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.