Monday, 15 December 2014

Fig, Chocolate and Ginger Panforte

This marks the true start of my Christmas baking, as Panforte is something which keeps for ages if well wrapped or in an airtight container. According to which source of information you choose, it will keep for anything from 2 weeks to several months, which is just as well, as it's so rich that it will only get eaten a sliver at a time. It's the sort of thing that you eat with your evening coffee, or that might appeal to someone who prefers confectionary to desserts.

Although Panforte is something I've been meaning to try for years, what prompted me to make it now was two of this month's cooking challenges. We Should Cocoa wants participants to pair chocolate and figs, and AlphaBakes is using the letter X this month, and will be accepting 'X = Xmas' recipes!

Panforte is an Italian fruit and nut cake, original from Siena, and traditionally only eaten at Christmas. As explained in the link, because the basis of the cake is a boiled syrup made from honey and sugar, the texture of panforte is more like nougat or toffee than what we usually expect from 'cake'. Chocolate is a relatively modern addition, although most recipes nowadays contain at least a little cocoa.

I decided to go for a double chocolate version, and to also add figs and crystallised ginger, as in this recipe. This was one of the first recipes I found when looking for 'fig and chocolate' recipes, but as I researched further, I realised that it might not be the best recipe to use. Many of the more traditional recipes used a variety of old-fashioned spices such as cloves, pepper and nutmeg as well as cinnamon, and most used a much smaller quantity of flour. Panforte is also often baked on a base of edible rice paper (or communion wafers), which would have made it easier to remove from the baking tin before the days of non-stick bakeware.

The problem was, the more I researched, the more confused I got about which recipe to actually use - some cooked the dried fruits in water, or added wine, or boiled the sugar and honey with butter too. Some recipes made huge cakes - suitable for feeding dozens of people for several weeks, and some recipes made something which was more like a refrigerator cake - no cooking at all!

In the end, I decided to base the recipe on the basic ingredients required to make an 8" diameter (20cm) cake, in a recipe from one of my own cookbooks, but to vary the added ingredients according to my instincts in order to make something like the original fig, chocolate and ginger version. I used the spice mix from my basic recipe too, as it seemed in line with several other recipes, although I used nutmeg instead of mace.

The one thing I did differently from almost all the recipes I found was to leave the added chocolate in large chunks; I knew it would melt in the heat of the syrup, but hoped that little pockets of richer chocolate would be left in the finished cake.

Ingredients
200g blanched almonds
200g dried, but soft, figs
60g crystallised ginger
100g plain chocolate
50g plain flour
50g cocoa
zest of one small orange
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (freshly grated)
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon cinnamon
100g runny honey
100g caster sugar
Rice paper - optional

Method
First toast the almonds lightly in a 180C oven for 10 minutes, then cool and chop coarsely. Reduce the oven temperature to 160C
Grease a loose-bottomed 8" sandwich tin, and line the sides with baking parchment. Then cut a sheet of rice paper to fit the base (or use more baking parchment).
Cut the figs and ginger into pieces about the same size as the chopped nuts.
Mix the flour, cocoa, orange zest and spices in a bowl, the add the figs, ginger, almonds and coarsely chopped chocolate. Mix to evenly coat the fruit and nuts in the flour mixture.
Gently heat the sugar and honey in a medium sized pan, until the sugar has dissolved. Then bring to the boil and heat until the temperature reaches 115-120C on a sugar thermometer. Many recipes say boil for three minutes, so without a sugar thermometer, this is what I'd suggest.
Remove the pan from the heat and add all the other ingredients; you'll need to work quickly to mix everything together and will look initially as if there isn't enough syrup, but it will eventually come together. When everything is evenly mixed, tip the ball of ingredients into the centre of the baking tin. Use the back of a wet spoon to spread out the dough evenly to the edges of the tin.
Bake for 40 minutes.
Cool in the tin, then remove the baking parchment and store in an airtight tin, wrapped in foil.
Sift over icing sugar before serving. I have the feeling that this stage will need repeating at intervals, as the sugar dissolves.

The smell of spices, chocolate and orange, as this baked, was amazing. Once it was cold, I cut out the small sliver shown in the photograph, for research purposes, and it was very chewy, reminiscent of nougat. The chocolate and spices blended well with the figs and nuts but the best part was getting a nugget of crystallised ginger to chew on, which gave an extra burst of flavour in the mouth. Looking at the photo, I may have been successful in getting separate areas of chocolate too - there's definitely a darker patch in the middle!

We Should Cocoa (rules here) is hosted by Choclette of Chocolate Log Blog; she often has guest hosts, but this month is running the challenge herself.

AlphaBakes (rules here) is hosted alternately by Caroline, of Caroline Makes, and Ros, of The More Than Occasional Baker. Caroline is this month's host, choosing X, to make things easier for us during the rest of the year!.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Maple Syrup Gingerbread

Although this is one of the low-saturated fat recipes I tweaked into something good a couple of years ago, when CT was at home and needed a low fat diet, I've carried on using it as it produces a light, but moist and sticky, gingerbread. The surface of the cake goes on getting stickier with time, as should all good gingerbreads!

This time, I didn't have the golden syrup I expected to find in the store cupboard, so I used maple syrup instead. This is a cake strongly flavoured with ginger, cloves and black treacle, so I think the maple syrup was somewhat overwhelmed, but it did mean I could get on and make the cake I'd planned - comfort eating for cold weather!

The recipe can be found on this post, and it's simply a matter of mixing the syrups and the flour mixture into the beaten egg, sugar and oil, in alternate portions. I've never had it fail before! This time, however it ended up with a huge dip in the centre. Strangely, even with the dip, the texture seemed uniform throughout the cake, so I'm not sure what happened to produce it. It certainly wasn't undercooking, but may have been over mixing or mis-measuring the raising agent.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Pineapple Mincemeat Tart

with coconut crumble topping.

I might have gone a step too far here, in a bid to make something different for Christmas, but at least I've tried it out on just the two of us, rather than jumping straight in and making it for guests.

It started with the idea that a crumble topping would speed up the process of making a large quantity of mince pies - half the rolling out, less fiddle with putting tops and bottoms together etc. Then I thought about the fact that I usually add extra apples, oranges or cranberries to bought mincemeat to make it less sweet and a more personal recipe. Adding  chopped nuts to the crumble topping would add an interesting texture too. While I was playing around with ideas, I remembered the fresh pineapple which needed eating - why not try a tropical variation of a mince pie, with pineapple in the mincemeat and coconut in the topping?

I decided to try out the concept in one big tart, rather than fiddle about with individual pies - mainly for speed of getting things done. The base was basic shortcrust pastry with no sweetening, used to line a shallow 22cm diameter flan tin. The filling was 250g mincemeat, 150g of finely chopped fresh pineapple and a teaspoon of ground rice (to absorb any excess fruit juice), spread straight onto the raw pastry. The topping was a crumble mix made by rubbing 50g coconut oil into a mix of 50g plain flour, 50g porridge oats and 35g caster sugar. I intended to add desiccated coconut to the topping, but only had flaked coconut available, so tried to break the flakes up a little as I added 25g to the crumble mix. This was sprinkled evenly over the tart filling. 

I baked the tart for 20 minutes at 200C, then lowered the temperature to 180C and baked for another 20 minutes, covering the tart loosely when I lowered the temperature, as the coconut flakes were browning too quickly.

Although I liked the coconut in the crumble topping, I didn't think the pineapple added enough flavour to be worth using - it was overwhelmed by the spices in the mincemeat. I could just have easily have added a chopped apple for the same result, which was to give the mincemeat a fresher, more tart flavour, but not a noticeably pineapple one. So, I'll  be sticking to more traditional ingredients when it's time for Christmas baking, but I will be using a crumble topping in some form this year.

I've just noticed that this is my 500th blog post - I suppose that's a good enough time as any to be a little experimental!

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Date, Maple and Pecan Loaf

I've talked before about the difficulty of finding recipes which use enough maple syrup to justify putting the ingredient name into the title, especially if you're looking for a plain, everyday kind of cake. There are plenty of gateau-type cakes, with maple flavoured frosting, and plenty of cakes which use only a tablespoon of maple syrup, yet still thinks this is enough to add a maple flavour. It isn't, believe me!

Eventually, I found a suitable looking recipe for a Pecan Maple Loaf, and adapted it a little to make this Date, Maple and Pecan Loaf. I did a very rough conversion of the ingredients to metric weights, then rounded up to produce a recipe which looked right to my experienced eyes. I also added 100g of roughly chopped dried dates.

Ingredients
200g SR flour
180g softened butter or baking spread (see note)
100g caster sugar
3 large eggs
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
75mls maple syrup
100g roughly chopped dried dates
50g roughly chopped pecan nuts

Note - I used non-dairy spread, suitable for baking, as I had a tub to use up. I also left the tablespoon of milk out of the recipe to make this suitable for a dairy-free diet - the batter was very loose, so I couldn't see the point of adding the milk. Interestingly, I watched a TV programme (The Icing on the Cake - Nigel Slater) earlier this week, where the food scientist Peter Barham explained that baking spreads often make better risen cakes than butter because the water content is higher than that of butter. This turns to steam during baking and helps give a bigger rise to the cake, as it is trapped within the setting batter.

Method
Prepare a 2lb loaf tin. (I lined the base and long sides of a non-stick tin with baking parchment). Pre-heat the oven to 160C.
Rub the fat into the flour and stir in the sugar.
Whisk together the eggs, maple syrup and lemon zest. Stir the wet ingredients into the flour mix, but do not over-mix.
Fold in the dates and pecans.
Transfer the batter to the prepared tin and bake for 70 minutes, or until a test probe comes out clean. Cover with foil if the cake seems to be browning too quickly (mine needed covering after 45 minutes).
Cool in the tin for 15 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack.

The optional frosting would probably have been very nice, but I didn't want to add extra sugar to an everyday cake, and it was fine without!

This was a delicious and light-textured cake, although the raw batter was very wet, and I worried needlessly that the dates and nuts would sink during baking. The maple syrup and lemon together gave a lovely flavour and was a good background flavour to the dates and pecans. The crumb texture wasn't super-fine, but I think that came from the rubbing-in method, which left little lumps of fat in the batter. A creaming method might have given a tighter texture.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Salt Caramel Flapjacks

A few days ago, I opened a tin of ready made caramel to make a toffee apple and pecan cake, which needed just 200g of the caramel. It turned out to be a waste of caramel, because although the cake was just about edible, it took twice as long to cook as the recipe stated, and was very dense and stodgy, and not particularly well-flavoured, as the added ingredients of apples and pecans were in quite small quantities.

As I was so disappointed with the cake, I decided not to even write a blog post about it, but you can follow the link above, if you want to know what to avoid!

That left me with roughly half a tin of caramel to use, and I also had some really good quality Sainsbury's gluten-free rolled oats that I wanted to compare with ALDI porridge oats and Tesco everyday value oats. Obviously, finding a recipe for caramel flapjacks was a priority, but it had to be a recipe that used the amount of caramel available.

It didn't take long to find this Annie Bell recipe for Salt Caramel Flapjacks. I was a little flabbergasted by the amount of butter, but I've cooked enough of Annie's recipes to trust her, especially as I was a little short on the amount of caramel needed. I had to use unsalted butter for the recipe, so added extra salt, in the form of 1 teaspoon of vanilla flavoured salt I happened to have in the store cupboard.

The recipe was simple to follow and quick to put together and cook. I cut the finished flapjacks into 16 portions - 25 seemed ridiculously small, although they would have been less calorific per portion! The results were absolutely delicious; my only criticism of the flavour was that I couldn't taste the salt. If (or, more likely, when) I make them again I will increase the amount of salt added. The flapjack was chewy and fudgy flavoured, and very rich. They were perhaps slightly on the crumbly side, but I think a few minutes extra baking will take care of that.

As for the oats - the gluten-free oats were miles ahead in quality - they were whole grains rolled flat, to make large crisp flakes. The Tesco everyday value oats were next in quality, with smaller, less crisp flakes ( I have to say that I've been using these for baking for years, with no complaints about the results). The ALDI porridge oats were very small pieces of flake, which probably make great porridge, but were too fine to give a good result if used on their own in baked goods. I think in future I will use a mixture of the Tesco everyday value and the gluten-free oats to improve the texture of things such as biscuits and flapjacks. But for things like cakes, where the coarser texture isn't as important, and perhaps not even necessary, I'll continue with just the Tesco oats.

I'm just in time to submit this recipe to this month's Tea Time Treats challenge, which is to produce food suitable for a bonfire night party. TTT is a cooking challenge hosted alternately by Karen of Lavender and Lovage, and Jane of The Hedge Combers, who is this month's host.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Hazelnut and White Chocolate Brownies

I whipped up a quick batch of brownies for CT to take home with him after he had dinner with us recently. I used my usual oil-based recipe, this time using sunflower oil and adding 50g chopped toasted hazelnuts and 50g of white chocolate chips, instead of all chocolate. 
 
 
They were as good as they always are - dense, moist and chewy, as a good brownie should be!

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Honey Breakfast Fruit Cake

 - from a recipe by Harry Eastwood.

This cake was made specifically for the AlphaBakes challenge, where this month's randomly chosen letter is H.

My baking books were surprisingly short of recipes containing ingredients beginning with H - hazelnuts featured heavily, but I've used them a lot lately, and wanted to avoid them if possible. Honey was the only other frequently used ingredient, so I set myself the task of finding a recipe for a fruit cake sweetened only by honey.  So many recipes are called 'honey (something or other)', only to feature a tablespoon or two of honey, supposedly added for flavour, in addition to the usual high amount of sugar found in most cakes and biscuits.

I'm not going down the route of claiming that a cake sweetened with honey is any healthier than a cake sweetened by standard sugar (they are both types of carbohydrates not really needed for nutrition), but I do think that if you are using honey for it's flavour, you need a fair amount of it in a cake!

However, Harry Eastwood's baking recipes (ooooh! an extra H there!) are special for being a little bit healthier than most. She uses added vegetables a lot, and tries to cut down on the amount of sugar and fat in her recipes. This cake, called a Honey Breakfast Fruit Cake, uses finely grated butternut squash to replace much of the fat  - the only fat comes from nuts and eggs - and the squash also has a natural sweetness which means less needs to be added in the form of honey. The cake batter is made from half flour and half ground almonds and is packed with dried fruit and chopped nuts. In fact, for the size of cake made, it's really fruit and nuts held together with a little cake batter!

I followed the basic recipe, but as I'm trying to finish some of the half-used packets of dried fruits and nuts in the storecupboard, I altered what I used from what was suggested in the recipe. Instead of raisins and cranberries, I used sultanas, cranberries and sour cherries, and instead of chopped almonds I used a mixture of almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts and peanuts. I also sprinkled some flaked almonds on top of the cake before baking.

This was a really delicious cake; the almond flavour was predominant, as you'd expect with the use of almond extract, but the lemon zest and the honey both made a noticeable contribution. Obviously, the cake will vary in flavour depending on what type of honey is used - I used a Fairtrade Guatemalan honey which wasn't produced from any specific flowers, and was just a generic 'honey' flavour.

The big surprise was that the absence of fat wasn't noticed, nor was the addition of  quite a large amount of grated butternut squash. The recipe stated to grate the squash finely, so I used a finer grater than I would have used if grating carrots for a carrot cake, and this made the vegetable vanish into the cake batter, only adding moisture to the texture.

I'm not sure this would convince me that it's good to eat cake for breakfast, but it is certainly a cake that's good to eat, and will go on my list of things worth repeating.

AlphaBakes (rules here) is a blogging challenge hosted on alternate months by Ros from The More Than Occasional Baker and Caroline from Caroline Makes. This month's randomly chosen letter H was picked by Ros, who will post a roundup of entries at the end of the month.