Tag Archives: vanilla

Cake of the Week: Plum Cake

Hope you’re all doing alright. I’ve ended up being really, really busy as we juggle two jobs and home school. In many ways that makes us some of the lucky ones, and we’re fortunate to still be working and to have so many things that keep our minds focused and occupied. All this means I’m a little behind on posting my lockdown bakes, even if we’ve been making and eating lots recently! But no worry, we’ll catch up this week, so here’s No 2 of Cake of the Week, and they’ve be coming thick and fast for the next few days.

Today I’m sharing (again) one of my favourite cakes, which I make fairly often. It looks impressive, tastes delicious, and it is actually very easy to make. I think it rather resembles an apricot tart, with the bright colours, flaked almond and the glaze of jam.


The thing is, this really is just a simple sponge recipe, flavoured with almonds and vanilla, and then you plonk in some sliced plums on top. During baking they become soft, add some sweet-sharp contrast to the cake, and depending on the variety, they take on a glorious deep pink colour. Normally I am all for experimentation, but I would really urge you to stick with the plums. I’ve tried it with apples and pears, and while they were alright, it really is best made with plums. I think it’s something to do with the moisture content of the plums as compared to apples, but in place of anything more scientific, let’s put it down to culinary magic.

The only real tip when making this is that it is important is to glaze the cake with warm, sieved apricot jam when it comes out of the oven, and before it cools down. This ensures that the cake does not get dry, and the top stays very soft, moist and glistens beautifully.

In terms of accompanying beverage, I think this goes equally well with tea or coffee, but with a slight preference for the latter. What do you think?

To make Plum Cake:

• 140g butter
• 70g white caster sugar
• 70g soft brown sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 2 large eggs
• 165g self-raising flour
• 25g ground almonds
• 2 tablespoons milk
• 5-6 large plums
• 2 tablespoons flaked almonds
• 2 tablespoons apricot jam

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F) and line a 22cm cake tin with greaseproof paper.

2. Cut the plums into quarters, and discard the stones.

3. Make the cake batter. Beat the butter and sugars until creamy. Mix in the almond and vanilla extract. Beat in the eggs, then fold in the flour and ground almonds and mix well. Finally, stir in the milk and beat until the mixture is smooth and soft.

4. Pour the batter into the prepared tin. Level the top and then arrange the plums on top. When you’re happy with the design, press them slightly into the batter. Make sure to leave some gaps between the plums for the cake mixture to puff up during baking, but don’t worry about leaving big gaps – the fruit will shrink and sink a bit during baking, so be generous! Sprinkle any visible cake batter with flaked almonds.

5. Bake the cake for around 45 minutes until golden. If the top is browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil. When done, remove from the oven and leave to cool.

6. Finish the cake with the glaze – heat the apricot jam with 2 tablespoons of water until runny, then pass through a sieve. Brush the sieved jam all over the top of the cake. You’re done!

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{7} Bruttiboni

Sometimes I am all for making something that looks neat and precise, and I get a certain pride when each cookie in a batch ends up looking identical. The most recent case in point was my checkerboard cookies.

However, today we’re going to the opposite end of the scale with these little guys. They’re from Italy and they’re called bruttiboni. The name roughly means “ugly-good” because they look as they look, but the are utterly delicious.

As with many Italian celebratory cookies, their precise origin is not clear. Today they are typical of the city of Prato in Tuscany, and they are also known as brutti ma buoni (“ugly but good”) or the more poetic-sounding mandorlati di san clemente. They are delicious little cookies made from meringue and hazelnuts.


To make them, you start with a simple meringue mixture, which I flavoured with some vanilla and a little hint of cinnamon. I don’t know if the spice addition is tradition, but I think it works well with the flavour of the nuts. Then you fold in ground, toasted almonds and hazelnuts – you can grind them to a fine powder, or leave a few more chunky bits if you prefer a bit more texture. And then…you do something plain weird. You put the whole bowl over a pan of barely simmering water, and then stir it gently. This makes the mixture somewhat looser, and all I can think that this does is to cook the meringue mixture in a similar way to making Swiss meringue. I’ve never come across this technique before, and in fact, not every recipe that I saw for bruttiboni thought this was necessary. One recipe even suggested making a Swiss meringue and just adding nuts. But I’m all for experimentation so I decided to give this strange approach a go.

From what I could tell, this extra step makes the mixture both a little softer and more stable, as once I had done it, the batter certainly seemed to keep its volume. I think it might also have impacted on the texture – these really are nothing like the miniature meringues I had been expecting – there was no brittle exterior and or marshmallow centre. They are more like the sort of thing I would expect from a “traditional” cookie made with flour and butter, so there is clearly some kind of magic at play here. But they do have a crisper outside and a softer middle. And they are, indeed, absolutely delicious!

To make Bruttiboni (makes around 24)

• 125g ground almonds
• 125g skinned hazelnuts
• 3 large egg whites
• pinch of salt
• 140g white caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. Start by toasting the nuts. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). If you are using whole nuts, ground them in a food processor. They can be fine or you can leave chunks for texture. Spread the ground nuts on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper, and until the nuts are golden and fragrant (tip: I put them in for 5 minutes with the timer on; check them, then keep doing them in 2 minute intervals, in each case using the timer to make sure they don’t burn). When done, remove them from the oven and allow to cool.

2.When you’re ready to make the cookies, start by preheating the oven to 170°C (340°F). Line two baking sheets with greaseproof paper. Also put a saucepan of water on the stove over a medium heat.

3. Now make the meringue. Get a heatproof bowl. Add the egg whites and salt. Whisk to the soft peaks stage. Now add the sugar, a spoonful at a time, mixing well after each addition, until you have a stiff meringue. Fold in the vanilla and ground cinnamon. Finally fold in the cooled nuts.

4. Now put the bowl over the pan of water – it should be barely simmering. Gently stir the mixture with a spatula for 10 minutes. It will become slightly darker and slightly more runny by the end, but don’t expect to see massive changes.

5. Next, remove the bowl from the heat. Take tablespoons of the mixture and put them on the prepared baking sheet. The neatest way to do this is with an ice-cream scoop, but spoons work just as well. Just don’t expect them to be too neat or too regular!

6. Bake the cookies for around 25 minutes until golden, turning half-way to get an even colour. When done, remove from the oven and leave to cool on a wire rack. The cookies will become firmer as they cool.

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{6} Schwarz-Weiß-Gebäck

Today’s post is one that I’ve been in a bit of a muddle as to what to call it, as it seems to span borders. In German these cookies are called Schwarz-Weiß-Gebäck (black-white-cookies) but they also pop up in the Czech  tradition of vánoční cukrovi (Christmas sweets), which involves making lots and lots of cookies on the off chance you get visitors. And those Czechs have a name that just trips off the tongue…the very simple linecké dvoubarevné těsto, which as far as I can make out means Linzer two-coloured dough.

On the one hand, these cookies are easy – it is a simple rich butter dough which is quick to prepare. You just make one big batch, split in two, and colour one portion with some cocoa powder. So far, so easy. But the fun bit is when you have to combine the two doughs into all manner of different shapes and patterns. If we’re staying with the Czech terminology, you’ve got the choice of chessboards (šachovnice), pinwheels, (závitky) or salami (salam) – this last one is for those that don’t have a lot of time, or a good way to use up the scraps after you’ve made the intricate shapes!


I have something of a soft spot for these cookies, and I remember making them when I was very young. Or perhaps I just remember them being made while I watched? I’ll admit my memories of being a young child are not exactly crystal-sharp these days. But they do have a definite retro charm to them – they look striking and intricate, but this is nothing to do with layers of icing or complicated decorative techniques. And they also taste delicious – slightly sweet and buttery with vanilla and chocolate. Getting them looking good is just down to someone taking the time and having the patience to prepare everything very, very precisely.


While these might look complex, don’t be intimidated. The dough is done in about 5 minutes, and the design just needs time. Put the radio on and list to carols, a play or one of those overviews of the year that we’re about to finish, and it’s a great little job to take your mind off things. The chess pattern takes the longest, but all you are really doing is cutting strips of each dough which have the same width and height, and then building an alternating pattern. It’s not unlike playing with those number blocks we used to have in school for counting! The spiral is the easier option, as you just need to get two pieces of dough on top of each other and then roll it up like a small carpet.

Another approach which I’ve seen but not tried is to roll the dough as for plain cookies, then use smaller cutters to cut out shapes – so you can cut out a large dark star and a large plain star, then use a small circle cutter to swap the centres of each to get the contrast. And of course, when you have all the scraps left over, you just gather then up and make a marbled salami cookie – tastes as good as the rest, and an easy one to do with small children.


I was also very pleased with how these cookies turned out. They are cut just half a centimeter thick, and as there is no baking powder in them, they don’t spread or change their shape. So they are very thin, very crisp and I think really quite elegant. I think they look a little bit like the sorts of fancy cookies you see in a chocolatier or a patisserie wrapped in film with a little golden bow. And who knew that all you need to achieve the same thing at home is just patience, patience and more patience?

To make Schwarz-Weiß cookies (makes around 40-50)

For the plain dough

• 175g butter
• 110g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 egg yolk (reserve the egg white to assemble the cookies)
• 250g plain flour
• cold water

For the dark dough

• 10g cocoa powder

1. Put the butter, sugar, vanilla and salt in a bowl and beat until well combined. Add the egg yolk and mix well (keep the egg white for assembling the cookies). Add the flour until the mixture forms a crumbly dough. Add just enough cold water to get it to come together to make a firm dough (be careful with the water – add just half a teaspoon at a time – you really don’t need much).

2. Once you have your dough, divide it in two (ideally weigh it to be precise). Wrap one part in cling film and put in the fridge. Put the other half in a bowl, add the cocoa powder, and mix well until you have an even colour. Wrap the dark dough in cling film and put in the fridge. Leave both doughs to chill for at least an hour.

3. Time to make some patterns! Remove the dough from the fridge, and work it briefly so that it becomes malleable.

3a. Checked cookies – the time-consuming method. Roll out each piece of dough to 1 cm thickness (keep them separate). Now use a sharp knife to slice them into 1 cm strips. Once you have done the dark and light dough, start to build up the pattern. Take the first colour, the other, and alternate to make the first layer, brushing the pieces of dough with some beaten egg white to ensure they stick properly. Now build the second layer, being sure to alternate the colour (so if you started layer one with the light dough, start layer two with the dark). Repeat for the third later. Press everything to ensure you’ve got straight sides (or as straight as possible without squeezing too hard and ruining the pattern you’ve made!). Wrap the log in cling film and chill for at least 30 minutes, or overnight.

3b. Spiral cookies – the easier method. Roll the light dough to a rectangle of 20cm x 15cm and 1/2 cm thick. Do the same with the dark dough. Brush the light rectangle with lightly beaten egg white, and place the dark on top. Press gently. Brush the top with more lightly beaten egg white. Now roll it up from the long side like a Swiss roll. The dough might look like it is cracking initially, but don’t worry – just keep rolling it up tightly, then when you are done, roll it back and forward on the worktop to get as good a perfect cylinder as you can. Wrap it in cling film and chill for at least 30 minutes, or overnight.

3c. Marble cookies – the easiest method. Break the light and dark dough into chunks, mix them up and press together to create a marbled effect. You can fold and roll it as much as you want, but the more you play with the dough, the less pronounced the different colours will be. Form it into a fat sausage shape, wrap in cling film and chill for at least 30 minutes, or overnight.

4. Baking time. Preheat the oven to 170C (340F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. Take your cookie log from the fridge. Make 1/2 cm marks along it, then use a very sharp knife to cut clean slices. Like magic, your pattern should appear! Lay them on the baking sheet, and when the sheet is full, pop it in the fridge for 2 minutes.

6. Take the baking sheet from the fridge and put straight into the oven. Bake for around 10 minutes, but watch them as they will burn easily. I found the best way is to bake them for 5 minutes, then turn the tray round to get even colouring. Set the timer for 5 minutes, and keep a close eye on them – as the cookies are thin, those at the edges may bake more quickly than those in the centre. If they need more baking, leave them in for another minute, then check again – remove any which have a slight golden colour, then pop the rest back in for another miniute. I know this sounds fussy, but when you think of all the work that went into making them, you really don’t want to burn them!

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{5} Canistrelli

One place that has firmly stood outside of my past festive baking efforts has been France. I’ve only featured one recipe – chocolate, fruit and nut mendiants that form part of the tradition of the 13 desserts in Provence (calm down – this is not 13 actual separate miniature desserts, it includes items like fresh fruit and nuts).  There are, of course, lots and lots of delicious things that the French enjoy at Christmas, including the famous bûche de noël (perhaps a bit too much work for me unless I am making it for a very, very special occasion) and various sweet treats such as candied chestnuts, and the various buttery biscuits that comprise the brederle of Alsace. But I’ve just not found that many French cookies to feature.

Well, today we break that trend. I’ve made canistrelli cookies from Corsica which are made with white wine and flavoured with anise, and they can also include almonds or chestnut flour. I’m not entirely sure that these are a Christmas cookie per se, as they are eaten all year round on their home turf, but I like the recipe, it is a contrast to some of the other things I’m making this year, and they also looked quite easy. Sometimes I like to make things that are complex, and sometimes I’m lazy. And look at the pictures? Those diamond shapes form giant snowflakes!


I don’t know if it is a sign of age, but I increasingly appreciate the flavour of anise. I was not such a fan when I was younger, but I find it a nice alternative to gingerbread spices, chocolate or citrus. It still seems festive but doesn’t have the ubiquity of other flavours of the season. Perhaps it is a sign of an increasingly sophisticated palate, or perhaps it is no longer drinking dodgy liqueurs like sambuca with wild abandon? We can only surmise.

Anyway, to our guest cookies. Canistrelli are reminiscent of Italian biscotti in the sense they are a crispy and crunchy cookie but they are much easier to make than their Italian cousins. No need to roll a log, bake it, slice it and bake it again. You just mix up a quick dough, shape it and bake it. Then just accept that as the dough is quite soft, they will inevitably have a somewhat rustic look, and if that worries you, drink some of the same wine you used to make the cookies and you’ll feel better.


When making these cookies, the method seemed very familiar to me – it is essentially a recipe for making little scones (of “biscuits” if you’re American) as you’re pouring liquid into the dry ingredients, then working quickly with a fairly soft mixture. However you’re not looking for a soft, pillow-like bake which is still fluffy on the inside. You bake them for a longer time so that they turn golden and start to dry out. As you can see, I did not worry too much about the shaping beyond getting pretty rough approximation of a diamond shape using a fluted cutter (actually a Play-Doh tool that I had washed quite intensively!). You can also do this with a knife, and go for any shape you want – squares, longer logs, or even circles if you want to go for the looks-like-a-scone-but-is-rock-hard approach and indulge in some festive trickery. You will just have to adapt the baking time so that they get enough time to properly dry out and harden in the oven.


If you’re keen on some anise action, I can share a little tip. I ended up making these twice, as they vanished pretty quickly. The first batch used just anise liqueur, and for the second I also added some crushed aniseed. The seeds really help give a stronger flavour, especially after you’ve stored them for a few days, whereas the liqueur on its own is a much milder affair.

But if that’s not your thing you can play around by adding lemon or orange zest, roughly chopped almonds or raisins. I think anything that you could imagine being grown and harvested on a warm, sunny island in the middle of the sea would work well. You could even add some chocolate chips if that’s your thing. You’re starting to stray rather far from the Corsican flavours but hey, things move on, and even the most traditional of recipes were new and experimental once upon a time!

For the wine, you want a dry white. Canistrelli should not be very sweet, and in any event they are sprinkled with sugar. However if you don’t want to use wine, you can use water or a mixture of fruit juice and water, which would make them a little more child-friendly. I mean, if you’re baking with kids, you want to recipe to be quick and easy to counter short attention spans, but you probably don’t want to be mixing wine in there. Of course, the alcohol will evaporate off during baking, so you don’t need to worry about serving these to little ones even if they didn’t help to make them.

Oh, and that comment I made about the bûche de noël? It might be a lot of work, but I am planning to make one this year, flavoured with pear and chestnut. But it will be at Christmas, hopefully by the time that I’ve done all 12 festive bakes, so it won’t be on here. Sorry!

To make canistrelli (makes around 30)

For the dough

• 275g plain flour
• 100g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 60ml olive oil (not extra-virgin)
• 2 tablespoons anise-flavoured liqueur e.g. pastis, ouzo
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1/2 teaspoon crushed aniseed or pinch of ground star anis (optional)
• 5 tablespoons white wine

To decorate

• water
• granulated sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the flour, sugar and baking powder in a large bowl and mix well.

3. In a separate bowl combine the salt, oil, liqueur, vanilla, aniseed/star anise and three tablespoons of white wine. Pour into the dry ingredients and mix with a fork. Add more wine, a tablespoon at a time, until you get a soft but workable dough rather like when making scones (aka “biscuits”).

4. Transfer the mixture to a workstop dusted with flour. Roll out or press to around 1 cm (1/2 inch) thick.

5. Cut out the cookies – use a fluted pastry wheel or a knife to cut strips about 2cm wide, then cut diagonally into diamonds. Don’t worry too much about getting them perfect as you won’t manage!

6. Transfer each piece of dough to the prepared baking sheets, leaving some space for them to expand during baking. Brush or mist with water and sprinkle with granulated sugar.

7. Bake the cookies for around 25-30 minutes until golden, turning half-way to get an even colour if needed. Watch them closely – you might need to reduce the heat by 10 degrees if they are colouring too fast. When done, remove from the oven and allow to cool. Store in an airtight container.

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{11} Brabanzerl

I’ve always assumed there must be lots and lots of delicious biscuits, cakes and sweets in Austria around Christmas and New Year. I think of those beautiful squares, twinkling with lights and lined with markets. But I must have been doing my research in the wrong way, as for such a long time I just kept finding recipes for crescent-shaped Kipferl  or jam-filled Linzer Augen. They are delicious, but surely there was more?

Well, finally I have managed to find some other sources of inspiration! I came across (and swiftly bought) a German book called Weihnachtsplätzchen by Angelika Schwalber. She features a recipe for Brabanzerl. I would love to be able to say that there is some sort of fascinating history behind them, and there may well be, but I was not able to find out anything. But it does seem that people love them.

These are two pieces of hazelnut and chocolate shortbread, filled with fruity redcurrant jelly, and coated in chocolate. They looked a little complex, but I remembered that I had some jars of redcurrant jelly in the jam drawer that I had made from fruit I grew in the garden. Clearly this was a sign I had to make them! For making jam from your own fruit in central London is rather a big deal, since gardens are generally the size of a postage stamp. The little lad and I were very pleased we managed to get five pounds of fruit from a single bush, and we got five decent jars of ruby-red jelly as our reward.


I will be totally honest – these biscuits are a labour of love. You need to make the dough, which is very soft. It is unusually made with melted chocolate, and it then needs to be chilled so you can work with it, so that means lots of getting to know your fridge really well. Once you’ve made the very fragile shortbread, you fill it with jelly, and then you need to coat them in chocolate. And that chocolate needs to be tempered to get a good snap and that appealing sheen. The recipe I was following suggested dipping them in dark chocolate, then using milk chocolate for decoration, so that means two lots of tempering. I can do it, but it is a bit of a palaver in the kitchen, although I do get a thrill when it works out right. As a testament to how much work they are, I styled a picture of the cookies on a fancy gold plate, with some dried thistles and pine cones I collected in holiday this year in Scotland. I don’t normally add props, but Brabanzerl seem like the sort of festive cookie that deserve some special treatment.


If you are going to make these, I would recommend doing it over several days. I did this and the result was great, and it really would be enough to drive most people to distraction to try to do it all in one go. But they really were worth the effort. The shortbread is soft and crumbly, flavoured beautifully with the hazelnuts and chocolate. Then you have the jammy filling, and here you want a good jam or jelly with a strong, tart flavour. I used redcurrant jelly, but you could also use high-fruit raspberry or blackcurrant jam, or even a tangy marmalade. Apricot might also work it you want a nod to the traditional flavours of the famous Austrian Sachertorte. This fruity filling balances the dark chocolate, and the result is sublime. They look elegant, and taste refined.

I decorated them by doing a series of lines in milk chocolate. For variation, I also tried some swirls which I think looked fine, but the lines definitely look more polished. It was quite an effort. A lot of effort. But these little morsels of festive deliciousness could well have become one of my new festive favourites. Way to go Austria!

To make Brabenzerl (makes around 25)

For the dough

• 50g dark chocolate
• 150g flour
• 50g icing sugar
• salt
• 50g ground hazelnuts
• 150g butter
• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the filling

• 150g redcurrant jelly, or another tangy jelly or jam*

For the decoration

• 300g dark chocolate
• around 25 blanched almonds
100g milk chocolate

1. Make the dough. Gently melt the chocolate (use a double boiler or the microwave), then put in a bowl with the other ingredients and quickly knead to a soft dough. It will be very soft and slightly sticky. Wrap in cling film and leave to rest overnight in the fridge.

2. The next day, preheat the oven to 170°C (335°F). Line two baking trays with greaseproof paper.

3. Roll out the dough between two sheets of greaseproof paper to around 3-4mm. Form the cookies using a scalloped cutter (around 4cm diameter), and transfer to the baking sheets. The will spread slightly, so leave enough space between them. Gather the scraps and chill again in the fridge. Put the cookie trays in the fridge or freezer for a few minutes before baking.

4. Bake the cookies for 8 minutes, turning half-way to get even bake. Remove from the oven and allow to cool before transferring to a wire rack – they are very fragile when warm, but will firm up as they cool.

5. Now it is time to fill the Brabanzerl! Melt the redcurrant jelly (or jam) in a saucepan – if using something with seeds, then strain to remove them. Leave to cool slightly so it starts to thicken, then coat half of the biscuits. Sandwich together.

6. Dipping time! Melt and temper the dark chocolate. Dip the top and sides of the Brabanzerl in the chocolate. Transfer to a sheet of greaseproof paper. Press a whole almond into the centre. Next (if you want to and have time) melt and temper the milk chocolate and use this to pipe decorative lines or swirls on the edges of the cookies.

(*) If you are using jam or marmalade rather than jelly, you need 150g after you have removed any seeds and skins. Just melt the jam in a saucepan, then pass through a sieve.

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{6} Canestrelli

No selection of festive baking is complete without at least one trip to Italy, so here goes!


These cookies are canstrelli. They originate from the northern province of Liguria and their name means “little baskets”. They might look like simple shortbread cookies flavoured with lemon and vanilla, but they do have one little twist.

They are enriched with cooked egg yolks, which are crumbled and then added to the mixture. I thought this seemed pretty weird, but from my online digging, this does indeed seem to be the correct way to make them. This technique even appeared in this year’s Great British Bake Off. While it caused a raised eyebrows among the judges, the resulting biscuits were praised when it came to tasting time. So I had to try it!


I happened to make these after agreeing to make a bunch of macarons for a party, so I was left with egg yolks that had already been separated. I thought about trying to make them with uncooked egg yolks, but that would have resulted in a different consistency and we’d possibly be missing out on making authentic canstrelli. I then wondered if I could cook the yolks separately, and then I found some sites that suggested that you can cook the yolks on their own by poaching gently in simmering water. I did this, and it was a complete doddle. Just bring the water to a simmer, gently add the yolks, and simmer for about 5 minutes. When cooked, I transferred them to cold water, and then used them in the recipe.

When it comes to shaping these cookies, you can go with whatever shape you like, but the traditional one is a flower with the centre cut out so they look like a daisy. Normally I just roll dough out using flour, but this time I did it between two sheets of greaseproof paper to avoid adding more flour to the dough. Since it was cold and contained a lot of butter, there was no sticking and it worked easily. I’ll admit it is a little more of a faff than using flour, but it does mean you can roll up all the scraps and make more cookies, and the first ones will be the same as the last ones. If you’ve wondered by the end of a batch seem to look different to the first ones, it’s the extra flour you’re incorporating as you roll and re-roll those offcuts.


The resulting canstrelli were delicious – they have a very short texture and buttery flavour, enhanced with the vanilla and lemon. They are rich, but not in any way though, as you’re not really adding any liquid (which would have been the case if I had used uncooked egg yolks in the dough). So there we have it – two new baking techniques (well, new for me) that I look forward to trying elsewhere in the New Year!

To make Canestrelli (makes around 30-35)

• 150g flour
• 100g cornflour
• 75g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• zest of 1 lemon
• 150g butter
• 1 vanilla pod, seeds only
• 3 egg yolks, hard boiled

1. Mix the flour, cornflour, icing sugar and salt. Sieve to ensure if is well-combined and there are no lumps.

2. Add the lemon zest, vanilla seeds and extracts (or vanilla bean paste) and cold butter. Mix with your hands until just combined (or whizz in a food processor).

3. Now take those egg yolks. Press these through a very fine sieve. Add to the mixing bowl, then knead the lot until it comes together as a pliable dough. Flatten to a disc, wrap in cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for an hour.

4. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. Remove the dough from the fridge. Roll out on a floured worktop or between two sheets of greaseproof paper to around 1cm thickness. Cut out flower or scalloped shapes and then cut a circle from the middle (a round piping nozzle is good for this). Transfer each to the baking sheet. Chill the cookies in the fridge for 2 minutes.

6. Put the cookies in the oven and bake for around 15 minutes until pale golden – I recommend turning the tray half-way, and keep a close eye on them. Go by colour rather than time.

7. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for a moment – the cookies will be fragile. Transfer to a cooling rack.

8. Store in an airtight tin, and dredge with icing sugar before serving.

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{5} Cougnou

I lived in Belgium for almost four years, and in that time, I thought I had become pretty familiar with the local festive traditions. So it was something of a surprise to discover that they have a Christmas bread that I had never heard of! I finally found and tried one when I visited Brussels a few weeks ago, and I decided that it had to become one of this year’s Twelve Bakes of Christmas.


This is a brioche-like loaf called cougnou (in French) or volloard (in Flemish), and is also know as the pain de Jésus or “bread of Jesus”. It originated around Hainaut in south-west Belgium, and has spread across Belgium and the north of France.

The loaf is supposed to be formed to resemble the shape of the Baby Jesus. You can do this either using a special pot, or by forming the dough into three balls (two small and one large) and joining them together. Lacking the specialist mould and with no way to get hold of one quickly, I went freestyle and hoped for the best. As you can see, it worked and we ended up with a shiny, golden loaf that kind of has the shape of a swaddled baby. Which, when you think about it, really is just a little bit odd…!


There are a few different ways you can flavour the loaf. You could go for plain but raisins or sultanas seem to be pretty common. I happened to have some golden raisins in my baking cupboard, so I added those and they looked very pretty in the dough. Crushed sugar cubes are also popular as they leave little pockets of sweetness in the dough, while more modern versions us chocolate chips which are no doubt very popular with children.


You can make this with either plain flour, or bread flour. The former will give you a more cake-like texture while bread flour will have more gluten, so you will get a dough that rises more. I’ve tried both successfully. Yes, this was so nice I made it twice, since it turns out people are quite happy to tuck into a rich bread in the morning. It is best fresh, but is also nice sliced and toasted for a few days, so don’t worry if you can’t eat a whole one in one go.

The cougnou is topped off with a small decoration. In Hainaut they originally used terracotta circles (now plaster), but now it is common to see a little figure made from sugar to symbolise Jesus. In my case, I used a recipe for Dutch borstplaat sugar candy made in a jelly baby mould, and added some marzipan to finish him off. I think he looks quite sweet, but if you want to be more refined, you can make a figure using just marzipan.


If you have a go at making a cougnou, enjoy it the traditional way – with a cup of hot chocolate. It is also delicious toasted and spread with a little butter. So relax, enjoy your cougnou and as they say in Belgium – Vrolijk Kerstfeest (in Dutch), Joyeux Noël (in French) and Frohe Weihnachten (in German).

To make a Cougnou (makes 1 loaf):

For the dough

• 250g plain flour
• 50g unsalted butter
• 1 teaspoon instant yeast
• 40g sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 100ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 1 medium egg
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 50g golden raisins or sultanas

To finish

• 1 egg, beaten
• pearl sugar

1(a). If using a bread machine: put the dough ingredients (apart from the raisins) into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. When finishes, add the raisins and knead together. Simples! [But do check the consistency – you might have to add more flour or milk if it looks too wet or too dry]

1(b). If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the butter has been incorporated. Fold in the salt, sugar and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Add the vanilla. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes. Fold in the sultanas or raisins.

2. Divide the dough in two. Roll one piece into a ball. Divide the other piece in two, and roll each piece into a ball. Moisten the edge of the big ball with some water, then place the smaller balls at either end. Loosely cover with cling film or place the whole tray in a plastic bag. Leave in a warm place until doubled in size.

3. When risen, remove the plastic. Brush the surface of the cougnou with beaten egg, then sprinkle generously with pearl sugar.

4. Bake the cougnou for around 30 minutes until it has a deep golden colour. Turn the loaf round half-way to get an even colour.

5. Remove the baked cougnou from the oven. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to cool.

6. Finish the cougnou by topping with a little figure made from fondant or marzipan.

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Lamingtons

In years gone by I had traditionally written about something from Scotland in honour of Burns Night which falls on 25 January. This year I thought I’d do things a little differently. As Australia Day falls on 26 January, how about something Antipodean instead?

If we’re doing Australian, it just has to be lamingtons. This is not a cake that I see very often, even in a city like London with a decent Aussie population, but I do remember seeing them on Neighbours when I was young and being introduced to the concept of the “lamington drive”. This involved making and then selling lots of these little cakes, and it was pretty much the way of raising money for a good cause. From what I knew, they were pieces of sponge, dipped in chocolate icing and coated in coconut.

They were apparently named either for Lord Lamington, who served as Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901, or after his wife, the surprisingly named Lady Lamington. You can understand why they used his title when looking for a cake name, as his full name (Charles Wallace Alexander Napier Cochrane-Baillie) didn’t really trip of the tongue.


So I set about making a batch of lamingtons. First question: is there some single authentic recipe for making them? It would seem not. There are various different recipes for the sponge (such as genoise, Victoria or pound cake) and chocolate glaze ideas range from a smooth proper ganache to something sweeter and more obviously icing-like. I ignored suggestions to use pink icing on the basis I never saw the Robinson household or anyone else in Ramsay Street making them that way.

I settled on genoise, but then had to decide if I would try to make a deep cake and cut it into pieces, or would I try to include some jam element? Again, I don’t remember seeing jam on Neighbours but I think the right tangy, fruity jam is a good complement to sweet chocolate icing. I decided to make one large thin sheet of cake, which I would cut in two and sandwich the pieces together with apricot jam. That decision was based on what I had in the cupboard, but I think anything that has some sharpness to it would work well, such as raspberry or blackcurrant jam. Something more muted like strawberry would just add more sweetness but no contrast, but if that’s what you like, then go for it.


Many of the recipes that I did see suggested not using cake which was very fresh – you want the cake to be ever so slightly stale (whatever that means) and apparently this was best done but wrapping the cake in cling film and letting it sit in the fridge overnight. I’m not sure whether this really made a difference, or just ensured that the cake really was properly cooled, but it did cut neatly and cleanly into pieces. Given you will be glazing these guys and rolling them in coconut, neat slicing is not really that important as icing can cover a multitude of sins, but I was happy that the pieces didn’t just start falling apart. I took this as a good sign for when I was going to ice them.


For the glaze, I quickly discounted the idea of a ganache. While I have not been to Australia (yet), it is fair to assume it is a warm place for most of the time, and so it would be rather daft to make a cake with an icing that would melt easily in warm weather. So the icing I came up with is made from a warm mixture of milk, butter, dark chocolate and cocoa powder to which you add the icing sugar, then keep the lot warm over a pan of hot water. This keeps the icing smooth and makes it easier to coat the cakes, but then it will set fairly quickly after you’ve rolled the cakes in coconut. While most recipes use just cocoa powder, I also added some dark chocolate to the icing which seemed to help get a good colour and flavour.

The actual glazing process was quite fun – not something I would want to attempt in a hurry, and the first couple of lamingtons took a bit of time to get right. I found it easiest to gently drop one into the icing, then used a spoon to pour glaze over the cake. Once it is coated, you just slip a fork underneath, then allow the extra icing to drizzle off the cake. Then comes the fun part – you need to quickly transfer the cake onto the desiccated coconut, which you have on a large plate right next to you. Then you have to use your hands to form a coconut mountain around the cake, and press it a bit so the coconut sticks to the glaze. Then you need to flip the lamington over, so that all sizes are covered, and then move it to a wire rack. And all the while, the glaze is a bit soft, so you will probably have to fix the shape a bit with your fingers so it looks presentable. After you have done a few of them, you’ll defiantely develop a “lamington technique”.


And speaking of coconut…I was not sure if I should use plain or sweetened coconut for this recipe, so I bought both types. As this is a traditional recipe, I thought it might be made with the sweeter stuff, but to be sure, I tested them both before using them, and this taste test told me that the sweetened coconut was not right. Yes, it was softer and seemed more tender, but it had a rather peculiar aftertaste that I did not like at all – and then I checked the ingredients, it turned out it was just 65% coconut. All that apparent “tenderness” was coming from propylene glycol. I’m not a Luddite, and looked into what this was – it’s safe for food (which I would hope, since it was in that coconut!) but the impact on the flavour meant it was going nowhere near my lamingtons, but straight in the bin. Back to good old-fashioned unsweetened desiccated coconut we went! If you want to try something a bit different, you could toast the coconut, but that’s as far as I would go. You could use chopped nuts if you’re not a coconut fan, but then I think you’re veering away from what a true lamington is.

Finally, I should say that my recipe basically recommends you have a whole packet of coconut on a plate for dipping, but you won’t use all of it. I just think that you’ll struggle to get a good finish if you try to use less, so don’t be puzzled if you have lots left over after your icing escapades.

And how were they? I was all prepared for them to be a bit naff, but I must confess I really liked them. The cake, the set-but-soft icing, the coconut and the jam come together into a really lovely cake. They also looked great piled up high on a plate, so I will definitely be making these again. And not just for 26 January!

To make Lamingtons (makes 16)

For the sponge:

• 2 large eggs
• 100g white caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 100g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 60g butter, melted and cooled
• 130g tangy jam (apricot, raspberry, blackcurrant…)

For the icing

• 120ml whole milk
• 30g unsalted butter
• 50g dark chocolate

• 50g cocoa powder
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• generous pinch of salt
• 450g icing sugar
• extra milk, to thin the icing

To finish

• 250g desiccated coconut

1. Start wit the sponge. Preheat the oven to 180˚C (350˚F). Line a 20 x 30cm tray with greaseproof paper.

2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a low heat. Put to one side to cool. In a bowl, combine the flour and baking powder and mix well. Set aside.

3. Put the eggs, sugar and vanilla into a large bowl. Beat with an electric whisk until pale, thick and fluffy (around 3-4 minutes). Gently fold in the flour mixture using a spatula. Finally add the melted butter and gently fold it into the mixture. Pour the batter into the prepared tin and gently level off the mixture as best you can.

4. Bake the cake for 15-20 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven and cover with a tea towel. Allow to cool completely, then cover with film and refrigerate overnight.

5. The next day, time to prepare the sponge. Cut the cooled cake sheet in half. Spread one piece with jam, then place the other piece on tip. Leave to rest for an hour so that the jam holds the two layers together.

6. Cut the cake into pieces – trim the edges with a sharp knife to get good, clean edges. Now cut into 4 equal strips, and cut each strip into 4 pieces. They should end up roughly cube shaped.

7. Make the icing. Put the milk, butter, chocolate, cocoa powder, vanilla and salt into a medium saucepan, and heat gently until the butter and chocolate have melted. It will become very thick. Add the icing sugar, and beat vigorously until smooth.

8. Transfer the icing to a bowl, and balance it above a pan of warm water (this will keep the icing warm, and it should set more quickly when coating the lamingtons). Now check the icing consistency – you will need to add more milk to get it to a smooth but thick icing which pours easily – you don’t need much though, I only added a further 3 teaspoons of milk.

9. Tip the coconut onto a large plate.

10. Time to decorate. Drop a piece of the sponge into the icing, then use a spoon to coat it with the glaze. When done, put a fork underneath, lift it up and allow excess icing to drop off. Wipe the base of the cake on the edge of the bowl, then transfer it into the coconut. Coat it in the coconut, then transfer to a wire rack and leave to set (allow 30 minutes).

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Of lemons and olive oil…

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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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

To make 12 magdalenas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

galettedesrois2
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!

galettedesrois1

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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