Tag: Desserts

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.33: Black Forest gâteau from Germany

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.33: Black Forest gâteau from Germany

The Germans are fantastic bakers. I could have chosen from dozens of breads and pastries: pumpernickel, pretzels, seed-filled Vollkornbrot, melt-in-mouth Franzbrötchen and so many more. But I’m a child of the 1960s and I couldn’t resist the German cake of my childhood: the over-the-top architectural construction of chocolate cake, cherries and whipped cream that is the Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte – the Black Forest gâteau.

You need to be careful on this one: most English and American recipes are very sweet. The German recipes have better flavour balance, but do tend to be unbelievably heavy on the cream – I’ve seen recipes specifying over 1 kg of cream for a cake not much bigger than the one I’ve made here. The nice people at Gästehaus Reger, in the heart of the Black Forest, have posted an English language version of their recipe, so I’ve used that as my starting point (dramatically reducing the cream content). By the way, according to Wikipedia, Black Forest gâteau doesn’t actually come from the Black Forest (it was created by a confectioner near Bonn), but they seem to have embraced it with enthusiasm.

German recipes specify jars of sour cherries. Being unable to get these, I substituted frozen black cherries, adding lemon juice to give a sour edge. It’s not perfect, but it worked. I was also short of kirsch – the cherry-based firewater that is the key ingredient of authentic Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, so I had to substitute some blackcurrant schnapps, left over from a trip to Sweden, which gives a similar flavour. I suggest that you don’t go for the cherry brandy that features in many recipes, because it has a very different flavour, stronger and sweeter.

The next problem to solve is your choice of cake tin. Ideally, you want to follow the Germans and use a single tin, slicing the cake into three layers after baking, because you don’t want lots of crusts. However, the cake extremely light and airy due to its mixture of both sabayon and meringue: my 23cm springform tin is about 6cm high and the cake overflowed it by some margin. This required me to trim some rather misshapen excess: use a deep tin if you have one.

This is a fairly complex and time consuming recipe, with two different baked layers and three fillings/drizzles. You will also use and wash up more bowls than you can possibly imagine. But none of this is unduly difficult.

You need to make the base, the cake and the cherry filling far enough in advance that they’re completely cool. The rest is best done at the last minute.

The cherry filling

If you can get jars of sour cherries, use 500g of those and 250g of the juice from the jar in place of the frozen cherries and lemon juice listed below. Also omit the blitzing of cherries and add 30g sugar.

  • 750g frozen pitted cherries
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 25g cornflour
  1. Defrost the cherries. (That’s why I’ve shown this step first – you may want to make your cake layers while this is happening).
  2. Reserve 12 of the best looking cherries – you will use them later for decoration.
  3. Blitz half of the remaining cherries to a coarse puree.
  4. Put the puree and any juice into a saucepan with the cornflour, stir thoroughly and warm gently until thickened. 
  5. Add the remaining cherries and bring to the boil.
  6. Remove from heat and refrigerate.

The shortcrust base

This is optional (several recipes don’t include one) but it gives a nice contrast of texture and makes the cake easier to handle.

  • 120g plain flour
  • 3g (around ½ tsp) baking powder
  • 25g sugar
  • vanilla essence to taste (around 1 tsp)
  • 1 small egg
  • 60g butter, softened
  1. Preheat oven to 180℃ fan
  2. Mix all ingredients together. Cover and refrigerate for around 30 minutes.
  3. Roll out on a baking sheet to a size slightly larger than your cake tin.
  4. Bake for around 10 minutes
  5. Leave to cool

The chocolate cake

  • 150g plain flour
  • 60g cornflour
  • 50g cocoa powder
  • 10g baking powder – around 2 tsp
  • 6 eggs
  • 200g caster sugar
  • Vanilla essence to taste – around 1 tsp
  1. Grease your cake tin
  2. Sift the flour, cornflour, cocoa powder and baking powder into a bowl and combine evenly
  3. Separate the eggs
  4. Add around 50 ml of warm water to the egg yolks and beat at your mixer’s highest speed for around three minutes, until you have a creamy sabayon-like texture. Add 130g of the sugar and beat for another three minutes.
  5. Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form, then add the remaining sugar, then beat until you have a stiff meringue.
  6. Combine the sabayon, the meringue and the flour mix and blend thoroughly. Mix it as a gently as you can (avoiding losing the air that you’ve just beaten into the eggs) but enough to be sure that you haven’t left any clumps of unblended flour.
  7. Pour the cake into your tin, smooth it off so you have a flat top, then bake for around 40 minutes. The cake is ready when a skewer comes out clean.
  8. Remove from the springform tin and leave to cool.

The whipped cream filling

  • 600 g double cream
  • 60 g sugar
  • Vanilla essence to taste (around 1 tsp)
  • 60 ml kirsch
  1. Whip the cream for a minute or so.
  2. Add sugar, vanilla essence and kirsch.
  3. Whip the mixture until stiff.

Final assembly

  • 150ml kirsch
  • 20g sugar
  • 20g dark chocolate for grating (the amount is very approximate)
  1. Add 75 ml kirsch to the cherry filling and mix thoroughly
  2. Add 75 ml kirsch to 75 ml water and 20g caster sugar and mix thoroughly
  3. If the cake is heavily domed (mine wasn’t), trim off the domed crust.
  4. Turn the cake over so the crust side is down.
  5. If your cake overspilled the edges of your tin, trim it so that you have a cylinder.
  6. Slice the chocolate cake into three slices horizontally. It’s helpful to mark the slices with a toothpick in each one, immediately above each other: this will help you re-assemble the cake into exactly the right place.
  7. Move the slices next to each other and drizzle them with the kirsch/water/sugar mix.
  8. Trim the shortcrust base to a circle the same size as your cake.
  9. Spread some cherry filling over the base – remove any whole cherries so that you’re just spreading the jam.
  10. Place a layer of cake onto the base (start with the one that was the topmost layer while baking).
  11. Spread the rest of the cherry filling evenly over the cake. Make sure you get to the edges.
  12. Reserve around 80g of the whipped cream for decoration: you’ll want to put it into a piping bag with a star nozzle.
  13.  Spread ⅓ of the remaining whipped cream over the cherry filling. Make sure you get to the edges.
  14. Place the remaining two  layers of cake on top, using the toothpicks to orient you as to exactly where to put them. After each layer, spread another third of the whipped cream: the top layer should be very even. (At this point, the Germans would also spread cream over the sides to form a perfect white cylinder. But that’s too much cream for me.)
  15. Grate the chocolate into shavings with a grater of vegetable peeler, and sprinkle the shavings over the cake. If you’ve put cream over the sides, also dust the sides with grated chocolate.
  16. Pipe twelve small doughnuts of cream in a circle close to the edge of the cake. Into each doughnut, place a cherry.

You’re done! It was complicated and it was a long haul, but you’ve created a real spectacular, which is light as a feather and tastes fantastic.

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.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.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.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.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. 8: Brigadeiros from Brazil

OK, so I’m cheating here: the Brigadeiro, pretty much Brazil’s national sweet, is cooked in a saucepan, not in an oven. But they’re really delicious (batch 2 was demanded immediately), really easy to make and by a long way the most Brazilian thing I could find. So here goes.

Brigadeiros have a relatively short history: they were created in Rio de Janeiro in 1946 and named after a presidential candidate, Eduardo Gomes, who happened to be an army Brigadier. Gomes lost the election, but these gooey chocolate truffles won the hearts of the Brazilian people and have been a favourite ever since.

With the possible exception of some flatbreads in posts to come, I’m unlikely to provide any recipes with a smaller number of ingredients:

  • 1 can of sweetened condensed milk (approx 400g)
  • 30g cocoa powder (unsweetened)
  • 30g butter (if it’s unsalted, add a gramme or two of salt)
  • Dessicated coconut for rolling

In fact, you can roll your brigadeiros in anything you like: in most recipe photos you’ll see, they’re coated with chocolate sprinkles; some recipes go for chopped pistachios or almonds. I happen to love coconut and think it brings extra Brazil-ness, but the choice really is yours.

The steps in the method are just as simple:

  1. Put the first three ingredients into a saucepan and mix thoroughly
  2. Heat, mixing continually, until you have a sticky paste that comes away from the sides of the pan
  3. Leave to cool until they don’t burn your fingers
  4. Shape into balls around 3cm in diameter, and roll in your favourite topping

There are, however, some details worth mentioning:

  • Cocoa powder clumps. A balloon whisk is a good idea for the first five minutes or so until it’s really smooth, then switch to a wooden spoon. If you don’t have a balloon whisk, go for elbow-grease.
  • “Mixing continually” means what it says. Don’t leave the mixture on the heat for more than a few seconds without stirring it to get some off the sides of the pan, especially towards the end.
  • Knowing when to take the mixture off the heat is tricky. Too soon and you have a liquid chocolate sauce that you can’t mould. Too late and your brigadeiros are decidedly chewy. My guidelines for the best point: (1) wait until the point where, when you run a wooden spoon through the liquid, it flows back very slowly and reluctantly, then give it another couple of minutes, or (2) when the mixture temperature is just above 100℃. Or just keep practising until you can do it by feel, at risk to your waistline.
  • You want to cool the mixture enough so that it doesn’t burn your fingers. If you want the mixture to cool more quickly, dump your saucepan into cold water when you’ve taken it off the heat. 
  • If you’ve overcooked and then over-cooled the mixture so that it’s too stiff to mould, warm it up slightly – it won’t hurt. But if that’s happened, be kind to your tasters’ teeth and make smaller balls.

Having said which, this is relatively simple stuff. And the results are incredibly moreish…

P.S. For added Brazilian authenticity, pronounce the name with the “Bri” rhyming with “Me”, the “ei” rhyming with “hay” and the “os” rhyming with “louche”. If you can be bothered.

Mid-process shots follow, somewhat more boring than usual…