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Attempting to get on the ‘nice’ list

26 Dec

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Family tradition dictates that every Christmas we have a Yule log, made by me. In past years, it’s always been a pre-bought Swiss roll assembly job, smothered in butter icing; most likely dating from the days when my mum was incredibly keen to occupy a hyperactive, overexcited child on Christmas Eve by giving her a fairly easy, minor job. It was also far too cloying for any more than a single slice of – at least to my taste.

This year I decided to put a bit more effort in; to do things properly. Food magazines had been bombarding me with recipes since approximately mid-October, which didn’t help matters. After wading through at least six volumes, I settled on Olive‘s twist on this recipe: a chocolate roulade, with chocolate marscapone and cherries.

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The base was a light sponge, fairly easy to make. Rolling it up initially to cool? Also an utter doddle.

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Hell, even the filling, despite initially looking distinctly unappetising, quickly became a smooth confection of chocolatey indulgence. Helped in no small part by the liberal addition of crème de framboises, I’ve no doubt.

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Once the cake was spread with the marscapone mix and dotted with the cherries (also doused in raspberry liqueur), I was starting to get a bit complacent. Why had I never thought to do the Yule log properly before?

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Then it came to rolling it all up. And things went a bit wrong, with a small crack soon turning into a vast canyon down one side. Thank heavens for the cut-and-stick repair job possible with a Yule log. Oh, and for eye-distracting Cath Kidston decorations.

Still, the end result was light, not too sweet, and just rich enough – mission accomplished. According to my family, we now have a new tradition.

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It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas

10 Dec

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Now that we’re in the grip of December and festive times are upon us, I finally feel justified in writing about the Christmas pudding my mum and I made at the end of last month. I know it sounds a bit early (especially as we cracked out the Christmas CDs while doing so) but it needs time for the flavours to mature. We used Nigella’s recipe – after all, who better for seasonal indulgence?

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It started out with fruit soaked in a lot of sherry. After a night sat steeping, it smelt divine.

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Then, flour, breadcrumbs, suet (which never fails to remind me of stew and dumplings at my Nana’s house) and the rest of the dry ingredients, to form a deliciously sticky, fruity mixture.

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Into the basins – the recipe was meant to be for one giant pudding, but for the sake of manageability in our small family, we split the recipe into three. The plan is for myself and my Nan to take one each after the big day; I feel I have done well from this arrangement.

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Trussed up with greaseproof paper, foil and string, they went into pans to steam. While they were doing so, it would have been rude not to have the first mulled wine of the season, wouldn’t it? Oh, and ideally the entire thing be accompanied with this, which is the best Christmas song hands down:

I’ll probably turn into a pumpkin

4 Nov

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My housemate and I went a bit mad over pumpkin last week, a fact that can be wholly attributed to Halloween. Firstly we carved them – I crafted the rather fetching (if wonky) Jack Skellington above – then we cleaned and toasted the seeds, and tossed them with chilli flakes and sea salt. They’re possibly my new favourite snack.

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Then, as she made pumpkin soup, I decided to venture way out of my comfort zone and give pumpkin pie a shot. I was absolutely flying blind on this one, having never eaten pumpkin pie in my life, let alone read a recipe for one. Hell, until now I’d never even seen one in real life.

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American recipes mainly seemed to call for canned pumpkin (seriously, is that a thing? It doesn’t sound like it ought to be a thing at all) so, as ever when in doubt, BBC Food website to the rescue! Specifically, a Saturday Kitchen recipe from Antony Worrall Thompson. As a bit of a Shakespeare geek, I was more than mildly amused by the fact that it called for a literal pound of (pumpkin) flesh.

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Once steamed and mashed into a purée, it was mixed with heated cream, sugar, eggs and spices to make a custard that, if I’m honest, looked more akin to baby sick than anything I’d want to eat. Well, until I tasted it, anyway. Nutmeg and cinnamon could make anything okay.

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I shunned the recipe’s suggestion of shop-bought pastry – what’s the point in shortcuts when you’re already making something that involves effort? – and made up a batch of sweet shortcrust from a Paul Hollywood recipe. I used a cupcake tray, too, to make individual ones, and just went on instinct in terms of baking time.

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Drizzled with dark chocolate, I was pretty pleased with how they turned out – almost like spiced egg custard tarts. More treat than trick, then. Happy (belated) Halloween!

Go your own way: pear, cinnamon and ginger upside-down cake

1 Oct

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I’ve clearly been bingeing a little too hard on The Great British Bake Off. A sick day last week resulted in a lacklustre spell on the sofa, iPlayering my little socks off, and I finally got round to giving it a go. I’ve been frantically attempting to catch up with the rest of the series ever since.

It’s got me thinking about flavours and different, more adventurous baking ideas a bit more seriously than I usually would. Then, home for the weekend, I happened to look out of the window and see pears falling from the tree in my parents’ garden, and an idea was born.

I don’t usually make up my own recipes – not when it comes to baking anyway. I’ve always subscribed to the philosophy that baking requires more precision than I’m capable of working out, and that recipes know best. Still, I was feeling inspired.

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I poached the pears in red wine, then drained them and let them cool before popping them into the bottom of a cake tin. I made up a basic cake mix of butter, sugar, eggs and flour – a bit less of the latter than usual, to keep the texture moist enough to be consistent with the pears – and added some ground cinnamon and ginger. Fruit + cake mix = upside-down cake.

The result may not be the technically best bake I’ve ever done – it cooked slightly unevenly, and I was completely winging it in terms of oven times – but the warm flavours work together well, and it’s a nicely autumnal cake. I think I might go off-recipe more often.

Sourdough: a labour of love

24 Sep

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So, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the start of my Great Sourdough Experiment. Yesterday, that experiment finally came to fruition.

I’d had to keep the start brewing away for longer than strictly necessary (it seems you can keep it going for a near-indefinite length of time, provided you continue to feed it every few days) simply because of the sheer amount of time involved to make the bread itself. I genuinely hadn’t been home for long enough to allow for the proving until now.

In case you think I’m exaggerating: once kneaded, the dough needs to prove for five or six hours. You then shape it, and prove it for another 10-13 hours. I mixed up the dough at Saturday lunchtime, then shaped it before heading out for the evening. I didn’t put it in the oven until Sunday afternoon – although some of that delay was admittedly a result of a hangover.

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Still, it proved into some decent-looking loaves. Well, until the recipe told me to turn them upside down. Despite my best efforts (and the help of my housemate), they then ended up looking more like this:

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Oops. Hey, it’s not all about being pretty, right? Anyway, the finished product didn’t look too bad.

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Was it worth it, overall? Well, it tastes… alright. It’s certainly not bad, and it works pretty well with some salad and home-made tzatziki as a packed lunch. As a loaf of bread, it’s fine. Is it good enough to warrant two weeks of effort? Maybe not. I’m glad I gave it a go, mind.

Experiment findings? Sometimes delis exist for a reason.

Sourdough scares me a little

2 Sep

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I love sourdough; I should probably state that first of all. It has a lovely, distinctive tang to it, as well as a nice texture. I just try not to think too hard about how it’s made.

The idea of yeast fermenting for days – and being fed as it does so – creeps me out a little bit. I’m not an especially squeamish eater, but the idea of my food being alive as I prepare it isn’t one that appeals. It’s probably for the best if nobody explains to me the exact processes that go into making alcohol.

Still, I’ve decided to give it a go. The recipe for making the ‘starter’ is more akin to something something written by a mad scientist than by a baker. You mix flour, water and grated apple, then let it ferment and grow in a sealed jar for a few days. You keep adding more to it, then leaving it, for around ten days. It’s a project, if nothing else – and I do like a good project.

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It didn’t start out well. I read the ingredients list, but only skim-read the first step of the recipe, meaning that I accidentally added a whole kilo of flour instead of the 500g you were meant to start with (the remainder being what needs adding over the coming days). It was only when the consistency looked totally off (so, quite quickly then) that I realised, and was left desperately trying to fish half of the (thankfully still-dry) flour out of the bowl.

My recipe was also pretty emphatic that the apple had to be an organic one. I have no idea if the Braeburns in my cupboard right now are organic – and the supermarket was shut by the time I started on this glorified chemistry experiment – so I’ll just have to keep my fingers crossed that if they’re not, a vigorous wash in the sink was enough.

And hope that the mix doesn’t grow into The Blob.

Doughnuts and confusion

19 Aug

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Dear America, your recipes are confusing. There are many things you’re getting very right – your food meets with my wholehearted approval; I hold a profound love for your trash TV; you’ve produced some wonderful writers – but measurements is not one of them.

Today I decided – inspired by Felicity Cloake’s ‘how to cook the perfect…’ blog on the Guardian website – to attempt doughnuts. It is Sunday, after all. I love a good Sunday afternoon in the kitchen.

I didn’t actually use Felicity Cloake’s recipe, but instead bastardised one of those that she linked to as research: an American blog called 101 Cookbooks. I liked the idea of baking them rather than frying, because fussing around with a massive pan of hot oil seems like a lot of hassle, not to mention fried-cake guilt. Although once they’ve been dipped in melted butter and sugar, they’re still not exactly an innocent treat…

The recipe called for cups, which left me confused like a kitten that’s managed to get itself tangled up in a ball of wool. Until I remembered that I had this bad boy stashed away at the back of the cupboard.

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I just don’t really ‘get’ cups as a measurement. I’m sure it’s meant to be easier or more convenient, but it doesn’t strike me as either – especially as I presume everything has to be level, which isn’t that simple when it comes to flour. And as for trying to measure out tablespoons of butter… Nightmare. Please just use grams and millilitres, America. It’s way better, I promise.

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Still, once made the dough was a pleasure to work with (in fact I loved the recipe as a whole), and I had great fun setting up a little production line for buttering and sugaring the doughnuts once they were out of the oven. They turned out a little flat, but that’s entirely my own fault for not shaping them into balls. The recipe was for ring doughnuts, see, but I am British and so the idea of a doughnut with no jam in the middle strikes horror into my heart. So I made little hollows inside each with a wooden skewer and then piped in a happy splurge of raspberry.

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Oh, and America, another reason your recipes sometimes make me sad: I only have them on the internet, not written down in books and the like. Which leads to situations like this. I am sure flour and technology are not meant to mix:

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Incidentally, WordPress stats do suggest that some people in the US do read the blog. If so, For all my joking, I’d genuinely be interested in your thoughts on cups as measurement, and how UK recipes read to you. Get in touch!

My baking goes to Hollywood

3 Aug

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As I mentioned in my last post, I recently received Paul Hollywood’s How To Bake as a birthday present. I love it – the writing is both accessible and informative, and the recipes cover a great range of bakes. It’s a largely savoury book, which is perfect as far as I’m concerned. After all, there are only so many ways to bake a cupcake.

They’re recipes I’ll actually use, too. The other day I decided to dive in feet-first with the sea salt and oregano focaccia recipe – it’s something I’ve been meaning to attempt for ages, and is one of my favourite breads.

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Suffice to say, it was messy. The dough is really wet, and sticks to your hands like nothing else I’ve ever made. If it weren’t for the recipes’ reassurance, I’d have been a bit nervous that I was doing something wrong.

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A few hours – and a couple of rounds of proving – later, the result was far more reassuring. And the end product? Well, it’s pictured at the top of the post. I’m pretty proud of it as a first attempt: it makes pretty damn good sandwiches with some rocket, chorizo and mozzarella.

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While the dough was proving, I also knocked up a batch of the gruyere biscuits. They were simple enough to do, and ended up wonderfully light (although I’d probably grate the gruyere more finely next time to give the dough an easier consistency to work with). They were also approximately as sinfully delicious as you’d expect from something made up of equal parts flour, butter and cheese.

Oh, and the whole house had the lovely, yeasty smell of rising bread. Triple win!

Happy foodie birthday

1 Aug

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So, yesterday was my birthday. I’m not keen on adding another year to the tally, nor on the fact that my mid-twenties are looming darkly, but I am keen on birthday cake. And my mum is absurdly good at birthday cake.

Since she got into baking a few years ago, she’s been the one called upon for every family birthday and office celebration. She’s good (not to mention inventive) with icing in ways that I can only dream of. She’s also probably starting to dread what I’ll ask for next year on year, after previously having to fashion pirate flags, pandas and rollerskates – with the constraint that the only icing I actually like is butter icing. This year: bunting. Bunting that spelt my name. And yep, I got it.

Other treats included a tapas-making course at Bordeaux Quay’s Bristol School Of Food And Wine (booked for September), a Paul Hollywood baking book, tasty tapas at El Bocado and a food coma-inducing rack of ribs at Starz. Oh, and all the drinks. I was spoilt bloody rotten.

To the Batcakes!

21 Jun

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If I had Charm City Cakes levels of icing wizardry at my disposal, I’m sure I’d have produced a scale replica of the Batcave – or the very least a uniformly precise Bat-symbol – but alas, I’m just one girl. And a clumsy one who’s a disaster waiting to happen when she’s got a piping bag in hand, at that.

Still, my friend Louise is quite the Bat-fan, and it’s our last day in the office together tomorrow before she scarpers off back home to Scotland, so I thought I’d at least give these a go as a little treat for her – even if Alfred would probably turn his nose up at the idea of serving them to Master Wayne.

They’re nothing fancy, just made up using the basic cupcake recipe from the Sainsbury’s Baking Recipe Collection (a surprisingly useful little tome to have on standby, actually – this recipe in particular is my ever-reliable fallback), but I’m pretty pleased with how they turned out.

The little paper bats were absolute sods to cut out, mind. Could’ve been worse, though – at least she’s not a Spider-man fan…