Friday, 4 December 2015

Christmas Baking: The Gingerbread House Centrepiece

At last, Christmas is coming! 

And as always, I've gone in all guns blazing. I've visited Christmas markets in two different cities (Bristol and Manchester), done nearly all my Christmas shopping, am mid-way through sorting my office party outfit (after ordering and rejecting countless dresses) and have been doing some serious Christmas baking.

So let me tell you what I've been up to. A few weeks ago, on our first Christmas shopping expedition, my mum saw some gingerbread houses in John Lewis. This put ideas in her head, so she asked me to make her a gingerbread house as a Christmas centrepiece.

She was joking, I think.

But I did it anyway. I spent almost 6 hours in the kitchen, burnt my thumbs, got icing and gingery crumbs everywhere and at the end of the day I presented her with this:

A gingerbread house, complete with roof tiles (giant milk chocolate buttons), trees, windows (crushed cough sweets - don't ask) and a liberal coating of snow (royal icing).

We put an electric tealight in the back of the house so that it glows through the windows, almost as if they have a roaring fire in there.

I used a Mary Berry recipe, which can be found here on the BBC good food website, or in a GBBO recipe book - the full title is: "Great British Bake Off: How to turn everyday bakes into showstoppers".  

But having now baked it myself, I can take you through the recipe with a few extra tips and tricks for when the going gets tough. The printable pdf template for the house can be found here or in the book but please note it belongs to Mary and the BBC, not to me. 

You will need:

For the gingerbread:
375g unsalted butter
300g dark muscovado sugar
150g golden syrup
900g plain flour
1 tbsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tbsp ground ginger
a lot of greaseproof paper
2-3 baking sheets

For the icing:
3 egg whites
675g icing sugar
3 tsp lemon juice
one piping bag with a fine nozzle or small hole cut out (I used greaseproof paper rolled into a cone)

To decorate
15 yellow or orange boiled sweets (I could not find these and had to use cough sweets)
12in square cake board
250g giant milk chocolate buttons (Mary says to use 200g - it is not enough!)
1 electric tealight
4 long wooden skewers, cut to just a little longer than the height of the sides of the house

1. Preheat the oven to 200C and sift together the flour, ginger and bicarbonate of soda.

2. Melt the butter, muscovado sugar and golden syrup together over a low heat until they are dark and treacle-like.

 3. Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients, stirring with a wooden spoon and then, when cool enough to handle, knead the mixture together with your hands. Divide the mixture into six equally sized pieces and put each on a sheet of greaseproof paper.

4. Roll out the gingerbread and cut out the front, back, sides and roof parts of the template. Keep one of the door cut-outs to use as a front door and roll up the rest of the trimmings and use to cut out the chimney, trees and wedge-shaped supports for the trees (cut out an extra chimey and cut into 3 for this). You'll see I didn't add a chimney because mine didn't come out very well. Bake the gingerbread for 6-8 minutes.

5. As soon as you take the gingerbread out of the oven, put the template over the top and cut around it to ensure the cut-outs have sharp, straight edges. The recipe would have you wait for the biscuit to firm a bit but I found that this made the biscuits more likely to crack. Leave the oven on.

6. Crush the boiled sweets and sprinkle them evenly in the holes for the windows. Bake for 3-4 minutes, checking every 1-2 minutes to see if they have melted. I found that as my sweets melted, they spread unevenly and holes appeared, so have a teaspoon or cocktail stick ready to do any repair work while the sweets are still melted. For this reason you may want to do the biscuits with windows in one at a time. You may also want to use fresh greaseproof paper to ensure you don't get crumbs in the windows.

7. Make your icing by beating the egg whites until foamy and then folding in the icing sugar. Do not use an electric whisk unless you're using a standing mixer with a lid because otherwise the icing sugar will go everywhere! 

8. Measure out 6 tablespoons of the icing onto the cake board and spread to make a base for your gingerbread house to stick to. Then, making sure the biscuits are free of crumbs, pipe a line of icing up the vertical edges of each and put the house together on the base. 

9. Put a small blob of icing on the back of a giant chocolate button and stick it in the corner of one of the roof pieces, then repeat, overlapping the buttons like roof tiles. If you run out of buttons like I have here, don't panic. You can cover that with icing to give it the appearance of snow.  

10. Ice the short sides of the roof pieces and stick them onto the top of the house. In the recipe, it says to use cocktail sticks, inserted blunt-edge into the house to pin your roof pieces on, but when I tried this the biscuit looked like it would crack. Instead, I used long wooden skewers cut short to prop up the roof bits while they dried. 

11. Decorate the house by piping snow along the roof edges, either roughing it up with a spoon or cocktail stick or carefully piping icicles. Pipe a doorknob and design on the door, snow along the windowsills, pipe around the trees and stick the supports to the back of them with icing. Pipe a design around the star shaped window - just be creative and do what you think will look good.

12. Leave the icing to set overnight and stick an electric tealight in through the back door and you're done. A pretty gingerbread house which also smells amazing, meaning you don't have to buy those expensive Christmas-scented candles.

If you're going to eat the house, probably do it within a week, before it goes stale, but you may want to keep it as a Christmas centrepiece, like my family will be doing. 

Happy Christmas Baking!


Sunday, 27 September 2015

Bakewell Tart with Blackberry and Apple Jam

For as long as I remember, the end of summer has been heralded by the yearly blackberrying trip with my family, setting off armed with various plastic containers and returning with a carload of blackberries and purple-stained hands.

Of course in recent years, I haven't been living with my family, so I haven't always gone blackberry picking with them. Last year I went with my housemates and we picked about 3kg of berries - a very successful trip. This year's trip was not so successful.

I left it rather late in the year and by the time I went out fruit-picking with my boyfriend, there were few blackberries to be had. We stripped those bushes we did find pretty bare, and still came back with less than 1kg. 

I was hoping to make jam with some of our haul, but realised I would have to use all the blackberries if I was going to make a full jar. Everyone knows that the only point of picking blackberries is to make blackberry and apple crumble, so I wasn't going to sacrifice my crumble for jam.

Instead, I decided to make just half a jar and use it straight away in a recipe. The recipe I chose was a bakewell tart. 

The traditional bakewell tart is a long way from the one of my childhood, which was made by Mr Kipling, came in a foil case and consisted of a bitesized shortcrust tart covered in a thick layer of white icing, topped with a glacĂ© cherry and a layer of raspberry jam in the middle.

Fondly as I remember Mr Kipling's offerings, I decided to make a traditional bakewell tart - still a shortcrust tart with a layer of jam in the middle, but with a frangipane filling and topping of flaked almonds. I also used blackberry and apple jam instead of raspberry - because that was what I had and I read that in the past, people used whatever jam was in season.

This was the result:

If you want to make a bakewell tart, this is the recipe I used:

You will need:

For the pastry:
140g plain flour
85g cold butter, plus extra to grease
pinch of salt
cold water 
23cm tart or flan tin

For the filling:
half a jar of jam (for blackberry and apple jam see my recipe here)
110g butter
110g caster sugar
110g ground almonds
2 eggs
25g plain flour
half a tsp baking powder
handful of flaked almonds

1. Mix the flour and salt in a bowl and grate the butter into the bowl, keeping some of the wrapper around the butter to protect it from the heat from your hand, then mix again.

2. Rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips until it resembles breadcrumbs.

3. Mix the cold water into the crumble mixture little by little until it comes together into a ball when kneaded together. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for at least an hour. Preheat the oven to 190C towards the end of this hour.

4. Make the filling in the meantime, beating together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs and flour at the same time and beat to combine - the flour will stop the mixture from curdling. Beat in the ground almonds and baking powder.

5. Roll out the pastry on a well-floured surface until the surface area is big enough to fill the tin, using an offcut of pastry to press the pastry into the corners.

6. Line the tin with baking paper and fill with baking beans, dried pulses or rice to weigh it down. Then bake for 15 minutes, removing the paper and whatever you used to weigh it down 2 minutes before the end of the baking time. 

7. Spread the jam across the base of the pastry case, then spoon the frangipane on top and smooth it out with the back of a spoon. Bake for 25 minutes until well risen and golden, adding the flaked almonds on top after 20 minutes.   

8. Serve!

There you go - a bakewell tart filled with sweet jam and a soft, spongy frangipane.

Happy baking!


Thursday, 17 September 2015

Rosh Hashanah Honey Cake

Last weekend I met my boyfriend's family for the first time. They invited me round to dinner on Jewish New Year.

As if that wasn't scary enough, I was also set the task of baking the honey cake. This was, of course, my cue to completely freak out.

I am a very irrational person. So when I pulled out all my cookbooks and found no honey cake recipes and found absolutely no consistency between recipes online, I decided the best solution was to make up my own recipe.

Surprisingly, it actually went quite well.

It's traditional at Rosh Hashanah to dip apple slices into honey, so I wanted to include apple in the cake. To do this I followed part a recipe I made a while ago (see here for the honey apple and almond kugelhopf), cooking apples in rum, honey and butter. I then drizzled the liquid over the cake to keep it moist as I'd read dryness is a common problem with honey cake.

The bees are made of marzipan. I had to make them because I saw a beehive cake on the internet and went crazy for a while and thought I should make a beehive cake. Then I came to my senses and compromised by making marzipan bees.

This recipe will serve 12.

You will need:

For the cake: 
100g butter
2 tbsp caster sugar
4 tbsp clear honey
2 eggs, beaten
175g self raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp water
50g flaked almond
greased and lined spring form cake tin

For the honeyed apples:
50g butter
good glug of brandy
half tsp vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
240g honey
1 tsp lemon juice
2 green apples, peeled, cored and diced 

For the marzipan bees:
150g golden marzipan
40g dark chocolate
a piping bag
24 almond flakes, as whole and even in shape as possible

1. Preheat the oven to 170C. Add all the ingredients for the honeyed apples save for the apples and almonds to a large frying pan and bring to the boil. Add the apples and reduce the heat to produce a gentle simmer. Cook for 8-10 minutes, turning the apples often until they have softened and the liquid thickened a little.

2. Drain the liquid off the apples and set aside. Beat together the sugar and butter for the cake.

3. Beat in the honey. Beat in the eggs, adding two tbsp of sifted flour with each egg to stop the mixture from curdling.

4. Fold in the honeyed apples. Fold in the flour and baking powder.

5. Spoon the cake batter into the tin and bake for 10 minutes before sprinkling over the flaked almonds and covering the cake with foil to stop it from browning too much. Bake for another 20-30 minutes until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.

6. While the cake is in the oven, roll the marzipan into 12 equal sized ovoid shapes.

7. Break the dark chocolate up in a bowl and heat it in the microwave for 30 second bursts, stirring in between, until melted. Spoon it into the piping bag and cut off the tip to leave a very small opening. Pipe chocolate across the marzipan balls in two stripes and then, without squeezing, just touch the tip of the piping bag gently against the marzipan to do the eyes and stings of the bees.

8. While the chocolate is still wet, carefully place two almond flakes on the back of each bee.

9. Remove the cake from the oven and pierce several times with a cocktail stick. Place on a wire rack to cool with something underneath to catch the drips.

10. Brush all over with the liquid from the honeyed apples. Depending on how long the liquid has been cooling, the butter may solidify on top. If this happens, just give it 30 seconds in the microwave and stir well. Brush the liquid onto the cake a couple more times after 10 minute intervals. If you like, reserve the rest of the liquid to use as a sauce. Put the bees on and around the cake and serve.

I'd glad to say the boyfriend's family liked the cake, especially his grandfather, who ate quite a few of the bees.

L'shanah tovah!


Sunday, 6 September 2015

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Cookies

At the weekend, I went on an outing to the races with two friends. We got all dressed up, packed our picnic baskets with prosecco, carefully selected our horses based on the time-honoured method of picking ones with funny names and, in my case, proceeded to lose every single race of the day.

You may have noticed I mentioned picnic baskets in my opening paragraph. The picnic is of course an integral part of any race day. Last time I went to the races, on my 21st birthday, I spent weeks planning provisions for the outing and eventually produced sandwiches in several flavours, fluffy buttercream cupcakes in three colours, strawberries and a croquembouche (although that stayed at home).

This time I didn't go overboard. I baked a camembert and chutney-filled brioche (for the recipe for that see my post from January 2013) and some peanut-butter and chocolate chip cookies. 

If you know me or regularly read my blog you probably know that I love peanut butter. I fell in love with it while training for a 10km run and a couple of months ago purchased a 1kg bucket of the stuff.

So when I saw the recipe in my Hummingbird Bakery recipe book, it struck me as the perfect thing to make for a picnic. Easy to make and transport, tasty and full of two of my favourite ingredients - chocolate and peanut butter.

There they are, nestled between the prosecco and the still-warm brioche loaf and on top of the paper plates, wrapped in cellophane and decorated with curling ribbon. 

This recipe makes 24 large cookies. You will need to either bake these in 4 batches or have a very large oven and 4 large lined baking sheets. Before I give you this recipe, a note of caution: the cookie dough looks more or less the same all the way through. Sorry about that.

You will need:
240g crunchy peanut butter (I consider smooth heresy)
225g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar
200g soft light brown sugar
2 eggs
half a tsp vanilla extract
340g plain flour
2 and a half tsp bicarbonate of soda
half a tsp of salt
75g roughly chopped dark chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 170C. Beat together the butters and sugars until light and fluffy.

2. Beat the eggs and vanilla extract into the mixture.

3. Mix in the plain flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt.

4. Drop tablespoons of cookie dough on the baking sheet, spacing them as far apart as you can and flatten them with the back of a spoon slightly. Bake for about 10 minutes until light brown before cooling on a wire rack.

There, wasn't that easy? Don't get cocky though - be very careful at the baking stage as a minute can be the difference between pale, undercooked cookies and singed edges!

Happy baking!


Sunday, 23 August 2015

Quick Cornbread

I love making bread. I love the smooth, elastic feeling of well-kneaded bread. I love the spongy feel of the risen dough. I love the smell of the bread in the oven.

And, of course, I love eating it.

There's a sense of reward that comes from baking bread that doesn't come from many other bakes. Bread takes time and it takes effort. You have to knead the bread and wait for it to rise twice before you even put in it the oven. You really have to work for those gluten strands.

That's the reason I rarely make bread any more. It can take up to a whole afternoon. It can take longer.

But this week on Great British Bake Off the contestants made quick breads, which use baking powder or bicarbonate of soda to get the bread to rise. It can take less than an hour, easily.

So I followed suit this weekend and made cornbread with guacamole.

If you want to make a quick bread, here's how.

You will need:

150g fine polenta (cornmeal or maize flour to my American friends)
150g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
half a tsp bicarbonate of soda
half a tsp salt
1 tbsp caster sugar
300ml milk
half a tbsp lemon juice
2 eggs
melted butter, to grease
a square 9 inch baking tin, 2 inches deep

1. Preheat the oven to 220C, grease the baking tin and put it in the oven to heat up. Mix together the flour, sugar, polenta, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt in a large bowl.

2. Whisk together the eggs, milk, lemon juice in a separate bowl.

3. Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients, pour in the egg and milk mixture and fold together the wet and dry ingredients. Pour into the preheated tin.

4. Bake for 20-25 minutes until the bread is pulling away from the sides of the tin and a skewer inserted into the middle of the bread comes out clean. Leave to cool and then slice into wedges to serve.

This recipe serves four people (depending on how hungry they are).

Happy baking!


Sunday, 16 August 2015

English Muffins

For those who are not familiar with English muffins, let me explain the difference between English and American muffins.

The English muffins is a bread product that is round in shape, fluffy in texture and dusted with semolina or polenta. It is traditionally sliced open and toasted, then buttered and eaten while still warm. For a more substantial meal, the muffin is sometimes topped with ham or smoked salmon and then with a poached egg and hollandaise sauce.

An American muffin is an oversized cupcake that you get overcharged for in Starbucks.

I and my housemate, Julie, had a lengthy “discussion” with another colleague during the week on which was the “proper” kind of muffin and which was invented first. I can confirm that the answer to both of these questions is the English muffin.

So when I fancied making something special for breakfast this weekend, it was to the humble English muffin I turned. I made eggs royale - muffins topped with smoked salmon, poached eggs and homemade hollandaise.

The muffins were excellent - fluffy inside, marked with the distinctive pale golden brown circles on the top and base and only improved by their toppings.

I used a Paul Hollywood recipe. This will produce 8 muffins.

You will need:

a 9cm straight sided biscuit cutter
300g strong white bread flour plus extra to dust
6g fast action yeast
6g salt
15g caster sugar
15g softened butter
15g polenta or semolina
1 egg
170ml milk
olive oil, for greasing

1. Put the flour in a large bowl and add the yeast to one side of the bowl and the salt on the other side. Add the sugar.

2. Stir the flour, sugar, yeast and salt together. Make a well in the middle of the mixture and add the butter, egg, milk then beat in to form a soft dough.

3. Tip onto a clean, floured work surface and knead with well floured hands for 10 minutes until smooth and elastic.

4. Roll the dough into a ball and put in an oiled bowl, Cover with clingfilm and leave for an hour until doubled in size.

5. Dust the work surface with a mixture of flour and semolina or polenta and roll out the dough to a thickness of 2.5cm. Cut out 8 muffins with the biscuit cutter and place on a tray dusted with the same flour/polenta mixture.

6. Cover the tray with clingfilm and leave to prove for 30 minutes. Close to the end of proving. heat an ungreased griddle pan over a low-medium heat. When the muffins finish proving, cook them in the pan, flipping after 5 minutes to cook on the other side until each side is cooked to a pale golden brown.

7. To serve, slice open, toast and butter the muffins, add your desired topping and eat.

Happy baking!


Sunday, 2 August 2015

Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Icing

I love eating carrot cake. It's moist, lightly spiced, has a great texture and certainly doesn't make me feel like I'm eating a vegetable.

Not that I mind eating vegetables, being a vegetarian and all.

The only problem is, I hate making carrot cake. Grating five to six carrots, quite probably chipping a nail as I do so, is not my idea of fun.

Luckily for everyone else (except my housemate, who will probably be finding carrot gratings for weeks), I can be easily persuaded to make carrot cake.

I made this cake for my friend and colleague Karolina's birthday.

You will need:

For the cake:
225g self-raising flour
250ml sunflower oil
250g carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp cinnamon
large pinch of salt
225g soft light brown sugar
3 large eggs 
2 cake tins of the same size
a handful of pecan nuts, roughly chopped

For the icing:
225g cream cheese (such as Philadelphia)
25g icing sugar
50g butter at room temperature

1. Grease and line the cake tins and preheat the oven to 180C. Beat together the brown sugar and oil. Beat in the eggs one by one.

2. Mix together the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and fold into the sugar mixture. 

3. Add the grated carrots and fold into the cake mixture.

4. Divide the mixture between the two tins and bake for 30 to 40 minutes. If a knife inserted into the centre of a cake comes out clean it is ready. 

5. Leave the sponges to cool. Beat together the cream cheese, icing sugar and butter.

6. When the sponges are completely cool, spread the icing over the top of each sponge and stack one on top of the other.

And there you have it.