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.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Nanaimo Bars - for AlphaBakes

New month, new challenges to face! The first one to get my attention was an attempt at courgette and lemon jam, for Tea Time Treats, which ended up on the compost heap, so I'll gloss over that and move onto the AlphaBakes challenge, which is the letter N this month.

Surprisingly, N is a very small section of the index in most of my baking books - after the generic 'nuts' I rarely found anything other than 'nutmeg' or 'Nutella', neither of which appealed. However one seldom used book suggest Nanaimo bars, which did sound rather appealing. They've hovered around the edge of my awareness for a while - I made a point of eating one on holiday in Vancouver a few years ago - but layered bars are fiddly to make, and chocolate topping usually ends in a messy disaster for me, so I'd never made them. Actually, that makes them sound just right for a baking challenge, even though they aren't usually baked!

I checked the recipe in my book against those online, and found one huge discrepancy! My recipe used a biscuit crumb base, and added an egg to the vanilla custard filling. All the online recipes added the egg to the biscuit crumb base and made a simpler buttercream filling. As some of the websites I checked claimed to be 'authentic' I thought I'd better use one of them. In the end, I chose the recipe on Joy of Baking, simply because the conversion from cups to metric weights had already been done! In fact most of the recipes were remarkably similar, so I could have chosen any of them!

The recipe was quite straightforward, although cooking the egg into the butter, sugar and cocoa mixture was a bit nervewracking - I expected a pan of scrambled egg, as most recipes use a double boiler at this point! I substituted chopped hazelnuts for the walnuts in the recipe, as FB prefers the taste of hazelnuts. I made my bars in a 12 x 8" (30 x 20cm) tin, although this was really too big for the recipe. I'll admit that in my haste I thought the tin I'd picked up was 10 x 8", which is not a million miles from a 9" square tin, so I've only myself to blame that the bars didn't seem very deep! However, leaving this aside, everything else went smoothly, and I remembered to cut the bars with a hot knife. I cut the traybake into 24 bars around 2.5 x 1" in size.

These little bars were absolutely delicious, and well worth the fiddling about and the time spent waiting for each stage to set. I was concerned about the raw custard powder in the buttercream, and it did taste a little floury on it's own, but sandwiched between the two chocolate layers it wasn't at all noticeable. The coconut was the predominant flavour in the base, but that and the hazelnuts added texture too. The only down-side was that the buttercream softened at room temperature, so the bars really needed to be refrigerated, or they were difficult to eat.

AlphaBakes is a monthly baking challenge based on a randomly chosen letter of the Alphabet - see the rules here. It's hosted alternately by Ros from The More Than Occasional Baker, and Caroline, from Caroline Makes. This month Ros chose the letter N and will post a round-up of entries at the end of the month.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Apple Cobbler

Harvest time again! We have three minarette apple trees in the garden - these are trees which don't grow much more than 2 metres tall and are kept pruned into narrow columns. This makes them ideal for small gardens, but so far only one of them really justifies it's existence with a good crop of apples. The other two have only given a few apples each year, although weather conditions have been very difficult around the time the fruit should be setting, for the past couple of years. The trees aren't fully grown yet, so I'll give them more of a chance to become productive before giving up on them.

One of the trees which only gives a handful of fruit is a dual purpose apple called Broadholm Beauty; this is an apple sweet enough to eat raw, but which also collapses like a Bramley when cooked. As I only had 4 apples this year I wanted to use them in something where the flavour of the apple remained pure, but where I could still add flavour to the dish. I decided to make a Cobbler and add more flavour to the dough topping. To me, a 'cobbler' is cooked fruit with cut out scones on top - I found a lot of recipes going by the name of 'cobbler' with wetter toppings which were scooped onto the fruit, and which then merged together when cooked, not what I wanted.

In the end, I dispensed with recipes and went ahead with a simple scone dough - 160g SR flour, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 40g butter, 25g caster sugar, a mixture of sour cream and milk to mix a soft dough - to which I added the grated zest of a small orange and 25g dried cranberries. It's so nice to be using Autumn flavours again! I patted the dough out to a circle to fit my pie dish, and cut it into 8 wedges, rather than cut out circles of dough and have to re-roll trimmings, which are never as good as the first scones cut. I also pre-cooked the apples, as scones cook so quickly; these did not need added sugar but that's a matter of taste and the variety of apples used. I think there were probably around 700g of apples before peeling and coring, and these quantities of ingredients made 4 portions.

I arranged 7 of the wedges on top of the cooked apples, brushed them with milk and sprinkled with a little demerara sugar, then baked at 200C for about 20 minutes, until the cobblers were risen and golden brown. I left out one scone wedge to make sure there was space between them after cooking - this was cooked separately as a cook's treat!

This is a dessert to eat warm, with custard or cream (although I ate my portion with low-fat yogurt!). It was really good to be able to taste the apple properly, while the added cranberries and orange gave the topping a more interesting flavour and texture. In an ideal world, I would have used more apples, but I didn't want to adulterate our harvested apples with other fruit before we had tasted them - at least half as much apple again would have been better. I'll definitely be adding flavour to cobbler toppings again!