Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Dan Lepard's Mont Blanc Layer Cake

Christmas desserts are a difficult area. After a big meal, forcing down a traditional rich Christmas pudding can feel like a chore rather than the delight that a dessert should be. Tastes are changing too - so many people don't even like  Christmas pudding nowadays, which is a very puzzling phenomenon to me. Neither of my children eat Christmas pudding, so with no Christmas Day guests it was going to be  pointless to produce one.

This year, I dithered so long trying to decide what to make that FB stepped in and produced this recipe for a tower of meringue and chestnut cream from her recipe file. I'm not very experienced with meringues, but the recipe seemed simple enough and there was no-one here but family to see if it didn't turn out well.

Fortunately things turned out well, after an initial miscalculation with the circle sizes for the meringue layers, which almost had me making 6" circles instead of 7". I don't even know why I tried to translate the centimetre measurements to inches in the first place as I usually consider myself bilingual in baking weights and measures!  I had a little weeping on one of the meringue layers, but not enough to spoil the appearance of the dessert, once it was constructed.

The only thing I changed about the dessert construction was to leave off the 'peak' of whipped cream on the top. This was because I didn't read the instructions properly and didn't have the time or energy to whip extra cream or pipe the chestnut cream at the last minute stage, as I had left the assembly until just before serving. I think I only added about 4 tablespoons of extra sugar to the chestnut cream, but I was just pouring it from the bag and tasting as I beat everything together. It was difficult to decide how sweet to make the cream as the sweetness of the meringues had to be considered - I stopped adding sugar just before I felt the cream was sweet enough to eat alone.

This was a great choice for a dessert to follow a large meal - light but still rich enough to seem special! We were all surprise by how subtle and mild the flavour of the chestnut purée was, but it gave extra body to the creamy layer and balanced the sweetness of the meringue. The general consensus was that the dessert needed more chocolate for a better flavour, but we are a family of chocoholics - more is always better! I was a little concerned about how well the meringue would hold up after the dessert was constructed, so I made a warm chocolate sauce to serve with the leftovers on the second day, in case the meringue was too soggy. This got everyone's approval as an improvement over the original. Although the dessert kept fairly well, it was collapsing a bit by the second day, so is something that ideally should be eaten all at once.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Chocolate-cinnamon Crackle Tops

These little cookies are very similar to bite-sized pieces of brownie. The ingredients, and method of mixing, are much the same although there's maybe a touch more flour in this recipe than in a brownie recipe. The dough is chilled to firm it up, then formed into small balls which are tossed in icing sugar before baking. As the cookies expand a little during baking, the icing sugar coating cracks to let the chocolate show through.

At this time of year they are ideal as you can have one small cookie and still have room for other seasonal treats. The icing sugar topping makes them look festive too.

I took the recipe from The Ultimate Cookie Book, but it's available online at; I added two teaspoons of ground cinnamon to the flour and cocoa mixture. The first thing you'll notice if you follow the link is that I didn't get a really good coating of icing sugar on my cookies. I think they probably needed double dipping, as the icing sugar was absorbed by the raw cookies as they waited to be baked. The dough warmed up very quickly - I needed to re-chill it part way through shaping, so had to bake the cookies in two separate batches.

These cookies have an intense rich chocolate flavour, as they contain both chocolate and cocoa, and are moist and fudgy inside - just like a good brownie. If they are overbaked a little they become drier and more crumbly but they still taste great! The amount of cinnamon I used was just enough to be noticeable without overwhelming the flavour.

These cookies are my entry for December's We Should Cocoa challenge, a monthly chocolate challenge started by Choclette from Chocolate Log Blog and Chele from Chocolate Teapot. There have been several guest hosts over the last year, but this month's challenge has been set by Choclette. As a Christmas special she has asked contributors to come up with chocolate goodies containing cinnamon; I'm certainly looking forward to seeing a lot of festive treats.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Happy Christmas to you all!

For me a mince pie is the epitome of Christmas - spices, dried fruit and booze all wrapped in a rich sugary pastry. Just the smell of them baking is enough to make me feel a little festive. This is my first mince pie-baking session of the season - Cranberry and Port Mincemeat in an enriched sweet shortcrust case. No added extras or fancy toppings for this batch - just a sprinkling of granulated sugar to look like frost.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Chocolate Cinnamon Pinwheels

A quick bake, both to keep something sweet available, while I am busy elsewhere, and use up one of the sheets of puff pastry which were bought greatly reduced and then frozen. Unfortunately, they didn't freeze well and are not easy to use, as by the time they are thoroughly thawed they are too warm to handle easily. I now have a mental note to only freeze blocks of pastry!

I just about managed to unroll and reroll the sheet of thawed pastry used for these pinwheels, without spoiling the pastry. I sprinkled the sheet with a mixture of 100g chopped plain chocolate, a scant teaspoon of cinnamon, two tablespoons of caster sugar and two finely crushed Ryvita. Using the Ryvita crumbs was a tip picked up from Dan Lepard's recipe for cinnamon buns. In these pastries they added both texture and a nutty flavour. I wetted one short edge of  the sheet of pastry, and rolled it up towards this edge, so as to seal in the filling. I then chilled the roll for 30 minutes before cutting it into twelve even slices, and laying them on a baking sheet. I then gathered together all the filling which had fallen out of the pastries during handling, and sprinkled some over each pinwheel. The pastries were baked at 220C for about 20 minutes until the pastry was risen and golden. Fortunately the chocolate stayed in lumps rather than melting which also gave a good texture when cooled.

For an impromptu bake, these were really delicious - the pastry was light and crisp and the filling rich and spicy, with just the right amount of cinnamon to keep the flavour well-balanced. The We Should Cocoa challenge this month is to use cinnamon with chocolate, but at the moment I'm going to hold these in reserve, as I have another idea to try if I have time!

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Cherry Stollen Bars

This is the start of my seasonal baking, although it was made for Hub's birthday treat. I like this recipe so much that I'll probably make another batch for New Year, when we have family visiting. I like these bars because they are packed with marzipan, and they achieve the 'stollen' effect without using yeast. Not only does yeast baking take so much time, my yeast doughs are notoriously unreliable - a recipe which works once may not work the next time I try it!

The recipe for these Stollen Bars comes from Dan Lepard, and featured in last year's Christmas cooking supplement in the Guardian Weekend magazine. When I made them last year, I followed the recipe exactly and thought the result was perfect! This time I varied the fruit content and cut down on the nuts a little, mostly because of what I had available in the store cupboard, but also because I wanted to try the recipe with cherries and cranberries. I used only 50g of pistachios and 150g of mixed dried fruit, including cherries, cranberries, chopped apricots and sultanas. There were more cherries by weight than any of the other fruit - a mix of regular and sour - which is why I've called these Cherry Stollen Bars. I used a generous coating of butter - about 25g was enough - and kept adding icing sugar until no more butter soaked through. Hubs thought it would be better with less icing sugar!

Although the result was just as tasty as before (I had been worrried that stronger tasting fruit would overwhelm the pistachio and orange flavour, which didn't happen), and looked really festive, I wasn't as happy with the bake. I'm not sure if the tray of dough was slightly under-baked or if the marzipan  lumps melted round the edge and made the dough too moist. I used marzipan with a slightly lower almond content than my usual brand, so that might have accounted for the difference. Whatever it was, it left the bars  moister in the centre than previously - more cake-like than bread-like - which I didn't like quite as much (although I am being really picky and self-critical here!).

As well as being a good seasonal bake, these Stollen Bars fit into this month's AlphaBakes Challenge. This month the challenge, set by Ros from the More Than Occasional Baker, is to bake something where the name, or principle ingredient, begins with the letter 'S'. I expect, given the time of year, that stollen will feature heavily in the offerings, but that's fine by me, as it's one of my favorite christmas cakes. Ros co-hosts this baking challenge with Caroline, from Caroline Makes - each month a new letter of the alphabet is chosen randomly.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Chestnut Chocolate Cookies - Party Style!

Here's another batch of the fabulous  Chocolate Chestnut Cookies,  this time piped into fingers, and prettied up to attend a Christmas party!

A bit of an improvement, I think! I'm also going to confess that it's the first time I've tried chocolate dipping - I should have melted a lot more to get an even dip.

Hazelnut and Apricot Marble Cake

After trying the Lime Syrup Marble Cake, I felt the urge to make another marble cake. This time I adapted one of my favourite cake recipes, using ground hazelnuts in place of ground almonds and leaving out the lemon. Then I took out 1/3 of the batter and mixed 2 heaped tablespoons of Nutella (chocolate hazelnut spread) into it. To the plain portion of batter, I added 50g of finely chopped ready-to-eat dried apricots and a tablespoon or so of cocoa nibs.

I then layered the batters alternately into a loaf tin and left it to make the marble effect as the cake baked. I think my mistake was to use too large a loaf tin, as each layer of batter was very thin and didn't cover the alternately coloured batter beneath properly. Still, there were some interesting effects to be seen in the cake when it was cut!

The flavour was good too. The chocolate flavour was very subtle, but enhanced by the crunchy cocoa nibs, and the apricots added both flavour and texture. This is usually quite a moist cake, but using the Nutella made it even more so. The recipe can certainly be counted as a success, but the cake needs baking in a smaller tin in future.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Dan Lepard's Chestnut Chocolate Cookies

After seemingly months with none of Dan's weekly recipes in the Guardian newspaper inspiring me to immediate action, along come two in quick succession.

After the Lime Marble Cake, comes this recipe for Chestnut and Chocolate Cookies  from last week's supplement on Christmas cooking, and the first thing I'm going to say is that it shows that the Guardian photographer is a professional, and that whoever made that batch of cookies is better at piping than I am! I'm afraid that a lot of my attempts at piping 'long zigzags' looked like something usually found on pavements, and there was no way my photography skills could make them look attractive! I realised halfway through piping what they were going to look like and tried a few circles, which worked out much better.

However, what these cookies lacked in appearance they make up for in flavour and texture. The crisp exterior gives way to a soft, moist, melt-in-the-mouth centre that is really rich in deep chocolate flavour. The recipe made twelve cookies, the way I piped them, and eating two of them really felt like a chocolate overload - which is not something I get to say often! I wouldn't recognise any of the flavour as chestnut, but I think it helped develop the glorious flavour and wonderful texture.

The cookies weren't difficult to make, but piping the fairly stiff dough made me realise that I need to update my piping equipment. The heat and pressure of my hands melted the butter in the dough, which seeped through my fabric piping bag and made my hands greasy. Has anyone tried the new silicone piping bags which are available now?

I've been asked to make these again for FB to take to a Chrismas party at work. I think I'll pipe them all as smaller circles and pop something like a slice of marron glacé, or even a half of glacé cherry, into the centre to make them look more attractive.

The theme for this months Tea Time Treats, in the run-up to Christmas, is Chocolate, so I'm entering these indulgent cookies to this blogging event. They are the sort of cookies which would be a great addition to any tea-table, but especially so at Christmas when something is needed to counteract the potential overdose of dried fruit in Christmas cake, mincepies and stollen (much as I love them all!). The full rules for Tea Time Treats, a monthly challenge to produce goodies for the tea-table, can be found here. TTT is hosted alternately by Karen from Lavender and Lovage, and Kate from What Kate Baked, and it was Kate who set this challenge, and has the unenviable task of producing the round-up of entries at a very busy time of year. Good luck with that, Kate!

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Dan Lepard's Lime Syrup Marble Cake

I hadn't intended to bake this cake, from Dan Lepard's recent Guardian column, as the combination of lime and chocolate isn't very appealing to me, but the rest of the family persuaded me to give it a go. I'm glad I did, as this was a delicious cake with a wonderfully tender and delicate, crumb. However, I think it was so successful because the lime and rum flavours totally overwhelmed the flavour from the one tablespoon of cocoa used in the dark marbling. I feel that the marbling is for appearances, rather than flavour - this would have been just as good as a plain lime drizzle cake.

The recipe is easy to follow and quick to mix, as it uses oil, creme fraiche and melted butter, rather than a creaming method. I wasn't very happy with the marbling effects though - if I make it again I will use the traditional method of putting alternate spoons of batter into the baking pan. Making it Dan's way meant most of the marbling stayed in the top half of the cake.

The cake uses the zest of 5 limes, which makes it quite expensive, but I only used the juice from two of them to make the syrup. I think I will need to follow up Dan's suggestion of lime curd to use up the rest of the zestless limes!

I did use the rum in the soaking syrup, which added a greater depth of flavour and made the cake seem very tropical. I had the usual trouble of getting the syrup to soak into the holes I made - perhaps they weren't large enough, but I think large holes can spoil the appearance of a cake.

Everything considered, this was a wonderful cake and I'm pleased I was persuaded to make it.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Pear and Ginger Frangipane Tart

Our little lunch club - five blokes who used to work together, plus their partners - had christmas lunch yesterday. A little early, I know, but things get too busy later in the month. The hostess cooked the turkey and all the trimmings, and the others brought along desserts. As there are two gluten-free eaters in the group, one of whom is also dairy-free, one dessert was a gluten and dairy-free bread and butter pudding. My contribution was this frangipane tart; I had intended to make one with mincemeat in the base, as a nod to the festive season, but changed my plans when I heard, only at the last minute, of the planned bread and butter pudding - two desserts based on dried fruit seemed too much, even for Christmas.

Instead I raided the storecupboard and produced this delicious tart using ginger jam in the base, and studding the frangipane mixture with tinned pears. The only mistake I made was to put the pears into the tart case before the frangipane - I think the tart would have looked nicer if they were pressed into the frangipane.
There's not much of a recipe to share with you, more of a set of 'how to....' instructions. I used a shallow flan tin with a loose bottom, about 11" (27cm) in diameter, which I lined with standard short crust pastry made with all butter. I drained the tin of pear halves and picked the best five for the topping. Any leftover were roughly chopped and added to 200g of ginger jam. The jam and pear mix was spread over the raw pastry case and the pears arranged on top - I cut the rounded part of each pear into three to spread them a little flatter. A frangipane mixture made from 100g each softened butter, ground almonds, caster sugar, plus two eggs (just beat everything together with a hand held electric mixer) was spread between the pears and topped with a few flaked almonds. The tart was baked at 180C for 30 minutes, then the temperature reduced to 160C until the filling was set and golden brown - another 25 minutes or so.

I served the dessert at room temperature, with pouring cream. The ginger jam was just right for the base - it gave a gentle warmth and zing, without overwhelming the delicate flavours of the pear and the frangipane mixture.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Chocolate Bread and Butter Pudding

I knew this month's We Should Cocoa challenge, to combine a yeast-raised dough with chocolate, was going to be difficult for me, as yeast doughs are not one of my strong points. By the time I'd got two thirds of the way through the month, and still hadn't had time to tackle a yeast dough, I knew it wasn't going to happen. So, in the spirit of not wanting to avoid the challenge (and in anticipation of my entry being rejected), I offer a Chocolate Bread and Butter Pudding. It's made with yeast raised dough (white bread) - I just didn't make it myself - and plenty of dark chocolate!
Pudding before baking
My basic inspiration came from this recipe on the Schwartz spices site, but I made a few changes to the recipe. I liked the idea of chocolate rippling through the pudding rather than all the custard being chocolate flavoured, but I only used 150g of plain chocolate with a 20g knob of butter. Two thirds of this was spread over the first layer of bread slices and the rest was drizzled over the top, before the custard was poured on. I made my custard from 3 eggs and 500mls of milk (closer to Delia Smith's proportions for bread and butter pudding custard) and sweetened it with 2 tablespoons of caster sugar. I left out the cinnamon but added 1 teaspoon of vanilla paste and dotted the pudding with more butter before baking. I used a 9" square baking dish which is smaller than stipulated, but I like a deeper pudding!
The baked pudding
This was a delicious dessert, eaten warm. The top acquired the desired crisp top (desired by me, at least!) and was filled with a soft wobbly custard and gooey chocolate ripple. The lower amount of chocolate used still gave a good flavour. Using only a small amount of sugar and a good plain chocolate meant the dessert was not too sweet either.

The only thing missing was the traditional chewiness of dried fruit, and I really think this dessert would have been improved by a handful of sultanas or cranberries, plumped up in orange juice, and perhaps a little orange zest in the custard too.

This month's We Should Cocoa  challenge (rules here) was chosen by guest host Nazima of Franglais Kitchen, but the regular hosts are Choclette from Chocolate Log Blog and Chele from Chocolate Teapot. The idea of the challenge is to incorporate some form of chocolate into a dish along with the chosen ingredient or method. At the end of each month, the host choosing the ingredient to use in the challenge posts a round-up of entries.

Hermit Bars

This is a recipe from one of my most looked-at books, called The Ultimate Cookie Book. I've had the recipe bookmarked to cook for years but have never made it because CT didn't really like dried fruit in cakes or cookies. Now that I'm not cooking regularly for CT, I can branch out into different areas, although FB comes with her own set of things she doesn't like or won't eat!

These bars certainly look like the illustration in the book; they are basically a lot of dried fruit and nuts held together by a small amount of very moist, heavily spiced, cake batter. The moisture comes from the addition of a huge amount of black treacle! However, when they took more than twice as long to cook as the recipe suggested, I checked other recipes online and found that Hermit Bars (or Hermit cookies) are usually made from a stiff cookie dough which is either baked in one block, like biscotti dough, and sliced after baking, or made as individual cookies.

The main difference I could see between my recipe and the ones online was the amount of flour - nearly all the other ingredients were present in similar proportions. I think they would have been nicer as more solid, chewy cookies, rather than very moist, somewhat soggy, cake bars. The spice and treacle flavour was very strong and overwhelmed the mix of dried fruit I used - apricots, cranberries and raisins - which made me realise why raisins alone were used in the recipe, mainly for texture. The overall flavour and texture was like eating slices of a very moist cold Christmas Pudding - not really exciting, even if you like Christmas Pudding! Interesting, but not to be repeated, I think!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Delia Smith's Oat Slice (with Cherry Jam)

FB requested 'something jammy, like the oaty things you made a few weeks ago'. Well, I wasn't entirely happy with the recipe I used that time, as the slices seemed thin and crumbly, so I had another look around for more Oat Slice recipes. This time I decided that I ought to try a recipe from Delia Smith, the quintessential British cook, whose recipes seldom fail even the novice cook. Her recipe uses cooked fresh fruit, but it didn't seem too radical to use jam instead - this time, 250g from a jar of Morello cherry jam.

A slightly different method - melting the sugar and butter together - and different proportions of flour and oats produced a much better result. The base layer was firmer and thicker, even though I baked the slice in a slightly larger tin than stipulated (8 x 8" rather than 10 x 6"). There was less sugar in the oat mix too, which offset the sweetness of the jam nicely.

All in all, a great quick bake when time is short, as happens all too often at this time of year.

Because of this shortage of time, I'm going to have to abandon my original idea for this month's AlphaBakes, and submit these instead.   AlphaBakes (rules here) is a blogging challenge which is hosted on alternate months by Ros from The More Than Occasional Baker and Caroline from Caroline Makes. This month's letter, randomly chosen by Caroline, is J, so I'm using J for Jam.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Chocolate Almond Cake

with Chilli Chocolate and Marzipan Chunks

This was a hastily conceived cake, to replace the Salted Vanilla Oatmeal Cookies that were such a disaster.  Once again, I used this recipe as a guide for the ingredient quantities, as it always works so well, and used one recipe quantity to make two small loaf tins. Now that I'm not feeding CT, and Hubs and I are watching our weight, we find it difficult to get through a large cake before it gets stale, so a small loaf is an ideal size.

The dry ingredients (175g SR flour, 11/2 teaspoons baking powder, 75g ground almonds, 25g cocoa and 140g caster sugar) were mixed together in a large bowl. The wet ingredients (2 large eggs, 225g natural yogurt, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and 75mls sunflower oil) were lightly whisked together in another bowl, then the wet mix was gently stirred into the dry mix. Finally, 100g diced white marzipan (with a high almond content) and 100g of chopped chilli flavoured plain chocolate were folded in, before dividing between two 1lb loaf tins and baking at 180C for 40 minutes.

This was a really tasty cake (we all love marzipan!), although the chilli flavour of the chocolate didn't come through strongly. Maybe slightly on the dry side - it could have benefited from a little more yogurt, I guess. Because of the small scale of the loaf, the chunks of marzipan and chocolate looked huge, which was quite attractive.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Salted Vanilla Chip Oatmeal Cookies

I have to report that the second recipe I choose to make from the book, Pure Vanilla, which I reviewed recently, was a total disaster. Firstly,  the flavour wasn't to my taste - the cookies were far too sweet, and the vanilla salt topping didn't help to offset this. If the recipe had worked well, then I would have just put this down to differences in taste preferences, but the recipe was a complete failure too, and initially I couldn't see anywhere in the method or ingredient quantities where I might have made a mistake.

The cookie dough spread in the oven, as far as it was possible to spread - the cookies were almost thin enough to make tuiles! In addition they didn't cook properly;  it appeared to me that the oats hadn't absorbed any of the dough ingredients, leaving the cookies raw-looking and greasy. They were neither crisp nor chewy, just a mess of half-baked goo which fell apart when handled. I left the cookies in an airtight tin overnight and this morning there was just a heap of damp cookies which had slumped and melded together.

The only thing I can see that might have caused the problem, rather than the recipe itself, is that I used whole rolled oats, rather than oats labelled porage oats, which is what I usually use for baking. The recipe itself suggested 'old-fashioned rolled oats'. It might be that in a short baking time these whole oats couldn't absorb enough of the butter, sugar and egg mix, leaving only the smaller quanity of flour to do this, unsuccessfully. Unfortunately, given the cost of the ingredients, and the fact that we didn't really like them, I don't feel inclined to repeat the recipe with different oats. If anyone wants to try the recipe for themselves, get in touch and I'll send you a copy.

At the moment, I'm trying to dry out the cookies in a low oven, in the hope that I can use the broken morsels for something such as 'compost' cookies, which often use remnants of broken biscuits, potato crisps(chips) and breakfast cereals for added flavour. I do have a photo, but it doesn't really do justice to how bad these were!
I'm really disappointed that this recipe went so badly, but I do realise that I may have used an ingredient which wasn't going to work. I hope this is the case, as the first recipe I tried worked so well, and I want to try other recipes in the book.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Parsnip and Maple Syrup Cake

This recipe was a the winner of a Good Food competition to create a birthday cake for the magazine's 20th birthday in 2009. I've been wanting to bake this cake since then, but haven't had the coincidence of both maple syrup and parsnips available at the same time, until this weekend. It's true, I could have made the effort to get the ingredients together, but it's only been a passing thought whenever I notice the cake in a recipe search.

As this month's Tea Time Treat's challenge was to celebrate it's first birthday by baking a cake, this recipe seemed quite appropriate, as it was created with celebration in mind.

I didn't want a layer cake, though, and also didn't want a fresh cheese frosting, so I baked the cake as a traybake, in a 20 x 30 cm (8 x 12") tin, and topped with a light buttercream recipe. The only change I made to the recipe was to use 50g chopped toasted hazelnuts instead of pecans, to suit my daughter's dislike of some nuts. Because the tin size I chose made a deeper cake than if it was baked in two sandwich tins, it took a little longer to bake - about 40 minutes in total. My buttercream recipe was based on that in the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, which uses only 80g butter to 250g icing sugar. I added two tablespoons of maple syrup and a teaspoon of vanilla extract as a flavouring, and then sprinkled the frosted cake with maple sugar crystals.

This cake was very moist and quite dense (but not in a bad way!). I'm glad I baked it as a traybake, as I'm not sure that I would have liked it as a layer cake - I think it was a bit too moist for that. FB reckoned she could taste the parsnips, but I'm not so sure - to me, the grated parsnip and apple added moisture and texture rather than specific flavour. Even the maple syrup wasn't a strong flavour in the cake, although I could taste it in the buttercream. In the cake, the parsnip, apple, mixed spice, maple syrup and orange seemed to blend into a unique flavour, rather than any one of them being separately identifiable. The unique flavour was a very good one, however!
Tea Time Treats is a monthly baking event co-hosted by Karen at Lavender and Lovage and Kate at What Kate Baked. Each month the challenge is to produce something which celebrates the (almost) lost ritual of the tea-time; this month the host is Karen, who has chosen cake in celebration of a whole year of baking for Tea Time Treats! She will be publishing a round-up at the end of the month.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Lemon-Vanilla Dream Bars

The first recipe I tried from Pure Vanilla, by Shauna Sever, was one of the simplest in the book - Lemon-Vanilla Dream Bars. Shauna describes these as a 'less messy and more portable' version of lemon bars, which are one of the classic American baked treats. This recipe is essentially a white chocolate blondie rippled with lemon curd, and flavoured with both vanilla extract and vanilla bean paste. I used Green and Black's White Chocolate which contains vanilla seeds(caviar), so adding another dimension of vanilla flavouring.

The recipe seemed straightforward, but I had a typical heart-stopping moment that always seems to happen when I work with white chocolate. The first stage of the recipe is to melt white chocolate and butter together over simmering water, and I just couldn't get the two to combine smoothly. In fact I thought the white chocolate had seized completely, and it wasn't until I whisked in the eggs that I realised the mixture was going to come together smoothly.

After that it was plain sailing, although I forgot to fold in the chocolate chunks and had to sprinkle them over the surface of the batter after it had been in the oven a few minutes. Fortunately, the bars seemed none the worse for this!

This recipe is reproduced with permission from the publishers, and I have included the metric weights I used, where appropriate:

10oz (300g) white chocolate, 50g chopped into chip-sized pieces
6 tablespoons (150g) butter
1/4 cup (50g) granulated sugar (I used caster sugar)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
1 cup (130g) all purpose (plain) flour
1/2 cup (125g) lemon curd

Pre-heat the oven to 350F (180C) and line a 8" (20cm) square tin with baking parchment.
Melt the butter and 250g of the white chocolate together in a large bowl, over a pan of simmering water.
Remove the bowl from the heat and stir in the sugar and salt.
Whisk in the eggs, one at a time, then whisk in both the vanilla extract and bean paste.
Gently fold in the flour, followed by the chopped chocolate, and put the batter into the baking tin.
Dollop the lemon curd onto the batter in 5 or 6 equal portions, and swirl into the batter using a knife and a figure of 8 movement.
Bake for around 25 minutes, until a tester comes out clean.
Cool on a wire rack, then cut into 12 bars when completely cold.

These were really delicious! The batter gave the perfect dense texture of a fudgy blondie, and the lemon curd was partly absorbed by the batter and partly remaining in little pockets that were intensely lemony. This lemon note really contrasted well with the sweet base, but still allowed the vanilla flavours to shine through.

My bars don't look perfect, because of sprinkling the chocolate chunks over the batter instead of folding them in. This caused little hollows to form as the larger chunks sank, although these hollows seemed to happen where lemon curd was left on the surface too.

This recipe is worth repeating just for the blondie base, if I can face the trauma of working with white chocolate again, perhaps with dark chocolate or fudge chips added, and Shauna also suggests replacing the lemon curd with any good quality low-sugar jam with a tart flavour, to ring the changes.

I'm so pleased my first recipe from this book was a success; it gives me confidence to tackle some of the more complicated recipes, and endorses my positive review of the book given from the first reading. Although I received a free copy of this book, I was not required to give a positive review of either the book, or the recipes I tried, in return.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Chocolate Chip, Hazelnut and Orange Cakes

These small cakes, baked in 1lb loaf tins, are based on this recipe from Good Food, which has become one of my favourite cakes made with oil instead of butter. It is easily adaptable, as both the polenta and ground nuts can be swapped for more flour, and the batter is stiff enough to take additions such as dried fruit and chocolate chips.

For this cake I used 175g SR flour and 100g ground hazelnuts, and added 140g chopped plain chocolate and the grated zest of an orange for flavour. Otherwise the recipe was as written, leaving out the lemon elements of the recipe.

The batter is usually baked in a 8" round tin, but is just the right amount to share between two small loaf tins.  Because this slightly increases the depth of the finished cakes, the baking time is a few minutes longer than the 40 minutes given in the recipe.

Chocolate, hazelnuts and orange is a great flavour combination which I've used several times already, and dividing the batter in two meant I could be a good mother, and take one cake to CT, who hasn't had any of my home baking for several weeks!

Friday, 26 October 2012

Pure Vanilla - A Book Review

I'm used to getting promotional emails, asking me to take part in competitions, add my blog to other sites, give space to aspiring writers and so on, or offering books or sample ingredients. Most of these are rejected, as I don't want to change the nature of my blog - I write for my own satisfaction, not to gain recognition, make money or further a career (mine or anyone elses!). Occasionally I'm offered a book or a baking ingredient which I think I can use, without compromising that point of view - in the case of books, I always make it clear that I will give an honest opinion, whether it be positive or not so enthusiastic. If I accept a book, I will always try to find a recipe which I can make, so as to get a real feel for how well the book is written and how good the cook is. This is a review of one of the books which has tempted me recently!

'Pure Vanilla - irresitible recipes and essential techniques' by Shauna Sever is about to be published in the UK. Shauna has already published a book called  Marshmallow Madness!, and writes a blog called A Piece of Cake. As well as a wide range of recipes covering everything from breakfast to evening cocktails, this book covers the history and production of vanilla, and looks at the characteristics of vanilla pods grown in various regions around the world.

It was fascinating reading and sent me to the kitchen to discover the origins of my vanilla products. My pods, produced by Ndali, come from Uganda, so have a "sweet, winey, raisinlike fragrance and flavour ..... perfect for rich desserts, especially ones containing chocolate" (so that's OK then!). The organic vanilla bean paste was from an Australian company, so may have been produced in  Papua New Guinea from Tahitian Vanilla. The bottle of vanilla extract, from one of the leading brands, doesn't state the origins of the beans at all.

Reading about how difficult it is to produce a vanilla bean, and how long the subsequent processing takes, makes it easier to understand why vanilla is one of the most expensive spices on the market, second only to saffron.

After the comprehensive introduction to all aspects of vanilla we come to the recipes. They are not all illustrated, which is always a disappointment, but those that are have beautiful photographs by Leigh Beisch.  It can't have been easy to photograph food which is mostly in shades of white, but  Leigh has produced some stunning photographs which make all the dishes look very appetising.

In many of the recipes, Shauna uses more than one form of vanilla to produce layers of flavour which are not in competition with other strong flavours. This will probably surprise most cooks, who tend to use vanilla as a background note to other flavours and not as the main feature. As the author is American, the recipes are written in cup measurements, which can be off putting to UK cooks, although cup measures are widely available. I was interested to see that white chocolate is often used to add a vanilla flavour, as I've often said that this is about the only real use for white chocolate!

Most of the recipes are for sweet dishes, although some savoury uses for vanilla are mentioned, including the vanilla salt you can see in my photographs. I intend to use it to top some salted vanilla chip oatmeal cookies, but it can be used to season meat, vegetables or salads too. It's going to take a week for my vanilla salt (a mix of the seeds(caviar) of half a vanilla pod with half a cup of sea salt) to mature, so I'll be writing a review of that recipe separately!

I was surprised that it was initially quite difficult to actually find recipes which I wanted to make straight away. I wasn't really interested in either breakfast foods (although many could double as desserts), drinks or candies and confections which ruled out three of the six recipe chapters. In the other chapters, covering cakes and pies,  cookies and bars, and custards and creams, some of the recipes seemed  quite complicated, expensive (16 egg whites!) or used ingredients not easily obtained in the UK (marshmallow creme!). Some of the recipes just weren't suitable for the sort of cooking I'm doing at the moment, needing the right occasion to serve them up to a crowd. However, there are enough recipes which I would like to make, when the time is right, to keep me interested in the book, and any cook past the beginnners stage would find some of the more difficult recipes appealing and challenging.

All in all, this is a book which would be a good addition to any cook's library and which challenges our perception that vanilla is synonymous with plain and ordinary!

Monday, 22 October 2012

Orange Frosted Apple Loaf

This is an unusual cake, in that it doesn't taste strongly of it's main named ingredients; in fact it was more reminiscent of my favourite carrot cake recipe, due to the spices and orange zest used. The grated apple really just added sweetness and moisture to the cake, rather than any noticeable flavour, and the spices and dried cranberries were more prominent than the orange zest.

I made a few changes to the recipe for this Orange Frosted Apple Loaf ; firstly I left out the pecans and added 50g more dried fruit, making the fruit a mix of 100g cranberries and 50g sultanas, then I didn't use the low-fat soft cheese frosting, instead just making a glacé icing with icing sugar and some of the juice of the orange from which I'd already taken the zest. Because my loaf tin wasn't quite the same shape and size stipulated in the recipe, the loaf took 55 minutes to bake, rather than 45 minutes, but I'm quite used to loaf cakes having different baking times.

The recipe called for whisking one of the egg whites separately, then folding this into the cake batter at the last stage of mixing; I think this helped with the lightness, as the cake crumb was very close textured but not as dense as many cakes made with a proportion of wholemeal flour. I thought the texture was excellent - many cakes adding grated fruit can be a bit too moist and dense - this was just right!

I really liked this cake, despite my disappointment that it didn't have an apple flavour,  and it seemed almost healthy to eat it - the natural sweetness of the apple and dried fruit meant added sugar could be reduced; oil was used instead of butter, reducing saturated fat levels and the fat was reduced even more by adding some yogurt; the use of wholemeal flour and dried fruit increased the fibre content. This is definitely a cake to put on the 'to be repeated list'!

Friday, 19 October 2012

Jammy Oat Slice

I love layered traybakes, but don't often have the time to fiddle around with two or three different mixtures for a base, filling and topping. This is where oat slices come in handy, as the same mixture is often used for the base and topping, and the filling, as here, can be something as simple as a fruity jam. If you have more time, and the right ingredients available, you can cook fresh or dried fruit to a thick purée, flavouring it with spices or citrus zest. Mincemeat (the Christmas kind, not minced meat!) also makes a good filling. I couldn't remember which recipe I usually use, as it's been a while since I made it, so picked this one from an online search.

It's also around this time of year that I start thinking of clearing out cupboard, fridge and freezer space in preparation for Christmas. I don't do anything about Christmas this early in the year, but I do like to have space ready when I need it. So for this slice, which needed 250g jam, I mixed the ends of three jars - apricot and strawberry jam, and orange marmalade - and added from a jar of Cherries and Berries to make up the weight. This cleared out the preserve and condiment shelf in the fridge of quite a lot.

The only change I made to the recipe was to add a tablespoon (about 20g) of chopped toasted hazelnuts to the oat mixture reserved for the topping. However, there was the usual problem of there not really being enough mixture to make a slice of enough depth and solidity - if I make this again, I will definitely increase the  oat mixture by at least 25%.

There's not much to say about this from a consumer point of view - it's a quick bake which is made chewy from the oats and tastes of whatever you use as the filling. My odd mix of jams tasted pretty good!

Monday, 15 October 2012

Gingerbread Rock Cakes - Dan Lepard

Serendipity is the "the accident of finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it" according to Wikipedia. Finding this Dan Lepard recipe in my weekend newspaper magazine was certainly a happy accident. Just the day before, FB had been asking if it was possible to put the flavours of lebkucken into a cake, and here was Dan, claiming that his ginger rock cakes would be reminiscent of lebkucken! In yet another touch of serendipity, or maybe just good luck, I had all the ingredients to hand, so that was my weekend baking sorted!

This is a simple recipe to follow, yet still raised a question - the dough needs to hold it's shape, but how wet does it need to be? I added an extra tablespoon of milk to the 25mls added to the mix, which made quite a sticky dough, but without it, I couldn't incorporate all the flour. These blobs of dough don't change shape as they bake - any crags or outcrops of dough will still be there after baking, so don't expect uniformity unless you shape the dough beforehand. My rock cakes - I made 14 from the dough - baked in 15 minutes, the shortest time suggested.

To enhance the expected lebkuchen flavour I drizzled the buns with a very dark chocolate (85%), but I think this was too bitter as the rock cakes themselves weren't very sweet. In fact, the other suggestion of a lemon glacé icing might have been nicer as it would have added a sharp note to lift and brighten the flavour. Don't get me wrong, these little cakes were dense, dark and delicious, and full of the spicy flavours of autumn and winter, but the flavour overwhelmed the chocolate I used, and the addition of a lighter flavour would have been an improvement.

As for the flavours of lebkuchen - well, just about, but FB felt that the ginger was the overriding flavour, whereas ginger has been more muted in the lebkuchen we've eaten. I think these would also have been good baked as smaller cakes and perhaps half dipped in chocolate, but then I suppose I might just as well look out a lebkuchen recipe as do that! All in all - a quick bake packed with spicy flavour, although I think children might prefer a less sophisticated rock cake - perhaps the basic recipe Dan gives, enriched with a little spice and dried fruit.

I think FB would have preferred the lebkuchen flavours in a lighter cake, so I've got more work to do there, but this recipe has given me an idea of the flavours to look for in my search for a recipe to bake or adapt.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Pumpkin, Chocolate and Maple Loaf

I say this every year, but I'm still going to repeat myself - I love the flavours of Autumn and the heavier, more comforting style of  baking more than any other time of year. Fresh autumn produce is still in abundance, and can be used to great effect with spices, citrus fruit and chocolate for a while longer, until winter brings reliance on stored and preserved fruit and nuts.

The use of fresh autumn produce was the thought behind the choice of pumpkin for this month's We Should Cocoa challenge, and I could have bought a pumpkin and made my own pumpkin purée, but for baking I find the tins of purée much more reliable. For those less averse to risk, Hungryhinny, this month's We Should Cocoa host, explains how to make pumpkin purée and pumpkin pie spice mix, in this post.

Last year, I remember trying to find a recipe using both pumpkin and maple syrup, which is another of my favourite autumn flavours, and not being successful, but I had more luck this year and, after adding chocolate into the search, eventually settled on this recipe for a non-yeast bread containing all three. After seeing the outcome, I decided to drop the word 'bread' from the title as the loaf was nothing like bread in texture.

I followed the batter recipe closely but substituted 2 teaspoons of cinnamon for the pumkin pie spice, as I've come to realise that it is only that particular combination of spices which makes me dislike pumpkin pie so much! I may have added more chocolate too, as I used a 100g bar of plain 74% chocolate, and I think half a cup of chocolate chips would be around 80g - but you can't have too much chocolate really, can you?

When it came to icing the loaf, I made a maple glacé icing, with icing sugar, two teaspoons of lemon juice, two tablepoons of maple syrup and water to mix to a thick pouring consistency. After drizzling the cake with this I sprinkled over some maple sugar crystals - a foodie souvenir of our Canadian holiday a few years ago. I took a photo quickly at this stage, in case the crystals dissolved into the icing, but fortunately they didn't, so the photographs after cutting the cake still show the topping. Phew!

The flavour of this cake was terrific, but the texture wasn't the best. It was slightly too moist - the photos of the cut cake show a dense layer at the bottom which doesn't look properly baked, even though a tester came out clean at the end of the baking time. Fortunately this moistness didn't make the cake too dense and chewy - it was lighter than it looks! I think this might have been better baked as muffins, as suggested in the recipe, or even as a more shallow traybake cut into fingers. I'm not sure that the oats added anything to the flavour or the texture - they stayed as small chewy pieces in the crumb. I wonder if the recipe originally had nuts in it, and someone substituted the oats - I certainly think chopped pecans or walnuts would have been nicer.

We Should Cocoa is a monthly baking challenge set up by Choclette at Chocolate Log Blog and Chele at Chocolate Teapot. The idea is to make a chocolate product containing that month's chosen ingredient or cooking method. This month, the guest host, hungryhinny, has chosen 'pumpkin', and will be publishing a round up of entries at the end of the month.