Friday, 30 October 2009

Hallowe'en Brownies

I think I enjoy seasonal baking at this time of year more than any other; I love the bold gutsy flavours of autumn fruits and nuts much more than the delicate flavours of summer berries. The autumn harvest takes the added flavours of spices well, which I also like to use, and fits into my (usually)rustic style of baking much better.

Having said that, I don't usually use pumpkin in my baking, after trying and hating pumpkin pie a few years ago. When my children were younger we didn't get caught up with the growing celebration of Hallowe'en, either, regarding it as a 'foreign' import which might go away if we ignored it. So I was somewhat surprised to find a tin of pumpkin purée in my store cupboard, although the half-price 'reduced to clear' label may have had something to do with why I bought it. Anyone who knows me knows that I can't resist a food bargain!

I'm not the only person to have tried Martha Stewart's recipe for Pumpkin-Swirl Brownies recently; I've seen it on several (or maybe even many) other blogs in the last few days, starting with this one on 'Cake or Death?'. That isn't a reason in itself to try the recipe - my reasoning was that combining the pumpkin with chocolate was possibly the only way I'd be able to sneak it past other members of the family! I found recipes which mixed pumpkin purée into chocolate cake batter, but disguising it that completely seemed to defeat the object of using pumpkin in the first place. The effect created by layering a pumpkin flavoured batter with a chocolate batter and swirling them together seemed ideal; a fabulous visual effect, and possibly a better chance of discerning the separate flavours.

The recipe was straightforward to follow, although I did convert the American cup volumes and ounce weights into metric weights and measures - for some reason I just don't feel confident using cups after years of relying on scales. Despite warnings about working quickly because the batters, particularly the chocolate one, 'set' quickly, I didn't find this to be a problem. The alternate layers of batter were quite thin and I found it difficult to spread them on top of each other without disturbing the layer beneath, but it wasn't a major problem - it just upset my desire for perfection not to be able to spread the second and subsequent layers to the edges of the tin - but I soon realised this could help rather than hinder the final visual effect.

Here's the 'translation' of the recipe to metric weights, rounded to the nearest 5g, to suit my scales:

115g butter
170g plain chocolate (72% cocoa solids)
240g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder
400g caster sugar
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
275g tinned pumpkin purée
80mls sunflower oil
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
75g chopped nuts (I used pecans)

Follow the recipe as in the link - you may find these tips useful:

Mix the oil into the pumkin in a small bowl, and add the cinnamon and nutmeg. You're less likely to forget anything if it's all in one bowl, ready to go.

When it came to dividing the base batter in half I used my scales and found that half the batter was 400g. Next time I can just take out 400g into a second bowl, making one less bowl to wash up.

I found judging the point that the cake was cooked quite a problem. although it felt firm it still didn't test as done when it had been in the oven for 50 minutes, and I was mindful that as a brownie it shouldn't be overcooked. I decided to ignore my testing probe and take the cake out of the oven.

When cooled and cut, my judgement was that the pumpkin part was slightly undercooked and the chocolate maybe slightly overcooked for a brownie. There were as many adverse comments as good ones, about this bake, on the website and perhaps that's the fundamental problem with the cake - the two layers won't cook in the same time. If you cook until the pumpkin layers are done then it is no longer the texture of a brownie, as the chocolate layers will be well overcooked.

The undercooked pumkin didn't detract from the final result, as it kept the texture chewy and moist - as you would want a brownie. Overall the flavour and texture was very well balanced - the pumpkin was noticeable, but not dominant; the spicing was very subtle with the cayenne only just detectable as an added warmth, gentle but not intrusive and the texture was right for a brownie.

If I ever come across cheap tins of pumpkin again, this would be on the list to make again, although in my quest for a recipe I found several that I would like to try, including this lovely looking bundt cake from Hilary at 'Let Her Bake Cake'.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Apple and Cranberry Crumble

There's only one reason to be writing about an ordinary, no-frills apple crumble - and that's to boast that I grew the apples myself!! The apples - a variety called Broadholm Beauty - are what is called dual-purpose; just sweet enough to be an eating apple but good for cooking too. We only planted the tree last year, along with two eating apple varieties, so the low yield we got this year from all three trees wasn't unexpected - all three apples from the tree went into the crumble.

I tried a slice while preparing the fruit and it was just edible raw, but still very sharp. I added a reduced amount of sugar to the slices in the baking dish, compared to what I would have added to Bramley apples.

I really wanted to test the flavour of the apples, as I was using all the crop, so only added a half teaspoon of cinnamon to my usual crumble mix, and 50g dried cranberries to the fruit. The mix I use for 4 portions is 80g each flour, rolled oats, sugar and butter, and I rub the butter into all the dried ingredients mixed together - this gives a coarser texture to the crumble mix which I prefer. Using some demerara sugar adds to the texture too - I only had about 25g left in the pack.

The apples seemed sweeter after cooking than when raw - I could have used less sugar - but they had a lovely flavour. They keep their shape when cooked and don't make much juice, so I must remember to add a little water when using them next year.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Maple Syrup and Pecan Cake

I've spent several hours looking for an interesting cake using maple syrup and pecan nuts, over the last few days. Most seem to rely mainly on their visual appeal - multiple layers of light sponge sandwiched with fluffy billowing frosting; I wasn't convinced there would be much flavour in them, and as a family we're not keen on these types of cakes anyway. Some recipes only used a few tablespoons of maple syrup in the cake batter, others used a whole 350ml bottle, which seemed a bit excessive, not to say confusing. How could I decide what would make a well flavoured cake with so much variation? I even looked for recipes using honey, thinking I could substitute maple syrup for the honey, but still couldn't find anything that appealed.

Lateral thinking was required. Who publishes interesting and unusual recipes? Blindingly obvious answer, of course, at least to British bakers - Dan Lepard! A search of his weekly Guardian recipes came up with this Honey and Walnut Cake - it was a simple step to substitute maple syrup and pecan nuts, and I also added half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon. I wanted a round cake, so used a 19cm diameter springform tin, base lined with baking parchment.

The recipe was simple to follow, albeit a little unorthodox in the method and order of combining the ingredients. My cake, in it's round tin, cooked in the time suggested in the recipe. The result, although not a pretty cake, was a triumph of subtle flavours - apart from the pecan nuts, it wasn't easy to identify any of the other flavours, but they combined to make a delicious cake with a sturdy moist, but not too dense, texture. The addition of coffee cut the expected sweetness of the cake, as Dan explained in his notes about the cake.

If I'd had more syrup available I might have added a maple glacé icing, with a few chopped pecans scattered over, but I had to empty the bottle (and use a tablespoon of honey) to get enough for the cake. Note to self for next time, I think!

So once again, I have Dan Lepard to thank for the inspiration for a really tasty cake - I guess I should try the original version with honey and walnuts sometime, as I'm usually pretty scathing about people who write that they tried a particular recipe, but added this ingredient and changed that ingredient - especially if they are complaining that it didn't work, or they didn't like it! I think it's a mark of respect to the work that recipe creators do, to try the recipe, as it is written, at least once - sorry Dan!

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Praline Brownies

I've written about these before, but they are so good that it doesn't hurt to mention them again. I can also include a picture this time, as this is the first time I've made them since I started writing this blog.

This recipe for Praline Brownies is taken from the Telegraph newspaper. They are lower in sugar than my usual recipe but much higher in chocolate content, with 225g in the batter mix and another 225g in the topping. As mentioned before, I used a mixture of Guylian seashells, white chocolate and 74% plain chocolate for the topping. I also used 85% plain chocolate in the brownie batter this time, making a dense intense but not over-sweet brownie.

Cooking them as in the recipe makes a very gooey brownie - much sloppier than I like to eat them, so I cook for an extra 5 minutes and don't cool them quickly.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Fig and Pumpkin Seed Bars

A biscuit recipe from Nigel Slater, in his weekly column in the Observer newspaper, caught my eye recently, for the unusual combination of flavouring ingredients used. As well as the eponymous figs and pumpkin seeds, dried cherries and walnuts are used, plus some ground almonds in the base oat mix and maple syrup in the binding mix.

In his preamble to the recipe, Nigel describes his quest to make a muesli style biscuit which is crunchy, yet still sticky like a flapjack. I like my flapjacks thick and chewy, not biscuity, so wasn't sure how I would like the texture of this Fig and Pumpkin Seed Bar, but decided it was worth a try for the flavours alone.

The only change I made to the recipe was to use pecans instead of walnuts; if there were walnuts in my storecupboard, then I couldn't find them! I chopped the figs in the mini-processor first, to the size of raisins, then added the rest of the fruit, nuts and seeds and pulsed briefly until the nuts were chopped. This reduced the figs, cherries and pecan nuts to quite small pieces but left the pumpkin seeds more or less intact - I didn't want the biscuits to be too crumbly. After baking, I cooled the mixture with some weights on top, as Nigel stressed the need to press them down while cooling.

The final result was a thin oat bar which is crunchy, flavoursome and very sweet, but to me is neither a crisp biscuit nor a chewy flapjack. I really liked the flavours together but didn't really like the texture. I think I would prefer using the same combination of nuts, fruits, seeds and maple syrup in my usual flapjack recipe, or in a soft cookie recipe.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Poppy Seed Cake

It's late on Sunday afternoon, and I am short of both inspiration and baking supplies - only two eggs, no citrus fruit or vanilla extract. All I know is that I want to make something 'different', without nuts, as nuts seem to have dominated my baking recently. Rumaging through my storage box of nuts and dried fruit I find a packet of poppy seeds, bought for sprinkling on bread dough before baking. It's years since I made a poppy seed cake, but the only recipe I have adds citrus flavours too. Can I find a recipe using flavours that my fussy son will eat, but only using two eggs?

It doesn't take long to find this recipe for a plain poppy seed cake. But now I'm worried that it will be too plain and that the flavour will be bland. A bit more searching leads me to this recipe which adds veins of sugar, flavoured with cocoa and cinnamon; perhaps I can combine the two.

So, I make a mixture of 75g demerara sugar, a teaspoon of ground cinnamon and a tablespoon of cocoa. I follow the recipe with no problems and put 1/3 of the batter into the loaf tin, which I've lined with baking parchment - this turns out to be important! Then I cover the surface with a generous sprinkle of the sugar mixture, and add another 1/3 of the batter.

It's now that I realise that a 1lb loaf tin is not going to be big enough! Fortunately my 2lb loaf tin is similar in its base dimensions to my smaller tin - just a centimetre or so longer and wider - with most of the difference in size being in the height. So I grasp the baking parchment liner by diagonally opposite corners, pick it up carefully and place it into the larger tin. I'll just have to hope the batter spreads neatly of its own accord, as I don't want to mess up the layers by spreading it myself.

Continuing with the layers, I add another sprinkle of sugar, then the last portion of the batter. There's still a lot of sugar mix left, so I also add a layer on top of the cake mix.

The finished cake looks more impressive than I'd expected, although the sugar mix on top of the cake makes it messy to handle - either leaving it plain or adding a chocolate glaze after baking would have been better, I think. Moving the cake mix doesn't seem to have messed up the layers too much.

There are a few small patches through the cake where the thickness of the layer of sugar has prevented the cake mix on either side of it bonding together. I think this could be rectified by using a more traditional streusel mixture of flour, sugar and butter with cocoa and cinnamon flavouring, so that it behaves more like a cake mixture during baking.

The cocoa and cinnamon add an extra dimension to the nuttiness of the poppy seeds, but I think it will be worth trying a plainer poppy seed cake, now that I've tasted it - perhaps with just a little vanilla extract added.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Yorkshire Puddings

If there's one question which is asked more often than any other on the BBC Food Messageboards, it's probably how to make perfect Yorkshire puddings, and there are always several different answers given as to what is the most important factor - sizzling hot fat, metal tins, very hot oven, the right flour, the only 'celebrity chef' recipe which works for that particular poster etc.

I think one of the problems with answering the question is that, if you have always made good Yorkshire puddings, it's hard to see why others have problems. What could be simpler than a batter made with plain flour, milk and an egg, which is baked in a hot oven until risen, firm and golden? How could anyone not do it?

For me, the only problem during more than 35 years of cooking has been YPs which stick in the tin, and I solved that problem about 10 years ago with one of the, then newly introduced, silicone moulds. The mould I bought can't be heated empty, and doesn't hold heat like metal does anyway, so straight away I abandoned the idea that sizzling fat in a hot metal tin was essential. The hollows in the mould are about 8cm in diameter across the top and just over 1cm deep. When filled to the top with batter this is just the right depth to produce ideal individual puddings. The picture above shows the silicone tray, on it's metal tray, with four moulds containing meat fat ready to receive the batter and the two holes not needed for puddings filled with water to prevent damage to the silicone.

So - what's my recipe? I'm a traditionalist who makes the batter in the same way my mother did, with no weights or measures. I just use a kitchen cutlery tablespoon (not even a calibrated measuring spoon) and my experience. If I want four puddings I use 3 slightly rounded tablespoons of plain flour, and if I want six puddings I heap the spoons a bit more. There are those who claim to make YPs with SR flour, but the odd time I've used SR flour by mistake, my puddings haven't worked, so I would say that plain flour is essential.

I also use only one egg for up to six YPs. My belief is that the British celebrity chefs such as James Martin and Brian Turner, who drastically increase the ratio of eggs to flour in their recipes, do so because they couldn't make traditional puddings either! Yorkshire puddings originated as a cheap, filling part of the meal to cut down on the amount of meat that needed to be served - adding several expensive eggs just wasn't part of cooking cheaply. Delia Smith's recipe, using one egg for every 75g (3 ounces) of flour is close to the ratio of eggs to flour which I use in the batter I make. You can find her recipe and lots more information on Yorkshire puddings on this link.

So, put 3 tablespoons of plain flour into a small bowl and add a pinch of salt. Add 1 large egg and a splash of milk (I use semi skimmed). Using a large spoon, gently mix to a smooth thick paste, adding a little more milk if necessary. Once you have a smooth paste with no lumps, use the spoon to vigorously beat the mixture for a couple of minutes. Then gradually stir in more milk until the consistency of the batter is that of unwhipped double cream. At this point the batter can be left for a while - some cooks think a waiting period of around an hour is essential, but I haven't found much difference between batter left standing and batter used straight away.

If you are using a metal YP tin, put it into the oven with a little of the fat from the roasting meat about 45 minutes before you want to eat, to allow it to get hot. Whatever temperature you are roasting the meat at is fine at this stage - you won't be cooking the YPs until the meat is out of the oven and resting. My oven is usually at 180C/160C fan/Gas 4 at this stage. With my silicone mould, which doesn't need pre-heating, I add a teaspoon of meat fat to each mould just before putting in the batter.

35 minutes before you want to eat, when you have removed the meat from the oven, add the batter to the 'YP tin'. First though, give it a stir, and if you can see that it has thickened during standing, add enough cold water to bring it back to it's original consistency. I fill my YP moulds to the top, so I would advise adding batter to your chosen mould to a depth of about 1 cm:

Carefully transfer the YPs to the oven, using the highest shelf, or hottest position, if you are not using a fan oven. At this stage, turn up the heat to 230C/210C fan/Gas 8 and resist the temptation to open the oven door for at least 20 minutes. A friend gave me the tip that cooking YPs in a rising temperature produced better results, and I tend to agree with her. After 20 minutes, have a peek, without opening the oven door too far; if your puddings are risen and already evenly dark golden, it's OK to turn down the temperature a bit, rather than risk burning them. I think they need to be in the oven for at least 30 minutes so that they become firm enough not to collapse when taken out of the oven.
With a bit of luck, you'll have something similar to the pudding in the photo below, shown as an accompaniment to roast lamb, roast potatoes, roast parsnips and cabbage cooked with shredded leeks. The ideal pudding, for me, should be well risen and crispy around the edges, with a hollow in the centre, but the base should still retain some stodgy, chewy, puddingness - a totally light crispy pudding is wrong.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Apricot and Hazelnut Cake - version 2

The second attempt at this gluten- and dairy-free cake was much more successful. I used the best parts from both the recipe I posted here already, and the similar Annie Bell cake from the Daily Mail. I increased the amount of hazelnuts and added baking powder, in line with the Daily Mail recipe, but still separated the eggs and used the spices from the original recipe. I left out the lemon, but added two teaspoons of orange flower water instead, as one of the tasters can't eat acidic citrus fruit; I don't think either the orange flower water or the lack of the lemon had a major impact on the flavour. To get a deeper cake, which would look more like a birthday cake, I baked it in a 20cm tin.


225g ‘ready to eat' dried apricots
1 cinnamon stick – about 7cm long
5 cloves
5 cardamom pods
6 large eggs, separated
125g caster sugar
50g light muscovado sugar
2 teaspoons orange flower water (optional)
200g ground hazelnuts
1 teaspoon baking powder


Put the apricots into a small saucepan with the spices and 150ml water, bring to the boil then simmer, uncovered, until the apricots have absorbed most of the water. Watch carefully towards the end, so that the saucepan doesn’t dry and burn the fruit. Remove the spices, then purée the apricots in a food processor or mini chopper.

Preheat oven to 180C/160C fan/Gas 4, and prepare a springform or loose bottomed cake tin. [I used a 20cm(8”) tin to get a deep cake, but for a dessert you could use a 23cm(9”) tin and obtain a shallower cake. The cake mixture filled my 20cm tin to within a couple of cm of the top, but it doesn’t rise much.]

Whisk together the sugars and egg yolks (or use the food processor after puréeing the apricots), then stir in the orange flower water. Mix in the hazelnuts and baking powder, then the apricot purée. Whisk the egg whites until stiff, then fold into the cake mix in three parts. Transfer to tin, level surface, then bake for 50 minutes, or until golden brown and a probe inserted into the centre comes out clean. [I needed to cover it after 30 minutes to prevent it getting too dark.]

As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, run a knife around the edge of the cake, between the cake and the baking tin sides, then leave to cool in the tin. This is so that when the cake deflates slighty, it does so more evenly, without leaving the outer edges raised.

The baking powder didn't seem to make a lot of difference to how much the cake rose, but definitely gave it a lighter and more cake-like texture. The cake deflated (slightly) more evenly than my first attempt too, although that may have been due to the knife trick.

The picture shows the cake decorated with glacé icing and coloured sugar sprinkles, as it was used as a birthday cake. Everyone who tried it thought it was marvellous; the gluten- and dairy-free guest had two helpings and took the recipe home with her!

Friday, 9 October 2009

Double Helpings of Desserts

They are not seasonal, it's true, but a lunch party seemed an excellent reason to use some of my frozen gooseberries. These were a gift from my mother - we planted two gooseberry bushes this year but the yield wasn't enough for excess to be frozen.

As the desserts needed to be dairy-free, and fairly light, as the rest of meal was quite substantial, I chose this recipe for Gooseberry and Elderflower Jelly from Delia Smith. Instead of wine I used a sparkling grape juice drink, as I knew several of my guests didn't drink alcohol.

It's a fairly simple recipe to follow; the only problem was that the amount of liquid for soaking the gelatine didn't seem enough - the powdered gelatine absorbed it all and still looked grainy, so I added enough to keep the gelatine loose enough to be stirrable. Most recipes use hot water to soak powdered gelatine, so that might have been a better option.

The jelly took ages to set - long enough to have me worrying that it wasn't going to set at all, but it did eventually. The resulting dessert was vey tasty and light, although there was no evidence that a sparkling drink had been used, probably due to the long setting time.

The second dessert was more seasonal - Blackberry and Apple Mousse - and again, was dairy-free. The recipe was adapted from a recipe for a Summer Fruit Mousse in a 'free from' cookery book I have, and uses coconut cream and soya cream, and some gelatine, instead of dairy cream, plus a couple of beaten egg whites to lighten the mixture a little. This dessert didn't produce the same clean flavour that the gooseberry dessert did; the creaminess seemed to dilute the flavour too much.

For 6 servings you need 500g of cooked fruit, sweetened with 100g sugar (or to taste) . While this is hot, add 2 tablespoons of powdered gelatine soaked in 3 tablespoons very hot water, then sieve or purée, depending on whether there are pips to remove. When cool, and just showing signs of setting, stir in a 160ml tin of coconut cream and a 250ml carton of soya cream. Then beat 2 egg whites until stiff and fold into the mixture. Spoon into individual glasses, or a large bowl. The recipe suggested decorating with frosted fresh fruit - dipped in lightly beaten egg white then caster sugar.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Cookies

Guess what! Another Dan Lepard recipe - or almost! This time I had to tweak the ingredients a little to fit what was in my store cupboard, but the basic recipe is the same as here. I had run out of both spelt flour and ordinary wholemeal flour, didn't have enough light muscovado sugar and only had smooth peanut butter, so my ingredient list looked like this:

200g smooth peanut butter
125g slighlty salted butter
175g caster sugar
25g dark muscovado sugar
125g light muscovado sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
65g plain white flour
60g strong wholemeal bread flour
125g rolled oats
100g 72% plain chocolate - chopped quite small

I followed the recipe exactly, using an electric beater for the butters and sugars, then mixing in the flour, oats and chocolate by hand. With my 'walnut sized' lumps of dough I made 32 small cookies out of the batch; they cook to roughly 6 cm across.

The cookies are crisp on the outside but chewy to the bite and taste of peanut butter and chocolate - what more do you need to know?