Baking challenge: strawberry almond cake cream torte

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 four (dessert week) of series three: a three-layer torte cake.

Strawberry mousse cream cake

Cream-based desserts always have my heart – notwithstanding the danger all this dairy fat doubtless poses to said heart. A trickle of liquid cream or dollop of the airily whipped variety – or even, dare I say, a pump of aerosol-whipped foam from a ‘squirty cream’ can – rarely fails to perfect a baked good or even a simple piece of baked or poached fruit.

Anecdote: I once bought a can of squirty cream for a Wimbledon Finals viewing party (yes, very bourgeois) from Tesco (actually, from the Tesco in Wimbledon itself!) and the woman at the cashier rang through my summer-standard purchases – Pimms, strawberries, napkins – without comment. When she came to the can of cream, she picked it up, waggled her eyebrows, and rasped out (Marsha-from-Spaced-style) “Are you going to be having play-time when you get back?” followed by a hearty chuckle. Even if I actually preferred the sugary, airy taste of the canned stuff to the voluptuous purity of hand-whipped double cream, the memory of this moment would be enough to put me off any purchases of aerosol cream for fear of another such encounter.

Strawberry mousse almond cream cake

There is nothing fake or sugary about this cream torte. The almond cake which forms the foundation is somewhat austere on its own: dense but not particularly sweet, and quite dry. The orange liqueur-spiked syrup it’s brushed with adds some flavour and moisture, but the purpose of the cake is to provide a contrast to the extremely creamy strawberry and orange liqueur mousse which fills the middle. With 500ml – half a litre – of double cream providing body to the mousse, the cake needs structure and a little dryness to hold it together and provide a textural contrast to all that soft, voluptuous sweetness.

There are a number of steps, and skills, associated with making this cake (you can see why it was a suitable challenge on Bake Off). There’s the baking of the sponge and the making and setting of the filling, which involves gelatine. (Most of the gelatine you can buy off the shelf in the UK is beef rather than pork gelatine, so bear that in mind if you want to serve this cake – or even just the mousse – to someone with medical or cultural dietary restrictions. I have not tested this with vegetarian gelatine and would suggest following the packet instructions if you want to try this as it works slightly differently). Fortunately both can be done ahead of time. The assembled cake and mousse structure then has to chill for a good amount of time in the fridge – if not, you will have sponges floating on a strawberry-cream slop. Not very appetising, and I can imagine it must have been a struggle for the Bake Off contestants to set a gelatine-based mousse in time. (Incidentally, this cake is a good test of faith, inasmuch as you have to believe that you will pass through the ‘cakes-on-slop’ phase to get to the ‘elegant Mitteleuropa cream torte’ stage when shoving it in the fridge to set).

Almond torte with strawberry mousse

If it really all does seem like too much work for a summer’s day – and with so little of summer left I won’t blame you – do try making just the mousse, which is pure and delicate and delicious – it melts delicately on the tongue and tastes like a child’s memory of strawberries and cream. As a bonus, you won’t need to turn the oven on.

The almond cake I made is an amalgam and extensive adaptation of several recipes I found online; the syrup and mousse are based on a recipe for Erdbeeroberstorte from Rick Rodgers’ magnificent book Kaffeehaus, which is well worth a look at if you love cream-based desserts, which are also so beloved in Central Europe. The instructions given to the bakers was to make a three-layer cake, but this did not require three layers of sponge, simply that the entire piece be composed of three layers – in this case two of sponge and one of mousse; the tortes themselves should not contain any flour. Strictly speaking, also, the instructions in the challenge did suggest that the bakers should not using leavening agents in their cakes – with all the rise coming from well-whipped egg yolks and whites – but as all their torte recipes on the BBC website include baking powder, I took the same liberty of sidestepping this instruction.

Full recipe below the break, as always.

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Baking challenge: dressed-up gooseberry and almond cream 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 showstopper challenge for week three (tart week) of series three: a designer fruit tart.

Gooseberry almond tart

Last week, Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins made some waves with an article he wrote sneering at the idea of learning languages in school as a general, rather than specialist, skill, unimportant compared to learning about history, culture, the economy, and even urban planning. As Jenkins and his editors no doubt planned, the social media backlash (and subsequent linking to his article) was robust: the article was decried as ‘stupid’, ‘foolish’ and ‘narrow-minded’. Proponents of language-learning pointed out that learning languages is inherently linked to learning culture; expands our worldview and horizons; develops the intellect; and is, often, still, even in a world in which English is often spoken globally, a very practical skill.

I work with a lot of academic researchers, and I’d like to be one myself one day, and many, many people I know would not be able to do the research they do without speaking one or more languages. The relative dearth of language skills among British scholars in my own discipline of history is considered pretty crippling by some people I know. But in addition to such lofty considerations, learning a language gives us an everyday understanding of the world that adds so much colour and interest. For example, the etymology of the word ‘gooseberry’: in English, one theory for the name of these tart, hairy green summer fruits is that they were served as a sauce with roast goose, and that this marriage was so commonplace, so ordinary, that the link became embedded in language. This theory becomes ever the more tantalising once you know that in French these berries are called ‘groseille à maquereau’ – mackerel berries – because gooseberries have often been served as a tangy, sharp foil to rich, oily mackerel. (I have tried this before – it is delicious and surprising).

Fresh gooseberries

The gooseberry in English cooking – sweet cooking, anyway – is almost always wedded to its seasonal partner, the fragrant elderflower, most often present in cordial form. There’s no harm in this partnership, but once I knew I wanted to make a gooseberry tart, I quickly decided the berry must have the opportunity of a dalliance with other flavourings. I embarked on extensive, slightly panicky research in which I contemplated various states of creamy, custardy fillings. However, I have a very slight aversion to the rich egginess of many custards, while loving the mouth-filling silkiness and delicate vanilla flavour of creme patissiere. I had more or less settled on the final recipe when I got the brainwave to make an almond creme pat – cue more frantic research until Michel Roux’s unparalleled book ‘Pastry’ showed me the way.

Slice of gooseberry almond tart with cream

The stern injunction when announcing this showstopper challenge in series three was that it had to be the kind a top French patissiere would be proud to sell in his (or her) shop. You’d be hard-pressed, I think, to consider my offering a ‘designer’ fruit tart ‘fit for a top quality patisserie display window’. My creation is more of a paragon of elegant simplicity – even possibly leaning towards rusticity – than, say, a rose-scented tart topped with macarons as baked by eventual series three finalist (but not winner) James Morton. And yet – perhaps because I have been reading Elizabeth David recently, and enjoy her terse, bright prose much more than when I was younger – I can’t help but feel that there is something right and true about this tart, with its crisp, not-too-sweet pastry, substantial filling, and generous portion of fruit. It is unpretentious without actually being humbled for it. It cuts cleanly and showcases the bright sharpness of this seasonal fruit – and is absolutely killer with a substantial mountain of cream. But what isn’t?

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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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How to candy a quince

Candied quince, three ways

Over Christmas, I finally got to grips with the taut-skinned yellow quince sitting in the fruit bowl, for which I had trekked all the way to Morden to buy. Some of them were turned into a classic crimson quince paste – often known as membrillo – which is thick and set and traditionally served, in Spain at least, with cheese. It goes particularly well with manchego, unsurprisingly.

There were other beautiful ideas for what to do with quince in my sizeable cookbook collection – lots of poaching and baking – but instead I went off-piste and played around with candying them. I used a different technique with each quince to see which worked best. Since I was just experimenting/playing at this point, I don’t have exact measurements and haven’t converted them to metric – most of the recipes I used were American and used volume rather than weight measures. However, having found my favourite candying method, I will be using this in the future and will provide clearer instructions and measurements then.

Candied quince trio

Candied quince 

I made this three ways and funnily enough the first, and simplest, was most successful.

Method One: Classic candied pieces

candied-quince

This method was the simplest and produced quince pieces which were truly candied, as citrus fruit peel might be: gummy-textured all the way through, chewy and fragrant, with the bold, blood-red shade which is the hallmark of quince cooked with sugar, while still capturing their evocative, perfumed-apple flavour. It is also a true preserve, as sufficient moisture is driven off to enable the pieces to keep for some time, lightly dusted in granulated sugar and tucked away in a sealed box.

This was very simple: I peeled the quince and sliced it into eighths, removed the core from each segment, and sliced the quince crossways to make smallish, fairly evenly sized pieces. I then followed the Bon Appetit recipe for candied grapefruit peel (which is very successful for its original purpose, too!) but skipped the blanching stages (which remove some of the peel’s bitterness, which doesn’t apply in the case of quince) and simply put them straight in the syrup. I had to simmer a bit longer for the quince than for the grapefruit peel (25-28 minutes) and to top up some extra sugar and water, so perhaps start with 1.5 cups of sugar and 3/4 cup of water if you want to try this. I also simmered it quite gently to ensure the pieces didn’t get mushy and lose their shape. Once finished, I drained the pieces with a wire-mesh sieve and placed them on a drying rack lined with baking paper to dry out for eight hours. Once dry, they were tossed in granulated sugar and packed in a sealed, airtight box.

Method Two: parboiling and candying

Golden candied quince

For this method, I peeled, cut and cored the quince pieces as above and sliced them into small cubes, but simmered them in plain water for 5 minutes prior to cooking in syrup – a lot of candied quince recipes called for this stage so I wanted to see the effects. These fell apart much more easily and did not go that deep purple-red colour, only achieving an elegant amber shade. Once drained and dried, they were still very damp and need to be stored in the fridge. They are tender and almost melting.

Method Three: parboiling and candying larger pieces

For this method, I peeled, cut and cored the quince pieces as above but sliced them into large chunks. I parboiled them for 5 minutes as above before cooking in syrup. The larger pieces did not candy well; already spongey from the parboiling, it took too long for the syrup to penetrate the pieces and make them translucent, resulting in the syrup boiling to caramel and producing slightly soggy – though bright red – chunks of quince within a crunchy caramel shell. Not what I was after.

Candied quince slices

Candied quince slices

To make the syrupy candied quince slices, I followed this recipe on the Dervish Rosary blog, but scaled down the quantities significantly! I peeled and cut the quince into eigths as above and removed their hard little cores and parboiled the slices for 7 minutes as directed by the recipe. I then used 2 cups of sugar and 4 cups of water to make a syrup, brought this to simmering point, and added the slices. I cooked them until red, glossy and slightly translucent, about 30-40 minutes, on a low simmer (continuously). The low simmer is essential to keep them intact and stop them going mushy. I would start checking after 20 minutes and keep the heat low, topping up with water and sugar as necessary. Once cooked, I gently removed them with a slotted spoon. These need to be preserved in their syrup and I think it’s best to keep in the fridge.

 

Baking Advent: plum and ginger traybake

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

Ginger and plum traybake with crumble topping
Ginger and plum traybake with crumble topping

After I had made a batch of tender plum and poppy seed muffins, there was still a bag full of beautiful – but ever so slightly soft – purple plums winking at me. I hunted through my cookbooks and magazines looking for an appropriate recipe (greatly aided by cookbook indexing tool Eat Your Books) and found a recipe for a plum and ginger traybake, based on oats. Plum and ginger are two tastes which go together beautifully, and the oats add a wholesome nubbliness that makes these treats seem almost breakfast-appropriate – although, conversely, the combination of butter, golden syrup and oats also brings to mind the mighty flapjack. In any case, there’s little not to love.

Plums and oat traybake
Cool winter light and plums

The recipe is quite clever in saving some of the batter used for the base of the traybake and mixing it with additional oats and flour to make a delectably crunchy topping. It’s such an easy idea – much simpler than putting together even the most basic extra crumble  – that it makes me wonder why I’ve never seen it before. The recipe was written by Jane Hornby, who is the author of the beautiful and instructive What to Bake and How to Bake It, and she is really very good at breaking down recipes into simple steps that make them achievable for anyone without – for lack of a better word – dumbing them down to the extent where they are simple and plain. The oats used are standard porridge oats, rather than the jumbo oats often called for in baking, and this was particularly satisfying because we always have these in the house for morning winter breakfasts.

Sticky oat, plum and ginger squares
Each peach? pear?…plum

The only slightly awkward thing about this recipe was fitting the oat base into the suggested 17x23cm tin – the dough couldn’t fit over this large space. I ended up using a 21x21cm square Pyrex dish, and this worked perfectly, though I’m sure a metal tin of a similar size would work well too.

Recipe below the jump, as always

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Between meals: Three fruity snacks

There are some people who seem to have no snacking needs, which is definitely admirable. I am, however, a habitual grazer. When I started dieting, it rapidly became clear that it was going to be quite difficult to fit snacks into a 1200 calorie diet. The thing about dieting is that you do tend to feel hungry.

Crisp whole strawberries; crunchy strawberry crisps.
Crisp whole strawberries; crunchy strawberry crisps.

However, I’m no longer confined by these shackles and have started reintroducing snacks into my day. I’m now in pursuit of between-meals nibbles which are satisfying but better for me than a chocolate chip biscuit or six (there are an alarming number of biscuits available in the office at any one time owing to the large number of catered events we hold). The general ‘healthy snacking’ advice out there is to have some unsweetened yoghurt; a handful of nuts; maybe some rice cakes and low-fat hummus. However, I still occasional crave a sweet snackerel, and indeed, sometimes only a buttery cookie will do. I’ve been trialling some slightly more ‘natural’ fruit-based snacks which I thought would provide some interest and sweetness when I really need to avoid the office biscuit tin but want something more exciting than an apple, and thought it might be fun to share my ‘findings’. The verdict is below.

The Giving Tree Strawberry Crisps

The fact that the dehydrated strawberries are whole was a surprise to me, but it's lots of fun!
The fact that the dehydrated strawberries are whole was a surprise to me, but it’s lots of fun!

Taste: Because they are called strawberry ‘crisps’, I expected the packet to yield freeze-dried slices of strawberry; instead, whole, perfect, albeit dried, strawberries tumbled out.  They were very sweet, very pure, the most perfectly concentrated hit of strawberry flavour. They were also quite hard and some of the larger specimens a little difficult to bite through. But I really enjoyed them! You can also let them dissolve on the tongue, which is fun.

Claims: one of your ‘five a day’

Availability: These were a Holland and Barrett find for me, but they’re available through Ocado, Whole Foods, Planet Organic, Selfridges and at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Barbecoa (very random since Barbecoa is a steakhouse), according to their website.

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