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{8} Knäck

Had enough cookies yet? Then you’ll like today’s festive goodness – knäck, a traditional Swedish Christmas sweet. They are delicious caramels that are easy to make, and while the mixture simmers on the stove, you’ve got a kitchen that smells delicious.


To make knäck you only need to put cream, sugar and syrup in a pan. You cook it to the right temperature, then pour it into your preferred shapes. It is traditional to use little paper cups, and I’ve also made some paper cones from greaseproof paper. To stop the cones unravelling, I used some gold-polka-dot washi tape, and secured them with red and white baker’s twine. I’ve always had a bit of an aversion to piles of cookies tied with twine (seriously – who does that apart from in pictures?), but I feel pretty pleased with myself that it is entirely functional here. To note, I did not oil or grease the cups. The caramel did stick to the cups, but by the next day the caramel had absorbed a bit of moisture from the air, and the paper cups could be peeled off easily. The greaseproof paper was true to its name, and the caramel cones/spikes came right out.

The only “tricky bit” here is getting the caramel to the right temperature. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Get a candy thermometer. I’ve got a fairly basic electronic one, and it’s defiantly a great investment. Any time you are working with a sugar syrup (or doing things like tempering chocolate or making jam) it makes life a lot easier. I’ve tried testing whether something has reached the hard ball stage by dropping teaspoons of boiling sugar into cold water, and it’s far easier to push a button and check we’ve hit 130°C. If you don’t have one, perhaps you could ask Santa for a last-minute stocking filler?


If pouring the caramel into individual moulds is not your thing, you could just pour the caramel mixture into a single large sheet (called knäckbräck) and then break it into pieces later. This would be a good idea if you want to present it at a party and smash it up theatrically. Come to think of it, I remember that being a “thing” many years ago – you could buy a block of toffee, and it came with its own little hammer to break it up. Anyway, the single sheet approach is probably the best way to make knäck if you have kids and animals running around and not a lot of time to carefully pour hot syrup into fiddly containers.

One thing to watch is that you don’t end up with pieces of caramel you can’t eat. I recommend you opt for a “less is more” approach. If you fill the little cups too much, or your knäckbräck is too thick, you’re setting up yourself and any guests for dental problems. If the layer is thinner, you’ll actually be able to eat them.

The actual texture of this recipe is a hard caramel at room temperature, but they soften as you eat them. I recommend a little patience as you eat them, just to avoid cracking teeth and fillings being pulled out. I know I’m making the same point over and over, but I really don’t want people having dental issues over the festive period.

A good thing about knäck is that you have lots of scope to play around with flavours. I opted for simple toasted flaked almonds. I’ve also added some salt as I think this improves the taste and takes them away from simple sweetness to something more complex. Get creative! Play around with flavours – just before pouring, you can add citrus zest, or peppermint oil, or cocoa powder (or a combination of these) – or switch out the almonds for other nuts or dried fruit, or sprinkle the finished knäck with seeds, coconut, or even crushed candy canes for a properly festive twist. If you’ve got some helper elves in the kitchen, you could get a little production line going with different toppings.

To make Knäck (makes around 50 pieces)

• 200ml double cream
• 200ml golden syrup or Swedish light syrup (“ljus sirap”)
• 200g white caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 20g butter
• 50g chopped or flaked almonds, toasted

1. Heat the oven to 160°C. Spread the almonds on a tray and bake until they are lightly golden and fragrant. When they are ready, just turn off the heat but leave them in the oven so they stay warm.

2. While the almonds are toasting, make the caramel. Put the cream, sugar, syrup and salt in a large saucepan. Heat and bring to the boil.

3. Keep the mixture on a gentle rolling boil until it reaches 130°C on a sugar thermometer. It took about 20 minutes for me, but focus on the temperature rather than the time.

4. In the meantime, line a baking tray with 50 small paper cups. If you are using paper cones, find a way to keep them upright – I pushed them through a cooling rack balances above a saucepan to hold them.

5. When the caramel is ready, remove from heat. Add the butter and warm almonds, and mix quickly until combined.

6. Acting quickly but carefully, pour the mixture into the paper cups and leave to cool. If the caramel gets too thick as you are pouring it out, reheat it gently until it flows easily again.

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{1} Borstplaat

Hello and welcome to 2016’s edition of the 12 Bakes of Christmas! I’ve been looking far and wide for some interesting festive baking, and hopefully you will enjoy what is to come over the next few weeks.

Today (5 December) is Sinterklaas in the Netherlands. This is the day on which St Nicholas (or Sinterklaas, the origin of the name Santa Claus) is said to come from Spain on a boat to distribute gifts and sweets to children, leaving those treats in clogs, or these days, more modern types of shoe. Alongside presents, it is traditional to get a chocoladeletter (your initial in chocolate!) as well as pepernoten and kruidnoten (spicy little biscuits – recipe here). Unless, of course, you are in Belgium, in which case you do all this on 6 December, because you’re Belgian and not the same as your Dutch neighbours.

One of the traditional treats is an incredibly sweet item called borstplaat. This name translates as “breast-plate”, and not “flat-chested” as I originally thought, which upon reflection would be a very peculiar name for a sweet aimed at children! But I can see where the name comes from – the resulting pieces are flat and glossy, and seem hard to the touch, just like pieces of armour.

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The reason that borstplaat is so sweet is that it is mostly sugar that has been cooked up with a little water, milk or cream, and sometimes a little butter, and then flavoured with whatever takes your fancy. Flavours such as chocolate, vanilla and coffee are traditional, but you could go with whatever flavour you like – strawberry, orange, lemon, just go crazy!

Something so sweet is easy to scoff at today (even if we Brits make it a personal challenge to eat our own weight in mince pies during December), but something like borstplaat makes sense when you look at it historically. In times when sweets were a real treat, it would be a really big deal to get a few pieces of something so sweet at Christmas time, and if you’re only getting this once a year, then it was easy for parents to look the other way. In fact, borstplaat does have a old-fashioned quality to it, which reminded me of things like sugar mice, with a texture rather like Scottish tablet. And this stuff is oh so sweet! Did I mention that?

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Borstplaat
is incredibly easy to make. You throw everything in a pan, bring to the boil, add a flavour, mix for a bit to encourage sugar crystallisation to start and then pour it out. You can make it in less than 15 minutes. It is also very simple to make different flavours – I made vanilla, chocolate and peppermint, but you can let your imagination run wild. Just be prepared for the fact that this stuff is very, very, very sweet. Either make just a small batch, or make sure you’ve got dozens and dozens of people coming to eat the stuff!

My recipe is something called roomboter borstplaat, made with butter and cream. You can make it more simply with water or milk, but the key thing is that you want to get the sugar to dissolve during the boiling process. I’ve added a few spoonfuls of water to the mixture. This doesn’t appear in a lot of recipes, but I found it guarantees that the sugar dissolves, and the extra water will evaporate during cooking anyway.

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To shape the borstplaat, you need to work quickly. You need to boil the mixture, then beat it until it becomes a little dull and just starts to go grainy. Then you pour it into a tray, or into prepared moulds, and leave it to set. You know you’ve got it right when the frosted effect appears on the top of the borstplaat.

As  you can see, I went a bit crazy and used lots of metal cookie cutters on a sheet of greaseproof paper as moulds. This definitely made for one my best pictures in a while, bit in the spirit of honesty, it was not the easiest way to make this stuff. Single pieces of borstplaat are fairly robust, but when you’re trying to get it out of these moulds with fiddly corners, it can be irritatingly fragile and I had quite a few breakages. If you want to try making them this way, go for simpler shapes, and make sure they are very, very well buttered so that nothing sticks. The hearts and discs were the easiest to get out of their moulds. It turns out that the Dutch have special moulds for making borstplaat which come apart in pieces! If only I’d known before…

brostplaat4
If you are impatient or prefer to make life easier for yourself, I would recommend that you just make a slab of this stuff, then break it into pieces as needed. Lining a bread tin with greaseproof paper will get you a nice, rectangular block.

If you want to get fancy, then use a silicone mould – I had one for making jelly babies, and made these cute little guys. The silicone mould was the easiest way to make elaborate shapes – they just slipped right out once the borstplaat was cool. Just be sure that your moulds are heat-resistant! The mixture it is pretty hot when you pour it in, and you don’t want a sugary molten plastic disaster!

So there you have it! We’ve kicked off with a tooth-achingly sweet treat, just eleven more bakes to go before Christmas. Simple, right?

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To make borstplaat

• 250g sugar
• 80g double cream
• 50g butter
• 4 tablespoons water

1. Prepare your moulds or pan. If making a slab, line the bottom of a loaf pan with greaseproof paper, rubbed with a tiny amount of unsalted butter to prevent sticking.

2. Put the sugar, cream, butter and water in a saucepan. Place on a low heat and cook until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and cook until the temperature reaches 115°C (240°F). If you don’t have a sugar thermometer, you’re aiming for the soft ball stage.

3. Remove the mixture from the heat. Add any flavours or colours at this stage. Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture goes dull you can just feel the crystals of sugar starting to form.

4. Working quickly, pour the mixture into the moulds, or pour into the loaf tin. Leave to set until completely cooled.

Note: if the mixture goes wrong, or sets too quickly as you’re pouring it out, don’t worry. You can just add some water and re-boil per steps 2 and 3.

Flavour variants:

• Chocolate: use golden caster sugar. Add 1 tablespoon of coca powder and a pinch of salt before you start cooking.

• Vanilla: add 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract once the mixture is cooked but before you start mixing.

• Peppermint: add 1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract and some food colouring once the mixture is cooked but before you start mixing.

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Rødgrød med Fløde

Chances are you’re probably sitting there wondering what on Earth does that mean and how do I even begin to pronounce it?

Well, it is Danish, and a literal translation is “red groats with cream”. However, you can translate it more freely as the enticing-sounding Danish red berry pudding with cream. Something like this.

rodgrodmedflode3

I say something like this as this is one of those recipes that looks oh-so-simple, but in reality, many people have their own version, and everyone thinks not only that theirs is best, but that theirs is the only way to make it. So for any Danes out there that happen to read this, I’m fully aware that you’ll be rolling your eyes, and possibly tutting, but I think this version tastes pretty decent, and at the end of the day, that’s what matters.

My first experience with the words rødgrød med fløde was actually way back in the late 1990s, when I was an exchange student in Germany. There were a couple of Danes in our group, and the communal view at the time was that it was a “robust” language to outsiders with a “unique” sound. The Danes thought it was hilarious to ask us to pronounce rødgrød med fløde, which we all got spectacularly wrong. I just could not force myself to make those sounds! All to do with the fact that Danes swallow a lot of the contestants at the end of words, so what you might think is something like roo-d groo-d med floo-hd is closer to rhye-gry-meh-floo-e. If you’re keen to find out, you can hear people getting it right here. Then try to copy them – see how hard it is?

But anyway, for all the humour of those words, I’ve never actually had the pleasure of trying rødgrød med fløde. So how do we make it? The starting point for any batch is lots and lots of delicious summer berries, ideally red. This is the sort of dessert that really is best made when fruit is at its most ripe and the peak of deliciousness! We’re not looking for fruit that looks perfect, it’s all about taste.

red_fruits

As I mentioned, there are lots and lots of versions of rødgrød med fløde out there, but at its most basic, this is recipe that calls for fruit juice that is lightly sweetened, and then thickened slightly with starch (potato flour or cornflour), then cooled and served with lashings of cream. Lashings of cream. However, even within what seems like a pretty easy recipe, there is lots of scope for variety.

Many people seem to cook the berries, then purée the lot by pushing it through a sieve. I have to admit that I’m not too keen on this approach – I like my fruit either totally smooth or in recognisable pieces. I’m just not too keen on anything that seems like mush or has lots of stringy “bits” bobbing around in it. At the other end of the scale, some recipes suggest cooking the fruit, but then straining the liquid through muslin to get a clear red juice (a bit like making jelly). This would apparently result in a clear ruby-red colour and velvet-smooth texture, but I thought it was wasteful as you would throw away a lot of the fruit (and all the fibre from those seeds!). Then other recipes took a more pragmatic approach – just boil up all the fruit, then thicken the lot. Easy, albeit with more of a thickened fruity mush.

However, there were a few suggestions that combined the second and third approaches – making some fruit into a juice, then adding more whole fruit to the juice just before adding the starch. This looked like the best option by far. I love how berries look like little jewels, so it would be a shame to lose that completely. So I cooked up some of my fruit to turn into juice – in fact, this approach was useful as I was using some rhubarb in my version, and I wanted that lovely tart flavour without the stringy “bits”. Once my fruit had cooked down, I put the lot into a muslin bag, but rather than just letting it drip to get a clear juice, I happily gave it a good old squeeze. Maximum fruit, minimum “bits”, and who really cares about the pudding being slightly cloudy? I then put the juice back into a pan, added some berries, and cooked the lot lightly before adding some cornflour to get a thickened texture. Remember you’re aiming for something like a pouring custard, not glue! The result was the colour of garnet or red damask – luxurious, sumptuous, intense.

In terms of the fruit I used, I looked to tradition. In Denmark, redcurrants (ribs) are very popular, and apparently some Danes grow redcurrant bushes just to make this dish. Next were some raspberries (hindbær) – in my view, no summer fruit selection is complete without them. This probably comes from summers when I was very young, spent picking rasps, several plastic punnets attached to a plastic string around my waist (allows for faster two-handed picking, important when you’re keen to earn your first ever £100 as soon as possible!). They also have the requisite glorious red colour you want for this dessert, but they are a complex fruit – sweet, yes, but also aromatic and also a little tart too.

Strawberries (jordbær) are also favourites, and rhubarb (rabarber) seems to feature quite a lot. Personally I love rhubarb and I think small pieces of tender pink rhubarb in there would be delicious, and all a little gentle sharpness to balance the sweetness. However, I only had bigger stalks, so I used them for their juice rather than having big bits bobbing about. Blackcurrants (solbær) and blueberries (blåbær) will also work, but they will also have an effect on the colour, but then again, the flavour will still be delicious, so that is something you could easily live with. Another choice would be cherries (kirsebær), but I didn’t have any to hand. You could even go a bit crazy and omit anything red, going instead for a combination of whitecurrants and gooseberries, but then your dessert would not be red, and you miss your chance to ask people to pronounce the name!

Once I had made my spectacularly-coloured pudding, I mused on whether I should add another flavour. Cardamom is a classic Nordic flavour, but I was not really sure it was what I wanted with fresh summer berries. What about spices like cinnamon? Well, not really. Again, I think ripe fruit stands on its own here, but if you were making this with plums or brambles later in the year, then a little dash of cinnamon or clove would be really lovely. But in summer time – it just has to be pure, lovely fruit!

rodgrodmedflode2

Once you’ve made rødgrød med fløde you need to give some serious thought to how to present it. First off, leave it to cool, or if you prefer, chill it in the fridge. Now, go off and find some suitable serving dishes. A lot of people seem to like ice cream cups, but I think the most spectacular way to present it is by adding a few generous spoonfuls to a wide dish, then adding a tablespoon of cream in a dramatic swirl. This will leave a fantastic and fairly stable colour contrast that will impress guests and provide a neat little nod to the red-and-white of the Danish flag. And when it comes to cream, go for the real deal. Not some low-fat version or a cream substitute. You want rich, golden, full-fat double cream!

In terms of taste, this dessert is wonderful. Rich and fruity, but also a little but sharp from the rhubarb, all balanced with cool, luxurious double cream. This really is a perfect dessert for the final days of summer.

And just the day after I made this, the weather changed. Autumn has arrived.

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To make Rødgrød med Fløde (serves 6):

Note the specific quantities of each fruit don’t really matter, just as long as you use equivalent weights of whatever you have to hand.

Part 1 – the juice

• 300g rhubarb, chopped
• 150g redcurrants
• 50g blueberries
• 200g strawberries, quartered
• 100g raspberries
• 150g sugar
• 300ml water

Part 2 – for the rødgrød med fløde

• 150g redcurrants
• 50g blueberries
• 50g blackcurrants
• 150g strawberries, quartered
• 50g sugar
• 100ml water
• 3 tablespoons cornflour

To serve

• double cream

1. Put the “part 1” berries into a saucepan. Bring to the boil then simmer very gently, covered, for 20 minutes. Break up the fruit with a wooden spoon, then strain through a muslin bag. When cool, give the bag a good squeeze to get as much juice as you can. Discard the seeds and skins.

2. Put the juice in a saucepan. Add the “part 2” fruit, sugar and water. Heat gently then simmer on a low heat, covered, for 10 minutes.

3. Mix the cornflour with a little water, and add to the fruit mixture. Stir well until it is smooth and thickened. If too thin, add a little more cornflour, it too thick, add a little water. Check the flavour – add more sugar if needed, or add a few drops of lemon juice if too sweet.

4. Pour the mixture into a bowl, cover with cling film and leave to cool.

5. Serve in individual bowls topped with double cream.

Worth making? This is a wonderful, fresh-tasting and luxurious dessert, with the benefit that it can be easily prepared in advance. Highly recommended!

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Sweet Beets

I think beetroot is one the most under-appreciated vegetables. It’s got a lot going for it – a sweet, earthy flavour and a colour that is literally shocking. But it has done rather badly thanks to the favoured British way of serving it. I mean, why would you want to use it in its lovely fresh state when you can pickle the thing in vinegar and turn it into something astringent and rather naff? I mean, why?

Well, time to change that. I love cooking with beetroot, and find that it is really versatile. It makes a great sauce for pasta or gnocchi (cooked up with cumin seeds, cream and fresh dill), sensational hot and cold soups and beetroot juice gives you vibrant, natural colours in savour and sweet dishes. When icing a cake, beetroot will give you one of the hottest pinks you could wish for. It can also be used in baking, making wonderful beetroot and chocolate cakes that are moist, chocolatey and nutritious. Convinced yet?

One of the easiest things to make is a Swedish-style beet and apple salad. Worth making for the stunning colour alone. My timing is also spot on – tomorrow is Sweden’s national day, so the country will be awash with flags, smörgåsbord and (probably) beetroot salad.

beet_salad_1

This salad is just apple and beetroot, finished off with a little onion, sour cream and seasoning. It is by turns fruity, savoury, creamy and fresh. It is also incredibly easy to make – just chop-chop, mix-mix, and you have a colourful and delicious summery salad, which is great with a light lunch or as part of a brunch spread. This is my take on the version served at London’s Scandinavian Kitchen – I was too shy to ask them for their recipe (which I would imagine is secret anyway) so I’ve tried to re-create this so I can get my fix in the meantime.

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This makes a good lunch served alongside other Scandinavian delights like dill potato salad, crispbread and goodies like meat and fish.

To make Swedish beetroot and apple salad:

• 4 medium beetroot
• 4 crisp apples, peeled and cored
• salt, to taste
• pepper, to taste
• 1/2 small white onion, very finely chopped
• sour cream (use a 300ml pot)
• dill, to finish

1. Cook the beetroot – drop them whole into boiling water, cover and simmer until the beets are tender (around an hour). Drain and leave to cool (this is a good thing to do the day before).

2. Peel the cold beets – trim off and discard the top and bottom, and use the back of a knife to rub off the skin – it should just come off without the need to cut the beets. Once peeled, cut the beets into small chunks and put into a large bowl.

3. Peel and core the apples, cutting into small cubes. Add to the beets.

4. Add the onion, salt and pepper to the beets, plus as much sour cream as you like. You want the beets and apple to be well-coated, but not swimming in cream. Stir well until everything is shocking pink. Enjoy cold, and watch your tongue change colour!

Worth making? This is a straightforward summer recipe – easy, fresh and delicious. Recommended!

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Queen Elizabeth Cake

Today is sixty years since the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Last year we had the festivities of the Diamond Jubilee, marking sixty years since her accession, but today marks the anniversary of the great celebration in Westminster Abbey which provided such memorable images to the world. And in comparison to the rather wet day we had last year, today London is basking in sunshine.

I was looking for a recipe in honour of this day, and I was rather surprised that there were not more cakes and bakes that were associated with great event. Perhaps everything else has been overshadowed by the famous Coronation Chicken? Undeterred, I kept searching and finally came across the curiously-named Queen Elizabeth Cake. This is a tray cake made with dates and nuts, finished off with a caramel glaze and topped with coconut. So far, so good.

Queen_Elizabeth_Cake_1

This is a cake with quite an interesting story. The tale goes that Her Majesty used to enjoy dabbling in home baking from time to time, and would make this recipe herself, in the Buckingham Palace kitchens, to be sold for charitable purposes. In fact, this was the only cake she would make. With this sort of regal endorsement, I just had to try this recipe. Incidentally, I’m sure the Queen would appreciate the Great British Bake-Off – but what would she make of this cake featuring as part of the technical challenge?

The technique was new to me – the cake has a lot of dates in it, but rather than just throwing them in and hoping for the best, they are soaked briefly in hot water with bicarbonate of soda. This soda, in addition to helping the cake to rise, gives the batter greater saltiness which combines with the sweet dates to enhance their flavour. The overall result is light, airy and delicious. With the caramel glaze, it probably makes you think of sticky toffee pudding.

When it came to assembling the cake, and with the utmost respect to Her Majesty, I departed from the original recipe. My cake did rise in the oven, but it was about 2 1/2 cm in depth. I wanted it higher, so I cut the cake into two slabs, and used half of the glaze as a filling, and so ended up with two layers. If you’ve got lots of people coming to tea, just go with one layer, but I think the double-layer approach looks quite nice. When it comes to the coconut, I would go for the white stuff rather than the golden toasted coconut. Nothing to do with flavour, but the white coconut looks great against the caramel.

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Now, time for a reality check. Is this cake really a secret from Buckingham Palace? Well, we do know that the Queen is very practical and hands-on when she is at her summer home, Balmoral Castle in Scotland, and from her days in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. I have no doubt she would be more than capable when it comes of baking. This also seems like a very traditional cake to me – the dates and walnuts give it an old-fashioned flavour, and I felt the air of post-war austerity over the ingredients, jazzed up with exotic coconut, all of which lends an air of plausibility to the story of this recipe coming from a newly-crowned Queen in the 1950s.

However, a few things make me cautious. This recipe does seem very close to the very British dessert of sticky toffee pudding, so perhaps it’s just that with a better story? Also, lots of the versions of this recipe featured online from yellowing scraps of paper found in attics from American sources, with references to terms like “frosting” and “pecans”. We don’t frost cakes in Britain, we ice them (and if you’ve had the pleasure of a British wedding cake, you might think we plaster them). Pecan nuts are traditionally less common than good old-fashioned walnuts over here. So on balance, if I were asked to come down in favour of a “yay” or “nay”, I would need to plump for “nay”, but even so, there is a nice story behind this cake, and if Her Majesty were to be coming round for afternoon tea, I don’t think she would refuse a slice. Congratulations Ma’am!

To make Queen Elizabeth Cake (makes 12 pieces):

For the cake:

• 175g soft dates, finely chopped
• 240ml boiling water
• 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
• 200g soft brown sugar
• 120g butter
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 egg
• 140g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 60g walnuts, chopped

For the glaze:

• 75g soft brown sugar
• 75g double cream
• 25g butter
• pinch of salt
• 30g desiccated coconut

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (300°F). Line a 23 x 31cm (9 x 12 inch) rectangular baking tray with greaseproof paper.

2. In a heatproof bowl, mix the dates, bicarbonate of soda and boiling water and set aside.

3. In another bowl, beat the butter, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add the egg and mix well, then fold in the flour and baking powder until just combined.

4. Add the nuts and the date mixture (the dates should have absorbed a lot of the water, but the mixture will still be very wet – it should be lukewarm, not hot). Stir with a light hand until smooth.

5. Pour the batter into the tray and bake for around 25-30 minutes until the top is a rich brown colour and an inserted skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool.

6. While the cake is baking, make the glaze – put the sugar, cream, butter and salt into a saucepan, and keep stirring until the mixture comes to the boil. Remove from the heat and put aside until cold.

7. To finish the cake, cut in two equal slabs. Spread half the glaze onto one piece, then place the other on top of it. Spread the remaining glaze on the cake and sprinkle with the coconut. Trim the edges for a neat finish and cut into pieces.

Worth making? An easy recipe, but gives a rich, moist cake which cuts easily. Perfect for coffee mornings or afternoon tea. Recommended, and with royal approval!

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Fried Dates

I have what could be modestly described as a large collection of cookbooks, and like most people I go through cycles of using them. At the moment, I’m working my way through The Essential Madhur Jaffrey, which contains some fantastic Indian recipes. I’ve actually had this tome for nearly seven years, so its about time it gets used properly. Each time I looked through it, there was a recipe that caught my eye. One to make at some point. That recipe was for fried dates, and finally, I’ve made this dessert. All I can say is – wow!

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While I love Indian food, I tend not to eat Indian desserts. This is not because they are not nice (they are!) but they seem just a little bit excessive once you’ve nibbled on curry, dahl, rice, chapatis, poppadoms, pickels and chutneys. What you do want, if anything, is something small.

Fried dates seem to tick this box – it’s a small dish, but boy does it pack a punch! Madhur Jaffrey’s original recipe is almost foolishly simple – shallow-fry dates in oil for around 30 seconds until hot, then serve with cream and chopped pistachios. The quantities suggested are very modest, and you initially thing that it will never be enough. However, when you try these dates, those doubts will melt away. It is very rich and very sweet, so you can reliably work on the assumption that each person will actually consume only two whole dates.

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When I got round to making this, I made some inevitable tweaks. The original recipe was silent as to the type of dates to use, other than they should be pitted and of “good quality”, so I plumped for juicy medjool dates. Given that these dates would be fried, I wanted to be sure they would not be too dry, and the delicious medjools seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Madhur also suggests using vegetable oil to fry the dates, but I wasn’t so sure. Instead, I opted for clarified butter. If in doubt, use butter…

The result is spectacular. This is a buttery, sticky, chewy dessert with a rich, caramel flavour (yes, this might just remind you of sticky toffee pudding). The richness of the dates is balanced well by thick double cream and has some colour and crunch from the pistachios. You won’t be able to eat too much of this, but it does mean you’ve got a very simple, very delicious way to finish off a meal.

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To make fried dates (served 4-6):

• 50g unsalted butter
• 12-16 medjool dates, pitted
• thick double cream
• unsalted pistachios, chopped

1. Clarify the butter – melt in a saucepan, skim off any foam, and allow to sit for a few minutes. Pour off the clear liquid, leaving any milky liquid or solids at the bottom of the pan.

2. Slice each date lengthways into quarters.

3. Heat the clarified butter in a frying pan until it starts to bubble. Add the dates, cooking for around thirty seconds (they should be hot, but should not start to brown!). Remove the dates from the butter using a slotted spoon, letting as much butter as possible drain off. Divide the dates between small plates.

4. Top the dates with a generous teaspoon of double cream, sprinkle with pistachios and serve immediately.

Worth making? Why, oh why, did I wait so long to make this? It’s just about the richest thing I have eaten for a while, but it makes a quick, elegant dessert for the end of an exotic meal. Delicious!

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Hey Hey, it’s 17 May!

I’ve been on a bit of a blogging hiatus recently, which has been due to a perfect storm of holidays (yay!) sandwiched in between busy days at work (boo!), and an increasing busy social life as finally summer appears to be creaking into action. We’ve been tantalised by soft, warm days only to have the frost reappear and slap us on the face as a reminder not to take the good times for granted. Anyway, I’m back and, confirming the old saying that travel broadens the mind, I also have a few new sources of inspiration that should be popping up over the next month or so.

That said, I’m going to go back to my occasional series on Norwegian goodies. I’ve got some good Norwegian friends, and usually make something in honour of their national day. For today is 17 May, and that means today is the day that the good folk of Norway like to make sure that you know, just in case there is the slightest smidgen of doubt, that they are extremely, utterly, passionately exited and proud about being Norwegian, rather than Swedish or Danish. That also means they go big in terms of food, drink, partying and flags. I’ve joined in one of those celebrations in Oslo a few years ago, and its tremendous fun. Thousands of people are wearing traditional costume, and it’s very strange to ride the metro in a modern city surrounded by people dressed as simple country folk from a rural idyll. Yes, a bottle of wine is eye-wateringly expensive, but the city is lovely, the people are outgoing and welcoming and the food is fantastic, in particular the traditional baking.

In previous years, I have made lefse (potato flatbreads) and marvposteier (almond tartlets). This year, it’s really a repurposed Christmas recipe called kingler (Norwegians – is this the correct plural spelling?). These are rich, buttery pastries that are shaped into loops, and then formed into a figure of eight shape (or the infinity symbol if you prefer).

kringlas1

The traditional flavouring is vanilla, which goes well with the butter and cream that make these a real treat. You could go traditional, but I’ve tweaked them by keeping the vanilla, but I’ve also added a dash of freshly-ground cardamom. This is rapidly becoming one of my favourite spices, very popular in Nordic baking, and absolutely delicious in baked goods. It adds freshness and a delicate aroma, and takes these from being delicious to being something quite special indeed.

kringlas2

kringlas3

While they look a little complex to make, there is an easy trick. You form the dough into balls, roll it into long strips, then join the ends to make a loop. Then twist two sides in opposite directions, and there you have it – the figure of eight shape, and if you’re been cunning, the seam is hidden where the pieces of dough overlap. One little trick to think about is how big you make them – you actually want a thin strip of dough, and as large a loop as possible – the closer things are, the greater the chance that the loops will close during baking. This isn’t a problem, as they still have a charming S-shape, but if you’re making loops, you want loops.

The texture of kringler is interesting – it’s not quite a biscuit, it’s softer and lighter, and more like a scone. You could certainly serve them with butter and jam if that’s your thing, but I think the best way to eat them is to enjoy their pared-back Norwegian elegance by munching on a couple alongside a cup of coffee. They are wonderful while still slightly warm, when you can enjoy them in all their buttery, cardamom-perfumed glory.

To so all the Norwegians out there – gratulerer med nasjonaldagen!

kringlas4

To make kringler:

(makes around 30)

• 125g butter
• 175g caster sugar
• 1 egg
• 125ml milk
• 125ml double cream
• 450g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

• 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 3 teaspoons baking powder

1. Cream the butter until soft, then add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla and cardamom and whip until thoroughly combined.

2. Combine the milk and cream in a bowl and mix well.

3. Put the baking powder into the main bowl, and add the flour and the milk mixture to the butter/sugar mixture, a little at a time, and mix until you have a smooth dough. It will be firm but sticky, so don’t be tempted to add more flour unless essential. Cover the bowl in cling film and chill for at least 4 hours (or cheat – 30 minutes in the freezer, the two in the fridge) or overnight.

4. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Line some baking trays with greaseproof paper.

5. Take lumps of the dough and form into rough balls (about the size of a walnut – a tablespoon worked for me as a guide measure). As the dough is sticky, don’t worry about getting them smooth at this stage.

6. Once all the dough is in balls, lightly sprinkle the worktop with a little plain flour (as little as you can get away with). Start to roll the balls into long strips, adding a dash flour as needed,  until they are around 20cm long (the strands might seem very thin, but they will expand in the oven – and the bigger the loops, the more defined the shape will be). Join the ends to make a loop, and then twist in opposite directions so you have a figure of eight shape. Try to have the pieces cross on top of the join for a neat finish. Put on the baking sheet. Repeat until all the dough is used up.

7. Bake the kringler for 10-15 minutes until an even golden brown colour (turning half-way if needed). Remove from the oven, sprinkle with a little caster sugar, if desired, and enjoy either warm or cooled with coffee.

Worth making? This is an incredibly easy recipe, and ideal if you need something to serve fresh from the oven – the dough can be made the night before, and the kringler shaped and left (covered in cling film) until baking. The inclusion of the cardamom makes them extra-special and a little usual with your morning coffee.

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Dark Chocolate Spread

I made this amazing salted chocolate tart a few weeks ago (I can say it was amazing as, frankly, it was). It also got me thinking – could I adapt the filling to make a chocolate spread to enjoy in the morning? Because, you know, I’m greedy sometimes.

As it turns out, the answer to the question of “is it possible?” is a resounding “yes”. I went easy on the salt in this version, but otherwise it’s exactly the same ratios as used in the tart filling – equal weights of dark chocolate, muscovado sugar and double cream, heated until glossy, then poured into a jar and left to cool until the next morning.

So I made it, and had it the next day with breakfast. It really was truly delicious – spread on warm sourdough toast, and allowed to melt slightly. A pretty decadent way to start the day!

To make dark chocolate spread (makes 1 small jar):

• 120g dark chocolate
• 120g muscovado sugar
• 120ml double cream
• scant 1/2 teaspoon salt (or more or less, to taste)

1. Put the sugar, cream and salt in a bowl. Stir well until a lot of the sugar and salt are dissolved, then taste the mixture – add more salt if needed (but only if needed – it’s easy to add too much).

2. Add the chocolate, and place the bowl over a pan of simmering water. Heat, stirring from time to time, until the mixture is thick and glossy.

3. Pour the mixture into a clean jam jar and store somewhere cool and dark until you are ready to eat it, most likely with a spoon!

Note: this will keep for 2-3 days in the fridge.

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Scottish food: Cranachan

You know that Scotland is famous for whisky (spelled without the “e”), tablet, shortbread and smoked salmon. What you might not know is that it is also a very prolific producer of soft fruit. And in my view, the jewel in the crown among them is the raspberry. Let’s just pause for a moment to admire one of the little fellows:

If you are from certain parts of Scotland and of a certain age, there is a pretty good chance that you spent many a summer “at the berries” (i.e. being given little choice in the matter of going to a farm to pick raspberries). There is perhaps a certain romanticism attached to spending long, warm summer days in fields of fruit….

That’s more or less how I remember it, but that’s probably the rose-tinted view. I suspect the reality was more like standing at the muddy farm gates at 7am, and then spending most of the day rummaging around in bushes that are covered in lots and lots of little spikes, encountering lots of creepy-crawlies. At the end of the day, your hands would be stained red and, thanks to those tiny barbs, could be really quite itchy. But when you’re young, it seems that you have hit on a way of earning more money than you could possibly ever imagine. And that’s how I earned my first £100! I can still remember the sense of achievement that I had earned a three-figure sum! To this day, it serves as a reference point for the value of money – it was hours of physical work to earn it, and it made me a little more selective about how I spent it.

Anyway, moving past the misty-eyed recollections of summers past, with this abundance of lovely raspberries in Scotland, there are two tasty things you could make. Most obviously, you could make raspberry jam, which is peerless when enjoyed on fresh scones. If you want to make it, just put equal weights of raspberries and white sugar in a pot with a squeeze of lemon juice – bring to the boil, then simmer until set.

The less obvious thing to make is….to make a classic Scottish dessert called cranachan (complete with that harsh “ch” sound in the middle). If you’re looking for a reference point, you could call this a Scottish trifle, made with cream, oats and raspberries. Yes, oats. Trust me on this.

I’ve actually been hoping to post a cranachan recipe for a while, but I felt I should wait until I actually got my hands on some Scottish rasps. Not that there is anything wrong with the berries that come from Kent or Hampshire, but I just prefer the Scottish ones! However, my timing is less than perfect. I missed the main season what with moving house and the 2012 Games, and we’ve now slipped out of raspberry season here in the UK. However, I realise that there are parts of the world where these little fellows are just coming into season, so I reasoned that there would always be a good time to do this recipe. That, and by pure chance, I finally managed to get my hands on what must be the last punnets of fruit that came out of Scotland this year. It was a sign, clearly, that I had to feature cranachan!

This dessert is very simple – a combination of crushed raspberries, toasted oats, lightly whipped cream, heather honey and a dash of whisky. If you’ve made sure that the cream comes from happy cows that have been enjoying the lush green pastures of Aberdeenshire (or similar) then you’ve got a 100% Scottish dessert. It combines the sweet tartness of raspberries, nutty toasted oats that have a little bit of crunch to them, and lightly whipped cream that is flavoured with whisky and honey. Even with the oats, it’s a very luxurious dessert.

There are many different ways to make cranachan, and as I am not really in a position to say which is the authentic version, I’ll give you a few options and you can pick which you prefer. Some people throw everything in a bowl and mix,  others like to have distinct layers of cream, fruit, honey and oats. I prefer the “layers” approach and like to put it together at the last minute – the different textures make this a more interesting dessert. Also think about how long you will let the dessert sit – the longer you leave it to sit, the softer the oats will get and the stiffer the cream gets. I would assemble the dessert just before serving, so you can still appreciate the different textures.

And finally, I will deal with the obvious question – can you use yoghurt in place of the cream? I think you could, and while it won’t be the same, it will still be tasty. Just don’t try to play too fast and loose with the recipe by getting rid of the oats. Now that would be sacrilege!

To make Cranachan (serves 4):

• 60g oats (pinhead or jumbo rolled)(*)
• 300g fresh raspberries, plus more to decorate

• 300ml double cream
• 6 tablespoons honey, melted and cooled
• 6 tablespoons whisky

1. Dry-toast the oats in a frying pan over a medium heat. They are ready when the flakes are just browned and smell toasted, but should not be dark. Leave to cool.

2. In a bowl, lightly crush half the raspberries. Fold in the remaining whole raspberries and crush lightly – there should still be large whole pieces.

3. In another bowl, mix 3 tablespoons of honey with 3 tablespoons of whisky.

4. In another bowl, mix the cream and the rest of the honey and whisky. Whip until the cream thickens but is still soft. It should still be floppy, not stiff.

5. To assemble the dessert(**), add some of the raspberry mixture, then a sprinkling of oats and then some of the cream mixture. Add two more layers in the same order (raspberries, oats, cream, raspberries, oats, cream). Top with a few whole raspberries, and drizzle with the honey-whisky mixture. Serve immediately.

(*) Use as little or as much of the toasted oats as you prefer – you might want to go easy on the oats unless you’re a hardcore porridge fan.

(**) If you’re making this for a dinner, I recommend toasting the oats, making the whisky/honey mixture and toasting the oats ahead of time, but assemble everything at the very last moment. It’s also best not to keep the raspberries in the fridge, as they have a better flavour at room temperature.

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Salted Chocolate Tart

I was invited to a dinner last night, where the hostess was promising curry. Then came the casual request…and you can bring dessert, yes?

So I was up at 6:30am yesterday, reading some cookbooks for inspiration. My inclination was to start with something Indian, but I quite quickly realised that most of the recipes involved making some sort of paneer cheese and then frying it (yup, deep-fried desserts). I’ve bookmarked them to try another time, but I was left scratching my head nevertheless.

I had initially resisted the idea of something with chocolate as I was not too sure that it would be a good follow on from hot, spicy food, but then I came upon a recipe from the Paul A Young cookbook for a salted chocolate tart, topped with caramelised pecans. It looked like a winner, especially when I remembered that I had a tiny pot of edible gold leaf in the cupboard. I could make that, then top it off with gold leaf! And that’s basically the thought process that was going on in my head as I was drinking a cup of tea and finishing off toast with marmalade.

I made one large tart that I took along, and had enough extra pastry to make two small tartlets for later. Sadly I don’t have a picture of the big one, so you’ll have to be content with these two. I have to say, small as they are, they are still just about the richest thing I’ve made for a long, long time.

I really liked the way that this recipe turned out. The pastry is pretty easy, and the filling is a complete doddle – equal weights of chocolate, cream and muscovado sugar, then round out the flavour with some sea salt. Think salted caramel meets dark chocolate. As a flavour experiment, it was quite interesting to taste a spoonful of the cream and sugar mixture on its own (very sweet!) and then appreciate how much it changes once you add the salt. The flavour becomes so much deeper and richer.

However, my eyes did pop open when I saw how much salt was supposed to go into the mixture – I had made one-and-a-half times the filling, but still thought the suggested 10 grams was too much. I measured it out, and just didn’t trust it, and I didn’t have enough other ingredients to make another batch if the worst were to happen. I went with my gut, and added about two-thirds of the amount suggested, and the taste was great. So if you’re going to have a go at this tart, I recommend mixing the cream and sugar in a bowl, and add just enough salt to the cold mixture to suit your taste. There is a fine line between tongue-tingling salted caramel and a salty, sugary mess, and this is a recipe where less is more and you may wish to err on the side of caution.

So how was this tart received? The recipe book said it would silence a table of dinner guests, and it seemed to have the desired effect. This is definitely a keeper for the dessert portfolio, and I’m already planning to use the filling as the base of a tart to be topped off with fruit. I’m seeing great things involving passion fruit, or a few punnets of juicy ripe raspberries.

To make a salted chocolate tart:

For the pastry:

• 175g butter
• 75g caster sugar
• 2 egg yolks
• 35ml water
• 20g cocoa powder
• 250g plain flour

For the filling:

• 300g dark chocolate
• 300g light muscovado sugar
• 300ml double cream
• 1 heaped teaspoon sea salt (or more or less, to taste)

For the topping

• 100g nuts (pecans or skinned hazelnuts)
• 100g caster sugar
• 1 level teaspoon sea salt, finely ground

To make the pastry:

1. Cream the butter and sugar until soft. Add the egg yolks and water and combine. Add the cocoa and flour, a quarter at a time, and mix to a dough. Wrap the dough in cling film and chill for an hour.

2. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Roll out and use to line a 24cm loose-bottomed flan tin (no more than 5mm thickness). Place the pie crust in the freezer for 15 minutes.

3. Line the pie crust with greaseproof paper, and fill with baking beans. Bake the pie crust blind for 20 minutes, then remove the greaseproof paper and baking beans, and bake for another 8-10 minutes (the base should look dry and cooked, but the edges should not be dark). Leave to cool completely.

To make the filling:

4. Put the sugar and cream into a bowl. Stir well, then add salt to taste, then add the chocolate.

5. Place over a pan of very hot water, and allow everything to melt together. The mixture is ready when the chocolate has melted completely and the mixture looks thick and glossy.

6. Once ready, pour into the prepared tart shell, allow to cool slightly, then chill in the fridge for two hours.

To make the topping(*):

7. Lightly toast the nuts in the oven – they should be just toasted, not dark. Remove from the oven.

8. Put the sugar into a saucepan with a dash of water, and warm over a medium heat until you just have a light caramel. Don’t be tempted to stir it.

9. Once the caramel is done, add the salt, stir well, then add the nuts. Stir briefly, then turn out onto a sheet of non-stick baking parchment.

10. Leave the nuts to cool completely. Break or roughly chop the nuts into smaller pieces, and sprinkle generously on top of the tart.

(*) The topping can be made ahead of time – if you do this, be sure to store in an airtight container to stop the caramel from getting sticky.

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