Baking from Sesame and Spice

Cookbooks, even baking books, are so ubiquitous nowadays that they really need a good story to tell in order to capture the reader. I was lucky enough to stumble on one such a few weeks ago, when my lovely publisher sent me a copy of one of their other recent titles, Anne Shooter’s Sesame and Spice.


Anne’s background is similar to my own; eastern European Jewish, with lots of family links with Israel too. Her book reflects this wonderful mix of flavours and family memory; even the photograph of a signed letter from Evelyn Rose on Jewish Chronicle headed paper sent a little shiver down my spine, and the statement that ‘The Jews’ obsession with food is written into their theology and culture’ certainly resonated (Jews don’t do anything without knowing where the next treat is coming from). Anne says that her own personal baking history was fragranced with ‘apples, honey, almonds, figs, pomegranates, cinnamon, orange zest, sesame, lemons and vanilla’. That’s a bit more exotic than my own, I must admit; my maternal grandmother had more or less given up baking her own cakes by the time we were around, and cake instead meant a marbled loaf from the local Jewish deli, a cheesecake at Shavuot, or a honey cake for Rosh Hashana (to bring sweetness to the new year). My mother, however, remembers fruited streusel cakes which came straight from her grandparents’ German heritage, and a special Polish cheesecake which I am on a quest to recreate.

2016-01-29 14.52.57

I followed my own food memories in picking what to try out first from this book, but it was a tough choice. It’s a beautiful book, full of enticing recipes and stories. I chose a double-header of ‘Grandma’s apple cake’ – a hefty, fruit-rich, round of sweetness which was perfect with a cup of tea; and the Coconut, dark chocolate and cherry fingers which were from the Passover section (during Passover Jews don’t use anything which makes food rise, in commemoration of the frantic flight from slavery in Egypt, so special rules must apply to ensure the continuation of treats). Coconut is one of the flavours I most associate with Passover delicacies from my childhood – in our family it came packaged as Coconut Pyramids which are like the British type of macaroons (as opposed to the painfully elegant Parisian macarons). They were a really easy bake – Munchkin helped me a lot with this one – and they proved to be lovely little morsels, excellent with yet another cuppa!

2016-01-29 15.39.17

This is a lovely book and I’m sure I will return to it time and time again. Apart from anything else I love looking through the recipes and reading the headnotes; for what is cake in my opinion but a celebration of our own personal histories?

Coconut, dark chocolate and cherry fingers

Makes 16

200g dessicated coconut

85g caster sugar

150g dark chocolate chuos

85g glace cherries, halved

2 eggs, beaten

150g dark chocolate, broken into pieces

Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4. Line a 30x20cm brownie tin with baking parchment.

Combine the coconut, sugar, chocolate chips and glace cherries together in a bowl until everything is evenly distributed, then mix in the eggs until you have a gooey paste.

Spoon the mixture into the tin and spread evenly with a wooden spoon, packing it down firmly. Bake for 20 minutes, until golden brown and set.

Meanwhile, melt the chocolate pieces in a small glass bowl over a pan of simmering water. When the coconut mixture is baked, pour the melted chocolate over the top and press evenly across the mixture.

Leave to cool in the tin, then cut into fingers with a sharp knife and refrigerate until really well set. Store in an airtight container at room temperature or in the fridge.

2016-01-29 15.40.12

**disclaimer: this book was sent to me by my publisher at Headline, but with no expectation that I review it or express a particular opinion. All views are my own. Recipe reproduced with permission of the publisher**


Gingerbread House

OK I said I didn’t think I’d bake anything from the rather beautiful 80 Cakes From Around the World. I also thought I would never have the patience to make a gingerbread house. And then I found myself doing both – and with a small child to boot! My last post on German gingerbread got me hankering after those houses, and the recipe in Claire Clark’s book actually looked quite do-able. With my mum’s birthday the following weekend I thought I would give it a go.

P1010667I am definitely no perfectionist on the baking decoration front, and my house is not as beautiful as Claire’s – but Munchkin and I were both extremely proud of it, so much so that he blurted it out to his Granny on the phone before we saw her 🙂 You need a fairly big quantity of gingerbread though we were left with enough for a few little cookies too. I wasn’t very exact in measuring the pieces either (there are templates in the book but I hadn’t traced them in advance and so used the tried and tested method of measuring against my hand; not the most precisely calibrated tool). That’s why our roof has a bit of a drafty gap in the top, but then with no windows the smoke needs to go somewhere, right?

P1010665I’m proud to say that Munchkin was properly involved with every stage of this bake; it’s surprisingly tractable to the assistance of a toddler. He helped to weigh out the ingredients and stir them as they melted ingredients, helped to roll out the dough, and even assisted me with the cutting. We had to leave the pieces to cool overnight, but he quality tested a small gingerbread boy (it passed). The next day he helped to make the royal icing and decorated the roof tiles with chocolate buttons while I stuck the other pieces together and propped them up with spice jars (seems appropriate, eh?!) and drinking tumblers (I suspect that there was a fair amount of unauthorised quality controlling going on at this point too). I stuck on the other sweets but he picked them out. Finally, I put the roof tiles on a few hours later, and we delivered it to Granny the next day.

P1010663This bake was so much more fun and manageable than I had expected that it might become part of our Christmastime traditions. Both Munchkin and The Scientist (and Granny, my sister, my nephew, and Granny’s dog – without the chocolate decorations, of course) are big fans of ginger cookies so it’s a bit of a winner all round. I’m still not sure I’ll be trying many of the other recipes from the book, but this one’s staying in our repertoire!

Christmas and the domestic goddess (and some mince pies)

I’ve talked before about how home bakers and cooks will often have a ‘go-to’ cookbook author, and I think this is especially true at Christmas time. So much of the joy of Christmas has to do with traditions that it’s not surprising we want our familiar favourites. We used to spend Christmases with one set of grandparents when I was a child, and although the baking had usually happened before we got there, the familiar tins containing the Christmas cake and the meringues were a part of what we looked forward to. (It never occurred to me to wonder why meringues were part of the festivities, and I only got round to asking my grandmother a few years ago. Apparently they were the result of making lemon ice cream which needed egg yolks. Strangely, I don’t remember the ice cream at all. But I digress).2014-12-09 09.32.24

That’s a rogue jam tart at the top left, made to use up the leftover pastry!

When it comes to festive domestic goddesses, I’m a Nigella girl. I make the Jewelled Christmas Cupcakes from Feast as our main cake, and the star-topped mince pies from How to be a Domestic Goddess. But I also like adding new traditions, especially now we have a small munchkin who is really getting into the excitement of the festive period. Two years ago I started a new tradition of making the Christmas cake on October 16th because that was my due date, and given my family propensity for 42 week pregnancies I was pretty certain that the last thing I would be doing that day was giving birth (I was correct). That tradition lasted precisely one year, but since then I have added a stellar non-yeasted stollen to the repertoire from a recipe my neighbour gave me, and I’ll be making meringues this year too.2014-12-09 09.32.30

So far this year my baking has been slow to get started, but the cake is made and sitting in a tin begging to be fed with brandy before it’s too late, and we have a tin of mince pies being nibbled away at by the Scientist and any visiting guests. On the subject of my last post these were made in conjunction with Munchkin, who rolled out the pastry with great zeal, chanting ‘rolling rolling rolling’ as he did it, cut out the circles (he didn’t seem to approve of the stars and indicated this by throwing the cutter across the kitchen, but I snuck them in at the last minute), and filled the pies with mince meat (also Nigella’s recipe, and made this year with apples from Munchkin’s grandparents’ garden). He wasn’t moved to try them; I think that mince pies are a bit of an adult taste, plus he was a bit unimpressed that we weren’t making cake. We may have to rectify that in our next baking session….

Baking with pre-schoolers: recipes

So, you’re ready to start baking with whatever young child you have to hand. What recipe should you pick? I don’t think that you have to pick something designated as a children’s recipe at all, but I do think it’s a good idea to check through all the steps before you start to make sure there aren’t going to be any surprises half way through. If you’ve tried it yourself beforehand then all the better, for the same reason.

Image from under creative commons

Having said that, there are many recipes which are particularly ideally suited to people with short attention spans, lowered awareness of the dangers of heat and sharp knives, and no patience at all for steps they’re not allowed to participate in. Here are some of our favourites:

1. Banana flapjack

This was the first thing that Munchkin and I made together, in the days before I let him eat sugar (ha!). The original was from the Ella’s Kitchen Cookbook, but it was so easy you can just make it up: mash a banana or two, add a few tablespoons of porridge oats and raisins, mix, smooth out in a tin and microwave for a few minutes, stopping every thirty seconds or so to check on progress. The original recipe called for oven baking but I tried the microwave so that Munchkin would understand what we’d done had led directly to something edible!

2. Yogurt pot muffins

These are absolutely our go-to favourites as they are so easy and adaptable. All the ingredients are measured out using a small yogurt pot and you can add whatever fruit you like. You can also lower the sugar if you don’t want them too sweet. We usually add raisins and sultanas because we love our berries too much to do anything other than eat them! We use this recipe

3. 1, 2, 3 cookies

The name is because of the proportions of the ingredients which is a little bit genius (if you forget which is which remember that flour provides the bulk, so it’s the biggest, and you probably don’t want your child going into a sugar coma, so that’s the smallest). We were introduced to these at a biscuit-making workshop we went to recently. Bonus point: they’re vegan if you use dairy-free marge and vegan choc chips:

100g sugar

200g butter

300g plain flour

1 tsp vanilla

1tsp baking powder

handful of choc chips or berries

Mix (it’s quite crumbly, so a good one for little hands to get into). Roll into balls and place on a baking tray. Bake for about 10-12 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius.

4. Sponge cake/fairy cakes

This is a good one as it’s fairly easy and forgiving, and can be made using an electric mixer or even a food processor. There are also lots of options for family-favourite flavours (lemon, orange, or of course, chocolate) and once it/they are baked there are even more options for decoration. I also have a standby vegan one for days when we’re out of butter.

5. Scones

Again, nice and quick, few ingredients, nice and soft for fingers to work with, and then opportunities for rolling and cutting out. Plus they bake quickly. You can make them savoury by adding cheese instead of the dried fruit.

6. Cut out cookies

By this I mean the sort of cookie where you make a dough, roll it out and get going with the cutters. Amazingly we haven’t really tried these despite having a ridiculous array of biscuit cutters. Again, they are optimisable in terms of flavours, there are a million recipes on the web, and they can be decorated. Plus if they get scrappy you can just ball them up and roll out the dough again. They make nice take-home presents or even Christmas tree decorations.


But what if you really can’t stand the idea of mess, not being in control, or the eating of too much raw mixture (though on the latter note, scones and the 1,2,3 cookies are egg-free which might remove any worries about raw eggs)? Here are some suggestions:

1. Use a boxed cake mix – you only need to add minimal ingredients and the cupcake ones often come with cute rice paper decorations to stick on afterwards. With no weighing out the child can do most of it him or herself.

2. Do the baking yourself in advance and get the child involved in the decorating.

3. Decorate plain biscuits with simple water and icing sugar icing, plus sprinkles and sweets.

4. Make play-dough or salt dough biscuits – you still get all the rolling and cutting

5. Make savoury things that you feel happier with. Munchkin loves scattering cheese on puff pastry to make cheese straws.

6. Play food! Still learning about the sociable side of food, sharing, and the processes that they see adults doing.

7. And on that note, eat out! Sharing a cake or a cookie in a cafe is still making happy memories 🙂

Baking with pre-schoolers

I’m not going to set the blog world alight by saying that baking with small children is a good thing to do. As The Scientist would say: ‘obvious blog post is obvious’. But I think where I am a bit unusual is in baking (and cooking) so much with a very young child: Munchkin is just two and we’ve been baking actively together for over a year (as opposed to his early involvement which was supervising from his sling 🙂 )

I’m sure it’s one thing along which puts most people off: mess. This is fairly undeniable, but only if you compare baking with a small child to baking on your own – unless you’re a particularly messy baker in which case the small child might actually keep you in order. In any case, I find a judicious combination of having everything set out already, and a short hop to the sink to wash off sticky fingers keeps things reasonably contained.

So, here are my top tips for baking with young children:

1. As I said already: get everything out in advance. Depending on where you do your baking you probably don’t want to leave the child unattended while you nip to the fridge or the cupboard. That includes the weighing scales, tins, jugs, spoons, knife for cutting the butter, etc etc. And if you’re super organised, get the eggs and butter out of the fridge in advance.

2. Find somewhere both comfortable and safe to do your baking. We bake in the kitchen with Munchkin standing on a high chair – it means everything is to hand, and the floor is washable. If your child is prone to expansive gestures or isn’t too stable yet, sitting at a table might be better. If the child is doing most of the tasks then you could even put the equipment at a low table and let them get on with it.

3. Get the child involved in as many tasks as you can. Even real littlies can help to stir, or to tip spoonfuls of non liquid things like raisins into a bowl. On the savoury front, Munchkin used to love snapping asparagus stalks. At the age of two he now stirs, rubs in butter and flour (he has an amusing little dancing action to accompany this!), turns the scales on, pours in liquids from a jug or a big measuring spoon, helps to crack eggs, turns the food processor on, helps to hold the electric whisk, dollops batter into the tin… There’s not much I don’t let him help with apart from the obvious heat-related things. And letting a young child know that they should stay away from a hot oven is a good lesson to learn early!

4. If you don’t like letting go of things, or the mess is getting too much, then find small, neat tasks they can do so that they can still feel involved – fetching ingredients, stirring small quantities in a large bowl to minimise spills, or sticking decorations on a finished cake. Personally I believe it’s better to do this than to be constantly cleaning their hands and faces (unless they don’t like to be messy) – and causing yourself stress.

5. Pick your recipe wisely. Go for something easy, and preferably something you’ve made before. But even complicated things might have easy steps – Munchkin helped me to make a meringue roulade mix, and then helped to spread on a filling before we rolled it up.

So, the down sides: yes, there is likely to be a lot more flour on the floor or the table than if you’d made it yourself.

But the plus side: you’ve shared an activity, and the child has learned all sorts of things about shapes, textures, counting, tastes (yes, that is inevitable and one to bear in mind with your planning if you can’t stand the thought of them eating something with raw eggs in it – see more below).

And yes, hygiene levels may be a little lower than if you were baking solo, so try to discourage double dipping of fingers or spoons if that bothers you (which probably depends on who your target tasters are). I try to keep any finger licking to the end, for example, which does mean transferring the mixture to the tins with lightning speed!

I’ll talk more next time about good recipes to choose if you’re baking with a small person, but I think that the best reason to give it a try is the memories you’ll be making. For so many people baking is utterly bound up with memories and love of the person you first learnt with, the smells, and the tastes that it brought – and isn’t that a wonderful thing to share? Even if it’s about the time that Mum accidentally let the raw egg slither on the floor (yes, I’ve done that), or the time we forgot to add the key ingredient and had to get it all back out of the tin (Munchkin was quite baffled by that one). In fact, ESPECIALLY if it’s about those things 🙂 Happy baking!