Tag Archives: french food

Galette des Rois

Yesterday was Twelfth Night, the traditional end of Christmas festivities, and the day by which you’re supposed to have taken down all the decorations. We’re back to normal, but there are a couple of houses in the neighbourhood that are still holding on to the festive vibe.

So is that the end of the excitement? Well, not quite. Today (6 January) if Epiphany, so there is one last change to eat cake before we get to our resolutions to be healthier and more sporty in 2017. On of the cakes eaten on this day is the Galette des Rois (“cake of the kings”) which is popular in France and Belgium. It has a sweet almond filling between two layers of golden puff pastry. Probably best to start that diet on 7 January then…

We actually had one of these at work yesterday. We’d been discussing the phenomenon of “cake culture” and whether we should encourage or discourage the appearance of cakes in the office as part of a commitment to healthy eating. Afterwards, of course, I went to a bakery and rocked up with one of these guys, but we managed to agree it was OK, as this was a cultural cake, rather than a celebration of cake culture, so we were fine with that.

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There is also a bit of fun that goes with this cake. Traditionally a ceramic bead would be added to the filling, and when the cake is cut and served, the person that finds the bead becomes king or queen for the rest of the day. If you buy a galette, you will usually get a golden crown to go with it, which the lucky monarch can wear to impress their subjects.

Now, you might be thinking that hiding a piece of ceramic in a cake is not a great idea if someone is hungrily tucking into it and they, oh, perhaps value their teeth? And you’d be absolutely right. As it turns out, I was the lucky king for a day at work, and it was a bit disconcerting to discover there was a piece of stone lurking in there. If you’re going to make one of these, I think the best way is to keep the tradition of something in the cake, but perhaps add a whole almond instead. All the fun, none of the risk of dental damage.

This is a very simple recipe to make. If you’re the sort of person that makes their own puff pastry, that’s great, but I am not one of those people. I bought mine from the store, and it makes life a lot easier. You just have to make the filling, then put it between two discs of pastry and bake it. But to make up for buying the pastry, I did make my own paper crown!

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To make a Galette des Rois:

• 1 block of sheet of puff pastry
• 1 portion of filling
• 1 teaspoon apricot jam

• 1 egg, beaten
• 1 whole almond or trinket

For the filling:

• 100g butter
• 100g caster sugar
• 1 egg
• 1 teaspoon almond extract
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 100g ground almonds

• 2 tablespoons dark rum

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. Make the filling. Cream the butter until soft, then add the sugar and beat well for a minute. Add the egg, almond extract and vanilla extract and mix until light and fluffy. Fold in the ground almonds, then add the rum and mix well.

3. Roll out the puff pastry so that you can cut two discs of at least 20cm, but try to get 25cm if you can. Cut out the two discs, and transfer one to the baking sheet. Use some of the beaten egg to moisten the edge of the pastry disc. Put the apricot jam in the middle and spread evenly, avoiding the egg.

4. Gently spoon the filling onto the pastry disc and spread it evenly – you might not need all the filling, particularly if the pastry disc is on the smaller side. Pop an almond or lucky charm into the mixture.

5. Place the other pastry disc on top, and working from the centre, use your hands to gently pat it down, getting rid of as many air bubbles as you can. Finally press down on the edges where you brushed the beaten egg to get a good seal. Crimp with a fork, then trim with a very sharp knife to get a neat edge.

6. Brush to top of the galette with beaten egg. Make a hole in the centre with a skewer to allow steam to escape, then use the back of a sharp knife to make a pattern on top of the galette.

7. Bake the galette for 25-30 minutes until puffed up and golden. You many need to turn it round half-way to get an even bake.

7. Remove from the oven and leave to cool. Warn your guests about any ceramic or metal lucky charms in the galette before serving!

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{3} Mendiants

If my last post about those buttery Swiss Mailänderli with a hint of lemon was a bit simple for your festive palates, today we are going just about as far from that as is possible. It’s a short hop across the border from Switzerland to France for mendiants, little discs of chocolate studded with all manner of delicious flavours.

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You probably know what these things are if you’ve ever pressed your face against the window of a high-end chocolate shop and then been shocked at just how much they are asking for what seem to be little more than chocolate discs covered in “stuff”. I could make those at home, you think. Then you buy them anyway, and usually guzzle them in fairly short order. Or at least we do in our house…

Alright, so my basic description of mendiants not really do them justice, as they really one of those sweets that is so simple but the overall result is so much more than the individual parts. And after that Mailänderli business, this time we’ve got a pretty decent idea about where the name comes from too! Continue reading

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Pistachio Tuiles

I’m one of those bakers that likes to veer between madly complicated recipes and ridiculously simple bakes. Well, today I’ve had a bash at something that steers a nice line between both, using just a few simple ingredients that really just need to be mixed together. The magic part happens during baking, with a quick sleight of hand right after everything comes out of the oven. Intrigued? Then read on.

Today’s recipe is for delicate tuile biscuits. Tuiles literally mean “tiles” in French, as these thin, crisp little biscuits are said to resemble the look of Gallic rooftops. A simple batter is spread into very thin discs on a baking tray. They are baked briefly, and come of the oven with golden brown edges, but they are still soft. This allows you to lift them from the tray, drape them over some sort of mould (a rolling pin, a wine bottle…). The soft tuiles will wrap themselves around their new resting place, giving them their traditional curved shape. After a few moments, the tuiles will be cooled and very crisp. As you can see below, they take on a very elegant, almost ethereal appearance.

pistachiotuiles

These really as biscuits that you could mix up in a moment – you need nothing more than egg white, sugar, flour and butter. I’ve sought to jazz mine up a little, and have rather boldly referred to mine as pistachio tuiles. In fact, I’ve really only added chopped pistachios for the colour contrast, along with a few drops of almond extract for some added aroma. You could use anything you fancy for decoration – a few flaked almonds, a sprinkling of sesame, a scattering of poppy seeds or even dried citrus zest, so match them to your preferred dessert. The only thing to keep in mind is that these biscuits are delicate, so while slivers of pecan might work, whole walnut halves might look a touch bizarre.

Tuiles are delicious as they are, a crisp, sweet treat to enjoy with coffee, or to grace all manner of creamy puddings, from posset to custard, providing a pleasant crunch alongside your dessert. Alternatively, you could dip or drizzle with chocolate. One tip to bear in mind – while the tuiles will be crisp initially, they need to be kept in an airtight container, or they will soften after a couple of hours. It this does happen, then just pop them back in the oven – they will soften again, and you can place them back onto your rolling pin/wine bottle and they will be deliciously crisp again. Just don’t try this if you’ve already dipped them in chocolate…

To make pistachio tuiles (makes around 15):

• 1 large egg white
• 50g white caster sugar
• 25g plain flour
• 15g unsalted butter
• Few drop vanilla of almond extract
• Handful unsalted pistachios, sliced

1. Preheat the oven to 190 C. Grease a non-stick try with butter.

2. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Leave to one side to cool.

3. In a bowl, whisk the egg with the sugar until smooth. The mixture should be just slightly foamy. Add the flour and mix to a smooth paste. Add the vanilla or almond extract (if using), then stir in the butter and mix well.

4. Drop teaspoons of the mixture onto the baking tray. Use the back of a teaspoon to spread into a disc of around 10 cm (4 inch) diameter. Don’t worry if the batter looks like it has been too thinly spread, as long as there are no gaps. Sprinkle with a few pistachio slivers.

5. Bake for 4-5 minutes, until the edges are golden (you can bake them longer until they are completely browned if you prefer). Remove from the oven, then use a large, sharp knife to lift them off the tray and transfer to a rolling pin or wine bottle. Let the tuiles cool completely, then remove the crisp tuiles to a serving plate.

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Royal Baby: Petits Fours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Snow and Salt

Last week I got to enjoy a rare luxury. Not the actual maracons themselves, but the luxury of free time. My year at work has been rather fraught (in the understated British sense, which means absolutely manic) and thus no easy dates on which to take leave. Sure, I had a mega-trip in the US in November, but I’ve still ended up with way too much leave to carry over to next year. As a result, I’ve been enjoying the bonus of a few long weekends. As I’m the only one around on these random Mondays and Fridays, I’ve foregone the idea of foreign jaunts, and instead I’m able to enjoy a slower pace of life in my own big city. I can go to some of my favourite cafés and just walk in and get a table. No waiting, no sharing. I can go to galleries and enjoy them peacefully, standing in front of the same picture for ages without being jostled or moved along. I can also engage in small talk with some interesting people who are equally unhurried. Bliss.

However, last week was another story altogether. Those first hints of spring from a couple of weeks ago had gone, like some sort of Phoney Spring, and were  replaced with snow. Lots and lots of snow. On Monday, the new cats and I just did not fancy leaving the house, so I was left with a little time to fill. After spending an hour getting the cats to chase a piece of string (their joint favourite thing, along with clawing the sofa), I decided to hit the kitchen and have a go at my kitchen nemesis – French macarons.

I know there are some people out there that have “the gift”, who can just knock up a batch at a moment’s notice without a second thought. I, however, am not one of those people. I’ve grappled with them on numerous occasions with varying levels of success. True, I’ve made them successfully on occasions, but I think my hit rate is about one in four at best. So for every batch of picture-perfect delicacies with their smooth domes, frilly feet and perfect symmetry, I’ve ended up with three batches of cracked almond meringue biscuits.

Well finally, finally, I think I’ve nailed it. I think my mistakes can be put down not to faulty technique as such, but the fact that many of my attempts were small batches. The smaller the batch, the more precise the measurements need to be, and I fear that trying to make macarons with just one egg white was pushing things too far. You need to be bold and think big. Large batches are the way to go! And as you can see below, the results look pretty darned good! There is still some irregularity there, but I find it hard to put into words just how utterly thrilled I was to remove the tray from the oven and find perfect macaron shells with no cracks. Yay!

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I opted for the salted caramel flavour as it’s actually delicious when made well, and the filling is a doddle to make. However, the one thing that I didn’t go to town on was the colour the shells. I know some people like shocking colours, and that salted caramel is often some sort of day-glow orange. However, I wanted something more subtle.There are two reasons. First, I am not that happy about using colouring that is highly artificial – if it only takes a few drops to turn something bright yellow, vivid red or electric blue, then you have to wonder just what it is doing to your insides. Second, on a purely aesthetic level, I find the intense colours of some commercially-available macarons rather lurid! Instead, I just used a few drops of some natural vegetable dyes in the sugar syrup to provide a light caramel colour to boost the colour of muscovado sugar, which I think looks rather pretty.

When it comes to the filling itself, it can only be described as filthy. The base is a simple caramel made from white sugar. Throw in some salted butter, cream and a few drops of vanilla, then whip once cooled with even more lovely butter. The result is a silky-smooth salted caramel cream which can be easily piped into the macaron shells, but which does not leak out (which pure caramel, delicious as it is, is apt to do). You’ll end up with quite a bit of the filling left over, and you’ll probably just want to eat it with a spoon. As I said – filthy, and irresistible.

One final trick – these are worth making ahead of time. If you can, leave the assembled macarons overnight in the fridge, and be sure to leave them to come up to room temperature before serving. This will help make the inside of the shells lightly chewy and the creamy filling with be delightfully soft and fluffy. Things to make you go wow.

So what’s your baking nemesis? Have you managed to beat it?

To make salted caramel macarons (makes 25-30):

For the shells:

• 175g icing sugar
• 175 ground almonds
• 130g egg whites (about 4 eggs), at room temperature
• 175g light muscovado or brown sugar
• 75ml water

• caramel food colouring

For the filling:

• 150g white sugar
• 50ml water

• 180g salted butter (divide into 30g and 150g)
• 150ml double cream

• vanilla extract
• salt, very finely ground

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line two large baking trays with greaseproof paper.

2. Mix the icing sugar and ground almonds, and put into a food processor or spice mill. Grind until fine. Put into a large bowl.

3. Divide the egg whites into two portions (2 x 65g). Add one half to the almond/icing sugar mixture and mix until you have a smooth, thick paste.

4. Next, make an Italian meringue. Put the water and muscovado or brown sugar into a saucepan. Add caramel/brown colouring as desired (I used enough to enhance the brown tint from the sugar, probably 20 drops of water-based colour). Heat to 114°C (237°F). In the meantime, whisk the rest of the eggs whites until frothy. Acting quickly, pour the hot syrup into the frothy eggs and beat the living daylights out of them! The mixture should quickly start to turn pale and fluffy, and increase in volume. Whisk for 5 minutes until the mixture is stiff and glossy – it should easily hold its shape.

5. Take one-third of the meringue mixture, and fold into the almond paste mixture to lighten it. Fold in the next third, then fold in the final third. Try to do this gently, and don’t mix too vigorously or for too long.

6. Fill a piping bag fitted with a 1 cm hole nozzle. Pipe out the macarons, leaving a few centimetres between each. Leave to dry at room temperature for around 20 minutes.

7. Bake the macaron shells for around 12-15 minutes until the shells have developed little feet but they are not browned. You might want to open the door briefly during baking to let any steam escape. When baked, remove from the oven, allow to cool, then peel from the baking sheet. Arrange on a cooling tray and prepare the filling.

To make the filling:

8. Put the sugar and water into a small saucepan. Place on a medium heat until the mixture turns into a medium golden caramel (don’t be tempted to stir it at any point – it will turn into a crystallised mess!). The colour should be rich but without any burnt or acrid smell.

9. Remove the saucepan with the caramel from the heat, add the butter and stir well. It will sizzle, so watch out! Add the cream and vanilla to taste (just a drop or two) and stir until smooth. Put the pan back on the heat, and cook until it reaches 108°C (225°F). Remove from the heat and leave until almost cooled.

10. Put the cooled caramel and soft butter into a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until perfectly smooth. It might seem like the mixture has curdled at one point, but keep going and it will come good. You should end up with a very smooth cream. Add a dash of powdered salt (to taste, but go a little at a time).

11. Fill a piping bag with the salted caramel cream and use to fill the macarons.

12. Leave the macarons in the fridge for 24 hours, and remove from the fridge a couple of hours before serving.

Worth making? A complete faff, but the results are superb so it’s worth trying when you’ve got a few hours to yourself.

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Diamond Jubilee: Diamants

Finally, after months and months of bunting and more Union Jacks than you could wave a stick at, the Jubilee Weekend has come and gone!

Today is the last in my series of royalty-inspired posts. I’ve made Regal Cola to serve at a street party, Edinburgh Tart (recalling HM’s previous title as Duchess of Edinburgh), Battenberg Cake (for Prince Philip’s family), Queen Cakes and Queen of Puddings. All well and good, but there is something missing. Something that reflects what this event is all about. Something that suits a diamond jubilee. What, oh what, should I make?

Clearly, it should be something that is based around the idea of the diamond. Biscuits in the shape of diamonds? Too easy. I could have gone for something that included edible diamonds, and while it is unlikely that HM will ever pop round to mine for a cuppa unannounced, I doubt that she would want to have a cake covered in fake diamonds. She’s got the real things back home. Nope, fake diamonds would be too tacky.

So I went rummaging in my cookbooks for a bit of inspiration…was there anything that referenced diamonds? Well, there  appears there is no such thing in the world of British baking. Nothing. Nowt. Nada. Rien…rien de rien…but wait…in the world of French baking, there is something. Something perfect. For France has some lovely little shortbread biscuits called diamants. Which means “diamonds”. Exactly what I had in mind!

If you don’t know these biscuits, they are super-simple. You make a shortbread dough, then chill it. Once very cold, you roll the whole log in granulated sugar to provide a little sparkle, then cut into slices for baking. Easy-peasy!

I think these are a suitable item to finish on. Shortbread seems to me to be somehow fitting – the Queen Mother was from an old Scottish aristocratic family, and we know that HM has a fondness for holidaying at Balmoral up on Scotland. Fine biscuits which are fit for a Queen!

To make diamants:

• 100 grams butter
• 50g icing sugar
• pinch of salt
• 1 egg yolk
• seeds of 1 vanilla pod or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 120g plain flour
• 20g ground almonds

Mix the butter and sugar in a bowl until light and fluffy. Add the salt, egg yolk and vanilla seeds, and beat until well combined.

Add the flour and ground almonds, and mix until the dough just comes together, and avoid the temptation to over-work.

Roll the dough into a log with a diameter of 3-4cm (depending on the size of biscuits you want). Wrap in cling flim, and leave in the fridge to chill in the freezer for an hour.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

Sprinkle some granulated sugar on a worktop, and take the dough “log” and roll in the sugar, pressing lightly to ensure it is well-coated. Use a sharp knife to slice biscuits of about a 1 cm thickness, and lay, cut side down, on the baking sheet.

Bake for around 10-12 minutes until the edges of the cookies are just turning golden. Remove from the oven, allow to cool slightly on the tray, and then move to a wire tack to cool completly.

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Savoury Cake

Yes, yes, I know, it sounds so strange – a savoury cake?

This is exactly the reaction I had when watching a new series by the lovely Rachel Khoo, who runs a little restaurant in Paris from her studio apartment. How little? Well, she folds away her bed and can seat just two people in there. So while I think my kitchen is on the “bijou” side, I suspect she might be defying various laws of physics by producing lovely-looking food out of such a tiny space. Plus, she does it all while looking very chic and Parisienne, but happily for us, she’s a London lass at heart providing her take on classic French dishes.

So what is this savoury cake business? This is one of the recipes featured on the show. I’ll fess up to the fact I’ve never heard of this before, and my initial reaction was rather skeptical. I’ve often thought of savoury food, such as sauces, stews, soups, as being the sort of place where you can play fast and loose with the ingredients – a dash of this, a spot of that, and keep tasting to make sure you’re on the right track. In contrast, I tend to think of baking as being much more scientific – mix the same ingredients in one way and you get biscuits, another way and you end up with cake. Use the wrong quantifies, and things can go terribly wrong. Get the technique wrong, and you face collapsing macarons, sticky meringues of sunken cakes.

Coming at it from this perspective, the thought in my mind was…alors, le sucre? Yes, what would the absence of sugar mean here? I mean…how could this turn into a cake? How? How?

Well, let’s just think about what Rachel had to say on the subject. These things are (apparently) very popular in France, and so that alone should have given me some confidence. And her recipe looked fantastic – goat cheese, juicy prunes and pistachios struck me as a lovely combination, and the method did look very simple. Just whisk up the eggs, add milk, olive oil and yoghurt, then fold into the dry ingredients and bake. I imagined that the result would be something like a giant savoury muffin, studded with lots of flavoursome and complementary flavours. So…I crossed my fingers, baked one, and here it is:

I’m happy to report that this really is a delicious recipe. The crumb is soft and indeed very savoury, and it provides a medium for all the other flavours. In particular, the sweet-ish prunes and lightly acidic, tangy goat cheese were a great combination. I probably kept the chunks of cheese and prunes a little on the large side compared to the version that Rachel makes, but that’s only because I like them to be quite obvious when you cut the slices.

While delicious, this was actually ridiculously easy to make. I can definitely see myself making this a lot this summer. It’s a great way to make something for a picnic, it transports so easily, and you get lots of flavours in there. It also leaves lots of scope to adjust the recipe according to what you’ve got the cupboard or fridge – olives, nuts, cheese, dried tomatoes. You name it, it can probably go in here. I’m also going to try making half a batch to make into breakfast muffins, so I’ll let you know in due course how that goes.

And to response to my worries about what happens when you skip the sugar in a cake – it’s a cake, not perhaps as we know it in Britain, but very tasty nevertheless. Rachel has converted me.

To make a savoury cake (recipe slightly tweaked from Rachel Khoo)

• 250g self-raising flour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 150g soft goat cheese, cut into chunks
• 80g pistachios, chopped
• 100g soft prunes, cut into pieces
• 4 eggs
• 150ml olive oil
• 100ml milk
• 50g natural yoghurt
• 1 tsp salt
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Line a loaf tin with greaseproof paper (no need to grease – the oil in the cake takes care of that).

Put the flour, baking powder, goat cheese, prunes and pistachio nuts in a bowl, and stir gently so that everything has a good coating of flour.

In a separate large bowl, whisk the eggs until very light and fluffy. Stir in the milk, olive oil and yoghurt. Add the salt and pepper, and fold in the dry ingredients. Use a spatula to mix until just combined. Over-mixing is not good, and you don’t want to smash the cheese into smithereens.

Pour the batter into the tin and bake for 30 minutes – the cake should be golden and an inserted skewer should come out clean. If it starts to get too dark too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil for the rest of the baking time.

When done, remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tray.

Worth making? This is an unbelievably easy recipe. In case you doubt me, this is likely to be my summer staple for days out and picnics – customise the additional ingredients and you’ve almost got a whole meal in there to keep you going on busy sightseeing days. Highly, highly recommended!

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Kugelhopf

I recently passed the Gill Wing cookshop in Crouch End, which is always good for picking up a new kitchen implement. Sitting at the front of the store were a selection of ring pans. Given this is about the only thing missing from my collection of trays, I bought one.

Now, what could go in this new pan? Time to explore the culinary delights of France. Not the fancy-pants glamour of Paris. Nope, it’s a little baked item from the eastern border region of Alsace. We’re making a kugelhopf.

For me, this cake has something of a Germanic character, a little reminiscent of a Viennese coffee house, and that’s not surprise when you think about where Alsace is – it’s on the border with Germany, and the regional capital, Strasbourg, has a distinctive style of architecture that is certainly very different from that you would see along the boulevards of Paris or in the towns of the Loire valley. There are some street signs in the local Alsatian tongue (a Germanic rather than a Romance language). Even the wine glasses has a local and distinctive twist – the characteristic green stems, which you can spot on the tables of just about every bistro-style street cafe in Strasbourg. It’s clearly part of France, but it’s a distinctive part of France.

Enough tourism. Let’s go back to kugelhopf. This is something between a bread and a cake. It’s enriched yeast dough with a decent amount of butter and eggs, plus brandy-soaked fruit, almonds, vanilla and lemon zest. It’s a little bit like brioche, but more aromatic and not quite as rich. It gets its distinctive shape from a traditional ring mould – the Alsatians have a special tall pan for making kugelhopf, but (like me!) you can just use a normal ring pan for this. There is also a little tradition of placing a whole almond in each of the dimples in the bottom of the cake pan. I’ve not idea what this represents, but it seems like a nice tradition, and I had a pack of Mallorcan almonds to use for this purpose. If you know the story behind the almonds, do tell!

In making this, I did a bit of experimenting. I followed a “traditional” recipe to the letter, which involved a very elaborate series of steps – creaming butter and sugar, folding in eggs, adding vanilla and lemon zest, and finally working in the yeast, milk and flour by hand. It looked alright, but in the end the texture was most peculiar – a heavy dough with very large gas bubbles, and a peculiar chewiness. Hand-made is nice in theory, but I sensed it was time to try again.

On the second attempt, I embraced modern technology. Good, fresh ingredients, but it all went into the bread machine with fingers crossed, hoping for the best. This time – the dough came out silky-smooth and with a nice elasticity. Once transferred into the pan, it puffed up nicely and baked perfectly. And this time, the texture was great. Fluffy, fruity, moist and tasty. Now, maybe it had something to do with adjusting the mixture to add a little more flour and replacing some of the butter with cream cheese…but whatever it was, it worked!

I’ve seen a variety of ways to finish this cake, all they way up to elaborate frostings and glazes. But in my view, this cake is best with a simple dredging of icing sugar, which imparts a subtle sweetness and complements the fruit, nuts and delicious aroma of baked cakey goodness.

To make a kugelhopf (for a 2.5 litre (4 1/2 pint) tin):

• 120g sultanas
• 2 tablespoons brandy or apple juice
• 2 teaspoons dried (not instant) yeast
• 120ml warm water
• 1 teaspoon sugar
• 75g butter
• 30g cream cheese

• 90g caster sugar

• 3 eggs
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 teaspoon salt
• zest of one lemon
• 475g white bread flour
• 120ml milk
• 75g flaked almonds, chopped
• whole blanched almonds
• icing sugar, to finish

Put the sultanas in a bowl with the brandy or apple juice. Put to one side.

In another bowl, combine the yeast, warm water and the teaspoon of sugar. Mix well and leave for 15 minutes until frothy.

If using a bread machine: put the yeast mixture, butter, cream cheese, sugar, eggs, vanilla, salt, lemon zest, flour and milk into the machine. Run the dough cycle. At the end, work the raisins and almonds into the dough.

If working by hand: put the flour and salt in a large bowl. Rub the butter and cream cheese into the flour mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, vanilla and lemon zest. Add the yeast mixture, the eggs and half the milk – work with your hands until you have a soft, elastic dough – add more milk as needed. Finally, work in the dried fruit almonds. Cover and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in size.

Once the dough has risen, knock it back. Grease a ring tin with butter, and place a whole almond in each dimple in the tray. Carefully add the dough. Cover and leave in a warm place until the dough reaches the top of the pan. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).

Bake the kugelhopf for 45 minutes until golden brown. If the top is getting a little too dark, cover the tin loosely with tin foil.

When the kugelhopf is baked, remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tray. Turn out and dredge with icing sugar.

Worth making? This was a spectacular success! I’ve actually made it twice since the original (successful) recipe. It’s also simple to adjust the flavours according to your tastes – experiment with different nuts and dried fruits, orange zest or a little dash of spice. I’m also going to try this in muffin cases to make sweet breakfast rolls. Watch this space for an update!

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Palmiers

It’s Sunday morning. Everything is peaceful, the sun is peeking through the window and it will be some time before the rest of the house is awake. I used this quiet time to make once of my favorite biscuits. The simple-yet-elegant palmier.

These are fabulous sweet, crisp, airy biscuits made of nothing more than buttery, flaky puff pastry and granulated sugar. Roll out the pastry, shape, slice and bake. It’s that simple. The magic happens in the oven – the sugar caramelises, and the pastry puffs up into an elegant dual spiral shape, resulting in a palm-like shape that given them their name. They might be simple to prepare, but these crisp delicacies just whisper sophistication.

To make around 20 palmiers:

• 375g puff pastry (good quality, made with pure butter)
• 200g granulated white sugar

Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, and cover with a spritz of non-stick spray.

Sprinkle 1/4 of the sugar on a worktop. Lay the pastry on top, and cover with another quarter of the sugar. Roll out until the pastry is a 25 x 25 cm square (if you’ve bought pre-rolled pastry, just pass the rolling pin lightly over the dough so that the sugar is pressed into it).

Starting from one side, roll the dough up until you reach the half-way point. Repeat from the other side. You should end up with two parallel rolls of pastry. Leave to rest in the fridge for 15 minutes.

Using a sharp knife, cut slices 1cm slices from the dough. Dip the underside in sugar, place on a baking sheet, and sprinkle with more sugar. Leave at least 10 cm between each palmier as they expand a lot!

Bake for around 15 minutes, turning the tray half way through, and remove when the biscuits are golden. Allow to cool for a moment on the tray, then move to a cooling rack. Store in an airtight container.

Worth making? These are really nice biscuits – very easy to make, but looking very sophisticated. Handy for those times when you want something fancy, but don’t have the time or inclination to put in a lot of work. These can also be varied to include a little spice with the sugar (cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom), or make savoury versions using pesto or grated cheese in place of the sugar.

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Madeleines

With all things Continental still in my mind and a new baking tray, my thoughts turned to making madeleines. These are small French teacakes, with a shell pattern on one side and a “bump” on the other. The apparently originate from the Lorraine area in north-east of France, which makes the use of the shell shape all the more curious (it’s, eh, rather far from the sea).

Madeleines are perhaps most famous for their appearance in a short story by Proust in The Remembrance of Things Past. It is entitled “The Cookie”, although it actually relates to madeleines, in which the author describes the effect that tasting a piece of the cake has on his memories. It is not the look or smell of the cake (rather annoying for the person who went to all the effort to shape them), but the taste of the cake when dipped in a little warm tea and then eaten. Read it here.

Madeleines are small and delicate, usually flavoured with orange. The method might seem a little daunting at first – whip eggs and sugar, then add flour, then add cooled melted butter, allow to chill, then put into special moulds and watch like a hawk as they cook – but once you have tried them, they are quite simple. If you are keen to start making little French teatime treats, then the madeleine will also prove to be easier to master and generally a lot less fickle than the macaron. They also provide some scope to play with the recipe – lemon in place of orange, or use ground nuts in place of one-third of the flour (look closely – you can see the ground pistachio in the ones I made).

For me, the tricky thing has always been using a madeleine pan and getting successful results. I have – until this week – used a teflon-coated tray, and usually find that about half of the madeleines split in two, with half of each cake clinging to the not-so-non-stick surface, and all this in spite of generous use of butter, non-stick spray, each tried with and without dustings of flour. Well, this time, I used my new silicone tray, and each madeline came out with no effort. Each had a perfect, smooth finish. If you want to make madelines, buy a silicone mould – I can’t be enthusiastic enough about it!

Now, time to sit down with a madeleine, a cup of tea, and dip a piece of the former into the latter. Believe me, it tastes good!

To make 18 madeleines:

• 85 grams butter
• 2 eggs
• 80g grams caster sugar
• Zest of 1 orange
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 110g grams plain flour (you can substitute 1/3 of the flour with ground nuts)
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• Large pinch salt

Melt the butter in a saucepan. Put to one side and allow to cool.

Put the eggs, caster sugar, orange zest and vanilla extract in a bowl. Whip for 5 minutes until the mixture becomes light and thick.

Combine the flour, salt and baking powder and sift. Add the flour mixture to the eggs and stir lightly with a spatula until combined.

Add the cooled liquid butter and incorporate using a spatula. Let the batter rest in the fridge for 4 hours.

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Place spoonfuls of the batter into madeleine moulds and bake for around 8-10 minutes (or as long as it takes for “bumps” to appear in the middle of the cakes). Reduce the heat to 190°C and bake until the cakes are lightly browned (another 5 minutes).

Once cooked, remove from the oven. When the silicone tray is cool enough to work with, press each madeleine out the the tray. Move to a cooling rack, and dust the shell side of each with icing sugar.

If you are feeling more ambitious, I have seen some recipes that use brown butter. This is normal butter that has been melted then cooked briefly so that the fat and solids separate and any water evaporates (with a rather spectacular fit of hissing and spitting), and the butter solids turn brown and there is am aroma of toasted nuts. You then strain the butter, and are left with butter that has a rich, nutty flavour. Just another way to add an extra flavour dimension to your baking.

Worth making? The only fussy bit here is actually getting hold of the proper tray. The rest is quite easy and uses items from the store cupboard. The result, however, is really excellent. The cakes are quite firm, and as Proust did, can be easily dunked into warm tea. Try it, experience the wonderful flavour, and you will be happy you tried making these yourself. I think I will be making these regularly as a companion to post-dinner coffee.

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