Sunday, 27 December 2015

Gingerbread Cake with Caramel Biscuit Frosting

This was another recipe from the Christmas 2015 (November) issue of Good Food magazine. I wanted a cake which looked good as a centre piece on the Christmas dining table, as well as tasting good. This Gingerbread Cake with Caramel Biscuit Icing certainly looked good on the cover of the magazine, but it was far too big for my needs and the decoration was too elaborate and twee for a group of four adults. Fortunately the recipe was easy to split into thirds, so I made two layers of cake instead of three, and decorated it much more simply, using fondant snowflakes, ginger crunch pieces and gold glitter and just half the quantity of frosting from the recipe.

I was really pleased with the flavour of both the cake and the cream cheese frosting, which used Lotus  caramel biscuit spread to give it a delicate flavour of caramel and cinnamon. The cake had quite a mild  ginger flavour, but anything stronger would have overwhelmed the flavour of the frosting. What didn't turn out so well was the texture of the cake. It was dense and solid, rather than sponge-like, and didn't really rise at all. It was as if the baking powder hadn't worked, although once I realised what the cake was like, I went back and tested it, and it worked OK. I'm sure I remembered put it in (!!??).

Unfortunately I didn't realise how bad the texture of the cake was until it was cut after being decorated. Had I realised earlier I'd have started again and made another cake. It wasn't inedible, but it wasn't what I'd expected, and rather spoiled the overall eating experience, despite the good flavours. I'd definitely use the frosting recipe again - I can think of many cakes which would be enhanced by it.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Chocolate Orange Cheesecake

Although I love a traditional Christmas Pudding, the rest of the family are not so keen - especially the younger generation. For many years our tradition has been something with chocolate for dessert on Christmas Day. This dessert, from the 2015 Christmas (November) issue of Good Food magazine (the only issue I buy now), fit the bill, although the chocolate was very much in a minor role to the deliciously creamy baked orange cheesecake.

This recipe for Chocolate Orange Cheesecake was simple to make. I don't have a large food processor, so made the base by hand - crushing the biscuits with a rolling pin and mixing in the melted butter - and mixed the ingredients for the filling with a hand-held electric mixer, on slow speed. I chopped the chocolate for the topping in a mini-processor - much simpler and faster than grating. The only issue I had was leakage of the very sloppy cheesecake mixture out of my springform tin - I think it's time for a new one, hopefully with a tighter leak-proof fit between sides and base. Fortunately the wrapping of foil which was designed to stop the waterbath water seeping in also contained the mess, and the heat of the waterbath set the cheesecake quickly around the edges to prevent too much loss.

Although no-one wanted to eat much  dessert after Christmas Day dinner, CT and I both tried a small piece. I expected the topping to be difficult to cut, but the chocolate rubble had stayed as such, and hadn't set into a hard layer, as melted chocolate spread on top would have done. An excellent idea which I will remember for the future! In fact it was the base which was hard to get through - after serving two small slices, I realised I hadn't actually cut through the base at all, but had lifted the cheesecake off the biscuit layer! After that was sorted, subsequent slices were easier to serve!

As a baked cheesecake, this was deliciously soft and creamy - only just set, but just right! The orange flavour of the zest and liqueur in the cheesecake mixture shone through, highlighted by the orange flavoured milk chocolate in the topping. Adding a proportion of almondy milk chocolate to the topping added extra crunch and flavour, and the base was thin and crisp. All round, an excellent dessert, and one I will use again.

I promised to mention FB's mincepies in my post. It was her first attempt at making pastry, and an excellent attempt it was too! She used this Mary Berry recipe which added orange zest to the pastry, chopped dried apricots to the mincemeat and topped the pies with grated marzipan. They were really good - tasty adaptations to bought mincemeat to make the pies extra special. My thanks go to her for taking on some of the Christmas cooking.

The use of many eggs in this cheesecake means I can enter it into Belleau Kitchen's Simply Excellent link-up for December. Dom's theme this month is Anything Goes, so I'm expecting to see a lot of Christmas desserts!

Chocolate in the base and topping also makes this cheesecake eligible for this month's We Should Cocoa event, a blog cooking challenge originated by Choclette at Tin and Thyme and hosted this month by Munchies and Munchkins, who has chosen the theme of Christmas.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Apple and Mincemeat Cake

This is just the right sort of cake to make in the run up to the festive season. Although it's not the sort of rich or fancy cake that will be eaten around Christmas and New Year, the flavours are good enough to put you in the festive mood, without feeling you are over-indulging too early. It's also a really simple cake to make and one I often fall back on when I'm lacking in imagination or time, especially as my husband always comments on how good it is.

The filling in the middle can be adapted to suit the seasons and the recipe also works really well with fresh fruit, as long as it doesn't exude too much juice during cooking (although even that can be overcome by cooking and draining the fruit first). For a taste of Christmas I used a mixture of mincemeat, dried pears and fresh apples - adding apples cuts through the sweetness of the mincemeat. Using the dried pears was a waste of good ingredients, however, as their flavour was overwhelmed by the mincemeat.

200g mincemeat
2-3 eating apples (peeled cored and diced into pieces about the size of sultanas)
4 dried pear halves (snipped into similar sized pieces with scissors)
150g butter
150g caster sugar
1 large egg, beaten
300g SR flour
2 tablespoons chopped toasted hazelnuts
icing sugar for dusting

Grease and base line a 20cm(8") springform tin. Preheat oven to 180C.

Mix the diced apples and dried pears into the mincemeat and set aside - the acidity of the mincemeat should stop the apples from discolouring.

Melt the butter (I find it easiest to do this in a large mixing bowl, in the microwave, then the dough can be mixed in the same bowl). The butter doesn't need to be hot, just completely liquid. Stir in the  caster sugar, then the beaten egg, then mix in the flour to make a soft spreadable dough.

Take roughly 2/3 of the dough and spread it evenly over the base of the cake tin. Push the dough up the sides of the cake tin a little way (about 2cm), to make a wall to contain the filling. This wall doesn't need to be any thicker than rolled out pastry for a pie - it just holds in any fruit juices.
Spread the mincemeat mixture evenly over the dough base.

Use the remaining dough to top the cake. (The easiest way is to flatten small pieces of dough with your fingers and put them on top of the cake filling, fitting them together as closely as possible but getting an even covering too. It doesn't matter about small gaps as the dough spreads and fills in the holes during baking. I usually start at the edge of the cake and work inwards - the dough is pliable enough to spread easily.)

Sprinkle over the chopped hazelnuts, then bake for 50-60 minutes until firm and golden brown.
Cool in the tin, then dust with a little icing sugar before serving.

This was my last baking session before starting on the Christmas desserts tomorrow, so I'll wish you all


Friday, 18 December 2015

Nigella Lawson's Supper Onion Pie

When I read in the Daily Telegraph that this recipe was considered one of Nigella's best 10 recipes of all time, I had to give it a try. This Supper Onion Pie is similar to a red onion tarte tatin, except that a cheese scone dough is used instead of pastry.

The recipe was quick and simple to put together - the longest procedure is slowly caramelising the onions until they are soft and nicely coloured. The onion layer is flavoured with thyme and the cheese scone dough also has mustard in it for a bit more flavour. I cooked the onions in the same skillet that I used to bake the pie in, which made things even simpler - less washing up!

I found this a pleasant dish to eat, but nothing more outstanding than that. The scone dough was quite thick compared to pastry, and I thought it needed more flavouring - more mustard or some herbs maybe, or even some dried chilli flakes. My husband was even more critical - I was told in no uncertain terms not to make it again unless I could make it more flavoursome - he suggested leaving out the cheese and using garlic and coriander leaves in the base and some suitable spices in the onions.

I don't have a lot of Nigella's recipes in my regular repertoire, but I don't think this is getting into our top 10!

Apologies for the photo of the whole pie - it had to be taken in artificial light. The last couple of months has been so dismal and dark that it's been really difficult to get enough natural light photograph anything well, even in daylight - roll on Spring, and longer days!

Monday, 14 December 2015

Not so Magic Cake, and other bits and pieces!

There's nothing wrong with the 'tiffin' style dessert pictured at the top of this post. It was made to Delia Smith's recipe for Chocolate-crunch Torte with Pistachios and Sour Cherries, following the recipe exactly, apart from using dried cranberries instead of dried sour cherries.

It was made as an quick replacement for an attempt at a 'magic' cake which I somehow knew had failed before it was even out of the baking tin. Magic cakes are so called because one cake batter separates into three layers during cooking - a thin dense pastry-like layer at the bottom, a custardy layer in the middle and a light sponge on top.

I used the chocolate and hazelnut magic cake recipe featured in this recent newspaper article, and even though I can now see where I might have made a mistake (trying to incorporate the egg whites evenly into the batter, rather than leaving it in clumps) I don't think the finished cake would ever have looked as attractive as the photo in the article, or tasted good either. 100g of Nutella-type chocolate hazelnut spread is not enough to make a cake taste strongly of chocolate, nor give it a good deep colour. This is what mine looked like - you can just about see three layers, but it was a really unattractive shade of beige, the custard was dense and slimy and it didn't really taste of anything definite - certainly not hazelnuts or chocolate. After trying one mouthful, for research, it went into the food waste recycling - and, as I've often said, food has to be really awful for me to throw it away!

I didn't bake a cake last weekend; it was my husband's birthday, and he wanted a stollen, which I buy rather than make as my yeast doughs are very unpredictable. I made a very tasty seasonal fruit crumble though, using 3 eating apples, 100g fresh cranberries, the zest of a clementine and the clementine segments, cut in half, to make 4 portions of dessert. I also added a teaspoon of mixed spice to my usual crumble recipe of equal weights (75g) of butter, brown sugar, plain flour and rolled oats.

I also tried my hand at apple-chilli jelly recently, using the homegrown apples which were too small to peel and use in any other way. The beauty of apple jelly is that the fruit is just roughly chopped - peel, cores and pips included - before cooking with water and adding some vinegar. The cooked fruit is strained, then reboiled with sugar and sliced chillies, until the setting point is reached. I used this recipe from gardener Sarah Raven, using just the regular mixed red and green chillies sold as moderately hot in the supermarket.

After cooking the apples in water and straining the juice I had about 1.5 litres of liquid; I was a little worried, as despite my careful handling of the fruit, the liquid looked cloudy at this point. I needn't have worried though, as soon as it came to the boil with the added sugar it miraculously cleared - I just wish this had been mentioned in any of the recipes I read! I used a sugar thermometer, to be sure that the setting point had been reached. I didn't manage to distribute the chillies very evenly when potting the jelly - the jar in the photo got the most - and it looked as if all the chilli slices were going to float, until I remembered a tip I'd read somewhere about turning the sealed jars upside down for about 10 minutes, then back again, and repeating as the jelly cooled and set. This procedure eventually traps some of the chillies near the bottom, despite their inclination to float! I think the chilli slices are for decoration - there's certainly a lot of heat in the jelly alone, so even the jars without much visible chilli will taste the same.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Norwegian Apple Cake (Eplekake)

I chose this cake recipe primarily to make a non-Christmas entry to this month's AlphaBakes challenge. The letter chosen is N, and Caroline, of Caroline Makes (who is this month's host, a duty she shares with Ros, of The More Than Occasional Baker) is graciously allowing entries where N = Noel, but would obviously like some more general entries too.

When consulting my baking books, I found that there were very few choices of ingredients beginning with N - nuts, nutmeg - and even fewer recipe names, especially once you ruled out Nutty as part of the title. Before resigning myself to going with nuts, I looked at the recipes from countries beginning with N, especially where the name of the country was used in the title of the dish; it didn't take long to find Norwegian apple cake. This recipe had the added bonuses of keeping my baking light in the approach to Christmas and using up some of my store of home-grown apples.

I used this recipe, which produced a cake small enough for two of us to eat quickly. Most of the online recipes are similar - some add a handful of raisins, or nuts, or make a bigger cake, but the differences are minor and go to prove that the basic recipe is authentic and tradional.

The cake is a vanilla flavoured sponge base with thin slices of cinnamon-sprinkled apples baked on top. It uses a slightly lower proportion of flour than a traditional British sponge cake recipe, and most recipes whisk melted butter and sugar together for the first step, as here, rather than creaming sugar with soft butter. These two steps make a more fluid batter than I'm used to, and I was worried that my springform pan would leak, so I changed to a ceramic baking dish at the last minute, which made a more shallow cake. I needed three of my small apples to get enough slices to cover the surface. Rather than sprinkling brown sugar and cinnamon over the surface of the cake, I tossed the apple slices in a sugar and cinnamon mixture before arranging them on the batter - I saw this in another version of the recipe and thought it a good idea, as it gets some of the cinnamon flavour into the batter mix, as it rises around the apple slices.

I thought this made a better dessert than a cake. When cold the sponge was moist but slightly too dense for my taste - it was best eaten warm, and would have been even better with cream or custard.  My apples were yellow-skinned; if I made it again, I think red-skinned apples would look prettier, but that's a minor quibble! It tasted good though - what's not to like about sweet apples mingled with vanilla and cinnamon?

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Christmas Spice Mini-bundt Cake

When I found a mini-bundt cake tin in one of the local charity shops, I couldn't wait to try it out, even though I didn't really need to bake. Fortunately both children were coming for a family birthday dinner, so I could rely on them to take home some of the leftovers, to make sure we weren't left with too much to eat.

As I already had a chocolate cake I decided to make something spicy, and thought it would be a good opportunity to try out my tub of Waitrose Signature Spice mix - a blend specially made for the supermarket, containing cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, allspice, star anise, black pepper, tangerine oil and cloves. Waitrose is using this spice mix in a lot of it's Christmas products, such as mincemeat, cakes and puddings, as well as selling it as a spice blend for cooking

An online search for something suitable brought me to Nigella Lawson's recipe for a Cider and 5-spice Bundt Cake, which is similar to a gingerbread cake but uses 5-spice powder and fresh ginger. By my calculations, my little bundt tin was a quarter of the volume of the one used in the recipe, but I decided to err on the side of caution and make 1/3 of the recipe quantity (especially as scaled down recipes are simpler if you don't need fractions of eggs).

The scaled down ingredients were: 60mls sunflower oil, 35g light muscovado sugar, 100g black treacle, 1 tablespoon ginger wine, 60mls milk, 1 large egg, 100g plain flour, 2/3 teaspoon baking powder, pinch bicarbonate of soda, 2 teaspons signature spice mix.

The recipe was simply a matter of mixing wet ingredients and sugar together, and combining this with the flour, spice and raising agents - similar to traditional gingerbread cake, but as you're using oil instead of butter, no melting is required. I decided not to open a bottle of cider just for 80mls, so replaced that with a tablespoon of ginger wine and 60mls milk. I left out the fresh ginger and replaced all the ground spices with 2 teaspoons of the Signature Spice mix. My mini version of the cake took 30 minutes to bake at 170C, and was just the right amount of mixture for the tin.

Bundt tins always fill me with trepidation when it comes to turning out the cooked cakes - I think it's recipes that are at fault, rather than my technique, since I work consistently (using cake release spray), yet some recipes always work, and some always fail at turning out cleanly. Fortunately this recipe was one that worked! I contemplated using a lemon glacé icing drizzled over the cake, but realised that I wouldn't get it photographed before it got too dark, if I waited for it to cool, so I dusted with icing sugar instead.

I really liked the Signature Spice mix used in this way. The flavour was still similar to a gingerbread cake, due to the main ingredients being cinnamon and ginger, but the cardamom, allspice, pepper and cloves gave a more complex peppery edge to the flavour, which was almost savoury, and the aroma was quite different too. The cake was moist and close textured without being too dense - and I'm really pleased to have found a good (gingerbread) recipe using oil instead of butter. I'm sure I'll be trying a full sized version of the recipe at some point.

The seasonal theme for Tea Time Treats for December is Sugar and Spice, so I'm entering this cake. Tea Time Treats is co-hosted by Jane at The Hedge Combers and Karen at Lavender and  Lovage, who is this month's host

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Marmalade and Hazelnut Cake

I'm trying to keep my baking light in the lead up to the festive 'eating season', and this subtly flavoured cake was made using the odds and ends of store-cupboard ingredients which inevitably accumulate during the year. The marmalade and candied peel gave just a hint of citrus flavour and the nuts added texture. The batter is a little heavier than a traditional sponge cake, but not as dense as a Madeira cake.

175g softened butter
150g caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 eggs
5 tablespoons coarse-cut orange marmalade
200g SR flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
50g toasted chopped hazelnuts
50g candied citrus peel, finely chopped (optional)

optional - extra tablespoon of chopped hazelnuts for topping

Preheat oven to 160C and prepare a round 20cm(8") cake tin. Sift the flour and baking powder together.
In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar together until pale and well mixed.
Beat in the eggs, one at a time, with a spoonful of the flour. Add the vanilla extract with the first egg.
With the electric mixer (if using) on minimum, mix in the marmalade, then fold in the rest of the flour.
Fold in the nuts and citrus peel, if using.
Transfer the batter to the cake tin, level the top and sprinkle on the extra chopped nuts, if desired (sugar nibs or demerara sugar would make a good alternative topping). Bake for 50-60 minutes, until a test probe comes out clean.
Cool in the tin for 15 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely

Wednesday, 2 December 2015


This dish of rice and brown lentils, with fried onions, is found in most Middle Eastern countries, most often called mujadara (and other spelling variations). I think the proportions of rice and lentils varies from place to place, and also how well the onions are fried - some recipes garnish with crispy onions.

I have one book of traditional Middle Eastern recipes - The Complete Middle East Cookbook, by Tess Mallos - and her section on recipes from the Gulf States calls this dish Muaddas. The recipe uses 1 part lentils to 4 parts rice, plus a large onion. I scaled down the recipe to serve two, so probably used a little more onion than in the recipe. The idea is to fry the onions until just beginning to colour, stir in the raw long-grain rice and lentils then add double the amount of water and some salt, and cook until the water is absorbed and the grains cooked - the recipe suggests about 45 minutes. Because I was using basmati rice, which cooks much faster than the lentils, I part-cooked them first, which reduced the cooking time to 20 minutes.

I served a vaguely Middle Eastern vegetable casserole with the Muaddas, flavoured with the spice mix Baharat, garlic, ginger and chilli. Muaddas made a nice change from plain rice, but it wasn't anything special - I expected the fried onions to add more flavour.

I made this dish for the season finale of the Formula 1 Foods challenge on Caroline Makes, as I needed a recipe from the United Arab Emirates to celebrate the last race taking place in Abu Dhabi. I would have liked to find a dessert or sweetmeat to make, but many traditional recipes from that part of the world rely on yeast doughs and/or deep frying, neither of which I wanted to tackle. I am pleased that I've stuck with this challenge until the end - I think I missed out a couple of rounds when totally lacking in inspiration, but produced something most of the time!

Friday, 27 November 2015

Sticky Date Cake with Ginger and Lemon

Christmas arrived a little early for me, as the theme for this week's local Clandestine Cake Club meeting was 'European Christmas Markets', with the remit to be inspired by the scents and flavours of Christmas across Europe.

In a way, the CCC is a little limiting when it comes to Christmas - no pies, tarts, or biscuits means a lot of Central and Northern European specialities, such as Lebkuchen, gingerbread biscuits and our own mincepies can't be included. A lot of traditional Christmas baking all across Europe seems to feature yeast dough too, something which is not my forté.

Despite the restrictions there was a great range of cakes to try -  chocolate cakes included Sachertorte, Black Forest Gateau, mint, orange and coffee, then there were two gingerbread cakes, a cranberry and orange drizzle cake, and my personal favourite - a mincemeat and marzipan bundt cake.

The meeting was held in one of our local tea rooms, so as well as the flavours of Christmas in the cakes we had the perfumes from the teas chosen too - London Fog (vanilla and Earl Grey) was popular, and cherry and chocolate tea went down well too. I can't remember the name of the tea recommended to me, but it was robust and spicy, and stood up well to the rich flavours in the cakes.

I took this cake, called a Squidgy Lemon-Ginger Cake on the BBC Good Food site, which I've made for Christmas before. Despite containing no dry fruits or ground spices, the ingredients magically blend to give just the right seasonal flavour and perfume. The cake is moist with finely chopped dried dates, which are soaked before use, and apple and is flavoured with dark muscovado sugar, fresh ginger and lemon, as well as the natural caramelly flavour of the dates.

I decorated the cake with a glacé icing coloured pale green with sparkly food colour, tiny white snowflakes from a bought packet and some larger snowflakes cut from rolled fondant icing. I don't know what possessed me to chose green icing - I had green or gold glitter available and thought green the better option for some reason!

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Cherry and Walnut Flapjack

This was a quick mid-week bake, just to keep us supplied with sweet treats. I rummaged through my box of goodies to see what needed using up and found a pack of dried cherries and 50g of walnut pieces left over from something else. I added the last two tablespoons of desiccated coconut from a packet and made this delicious flapjack, which was in the oven within a few minutes of deciding to bake.

Melt 160g butter, 70g golden syrup and 100g light muscovado sugar together, either in a large bowl in the microwave (my preference) or in a saucepan on the hob. It doesn't need to boil, just melt together. Stir in 240g rolled oats, 50g dried cherries (chopped if large), 50g walnut pieces and 2 tablespoons desiccated coconut. Tip the mixture into a 20cm(8") square baking tin, lined with baking parchment. Spread evenly, press down firmly and bake at 180C for 25-30 minutes. Mark into squares or bars while still warm, but cool completely before removing from  the tin.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Buttermilk Fruit Cake

When I decided to make a chocolate and banana cake, and was looking for recipes, I initially decided on a chocolate chip cake using buttermilk. When I changed my mind, I was left with a carton of buttermilk which needed using quite quickly, as it didn't have a long 'use-by' date. Another search for a recipe was on! This time I wanted something seasonal, not too big, and not too fancy.

This fruit cake recipe, found on Joy of Baking, which adds dates, spices and other dried fruit to a buttermilk cake batter, fit the bill perfectly. The recipe didn't need any eggs, which was quite intriguing, just relying on the action of bicarbonate of soda with buttermilk to raise the cake. I didn't have currants or raisins needed to follow the recipe exactly, but used 100g sultanas and 100g of a mix of chopped dried apricots, sour cherries and crystallised ginger instead.

Making the cake was straightforward - just mix wet ingredients into dry ingredients, then stir in the dry fruit, so only a saucepan, a couple of bowls and a spoon was needed. As my buttermilk was cold, I melted the butter in a saucepan, then added the buttermilk and just warmed it slightly. I also dropped my dates into the measured flour, then cut them into small pieces with scissors, rather than chopping them on a board - much easier.

The thing I really enjoyed about this cake was the spice mix; allspice isn't something I use often but it really worked well with cinnamon and nutmeg to give a warm and peppery background flavour to the dried fruit. Overall the cake was moist and well textured - the absence of eggs wasn't obvious.

Baking the cake in a 9" x 5" tin made what my mother would have called a 'slab cake' - something deeper than a traybake but shallower than normal for a cake. I think a smaller baking tin would have made a cake with better proportions, but it may not have cooked as well; I'm sure there was a good reason for that sized tin being used.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Banana, Chocolate and Brazil Nut Loaf

I started off this month's We Should Cocoa challenge, set by Choclette, at Tin and Thyme, feeling dubious that bananas and chocolate would work well together, and I'm afraid I still thought that after making this cake. I also thought, and this is something that rarely happens, that there was too much chocolate(!!) in this cake. It  could have been this factor that affected the banana/chocolate flavour combination adversely, as I've seen many recipes which are happy to put the two together. Strangely enough, when it came to melting the 170g of chocolate needed for the recipe (found here) I dithered for ages about whether to cut it back to 120g, but decided in the end to stick with the original.

I also decided to kill two birds with one stone (also known as putting one cake into two cooking challenges) by making this my entry into Formula 1 Foods, hosted by Caroline Makes, which has been celebrating the Formula 1 Grand Prix season by inviting participants to make something inspired by the host country of each round of the event. It could be traditional dishes or culture which gives inspiration, but I couldn't resist using Brazil nuts and chocolate, two ingredients which are grown in Brazil, where this weekend's penultimate race of the season is taking place.

I followed the recipe quite closely; I needed 4 bananas to get 1 1/2 cups, and used three medium eggs instead of two extra-large. I think my loaf tin might have been a different shape to the one used for the recipe, as my loaf took 90 minutes to cook (covered for the last 30 minutes) and I still wasn't sure it was ready when I took it out of the oven, as my colour-changing probe didn't turn to bright red, as it does when a cake is done, although it was dry and clean. The cake didn't rise a lot during baking and sank back as it cooled, which was a little alarming - I was worried about it being very heavy.

As I said earlier, I think this cake would have tasted better with either less chocolate, or perhaps using one with a lower cocoa content. It wasn't unpleasant to eat, but 170g of chocolate with 70% cocoa solids gave a slightly bitter edge to the flavour of the chocolate areas, and was very intense, The banana flavour of the cake was still quite distinct and the Brazil nuts gave a nice crunch (but not a strong flavour). The texture was quite dense, as I had feared, but not so much as to spoil the cake; I wonder if a little more baking powder was needed to counteract the alkalinity of the ripe bananas?

Most people would probably love this cake, but I'm afraid it hasn't converted me to thinking that bananas and chocolate is a good combination.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Marzipan and Cherry Loaf

When I plan my baking, and when I shop, there's always a little space in my mind for the baking challenges I like to do. I'm always hoping I can fit them into my plans, without going out of my way to  make something which wouldn't be happily eaten.

So when my husband had a Homer Simpson moment in front of a cake in Waitrose supermarket (Mmmm! Marzipan and cherry....) my immediate response was "I can make you one of those, if you really want it" and my participation in this month's AlphaBakes challenge was settled! M is for Marzipan.

I only made a small loaf, from a very basic recipe, because I didn't have many glacé cherries, and I also had other baking plans for later in the week.

I used the all-in-one method to mix the cake batter (200g SR flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 100g baking spread (softened butter would be fine too), 75g caster sugar, 2 small/medium eggs, 1 teaspoon almond extract and enough milk to give a dropping consistency), then folded in 70g halved natural coloured dark glacé cherries and 75g marzipan cut into very small cubes. I washed the syrup from the cherries before halving them, then mixed both the cherries and chopped marzipan with a tablespoon of flour from the weighed amount in the recipe. This can stop pieces of fruit sinking through a batter as it warms up in the oven.

I put the batter into a lined 1lb (450g) loaf tin, and scattered over another 25g of marzipan cubes and 1 tablespoon of demerara sugar. The cake was baked at 180C for 60-70 minutes, until a test probe came out clean and dry. Because the marzipan on top of the cake started to brown quite quickly, I had to cover the cake after 40 minutes.

I used marzipan with quite a high almond content, and cut down the usual amount of sugar a bit, but this was still a very sweet cake. The almond flavour was stronger than that of the cherries, possibly because of the added almond extract, but the contrast between the soft pieces of marzipan and the chewier cherries was good. I think, in hindsight, that putting some of the marzipan on top wasn't a good idea - cherries would have looked better, if I'd had any extra to use, and probably wouldn't have burnt.

AlphaBakes is a monthly challenge hosted alternately by Caroline at Caroline Makes and Ros at The More Than Occasional Baker. Each month a letter of the alphabet is randomly chosen, and then participants makes something using that letter as the first letter of a major ingredient or word in the name of the dish. This month, the letter M was chosen by Ros, who will post a round-up of entries at the end of the month.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Spiced Brownies

inspired by the history of chocolate in Central America and Mexico

I think most chocolate devotees will know that the first record of cocao trees dates back to the Olmec civilisation, which was to be found in the forests on the Gulf of Mexico as long as three thousand years ago. One of the first known uses for cacao beans was in a spicy bitter drink made by the Mayans, another ancient civilisation in Central America, around AD 300.

The Mayans used local spices to flavour the drink made from the cacao bean; one of the most often used spices was chilli, but vanilla, cloves, allspice, pepper plus nuts and flowers were also used. The sweeter spices such as cinnamon and aniseed started to be used when the drink was sweetened with sugar, around the 16th century. Nowadays, chocolate products flavoured with chilli and cinnamon are often given names alluding to their Mexican or Mayan heritage.

It was with this in mind that I decided that a spiced chocolate brownie was the best thing to make for the Mexican round of the culinary challenge called Formula 1 Foods, over at Caroline Makes. The idea is to make either a traditional dish eaten in that country or something inspired by the culture, traditions and ingredients found in that country.

I made my usual brownie recipe and added some suitable spices. I decided to go with subtle hints of chilli rather than a blast of heat, as well as using some of the less common spices used by the Mayans.

To a brownie batter made by melting 140g each of butter and plain chocolate together, then adding in turn, 300g light muscovado sugar, three eggs, 160g plain flour and 3 tablespoons of cocoa, I added a teaspoon of vanilla extract, 1/2 teaspoon of ground ancho chilli pepper, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground aniseed and a pinch of ground cloves. This was baked for 25-30 minutes at 180C, in a 20cm square tin.

This combination of spices proved to be just what I intended - warm (my jar of ancho chilli powder was described as warm and earthy rather than hot), and well balanced, with none of the flavours overwhelming the others. I think most people would be hard-pressed to identify any of the individual spices used, unless they had a well trained palate - even the chilli blended well with the other spices used.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Orange and Ginger Jammy Oat Squares

For someone who always declares that there is no point in making jam, as it rarely gets eaten by anyone in the house, I seem to have accumulated a lot of half-eaten jars of the stuff - each bought for a specific baking purpose, rather than jam-on-toast type treats.

In order to use up some of these remnants, I decided to make a jam-filled oaty traybake, rather than the flapjacks I'd been thinking about. I followed this recipe, and was halfway through rubbing the butter into the other ingredients when I realised that it wasn't a lot different to my standard mix for fruit crumbles. This worried me a little, as I then began to doubt that the crumbs would stick together to make a solid base, even after being firmly pressed.

For the jammy middle layer, I used a mixture of equal quantities of coarse-cut orange marmalade and ginger preserves, which contained small cubes of ginger.

I baked in a slightly smaller tin (20cm (8") square) as past experience has shown that many American recipes for traybakes produce something far too shallow. The cooking time was the same.

Metric conversion of ingredients - 130g plain flour, 100g rolled oats, 140g light muscovado sugar, 1/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda, 115g butter, 300g jam for filling. Reserve 170g of the mixture for the topping.

These oat squares were really delicious, although the jam in the middle soaked into the base, rather than staying in a separate layer - but that might have been all that held the oaty crumbs together! The combination of sharp orange marmalade and fiery ginger preserves was particularly good! They made a nice change from flapjacks, and were just as quick to make and bake, but I've used nicer oat mixtures in other bakes, so probably won't use this recipe again.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Date and Walnut Sponge Pudding

Dairy-free and gluten-free

The recipe I adapted for this gluten- and dairy-free  dessert calls itself a healthier version of a sticky toffee pudding. It comes from the Hemsley sisters who are well known for healthy eating recipes and I found it on the Vogue website. That's not a website that I would think to look at for recipes but it came up in a Google search for recipes using coconut flour.

While I'm all for healthy eating, that wasn't the aspect of the recipe that really interested me. What I wanted was a gluten-free recipe that could be adapted to be dairy-free as well. In this recipe the flour is replaced by ground almonds and coconut flour. The recipe also cuts out added refined sugar, relying on just the dates for natural sweetness. I wasn't convinced this would be sweet enough for those more used to normal puddings, so I added 75g of light muscovado sugar. I replaced the butter with coconut oil and added 75g chopped walnuts for texture and flavour (and also so that this dessert could be my contribution to this month's AlphaBakes challenge).

250g dried dates, roughly chopped*
1 1/4 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
200ml boiling water
100g coconut oil
75g light muscovado sugar
3 eggs (mine happened to be large)
200g ground almonds
pinch of ground cloves
20g coconut flour
75g walnut pieces

* I used a semi-dry date which was still quite moist and sticky. I cut each date crossways into three pieces with scissors - this ensures there are no pits left in any of them.

(I don't have a large food processor, so adapted the method in the original recipe to use a hand (stick) blender.)
Soak the dates in the boiling water and bicarbonate of soda for 10 minutes. While still warm, use a hand blender to purée the dates, and their liquid, with the coconut oil. If you can leave a few pieces of dates in the mixture it gives more texture to the pudding, so don't blend too much.
Transfer the date mixture to a large bowl and stir in the sugar, then beat in the eggs, one at a time.
Stir in the ground almonds and cloves, then sift over the coconut flour and fold in quickly. Lastly, fold in the walnut pieces.
Transfer to a baking dish (I used one roughly 20cm square), greased with coconut oil, and bake at 170C for around 45 minutes, until firm. You might need to cover the pudding towards the end of the cooking time, if it's getting too dark.
Cut into portions to serve while still warm - it should serve 8-12 people depending on appetite.

The resulting dessert was delicious but not really dark and sticky enough to call itself a 'sticky toffee' pudding in my opinion, so I've just called it a sponge pudding. It was surprisingly light, considering it was just raised by the bicarbonate of soda. Adding 75g of sugar seemed to make the pudding just about right to me, in terms of sweetness, so I'm not sure how enjoyable the original version would have been. However, it's certainly worth a try if so-called 'sugar-free' baking appeals to you - but remember that dried fruit such as dates contain a lot of natural sugar, so you're not cutting out all sugar!

Adding the walnuts, and leaving some pieces of dates in the blended mixture made the texture of the pudding more interesting - the walnuts added crunch and the pieces of dates added bursts of sweet caramel flavour. If you don't like nuts, adding some plumped up raisins or sultanas would keep some textural variations - I would soak them in orange juice or something similar, so that they didn't absorb too much moisture from the cake batter, as coconut flour needs all the moisture it can get to avoid making things really dry and stodgy. I didn't make the suggested sauce to serve with the dessert, as I needed to stay dairy-free, but it was very good with a little maple syrup poured over it, and served with natural yogurt.

AlphaBakes is a monthly challenge hosted by Caroline, at Caroline Makes, and Ros, at The More Than Occasional Baker. The idea of the challenge is to use a randomly chosen letter of the alphabet as the first letter of a prominent ingredient, or a word in the name of the dish made. This month, Caroline is the host, the letter is W, and I used Walnuts.