Tag: Baking

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.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.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.
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.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.11: Ranginak from Iran

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.11: Ranginak from Iran

It’s time for a trip to the delicately balanced, aromatic foods of Persia. Strictly speaking, Ranginak isn’t a baked dish – it’s cooked in a skillet, not an oven – but it’s a dessert made from a flour/butter/sugar mixture as found in many Western baked goods, so I’ll stretch a point. Ranginak gets described as a sort of Persian date and walnut fudge, but it’s much better than that because it isn’t overpoweringly sugary: cut into small chunks, it makes for a lovely, scented, sweet-but-not-too-sweet bite of deliciousness.

Ranginak is famous as a festive dessert in Iran: the name means “colourful”, which is mildly dubious since it’s basically brown until you add garnish. There are many regional variations, the most improbable of which comes from a seventeenth century Isfahan recipe and involves dressing the completed product with  rice pudding. I’ve gone for a simple one, starting from a recipe in the lovely Persian website Turmeric and Saffron and adding in the odd bit from my Persian cookery bible, Margaret Shaida’s The Legendary Cuisine of Persia.  As usual, I’ve given some details and turned most measurements into metric: I just find it easier to measure things accurately with a set of digital scales than with measuring spoons and cups. 

I’ve halved the recipe, since we’re still in lockdown here in London and I don’t really want to make giant desserts if I’m not sure they’re going to freeze properly. The amounts here are about right for a round dish 15cm in diameter: adjust to suit whatever size dish you are going to use.

Ingredients, in order of use

  • 50g walnut halves
  • 200g dates
  • 125g flour
  • 125g butter
  • 20g icing sugar
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cardamom
  • A free pistachios, shelled and unsalted, to garnish

If you talk to anyone Iranian, they will tell you that Persian produce (walnuts, dates, melons, garlic, saffron, etc) is different from everyone else’s – and, of course, superior. This starts out by being incredibly irritating until you try things out and come to the inevitable conclusion that for the most part, they are simply stating correct information. Or nearly, anyway: Omani dates are as good as the Persian products, Chilean walnuts and Kashmiri saffron likewise. But you get the idea: if you can find a Persian food shop for your dates and walnuts, it’s a good idea.

In the more likely event that you don’t have access to a Persian shop: most supermarket walnuts will be fine, but the quality of the dates is important: the rock hard ones that you often see in oblong cardboard packets will be hard to work with and yield a disappointing result. Make sure the dates are soft. If they’re pitted, that will save you effort.

Method

  1. Choose a shallow dish just large enough to hold your dates laid flat; grease it with a bit of melted butter. 
  2. In a dry pan on medium heat, toast the walnuts until fragrant but not yet burning (should be 3 minutes or so). Take them off the heat.
  3. While the walnuts are cooling, take the stones out of the dates (if this hasn’t already been done for you).
  4. In a bowl, mix the icing sugar, cinnamon powder  and cardamom powder.
  5. Once the walnuts are no longer too hot to touch, cut each piece in half so that you now have walnut quarters. Stuff a walnut quarter into the cavity of each date.
  6. In a pan on medium heat, toast the flour until it’s just beginning to go pale brown and smell aromatic (around 5 minutes).
  7. Add the butter and mix thoroughly as it melts. Now cook for around 10-15 minutes until your mixture is a medium butterscotch kind of colour. Don’t let it go as far as dark brown.
  8. Add the spiced sugar and mix thoroughly, then pour the mixture into your dish. Leave to cool for long enough that you’re not going to burn your fingers in the next step.
  9. Now lay out the stuffed dates on the mixture, and sprinkle some chopped pistachios. If you’re of an artistic bent (and especially if you’re doubling or trebling this recipe), you’ve got scope for some fun here. Sadly, I’m not, but there are plenty of pretty photos online to give you the idea.
  10. Leave to set, which should take a couple of hours at normal room temperature. If it’s a hot day and you’re in a hurry, you’ll probably want the Ranginak to spend part of the time in the fridge.

Traditionally, Ranginak is served with tea. Personally, I like going cross-cultural and serving a piece with a scoop of pistachio ice-cream. But I’ll leave that one to you…

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.10: Scottish oatcakes

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.10: Scottish oatcakes

I eat between meals. Because I’m type 2 diabetic, I need things that I can snack on that are neither overly sweet (we’ll draw a discreet veil over the cake recipes in this series of posts) nor overly salty (I can eat bags of peanuts for days, but this is a terrible idea also). Scottish oatcakes contain little or no sugar, don’t have to be overly salty and are really delicious, either on their own or with a bit of cheese: in short, they are the perfect snack. And they turn out to be one of the easiest things on the planet to bake.

This recipe is only slightly modified from the recipe by BBC good food contributor “zetallgerman”: I’ve changed a few things and added some details, but it’s basically their recipe and hats off to them, because it works like a charm.

I’ve given quite a lot of detail on rolling and cutting here, because this is a really good beginner’s bake – I beg forgiveness from experienced bakers for whom this is all obvious.

Ingredients

  • 225g oats (ordinary porridge oats if you can; jumbo oats need to be blitzed first)
  • 60g wholemeal spelt flour (ordinary wholemeal wheat flour is fine: my lockdown larder has spelt flour and it works very well)
  • ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda or baking powder
  • ½ tsp salt (zetallgerman says 1 tsp: I prefer ½ to ¾)
  • ½ tsp sugar (optional, as far as I’m concerned)
  • 60g unsalted butter (or use salted and reduce the amount of added salt)
  • 70ml warm water, plus 10ml or so more for the next round

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 190℃ fan
  2. Get a baking tray ready. If it isn’t non-stick, line it with baking paper. You’ll also need something with which to cut the oatcakes into circles: I use a fairly solid mug whose diameter is 9cm, so I just fit 12 oatcakes into my 30cm x 40cm tray.
  3. If your butter came out of the fridge, soften. My favourite way is to cut it into small cubes and leave it in a warm place in the kitchen: five minutes in spring sunshine is plenty.
  4. Mix the oats, flour, baking soda or powder, salt and sugar until everything’s reasonably evenly distributed.
  5. Add the butter and mix thoroughly, pinching with your fingers until all the butter is absorbed. If you can, do this with one hand to keep the other one clean. Pastry and biscuit recipes always say “to the consistency of breadcrumbs”: personally, I’ve never succeeded in achieving anything looking remotely like a breadcrumb, but it doesn’t seem to matter. 
  6. Add 70ml of warm water and combine everything together into a dough. The amount of water is a bit variable: if your dough fragments horribly when you try to roll it, add a few drops more, remix and try again.
  7. On a floured board, roll your dough out to 4-5mm thickness. Cut a circle (I use a mug) and transfer to your baking sheet (I have to first put the mug over my hand and then thump it for the oatcake to come out). Repeat: if all is well, you should be able to get six oatcakes.
  8. Now gather together the off-cut dough and put it back in your bowl, add a few drops more water and recombine. You can now roll out the dough again and repeat. Hopefully, you’ll manage another four oatcakes this time.
  9. At this stage, I normally have enough dough for two oatcakes. I divide it in half and roll them out individually
  10. Bake for 20 minutes. As well as the usual oven variability, the exact time is a matter of taste: longer = crispier but gives more danger of a burnt taste

That’s it folks – a really low effort bake which has given me reliable results every time!

The usual in-process shots: