Baking challenge: my my, miss strawberry meringue pie

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 five (pastry week) of series two: a meringue pie.

During Wimbledon, it really gets crazy…and we eat strawberries and cream and root for our favourite tennis players. My boyfriend loves Roger Federer, and who can blame him? A beautiful man who plays a beautiful game. A man who can rock a cardigan and still look like a hero.

Who could blame a man-crush? - Roger Federer French Open 2015 by Carine06 from UK. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Who could blame a man-crush? – Roger Federer French Open 2015 by Carine06 from UK. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Personally, I’m always behind Andy Murray, which can be hard to justify since he doesn’t…make a habit of winning finals. For me, Murray is like an intrepid and determined schoolchild who works incredibly hard to achieve his ambitions and to reach the upper echelons, while Novak Djokovich and Federer are like the cooler kids who do everything flawlessly while also dressing really well and dating the hot cheerleaders and make it look easy. Yes, they may be fantastic, but who has more heart, eh?

Ladies and gentlemen, this is when personal psychology meets national sporting events. Because, let’s get real, Djokovich and Federer train incredibly hard too. But the more elegantly they play, the more I stubbornly root for Murray. (Though a part of me knows that only in tennis could you be ranked world number 3 and still be seen as a natural underdog). There is something elatable about that tenacity.

I’m not even British.

Right, back to baking, since this is, after all, a food blog. But it’s a food blog where baking and tennis intersected, be it ever so briefly. When I was thinking up what kind of meringue pie to back for the old baking challenge, I kept thinking that what I really wanted to make was an homage to the classic accompaniment to the Wimbledon Championships, strawberries and cream (it sounds really random now because I’m writing this up months after the event, but I baked it to serve at a Wimbledon Men’s Finals viewing party).

Strawberry meringue pie: naked filling
Strawberry meringue pie: naked filling. A tennis championship classic and baking intersected here

Well, it’s a classic for the viewers in the stands and at home – I doubt the players themselves are wolfing down sugary fruit and dairy once they return to their…tents/hotel rooms/wherever the hell they sleep. I mean, Djokovich doesn’t even eat gluten! Or tomatoes! Gluten and tomatoes – for the weak. Wimbledon grass – for the strong.

TENNIS TALK ENDS HERE

So, strawberry pie it was, with a thick, marshmallowy layer of slightly sticky meringue. The meringue I made was blasted with a blowtorch, which gives it an amazing toasted, scorched flavour. In fact I blasted every mouthful with the torch to ensure my portions of meringue were as toasted as they could get. Divine. A torch gives much more control than a grill – especially my grill, which is more smoke than heat.

A dazzling combination of sweet fruit and gooey, caramelised meringue - a match made in heaven
A dazzling combination of sweet fruit and gooey, caramelised meringue – a match made in heaven

I thought I’d made up strawberry meringue pie, as I’d never seen nor heard of it before, but no – people had gotten there before me. I contemplated making up my own recipe but opted for one from the enviably gorgeous Sift and Whisk blog. Blog envy: I have it. The photography, the lighting and styling – all beautiful. I’m more of a ‘throw on a plate, photograph for 30 seconds under murky yellow overhead light, eat dinner, wonder why photo isn’t all beautiful’.

This pie is filled with both fresh strawberries and a fresh strawberry filling thickened with tapioca. The recipe calls for the tapioca pearls to be ground and, although I tried using my mini food processor for this, as directed, it’s difficult for the blades to grind down such a tiny amount, and I’d recommend pounding with a mortar and pestle instead. I struggled to find tapioca pearls in standard supermarkets and ended up buying a bag from an Indian corner shop, where, predictably, they had multiple sizes of pearls and I came away with enough tapioca for the rest of my life and change from £1.00.

The recipe also calls for 1.25kg strawberries, and this was far, far too much when I made it. Since you both place cut strawberries onto the pie and pour over a strawberry puree filling, it really is much better to go by eye; once you have covered the circumference of your tart shell with the hulled berries, you’re done. I used slightly less than a kilo of strawberries in total, for both puree and whole fruit.

Finally: this is not a bake, slice and serve pie; it really benefits from lengthy and patient chilling at each stage so that the filling can set. Perfect for a make-ahead dinner party, less for a quickly dashed-off dessert to present to people who’ve just dropped by (for that category of visitor, make scones!). If you serve it soon after baking and assembly, the pie will taste nice but be decidedly leaky/sloppy.

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Baking challenge: who ate all the miniature pork pies?

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 five (pastry week) of series two: make six miniature pork pies with a perfectly cooked (of course!) quail egg in the centre.

Pork pies – who doesn’t love them? They are an essential part of British food culture, an indigenous tradition – and, much like the mince pie, not one I have taken to. Dense pastry and pork do not set this non-Brit’s heart alight, and the combination of eggs and meat is one I have serious difficulties with. I grew up in Singapore and scarcely ate any Chinese or Malay food when I lived there, and I’ve realised that the ubiquitous addition of eggs to meat stews and laksas had much to do with eat.

A tower of pies
A tower of pies

But to my British boyfriend and a dear friend these pies were truly delightful, with their fresh, meaty filling, the touch of bacon giving it depth of flavour, and the parsley a hint of freshness. For my boyfriend, the egg in the middle which was my personal nemesis was his favourite part – he described it as a ‘lovely surprise’ when he ate the first pie (as he wasn’t aware they were in there) and as something to look forward to. So there we go. It takes all sorts, really.

I actually ended up repeating this recipe (both batches eaten gratefully by the boyfriend and friend), and so below can go into some extra tips I picked up along the way.

Could have been more golden.
Could have been more golden.

A warning of sorts to those who may wish to try out this Paul Hollywood recipe for themselves: quail’s eggs are the very devil to peel. In the how-to video Mary recommends peeling the eggs as soon as they are cool, but even so I found it quite difficult.

This recipe is made not with shortcrust pastry, but the more traditional hot water crust pastry, which starts off life sticky but becomes dry and brittle relatively quickly. Work fast. I covered it in a damp tea towel in between rolling and stamping out the pie cases and tops to ensure it didn’t dry out. Don’t rest it as you would a shortcrust pastry. Lard – used in the pastry – smells disgusting, especially when melted, so be prepared. A food processor makes it easier to chop up all the pie filling, though be gentle – you don’t want to end up with a smooth, homogenous paste. Finally, I found using jumbo muffin tins about a thousand times easier to make the pies in than a standard-sized muffin tin.

Finally, reader – I did not make the gelatine. This was principally because the promised hollow or gap within the pie never materialised. My pies were crammed full of meat and egg and the filling didn’t shrink. It did bubble juicily out of the pastry, however, where it baked on sticky and black and actually looked quite appetising, I thought.

At risk of rambling I feel that I must add that although these are called ‘small pork pies’ they are by no means ‘mini’ – they’re small only relative to one of those huge full-size pork pies.

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Baking challenge: flaky family pie

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 five (pastry week) of series two: make a hearty family pie with rough puff or flaky pastry; no pastry base.

This savoury pastry dish combines two family favourites: pie and stew. I actually made much of this recipe up, as I got it into my head that I wanted to make an Irish stew pie (not least because I was serving it to friends, one of whom doesn’t eat beef but loves lamb), and none of my cookbooks yielded a recipe. In fact I thought I’d made up the concept completely, but Darina Allen refers to it in her magnificent Irish Traditional Cooking, although she found the recipe in a manuscript cookbook and says that she’s never heard of it in any other place. The recipe Darina offers up is very plain – meat, potatoes, onions – but my version is more colourful with vegetables (including carrots, which seem to be a controversial ingredient in Irish stew), although I think it retains an authentically simple flavour profile: just salt, pepper, parsley – and the parsley needn’t even be flat-leaf if you don’t mind (not that it’s easy to get hold of curly parsley anymore). The pie had substantive gravy (though it was thin – you will need to add thickener of some description if you would like it more gelatinous) and was utterly delicious: hearty, satisfying, quite warming, yet light and wonderful to eat. I thought it was really ideal for early spring, when the body starts hankering for lighter, brighter flavours but actually it’s still pretty cold and you need something that will stick to your ribs.

Irish stew pie
Irish stew pie

The flaky pastry recipe I used was from Delia Smith. I don’t always turn to Delia instinctively but this recipe is absolutely perfect, utterly simple, and explained very well (I find some Delia recipes quite pedantic and prescriptive). I have used this one for a number of years and frankly I think it is unbeatable. People always compliment me on the pastry when I make this version, even though it is very simple to make. The recipe produces light, delicately flaky layers, and many people mistake this flaky pastry for a much more involved puff pastry on account of how crunchy, buttery and multi-layered it is. Indeed the friends who I served the pie to thought it was puff pastry, and both are experienced bakers. I suggest that you tuck up the recipe and use it for all manner of things: rough handheld fruit pies, sausage rolls, apple turnovers.

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Baking challenge: 24 petit four

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 two of series two: make 24 miniature sweet tarts.

I was keen to cap off the third and final part of my series two pastry week challenge, but then I stalled. And stalled, and stalled, and stalled. I kept telling myself that it was because plans to see people kept being cancelled or postponed and I didn’t want to have lots of sweet things lying around at home to eat when feeling undisciplined (which is basically all the time). However, I think the length of time it took for me to get around to making these indicates that, although I love pastry work, my heart really wasn’t in making dozens of shop-window-perfect mini tartlets around the busy Christmas period. Further, I chose a really simple recipe for speculoos tarts that probably wouldn’t have won me any kudos were I taking part in the national baking competition itself.

Simple, however, can be good, and I had some of the most positive responses to these tartlets that I have ever had towards my baking. In fact, my friend Tina, who sampled them, immediately went shopping with me to buy the necessary ingredients and borrowed my petit four tins to make them for her boyfriend’s family, who she was staying with over Christmas. Eaten warm, these tartlets have a soft, heartwarming, spicey centre; eaten cold, they are like homely, brown-sugar meringues, with a crunchy, shiny texture.

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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: petit four and mini pastry challenge (Part II)

These little tartlets were for the second half of the pastry showstopper for the Great British Bake-Off baking challenge I have imposed upon myself. I’m doubly pleased I divided up the entry for this now that I see how long this one has turned out to be.

I made the tartlets about a week after the successful pastry canapes. The requirement was to make three different types of miniature tartlets: mine were raspberry-chocolate ganache tartlets, chocolate and orange-almond tartlets, and a lemon curd. I was inspired to make the chocolate-orange tartlets, with an orange-flavoured almond filling, owing to a log of almond paste sitting in my cupboard which I had bought from Scandinavian Kitchen on a whim when picking up some fresh yeast. I used the same batch of chocolate pastry, from Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess, for both the chocolate-orange tartlets (the pastry introducing the chocolate element) and the raspberry chocolate ganache tartlets.

The raspberry truffle tartlets were very rich, but the raspberry extract (you could also use raspberry liqueur if you prefer or extract isn’t available) and a sprinkling of freeze-dried raspberries, which I bought from Waitrose (so they are fairly easily available, along with freeze-dried strawberries and mango if you fancy that too), cut through the rich filling by bringing some much-needed tartness to the mix.

The third tartlet was perhaps the simplest, just filled with a low-fat (homemade) lemon curd and decorated with blueberries and more freeze-dried raspberries. The curd, made with a minimal amount of sugar, was tart and delicate. Personally I think I preferred them without fruit to cut through the lemon taste and silky texture, but it did make them look very pretty. I used a slightly sweetened shortcrust but as I could barely taste the sugar, I would recommend leaving it out if you like and substituting an equal weight of flour (to get half weight of fat to flour). I did have about three leftover shells extra which I just snacked on. Whether you have extra pastry left over or not will depend on the size of your tartlet tins – mine were very small indeed, true petit four tins.

My favourite was the lemon curd tartlets, my boyfriend like the chocolate-orange ones best and people at work very much enjoyed the raspberry chocolate ones – so there was something for everyone in the mix there!

Making all those tiny tartlets was a bit of a pain because, for the chocolate raspberry and lemon curd tartlets the tins had to be chilled before blind-baking, and this was a bit of a faff because I only had twelve tins of each of the petit four tins I used and this required me to chill, blind bake, line with pastry, chill etc in batches, so it took a very long time. The chocolate-orange tartlets were maybe the easiest to actually make, therefore, because the pastry didn’t require blind baking.

Incidentally, has anyone been watching The White Queen? I have been catching up and it is as implausible as the reviews all suggest. Everyone is basically a 21st century person in fancy dress, with effectively modern attitudes towards love, marriage and child-rearing; the characters are inconsistent (especially the weepy Warwick daughters); and the actors are forced to spout some truly diabolical dialogue, mostly about generating issue. Also, there is a supernatural element in the show which is, I think, meant to give modern audiences the impression that the women actually have more autonomy and power than they actually wield (answer: not much – it’s all about the baby-making, until they’re too old to bear children, after which they’re a bit more powerful). However, it’s not very intellectually taxing, so I can just about manage it. Also, it was shot in Belgium because Belgium is pretty and more medieval-looking than Britain, which is cool – there are a few Belgian actors and actresses in it – speaking English! Something pretty rare for most Flemish thesps.

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Baking challenge: petit four and mini pastry challenge (Part I)

Running a bit behind on the updating-the-baking-challenge front – I baked the following challenge when the weather was still cool and miserable and when making puff pastry was conceivable. Right now, Andy Murray  won Wimbledon (!!! – also, obligatory reference) a few days ago and we’re in the midst of the hottest, sunniest and driest days of the year (happy days), meaning any butter would puddle in slithery pools (appetising) rather than staying cold and hard and providing structure to the pastry. Still, onwards: this was the showstopper challenge for the ‘pastry’ week of series one of the Great British Bake-Off, and I was slightly nervous.

I have made cakes before, obviously, and biscuits and pastry. But I had never made any version of puff pastry before, and the prospect was a little scary, especially as I was planning to make the canapes for a book club meeting: I didn’t want them to be a greasy and unpuffy mess. The directions for the challenge were to make pastry canapes: three different savoury rough puff pastries and three different little sweet tarts (split across two posts because otherwise it would be way too long and tedious). I’m not superwoman so I had to split the challenge into sweet and savoury, making the savoury offerings first (blog imitates life, I guess!).

I used Michel Roux Snr’s recipe for rough puff from his Pastry book (I added an extra turn, and next time I want to try Paul’s book turn), which uses a proportion of 1:1 butter to flour; other rough-puff recipes I looked at used 50% of butter to flour or even used a mix of butter and white vegetable fat. I’m quite interested in trying that nexttime, but maybe the high quantity of butter was what made the puffs so crisp, light, flaky and wonderful to eat. Really, they were great; people only stopped eating them when I mentioned the butter to flour ratio. My three savoury concoctions were za’atar palmiers, olive straws (from Michel Roux’s book, which I obviously highly recommend!) and ad hoc caramelised red onion tartlets, which were the most popular (they were all made from one batch of pastry as I wasn’t about to make more than one batch, and there was plenty to go round). I’ve tried to give an approximation of the recipe below but really I just winged it on this one.

One of my friends referred to the za’atar palmiers as ‘moustaches’ which I thought was a beautiful description and captured the look of the palmiers. Given the popularity of novelty moustache items, these could be an interesting addition to the selection, or a suitable offering at a party with a vintage feel. I was most pleased with them because the appearance was really sharp and tight and honestly, for my first attempt at palmiers and at puff pastry, I thought they would be much more rough-and-ready looking. Instead they were impressive. Ditto with the olive straws, although they weren’t as popular as the moustaches or onion tarts.

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