Dabbling with gluten free blondies


GR blondie

Is a gluten-free blondie, just before it got sent off to be cut and devoured by a small hoard of sweet-toothed gamers. I made it as a special request for one of The Scientist’s friends, who has recently become intolerant to gluten. I’ve never made anything deliberately gluten-free before, but I wanted to oblige one of my best tasters, so I did a little googling around. I was concerned that it might involve a lot of (expensive) substitutes, but actually the recipe I settled on simply required the substitution of gluten-free flour for regular flour. Super simple. The best thing was that Mr GF said that while other GF cakes he’s had tasted dry, he couldn’t tell the difference between this and a regular blondie 🙂 And blondies are his go-to baking request so that made me pretty happy. I have the rest of the bag of flour left, so he’ll be getting more in the pretty near future.

On a side note, blondies are one of of those fairly recent immigrants to Britain. I’ve heard them described as brownies without the chocolate in them, or alternatively, as butterscotch bars. They certainly have that fudgy consistency of a brownie rather than a cake, and although they don’t have cocoa or melted chocolate in them, they do contain chocolate chips, and often nuts too, though I left them out because I hate chopping the critters.

I used this recipe, because it looked easy, and it had nice photos in it 🙂

I used Dove’s Farm gluten-free plain flour.


Chocolate cookie cake – disgustingly good!

Anyone who has dipped into this blog for any length of time will know that I feel pretty strongly about the ways that cakes make memories. At their best these can tie people together with bonds of sweetness, community and friendship which last years – even generations.

This is such a cake. It started off innocently enough – in fact as a simple chocolate chip cookie recipe. It was in the booklet which came with a mini oven my mum bought when we were children, and it became a family favourite (my younger sister called them ‘chocolate chip cuckoos’ and it stuck).

I took the recipe with me to University where somewhere along the way it morphed into a cookie *cake* (or cuckoo cake 🙂 ). This simply consisted of sticking the dough into a cake tin instead of spooning it out into individual cookies. Not rocket science; more the sort of inspired idea which comes upon students late at night or when trying to avoid essay writing. In fact, that’s probably how it happened. This cake became completely beloved of my house-mates, who would all clamour to be the official tester-of-done-ness; a role which consisted entirely of eating spoonfuls of batter at intervals through the cooking process until it had reached the right stage of baked gooiness.

I can’t remember the last time I baked ‘cuckoo cake’ – it’s probably been over fifteen years. It took a visit from one of those ex-housemates this week to remind me about its glories. He was so excited that his first action was to send a photo to another ex-housemate in gloating glee. And his second was to say that it tasted just as it had in our shared student house twenty years ago 🙂 I sent the rest of it home with him so that his sons could try it too. I got back possibly the best compliment I have ever had on a cake, from his six-year-old: ‘It is disgustingly good. I want to marry it!’ That’s the sort of cake memories I’m after 🙂

Chocolate ‘cuckoo’ cake (makes about 12 medium sized cookies, or one cake)
125g butter/marge
125g caster sugar
125g brown sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 egg
275g self raising flour
1/2 tsp salt
125g choc chips

Cream together first four ingredients, add lightly beaten egg, mixing well. Mix in sifted flour and salt. Add choc chips and mix well. Bake at 190-200 degrees C for 10-12 mins for cookies, or 25 minutes plus for the cake. A skewer will still look a little gooey – the barely-set softness is part of the charm.

A very secular Simnel Cake

Simnel Cake is probably the most traditional of the Easter cakes. It has its origins in the same tradition as the Twelfth Night cake, which started off marking Epiphany (January 6th or the twelfth night after Christmas) but which eventually migrated back to December 25th and became our modern Christmas Cake. I’d even go so far as to say these were among the first properly sweet and celebratory cakes, in British history at least. The Simnel Cake has a few distinguishing features of its own: a layer of marzipan through the middle, no white icing, and twelve marzipan balls which symbolise Christ’s Apostles.

Mine was a little different and it was rather a bittersweet bake. I made it for the funeral of one of The Scientist’s friends, who died unexpectedly a few weeks ago, and at an appallingly young age. He was also a gamer, and part of the circle I regularly bake for, so a cake seemed an appropriate gift to help the others wind down after a hard day, and remember their friend. And so the marzipan balls became marzipan dice – with a gap for their missing compatriot.

I think this is the first time I’ve made a Simnel Cake, and I used this recipe from Mary Berry. She also suggests putting crystallised flowers on the top, which is an alternative tradition marking the flowering of spring. It was a nice easy bake, though I realised afterwards I had forgotten to add the glace cherries. It’s a good thing I have plans for a cherry cake…

What do we want from our domestic goddesses?

Look at any modern recipe: what do you see? A list of ingredients, in the order in which they are needed; an instruction on the oven temperature so you can get things warming up; and a list of instructions, again in order. You may even get some nice asides like ‘Back to the frosting’, or ‘you can add some more zest here if you like’ just to give the friendly, knowing touch.

These details  – and perhaps more importantly – the logical way in which they are presented, are an invaluable part of baking from a recipe. It wasn’t always so. In baking recipes from the eighteenth century instructions were usually in one block of text, with no separating out of the ingredients at all. Oven instructions were vague to our modern eye – ‘moderate’ or ‘hot’ (the modern Aga user will appreciate this of course, but most of us want a precise number in centigrade, farenheit or gas mark). Instructions like ‘bake until it is done’ were not uncommon, and you get general impression that authors were writing for bakers who already knew what they were aiming for. It wasn’t until Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families (link to free ebook) which was published in 1845, that a nod was given to the way the cook or baker read and used the recipe. Interestingly, the result was the other way round from the one we use today: recipe summary first, then ingredients and cooking times (the thinking being that the cook would want to read through the method first, before needing to know her ingredients).

I decided to try out what this different style felt like for a modern baker. The recipe I selected was the Sponge Gingerbread from Catherine Beecher’s Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book (available here) published in 1846 as a companion to her Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School (I mentioned it previously here). I have to admit that I picked it largely because it looked straightforward and didn’t require any difficult ingredients or baking methods. Here it is:


Sponge Gingerbread

One cup of sour milk

One cup of molasses

A half a cup of butter

Two eggs

One and a half teaspoonful of saleratus

One great spoonful of ginger

Flour to make it thick as pound-cake

Put the butter, molasses, and ginger together, and make them quite warm, then add the milk, flour and saleratus, and bake as soon as possible

Yep, that’s it. Still, I felt confident. Sour milk, I found, could be substituted with buttermilk, or some milk with vinegar or lemon juice added to it to make it curdle. Saleratus was an early raising agent and could be swapped for an equal measure of bicarbonate of soda/baking soda. And I know how thick a pound cake batter is, right?

Well, wrong on several counts. First, I made the mistake of assuming that the ingredients were listed in the order in which I needed them – despite reading through the recipe first as Miss Acton would have instructed. I’d already put the milk in the pan before realising my mistake – luckily an easy one to rectify. Then I had a little uncertainty over the thickness of the batter – despite my prior (over) confidence. And lastly, I had no idea how long to bake it for, or for how long, and had to consult Nigella.

So all in all, quite an instructive experience. Catherine Beecher was writing for women who might NOT have a lot of expertise in the kitchen, and she was keen to teach them scientific rules for the kitchen. But even in this situation, she could assume  that they could make an educated guess as to oven temperature and ‘done-ness’ (though see her other advice here on how to do that). She also clearly had higher expectations as to initiative, memory and common sense than I was able to provide, as she did not feel the need to list her ingredients in the order they were used. The end result though? Well worth it – the closest I have ever come to a home-made Macvities’ Jamaican Ginger Cake. And that’s high praise. But can I find a single photo of it? I cannot. I’ll just have to make another…





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.

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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**

Introducing a Short and Surprising history!

I’ve been disgracefully silent on here, I know, but I can now reveal why. The last few months turned into a total whirlwind, not only of the regular challenges of semester-time teaching, but also because I was finishing up this little beauty:


It’s being published by Headline and is due out at the end of February in the UK and shortly afterwards in the States, where it’s being published by Pegasus Books! I’m so pleased with the job the publishers have done, both on the layout and the content. You’ll find lots of the themes I’ve talked about on here expanded in a lot more detail, and also a crowd of other topics I hope will keep you stocked for dinner party chats and facebook updates for years to come 🙂 There are cakes aplenty, of course,  but also lots about how baking relates to femininity and feminism, migration and community-building, celebration and childhood, economic expansion and technology.

It’s available for pre-order on amazon.uk, and could make a lovely present for Mother’s Day 😉

Marguerite Patten: Domestic Goddess of the Austerity Era

I’ve been using the term ‘Domestic Goddess’ to mean a whole range of attributes from skill in the home; through a connection with ‘old fashioned’ tasks and activities; to the patina of accomplishment and polish which the likes of Nigella seem to have lent to it. I suspect that’s what many other people who use the term do too, pulling out a positive or a negative angle as suits them. But on any of those more positive measures, Marguerite Patten, who died this month, more than fits the bill.

Marguerite Patten presenting the BBC programme ‘Can You Cook?’ in 1950. Image source, BBC.

Patten was for a time an actress, before becoming a Senior Home Economist for Frigidaire. She is best known, however, for her work during the Second World War, when she was employed as a Senior Home Economist by the Ministry of Food, and after the war, for Harrods department store. Her job was to publicise information about rationing, and to provide demonstrations and talks about what could be done with the limited food on offer. She was undoubtedly accomplished in the arts of cookery, offering a huge repertoire of dishes to her followers, many of whom she realised were regulars and so needed a constant supply of new ideas. At one stage she was giving 11 demonstrations per week in Harrods. But for me, what makes her a positive role model as a Domestic Goddess was her attitude to food and celebration in a time of shortage.

The attitude comes across very clearly in a long interview she recorded in 1996 for the Imperial War Museum’s Sound Archive. Her approach, she says, was not to apologise for the shortage and monotony of ingredients (rations were two ounces of butter, four ounces of margarine or other fats two ounces of cheese, and a tuppenny worth of meat for a week. You could expect to get one single egg per week ‘if you were lucky’, and half a pound of sugar) but instead to cheerfully present her dishes as tasty and wholesome. She also realised that people still needed celebratory food and treats in their lives – possibly more than ever. Christmas was a difficult time, but she says ‘we were determined to celebrate’ – cue recipes for marzipan which substituted soya flour or semolina for the missing ground almonds. She popularised an eggless, tea-soaked fruit cake which used little sugar and no fat, and published countless other recipes for austerity cakes which required little in the way of the prized sugar and butter. She even did her best with dried eggs which were a bit of a Marmite of their time: ‘Some people loved dried eggs. “Oooh, I wish we could have them back”, they say. Other people say “oh, that ghastly dried eggs.” She realised that the trick to palatability was in making sure that they were made up with the correct proportion of water; too much powder and they tasted sulphurous (some said that scrambled powdered eggs also bounced when dropped!). After the war, things (eventually) became easier, and she remembered cooking ‘more frivolous things’ in her demonstrations, like puff pastry and continental buns.

Image source: amazon

But lest we think that Domestic Goddessery is all about promoting women’s subjugation in the kitchen (which certainly isn’t how I used the term),  we should note that Patten was also a prominent and well-loved broadcaster as well as a taste-leader. She appeared on the second day of Woman’s Hour in 1946, and was a regular voice on that program. She also took part in the famous short ‘Kitchen Front’ broadcasts on weekday mornings alongside Dr Charles Hill ‘the Radio Doctor’, whom she remembered with some fondness: ‘He was like Winston Churchill in that it wasn’t what he said sometimes, but how he said it.’ Her more than 170 cookbooks (of which Cookery in Colour published in 1961 stood out in an era of black and white photography) were hugely popular, and she was one of the first cooks to appear on television. She was both an OBE and later a CBE, and in 2007 was awarded the Woman of the Year Elior Lifetime Achievement Award.

Marguerite Patten retired in her seventies but returned to broadcasting in her nineties. Fittingly, Woman’s Hour broadcast an episode-length tribute to her on her death which showed her humour and expertise still as sharp as ever, although she was no longer able to stand to cook comfortably.

The Imperial War Museum interview can be heard here.

New Zealand’s Louise Cake: cooking from the Global Bakery


When I met Anna Weston last week I asked her what she would recommend I bake to take to my in-laws. Without hesitation she said the New Zealand Louise Cake. So that’s what I made!

imageThe Louise cake consists of three layers: a soft shortbread, a generous slick of raspberry jam, and a coconutty meringue on the top. One of my sisters lived in New Zealand for a while so I’m familiar with the shortbread favourites (often topped with a caramelly layer). And although Anna said that some Kiwis claim they hadn’t come across it, it’s in the New Zealand recipe bible, the Edmonds Cookbook, so fair dinkum as far as I’m concerned.

It was a pretty easy bake despite the layers, and the shortbread doesn’t need baking first. This cake was one of the ones Anna particularly mentioned when we were talking about definitions. At first glance it’s perhaps on the fence: in Britain shortbread is much more biscuity than cakey. But it was actually the one she picked out when she was talking about texture – despite the rubbing in method it is much softer than the word shortbread would suggest. I’m not sure I would go so far as to call it cakey, but it’s certainly a very tasty bake. Anna also tipped me to leave it for its whole baking time so I just checked that the meringue wasn’t getting too brown after about half an hour. It was pretty soft to remove from the tin (though I should say this was my own fault for not lining as well as greasing the tin). I did get it out without mishap though I didn’t risk slicing it until we got there!

It was indeed, a perfect gift to take to the family. The Scientist, who is used to being called on for critical yet constructive comments on my baking, admired the variety of tastes and textures – fruity (I added some fresh raspberries with the jam, as suggested in the recipe), sweet and nubbly from the coconut (that was my word not his; he’s more likely to come out with things like ‘redactive’ and ‘exponential’). Definitely a keeper. I might even try it out on my sister next…

Thanks to Anna for the suggestion, and for permission to reproduce the recipe here:

New Zealand Louise Cake, from Anna Weston’s Global Bakery

1/2 cup/125g butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup/150g caster sugar

3 large eggs, separated

2 1/2 cups/325g all-purpose/plain flour

2 tsp of baking powder

1/2 tsp of vanilla extract

3/4 cup/200g raspberry jam



3 egg whites (from the separated eggs)

1/4 cup/50g caster sugar

1 1/4 cups/120g unsweetened desiccated coconut

1 tsp vanilla extract

A handful of fresh raspberries

Heat oven to 300 degrees F/150 C/Gas Mark 2

Lightly grease an 11-inch/28 cm x 8 inch/20cm cake pan. Line the pan with baking paper, and allow the paper to hang over the edges a little.

1. In a mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

2. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla extract.

3. Sift the flour and baking powder, then fold into the mixture until combined. This will result in a crumbly dough.

4. Press the dough into the lined cake pan until the base is covered and then completely cover it with a thin layer of jam (you can also sprinkle the jam with some fresh raspberries if you have them). Set aside while you make the topping.

5. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks.

6. Gradually add the caster sugar, one tablespoon at a time, while continuing to beat the whites until they form stiff, glossy peaks.

7. Using a spatula, gently fold in the desiccated coconut and vanilla extract.

8. Spread the coconut meringue over the jam, ensuring that the jam is completely covered.

9. Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes or until the meringue has developed a lightly golden brown and soft pink colour. It is quite normal for it to crack.

10. Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Lift it from the tin and onto a cooling rack, using the lining paper, and allow it to cool completely.

11. Once the cake has cooled, cut it into squares and serve topped with fresh raspberries (if available). The cake can be kept in an airtight container for up to one week.

European Cakes – a Feast for the Eyes

We are still held by Great British Bake Off fever here in the UK, and this week’s theme was European Cakes. The bakers had to tackle a yeasted cake of their own choosing, Mary Berry’s recipe for a Swedish Prinsesstarta, and then give their own caramelly interpretation of a Hungarian dobos torta.

Mary Berry’s Prinsesstarta (www.bbc.co.uk/food)

I’ll talk more about these cakes another time, but what the show really made clear was how beautiful European cakes are (I could add, ‘or are meant to be’ but given that presentation is not my own forte in baking, I’ll keep schtum). Presentation really matters; many of the signature cakes from Europe have very precise requirements in terms of decoration and colour, and their consumption really calls for a sense of occasion. British, North American and Australasian cakes, by contrast, are a bit more ‘homeyness on a plate’. If we like comfort, the Europeans demand elegance.

A yeasted kugelhopf (www.a-taste-of-france.com)

This is because in many parts of Europe, baking has historically been an art, executed by a professional craftsman; and I use the word ‘man’ deliberately. In Britain, cake-making has always been associated with women, and many of the current cakey idols are women: Mary Berry, Nigella Lawson (or in America, Martha Stewart, and there are many other examples, right down to the fictitious but dependable Aunt Jemima and Sara Lee). Many of the early British cookbooks were written by women (the first ‘American’ cookbook as opposed to one imported from Europe, was by one Amelia Simmons). On the European continent, that was not the case; baking, like cooking – and writing about it – was dominated by men.

A French Croquembouche Wedding Cake – with American styling courtesy of Martha Stewart! (www.marthastewartweddings.com)

Whether this is because European cakes and patisserie are so ornate that they require a professionally trained pastry cook, or whether this is why they became so, is hard to untangle. Whatever the reason, it elevated cake-making in Europe to something of an art, and one which is still practised with some devotion by men – and women – bakers today. And while I have never since my university days been tempted to try making a profiterole, let along a towering cone of them (see the croquembouche), I have to admit that I am a little tempted by the Prinsesstarta…

Time for a cake

I’m still thinking about cakes and national characteristics over here. I’m a Brit, so the most obvious traits that spring to mind for me, are the gentility of afternoon teas, and the trappings of the refreshment tent at cricket matches and village fairs. As a nation, we seem to relish the little rites and the quiet dependability that go with these occasions. In Britain now, as everywhere, cakes are truly international, but I think that cakes like the Victoria Sandwich do still hold a special place in all of these events, alongside scones and jam, little sandwiches, and a pot of tea. If you go for tea at one of the posh London hotels (brace yourself for the price tag!) this is inevitably what will come to your table, served on a tall structure of tiered serving dishes – and it’s what tourists and locals alike expect because it’s something you don’t really get anywhere else.

High tea in Hong Kong by Connie Ma, Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike licence. Traditional ‘British’ afternoon teas were exported around the British Empire. Found at http://www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-tips-and-articles/77573#ixzz3AAyNWMx6

You see, I think that a lot of this sense of ritual and gentility is about nostalgia and the specialness of the occasion. We might serve a cake with tea to guests at home, but it’s the whole package which says something extra about Britishness. What proportion of Brits actually experience these little gussied-up oases of calm and indulgence? Very few, I’d imagine, and not necessarily because of the price tag – most tea rooms do a more reasonably priced version of afternoon tea after all. Rather, most of these occasions are quintessentially and even self-consciously middle-class and are either beloved or shunned accordingly. But even if the genteel tea isn’t univerally taken up, it’s still a powerful image of a British life which revolves around rural life, community events, and leisured gentility as depicted in period films and books.

Another peculiarly British aspect to these events is that they are the reward for hard work. I’m thinking here of the cricket tea in particular, which is served half way through a cricket match, when the players have often been out in the sun for a good few hours. The Scientist used to play cricket regularly, so we took our annual place on the cricket tea rota for several years. Traditionally the tea was provided by the wives; now I’m glad to say that the men generally take charge of the weekly budget themselves (I used our turn as an excuse to do some baking but it certainly wasn’t expected of me). I suspect that our tea (pictured – and you can read more here, here and here was more traditional than most because of my penchant for these customs, but the essential ingredients were always the same: sandwiches, savoury nibbles, cakes and tea. No matter that many of the players in most local teams turn out for the social side of things and barely break a sweat all afternoon: the tea is still looked upon as a well deserved break for a cuppa, a sweet treat and some chitchat about the day’s play. I’m sure that tea rooms at National Trust properties do a fine deal for the same reason: after an hour or two’s gentle huffing and puffing around a beautiful garden, most families will give each other that familiar, conspiratorial look: time for a cake.