Monthly Archives: February 2012

Lemon Poppyseed Cake

The thing about being a baker is that it is an inevitable fact of life that you are involved in the making of your birthday cake. You either make it yourself or you shuffle annoyingly about in the kitchen where it is being made, making suggestions and attempting to become involved. There is no getting around it. You want to be involved in the cake making business. You are a baker after all.

My kind friends gave me a ticket to visit them as a birthday present and on Saturday, after an excellent breakfast (which I will tell you about soon), we got down to the business of cake-making. Lemon poppyseed cake with cream cheese frosting and lemon curd. This is a cake I feel doesn’t get enough airtime and yet, whenever you have it, you are reminded about how good cake can be! There was just no way I was going to stand on by and let others have the fun so I weighed and measured and Sparry beat everything together. I poured batter into the pans (we had to bake in stages) and then brushed them with syrup. At this time in the process I normally loose interest, fortunately Sparry was on hand to whip up some frosting (taken from the Red Velvet Cake recipe which you can read about here.) The cake recipe was adapted from a blog called Always with Butter and you can read it here. Because the cake recipe uses only egg whites, we made some jars of lemon curd and at the last minute decided that lemon curd would go very well in-between the layers too.

Now, here is the lesson we learnt on Saturday: cake cannot be made and filled and iced in the space of 2 or so hours. It needs time to cool. The lemon curd needs time to cool. If you assemble the cake whilst everything is slightly warm, it will result in a very wonky cake that collapses dramatically when you slice it. This is precisely what happened and it was only due to some very skilled hands and clever knife work that we didn’t loose the entire cake to the floor (and Finlay the labrador’s stomach). Wait until everything is cool, particularly when you have many layers. That said, it is excellent when eaten slightly warm. The cake will absorb the lemon curd to some extent and it results in a super moist, light cake with creamy frosting.

Lemon Poppyseed Cake
Adapted from Alwayswithbutter.com
3 cups cake flour
1 and 3/4 cups caster sugar
4 and 1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
220g unsalted butter, softened
zest of one large lemon
splash of vanilla
1 and 1/4 cups buttermilk
3 tbsp poppyseeds
5 egg whites

Syrup
1/3 cup water
juice of one lemon
1/4 cup sugar

For the Cake:
Preheat the oven to 180C and grease and line 3 round cake tins. (Our cake tins were 7in ones which aren’t very big. If your cake tins are bigger than this I suspect it’ll make 2 cakes.)
Soak the poppyseeds in 1 cup of the buttermilk.

Place the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt in a large bowl.
Add in the butter and beat until creamy.

Then add in the lemon zest, vanilla, poppyseeds and buttermilk. Beat again. The cake is quite stiff which is fine at this stage.

In another bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff before folding in the last of the buttermilk. Fold this into the cake mixture in two stages. Beat the first stage quite vigorously so that the mixture lightens before folding in the second half of the whites more gently.
Divide the mixture between the 3 pans. (If you only have 2 you can reserve the last of the mixture and bake it once you have a free tin.)

Bake for approximately 35 minutes.

Allow to cool in the tins for 10 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack and allowing to cool completely.

For the Syrup:
Place all the ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 5-10 minutes until the syrup thickens. When the cakes are turned out and cooling, use a pastry brush to brush the cakes generously.

Cream Cheese Frosting
180g butter, unsalted and soft
150g icing sugar
500g Philadelphia cream cheese
Cream the butter and sugar until bright white and soft. Add in the cream cheese and beat until smooth.

For lemon curd we used a Hairy Biker’s recipe. I love them. They’re so good at showcasing small producers and longstanding artisans. You can find their recipe here. It’s super easy to follow and we did exactly what they said (we just strained the curd before adding it to the jars) and it worked perfectly. We got two jars of curd and used about 3/4 of one on the cake filling.

To assemble you cake, slice each in half so that you have six layers. Layer these putting first cream cheese frosting and then curd until the top layer which you can just put cream cheese frosting on.

Pseudo-Sourdough Bread

I had a moment about my bread at the end of last year. I’d finally succeeded in getting the desired crunchy crust associated with good bread and I’d managed to make the bread easily and without any sweat. At the time I didn’t have a scale so I was doing everything by converting the weight measurements into cup measurements. The good news is I finally got organized and bought a scale so now I can tell you all about how I make this bread.

This is pretend sourdough because it isn’t made with a sourdough starter. Rather, you leave the bread mixture overnight so that it sours and then you bake it the next morning. It doesn’t have a truly classic sourdough taste but it makes for a refreshing change from regular bread. It requires a little forethought – you need to leave 12-18 hours between making the dough and baking so don’t start at 9 in the morning because you’ll be making bread at midnight. If baking bread at midnight is your thing, obviously go right ahead. Personally I like to make this on Friday or Saturday evenings because then I have fresh bread over the weekend. It only takes about 10 minutes to get it all together and then you leave it to do it’s thing anyway.

My bread doesn’t look like something you’d actually pay money for in a shop but it makes the house smell amazing and it tastes great spread with butter and marmalade or underneath boiled eggs or as a sandwich. This has become my go to recipe due to it’s ease and lack of kneading. I’ve adapted it from Vegetarian by Alice Hart. I love love love this book. I eat vegetarian often – mainly because meat is so expensive here – and it’s my go to reference book for dinner. Lots of more-ish recipes that are easily adapted and changeable depending on what you have available in the house. I’ve used both spelt and wholemeal bread flour. I like spelt flour, mainly because of it’s novelty (it wasn’t available in the ZA when I left) but also because it adds an earthiness to the bread. I also use more water and slightly more yeast. The result is a very shaggy, unmanageable dough that you just ignore until it does magic tricks in the oven, transforming into something slice-able and edible.

Pseudo-Sourdough
Adapted from Vegetarian
100g spelt flour
150g wholemeal bread flour
250g white bread flour
1 tsp active yeast
approximately 2 cups water
generous grinding of sea salt

Dissolve the yeast in 1 cup of warm water (around body temperature – too cold or too hot and you’ll commit yeast murder) and leave it to activate (about 5 minutes). Place the flours and salt in the bowl. Add in the yeast water and stir. Add in more water until you develop a very shaggy dough. You shouldn’t be able to lift this or knead it or anything. Cover and leave in a warm room for 12-18 hours.
When your 12 or so hours have elapsed, flour your hands and get a sheet of baking paper on a work surface. Scoop the dough onto the baking paper, folding it in on itself so that it resembles a round-ish piece. Oil the clingfilm you had covering the bowl and place this, oil side down over the dough for 15 minutes. Remove the clingfilm and leave to prove for 2 hours. The dough will grow, possibly sideways rather than upwards but that’s okay. You’re going to shape it when you bake it. (Oooh, that rhymes.)
Preheat the oven to 200C and place a heavy lidded pot inside to heat. (I use my Le Creuset heart-shaped one.) When the oven is at temperature, lift the baking paper and the dough and place inside your pot. Put the lid on and bake for 30 minutes. Then remove the lid and bake for a further 15 minutes until the bread is dark. Tip the bread onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely before eating.

It’s the funny, wrinkled shape because the dough is shaped when you pick it up and place it in the pot. My pot is heart-shaped so it takes on some of that.

Banana Cake

I would like to say that I was extremely efficient and used a load of over-ripe bananas in this recipe and it made me feel all good inside because I wasn’t letting anything go to waste. The truth is that I developed a weird craving for banana cake until it reached such proportions that I couldn’t do anything except make the damn cake. I wrote a shopping list and headed off to find some ripe bananas. Well, as I’m sure you are aware, asking for a ripe banana in the depth of mid-winter doesn’t really do much to save the world. So let’s move on from the world-saving-feel-goodness of this recipe. I bought Fairtrade bananas. Perhaps that helps?

Upon my return home I discovered that I’d only bought half the quantity of bananas needed for the recipe. Whoops. Still, I sallied forth, putting years of training to the test by making the recipe with half the required amount of bananas. Personally, I find the method a little weird and I doubt I’ll make it this way again but it did work so clearly these people know more than me about banana cake. I also used a crème fraîche, double cream combination instead of sour cream – only because I had them to hand but actually it worked out super well. The cake was moist and banana filled, despite the low quantity. It’s dense and heavy. The chocolate icing is dark and slightly bitter which pairs well with the cake. My classmates managed to finish it in a fairly short space of time so it’s clearly a crowd pleaser. Good for when you’ve bought too many bananas…

Banana Cake with Chocolate Icing
Adapted from The Primrose Bakery Book
400g plain flour
2 tsp bicarb
280g butter, softened
60g crème fraîche
60g double cream
some vanilla extract
zest of one lemon
350g soft brown sugar
4 eggs
250g bananas, mashed

Preheat the oven to 180C.
In a bowl beat together the flour, bicarb and butter until light and fluffy. (This is the part I found weird. Why would you do this first? Why not beat the butter and sugar as per normal cake? I’ll have to try it again and let you know…) In a small bowl, mix together the crème fraîche, double cream, vanilla (just a drop or two) and lemon before adding it to the butter mixture. Add in the sugar followed by the eggs and finally stir in the mashed bananas. Pour this into a cake tin lined with baking paper and bake for 2 hours. (Not kidding. It really takes this long.)  

Allow the cake to cool in the tin before turning out onto a rack to cool completely. Ice with the chocolate icing.

Chocolate Icing
Adapted from the Primrose Bakery Book
175g dark chocolate
90g plus 2 tablespoons crème fraîche
90g double cream

Place all the ingredients in a bowl and microwave in batches of 30 seconds until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth. If it splits, add in a extra tablespoon of creme fraiche and stir until it comes back together. It shouldn’t split, but you never know. Pour this over the banana cake and allow to set before slicing. I only made about half the original amount suggested because I like less icing rather than more.

Snip Snap Chocolate Biscuits

Hello dear readers! This is me. I am still here. And I have now returned from the underworld of PhD writing that had accosted me for a while. I do apologize for my absence and will make more effort to give you my full attention in the future. But what I’m really here to talk about is these amazing chocolate biscuits.

These are biscuits folks. Not cookies. They’re thin and snappy, hence the name. They are not soft in the middle. And they are so full of chocolate it will make you weep. Yes, I said it. Weep. In short, they are the kind of biscuit to make when the world stresses you out and you want to curl into a small ball and weep. These biscuits give you license to do so.

These are adapted from Tea with Bea. You may remember, and here is the link if you don’t, that I few months ago I visited Bea’s of Bloomsbury in fabulous London town. The Princess and I went just after Thanksgiving and so I got the full works of Thanksgiving dinner followed by pumpkin pie. It was amazing. The book is amazing too. It full of the kind of cake, biscuits and slices that inspire you to actually get into the kitchen (as opposed to drooling uncontrollably on the pages but never taking any action). The cakes look particularly inspirational (watch this space for vanilla cake which I’m going to make next week…) but these cookies were on my mind last week and I eventually found time to make them on Tuesday afternoon. This was strategic because I had class on Wednesday and therefore had willing biscuit consumers at my beck and call. I love all things sweet but even I can’t manage an entire batch of these biscuits. It took me most of the afternoon and evening to bake them but that is because I have the world’s tiniest oven and on top of that, I ran out of baking paper so I was chilling the biscuits in the fridge, then baking them off and allowing them to cool before placing them on the bread board and then spooning more dollops onto the baking paper to chill and so on and so forth for hours. It won’t take you that long because you will be organized and have multitudes of baking paper and more than one baking tray and space in both fridge and oven for at least two trays. I say this because that is what I fantasize about having. (It’s the small things.)

I digress. I changed up the sugars in this recipe. I only had 60g of soft brown sugar to hand so I used that and more caster sugar than the original recipe calls for. I also only used 225g of dark chocolate, again because that is what was in the cupboard. Also, don’t skimp on the chocolate quality here. Chocolate is the predominant taste in these biscuits and it needs to be good quality – between 62% and 70%. Just don’t use 85% because that is for savoury cooking and will make your biscuits unbelievably bitter. The recipe suggests scooping the dough out with an ice-cream scoop but my ice-cream scoop is clearly more substantial and makes giant biscuits. I used two teaspoons and because of the way the dough melts down in the oven, this worked fine. Just make sure to leave enough space between dough lumps because these biscuits spread in a rather violent way. I did 8 to a round tray after my first attempt with 10 led to me pulling apart weird square biscuit shapes. This made loads of biscuits, about 30 at least.

Snip Snap Chocolate Biscuits
Adapted from Tea with Bea
180g unsalted butter, softened
1/4 tsp salt
60g soft brown sugar
220g caster sugar
1 egg
1 yolk
some vanilla extract
240g plain flour
1/4 tsp bicarb
1 tbsp milk
225g dark chocolate 

In your darling standing mixer, or with an electric beater, beat the butter, salt and sugar until white and fluffy. If, like me, you have neither, beat the butter in a bowl using a spatula. Once the butter is malleable and soft, add in the sugars and salt. Beat as best you can until the mixture is slightly lightened. (Let’s be honest, no one has time to beat butter by hand until it turns white. Just give it a good mixing.)

 Beat the egg and yolk together with some vanilla before adding to the butter mixture. Add in half the quantity of flour and mix before adding in the milk. Add in the rest of the flour as well as the bicarb and mix to form a dough. If doing this by hand at this stage it is in fact easier to use your hands. Finally chop the chocolate into pieces and add it to the dough.

 Preheat the oven to 180C. Using two teaspoons, drop lumps of the dough on a baking tray lined with baking paper, allowing space for spreading. Place this in the fridge for 20 minutes then pop them straight in the oven. Bake for about 11 minutes. I noticed that 12 minutes made the biscuits quite dark. You won’t be able to do the thumb test so leave the biscuits to cool on the tray completely before storing or scoffing. Run your palate knife under the cookies to release them from the baking sheet.

 I found that the cookies tended to stick if I didn’t do this first. Eat whilst warm or store in an airtight container for a week.

Getting it Wrong

As a type A, perfectionist personality I hate getting things wrong. I dislike turning in writing that isn’t perfect and I hate it when things that normally turn out fine, turn out wrong. I feel it does not bode well for times to come. Things going wrong in the kitchen is like an omen for things going wrong in life. But then that’s probably just the type A personality talking. Getting things wrong in the kitchen is normal. It’s probably actually quite healthy. And there’s always the chance you can learn something.

I had a craving for pizza on Sunday. An epic one. The kind where at every turn you think about cheese, melting and hot, crispy at the edges and stringy so that you have to use your other hand to pull the cheese away from the base in order to get the pizza into your mouth. And a crisp base. And tomatoes, preferably cooked slowly with some shallots until they can be smashed open with the back of a wooden spoon, their seeds spilling out like precious jewels. I like my pizza plain. Cheese, tomatoes, base. Occasionally I am willing to put things like bacon and caramelised onions on too. But mostly I want the essence of the pizza. No funny business with ham or pineapple or banana or chicken. Cheese, tomato, base.

So in the spirit of being all self-sufficient I started a bread dough. It was the one I usually use for focaccia’s although I do normally make pure white flour ones and on Sunday I decided I wanted a wholewheat base. So I used a balance of wholewheat flour and plain flour. Whilst I was kneading it, which I admit I didn’t do for long because I got bored, I thought that perhaps it might be a little to stiff. In other words I hadn’t added enough water to the dough. But, in my usual everything-will-work-out manner, I left it to prove. Slowly slowly it doubled in size. I separated some of the dough off and rolled the rest into a loaf shape and laid it in the loaf tin to prove again. The piece for the pizza base I rolled out with a rolling pin and then stretched using my knuckles until it was almost see-through. All semblance of a circle was lost but it was thin and would serve it’s purpose. This I baked for 5 minutes in an oven at 180C so that it was sort of baked before I added the topping. It could probably have done with 7 minutes but that’s just pulling hairs. I topped it with my slow roasted tomatoes and three different cheeses (cheddar, Parmesan and feta) and some sun-dried tomatoes I found skulking at the back of the fridge and put it back into the oven to cook. It was exactly the kind of pizza I had been craving. I ate it happily watching Borgen, waiting for the rest of the dough to prove.

Except that it didn’t. Prove that is. It grew a little, not as much as I was expecting though. I figured it would all come together in the oven. Oh, how wrong I was. What emerged from the oven was a dense, completely inedible loaf. One that you could break your teeth on easily. You could probably also knock someone out or knock a hole in the wall if you chose to throw it. Whoops. After two days of having it stare at me from the bread board I decided to cut my losses and throw it out. I feel badly about it but no one can eat that. At least I got some pizza out of it I guess.

Snow, Pasta and Lentils

It snowed here on Saturday. I went out to get some books from the library and got caught in the snowfall. Part of me was super excited. Actual snow! Actually falling! And the rest of me wanted to get the hell back inside as soon as possible. I ventured out again this morning when the snow had settled nicely to make the entire universe (well, mine anyway) look like the Chronicles of Narnia. There is something about snowfall in a park that automatically makes me think of that series. I snapped some shots of the snow on my walk and then headed back inside to the warmth and my left-over pseudo mac and cheese.

Macaroni and cheese is the ultimate in comfort food. Nourishing, warm, salty, creamy. Everything that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside. I didn’t have macaroni so I improvised and used orecchiette which I did have. I stopped briefly at my local all-purpose-emergency-grocery and bought some cheddar and bacon. Initially I intended to put the bacon in the the pasta but then I remembered that I had lentils in the cupboard for using up so I made a warm lentil, bacon and beetroot salad to go with the pasta. Unusual I know but I felt all saintly eating the lentils. I also remembered why I hardly ever buy them.

Lentil and Bacon Salad
There isn’t an actual recipe for this. Heat some butter and olive oil in a pan, add in two shallots, finely sliced and a clove or two of garlic. Sweat nicely before adding in a tin of lentils (drained) followed by slices of cooked beetroot and some pieces of crispy bacon. Finally add in the feta. Eat either hot or cold.

Macaroni Cheese
Again, I don’t actually have a recipe for this. I apologize but honestly, I make this on automatic pilot so I don’t bother with weighing much and do everything by sight.

Make a roux with a knob of butter and some flour. (I do about 40g or so.) Cook this lightly before starting to add in the milk, a little at a time. Once you have a thick sauce, add in grated cheddar and some grated Parmesan. Take this off the heat and stir once in a while so that the cheese melts and the sauce is smooth.
Cook enough pasta (give or take a cup) to feed yourself and whoever else might be hungry in your house.
Put some of the sauce at the bottom of the baking dish. Stir all the pasta into the remainder of the sauce before tipping this into the baking dish and covering with more grated Parmesan. Bake at 180C for 15-20 minutes until the mixture is bubbling and the cheese on top is brown. Serve in vast quantities.