Tag Archives: cherries

{7} Florentines

I can never resist a good Florentine. There is something about those golden discs of caramel, studded with cherries, citrus, nuts and ginger and dipped in chocolate that is just magical. They might not strictly be a Christmas treat, but I think they lend themselves very well to this time of year.

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In my younger days, I assumed that Florentines were named after the city of Florence, but it turns out this is only partly true. I should have suspected this to be the case when, years ago, I had a few hours to explore Florence while waiting for a train connection (and hey, it was Florence, I was hardly going to hang out at the station for three hours!). Were there shops groaning under the weight of these biscuits? No. I found one pasticceria selling square Florentines, so I cut my losses and went with one of them. But clearly this was not a biscuit that the citizens of this city were clutching close to their collective bosom.

So what is the truth? Well, this is lost in the mists of time, but the name probably has something to do with the French, and the resemblance of these caramel discs to the gold coins of Florence (incidentally, the British two shilling coin was also known as the florin).

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There are two ways you can make these cookies. If you drop spoonfuls onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper, they will spread out and you get large, crisp and delicate Florentines (there is enough butter in them to prevent sticking). However, you can drop small teaspoons into the bottom of a non-stick muffin tray – they’ll be slightly thicker but perfectly round so good if you’re giving them as a gift and need to travel with them and want them to look fancy. My pictures are of these “neat” Florentines, and I think they look very pretty.

However…if you’re going to use a muffin tray, please make sure that it is sufficiently non-stick! I assumed non-stick means non-stick. Well, I have two pans. One works like a dream, but the other is anything but non-stick. I found myself trying and ultimately failing to remove one batch from the tray, and had to junk the lot. As the mixture does not need to be baked quickly, you can take your time and do a test version to make sure it works. If it doesn’t, just switch to making the bigger versions using a tray with greaseproof paper. You don’t want all that work to go to waste and they will still taste fantastic!

To finish them off, you can leave them as they are (or “naked Florentines” as I’ve seen them called) but I think you really do need to spread one side with chocolate. If you are a milk or white chocolate fiend, then by all means go for it, but I think it really has to be dark chocolate on these little beauties. I think it works so well with the toasted nuts, ginger and citrus in the biscuits, and why mess with a classic? To make them look impressive, use tempered chocolate for a nice shine and snap, and use a fork to make a wave pattern in the chocolate.

Incidentally, if you think you’ll do a lot of dipping things in chocolate, it really is worth getting a food thermometer. They are not expensive and it means you can get your chocolate to the right temperatures. I’ve tried various methods over the years, but using the thermometer is hands down the easiest and most reliable method I’ve every tried. Never have dull chocolate again!

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In terms of the ingredients, you can play around with them to get a mixture that you like. You can use slivered almonds instead of flaked, or swap some of the almonds for pistachios, hazelnuts or even a handful of jumbo rolled oats. You can also adjust the proportions of cherries, peel, ginger and sultanas, or even omit some of them altogether, but try to keep to the same overall weight. You can even go for a retro vibe if you can get your hands on some green candied angelica – I remember those flecks of bright green in Florentines from my childhood, but it seems to have vanished from most supermarket shelves these days. If you find some – it’s a sign that you should make Florentines!

To make Florentines (makes around 24)

Dry ingredients

• 90g flaked or slivered almonds
• 90g glacé cherries
• 60g candied peel, chopped
• 20g glace ginger
• 30g sultanas
• 15g plain flour

For the caramel

• 45g butter
• 30g soft brown sugar
• 30g white sugar
• 1 tablespoon double cream
• large pinch of salt

To finish

• 150g dark chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). For large Florentines, line two large baking trays with greaseproof paper rubbed with a little butter. For small Florentines, get a non-stick muffin tray and rub lightly with butter.

2. Prepare the dry ingredients – chop the cherries, peel and ginger as you prefer, then add the almonds, sultanas and flour. Toss so that everything is coated and well-mixed.

3. Make the caramel – in a small saucepan, heat the butter and sugars. Bring to the boil, then take off the heat, add the cream and salt, and stir well. Pour onto the dry ingredients and mix well.

4. Put generous teaspoonfuls of the mixture onto a baking sheet or into a muffin tray. If using a baking sheet, flatten them as much as you can, but leave enough space for them to expand as they bake.

5. Bake the Florentines for 8 minutes, turning around half-way to get an even bake. They will be soft at first, but will harden as they cool.

6. To finish the Florentines, melt the chocolate (for a professional finish, you want to temper it – find out here). Using a teaspoon, spread some chocolate on the underside of each Florentine, then using a fork to make a wave pattern in the chocolate. It might not be obvious at first, but you’ll see it once the chocolate sets.

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Scottish Food: Dundee Cake

We might be in the New Year, with all manner of good resolutions, but this is a recipe that I really could not resist posting. We’re about to hit Burns Night, when there are celebrations of Scotland’s most famous poet up and down the land. And yes, that’s him on my header, along with a few lines from one of his most famous poems Tam O’Shanter, a cautionary tale about drinking too much and the ghouls and spirits that a man might see in the wee hours.

As part of this celebration of Scottishness, I thought I would have a go at making something that comes from near to where I grew up, the Dundee Cake. This is a rich fruit cake that is most notable for how it is decorated – concentric circles of whole almonds are arranged on top of the cake before baking, which will toast gently as the cake bakes.

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As with all good cakes, there are various stories about who created it and the right way to make it.

Some stories say that Mary, Queen of Scots did not care for cherries, and Dundee Cake was created as a version of fruitcake that did not contain them. This may or may not be true, but I think this is a bit boring, and besides, I quite like cherries in cakes, so I’m not convinced.

The version of the story that I subscribe to is that this was created by the Keiller family in Dundee in the late 1700s. They are famous as the founders of the first commercial brand of marmalade, said to have been the result of a flash of inspiration when a boatload of Seville oranges arrived in the port and they were perhaps a little past their best. In a flash of inspiration, Janet Keiller turned the lot into marmalade, and a legend was born. The Keillers are also famous as bakers of the Dundee Cake, and in this version, I’ve added orange zest as well as a generous amount of marmalade as a nod to their orange endeavours, so I think this story could well be true (or perhaps have some elements of truth to it). Indeed, so much is marmalade tied up in the history of Dundee that it is famous as the home of the three “Js” – jam (marmalade), jute (from textile mills, weaving hessian from the East) and journalism.

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Now, I have to admit that I am no expert in making Dundee Cake (even if I grew up not that far from the city itself), so if you’re sitting there quietly fuming, thinking we dinnae make it like that, laddie! then I suggest you calm down!

I’ve made the sort of cake that I prefer – I’m not a massive fan of cake which is too dark and heavy, so I’ve made a fairly light version. There is also no spice in here, but if you want to play around and add things like treacle or dark muscovado sugar, or even mixed spice or crystallised ginger, then be my guest. The only thing you cannot miss out on are those rings of almonds on top of the cake!

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A couple of little tips to finish – this is not a cake that needs to be fired for hours and hours and hours. In fact, when you bake it, you really only want it to be just done. When you test with a skewer towards the end of the baking time, it is fine to turn off the oven if you only have a few little crumbs sticking to the skewer, as this will help make sure the cake remains soft and moist. This is also a cake that keeps well, so it’s probably best to make it a few days before you need it, so that it can rest for a while.

How you finish this cake off is up to you, but I used a glaze made from sieved apricot jam mixed with marmalade. I brushed this over the warm cake, then covered the lot loosely with tin foil and left the cake in the (switched off!) oven until it was cool. The glaze will dry a bit, and the cake will have a glorious rich brown colour. Nae bad as they might say in Dundee!

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To make a Dundee Cake:

For the cake

• 100g whole almonds
• 160g butter

• 160g light muscovado sugar
• zest 1 orange
• zest 1 lemon
• 3 tablespoons marmalade (approx 100g)
• 225g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 3 large eggs, beaten
• 75g ground almonds
• 2 tablespoons milk
• 100g glacé cherries, rinsed, dried and halved
• 250g sultanas
• 100g raisins
• 50g currants
• 50g candied peel, finely chopped

For the glaze

• 2 tablespoons apricot jam
• 1 tablespoon marmalade
• 2 tablespoons water

1. Start by skinning the almonds – put them in a pan of boiling water. Simmer for 5 minutes. Drain, allow to cool for a moment, then remove the skins (they should slip off). Leave the blanched almonds to dry.

2. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Grease a loose-bottomed 20-23cm cake tin and line the bottom and sides with greaseproof paper.

3. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the orange zest, lemon zest and marmalade and mix well.

4. In a separate bowl, sieve the flour and the baking powder and fold in the ground almonds.

5. Add one of the eggs plus a tablespoon of flour to the butter/sugar mixture. Beat well. Repeat with the other two eggs, adding a spoonful of flour with each, until you have a light, fluffy mixture.

6. Add the rest of the flour, mix well and then fold in the milk. The mixture should be soft and drop slowly from a spoon, but definitely not runny.

7. Add the cherries, dried fruit and candied peel and fold gently to distribute the fruit.

8. Carefully spoon the mixture into the tin and level with the back of a spoon.

9. Arrange the blanched almonds in concentric circles on top of the cake, pressing lightly into the cake mixture. Put in the oven and bake for 45 minutes at 150°C (300°F). In the meantime, make the glaze – heat the apricot jam and marmalade in a saucepan with two tablespoons of water, and sieve to make a smooth glaze.

10. After 45 minutes, lower the oven temperature to 130°C (265°F) and bake for another 40-60 minutes, checking the cake after 40 minutes using a skewer – it should be just clean, or even come out with a few crumbs (so the centre remains slightly soft). If the cake looks like it is browning too quickly during baking, cover loosely with tin foil.

11. When the cake is done, remove from the oven, and brush generously with the apricot-marmalade glaze. Cover loosely with tin foil and pop back into the (switched off) oven to cool completely. When cold, wrap in foil and store for a few days before cutting.

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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?

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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!

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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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{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!

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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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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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Chocolate Bark

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. So if I were to just drone on about bean-based cooking, I people would rapidly start to switch off, and we can’t have that now, can we? So today I’ve made something that you can pretend is healthy, but in reality, probably isn’t – it’s chocolate bark.

Yes, I’ve seen this pitched – in all seriousness – as some sort of healthy snack. OK, it does have nuts and dried fruit on it, but all that healthy stuff is partly enrobed in chocolate, and usually a pretty thick slab of the stuff. So by all means, do pretend it’s a health food, but I prefer the honest approach – use good nuts, posh dried fruit, lovely chocolate and see it as the luxurious treat that it really is. Then again, I suppose that it is better for you than that deep-fried butter I read they were serving up at the Iowa State Fair last year. It’s all relative.

What I like about making this is that there really is not that much skill needed to make it look presentable. You just melt the chocolate, and then sprinkle over the “other stuff”. If you would like to show off a spark of genius and produce something to delight the senses, you can of course do that by selecting some amazing fruit and nut combinations for the topping. Here I have gone for a vaguely seasonal selection – I’ve used toasted almonds (mainly because I love toasted almonds) and some bright green pistachios. I’ve also added a handful of pumpkin seeds which, if you’re not familiar with them, are awesome. I add them to salads, soups, stir-frys and will happily much on them in place of peanuts with a drink. On the sweeter side, I added very thinly sliced Italian candied orange peel, dried cranberries and chopped glacé cherries (the natural dark red ones, not the neon ones). So all in all, it’s a little bit festive, but does not scream “Christmas” too loudly.

This is also a great idea if you need to use up an otherwise rather random selection of items from the store cupboard. The topping can be pretty much anything you can imagine – for some crunch, you could use pistachios, cashews, Brazil nuts, pecans, walnuts, pine nuts, macadamia nuts, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts. Add some flavour with aromatic spices such as nigella seeds, caraway, fennel, cardamom (you might like to crush spices slightly, and use judiciously). And on the fruity side, you could use dried apricots, prunes, figs, apples, pineapple, citrus peel…if it’s preserved and not too dry, you can use it! So while this is easy, it’s not quite true to say there is not art or skill in making this bark – how you combine the topping will result in very different types of “bar”.

In fact, if the mood takes you, you could get very creative any try using different types of chocolate (milk, dark, white) and rather than mix them together, spread one type of chocolate into the tray as the “base” and then drizzle the other on top. Then take a stick and make fantastic swirls and feather patterns. Channel your inner Jackson Pollock or Max Ernst and go crazy.

As a final twist, you can also make this a more adult treat by adding an extra something – a pinch of very finely ground fleur de sel in the melted chocolate sprinkle a few flakes on top. On a purely childish level, this looks like snow! On a more sophisticated food snob level, this tingle of saltiness on the tongue will enhance the flavour of the chocolate. Oh, and it looked like snow!!!!!!

To make chocolate bark:

Step 1: prepare the “stuff”

• 100g nuts, roughly chopped and toasted
• 100g dried fruit, chopped
• pinch of fleur de sel

Prepare the nuts and fruit, cutting into smaller pieces if necessary. We’re not looking for perfection – in fact, rough and different sizes is good.

Step 2: melt the chocolate and make the bark

• 150g dark chocolate
• 150g milk chocolate

If you’re a busy person: put all the chocolate into a bowl above a pan of barely simmering water. Leave to melt, then mix well.

If you are tempering the chocolate: put two-thirds of the chocolate into a bowl above a pan of barley simmering water. Allow the chocolate to melt, then remove from the heat. Add around a third of the reserved chocolate, and stir constantly until it has melted (note: takes a long time!). Add another third of the chocolate, and stir until melted. Add the rest of the chocolate, and stir until melted. By this stage, the chocolate should be only just warm – put a little on your tongue and it should not be too hot – just warm. If too warm, keep stirring until the temperature is right.

Pour the chocolate into the lined tray. Scatter over the mixed fruit, nuts and salt (if using) and shake the tray lightly – the “bits” should sink into the chocolate slightly, which means they won’t fall off later.

Leave to cool for several hours or overnight, then break into chunks.

Worth making? Chocolate bark is really easy and can be made with whatever you happen to have in the house – and it’s perfect for times when you have some left-over melted chocolate and need a fun and easy way to use it up.

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Florentines

I have always loved florentines. I like the way they are mostly composed of all the “good bits” with a minimum of anything boring (like, oh, flour) to hold them together. They are, in turn, nutty, citrussy, fruity and chocolately, and might even be a little bit spicy if you’ve made a tweak and used preserved ginger.


Now, the name. Do they come from Florence? The name suggests they might, but that ever reliable source of information, ‘t Interweb, suggests that they are more likely to have a royal pedigree, first appearing in Paris in the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV. I think I like this tale better, makes them sound far more grand. You can imagine Queen Maria Theresa nibbling one as she peers out of the window at Versailles.

One of the major draws of florentines is not just taste, but how they look. Little discs of golden caramel, studded with nuts and jewel-like cherries. In the past, I always used the bright neon red type of glacé cherries, but recently I got all snobbish, and used a more natural variety, which have a deep purple shade. They still tasted nice, but the lack of the vivid colour meant they lost a little something. So another batch made, this time with the more flashy bling-bling glacé cherries, and they did indeed look like they should.

This recipe uses a simple base of butter, golden syrup and flour, but if you find yourself in a part of the world that doesn’t have golden syrup to hand, you can use honey or use caramelised sugar with a dash of cream. They are great either as large cookies, or very small discs of sweet, sticky goodness, so perfect for an afternoon tea or as a petit four for after a fancy-schmancy dinner. And of course don’t feel restricted by the ingredients I have used – candied ginger, different candied peel, glacé angelica, hazelnuts…whatever you like! Be creative!

To make florentines (makes around 16 mini-biscuits):

• 85g butter
• 85g golden syrup
• 30g plain flour
• 60g flaked almonds
• 15g preserved ginger, sliced
• 15g candied peel, finely chopped
• 60g sultanas
• 60g cherries, quartered
• 100g dark chocolate(*)
• 50g milk chocolate

Preheat the oven to 180°C (375°F). Lightly grease a non-stick baking tray(**).

Put the butter and syrup into a pan. Heat until the butter melts, bring to the boil, then add all other ingredients apart from the chocolate. Allow the mixture to cool for 2-3 minutes (it should thicken slightly).

Place teaspoonfuls of the mixture on the baking sheet, flatten slightly and cook for 8-10 minutes until golden (turn the tray half way). Remove from the oven and allow to sit for a few minutes until hard (when they come out of the oven, if they have spread too much, use a spoon to push the edges  back into shape while still soft). Move the florentines to a wire rack to cool completely(***). If they seem oily from all that butter, place the warm biscuits on kitchen paper.

Once the florentines are cool, melt the chocolate in a double boiler, and coat the base of each biscuit. If you like, use a fork to make a wave pattern or swirl on  the base of each florentine.

(*) You can also use all dark chocolate (150g) if you prefer.

(**) Really – I cannot stress how much easier it is to use a non-stick tray!

(***) If the biscuits do not come from the tray when they have hardened, place the tray over a hob flame for a couple of seconds, and then they should come right off!

Note: this recipe is for making small florentines (4-5cm diameter). In the pictures, I doubled the recipe to make cookies that were almost 10cm diameter (tablespoons of the mixture rather than teaspoons) – if you do this, reduce the heat slightly (to 160°C (320°F) and cook until they are golden – and really, watch like a hawk! Don’t let them burn!

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Scottish food: the famous Ecclefechan Butter Tart

You thought I was done with the Scottish food? Guess again! It’s the Ecclefechan Butter Tart!


This is similar to one of the first sweet tarts I ever learned to make, called “Border Tart”. This was a simple pastry shell, filled with dried fruits, cherries and nuts, all in a soft mixture of sugar, eggs and ground almonds. Taking it up a notch, today’s recipe is the slightly fancier Ecclefechan Butter Tart, which originates in the Scottish Borders town of Ecclefechan. The difference between this and the Border Tart is (and from this point, I am probably just making parts of it up) seems to the loss of the almonds, a lot of butter, and a deeper filling in the Ecclefechan Tart. They might also have different fruit…


In fact, I know they have different fruit in them. Mixed dried fruit used to contain sultanas, raisins and – if you were lucky – a few small pieces of bright scarlet glacé cherry. The bag I picked up had two sorts of sultanas (normal! golden!) plus raisins, apricots, peel and dried cranberries. I’m sure granny wouldn’t approve. But no cherry, so I added a goodly amount of them too. It was interesting to see that the ones I found were “natural” and a deep reddish-purple. Probably better for you, but part of me misses the neon red cherries from back in the day.

This recipe came to prominence a couple of years ago, as these tarts were presented as an alternative to mince pies at Christmas. Leaving to one side why anyone would want to replace the mince pie (hey, we only eat them for one month of the year, hardly over-exposed!), I can see why this would be appealing – you have a buttery pastry, a filling of mixed dried fruits and chopped nuts, enrobed in brown sugar, but without any spices. And the texture? Ah, that’s where the magic happens. The best way to describe it is like the filling in similar to a pecan pie, but with lots of fruit instead of just the nuts. Most of the filling becomes a thick, rich, buttery caramel, while the surface becomes slightly puffed-up and lightly browned, contrasting with the dark inside.

As if all this were not enough, there is also one “mystery ingredient” to provoke a no, really? moment – a tablespoon of vinegar. I really have no idea what this does, but it works in this tart, so don’t skip this step. Just be sure to limit yourself to one spoonful, and use a wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar – industrial vinegar is just that little bit too sharp for me, and I don’t think it would work too well here.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little gastronomic tour through Scottish cuisine – how often do you make traditional foods?


To make an Ecclefechan Butter Tart:

For the pastry:

• 100g plain flour
• 50g butter, cold, cut into cubes
• 25g caster sugar
• 1 egg yolk

In a bowl, rub the butter into the flour. Once the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, add the sugar and mix well. 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. Use to line a 20cm loose-bottomed flan dish, and prick with a fork. Place the tart shell in the fridge while making the filling.

For the filling:

• 125g butter, melted and cooled
• 200g soft brown sugar
• 2 eggs, beaten
• 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
• 50g walnuts, chopped
• 250g dried mixed fruit
• 50g glacé cherries

Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).

In a bowl, combine the sugar, butter and eggs. Stir in the vinegar, walnuts, dried fruit and cherries. Pour into the pastry shell.

Bake the tart for 25-30 minutes until the pastry is golden and the filling is slightly puffy and lightly browned in the centre (turn the tart during baking).

Worth making? Wow. This tart is superb. Lots of dried fruit might make you think of Christmas, the buttery filling is more like a pecan pie. It’s rich and sweet and a great afternoon treat, either as one large tart or individual little pies. I made it to take to afternoon tea with a housebound friend, and like to think that it helped with recuperation!

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Dark Chocolate Tiffin

For the last couple of weeks I have wanted to start on the Christmas baking. The temperature has dropped, the leaves on the trees have turned various shades of red and gold, and, well, it just feels like time to get started. That, plus I just know that starting with the festive cookies has got to be more fun than fixing insulating film to the rickety old sash windows in my house.

But rather than give in to this urge by late October, I thought I would have a try at chocolate tiffin instead. If you grew up in the UK, this was a rainy-day staple to make by kids, as it doesn’t involve baking and can be eaten pretty quickly (and it usually was). As a happy compromise, I made a version with a lot of the things that would usually go into Christmas bakes (nuts! dried fruit! chocolate! candied peel!).

As with so much of baking, I think getting good results has to start by using good ingredients, so I made it my mission on a chilly evening to source decent quality items to use in this batch tiffin, something like a quick-and-easy version of panforte.


But while tiffin might be easy, but I still thought quite a lot about what I would put in it. Aside from the tasty fruit and nuts, I ummed-and-aahed about using salted or unsalted butter. I normally use unsalted butter in baking, but here I thought that slightly salted butter might be a good idea. The hint of salt would (should?) combine with the chocolate and the syrup, and – at least in theory – provide a touch of kitchen magic to enhance the various flavours.

Tiffin is also quite a useful thing to have in your baking repertoire because you don’t bake it. This means it is incredibly helpful when you need to make something, for later, but you don’t have time to make a cake and wait for it to bake. So just chop, melt, mix and whack in the freezer. Job done, head off into town to shop/take in some gallery art/walk, then come back and it’s good to go.

How it is? So unhealthy and so delicious. I love it. Full of festive flavours, different texture from dried fruits, nuts, crunchy biscuits and velvety chocolate. My tip would be to make it for special occasions, and to cut into small pieces to serve with coffee or afternoon tea, while resisting the temptation to keep picking away at it.

To make dark chocolate tiffin:

• 50g blanched almonds, toasted
• 50g blanched hazelnuts
• 50g candied peel
• 80g glacé cherries
• 80g sultanas
• Zest of an orange
• 225g biscuits (digestives, ginger nuts or Hobnobs)
• 150g dark chocolate
120g (4 tablespoons) golden syrup
• 170g butter
• Sunflower oil, for greasing the tray

Prepare a loose-bottomed square baking tin (mine was 20 x 20cm) by rubbing lightly with a little sunflower oil.

Roughly chop the hazelnuts and cut the almonds into slivers. Roughly chop the cherries and candied peel. Combine the nuts, candied peel, cherries, sultanas and orange zest in a bowl.

In a separate bowl, crush the biscuits with a rolling pin. Aim for 1/4 reduced to crumbs, and the rest in pieces of 1-2cm. Combine the biscuits with the fruit and nut mixture and mix well (I hands the best way to do this).

In a saucepan, heat the chocolate, golden syrup and butter until melted. Stir well, then add the dry ingredients and combine.

Pour the mixture into the tray and spread out. Smooth out the tiffin as best you can (however hard you try, it will look rather “rustic”). Transfer to the fridge and chill for at least two hours until the tiffin is firm. Easier to cut into slices while cold, but best served at room temperature.

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Cherry Pie

dum…dum dum dum dum-te-tum dum dum…

Yes, you might recognise that as the theme tune for the classic TV series Twin Peaks. Famous for many things (secrets, lies, Laura Palmer, white horses), but specifically some damn fine cherry pie.

Cherries are now in season here, so what better time to make pie from them? There is a tree on Stoke Newington Church Street which is positively groaning with tantalisingly large, ripe fruit, but sadly it is behind a large metal fence, and so they will remain out of reach. Shame! I could do great things.

What I did manage to get were a few punnets of lovely English cherries from Kent, which are beautiful – deep rich purple in colour, sweet and juicy. A lot of people will only use sour cherries for cherry pie, and while they will give you that wonderful tart-but-sweet pie, you can still easily use sweeter fruit if you add some lemon juice to your pie to give it a little more kick. In this way, you can use sweet black cherries, which makes for a visually stunning pie.

My recipe is pretty simple – an easy pastry with lots of butter, to produce a flaky, buttery result, then a juicy filling with lots of fruit, and just a touch of cinnamon. Sometimes, fruit pies using juicy fruits can be very watery as all the juices come out, but that is easy to deal with. Just cook the cherries in a pot until they release their juice, add the sugar, and then cook briefly with a little cornflour so that you get a thick, glossy pie filling which will lightly set when you bake the pie. The result is something that might even please Agent Cooper.

This looks like quite a lot of work, but it isn’t – I’ve just tried to set out all the steps clearly!

For the pie shell:

• 400g plain flour
• 200g unsalted butter, from the fridge
• 50g caster sugar
• ice cold water

In a bowl, combine the flour, sugar and butter with your hands until it resembles breadcrumbs.

Add enough water until the pastry is just mixed. Cover in cling film, and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

For the filling:

• 800g fresh cherries (I used ripe sweet black cherries)
• 200g granulated sugar
• juice of 1 lemon
• 4-5 teaspoons cornflour
• 2-3 drops of almond extract
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Prepare the cherries by pulling off any stalks and removing the stones. Place the cherries in a saucepan with the sugar and lemon juice, and cook gently until the cherries have released their juice (around 10 minutes).

In a bowl, combine the cornflour with 2 tablespoons of cold water. Add the mixture to the cherries, stir well, and cook the cherries until the liquid thickens. At this stage, add the almond extract and/or cinnamon (if using) and stir well.

To assemble the pie:

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

Roll out half the pastry, and use to line a 23cm pie dish. You want to leave 2-3cm of pastry hanging over the edge of the dish. Pour in the cherry filling. Use a little milk to wet the overhanging pastry.

Roll out the rest of the pastry and use to cover the pie. Make sure the edges of the pie are well sealed, and trim off any pastry. Make a few holes or slits in the top of the pie to release steam when it cooks.

Coat the surface of the pie with a little milk or cream, and sprinkle generously with granulated or demerara sugar.

Bake the pie for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 175°C and bake for a further 25-30 minutes until the crust is golden. Allow to sit for at least an hour before serving with vanilla ice-cream, or a dollop of softly whipped double cream.

Worth making? This pie was incredibly good. The fruit makes for  rich, dark filling, and using the lemon helps to keep it suitably tart and highlights the flavour of the cherries. The pastry is also very easy, and can easily be made ahead of time – perfect if you are off for a country walk and expect to come back with a haul of goodies.

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