year. He could probably play his next match naked and it would barely get a mention.

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Around a year ago I made a strawberry meringue pie for a Mens’ Final viewing party; this year, I’m suggesting a very British platterful of petit fours to see out the final matches. I made the petit fours as part of my very, painfully slow progress through my Great British Bake-Off challenge. The brief for the finale of series two was to make petit fours – meringue, pastry, and cake – twelve of each, with the theme of the Great British Summer. Only I kind of messed up because I didn’t check my notes and thought one of the petit fours was biscuits, rather than pastry, but frankly I was so pleased with the outcome that I’m not going to quibble.

083The British summer usually means three things: rain, blustery wind, and the bitter taste of disappointment in your mouth as you huddle in the sweaters you haven’t yet packed away for another year. Or! It can mean watching the Wimbledon Finals, drinking Pimms and eating strawberries, strolling down to the park and lying on the grass, visiting gaudy seaside towns and the ubiquitous 99 Flake ice cream. Those days are, in their rarity, all the more precious.

For the biscuit petit fours, I was inspired to make mini 99 Flakes, those soft-serve ice creams crowned with a Cadbury’s Flake chocolate bar. For the cone I used a pliable tuile recipe, draping them around pastry cone mounds when just baked and holding them in place until they hardened in a cone shape. This is work for those with robust hands. I find tuiles a somewhat difficult biscuit to master: I have never managed to make them truly thin and shatteringly crisp, and they tend to brown a little too quickly in my somewhat unreliable oven (everything goes a bit too dark around the edges in there). Still, once they were shaped and cream piped in through a star nozzle, and decorated with a sliver of chocolate to resemble the Flake, they tasted just great: buttery, tender-crisp biscuit, soft pillowy cream, bite of dark and bitter chocolate.

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Unbaked meringues

Strawberry and cream, cream and meringue: so classic as to be unoriginal, perhaps even dull, but there’s nothing half-hearted about people’s response this combination. I piped out nests of meringue and filled them with dollops of cream and slices of strawberry in the shape of butterfly’s wings; to give them that something extra, and emphasise their Britishness (or perhaps simply Englishness?), I filled the centres with a wibbly, electric jelly of Pimms and lemonade. I actually used the special strawberry and mint Pimms rather than the classic version. By adding the jelly, the meringue and cream also hearkened to the classic British child’s birthday party favourite of jelly with ice cream. (Fun fact: I was not allowed to eat jelly as a child and now, as an adult, don’t enjoy it very much, and certainly what enjoyment I have pales in comparison to that of my British friends, for whom jelly and cream is the taste of childhood).

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Raw ingredients for Pimms jelly

But my absolute favourite part of the petit four platter was the cake – in the conception, the baking, and the eating thereof. I very much wanted to use my cake pop pan – partly to justify the fact that I even own such a thing – and immediately two things came to mind: one was Wimbledon and tennis balls, the other the classic British summer flavour of tangy rhubarb combined with soft, cool, vanilla-flecked custard. To capture both, I baked a custard-flavoured sponge in the cake pop tin, released the perfect little spheres, let them cool, and then doused them in a white chocolate ganache flavoured with rhubarb extract. I had dribbled a mixture of yellow and green food colouring into the ganache to capture the yellow of the tennis balls – you will need quite a bit to identifiably colour the ganache and it didn’t really come together for me until I added the green food colouring, drop by careful drop, swirling through carefully each time. I drew in the white seams with a white chocolate icing pen, bought commercially, which was about ten thousand times easier than trying to melt white chocolate and make a little paper icing cone. With the icing pen, I had a lot of control over the end product. I mean, I know the icing lines are squiggly, but it would have been so much worse with a DYI product.

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Finally, to capture the look of the grass surface which tennis at Wimbledon is played on, I doused a handful of dessicated coconut in green food colouring until it was as green as the lawn and rested the tennis ball cakes on a bed of this.

I will not lie: this platter was quite time-consuming to make and is the kind of thing you might only do if you are hosting a Wimbledon-themed party, but the end results elicited gasps of admiration from my friends and, most importantly, all were delicious as well as super cute.

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Baking challenge: 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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Baking challenge: mocha-caramel millefeuille

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 eight (the final) of series two: layered millefeuille.

Layers of puff pastry, mocha patisserie cream, drizzled caramel, hazelnut praline
Layers of puff pastry, mocha patisserie cream, drizzled caramel, hazelnut praline

Sometimes, if you want to impress your friends and sicken your enemies (a phrase I have unashamedly stolen from Marian Keyes, FYI), you need to put the time and effort in. Making millefeuille is one of those things: it will delight the eye, bring joy to the palate, and inspire awe in your guests. But, because millefeuille is not a single recipe but a set of deliciously-assembled components, it does take work. Fortunately for you, and your dinner party guests, pretty much every component can be made in advance and put together before serving. This is why plated desserts are such a staple of restaurant kitchens: it’s no more effort, after all the baking, than putting together a few Lego blocks. But in the home, all the baking is done by one person, and that person is you.

Hazelnut praline, ready for crushing
Hazelnut praline, ready for crushing

Component number one is the rough puff or full puff pastry. How time-consuming and difficult you will find this process depends entirely on how often you make regular pastry. Although I had some mishaps (detailed in the head notes to the recipe), on the whole this was straightforward.

Component number two is the creme patissiere. I decided I definitely wanted my creme patissiere filling to be coffee, because I love coffee in dessert and it is just not featured enough, in my view. The feedback from my friends was that the liked that the coffee flavour was quite gentle and not too strong – so if you want it stronger you should increase the coffee extract to taste or perhaps infuse the cream with coffee grounds (straining before use) or add dissolved instant coffee.

Component three was the caramel, for drizzling, and number four was some

Hazelnut praline, crushed. The ground up, caramel glazed nuts add textural contrast to the plated dessert
Hazelnut praline, crushed. The ground up, caramel glazed nuts add textural contrast to the plated dessert

hazelnut praline, crushed into powder, for textural contrast and smokey, nutty depth. Someone brought some raspberries to my party (where I served this dessert) so later that evening I dotted each millefeuille with them in the spirit of pure opportunism. And actually I think it really lifted everything, introducing a slightly sharp note and a splodge of colour that lifted the beige, brown and buff elements of cooked pastry, drizzled caramel and mocha creme patissiere.

When it comes to making caramel, I have a secret: I very rarely use recipes or even measurements anymore. Usually I throw a fistful of sugar into a pan, cook it until amber, and then pour in glugs of cream until it’s the consistency I want. I finish it off with salt and butter to taste. This happy state of throwing caution to the wind comes after many years of carefully following recipes, swirling my pan of measured-out ingredients and reading the instructions as I went. I mention this simply because I think making caramel is a bit of a stressful endeavour for a lot of people, but do it enough and it can really come to feel quite natural. As with anything, the impression of ease, fluidity and instinct is simply the result of many years of practice. I decanted it into a plastic squeezy bottle but you can drizzle (or splatter) the caramel over using a spoon or piping bag as you prefer.

Overhead shot
Overhead shot

I hasten to add that sometimes my sugar does burn and occasionally the whole thing seizes up to a grainy paste – but this is usually when I have decided to leave the kitchen to watch TV or something. Don’t abandon your caramel!

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