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sweetener (one of those sugar-based products which inexplicably taste like they’re good for you), but it’s long been superseded by very sweet, light-coloured golden syrup, which gives treacle tart its agreeable sunny colour.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: 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.


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.


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: return on a roulade

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 six (dessert week) of series two: Mary Berry’s chocolate roulade

Roulade slice
Roulade slice

Well, another round. I admit to having lost a bit of my baking and blogging mojo for a while. Not because I don’t still love baking – every time I do it I am reminded of how much I really do love it; and not because I don’t love the writing, because again when I get down to it it’s exciting and stimulating and time just flies by. And not even because of being in the fourth month of my diet, even though sweets and 1200-calories-a-day really don’t go at all (I have to spend a lot of time at the gym to earn myself some cake, but the results have absolutely been worth it!). No, it’s been something much more prosaic: simply not having much time between work and social commitments. Once upon a time, I did a part-time MA (well, I only graduated in April!) and I can’t imagine how I did that, in retrospect. No wonder I was always ‘very tense’, as my boyfriend delicately put it (he meant prone to lashing out in angry, tearful snaps in lieu of words).

Whenever I look at other blogs I see beautifully styled and well-lit photographs that glow from within. I tend to take my photographs in artificial light (because most of my cooking and baking is done when I get home from work) seconds before I start digging in. So I hope I can describe how really lovely, and simple, this roulade is, even if my photos may not do it full justice.

The making of the roulade
The making of the roulade

First of all, this Mary Berry is utterly unfancy, and, compared to many rich, exotically-flavoured cakes which are absolutely packed with nuts and fruit and alcohol and what have you, actually quite plain. Its appeal is based on the almost universally loved contrast between bitter chocolate and soft, fluffy white cream, which cuts the bitter edge despite not being sweetened. I found the sponge had a tendency towards dryness – you will need to watch it like a hawk to ensure it doesn’t overcook because, with a sponge this thin, it can easily happen. But even if you do it’s quite frankly not so much of an issue because the cream will provide the requisite moisture. There is something quite old-fashioned about it, even though the generous quantity of eggs, sugar, chocolate and cream mean it would have been quite a luxury in days gone by.

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Baking challenge: it was a (brandy) snap

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the technical challenge for week four (biscuits week) of series two: brandy snaps.

So I completed the technical challenge a while ago. What’s a while, you may ask. Well, I made these on Christmas Eve, while watching Skyfall with my boyfriend. Skyfall was amazing, if – as someone living in London – somewhat chilling, especially the chase scenes in the Underground. And yes, I have checked, and it would have been possible for James Bond to make the jump onto the back of that Tube train. If, you know, monumentally risky. Don’t try this at home.

Mary Berry's brandy snaps
Chunkily crocheted brandy snaps

Anyway, baking and rapidly revising one’s estimation of the Bond genre simulataneously is quite the juggle! And these brandy snaps were by no means perfect. The idea was to have twelve perfectly evenly-sized, lacy, delicate biscuits, shaped into loops, around a fatty, contrasting cream filling. Instead, I think my initial dropping mixture was too thick and they were all different sizes and very thick; the fine honeycomb lacing was more like chunky crochet. However, considering my dislike of fiddle and faff – something I am having to rapidly overcome with this baking challenge – I don’t think it was a terrible first effort. Doubtless Mary and Paul would have disagreed and sent me to the bottom of the row. I also think they were a little too dark – but actually I liked that darkness, the depth of caramelly flavour the extra baking time imparted. I can’t say I wouldn’t do it again.

Shaping the brandy snaps - easier than it seems
Shaping the brandy snaps – easier than it seems

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Baking challenge: tarte au citron

<trite insertion about being busy, not spending time baking or writing or following up on the challenge. True, but trite nonetheless> And happy new year! I think I made this tart sometime in October or November, so as you can tell I really am quite behind.

Lemon desserts are delicious, and tarte au citron must be the most delicious of all, irresistibly combining sharp citrus and cream (as well as – ideally – crisp, buttery pastry). I find most tartes au citron irresistible yet, in their coffee-shop incarnation, often disappointing: sweet, with glazed pastry baked to the colour of mahogany and the texture of terracotta. Sad times. Yet I had never made a tarte au citron, despite this – mainly because my boyfriend doesn’t enjoy them, meaning I would end up eating it all. I made this technical challenge bake (Mary Berry’s choice for series two, episode two…gosh, I have a way to go yet) when some friends came round, but still ended up eating most of it: it was just so irresistibly zesty and fresh, with that melting texture I just wanted to experience over and over again.

However wonderful the finished product, it can’t be denied that Mary Berry’s instructions were fussy and impractical, at least for me. I tried to follow her meticulously laid-out instructions for rolling out the pastry on the base of the tin, but I found this method fussy and tedious, and it just didn’t work for me – the pastry kept cracking on the hard edge of the tin base and breaking off. In the end I balled up the pastry in frustration, rolled it out again and patted it smooth, and lined the tin in the normal way (i.e. roll out and drape in the tin). The instructions below are therefore modified to reflect this. This glitch aside, this lemon tart is absolutely stunning: very simple, very sensible (no need to chuck or set aside five egg whites) and extremely delicious.

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Baking challenge: a technical coffee-walnut Battenberg

I am falling slightly behind on the baking challenge – I have actually mostly caught up to my posts and now I just have to press on with the actual baking. However, I have been distracted by watching the actual Great British Bake-Off, series four, and by September, which is a busy month at work and personally (birthday!). It’s good fun, even though I kind of regretted starting this challenge when I saw they had to make filo pastry in this series. It looks so hard to roll it out thinly! Surely making filo at home is only for the slightly mad?

Unlike filo pastry, the Battenberg cake – a Mary Berry recipe and the technical challenge for the first episode, second series of GBBO – was actually quite easy to put together, even if my result wasn’t entirely even. I have seen The Hairy Bakers make Battenberg cake in a dedicated specialist tin with metal strips dividing the pan. Although I am not really one who needs much convincing when it comes to buying single use kitchen appliances and accessories, I mentally drew the line at a Battenberg cake tin. I do not like Battenberg cake very much and only made it for this baking challenge. Fortunately, Mary Berry is made of sterner stuff and provides instructions in her recipe for constructing your own cake divider out of baking paper. She says baking paper, but I think that you will need some foil-lined baking paper to create a sturdier divider, just as they used on the show (you can buy it at Lakeland, as noted below, which also appears to stock half the show just based on a brief glance at the GBBO set and Lakeland shelves). Presumably Mary recommended plain old baking paper as it’s easier to get hold of.

Despite the need to construct things with baking paper and string (I didn’t bother with the string. String? Do people keep that around? I may be adult enough to wipe up spills, recycle empty wine bottles and keep a little stash of rubber bands in my cabinets…but not enough to hoard kitchen string. Sorry Mary).

Incidentally, I thought I’d mention my favourite GBBO round-ups from the Internet. GBBO, by its nature genteel, charming and likeable – with equally likeable ‘characters’ whose loveliness is often approvingly contrasted to contestants on The Apprentice – with fairly low stakes (I mean, we are talking baked goods rather than heart surgery, and winning a trophy and a bunch of flowers) lends itself to some pretty funny, good-humoured writing. The dramatic incidental music and editing also leads to wry commentary, as does Paul Hollywood’s oft over-the-top judging. Some of the funniest writing on the GBBO has come from forums and blogs.

Most of the main newspapers do round-ups/summaries/recaps/what-have-yous of the GBBO, but I like The Guardian’s the best: funny, affectionate, and lacking the occasional sneering that some recaps from other newspapers have featured (not mentioning any names, of course…). The Guardian’s blog reads like it was written by someone who actually likes the show, whereas some of the others seem to be written by people who disdain it rather.

I really enjoy the episode summaries from Stuck in a Book, which is primarily a literature/book-y blog. The writer started rounding up series three quite late in the series, showcasing a love for Sarah Jane, the vicar’s wife, and Cathryn ‘Oh-my-giddy-aunt’ Dresser, but it was worth the wait, and series four has been recapped. A blogging break was recently announced but there are plenty of episodes to catch up on. A favourite feature is the Official Andrex Puppy Most Adorable Mary Berry Moments.

A devastating though sadly short and one-off description of GBBO is available on a forum. Although only a paragraph, it’s a description that I have come back to time and time again. Paul Hollywood described as “a chubby bloke with a beard […] with a mafia-like ‘Do I amuse you’ stance” pops into my head every time they zoom in on him chewing. I can’t even read this out to my boyfriend because I laugh so much.

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