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.

isbn9781472223609

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 and Germany

Christmas got me thinking about gingerbread, which seems to be inextricably bound up with that time of year. I haven’t been able to work out exactly why the two are connected, but my theory is that in the medieval and early modern periods ginger’s hefty price tag made it too expensive to eat every day, while its warming tang also made it appealing in the cold months!

Gingerbread house, from wikimedia commons

One of the reasons we still make that association today is that gingerbread is a staple at the German Christmas markets which are now so popular around the globe. Those gingerbreads tend to be thick, brittle biscuits, often decorated with festive wishes in icing, or alternatively, constructed into elaborate and beautiful houses. Both gingerbread itself, and those houses, are most firmly associated with Nuremberg, which was famed for its Nürnberger Lebkuchen (a name with protected status). This is largely because Nuremberg stands on a crossroads of trade paths, making it ideally placed to handle quantities of spices like gingerbread in the medieval period. It was also located close to a forest where bee keeping was a speciality – vital for all the honey needed for making gingerbread (today we often substitute syrup).

It’s not known whether gingerbread houses like the ones made in Nuremberg sparked the folk tale of Hansel and Gretel and the edible witch’s house, or whether they were made in honour of that story (which was published in the early nineteenth century). The biscuity gingerbread is made is many other traditional shapes too, including the British favourite, Gingerbread Men (in France he is called a bonhomme de pain d’épices), and the German equivalent, the Honigkuchenpferd (honeycake horse). The tradition of baking gingerbread houses was taken to America with German migrants and remains particularly popular in Pennsylvania, where many of them settled.

Gingerbread houses are exactly the sort of baked goods I thought I wouldn’t have the patience to make – and yet, last week the Munchkin and I made one for his Granny’s birthday! Photos to follow….

Prinsesses and Tarts – more thoughts on European cakes

The Prinsesstarta which featured in last week’s European themed British Bake Off is just one of hundreds of Continental cakes whose appearance is as important as their taste. But as we saw from the contestants’ efforts, it’s hard to achieve this sort of beauty. The Prinsesstarta (which is not a commonly known cake in the UK – no doubt why those wily foxes Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood chose it for their challenge) not only has to look pristine, but it’s also quite a complicated cake under the smooth green icing. Mary Berry’s recipe directs the baker to make a vanilla custard, a sponge cake, jam, marzipan and a fondant flower. And even if you buy most of those things ready made, you’re still topping a cake with custard, jam and a custardy whipped cream, then more cake and fillings, and a third cake, shaping a dome from cream, covering it all with a pristine layer of fondant icing, and putting some nice chocolate decoration on the top. As I said before, I’m sort of tempted to give it a try, but only when I have a whole afternoon to spare and not particularly critical testers in the wings.

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

We may not be familiar with this cake in the UK, but in Sweden it’s extremely popular, especially with royalty which is where it apparently gets its name. According to swedishfood.com, it was invented by the woman who instructed the princesses Margaretha, Märtha, and Astrid in home economics in the 1920s, although the first recipe she published for it was simply called ‘Green Cake’. Now it’s brought out on every special occasion – birthdays, anniversaries, even apparently Father’s Day (without the flower – I wonder what replaces it…?) Like our Battenburg cake, it’s appearance bespeaks a small piece of tradition (and actually its appearance is not dissimilar, with all that smooth, coloured fondant wrapping).

P1010599I have to admit that when I bake I’m principally concerned with the taste and the sense of family, celebration or comfort which the cake conveys. I’m not really one for spending ages on finessing the way it looks. But I did have a go at something a little showier a few weeks ago: a fruit custard tart (a little) like the ones you get in French patisseries. I made it to take to a friend’s house for lunch, which is exactly the sort of occasion you would frequent the patisserie. In fact, you would likely go there to buy dessert for your own guests too: in France and Belgium, purchasing someone else’s skill is seen as more befitting hospitality than making your own. It turned out fine and I was pretty pleased – I might even have a go at one of those towering, fruit glazed versions another time (I used Eric Lanlard’s recipe from Home Bake). But I’m quite intrigued about where the division lies between shop bought and home-crafted beauty. Do Swedes make their own Prinsesstartas or do they buy them? Is making your own fruit tart a sign of skill, or a presumption? You know, I may just need a research trip to Europe to sort all this out…

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…