Sunday, 30 November 2008

Caramel Cake! This Month's Daring Bakers' Challenge

Here's something I wouldn't have conceived of trying: caramel cake. Though I love classic English sticky toffee pudding and anything of that genre: toffee, caramel, butterscotch - all yummy (if teeth-defying) and totally addictive things, I've been rather reluctant to play around with hot sugar because of it's volcanic nature when it caramelizes. There are two scars on my right arm: one from when I made caramel at Leiths and burnt myself, and the other from leaning against a 400 degree oven. Yes, I'm a klutz.

So when this month's Daring Bakers' challenge saw caramel cake on the menu, I winced. Partly out of fear I'd be burning myself again, and partly for fear of how yummy it was going to be, thereby destroying my carefully calibrated pre-Christmas eating plan. Which was never much of a plan or particularly calibrated if I'm honest, but one has ideas of being "good" before Christmas. And I must confess that this cake was made with a few 'cheat' ingredients too (!) which I'm not thrilled about but in the absence of time, a flatmate's birthday on the horizon, and a very early start this weekend on a road-trip to France, I had to resort to some store-bought trickery, otherwise, as the Germans say, "Alles geht durcheinander" or everything collapses....

The full recipe, replete with gorgeous photos is, however, to to be found here:

It's a recipe by Shuna Fish Lydon, a genius baker of who was assisted in this month's challenge by:

Alex of Blondie & Brownie

Jenny of Foray into Food

Natalie (a gluten-free expert) of Gluten-a-go-g

Thus, what you see is an oozing caramel cake that has been dusted with cocoa and decorated with raspberries for my flatmate's big day. An "assisted" caramel cake if you will, but as Christmas approaches - and hopefully the weeks become less frenetic - I've decreed to make more caramel-inspired desserts and cakes and show no fear in doing so. Provided I can find a heatproof spacesuit that protects me from spluttering hot sugar ;-)  

In that sense, the Daring Bakers' Challenge this month has proved inspiring, even if I've been a reprobate about following the recipe to a 'T'...Happy Baking everyone! 

Sunday, 16 November 2008

A Scandinavian Favourite: Cinnamon Buns

Winter in Scandinavia is - famously - a period marked by dark, gloomy days punctuated by occasional bursts of snowfall. Come mid-December there's a scant hour of light during the day so it's little wonder Ibsen's prose was bleak. And don't get me started on Munch, painter of 'Scream' fame. He, like many creative Scandinavians, escaped to the south of France or Italy during the winter - a much-needed reprieve from the despair back home, I imagine. Though in Munch's case, he was still in the doldrums upon his return. Thankfully Edvard Grieg, that other giant of Norwegian culture, composed some stirring stuff (think Peer Gynt) alongside his more sombre melodies (think piano concertos!)

Much as I love winter in Norway for its skiing and ice-skating, there were times when all I'd want to do was curl up and hibernate until April. Light-deprivation manifests itself in some peculiar behaviour which Scandinavians are notable for, invariably involving alcohol consumption. But thankfully winter is also the season for baking, and this is when Scandinavian bakers - in my humble opinion - surpass themselves. Perhaps it's a way of fending off the winter blues? Whatever the reason, an array of baked goodies is always on offer throughout the winter months. My grandmother used to make half a dozen varieties of Christmas cookies each year, and not just a few batches, but enough to last the entire extended family until Easter. And the novelty of eating gingerbread wears off by January.

Anyway, the attention to detail in decorating cookies, cakes, buns and breads is a hallmark of November and December baking - indeed I can't wait to kickstart the Christmas baking in December with ginger cookies shaped like snowmen, almond cakes and Lucia buns (sweet yeast buns scented with saffron), but for now h
ave managed to exercise a modicum of restraint and opted instead for the totally indulgent cinnamon buns so beloved of Scandinavians. I've added a generous sprinkling of coarsely ground pistachio nuts - not kosher per se, but I love the flavour of pistachios and they give a delightful green contrast to the cinnamon colour of the buns.

This recipe has been adapted from 'The Scandinavian Cookbook' (see below) a book with fabulous recipes by Danish cook and food writer Trina Hahnemann who - incidentally - advises serving these buns with a cup of 'hot apple drink'...laced with Calvados. Couldn't agree more, Trina.


Makes enough for 18-20 small buns - I've halved the original recipe and used some wholemeal flour to add a bit of texture and nuttiness. Feel free to use plain flour of course...
  • 300g plain flour
  • 125g wholemeal flour
  • 70g caster sugar
  • 7g dried yeast (or 15g fresh yeast if you can source it)
  • 1 tsp ground cardamom pods (though leave the pods out...)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 250ml whole milk
  • 75g butter
  • 75g soft butter
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
In a small saucepan, scald the milk along with the butter and allow to cool while you assemble the other ingredients. In a large bowl, sift all the dry ingredients together - if you want these less grainy, then leave out some of the bran from when you sieve the wholemeal flour - and stir through using a large spoon. 

Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients, add the egg, then the milk. It's important the milk/butter is below 50 Celsius degrees when you do this, otherwise the yeast will die when it comes in contact with the hot liquid. If you don't have a thermometer to measure the milk's temperature, use your fingers! The milk should feel warm to the touch, not hot.

Mix the ingredients together until the mixture comes off the sides of the bowl. Scatter some plain flour on your work surface and put the dough on this, adding a bit of flour to your hands so you don't get sticky dough all over you. Start kneading the dough back and forth, and keep the dough moving for 5-8 minutes, the less stationary the dough is, the less likely it is to stick to the surface. The dough is ready to rise when you poke it and it springs back

That last sentence sounds odd. You'll see what I mean ;-)

Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with oiled clingfilm (prevents dough from sticking...), then place the dough in a warm room or cupboard (not the dryer as I once did...forgetting that it tumbles) and let it rise for 45 minutes. If you opt to use only plain flour the dough will take less time to rise, as the fibre in wholemeal flour slows down the yeast

While the dough is rising, make the filling by mixing butter, cinnamon and sugar together. If you're using the pistachios, chop the nuts - or blitz in a blender if you have one

When the dough has doubled in size, take it out and place again on your work surface. Using a rolling pin, make a rectangular shape of the dough, about 40cm x 30cm. Place the filling on the center of the rectangle and spread out. If the kitchen's a bit cold - as mine was this morning - and the butter is firm, use your hands to spread the filling. Not only does the heat from your hands help to smooth the butter over your dough, but it's immensely satisfying getting your hands all sticky and cinnamon-y, hehe!

Once you've finished making a mess with the filling, and - crucially - tasted it, start rolling the dough into a wide cylinder so it looks like an uncooked swiss roll. Ie. roll from the longest part of the rectangle, not the shortest, otherwise you will have very wide buns

Now, using a sharp, uncerrated knife, cut the log into 1.5cm/1 inch slices, and either place on a baking sheet or in a cake tin as shown below. The cake tin version is fun as the buns merge into one another and the end result m
eans everyone shares a bun - a ritual of breaking the bread, if you willOnce you've cut all the slices and arranged them in whichever way you prefer, cover the buns with oiled clingfilm again and allow to rise a second time - or to 'prove' as bakers say - for about 30 minutes. They won't take as long to double in size as the first rising, so keep an eye on them...
How do you know the buns are ready to bake? Gently poke one with your little finger and the indentation should stay put. In other words, there is no 'spring-back'...more baker's jargon!

Preheat the oven to 200 Celsius (400 Fahrenheit) and before you place the buns in the oven (!), glaze with a little eggwash which is simply an egg broken up with a fork, and then finally - scatter the pistachio nuts on top. Bake on the top shelf of the oven for 25-30 minutes. The buns are ready when you tap the bottom and they sound hollow.

Eat the buns, it goes without saying, while they're still warm...

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Celebrating the Stars & Stripes

What a week. I know this is a blog about baking, but news from across the Atlantic has captured the imagination. You'd have to be a curmudgeonly old cynic not to have felt at least a tinge of excitement by the result of this week's U.S.presidential election - suddenly America's beacon is shining bright again, and not a moment too soon. It astonished me on Wednesday morning how, in spite of so much worrying economic news, everyone on the tube sat and read about the election result with a smile on their faces. OK, this is London, so the smile was more like a bemused, understated look bordering on a smile. But there's a real sense of optimism in the air, a renewed faith even...

Of course it wouldn't be the weekend if there wasn't a spot of baking on the agenda, and one can't blather on indefinitely about world events on a baking blog! As the daughter of an American mother (with an Americaphile Norwegian father) I have a particular penchant for American cakes, muffins and cookies. This recipe, for red velvet cake, originated in the deep South. Perhaps a mischievous choice for celebrating the week's news but I reckon this cake has symbolic value, not to mention some seriously schmaltziness. Indeed, this was the election when comediennes reigned, so in the spirit of SNL's Tina Fey and Sarah Silverman (of "The Great Schlep") I decorated this cake to look like the American flag. Needless to say, it looks hilarious, however let me reassure you this is actually a delicious cake for tea-time or with a steaming cup of Java Joe (that's coffee to tea-drinkers) and as you can see, a great excuse to play with food colouring - as if one ever needed an excuse.

  • 200g plain flour
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 150g melted butter
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 2 eggs
  • 100ml milk, with a teaspoon of lemon juice in it 
  • 1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • a lot of red food colouring - I used an obscene amount, 50ml!
  • pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 180 celsius. Lightly grease a 20cm square cake tin

In a medium bowl, sift all the dry ingredients. In a second medium bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar until pale and fluffy. Curdle the milk by adding the lemon juice (this helps activate the bicarb: acid + alkali = well-risen cake). Add the dry ingredients to the eggs, give the mixture a few folds with a large spoon, then add the milk, the butter and food colouring and stir through until the mixture is evenly blended.

Pour this into a square cake tin and bake on the centre shelf of the oven for 35-40 minutes.

The icing:
  • 150g softened butter
  • 150g cream cheese
  • 6 tablespoons icing sugar
  • splash of vanilla extract
  • food colouring...ahem! tubes of already coloured icing also work well...
Cream the butter and then add the icing sugar, followed by the cream cheese and vanilla. Separate into three bowls and add the appropriate food colour
ing - needn't be red, white and blue obviously ;-)

p.s. this 'hope-inspiring' cake is dedicated to my favourite American chica, Kaitlin, who was my partner in crime constructing a similarly goofy cake many moons ago - only we decorated with blueberries and strawberries for the full stars & stripes effect. Slightly more organic than my abovementioned food colouring bonanza...