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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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**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**

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Interview with Anna Weston of A Global Bakery

This week I enjoyed a cup of coffee and a chat in Oxford with Anna Weston, author of The Global Bakery: Amazing Cakes from the World’s Kitchens. We had a long talk about baking, fancy-pants equipment, the delights of sharing cakes, and the wonderful opportunities for ingredients shopping on the Cowley Road.

I started by asking her how she chose which cakes would feature in her book. As she says in her Introduction, she began with the premise that every culture has a cake; and so she made a list of all 197 countries in the world, and started filling it with cakes. The internet, of course, was an invaluable tool in her research, but colleagues, family, and foreign exchange students were all eager to share recipes and tips for the cakes of their homelands. One of the best compliments Anna has received since the publication of the book is the number of people who have told her that a certain cake reminds them of their childhood, their grandmother, or their travels abroad. More proof for the theory that cake is a source of happy memories!

I was interested to hear how the final selection of 64 came about. Both Anna and her publisher were clear that they wanted a range of types of cakes, a good coverage of countries across the world, the avoidance of too much duplication of key ingredients (a challenge, given that many cakes from the same broad region share the same flavours – like oranges and honey in the Middle East), and of course, some personal favourites. Anna also wanted to be able to say to her readers, ‘you can do this at home’. So, no special equipment or techniques which couldn’t be easily explained. Finally, the recipes all had to be cakes – an obvious point, perhaps, but one which led to an interesting discussion of what this meant. Both of us agreed that not all sweet things can be counted as cakes, as some other food writers have expansively decided. For Anna, the defining characteristic of a cake is its texture (something which is hard to pin down in words) and its sweetness. The ingredients are less important – not all cakes include hard fats, for example. The method can also vary: the New Zealand Louise Cake which features in the book, starts off with rubbing fat into flour, like a shortbread – though it actually comes out tasting very cakey. Only two recipes in the book defy these rules: the Czech Buchty, which is a yeasted bread (the Czechs apparently don’t really do cakes) – but one which is filled with a delicious-sounding cottage cheese, poppy-seed-and-sugar-mix; and a Swiss Nusstorte (tart) which – how to put this delicately? – was the result of a heavy steer from a publisher. It is, however, ‘to die for’ according to Anna, so we can perhaps forgive it its place.

One of the most interesting things about Anna’s book is the idea of a ‘global’ bakery. It really shows us both the common features and the individual traits of cakes in different lands. The entry from Patagonia, for example, is a Welsh Cake, which was carried over by Welsh settlers and has remained a favourite, relatively unchanged over time. But at the other end of the spectrum, some cakes reveal very different local tastes: the Taiwanese Sweet Potato Cake was very unpopular among Anna’s tasters because of its lack of sweetness; while one colleague threatened to strike when faced with the Italian Castagnaccio or Chestnut Cake – a beautifully fudgy looking cake which is surprisingly low on sugar (Anna explained why: it’s traditionally served alongside sweet wine). It seems from all this that although, as the Czech example shows, cake is not necessarily universal, the desire for sweetness in a comforting slice of something, is.

We ended by talking about the way we bake. Anna is keen for people to feel they can get it right without a lot of prior knowledge or special equipment. In fact, readers may be tickled to hear that she didn’t get on at all with her own fancy mixer, and made all the cakes for her book using just an electric hand whisk (it died, presumably of exhaustion, immediately after the book was finished!). As she told me, a cake doesn’t need to be domestic-goddess-perfect: ‘people appreciate the time you’ve taken to bake.’ But will she be entering the Great British Bake Off? Not a chance. In her own words, ‘I’m a family baker. I could no more produce a windmill made of sugar than fly – and I don’t want to.’

Anna’s top tips

As well as using self-raising flour, add a good teaspoon of baking powder when making a Victoria Sandwich

Do it the Women’s Institute way: weigh your eggs in their shells, and match the weight in the flour, sugar and butter.

Want an easy cake? Go for the Bara Brith – and add two generous tablespoons of marmalade to the mixture to give it a lovely glaze and extra flavour.

Want a decadent showstopper? Make the Tres Leches (three milks): ‘Heaven with the gate shut’!

To make meringues, make sure your beaters are clean and cold

Start to check your cake ten minutes before the end of the cooking time: all ovens are different.

And finally, don’t be afraid to experiment and change things around!

Book review: The Global Bakery

I recently read an article in the local paper about a new book by an Oxford writer and baker: Anna Weston’s The Global Bakery. It sounded right up my street so I ordered a copy straight away.

The book doesn’t disappoint. Anna is a keen baker herself and was driven to write the book by the thought that every culture must have a favourite cake. Since she couldn’t possibly visit every country to find out for herself, she armed herself with a list and turned to the web to find out more. The result is a lovely recipe tour around the globe, with every cake tried and tested by Anna and her willing colleagues.

I haven’t tried any of the recipes yet, but I definitely will; the photos and titles alone had The Scientist and I salivating. The very first recipe, for Gateau Moelleux a l’Ananas et a la Noix de Coco (Soft Cake with Pineapple and Coconut) from the Cote d’Ivoire, will be right up there, as will the Bibingka (a coconutty cake from the Philippines), the Valmuefro Kage (Poppy Seed Cake) from Denmark and the St Lucian Banana Cake. The Scientist has put in an order for the Schwarzwaldertorte (known to most of us outside Germany as the Black Forest Gateau), but had a moment of wavering when he saw the photo on the opposite page, for a Hungarian Chocolate Mousse Cake.

One of the treats of this book though, is that it includes cakes which are very far from Western tastes, which can’t help but make the reader think again about what cake means to different people (I recently read in Martin Jones’ Feast that sharing food is a way of crafting nationhood, and we certainly see that here in the use of local ingredients and shared produce). I have to admit to not fancying the strangely pink-topped Guava Chiffon Cake from Hawaii (sorry), while the author states frankly that another pink-filled offering, the Taiawanese Sweet Potato Cake ‘didn’t meet with universal acclaim’ from her colleagues (although the basic cake apparently makes a very nice Swiss Roll)! Recipes include jaggery (a form of sugar), coconut milk, chestnut flour, guava and – yes, sweet potato (alternatives are suggested if the originals are hard to come by, although all can be found in more exotic grocery shops). Several use gluten-free flours, or are dairy free. Some are complicated while others are straightforward.

This book really will have something for everyone. I would (obviously!) have loved to know a bit more about the history and background of some of the cakes, but I’m sure they can be followed up further thanks to the marvel of the web.

You can find out more, and order it here.

(Disclaimer – I wasn’t paid to write this review or sent the book by the publisher. It really is that good!)