Author: davidkarlin

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.20: Aish baladi from Egypt

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.20: Aish baladi from Egypt

Aish baladi is the Egyptian wholemeal version of the bread more generally known in the Middle East as “khubz arabi” (Arab bread) or in the West as “pita bread”. It’s a small, flat bread baked at high temperature which forms a pocket into which you will be stuffing your hummus, ful medames or other goodies.

Traditionally, aish baladi is baked in a very hot, wood-fired, open topped clay or brick oven (the Arab version is called a tabun, the Indian one a tandoor): the bread against the hot sides and left there for a very short time. That’s always going to make it difficult to replicate in a standard Western kitchen, the key requirement being to take your circle of dough from room temperature to high heat as fast as you possibly can. It’s the suddenness of this process that causes the water in the middle of the bread to vaporise quickly; the pressure from the resulting steam causes the two sides of the dough to separate and form the pocket.

The Saveur recipe I started from suggests that you use a pizza stone: I don’t have one, but I do have non-stick frying pans that can go into a very hot oven: these work just fine if I wind my oven up the its maximum temperature. If I start with the bread on a standard baking tin at room temperature and put the whole thing into the oven, the result is perfectly edible bread, but without the puffed up pocket, which kind of loses the point.

The dough is a pretty straightforward yeasted wholemeal dough. I’ve broadly followed Saveur’s method (although I reduced the water content considerably – the dough from their recipe is really wet), but I suspect I could have used my standard method of “start the yeast with a teaspoon of sugar and some warm water” without a problem. Wholemeal wheat flour should be fine; if you want to be historically authentic, use emmer wheat; I used spelt. Do not use wholemeal rye flour, which doesn’t form enough gluten: my first attempt at aish baladi went comically wrong when I opened a packet of dark rye flour by mistake and couldn’t understand why interminable amounts of kneading appeared to be having no effect whatsoever.

  • 7g dried yeast
  • 240ml lukewarm water (around 40℃)
  • 300g wholemeal flour, plus more for rolling
  • 6g oil
  • 5g salt
  1. Mix the yeast, the water and half the flour in a bowl and leave for 30 minutes: it should go nicely frothy.
  2. Add in the oil, the salt and the rest of the flour and blend to a smooth dough. Knead for 7 minutes with the dough hook in a stand mixer, or around 10 minutes by hand.
  3. Leave to rise for around 90 minutes
  4. Put your pizza stone (or frying or baking pan) into the oven and preheat the oven to its hottest setting (mine is 250℃ fan)
  5. Flour a surface for rolling with more wholemeal flour. Use a generous amount.
  6. Cut the dough into 8 or 9 pieces, then roll each piece into a thin circle, perhaps 15cm in diameter. You may find it easier to go for an oval than a circle: make sure you know exactly how many pieces of dough are going to fit onto your stone or pan.
  7. Optionally, sprinkle the top of each circle with some bran (if you have it) or some of the excess flour from rolling.
  8. Leave to rise for a further 20-30 minutes.
  9. Prepare somewhere to keep the bread warm: I used a basket lined with a tea towel
  10. Now work quickly: open the oven, take the stone or pan out, and put one or more circles of dough onto it, put it back in and close the oven. The faster you can do this, the more likely you are to get the approved puffiness.
  11. Bake for around 6-8 minutes. Take the pan out, transfer the bread to your basket (or whatever you’re using) and repeat until you’ve done all the batches you want.

Be careful: bread straight out of the oven will be really, really hot: you want to give it a minute or two before allowing anyone to risk biting in or they’ll burn their mouths! But the bread is at its best in the next 10 minutes after that.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.19: Bolivian cocadas

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.19: Bolivian cocadas

Cocadas are everywhere throughout the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world. They’re the bake is for coconut lovers: there’s nothing I’ve ever mode which has a higher percentage of pure coconut.

In most places, cocadas show up as balls or swirls (they’re often translated as “coconut cookies” or “coconut macaroons”). In Bolivia, they make them as “bar cookies”, which I take to mean baked in a tray and cut into squares, somewhat like brownies.

Western recipes tend to use sweetened condensed milk: I’ve started with a recipe from “Bolivia bella” in which you make your own condensed milk by starting with coconut milk and sugar. The original then adds freshly grated coconut, but I didn’t have any, so I’ve put in desiccated coconut at the beginning of the process to allow it to rehydrate while the coconut milk is condensing. I’ve also considerably reduced the proportion of sugar to coconut – you can increase it to 200g if you prefer a sweeter end product.

  • 400ml coconut milk
  • 150g desiccated coconut
  • 150g sugar
  • 3 egg yolks (mine clocked in at around 54g)
  • 10g sesame seeds
  • 25g butter
  • grated rind of 1 lemon (around 2g)
  1. Heat oven to 160℃ fan
  2. Line a baking tin with parchment: I used a 23cm x 23cm tin
  3. Mix the coconut milk, the desiccated coconut and the sugar into a saucepan.
  4.  Bring to the boil and simmer gently, stirring frequently, until thickened to a paste. Take it off the heat and stir in the sesame seeds, butter and lemon rind – mix until the butter is melted and combined. Leave to cool for a couple of minutes more: you don’t want to scramble the eggs in the next step.
  5. Beat the egg yolks thoroughly, then add them to the mix and blend them in quickly
  6. Return the saucepan to a low heat and cook for a few minutes longer until the mixture is very thick.
  7. Remove from the heat and spread the batter evenly into your tin.
  8. Bake for 30-40 minutes until firm to hard. Use a longer time for a crisp biscuit, a shorter time for a softer brownie-like consistency.
  9. Leave to cool in the tin. You’ll struggle to extract it when it’s still warm.
  10. Remove the whole thing from the tin and cut into squares or rectangles.

Confession time on the photos: I got the baking temperature/time badly wrong on my first attempt and then inexplicably used the wrong baking pan on the second. So my final cocadas are too thin and unevenly baked. But they still taste great…

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.18: Agege bread from Nigeria

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.18: Agege bread from Nigeria

It’s time for this series to make its first foray into Africa: I’m going to start in Nigeria with “Agege bread”, named after the suburb of Lagos from which it came. It’s a bread with a story and I’ll retell the basics, with the help of this great video by “For Africans By Africans”.

Bread wasn’t native to Nigeria until the later part of the 19th century, when it started to be brought in by immigrants from the Caribbean. In 1913, Jamaican-born Amos Shackleford arrived in Lagos and set up a bakery business which thrived to the point where he was considered “the bread king of Nigeria”: his “Shackleford bread” would arrive in Agege by bus until services were disrupted in the wake of independence in 1960. A local by the name of Alhaji Ayokunnu set up his own bakery and gave his product the name “Agege bread”. Subsequently, an enterprising community leader negotiated with the suburban railway for trains to stop in Agege, which became the means by which Ayokunnu’s bread colonised the city and won a place in Nigerian hearts.

It’s a slightly sweet white loaf, usually oblong and baked in a tin, whose defining characteristic is that it’s fabulously soft and fluffy. It also keeps well, which is not an insignificant feature in Lagos’s warm, humid climate.  A big part of this comes from the kneading process which uses a machine called a “dough brake”, introduced by Shackleford, which looks rather like a washing mangle or a giant pasta machine: the dough is repeatedly squeezed between a pair of rollers.

A bad episode happened in the 1980s, when President Babangida banned imported wheat. At the time, home grown Nigerian wheat was of lower quality, so bakers started using “improvers” to artificially boost the softness and fluffiness of their product. At least one of these, potassium bromate, has since been found to be carcinogenic and has been banned; other alternatives remain.

I don’t want to use improvers, but I do want to get to something like the approved fluffiness, so I’m going to follow the lead of Nigerian cook Nky-Lily Lete and use the Scandinavian “scalded flour” method – if you want to see why this works, take a look at this post on Bread Maiden, which also describes a newer method invented in Taiwan called Tangzhong.

Since I don’t have access to a dough brake, I’ve simulated the effect by repeatedly rolling the dough with a rolling pin and reforming it. To speed things up, I’ve done some kneading in advance with the dough hook of my stand mixer: if you don’t have one, you’ll need to spend longer on the kneading process.

  • 500g strong white flour, plus more for kneading
  • 200ml boiling water
  • 5g yeast
  • 50g sugar
  • 80g warm water
  • 40g milk
  • 50g butter
  • 35og flour
  • 1tsp salt
  1. Mix the boiling water with the 100g of the flour. Cover the bowl and set aside to cool, for at least one hour (you can do this overnight if you want)
  2. In a bowl, mix the warm water, milk, sugar and yeast. Leave for 10 minutes or so until frothy.
  3. Soften the butter (my preferred method is to chop it into small pieces and set it aside at room temperature while you do everything else.
  4. In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the remaining flour with the salt.
  5. Add the scalded flour and the wet mixture to the dry mixture and mix thoroughly (either with your hands or with the paddle attachment). Leave for 10 minutes.
  6. Add the butter, mix it in and then mix with the dough hook for around 5 minutes
  7. On a floured board, roll out your loaf, then fold it up, picking up as little flour as you can manage. Roll it out again and repeat until the dough is very elastic.
  8. Shape the dough into an oblong and put it in a baking tin. Cover and leave until well risen – depending on your kitchen temperature, this could take anything from one to four hours.
  9. Preheat oven to its hottest setting – mine was 250℃ non-fan.
  10. Bake, covered, for around 20 minutes. The bread should come out soft, risen and not dried out.

It’s best to at least try this bread when it’s fresh out of the oven, even if you’re keeping most of it for later!

Note that I haven’t bothered with a knock-back and second rise: they don’t appear to do this in the Agege factories. But there’s nothing stopping you from doing this if you want.

Slight caveat on the photos here: the quantities in this recipe turned out to be too large for my smaller bread tin and rather too small for the larger one. The resulting bread should really be square in cross-section: to achieve that with the tin you can see, I’d really need to add 50% onto all the quantities here.

The usual in-process shots:

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.17: Speculoos from Belgium

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.17: Speculoos from Belgium

Carrying on from last week-end’s public holiday theme: July 11th in Belgium is the day when the Flemish community celebrates the 1302 Battle of the Golden Spurs, in which Flanders rebels routed the forces of King Philip IV of France. To this day, the Walloons and the Flemish don’t agree about much, but at least one thing unites them: a taste for the spiced shortbread biscuits they call speculoos. Traditionally, they’re baked for St Nicholas Day (on December 6th in Belgium), but I’d run out of biscuits and I didn’t feel like waiting…

As with many baking recipes that go back a long way, there are lots of variations. Speculoos recipes vary widely in ratio of the main ingredients (flour / sugar / butter). They vote for water, milk or an egg to stop the mix crumbling. Everyone agrees on using brown sugar (cassonade in French), but there’s lots of choice as to which sub-variety. For the spicing, everyone agrees on cinnamon, but there’s lots of choice as to what else to use: I opted for nutmeg and ginger; additions/alternatives include cloves, allspice, cardamom, star anise and even white pepper. My quantities of spice are on the low side compared to many, so feel free to play around with the quantities here until you have something that’s exactly to your taste. This really looks like a recipe that defies conventional wisdom about all baking needing to be super-accurate.

Ingredients for around 30-36 small biscuits

  1. 125g butter
  2. 250g flour
  3. 180g brown sugar (I used a mix of muscovado and soft brown)
  4. 50g ground almonds
  5. ½ tsp baking powder
  6. pinch of salt
  7. ½ tsp cinnamon
  8. ¼ tsp ground ginger
  9. ¼ tsp nutmeg
  10. 1 egg

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 175℃ fan
  2. Soften the butter (if it’s straight from the fridge, chop into small cubes, around 1cm,  and leave it while you do everything else).
  3. Mix the flour, sugar, ground almonds, salt and baking powder in a bowl (if you have a stand mixer, you can weigh everything straight into its bowl). Stir everything until all the ingredients are evenly distributed – try to ensure that you’ve got rid of any clumps of sugar.
  4. Add the butter and egg and combine until you have a smooth, even dough – either with the stand mixer or manually with a wooden spoon.
  5. Roll the dough out on a flat surface to a thickness of around 5-7 mm. Try to get it pretty even, because you want your biscuits to be all baked at the same time.
  6. Cut out biscuits with your favourite cookie cutter(s) or cooke mould. If you have young children, you’ll probably want animal shapes, hearts or whatever: my kids are grown up and I couldn’t find any in the house other than a fairly standard circle.
  7. Place on a baking tray lined with a Silpat or silicone baking sheet (if you have one) or baking parchment. You’ll probably need to do two trays worth: this makes around 30-36 biscuits.
  8. Bake for around 15 minutes.
  9. The biscuits cool fine without taking them off the Silpat sheet, but if you’re using anything else, you probably want to turn them over after 10 minutes because the bottoms can get soggy.
Out of the oven (using Silpat sheet)

Enjoy! Speculoos are the ultimate biscuit to accompany a coffee; they can also be crumbled to make an excellent topping for a fruit-and-cream type of dessert.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.16: Carrot Cake from California

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.16: Carrot Cake from California

It’s been a strange Fourth of July this year: the poison of the Trump era has made  it harder than ever to summon positive feelings for the United States. Still, I’ll use the occasion to celebrate happy days in the past and hope for happier ones in the future, with some close family members and numerous friends in the USA firmly in mind.

I lived in California for a couple of years in the early 1980s and one of my fondest memories is of whiling away hours at Printers Inc., a bookshop-plus-café that was a kind of prototype Borders. Long before Starbucks had started to expand outside Seattle, Printers Inc. served really good coffee and superb brownies and carrot cake. Cake lovers would invariably spot some book they liked, while those in search of a book, with equal inevitability, would be entrapped by the aroma of fresh coffee and cake.

Sadly, I never did get the recipe for the best carrot cake I ever had, baked by Gigi Ellis, the wife of my boss at Fairchild, and I lost touch with Frank and Gigi decades ago. So this recipe, which is close to the Printers Inc. version, comes from the cookbook I bought at the time, a model of Californian eclecticism entitled San Francisco à la Carte. I’ve turned everything metric, because I just don’t see how you can bake accurately using measuring cups, or indeed why you would want to when digital scales are cheap, accurate and generate less washing up.

The quantities here will work for a single cake in a 23cm x 23cm square tin. That will do for 16 small portions (or 8 very generous portions, or whatever you pick in between). If you prefer, you can use more than one tin, which avoids the tricky process of slicing the cake in half, at the price of leaving you with an internal crust that you don’t really want.

Make the cake:

  • 250g carrots (weight after peeling)
  • 250g plain flour
  • 300g sugar
  • 10g baking soda
  • 4g salt
  • 3g cinnamon
  • 3 eggs
  • 150g corn oil
  1. Preheat oven to 175℃.
  2. Grease the bottom of your cake tin, line it with baking paper, then grease the bottom and sides.
  3. Mix together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. There’s no need to sift the flour.
  4. Peel and grate the carrots.
  5. Beat the eggs (I use a stand mixer). Add the oil and beat until the eggs and oil have combined into a smooth mixture. 
  6. Add the flour mixture to the egg and oil mixture and beat until smoothly combined.
  7. Add the carrots and stir until they’re evenly distributed.
  8. Pour the whole mixture into your baking tin, ensuring that you spread it evenly including the corners.
  9. Bake for 30 minutes – use the usual skewer test to ensure that it’s done. I’m always surprised by the way the cake can be really raw at 25 minutes and just fine at 30. By the way, some people like their carrot cake sticky: if you’re one of them, make sure the skewer *does* come out with some mixture sticking to it.
  10. Cool in the baking tin for 5-10 minutes and then on a wire rack.

Make the frosting:

  • 200g cream cheese
  • 50g butter
  • 150g icing sugar
  • Vanilla essence to taste (optional)
  1. Beat these together thoroughly until very smooth.
  2. Cover and leave in the refrigerator: especially if it’s summer, the frosting will be very runny and you want it to hold its shape when you spread it.

Assemble the cake:

  • 90g pecan halves
  1. Reserve 16 of the best pecan halves for decoration (this will use around 40g). Chop the remainder into small pieces.
  2. Transfer the cake from the wire rack to whatever you’re going to serve the cake on: cake plate, board, tray or whatever.
  3. With a long knife, slice the cake horizontally into two approximately equal parts. Take the top half off and set aside – I do this by sliding a plastic chopping mat between the two halves, sandwiching the top half between the mat and a wire rack and lifting it off.
  4. Spread half the frosting over the bottom half. Scatter the chopped walnut pieces evenly across the cake.
  5. Put the top half of the cake back into place.
  6. Spread the remaining half of the frosting over the cake and decorate with remaining pecan halves, in whatever pattern takes your fancy.

It’s probably a good idea to chill the cake at this point, because the frosting really is quite liquid. Take it out of the refrigerator half an hour or so before serving.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.15: Challah

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.15: Challah

The core of every Jewish family is the Friday night dinner which greets the Sabbath. Even an unbeliever like me is deeply moved by ritual of the blessings over candles, bread and wine that bring my family together with each other and with our culture. And there’s only one bread for this: the plaited, egg-enriched, slightly sweetened white loaf called challah (or cholla, depending on your favourite transliteration of the Hebrew חַלָּה‎). Jewish children are addicted to the stuff from an early age and not just for its ritual significance: good challah combines tastiness and pillowy soft texture in a way that’s hard to beat. Beware, though: a lot of bakeries sell challah that looks the part with its perfect plaiting, but is dry or tasteless or both. Which is a good reason for making your own.

For the purposes of this series, challah counts as the entry for Israel. In truth, however, it’s spread throughout the world and you can’t help noticing that similar breads are baked all over Europe from Germany eastwards by Jews and gentiles alike.

Three strand challah after second rise, ready for baking

There are many ways of braiding your challah and at some point, you need to decide on how many strands you’re going to use: I recommend that you start with 3, but you can go for anything from 2 to 9. You’ve almost certainly spotted from the photographs that I’m fairly rubbish at this part of the puzzle, so I’m not even going to attempt to do a better of job of showing you how than this Czech YouTube video, which shows you how to do all of them. However, my challah is reliably soft and tastes reliably good, so I’ll stand by the virtues of my recipe, which is based on the one in Emmanuel Hadjiandreou’s excellent book How To Make Bread. Hadjiandreou is decidedly non-Jewish, but who’s asking? His recipe has worked better for me than the ones from many synagogue websites.

Four strand Challah after baking

This makes a single small loaf. It takes several hours from start to finish, but that’s mostly waiting time: the amount of actual work isn’t too horrific.

  • 250g Strong while flour
  • 4g tsp salt
  • 15g sugar
  • 3g dried yeast
  • 80ml warm water (around 40℃)
  • 2 eggs
  • 20g sunflower oil
  • Poppy seeds or sesame seeds for dusting the top

Ideally, you want a silicone baking sheet to put over your baking tray (better still if you have the Silpat silicone/fibreglass type, which I don’t). But otherwise, baking parchment will do.

  1. Preheat your oven to 50℃
  2. Weigh out and mix the flour, salt and sugar in a bowl
  3. Weigh out and mix the warm water and yeast in another bowl
  4. Separate one egg and set aside the white in a bowl; mix the yolk with the whole of the second egg, beat lightly and add to the water/yeast mix
  5. Pour the dry mix into the wet mix and combine until it’s beginning to feel like dough. It will probably still be a bit gritty
  6.  Add the oil and mix until you have  a smooth dough
  7. You could at this point proceed directly to kneading. But you’ll save yourself time and elbow grease by leaving the dough for 10 minutes (a process called autolysis), giving it a quick fold or two and then repeating this a couple of times
  8. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface. You’ll only need a bit of flour on your hands and on the surface – don’t be tempted to flood the dough with raw flour at this stage. Keep kneading until the dough is elastic and springs back when tugged or prodded.
  9. Turn your oven off. Put your ball of dough back into the bowl, cover it and leave it to rise in your turned off oven. You’ll probably want it to rise for a couple of hours: you have to judge this by eye and experience. 
  10. Punch the dough down, transfer it to a lightly floured surface, divide it into equal parts: as many as you have chosen for your braid. Roll each part into a sausage, stretched out as long as you can reasonably make it while keeping all your strands the same length.
  11. Braid the dough as per the instructions in the video – either on your board or, preferably, directly onto the baking sheet.
  12. Transfer the baking sheet onto your tray (or, if you didn’t have a baking sheet, transfer the braided loaf to your lined tray). Brush the loaf with some of the egg white that you reserved in step 4, and sprinkle a generous helping of sesame or poppy seeds over the top.
  13. Cover the challah with an inverted bowl or domed lid that’s large enough so that the challah won’t touch it when it expands. Now leave it in a warm place until it is well risen: this can be anything from 30 minutes to a couple of hours depending on the ambient temperature and on how strong your yeast was in the first place.
  14. Make sure you turn your oven to 200℃ fan in plenty of time: the oven could easily take 15-20 minutes to come to temperature and you don’t want your challah sagging horribly while you’re waiting for it.
  15. Bake the challah for around 20 minutes. The crust should be a medium to dark golden brown and if you stick a skewer into the bottom, there should be no sign of stickiness upon removal.
  16. Leave the challah to cool on a rack.

Notes: 

For step 9, various authorities on bread-making say that you will get a better flavour by using a much slower rise at much lower temperature: perhaps 8 hours at a room temperature of 20℃ or so, or even longer in the fridge. I’ve never tried.

For step 13, if you have two ovens, you can use the same trick as step 9: preheat one oven to 50℃, then turn it off and use it as a proving drawer. Then use the other oven for the actual bake. If you only have one oven, you can’t really do this: if you have a boiler cupboard or airing cupboard that’s warmer than your kitchen, you can use it. Otherwise, you’ll just have to do the second rise at room temperature and be patient.

Some recipes recommend that you preheat the oven to 250℃ and then turn it down as soon as you’ve put the bread in. This gets a slightly better crust, but runs the risk of you forgetting to turn the oven down, something that’s now happened to me sufficiently often that I don’t go for this any more.

The usual in-process shots:

And here’s a quick look at the braiding process. But truly, use someone else’s!

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.14: chocolate eclairs from France

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.14: chocolate eclairs from France

The French are fabulous bakers. I could have chosen any of a dozen bakes from France, but this one is the taste of my childhood – my Proustian Madeleine, if you’re of a literary mind. So let’s hear it for the “éclair au chocolat”, which brings back a flood of happy memories of small boy in Parisian patisserie.

There have been some easy bakes in this series of posts: this isn’t one of them. It’s fiddly and  requires hand skill as well as pin-sharp attention to quantities and timing. If anyone labels an eclair recipe as “quick and easy”, don’t believe them.

The éclair is a three part dish: a cylindrical choux pastry bun, a crème pâtissière (pastry cream) filling and a ganache or glaze. Each one has its choices: I’m going to write only one recipe, but I’ll give some ideas about the other options. I should also point out that I’m not a master pastry chef: if you are looking for perfect symmetry and an immaculately shiny top, you’ll need to go well beyond my skill level. But I can assure you that these tasted suitably authentic and went down very well with the family…

The crème pâtissière filling

Eclairs in England tend to use whipped cream as a filling. The French don’t do this: the filling is always some variant of crème pâtissière (pastry cream or creme pat in English), either vanilla or chocolate. You can use plain pastry cream or add some Crème Chantilly (sweetened whipped cream), in which case it’s technically called a Crème Diplomate. I went for something in between: a chocolate crème pâtissière, but with double cream mixed in to thin it down to a pipable consistency.

  • 3 eggs
  • 15g flour
  • 5g cornflour
  • 5g (1tbs) cocoa powder
  • 60g vanilla sugar (or 60g caster sugar plus vanilla essence to taste)
  • 25g dark chocolate (I used chocolate with 70% cocoa solids)
  • 250 ml milk
  • double cream as needed – perhaps 30-50ml

In the methods, I’ve sequenced things to minimise stress rather than overall preparation time. For example, if you were trying to minimise time, you’d probably put the milk on straightaway and then quickly sort out the egg mix while the milk heats up.

  1. Separate the eggs and put the yolks in a bowl
  2. If your chocolate came in a bar as opposed to chips, chop it up into small pieces
  3. Add 45g of the sugar to the eggs and whisk together
  4. Add the cornflour, flour and cocoa powder and whisk thoroughly
  5. Put the milk into a saucepan with the rest of the sugar (and vanilla essence if using) and bring to the boil
  6. Pour the milk into your egg mixture and whisk together thoroughly
  7. Return your mixture the saucepan and whisk in the chocolate
  8. Cook for a minute or two longer until there is no hint of raw flour taste in the mixture
  9. Decant your mixture into a bowl, dust it with icing sugar to stop a skin forming, cover and leave to cool; refrigerate until thoroughly cold and your eclairs are ready to be filled

The choux pastry buns

Most choux pastry recipes are pretty similar: mine mainly comes from an old Roux Brothers cookbook and therefore has a level of French authenticity. The real choice you have is how to improve the crust on the top of your eclair: I’ve sprinkled icing sugar on top, but you can use egg wash if you prefer. Some French recipes like this one from Ricardo  use a thin layer of a sweet pastry called  “craquelin”, which merges into the main eclair, caramelises and forms a characteristic cracked pattern.

  • 45g unsalted butter, plus another 5g if your milk is semi-skimmed
  • 65ml milk
  • 65ml water
  • ½ tsp sugar
  • 75g flour
  • 2 eggs
  • icing sugar to dust
  1. Preheat oven to 190℃ fan.
  2. Get your baking tray ready: lie a silicone mat over it (if you have one), patterned side up, or a sheet of baking parchment otherwise
  3. Prepare a piping bag with a 1cm nozzle. A French star nozzle is ideal: this gets you a ridged eclair with more surface area to go crisp. I don’t have one of these, so I went for plain.
  4. Sift the flour
  5. Chop the butter into small pieces and put into a saucepan
  6. Add the milk, water and sugar  (you can also add ½ tsp of salt at this stage, which some recipes suggest)
  7. Bring to the boil and take off the heat
  8. Immediately add the flour to the mixture in a single go and stir to combine
  9. When properly mixed, return to the heat and cook for a short while – perhaps a minute or two – until the mixture comes away nicely from the sides of the pan. Take off the heat and leave to cool for a short while
  10. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time, whisking thoroughly until you have a smooth mix. If the consistency is right, you should be able to pipe the mixture but it should hold its shape when piped. If it’s too stiff, you can add more egg. If it’s too loose, you’re in trouble, so an alternative to the “whisk in eggs one at a time” instruction is to whisk the eggs into a bowl on their own, and then add the egg mix a bit at a time until you are sure the consistency. For me, life was too short and I just added them in.
  11. Leave to cool for five minutes or so, then fill your piping bag with the mixture
  12. Pipe your eclairs into tubes of choux pastry around 8cm long – the recipe should get you a dozen of them. Make sure they are properly spaced out from each other: they will grow during baking. You really need to try to get an even cylinder here, which means piping quickly with a constant pressure: this takes practise. On the photos here, you’ll see that I have some way to go…
  13. Tidy up any stray bits of dough which are sticking out at the ends, doing your best not to destroy the structure of what’s left
  14. Bake for 20 minutes without opening the oven door
  15. Open the oven door to check: close it quickly and then continue baking for however long it needs for your eclairs to go golden brown (probably 5-10 more minutes)
  16. Remove the eclairs from the oven and leave to cool on a wire rack

Filling the eclairs

  1. Take your crème pâtissière out of the fridge. Whisk in enough add double cream until you have a mixture that you can pipe easily: you want it to be rather thinner than toothpaste but not runny
  2. Transfer the crème pâtissière to a piping bag with a nozzle of around 5mm: the exact dimension doesn’t matter, but piping will be difficult if it’s too small and you’re likely to damage the choux pastry if it’s too wide.
  3. With your nozzle, make three holes in what is currently the bottom of each eclair, reasonably evenly spaced, piping filling into each until the eclair is full. Wipe off any excess and add it back to bowl – in the quantities in this recipe, you’ll have little or none to spare.

The ganache or glaze

The best tasting and easiest topping, in my view, is a simple chocolate-and-cream ganache and that’s what I’ve gone for here. But if you want that patisserie hard gloss look (or you just want something that doesn’t get quite so dramatically sticky in hot weather), there are plenty of alternatives around, involving icing sugar or glucose syrup (some American recipes specify corn syrup).

  • 75g dark chocolate
  • 75g double cream
  1. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler
  2. Cool slightly
  3. Whisk in the cream and mix thoroughly
  4. Leave to cool for 10 minutes or so
  5. Spread smoothly over the eclairs with a small knife or spatula (spread them over the side with the holes you filled them from)
  6. Leave to cool for an hour or so

If you have to, refrigerate and keep them for no more than a day or two: you don’t want to leave them for much longer, because the filling soaks into the pastry and it goes soggy. Eclairs don’t  freeze, because the pastry cream splits. So really, you’re better off just eating them on the day…

Some notes and tips

Using cornflour guarantees that your pastry cream will thicken, but you risk it setting too thick to be piped easily – which is why I needed to thin it out with cream. If you use just 20g of plain flour rather than the flour/cornflour mix, you’ll need to cook the cream for much longer – perhaps as much as five minutes more – for it to thicken, but you then won’t need the cream afterwards.

Your biggest problem with eclairs is making sure that the buns dry out properly but don’t go rock hard. Of the various ways of preventing this, the one that seems to work best for me is to bake them at a relatively high temperature and have the nerve to bake them for at least 20 minutes before you open the oven to see how they’re doing. When you take them out, transfer them to a wire rack immediately: you don’t want any moisture building up on the base.

Canadian blog “the flavor bender” has an excellent post on how to troubleshoot problems with your eclairs, with a long list of what’s likely to go wrong and what you should do about it. It’s wordy and overly long, but the information is first class. Good luck!

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.13: ANZAC biscuits

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.13: ANZAC biscuits

Having travelled so far to get to Australia and New Zealand for the Lamington, we might as well stay there for the region’s other iconic bake: the ANZAC biscuit. It’s a biscuit with a story, conjuring up images of the wives and sweethearts of soldiers in the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps lovingly baking them to be sent to their embattled loved ones at Gallipoli and other World War I battlefields. Whether or not this is actually true (Wikipedia is mildly sceptical about the evidence), ANZAC biscuits are a feature of Australian and Kiwi veterans’ fundraising events to this day, their popularity stemming not just from the history but from their general deliciousness: the flavour combination of butter, golden syrup and coconut is a surefire winner.

More prosaically, you can think of ANZAC biscuits are a kind of sweet version of the Scottish oatcake (bake 10). They’re fairly straightforward to make: I followed the basic recipe in the ever-reliable taste.com.au, which gives variants for increased crispiness or chewiness. Most recipes are similar, varying mainly in the amount and type of sugar, with occasional other flavourings added such as vanilla essence.

The quantities here make around 30 biscuits (the eagle-eyed will spot a level of attrition on the way to the biscuit tin).

  • 150g plain flour
  • 90g porridge oats (don’t use jumbo oats, which are likely to result in your biscuits falling apart)
  • 85g desiccated coconut
  • 100g brown sugar
  • 55g caster sugar
  • 125g butter 
  • 40g golden syrup
  • 30ml water
  • ½tsp bicarbonate of soda
  1. Preheat oven to 160℃ fan
  2. Line a couple of baking trays with baking parchment
  3. Mix the flour, oats, coconut and sugar in a large bowl.
  4. Cut the butter into pieces and put it into a saucepan with the golden syrup and water. Warm gently until the butter is melted and everything is combined.
  5. Add the bicarbonate of soda to the wet mixture and stir to dissolve.
  6. Pour the wet mixture into your bowl and mix thoroughly. You want to make sure that there’s no dry flour visible when you spoon the mixture away from the sides of the bowl.
  7. Scoop out a level tablespoon of mixture (this is a good way of getting the biscuits to be around the same size), roll it into a ball and place it on your first baking tray. Now repeat for the others, allowing as much space as you can between your biscuits.
  8. Now press each biscuit slightly flatter. The 1cm thick suggested gets you a biscuit with a slightly chewy centre: going flatter will get you a crispier version. Either way, the biscuits will spread out somewhat during baking.
  9. Bake for around 15 minutes, switching shelves half way to make sure they’re all baked the same amount.
  10. Remove from the oven and cool.

I’ll leave you with two more bits of trivia, courtesy of the Australian War Memorial

  • Original ANZAC biscuits didn’t have the coconut.
  • The biscuit actually used as army rations was a completely different thing: a “hardtack” biscuit known as the Anzac Tile and made from wholemeal flour and milk powder.

Unelectable opinions, no.3: we should teach colonial history as it was

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, there have been calls for black history to be taught in our schools. I’m broadly in favour of this, but I’m unconvinced that it’s the most important step in the fight against racism: it’s all too easy for the racists to brush it off as “someone else’s story”.

To confront racism head on, I believe that the most important step is to teach the history of empire and colonialism the way it was, which includes not only white-on-black violence but also white-on-yellow, white-on-brown and white-on-white. Only in that way can we persuade children to repudiate the racist behaviour of our forebears at a time where they held supreme power over swathes of the globe.

Most Chinese remember the British Empire not for any of its beneficent qualities but for Opium Wars, in which we burnt down their capital to support our drug runners in the havoc they wrought on Chinese society. Many Indians remember us not for their railways but for the Salt Tax and the Amritsar Massacre; Ireland remembers us for the Potato Famine. And that’s without mentioning our genocides of the Aborigines or Maoris or our invention of the concentration camp during the Boer Wars.

Inasmuch as British imperialism is taught in schools, it tends to be in the context of “we may have done a few bad things, but we glorified our nation and brought good to the world”. This way of representing the past must no longer be permitted: from an early age, potential racists must be made to understand the consequences of the evil wrought in the days where racism was normality pure and simple. Racist instincts may be built into all of us in some shape or form, but the mark of a truly civilised society is the ability to overcome those instincts. And that starts with being taught that they are evil and have always been so. Humanity should trump glory every time.

By the way, it’s not like we British are uniquely dreadful in this. The Americans with their native population, the French in Algeria, the Belgians in Congo, the Spanish in South America, the Japanese in Korea – I find it hard to think of a rich nation that’s untainted and that has ceased to glorify these episodes in their murky past. Of course, it’s more comfortable to focus on the good things in our past and erase our misdeeds. But that’s not the way to fight the cancer of racism today.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.12: Lamingtons from Australia

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.12: Lamingtons from Australia

Since long haul travel looks like being impossible – or at least unwise – for the foreseeable future, let’s travel to the opposite end of the earth in our baking imagination. The Lamington is the definitive Australian cake, named after a sometime governor of Queensland (who apparently didn’t like them, according to TasteAtlas). There’s even a National Lamington Day, on July 21st, so if you’re reading this shortly after publication, you’ve got plenty of time to practise. This makes the Lamington one of a select collection of baked goods to have its own annual celebration day (cinnamon rolls are another, with Sweden’s Kanelbullens dag). 

The recipe for Lamingtons could be written in a single line: cut a sponge cake into cubes, dip each cube in chocolate icing and roll it in desiccated coconut. I’m going to go into a bit more detail (after all, what self-respecting baking blog wouldn’t) but here’s the point: they’re a great option for hot weather because the coconut helps to stop everything melting onto your fingers. Anyway, I’m a sucker for anything made with coconut, so what’s not to like?

Most Lamington recipes are broadly similar. In fact, they don’t really vary much from the first recipe on record, from Queensland Country Life in 1900. You’ve basically got a couple of choices: filled/unfilled and portion-sized/bite-sized. Also, you can choose to use a filling or not. The original recipe specifies more icing, but you can also use whipped cream and/or raspberry jam, which is popular in New Zealand. I’ve gone for plain, largely because I think the recipe is sweet enough as it is, and anyway, keeping the cube structure looks really tricky with two layers of cake stuck together.

The much quoted Australian recipe in taste.com.au gets you 15 cakes of around 6cm on a side, which is a reasonable full portion size; Jamie Oliver’s somewhat different recipe gets you 30 cakes from around the same total weight of ingredients, which makes it more suitable for finger food at a party when there’s lots of other stuff. I’ve kept the sugar down a bit in my version.

What everyone agrees is that you should make the cake the day before you try to ice it: otherwise, your cake is going to fall apart horribly when you try to dip it. So here’s the day 1 part of the recipe:

  • 150g sugar
  • 125g butter
  • 3 medium eggs or 2 large
  • 240g self-raising flour, sifted
  • 120ml milk
  1. Preheat oven to 180℃ (or 160℃ fan)
  2. Grease and line a baking pan (purpose made “Lamington pans” tend to be 20cm x 30cm; mine is 23cm square)
  3. Cream the butter and sugar together
  4. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each one
  5. Add half the flour and beat, then half the milk and beat, then repeat
  6. Pour the mixture into your baking pan; do your best to spread it evenly
  7. Bake for around 20-30 minutes, use the usual “a skewer should come out dry” test
  8. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then on a rack
  9. Seal with cling film or in a tupperware and refrigerate overnight

The next morning, you’ll be doing the icing and rolling.

  • Dessicated coconut: you’ll need somewhere in the region of 300-350g, but it really depends on your rolling technique
  • 350g icing sugar
  • 25g cocoa
  • 15g butter, softened
  • 125ml boiling water

You might as well start by getting the coconut ready: you’ll want a decent amount of it in a shallow dish into which you’re going to roll your cakes and the rest in a separate bowl which you’re going to attempt to keep clear of drips of chocolate. Also get a cooling rack ready, putting it on a surface which you’ll be able to clean easily, because icing will drip onto it despite your best efforts.

Next:

  1. Trim off the edges of the cake and cut it into your preferred size. With my square pan, I cut it into 16 squares around 5½cm on a side (they weren’t quite tall enough to be cubes, but it was close enough). A 20 x 30cm Lamington pan will get you 15 6cm squares.
  2. Sift the icing sugar and cocoa into a bowl, using the finest sieve you have. You’d be amazed at how lumpy they both of these can be when coming straight out of the packet.
  3. Add the butter and boiling water and then whisk until you’ve got all of the lumps out. You will have a wet, liquid icing.
  4. Here’s the tricky bit: you now need to completely cover each cake in icing and then roll it in desiccated coconut without making a giant, gooey mess. I did this by dropping the cake in the icing, turning it over gently with a fork and then picking it up by sticking the fork into it. I held the cake over the bowl of icing to let the excess drip off and then transferred the cake to the shallow bowl of coconut to coat the bottom; I then sprinkled coconut from the other bowl onto any sides that weren’t covered and shook of the excess (for use on the next cube.).
  5. Having transferred all your completed Lamingtons to the rack, leave them for a couple of hours for the icing to set.

 That’s it. On a hot day, a Lamington and a glass of iced coffee is a snack fit for a king.