Friday, 20 November 2015

Buttermilk Fruit Cake

When I decided to make a chocolate and banana cake, and was looking for recipes, I initially decided on a chocolate chip cake using buttermilk. When I changed my mind, I was left with a carton of buttermilk which needed using quite quickly, as it didn't have a long 'use-by' date. Another search for a recipe was on! This time I wanted something seasonal, not too big, and not too fancy.

This fruit cake recipe, found on Joy of Baking, which adds dates, spices and other dried fruit to a buttermilk cake batter, fit the bill perfectly. The recipe didn't need any eggs, which was quite intriguing, just relying on the action of bicarbonate of soda with buttermilk to raise the cake. I didn't have currants or raisins needed to follow the recipe exactly, but used 100g sultanas and 100g of a mix of chopped dried apricots, sour cherries and crystallised ginger instead.

Making the cake was straightforward - just mix wet ingredients into dry ingredients, then stir in the dry fruit, so only a saucepan, a couple of bowls and a spoon was needed. As my buttermilk was cold, I melted the butter in a saucepan, then added the buttermilk and just warmed it slightly. I also dropped my dates into the measured flour, then cut them into small pieces with scissors, rather than chopping them on a board - much easier.

The thing I really enjoyed about this cake was the spice mix; allspice isn't something I use often but it really worked well with cinnamon and nutmeg to give a warm and peppery background flavour to the dried fruit. Overall the cake was moist and well textured - the absence of eggs wasn't obvious.

Baking the cake in a 9" x 5" tin made what my mother would have called a 'slab cake' - something deeper than a traybake but shallower than normal for a cake. I think a smaller baking tin would have made a cake with better proportions, but it may not have cooked as well; I'm sure there was a good reason for that sized tin being used.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Banana, Chocolate and Brazil Nut Loaf

I started off this month's We Should Cocoa challenge, set by Choclette, at Tin and Thyme, feeling dubious that bananas and chocolate would work well together, and I'm afraid I still thought that after making this cake. I also thought, and this is something that rarely happens, that there was too much chocolate(!!) in this cake. It  could have been this factor that affected the banana/chocolate flavour combination adversely, as I've seen many recipes which are happy to put the two together. Strangely enough, when it came to melting the 170g of chocolate needed for the recipe (found here) I dithered for ages about whether to cut it back to 120g, but decided in the end to stick with the original.

I also decided to kill two birds with one stone (also known as putting one cake into two cooking challenges) by making this my entry into Formula 1 Foods, hosted by Caroline Makes, which has been celebrating the Formula 1 Grand Prix season by inviting participants to make something inspired by the host country of each round of the event. It could be traditional dishes or culture which gives inspiration, but I couldn't resist using Brazil nuts and chocolate, two ingredients which are grown in Brazil, where this weekend's penultimate race of the season is taking place.

I followed the recipe quite closely; I needed 4 bananas to get 1 1/2 cups, and used three medium eggs instead of two extra-large. I think my loaf tin might have been a different shape to the one used for the recipe, as my loaf took 90 minutes to cook (covered for the last 30 minutes) and I still wasn't sure it was ready when I took it out of the oven, as my colour-changing probe didn't turn to bright red, as it does when a cake is done, although it was dry and clean. The cake didn't rise a lot during baking and sank back as it cooled, which was a little alarming - I was worried about it being very heavy.

As I said earlier, I think this cake would have tasted better with either less chocolate, or perhaps using one with a lower cocoa content. It wasn't unpleasant to eat, but 170g of chocolate with 70% cocoa solids gave a slightly bitter edge to the flavour of the chocolate areas, and was very intense, The banana flavour of the cake was still quite distinct and the Brazil nuts gave a nice crunch (but not a strong flavour). The texture was quite dense, as I had feared, but not so much as to spoil the cake; I wonder if a little more baking powder was needed to counteract the alkalinity of the ripe bananas?

Most people would probably love this cake, but I'm afraid it hasn't converted me to thinking that bananas and chocolate is a good combination.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Marzipan and Cherry Loaf

When I plan my baking, and when I shop, there's always a little space in my mind for the baking challenges I like to do. I'm always hoping I can fit them into my plans, without going out of my way to  make something which wouldn't be happily eaten.

So when my husband had a Homer Simpson moment in front of a cake in Waitrose supermarket (Mmmm! Marzipan and cherry....) my immediate response was "I can make you one of those, if you really want it" and my participation in this month's AlphaBakes challenge was settled! M is for Marzipan.

I only made a small loaf, from a very basic recipe, because I didn't have many glacé cherries, and I also had other baking plans for later in the week.

I used the all-in-one method to mix the cake batter (200g SR flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 100g baking spread (softened butter would be fine too), 75g caster sugar, 2 small/medium eggs, 1 teaspoon almond extract and enough milk to give a dropping consistency), then folded in 70g halved natural coloured dark glacé cherries and 75g marzipan cut into very small cubes. I washed the syrup from the cherries before halving them, then mixed both the cherries and chopped marzipan with a tablespoon of flour from the weighed amount in the recipe. This can stop pieces of fruit sinking through a batter as it warms up in the oven.

I put the batter into a lined 1lb (450g) loaf tin, and scattered over another 25g of marzipan cubes and 1 tablespoon of demerara sugar. The cake was baked at 180C for 60-70 minutes, until a test probe came out clean and dry. Because the marzipan on top of the cake started to brown quite quickly, I had to cover the cake after 40 minutes.

I used marzipan with quite a high almond content, and cut down the usual amount of sugar a bit, but this was still a very sweet cake. The almond flavour was stronger than that of the cherries, possibly because of the added almond extract, but the contrast between the soft pieces of marzipan and the chewier cherries was good. I think, in hindsight, that putting some of the marzipan on top wasn't a good idea - cherries would have looked better, if I'd had any extra to use, and probably wouldn't have burnt.

AlphaBakes is a monthly challenge hosted alternately by Caroline at Caroline Makes and Ros at The More Than Occasional Baker. Each month a letter of the alphabet is randomly chosen, and then participants makes something using that letter as the first letter of a major ingredient or word in the name of the dish. This month, the letter M was chosen by Ros, who will post a round-up of entries at the end of the month.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Spiced Brownies

inspired by the history of chocolate in Central America and Mexico

I think most chocolate devotees will know that the first record of cocao trees dates back to the Olmec civilisation, which was to be found in the forests on the Gulf of Mexico as long as three thousand years ago. One of the first known uses for cacao beans was in a spicy bitter drink made by the Mayans, another ancient civilisation in Central America, around AD 300.

The Mayans used local spices to flavour the drink made from the cacao bean; one of the most often used spices was chilli, but vanilla, cloves, allspice, pepper plus nuts and flowers were also used. The sweeter spices such as cinnamon and aniseed started to be used when the drink was sweetened with sugar, around the 16th century. Nowadays, chocolate products flavoured with chilli and cinnamon are often given names alluding to their Mexican or Mayan heritage.

It was with this in mind that I decided that a spiced chocolate brownie was the best thing to make for the Mexican round of the culinary challenge called Formula 1 Foods, over at Caroline Makes. The idea is to make either a traditional dish eaten in that country or something inspired by the culture, traditions and ingredients found in that country.

I made my usual brownie recipe and added some suitable spices. I decided to go with subtle hints of chilli rather than a blast of heat, as well as using some of the less common spices used by the Mayans.

To a brownie batter made by melting 140g each of butter and plain chocolate together, then adding in turn, 300g light muscovado sugar, three eggs, 160g plain flour and 3 tablespoons of cocoa, I added a teaspoon of vanilla extract, 1/2 teaspoon of ground ancho chilli pepper, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground aniseed and a pinch of ground cloves. This was baked for 25-30 minutes at 180C, in a 20cm square tin.

This combination of spices proved to be just what I intended - warm (my jar of ancho chilli powder was described as warm and earthy rather than hot), and well balanced, with none of the flavours overwhelming the others. I think most people would be hard-pressed to identify any of the individual spices used, unless they had a well trained palate - even the chilli blended well with the other spices used.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Orange and Ginger Jammy Oat Squares

For someone who always declares that there is no point in making jam, as it rarely gets eaten by anyone in the house, I seem to have accumulated a lot of half-eaten jars of the stuff - each bought for a specific baking purpose, rather than jam-on-toast type treats.

In order to use up some of these remnants, I decided to make a jam-filled oaty traybake, rather than the flapjacks I'd been thinking about. I followed this recipe, and was halfway through rubbing the butter into the other ingredients when I realised that it wasn't a lot different to my standard mix for fruit crumbles. This worried me a little, as I then began to doubt that the crumbs would stick together to make a solid base, even after being firmly pressed.

For the jammy middle layer, I used a mixture of equal quantities of coarse-cut orange marmalade and ginger preserves, which contained small cubes of ginger.

I baked in a slightly smaller tin (20cm (8") square) as past experience has shown that many American recipes for traybakes produce something far too shallow. The cooking time was the same.

Metric conversion of ingredients - 130g plain flour, 100g rolled oats, 140g light muscovado sugar, 1/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda, 115g butter, 300g jam for filling. Reserve 170g of the mixture for the topping.

These oat squares were really delicious, although the jam in the middle soaked into the base, rather than staying in a separate layer - but that might have been all that held the oaty crumbs together! The combination of sharp orange marmalade and fiery ginger preserves was particularly good! They made a nice change from flapjacks, and were just as quick to make and bake, but I've used nicer oat mixtures in other bakes, so probably won't use this recipe again.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Date and Walnut Sponge Pudding

Dairy-free and gluten-free

The recipe I adapted for this gluten- and dairy-free  dessert calls itself a healthier version of a sticky toffee pudding. It comes from the Hemsley sisters who are well known for healthy eating recipes and I found it on the Vogue website. That's not a website that I would think to look at for recipes but it came up in a Google search for recipes using coconut flour.

While I'm all for healthy eating, that wasn't the aspect of the recipe that really interested me. What I wanted was a gluten-free recipe that could be adapted to be dairy-free as well. In this recipe the flour is replaced by ground almonds and coconut flour. The recipe also cuts out added refined sugar, relying on just the dates for natural sweetness. I wasn't convinced this would be sweet enough for those more used to normal puddings, so I added 75g of light muscovado sugar. I replaced the butter with coconut oil and added 75g chopped walnuts for texture and flavour (and also so that this dessert could be my contribution to this month's AlphaBakes challenge).

250g dried dates, roughly chopped*
1 1/4 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
200ml boiling water
100g coconut oil
75g light muscovado sugar
3 eggs (mine happened to be large)
200g ground almonds
pinch of ground cloves
20g coconut flour
75g walnut pieces

* I used a semi-dry date which was still quite moist and sticky. I cut each date crossways into three pieces with scissors - this ensures there are no pits left in any of them.

(I don't have a large food processor, so adapted the method in the original recipe to use a hand (stick) blender.)
Soak the dates in the boiling water and bicarbonate of soda for 10 minutes. While still warm, use a hand blender to purée the dates, and their liquid, with the coconut oil. If you can leave a few pieces of dates in the mixture it gives more texture to the pudding, so don't blend too much.
Transfer the date mixture to a large bowl and stir in the sugar, then beat in the eggs, one at a time.
Stir in the ground almonds and cloves, then sift over the coconut flour and fold in quickly. Lastly, fold in the walnut pieces.
Transfer to a baking dish (I used one roughly 20cm square), greased with coconut oil, and bake at 170C for around 45 minutes, until firm. You might need to cover the pudding towards the end of the cooking time, if it's getting too dark.
Cut into portions to serve while still warm - it should serve 8-12 people depending on appetite.

The resulting dessert was delicious but not really dark and sticky enough to call itself a 'sticky toffee' pudding in my opinion, so I've just called it a sponge pudding. It was surprisingly light, considering it was just raised by the bicarbonate of soda. Adding 75g of sugar seemed to make the pudding just about right to me, in terms of sweetness, so I'm not sure how enjoyable the original version would have been. However, it's certainly worth a try if so-called 'sugar-free' baking appeals to you - but remember that dried fruit such as dates contain a lot of natural sugar, so you're not cutting out all sugar!

Adding the walnuts, and leaving some pieces of dates in the blended mixture made the texture of the pudding more interesting - the walnuts added crunch and the pieces of dates added bursts of sweet caramel flavour. If you don't like nuts, adding some plumped up raisins or sultanas would keep some textural variations - I would soak them in orange juice or something similar, so that they didn't absorb too much moisture from the cake batter, as coconut flour needs all the moisture it can get to avoid making things really dry and stodgy. I didn't make the suggested sauce to serve with the dessert, as I needed to stay dairy-free, but it was very good with a little maple syrup poured over it, and served with natural yogurt.

AlphaBakes is a monthly challenge hosted by Caroline, at Caroline Makes, and Ros, at The More Than Occasional Baker. The idea of the challenge is to use a randomly chosen letter of the alphabet as the first letter of a prominent ingredient, or a word in the name of the dish made. This month, Caroline is the host, the letter is W, and I used Walnuts.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Peanut Butter and Jelly Brownies

Two of baking challenges that I like to take part in have the theme of  'America' this month. We Should Cocoa, which is guest hosted by It's Not Easy Being Greedy, wants participants to make something with an American theme, containing chocolate and the Formula 1 Foods challenge at Caroline Makes has reached the American leg of the F1GP circuit, so is inviting entries of any American inspired cooking.

On the face of it, American inspired baking, containing chocolate, is easy - I imagine almost everyone would suggest brownies at this point, but Devil's Food Cake and Mississippi Mud Pie spring to mind too. Once I'd decided to go with brownies (as they fitted in with my baking plans), I wanted produce a brownie with flavours that couldn't have come from anywhere else but America, which is why I ended up with the idea of adding peanut butter and jelly (jam) - a delicious combination which is rarely seen in Britain.

I looked at a few recipes online, and found various suggestions, such as making a batter with added peanut butter, or mixing it with cream cheese. I couldn't decide on the best approach until I found a blog post which said - take your favourite brownie recipe, and ripple in half a cup of peanut butter and half a cup of jam. Simple! So that's what I did.

My favourite brownie recipe involves melting 140g each of butter and dark chocolate, stirring in 300g of light muscovado sugar, three eggs and a dash of vanilla extract, then folding in 160g plain flour and 3 tablespoons cocoa. Once the batter was made, I put roughly 3/4 of it into a 20cm(8") square baking tin (lined with baking parchment). Then I dotted teaspoonsful of smooth peanut butter and 'cherries and berries' jam onto the batter, using about 125g of each. The remaining brownie batter was drizzled over the surface, covering some of the peanut butter and jam, but not all of it. Lastly, I used the handle of a teaspoon to mix the peanut butter, jam and top layer of batter together in random swirls, and scattered over 30g of chopped roasted salted peanuts. The brownie tray was cooked at 180C until firm but not too dry. The end point was difficult to  determine as a probe hitting peanut butter or jam made the mixture seem underdone. I think, having given it 40 minutes, that I over-baked this batch slightly. Next time I'll try a few minutes less.

Over-baking aside, these brownies were really good. Using the peanut butter undiluted by cake batter or cream cheese meant that the flavour was still strong, and the cherries and berries jam added little bursts of tart fruitiness. The crunchy topping of salted peanuts added another layer to the complexities of flavour and texture.

I was particularly keen to try peanut butter and chocolate together, as I recently tried a pack of peanut butter flavoured Oreo biscuits. I've seen these cropping up in a lot of blog posts recently, so was intrigued enough to try them when I saw them in stock in my local supermarket. What a disappointment! I couldn't taste the peanut butter at all, so it was no surprise to read the ingredient list and find there were no real peanuts in the biscuit filling - only 'flavouring'!

It's also been National Chocolate Week this week, so my post is just in time to celebrate that, although chocolate is part of my everyday life - I don't need a special week to celebrate it!

We Should Cocoa (rules here) is the brainchild of Choclette, who writes the Tin and Thyme blog, although she often has guest hosts to share the duties of taking in the entries and compiling the end of month round up.

Caroline, at Caroline Makes, started the Formula 1 Food challenge at the start of this season, because her boyfriend is an avid motor racing fan. It hasn't gained a huge following, but I've had a lot of fun trying to find foods from the various countries where the races have taken place. It's sometimes been difficult to find something which I feel competent enough to tackle. The last three races of the season are in Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi, the last of which sounds particularly challenging.