Shortbread Christmas Trees

The mothership arrived in London today. She is here to spend Christmas with me and the Princess. I am, naturally, baking things in preparation for a week of festivities next week. There are also meetings and various people I’d like to give something too, if only an edible token of appreciation, and so I have spent most of this morning in the kitchen, and not at my desk where the essay writing is piling up fast. No matter, I will deal with that this evening, when it is too dark to take good photographs. I am feeling surprisingly festive this year. It’s my first in Nottingham since moving here three years ago (!!!) and my first in a space I can realistically have guests and people to stay. So I am embracing all the lights and trees and baking. (I also finished up my wreath this morning, drying some orange slices in the oven. It’s a lavender, rosemary and bay leaf wreath – all the materials came from the community garden! And it is now hanging on my front door, looking pretty.)

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So these shortbreads. I first learnt to make them when I worked at Gleneagles. They are the pastry chef, Neil Mugg’s, recipe and he got it from his grandmother. So this is something like a 100 year old Scottish shortbread recipe. I love it. Since working with Neil I have never used another recipe and it is adaptable if you’d like to make it gluten-free*. Today I made just plain vanilla trees, but you can add in ingredients like pistachios, lavender or chocolate chips if you like. I’m a fan of the simplicity of the vanilla version, but feel free to adapt it. The quantities are scalable up or down – we used to make it in the hotel using between one and five kilograms of flour at a time, today I used the quantities below, just 250 grams of flour. This amount made 22 Christmas trees and 19 stars (of various sizes). I also changed up the method for this recipe. We used to blitz everything together all at once but I prefer to cream the butter and sugar together first.

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Things to note: this is shortbread which means that the dough is ‘short’. It can be difficult to work with and so refrigerating it is fairly necessary. If you’d prefer not to roll the dough out and cut out shapes, you can press it into a square or round baking tin and bake it like that. You need to then cut slices when it is still warm from the oven. I often just pat the dough down to the required thickness, and then roll it smooth with a rolling pin. Try not to overwork the dough!

Shortbread
From Neil Mugg’s recipe
250g butter, softened
125g icing sugar
125g cornflour
250g plain flour
1 tsp vanilla
caster sugar for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 160C and line two trays with baking paper. (This makes a fair amount of cookies and so you’ll probably need to bake in rotation. I used four trays altogether.)

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In a bowl, sift the icing sugar onto the softened butter. Beat this, using a handheld beater (or in your standing mixer, if you have such a luxury), until bright white and fluffy.

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Add in the vanilla, beating to combine and then add in the cornflour and plain flour. Use the beater to beat until the dough starts to come together.

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Turn this out onto a lightly floured surface and knead the dough lightly. Roll into a ball, flatten and clingfilm. Refrigerate for an hour.

Roll out the dough until it is about 1/2 to 3/4cm thick. Cut shapes and place these on the lined baking trays.

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Bake for approximately 20 minutes. I think traditionally, shortbreads were cooked so that they had no colour but I like mine ever so slightly golden. The shortbreads are done if you can move them along the baking sheet with your thumb. Remove them from the oven and sprinkle with caster sugar whilst they are still warm. Allow to cool completely before storing in an airtight container.

Enjoy with friends. And tea.

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*For the gluten-free version, substitute the flour with 125g rice flour and 125g ground almonds. The texture is slightly different due to the almonds.

Gingerbread Reindeer and Stained Glass Stars

I am combatting the current freeze by keeping busy in the kitchen with warming spices and the oven almost permanently on. I said in the last post that I was embracing Christmas in a big way this year and so, in-between various writing assignments I have been making gingerbread reindeer and some stained glass stars that can be hung on the tree (if you remember to poke holes in them when they come out of the oven – I forgot for one tray, so they’re just pretty star cookies, rather than decorations.)

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These cookies are surprisingly addictive. I had several with tea this afternoon. They also make great gifts, if you know people who appreciate a good cookie. And they make your kitchen smell heavenly.

It’s a fairly simple melt-and-mix method that I adapted from The Primrose Bakery Book. You can ice the stars and reindeer if you like. I haven’t decided whether I’m going to yet. I quite like the plain biscuits but I suppose that iced ones will add to the festive cheer. And you can obviously make any shape that takes your fancy. I’m rather enamoured with the reindeer cutter as I bought it in Finland two Christmases ago and haven’t had the opportunity to use it yet. (I’ve started to buy obscure cookie cutters from places I visit. I have a Moomin one from the same trip too. I need someone to have a Moomin themed birthday so I can use it. And a friend bought me one of a church in Austria that I also haven’t had cause to use yet. So many shaped biscuit options!)

I like this recipe because it is reminiscent of actual gingerbread and not simply some ground ginger and cinnamon added in to a basic cookie mixture. There are cloves, nutmeg and orange zest too. And it uses both golden syrup and black treacle. For reasons I can’t entirely explain, I get a small thrill every time I open these tins to bake something. I suspect it has to do with my cousin Tim always referring to golden syrup simply as “the tin with the lion on it” and I get a whiff of nostalgia for our summer Christmases on the farm whenever I think of it.

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Gingerbread Reindeer (and Stars)

Adapted from The Primrose Bakery Book

75g soft light brown sugar

50g golden syrup

2 tbsp black treacle

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground ginger

1/4 tsp ground gloves

1/4 tsp nutmeg

zest of 1/2 a small orange

100g unsalted butter

225g plain flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

(If you’re making stained glass stars, you’ll need approximately 5-8 hard boiled sweets, smashed to smithereens.)

Place the sugar, golden syrup, black treacle, spices, zest and butter into a saucepan.

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Heat over a medium heat until the butter and sugar have melted and emulsified.

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Off the heat, add in the flour and bicarb.

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Stir until the flour is incorporated into the butter mixture.

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Turn the dough out and wrap in clingfilm. It’ll be incredibly soft and slightly warm, so work carefully. I like to make it fairly flat, so that it’s less work to roll out later.

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Refrigerate for an hour. Preheat the oven to 180C. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and roll out to 1/2cm thick. Using cookie cutters, cut shapes of your choosing.

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For stained glass stars, use the largest star cutter to cut the main star, then use the smallest star cutter (of the same set) to get a star inside the first one.

Gently place your cookies onto a baking sheet lined with baking paper. If you’re making stained glass stars, fill the middle of each star with the bashed up boiled sweets.

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Leave a few centimetres of space around each cookie. Bake for 5 – 10 minutes, depending on the cookie size. When the cookies are slightly browned, try and move them along the tray with your thumb. If the cookies move, they are done and can be removed from the oven. Let them cool for 2 minutes on the trays before sliding them off, still on the baking paper, to cool completely on your counter-top. If you’ve made stars, use the top of a small piping nozzle or a knife to cut holes in the top of each star whilst they are still warm and slightly soft. Once they’re completely cool, thread through some festive ribbon and attach to your tree.

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Mince Pies

I handed in my thesis draft last week. (!!!) One step closer to the end and that scary thing that is life beyond a PhD. I’m still ages away from actual hand-in. The thing about having a draft means that you realise how much more work there is to do – reviewing and rewriting, rereading and rewriting, not to mention those pesky publication articles that need doing. But it feels pretty good to finally have something to work with and to have the first big step towards the end accomplished.

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To celebrate, I’ve been back in the kitchen, baking. This afternoon I finished some mince pies for the freezer and made a batch of gingerbread reindeers and stars. I have the ingredients to try and make my own panettone this week (watch this space!). It’s fair to say that I am embracing Christmas in a big way this year. And am taking some time out from academic writing to, hopefully, do more writing here.

So, these mince pies. The pastry I use is one I was given at the SA Chefs Academy by Sam Waring. She was the pastry chef who stretched the basic cake-baking skills I had into something usable. Ever since she taught us this pastry recipe, I have used nothing else. And, to be frank, other mince pie pastry pales in comparison. Once you’ve succeeded with this, you will never go back to ordinary sweet pastry.

This pastry is a slightly messy affair. In a nutshell, you soften some butter, add in sour cream, give it a swirl, then add in flour until it forms a sticky dough. This you then turn out onto a floured surface and knead, adding in more flour until you have a smooth dough. You then rest the dough for an hour, roll it out, book-fold it twice (as if you were making puff pastry), rest it again and then roll it out and cut rounds for your tin. Simple right? It does take a bit of getting used to, but it makes wonderfully flaky pastry that is perfect with fruit mince. Obviously, you can make your own fruit mince. I have aspirations to do so at some point in my life, but not this year. This year I used store-bought fruit mince – some from M&S and some from Sainsbury’s. I’ll have to sample both before I let you know which is better.

Mince Pies.
Makes 24 bite-sized pies.
Originally from Sam Waring
125g butter, unsalted, softened
125g sour cream
175g plain flour
fruit mince to fill 24 small pies (approximately 3/4 330ml jar)
1 egg, for egg wash

Weigh out the butter into a large mixing bowl. Beat it with a hand-held beater until soft and smooth. Add in the sour cream and whisk briefly. (The mixture looks fairly atrocious but do not fear! It’ll all come back fine.)

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Add in the flour and mix with a wooden spoon until the dough starts to come together. This takes a while and it may look like there is too much flour, but keep stirring and turning and eventually all the flour will be absorbed. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. You will notice that the dough becomes sticky as you knead. Keep adding in extra flour until you have a reasonably smooth, unsticky dough. Don’t overwork the dough at this stage. It is preferable that it be mainly smooth and a little sticky.

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Wrap this in clingfilm and refrigerate for an hour. Have some tea while you wait. Then, once the hour is up, unwrap the dough, and place back onto the floured surface. (I don’t bother with cleaning up in-between all the kneading and rolling and folding.) Roll the dough out into a rectangle, so that the shorter sides are closest and furthest away from you. Book fold this – fold the top end into the middle and then fold the bottom end up to meet it. Then fold this closed. Quarter turn and refrigerate for another hour.

Preheat the oven to 180C if you are going to bake them straight away.

Now roll out the dough until it is approximately 1/2cm thick. Cut it into rounds, to line the base of a small muffin tin – I use a 68mm cutter. (I like bite-size mince pies. If you like yours bigger than this, say in normal muffin tins, use a 88mm one.) I also like star-topped mince pies and so use some of the pastry to cut stars for the top.

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Fill the pastry cases with fruit mince – about three quarters full. I have a tendency to over-fill mine so I try to err on the side of caution here. Top with stars and brush with egg wash. (For the egg wash, crack the egg into a bowl and whisk it to break up the yolk.)

The pies can be frozen, in the tin, at this point. I freeze them in the tin for 2-3 hours, then turn them out of the tin and place them in plastic bags of 12 in the freezer.

If you are baking them, bake for approximately 15 minutes, until the pastry is golden and slightly puffed. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes in the tins before turning them out. Best eaten warm.

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Christmas Granola (And the Story of the Great Granola Bake-off 2014)

It seems ages ago now but back in July I was interning at LongHouse in upstate New York. It might seem like an odd thing to do – take an internship unrelated to my PhD (it was all practical cooking and some blogging) only six months from potentially handing in, but I was in desperate need of a change of scene and some time away from Foucault. And so it was that I found myself in a barn kitchen, baking off trays and trays of Molly O’Neill’s granola.

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Normally, I make granola in small batches – 200 or 300 grams of oats at a time. Molly requested that I convert a 50 pound bag of oats into granola. She makes it twice a year, hence the vast quantities, and it is used in the LongHouse Food Scholars programme (as a breakfast staple), for visiting guests and other students, and to give away. I, of course, happily agreed to make all the granola. How hard could it be?

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Ah. Such famous last words. It turns out, 50lb of oats makes A LOT of granola. But y’ll probably knew all that already. It took the greater part of two weeks to make all the granola. I worked initially in the barn at LongHouse. This fantastic kitchen provided large mixing bowls and plastic tubs, large pots and two ovens, so that the granola could be baked in a series of six trays at a time. Unfortunately granola is not something you can simply put in the oven and then leave to do its thing. It has to be turned and stirred so that it bakes evenly. Too little time in the oven and it will not crisp, too long and you risk burning it due to the high sugar. Fortunately, I had company from Ali, who kept my spirits up (and ran around taking various photographs, including the ones below) and we had wine…

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The first mass of granola was baked and put into a large tub. This is where it all started to go wrong of course. We couldn’t find a properly fitting lid for the tub and so we wrapped it as tight as we could in clingfilm. But then students arrived and, instead of bagging it all responsibly into individual bags that were airtight, the granola was forgotten for the long weekend. The result? A request that I bake all the granola again, because moisture had gotten in and made it damp. I was slightly devastated. Hours of my life had to be relived! Part of me wanted to cry. Another part of me wanted to refuse. A third part of me wanted to lie down on the floor and not move for several days. But I took a deep breath and got on with it.

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By this time we had had to move kitchens. Initially I baked at Molly’s – in her new ovens. I was doing okay here but then, with the darkening light, I managed to over-bake several trays. Then the organising board on the fancy ovens gave up working and had to be replaced, so I moved to a third kitchen. These new ovens were temperamental and so required a more watchful eye. But slowly slowly, after several days, all the granola was baked to the right golden colour and dry. I was so paranoid about damp granola by this stage that I checked and re-checked all the trays as they came out of the oven. And sometimes put them back in for a few minutes, you know, just in case. We then spent an afternoon filling sealable bags with granola so that it would stay dry and could be used throughout the late summer.

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After that experience, making granola for hours at a time over several weeks, I was well and truly granola-ed out. I continued to eat it – Molly’s granola is exceptionally more-ish, but I didn’t want to have to make any more for a LONG time. Finally, this week, I decided it was time to venture forth into granola again. I often need something quick and simple for breakfast, before dashing to the office. I am highly dysfunctional in the mornings. If I can work from home, I do. I tend to be more effective if I can just get up, have a coffee and sit at my desk in my pyjamas for a few hours. If I have to get dressed, eat and leave, then I need my life to be as easy and straight-forward as possible.

This granola is adapted from Nigella’s book, Feast. Feast is one of my favourites – I love the writing and the organisation and the recipes. It’s my go to book – the one that came in my suitcase when I moved over from South Africa. Nigella writes that she got the granola recipe from a place in Connecticut called The Pantry. This granola is spicy and warm, and, with the addition of cranberries, rather than raisins, reminiscent of Christmas. It’s certainly my December choice.

I only made half the quantity she describes, mainly because I don’t need that much granola at a time. I left out raisins, sunflower and sesame seeds (because I thought I’d use what I already had), and reduced the amount of sugar. Nigella mixes everything together in one bowl but I heated up the apple compote with the sugars and oil because mine was frozen.

Christmas Granola
Adapted from Nigella’s Feast
225g rolled oats
50g pumpkin seeds
10g poppyseeds
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp sea salt
80g whole almonds, roughly chopped
125g apple compote
2 tbsp golden syrup
1 tbsp honey
35g brown sugar
1 tbsp rapeseed oil
generous handfuls of dried cranberries and apricots, roughly chopped (approximately 3/4 cup of each)

Heat the oven to 160C and line the oven baking tray with baking paper.

Put all the dry ingredients, except the dried fruit, into a bowl and stir to distribute.

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Place the apple compote, golden syrup, honey, brown sugar and rapeseed oil in a pan and heat until everything is emulsified.

Pour this into the dry ingredients and stir, making sure everything is evenly coated. Place the mixture onto the baking tray, distributing it evenly.

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Cook for approximately 40 minutes, until the granola is evenly golden brown. Stir every 15 minutes or so. This timing will really depend on your oven. Once it’s baked to desired goldenness, remove from the oven and leave to cool completely before stirring in the fruit. Store in an airtight container.

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PS. I have finally given my supervisor a copy of my thesis draft. This means *squee* that I am on the long road to actually handing in…

We Made a Wedding Cake

We made a wedding cake! I feel like you need a moment (or two or three), for this to sink in. (I still can’t really believe it.) We actually made a three-tiered, rather lovely (if I do say so myself) full-on wedding cake. That the bride loved. And people ate. Win!

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In my head I had several rather fantastic posts planned about the process of making a wedding cake. You know, all about baking the cakes, using a foreign kitchen, icing and then setting it up. Etcetera etcetera etcetera.

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But it turns out that actually making a wedding cake and then photographing the process are not really things that can honestly be done in tandem. Particularly when you’re working after-hours in a tiny kitchen with no windows. And drinking wine. There is no way you can legitimately blog about that process as it happens. Perhaps if you are organised and make the cakes in advance you could, but we made the cakes on Thursday night and Friday afternoon, filled and crumb-coat iced them on Friday night and then final iced and assembled on Saturday morning… There was little time to mess about with cameras and styling. We shot all the evidence with our phones.

Here is the story of the cake.

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This cake was a collaborative effort. Raphaella, who went to the same chef school as me and works as a food journalist, and myself tag-teamed the making of this cake. (The bride went to school with us, in case you were wondering how this collaboration came to pass.) Most of the consultation process took place via email with the bride – neither of us live in Johannesburg, where the bride lives and the wedding occurred. Raph suggested various flavour combinations and eventually we settled on chocolate for the bottom tier and lemon for the next two tiers. Obviously this did not mean just chocolate and lemon. The chocolate tier was chocolate sponge, coffee buttercream and walnut praline whilst the lemon layers were lemon and white chocolate sponge, lemon curd and raspberries. The whole cake was covered in a silky smooth vanilla buttercream.

Because neither of us live in Joburg, we had to make use of other people’s generosity (and kitchens). We baked in Raph’s work test kitchen and iced at Raph’s mom’s house – taking over her kitchen in rather spectacular fashion late on Friday evening. We worked out we needed a 30cm tier, a 23cm tier and a 16cm one. Baking began after work on Thursday, with Raph making the chocolate sponge. Then I made the 23cm lemon sponge cakes. The kitchen we worked in didn’t have a standing mixer or a hand-held electric beater so we whisked and beat everything by hand. There was a lot of swearing. And a fair amount of wine. I left Raph to look after the baking of the cakes as I was meeting friends for dinner. The next afternoon I baked off the smallest sponge layers, whilst Raph was in a meeting. Then we decided we’d had enough of the kitchen-with-no-windows, and couldn’t face making buttercream by hand so we decamped to Sue’s house. (To our credit, we did try the buttercream with a hand-held mixer but even with three of us sharing the beating process (thanks for getting roped in Sarah!), there was simply too much mixture to get the consistency right.)

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We loaded the cakes into their boxes and then put them, all the ingredients (and part of our sanity) into a shopping trolley to take downstairs. The security guards thought we were hilarious.

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Once we’d made it into the new kitchen, we celebrated at the presence of a standing mixer, and got down to the business of buttercream.

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Raph had already made the walnut praline and lemon curd and so, with the buttercream all soft and silky, the incredibly scary process of layering could commence.

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There is a reason, of course, why people freeze large layers of wedding cake – it makes it significantly easier to assemble. Whilst the 16cm and 23cm layers were reasonably easy to put together, the 30cm ones stretched our stress levels to snapping point. The middle layer of the 30cm tier was the worst, collapsing slightly as we put it a-top the first layer. After much cursing we finally got it neatly positioned. We then re-thought the entire assembly process for the final layer. Everything was crumb-coated and refrigerated overnight. Large whisky cocktails were consumed.

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The next morning we were up and at it again, making another batch of buttercream and giving the layers their final coat of icing. Then came possibly the most stressful part of the whole debacle: transportation. The reception was at Wits Club, on the Wits University campus – a mere 10 minute drive away. But the cakes had to be boxed and placed carefully in the car (and held by Raphaella and Ernst, her husband and corrupted helper) whilst I drove. I have never realised how uneven Joburg roads are but that day I think I hit every bump, surface change, and pothole available. It was ridiculous. And then there were the impressive speed humps just before the venue. There were a lot of deep breaths and curses on that short drive. But we made it to the venue!

When we arrived we realised that the venue is, in fact, a working restaurant and unlike the quiet, calm atmosphere we had both envisioned would be available to us whilst setting up the cake, the restaurant was busy, loud and full of customers having breakfast. We would have to assemble the layers with an audience! Shaking like leaves in a very violent winter storm, we slowly put one layer on top of the next. We patched any smudges and fixed any imperfections. Various people came up to talk to us whilst we were doing this (including one woman who wanted to know how much we would charge) and we tried to be as pleasant as possible, all the while silently cursing their questions.

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But slowly, slowly, we got it done. Flowers were artfully arranged – for which Raphaella must have full credit. I ran around looting flowers from additional arrangements that were going spare. And then we took a million photographs – you know, just in case something awful happened between our leaving the cake alone and the bride arriving to see it… Which it didn’t.

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When we arrived back in the evening, we snapped more photographs (and, as you can see above, had a celebratory photograph with our cake) and drank a lot of champagne. And later still, the cake actually got eaten!

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So that is the story of the wedding cake. Yes, I would do it again. But only if I could bake and ice from my own kitchen. With a standing mixer.

Chocolate Fudge Biscuits

The last of my grandmothers passed away this last weekend. She had been unwell and very frail for a while, but there is somehow still a void now that she is actually gone. I haven’t lived in the same city as her for some years now, and have visited only intermittently. We communicated via postcards I sent and phone calls she made. We grew apart as I grew up – she belonging to an old world of rules that I could never quite understand, a prim-and-properness that I fought against. The year I spent at chef school is probably the most I saw her in my adult life. We talked a lot about food that year – a common ground we both understood and liked.

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I went to visit her a few weeks ago. She was mostly bed-ridden and moved in and out of consciousness so that conversation was difficult. In that time my aunt realised that my grandmother never wrote down any of her recipes. She was looking for this recipe for chocolate fudge biscuits as she didn’t have it and it is a family staple. My grandmother would remember parts of it but then drift off somewhere else. My aunt eventually got the recipe almost right. In our foraging attempts to find a copy we found a hand-written recipe journal that belonged to my great-grandmother (and namesake) but very little of my grandmother’s actual recipes – things written from Jamie or Nigella which are perfectly accessible anyway.

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I always remember those years, as a child, when we spent Christmas in Cape Town. Her tiny kitchen was always filled to the brim with polystyrene trays filled with pink and white coconut ice, golden crunchies, and these dark chocolate fudge biscuits. She gave them away to people and there was always a large supply for the family. She must’ve been obsessed with coconut because all three recipes are heavy with the stuff. Now, we all know that coconut is one of my least favourite flavours but this week, I found myself craving the taste of one of her chocolate fudge biscuits. And whilst she did not write anything down (she made everything from memory it seems), my mother has the recipe amongst her collection. (Apparently she asked my grandmother for it when we were small children.) For me, these biscuits are a reminder of Christmas in Cape Town. And of a specific (and yet I cannot remember the details) road trip my father and I took one year, where we drove from Cape Town (I assume to Johannesburg) with a white ice-cream tub full of these biscuits that she had made for him.

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Chocolate Fudge Biscuits

For the biscuits:
2 cups plain flour
pinch of salt
2 tsp baking powder
4 tbsp caster sugar
6 tbsp desiccated coconut
2 tbsp cocoa
250g unsalted butter

For the icing:
1 heaped tbsp cocoa
hot water
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp butter
125g icing sugar

Grease and line a 33cm x 25cm x 2cm rectangular tin. Preheat the oven to 180C.
Place all the ingredients for the biscuits except the butter in a bowl.

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Melt the butter. Pour the melted butter into the dry ingredients and stir until all combined.

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Press the mixture into the baking tin, making sure it is evenly spread.

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Bake for 20 minutes – the biscuits should be firm but soft.

Whilst the biscuits are baking, make the icing.

Put the cocoa powder in a small bowl. Add in a teaspoon of hot water at a time, until you have a fairly thick paste. Let this cool slightly. Add in the butter and vanilla, followed by the icing sugar. (Sift this in to prevent lumps.) Stir until smooth.

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Once the biscuits are out, allow them to cool for 5 minutes. Then ice whilst they are still warm. Slice them into squares and leave them to cool completely.

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Raspberry Preserve

I wrote this post ages and ages ago, whilst I was still at cookNscribble, but never published it for a variety of reasons. My life is currently in suspension (or so it seems) and I am living on a friend’s couch before going back to South Africa for nearly a month (having just been there to see my grandmother who is very frail) so everything is in storage and on hold slightly. This is to tide you over until I’m able to blog properly again…

When I was about 16, my family started to grow berries for export. We had always been mielies, potatoes, cabbages and wheat folk, but one summer we were suddenly also berry growers. Now, after spending several summers in England, watching people’s delight as raspberry and strawberry season unfolds, followed by blackberry season in the early autumn, I sort of understand what all the fuss is about. I love a wander and a forage as much as the next person. And I can even get into growing my own raspberries. But this is a good 15 years on from the “summer of the berries” (as it is collectively known by the cousins). That summer has taken on myth and legend in my family as a result. One just has to mention “the summer of the berries” to elicit a collective groan and much laughter. (Or as Tim so eloquently put on the Whatsapp conversation I started to jog their memories of that summer, “shit, do we really need to go there?”)

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That summer, there was an abundance of blackberries and raspberries on the farm. Berries that didn’t make the export standard had to be used up – by us. So ensued: berry jam, berry pavlovas, berry trifle, berry alcohol, berry salads. Anything that could use a berry was made. And eaten. No one survived the summer untraumatised. None of us could stand to look at a berry by the end, let alone eat any. My cousin Jess still will not eat raspberries. I’ve spent years avoiding blackberries – it’s only recently that I have started to eat them again, and then only if I’m taking them off the plant myself and only a few at a time.

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But raspberries I’ve sort of come around too. Not in vast quantities. I will never be the girl who eats a punnet surreptitiously in the kitchen when no one is watching. But the odd one or two, a smear of jam on toast, an Eton mess, I can get in to. I’ve started to, dare I confess it?, even like raspberries, particularly sun-drenched ones, still warm, eaten straight from the cane. So when the opportunity came up to go raspberry picking as part of my experience at cookNscribble, how could I say no? Perhaps I might finally be cured of that fateful summer of berries.

Raspberry Cane Punnet in the field Raspberries in hand View of raspberries

So it was that one day this summer we journeyed to the valley of Schoharie, where Molly’s friend Alexandra has a farm with about 20 rows of raspberries which she grows predominantly for preserves. That week, the canes were suddenly all loaded with ripe fruit. We spent a hot hour on a Tuesday afternoon picking gloriously red, pink, magenta raspberries. Then on the Wednesday morning, Ali and I spent another hour (the breeze making things ever so slightly cooler) picking several more baskets. By the end, we’d picked our way up a row, but we were dripping sweat, our hands stained with berry juice. Alexandra, who is French, floated through the rows beneath a sun hat, her glamour in the face of berry picking putting the two of us to shame. But, despite our inelegance, she agreed to show me how she makes her preserves. So it was that a few hours later I found myself in her sunlight kitchen (with the help of her two cats), learning the art of, what Alexandra says, is originally Russian preserve making.

detail of macerated raspberries

The process had actually begun several hours earlier, when Alexandra macerated 4 quarts of raspberries with 1kg of sugar. She told me that she dislikes very sweet preserves and so, even though traditionally jams and preserves use equal quantities of sugar and fruit, she uses half the amount of sugar to fruit. So we used 2kg of sugar in total. The macerated raspberries take between 4 and 6 hours to seep enough juice to begin the preserve making. The time is dependent on the age of the raspberries – fresh-off-the-cane ones take much longer – and the temperature (if it’s hotter the process happens faster).

There was just enough juice to begin the process and so Alexandra strained the berries through a colander, collecting their juice in a large copper pot. To this she added the other kilogram of sugar, stirring to prevent the mixture from burning over the heat. Once all the sugar is melted and a cloudy syrup has formed, the heat is turned up.

macerated raspberries

sugar and raspberry juice

The syrup was then brought to a boil, and cooked until it reached soft-ball stage. (This is the stage at which you can create a soft ball of sugar in some water.)

creating raspberry caramel

Alexandra advised that the syrup should cool somewhat, before the berries are added back in. I think this is to prevent the destruction of the fruit – Alexandra likes the fruit hardly cooked at all to retain their taste.

caramel and fresh raspberries

The berries, in the syrup, are brought back to a rapid boil before the heat is reduced once more and the mixture simmered for between five and ten minutes.

cooking raspberries

detail of preserve

Off the heat the preserves are ladled into hot, sterilised jars immediately. Alexandra put the lids on the jars and allowed them to seal, keeping them in a cool dark room until they set. She told me that this preserve is best eaten sooner, rather than later… On toast. On yoghurt. On ice-cream. Or sandwiched between a sponge cake.

filling the jars

raspberry preserve bottled

And who knows, perhaps the cousins will be persuaded to try berries again once more…