Monthly Archives: July 2013

Chocolate & Nut Biscotti

By now you will have noticed that I get my ideas for my posts from a wide variety of places, events and travels. It’s great to come up with my own ideas, or my take on some of the classics, but it’s also nice to get a recipe challenge to test. And so I got a request from the good people at Titan Supper Club to have a bash at Italian biscotti. The challenge was a rich chocolate and nut version, which sounded excellent and here we are!

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First off, full disclosure. I’ve never made biscotti before. Saffron-flavoured biscotti are on my radar for (whisper it) Christmas baking, but the technique is new to me. I was vaguely aware of the need to form the dough into large sausage, part bake it, then cut into thin slices and bake further until they are dry. So were these cookies as easy as the theory would suggest?

The good news is that this is an absolute dream to make. You just mix up all the dry ingredients, add eggs, then fold in melted chocolate and nuts. Bake, cool, slice and bake again. Their slightly rustic appearance also makes them ideal for smaller kitchen hands who have lots of enthusiasm but who might lack a steady hand to make neat edges.

The original recipe suggested making these biscotti with hazelnuts, and I think this would be delicious (it’s the combination that makes Nutella great). However, I fancied trying something a little different, and went with a mixture of pistachios and pine nuts, to add different colours and flavours. The result looks great, with flashes of green and creamy white against the rich chocolate biscuit.

This is also a great recipe for chocolate lovers. The dough already contains cocoa, and is enriched with melted dark chocolate. This is rounded out with a dash of vanilla and some fresh orange zest. The aroma from these little treats during baking was sensational, and the flavour is fantastic.

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So what do you think? I’m thrilled with how they turned out. Perfect with a cup of tea or strong coffee on a warm day in the shade, with dreams of la bella Italia!

To make Chocolate & Nut Biscotti (makes around 25-30 cookies):

• 140g nuts
• 100g dark chocolate
• 300g plain flour
• 75g cocoa powder
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 200g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla essence
• zest of 1 orange
• 3 large eggs

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Line two baking trays with greaseproof paper and grease lightly.

2. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of boiling water. Put to one side.

3. In a large bowl, mix the flour, cocoa, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt and sugar.

4. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs with the vanilla and orange zest. Add to the flour mixture and mix until the dough just comes together. Add a drop of water if needed. Add the chocolate and mix well. Fold in the nuts.

5. On a lightly-floured worktop, shape half the dough into a long rectangular sausage (aim for about 22cm long, 8cm wide). Transfer to a baking tray. Repeat with the rest of the dough.

6. Bake the dough for 25 minutes (it should be puffed up). Remove and cool for 20 minutes. In the meantime, reduce the oven temperature to 160°C (320°F).

7. Using a sharp serrated knife, cut on the diagonal into 1cm slices. Lay flat on the baking trays and bake for 20 minutes (10 minutes each side, turning over half-way). Remove from the oven and leave to cool on a wire tray.

Worth making? Definitely. If you’re a fan of chocolate and nuts, you’ll love these.

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Royal Baby: Gingerbread Acorn Biscuits

More on the theme of the royal baby, I’m afraid! Normal summer food will resume next week, but for the moment, we’ll still share in the national joy of the arrival of HRH Prince George of Cambridge.

Clearly a lot of people have decided to mark the event in various forms of cute cakes (myself included). So what else could I come up with that was interesting but not too twee or obvious. Cupcakes? Done. Cake pops? Not a fan. Macarons? Hmmm….

Then it came to me – what about gingerbread? Very traditional biscuits, with their rich spiciness said to have medicinal and healing properties. During the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, gingerbread figures covered in gold leaf would be presented to court visitors, so these biscuits also have royal pedigree. I also tweaked my spices by adding some aniseed, given its traditional association with new births. I also happened to have a rather nifty acorn cookie press, symbolising both new life (from little acorns mighty oaks do grow…) as well as the family crest of the Duchess of Cambridge’s family. With that, a perfect idea was born!

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Never one to do things by halves, I’ve had a go at two different sorts of gingerbread biscuits (and no, this time there was no pink version just in case…). First is one darker gingerbread, which is vegan. Cocoa and treacle give them a rich, deep colour.

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The lighter gingerbread is made in the more traditional way – lots of butter and syrup, as well as generous amounts of ground ginger. Both recipes are below so you can choose the one that you prefer.

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While these look very different from what you might usually associate with a new baby (being neither pale pink nor baby blue), I think they are rather striking. The flavour is also superb – they have a real depth of flavour from the spices and treacle but not too sweet.

Some tips for baking – the darker gingerbread uses oil, so it’s important to make sure it is very fresh and light-tasting. If it’s been lurking in the cupboard for a while, you’ll find that it affects the flavour of the finished gingerbread (or play it safe and use melted butter). I also found that the biscuits kept their shape better if they were put into the freezer for 10 minutes before baking. It’s not vital, but it seems to help make the details a little sharper. Finally, you can give these gingerbreads a nifty scalloped edge using a fluted cutter – I think the finished effect looks something like medallions.

If you’re keen to have a go at these biscuits and want to get presses of your own, you can buy them online from House on the Hill here.

To make light gingerbread medallions:

• 500g plain flour
• 4 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
• 2 teaspoons cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon salt
• ½ teaspoons baking soda
• 225g butter
• 170g soft brown sugar
• 1 large egg
• 120ml golden syrup
• 2 tablespoons black treacle

1. Sift the flour, spices, salt and baking soda into a large bowl.

2. In a separate bowl, beat the butter until creamy. Add the sugar and beat until soft and fluffy. Add the egg and mix well, then the syrup and treacle.

3. Add the flour mixture to the butter and mix to a soft dough. Wrap the dough in cling film and refrigerate overnight.

4. The next day, preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

5. Take slices of the chilled dough and place on a lightly floured worktop. Roll out to around 1 1/2cm thick, then dust the top lightly with flour and press the mould into the dough. Use a fluted cutter to give the gingerbread a fluted edge. Transfer each to the baking sheet as you go.

6. Bake the biscuits in batches of 12 – they will take around 10-12 minutes to bake, until they are just golden at the edges (you may need more or less time depending on size so you might want to experiment with the first couple of biscuits).

7. When baked, allow the gingerbreads to cool for a minute, then transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

To make dark gingerbread medallions (from House on the Hill):

• 325 cups plain flour
• 50g cocoa powder
• 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
• 100g soft brown sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon ground aniseed
• 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 120ml vegetable oil

• 120ml treacle
• 120ml golden syrup
• 2 tablespoons water

1. Mix the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, spices and salt in a large bowl. Sift to ensure everything is properly combined.

2. In a bowl, stir the treacle, golden syrup, oil and water until smooth. It doesn’t look it, but it will come together and turn smooth.

3. Combine the wet and dry ingredients, mixing well until you have a solid dough. Add a few drops of water if necessary. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate overnight.

4. The next day, preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

5. Take slices of the chilled dough and place on a lightly floured worktop. Roll out to around 1 1/2cm thick, then dust the top lightly with flour and press the mould into the dough. Use a fluted cutter to give the gingerbread a fluted edge. Transfer each to the baking sheet as you go.

6. Bake the biscuits in batches of 12 – they will take around 10-12 minutes to bake, until they are slightly puffed (you may need more or less time depending on size so you might want to experiment with the first couple of biscuits).

7. When baked, allow the gingerbreads to cool for a minute, then transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

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Royal Baby: Petits Fours

Hurrah, after all that waiting, the royal baby has arrived! Even if you were not following the event closely, the atmosphere in London was exciting – one of the hottest days of the year, giving way to excitement in the warm evening as the news emerged. The media went into meltdown, getting more and more excited as we got to see the first pictures, then the news and the newborn was to be called HRH Prince George.

Never one to shy away from a bit of baking in honour of a national event, I’ve made a batch of little cakes with a suitably regal theme. Little blue petits fours flavoured with almond and topped with silver.

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Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that I made these little cakes just ahead of the birth, and hedged my bets by decorating some of them blue and others pink. I had planned to post the right colour on the day, but in the end I think they all look rather sweet so you get to benefit from the blue and silver look, as well as pink and gold.

For some reason, I had it most firmly in my mind that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would be having a girl. I even took a £5 hit on our office sweepstake where I went for the name Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Frances…maybe next time!

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Petits fours are one of those things that can seem like a lot of work, and I agree they are hardly the sort of thing that you can whip up in less than an hour. However, I think there is something quite satisfying about tackling something a little more complex when you have a few hours to spare. All the more so when you are in the middle of a heatwave – after each stage, you can pop out into the garden to bask in a little sunshine, which allows you to make sure you do not get too much exposure to the sun in one go.

If you’re keen to try making these, you’ve got two choices. I used a recipe from Martha Stewart to make thin layers of almond sponge, then sandwiched them together to make the cakes. However, there is a simpler way – get any sort of dense cake (like pound cake), then trim off the darker crusts and cut into cubes (or go crazy – use round or heart-shaped cutters to get creative). In all honesty, this latter option is a lot easier and ideal if you want to try making these little cakes with children. They tend to want to minimise the time between cake-making and cake-eating. You could still go for a fancy effect by using a marble cake as your foundation.

When it comes to the filling, this is entirely up to you. Jam would be traditional, with raspberry providing a slightly tart contrast to the sweet icing. Otherwise, try a firmer fruit jelly made with pectin if you want thicker layers of summery sweetness. However, I happened to have a pot of almond jam from Mallorca lurking at the back of the cupboard, and it was just perfect here (and fittingly – I bought it the week before the Royal Wedding in 2011). The flavour was nutty rather than sweet, with a dash of cinnamon and citrus to round out the flavour. To keep the almond theme going, I added a little marzipan square on top of each cake.

When it comes to icing, again Martha came to the rescue. I’ve tried simple water icings in the past, but they tend to be too thin, take too long to set and don’t give a great finish. The perfect – and traditional – option is to make sugar fondant, then melt it using sugar syrup. However, this is a bit of a faff, and I tend not to have an amazing hit rate when it comes to working with sugar syrup and getting things to set. The third way seemed like something I would work with – fill a large bowl with icing sugar, add liquid glucose (the nearest thing we have in the UK to corn syrup), water and any colouring, then warm in a bain marie until smooth. This went on like a dream and set fairly quickly.

So there you have it – pretty little petits fours which I might dare to suggest are fit for a prince. I would just make sure he has access to enough outdoor space to run around after all that icing!

For the cake recipe, see Martha’s recipe here. This was a great simple almond sponge so recommended whenever you need a thin layer sponge.

If you fancy making a pound cake, my butter-rich version is here.

Martha’s icing recipe is here, and there is a great video showing the technique here. It’s worth checking it out before having a go yourself! When I was making this, I found I needed to add a little water from time to time to keep the icing at the right texture. If it gets too thin, just pop back over the bain marie to warm and it should sort it out.

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Belgian Buns

The eyes of the world might be on London in anticipation of a certain new baby, but today saw another royal development across the English Channel in Belgium.  Today is Belgian National Day, and after 20 years in the top job, King Albert II choose today as the moment to abdicate in favour of his eldest son Philippe. Hence the Brussels-themes header, complete with the Atomium.

To mark this, I’ve foregone the more familiar waffles or baked endive, and instead made a batch of Belgian Buns. Spirals of rich, yeasted dough, filled with sultanas and topped with icing and cherry.

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The funny thing is that, in spite of their name, there does not seem to be any basis for linking these buns to Belgium. Indeed, a Belgian friend told me that while they have something similar, it is named after Switzerland (the couque suisse). In the same way that the Danes refer to Danish pastries as coming from Vienna. Sort of.

While Belgian Buns might not be big in the low countries, they are a favourites in Britain. That said, I was quite surprised about how few recipes there are in cookbooks or online for these tasty treats. I’ve actually used my recipe for Swedish cinnamon buns, but without the spices. The cinnamon butter is replaced with brown sugar and sultanas, and the buns are finished with a soft fondant icing and the traditional red cherry.

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After making these buns, I realised that it has been a good few years since I’ve last enjoyed one of these little fellows, but I am very pleased with the result. The dough is rich and buttery, and allowing a decent amount of time for the dough to prove means the texture is very light and fluffy. The only little note of caution I would sound is that you should go easy on the icing – it’s very sweet, so unless you’ve got the sweetest of sweet teeth, you don’t want more than a drizzle.

So there we have it – some (fake) Belgian Buns for the coronation of the new Belgian King. And part of me thinks that it would be rather nice if these things are being served in the Royal Palace of Brussels today.

To make Belgian Buns (makes 12):

For the dough:

• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 50g sugar
• 60g butter
• 130ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 1 egg
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 325g strong white flour

For the filling:

• 120g sultanas
• 30g brown sugar
• milk

For the glaze:

• 200g icing sugar
• 3 tablespoons boiling water
• 12 glacé cherries

1(a). If using a bread machine: put the dough ingredients into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

2(b). 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 and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). 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.

3. Once the dough is ready, turn it onto a floured surface. Roll into a large square (around 25 x 25cm). Brush the surface with milk, then sprinkle the sultanas and brown sugar across the dough. Roll the dough into a fat sausage, then cut into 12 equal slices.

4. Lay each slice, cut face up, on a bun case. Cover with cling film or a damp teacloth and leave to rise for at least an hour until doubled in size.

5. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Bake the buns for about 10-12 minutes until golden.

6. When done, remove from the oven and cover with a clean tea-towel (this will catch the steam and keep the buns soft).

7. When the buns are cool, make the glaze. Combine the icing sugar and boiling water, mixing until smooth. Drizzle over each bun and top each one with a glacé cherry.

Worth making? These buns are amazing! Very easy to make and they really look impressive when stacked up high, either on the breakfast table or with morning coffee.

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Independence Day Cake

It’s the Fourth of July, so here is a little cake in honour of US Independence Day! It’s my take on a recipe for the late 1700s – based on a bundt cake, and finished with gold in honour of the big day.

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There is a little bit of a story behind this recipe. I found the original in one of my cookbooks, which features cake recipes from around the world. Among them all was a gem of a recipe of Herculean proportions and with little by way of directions. The limited information was all down to the fact this recipe originated in the late 1700s. Rather than just updating it, the author cleverly presented in all its glory, with original directions as follows:

Independence Day Cake by Amelia Simmons (1796)

The Cake:

• 20 pounds flour
• 15 pounds sugar
• 10 pounds butter
• 48 eggs
• 1 quart wine
• 1 quart brandy
• 1 ounce nutmeg
• 1 ounce cinnamon
• 1 ounce cloves
• 1 ounce mace
• 2 pounds citron peel
• 5 pounds currants
• 5 pounds raisins
• 1 quart yeast

Topping

• crushed loaf sugar
• box cuttings
• gold leaf

Sadly, the temperature of the baking oven was not given, but I would imagine it would need to be cooked slowly. If you do try and succeed do let me know.

And you know what? It was that last sentence that got me. This was not a “tested” recipe of the sort we’re all used to…but…what if I were to take that recipe…convert into measurements that are not so voluminous, and try to make this into a cake? With that, a challenge was set.

Before I could convert this lot, I was faced with a few decisions that were going to test my culinary knowledge. First off, I had to get the types of ingredients right. The butter was pretty easy (it’s a safe bet that the butter we have today is not unlike the butter available back in the 1700s), but the sugar was less clear. Should it be white or brown? While I like to use muscovado sugar in baking, this was supposed to be a celebratory bake, so I opted for sparkling white caster sugar. Next, the flour. In cakes, it should be plain flour. However, when making yeasted doughs, I use strong white flour that gives a light, springy texture. I didn’t know which to go with, so given this was more cake than bread, it would be plain cake flour. Luckily the spices, citrus peel and dried fruit did not require much thinking, otherwise I would have been in the kitchen all day fretting!

The method also presented something of a challenge. I started by weighing everything out into bowls, and then I was own my own – pure guesswork territory. I creamed the butter and sugar, added the eggs, then the flour and the yeast mixture. After that, the fruit was worked into the batter, and I left the cake to rise for a few hours.

Sadly…the cake had other ideas, and decided that it didn’t really want to puff up as I had hoped. Instead, it remained dense. All in all, a bit of a failure.

I was deflated but not defeated. A few days later, I had another go at the cake, but this time embraced the fact that the world of baking has moved on since the 1700s, and we now benefit from a magic substance called baking powder. I could skip the whole yeast thing, and instead rely on the white stuff to do the job. And this time, the cake worked like a dream. The crumb is tender and moist, and the cake has a rich, velvety texture that works very well with the spices, citrus peel and dried fruits.

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Now, we also need to keep in mind that this is a cake to celebrate Independence Day. The original recipe suggests loaf sugar, box cuttings and gold leaf. I’ll freely admit that I have no clue was is meant by box cuttings (leaves from the box hedge plant?), and I didn’t have loaf sugar to hand. So again, I improvised – a simple glaze, drizzled in loops on top of the cake, and then finished, as was intended, with some flakes of gold leaf. Very celebratory!

So what do you think? Suitably impressive for the Fourth of July? I’d like to think so, and I hope that Miss Amelia Simmonds would too.

To make an Independence Day Cake (modern version!):

• 4 tablespoons rum
• 60g citrus peel, chopped
• 90g currants
• 90g sultanas
• 190g butter
• 280g sugar
• 2 eggs
• 350g self-raising flour

• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon cloves
• 1/2 teaspoon mace
• 150ml milk

For the glaze

• 85g icing sugar
• 4-5 teaspoons double cream
• gold leaf

1. Put the rum, raisins, sultanas and citrus peel into a bowl. Mix, cover and leave to sit overnight (or if you’re in a hurry, heat quickly in the microwave and leave to sit on the kitchen top for an hour).

2. Prepare a cake pan. If using a bundt pan, brush with melted butter, then dust with plain flour. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).

3. Cream the butter and sugar, then add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition, until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the spices and mix well.

4. Combine the flour and the baking powder. Add half of the flour mixture and half of the milk to the batter, and mix until smooth. Repeat with the rest of the flour and the milk. You should have a smooth batter that drops slowly from the back of a spoon.

5. Finally, fold in the currants, sultanas and citrus peel.

6. Spoon the mixture into the cake pan and bake for around 45-60 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Once baked, remove from the oven, allow to cool slightly, then turn out onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely.

7. To finish the cake, make the glaze by combining the icing sugar and cream. Mix until smooth – it should be soft, but not runny. Drizzle on top of the cake, then add flakes of gold leaf to finish the cake.

Worth making? In spite of all this history and the fact I’ve had to convert this cake into modern quantities, this is a great cake – spicy and fruity, but not heavy. This would make a great and lighter alternative to traditional fruit cakes.

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