Dabbling with gluten free blondies

This

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.

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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.

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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: 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 https://www.freefoodphotos.com 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 🙂

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

 

Topping

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.

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!)

Pound Cake: Tried and Tested

I’ve made Victoria Sandwich Cakes plenty of times; they are one of my very favourite cakes to bake. They are delightfully simply and yet with their distinctively British pedigree, a nice nostalgic connection with a heritage of baking and afternoon tea. The photo in my header (tea at a local farm shop – actually not in the afternoon because everyone present has a toddler and they sleep half the afternoon) sums it up beautifully.

P1010555But I had not made a Pound Cake, probably partly because it is so similar to the Victoria Sandwich, and partly also because it’s not really a British cake any more. When I started reading about its history I became curious and wanted to give it a go, just to test out how it diverges from the Victoria Sandwich, you understand.

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I had a lot of problems picking a recipe. I wanted a ‘classic’ but many of the places I looked had recipes with non-traditional extras, like cream cheese or sour cream. In the end I went for Julia Child‘s recipe, published in Baking WIth Julia Child (I found it reproduced here).

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It was superlatively straightforward. I did it all in the food processor, assisted by my Junior Baker, who likes pressing the button to turn it on, and has also recently discovered that cake batter tastes nice. A coming of age moment, I think. The only hitch was that I turned the child lock back on our new-to-us oven once the cake was in, not realising that this turns the oven off. Oops. Luckily The Scientist noticed and turned it back on. Happily this didn’t seem to affect the finished cake (I’m sure I’ve read about some cakes which benefit from starting in a cold oven – something to investigate further, I think). I served it for dessert to my visiting in-laws and all agreed that it was both denser and more buttery-tasting than a Victoria Sandwich. Not better, but in a top-quality niche of its own. I will definitely be making this American-via-eighteenth-century-Europe cake again.