Category Archives: Recipe

Date Bars

I have recently been on a bit of a quest to start finding healthier snacks to take to work. Our café has been selling date and nut bars at a handsome premium, so I thought that I could easily make them myself. I mean, ground up dates and nuts, how hard can it really be? So yes…I’ve basically made what you probably already know  as Lärabars, but bear with me – I’ve actually done a bit of research here, and it turns out that these healthy sweet treats have a bit more history to them that you might think.

One of my most interesting little baking books is Cakes From Around The World by Julie Duff. One of the recipes that has piqued my curiosity is for Egyptian date cakes. These consist of nothing more than dates and almonds, ground with a dash of lemon juice, and then pressed flat between two sheets of rice paper. Julie muses that you can imagine cakes like this being made in ancient times, and having finally tried making date/nut bars, I have to agree.

These date bars are made me think of traditional festive sugar plums. I was always under the impression that sugar plums were some sort of candied treat, finally rolled in sparking crystals, but when I had a go at making them a few years ago, it turned out that they were actually rather like energy balls – little balls of dried fruit and nuts, dusted in icing sugar. It is actually quite interesting to look at that recipe with modern eyes – we see something that might pass for healthy (putting the debate about the amount of sugar in dried fruit to one side) whereas Victorians would have viewed them as luxurious treats, packed with all manner of expensive and exotic ingredients from far away lands. How times have changed.

So when I came to actually making date and nut bars, I didn’t feel that I was just having a go at making something that is a modern idea, but something that actually goes back a long, long way.

gingerdatebars

I used a simple ratio of one cup of dates, chopped, and one cup of mixed whole cashews and almonds. In my case the dates were fairly dry, so I soaked them in cold water for five minutes, but if you’re using very juicy dates, such as medjool, then you can probably skip this step. I also added some ground spices that I hoped would provide a bit of a gingerbread effect – ground cinnamon, ginger and mixed spice. I say mixed spice, but as I was feeling lazy, I used the first thing I could find, which happened to be a pot of Garam Masala. While I’m all for using whole spices and grinding them where I can, I think in these bars it is good to use pre-ground, as you’ll struggle to get as fine a powder as you do from a shop-bought mix. You want the flavour to disperse evenly, not little bits of woody cinnamon!

gingerdatebars2

Once I’d ground the dates to a paste and worked in the nuts, I pretty quickly realised that I had ended up with something that was very sticky and was never going to come together. Luckily, I had a bag of ground almonds to hand, and I kept adding a handful at a time until it worked. It’s hard to say how much you’re need, just keep added a little at a time until the lot seems to come together.

I’m pretty pleased with the final result – kind of fruity and kind of nutty, with a real gingerbread flavour. They are also firmer than I would have expected, and after a few days in the fridge, they defiantly had a slight biscuity/cakey texture. I doubt that I would be able to pass these off as a genuine baked good, but as an easy and fairly innocent treat (just nuts and dates! no butter! no added oil! no refined sugar!) I think they’re pretty darned good.

To make Date Bars

• 1 cup chopped pitted dates
• 1/2 cup whole almonds
• 1/2 cup cashew nuts
• 1 teaspoon mixed spice
• 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• extra ground almonds

1. Put the chopped dates into a bowl and cover with water. Rest for 5 minutes and drain.

2. In the meantime, grind the nuts. You want a fairly fine powder, but a few larger bits are not a problem.

3. Put the dates into a food processor and work into a smooth paste. Add the spices and the nuts, and mix well.

4. Remove the mixture from the food processor, and add as much of the ground almonds as needed until it comes together.

5. Roll the mixture into a square, wrap in cling film, and leave to rest in the fridge for an hour.

6. Cut into pieces and store in the fridge in an airtight container.

Worth making? I am completely impressed with how easy this recipe is and just how good they taste. A much better alternative to chocolate biscuits mid-morning!

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Secret Chocolate (Not Brazil) Nut Brownies

It’s the Fourth of July, and who could resist a tray of soft, squidgy chocolate brownies?

brownies1 brownies2

Given that we’re all a little bit obsessed with the World Cup at the moment, when I first thought of posting this, I planned to give them a bit of a tropical theme, with a liberal scattering of Brazil nuts in honour of the host nation. That was Monday.

On Tuesday, the USA got knocked out by Belgium, so suddenly that didn’t seem like such a good idea any more. The Brazil nuts were out, and good old patriotic walnuts and pecans went into them instead. I also made sure that I was not using Belgian chocolate in this recipe, as that would have been a bit of an insult after the Red Devils triumphed in Salvador…

At this stage, I need to ‘fess up to the fact that this recipe is more or less one from Delia Smith, but it also has the honour of being one of the recipes that I have been making the longest. I saw this on TV early on in my university days (remember that time when you saw things on TV and had to scribble them down, rather than just looking them up on Google later? Yes, this is one of those!). The only tweaks I’ve made are to use salted butter (believe me, it works), vanilla, a bit of cocoa powder and…some great big dirty spoonfuls of Nutella!

Yes, my secret weapon for making brownies it to add spoonfuls of the stuff. I’ve found the way to make them even less healthy than they normally are (unless, of course, I were to try deep-frying them, but I’m sure there is a chip shop in Glasgow that’s one step ahead of me). Yes, Nutella sounds odd, but it really is amazing. I pour half the batter into the tray, then drizzle with softened Nutella (pop in the microwave to make it runny), sprinkle with nuts and pour over the rest of the mixture. I think my original idea was that there would be a seam of chocolate spread running through the finished brownies, but in the end, it just soaks into them and makes them extra soft, sticky and delicious. I remember turning out trays of the things, and they would be wolfed down when we got in late, during film nights…you get the picture.

So, are these babies healthy? Absolutely not. But are they naught and delicious? Of course! And if you’re in the mood for celebrating, it’s only right to treat yourself.

brownies3

To make Chocolate Brownies (adapted from Delia Smith, makes 16-25):

• 175g salted butter
• 125g dark chocolate
• 3 eggs, beaten
• 275g caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 75g plain flour
• 25g cocoa powder
• 1 teaspoon  baking powder
• 100g chopped nuts
• 4 tablespoon Nutella, warmed

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a 25 x 25 cm (10 x 10 inch) square tray with greaseproof paper (I used one of 20 x 20, and filled a few cupcake cases to make mini-brownies).

2. Put the butter and chocolate into a bowl, and place on top of a pan of barely simmering water. Leave to melt. In the meantime, mix the flour, cocoa and baking powder in a separate bowl.

3. Stir the butter/chocolate mixture well, then fold in the sugar. Next, add the vanilla extract and the eggs. Whisk. Add the flour mixture and stir well.

4. Pour half of the brownie mixture into the tray. Sprinkle the nuts on top, then drizzle the Nutella as evenly as you can (doesn’t have the be perfect). Carefully pour the rest of the mixture on top, and smooth gently with a fork.

5. Put the tray into the oven and bake for 35 minutes. Watch out that the mixture does not burn – it will shrink back from the sides.

6. When ready, remove from the oven and leave in the try to cool. When cold, remove from the tray and cut into 25 pieces (I did 16, but remember I was using the smaller tray!).

Worth making?Absolutely. Got to be grateful for Uncle Sam for inventing these things!

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Kulich

Have you been able to enjoy some good weather recently? In the last few weeks, things seem to be warming up, and my garden is full of the joys of spring – the clematis is heavy with pale pink blooms, and the tulips that seemed only a week ago to be tentative at best are now adding extravagant bursts of colour – reds, golds and purples. A few other more traditional flowers are also starting to peek out from the sea of green, and it really does feel like summer days are not far away now.

Actually, I’m under-selling this time of year. I have just spent Easter in Scotland, and against all expectations was able to enjoy some spectacular sunny weather – clear blue skies and lovely views. Walks in the countryside, a picnic by a loch, a ride in a hot air balloon and visits to ancient castles, all in the blazing sunshine. The result of all this excitement was that, eh, I actually got a little behind on blogging and did not get round to posting some of my Easter baking. So I’m afraid you’re going to have to bear with me as I write about some seasonal bakes with a slight time lag. Better late than never!

Easter offers quite a lot of options when it comes to baking. The most obvious thing to do is whip up a batch of Hot Cross Buns, rich with spice and finished with a sticky honey glaze. Well, it would be, except the bakery round the corner makes amazing buns, so I’ve been tucking into plenty of those rather than making them myself. So that left me with the task of trying something a little different, and I though I’d have a go at making traditional Russian kulich. Something like this!

kulich

The most striking thing about kulich is the shape of the loaf – tall and slim, with domed top drizzled with a little icing (or in my case – slathered with lots of icing!). It is topped with a few slivers of candied peel, or more traditionally, some edible spring flowers. To get this shape, the easiest way is to use a large-ish tin can, then just wash it out, and line it well with greaseproof paper on the bottom and the sides, and you’ve got a good makeshift kulich tin. One little tip though – don’t use a can that held garlic cloves or strong curry – they can hold the flavours of their original contents, and I think an curry-garlic kulich is a flavour experience that I can happily live without. In my case, I used a tall milk pan, which had a useful handle that made putting it into the oven a little easier.

Now, I have seen this refered to in a few places as “Russian Panettone” which I think does a bit of a disservice to this bread. You find enriched, spiced, fruited breads across Europe, but I guess that the Italian version is so well-known that they’ve got that market cornered. While there are some superficial similarities, kulich has different spices, including cardamom as well as a little saffron for the adventurous. I find saffron and cardamom a curious combination, one that I really have not seen together very often at all, although I did make an Estonian Christmas wreath last year with that flavour pairing, and I can assure you that it really is very, very delicious. That, and the dough will have the most amazing golden colour!

That said…the recipe I’ve used is actually my own Panettone recipe, as it is one that I have made many, many times and I am very happy that it works well, with a good but not overwhelming amount of fruit and candied peel. Well, it’s Panettone, albeit tweaked to reflect the usual Russian ingredients, and baked in the traditional shape. Matryoshkas and babushkas might find this a little bit strange, but it works.

When faced with such a tall loaf, you might wonder how on earth to cut it. Well, rather than trying to cut it like a cake, lay it on the side and cut it into slices. Hey presto – circles of kulich! This does of course mean that some lucky person will get the last slide, smothered in sweet icing. Kulich is traditionally served with pashka, a sweetened cream cheese mixture prepared in intricate moulds. However, it is equally delicious on its own, or served toasted and spread with butter and jam or honey.

To make one large or two small kulich:

• 80ml milk
• Large pinch freshly ground nutmeg
• Large pinch saffron strands
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1 egg
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 35g butter

• 25g sugar
• Pinch of salt
• Zest of 1/2 orange
• 3/4 teaspoon dried yeast
• 200g strong white flour
• 75g dried fruit (such as currants and golden sultanas)
• 40g candied peel, diced
• 25g slivered almonds

1. Put the milk in a small pan. Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat. Add the spices, then leave to one side until lukewarm.

2. Mix the egg and vanilla into the milk and blend well.

3a. If using a bread machine: Throw everything into the mixing bowl (put the fruit, peel and almonds into the raisin compartment). Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

3b. If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the butter has been incorporated. Fold in the salt, sugar, orange zest and yeast. Add the milk/egg mixture. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). Work in the fruit, peel and almonds. Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

4. Once the dough is ready, prepare either one large or two normal tin cans by lining with greaseproof paper (make sure to leave a high collar around the top, as the dough will rise a lot). Take the dough out of the machine, form into one or two balls as needed, then drop into the tin(s). Leave in a warm place covered in cling film for about one hour until the dough has reached to top of the tin.

5. In the meantime, preheat the oven at 180°C (350°F). Put the kulich into the oven, baking for around 15-20 minutes for smaller loaves or 25-30 minutes for a larger loaf (they should sound hollow when tapped). If the top is browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil. Remove from the oven and leave to cool before icing.

For the icing:

• 100g icing sugar
• 4 teaspoons water
• slivers of candied citrus peel

6. Mix the icing sugar and water until smooth. Spread on top of the kulich being sure the encourage a few dramatic drips down the side.

7. Finish with a few slivers of citrus peel on top.

Worth making? Definitely. This is a delicious, aromatic loaf which makes a lovely teatime treat. This is equally delicious slices and toasted for breakfast.

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Pistachio Tuiles

I’m one of those bakers that likes to veer between madly complicated recipes and ridiculously simple bakes. Well, today I’ve had a bash at something that steers a nice line between both, using just a few simple ingredients that really just need to be mixed together. The magic part happens during baking, with a quick sleight of hand right after everything comes out of the oven. Intrigued? Then read on.

Today’s recipe is for delicate tuile biscuits. Tuiles literally mean “tiles” in French, as these thin, crisp little biscuits are said to resemble the look of Gallic rooftops. A simple batter is spread into very thin discs on a baking tray. They are baked briefly, and come of the oven with golden brown edges, but they are still soft. This allows you to lift them from the tray, drape them over some sort of mould (a rolling pin, a wine bottle…). The soft tuiles will wrap themselves around their new resting place, giving them their traditional curved shape. After a few moments, the tuiles will be cooled and very crisp. As you can see below, they take on a very elegant, almost ethereal appearance.

pistachiotuiles

These really as biscuits that you could mix up in a moment – you need nothing more than egg white, sugar, flour and butter. I’ve sought to jazz mine up a little, and have rather boldly referred to mine as pistachio tuiles. In fact, I’ve really only added chopped pistachios for the colour contrast, along with a few drops of almond extract for some added aroma. You could use anything you fancy for decoration – a few flaked almonds, a sprinkling of sesame, a scattering of poppy seeds or even dried citrus zest, so match them to your preferred dessert. The only thing to keep in mind is that these biscuits are delicate, so while slivers of pecan might work, whole walnut halves might look a touch bizarre.

Tuiles are delicious as they are, a crisp, sweet treat to enjoy with coffee, or to grace all manner of creamy puddings, from posset to custard, providing a pleasant crunch alongside your dessert. Alternatively, you could dip or drizzle with chocolate. One tip to bear in mind – while the tuiles will be crisp initially, they need to be kept in an airtight container, or they will soften after a couple of hours. It this does happen, then just pop them back in the oven – they will soften again, and you can place them back onto your rolling pin/wine bottle and they will be deliciously crisp again. Just don’t try this if you’ve already dipped them in chocolate…

To make pistachio tuiles (makes around 15):

• 1 large egg white
• 50g white caster sugar
• 25g plain flour
• 15g unsalted butter
• Few drop vanilla of almond extract
• Handful unsalted pistachios, sliced

1. Preheat the oven to 190 C. Grease a non-stick try with butter.

2. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Leave to one side to cool.

3. In a bowl, whisk the egg with the sugar until smooth. The mixture should be just slightly foamy. Add the flour and mix to a smooth paste. Add the vanilla or almond extract (if using), then stir in the butter and mix well.

4. Drop teaspoons of the mixture onto the baking tray. Use the back of a teaspoon to spread into a disc of around 10 cm (4 inch) diameter. Don’t worry if the batter looks like it has been too thinly spread, as long as there are no gaps. Sprinkle with a few pistachio slivers.

5. Bake for 4-5 minutes, until the edges are golden (you can bake them longer until they are completely browned if you prefer). Remove from the oven, then use a large, sharp knife to lift them off the tray and transfer to a rolling pin or wine bottle. Let the tuiles cool completely, then remove the crisp tuiles to a serving plate.

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Gingerbread

When I moved house, I vowed that I would have the sort of garden that you might see in one of the glossy magazines. Nothing incredibly elaborate mind you, but with a nicely-kept lawn, and strategically planted bushes heavy with flowers (and hopefully fruit) amid herb plants and old-fashioned roses. The sort of place to laze on spring and summer days…

Fast forward eighteen months, and I can assure you that I’m certainly not a shoe-in to appear in Homes and Gardens or Elle Decor. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from being the shame of the neighbourhood, but somewhere along the way I’ve kind of forgotten that a lovely garden tends to be the result of rather a lot of work. That has meant the last couple of weekends have necessitated rather a lot of work outside, removing weeds, trimming borders and fixing some of the damage that has occurred over winter (it seems the result of the polar vortex in the US was that a lot more storms were hitting the southern parts of Britain, and here we experienced a lot of windy weather).

I am telling you all this because when you’ve been working it the garden, it’s one of life’s great pleasures to take a break and enjoy a cup of tea and a slice of cake. When it is still rather fresh outside, as it has been here, I find the best option in my opinion is something that is sticky and spicy, and I am a massive fan of a good piece of gingerbread.

gingerbread

It is interesting how this recipe seems to pop up when you travel. Similar spiced loaves and cakes seem to exist everywhere, from Dutch ontbijtkoek to French pain d’épices. These are also often made with honey, and while I do enjoy the flavour that this can add, I have experimented with both honey and golden syrup, and for some curious reason, the result is better in my experience with golden syrup. The texture is lighter and more delicate. However, to make up for the fact that golden syrup is not as aromatic as honey, I also swap a few spoons of syrup for some black treacle, which gives the cake a darker colour and some extra flavour. For a bit of extra oomph I’ve also added some dark marmalade and fiery preserved ginger.

How you want to finish gingerbread is up to you. These sort of cakes are sufficiently robust in the flavour department to handle thick icing or creamy frosting, but I much prefer them either with simple water icing or a light glaze of marmalade or ginger syrup, with a few pieces of preserved ginger on top. However, if you do want to add icing, it is worth bearing in mind that while the cake will last for quite some time (indeed, becoming better with time) the icing will start to colour from the brown muscovado sugar in the cake, so if you are not serving this cake until  few days after baking, then ice it the evening before or the morning of serving. The flavour is not affected, but you want to make sure you have the dramatic contrast between the dark cake studded with sticky ginger and the brilliant white icing.

Right, that’s that…I can see the garden outside, beckoning me to go back and sort out the rose bushes…well, maybe at the weekend…

To make a gingerbread loaf:

• 50g muscovado sugar
• 75g butter
• 125g golden syrup
• 2 tablespoons marmalade
• pinch of salt
• 75ml milk
• 1 large egg, beaten
• 2 generous teaspoons chopped preserved ginger
• 150g plain flour
• 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger
• pinch ground cloves
• 2 tablespoons marmalade and 2 teaspoons chopped preserved ginger

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a 1 kilo (2 pound) loaf tin with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the sugar, butter, golden syrup, marmalade and salt into a saucepan. Heat gently until everything has melted. Stir well and put to one side.

3. In another bowl, combine the milk, egg and preserved ginger. Check the syrup mixture is just warm, and add the egg mixture and mix well.

4. In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients, and add to the wet ingredients. Whisk briefly to ensure everything is well-combined, and pour into the prepared loaf tin.

5. Bake for around 40 minutes. The loaf should be risen, springy to the touch and an inserted skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven, allow to cool for 5 minutes, then brush with rest of the marmalade and sprinkle over the remaining chopped ginger.

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Orange and Yuzu Teacakes

Three years ago, I was at the Christmas market on Place Sainte-Catherine in Brussels. It was the sort of place where you easily go overboard on all that mulled wine and the naughty festive sweets and fried food. On top of all that, and giddy from the thrills of ice-skating under a giant disco ball, I was checking out the gift stands, and found one that was selling silicone baking moulds. Obviously it just seemed like the best thing in the world ever to buy a few, and I walked away with couple of them, including a mini-kugelhopf tray. I got it home, and pretty much forgot about making kugelhopfs. I’ve had vague plans to use this tray from time to time, but never quite got round to it. So today I decide to finally get my act together and do it!

I’ve long had a fantasy of making zesty little cakes flavoured with Japanese yuzu fruit. It is hard to find here, but has a lovely sharp flavour, somewhere between lemon and mandarin, which holds up well during cooking and baking. However, I had also resigned myself to not being able to actually make them as I’ve never found the fruit in London (apparently they don’t travel very well). Well, I was over the moon to find the juice on sale near my work, so I bought a little bottle and started to make plans for making these little cakes. Below is the result of my baking, but do not allow yourself to be misled – it was not as easy as I thought!

orangecake1

Well, in spite of my best laid plans, it took more than one attempt to get everything to work. I’ll regale you with the tales of woe in order to save other poor souls from my trauma!

First off, I tried to make them using a financier recipe. In theory, this should have been fine – they are rich with browned butter, and this should have allowed them to slip right out of the moulds. So I prepared ground pistachios, stirred in orange zest and yuzu juice and lovingly folded egg whites into the batter to ensure light little cakes. I popped the lot into the oven, they rose, and then the moment came to remove them from the tray. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. Stuck! I was reduced to shaking the tray like an idiot only for each one to partially fall out, leaving a particularly ugly set of cakes with the tops ripped off. I diligently drizzled some icing on them, and they looked a bit sad – something made by a child who cared nothing for appearances and was focussed only on eating as many as they could as quickly as they could. They did taste fine, but this was not the wow-moment I was hoping for. Hey ho…

orangecake2

The next day, I junked the financiers idea and tried to make little bundt cakes. This seemed like a good idea, as bundt cakes are supposed to be made in these sort of tube tins (albeit on a larger scale), and they are rather forgiving of quite a lot of liquid in the batter. So I followed a recipe to the letter, made the things, and…oh, they were horrid. The crumb was tough and they did not really rise. I’m at a bit of a loss to work out what the problem was, as I was using a recipe that called for lemon juice, so I don’t think the acidity of the yuzu juice was the problem. By this point, frustration was starting to build. I threw the offending “cakes” in the bin and started over.

This time, nothing was going to go wrong. I reached for that workhorse of the cake world, the Victoria sponge, and made it the traditional way that always works. Cream the butter, work in the sugar, add the eggs, a little at a time, then fold in orange zest. Finally, add the self-raising  flour with a dash of baking powder, then fold in a spoonful of yuzu juice. The batter was perfect – creamy and light. I piped it into the moulds (sounds fancy, but actually it is easier than trying to do that with teaspoons) and baked them. They looked great when I took the tray from the oven, allowed them to cool, the turned it over…and…out they popped! Perfect little cakes with neat little ridges. I spooned over some icing while they were still warm, and it drizzled down the ridges and set easily. Honestly, they could not have looked any more perfect!

I’ve done some thinking about why one recipe worked when others did not. Financiers are not usually made in these ring tins, so I’m assuming the batter was too fragile and should have been baked in round or rectangular trays. I also thought about the sticking. With the first attempt, the moulds were well-buttered, but the second and third attempt involved butter plus a dusting of flour. I had assumed this would mean that they would slip out, and while I am sure that did help with the successful final batch, it didn’t seem to help with the second attempt. Perhaps there was just too much liquid in there? They just seemed too fragile when they came out of the oven, and remained soft and stodgy as they cooled.

Anyway, whatever the reason, the Victoria sponge method is clearly the way to go. These little orange and yuzu teacakes are buttery, light and fresh, with little flecks of orange zest and a welcome tang from the yuzu glaze. While fairly simple, they look very attractive and would be a great addition to an afternoon tea. If you need something fancier, they could be topped with a little chopped candied orange peel, or even served with some whipped cream with a dash of orange liqueur.

orangecake3

To make orange and yuzu teacakes (makes 6):

For the cake:

• 100g butter
• 100g caster sugar
• 2 eggs
• 100g self-raising flour
• 1/2 orange, zest only
• 1 tablespoon yuzu juice (optional)

For the glaze:

• 100g icing sugar
• 4 teaspoons yuzu juice

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Prepare the tins by rubbing with butter then dusting with flour.

2. Cream the butter until soft, then add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Fold in the orange zest. Add the eggs, a little at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour, and mix until just combined. Add the yuzu juice and mix well.

3. Transfer the batter to a piping bag, then use to fill the six moulds. Bake for around 10-15 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean. If the top is darkening too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil.

4. In the meantime, make the glaze – mix the icing sugar with enough juice (or water) to make a smooth icing – it should not be thing, but should flow slowly.

5. Remove the teacakes from the oven, and leave to stand for 5 minutes, before turning out onto a cooling rack. Drizzle the icing on the top, and let it trickle down the sides.

Worth making? These are delightful little bakes. They’re incredibly easy to make and the fancy tray does all the hard work for you. The flavour is also lovely, but quite delicate. These are the sort of thing to nibble on with a cup of green tea or Earl Grey, so that the citrus flavours really come out.

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Scottish Food: Empire Biscuits

I’ve not done a post on something Scottish for a while, so time to change that. These are Empire Biscuits, which are made from two layers of shortbread, filled with jam and topped with sweet icing and a cherry on top. Well, that’s the story that I know, but they do also go by different names, including Belgian biscuits, but that’s a name I never heard of where I grew up!

They are, in one way, just another variation on Linzer biscuits, but their name is where things get a little interesting. They were known as German biscuits until World War I, at which point they took on a more patriotic name, perhaps taking their lead from the rebranding of the Germanic-sounding House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha over to the much more British-sounding Windsor around the same time?

EmpireBiscuits2

These are the sort of biscuits that I can remember from when I was growing up, either behind glass counters in a bakery or as part of a selection of cakes in a tea shop. For me, they have a certain retro charm, the sort of thing that is actually very simple to make, but also utterly delicious when made well, with buttery biscuit and good, fruity jam. Perhaps if I was faced today with the sort of biscuits that I ate as I child I might be a little more picky about them, but in my mind, they are a firm favourite. Certainly my inner child was quite excited with how this little batch of biscuits turned out. They looked just right!

To make the biscuits, you can use whatever recipe you want, but I think a simple shortbread works best (I re-used this Christmas recipe to good effect). It’s also best to go with a recipe that does not contain too much sugar – you’re going to be adding jam and icing to the finished biscuits, so you don’t need to worry about them not being sufficiently sweet. I also cut them out using a scalloped cutter as I think the effect is rather pretty, but you can go for circles, or get creative with stars, squares or stars.

When it comes to the filling, it has to be jam and it has to be something with a good, fruity flavour. It’s got to stand up the biscuit and the icing, so something with only a very delicate flavour will be overshadowed. Robust raspberry or strawberry is traditional, but blackcurrant works well too (in fact, that’s what I used here). I recommend being fairly generous with the jam – probably veer on the side of being a little too generous, because Empire biscuits actually benefit from being left overnight for the icing the set and for the jam to merge into the biscuit.

Empire biscuits are finished off with a simple water icing, and then a cherry on top. You might think that you could add all manner of interesting and exciting flavours to Empire Biscuits, but my own preference is to keep things traditional. Play around with the jam, but beyond that, enjoy the retro feeling you get with these tasty little morsels. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you could replace the cherries with some sort of jelly sweet. Me? Always a glacé cherry!

EmpireBiscuits1

To make Empire Biscuits (makes 10):

For the biscuits:

• 85g butter, softened
• 40g icing sugar
• pinch of salt
• 1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 dessert spoon water
• 125g plain flour

To finish:

• jam (one teaspoon per biscuit)
• 100g icing sugar, to dust
• cold water
• 2 glacé cherries, each cut into 8 pieces

1. Beat the butter until soft. Add the icing sugar, salt, vanilla and water and beat until pale, fluffy and completely combined. Sieve the flour and add to the rest of the ingredients. Mix until you have a smooth dough. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

2. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°C). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. Roll out the dough to 1/3 cm (1/4 inch) and cut 20 shapes with a round or fluted cutter. Pop into the fridge for 5 minutes, then bake the cookies until just golden at the edges (5-10 minutes depending on size – mine baked in 6).

3. Once the cookies are cooled, it’s time to assemble them. Put the jam in a saucepan. Heat until runny, then pass through a sieve. Allow to cool slightly, then spoon a little jam onto the bases. Smooth with a spoon, then add another biscuit on top.

4. Make the icing – mix the icing sugar with enough cold water to make a thick but spreadable icing (I used 4 teaspoons of water). Spread on top of the biscuits. Don’t add too much or you will get drips down the sides. Add a piece of cherry to the middle of each biscuits and leave for the icing to set.

Worth making? I love these! They are easy, look good and taste great. They work well as part of an afternoon tea, and (keep it a secret) they’re really not much effort to make.

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Badam Barfi (Indian Almond Fudge)

Today I’m posting just about one of the most bling bling things ever to come out of my kitchen! After something of rather long blogging break (so my apologies to loyal readers who as wondering what on earth I’ve been up to, but I can assure you, all is fine is rather busy), I’ve kept the Indian theme going from my last post and have made a batch of badam barfi.

This is an Indian sweet which rather loosely translates (in culinary terms) as almond fudge. But the really, really, really fun and frankly fabulous thing this little sweetmeat is that it is finished off with silver leaf on top. How cool is that? Frankly, it looks completely awesome! Sparkle, sparkle!

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As sensational as this looks, it is actually really rather easy to make, and it is certainly a whole lot simpler than “normal” fudge. To be honest, I’ve actually struggled over the years to make “normal” fudge successfully, often ending up with something a bit too grainy and over-caramelised, rather than the expected silky-smoothness. This recipe is completely different. You start off by boiling sugar and whole milk to make a syrup, then add finely ground almonds and cook until thick. While warm, them mixture is soft, but it sets firm and can be cut into pieces.

You’ve got some freedom with how to flavour the barfi, but from I could see online and in my cookbooks, cardamom is pretty much essential if you’re making the almond version. I added some of it when I added the almonds to the syrup, and the rest just at the end of cooking to keep the aromatic qualities of the spice. I also added a little ghee to the mixture, both to prevent it sticking, but also to add the wonderful nutty flavour and aroma that you get from this browned butter. I also added a few chopped pistachios to add some colour to the barfi. I don’t think these really had an impact on the flavour, but the flecks of green certainly looked pretty against the silver and creamy almond barfi.

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Now, there was one little drama when it came to the flavour. What about the almonds? The nuts I used did not have the sharp almond flavour you would associate with a Bakewell tart or a glass of amaretto liqueur, so should I add some almond extract to the barfi? Well, it looked like the answer ought to be a firm no. A few sources cautioned specifically against using bitter almonds as this would spoil the flavour, and I can see how this would be the case if you went crazy with the almond flavour. However, I always find that almond flavour needs a little boost, so I added a couple of drops (not teaspoons, drops!) which in this case really worked well. Just enough to give the merest hint at the almonds it is made from, without overpowering your sense of taste. However, you don’t need to limit yourself to this flavour combination, delicious as it is. You could skip the cardamom and instead add some saffron for a brilliant colour and exotic flavour, or use rosewater for a floral note. You can also replace the almonds for other nuts, such as pistachio or cashew, or finely-ground coconut.

This is all well and good, but of course the real fun came with the silver leaf, or vark as it is called in India (great name, fnar fnar!). I looked high and low for this stuff, but in the end I ordered it online. Once my barfi had cooled, I had to tease the sheets of silver from between their protective paper sheets, and carefully arrange them. The silver is so fragile that you can easily tear it if you take a cack-handed approach, and fingers are about the worst possible thing you can use! It took to the surface immediately, even though it did not seem particularly sticky, and then it was a case of lightly pushing it down onto the barfi with a soft brush. Soft is the operative word here, as anything with stiff bristles will damage the silver and cause it to tear. Clearly you don’t have to use silver (or indeed gold) leaf when you make barfi, but it does make the finished result look very special indeed.
barfi2

To make badam barfi (makes around 32 pieces):

• 400g white sugar
• 400ml whole milk
• 300g finely ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1 tablespoon ghee (*)
• 2 handfuls pistachios, roughly chopped
• silver or gold leaf, 8 sheets

1. Put the milk and sugar into a saucepan. Cook to the thread stage (110°C / 230°F).

2. Add half the cardamom and all the ground almonds. Cook until the mixture is thick and comes away from the sides of the pan – a drop left to cool on a plate should hold its shape and be slightly firm. This can take up to 15 minutes (or longer) so be patient and keep stirring to prevent burning. It will be a good upper arm workout!

3. Add the rest of the cardamom, the ghee and the pistachios. Stir well, then divide between two square trays lined with greaseproof paper (I also rubbed each lightly with a little ghee to help prevent sticking).

4. Use a rubber spatula to smooth the top of the barfi. Take a sharp knife and score lightly (I did squares of 3x3cm, but diamonds also look good). Leave until completely cold.

5. Cover the top of the barfi with silver leaf (you will need around 4 per tray, 8 in total). Press the silver leaf down with a soft brush, then use a sharp knife to cut the barfi into pieces.

(*) To make ghee: melt unsalted butter on a low heat, and watch it like a hawk. It will hiss and spit, then calm down. The solids will turn light brown and the butter will develop a nutty aroma. Remove from the heat, strain and put to one side to cool.

Worth making? This was really easy to make and the results are both delicious and look stunning when presented at the end of a meal.

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Rava Kesari

I’ve always found Indian sweets rather daunting. I put this down to the fact that I really do not eat them that often. When you go for Indian food, by the time you’ve filled up on rice, bread and delicious curry, the last thing you are looking for is something sweet and heavy to finish the meal. Maybe, at a stretch, I could manage a little mango sorbet at most, but certainly not fried milk-rich sweets like gulab jamun or rasmalai.

However, I was keen to have a go at making some Indian sweets as I’ve had a hankering to try them for a while. I’ve done some digging recently, and it seems that a lot of them are actually incredibly easy to make. And so it is with rava kesari. There is a little work to be done in preparing some of the ingredients, but you’re not required to do much more than prepare a sweet, spiced syrup and then add it to a ghee/semolina mixture. You’re essentially making a white sauce, but one that is brightly coloured and sweet, which is then cooked until thick, then left to set and cut into fancy shapes. But doesn’t it look pretty?

ravakesari2

If you were trying to guess the ingredients here, you would probably not guess that this is mostly made from semolina. Forgot the nasty, grainy stuff you might have suffered at school. In this recipe, the result is firm but smooth. And you’re probably already guessed how these sweets get their brilliant yellow colour. They are flavoured with saffron, and I must confess that my pictures don’t really do it justice. The colour is amazingly vibrant. The saffron is balanced with ground cardamom (which seems to be to Indian sweet treats what vanilla is to British baking), and they are finished off with some toasted almonds and sultanas.

One of the other vital ingredients is ghee, and so I had to have a go at making it. I was able to buy it in a local shop, but I was going all-out on this one. Recipes often say you can switch ghee for clarified butter, but a quick peek in a Madhur Jaffrey cookbook confirmed that it is slightly different, but not unfamiliar – in fact, it’s simple browned butter. Just throw butter in a pan, leave over a gentle heat, and then wait until the solids darken and the butter has a delicious toasted aroma and flavour. This is well worth doing, as it adds a subtle nuttiness to whatever you are making. It is also so ubiquitous in Indian cooking that it would be a shame not to use it here.

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Frankly, I could not have been happier with how this turned out. Sure, there is a little faffing about with skinning some almonds, making the ghee, leaving the saffron to infuse the milk and in grinding the cardamom seeds, but nothing is too taxing, and all of these steps could be easily done ahead of time. The actual process of making rava kesari is a doddle – just cook the semolina in the ghee, then add the liquid and sugar, cook until thick and spread in a tray.

My version was not too sweet (which was the first shock, I was expecting something tooth-aching) and the combination of cardamom and saffron was light, fresh and aromatic, a combination of resinous and slightly minty with the warm flavour of saffron. I remember at Christmas being pleasantly surprised by this spice combination in a festive loaf, so it was a welcome reappearance for this duo in these sweets. I also loved how the pieces looked when cut – you can see pieces of sultana and almond, flecks of black cardamom and flashes of orange from the saffron threads.

Before service this, I had kept the rava kesari in the fridge. This had an unexpected but welcome impact on the flavour, and it meant these sweets had a very cooling quality. Served like this, I can see how they would be welcome at the end of a meal. In the interests of culinary exploration, I also tried a piece when it had come to room temperature, and while it was still delicious, on balance, I think the chilled version is better. Now, all I have to hope is that I’ve done justice to this delicious sweet!

ravakesari1

To make Rava Kesari (makes 24 pieces):

• 80g unsalted butter
• 3 generous pinches saffron strands
• 360ml whole milk
• 360ml water
• 200g white caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon finely ground cardamom seeds
• 160g semolina
• 30g toasted slivered almond
• 35g golden sultanas
• 24 whole almonds, to decorate

1. Put the milk into a saucepan until warm. Add the saffron and leave to sit for at least 30 minutes.

2. Make the ghee: melt the butter on a low heat, and watch it. It will hiss and spit, then calm down. The solids will turn light brown and the butter will develop a nutty aroma. Strain and put to one side.

3. In a pan, combine the milk, water and sugar. Heat until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is just starting to foam. Add the cardamom, stir and remove from the heat.

4. Prepare a large tray (20 x 30 cm) for the rava kesari. Brush with a little of the melted ghee and set aside. I used a glass tray with no other lining and had no problems with sticking.

5. In a large pan, add five tablespoons of the ghee. Heat until melted, then add the semolina. Cook on a low heat for two minutes, stirring all the time (it should not go brown).

6. Now start to add the liquid mixture to the semolina. This is a bit like making a white sauce, so start with a ladle of liquid, and stir well. Repeat two more times, then finally add all the liquid. At this point, whisk the mixture until smooth and there are no lumps. It should be bright yellow and smell glorious!

7. Cook the mixture on a medium heat until it is very thick and starts to come away from the sides of the pan. You can test whether it is done by dropping a small piece onto a cold plate – it should quickly become firm.

8. When ready, stir in the almond slivers and sultanas, then pour the whole mixture into the tray. Flatten the mixture (a rubber spatula is ideal). Use a knife to score diamond shapes, and place a whole almond in the middle of each piece.

9. Leave the rava kesari to cool, then chill in the fridge. Before serving, use a sharp knife to cut along the score marks to separate into individual pieces.

Worth making? This is a really different and delicious sweet. It’s fairly easy to make, and you get a really good result from ingredients you might have in the cupboard already. Recommended!

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{12} Festive Ecclefechan Butter Tarts

Merry Christmas to everyone! Here is the final instalment of my 2013 festive baking marathon. I had intended to get them all done by Christmas Eve, but the social whirl, preparing for Christmas day and need to spend a fair amount of time in the garden tidying up after storm damage meant that I didn’t quite hit that target. However, we are still in the limbo period between Christmas and New Year, so at least this offers an easy little recipe to have a go at when you’ve had your fill of Disney films and chocolates.

Last year I made some mince pies to round of the baking madness, so this year I’ve done a bit of a variation on a theme. However, I understand that mincemeat can be a bit of an acquired taste, so instead I’ve made some miniature versions of a Scottish classic, the Ecclefechan Butter Tart, which also have lots of fruit and nuts in them, but rather than the spices, they are enriched with a thick mixture of butter, brown sugar and egg. This is all mixed together and baked, so it puffs up a little on the surface, while inside it is soft, moist and sticky. Ideal as an easy alternative if you have guests coming who just can’t get into mincemeat tarts.

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While it is tradition to use dried fruits like currants and sultanas, plus glacé cherries, walnuts and citrus peel, you can play around quite a bit with the filling. For example, brown sugar is traditional in the filling (giving a slight toffee note), you can easily use white sugar if you want a lighter filling so that other ingredients are not overpowered. Rather than lots of currants and sultanas, you could opt instead for mostly candied orange peel for a more citrussy affair (perhaps a little like that other Scottish delight, the Edinburgh Tart). By that stage, you’re probably getting rather far from a true Ecclefechan tart (and it would be a shame to have to forgo the highly amusing name when presenting to guests), but go with what you like.

I think it is important to get the pastry as thin as you can. I rolled it out, then pressed it in a buttered muffin tray to get it very thin. When you make them with these proportions, you might think there is not that much filling and feel they look a bit mean. All well and good, but the filling is very rich, so if you make them too big, you’ll probably struggle to eat even one of them. Just keep this in mind if you are tempted to double the quantities!

eccelfechantarts3

When serving these tarts, they are great at room temperature, but I’m sure you could warm them slightly. I’ve left mine plan, but you can finish with a little water icing, or a sprinkling of icing sugar for a more festive look.

You might also recognise this tart from a previous post. Yes, I’ve made this before as a large tart to be served by the slice, so if you want something grander for a party, then that’s also an option.

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So…there we have it! The Twelve Festive Bakes of Christmas for 2013! I hope you’re enjoyed these recipes and they’ve given you a little bit of inspiration.

To make miniature Ecclefechan Butter Tarts (makes 12):

For the pastry:

• 150g plain flour
• 50g butter, cold, cut into cubes
• 25g icing sugar
• 1 egg yolk
• cold water

1. In a bowl, rub the butter into the flour. Once the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, add the sugar and mix well.

2. Add the egg yolk and just enough cold water so the mixture comes together (1-2 tablespoons of water is probably enough). Cover the pastry in cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

3. Grease a non-stick muffin tray with butter. Roll out the pastry very thinly and use a circular cutter to make discs to put in the tray holes. Use your fingers to press down the pastry, pushing it up the sides to make it as thin as possible. Spike the bottoms with a fork, and pop the tray into the fridge to chill while you make the filling.

For the filling:

• 65g butter, melted and cooled
• 100g soft brown sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• 1/2 tablespoon white wine vinegar
• 25g walnuts, chopped
• 100g dried mixed fruit (currants and sultanas)
• 25g chopped candied peel
• 25g glacé cherries, chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).

2. In a bowl, combine the sugar, butter and eggs. Stir in the vinegar, walnuts, dried fruit and cherries. Divide among the 12 pastry cases.

3. Bake the tarts for 12-15 minutes until the pastry is golden and the filling is slightly puffy and lightly browned in the centre (turn the tarts during baking).

Worth making? Absolutely. This is a very simple, yet rich, alternative to mincemeat pies at this time of year, so idea for those that don’t like (or want a change from) all that spice.

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