Wednesday, 30 July 2008

In praise of passionfruit...

Admittedly not a classic Scandinavian ingredient but passionfruit always reminds me of this heavenly tropical soda my Dad brought back from Sweden when I was younger. Amazing stuff, the Swedes do know something about making soda, although it's probably contraband (Norwegians don't like a lot of imports from abroad, even if it's their next-door neighbour). If I tasted this tropical lusciousness now I might be less enamoured by its walloping sacharineness, not to mention the plethora of 'E' numbers and preservatives. At any rate, the smell and taste of 
passionfruit pulp is an absolute joy and I don't bake nearly enough with this curious, wrinkly fruit. So, on the eve of my flatmate Sophie's birthday out came the baking bibles and I scoured through to find something worthy of her impending celebrations, et voila! a lovely citrussy sponge adapted from the Leiths Baking Bible with a passionfruit cream cheese icing. I added some ground almonds to the sponge for a bit of texture and moistness, and also chucked in frozen blueberries to the mix which went well with the lime zest, but was somewhat over
whelmed by the exquisite passionfruit icing. Whatever, it was still sheer passionfruit bliss, eat it and weep.

Cake Ingredients

  • 150g softened butter
  • 150g caster sugar
  • grated zest of 1 lime
  • 3 medium eggs
  • 130g self-raising flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 70g ground almonds
  • pinch salt
  • 150g frozen blueberries (optional) or raspberries 
Icing Ingredients
  • 150g Philadelphia Cream Cheese - no cheating, it has to be the full-fat variety
  • 100g softened butter
  • 60g icing sugar (this can be varied by 15g, depending on the tartness of the passionfruit)
  • 2 passionfruit - 1 for the icing, 1 for decorating
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 190ºC. Lightly oil a round 20cm cake tin and set aside.
In a medium bowl, cream the softened butter with an electric mixer, then add the sugar, beat again until pale and fluffy before adding the lime zest. Add the eggs individually, beating with the mixer after each addition, and then finally add the ground almonds, and flour, folding through 6-8 times with a large metal spoon. Add your blueberries or raspberries at this stage and give the mix a few more folds with the spoon before turning out into the cake tin.

Bake on the central shelf in the oven for 45 minutes. This is quite a moist cake so it will take a little longer to bake through, if it starts to scorch, turn the heat down to 170ºC.

When the cake is baked, allow to cool completely before preparing the icing: using an electric whisk, soften the Philadelphia for a minute, then add the soft butter and mix thoroughly. Add your vanilla extract and icing sugar, and finally take the pulp of 1 passionfruit, including the spawn-like seeds, and fold this in to the icing with as spoon. Using a spatula, smooth the icing over the now-cooled cake and then using a teaspoon place dollops of passionfruit pulp & seeds all over the icing to create a polka dot effect! As it's rather warm and sultry in London I would advise keeping the cake in your fridge to prevent the icing from going rancid, it keeps rather well for a day or two...

Friday, 25 July 2008

Ladies rule (Earls go home)

It's a fickle thing, baking. I was in my local supermarket Waitrose the other day and they have a series of recipe cards - one of which caught my eye: 'Lady Grey Tea Loaf', now a tea loaf may not sound terribly exciting, but the Lady Grey was what intrigued me. It's a tea I've always preferred to its more famous twin (husband?) Earl Grey, perhaps because the Lady Grey's bergamot notes are more subtle, or maybe its aromatic citrus scent is what's so enticing. Whatever, I liked the sound of this zingy-sounding tea loaf, so went ahead and baked it. The fruit is hydrated in Lady Grey tea which gives a lovely fragrant quality to this loaf, but the end result wasn't quite what I'd hoped for: neither cake nor bread-like, more like chewy dough, albeit with delicious tea-scented plums, pears, figs and cranberries...
So I consulted my trusty Leiths Baking Bible to find out where I went wrong. Apparently I didn't - tea loaves are traditionally low in fat (as you'll
 see, the recipe has no butter - sacre bleu!) and their moistness makes them ideal for keeping, ie. they're meant to be chewy. Perfect for our frugal times I suppose, but not entirely satisfying. The verdict? The Lady Grey tea imparts a fabulous flavour, but next time I shall add some butter, and perhaps 50g ground almonds for that extra texture - all the liquid in this recipe wreaks havoc with the gluten in flour, hence the chewiness not a revelation I realise, but there we go...experimentation is the name of the game! Oh, and I guess it wasn't too much of a disaster, as there's none left...

Waitrose's Lady Grey Tea Loaf:
  • 2 Lady Grey tea bags
  • 300ml boiling water
  • 125g caster sugar
  • 300g fruit mix - I used a mix of dried pears, figs, cranberries and luscious red plums (the plums are a winner)
  • 2 eggs
  • 225g self-raising flour
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon

Steep the Lady Grey tea bags in the 300ml boiling water. After 5 mins, remove the bags, add the sugar and allow to dissolve before adding your dried fruit (I chopped mine in 1cm pieces, but if you're using dried cranberries or raisins just leave them whole!). Cover this and allow the fruit to absorb the tea for 5-12 hours. Then preheat your oven to 180ºC, add the eggs to the fruit mix, then your zest, juice and finally sift the flour in. Bake for 45 mins to an hour.

Future amendments (watch this space)

I would add some vanilla and cinnamon, also some ground almonds and lovely artery-clogging butter - it's about flavour and texture, not about the devastation of one's waistline. Why bake if it's going to be low fat! Gosh, I really have become very militant, must be all the time spent in France recently...

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Go Bananas

It must be the most common baking dilemma: what to do with ripe bananas when their advanced state of maturity renders them un-appetizing at breakfast time. You have lots of options, for example if you are an inveterate smoothie maker, then peel the bananas, freeze them in small zip lock bags and then take them out as needed. You can also mash the bananas and temper their sweetness by mixing the banana mash with lovely unsweetened plain yoghurt. Banana bread is of course a fabulous way to use up those funky, rapidly darkening bananas, but I confess to a certain antipathy to banana bread, perhaps because it is so ubiquitous. So I made these muffins instead, and as evinced by the photos, you'll see that I lacked certain preparation materials! Most importantly, a large enough mixing bowl to blend all the ingredients together (it was a very large batch of banana muffins), but as necessity is the mother of invention I got round this slight wrinkle by using a wok. Yes, a wok. Most bakers out there would be horrified by the prospect of contamination from the garlicky-gingery-scented wok, but it worked out just fine and there was no residual waft from the muffins of a recent Thai Green Curry, which is just as well, otherwise I wouldn't be posting this little feature ;-)

Makes 12 jumbo muffins, or 24 standard muffins
  • 4 large, very ripe bananas - they should be blackened, squishy and rather unappealing
  • 500g plain flour
  • 150g butter, melted
  • 250g caster sugar
  • 4 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 125ml milk
  • 125ml sour cream - yoghurt will also work, or just use milk, I'm just a sour cream fan...
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • pinch salt - up to 1/2 tsp if using unsalted butter, the salt will enhance the flavour of the bananas
  • 150g toasted walnuts (optional, of course)
Preheat the oven to 190ºC, and line 12 large muffin cups with baking parchment (as I did, roughly). Mash your bananas in a small bowl, set aside. Sift the dry ingredients in a large bowl (or wok!) and stir through to distribute the raising agents. Blend the eggs with the milk and sour cream, and create a well in the middle of the dry ingredients, pouring all liquid ingredients in. Using a large spoon, fold through the wet ingredients to the dry, until the whole mix looks like a thick batter - usually between 12-15 folds will do it. Don't over-fold or the muffins will be tough. Add your walnuts if you're using them...bake for 30 minutes, they will double in size and look enormous so if you're not a greedy person, freeze some for future use

Thursday, 17 July 2008

A la recherche du pain perdu

With apologies to Proust...

Just back from a hectic road trip to France, the last of my summer travels! Managed to squeeze in four cities, plus a fantastic 'wine & food' walk through the picturesque vineyards of Beaujolais before returning to London. The Aubois city of Troyes was a revelation - full of ecclesiastical history, and the site of the violent Champagne riots of 1911 which nearly brought civil war to France. Troyes is also the capital of stained glass, and its cathedral has some magnificent examples of bright, colourful stained glass windows. On a less serious note, if you like shoes and colourful tennis apparel you might be interested to know that Troyes is also the home of Lacoste.

While we were there, we stayed at the excellent Maison de Rhodes - a beautiful, understated hotel, rated by The Observer as one of the '20 best hotels in France' no less. It was once the Bishop of Troyes' mansion, a convent, and even the home to the Knights Templar, and recently converted to a delightful hotel with 11 rooms, each with their own individual character and decor - a happy blend of old and new. I would've stayed there a week if our schedule permitted it, and definitely recommend if you're ever in Troyes then have a look at and book this hotel as a special treat...

Just before leaving England I grabbed Don & Petie Kladstrup's 'Champagne: How the world's most glamorous wine trimphed over war and hard times', a wonderful book for wine enthusiasts and history buffs alike, compelling in its narrative of how this region transcended centuries of wars and invasions, and how la champagne - the drink - has defined the region in ways not immediately apparent when sipping this effervescent wine. The book is really worth reading, and if you're interested in wine history generally, the Kladstrups also wrote 'Wine & War' another excellent read...

Anyway, reading about le Champagne - the region - during our long car journey to Burgundy made the whole experience so much more interesting. Acres of champenois farmland bear a striking resemblance to the American midwest, gently rolling fields as far as the eye can see - a rather disconcerting sight to someone who grew up surrounded by mountains and fjords! Yet despite the benign landscape there's an eeriness to places such as the Somme and Marne, where millions of lives were lost in the first world war, and every small town and the sleepiest of villages in the area have prominent memorials to remember the 'Great War', a visible reminder that France suffered more from the first of the 20th century wars than the second. 

But I digress, this post was originally intended for Bastille Day, or
14 juillet as they say in France, and is a recipe for one of my favourite breakfast treats. Pain perdu, known as French toast in the States, or eggy bread - a horrible name! - in England. Translated as lost bread, it's what happens to old, or stale bread when industrious cooks transform it from something prosaic to something, well, delicious! Incidentally, I picked up a copy of 'Tous les bons pains de nos regions' or 'all the good breads of our regions' - a great way to practice one's French and learn more about the bread-making techniques and traditions of each region.

The trick with pain perdu, as learnt from the wonderful Cook's Illustrated website, is to preheat your oven and place each toast in after frying to keep it warm, also adding flour to the batter will create a crisp exterior to the bread. This recipe, although inspired by time spent in France, is unashamedly North American in that I pour maple syrup on the finished pain perdu, something that always reminds me of my Mother as she made this for my birthdays when growing up, but use whichever toppings/syrups you prefer, even if it's a sacrilege to the French ;-)

Serves 4
  • 8 slices stale white bread, you can also use challah, cinnamon bread or brioche
  • 2 large eggs
  • 250 ml milk
  • 2 tbsp melted butter
  • 100g plain flour
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • extra butter/oil for frying
  • summer fruit for topping
  • maple syrup and some fromage frais too
Preheat oven to 100ºC, place the 8 slices on a wire rack and allow to dry out 10-15 minutes in the oven

Meanwhile make your batter: mix all your wet ingredients in a medium bowl and whisk until smooth, then add your flour in increments, whisking continuously until a smooth batter forms.

Take 2 slices of bread and soak these in the batter for 20-30 seconds on each side, then heat your butter or oil in a large, non-stick frying pan over medium heat until the butter foams and place the battered bread in, ensuring that any excess batter drips back into the bowl, rather than in the frying pan!

Fry each side of bread for 2- 2 1/2 minutes, and then place the fried bread back on the wire rack in the oven. Keep warm while repeating the process with the remaining 6 slices. Serve warm with a dollop of fromage frais, some berries sprinkled over and a LOT of maple syrup..

* alternative suggestions for toppings*
  • peaches, passionfruit, or try caramelised apples or pears - any fruit which is seasonal and has some acidity to cut through all the richness of the pain perdu
  • sauces such as raspberry coulis, chocolate or butterscotch sauce, vanilla-infused acacia honey (see my previous post) or something floral like violet syrup. 
  • Ice cream also goes extremely well, but then it becomes dessert, not breakfast!

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

The virtues of Bircher muesli with vanilla-infused honey

At the risk of plumbing the depths of blogging banality, I decided to post a feature on bircher muesli: a breakfast cereal which originated at the start of the 20th century when Swiss physician Dr Maximillian Bircher-Benner advocated soaking oats and grated apple with a teaspoon of lemon juice in lots of condensed milk, then eating it the next day. If the thought of condensed milk with your breakfast cereal makes you feel a little nauseous, then remember these were the days before dairy pasteurization was widespread, and fresh milk carried rather severe health risks such as tubercolosis...

Anyway, bircher muesli is my summertime breakfast favourite, a welcome ersatz for winter's oatmeal porridge. Plenty of other people have written extensively about the health benefits of oats: a source of slow-releasing energy seemingly capable of preventing all sorts of illnesses from diabetes to cancer. Be that as it may, I just love the taste of oats, so if you're a breakfast fiend like me, try this muesli during warmer summer months - not only is it full of fibre, but the soaked oats are more digestible so you're not left with a bloated belly after breakfast. 

Make sure you use large, rolled oats though, not the quick-cooking kind for instant porridge which will turn into a unpalatable, gloopy mush! Some people like to use apple juice to soak their oats, others use yoghurt or plain old milk - in Germany I had bircher muesli soaked in cream, a decadent treat, but perhaps too filling early in the morning. The best way I've found is to follow this simple formula: rolled oats, grated apple, and milk. This is your bircher base, and then you can top it with fruity things such as summer berries, bananas, nuts such as almonds or walnuts, and seeds such as linseeds, sesame seeds, etc

Makes 5 servings (weekends are reserved for pancakes, waffles and other brunch treats!)
  • 225g oats (ca. 3 tbsp oats per day)
  • 2 grated granny smiths (or similarly tart apples)
  • enough milk to cover
Place the oats and grated apple in a large bowl or tupperware container, stir through with a spoon, and then cover with milk. The oats will swell during the night, so make sure you don't fill the bowl/container all the way to the top! Cover with clingfilm

In the morning, take your portion out and top with whatever you have available. This morning I used a dollop of plain bio yoghurt, some rather crimson-coloured strawberries and a few squirts of my favourite sweet treat: acacia honey infused with the seeds (and pod) of half a vanilla pod, the perfect foil for nutty oats and slightly tart grated granny smiths...breakfast bliss!

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Sunday Brunch: Mama Johansen's Sour Cream Waffles

Don't you just love Sunday brunch? I could wax lyrical about the joys of lazy brunches - meals that stretch in a languid, leisurely fashion, for those who haven't a care in the world. Brunch, to me, is the most feline (if there is such a thing) of meals: insouciant, with a hint of arrogance. After all, it's a luxury to spend hours on a Sunday morning/afternoon scoffing muffins, eggs benedict, pancakes, et al. followed perhaps by a walk in the park, or even better: a post-brunch afternoon spent reading the Sunday papers... 
Anyway, this is a recipe my Mother and I adapted from a recent article on, the website for one of Norway's bestselling newspapers. Mama J was initially sceptical and reckoned her recipe would be better, but in the spirit of experimentation we decided to give this one a go. Effectively it's a cross between the Aftenposten article's "World's greatest waffles" and her recipe.  By the way, in case you're wondering, Norway is a rather waffle-obsessed country, thereby the assumption goes that the rest of the world must be too, a peculiarly Norwegian logic. Norwegian waffles done properly though, are light and fluffy, with a crisp exterior, but most importantly, they have a distinct tangy flavour thanks to the addition of sour cream. These can be made in any waffle iron, we just happen to have the traditional heart-shaped waffle iron at our house
Serves 6
  • 350g plain flour
  • 1tsp baking powder
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 100g melted butter
  • 100ml water
  • 200ml sour cream
  • 150ml milk
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence (you could also do cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg...)
In a large bowl, sift the flour, baking powder and add the sugar, blending well to distribute the baking powder. Make a well in the centre, adding your liquid ingredients and mixing thoroughly with a large spoon. Cover the bowl with a cloth and set aside for 1/2 hour...

Meanwhile, get your waffle iron ready, and all your accoutrements - I defrosted some sour cherry jam from the Johansen farm for this occasion. Other toppings which work well are greek yoghurt, cinnamon, any fruit, be they fresh or in jam/coulis form. Or if you have some Norwegians coming round, serve a few slices of Geitost, the infamous caramel-flavoured goat's cheese Norwegians know and love (and non-Norwegians apparently find revolting!) If you're making these for lots of people, plug in the iron and place on the table you're eating at, then each of you can make your own waffle...communal cooking at it's best!

When the waffles are done, eat them immediately - they go soggy quite quickly. Otherwise make a huge batch and freeze for future use - simply place in the oven 5-8 minutes at 150ºC and they'll be as good as freshly made ones

Friday, 4 July 2008

Celebrate July 4th!

If you're an Americaphile like me, July 4th is a great occasion to get out the barbecue, have a fiesta with your pals, and of course, it's a chance to experiment with a few cocktails - take a look at Fiona Beckett's feature today on for some excellent peach cocktail recipes (including one of mine, albeit a non-alcoholic version). In the spirit of stars and stripes, I've decided to feature recipes for a colourful grilled fruit salad and a stellar minty iced green tea crush:  the fruit salad's a refreshing way to end your barbecue, especially if you've had lots of meat and gorged yourself on mezze, and the minty crush should sustain you through the evening...Happy Independence Day folks!

Grilled Fruit Salad (serves 8)
  • 2 punnets strawberries
  • 2 punnets blueberries
  • 3 bananas
  • 3 peaches 
  • 1/2 pineapple
  • handful mint
  • zest of 1 orange
  • juice of 3 oranges
  • 2-3 tsp sugar
Minty Iced Green Tea Crush (serves 8)
  • 1 litre Iced Green Tea (recipe below)
  • 1 litre chilled soda water/sparkling water
  • 8-12 tbsp simple sugar syrup (recipe below)
  • zest of 2 limes
  • juice of 2 limes
  • handful mint
  • cucumber slices for garnish
  • alcohol of your choice: rum or vodka work well, or just serve it as a virgin cocktail
Prepare the aluminum foil for the salad: take two long sheets and place one on top of the other, then prepare the fruit: simply halve the strawberries, quarter the peaches, cut the banana and pineapple into chunks. Place all this in a bowl, add the orange juice, zest and mint leaves (you can crush the mint leaves beforehand if you wish) and toss the fruit in the juice and mint. Place the fruit on the aluminum foil, create 4 edges by folding up the sides, and add a few tablespoons of the juice, plus the blueberries at this stage. Then sprinkle some sugar on top and seal the parcel very thoroughly. Grill on a low flame for 5-10 minutes and serve immediately

For the crush: steep 6 green tea (preferably the kind with a mint flavour, such as Jackson's) bags in simmering water, not boiling, for 2-3 minutes. Take the teabags out and allow the tea to cool completely. Make the sugar syrup: take 100g sugar and place in a saucepan with 100g water, bring to the boil, making sure that all the sugar has dissolved. Chill the syrup, and what you don't use for the crush keep in a sealed jar/container in the fridge for future cocktails!

Muddle the mint in a bowl, add this to a pitcher and then add your sugar syrup, blend thoroughly, add the juice and zest of the limes. Then add your crushed ice, blend again, and finally your alcohol of choice, minty green tea and soda/sparkling water. Taste for sweetness, and adjust accordingly. Serve immediately, with a sprig of mint and a slice of cucumber...

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Baking with Wine....

Lest you think I'm a dipsomaniac baker capable of whacky 'Swedish Chef' style antics, this feature is about baking cakes with wine, and hilarious as tipsy baking might be, I'd advocate a judicious splash of wine in sweet things to bring a bit of sparkle to your baking sessions - whilst enjoying a heftig glass of the stuff - afterwards, of course. 

Baking with wine is not unheard of, after all Claire Clark, head pastry chef at Napa Valley's French Laundry, has a recipe for chocolate red wine cake in her excellent baking book Indulge: 100 Perfect Desserts (Absolute Press), and there is such a thing as wine flour in Canada which sounds intriguing

This chocolate red wine cake recipe is inspired by one I tasted on a recent press trip to southwest Germany's wine regions - it's a classic buttery, Victoria sponge-style formula. The wine adds depth of flavour to the cake, rather than an overt 'wine' flavour...

Serves 12 
  • 125g self-raising flour
  • 125g butter, softened
  • 125g caster sugar
  • 125ml red wine - any will do, although save the good stuff for drinking!
  • 125ml sour cream
  • 4 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 75g dark chocolate chips (a decadent addition, not obligatory)
Preheat oven 180ºC, lightly oil a scalloped 'bundt cake' tin, or just an ordinary 22cm round cake tin

Cream the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy, add the egg one at a time and beat after each addition. Add the sour cream, then the wine and beat together. This will look like a rather unappetizing mess, persevere though, it will be worth it

To this mauve-ish mixture, add your spices and salt, then sift in the flour and cocoa powder, adding the optional chocolate chips at this stage. Fold through with a large metal spoon until the mixture looks even (it will be quite moist), then spoon into the cake tin and bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 30-35 minutes. It should have risen, be firm to the touch and if in doubt, insert a skewer to check there's no uncooked mixture left - it should come out clean

Allow to cool, dust with icing sugar and serve with redcurrants, chopped peaches and perhaps a glass of Pinot...

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Strawberry Snow

It's July, it's hot and you're wilting under the summer sun. The perfect midsummer treat, Strawberry Snow is cool, refreshing and as Norwegian as it gets - in fact the Johansen family fruit farm in western Norway is currently awash with plump, crimson strawberries, not to mention delicate wild strawberries. Summers as a child at the farm meant hours spent in the strawberry patch, growing fat due to unrepentant gluttony - admittedly it wasn't the strawberries contributing to an expanding waistline, grandmother Johansen's baking took care of that. Thankfully I grew outwards, and eventually upwards

Every year I have the same thoughts about strawberries - the less adulteration, the better. But it's hard to resist this take on 'strawberries and cream', so give it a go, and start looking forward to the joys of raspberries, sour cherries, peaches and plums...

Serves 4 disciplined people, or 2 greedy Scandinavians...
  • 300g ripe strawberries
  • 150ml fresh orange juice (ca. juice of 3 small oranges)
  • 1-2 tbsp Grand Marnier
  • 1-2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 2 tbsp icing sugar
  • 1 small pot (142ml) whipping cream
  • 1 small pot (142ml) sour cream
  • 250g mascarpone cheese
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract or seeds of 1/2 vanilla pod
  • pack of mint (small handful)
Start by dividing the strawberries in two batches. Take one batch, quarter the berries, and place them in a bowl with the fresh orange juice, Grand Marnier and a light sprinkle of sugar - this will macerate the strawberries, and the orange juice really enhances strawberries in a most peculiar way

Set the macerating strawberries aside. Put the mascarpone in a medium bowl, and sift in the icing sugar, and vanilla extract or seeds. Using a spatula, start beating the mascarpone, not too much,  just enough to soften it slightly so there are no major lumps left. Then add your whipping and sour creams. Gently fold these through until the whole mixture looks light and fluffy. If you beat it too much, the cream will start to split and you'll need a lot more Grand Marnier in the strawberries to disguise this error

Finally, taking the second batch of strawberries which you haven't macerated (or gobbled up in the process of making this), whizz them in a blender with the mint, leaving a few sprigs for garnish. This will look like a red, minty mess, and you should fold this through very carefully in the 'snow', creating a swirly effect

Your strawberry snow is ready, so refrigerate in little glasses, or if you're twee like me, in tall martini glasses, for an hour and then when you're ready to serve, put a couple of spoonfuls of the macerated strawberries on the side of the snow, and the sprig of dainty mint - a winning dessert for dinner parties...