Baking

A Very British Affair

After two weeks of soaring temperatures, blue skies and barbecues, the heavens duly opened this Friday to mark the occasion of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the long bank holiday weekend.  Since its self-declared annus horriblis in the 90s amidst Diana’s death and Charles’s disfavour, the Royal Family has reclaimed its place in the hearts of Britain and the Commonwealth.  This weekend almost every village in England held street parties, fetes and events, and Jubilee-fever spread across the county despite the rain, not least here in our house…

In preparation for hosting a Right Royal Tea Party for Harry’s nursery friends, we decked out every surface with bunting, added red, white and blue accents wherever we could and of course chose our own wardrobe with care… (I should add that these are my husband’s legs, before I get inundated with sympathetic comments and advice on discreet depilation…)

You can’t have a tea party without cake, advice we took very seriously, so Harry and I whipped up these cupcakes (below) and adorned them with London landmark cake-toppers and sprinkles. Regal brownies, bell peppers with mozzarella and a raft of other healthy and distinctly unhealthy treats rounded out the feast.  Despite adding vast amounts of gel food colouring to the frosting we managed to achieve a watermelon shade rather than a deep red, but they looked no less perky for that.

To distract from the grey skies we turned the house over to toddler mayhem and had games, music and a few decidedly regal events; each partygoer decorated their own royal cookie, customised a crown to wear and earned a medal for enthusiastic participation in games with very few rules and much cheating; the best kind always are, I find…

Once every cake was eaten and the bunting trailed wearily from the bannisters, we collapsed in front of the television to watch a film about the creation of the official Jubilee song, which draws together performers from across the Commonwealth; a pretty awesome achievement, you can watch it here.  So now we’re officially Jubliee-d out, as I imagine the Queen must be too; at least I didn’t have to do all this in high heels and a hat, maintaining a smile throughout.  Respect is due, your Majesty…

Tagged with Temptation!

Misery, misery; if there’s one thing worse than going on a diet, it’s going on a competitive diet, where every day begins with a gleeful shriek from one’s husband as he hops from the bathroom scales and punches the air at another ounce lost.  This all started last week when my husband decided to shed 7lb from his racing-snake physique ready for the beach and the annual donning of Speedos.  I offered to join him, then waited graciously for him to protest, lest I waste away altogether. ‘Excellent plan!’ he cried instead, rather too enthusiastically. ‘It’ll be a race!!’.  Honestly, MEN, I ask you….

One week in and I am falling behind, mysteriously.  Who knew that tomatoes gain so many calories when placed on top of a pizza?  Devious acts of sabotage are called for, so I am whipping up a frenzy of Siren-like temptation in the kitchen, hoping to stop his willpower in its tracks and give me a chance to catch up.  Let’s begin with these perky tea-bag cookies, inspired by a recipe from beautiful French website Le Petrin.  Deceptively petite, these look wantonly moreish, and the perfect accompaniment to an otherwise innocent cup of coffee…

I used a basic sugar cookie recipe (bottom), then rolled out the chilled dough onto a floured surface.  I trimmed a business card into a tag shape then glued a cork to one side to allow me to place and lift it with ease.  A pizza wheel proved perfect for cutting out the shapes without pulling on the cookie dough, and I used a drinking straw to punch a hole in each tag. I wanted to move the unbaked cookies as little as possible to help then retain their shape, so simply cut around them on baking parchment and slipped each one onto my baking sheet (2). When the cookies were cool, I melted a mixture of dark and milk chocolate chips to dip them into, then strung each cookie carefully onto a bamboo skewer to harden (4).  What you can’t see here is Harry lying hopefully on the floor beneath, waiting for drips to fall…

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As a final touch, I strung initialled tags onto the cookies using vibrant, sparkly thread, ensuring of course a disproportionate number addressed to my husband. Now, where did I put those damned celery sticks?

Nigella’s Butter Cut-Out Cookie Recipe, from ‘How to Be a Domestic Goddess’:

Ingredients

Cookies:

  • 6 tablespoons soft unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and moving towards moussiness, then beat in the egg and vanilla. In another bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the butter and eggs, and mix gently but surely. If you think the finished mixture is too sticky to be rolled out, add more flour, but do so sparingly as too much will make the dough tough. Form into a fat disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and let rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. When you’ve cut out the tag cookies and are ready to bake, they should take about 10mins, though check regularly.

A Taste of Summer

It’s raining again, plus ça change. In fact, I’m surprised that my predictive text function doesn’t automatically open each post with these words, so consistent is the dreary drizzle and grey skies.  We have chosen to rise above it and conjour up sunshine in the form of these individual bread rolls baked in terracotta flowerpots and bursting with sun blush tomatoes, feta cheese, rosemary and all manner of deliciousness.

I uncovered this recipe buried deep in a bulging and well-thumbed file entitled Magazine Clippings That Will Change My Life Or At Least Enhance It In Some Transient Way, and we set about making it this weekend.  We carefully selected some pots and gave them a good wash and burst in the oven to prepare them, then rolled up our sleeves and let loose.  Gorgeous as an accompaniment to soups and antipasti, they also went down a treat at our teddy bear Playroom Tea Party this morning, where a surprising number of rolls were nibbled and partially tasted, given that most participants were stuffed (literally), and only one, Harry, was technically capable of eating.  Hmmm… suspicious.

Recipe and tips below..

This recipe originally came from British foodie mag Delicious, and I’ve reproduced it faithfully below.  Uncharacteristically, we didn’t deviate from the instructions at all and they tasted divine; a more accomplished cook could play with a variety of substitutions and tweaks and produce some interesting variations.

Sunblush and Feta Flowerpot Bread. Ingredients & method:

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 7g fast acting dried yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 240g tub of sun blush tomatoes; set 8 aside before chopping the rest.
  • 150g crumbled feta
  • 2 tbsp freshly chopped rosemary plus some sprigs for decoration.
  1. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl and stir in the yeast and chopped rosemary. Gradually mix in 250ml of warm water to form a loose dough, and add the chopped tomatoes and a tbsp of the oil from the tomatoes.
  2. Tip out onto a clean surface and knead the dough for 5minutes until smooth.  Add the crumbled feta and knead again until it is all incorporated into the dough. Separate into 8 evenly shaped balls and place each carefully in a well-oiled terracotta flowerpot (you could just place these in a muffin tin or on a baking sheet instead).
  3. Allow to rise for around 30mins, setting the oven for 220 degrees.
  4. Scatter the remaining crumbled feta over the top and add a single whole sun blush tomato to each (below). Thoroughly soak 8 small rosemary sprigs then gently push one into each flowerpot for decoration (the wetness will stop them from burning in the oven).

Bake for 20-25mins, then allow to cool for as long as you are able to restrain yourself; these are best served warm, so eat as quickly as possible or give them a quick turn in the oven before serving later (they last 2 -3 days if you can manage it).

The Easter Hatchery

So there we were, surveying the garden and trying to decide where to locate the various bits of hideous plastic play equipment we’ve acquired since H was born, when I decided to seize the moment. ‘Where are we going to put the chicken run?’ I asked, casually, when my husband appeared to be distracted and only half-listening.  Immediately he sprung to attention and fixed me with a steady stare; ‘Chickens???’.  Sigh.  I have long maintained a mild obsession with acquiring some chickens and creating a pseudo-rural idyll where they can peck contentedly around the yard.  The trouble is that whilst I am imagining ambling down the lawn daily to collect a handful of gorgeous, still-warm eggs, my husband is quite rightly imagining that the clearing out of hen poo and the collecting of various tragic hen body parts tossed around by the local foxes will fall to him, and is thus far from keen.

Until the day that our visions collide, therefore, I will stick to making chicks the easy way, predominantly with fondant icing.  With the holiday weekend almost upon us and lots of family to visit, Harry and I set about making these freshly hatched cupcakes today, and are mightily chuffed with the result, despite the jaunty angles and tendency to wobble. Recipe and tips below for those with the time and inclination for a bit of sculpture; anyone who has ever mastered Play-Doh will find this a doodle…

Baking and Making:

  • Set the oven to 170 degrees and make your cakes; I use the Hummingbird Bakery vanilla cupcake recipe which we adore and manages to compensate for my culinary inadequacies every time, producing scrummy cakes… but any one will do.
  • Begin work on the chicks… start by rolling out balls of yellow fondant (either pre-bought or home-coloured)

  • Decorate the heads with stars of white royal icing (for shells), and more for eyes.  I added a dab of red colouring for that newborn glow, and snipped tiny candy hearts in half for the beaks

  • Whilst the chick heads are drying out a little and the cakes are in the oven, have a general clear up; enlist help to ensure all the residual cake mixture is scraped cleanly out of the bowl….

  • Place a disk of your yellow fondant on each cupcake, flattening the edges to avoid ridges.
  • Add a larger white fondant disk to cover the cake, having first cut out a star shape in the middle
  • Secure your chick head in the middle of each cake using edible glue, apricot jam or glaze. Don’t do what I once did and use a cocktail stick, unless a visit to the hospital emergency room is on your schedule.

  • Tada!! Job done.  Eat all of the leftover cake bits and icing. Feel a bit sick and have a lie down.

For any that survive the initial family tasting session, they also look good as gifts…I used a bit of fusilli to imitate straw (below) and Harry will be giving this one to his Granddad tomorrow…

Pasta la Vista, baby!

Carbs are big in our household, as anyone who knows us will attest. Given that my husband declares the potato to be his favourite vegetable, and I would request a toasting fork and crusty loaf if given notice of being stranded on a desert island, it was inevitable that Harry was going to feel a strong gravitational pull towards all things starchy. Whilst I’m secretly proud of the fact that he freely eats vegetables and would for ages misidentify any tree in a picture book as being ‘a piece of broccoli’ (no idea why; it’s unlikely, frankly, that he made this connection at home…), it’s also true that if you ask him what he’d like to do next, the statistically most probable answer at any given time is ‘eat spaghetti’.

So this weekend we whipped out our shiny new pasta machine that was the gift-of-the-year in Christmas 2010, rather like the bread machines that everyone gave and received 10yrs earlier.  A guilty confession; our machine is actually a present I bought for someone else and decided to keep because it looked so enticing; instead, they received a selection of novels and I no doubt received a great dollop of bad karma that will ensure all the pasta I make with it is cursed.  We’ll soon find out.  My cookbooks and the web are full of delicious recipes for homemade pasta involving herbs, different flours and semolina, et al, but we plumped for the simplest possible concoction (below), and got stuck in.  As you can see, this is one of those cookfests where it’s all about the journey, not the end result…

Take your 3 ingredients, create a volcano-like pile of the salted flour on your worktop, and pour the lightly beaten egg mixture into the middle.  Watch as the flour sides collapse and spend several minutes chasing egg around the table (you can see why small boys love this bit).

Mix the ingredients together.  Taste periodically if you really can’t resist.  Try not to touch anything else at all.  Once  a dough forms, knead for about 10 minutes.  Abandon your mother after 2 minutes and find something more interesting to do instead.  Do this quietly, dragging your sticky hands along the wall as you amble towards the toy box.

Hard work done, leave the dough to settle.

Roll out with a rolling pin until about 1cm thick, and then start to feed it through your pasta machine.  Of course, it’s perfectly possible to do this with a rolling pin alone and a lot of elbow grease and persistence.

Once you’ve got a long, thin piece of dough about 3mm thick, feed it through the slicer bit to create your chosen shape; we opted for tagliatelle, and draped it over a (clean!) broom handle to keep the strands separate whilst we worked on the rest of the dough.  As you can see, this offered an impossible temptation for a 2yr old and his fire engine, so our pasta curtain took a bit of a beating at this point.

Once you’ve finished making the tagliatelle, curl each strand into a loose ball and save till you’re ready to cook (the sooner the better).  We tossed ours gaily into a pan of boiling water and hastily gathered spoons, napkins and a large bowl each before stirring in some tomato sauce and basil. And you know, here’s the thing; despite starting with gusto (note the two forks used for speed, below), Harry quickly slowed to a halt and carefully extracted a piece of rubbery, part-chewed pasta from his mouth, then paused and asked oh-so-casually; ‘Maybe we can have Cheerios for tea instead, mummy?’ .  Karma. I knew it…

The life-shortening joy of Churros Y Chocolate

Whilst the rest of the world was celebrating St Paddy’s day this weekend we – contrary as usual – were having a bit of a Spanish moment and cooking churros for the very first time.  I’d often looked longingly at churros recipes (doughnut mix ? rolled in cinnamon sugar? That you are then actually required to dunk in hot, melty chocolate? Can it even be legal..?), but never before attempted to conquer them at home.

To the loud accompaniment of Catalan songsters The Gypsy Kings, we sashayed around the kitchen brandishing piping bags filled with an ever-expanding dough, whilst simultaneously heating a vat of oil and melting a tonne of chocolate.  It’s amazing in retrospect that nothing caught fire and no-one was sent to call for an ambulance.

My understated photo belies what a truly explosive and messy process this is, at least the first time – no kitchen surface or implement was spared, and none of the pans involved in this enterprise (there were many) looks quite the same afterwards… but oh my god it was worth it.  Eating churros dipped in molten chocolate may be the only time in life that you can actually hear your arteries furring up if you listen closely enough, but in the moment it is impossible to care.  As Harry demonstrates below, you can add fruit into the mix too if you like, but really it isn’t going to make it any healthier.  Still, life is short…

Ingredients:

For the chocolate dipping sauce:

  • 200g dark chocolate, 50g milk chocolate
  • 2 tbsp of golden syrup
  • 300ml double cream.
For the churros:
  • 90g caster sugar (for dusting after cooking, when mixed with the cinnamon)
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 125g plain flour
  • 125g self-raising flour
  • a good pinch of sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 litre sunflower oil for frying
  1. Mix the chocolate sauce ingredients in a pan over a low/medium heat until melted, then set aside until ready to use; gently reheat once the churros are cooking.
  2. Sift the flours and salt together into a heatproof bowl; make a well in the centre.
  3. Mix the olive oil with 450ml of boiling water. Stir well then add to the flour and mix to make a smooth paste (you can do this in a mixer if you prefer). The dough will be sticky and puffy and will adhere to every part of you it touches; be warned.
  4. Spoon the dough into a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle and place in the fridge to chill until ready to use.
  5. Heat a saucepan of oil to 170c / until a piece of bread sizzles on contact.
  6. Pipe your churros, snipping each one off at whatever length you’re happy with.
  7. Toss each one in the sugar mix and set on a plate with the chocolate dipping sauce.  Wait whilst each of your friends declares undying love for you before grudgingly passing around the table.
recipe adapted from Thomasina Miers’ book Mexican Food Made Simple

Audrey Hepburn Cookies

Harry is an ardent admirer of the older woman. At the tender age of two, he is having his own Mrs Robinson moment and is far more enthralled by my often chic and stylish, rather more mature girlfriends than those of a similar height to him.

This weekend we will be seeing a number of them, so have embarked on a spot of decorative baking in an attempt to turn their heads.  Even projects like this one offer a number of opportunities for small, clean hands; the cutting of cookies, glueing of surfaces and rolling of icing all needed the services of my knee-high sous chef. Much of the original icing vanished during the project; the crumb-covered blackened mouth being a dead giveaway.

For these I used the sugar cookie recipe from cult British bakers Biscuiteers, which I’ve added below; the golden syrup makes the cookies crisp and deliciously chewy, although I should warn the uninitiated that toddlers and syrup are a recipe for kitchen chaos..

Boxed cookies in waxed paper tied with ribbon, to mail to a friend we won’t be seeing

Bake your cookies and assemble your decorations; I coloured royal icing with black paste and used ivory dragees, with edible glue to hold everything together

Use the same size cutter for the icing; the cookies expand a little in the oven leaving a nice rim around the iced shape.  The finished cookies will store for 7-10 days if kept in an airtight container (layer with greaseproof paper).  You can also freeze the unbaked dough.

Biscuiteers Sugar Cookie Recipe (from the Biscuiteers Book of Iced Biscuits)

  • 350g plain flour
  • 100g self-raising flour
  • 125g granulated sugar
  • 125g salted butter; cubed
  • 125g golden syrup (corn syrup in the US)
  • 1 large egg, beaten lightly
  1. Sift the flour together, add sugar and mix well
  2. Add the butter and rub together to resemble fine breadcrumbs
  3. Create a well in the centre and add the syrup and egg
  4. Mix well, into a ball; flatten and chill for 30mins or until ready to use
  5. Roll out, cut and bake for 10-15mins; mine took a little less than this so check at intervals to avoid over-baking.
  6. To adhere the icing to the cookies I used edible glue; for the dragees I dipped each in the glue with a pair of (sterilised!) tweezers and before adding to the neckline.  Doing this when the black icing is still soft and malleable helps them to remain in place

Homemade Biscuits for Cheese

Sometimes events collide in such a way that you have to just go with the flow and call it fate.  So when Santa left a brand new cookie stamp in my stocking, and a recent cursory examination of the fridge revealed mountains of cheese but absolutely no accompaniment, a spot of savoury biscuit making was the natural conclusion.

But which recipe to choose? I opted for the ever-reliable Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s digestive biscuits, though having now baked and eaten most of them, I would suggest they are more like oatcakes (and all the better for that).  Making these is a messy old business; I suspect Hugh’s tumbling locks needed a hairnet during the critical stages.  I’d also suggest allowing some time for your freshly chilled dough to acclimatise back towards room temperature, or you will likely suffer from bicep/wrist strain when attempting to roll out your cookies.  Still, I do love a recipe which includes a full-body workout.

Finished article shown below, shortly before being hoovered up by the photographer (that would be me, I’m afraid).  These look even prettier before they are baked – see below – and I’ll certainly be trying the stamp on plain cookies for max effect.

River Cottage Digestives – Makes around 40 biscuits

  • 250g Wholewheat flour
  • 250g Quick cook oats
  • 125g soft brown sugar
  • 1 tsp of salt (his recipe calls for 2, but one worked great)
  • 2tsp baking powder
  • 250g unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
  • 1tbsp milk
  1. Combine all of your dry ingredients by pulsing in a food processor.  Add the butter bit by bit and mix to form a dough
  2. Gradually add in the milk – you may want to transfer to a bowl and do this by hand
  3. Wrap in clingflim and transfer to the fridge for an hour (you can leave it for longer and even freeze it at this stage)
  4. Bring the dough back upto temperature, preheat the oven to 180/350 degrees and cut out your biscuits before baking for around 10-15mins, until golden brown.  Whip out of the oven and attempt to wait until they have cooled before eating – this will make them decidedly less crumbly and be less likely to require a trip to Accident and Emergency.
  5. I suggest at least 4 should be eaten in the kitchen to test for consistency in quality before offering to family and friends…

A-List Baking

Say what you like about Gwyneth Paltrow, the girl’s obviously got buns of steel and thighs that could crack a walnut at 30 paces. Previously I have attributed this to a diet of pea shoots and a life frittered away in the gym, so I was delighted to discover that au contraire,she maintains her svelte physique by baking and snacking on jammy biscuits.  Well okay then, we’ll call them gluten-free thumbprint cookies.

Harry and I unashamedly customised her recipe in her recent book ‘My Father’s Daughter’, having been delighted to find something so suited to our natural kitchen style, namely a cookie that is actually supposed to be a greyish-brown colour when finished, and also to have a very dented and uneven appearance.  I must ‘fess up that here the similarities end, as Gwyneth confidently predicted a batch of ‘around 50′ cookies, and our efforts yielded, well, 12.  This portion control could explain many things.  Still, H and I will maintain our belief that a proper cookie is one of a size which requires both hands to get a good grip.

Recipe follows… they taste wickedly, addictively good.  Eat one and then give the rest away. Quickly.

Step One: Combine all of the ingredients except for the jam.  Roll into balls and place of a baking sheet.  Demonstrated here by my beautiful assistant Ted Glen, of Postman Pat fame.

Step 2: Make a thumbprint dent, then add a healthy dollop of jam in the centre of each

Step 3: Bake in the oven for 20 mins.  Use this time to either a) kill yourself on the treadmill in preparation for the carb onslaught or b) make a large pot of coffee and locate a comfy chair and a plate.

Step 4: Admire, consume, repeat.

Recipe:

4 cups of Barley flour

3 cups of chopped almonds (we used pistachio nuts instead – we love them)

1 cup of Maple syrup

1 cup of oil

Pinch of salt, teaspoon of ground cinnamon

Jam – any flavour you like.

adapted from Gwyneth’s Paltrow’s  ’Lalo’s Cookies’ recipe

Spring has Sprung

Despite last Thursday bringing a small snowstorm and temperatures of -8 degrees, today it seems that Spring has sprung, with a positively tropical 12 degrees and the gentle thrumming of lawnmowers providing a backdrop to the chirruping chorus of Spring birds. Gosh, it makes one come over all poetic.

After Harry and I had turned off the central heating, shed the thermals and taken a turn around the garden to examine all of the dead, frostbitten and unidentifiable foliage, we retired to the kitchen for a spot of Spring baking.

I bought these silicone cupcake cases from spiritual home Lakeland last year, and ‘runaway cakes’ made using the Hummingbird Bakery’s divine vanilla cupcake recipe have become a firm favourite in our house.  Usually though, they are unadorned or covered in a simple glaze, so today we decided to go the whole hog and hatch a batch of chicks.  The war-torn looking ones have resisted a 2-year old’s attempts to gouge out wings and eyes for an interim power snack.  I am choosing to ignore the fact that today’s post brought a letter from the government advising that under-5s need no added sugar in their diets. Well, quite…

Baked using:

  • Hummingbird bakery vanilla cupcake recipe
  • Classic buttercream icing with a hint of yellow colouring
  • Liquorice eyes
  • Banana candy sweets chopped in half for the wings
  • Coloured royal icing for the beaks and plumage
  • Industrial-grade surface cleaner for the clean-up operation…

Baking for the Exceptionally Brave

Apologies to anyone reading this today (22/6); it was first posted in February and accidentally re-published during a site upgrade this morning!

Much is written about the challenges of parenthood, particularly early parenthood, but there is one topic on which I have yet to find words of wisdom; The Day Your Beloved Child Brings Home Their First Baking Project.  Carefully wrapped in a greasy, dog-eared paper bag, we received this culinary endeavour with appropriate awe and exclamations of pride; ‘You MADE this? wow! All by yourself? Amazing!’ …but it rapidly became clear that words were not enough.

We took a tentative, doughy mouthful each and chewed methodically for some minutes before Harry lost interest, returning some while later to say ‘I licked it already Mummy, it’s yucky’.  Mm-Mmmmm.

This anecdote caused great hilarity on my return to the nursery this morning, where the teacher exclaimed ‘My god, you actually tried to eat it? Are you crazy? Do you know where their hands have been??’  At this point she shuddered, before issuing the final, killing line; ‘Besides, Harry wasn’t bothered about making these, he played with trains instead. You got one of the communal ones’.

Dear God.  This, by the way, is a Cheesy Hedgehog, as if it wasn’t blatantly obvious. I must pass on the recipe to Nigella…