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**

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!

The non-competitive-mum-birthday-cake

Munchkin turned two a few weeks ago and we threw a joint party for him with three other children. I volunteered to make the cake, safe in the knowledge that our friends are not the types to judge me on how perfect my decoration was. Because, of course, birthday cakes are mainly about appearances (although in my house, a good dose of chocolate and buttercream comes a close second, and yes, that includes the two-year-old). The birthday boy or girl gets to revel in their special status as the cake, decorated with their favourite colour, Disney character or animal, is carried towards them, aglow with candles and the proud beaming faces of their parents. All attention is on them as ‘Happy Birthday To You!’ is sung, they blow out those candles and then finally everyone gets to eat the cake (the delayed gratification of take-home party bags doesn’t go down well with toddlers).

2014-10-24 20.46.44Birthday cakes have been popular since the eighteenth century, especially for children, although candles have been used to decorate sweet offerings since ancient times – smoke and fire both having great significance in pagan and Roman traditions, for example. The famous ‘Happy Birthday to You!’ song was a late nineteenth-century addition and has been translated into many languages (in theory it has been under copyright since 1935). In some countries there is a designated traditional birthday cake which adds to the occasion and anticipation – the green domed Swedish Prinsesstårta I wrote about earlier is one. In Britain, North America and Australasia the birthday cake is an opportunity for parents to go mad with decorating (acceptable alternatives range from Mr Supermarket, through to high end Bespoke Beauty depending on the circles you move in). If you’re a home-baker then there are shelves of books available to help you make a cake in the shape of a princess, a favourite animal, a football or a treasure chest, and many a mother has stayed up into the night, cursing as she forms sugar paste animals, or tries to make sweets stick on to a doll’s cake skirt.

The trouble is, that this sort of activity can be terribly anxiety inducing. The cake becomes an expression of your love for your child (and possibly, just a wee bit of competitiveness as well – haven’t you seen what his best friend’s mum made and posted on facebook just last week…?) But really, your child is unlikely to notice that wonky bit, or the part that went wrong and has been hidden with more buttercream. What they will remember is the joy of the cake which is just for them, and which makes them king or queen of the world for that brief time. I have fond memories of many of my childhood birthday cakes – home made and bought.

So, when it came to Munchkin’s cake I was determined to keep it colourful and simple. The cake itself was a simple chocolate sponge – the recipe my family always uses for birthday cakes. Since the party was shared between four children I asked each mum to suggest a picture their child would like, and then I searched on the internet for images I could copy using shop-bought fondant icing. I used edible glue to stick everything down, and small letter cutters to add each child’s name. The white icing was as ropey as anything down the sides but I made sure that all the pictures were taken from an aerial view 🙂 The birthday children were all delighted with it and I was pretty happy not to be up at midnight wearily making sugar paste animals too 🙂