Tag Archives: spices

Independence Day Cake

It’s the Fourth of July, so here is a little cake in honour of US Independence Day! It’s my take on a recipe for the late 1700s – based on a bundt cake, and finished with gold in honour of the big day.

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independence_cake_1

There is a little bit of a story behind this recipe. I found the original in one of my cookbooks, which features cake recipes from around the world. Among them all was a gem of a recipe of Herculean proportions and with little by way of directions. The limited information was all down to the fact this recipe originated in the late 1700s. Rather than just updating it, the author cleverly presented in all its glory, with original directions as follows:

Independence Day Cake by Amelia Simmons (1796)

The Cake:

• 20 pounds flour
• 15 pounds sugar
• 10 pounds butter
• 48 eggs
• 1 quart wine
• 1 quart brandy
• 1 ounce nutmeg
• 1 ounce cinnamon
• 1 ounce cloves
• 1 ounce mace
• 2 pounds citron peel
• 5 pounds currants
• 5 pounds raisins
• 1 quart yeast

Topping

• crushed loaf sugar
• box cuttings
• gold leaf

Sadly, the temperature of the baking oven was not given, but I would imagine it would need to be cooked slowly. If you do try and succeed do let me know.

And you know what? It was that last sentence that got me. This was not a “tested” recipe of the sort we’re all used to…but…what if I were to take that recipe…convert into measurements that are not so voluminous, and try to make this into a cake? With that, a challenge was set.

Before I could convert this lot, I was faced with a few decisions that were going to test my culinary knowledge. First off, I had to get the types of ingredients right. The butter was pretty easy (it’s a safe bet that the butter we have today is not unlike the butter available back in the 1700s), but the sugar was less clear. Should it be white or brown? While I like to use muscovado sugar in baking, this was supposed to be a celebratory bake, so I opted for sparkling white caster sugar. Next, the flour. In cakes, it should be plain flour. However, when making yeasted doughs, I use strong white flour that gives a light, springy texture. I didn’t know which to go with, so given this was more cake than bread, it would be plain cake flour. Luckily the spices, citrus peel and dried fruit did not require much thinking, otherwise I would have been in the kitchen all day fretting!

The method also presented something of a challenge. I started by weighing everything out into bowls, and then I was own my own – pure guesswork territory. I creamed the butter and sugar, added the eggs, then the flour and the yeast mixture. After that, the fruit was worked into the batter, and I left the cake to rise for a few hours.

Sadly…the cake had other ideas, and decided that it didn’t really want to puff up as I had hoped. Instead, it remained dense. All in all, a bit of a failure.

I was deflated but not defeated. A few days later, I had another go at the cake, but this time embraced the fact that the world of baking has moved on since the 1700s, and we now benefit from a magic substance called baking powder. I could skip the whole yeast thing, and instead rely on the white stuff to do the job. And this time, the cake worked like a dream. The crumb is tender and moist, and the cake has a rich, velvety texture that works very well with the spices, citrus peel and dried fruits.

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Now, we also need to keep in mind that this is a cake to celebrate Independence Day. The original recipe suggests loaf sugar, box cuttings and gold leaf. I’ll freely admit that I have no clue was is meant by box cuttings (leaves from the box hedge plant?), and I didn’t have loaf sugar to hand. So again, I improvised – a simple glaze, drizzled in loops on top of the cake, and then finished, as was intended, with some flakes of gold leaf. Very celebratory!

So what do you think? Suitably impressive for the Fourth of July? I’d like to think so, and I hope that Miss Amelia Simmonds would too.

To make an Independence Day Cake (modern version!):

• 4 tablespoons rum
• 60g citrus peel, chopped
• 90g currants
• 90g sultanas
• 190g butter
• 280g sugar
• 2 eggs
• 350g self-raising flour

• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon cloves
• 1/2 teaspoon mace
• 150ml milk

For the glaze

• 85g icing sugar
• 4-5 teaspoons double cream
• gold leaf

1. Put the rum, raisins, sultanas and citrus peel into a bowl. Mix, cover and leave to sit overnight (or if you’re in a hurry, heat quickly in the microwave and leave to sit on the kitchen top for an hour).

2. Prepare a cake pan. If using a bundt pan, brush with melted butter, then dust with plain flour. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).

3. Cream the butter and sugar, then add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition, until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the spices and mix well.

4. Combine the flour and the baking powder. Add half of the flour mixture and half of the milk to the batter, and mix until smooth. Repeat with the rest of the flour and the milk. You should have a smooth batter that drops slowly from the back of a spoon.

5. Finally, fold in the currants, sultanas and citrus peel.

6. Spoon the mixture into the cake pan and bake for around 45-60 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Once baked, remove from the oven, allow to cool slightly, then turn out onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely.

7. To finish the cake, make the glaze by combining the icing sugar and cream. Mix until smooth – it should be soft, but not runny. Drizzle on top of the cake, then add flakes of gold leaf to finish the cake.

Worth making? In spite of all this history and the fact I’ve had to convert this cake into modern quantities, this is a great cake – spicy and fruity, but not heavy. This would make a great and lighter alternative to traditional fruit cakes.

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Sweet Potato Wedges

Autumn is now with us. The mornings might be bright, but there is that unmistakable crispness in the air that signals things are about to get a lot “fresher” in the coming weeks, and the evenings are getting dark very quickly. Sure, it might still feel warm if you’re in a sunny spot, but when you’re in the shade, or a breeze blows past, you feel just how nippy things are getting.

With the chaos of moving house almost at an end, I’ve finally been back in the kitchen. All of a sudden, my cooking has moved away from the salads of summer, and quick, light suppers, and into much more substantial fare. Lentil dishes with lots of spices, curries, baked squash, soups, fritters…it’s the time of year to batten down the hatches and do all you can to fend off the cold weather that is approaching. It’s not a conscious change on my part, but there are certain dishes the you just have a craving for as the seasons roll by. I have, however, resisted the urge to buy Christmas pudding, even if my local shop has decided that this is exactly what we want to eat in October.

In much of my cooking at this time of year, I use a lot of spices, and I take a heavy-handed approach. I somehow feel that lots of cumin, pepper, ginger, garlic and sambal will help to fight off the sniffles during the colder months. It might work, it might not, but it certainly makes things a lot more tasty. It’s also worth getting a little more creating in how you season things – one of my current favourites is ground allspice, which is very common in sweet treats like biscuits and gingerbread, but it adds an interesting dimension to savoury dishes too.

It was with all this in mind that I got round to trying something that was on my “to make” list for quite some time. I love sweet potatoes baked and topped with feta, so I expected great things when they were spiced and baked as wedges.

Pleasingly, these are very, very simple to make – nothing much more than peeled sweet potato, cut to size, then tossed in oil with some spices, and then baked. They also have the benefit of looking very impressive – a jolly autumnal bust of orange when freshly cut, turning a deeper colour after baking. They can also be prepared hours ahead of time and left in the spice mixture to marinade (if it is possible to marinade potatoes?), and make a great snack or side dish. However it is the spices that take these from so-so to wow-wow. The spices you use are completely up to you – I went with some personal favourites (allspice, paprika, curry powder, black pepper and cumin). A tasty little dish as the long nights draw in.

As you can see below, these wedges hold their shape rather nicely too after being baked in a hot oven.

To make sweet potato wedges:

• 2 large sweet potatoes
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• spices – select 5, and use 1/2 teaspoon of each(*)

1. Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F).

2. Peel the potatoes. Cut lengthways into eight wedges, then slice each wedge diagonally (so each potato provides 16 pieces).

3. In a large bowl, combine the olive oil and spices. Mix well, then add the potato wedges.

4. Transfer the coated wedges to a tray lined with greaseproof paper and bake for 30-40 minutes until you can insert a knife easily, and the wedges are just stating to brown at the edges.

5. Serve immediately with the dip of your choice.(**)

(*) For the spices, I used allspice, paprika, curry powder, black pepper and cumin. And then I cheated and added some dried thyme too.

(**) I served these with a sprinkle of salt, and a dip made from tahini, yoghurt, sambal and lime juice.

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Fourth of July: Boston Baked Beans

Today it’s the Fourth of July – so let’s make something traditionally American, the good old-fashioned Boston Baked Beans!

Well, I say “good old-fashioned” but actually, I don’t know very much about them other than I like their name, so I thought it was about time to give them a bash. And a recipe from The Well-Cooked Life looked just perfect.

I know some people get terribly snobbish about baked beans and don’t like the tinned ones, but I’m not one of them. One of life’s greatest pleasures is a Saturday morning involving toast covered in cheese, grilled and then topped with baked beans. Delish.

Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the idea of making beans from scratch that had a bit more pep to them. A few minutes on Google told me that they are normally made with salted pork and molasses, so you’ve got a powerful savoury/salty yet sweet flavour. Clearly the pork was not going to happen in my case, so I added a bit of soy sauce instead to get more “savoury” than just salt would contribute. The other ingredients also promised something rather grand – lots of spices, hotness from sambal (my preferred way of adding heat to a dish), sweetness from molasses and fried onions and sharpness from some cider vinegar.

Boston Baked Beans are also a complete doddle to make, albeit a little planning is needed to make sure that the beans are properly soaked and cooked, but it’s mainly a case of soak, boil beans, mix sauce, bake.

One little wrinkle that affected my beans – I didn’t have dinky little beans (like you get from the tinned ones) so I used the ones I had in my cupboard, which were crab-eye beans. They were a little larger, and stayed a little firmer when cooked. They were still delicious, but when I make these again, I’ll be using the smaller beans in the future.

What you do need to be prepared for is that these beans are not a neon orange hue – all that molasses or treacle makes the sauce a rich red-brown colour. However, the flavour is completely, totally, utterly sensational. The sum is greater than the individual parts – and actually, that makes this a rather fitting dish for Fourth of July.

To make vegetarian Boston Baked Beans (adapted from here):

• 350g beans
• water
• 3 tablespoons oil
• 1 clove garlic, chopped
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 2 white onions, chopped
• 2 heaped teaspoons paprika
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 2 large pinches ground cloves
• 2 tins chopped tomatoes
• 2 tablespoons concentrated tomato puree
• 1 teaspoon of chili or sambal
• 2 tablespoons soy sauce
• 240ml treacle or molasses

• 120ml cider vinegar

1. Soak the beans overnight in cold water.

2. The next day, cook the beans according to instructions on the packet (how long you boil and simmer depends on the type). When cooked, drain the beans.

3. In the meantime, make the sauce. Fry the onions in the oil until golden. Add the garlic, cook briefly, then add the rest of the ingredients. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 20 minutes.

4. Mix the cooked beans and the sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning as required.

5. Pour the beans into an ovenproof dish. Cover and bake in the oven at 160°C (320°F) for 2-3 hours until the sauce is thick and the beans are soft. If the beans get too dry, top up the water.

Worth making? This is a complete flavour explosion, and utterly delicious. The basic recipe should appeal to most tastes, and you can tweak and adjust the spices to suit what you like. Definitely worth having a go at.

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{12} Spiced Chocolate Truffles

‘Tis the night before Christmas…and we’ve finally reached the twelfth post in my festive bakes series!

It’s been a while coming. It’s also been fun. I didn’t quite appreciate the volume of stuff I would be producing, but I know for next year! I will most likely mull over this project in the gap between Christmas and New Year, but at this stage I can say in confidence that it was great fun to do the series, and it’s great that it’s over. If for no other reason than I can stop buying sugar, marzipan and nuts, and instead focus on savoury dishes again. Whew!

Most of the posts in this series have been about baking, so I wanted to do something a little different. And given that chocolate and Christmas seem to go so well together, what about some truffles to capture the flavours of the season?

I have to admit to a fondness for fancy chocolate shops. When I pass one, I like to duck in, and I’m always impressed not just by the aromas or the flavours of what is on offer, but the work that has clearly gone in to making something look beautiful. And I think you have to appreciate it – good chocolate is an experience for all the senses.

I was also planning to write a little about “my favourite chocolate shop” but, in all honesty, there are several in London and Brussels that I love to go to, and it’s not really fair to have to choose between them. Different people are doing different things so why limit yourself to just one?

That said, one of my favourites is Paul A Young, who runs a shop in Islington. I’ve got his book on all things chocolate (truffles, cakes, tarts, pasta…yes, chocolate pasta!). The book includes some stunning recipes that look very well-suited to the festive season. I would love to try his “Three Kings” bar of dark chocolate made with gold, frankincense and myrrh. In fact, I’d originally planned to make it as my final post, but I ran into a few issues – I could not source essential oils in time (i.e. I spent 10 minutes around Covent Garden and the ones at Neal’s Yard said you should not ingest them) and I rather balked at the idea of buying gold just to eat.

So….instead…I’ve opted to make festive truffles infused with spice.

Now, in making these, I had an aim – to make silky-smooth truffle. What I have noticed with spiced truffles is that when someone has just tipped ground spices into the mixture, this can make an otherwise smooth ganache a little “gritty”. Not inedible, but not as smooth as you would like. What I’ve done to address that is to make a spice-infused syrup, which is strained, and thus has all the flavour but none of the bits. I brought a pan of water to the boil, added some sugar and two teaspoons of spice, cooked for a minute, then left to sit overnight. The next morning – very spicy syrup! By leaving the mixture to sit, you also allow the spice powder to settle, so when you come to strain it, you have very little by way of “bits”. So there is a little trick here – if you’re making a mixture that needs 200ml of liquid, boil up 250 or 300ml, so that you get mostly liquid, and don’t need to tip the wet spice powder into the strainer. This keeps the bits out, and keeps things “clear” (ha ha!).

You could use any sort of spices you like in these truffles, but I kept to the festive theme and used a spoonful of my speculaaskruiden mixture and an extra teaspoon of cinnamon. I felt the cinnamon was needed to add some sweetness as well as to balance the stronger flavours of cloves and anise, which are fine in a biscuit but can become too much in a truffle. If you want to try something else, you can use cinnamon on its own, or something more unusual such as star anise, black pepper and cardamom. Intrigued?

The ganache part is actually very easy. Just chop up the chocolate into fine pieces, then pour over the warm (not too hot) liquid, and stir gently. You’ll hopefully end up with a thick, glossy mixture that sets to a firm but workable consistency. At this stage you’ve got two choices – either use as a sweet fondue and dip pieces of fruit and cake into it for a messy pudding, or allow the mixture to set and then form into truffles.

If you’re making truffles, you’ve also got two choices – either keep it simple by shaping them then rolling in cocoa or icing sugar, or adopt the complicated approach by coating them in tempered chocolate. I went to the latter option, and while it is fiddly, it does give you a lovely crisp shell to contrast with the smooth filling. I rolled them in a mixture of cocoa, sugar and cinnamon.

I took some of these as a gift, and if I do say so myself, they looked stunning. I lined the box with purple tissue paper, and I think the overall effect is really rather regal. What do you think?

So that’s it – we’ve done the Twelve Cookies of Christmas (if you’ll let me off with the speculaaskruiden). Things will be quiet for a while as I down tools and enjoy the next couple of weeks. I hope you’re able to spend this time of year with friends and loved ones – wishing everyone Happy Holidays, a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

To make spiced chocolate truffles (makes around 35-40):

For the spiced syrup:

• 250ml water
• 2 heaped teaspoons ground spice
• 50g dark brown sugar

Put everything in a saucepan. Stir, bring the boil, simmer for a minute, then leave to sit for several hours or overnight.

Strain the cooled mixture through a fine sieve or cheesecloth. Leave the remains of the wet spices at the bottom of the pan – you want the syrup to be as clear as possible.

For the truffles:

• 200ml spiced syrup
• 50g dark brown sugar
• large pinch of salt
• 300g dark chocolate, finely chopped

In a saucepan, bring the syrup, sugar and salt to the boil and simmer for 30 seconds. Turn off the heat.

Put the chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Pour the warm liquid over the chocolate, and use a balloon to gently stir the mixture until it is smooth and glossy. Leave to cool to room temperature, then transfer to the fridge until set.

To form the truffles, take teaspoons of the mixture and either use two teaspoons or your hands to form into spheres. Either roll in cocoa or icing sugar, or dip in tempered chocolate (see here or here how to temper chocolate).

Worth making? Making truffles can be a bit fiddly, but it’s actually quite fun and the results are always impressive. I think this way of infusing the mixture with the flavour of spices works really well – a mild, delicate flavour and the resulting ganache is wonderfully smooth. The only problem is stopping at just one.

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{4} Speculaas

A couple of weeks ago I made a batch of speculaaskruiden. Now here is a way to use them up – Dutch speculaas cookies!

I feel I need to point out that these are not strictly Christmas biscuits per se, as you can get hold of them all year round, but the crisp buttery spiced flavour does suit this time of year particularly well. Imagine yourself sitting on a café terrace on an old market square on a chilly day in December, coffee or mulled wine in one hand, and one of these cookies in the other.

Now, this post has a number of interesting things related to speculaas. To start with, this is a very special recipe. It’s not one that I made up, nor it is one that has come from some random website. Nope, it comes from Het Haagse Kookboek (“The Hague Cookbook”). I am assured that this was, back in the day, basically the cookery bible of Dutch housewives. As you can see below, the version I have had access to is clearly from the 1970s, and I love the retro front cover.

Another interesting aside is that the origin of the word “cookie” also links back to the Dutch. It isn’t a British word – we have biscuits, cakes, tarts, traybakes and so on. But the cookie is an American “thing”. It comes from the Dutch word for a small cake. Cake is koek (say it like “cook” in English), then make it small by adding the diminutive ending -je – and that’s how we get to koekje (say “cook-ye”).

And finally…as another interesting aside, I come back charged with inspiration about all things from the Low Countries following a recent trip to Belgium. While in Brussels, I was persuaded to buy some classic moulds for speculaas – a man and a woman, a bird and, of course, a windmill. If these cookies are going to be Dutch, they are going to be very Dutch. Even if they were made with Belgian moulds…

My unwavering belief that speculaas is a legitimate festive bake is also supported by the fact that it appears in the window displays of lots of bakeries and chocolatiers in Brussels. These range from the size of your palm to the size of a small child (really). My favorite is from Maison Dandoy. If you are there, do go in and enjoy the aromas and flavours. You may also wish to buy something, mainly because you will go nuts thinking about speculaas after you leave there.

That’s the background, the theory and the linguistics lesson. How are they to make?

The recipe is pretty easy – put everything in a bowl, work to a dough, allow to chill and that’s it! OK, that’s not quite it. If you are making these in the proper way, you use a type of sugar the Dutch call basterdsuiker. Yes, very giggle-inducing, but it turns out to be a sort of brown sugar. I’m not sure there is an exact substitute in Britain, but I used soft brown sugar and they worked out a treat.

But…but…we just have to admit that the real fun is using the moulds. No messing around with a rolling-pin. Just press pieces of dough into the moulds, then flip them over and whack them on the table to release them. And there we have it – lots of little gingerbread people, birds and windmills!

I do have to admit that these cookies were the result of some trial and error. The moulds were new, and probably need to be “seasoned” or similar. At first the mixture stuck badly, but I think after a while, the butter made for some sort of natural non-stick, and combined with a light coating of flour, they started to come out very easily indeed. By the end, we were experts!

And…after all that…here are the finished biscuits. Not quite as perfect as they looked before going into the oven, but they taste great – crisp, spicy and buttery – and they do have a certain rustic charm.

If you are tempted to have a go but lack suitable moulds, then have a look at this great version of speculaas from a Dutch girl living in London (here).

To make speculaas:

• 100g soft brown sugar
• 100g butter
• 1/2 teaspoon salt, finely ground
• 200g self-raising flour
• 2 teaspoons speculaaskruiden or mixed spices
• cold water
• 25g flaked almonds (optional)

To make the dough:

Sieve the sugar to get rid of any lumps. Put the sugar, butter, flour and spices in a large bowl. Use your hands to rub the ingredients together until they resemble breadcrumbs. Add just enough cold water (1-2 tablespoons) until the mixture comes together into a smooth dough. Work in the flaked almonds (if using). Wrap in cling film and chill for two hours or overnight.

To bake the cookies:

Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

If using speculaas moulds: sprinkle the moulds with flour, tap out any excess, then press pieces of dough into the moulds. Then – in theory – they should come out of the moulds easily when you flip them over. Arrange on the baking sheet at least 2 cm apart.

If you don’t have the moulds: roll the dough out to 1/4 cm thickness and use cookie cutters to shape the speculaas. If you like, brush them with milk and sprinkle with some more flaked almonds. Arrange on the baking sheet at least 2 cm apart.

Bake the cookies for 25-30 minutes until the speculaas are firm, but have not started to darken.

Worth making? This is a very quick, straightforward recipe, and the resulting biscuits are great on their own, or can be used crushed over desserts, in crumble toppings or as part of a biscuit base for cheesecakes. You can also vary the spices depending on what is to hand and your own preferences – not bad for cookies made from simple ingredients you’re likely to have to hand!

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Poached Quince

Ever dreamed of being in an Edward Lear poem? Do you imagine yourself with a feline companion, drifting across the waves in a vessel while searching your luggage for a runcible spoon? If so, then this one will appeal to you…

I am a bit of a sucker for exotic things in stores, especially fruit. I feel the need to buy them, reasoning that I will surely be able to use them very easily. Needless to say, there can be a tendency for some of them to languish in the kitchen until I finally feel a bit guilty and then need to come up with a way to use them, often at short notice as something threatens to get rid of them...

So it was recently with a couple of quinces. They looked so pretty, so bright and yellow, and thus were of course a critical pre-Christmas purchase. They graced the festive fruit bowl, together with clementines and pomegranates, but in the last day or two, as the tree came down on Twelfth Night, they started to look a little forlorn. To make something with them, I thought I would keep it simple, and do something to highlight the colour and aromas of quince, that could be used with yoghurt and muesli in the mornings, or in the evenings as a simple dessert. Poach ’em!

This is a really simple recipe – peel, core and slice the fruit, then poach in a simple sugar syrup, with spices if you feel like it, but that is entirely optional. The flavour of quince is aromatic and delicate, so if you are minded to add a little extra something, then use a light hand. I added on (just one) clove and a piece of vanilla pod. The vanilla is delicate enough to work with the quince, and all the little flecks of black look rather cool. Like this:

What is sort of cool about quince is that it magically change colour when cooked. If you need proof, below are the slices of quince when first cut, and then after they have been poached for about an hour. They change from pale yellow to a pinky, peachy hue. Cook them even longer, and they will tend towards a deeper amber-red, if that’s your thing.

When you eat the poached quince, you also have a wonderful aromatic syrup. Either spoon this over the fruit, cook further (without the quince) to form a rich syrup, or use it as a syrup for ice cream, sorbets or drinks. It’s a New Year. Time to be creative!

To make poached quince:

• 2 quince, peeled, cored and sliced
• 200g white sugar
• 4 cups cold water
• spices according to taste (vanilla, cloves,
cardamom, cinnamon) (*)

Place the quince slices, sugar, water and spices (if using) in a saucepan. Bring to the boil, cover with a lid, then reduce the heat and simmer on a low heat for around an hour. When done, the quince turns pink and the syrup will be a little thicker.

Serve with cream, yoghurt or ice-cream as a pudding, or chopped with muesli for breakfast.

(*) Remember to use just a little – one clove or one pod of cardamom or just a bit of cinnamon…

Worth making? Yes! If you’re keen to try making something with quince, this recipe is both super-simple and yields great results.

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