Monthly Archives: January 2018

Of lemons and olive oil…

It’s Blue Monday. Apparently it is the most depressing day of the year as Christmas is over, the decorations are down and the reality of an empty bank account sinks in. We’ll ignore that this was first cooked up as a marketing promotion a few years ago to encourage the population to start booking sunny summer holidays when it was cold and wet outside, and use this as an excuse to make something that brings us some flavours of the Mediterranean when the skies are heavy and grey.

To do this, I’ve decided to revamp my take on Spanish magdalenas (and you can read the original post here for all the background and history). These are lovely little cakes made with lemon and olive oil, just the sort of thing to have at breakfast with a cortado or a café con leche. I mean, perhaps this is not how Spanish people eat them, but I’ve eaten them on holiday in Spain, and when you’re on holiday, it is completely legitimate to eat cake for (or at least with) breakfast.


But why a revamp? Am I not a fount of new ideas? Generally I like to look around for inspiration to try new things – it might be discovering a novel ingredient, going on holiday, or acquiring an unusual kitchen implement, all of which are usually pretty good ways to come up with ideas. I’m generally not one for making the same recipe over and over with a different flavour or icing on top. However, I recently started to look back at some of my very early posts and it got me thinking…has the time come to look back at some old recipes, make some adjustments and post them again in their new and improved form? I’m a better cook and baker these days, so it’s quite a fun way to see how far I’ve come and what I’ve learned. So you can probably expect to see quite a few more of those to come over the course of this year.

Ah, those early posts. Back from when I first dipped my toe into the blogging world. You can tell those posts. The writing is enthusiastic, but more tellingly the pictures are not quite as polished, and in particular I had not yet discovered the “flat lay”. It sounds positively risqué, but this is apparently just the technical name for setting things out on a table and then photographing them from above. You’ll probably know it as the look that is so beloved of Instagram influencers who probably spent ages making things look as if they have been effortlessly thrown onto a table. And back in the day, I was also muddling through with a more basic selection of kitchen equipment, so whatever I came up with was inevitably a little more simplistic. Put another way…I was not buying new pans, trays and moulds on a whim, and I didn’t spend as much time hunting down quirky ingredients.


These cakes were actually inspired by a visit last year to visit some friends in Estepona on the Costa del Sol. They had a lovely garden overlooking the sea, but the real highlight for me was the orchard. Avocados, mandarins, lemons, kumquats…all ready for the picking. It rather puts my solitary redcurrant bush to shame, although my garden did come good last summer with enough fruit for two small jars of jelly. But I managed to come home with a large back of kumquats and mandarins which were turned into marmalade, and we finally got to enjoy the last jar over the festive period. It got me thinking that I really do like citrus flavours, and I wanted to have another go at magdalenas.

My previous attempt at magdalenas was way back in 2010. What were you doing back then? It is just crazy to think how much things have changed over that time. Anyway, that old recipe was based on equal weights of eggs, sugar, flour and olive oil. This time I’ve adjusted the recipe slightly – I’ve used large eggs, and added a little more flour and some baking powder to get some extra lift in the batter. I’ve also added a little milk to make the batter smoother, with the hope that the magdalenas will be a little more airy. Finally, I also made two flavour tweaks. First, the lemon zest is enhanced by a little vanilla extract. Second, I have used mostly ordinary (non-virgin) olive oil, with a couple of spoonfuls of extra-virgin oil for flavour. I find that on its own, the extra-virgin stuff can make cakes a little bitter and grassy.


Of course the other big change this time was that I was able to bake my magdalenas in a square shape, like they often do in Spain! Luckily I just happened to have a square muffin pan that I bought a couple of Christmases ago to make another Spanish delight, the almond-flavoured marquesas de navidad. When the tray appeared in the kitchen, I was promptly chastised for shelling out cash for yet another piece of single-use kitchen kit. This batch of magdalenas clearly vindicates my impulse purchase, and I really love the different shape. Does it add to the flavour? Absolutely. It makes them look very pretty on a plate, thereby enhancing the eating experience.


The end result is a great little cake. They have a  lovely light  texture, so the extra baking powder and milk does the trick, and they stay wonderfully moist thanks to the olive oil. Finally, do be generous when sprinkling them with sugar – I think that slightly crisp topping is a fundamental part of them.

If you were to go back to some old recipes, which ones would you want to re-make? If you have any suggestions from my back catalogue, please let me know and I’ll see what I can do!

To make 12 magdalenas:

• 2 large eggs
• 115g caster sugar
• zest of one large lemon
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
• pinch of salt
• 125g self-raising flour
• 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
• 115g olive oil (including 2 tablespoons of extra virgin)
• 2 tablespoons milk
• granulated sugar, to sprinkle

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Place 12 paper cases in a muffin tray (square or round).

2. Put the eggs, caster sugar, lemon zest, vanilla and salt in a bowl.  Whisk with an electric beater until light and thick (2 minutes).

3. Gently fold the flour and baking powder into the mixture using a spatula.

4. Add the olive oil and fold into the mixture (do this gently but keep going – it will come together). Finally fold in the two tablespoons of milk. You should have a smooth, soft, emulsified batter-like mixture.

5. Divide the mixture between the paper cases. Sprinkle each generously with granulated sugar. Bake for around 18-20 minutes until the cakes are risen and golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

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Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Today is Epiphany, so I wanted to make something traditional to go with the day. I made a (delicious) French galette du roi last year, but this year I was after something a bit more colourful than brown puff pastry when it is so grey and cold outside. Don’t get me wrong – I love a galette. We even shared one at work yesterday (news flash: I didn’t find the hidden figure, so I didn’t win the golden crown this year…) but there’s a limit to how exciting it is ever going to look.

And that’s where Louisiana’s King Cake comes in. You want colour? This guy is going to give it to your in full green, gold and purple Technicolor glory!

The King Cake is associated with the New Orleans tradition of Mardi Gras. From 6 January, folk will get together for parties and serve up a King Cake. A key tradition if you want to be authentic is to get hold of a small plastic toy baby. Said baby should be baked into the cake, and then you invite your friends round to share it (hence the party).

The person that gets the slide with the baby will receive good fortune, and he or she will host the party next year. If you’re worried about plastic melting in the cake during baking, you could just push the toy inside the cake once it has cooled and before you ice it.

And if you are terrified about the choking hazard that said baby could present and you’re worried about serving up a deathtrap cake, you could instead hid a whole pecan or hazelnut in the cake. All of the fun, and actually a whole lot less risky.

The sugar on top is really important. Those colours matter – they are the official colours of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. They appear in beads, costumes, body art (!), decorations and, of course, on top of King Cakes. The history of Mardi Gras suggests that this colour palette can be traced back to 1872, when the King of the Carnival selected them. The gold symbolises power (rather than the more common association with wealth). Purple stands for justice, in terms of what is the right thing to do. And finally we have green, standing for faith.


Rather than going to the hassle of buying fancy coloured sanding sugar, I made my coloured sugar by putting a few spoonfuls of granulated sugar in a jam jar, then adding some gel food colouring I had diluted with a little vodka (you could use water). Put the top on the jar and shake it like crazy – and voilà, you have evenly-coloured sugar. I repeated the process with some pearl sugar to get some bigger chunks, and I think they worked out pretty well. For the gold, I added some strong yellow colour, but also some edible gold lustre powder, so it really does sparkle. Afterwards just spread the (damp) sugar on a plate and leave it somewhere warm to dry, then crumble it with your hands. It’s easy but probably worth doing the night before so you’re all set to go when you want to actually decorate the cake with lavish sprinkles of jolly colours. If you’re fed up with the cold and grey, massing about with rainbow sugar will cheery you up.

If you’re wondering about that sugar and thinking you might just skip it, don’t! The cake itself looks fairly ordinary, even with the white icing, but once all that sugar is on top….well, the whole thing is just transformed in an instant into a dazzling riot of colour and sparkle. It certainly brightened up my morning!

I made this cake using an adapted cinnamon bun recipe, so the dough is made with scalded milk to which I added butter, then left that to cool down. I then made the dough, swapping out cardamom for ground nutmeg, and filled the cake with a buttery cinnamon-brown sugar mixture. I’ve seen some suggestions about using chopped pecan nuts and even sultanas, so if those are your thing add them – they will taste great. I’ve also used a basic water icing for the glaze. You can make it richer with some cream, or even work cream cheese into the icing (or go more extreme and work cream cheese into the filling as well). This is a celebratory cake – you should be able to go fairly crazy with it. Just be sure to use those three colours!

I’m sure there is endless variety in terms of exactly how this cake should be made, and of course there must be people who swear that their recipe and no other is the real deal. Great, but my version tastes good and still looks very jolly, so I am happy with it.

And how does this lot taste? It’s delicious. In fact, it’s just like a giant cinnamon bun!

To make a King Cake:

Note: you can see how to shape the cake in this video, but I used my own recipe not the one listed there.

For the dough:

• 150ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 60g butter
• 1 large egg
• 350g strong white flour
• 50g white sugar
• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
• milk, to brush before baking

For the cinnamon filling:

• 60g butter, soft
• 60g caster sugar

• 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• optional – chopped pecans or sultanas

To finish

• 1 small toy plastic baby or ceramic figure (optional)
• 150g icing sugar

• a few spoonfuls of water or double cream, to bind
• green, purple and golden granulated sugar, to sprinkle

1. Put the milk in a pan. Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat. Add the butter, stir until it has melted, then leave to cool until lukewarm. Once cooled, add the egg and beat well.

2a. If using a bread machine: Throw the milk mixture and the rest of the dough ingredients into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

2b. If making by hand: put the dry dough ingredients into a large bowl. Add the milk mixture. Stir with a spoon at first, then transfer to a floured worktop and knead until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (this could take up to 10 minutes). Put the dough back in the bowl, cover with cling film, and leave in a warm place until doubled in size. When done, remove the cover and knock back the dough.

3. Make the cinnamon butter – put all the ingredients in a bowl and mix until smooth.

4. Time to assemble the cake. Turn the dough onto a floured surface. Roll into a large rectangle of around 30 x 50cm. Spread with the cinnamon butter. If you’re using nuts and/or sultanas, sprinkle them on top. Roll from the long side into a tight sausage (the sausage should be 50cm long).

5. Line a large baking tray with greaseproof paper. Transfer the sausage to the tray, and form into a ring. Join the ends as best you can – you can cover the join with icing later, but try to ensure there is a decent join, and moisten the overlap with some milk to stop the filling leaking out during baking.

6. Take some kitchen scissors. Start to snip into the outside of the ring at regular spaces – you want to go in about 1/3 of the way. Cover loosely with lightly oiled cling film or place in a large plastic bag, and leave to rise until doubled in size, about an hour.

7. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Brush the loaf with the milk and bake for around 25 minutes until puffed up and golden but not too dark. I recommend turning the tray after about 10 minutes to get an even rise and colour. You might want to lower the temperature towards the end of baking if the colour looks ready after about 20 minutes. When baked, remove from the oven and cover with a clean teatowel – this will trap steam and keep the cake soft. Leave to cool. If using a plastic baby, a ceramic figure or a pecan nut – press this through the base of the cooled cake.

8. Make the icing. Put the icing sugar in a bowl, and add two tablespoons of water or cream. Mix well, then keep adding a little more water or cream until the icing is still thick but will flow slowly. Spread the icing on top of the cake, then sprinkle straight away with the coloured sugar.

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And the decorations come down…

We’re into the New Year, and have reached Twelfth Night. It’s time to take down the decorations and pack them away (apparently it is bad luck to keep them up longer). We always do this in our house on New Year’s Day, and it leaves the place feeling big and empty as all the red and gold decorations suddenly vanish. Of course it also symbolises the fresh start of a new year and all that is to come. And it is is just over ten months before it all comes out again…

We even decorated our office this year too for the first time, and it had an equally sombre look to it this week after it was shorn of the red-and-silver candy cane fantasy we had achieved with tinsel and baubles. The tasteful décor was intended to create a festive atmosphere for our Christmas bake-off. We got a mighty twelve entries, including me, but in the end I didn’t win. I made my Nadalin de Verona which gathered a lot of praise (and it all got eaten) but it lost out to a batch of traditional Swiss cinnamon star cookies. Such is life, but I tried those cookies, and my colleague was a worthy winner!

I also enjoyed the “proper” Festive Bake-Off on TV this year. Good challenges, but I do think asking the bakers to make sugar glass domes was a bit too much! I’m all for playing around and bringing a bit of science and funky ingredients to my baking, but I don’t think that was a challenge I would have enjoyed. I watched it cringing, feeling every breakage with them. But seeing Sandy, Noel, Prue and Paul do their take on East 17’s Stay Another Day made up for it!

Back to my baking. This year I finished my seventh instalment of what has become something of a Christmas tradition. I reckon I must have made more than 2,000 cookies over the course of this series! I’ve had a look back at what I wrote after my festive baking in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 and I recognise all the usual pledges that I made. To be more organised. To be more realistic about my ability to do complex baking against the clock. The avoid spending money on single-function kitchen gadgets. Well this year, I’m going to say I just don’t care. It is fun, I love doing it. I’ll do it again (just not immediately, obviously).

So here’s to my 2017 edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas! I have to admit that with each passing year, I have to hunt more and more for different traditional recipes as I think I’ve covered off a lot of the more obvious and familiar Christmas bakes. However that is half the fun. It is still surprising to me each year that there are new things I’ve never heard of before, and the sheer variety you can get from combinations of butter, sugar, eggs, spices and nuts or chocolate in varying quantities.


Just as a final bit of fun, here are the original lyrics to the Twelve Days of Christmas with each of my recipes next to them. As has been the case in past years, there is absolutely no correlation. Not a jot. But did you know that if you were to receive the original gifts listed in the song from your beloved, you would end up with 184 birds, 140 people, 40 gold rings and 12 pear trees cluttering up your home? Given that, I don’t feel so bad with lots and lots of tins of cookies and sweets lining the kitchen shelves.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

…twelve Drummers Drumming (Italian Torrone di Natale)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Finnish Vihreitä Kuulia)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Eastern European Kolachky)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (American Snickerdoodles)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Swedish Knäck)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (American Bizcochitos)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (Italian Panpepato)…
…five Gold Rings (Swiss Biberle)…
…four Colly Birds (Swiss Magenbrot)…
…three French Hens (Norwegian Berlinerkranser)…
…two Turtle Doves (Maltese Biskuttini tal-Lewz)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Danish Fedtebrød)!

So that is it for 2017. I hope you’ve enjoyed this selection. Judging by what people on Instagram think, the favourites are Torrone di Natale, the Finnish green marble sweets and Swiss marzipan-filled Biberle. My personal favourite was the Panpepato which tasted beautiful – rich, spicy and properly festive.

There will be more Christmas baking in 2018. If fact, I’ve tracked down a few recipes which might be making an appearance. So if you have any traditional recipes that you would like to see on here then please get in touch! Bonus points it they have quirky stories or an interesting story behind them.

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