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: chocolate teacakes

chocolate-marshmallow-cakes.jpg

One of my fonder memories of little school is of our music lessons, which is to say, a few hours a week of banging a glockenspiel or singing. My music teacher for several crucial, formative years was Mrs Bailey – first name unknown – a proudly Scottish woman. If it were revealed to me that she was an ardent, SNP card-carrying nationalist, it would not surprise me in the slightest. Thanks to Mrs Bailey’s dedication, I am familiar with the patriotic music of Scotland and (to a lesser extent) Wales: we sang Loch Lomond and Scotland the Brave and the Skye Boat Song and Men of Harlech in her classes, and I’m fairly sure that my love of British folk music is entirely a result of those happy hours of lusty nationalist singing. I thought this kind of musical inculcation into the culture of Scotland was entirely typical for British schoolchildren, but it turns out almost none of my friends educated in England grew up singing these songs.

Chocolate teacakes

I was reminded sharply of Mrs Bailey and her love of Scottish ballads when I made chocolate teacakes for my baking challenge (bear with me here) because I associate chocolate teacakes very strongly with Scotland, primarily, I assume, because of the Scottish company Tunnock’s, whose red and gold packaging encases teacakes, snowballs (chocolate teacakes with coconut – divine) and, of course, caramel wafers. Indeed, in England, teacakes often refers to fruited, yeasted buns, which are toasted and eaten with butter. Perfectly good, of course, but austere compared to the idea of a biscuit topped with bouncy marshmallow and encased in a crisp shell of chocolate, very slightly bitter and dark to offset the intense sweetness of the white goo within. Scots are often stereotyped as dour and austere, but these national characteristics do not extend to their taste for teacakes.

Teacakes which, as it turns out, were fiddly and somewhat time-consuming but ultimately not that hard to make. Yes, you require a specialist mould to make the teacakes, though given my love of baking kit, this wasn’t particularly off-putting to me (it helps that you need a silicone mould – much easier to store than rigid metal tins). Yes, there are several components: the biscuit, the marshmallow (which happens to be vegetarian, which is exciting news), the chocolate shell. But on their own none of them are hard and you can break up the tasks and do them over different parts of the day.

I made these on a boiling hot day and was obliged to refrigerate them so that the chocolate would set; if you can, avoid chilling them, however, because once you do the chocolate loses its shine. However, if needs must, a dull homemade chocolate teacake is probably going to be better than no teacake at all.

The recipe is 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 eight (biscuit week) of series three: six chocolate teacakes.

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Baking challenge: nostalgie des pique-niques

Twisted red pesto loaf

When it came to this challenge, and the making of a celebration loaf, I tried to think properly about what kind of bread I’d make to mark a happy occasion. In winter, I doubtless would have thought of rich enriched breads like chocolatey babka, cherry-studded strudel or marzipanny stollen. But it’s summer, and hot, and I was wondering if there were savoury breads I could celebrate with, and immediately this came to mind.

Shortly after my second year of university, with exams over, I organised a picnic in Regent’s Park. All my friends came, and they brought their friends: we sprawled out on the grass and laid out heaps of food. It was very hot (like now!), and very sunny (like now!), and the grass was very green. It was a golden, joyful afternoon, still one of the happiest ever in my memory. I was not always very carefree at university but I was completely happy that day, laying on the picnic blankets, nibbling at the sausage rolls and clementines and crisps and watching my friends climb trees.

red-pesto-twisted-loaf.jpg

Like with many joyful things, it is an atmosphere I have tried to recapture, but no other picnic has ever been quite as wonderful as that one. Time has generated fissures and fractures between groups of people, which mean you can no longer bring them together (or if you do, you spend a lot more time managing relationships and pouring oil on troubled waters than feeling the grass shoots tickle between your fingers and looking up at the blue, blue sky). More pertinently, the challenge of gathering such a large, happy, uncommitted group together on a bright, hot, sunny day in the middle of London would probably be impossible. We rolled on the grass from noon until early evening that day; now we’d scatter much earlier, all the better to visit parents, or study for professional exams, or simply prepare for the long working week ahead. Between second and third year, I had no such professional timetable to worry about.

The food, that day, is both memorable and completely unimportant: I can remember smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwiches, cheddar and onion crisps – but most of it blends into a happy blur of salt and sweet and juicy citrus. The food did what food should do: it was not the centrepiece, it did not attract attention: it brought people together to eat and talk and run around and eat some more, until the sun went down and the evening grew cool and deep blue.

I do remember what I made for this picnic, which was a Jamie Oliver recipe for something called a rolled bread sandwich – bread dough stuffed with ham and basil and cheese (the recipe also includes hard-boiled eggs but I didn’t include those). I also made a vegetarian version with feta and spinach, i.e. a bread spanakopita, which was much appreciated by the vegetarians present, which in my group of friends is about half.

What I’ve learned from my many attempts to recreate that golden afternoon on the grass is that you can’t go back in time again; you can’t recapture a flavour and a feeling and the ease of pleasurable conviviality simply because you want it. And, similarly, I have opted to not recreate the recipe exactly, but to make a savoury bread which would remind of that day, and yet be something different. This recipe for sundried tomato pesto bread is adapted from one in ‘Het Hartige Bakboek’ [‘The Savoury Baking Book’] by Rutger van den Broek, the first winner of Heel Holland Bakt, the Dutch version of the Great British Bake-Off. I was attracted to this particular recipe because of the use of semolina, which gives the otherwise basic white bread recipe some character and a more robust, chewier texture that stands up well to the nubbly, salty filling.

The swirl looks impressive but is incredibly easy to do. It amazed everyone at the house party to which I brought this loaf, and I felt slightly guilty about the skewed effort-to-amazement ratio.

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 showstopper challenge for week seven of series three: a celebratory loaf.

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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: krautstrudel

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 six (pudding week) of series three: a large strudel.

Krautstrudel

Although this blog is packed with sweet recipes, in my day-to-day life I don’t eat a crazy amount of sugary food, in the name of my waistline and my teeth and my pancreas. Sometimes I get a bit wearied from the steady procession of sweet things made in the name of this (actually very fun) challenge over the years: when there’s a savoury option in sight, I will often take it. So it was exciting to find out that there was more to strudel than the apple or cherry versions found in my local Lidl at Christmas (though there’s nothing wrong with those). So although this was nominally made for ‘pudding week’, this cabbage strudel (don’t click away, it’s delicious!) is actually a hearty main course. The tender cabbage is studded with salty shreds of bacon, and both are wrapped in flaky, buttery, crisp strudel pastry, which retains its toothsome, very slightly chewily crispness for several days without descent into sogginess.

The recipe for krautstrudel comes from Luisa Weiss’ encyclopedic, beautiful labour of love Classic German Baking. It’s a gorgeous and fascinating book – meticulous as you’d want a baking book to be, and both informative in a more scholarly way as well as personal. Weiss is an enthusiastic ambassador for German cuisine, particularly the country’s baking heritage. (Weiss herself is, as she notes, half Italian, half American, although she lived in Germany as a child and now again as an adult; I recognise some of the feeling of her delight with her adopted country’s cuisine and culture, as a Belgian living in Britain. The love of a country which both is and isn’t your own is, for me anyway, as strange – and sometimes melancholy – as it is lovely).

Cabbage strudel slice - close up

I did adapt the recipe slightly: I didn’t have caraway seeds in the house when I was making this, and used a good scraping of nutmeg instead. While the bright aniseed flavour of caraway would be utterly delicious, the warming muskiness of nutmeg works very well too. I think it’s a little more wintery than caraway. While a cabbage strudel does sound like winter food – brassicas are very much considered winter vegetables in Britain – Weiss does write that this kind of thing is eaten in Germany in the summer months when the first fresh, tender new cabbages start to emerge from the field. And it makes sense: a European (and British) summer is a fragile, changeable thing, one day hot and muggy, the next cool and blowsy with rain and high winds and shivering under thin blankets at night.

Strudel filling
The strudel filling – such bright cabbage!
Rolling up the strudel filling
Rolling up the filling, using a tea towel to guide it

My top tip when making strudel dough, if making it for the first time, is not to worry too much about any holes or tearing as you go, and definitely do not do what I did and try and scrunch your stretched-out dough back together to re-stretch. The stretching process makes the dough a little more brittle and dry and it will break apart rather than coming back together into a silky dough. I had to make the dough again from scratch (not actually that hard) – it certainly isn’t reusable once stretched. Even if it tears or holes form, once you roll the strudel up, any patchiness is adequately compensated for by the layers you’re forming. But I do highly recommend making the dough yourself rather than using filo, which many recipes recommend as a substitute. Filo pastry is brittle and shatters with every mouthful, and a strong buttery flavour from being (typically) soaked in the fat before baking; strudel dough is also crisp, buttery and rich, but it has a bit of tenderness and is more pliant and chewy than filo.

Recipe below the jump, as ever.

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Baking challenge: dethroning the Queen of Puddings

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 six (pudding week) of series three: a Queen of Puddings.

Queen of puddings

I like British food. I always feel bad that it has such a poor reputation globally, since the decline of British cooking really comes from the hardship of rationing during – and after, of course – the Second World War, when British cooks had learned to rely on powdered egg, corned beef and old heels of leaden bread to keep themselves and their families fed. Before that, British food was creative, adventurous, and even sustained a good reputation in Europe – it wasn’t all the boiled vegetables of popular imagination. I’ve leafed through plenty of original magazines from the 1910s in the British Library and some of the recipes are surprisingly fresh and modern sounding. Contemporary British cooking, of course, draws on influences from around the world as well as relying on local, seasonal and traditional flavours and techniques.

Mary Berry's Queen of puddings

But for all that I believe British food is irrationally maligned, I don’t like, or even understand, Queen of Puddings (and this ain’t my first time at the Queen of Puddings rodeo). Like many recipes with a long history, it is breadcrumb-based, consisting in this case of a lemony breadcrumb-thickened custard, topped with a river of red jam, topped with a crown of lightly toasted meringue. The end result is gloppy, sticky, and very sweet, and it doesn’t keep well, either, as the meringue starts to droop and weep into the other components if it sits out for a bit. For me, this is no queen, but a mere pretender to the throne – the Perkin Warbeck of British desserts, if you will. On account of its acute sweetness, however, I can imagine children liking this. And if you do like Queen of Puddings, Mary Berry’s recipe (below) is certainly a good and reliable one, producing pretty picture-perfect results.

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Baking challenge: little marmalade and sticky toffee fig steamed puddings

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 signature challenge for week six (pudding week) of series three: two different sponge puddings, each served with a different sauce, six of each.

Mini marmalade steamed puddings
Mini marmalade steamed pudding

Running through almost every Belgian I’ve ever known, like a seam of quartz through rock, is an inexplicable Anglophilia – inexplicable because it seems to pulse through Belgians who’ve never visited Britain and have no immediate familial or cultural links to the country. Is it because of Britain’s eventual support for our little country following the 1830 Belgian revolution, when a sentimental song at the opera spurred patriotic (anti-Dutch) riots? Because Britain housed 250,000 Belgian refugees fleeing the German invasion during the First World War? Because Belgians really, really enjoy EastEnders?

Whatever the cause, Belgian Anglophilia is matched by no little bemusement towards British habits. After all, Brits eat stew with mash, rather than the proper accompaniment of frites; they drink pint after pint of weak beer, rather than a modest glass of 8% ABV; and when they do eat chips, they fry them to a crisp toasty brown and sprinkle them with malt vinegar to add insult to injury. But most bemusing of all is…the pudding.

“In Britain,” my grandmother declared one day, “They call everything PUDDING.” As I digested this statement, she leaned forward and added, “Here, the only thing WE call pudding is…PUDDING.”

Figgy sticky toffee pudding
Figgy sticky toffee pudding

You see, like in North America, ‘pudding’ in Dutch (same word, though it sounds slightly different) typically refers to custard (or sometimes jelly)-based soft desserts (like Angel Delight or those Alpro Soya long-life custards), whereas in Britain, of course ‘pudding’ usually means simply a dessert course. This terminology is, for some reason, endlessly amusing. (Notwithstanding this general bemusement, one of the most masterly books on the market about British puddings was in fact written by a Belgian).

For my twelve steamed puddings, I chose to make a marmalade pudding – mostly, admittedly, for the very smug-sounding reason of having an excess of homemade marmalade on my shelves after preserving fever hit me. I adapted a recipe from Justin Gellatly for this, adding orange zest for additional freshness and zip, and baking them as mini puddings rather than one large one. It’s served with an alcohol-spiked custard for absolute indulgence. The other recipe is Gizzi Erskine’s, and is a deliciously fig-laden version of classic sticky toffee pudding, accompanied by a lusciously sticky sauce. (Yes, both are pretty wintery, but although it’s high summer for now, British summer evenings can still get pretty cold, you know…).

Recipes are below the jump, as always.

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