Tag: Around the world in 80 bakes

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!



Around the world in 80 bakes, no.22: Fjellbrød from Norway

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.22: Fjellbrød from Norway

Two posts in two days, I know, but this one’s really straightforward!

If you think of Scandinavian bread, you think of dark, dense, rye-infused creations to keep you warm in a Nordic winter, or possibly well stoked up for a hike around the fjords: in short, Norway’s fjellbrød (which translates simply as “mountain bread”). I’m not terrifically sure as to how authentically Norwegian this recipe is – I’ve gone for a variation on two posts I’ve seen from Hazel Verden and  Finnish blogger Asli, which both seem to derive from Nigella Lawson – but it’s very easy to make, very full of flavour and agrees with my memory of trips to Bergen.

It’s also the oddest recipe for yeasted bread I know: the only one that involves no kneading, no leaving to rise, and putting your bread into a cold oven. But I can’t argue with the results.

  • 400g wholemeal flour
  • 150g light rye flour
  • 30g porridge oats
  • 100g mixed seeds (I used a seven seed mix including sunflower, pumpkin and linseed; you can use whatever is your favourite)
  • 10g salt
  • 270ml water
  • 270ml milk
  • 20g sugar
  •  7g yeast
  1. Put the sugar, milk and water into a saucepan and warm to your body temperature (around 36℃). Transfer to a jug, add the yeast and stir. Leave until the yeast is beginning to froth (around 10 minutes).
  2. Meanwhile, combine the flours, the oats, 80g of the mixed seeds and the salt in the bowl of your stand mixer (or other large bowl). Stir until evenly mixed.
  3. Once your wet mixture is frothing, pour it into the dry mix, being sure to incorporate any yeast that’s gathered on the bottom. Mix thoroughly with the standard paddle (or a wooden spoon) until you have a smooth but somewhat sticky dough.
  4. Grease a baking tin and pour in your dough.
  5. Sprinkle the top with another 20g of seeds (and perhaps a few more oats); push them into the crust.
  6. Cover the baking tin with foil and put into a cold oven. Turn the temperature to 110℃ non-fan and bake for 30 minutes.
  7. Turn the temperature up to 180℃ non-fan and bake for another 30 minutes.
  8. Remove the foil and bake until done, perhaps another 30 minutes. Use the usual skewer test: a skewer should come out dry.
  9. Cool on a rack
Around the world in 80 bakes, no.21: Pastéis de nata from Portugal

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.21: Pastéis de nata from Portugal

This recipe is dedicated to Conceiçao, who looked after me during many happy childhood summers in Portugal. There was only one option for the Portuguese bake: the little puff-pastry custard tartlets called Pastéis de nata – or Pastéis de Belém, in their most famous incarnation in the bakery in the Lisbon suburb of Belém, around the corner from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and opposite the monument to Henry the Navigator.

A Pastel de nata has two components: a puff-pastry case and its custard filling. There’s nothing particularly unusual about Portuguese puff pastry recipes, so you can use whatever recipe you like. Since puff pastry is fundamentally difficult, the alternative is to simply buy the stuff ready made, but if you do this, try to get an all-butter version or the flavour balance will be seriously off.

What is slightly unusual is the mechanics of the tartlet: the trick is to roll the whole sheet of pastry up tightly, Swiss roll style, then cut it into rounds. You flatten each round and press into the depression of a shallow cupcake or muffin tin to form the characteristic snail shell pattern in the flakes of the cooked pastry.

The custard is also unusual: it starts with a simple flour and water mixture; you then add hot syrup, then you cool the whole lot and add egg yolks; the custard is then baked in the tartlets.

I’ve started from two Portuguese recipes: one for the pastry and one for the pastéis themselves. If you haven’t made puff pastry before, the recipe contains a handy video showing you the technique far better than I can describe it.

The puff pastry

  • 300g plain flour (OO grade if you can get it)
  • 7g salt
  • 170ml water
  • 250g butter (if you can, use a high melting point butter like Président)

Your key objective throughout this process is to avoid the butter melting and leaking out through the sides of your pastry. If it’s a very hot day, which it was when I made these, you will need to put things back into the fridge frequently to keep them down to well below the melting point of the butter. You can tell from the cover photo that I wasn’t entirely successful.

  1. Take the butter out of the fridge. Time this so that when you get to step 3, the butter will be soft enough to roll but still cold enough to be in no danger of melting.
  2. Put the flour, water and salt into a bowl and mix thoroughly until you have a smooth dough. Form the dough into a ball, cut a cross in top (I have no idea why), cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  3. Cut out two large sheets of baking parchment (perhaps 40cm long). Roll the butter between the two sheets to form as neat a square as you can manage: you want a constant thickness. Put the assembly back into the fridge.
  4. On a floured board, roll the dough until it’s slightly over twice the size of your square of butter.
  5. Removing the paper, place the square of butter onto one end of the dough, fold the dough over and seal the edges. Roll the dough out slightly more to make sure that it’s properly laminated.
  6. Fold the dough into three by taking one end to the middle and then the other end on top. Turn it by 90°, roll it out, fold into three again, then wrap with cling film and refrigerate.
  7. Repeat this process twice (if you want to follow the Portuguese recipe strictly, do a 4-way book fold as your second stage). Refrigerate for 20 minutes or more again.
  8. Have a set of muffin or cupcake tins ready. Grease them with a bit of butter.
  9. Roll the pastry flat, then roll the flattened pastry tightly into a cylinder. Cut the cylinder into slices: the recipe says 12, but my pastry came out a bit thick and I reckon that I should have tried to get a few more, perhaps 15 or 18.
  10. Flatten each slice into a circle with the flat of your hand and/or a rolling pin, then press each circle into a muffin tin so that it lines the bottom and sides.
  11. Refrigerate all of this while you make your custard.

The custard

  • 250 ml milk
  • Peel of one lemon
  • 150g sugar
  • 75 g water
  • 4 egg yolks
  • Ground cinnamon to taste

The tricky part of this recipe is to get as many of the lumps out as you can. Use a wire whisk and be ruthless with it!

  1. Preheat oven to 230℃
  2. Peel the lemon, keeping the peel whole in as few pieces as you can manage. Count the pieces. Keep the rest of the lemon for juice later.
  3. In a bowl, mix 100ml of the milk with the flour. Get as many of the lumps out as you can manage.
  4. In a saucepan, bring the remaining 150ml of the milk to the boil with the lemon peel.
  5. Pour in the flour/milk mixture and whisk vigorously, on the heat, for another couple of minutes until you have a thick paste. Remove from the heat and discard the lemon peel (that’s why you needed to count the pieces). You now have another opportunity to have a go with the whisk to get more of the lumps out.
  6. In another pan, mix the sugar and water. Bring to the boil and cook until you have a thick syrup. Mine got as far as 111℃ on a sugar thermometer, which is the top end of the “thread” stage, before it gets to “soft ball”.
  7. Take your pastry out of the fridge around now.
  8. A little at a time, dribble the syrup into your flour mix, whisking all the time. You can speed up towards the end: make sure the syrup and flour mix is as smooth as possible.
  9. Yes, you got it. It’s time to get the lumps out again. I did this by more frantic whisking: I suspect that passing it through a sieve might have been less work, at the cost of a bit of wastage and more washing up.
  10. Add the egg yolks and whisk until smooth

Assembly

  1. Pour the custard into the tartlets
  2. Bake for around 15 minutes. The custard should have blobs that are dark brown, on the verge of burning but not quite there; the pastry around the edges should look golden and flaky.
  3. Dust with a little cinnamon.
  4. Leave to cool for at least 10 minutes before serving. Pastéis de nata are fabulous straight out of the oven, but you don’t want to burn your tongue. Of course, you can have them cold later.
  5. The Portuguese would never pass up a chance to have these with a bica (short espresso).
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!