Monthly Archives: February 2015

Romantic Seed Crackers

OK, so more hearts! Why? Because…love is crackers? But worth it? And love is a good base for other things, just like a good cracker?

Fine, fine, I’ll stop trying to use bad humour to justify another heart-shaped post. Truth be told, I was really just looking for another excuse to use the rather splendid copper biscuit cutter that I was given as a present back in November, and it does seem such a shame to use it only at Christmas. And so I’ve made my seed crackers, but this time with a bit of a romantic twist.

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Of course this is not a new recipe – I first posted this about five years ago (five years ago!), but I think it is worth featuring again as it really is great. These are really double seed crackers – the simple dough (wholemeal and buckwheat flour, plus salt, oil and a dash of honey) is livened up with ground seeds, and then there are more on top for crunch and to give them some visual appeal. You could use whatever you like and/or have to hand, but I’ve used pumpkin, sesame, sunflower and poppy seeds.

If you make these, be prepared for “the alarming bit”. The poppy seeds and buckwheat flour make the dough a rather unappealing grey colour, but when they bake, the crackers take on this gorgeous conker-brown colour, making a handsome addition to a cheeseboard or any selection of dips.

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If you’re feeling creative and really want to work a heart theme, you can also cut out toppings using your cutters – slices of cheese, pieces of vegetable or whatever else you want. Otherwise, just throw them in a bowl, and use them to scoop up obscene amounts of hummus!

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For around 50 crackers (depends on size):

• 40g sesame seeds
• 30g pumpkin seeds
• 20g sunflower seeds
• 10g poppy seeds
• 120g wholewheat flour (spelt flour works too)
• 40g buckwheat flour
• 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, finely ground
• 2 teaspoons honey
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• water, to bind
• egg white, to glaze
• seeds, to decorate

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line a baking tray with baking parchment.

2. Mix all the seeds together, and blitz in a grinder until you have a fine powder. Don’t go too far, or they will become oily. The poppy seeds might stay whole, which is fine.

3. In a bowl, combine the ground seeds, flours, salt, honey and oil. Mix well.

4. Add enough water to make a dough (around 75-100ml, but it will vary depending on your flour). It should be smooth, but not sticky. Add more flour if needed.

5. Roll out the dough as thin as you can on a floured surface. Cut out the crackers (either use a cutter or cut with a knife or pizza cutter).

6. Brush each cracker with a little beaten egg white, and sprinkle over some seeds.

7. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the crackers become brown. Remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. If you’re doing lots of different shapes and sizes, bake in batches of the same size to ensure they don’t burn.

Worth making? These are excellent! Quick to make, with delicious results.

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Filed under Recipe, Savoury

Marchpane for Lovers

I’m probably not the world’s greatest romantic, but even I’ve gotten into the Valentine’s mood this year, and made something inspired by the theme of romance. However, if you’re familiar with any of my previous offerings, you’ll know that I’ve tended to shy away from pretty pink cupcakes. I’ve variously made a deep red beetroot risotto, a bittersweet red salad, and most dramatically, a dessert which looks like something has chewed out a heart and abandoned it in the snow.

This year, I’ve eased back on the drama, and instead drawn inspiration from an era in English history with which it seems that everyone (or at least everyone in television working on historical dramas) is obsessed. Yes, we’re off to Merrie Olde Tudor England to sample a sweet delight called marchpane.

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So what is marchpane? It is a very simple confection, which is something of an ancestor to our modern marzipan. It consists of almonds which were finely ground, and then mixed with sugar which had been worked to a powder. Everything would then be mixed with rosewater, and the resulting firm paste could be moulded into intricate shapes, and then coloured or gilded. And those Tudors didn’t do things by halves…there are tales of whole golden swans made from marchpane, covered with gold leaf, and on one occasion, Queen Elizabeth I was presented with a model of Old St Paul’s Cathedral made from marchpane. Apparently, she was impressed.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s an original recipe from Robert May’s “The Accomplisht Cook” which dates from 1660:

To Make a Marchpane: Take two pound of almonds blanched and beaten in a stone mortar, till they begin to come to a fine paste, then take a pound of sifted sugar put it in the mortar with the almonds, and make it into a perfect paste, putting to it now and then in the beating of it a spoonfull of rose-water to keep it from oyling; when you have beaten it to a puff-paste, drive it out as big as a charger, and set an edge about it as you do a quodling tart, and the bottom of wafers under it, thus bake it in an oven or baking-pan; when you see it white, and hard, and dry, take it out, and ice it with rosewater and suger, being made as thick as butter for fritters, so spread it on with a wing feather, and put it into the oven again; when you see it rise high, then take it out and garnish it with come pretty conceits made of the same stuff.

It’s fair to say that this is not a “recipe” as we would know it today! This is a bit more of a vague description, and the fact that we’ve got some quantities in there (two pounds of almonds, a pound of sugar) is apparently quite unusual for that time. But otherwise, this seems like a fairly straightforward recipe to modern eyes. Just take two parts ground almonds to one part icing sugar, add rosewater, shape it and bake. Job done!

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Except…it was not that easy for your average Tudor baker, who didn’t have easy access to ground almonds. They would need to make them. And I suspect almonds did not come pre-blanched, so they would have to remove the skins. And all of this would take time. All very easy in our modern kitchens to boil the kettle, then pop a pan of water on the stovetop to skin the almonds, but less straightforward in a mediaeval setting. So once you have your almonds, skinned and dried, you need to grind them down. And no blender of coffee grinder then…more likely than not, it involved either a mortar and pestle or a hammer and a muslin bag!

Having sorted the almonds, we then come to the sugar. Today, we’ve got bags of lovely, fluffy, white icing sugar which you can use right away. So pity the poor Tudor confectioner, who had to take a solid cone of sugar, chip away at it to get manageable pieces, then use even more elbow grease to grind those pieces down to a fine powder to use in marchpane. All in all, a lot of time spent turning things into powders and pastes. And don’t assume it would be some kitchen serf doing all the work – I remember seeing a programme on the Tudor kitchen which claimed that it would often be left to noble ladies in the royal household to work with sugar, as it was still something of an expensive luxury at that time.

You might think that I’m labouring all this a bit, but I just want to point out that while marchpane might look easy to us, it included a couple of fairly expensive ingredients (foreign nuts, imported luxury sugar) and a lot of time, so this was not a sweetmeat to be enjoyed by the masses. Hence the fact it was made into elaborate showstoppers and covered in gold, as one does when trying to impress!

But that is enough history. In terms of actually making the marchpane, I was able to skip all the hard work, so I found making marchpane a doddle. Just mix the ground almonds and the icing sugar, then add rosewater to bind it. This is really the only tricky bit that you will face these days – if you over-work the marchpane mixture, or do it when things are too warm, the almonds will release their oil and the mixture will seem to “split”. I tested this on a small piece, and it does happen quite easily, so once you’re happy with the texture, try to handle it as little as possible and keep it cool, as there is no way to fix the marchpane (but you can still use it for something else). Once you’ve got the right texture, just roll it out and start shaping it as you fancy.

As you can see, I went for a round tablet, inspired by the way that petticoat tails are made, to be decorated with red beading and golden hearts, which I thought ended up looking a little bit like a Tudor rose. I made the hearts separately from thinly-rolled marchpane, so I’m happy to report that if you wanted to make these are individual sweets or wedding favours, then this is entirely possible. Alternatively, you can decorate the top with candied fruit and citrus peel, and sugared almonds and “comfits” (sugar coated seeds like aniseed and caraway). As you can see below, I also made a few marchpane hearts as separate sweets – and I couldn’t resist making one golden broken heart…

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It is worth saying a couple of things to note about flavours here. First, make sure you’ve got the right sort of rosewater. It should be the dilute stuff which has a mild flavour, not the very concentrated rose extract. You want a hint of rose, not something that tastes of soap! If you’ve got the strong stuff, just dilute it with water and use that to bind the marchpane. Second, there is actually something that I did not include in this recipe – almond extract. This is often used to boost the flavour of sweet almonds in baked goods, but I decided to leave it out here. This was quite deliberate – none of the traditional recipes suggested this, and I wanted the marchpane to have a more subtle flavour.

And finally…how did it all taste? Well, actually really nice. Slightly sweet, nutty with a slightly toasted flavour, and a hint of rosewater. Maybe those Tudors knew a thing or two about sweets after all.

To make Marchpane:

For the marchpane:

• 200g ground almonds
• 100g icing sugar
• rosewater

For decoration:

• 100g icing sugar
• rosewater
• natural food colours
• gold or silver leaf
• gold or silver dusting powder

To make the marchpane:

1. Put the ground almonds and icing sugar in a large bowl. Mix with a whisk to combine (trust me – this works!).

2. Add rosewater, a teaspoon at a time, until you have a smooth paste. You’ll need around 6 teaspoons for this quantity but go with what you feel is right.  You can start with a spoon to mix everything, but you need to finish with (clean) hands to make a fairly stiff dough. It should not be sticky, and don’t over-work or it will turn oily.

3. Dust a worktop with icing sugar. Put the marchpane mixture on top, and roll out to about 1cm thickness. Use a plate as a template and cut into a circle. Transfer to baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. Decorate the marchpane as you wish.

4. Roll up any scraps and use to make decorations – for example, roll thinly thin, then cut out heart shapes etc.

5. Bake the marchpane disc at 150°C (300°F) for around 25-30 minutes until it is just starting to brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

6. Bake any other pieces of marchpane until just starting to brown – they will take anything from 10-20 minutes, depending on size.

To decorate the marchpane:

7. Make the icing – mix the icing sugar with enough rosewater to make a fairly thick but flowing icing. Use this to ice the top of the marchpane disc. Try to give it three coats, allowing it to dry in between.

8. Ice the decorations – I made the hearts white, and then dusted them with gold powder when dry, and tinted some of the icing red to decorate the studs. Leave to dry.

9. Finally, assemble the marchpane – use any remaining icing to glue the various pieces onto the disc.

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Blood Orange Marmalade

A great way to bring a bit of sunshine into what can be the very grey last days of winter is to get busy with making marmalade. Seville oranges are a British favourite, as they are too bitter to use for most purposes, but they do provide a good, sharp breakfast marmalade to wake you up in the morning. However, not everyone is a fan, so I’ve turned my hand to using other citrus that gives a milder result (more being shaken aware than being slapped?), and it just so happened that I got a load of blood oranges delivered recently in my veg box.

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I know that jams, preserves and marmalades can seem like a bit of dark art, and that marmalade in particular is often thought of as being rather daunting. I think it’s really just a matter of patience. In fact, marmalade it is the sort of thing that is perfect to make on a quiet weekend when you’re just pottering around at home, as you spend Saturday juicing the fruit and shredding the peel, then boiling everything up and letting it sit. Then on Sunday, you get to do the “fun bit” with the sugar, engaging in what seems like alchemy to turn a pot of watery orange peel into a sweet, tangy and glowing confection.

I always find that there is something rather therapeutic about peeling and slicing all those orange peels, with the wonderful orange aroma filling the kitchen as you prepare and cook the fruit. All that orange oil being spritzed into the air as you handle the peel does leave you feeling rather invigorated!

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As I was using blood oranges, I was expecting this to really impact on the final marmalade – something rich and red was surely going to be my reward, yes? Some of my oranges had quite dark red skin (a good start) and when I cut into them, I was pleased by the bright red flesh and juice. I was expecting that the resulting marmalade would be a jolly red colour…but in the end, it was a deep shade of orange. A nice colour, just not red. So all in all, just a touch disappointing, but not the end of the world! And of course, the flavour was still fantastic – obviously a strong orange flavour, but without some of that bitterness that you get with Seville oranges, but not the sweet jelly you get when using the very fine peel from sweet oranges. As I had used all of the peel, not just the coloured part, it still had enough of a bitter tinge to balance all the sugar in there.

When making marmalade, you should in theory be able to get a good set using just the peel, sugar and water, and rely on the fruit membranes and pips to give you enough pectin. I’ve made marmalade this way in the past with everything from Seville oranges to grapefruit, but my experience is that you can end up boiling everything for absolutely ages. This can concentrate down the sugar, resulting in a very sweet marmalade, and I think the longer you boil everything, the more of an impact this has on the flavour, and I suspect you probably lose some of the delicate aromatic orange oils (or not – I’m a home cook, not a scientist, so just a theory of mine). So I cheat – I want everything to be done more quickly, and I want a reliable set, so I use half normal granulated sugar and half jam sugar (with pectin). Sure, it makes me a massive cheat, but it works.

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While I bemoaned the lack of a vibrant crimson colour in the final marmalade, I was able to ensure the colour was on the dark side. I used about 100g of dark muscovado sugar rather than white sugar. I think using all muscovado sugar would be too overwhelming, but using about 10% does make it a shade or two more intense, and adds a little extra something to the finished marmalade.

This recipe makes about 5-6 normal sized pots. It’s excellent on hot toast with melted butter, but it has lots of other uses. Try folding it into fruit cakes or sponge cakes for a robust orange tang, or add it to gingerbread and melt to use as a glaze. Or get very creative…add to the shaker and mix into your cocktail of choice. Try a spoonful mixed with gin and then add your tonic…

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To make Blood Orange Marmalade (makes 6 pots):

• 1kg blood oranges (5-6 oranges)
• 500g jam sugar (with pectin)
• 100g dark muscovado sugar
• 400g white caster sugar
• 100ml lemon juice
• small knob of butter (size of an almond)

Day One

1. Wash the oranges. Cut in half and juice them.

2. Take each of the pieces of peel – trim off the membranes on the inside (keep them!) and cut the peel into fine shreds.

3. Measure the orange juice, and top up to 2 litres with water. Add the shredded peel. Collect that various seeds, membranes, any peel offcuts and anything left in the orange juicer (such as pulp) into a piece of muslin, tied securely, and add to the pot.

4. Put the pot onto a medium heat and cover. Bring to the boil, then simmer for around 2 hours until the peel is very soft. When done, turn off the heat and leave to sit overnight.

Day Two

5. Strain the liquid from the pot (keep the shredded orange peel!). Squeeze as much as you can from the muslin bag – this will extract pectin, and you should notice the liquid coming through the muslin a bit thick. Once you’ve got as much as you can from the bag, discard the mush inside.

6. Measure the liquid – if necessary, top up to 1 litre. If you’ve got more, don’t worry – add it all to the pot.

7. Return the liquid to the pot with the peel and the sugar, and place over a medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil. Add the lemon juice and the knob of butter, then keep on a medium heat until it comes to a rolling boil. Skim off any foam that forms, and start to test regularly for a set(*). It’s hard to say how long this takes – it might be 10 minutes, it might be 40 minutes. Just be sure to keep an eye on the marmalade – burnt marmalade is not nice.

8. When you have a set, remove the marmalade from the heat and leave to sit for 12 minutes (it will thicken slightly – this helps to ensure the strands “float” in the marmalade and don’t sink). Decant the hot marmalade into sterilised jam jars and seal(**).

(*) How to check for a set? Chill a saucer in the fridge. Put a little marmalade on the cool plate, and return to the fridge for a minute. Push with your finger – if the marmalade visibly “wrinkles” when you push it, the marmalade is done. If it stays liquid, then cook longer and check again after a few minutes.

(**) How to sterilise jam jars? Wash in hot, soapy water, and then rinse very well – do not dry them. Now place up-side down on the shelf of a cold oven, and heat to 100°C / 210°F for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven using gloves, allow to cool slightly (they should still be warm) and fill with the hot marmalade. You can leave the jars in the oven with the heat turned off until you need them, as this keeps the glass warm, and warm glass is much less likely to crack when you add warm jam (science, eh?). Remember to sterilise the lids by washing in hot, soapy water, then rinsing well and then boiling them in a pot of hot water for a few minutes.

Worth making?  100% yes! This is easy to make, but the result is delicious, and I think so much better than the manmade that you can buy. You can also customise according to your preferences – you can add spices, fresh ginger or even a dash of whisky or brandy to lend a little extra kick.

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Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things