Friday, 31 October 2008

Hallowe'en frolics!

Ah yes, it's that time of year again - we all get dressed up in ghoulish kit, traipse around the neighborhood (or in the grown-ups case, downtown in ultra-hip fashionable clubs. Er...actually, not in my case at all!) and eat rather too much sugar. I had my head in the books all day yesterday and mid afternoon I decided to embrace the Hallowe'en spirit by spending a few happy hours baking butternut squash muffins for student website Beyond Baked Beans. If you're interested in seeing the recipe, then click on the feature title above...

Lest you think spending a few hours baking on a Thursday afternoon totally frivolous, then my flatmate had words of reassurance: apparently Gandhi said each day one should stop everything and do something with one's hands. Admittedly I haven't verified this statement, and it may very well turn out to be apocryphal, but the spirit of it is one I definitely agree with - if you needed any more reason to bake then perhaps Gandhi's invocation to use one's hands will prove persuasive.

Anyway, I wonder if it's the celebration of primary colours such as bright pumpkin orange which makes Hallowe'en so endearing to kids and adults alike. Or is it the dark side of ghoul - the zombies, the ghosts and horror films - which entices us? Of course there are always grumps and misanthropes lamenting Hallowe'en as a ghastly commercialised holiday corrupting our youth, not to mention rotting our teeth. There's merit to the latter argument, but I can't think of a more fun way to leap into winter - and given how arctic it is in London at the moment, why not embrace the kitschness of it all - the primary colours, the dressing up, the excuse to bake goofy orange-coloured muffins? After all, the kitschness of Christmas far surpasses Hallowe'en, but then again I'm escaping that nonsense for sunshine in the Canaries ;-)

Happy Hallowe'en folks!

Monday, 27 October 2008

Lovely lavender...fragrant and calming

I found myself with a small bouquet of lavender at the weekend and couldn't resist rubbing my fingers along the flowers to catch some of that soothing lavender scent. Long known for its calming properties, lavender isn't an ingredient bakers often turn to. This is curious as lavender is such a delightful, quaint fragrance - you can use it for floral breadsticks to serve with goat's cheese for example, or in cakes. I decided to try the latter...

So, at the risk of becoming a bit of a granny, I made a lavender cake. Thinking this might be a tad old-fashioned for modern sensibilities, I threw in lots of orange zest and ground almonds to make a lovely moist, fragrant cake, dispersed with lavender buds which gave occasional bursts of lavender - a delightful reminder of mediterranean sunshine. Go on, give it a try!

  • 200g plain flour
  • 100g ground almonds
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 75g butter, melted
  • 150g half-fat creme fraiche (using up what was in the fridge!)
  • 180g caster sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • zest of 2 oranges
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp lavender flowers
  • handful flaked almonds
If you want a lighter cake, whisk the eggs with the sugar for 5-8 mins instead of just lightly beating them as I did. Frankly I don't mind a slightly dense cake as long as the flavour's right, but if you're out to impress a real pastry chef then follow the traditional method.

I simply put the dry ingredients in one bowl, liquids in a second bowl, combined the two and gently folded the ingredients together, poured them into a 20m round cake tin (lightly oiled, of course), scattered the flaked almonds on top of the mixture and then baked the cake on the central shelf of a 180 celsius oven for 45 minutes. Phew, easy!

You could of course make a simple sugar syrup infused with lavender and orange zest to glaze the cake with: just take equal quantities of water and sugar (or indeed, half water and half freshly squeezed orange juice), place in a saucepan with the lavender and orange and bring to the boil, then simmer for 5 mins until the syrup looks, well syrupy. Drizzle on the cake when it's cooled down...

* Other edible flowers include violet and rose, make sure you buy un-sprayed ones though, you really don't want pesticide in your cake. 

* apologies to Fiona, I know you requested the butternut squash bread, but I didn't have any squash in the house this weekend. Going to kick-start Hallowe'en later this week with a squash baking bonanza so watch this space ;-)

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

A bereft baker...

No blogging this week as my trusted Mac died a sad death on Sunday, and I'm mourning the end of a fabulous machine. Otherwise, the wonderful, stimulating anthropology of food course at SOAS has detained me in the library so the kitchen's been rather quiet - and I'm going cross-eyed from the days of reading...who said being a student was easy?!

But watch this space for the following autumnal/winter recipes:
  • hazelnut, chocolate and pear cakeText Colour
  • plum crumble
  • beetroot chocolate cake (yes, am still on a chocolate high after last week's chocolate tastings!)
  • butternut squash bread
  • whisky, walnut and orange cake
In the meantime, check out Sarah Vine of the Times call to arms (or whisks)

"Bankers? What we need is bakers"

Very a propos for our gloomy economic times - a bit of levity never goes amiss!

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Matcha Green Tea & Chocolate Marble Cake

It's national chocolate week! As if we needed any reason to scoff, devour and drool over chocolate (good chocolate that is) then events all over the UK are taking place to remind us what's out there. And there's a dizzying array of chocolate to be sampled, it seems a veritable chocolate revolution has taken place these last few years, so go and try some of the fantastic choccies available. Here's the website detailing where all of this week's events will be:

In the spirit of chocolate week, and a couple of chocolate tastings I've been going to the last few days, I made a Japanese-inspired matcha green tea and chocolate marble cake, which is a delightful mix of dark, brooding chocolate and quirky Kermit-the-frog green derived from the addition of matcha green tea powder. The playful contrast between the green and brown aside, marble cakes can be quite dry so I countered any prospective dryness with a good dose of yoghurt and quite a lot of ground almonds. Otherwise the recipe couldn't be easier, simply mix dry and liquid ingredients together add your matcha and cocoa in separate batches, mix again and bake.  

So there you have it: matcha green tea and chocolate marble cake, fabulous, as you might have guessed, with a cup of steaming green tea...

  • 200g plain flour
  • 100g ground almonds
  • 125g melted butter
  • 125g plain yoghurt
  • 175g caster sugar
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 3 tbsp cocoa
  • 2 tbsp tbsp matcha green tea powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 180ºC, lightly grease a rectangular loaf tin

You'll need a few bowls handy as the mixture gets divided into two. In one small bowl, crack the eggs, whisk briefly and then add the yoghurt, whisking again to create a smooth mix

In a large bowl sift all the dry ingredients, except the cocoa and matcha powders. Stir through to distribute the raising agents and then divide the dry ingredients in half - placing one half in another bowl (doesn't have to be large, a medium one will suffice) and leaving the other in the original large bowl. 

Add the cocoa to one bowl, stir through, and repeat with the matcha powder in the second bowl. Now add half the liquid ingredients to one bowl, and repeat with the other. Using a large metal spoon, fold the liquid ingredients into the dry until the mixture is fairly smooth (a few lumps here and there won't offend anyone)

Then place your chocolate mixture in the loaf tin, followed by the green tea matcha mixture. This is the fun part - using a fork, swirl through both mixtures back and forth, in figures of eight, whatever you fancy.

Once you're done swirling, place the loaf tin on the middle shelf of the oven and bake for 1 hour...

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Choccy Muffins

It always surprises me when I meet someone who professes a dislike or indifference to chocolate. Yet they drink coffee which to my simple mind seems much more unpalatable and 'toxic' in flavour. Yes, there is bad coffee, and bad chocolate aplenty, but I'm definitely in the chocoholic camp and would rather have cups of tea than coffee any day. That's not to say coffee can't lift rich chocolate flavours - a shot of espresso in your brownie mix does wonders for the aroma of those little squares of gooey chocolateness. Ditto if you add some coffee to butter icing when decorating a chocolate cake. Not so toxic you say, to which I would counter, "quite right, but that's because all those bitter coffee compounds have been tempered by butter and sugar"!

Anyway, I digress. Few foods - other than fish, cheese, homemade bread, and summer fruits - lift the spirits as much as chocolate. If I were a scientist and looking for a research grant (not difficult, apparently the sciences are awash with money, to the ire of us in the impoverished humanities) I'd definitely choose chocolate as my subject of investigation, and there's already evidence of the beneficial health effects good, dark chocolate confer when eaten in moderation. Therein lies the catch: whilst dark chocolate may be good for you, hoovering an entire 150g bar probably won't be, although I tried it once with a Lindt 70% before an exam and it worked wonders for my concentration before the sugar and caffeine high plummeted to a magnificent low - thankfully towards the end of the exam.

So, these choccy muffins may have health-boosting dark chocolate in them, but the butter and sugar unfortunately somewhat mitigate the health benefits. If you can eat these in moderation you're certainly a more virtuous foodie than this Scandi chocolate fiend...

Makes 12 small muffins
  • 125g self-raising flour
  • 125g butter, melted
  • 125g caster sugar
  • 125g sour cream
  • 30-40g cocoa (depends how rich you like you're chocolate flavour...)
  • 30-40g chopped dark chocolate
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • pinch of salt (up to 1/4 tsp if using unsalted butter)
  • 1/8 tsp baking soda (helps lift the muffins)
optional additions: frozen raspberries, walnuts, pecans, macademias, a bit of orange zest, spices such as cinnamon or extracts such as peppermint

First, preheat oven to 180ºC. Lightly grease muffin tins

In a large bowl, sift the flour, cocoa, salt and baking soda. Make a well in the middle and add the liquid ingredients, then using a large metal spoon simply fold the ingredients together to form a moist, but not sloppy mixture. If it's really dense, add a few splashes of milk, water or, ahem, coffee to loosen the mix.

Once it looks even, spoon the mixture into the muffin tins and bake on the mid-top shelf (ie. not near the grill, but not totally in the middle) for 25-30 minutes.

These muffins freeze exceptionally well, and can be tarted up with an icing at a later date...

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

A Carrot Cake...for metric fans

What a start to October - after September's abominable baking record (mitigating circumstances aside) it's good to be whisking and folding again. The first day of this new month was inaugurated with a carrot cake, but not a mundane carrot cake - this is a recipe my Mother gave me. Which she was given at a supermarket promotion. For Philadelphia cream cheese. So we call this Philadelphia carrot cake! I promise there's no link with the makers of this most processed of cream cheese, but the weird thing is this: the icing never quite tastes the same with ersatz cream cheese (think fromage frais, quark or even the perennially fashionable creme fraiche) - the texture and flavour are best when made with this old American favourite...but it was given to my Mother while we lived in Norway, and here's the catch: all the ingredients are measured in decilitres, not the more common grams. So get a measuring jug out and make this cake - it's lighter and less stringy than traditional carrot cakes, with a good hit of cinnamon and lots of yummy carrot.


  • 5 dl self-raising flour 
  • 3 dl caster sugar
  • 1 dl melted butter
  • 4 eggs
  • 6 dl grated carrot
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • you can also add raisins/walnuts, but I didn't.
  • Philadelphia cream cheese (no cheating with the low-fat version!!)
  • 125g softened butter
  • a small handful of icing sugar (do this according to taste, I don't like it too sweet)
  • generous splash of vanilla extract - but not the whole bottle
First, lightly oil a long, rectangular baking pan. Preheat oven to 180ºC

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar until light and mousse-like (ca. 8-10 mins)

In a separate bowl, sieve all your dry ingredients except the grated carrot. 

When the eggs are light and fluffy, add your flour, give it a few folds with a large metal spoon, then add the carrot and butter. Fold through with the spoon, careful not to overdo it though as this will knock all the air out...

Once the mix looks even, plop it in the baking pan and place on the middle shelf of the oven for 35-40 minutes. 

The icing? Easy - just place the butter in a mixing bowl, whisk up so it looks soft and creamy, then add your cream cheese in 3-4 increments. Finally add the sugar and vanilla and whisk again...this can also be used on other cakes such as banana cake or (controversially) chocolate cake. I reckon carrot cake is still king...