German Delights: Russian Cherry-Chocolate “Pinch-Cake”

IMG_0041Preparing for a wedding is like preparing for a marathon – the exercise starts looming in your mind some months ahead, and before long you start feeling the guilt…. am I preparing enough? Am I ready? Have I missed anything? Oh god why haven’t I done more??! Etc etc. It’s at time like this you feel like throwing caution to the wind and just sitting on the sofa eating sweet things.

When you ask the Lovely One what he wants me to make as a treat, what he’ll normally say is that I feed him too much and that he doesn't want to get fat. However, on those rare occasions that he does want me to make him a proper treat, the go-to is a proper German classic. In bakeries, it’s known as Russicher Zupf-Kuchen or “Russian Pinch-Cake” (Lovely One tells me that Zupf is technically a plucking or pulling motion than a pinch, but “Pluck-Cake” sounds pretty gross tbh). It’s not exactly Russian and sure as shit isn’t a cake. It’s more of a delicious chocolate scone-bottomed cheesecake with a soft vanilla-scented filling dotted with speckles of more of the scone- like mix over the top.

Of course, it’s definitely not diet food. But seeing friends you haven’t seen in a while constitutes a reason for celebration and this German classic is the definition of special. It’s also hella easy to make, usefully. This time I added some dark sweet cherries to the base to create a little surprise for those digging into their slices. Deliciously naughty and divinely decadent.

What I have done is tweak the quantities, as the original German recipe made a huge monster of a cake, which I have to say was nice but somewhat excessive…

IMG_0052Makes 12 slices

Dough

200g plain flour

120g caster sugar

120g butter, cold and cubed

1 egg

28g cocoa

1 tsp baking powder

Filing

75g caster sugar

2 eggs

250g Quark

35g butter

100g double cream

1 tsp vanilla extract

Pinch salt

150g frozen sweet cherries, defrosted

Method

  1. Make the dough – mix the flour and baking powder together in a large bowl. Stir in the sugar and sift in the cocoa. Rub in the butter until it forms a breadcrumb-like texture, a bit like making scones. Bind with egg and knead lightly, before wrapping in cling film and chilling for 30 min.
  2. Once chilled, take 3/4 of the dough and press into a 20cm tart tin, making sure to keep it quite thin at the bottom around the edges. This mixture puffs and forms a cakey, scone-like cuddle for your creamy filling, so make sure it’s reasonably evenly distributed. Chill again while you make the filling.
  3. When you’re about ready, preheat the oven to 180c and beat the softened butter with a spoon until fluffy, before beating in the rest of the ingredients. Scatter the cherries over the base and pour the filling over the top.
  4. Before baking, take the reserved dough and pinch off small sections and scatter them over the surface of your cake. If you like, you can press this flat and cut out little shapes. Bake for 40 min or until the wobble in the middle is only just gone.
  5. Remove from the oven, let cool and serve at room temperature. Serve with creme fraiche or thick double cream. Ensure you feel no guilt whatsoever about this!IMG_0051

Cooking the Books: “Frulingsbrot”

IMG_0040Proper German baking is something I’ve I’ve aspired to achieve ever since I first set foot in Berlin about 8 years ago. English bakeries have something slightly down-at-heel, something slightly tatty and sad. I remember huge plastic-fronted counters, usually poorly-lit, with rows and rows of brightly-coloured biscuits, chocolate-covered eclairs and always, always some garish-red glacé cherries sitting atop something sweet and drenched in white water-icing. The breads were in three varieties: white, brown and cottage loaf. The delights of a granary were (as far as I can remember) a modern innovation from the late nineties when suddenly the Chorleywood bread process was recognised as a rather strange and mechanical way to make bread. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a sandwich loaf, but I remember bakeries of the past as slightly sad places, places with queues and nowhere to stand.

Continental bakeries, on the other hand, are Aladdin’s caves. Usually with rows and rows of loaves in a huge array of colours ranging from pale cream to gold to deep, burnished mahogany brown, from wheat to rye to barley to god-only-knows what. The pastries are an even deeper mystery, a fascinating range of gorgeous treats which my waistline is preventing me from exploring further lest I truly balloon into a true heifer.

On my last trip to Frankfurt I decided to pick up a few more german baking magazines, including a copy of LandGenuss (“Flavour of the land”) and in particular its bread special. The following is a recipe for “Spring Bread” using carrot which is particularly tasty. The original recipe called for carrot and courgette which I thought risked being way too wet. As it was, with carrot alone the dough was an arsehole to knead, being impossible to assess for proper springiness due to the sheer amount of grated veg in it. As it was, I just kneaded as vigorously as I could and hoped for the best. Fortunately the fact I was using fresh yeast seems to have reduced the rise on these little buns, but I’d very much doubt you could usefully get a tin out of this recipe without risking some very heavy bread indeed…

Frulingsbrot (“Springbread”) baps

Makes 12 large baps or 2 loaves 

2 large carrots, grated

1/2 cube fresh yeast (about 15g), or 1 tsp dried

1 dessertspoon wild honey

250g strong white bread flour

250g wholemeal rye flour

large pinch salt (optional – I forgot this and it was totally fine)

100g mixed seeds, especially heavy on the pumpkinseed

Method:

  1. Squeeze out the carrot to remove some of the water.
  2. In a large bowl, cream the fresh yeast with 375ml warm water and mix in the honey. Leave aside for 10 minutes to activate and grow.
  3. Meanwhile, mix the flours in the bowl with the salt, then throw in the carrot and mix well. Add the yeast and knead together into a soft dough, adding more flour if you need to ensure it forms a cohesive and not excessively wet dough. It will be quite sticky, I’m afraid. Knead lightly.
  4. Leave in a warm place covered with a damp tea towel to grow for 45 min. I found an oven on the lowest setting (about 50c) was quite adequate.
  5. Once about doubled in size, scoop out and knead for about 15 minutes. It will not have gotten any wetter but will probably need some firm manipulation before you can see any stretch. It will, however, smell really good.
  6. Cut into 12 equal0sized buns, dust well with flour and place on a greased tray. Cover with the damp towel and let grow again for about 30 min – 1 hour. The buns will grow and “kiss”. Twenty minutes before they’re ready, preheat the oven to 180c.
  7. When ready, brush the tops of the buns with water and scatter with more pumpkinseeds. Cook the buns for 30 minutes until golden brown and risen. If necessary, on getting them off the tray, turn over and cook for another 5-10 minutes to ensure they’re cooked through – the carrot makes them quite wet.
  8. Enjoy with fresh butter and herbed cream cheese or meats. img_0047.jpg

 

Cooking lessons with Chef Anthony: my Kenyan souvenir recipes…

Oh, hey y’all. Did I mention I went to Kenya recently?

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Why hello you!

I went out to assist our pal Laura in running her fourth medical camp with her wonderful charity Patchworking Against Poverty which helps provide front-line treatment to patients in southwestern Kenya. It was a truly humbling and wonderful experience and I got to see so much and learn even more, which was amazing. I have to finish editing photos before I do a proper photoessay but I’m already pretty pleased with some of the results:

 

While I was out there I was also very fortunate to be part of the team being looked after by our gracious host Doctor George and his wonderful friend, the talented Anthony Onduso. Chef Anthony was an incredible caterer, turning out delicious and nutritious delights from a tiny kitchen and outdoor open fire in the back of Dr George’s house. Every night he catered for 30 people and it was – without exception – delightful every time. Before I left I begged him to teach me some of his secrets and was very lucky to nick a couple of recipes off him.

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Doctor George – a man in possession of the biggest heart in all of East Africa!
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CHEF ANTHONY!!!!

So naturally when it came to having a few pals over for dinner and safari stories there really wasn’t a choice – lentils and plantain stew were a must!

Chef Anthony’s lentils are the stuff of legend and utterly, terrifyingly delicious. Alongside a plantain stew which is almost criminally easy and tasty to boot, this makes a properly satisfying accidentally vegetarian dinner for 6. Karibu Chef Anthony!

Kenyan Lentils

Serves 6-8, best made a day ahead to let the flavours all meld together

300 puy lentils, lentilles verses or green lentils (whatever you have)

2 large spring onion, thinly sliced, white and green parts*

2 large ripe tomatoes, skinned and chopped

1 tbsp coconut cream

1 tbsp madras curry powder

1 veg stock cube

1 tbsp mchuzi mix (this is a Kenyan product which appears to be a spiced stock mix, I’d sub in a mix of ground coriander, fenugreek, cumin and garlic salt)

(optional: mushroom soy sauce x 1 tsp)

Handful coriander leaves (and stems, if you have them)

  1. Wash the lentils and bring them to a boil in a large pot. Cook for 10 minutes before draining to ensure they’re part-boiled.
  2. While this is happening, heat a large pot to a medium heat with a spoon of neutral-tasting oil and throw in your onion. Cook gently for 7 min or so, stirring occasionally, until sorting and starting to go golden.
  3. Add the tomato and (if available), your chopped coriander stems, and cook for another 5 minutes until soft and sticky. Chef Anthony explained that it’s important to cook until the oil separates from the sauce that starts to form – it’s essential!
  4. Add the curry powder and tomato paste, then add a little water and the coconut cream to melt it.
  5. Add the lentils and top up with water to cover, then turn the heat down nice and low.
  6. Bring to the boil, stirring gently, then add the stock cube and mchuzi mix.
  7. Cover the pot and simmer for 20 min or until the lentils are soft. Check from time to time to make sure there’s enough water in the pot and the lentils aren’t sticking.
  8. Before serving, make sure the lentils are piping hot and stir through soy sauce (if using) and fresh coriander leaves to taste.
IMG_8181
The final, delicious, nutritious result!

 

Plantain Stew

Serves 6-8 – also best made ahead of time

4 large plantains, nice and firm and yellow-green rather than black

2-3 large ripe tomatoes, skinned and chopped

2 x large spring onions, finely sliced (white and green parts)

1 red chilli, finely sliced (my little addition!)

1 tbsp tomato paste

1 tbsp turmeric

salt (to taste)

Coriander, a nice handful

  1. Peel and slice the plantains into fat rounds and rinse in cold water to remove any stickiness.
  2. Heat a glug of oil in a nice deep pan on a highish heat and fry off the onion and tomato until soft.
  3. Add the chilli, turmeric and tomato paste and a little water to loosen.
  4. Add the plantains and coat them in the spice and sauce, before topping up with cold water to cover. Don’t add too much!
  5. Turn the heat down low and let it bubble for 5-10 minutes before checking seasoning, then stir and turn for another 10 minutes until soft and delicious-smelling. The plantain thickens the stew as it softens, but don’t be tempted to stir too vigorously or you will end up with mush.

Enjoy your lentils and plantain with rice and chapati, or Ugali if you have it!

*Chef Anthony has strong views on the relative merits of onions, and explained that white onions have too strong a taste for vegetables, in his view. If you don’t have large fat spring onions to hand, I’d suggest subbing in shallots

 

 

 

Cooking the books: Kubdari – (Georgian Stuffed Bread)

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A cold winter’s afternoon, offset by tulips. Spring in the air.

So it’s the day of the great March against Trump, taking place all over the world, and I’m at home. Not, you understand, because I’m an approver of the great Cheeto Nasty, quite the opposite, but life and the need to get ready for the Lewishambles Great Adventure of 2017 rather required my attention first.

So instead of a protest march, a few thoughts, perhaps.

  1. Resistance isn’t a simple thing. A peaceful march, a broken window, a hunger strike – all obvious, all appreciated, all important. But there are other resistances. Kindness in the face of cruelty, a voice which says “no” when others say “yes”, a decision to embrace those you’re told to push away. I don’t shout – I might soon. Today it’s enough to say it – I resist the President of the United States. And I do not accept that a man who disrespects so many could claim to want to represent all.
  2. A refusal to stand and watch the inevitable might be apathy, and it might be cowardice. But it *could* be resistance. All those who stayed away from the inauguration, I choose to believe you were participating in your own little acts of resistance. And that’s a good feeling. comparison-withtime-1024x576
  3. Donald J Trump has said he’ll divest his businesses, but as at 08.30 this morning when I checked the news, reports stated that none of the expected filings we would require to have taken place have in fact done so.

Sigh. It’s enough to make you turn to despair. So instead I opened my Christmas-gift cookbooks – and one in particular. The estimable Sally Butcher’s second book, Persepolis, is a treasure trove of vegetarian recipes perfect for a cold January. And so I set to making one of her rather tasty-looking vegetarian stuffed breads, an unusual recipe based on a rather wet dough and a fruited spinach filling.

I love this book – it’s a wonderful mix of homely persian-style cooking with wonderfully tasty recipes for dips, stews and pilaffs, and no-nonense veggie treat food, including a large selection of gluten-free and vegan recipes. It’s a welcome addition to the shelf and one I’ve already gotten much use out of, trying recipes for wonderfully luxurious Armenian cheesy rice and classic moutabal.

So I was very excited to try a most delectable and useful-looking picnicky-style loaf which I could carry around and nibble, mindful that spring will be here before we know it and I’ve got plans for much walking and exploring!

Full disclosure – I think that the recipe has an error in the measurements, adding 500g of butter and yoghurt to 500g plain flour. The initial half-and-half dough made according to instructions was wet and tacky and unkneadable as it stuck to every surface in god’s creation, and required another cup of strong flour to bind together. The cooking time indicated also proved woefully inadequate, and I opted to nearly double it with a couple of turns to ensure the dough cooked through as much as possible. I also tweaked the filling slightly, subbing in mint and coriander for the dried dill (I dislike the taste) and adding kale to bulk out what might otherwise be a slightly insipid spinach-only mix.

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Interior with shot of undercooked middle…

Despite these shortcomings, this is a delicious, hearty and filling lunch, with a crisp outer shell hiding soft fluffy bread and a filling by turns salty/cheesy, green and tart from the apricots. A very fine lunchbox treat and a truly satisfying portable snack for marches, whatever the protest.

Kubdari 

Adapted from Sally Butcher’s recipe in Persepolis. Makes 6 large snack breads ready to be split and shared with comrades. 

Dough 

500g plain white flour

1 tsp salt

1 tsp baking powder

150g strong white bread flour

250g softened butter

3 eggs

250g plain natural yoghurt

 

Filling

1 x 260g pack baby spinach

150g curly kale

1 bunch spring onions, sliced thinly

100g dried apricots, chopped finely

1 x can chickpeas, drained (the recipe asked for 1.5 but this seemed a touch wasteful)

200g feta-style cheese (you can get cheap “salad cheese” in most supermarkets which I found fine to use)

2 eggs

2 tsp sumac

2 tbsp each chopped fresh coriander and mint

1 tsp ground black pepper

2 tbsp melted butter and 1 x egg yolk, mixed, for glazing

Method

First, make the dough. Sift together the plain flour, baking powder and salt and add the butter. Mix it in, using your hands if you like, rubbing it in thoroughly. When done, add the yoghurt and eggs, bringing together into a wet, sticky mass. Add the bread flour as needed to make a soft yet cohesive dough, one that you can bring together into a ball on your work surface. Wrap in clingfilm and let sit for one hour.

Meanwhile, work together your filling. Wilt the spinach and flash the kale in a hot pan with a few splashes of water, draining both and squeezing out excess water. With a small knife, cut up any large stalks of kale lurking in the bowl, then add to a bowl with the rest of the filling ingredients and mix together well.

Preheat your oven to 200c. Working nice and quickly on a floured surface, take the dough and split into six. Roll each piece of dough into a nice wide circle about the size of a pizza, then pile a sixth of the filling into the centre. Gather the edges like a drawstring bag and pinch and fold together, turning the little filled loaf over and creating a nice little flattish circle. Repeat with the five other pieces of dough.

Place on a well-oiled tray and bake in the centre of the oven for 20 minutes, then turn over and cook for a further 10 minutes to cook the gathered bottom. When nice and golden, turn the loaves back over and cook through on the top for another 10-15 minutes until a burnished golden.

Remove to a rack to cool and leave until reasonably cool – if you slice these while too hot you will lose filling! Wrap in greaseproof paper and take on your next march.

 

 

Food trends which should die in 2017

So, that was a year, huh? 2016, or, as many have called it, the Dumpster Fire of the Vanities. Endless memes about how shitty this year was doesn’t even begin to touch it. I mean, in one year, I’ve had to face the following:

  1. The “what the hell do we do now” of Brexit and the *bites back vomit* political ascendancy of Farridge. I swear, we’ll look back on his light aircraft crash of 2010 less as a lucky escape and more of a missed opportunity.*
  2. Trump. I can’t even. I mean, what a hell, America?
  3. ruapul
  4. Getting engaged. The actual getting married bit will be awesome. But organising weddings? What a mindfuck. An expensive, neverending barrage of questions.
  5. All of the heroes of my childhood getting mown down by life. It’s true that frankly the death of people who were a) old, b) ill, or c) who absolutely caned it in the 80s and troughed a load of drugs is hardly likely to be a surprise, and coincidence works in a funny way. But man alive it’s hard to say goodbye to so many of them one after another. Tell you what though, 2017 had better leave Dame Judi Dench ALONE.

That said, there are some things which we should say goodbye to in 2017. This is a highly personal list but it seems fitting to ask that, this year, we lose some of the shit as well as things that we hold dear and precious to us (precious things like, for example, the free movement of goods and services across a united Europe).

So, in a top of the pops style countdown style, what HAS TO GO in 2017?

 

8. Over-hyped ferments 

“Ooh, Koji is a Japanese wonder-goo which makes asian food taste super-asian!”

“I’ve been making my own kimchi for years”

“pickling at home is absolutely the best way to eat cabbage”

Ugh, I get it. You enjoy fizzy food. But when I do it in my fridge I have the good grace to admit it’s a frickin accident. I’ll admit I enjoy a nice sauerkraut as much as the next girl, and I have always considered it a great shame that home pickling isn’t as common as it used to be, not least because I’m a lover of anything you eat from the jar in front of the fridge. But it seems that the world and his wife has been dropping pickled veg all over restaurants plates in 2016, in that kind of “I’m so edgy I’ve shaved, pickled, stuffed and molested 4 varieties of beetroot over this plate NOW PAY ME £££ and tell me I’m a genius” way.

I’m over it!

7. Kombucha 

Having pickled and fermented everything solid in sight, the hipsters moved onto tea. This stuff looks disgusting, tastes worse and appears to me to be nothing more than a joke perpetrated on fashion-loving hipsters who are all trying to out-do each other regarding their love for this crap. Also: making flavoured varieties only serves to indicate that the original is super-gross. NEIN.

6. No-reservation restaurants 

I understand the economic arguments here, and agree that it’s nice for restaurants to fill tables, ensure turnover and generate buzz where needed. But it’s annoying, tedious and – as has been better argued by others – leaves you with the distinct possibility that you end up queuing ages for a completely forgettable dinner.

There’s another, rather more unpleasant truth at work here as well. Making people stand in the cold for hours at a time is frankly unkind and leaves a lot of people who aren’t able to do this literally out in the cold. And I think these restauranteurs want it that way. If I were being hysterical, I’d claim it was foodie eugenics. Don’t believe me? I’ve tried to appeal to certain restaurants which will remain unnamed to ask about reserving tables for friends suffering from cancer, in wheelchairs or who are pregnant and frankly don’t need that kind of shit in their lives. I got really short shrift and a general “it’s our policy and if you don’t like it you’re not welcome here” attitude which is balls.

We appear to be in an age where your super-fashionable “eatery” makes itself inaccessible to older people, disabled people, people with kids and people who don’t have loads of time on their hands. Which is what I suspect you actually want, isn’t it? You, restauranteur, have figured out that sexy, single, non-disabled time-rich people is the kind you want in your hollow-souled food place, and so you design a no-reservation system which benefits only you and inconveniences and excludes potential customers. You must be so proud.

5. Smoothie Bowls 

Take forever to construct, involve a ton of washing up, invariably look better than they taste and seem designed exclusively to show off to other people how healthy you are. Eat your damn breakfast, child.

4. Jackfruit

This one I’m a bit torn over, because I love a bit of jackfruit. But lately I’ve seen more and more vegan recipes torturing the poor fruit into various contortions and it’s starting to worry me. BBQ pulled jackfruit, anyone? Jackfruit burger?

Let me be clear that I’m not hating on the vegans and it is up to you what you put in your body. But like the great cauliflower pizza-crust lie of 2015 I’m fairly certain this is bollocks and the poor people currently trying to slow-cook tropical fruit in their casseroles hoping they’ll recreate pork are going to regret it.

#pinterestfail #cauliflowerfail

A post shared by Pam G (@pammy_ohm) on

3. Freakshakes, Monster food or any other completely overloaded desserts

Shaking it off with Camille and Love. 😋 #milkshake #freakshake #icecream #chocolate #singapore

A post shared by CHT (@discobiskett) on

Don’t get me wrong, Go Big or Go Home is an excellent approach to most desserts and I’m fully in favour of a more delicious life. That said, there’s indulgence and then there’s gluttony. I’m a bloody heathen but my inner Catholic rears its head at the sight of these things, because, quite honestly, isn’t this the very definition of being “too much of a good thing”? One of my favourite articles of this year saw kids testing freakshakes, and when a six year old declares that something is a bit too sweet, you know there’s an issue. Also, there’s my puritanical streak looking at this and realising you can’t possible wrap your chops around this without making an almighty sticky mess, and I just cannot deal.

2. Golden bloody lattes and generally most Turmeric health woo-woo

Not sure what a golden latte is? You may also know it by the teeth-grindingly irritating moniker “Golden Mylk” (top tip: if it sounds like a sexual lubricant, think of a new name!) and it’s being heralded as a new healthy alternative to tea, coffee and god knows what else. It’s essentially fresh turmeric juice added to a nut or soy milk, and drunk as a “healthy” alternative to tea or coffee. “People get hooked!” squeal the purveyors. To which I say: people have had the bejeezus scared out of them regarding tea, coffee and even plain milk thanks to your lot. So if they’re getting “hooked” on this stuff it’s probably because you told them to do so.

It has been suggested that turmeric has a number of health benefits and small studies suggest that the spice can alleviate certain health conditions. In Ayurvedic medicine it has been used to treat a number of digestive ailments, and its supposed antioxidant properties has led to some advocating the taking of turmeric supplements to help decrease the chances of getting cancer and other such nasties. But here’s the thing. LOADS of things may or may not cause cancer. Look here for the ongoing and heroic efforts of one website to track the Daily Mail’s thoughts on the cause and cures for cancer. So don’t push a £4 morning drink on me appealing to my fear of dying from a horrific disease because frankly it’s mean and a dickbag way of doing business. If your product is good it will sell itself. Snakeoil tactics are for dicks.

 

  1. “Clean eating” 

I’m going to tread carefully here, not least because others have picked over the issues more effectively than I have and also because this is a one-woman operation and I haven’t got the cash to get sued.

Moreover, the likes of Ruby Tandoh (praise be upon her name) and Hadley Freeman have covered this more compellingly and articulately than I could ever hope to. As such, I think the little I should add to this is from a personal place. I am certain that I could eat better, more intuitively, and with more focus on where food comes from than I currently do. But I value the power of my own intellect. I refuse to be dictated to by girls and boys whose qualifications seem to amount to not much more than online courses taught by dubiously-qualified old dudes and looking hot in yoga pants.  I don’t think it’s right to inform people that gluten is poison when it patently isn’t, and I don’t think it’s right to appear to move from an “all processed food is bad” to “many processed foods can be bad but it depends on whether they’re part of my new range of energy balls now available in Sainsbury’s!” position depending on the cash you can make out of your message.

The thing is, I’m not averse to the general message and I even possess and regularly use my spiralizer. I love trying new ways of eating and I’ve been known to consume chia willingly. The root of the issue is that I can’t help but feel that I’m being sold a pup here. At least the likes of Rosemary Connelly and Dr Gillian McKeith had the balls to tell me that they were worried that I was fat. These days, I get dead-eyed glowy-haired girls crooning about how concerned they are about me and my relationship with gluten, but the underlying message still appears to be about how fat I am. Except if they get called out on it, they protest that they’re all about wellness, and cleanliness, and being a “real chef” (alright Pinocchio, don’t get your pants in a twist) and about just Feeling Better about themselves. There’s a nasty streak of competitiveness about the whole thing which suggests that by eliminating certain foods from their diets, these girls are Smarter Than You, and Prettier Than You, and Better Than You. No thanks.

For more on this, I recommend the heartily entertaining and genuinely clever Angry Chef blog. He comes backed by science and irreverence for all nutritional woo-woo, and I love him (or her? It’s not clear) for it.

 

*Don’t @ me, it was all very strange and sad and while Farage was able to bang on about it for ages afterwards, the poor pilot took his own life in 2013.

Christmas cookies

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Spicy christmas puddings, waiting to be devoured!

Another hiatus and I’m not even going to apologise anymore – my new resolution is not to be too hard on myself and even though I’ve stretched my cooking more than I thought possible this year, it’s been rather hard keeping up the blogging habit when life and twitter and the total garbage-fire that is 2016 keeps on rollin’. I’m serious – when George Michael pegs it on Christmas day you know the creator has not only a mean sense of humour but also really really doesn’t like the bing-bong bits on “Last Christmas”.

With this in mind, escapism and christmas treats seemed to me to be a perfect idea for christmas, utilising an old gingerbread recipe I cut out of the guardian and applying a simple but effective decoration to brighten up a drizzly christmas afternoon. Much appreciated by the children and I was pretty pleased with the results too, a firm highly-spiced cookie with the mixed nuts and peel found in all the best Christmassy treats, covered by a toothsome white chocolate hat and exquisite little decorations. These look irresistible and taste fantastic too!

Pudding Gingerbreads 

(recipe makes about 80 cookies but I’ll give you quantities for icing 16-18 – the rest freezes wonderfully)

note: it’s really ideal to let this dough rest and chill for a day or two before cooking, if you can, so the spices have time to melt into the dough and get more aromatic. Also, this makes a firm gingerbread – be careful with those teeth! 

 

Gingerbread dough

125g butter

70g golden syrup

125g light muscovado sugar

a handful blanched almonds, chopped

50g mixed peel, chopped

1/2 tbsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground cloves

1/2 tsp ground cardamom

1/2 tsp ground ginger

250g plain flour, sifted

Decoration

100g white chocolate

50g icing sugar

A few drops red and green food colouring paste

Method

  1. First melt the butter, sugar and syrup together in a pan until bubbling and smooth, mixing to ensure you’ve combined everything without lumps (I don’t know why but I find a whisk is better for this – it helps break down the sugar nicely). Cool for about 15 mins then stir in the nuts, peel and spices.
  2. Mix in the flour then turn out and knead until the dough is smooth, but try not to work it too much. Roll the dough into two little sausages (it will be quite greasy, but don’t worry about this) and wrap in clingfilm, and chill. You should try and give the dough at least 24 hours to do this, but 2 hours will do in a pinch. You can also wrap the clingfilmed sausage in foil and freeze for up to 3 months.
  3. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 190C and line a baking sheet with parchment. Take the log out of the fridge and slice nice rounds onto the sheet about 3/4 cm thick. If you’ve taken it from the freezer, give it 30 min to soften a little and use a sharp knife! Bake for around 8-12 min on the sheet (depending on whether or not they were chilled or frozen) until firm and browned. As there’s no raising agent they won’t really change size or shape much, so keep an eye on them.
  4. As an aside, if you want to, this dough can be rolled out to form lovely shapes if you like – just be aware that pointy bits on biscuits cook through faster and can scorch.
  5. Cool completely on a baking sheet. The biscuits will come out of the oven quite soft but will firm considerably while they cool.
  6. To decorate, melt the chocolate in a bowl over simmering water and keep relatively warm. Dip the biscuits in one by one to form the little “cap” of chocolate over the top third of each cookie, and leave to firm up in a cool place. If you’re showing off you could temper the chocolate to leave it shiny and impressive-looking, but I’m assuming that you’re cooking for friends and family rather than being judged by Mary Berry, so I wouldn’t bother, personally.
  7. Divide the icing sugar into two little bowls and mix with just a few drops of water to form a thick paste, colouring one green and the other red.
  8. Put each mixture into a little piping bag (or, in a pinch, a sandwich bag) and cut the very tip off to form a tiny opening. Pipe little leaves in green on each cookie together with a few dots of red to form a tiny holly trim for each cookie. Let the icing dry off in the air. Then serve with a smug little smile!

Freak Cake – Fatless Sponge

So it’s been a while. I started off feeling guilty about this, but quickly gave into the realisation that the reason that the mummy bloggers are able to commit so much time to their blogs is that they’ve got time in one place, as opposed to dashing about the country in trains. [PLEASE NOTE BEFORE YOU TAKE TO THE TWITTERS WITH HORROR: I am not saying Mums have shedloads of time and life is easy. I am aware that babies are bloody hard work. What I’m saying is that a mum at home with a baby is more likely to have a stable internet connection and not have a drunk guy asking “What are you looking at? Pictures of food??”  while you’re trying to write about the amazing lasagne you made at the weekend. Props to the Mummy Bloggers, you’re all amazing.]

And while I’m sure you’re all dying to read my guide to cooking in a hotel room with a kettle and a teaspoon (seriously, it’s possible), there’s only so many blog posts you can read about yet another variation on  a salad.

That said, I do want to do more than just peer at spreadsheets on trains. And I’m going to have to get super creative with my time and energy in the next year, because the Lovely One went ahead and decided to ask if I’d share his insane last name. So there’ll be a hell of a lot of “WHY IS EVERYTHING SO EXPENSIVE” going on in relation to wedding shit.

In the meantime, I’m making use of the time I have to enjoy myself which means re-watching Game of Thrones and trying out insane recipes by the likes of Merle Parrish, Masterchef Australia sensation in 2011. Seriously, look at her, the crazy-eyed loon.

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Don’t trust her. There’s INSANITY lurking beneath the surface. Also check out that icing thickness variation – methinks I’m looking at an underbaked sponge, Merle.

I’ve heard of fatless sponges, naturally. The original Victoria Sponge is meant to be made without butter and I’m obviously very keen on mastering the art of the Genoise in the fullness of time. But chucking a shitload of water into the mix and turning straight out of the pan and chucking a warm cake on the side is new on me, and I was relatively convinced it would go hideously wrong.

BUT IT DIDN’T. In fact, it was amazing. Basically, I’ve tried a whole bunch of shop-bought cakes in my time. I assumed that sugary lightness was impossible to recreate at home. Now I know differently, and it’s because of Merle. PRAISE BE UPON HER NAME.

Freaky Cherry Fatless Sponge 

serves 8 – adapted from Merle Parrish’s “Never Fail Sponge” from Merle’s Kitchen

Ingredients: 

3 eggs, separated

1 cup caster sugar

1/2 cup cold water

1 tsp vanilla essence

2 tsp baking powder

1 cup plain flour, sifted twice

1 tbsp cornflour

4 tbsp cherry jam

200 ml double cream, whipped with 1 tbsp icing sugar

 

Method: 

Preheat the oven to 170C (Merle specifies 180 but I find it’s way too quick for delicate cakes) and grease and line 2 shallow pans of 20cm. Don’t, I repeat, don’t just chuck this recipe in a springform and hope for the best. It will be the worst and you will waste a lot of time and energy trying to eat a soggy biscuit/cake hybrid.

Take the egg yolks, sugar, vanilla essence and the half cup of cold water and beat the CRAP out of it with an electric whisk. Merle says to whip for 10 minutes until pale and very thick, but in honesty it really won’t go thick in the way you expect. After 7 minutes whisking you’ll be all OH HELL NO MERLE THIS IS NOT WORKING and it won’t really feel heavy on the whisk in the way you think it should, but you’ll beat for another 4 minutes and hope for the best. The amount of water means it will be light and voluminous and crazy airy but not really thick, it certainly won’t be ribbon-state when you trail the mixture over the surface. It will sort of look like angel delight, very bubbly and light, but runny. WEIRD STUFF YO.

Clean the beaters and whip up the egg white with the baking powder to stiffish peaks. You must work quickly so ensure you know where everything is. Sift the flour and cornflour over the surface of the egg yolk mixture and fold it in, then fold in the egg white/powder firmly but gently.

Pour into the prepared pans and put into the oven, and make sure you don’t open the oven again. You very much need to let this mother sort itself out. The mix will look rather runnier than you want and you’ll think there isn’t enough in the pan, which will be awfully unsettling. Set the timer for 20 minutes and sit back. Magic will happen.

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MAGIC HAPPENING

After 20 – 25 minutes or so the cakes will look something like this and be airy as anything. A light touch will suffice to check if they’re done, a little springiness is what you’re looking for.

Now, take a clean tea towel and lay it on a rack, then run a knife round the outside of the pans and turn the cakes gently straight out onto the tea towel. Carefully peel off the paper,  watching for steaminess as you do so. Miraculously the cakes didn’t collapse into nothingness at this stage, as I was fully expecting. What kind of witchcraft is this, Merle?!

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Fill with cherry jam and cream and sift icing sugar over the top. Enjoy the lightest, fluffiness thing you ever put in your mouth. God damn, it’s good.