Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Apple and Raisin Muffins

Although I've lost a lot of weight over the last 5 years, I'm still a few kilograms short of getting into the 'healthy' BMI range, and I know that keeping weight off is going to be a lifelong struggle for me. Acknowledging that I'm always going to have to be careful about how much I eat means I'm still interested in TV programmes about weight loss, especially if cooking and providing recipes is involved. I'm watching Tom Kerridge's  current series (Lose Weight for Good) with interest, as he's also dealing, to some extent, with the psychological barriers to losing weight, as well as claiming to produce tastier low calorie recipes, using his knowledge and experience as a Michelin starred chef.

In view of all that, I really expected to like these Apple and Raisin Muffins, even though, in general, I don't like using low-calorie sweeteners in place of sugar. In his recipe, Tom reduces the sugar and fat content by using just a little honey, low-calorie sweetener and mashed bananas. He briefly cooks the apples in caramelised honey and adds spices and roasted sesame oil to give a boost to the flavour.

As I've used it in the past, and was relatively happy with it, I decided to buy Truvia (a no-calorie sweetener made from Stevia) to use as a sweetener, as it seems more natural to me than the other forms of sweetener available. Guided by the information on the pack, I used two teaspoons of Truvia, equivalent to 6 teaspoons of sugar. Other than that, I followed the recipe exactly. One point to note about the recipe is that you need to cook the apples in the honey ahead of any other preparation, as they take a while to cool down. Apart from this stage, the recipe is fairly standard and simple to follow. The muffins produced rose well and looked really good.

Unfortunately the looks promised much more than the muffins actually delivered! I found the texture quite stodgy, and the muffins stuck really firmly to the paper cases, to the extent that quite a bit of the muffin was lost (unless you want to scrape the case for every last crumb). I could have overlooked this if the flavour had been better, but I found the muffins quite bland; I couldn't taste the spices at all, even though I could still smell them in the baked muffin. In addition to that, the presence of the sesame oil was more of a scent than a flavour - after the first mouthful, I didn't really notice it. The pieces of apple were well flavoured, but didn't make up for the blandness of the crumb.

It's difficult to assess the claim that these are low calorie - 190 calories per muffin - as it's generally only muffins that claim to be healthy (and often found on diet and healthy eating websites) that give a calorie count. The nearest basic apple muffin recipe I could find, with no claims to reduced fat or sugar, contained 250 calories per muffin, but I'm afraid, even with a 20% reduction in calorie content, these disappointing muffins weren't worth the calories. 190 calories is quite a big chunk out of a restricted calorie diet, although I think Tom was suggesting eating them for breakfast, not as an extra treat. If you do want a treat there are a lot of tastier ways of using that number of calories - most involving chocolate, I have to say!

Monday, 1 January 2018

Hazelnut and Chocolate Chip Loaf

I think hazelnuts are my favourite nut to use in cakes, especially when paired with chocolate.They have a much deeper flavour than almonds, which often need almond extract added to get a really nutty taste. Chopped nuts are a good addition to cake batters, but replacing a small proportion of the flour with ground nuts adds both flavour and moistness. For many years I bought ready ground hazelnuts while on holiday in France, as they weren't readily available in the supermarkets here. The alternative, grinding your own nuts, can pose problems, as hazelnuts can become a greasy paste if overworked. So you can imagine that I was really pleased to see ground hazelnuts in Sainsbury's a few weeks ago.

This cake was made to have something fairly simple, and not too rich, on hand during the week between Christmas and New Year, for the mid-morning coffee breaks, when dipping into the leftover desserts or the chocolate boxes didn't seem quite appropriate. There's always the mince pie haters to consider, too!

100g softened butter
100g caster sugar
2 eggs (+ a little milk, if needed)
120g SR flour
30g ground hazelnuts
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
75g chopped plain chocolate (or chocolate chips)
30g chopped hazelnuts
1 tablespoon demerara sugar (optional)

Preheat the oven to 180C, fan 160C. Line a small (1lb) loaf tin.
This is an all-in-one mix, so put everything except the chopped chocolate and hazelnuts and the demerara sugar, into a mixing bowl and beat with an electric mix until the batter is smooth and evenly blended, adding a little milk if necessary, to give a dropping consistency.
Fold in the chopped chocolate and hazelnuts, then transfer the batter to the prepared loaf tin.
Smooth the top and sprinkle with the demerara sugar, if using.
Bake for 60-70 minutes, until a test probe comes out clean.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Fig, Chocolate and Ginger Panforte

This is a repeat of the recipe for Fig, Chocolate and Ginger Panforte that I made three years ago. This year I used gluten free flour and divided the mixture between two 6" (15cm) foil pie cases for baking, as I wanted to take one as a gift to friends, where I knew that some of the other guests required gluten free food. I also left out the orange zest, although, after tasting, my memory of the first one tells me that that it's better left in! I kept the baking time the same, as the smaller panforte were similar in depth to one large one.

Panforte is ideal for this time of year, as it is more like a confection than a cake, and seems to keep for ever once it is baked. I cut the cake that I kept for myself today, over three weeks after making it and it tasted just as good as the when first made. It's very rich, so best cut into small slivers for serving.


Sunday, 17 December 2017

Fig, Ginger and Chocolate Loaf Cake

This is a simple, small loaf cake, made by the rubbing-in method, so you don't even have to think far enough ahead to allow time for your butter to soften. It can be in the oven within a few minutes of gathering the ingredients together. You can add any combination of dried fruit, nuts, chocolate, spices and other flavourings to the basic cake recipe; I chose some of my seasonal favourites - dried figs, crystallised ginger and dark chocolate.

This recipe makes a fairly robust cake, but as long as the batter isn't too loose, it will support quite chunky pieces of fruit and nuts. This means that it's possibly to taste all the individual additions. The combination of figs, ginger and chocolate worked really well together, although a touch of spice and orange zest would have made it even more festive.

200g SR flour
100g butter or hard baking fat (such as Stork)
80g caster sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
milk to mix
*100-150g 'add-ins'
1 tablespoon demerara sugar (optional)

*  I used 50g each of dried figs, crystallised ginger and 70% chocolate, all chopped into similar sized pieces

Preheat the oven to 175C and line a small (1lb) loaf tin with baking parchment or use a loaf-tin liner.
Put the flour into a large bowl and rub in the butter, as if making pastry, until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
Mix in the sugar.
Add the egg, vanilla extract and enough milk to give a fairly soft batter - you'll need at least 5 tablespoons. Just stir the batter briskly - don't beat it!
Fold in your chosen 'add-ins'.
Transfer the batter to the baking tin, level the mixture and sprinkle with the demerara sugar, if using.
Bake for 60-70 minutes, until a test probe comes out cleanly.
Leave in the tin for 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Date Shortbread Squares

 - gluten-free, plus dairy-free option

This is an adaptation of my favourite 'shortbread squares' recipe, which comes from 'On Baking' by Sue Lawrence, to make it gluten-free. Instead of wheat flour and semolina, I used a gluten-free flour, ground rice and added a little xanthan gum. It's the shortbread part of the recipe which is so good - quick to make, as it uses melted butter, and very crisp and light after it's baked. Any type of filling can be used, such as mincemeat or re-hydrated and cooked dried apricots - just make sure it's not too wet; for this version I made the filling from dates flavoured with pomegranate molasses, cinnamon and a little rosewater.

225g dates - chopped
3 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
3 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon rosewater

255g gluten-free plain flour
85g ground rice
1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum
170g butter (or hard vegetable fat such as Stork*)
85g caster sugar

*see note at end of post

Preheat the oven to 190C (170C fan)

Start by making the filling. Put all the ingredients into a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Cover the pan, turn the heat to low, and simmer for a few minutes until the dates are soft. At this stage you can blend the filling until smooth, but I prefer to just mash the dates with a fork, to make a rough purée. You may also need to add a splash more water to make the purée easy to spread, if all the added liquid has been absorbed during cooking.

For the shortbread, mix the gluten-free flour, ground rice and xanthan gum in a bowl.
Warm the butter and sugar together in a small pan, until the sugar has dissolved, then pour onto the flour mixture. Stir well to combine thoroughly - the mixture will form a crumbly dough.
Put 2/3 of the dough into a 20cm (8") square shallow tin, lined with baking parchment, spread evenly and press down firmly.
Spoon over the date filling, spread evenly, leaving a small margin around the edges.
Use your hands to crumble the remaining shortbread mixture evenly over the dates to cover as much as possible, and press down lightly with the palm of your hand.
Bake for 30 minutes until pale golden in colour. Cut into squares (16) while still hot, but leave the squares to cool completely before trying to remove them from the tin, as they are fragile when warm.

My only criticism of these is that the added flavourings were a little too subtle - both the cinnamon and the rosewater could have been increased.

* Dairy-free: I made a second batch of these date shortbread squares which were dairy-free as well as gluten-free, using Stork vegetable fat instead of butter. The shortbread was a little more crumbly than when using butter, for some reason, and they didn't taste as rich, but the recipe was largely successful.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Apricot and Lemon Bread and Butter Pudding

I made this 2-portion pudding in individual dishes, but if it was made in one dish it could easily feed three people; I was a little too greedy! The ingredients list is a bit vague, because the only thing I measured accurately was the milk.

*4 thick slices of brioche, each about 10cm square
butter, softened
apricot jam
a handful of soft dried apricots, chopped
a small chunk of glacé lemon peel chopped finely (optional)
2 medium eggs
225mls semi-skimmed milk
zest of half a lemon
1 tablespoon caster sugar, plus a little more for sprinkling on top
freshly grated nutmeg

*or use plain white bread from a small loaf  - slightly stale bread can be used for this sort of pudding

Thickly butter two individual baking dishes, which have roughly 350mls capacity each (or use one larger dish).
Mix the apricots and peel together, if using.
Use more butter and some apricot jam (fairly thinly spread), to make two sandwiches with the brioche.
Cut the sandwiches into suitably sized pieces to fit into your chosen dishes - I cut mine into 8 tiny triangles to get a tight fit.
Share half the pieces of sandwich between each dish and sprinkle with 2/3 of the fruit.
Arrange the rest of sandwiches on top, trying to keep the top fairly level and sprinkle over the rest of the fruit.
Mix the eggs, milk, lemon zest and caster sugar together in a jug and divide equally between the two dishes. Leave to stand for up to an hour to allow the custard mixture to soak into the bread.
When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 180C (160 fan). Sprinkle a little more sugar over each pudding and then grate over some nutmeg.
Cook for 25-30 minutes, until golden brown and crisp on top. One large pudding might take a few minutes longer.

This was a tasty version of the standard B & B pudding - the touch of lemon, and the tartness of the dried apricots, cut through the sweetness added by the jam.

I apologise for the awful photo - I wanted to get the puddings fresh from the oven, as they deflate as they cool and don't look so attractive, so had to use flash.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Carrot and Feta Loaf

 I have a great fondness for savoury cakes - in the summer they make a good addition to a meal based on salad, and in the winter they are great with vegetable soups and even hearty meat stews, if you are careful about using complimenting flavours. This delicious Carrot and Feta Loaf, from this Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe (last recipe of the three), fed me for four days, without any need to cook extra carbohydrates for my evening meals. It was good with both a potato and leek soup and a vegetable chilli, amongst other things. Hugh suggests that savoury cakes make good pre-dinner nibbles with the first glass of wine, and these recipes can also be cooked in muffin tins, making them suitable for lunch boxes.

I followed the recipe exactly, although the loaf need another 10 minutes on the baking time, before I was satisfied that it was completely cooked through (I was using a colour-changing probe to test). The only thing I would do differently, in the future, would be to bake it in a smaller tin, to get a better loaf shape. The recipe specified a 1.5litre loaf tin, but I think a standard 900ml (2lb) tin would have been better, or the 20cm tin mentioned at the top of the recipe. As you can see from my photos, I got a very shallow loaf from my baking tin, which was 30cm long and 10cm wide.

The cumin in the loaf came through quite strongly, but blended well with the dill and cheese to give a well-balanced flavour overall - both the onions and the carrots were there as background, rather than principle, flavours. The loaf was quite close textured but didn't seem too stodgy; this is definitely something to repeat.