Almond Cake Petit Gateaux

Petits fours are some of my favourite things to bake. Meringues, macarons and petits gateaux; there is just something about miniature baked items that is ultra satisfying. They are often layered or glazed and look so appetising that it’s lucky that they are traditionally served at the end of a meal when you are full, as if I wasn’t stuffed I could eat a whole plate of them myself.

The recipe for these cakes does not include any sort of raising agent. Instead, the butter, sugar and marzipan are vigorously beaten which incorporates tiny air bubbles into the mixture. The expansion of this air in the heat of the oven is what gives the cakes their rise. This is very similar to how pound cakes were made when the butter was beaten until it was soft and had increased massively in volume because air had been mixed into it. The natural rise means that, whilst light in texture, the cakes remain very moist and dense helping them cut cleanly and hold together when decorated.

What makes this recipe different from a standard sponge cake is the addition of marzipan. Marzipan is made of almonds, sugar and often egg whites. This is why the recipe doesn’t have the classic ratio of ingredients for a sponge cake but rather the flour, sugar and butter have been cut as they have been replaced by the ingredients in the marzipan. Ground almonds are a classic way of giving a cake a moist crumb so by adding not only those but also the egg white in the marzipan you can guarantee that the final product will have an amazing texture. The marzipan also helps weigh down the cake, fighting against the expanding air in the oven so the cake doesn’t rise too much.

The miniature cakes made from this recipe are the perfect end to a meal. They are not too heavy to eat and everyone gets their own individual cake. They would also sit beautifully on the final layer of an afternoon tea as, owing to their size, they can be eaten along with lots of other little things.

Let me know what you think of the recipe as it is a massive hit in my house.

 

Almond Cake Petit Gateaux

Time: 3 hours

 

300g marzipan

90g cake flour

150g butter

135g sugar

4 eggs

Pinch of salt

 

Filling:

Raspberry/apricot/ginger jam

100g butter

150g icing sugar

¼ tsp almond extract

1 tbsp milk

 

Optional

100g dark chocolate

100ml double cream

1 tbsp glucose syrup

 

Preheat an oven to gas mark 5 (190°C).

Line the base of a swiss roll pan with butter and baking paper.

Break the marzipan into the bowl of a stand mixer.

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Add the butter and sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Do not worry if it feels a little grainy, this is from the marzipan and will melt out in the oven.

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Mix in the salt.

Add the eggs one at a time and mix until fully incorporated after each addition.

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With the mixer running on slow, mix in the flour.

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Spread the mixture evenly across the base of the tin ensuring that it does not dome in the centre.

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Bake for 15 minutes or until it is golden and slightly risen. A skewer or toothpick inserted into the centre of the cake should come out clean.

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Leave to cool in the tin.

 

In a bowl, beat the butter for the icing until it is light and fluffy. It will go very pale and soft.

Sift in the icing sugar in three batches beating after each addition.

Add the almond extract and the milk and beat again until the buttercream is super soft.

 

Using a small, round biscuit cutter, cut as many circles of cake out of the sheet as possible.

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If you do not wish to include a chocolate ganache:

Spread half of the cakes with buttercream and jam before topping them with another circle to make a mini sandwich cake.

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Dust with icing sugar.

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If you wish to coat with ganache:

Spread either jam or buttercream on half of the cakes and sandwich them in pairs.

Use a mini spatula to spread a thin layer of buttercream around the outside and over the top of the cakes.

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Place them in the freezer for 20 minutes.

While the cakes are setting, roughly chop the chocolate and place it in a bowl.

Heat the cream and glucose in a saucepan until the cream is just about to boil.

Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and leave for two minutes before mixing it together into a smooth ganache.

Leave this to cool down.

 

Before you coat the cakes, make sure that the ganache is not warm to the touch otherwise it will melt the buttercream and slide off the cakes.

Remove the cakes from the freezer and place them onto a wire rack. Place this rack over a tray with raised edges as this will catch the ganache that drips off.

Pour the ganache over the cakes endure that it has flowed down all the edges.

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Place the cakes in the fridge to set for at least half an hour.

You can leave the cakes like this or use any excess buttercream to decorate them.

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I hope you enjoyed the recipe. If you are a fan of petits fours, check out my macaron recipe. I also have one for meringues, both French and swiss style (you may as well try them both – that would be the scientific way to decide which is better).

Have a good one and I will be back next week with a delicious pasta dish.

H

Banoffee Cake

If the name fusarium oxysporum cubenese doesn’t strike fear into your heart, you are probably like most people in the world. When information about pathogens, whether they affect humans, animals or plants, is disseminated to the public, the full scientific name of the causative agent is rarely used – if it is used at all. This is because most people don’t care about the tiny fungus/bacteria/virus etc. as the science of the pathogen is irrelevant to them. What they want to know is what this thing does and how it can be treated – in the cause of fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubenese, what is causes is Panama disease.

You are far more likely to have heard of Panama disease than the fungus that causes it. The name rolls off the tongue better, it’s short and it mentions a place that you probably recognise. It is also the biggest threat facing bananas. The fungus is resistant to fungicides and as it displays no symptoms on around 40% of growing stems and buds is easily spread when cuttings of the plant are taken. Banana plants are reproduced asexually – cuttings are taken and grown into new plants – so there is almost no genetic variation across the community. The most commercial variety is the Cavendish banana – the classic curved, yellow, sweet bananas you buy in shops – and the near identicality of the plants makes them highly vulnerable to disease. Genetic variation within the banana plants relies on random mutations which results in far less diversity than is gained by reproduction which requires two plants.

Panama disease has struck before. Back in the 1950s, it almost completely wiped out the Gros Michel banana – the variety that was most commonly available at the time – and banana farmers were forced to change to a new variety (the Cavendish banana) or face bankruptcy as their crops failed. There are currently some varieties of banana which are resistant to fusarum oxysporum cubenese Race 4, the type that affects the Cavendish banana, but these are not commercially available yet. Changing an entire species is an expensive thing to do, the plants take time to grow and there is always the threat that the fungus will mutate again to affect the new variety of banana at a later date.

The disease has been known about since the cultivation of Gros Michel bananas started in the late 1800s – this was fusarum oxysporum cubenese Race 1. The first formal identification was in Panama, whence the name derives, but the disease did not reach its devastating pandemic levels until the 1950s. When a plant is infected symptoms display first on the older leaves and sections of the tree before spreading to the newer growths. The fungus causes the equivalent of an immune response in the plant which causes it to secrete a form of gel into the xylem (the vessels which carry water around the plant – think of them like the veins of a plant). This gel forms a barrier inside the xylem that blocks it off preventing any flow along it. The plant gets the equivalent of thrombosis before the affected areas start to wilt and die.

There is still hope though. As I have mentioned, this has happened before and the banana survived so don’t be too afraid. There is a lot of ongoing research into new, resistant strains of bananas and of course, fungicides which will actually affect fusarum oxysporum. That being said, you should still definitely make this cake as soon as you can because it would be a shame to miss the opportunity. The cake takes the classic flavours of a banoffee pie and transfers them into a new form: banana bread style layers sandwiched with caramel buttercream and brûléed bananas. It simply must be tried to be fully appreciated!

 

 

 

Banoffee Cake

Time: 4+ hours including cooling

 

Caramel:

200g caster sugar

90g unsalted butter

250ml double cream

 

For the cake:

290g plain flour

125g caster sugar

100g brown sugar

250g butter

2 tsp baking powder

2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

4 bananas

150ml buttermilk

2 tsp vanilla extract

4 eggs

 

Icing:

To fill between the layers, use the quantities below. If you want to cover the sides of the cake too, double the recipe.

200g butter

300g icing sugar

 

Brûléed bananas:

5 bananas

A sprinkling of brown sugar

(you will need a cooks blowtorch)

 

 

To make the caramel:

Tip a third of the sugar into a heavy based steel pan – non-stick pans encourage crystallisation which ruins caramel.

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Heat the sugar on a medium heat and as it starts to melt, use a wooden spoon to gently move some of the unmelted sugar into the melted areas. Move the pan on the hob so no area gets too dark when melting. You don’t want to burn the sugar. Turn the pan onto a medium to low light for the rest of this.

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Once about half of the sugar in the pan has melted, sprinkle on half the remaining sugar and gently stir the melted areas. The sugar may start to clump but don’t worry!

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As more of the sugar melts, sprinkle on the remaining sugar and continue to agitate the melted areas in the pan to prevent burning and to bring the unmelted sugar into contact with the heat.

Once the sugar has all melted, you should have a light caramel. If it is cloudy, that means not all the sugar has melted! Swirl the sugar in the pan a little to help stir it but at this point, do not use the spoon as it will make the sugar crystallise.

When the caramel is clear, continue heating slowly until it is a deep golden colour. Swirling it gently will help to mix it in the pan so it doesn’t burn.

The moment the caramel is a rich golden brown, turn the heat to minimum and immediately pour in the double cream. BE CAREFUL – the cream will bubble and steam vigorously so make sure you are using a big pan so it doesn’t spit out of the pan. Stir the caramel to make sure it is all mixed. The area with the cream may be thicker than the melted sugar as it is cooled a little but it will remelt and everything will mix together nicely.

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Add in the butter chopped into small cubes or slices. Do this slowly and mix after each addition.

Leave the caramel to cool.

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To make the cake:

Preheat the oven to gas mark 4 (200°C).

Line three eight-inch cake tins.

Peel the bananas and put them into a bowl. Using your hands or a fork (I find hands are much faster, more efficient and give you a better end result) mash the banana.

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Pour in the buttermilk and stir it through.

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In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugars until light and fluffy.

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Add the baking powder and bicarbonate of soda to the flour.

Beat the eggs into the butter mixture one at a time. If the mixture begins to look curdled, add a small amount of the flour.

Slowly beat in the flour in three additions.

With the mixer on minimum, add the banana mixture and stir it through.

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Divide this batter between the tins and bake for 25 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.

Let the cakes cool in the pan for ten minutes before removing them and leaving them to cool fully on a wire rack.

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To make the buttercream:

Beat the butter until light and fluffy. I find this easiest with the whisk attachment on a stand mixer but you can use the paddle instead.

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Sift the icing sugar and add a third of it with the mixer on slow as you do not want to cover your room in a cloud of sugar. Once the icing sugar has mostly been incorporated, switch the mixer back to high for a minute to beat everything together again.

Repeat with the rest of the icing sugar.

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Add a couple of tablespoons of the cooled caramel until you get to your desired flavour. Remember that the caramel will soften the buttercream so don’t add too much if you want to do intricate pipework.

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This stuff is delicious

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Once the buttercream has been made, you are ready to brûlée the bananas and assemble the cake.

Peel the bananas, slice them into 1cm thick rounds and lay them out snugly on a heatproof mat or surface.

Sprinkle with brown sugar until there is a thin layer over them.

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Using a chef’s blowtorch, caramelise the sugar – it is ok if it burns in a few places!

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Leave for five minutes to cool.

 

If your cakes are very domed, you may wish to level them but this step is up to you.

Place one layer onto your serving dish/cake board and spread a thin layer of icing over it.

Lay half of the banana on in a single layer on the top of the cake. You may wish to pipe a thin border around the edge to ensure they do not slip out but this isn’t strictly necessary.

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Add another layer of cake, icing and the remaining bananas.

Add the final layer of cake and top with the rest of the icing.

Optional: if you also wish to ice the sides, spread a thin layer of icing around the sides and on the top. It is ok if you can see the cake through this as this is only a crumb coat. Refrigerate the cake for 30 minutes and then add the rest of the icing to the outside, smooth it with a bench scraper or another flat edge that is taller than the height of the cake. You can buy specialist tools for this if you so wish.

Decorate as you see fit. I decided that I wanted to dye some of the remaining icing yellow and ice it with the same design I would use for cream on a real banoffee pie but it is totally up to you. Yolanda Gamp at How To Cake It, where the idea for this cake came from, uses toffees along with banana and plantain chips to cover the outside and give another texture if you are stuck for ideas.

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This cake made me happy

 

I hope you enjoyed the recipe. If you have a sweet tooth and are thinking of other caramel recipes, my chocolate and caramel layer cake and tart are both amazing or you could push the boat out with my white chocolate mousse and raspberry caramel tart. For something a little bit more on the simple and savoury side, my hummus and falafel recipes have gone down tremendously well so why not have a go at one of them?

 

I hope you enjoyed the recipe and I will be back next week with a recipe that has survived the test of time, it originated over 4000 years ago!

H

Pavlova

Pavlova is another one of those foods which has debatable origins. Both Australia and New Zealand argue that it started with them, however there does not seem to be any conclusive evidence to decide between their claims. This is primarily because the earliest recipe we have for a dessert labelled pavlova is not meringue… it’s gelatine based. What we do know is that the pavlova in the form that we see it today was named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova.

Pavlova should have a crisp outer shell and a marshmallowy centre. This differs from normal meringue which is usually hard all the way through. This difference is attributed by most chefs to the cornflour added to the recipe, however this is probably done to help stabilise the meringue so it does not deflate. What makes the centre ultra-soft is how the dessert is cooked. By using a slightly higher baking temperature at the start, and then reducing it, the outside of the pavlova is cooked substantially more than the centre so it hardens up before the temperature of the oven is reduced. The pavlova is also cooked for less time than you would use for crisp meringues. If you think about it size wise, the pavlova is far bigger than a standard meringue but is cooked for the same amount of time so the central area will not be cooked as much.

I have talked a lot about whisking eggs in recipes on this blog and I thought that, seeing as it is such a crucial element in this dish, I would go into the actual science behind the meringue. Egg whites are about 90% water and 10% protein. Of this protein, the majority is a substance known as ovalbumin. Ovalbumin has a bizarre property: one end is hydrophilic (that is to say, it loves water) and the other is hydrophobic (it hates water, rather like oil does). This is simplified on the diagram below [1] where the green end is the water loving side and the red is water hating. When in the unbeaten egg white, the protein is suspended in water but this is not good for the hydrophobic side. To avoid the water, the ovalbumin curls up [2] encasing the water-hating region inside the water-loving one. As you beat the egg white, two things happen: one, the ovalbumin is unravelled exposing both sections of the protein (the most stable position for it is on the surface of the liquid [3] where the hydrophilic side can sit happily in the water, and the hydrophobic side can float in the air) and two, air bubbles are beaten into the egg white. As you beat the egg white more and more these bubbles are broken up and made smaller and smaller, increasing their surface area. The surface of the bubbles is the perfect place for the freshly uncurled protein to sit so as the proteins come into contact with the bubbles, they begin to surround them [4]. The proteins then form chemical bonds to each other which causes the giant mesh of air and water to become, at least, semi-stable.

proteins 2

When you add sugar to the pavlova, you must do it slowly. This gives the sugar time to dissolve in the water in the egg whites (N.B. this is why you should use caster sugar instead of granulated as the crystals are smaller and thus dissolve faster). If you add the sugar too fast, the weight of the solid grains will break the bonds between the protein molecules and cause the meringue to deflate. This is often unsalvageable – you can try to keep beating the mixture on high speed to thicken it up but it will never be as fluffy as it once was.

After baking, you should get as much cream onto the meringue as possible. The fruit choice is up to you – more colours, and more vibrant colours, will have a more striking effect but really no one will mind as long as it tasted good. Be careful if you use a coulis as this can flow off the edge and dissolve the meringue, so try to make the edges of the cream higher than the centre (like a shallow bowl) as this will help prevent any leakage.

I hope you enjoy the recipe!

 

 

Pavlova

Prep time: 20 mins

Cook time: 2 hours 10 mins

Cool time: 2 hours

 

8 egg whites (at room temperature)

450g caster sugar

1 tbsp cornflour

1 tbsp lemon juice/white vinegar

Pinch of a salt

 

600ml double cream

Fresh fruit

 

Preheat the oven to gas mark 1 (140°C).

Draw a nine inch wide circle on a sheet of baking paper.

 

Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks in a stand mixer. You should be able to invert the bowl without the egg falling out at this point. It’s fun to do this over an unsuspecting friend/parent/child/housemate/loved one (but only if you are certain that it won’t go wrong… accidentally)

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The egg whites hold their shape and appear almost cloud like.

Add the sugar a tablespoon at a time with the mixer running.

Once all the sugar is added, continue beating the meringue until the sugar is fully dissolved.

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The meringue should be thick, glossy and hold its shape. This photo was not taken while the meringue fell from the whisk into the bowl, it actually stayed like this after settling, supporting its own weight.

Beat in the cornflour and vinegar.

 

Spoon the meringue into the centre of the circle on the baking sheet.

Spread it out to edges. You can decorate the boarder with peaks of meringue or just smooth it off so it is flat at the sides if you want a cleaner look.

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Some volume was lost as I used carton egg whites for this – they do not whip up as well as fresh ones but I had no way to get rid of eight yolks and didn’t want to waste any. If you use fresh eggs, you will get a far taller meringue.

If you manage to get maximum volume out of the egg whites, the pavlova will be tall too. It is common to use the end of a spatula or palette knife to drag indents up the side to give the meringue a bit more structure when it bakes. It can also help to make the sides a little higher than the centre to help hold the filling in.

 

Bake for ten minutes before reducing the temperature to 90°C in an electric oven or leaving the oven on gas mark 1 but wedging the door slightly ajar with a wooden spoon.

Bake for another two hours.

Turn the oven off and leave the pavlova to cool in it. If you used a spoon to wedge the door open, shut it now. If you take it out now, it will sink and crack.

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To assemble, beat the cream to soft peaks and spoon over the top of the meringue.

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Decorate with the fruit.

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Pavlova profile

 

I hope you enjoyed the recipe. If you are interested in trying a different type of meringue (which can also be used for this), check out my recipe for swiss meringue – it’s crispy and delicious.

Have a good one and I will be back next week with a recipe for a Mediterranean dish that is great for lunches.

H

Chiffon Cake

Chiffon cake is probably the most complicated of the classic sponge cakes. It is like a combination of a genoise and a Victoria sponge. Like the genoise it is a whisked sponge but, unlike the genoise, there is a lot of fat in the recipe, much more similar to a Victoria sponge. The finished product is a flavourful, light cake with a texture far more spongey than any other cake I have had the pleasure to try.

A classic chiffon cake is baked in a tube pan. These are like bundt tins but have flat sides and a flat base – something I will discuss later. The pan provides several elements which are essential for a successful chiffon cake. The most important thing is to not line the tin, either with butter or parchment paper. This is because the cake will cling to the sides of the tin allowing it to rise magnificently in the oven. If the sides are greased, the cake cannot stick to them so will collapse around the edges dragging the rest down with it. The addition of the tube in the centre of the tin provides another wall for the batter to rise up, giving a more even shape and bake. Because the cake must adhere to the tin to rise properly, it must be cut off the tin when it is fully cooked otherwise you won’t be able to remove it. This is why the tin must have flat sides and a flat base. You need to be able to run a knife around the edge to release the cake which is not possible if you use a standard bundt cake tin.

One of the trademarks of the chiffon cake is its texture. It is absolutely jam packed with air. This gives it a light, fluffy feel in the mouth but like everything else to do with the chiffon cake, it introduces another requirement to prevent cake disaster – in this case, collapse under its own weight. We all know how aggravating it is when a cake you have spent time on collapses after baking leaving a huge dent in the top and a dense texture beneath but at least, with most cakes, there is an easy way to avoid this: cook the cake fully and do not open the oven during baking. With a chiffon cake, there is an extra step: you must cool the cake upside down (a technique also used when making angel food cakes). Cakes firm up as they cool but when they come out of the oven, they are still very soft and delicate. For a chiffon sponge, the structure inside is so fragile that its own weight can crush the cake. It will not spark joy. To avoid this, many chiffon pans have legs which will hold the tin upside down while the cake cools. Because the cake adheres to the tin, this will not crush it –  in fact, the cake must now fight gravity if it wishes to sink!

There are four main flavours used for chiffon cakes: vanilla, lemon, coconut and pandan. This is because a light sponge requires a light flavouring. All of these can be paired very well with some sort of flavoured or unflavoured cream or even a curd. Cream and fresh fruit are the optimal items for decorating a chiffon because buttercreams are too dense so their texture would not match that of the cake. Pandan is a Chinese leaf which is normally blended with milk or water before the liquid extracted from the pulp is used to flavour the cake. If you want to try one of these, the pandan extract is used to replace the coconut milk in this recipe. You could even swap the coconut milk for normal milk for a vanilla or lemon sponge, or any flavoured milk if you want to experiment with flavours.

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Pandan turns the cake a remarkable shade of green

The cake in this recipe is a lightly coconut flavoured sponge which is split and filled with cream, fresh mango and passionfruit. I would definitely describe it as ‘tropical’ flavoured. Like most chiffon sponges, it is huge – despite having fewer ingredients than a normal cake – so you can feed a lot of people with it. I hope you enjoy the recipe.

 

 

Chiffon Cake

5 eggs

80ml vegetable oil

80ml coconut milk

150g caster sugar

150g plain flour

1tsp baking powder

¼ tsp cream of tartar (or unflavoured vinegar)

½ tsp salt

Flavourings of your choice (eg. Vanilla extract, coconut essence, lemon rind, pandan)

 

To fill:

300ml double cream

Fresh fruit of your choice

 

 

Preheat the oven to gas mark 3

Separate the eggs.

Add 75g of sugar to the yolks and beat until light and fluffy. This is easiest using a hand-held electric whisk.

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Beat in the oil and then the coconut milk. If you have extra flavouring add it now.

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Sift the baking powder and flour together.

Beat this into the egg yolk mixture and set aside.

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In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form.

Add the cream of tartar/vinegar.

Beat in the remaining caster sugar a little at a time until it is all added.

Continue to beat until the meringue reaches stiff peaks. It should be bright white, glossy and smooth.

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Take one third of the egg white mixture and gently stir it into the egg yolks and flour. This is to loosen the texture of the yolk mixture so you can mix everything evenly later. If you try to fold the egg whites without doing this, you will end up with unmixed batter. I find a balloon whisk is best for this step.

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Fold the rest of the meringue mixture through the batter in two additions and fold until you are certain that there is no unmixed batter or meringue left. The batter should be thick and smooth.

Slowly pour the batter into an unlined, ungreased tube pan from at least a foot above the pan. The slow pour stretches out large air bubbles and causes them to pop giving a nicer final structure to the cake.

Use a spatula to spread the batter evenly around the pan. Insert a skewer and swirl it through the batter to help release any air pockets that survived the trip into the cake tin.

Bang the base of the tin onto the counter a few times to pop the larger bubbles which have risen to the surface.

Bake for 60-75 minutes, until the top crust is a deep golden colour (but not burnt).

52293379_321461278555344_1511697165271957504_nRemove the cake from the oven, invert the pan and leave to cool completely

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To release the cake, run a knife around the outside edge and remove the cake and base of the tin.

Run the knife around the inside edge and also the base of the cake.

Invert onto a plate and remove the rest of the tin.

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The cake can be served straight up or spit down the middle and filled with cream and even fresh fruit.

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I hope you enjoyed the recipe. This cake is super light and airy with an amazing texture – it’s just so spongy! If you are a fan of cakes with less icing, check out my recipe for lemon drizzle cake.

Have a good one and I will be back next week with a recipe for…

H

Crème Caramel

Crème caramel looks classy. A perfectly baked custard with a smooth velvety texture and a dark layer on top where it has absorbed the caramel, covered in a shiny, golden brown sauce gives a level of elegance to this dessert that many others lack. It helps that crème caramel is often served in individual portions which makes it seem more personal rather than getting a slice of a huge multi-serving dessert. Crème caramel should not be confused with crème brulee which is also a baked custard; but as the latter is served in its ramekin, the custard is usually less set as it does not need to hold its shape (and of course, crème caramel has a liquid sauce whereas crème brulee has a hard layer of caramel on top).

What makes the custard for crème caramel unique is that is uses whole eggs. Most classic custards used in baking (crème anglaise and crème patisserie) use only egg yolks. This is because a crème caramel needs to be sturdy enough to stand up with no walls to hold it in but also should have a melt-in-the-mouth, velvety texture. Crème patisserie would make a good candidate for this as it is a strong custard which is thick enough to be piped however this comes from a starchy thickening agent (either cornflour or normal flour). This starch gives the custard a far claggier consistency which is very nice in eclairs or holding together a fraisier cake but does not lend itself well to a light dessert – it is far to rich. To get a softer texture, the egg whites are added to the crème caramel as these set when they cook. Egg white coagulates at a slightly lower temperature to the yolks (that’s how you get a runny yolk on your poached eggs) and as such, once the yolks are cooked, you can guarantee that the whites are too and that the dessert is ready to be taken from the oven.

Like most desserts which involve baking some sort of custard, crème caramel is taken out of the oven slightly before the middle is set. This is because milk and eggs have a moderately high specific heat capacity – it takes a lot of energy to raise the temperature by a small amount. As a result, the desserts can lose a lot of energy without cooling too much so they take a long time to cool and the residual heat in the custard will finish cooking the centre without overcooking it (as the overall temperature of the dessert will not rise once it removed from the oven). In the cases of some desserts (like pumpkin pie), the sugars in the custard will compound this effect – white sugar takes 50 times more energy to heat up and cool down than an equivalent quantity of water – and the pie can still be warm up to four hours after removal from the oven.

Crème caramel is best made the day before you wish to eat it. This is so the water in the custard has time to dissolve the caramel. Even if it doesn’t look like there is water available, caramel is hydroscopic and deliquescent. You can guarantee that it will pull moisture out of the custard and then proceed to dissolve in it to make the golden sauce you find covering all crème caramels. If you try to serve the crème caramel too soon, you will see a layer of undissolved caramel in the base of the ramekin after plating up. This is flavour which has been lost! I am not patient when it comes to eating things I have made. I want to eat them as soon as possible but, as I have learnt, sometimes it really is better to wait.

Like anything involving melted sugar, please be careful as caramel will badly burn you if it gets on your skin. Make sure that you don’t mess around with it and that you have access to a very cold tap should you manage to splash yourself. Do not let children near the caramel until it has cooled.

As you will realise, these are incredibly easy to make and taste fantastic. You should definitely try them out. They also make a brilliant dinner party food as they are prepared in advance, low effort and high impact.

 

 

Crème Caramel

 

For the caramel:

200g sugar

80ml water

Butter (for lining the ramekins)

 

For the custard:

1 pint whole milk

4 eggs

25g sugar

1 vanilla pod or 1 tsp vanilla extract

 

You will need 6 ramekins and a large tall sided baking dish which the ramekins will fit into.

 

Place the ramekins in the oven and heat to gas mark 2. This will prevent the ramekins from shattering when you pour the boiling caramel into them.

In a heavy-based steel pan (don’t use non-stick as it will cause the caramel to crystalize) mix the sugar and water.

Gently heat on the hob and stir to dissolve the sugar.

Once the sugar has all dissolved, turn the heat to maximum and boil the sugar and water mix until reaches a deep caramel colour. If you are unsure about how far to go, it is better to err on the side of caution and have slightly pale crème caramels the first time. You don’t want to burn the sugar.

While the sugar is boiling, run a basin about an inch full of cold water. The moment the caramel reaches the desired colour, plunge the base of the pan into the water to cool it. If you don’t do this, the latent heat in the saucepan can continue to cook the caramel causing it to burn.

The moment you have cooled the pan, pour the caramel into the ramekins and tilt them to make sure it runs right to the edges. Try not to let the caramel set too much as you may have to spread it with a spoon and it is very, very sticky (and hot).

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Allow the caramel to cool to room temperature. Do not place it in the fridge as the environment in it will cause the caramel to go soggy. This usually takes 30 minutes to an hour.  Don’t be worried if you hear cracking noises. That is the caramel contracting as it cools and it can crack a little but this will not affect the dessert. Just rest assured that it is not the ramekin that is breaking!

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If you are using a vanilla pod, split it down the middle and scrape out the seeds. If you are using extract, skip this and the next step.

Place it in a saucepan with the milk and gently heat until the milk is body temperature or feels slightly warm to the touch. Remove from the heat and let cool. Strain this before the next step so there are no little bits of vanilla pod in the final desert.

In a bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar. Whisk in the milk (and vanilla) to get a homogeneous mixture.

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Use butter to lightly grease the ramekins (but don’t grease the caramel). This will help later when you want to remove the crème caramels for serving.

Pour the milk mix into the ramekins splitting it evenly between them.

Place the ramekins in a large baking dish and fill it with boiling water until it comes half way up the side of the ramekins. Bake for 30-45 minutes at gas mark 2. You will know when they are done as the crème caramels will have a slight wobble in the centre when jiggled and will clearly not be liquid anymore. It should appear a little bit rubbery when you wobble them (but I promise the texture is incredibly soft.)

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Remove the desserts from the oven and the tray and leave to cool to room temperature. Cover them and leave in the fridge until serving. They can be eaten the day they are made but I would advise leaving them for 24 hours as in this time, the caramel will absorb into the dessert giving you the classic, golden sauce that pours out all over the crème caramel when you serve them.

To plate up, run a blunt knife around the outside of the crème caramel, invert onto a dish and jiggle until the dessert comes free. I often find that it can help to detach one area from the side of the ramekin to release the seal.

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If you enjoy baked custard desserts, you should check out my recipes for both pumpkin pie and a delicious chocolate tart!

Have a good one and I will be back next week with a simple weeknight meal which packs a punch of flavour.

H

Pfeffernüsse

Pfeffernüsse and gingerbread are very similar biscuits. Both are sweetened with a mixture of sugar and honey/syrup, flavoured with warm spices and often use the same technique to make the dough. The difference, as you may have guessed from the name, is the primary flavour. Whilst pure gingerbread uses only ground ginger, pfeffernüsse use a full quintet of spices. This selection of warming spices gives the pfeffernüsse a most incredible depth of flavour that is hard to find anywhere else in baking.

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Cloves, allspice, peppercorns, nutmeg and cinnamon in their unground state.

As you may have guessed from the name, the predominant flavour of pfeffernüsse is black pepper. Unlike chilli peppers, the spicy flavour that comes from peppercorns is caused by piperine (not capsaicin). This is why the ‘burn’ caused by eating peppery food feels different. Where capsaicin is aggressive, painful and can be felt through the entire digestive tract, piperine is far milder. A measure of piperine has only 1% of the ‘burn’ that would be experienced with an equal weight of capsaicin and causes a less aggressive, more warming, reaction. Black pepper is the spiciest of all the peppers and comes from the unripe fruit of the plant; green pepper is also unripe but picked at a different stage in the growing process; white pepper is created from the ripened berries of the plant; and pink peppercorns are from an entirely different plant altogether. Pink peppercorns are actually from the same family as cashews and can cause allergic reactions in people with a nut allergy!

The lack of much leavening agent in pfeffernüsse results in a harder texture than standard biscuits (although not nearly as hard as amaretti or biscotti). The butter and syrup soften in the oven and the small amount of bicarbonate of soda expands causing the pfeffernüsse to spread a little, resulting in their domed hemispherical appearance. Before they can spread too much the flour cooks, setting the biscuits in their final shape. The cracks on the surface occur as the outside sets but the inside is still flowing, causing the cooked outside of the biscuit to split open. These cracks are never anything to be worried about. With a sprinkle of icing sugar, they can look artistic or with a thick glaze, they are completely covered up. I often find that if I make my glaze too thin, it can sink into the crevasses of the biscuit so do not be afraid if a second coat is required to get a fully smooth, shiny appearance.

I first came across these in Germany but you don’t need to wait to visit to enjoy these delicious treats. They are easy to make and addictive to eat so have a go and let me know what you think.

 

 

Pfeffernüsse

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Glaze time: 15 minutes

 

Ingredients:

125g butter

270g plain flour

60ml golden syrup

1 egg

150g light brown sugar

½ tsp vanilla extract

¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda

¾ tsp ground cinnamon

¼ tsp ground cloves

¼ tsp ground pepper (the fresher, the better – I use a mortar and pestle to pulverize a mixture or black and pink peppercorns for this but fresh black pepper works fine by itself)

½ tsp ground allspice

¼ tsp grated nutmeg (like the pepper, fresher nutmeg works better)

 

To glaze:

450g icing sugar

60-80ml milk

 

Preheat the oven to gas mark 3.5 (175°C).

Line two or three baking trays with baking parchment.

Gently stir together the flour, bicarbonate of soda, and spices.

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Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy.

Beat in the golden syrup.

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Add the egg and vanilla extract and beat again until fully combined.

With the mixer beating slowly, add the flour and spices and mix until just combined.

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Once the mixture has come together, take a heaped teaspoon and roll it into a tight ball between your palms.

Place the balls about 3cm apart on the baking trays.

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Bake for around 15 minutes until the pfeffernüsse are golden, firm(ish) to the touch and have begun to crack on top.

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Leave to cool.

 

To glaze the biscuits, sieve the icing sugar into a bowl and make a well in the middle.

Add 60ml of milk and slowly mix together to create a smooth, thick icing. If not all of the icing sugar will mix in, slowly add extra milk until everything has combined.

Dunk the top of each biscuit into the icing leaving the base clean. Place the biscuits onto a wire rack to allow the excess icing to drip off.

If you want, you can sprinkle some coarsely ground pink peppercorns over the top to give the biscuits some colour but they look just as beautiful without.

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These keep for a good week or so and actually taste better the day after they are made once the flavours have been allowed to mature!

If you like spiced biscuits, you should definitely check out my gingerbread recipe or if you are looking for a dessert that will suit your Veganuary needs, why not check out my vegan apple pie?

Have a good one and I will be back next week with a hearty winter dinner.

H

Puff Pastry

Puff pastry has achieved a reputation as one of the hardest baked goods to master. I would argue that this is unfair: what puff pastry needs is not skill but patience (and a fridge…. and time). If you follow the instructions and let the pastry cool properly between each fold you can achieve a perfect result every time.

One of the most interesting things about puff pastry is the question of why it puffs up. Why does this pastry puff but others, such as shortcrust pastry, do not? The answer is the same as it is for choux pastry, the only other pastry designed to expand dramatically in the oven: steam. The water added at the beginning evaporates in the heat of the oven. This creates tiny pockets of steam inside the pastry. The butter introduced to the pastry during the folding process creates a miniscule barrier between each layer of dough and this allows the steam produced to lift the layers above it ever so slightly. The effect of the rise is small but when you have over 100 layers, it adds up to a rise that can triple or even quadruple the height of the pastry.

Puff pastry should be cut with the sharpest knife possible or, if you are using biscuit cutters, you must push them down directly. The reason for this is that, if you don’t cut the edge of the shape evenly, the steam can escape from some areas before it raises the pastry whilst other places will puff up as usual leading to an uneven rise. This is also why the edges of the pastry, where the butter is sealed in before the rolling and folding begins, should be incorporated into the dough as soon as possible. They have no butter layer so if they are baked in the oven, these edges will not rise.

While making puff pastry, it is imperative that you allow adequate time for the pastry to rest in the fridge between folds. This gives the butter time to cool down. When you roll out the pastry both the ambient heat of the room and the increase in pressure from the rolling pin heat the butter and, as it warms up, it starts to be absorbed by the flour. If the butter isn’t cooled regularly, it will melt into the pastry and you will lose all the layers you have spent hours trying to create. Not only that but pastry cannot cope with a 1:1 ratio of butter to flour and the butter will melt in the oven, the pastry will collapse/slide off/ liquify resulting in both a mess and a lot of wasted time.

The most basic things you can make with puff pastry are, in my opinion, cheese straws and palmiers. For cheese straws, you grate a large quantity of cheese over the rolled-out pastry, fold it in half (once), roll it out again, and cut into straws which can then be baked. For palmiers, replace the cheese with granulated sugar and, after you have rolled out the pastry with the sugar layer, roll it up from opposite ends into two spirals which come together to make a heart. Slicing with a sharp knife results in lots of identical, sugary hearts which are delicious to eat and beautiful to behold as you can see the layers of the pastry properly.

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I hope you will discover how easy puff pastry really is to make and once you have made it for the first time, you can go and buy it from the shops because no one has time to make this stuff regularly. It is very much a special occasion type of food.

Puff Pastry

Work time: 30 mins

Rest time: around 5 hours

Ingredients:
250g plain flour

225g unsalted butter (fridge cold)

150ml water

Pinch of salt

Sift the flour into a bowl.

Sprinkle in the salt, stir through and make a well in the centre of the flour.

Pour the water into the well and mix with a spoon until the basic dough begins to come together.

Tip out onto a table and knead for about five minutes until a smooth dough has formed.

Wrap the dough in clingfilm and leave to rest for 20-30 minutes so the gluten can relax.

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While the dough is resting, place the butter between two sheets of baking parchment and bash/roll it out to a rectangle 20x15cm (8”x6”). Wrap it up and place it back into the fridge to firm up while you deal with the dough.

Once the dough has relaxed, roll it out into a rectangle about 25x35cm (10”x14”).

Remove the slab of butter from the fridge, unwrap it. You now have two choices: you can place the butter at the edge of the dough (as in the picture below) or you can shift it up to the centre of the dough. The former will give you three seams where the dough is sealed around the butter whereas the latter will only give two (as the third seam will be in the middle and hidden by the butter). Seal the edges of the dough well to prevent the butter escaping.

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This uses the side seal method, not the central seal
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The three sealed edges must be folded in as soon as possible

Roll out the dough lengthwise until it has doubled in size (around half a metre long) and then fold the dough into three layers. This will incorporate one of the original seams into the pastry. This is important to do early as sections with less butter will rise less than the rest of the pastry folding the seams in early will help give an even rise. If you see butter start to burst out of the edges, let the pastry cool more in the fridge and try to fold the burst section into the centre of the pastry to prevent it leaking more later on.

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Rewrap the dough and leave it to rest for another 20-30 minutes in the fridge. Try not to let the dough rest in the freezer unless completely necessary as the shock cold can cause the butter to seize and shatter which will ruin the pastry.

Once the dough has rested, roll it out again in the opposite direction to the last fold (so the edges with the three layers from before will be folded back into the pastry. Fold the pastry into three again, rewrap and chill for another half hour.

Repeat the previous step another two to four times for proper puff. The full six sets of folds will give your pastry 729 layers which should result in super flaky pastry with a beautiful, even rise.

Keep the pastry wrapped up in the fridge until you are ready to use it. Make sure the oven is hot when the pastry goes in otherwise the butter will melt and leak out leading your baked goods to fry on the bottom and be soggy on top.

You can use this pastry to make tart cases, mille feuille, vol-au-vents and a myriad of other delicious and crispy foods. For basic mushroom vol-au-vents, roll out the pastry and cut small circles out of it. Use a smaller cutter to cut an even smaller circle in the centre of each vol-au-vent BUT ONLY CUT HALFWAY DOWN. Bake these at gas mark 6 until golden and crispy. Remove from the oven and let cool. The half cut in the centre will allow you to partially hollow out the vol-au-vents without removing the base. Spoon in a generous helping of mushroom duxelle (the recipe for this can be found with my beef wellington recipe)

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Cheese and pesto twists – spread the filling on the pastry, fold once, re-roll and cut
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Mushroom vol-au-vents and brie and cranberry tartlets. You can clearly see the layers inside the vol-au-vents from all of the folding

I hope you enjoyed the recipe. If you are interested in recipes using puff pastry, check out my takes on beef wellington and salmon en-croute.

Have a good one and I will be back next week with a recipe for some delicious Chinese potstickers.

H