Monthly Archives: March 2013

Hot Cross Buns

It’s just not Easter without lots and lots of hot cross buns. On the basis of a rather busy social schedule this year, I had planned to just buy them (a shocking admission, I know). Well, karma kicked in, and when my shopping arrived, there were no buns in the bags. Unbelievably, they had run out! So I was straight in the kitchen and had to whip up a batch of my own.

I’ve made these buns a few times in previous years (my original post is here, which also contains a little bit of their background and history too) so I’ll just leave you to enjoy my most recent results. As you can see, they do have a pleasingly rustic look compared to their commercial counterparts.


If you are minded to have a go at making these, I’ve got two tips.

First, it’s worth soaking the currants, sultanas and candied citrus peel in warm water, juice or brandy to ensure they are plum and soft (if not, they can be a bit dry after baking).

Second, when shaping the buns, I find the easiest way is to take a piece of dough and then roll it into a ball (so far, so obvious). Next, pull and stretch the dough from the top and sides and tuck under the bottom of the buns (the untidy party will be the bottom of the buns, so you won’t see it). This means you have a perfectly smooth bun.

There you have it! Tasty Easter treats which are wonderful either warm or toasted, served with butter and honey. Happy Easter everyone!


To make Hot Cross Buns (makes 12-16):

For the buns:

• 400g bread flour(*)
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 150-200ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 1 egg, beaten
• 50g butter
• 75g caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice or Lebkuchengewürz(**)
• pinch ground cloves
• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 50g candied peel, chopped
• 100g sultanas and currants (proportions per your taste!)

(*) Make sure you are using proper bread flour – plain flour just won’t work
(**) If you prefer, just use two teaspoons of ground cinnamon

For the X:

• 3 tablespoons plain flour
• 3 tablespoons cold water

For the glaze:

• 2 tablespoons caster sugar
• 2 tablespoons water

1. Make the dough. If using a bread machine: place all the dough ingredients except the sultanas, currants and candied peel into the mixing bowl. Add the sultanas and peel to the raisin dispenser, and run the “dough” cycle. If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the mixture has the texture of fine breadcrumbs. Fold in the spices, salt, sugar and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and the egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough. Work in the sultanas, currants and candied peel. Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size.

2. Once the dough is ready, divide it into twelve to sixteen round buns. Place on a well-greased baking sheet or one lined with greaseproof paper. Leaving 4-5 cm between buns, and cover with oiled cling film or a damp teacloth. Leave somewhere warm until doubled in size.

3. Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F).

4. Prepare the paste for the X by mixing the flour and water until smooth. Next, brush the buns with milk, then use the paste to make an X on each bun – you can use a piping bag, a plastic bag with the corner cut off, or just use a teaspoon and a steady hand.

5. Bake the buns for 15 minutes until they are a rich brown colour. You may need to tun the tray during baking to get an even colour.

6. While the buns are cooking, make the glaze: heat the water and sugar in a saucepan until the sugar has dissolved. Once the buns are ready, remove from the oven, and brush right away with the warm syrup.


Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things

Open Sesame!

I tried my hand at Moroccan gazelle horn cookies recently, and one reader left a comment suggesting that they can also be made rather more easily with sesame seeds instead of the fiddly pastry way. I was intrigued and wanted to give this a try. Here are the results, and very delicious they are!

These really are very, very simple to make. It’s a simple almond paste filling, left to chill, then shape them, dip in lightly-whipped egg white and roll in sesame seeds. The seeds crispen up in the oven, while the centre is soft and chewy. I changed the filling slightly this time – adding orange zest and a dash of cinnamon, while the egg white is flavoured with a little orange blossom water. All in all, I think these fellows look rather jaunty! They are delicious with mint or green tea. Makes you think of the sun when it’s a blizzard outside!


To make sesame gazelle horns (makes around 25):

• 200g ground almonds
• 100g white sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• zest of one orange
• almond extract, to taste
• ground cinnamon, to taste (around 1/2 teaspoon)
• egg white

• 2 tablespoon orange blossom water
• sesame seeds

Before making these, I recommend watching this excellent video which explains the technique.

1. Put the ground almonds, caster sugar, beaten egg, orange zest, almond extract and cinnamon into a bowl (with regard to these last two, be guided by your preference – a little of each, or a lot, depending on the flavour you like). Mix to a smooth, even paste. If the mixture is too dry, add a little cold water (a teaspoon at a time) but make sure the paste is fairly stiff – it should not be wet or liquid. Cover and chill in the fridge overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 180°C (360°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

3. Divide the almond paste mixture into 25-30 equal pieces (the easiest way to do this is roll it into a long sausage 25-30cm in length – then cut into pieces every 1cm to achieve equal pieces!). Roll each into a ball, then flatten into a sausage shape between your palms. They should be fatter in the middle, thinner in the middle, and around 7cm long).

4. Put the egg white into a bowl, add 2 tablespoons of orange-blossom water, and whisk until foamy. Dip each piece of almond paste in the egg white, shake off the excess, then roll in the sesame seeds until coated.

5. Place the sesame-coated almond paste onto the baking sheet. Roll each lightly between clean hands to press the seeds into the paste, then shape the pieces into crescents. Pinch the ends slightly to get points.

6. Bake the cookies for 12-15 minutes until just starting to turn golden at the edges, but they should not become dark. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on a wire tray.


Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things

Snow and Salt

Last week I got to enjoy a rare luxury. Not the actual maracons themselves, but the luxury of free time. My year at work has been rather fraught (in the understated British sense, which means absolutely manic) and thus no easy dates on which to take leave. Sure, I had a mega-trip in the US in November, but I’ve still ended up with way too much leave to carry over to next year. As a result, I’ve been enjoying the bonus of a few long weekends. As I’m the only one around on these random Mondays and Fridays, I’ve foregone the idea of foreign jaunts, and instead I’m able to enjoy a slower pace of life in my own big city. I can go to some of my favourite cafés and just walk in and get a table. No waiting, no sharing. I can go to galleries and enjoy them peacefully, standing in front of the same picture for ages without being jostled or moved along. I can also engage in small talk with some interesting people who are equally unhurried. Bliss.

However, last week was another story altogether. Those first hints of spring from a couple of weeks ago had gone, like some sort of Phoney Spring, and were  replaced with snow. Lots and lots of snow. On Monday, the new cats and I just did not fancy leaving the house, so I was left with a little time to fill. After spending an hour getting the cats to chase a piece of string (their joint favourite thing, along with clawing the sofa), I decided to hit the kitchen and have a go at my kitchen nemesis – French macarons.

I know there are some people out there that have “the gift”, who can just knock up a batch at a moment’s notice without a second thought. I, however, am not one of those people. I’ve grappled with them on numerous occasions with varying levels of success. True, I’ve made them successfully on occasions, but I think my hit rate is about one in four at best. So for every batch of picture-perfect delicacies with their smooth domes, frilly feet and perfect symmetry, I’ve ended up with three batches of cracked almond meringue biscuits.

Well finally, finally, I think I’ve nailed it. I think my mistakes can be put down not to faulty technique as such, but the fact that many of my attempts were small batches. The smaller the batch, the more precise the measurements need to be, and I fear that trying to make macarons with just one egg white was pushing things too far. You need to be bold and think big. Large batches are the way to go! And as you can see below, the results look pretty darned good! There is still some irregularity there, but I find it hard to put into words just how utterly thrilled I was to remove the tray from the oven and find perfect macaron shells with no cracks. Yay!


I opted for the salted caramel flavour as it’s actually delicious when made well, and the filling is a doddle to make. However, the one thing that I didn’t go to town on was the colour the shells. I know some people like shocking colours, and that salted caramel is often some sort of day-glow orange. However, I wanted something more subtle.There are two reasons. First, I am not that happy about using colouring that is highly artificial – if it only takes a few drops to turn something bright yellow, vivid red or electric blue, then you have to wonder just what it is doing to your insides. Second, on a purely aesthetic level, I find the intense colours of some commercially-available macarons rather lurid! Instead, I just used a few drops of some natural vegetable dyes in the sugar syrup to provide a light caramel colour to boost the colour of muscovado sugar, which I think looks rather pretty.

When it comes to the filling itself, it can only be described as filthy. The base is a simple caramel made from white sugar. Throw in some salted butter, cream and a few drops of vanilla, then whip once cooled with even more lovely butter. The result is a silky-smooth salted caramel cream which can be easily piped into the macaron shells, but which does not leak out (which pure caramel, delicious as it is, is apt to do). You’ll end up with quite a bit of the filling left over, and you’ll probably just want to eat it with a spoon. As I said – filthy, and irresistible.

One final trick – these are worth making ahead of time. If you can, leave the assembled macarons overnight in the fridge, and be sure to leave them to come up to room temperature before serving. This will help make the inside of the shells lightly chewy and the creamy filling with be delightfully soft and fluffy. Things to make you go wow.

So what’s your baking nemesis? Have you managed to beat it?

To make salted caramel macarons (makes 25-30):

For the shells:

• 175g icing sugar
• 175 ground almonds
• 130g egg whites (about 4 eggs), at room temperature
• 175g light muscovado or brown sugar
• 75ml water

• caramel food colouring

For the filling:

• 150g white sugar
• 50ml water

• 180g salted butter (divide into 30g and 150g)
• 150ml double cream

• vanilla extract
• salt, very finely ground

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line two large baking trays with greaseproof paper.

2. Mix the icing sugar and ground almonds, and put into a food processor or spice mill. Grind until fine. Put into a large bowl.

3. Divide the egg whites into two portions (2 x 65g). Add one half to the almond/icing sugar mixture and mix until you have a smooth, thick paste.

4. Next, make an Italian meringue. Put the water and muscovado or brown sugar into a saucepan. Add caramel/brown colouring as desired (I used enough to enhance the brown tint from the sugar, probably 20 drops of water-based colour). Heat to 114°C (237°F). In the meantime, whisk the rest of the eggs whites until frothy. Acting quickly, pour the hot syrup into the frothy eggs and beat the living daylights out of them! The mixture should quickly start to turn pale and fluffy, and increase in volume. Whisk for 5 minutes until the mixture is stiff and glossy – it should easily hold its shape.

5. Take one-third of the meringue mixture, and fold into the almond paste mixture to lighten it. Fold in the next third, then fold in the final third. Try to do this gently, and don’t mix too vigorously or for too long.

6. Fill a piping bag fitted with a 1 cm hole nozzle. Pipe out the macarons, leaving a few centimetres between each. Leave to dry at room temperature for around 20 minutes.

7. Bake the macaron shells for around 12-15 minutes until the shells have developed little feet but they are not browned. You might want to open the door briefly during baking to let any steam escape. When baked, remove from the oven, allow to cool, then peel from the baking sheet. Arrange on a cooling tray and prepare the filling.

To make the filling:

8. Put the sugar and water into a small saucepan. Place on a medium heat until the mixture turns into a medium golden caramel (don’t be tempted to stir it at any point – it will turn into a crystallised mess!). The colour should be rich but without any burnt or acrid smell.

9. Remove the saucepan with the caramel from the heat, add the butter and stir well. It will sizzle, so watch out! Add the cream and vanilla to taste (just a drop or two) and stir until smooth. Put the pan back on the heat, and cook until it reaches 108°C (225°F). Remove from the heat and leave until almost cooled.

10. Put the cooled caramel and soft butter into a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until perfectly smooth. It might seem like the mixture has curdled at one point, but keep going and it will come good. You should end up with a very smooth cream. Add a dash of powdered salt (to taste, but go a little at a time).

11. Fill a piping bag with the salted caramel cream and use to fill the macarons.

12. Leave the macarons in the fridge for 24 hours, and remove from the fridge a couple of hours before serving.

Worth making? A complete faff, but the results are superb so it’s worth trying when you’ve got a few hours to yourself.


Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things

Sunshine and Lemons

Spring, where are you? I went to a bar at the top of one of the tallest towers in the City last night, expecting to show a guest a marvellous sunset over London. Instead – rain. The views were still spectacular as London lit up before us, and it was rather fantastic to see the BT Tower flashing red in support of Comic Relief, but gosh, I really, really am just fed up of the grey days. We all want sunshine and for warmer weather to arrive!

With that, here is a little recipe that does just that. Some sunshine-yellow lemon tartlets!



These tartlets were prompted by my promise after my rhubarb tarts post to show an idea for using up the scraps of pastry you tend to end up with after making a sweet pastry shell (it’s always best to get the tart shell nice and thin, rather than trying to use up all the pastry – no-one likes a thick bottom!).

You’ll see how they look rather fancy, this the shape is achieved using a couple of very simple tricks. First trick – try to get the pastry as thin as possible. Second trick – use a fluted pastry cutter to get the scalloped edge. Third trick – get the ridged effect on the outside by placing the circles of pastry into a muffin tray lined with fluted cake cases. If you pastry is nice and buttery, it won’t stick, and looks pretty to. Final trick – place another fluted cake case on top of the pastry, press down gently, and weigh down with baking beads. Hey presto – vaguely daisy-like pastry cases for minimal effort! One last thing though is to make sure they are chilled before baking – this ensures that they keep their shape when popped in the oven.

The star factor, of course, comes from the filling, and what a filling it is. It is super-easy and takes no more than ten minutes from start to finish, but they really provide a rich, lemony flavour. This means they are very easy to whip up in a hurry at short notice. The colour is all-natural too, and the sharp tang of citrus bringing just a little bit of sunshine with them. The recipe also works with limes, and can be jazzed up with a little meringue on top to make them extra-special.


To make lemon tartlets:

Makes 10:

• 10 pastry cases (cooked!)
• 1 egg

• 1 egg yolk
• 50g white caster sugar
• zest of 1 lemon
• 50ml lemon juice
• 55g unsalted butter

1. In a bowl, combine everything except the butter. Mix until well combined.

2. Pour the mixture into a small saucepan. Place over a low heat and whisk constantly until thick (around 4 minutes). Remove from the heat, add the butter and whisk until it is combined and smooth.

3. Immediately pass the mixture through a sieve to remove the lemon zest.

4. Spoon the warm lemon cream into the pastry shells. Shake slightly to event the top of the filling and leave to cool.

Worth making? This is easy lemon curd which works wonderfully – super colour, fantastic flavour. Really recommended! If you don’t have the tart shells, it works as a simple lemon curd too for toast, crumpets or English muffins!


Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things

Rhubarb & Custard Tarts

I was in the centre on the City last week, and there was a noticeable spring-like feeling in the air as I walked past St Paul’s Cathedral. Still rather fresh, but the smells of plants awakening from their winter slumber was certainly there. The flowers were not yet peeking out from the bushes and trees, but catkins and pussywillow have appeared. That was soon eliminated by the return of snow, but hey, for a brief few days, spring had sprung!

Our recent snowstorms have only been a little hiccup, and we are on the march towards warmer days. The impending bonanza of spring is also heralded by the arrival of something very special in your local fruit shop – lots and lots of neon pink Yorkshire rhubarb!

I’ve used this to make some very simple rhubarb tarts which bring together two classic flavours to make a British favourite. A sweet pastry shell, filled with pastry cream flavoured with a dash of vanilla, and then topped off with roasted rhubarb. Yes, it really is this lurid shade of pink!


How to get the look? As I say, by roasting! The trick to getting the bright colour is by cooking the chopped rhubarb with sugar in the oven. This is, in my view, about the best way of preparing rhubarb for a tart. It keeps the shape of the stems of rhubarb, but also preserves their amazing colour. The result is almost luminous, and combines sweetness with the lip-smacking sharpness that is the hallmark of rhubarb. You also have result which is sweet, sticky and syrupy, rather than watery which can happen if you opt to poach the rhubarb.



On little tip – when you come to use the rhubarb for the tarts, you only need the fruit, not the syrup. However, the syrup is also delicious – keep it and use it as a glaze, in yoghurt, or in your favourite cocktail (perhaps with Prosecco and gin to make a Yorkshire Pink Gin Fizz?).




The recipe below makes four to six tarts, depending on the size of your moulds (you’ll probably have too much pastry left, but I’ll be posting a little trick to use it up shortly). I feel I should caution you that these tarts are not exactly light – the pastry, rhubarb and custard filling means that like all good British puds, they are rather substantial, but there is no reason you could not adapt this to make bite-sized morsels too.

To make rhubarb and custard tartlets (makes 4-6, depending on size):

For the rhubarb:

• 700g pink rhubarb
• 150g white sugar

For the pastry:

• 175g plain flour
• 65g caster sugar
• pinch of salt
• 65g unsalted butter
• 1 egg, beaten
• cold water

For the filling:

• 250ml whole milk
• 2 eggs
• 1 egg yolk
• 90g caster sugar
• 30g cornflour
• 75g butter

To roast the rhubarb:

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C.

2. Wash and trim the rhubarb. Cut into piece of 1-2cm. Mix with the  sugar and put into a glass or ceramic ovenproof dish. Loosely cover the dish with foil but make sure it does not touch the rhubarb (rhubarb + foil = trouble)! Bake for 30 minutes, or until the sugar has dissolved and the rhubarb is pink and soft. Remove from the oven and allow to cool (ideally, leave overnight in the fridge – the colour will intensify).

To make the pastry:

3. Mix the flour, salt and sugar in a bowl. Work the butter in with your hands, then add the egg yolk and sufficient cold water (a teaspoon at a time) to make a soft dough. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least an hour.

4. Remove the pastry from the fridge. Roll out thinly and use to line some tartlet moulds. Fill with greaseproof paper and baking beads. Bake blind for around 20 minutes, then remove the greaseproof paper and baking beads. Bake for a further 10 minutes until golden. Leave to cool.

To make the pastry cream:

5. Put the milk into a saucepan. Bring to the boil then put to one side.

6. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolk, sugar, cornflour and vanilla extract. Add the milk and whisk until combined. Pour through a sieve into a clean saucepan and place over a medium heat.

7. Stir the mixture constantly until thickened (about 4-5 minutes – and really do stir it, otherwise it gets lumpy!). When very thick, remove from the heat. Add the butter and fold it into the pastry cream mixture. It might look oily, but it will come together.

8. Pour the mixture into a large dish and cover with cling film. Press the film onto the surface of the pastry cream to prevent a skin forming. Leave until completely cold.

To assemble the tartlets

9. Fill each tartlet shell with pastry cream. Top each tart with rhubarb (try to avoid getting too much syrup onto the tarts, or the pastry will get soggy).


Filed under Afternoon Tea, Recipe, Sweet Things

Gazelle Horns

I’ve done an awful lot of British food recently, so today we’re going to look somewhere slightly more exotic to banish the winter blues. We had snow flurries last week, and the mornings are still frosty, so this is a bit of an antidote to that – traditional Moroccan pastries called gazelle horns (or kaab el ghzal, which actually means gazelle ankles).

It’s probably pretty evident from the shape of these sweet treats how they get their name!


Gazelle horns are made with an almond paste filling wrapped in thin, crisp pastry. When I say thin, I mean thin. Look at my cross-section picture – can you see the pastry? Exactly! It needs to be wafer thin! Takes some time to make, but well worth it.

There are numerous versions of these things (I imagine that each Moroccan granny would have their own secret version, unless they just buy them in – they can be fiddly to make!), but I have flavoured the filling with lime zest and rose water, while the pastry has orange blossom water and olive oil. It is also possible to add flavours like orange zest, cinnamon or mastic gum, but I was keen to keep to almonds and some aromatic flavours. The orange blossom water in the pastry, in particular, is a nice touch and something that makes these pastries really very different from more usual baked goods.




These pastries look rather spectacular, but they are easy to make. However, as I suspect you’ve already realised, they demand quite some time commitment to make properly, so it’s the sort of thing you should set a good few hours aside to undertake. But fear not! They also keep really rather well, so you can enjoy the fruits of your labours for a long time after spending all afternoon elbow-deep in pastry.

Once I had made these (and eaten quite a few) I served them are a dessert – the gazelle horns were rolled in icing sugar, piled high on a Moroccan vintage metal plate and served with lots of mint tea. A nice and refreshing alternative to a rich dessert! It’s interesting to see your guests proclaim that they can really only manage one, only to make short work of four or five of these fellows.




To make gazelle horns (makes 40):

For the filling:

• 300g  ground almonds
• 175g caster sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• juice and zest of 1 lime
• 1 tablespoon rose water
• almond extract, to taste

For the pastry:

• 250g plain flour
• 1 egg, beaten
• 60ml olive oil
• 2 tablespoons orange blossom water
• cold water

1. Make the filling – put everything into a bowl and mix until you have a smooth and firm (but not wet) paste. If you are using almond extract, add it a drop at a time – it helps to provide a subtle almond flavour, but be careful as it is easy to go too far. (The filling can be made the day before and refrigerated overnight).

2. Make the pastry – throw the flour, egg, oil and orange blossom water in a bowl and knead to a soft, elastic dough. Don’t worry about over-working it, as you need to pastry to be stretchy and capable of being rolled out thinly. Add cold water if too dry, or some flour if too wet. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least half an hour.

3. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

4. Divide the filling into equal pieces (I find it easiest to roll it into a long sausage, then cut into equal slices). Roll each piece into a ball, then shape into a small cigar (fatter in the middle, thinner at the ends – about 4 centimetre/2 inches long).

5. Take portions of the dough (a quarter at a time) and roll it out as thin as you can (really – if you think it’s done, go thinner!). Cut into squares, and then place an almond paste “cigar” diagonally onto the square. Wrap the pastry around the filling, trim the excess then seal the edges. Smooth the seams and roll the ends into points. Bend the pastry shape into the “horn” shape so they look like small croissants. Place seam-side down

6. Bake the pastries for around 15 minutes until just starting to colour – golden at the points, but not dark (this is easier to do in batches). Remove from the oven. If any of the filling has leaked, use a knife to push it back into shape while they are warm. Leave to cool.

7. Roll the cold pastries in icing sugar before serving.

Worth making? I’ll be honest – these were a total faff to make, but it was quite fun to do on a rainy afternoon while listening to a radio play. The results are well worth it though, and last for a while, so overall – recommended!


Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things