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.