Category: Food

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.32: Ma’amoul – semolina cookies from Lebanon

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.32: Ma’amoul – semolina cookies from Lebanon

The biscuit tin (Americans: read “cookie jar”) was empty. So it was time to head back to the Middle East to refill it, in the shape of ma’amoul, filled cookies made from a shortbread dough rich in semolina. The filling is usually made of dates and/or nuts (usually pistachios, almonds or walnuts): for this first attempt, I used a date and walnut mix.

I’ve gone for a very simple, easy version of ma’amoul, using baking powder rather than yeast and eschewing any overnight resting. Even allowing for an hour’s resting, this takes not much over 90 minutes start to finish. The result was a crumbly, tasty biscuit that wasn’t excessively sweet and that I would definitely make again.

I used good quality soft medjool dates, which are easy to purée to paste with good consistency; various Middle East recipes consider that making your own date paste is tedious, preferring commercially made product.

Once ma’amoul have been filled and formed into their balls, they are often pressed into a patterned wooden mould, because (a) it makes them look pretty and (b) if you’re making more than one different filling, you can use a different pattern for each one. Strangely enough, I don’t own a ma’amoul mould, and if I bought the approved piece of specialist equipment for every item I fancy baking, my house would be filled several times over with baking junk, so I improvised the desired dome shape using a gravy ladle and a coffee tamper. It’s not like I expect everyone to have a gravy ladle, but you get the idea. If you’re doing more than one filling but you don’t have multiple moulds, you can try doing your own decorating by punching indents with a fork or skewer.

This recipe made 16 generously sized ma’amoul. Photo warning: these are more cracked and crumbly than I’d like. I should have added a bit more water to the dough.

The dough

  • 110 g butter
  • 40g icing sugar
  • 240g semolina flour
  • 160g plain flour
  • 4g baking powder
  • 30g milk
  • 30g orange blossom or rose water
  1. Pour everything into the bowl of your stand mixer and mix the whole lot for one or two minutes until thoroughly smoothly combined. The dough should be wet enough to be able to pick up stray bits of flour from the side of the bowl, but no more than that. If it’s sticky, add a bit more flour. If it’s really crumbly, add a bit more milk.
  2. Form the dough into a ball, and leave to stand at room temperature for around an hour.

Filling and baking

The quantities given are what I made as shown in the photos. The next time I make ma’amoul, I’m planning to use 200g dates and no walnuts – I’m not convinced they complement each other and I’d prefer a bit more filling. I would do a walnut filling as an alternative, chopping some 100g of walnuts very finely, adding a couple of teaspoons of syrup and making them into a paste.

  • 40g walnuts
  • 125g medjool or other soft dates
  • Icing sugar for dusting
  1. Preheat oven to 180℃ fan
  2. Chop the walnuts coarsely and toast them in a dry pan for a minute or two until fragrant.
  3. If your dates aren’t pitted, take the stones out now.
  4. Blitz the dates to a soft puree. Add a tiny amount of water if you need to, or more if your dates were quite hard. You could add sugar syrup rather than water if you want a sweeter filling.
  5. Have a 40x30cm baking sheet ready.
  6. Divide your dough into 16 parts, form each part into a ball
  7. Divide your filling into 16 parts, form each part into a ball
  8. Roll out a ball of dough flat and wide enough that you’ll be able to wrap it round your ball of filling
  9. Place a ball of filling in the middle of your dough, then stretch it over to cover.
  10. Press the whole ball into your mould (or, in my case, gravy ladle)
  11. Take the cookie out of the mould and place on your baking sheet
  12. When you’ve done all 16 ma’amoul, put the baking sheet into the oven and bake them for 15 minutes. They should be a pale brown colour: don’t bake them as far as the more usual “golden brown”.
  13. On removal from the oven, dust with icing sugar to taste.
Around the world in 80 bakes, no.31: Kanelbullar –  cinnamon buns from Sweden

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.31: Kanelbullar – cinnamon buns from Sweden

In Sweden, October 4th is Kanelbullens dag, which makes the humble cinnamon bun the only baked item I know to have an officially sanctioned holiday. To be fair, it’s not the most long-standing of national holidays, having been dreamed up in 1999 by the Swedish Home Baking Council. But this year, as it happens, it coincided with a cold and rainy Sunday morning here in London, so no possibility of my usual tennis game. How better to spend the morning than with a bit of traditional baking?

The basics of the cinnamon bun are straightforward enough: make a slightly sweetened bread-like dough enriched with butter, milk and (in many recipes) egg, let it rise, roll it flat and spread with a butter/sugar/cinnamon filling. At this point, you have two choices: for the traditional cinnamon roll, you roll it into a sausage; for the cinnamon twist or knot (kanelknutar), you start with a book fold and do a tricky looking twisting trick. I went for the simple roll.

Just about anywhere in Sweden, the buns would be garnished with the little white sugar nibs known as  “pearl sugar”, and in many places, it would be brushed with a syrup glaze after baking. My sweet tooth isn’t what it was, so I’ve omitted both of these. For added puffiness, however, I’ve followed an American blog called “True North Kitchen” and used an Asian pre-dough technique called Tangzhong, which helps to keep the buns stay soft for several days after baking.

The Tangzhong (or “water roux”)

  • 75 ml milk
  • 75 ml water
  • 30g strong white flour
  1. Whisk the ingredients together in a saucepan, getting as many lumps out as you can
  2. Heat over medium heat until the mixture thickens, whisking frequently. Make sure you get rid of lumps as they appear.
  3. Keep heating for a couple more minutes – there shouldn’t be any taste of raw flour left – and then remove from the heat and set aside.

The dough

  • 75g butter
  • 8g yeast
  • 30g sugar
  • 6g salt
  • 400g flour
  • Ground cardamom to taste (I started with whole pods and shelled and ground my own in a pestle and mortar, which yielded about 1g, which was fine)
  • 125ml milk
  • 1 egg
  1. Melt the butter and leave to cool
  2. In the bowl of your stand mixer, evenly mix the yeast, sugar, salt, flour and cardamom 
  3. Warm the milk to lukewarm (around 40℃)
  4. Add the milk, egg, melted butter and tangzhong to the dry mix. Stir until combined into a smooth dough (either with a wooden spoon or the standard paddle of your mixer.
  5. Knead for around 5 minutes with the dough hook.
  6. Leave to rise until you have a light, puffy dough: this took a couple of hours in a not particularly warm autumn kitchen, but will vary according to the temperature of your kitchen

The filling

Preheat the oven to 225℃

  • 75g butter, softened
  • 75g brown sugar
  • 4g flour
  • 5g cinnamon
  • pinch of salt
  1. Combine all the ingredients and stir until you have a smooth, even dark brown paste. 
  2. Make sure it’s soft enough to spread thinly and easily: 30 seconds in the microwave is a good way of doing this. There’s no point in tearing your dough because you had lumps in the filling.

Final assembly

  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon of milk
  1. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured board until you have a thin rectangle around 50cm x 40cm – try and be as accurately rectangular as you can manage, otherwise (as you’ll see from my photos) the two buns at the end will be rather conical and rather shorter of filling.
  2. Make an egg wash by whisking the egg and milk together until smooth
  3. Slice the dough into sixteen even slices.
  4. Prepare two baking trays and array eight buns on each one. If you have paper bun cases, use them: they help the buns keep their shape. If not, make sure the trays are properly greased.
  5. Brush some egg wash over each bun
  6. Bake the buns until golden brown: this should take around 8-10 minutes; if you did both trays at the same time in the oven, the bottom tray will need a couple of minutes longer.
  7. Cool on a wire rack.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.30: Focaccia from Italy

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.30: Focaccia from Italy

With apologies to ciabatta-lovers, focaccia is the Italian bread par excellence. Its pillowy, soft texture, coupled with a crisp outside, a slight crunch of salt flakes and the aroma of olive oil simply can’t be beaten. 

My focaccia recipe is, to be honest, a bit of a mongrel. Prior to this strange year, I was visiting Italy around twice a year, but the best focaccia I have ever had was not made by an Italian but by an Indian chef at a hotel in the mountains of Oman who swore by a triple proving. The softest, most pillowy dough – my ideal focaccia consistency – comes from the kneading method in the Persian flatbread recipe in Sabrina Ghayour’s Persiana. I’ve gone for Giorgio Locatelli’s recommendation for flour (from his Made in Italy, via Felicity Cloake’s round-up recipe in her excellent “The perfect xyz” series in The Guardian), and done toppings as suggested by Italian-American Maurizio, aka The Perfect Loaf. Personally, I think the results are well worth the extra effort, but there are certainly shortcuts available if you’re pushed for time.

Two important variables are the salt and oil content. I eat a fairly low salt diet and the amount in here is about the maximum I can take. For some, even this will be too much; for others, this won’t be nearly enough compared to the salt hit they expect from a focaccia. My focaccia is also relatively low in oil: you may prefer to drizzle on a lot more than me. You’re just going to have to experiment until you get these to your taste.

Also, I’ve opted for a 40cm x 30cm tray, which gives a flattish focaccia with a relatively short, hot baking time. A variation would be to use a smaller, higher-sided tin and a lower temperature (say 200℃) for a loaf with a higher ratio of inside softness to outside crust.

  • 400ml warm water (around 40℃)
  • 20g sugar
  • 8g dried yeast
  • 375g strong white bread flour
  • 375g OO flour
  • 10g salt
  • 100ml olive oil, plus 30ml for the drizzle
  • A tablespoon or so semolina flour (optional)
  • 12 cherry tomatoes
  • 24 black olives, pitted
  • Half a dozen sprigs of rosemary
  • 20ml cold water
  • 10g sea salt flakes

There are some options as to how to prepare baking trays. You’re trying to get high heat onto the base of your focaccia as soon as you can, so Cloake suggests that you preheat a pizza stone in your oven and “transfer” the focaccia to it. That’s all very well, but it’s difficult to transfer a large rectangle of dough while keeping its shape, without the toppings falling off. I opted for a metal baking tray placed onto the stone: metal is a good conductor and this did the job just fine. An alternative is to lay out your focaccia on baking parchment: if you don’t have a pizza stone, you’ll want to preheat the metal tray and then move your dough to the heated tray while still on its parchment base.

As ever, rising times depend completely on the temperature in your kitchen, and the alternatives should be obvious if you don’t have a stand mixer.

  1. Combine water, sugar and yeast; leave for a few minutes until frothy
  2. In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the flours and salt and stir until mixed evenly
  3. Add the wet mix and 100ml olive oil to the dry mix
  4. With the standard paddle, mix for a minute or so until you have a smooth dough: you should find that it comes away cleanly from the sides of bowl
  5. Switch to the dough hook and knead for 5 minutes
  6. Leave to stand for 10 minutes, then knead for another 2 minutes. Repeat this.
  7. Brush a little olive oil over the surface of a large bowl, transfer your ball of dough to it, cover and leave to rise for around 60-90 minutes.
  8. If you’re using baking parchment, line your baking tray with it. Optionally, dust a tablespoon or two of semolina flour over this.
  9. Knock back the dough and shape it into a rectangle covering the whole tray, Make it as even as you can: you’ll get some resistance, but you can pull it around with little danger of tearing.
  10. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for another 45 minutes or so.
  11. If using a pizza stone, put it into your oven now. Otherwise, slide the parchment sheet off your baking tray and put the tray into the oven.
  12. Preheat oven to 250℃ fan (or as near as you can get).
  13. Leave the dough for its second rise, around 45-60 minutes. 
  14. Meanwhile, prepare  your toppings: chop of blitz the rosemary very fine, halve the cherry tomatoes. If your olives came in brine, wash them thoroughly to remove the salt.
  15. Uncover the dough and with a finger, press a pattern of 6 x 8 indentations into it with a finger, going deep. Press the cherry tomato halves and the olives into the indentations in a chequerboard pattern (that’s why I’ve been fussy about the numbers). Sprinkle the rosemary evenly over the top.
  16. Cover with a tea towel again and leave for another 30-45 minutes.
  17. Prepare a mixture of 30ml olive oil and 20ml water, whisking with a fork until emulsified. Spread this evenly over the focaccia.
  18. Sprinkle the sea salt flakes evenly over.
  19. Now work quickly: open the oven, take out the stone or tray, transfer your focaccia to it, replace it in the oven and close. Now reduce the oven temperature to 225℃.
  20. Bake for around 20-25 minutes until golden brown.
  21. Remove from the oven, slide the focaccia onto whatever board or tray you’re going to serve it on, and leave to cool for a few minutes before eating. This may be the hardest thing in the recipe, but you don’t want to burn your mouth!
Around the world in 80 bakes, no.29: Pasta Frola from Paraguay

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.29: Pasta Frola from Paraguay

Where home-coming Argentinians make a beeline for Alfajores, Paraguayans head for Pasta Frola: a lattice-topped jam tart filled with either guava or quince paste. Childhood summers in Portugal have made me particularly partial to quince paste, and in any case, guavas are hard to get hold of here in England, so the quince version was the obvious choice.

Time for a couple of short linguistic digressions. The Spanish for quince is “membrillo”, and quince paste (sometimes called “quince cheese” for reasons I can’t fathom) is “dulce de membrillo”. In Portuguese, however, a quince is a “marmelo” and the paste is called “marmelada”. The English word “marmalade” confuses both Portuguese (where orange jam is just called “doce de laranja”) and Italians, for whom the word “marmellata” means jam of any sort, and “marmellare” means “to make jam”. In Italian, “pasta frolla” simply means shortcrust pastry, and this dessert would be called a “crostata”.

You can buy dulce de membrillo ready made in the UK, but it tends to be fairly expensive at around £25 or £30 for a kilo. Anyway, our local shops don’t stock it and our local fruit shop had quinces, so I had a go at making my own. Peeling quinces is a bit of faff – the skin is very tough – but other than that, the process isn’t too difficult.

Quince paste

This is metricised and modified slightly from the recipe from simplyrecipes.com. I overbought quinces and made around double this recipe, which was way too much: the quantities here will make well over 1kg of paste, which is a lot more than you need for the Pasta Frola.

  • Around 1 kg of quinces (typically 4 fruit)
  • Grated zest and juice of one lemon
  • Vanilla essence to taste
  • Around 800g jam sugar (to be adjusted)
  1. Peel and core the quinces, being sure to remove the fibrous bit of stalk that’s inside the quince. Chop coarsely (maybe 8-12 pieces per fruit).
  2. Put them in a saucepan, add the grated lemon zest cover them with cold water and bring to the boil.
  3. Simmer for around 30-40 minutes until you can cut them with a wooden spoon
  4. Drain the quince pieces and transfer to the bowl of a food processor: blitz until extremely smooth (this can take several minutes).
  5. Return the puree to a saucepan, add the sugar, vanilla essence and lemon juice.
  6. Bring to the boil, uncovered, and simmer gently for 60-90 minutes, stirring often enough to ensure that you don’t caramelise the paste on the bottom of the pan.
  7. Preheat oven to 125℃
  8. When the mixture is a dark pink/orange, remove from the heat. Line a shallow rectangular oven dish with baking parchment and spread the mixture evenly into the dish.
  9. Leave the dish in the oven for around 90 minutes for the paste to dry out. The Spanish and Portuguese cook theirs to the consistency of thick jelly, so that you can cut slices of it. It’s quite difficult to get to this stage without burning it somewhere, and in any case, you don’t need to for Pasta Frola: a soft paste is just fine and you’re going to be baking it some more anyway.

By the way, quince paste is a really wonderful accompaniment to cheese, particularly sharply flavoured cheese.

The Pasta Frola

Thanks for this to my daughter’s South American colleague Daniel (who was the person who insisted that it should be included in this blog in the first place). His recipe was for about double this amount as a 40cm x 30cm traybake: I used a square tin with a removable base of around 23cm x 23cm, which left a small amount of pastry left over.

  • 250g plain flour (use OO if possible)
  • 15g baking powder
  • 90g cup of sugar
  • 125g butter, plus some for greasing
  • 3 egg yolks (around 50g)
  • 40ml milk
  • 700g quince paste (see above)
  • 50ml madeira, port or similar fortified wine
  1. Preheat oven to 150℃
  2. If your butter isn’t soft, cut it into squares and leave it a few minutes to soften
  3. In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine flour, sugar and baking powder and mix well
  4. Add the butter and mix until you reach the breadcrumb stage
  5. Separate the eggs and add the yolks to the mixture, together with the milk
  6. Mix until you have a smooth dough
  7. Knead it for a couple of minutes until somewhat elastic, then cover and leave for 15 minutes
  8.  Meanwhile, grease the tin, and mix the quince paste and madeira in a bowl
  9. Once the dough has finished resting, separate out one third of it and set aside. On a generously floured board, roll it out to the size of your tin with around 2cm overlap all the way round
  10. Line your tin with the dough. If, like me, your dough always breaks at this point, don’t worry – just press it into the bottom and sides with your fingers as best you can. The recipe is very forgiving
  11. Pour your quince mixture into the tin and spread it to the edges
  12. If necessary, trim the pastry down to the height of the filling
  13. Roll out the remaining amount of pastry and cut it into strips approximately 1cm wide. Use these to form a lattice over the tart. At this point, you might like to think about how many pieces you’re going to cut the tart into and make sure that you have a gap, not a strip of pastry, at the point at which you’re going to do this (clue: I didn’t do this and learned the hard way).
  14. Brush the pastry on the top with some of the egg white.
  15. Bake for around 40 minutes.
Around the world in 80 bakes, no.28: Sernik from Poland

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.28: Sernik from Poland

Last night was Erev Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year’s Eve), so there was a need to bake something suitable for a Jewish occasion, so what could be better than cheesecake? What I think of as “Jewish cheesecake”, which is broadly similar to what Americans call “New York Cheesecake”, actually hails from Poland, where it’s not particularly Jewish and is called Sernik. 

Dozens of countries have versions of curd cheese: paneer in India, Quark in Germany, túró in Hungary, labneh in the Middle East and many more. The Polish version is called twaróg: just about all the Sernik recipes I’ve found use this. It’s readily available in England; otherwise use any other curd cheese: farmer’s cheese, ricotta, etc.

There are many different variations of Sernik, regional or otherwise, which use different toppings and/or pastry bases; some even dispense with the pastry altogether. I’ve chosen the version from Kraków, Sernik krakowski, largely because it looks pretty and I’ve actually been to Kraków. The pastry is a fairly standard shortcrust, except that it includes baking powder, thus ending up somewhere between a pastry and a cake. The Kraków-specific bit is to top the cheesecake with a lattice made of the same pastry. I’ve included raisins (definitely part of the cheesecakes of my childhood) and separated my eggs, making a meringue with the whites: this makes the finished product lighter.

The pastry

  • 280g plain flour (OO if you have it)
  • 5g baking powder
  • 2g salt
  • 140g butter (start from cold)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 100g sugar
  • 50g soured cream
  1. In the bowl of a food processor, mix flour, baking powder and salt
  2. Cut the butter into cubes, add into the food processor and process for 20 seconds or so until you get to the consistency of fine breadcrumbs
  3. Add the eggs, sugar and soured cream, process for a few seconds until thoroughly blended
  4. Form the dough into a ball, put into a covered bowl and refrigerate for 30 minutes
  5. Preheat your oven to 180℃ fan
  6. Grease a cake tin around 28cm diameter
  7. Take about ⅔ of the pastry and roll out on a generously floured surface
  8. Line the base and sides of the tin, pressing the pastry firmly into the corners. Prick the base with a fork. Add any offcuts to the rest of your pastry and set aside
  9. Line with baking paper and fill with baking beads. Bake for 15 minutes
  10. When you’ve taken out the pastry, reduce the oven temperature to 150℃

The cheese filling

  • 2 eggs
  • 100g butter, soft
  • 500g twaróg or other curd cheese
  • 25 g flour
  • 100g sugar
  • vanilla extract to taste
  •  125 g raisins
  1. Separate the eggs.
  2. Beat the butter until smooth.
  3. Add the twaróg and mix thoroughly
  4. Add the egg yolks, flour, and vanilla and mix
  5. Beat the egg whites until soft, add the sugar and mix until stiff
  6. Fold the two mixtures and the raisins together

Final assembly

  1. Roll out the remaining pastry and cut into 1cm wide strips
  2. If you haven’t already, remove the baking beads and paper from your blind-baked pastry case.
  3. Fill the pastry case with the cheese filling
  4. Form a lattice over the top of your cheesecake with the strips of pastry (if you don’t know how to do this, YouTube is your friend)
  5. Bake for around 50 minutes until the pastry lattice is nicely brown
  6. Leave to cool
Around the world in 80 bakes, no.27: Lavash from Armenia

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.27: Lavash from Armenia

Everyone agrees that Armenia’s national bread is baked in a tandoor-type oven and is called Lavash. Beyond that, however, it gets confusing: there’s yeasted or unleavened Lavash, there’s thick, puffy Lavash or wafer-thin crispbread Lavash. I’ve gone for a thin, yeasted version, soft enough to use as a wrap bread.

The Wikipedia article on Lavash has a fabulous short video of two Armenian women making the bread: they toss the sheets of dough and fold them over forearms before one of them stretches it impossibly thin then places it on a rounded wooden board just suited for slapping it into the oven such that it sticks to the inside. You can’t really come close to replicating that in a Western kitchen, both because a domestic oven doesn’t behave remotely like the large wood-fired Middle Eastern version and because of the years of skill required to stretch the dough the way they do. Still, my approximation wasn’t bad, using wooden boards, a large rectangular pizza stone and a fan oven turned up to maximum.

As with most baking, you can rely on the quantities shown here but you can’t rely on the timings: they’re all far too dependent on the temperature and humidity of your kitchen,  the exact characteristics of your oven and on how thin you dare stretch the dough. Lavash should be pretty tolerant of a half hour or more either way on the rise times, but where you really need to watch it is on the baking time. At three minutes, my first one turned to crispbread: delicious, but with no possibility of using it for wrapping. Two minutes was a bit on the doughy side; two and a half was just about perfect.

  • 350ml warm water (around 40℃)
  • 8g dried yeast
  • 20g sugar
  • 500g strong white flour, plus plenty more for rolling
  • 10g salt
  • sunflower or olive oil for coating
  1. The usual start for bread: mix the water, yeast and sugar and wait for it to go foamy.
  2. Mix the flour and salt.
  3. Blend your wet and dry mixes to form a dough, then knead in a stand mixer for around 10 minutes.
  4.  Brush some oil over the inside of a large bowl. Form your dough into a ball and put it in the bowl, then brush more oil to coat the top of the ball also.
  5. Cover and leave to rise for around 90 minutes at room temperature, until the dough is large and nicely stretchy.
  6. When the dough has nearly risen, put your pizza stone into the oven and preheat to its highest temperature (mine was 250℃ fan)
  7. Punch the dough back, divide the dough into eight pieces and put each piece back into the bowl, coating it with oil as you go.
  8. Cover and leave to rise for another 30 minutes
  9. Once the dough is rising, get everything ready for rolling and baking: once you start putting things in the oven, you’re going to want to work quickly. Choose a board that you’re going to roll the bread onto and flour it generously. Have your flour jar, a spoon, a rolling pin and a scraper ready. And have a basket ready for the finished Lavash, lined with a tea towel and with a second towel next to it ready to be used as a cover.
  10. Take a ball of dough and roll it flat: make sure there’s plenty of flour on the board, on your rolling pin and on both sides of your ball of dough, or it will stick. When you’ve rolled it as flat as possible, if you dare, throw it back and forth over your forearm a few times to stretch it further.
  11. Now the tricky part: working quickly, open your oven, pull the stone out, lay the sheet of dough onto the stone, push it back into the oven and close the door. Set a timer for 2½ minutes.
  12. While the first Lavash is baking, roll out and stretch the next one.
  13. Open the oven, take out the Lavash and put it in your basket, lay out the second sheet on the stone, close the oven and reset your timer. Cover the bread with the second tea towel to keep it warm.
  14. Repeat until you’ve done all eight balls.

Our wrap filling, created by my daughter, was a layer of yoghurt and dill, shredded roast spiced chicken, and a salad of finely diced tomato and baby cucumber. The resulting meal was simple, outstandingly full of flavour and worth way more than the sum of its parts.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.26: Shaker churek from Azerbaijan

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.26: Shaker churek from Azerbaijan

After taking on a bake with a serious degree of difficulty with make-your-own-strudel-pastry last week, it was time for something at the opposite end of the scale: a simple, unpretentious cookie that takes minimal effort and skill to prepare but delivers lovely flavour and texture. In short, Azerbaijan’s butter cookies called Shaker churek (to my shame, I have no idea how to pronounce the name).

This recipe comes from a splendid Dutch blog called the cookie companion. It’s the simplest version I found: there are other recipes that use yeast.

  • 14og butter
  • 100g icing sugar
  • 225g flour
  • 1 egg
  • vanilla essence to taste
  1. In a bowl, weigh out the icing sugar
  2. Melt the butter, not letting it get too hot, and add it to the icing sugar: mix until smooth
  3. Add the flour and mix thoroughly – you will get a dough that’s far too dry, which is fine at this stage
  4. Separate the egg; keep half the yolk aside and add the other half yolk and all the white to your mix.
  5. Add the vanilla essence, and mix thoroughly until you have a smooth, slightly damp dough
  6. Cover and leave in the refrigerator for around an hour
  7. Preheat oven to 180℃
  8. Line a baking tray with a silicone sheet or baking paper
  9. Divide the dough into eight equal parts (they should be just over 60g each). For each part into a ball, flatten slightly and place it on your baking sheet. Warning here: the cookies spread, so make sure you leave plenty of space around them. 
  10. With the end of a finger or some other implement (like the end of a rolling pin, if you have that kind of rolling pin), make a small depression in the middle of each cookie. Fill the depression with the reserved egg yolk.
  11. Bake for around 15 minutes

Like most cookies, shaker churek are really, really good straight out of the oven: but leave them to cool for a few minutes so that they don’t actually burn your mouth!

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.25: Apple Strudel from Hungary

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.25: Apple Strudel from Hungary

When I visit Budapest, which used to be pretty much a yearly occurrence before Covid-19, my first culinary port of call is the Első Pesti Rétesház – the First Strudel House of Pest. There’s a dizzying array of mouth-watering strudels with many different fillings, both sweet and savoury, made on the premises in front of your eyes. 

Strudel (rétes in Hungarian) came into the former Austro-Hungarian empire from Turkey – it’s the child of Turkish baklava – and I could have assigned it to any of dozen countries in the empire. But having already visited Vienna for Sachertorte, I’ll give the honour to Budapest: and anyway, it’s further east, so the Turks probably got there first.

My favourite strudel fillings at the Rétesház are meggyes (sour cherries) and túró (curd cheese made from soured milk), but I didn’t have access to the right ingredients for either of these when baking for this post, so I’ve gone for the classic apple filling as found both in Budapest and at Schloss Schönbrunn in Vienna.

This is not a straightforward bake. Stretching strudel dough is a tricky business: the best tutorial I’ve found comes from the Lil Vienna website. This is my first attempt and as you’ll see from the photos, I got the dough pretty thin, but nowhere near the targeted perfect transparent rectangle big enough to fit all the filling. So I’ve suggested using about a third more dough than the quantities in the tutorial: you can probably reduce this as your strudel skills improve. (The Schönbrunn recipe, by the way, uses an egg in the dough, which I didn’t).

Making the strudel dough

  • 120ml water
  • 20g sunflower oil, plus more for coating the dough
  • 4g lemon juice or vinegar
  • 2g salt
  • 200g strong white flour, plus plenty more for flouring surfaces
  1. Combine salt and flour
  2. Combine water, oil and lemon juice or vinegar and mix
  3. Combine the wet and dry mixes and mix until you have a smooth dough. If the dough is too sticky, add a modest amount more flour and work it in thoroughly, but don’t overdo it: you want the dough to be moist.
  4. Knead the dough for around 10 minutes (if by hand) or around 7 minutes (if using the dough hook on a stand mixer). Form the dough into a ball
  5. Put a bit of oil into a bowl; roll the dough to coat it completely with oil, cover the bowl and leave it for an hour at room temperature

The apple filling

  • 170g raisins
  • 20g rum (optional)
  • 100g breadcrumbs
  • 50g butter 
  • 140g sugar
  • 10g ground cinnamon
  •  Around 900-1000g tart apples (I used Granny Smiths, American recipes tend to use MacIntosh)
  • 20g lemon juice (around half a lemon)
  1. Mix the rum and raisins and leave to soak
  2. Mix the sugar and cinnamon and set aside
  3. Melt butter in a pan, add the breadcrumbs and cook over a medium flame, stirring frequently, until the breadcrumbs are golden brown but not burning. Set aside.
  4. Peel and core your apples, then slice each apple quarter into 4-5 slices.
  5. Mix the apples, raisins and cinnamon sugar (but NOT the breadcrumbs)  in a large bowl.

Stretching the dough and putting it all together

  • 50g butter, melted
  • 1-2 tsp icing sugar
  1. Preheat oven to 190℃ fan. Identify a large, flat baking tray: typical would be around 40cm x 30cm. Either cut a piece of baking parchment to approximately the same size or identify a silicone baking mat of that size.
  2. Find a clear space of around 40cm x 100cm on a table or counter top and spread a tablecloth over it (or use an improvised alternative like a sheet); lightly spread flour over the tablecloth. 
  3. Spread flour somewhat more generously over the board onto which you will roll your pastry: you’ll  need a space of around 30cm x 30cm.
  4. Put your ball of dough in the middle of the board, and using a rolling pin, roll it out into as even and large a rectangle as you can manage.
  5. With both hands at one end, pick up the rectangle of dough and allow gravity to stretch it downwards. Working quickly, pass the dough around so that you’re holding a different edge all the time and the dough is stretching evenly across its whole area.
  6. Once you’ve stretched it as much as you dare without it tearing, spread the dough out on your floured tablecloth.
  7. Pull the dough from opposite sides to stretch it. Each time you put it down on the sheet, it will shrink back, but you should gradually be increasing its overall size. You know you’re done when the dough is nearly transparent: traditionally, the test was that you should be able to read a newspaper headline through it, which did not achieve (although I came close). You’re aiming for a length of around 100cm and a width slightly larger than the width of your baking tray.
  8. Spread melted butter over your dough.
  9. Spread the breadcrumb mixture over around one third of the rectangle of dough, around 2-3cm from one end and the sides. Spread the apple mixture on top.
  10. Fold three edges over in an attempt to stop the filling leaking out.
  11. Roll the strudel from the filled end, either by lifting the tablecloth as you roll or using your fingers.
  12. Finish by rolling the completed strudel onto your baking mat or parchment sheet; transfer this onto your baking tray. Brush the whole lot with more melted butter.
  13. Bake until golden, which should take around 30-40 minutes. Beware the photos: mine was slightly overbaked.
  14. Cool,  dust generously with icing sugar and transfer to the dish or board that you will serve the strudel from.
  15. Cut into slices to serve, either on its own or accompanied by any of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, chantilly cream or crème fraiche. And, of course, coffee.

The whole “stretching strudel to paper thickness” process doesn’t actually take that long, but it’s fairly scary when you’re not used to it and it does generate laundry. But my result was palpably more authentic and had better texture and taste than using store-bought phyllo pastry, even though my first attempt had many imperfections: the stretched dough wasn’t thin enough, wasn’t an even rectangle and had several small tears. I’m sure that practice will make perfect and I’m not planning on going back to supermarket phyllo any time soon.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.24: Alfajores marplatenses from Argentina

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.24: Alfajores marplatenses from Argentina

When my daughter’s Argentinian colleague returns to London after a trip home, you can predict with certainty that he will be carrying a number of packs of Alfajores, his country’s favourite sweet treat. They’re biscuits made from a dough rich in butter and cornflour; a layer of dulce de leche (caramelised condensed milk) is sandwiched between a pair of biscuits, with the edges of the filling rolled in desiccated coconut – or, as in the version I’ve made here, dipped in chocolate, in which case they’re called “Alfajores marplatenses” (from Mar del Plata). The combination of crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth biscuit, soft caramel and chocolate is a sure fire winner.

I made alfajores of the most often recommended size, around 5 cm diameter, which are substantial enough to make a complete small dessert on their own, the alternative being to make smaller “alfajorcitos” of 3-4 cm diameter.

Recipes for the biscuits vary to a fair extent and my choices were largely dictated by the ingredients I had to hand. Here are some of the things you can adjust:

  • Ratio of cornflour to wheat flour (many recipes put in significantly more cornflour than my 50/50).
  • Flavourings: some recipes choose a dash of cognac or orange liqueur in addition to or instead of the lemon zest that I’ve used.
  • You can add cocoa powder and/or use brown sugar to get a darker biscuit

The recipe that follows made 12 fully assembled alfajores with plenty of biscuits and a bit of chocolate to spare. But this will depend very much on the thickness and diameter to which you roll and cut them.

The dulce de leche filling

If you’re in Spain or the Americas, the chances are that ready made dulce de leche is available in your local supermarket. Otherwise, here’s how to make it from sweetened condensed milk (if you can’t find that, you can make dulce de leche from scratch from milk and sugar, as shown in this post on Epicurious, but that looks like a lot of work).

  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk (around 400g)
  1. Heat oven to 220℃
  2. Pour the condensed milk into a small oven proof dish
  3. Cover the dish with foil and place it in a high-sided baking tray. Fill the rest of the tray with water to around 2-3cm up the side of the dish
  4. Bake for around 60 minutes until the milk has turned light brown
  5. Remove from the oven and leave to cool, stirring occasionally to get any lumps out

The biscuits

  • 200g butter
  • 100g sugar (most recipes suggest icing sugar, which I didn’t have)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • vanilla essence to taste
  • grated zest of one lemon
  • 150g plain flour
  • 150g cornflour
  • 10g baking powder
  1. Preheat oven to 180℃ fan
  2. In the bowl of your stand mixer, whip the butter gently
  3. Add the sugar and beat until well creamed
  4. Add the eggs and beat
  5. Add the lemon zest and vanilla and mix in
  6. In a bowl, combine the flours and baking powder and stir evenly. Add to the butter/sugar/egg mixture and mix until you have a smooth batter
  7. Wrap the ball of batter with cling film and refrigerate for 30 minutes
  8. Place the batter between two sheets of cling film and roll out to around 3-5mm thickness
  9. Cut the batter into circles and transfer to a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. The biscuits will expand, so leave around 2cm gap between them (I didn’t leave enough), which means you’ll probably need two baking sheets.
  10. Bake for around 10 minutes until golden brown
  11. Leave to cool

Assembly and dipping

Warning: the many wonderful features of alfajores do NOT include structural integrity. They are very fragile – the crumbliness is part of the appeal – so handle with care!

  • 300g cooking chocolate (I used 150g milk and 150g dark, but choose anything you like)
  1. Grease a sheet of baking parchment and put it onto a baking tray or board that you can put in the fridge
  2. Break up the chocolate into a heatproof dish wide enough for you to dip a biscuit easily. Place the dish over boiling water and wait for the chocolate to be all melted, stirring occasionally
  3. Spread the flat side of a biscuit with dulce de leche. The pros use a piping bag to do this, but if you don’t have one, a spatula works OK. Add another biscuit, flat side down, to form a sandwich.
  4. Using a couple of forks, dip the biscuit into the melted chocolate and cover it completely. Hold it up to allow most of the excess to drip off, and transfer to your sheet of baking paper.
  5. Repeat for the remaining biscuits
  6. Place in the refrigerator for several hours for the chocolate to harden

Several Alfajores recipes point out that step 6 is more or less impossible to accomplish, including the one which goes “my mum always says these should be eaten the next day but I’ve never managed this”. I can confirm that they *are* better the next day, but I’ll leave the decision to you and your self-control…

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.23: Ka’ak Al Quds from Palestine (Jerusalem sesame bread)

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.23: Ka’ak Al Quds from Palestine (Jerusalem sesame bread)

Almost every street corner in East Jerusalem has a vendor with a trolley piled high with hoops of sesame-encrusted white bread called Ka’ak Al Quds: the aroma of fresh baking and toasted sesame is overpowering and irresistible. London-based chef Sami Tamimi, originally from East Jerusalem, has published a glorious book on Palestinian cuisine entitled Falastin (the Arabic language, he explains, does not have a letter “P”, so it should perhaps be “Falastinian”). I cannot recommend the book highly enough and you really, really should go out and buy it, so I hope Sami will forgive me for reproducing my version of his recipe here.

  • 10g dried yeast
  • 20g sugar
  • 300ml lukewarm water (around 40℃)
  • 40g olive oil
  • 250g strong white flour
  • 250g plain white flour
  • 10g salt
  • 15g dried skimmed milk
  • 1 egg
  • 20ml milk (or water)
  • 60g sesame seeds

This will make six of the hoops-shaped loaves: you will be able to fit two at a time onto a typical baking tray (something like 35cm x 25cm). If you have three trays and a big enough oven, you can bake the whole batch at a time; otherwise, you’ll have to do them in two or three batches.

  1. In a bowl or jug, combine the yeast, sugar, lukewarm water and olive oil and stir well. Leave for 5-10 minutes until it’s frothing nicely
  2. In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the flours, salt and dried skimmed milk and stir until evenly mixed
  3. Add the wet mix to your dry mix and knead with the dough hook until smooth (by the way, Sami’s recipe says 270ml, but I found I needed a bit more).
  4. Form into a ball and leave to rise in an oiled, covered bowl. Usual bread-making rules apply: the warmer the place you leave it, the quicker it will rise, so there’s no point in my giving you a numbers of hours it will take.
  5. Cut three rectangles of baking paper big enough to line your tray.
  6. Once your dough has risen, divide it evenly into six balls. Take the trouble to weigh them to make sure they’re about the same – expect around 150g each.
  7. Take a ball of dough, mould it to a flattened sphere, poke a hole through the middle of your sphere of dough and pull it apart to form an elongated doughnut shape. Pull it to most of the length of your tray, trying to keep the width as even as possible, which is tricky, and place it on one of your rectangles of baking paper; now repeat for the other five balls.
  8. Cover the loaves loosely with tea towels and leave for another half hour or so.
  9. Preheat your oven to 220℃ fan, with your baking tray(s) inside
  10. Lay out the sesame seeds in a dish longer than your loaves (or on a board if you don’t have one)
  11. Beat the egg together with the milk
  12. When you’re ready to bake, brush a loaf with the egg wash, dip it wash side down into the sesame seeds and ensure that it’s thoroughly coated.
  13. Put the loaf back onto the baking paper, sesame side up, and repeat for as many loaves as you’re going to do now.
  14. Take a baking tray out of the oven and transfer the baking paper rectangle with its two loaves onto it. To do this, you will probably either need two people or a tray of some sort.
  15. Bake for 10-15 minutes – you want the loaf to be a deep golden brown but not actually burning.

Leave to cool for a few minutes before eating: this bread is at its best straight out of the oven, but you don’t want to burn your tongue!