5 January 2013

My First Gingerbread House

I was a little daunted my the time it might take to bake and construct my first gingerbread house, so decided to try this out in the Christmas break, when I'd be able to give it full attention. Rather than plan it myself, I put it on my wish list, asking not for a pre-baked kit, but a recipe and decorations so I could work from scratch. My family were kind to me, and on Christmas day I received print outs of the BBC GoodFood Simple Gingerbread House, pre-cut templates, a baseboard, and a tub of all the sweets needed for decoration. What I didn't get included on the print out was the many helpful comments from other home bakers that have tried this recipe. These I only found after completing my house.

I didn't bother pre-heating the oven, as I often find it gets up to temperature long before I'm ready, particularly with a new recipe. I melted the butter and sugar and golden syrup together and added them to the sifted dry ingredients.
Stirring the mix together with a wooden spoon I quickly made a smooth dough without any need to add water. I did then realise that the melted butter meant this dough was far too warm to roll out. After leaving it to cool a little I popped it in the fridge for an hour whilst I had lunch.
Rather than rolling out on baking paper I chose to try my silicone baking mats that seemed to work fine. I used icing (confectioners) sugar to help stop the rolling pin sticking and cut out the shapes with a palette knife. I was a little concerned at a cracking texture that developed as the dough thinned, but I needn't have worried as it all smooths in the bake.
As I was making progress I now pre-heated the oven. In total I prepared three baking sheets. As mentioned by other bakers, there did seem to be a large excess of dough. I made some extra struts to brace the walls, then found an appropriately sized gingerbread boy cutter and made 8. I baked the trays one after the other rather than have issues with having different heats on different shelves.
All the shapes spread a little during baking so most required trimming. I did this on a chopping board with a bread knife. This was best done as the recipe suggests, before the biscuits completely cool. Like other bakers, I had issues trimming around the almonds on the roof pieces, which were fiddly to insert in the first place. If I was doing this again I might have used chocolate buttons to make the roof tiles.
Day 2, and time to start construction. Mixing the icing, I was impressed by how tough it was, initially using a spatula to stir, but soon resorting to a metal spoon and fair bit of effort to get a smooth paste. I'm still pretty novice with a piping bag, though have previously invested in this silicone piping set from Lakeland. I find it easy to load, and clean. I use bag clips to keep things in place.
Not sure how to begin, I piped some foundations and made a two wall sandwich. This worked, so I pressed on. I did insert a couple of the extra struts I'd made into the inside corners of the house, but I was beginning to realise that this was quickly becoming anything but delicate.
It soon became clear I'd need some supports. The recipe suggests a small bowl inside, but I found water filled glasses and a beer bottle more effective. The shaped glasses were particularly good, as the propped up the gingerbread without the narrower base getting stuck in the icing. I left this for few hours to set. I was worried what would become of my icing bag. I tipped it back to clear the nozzle and reattached the food clip.
In the evening I built the roof. I found a stack of 5 CD cases to be the right height. I loosely wrapped them in the silicone mats and used my glasses of water to support it all. There was a gap at the roof top, which I covered with a zig-zag of icing, and left overnight to dry.
Day 3 - Decoration. I may have spent less time on this than I should have. I struggled to make the icicles and made a fair bit of mess sticking on the sweets. I came to the conclusion that I underestimated the sheer strength of the adhesive properties of the icing. A finer nozzle on the piping bag would have given me a prettier finish.

I'm not sure about my bug-eye gingerbread zombies. They are a bit scary.

I thoroughly enjoyed this challenge, and the gingerbread is delicious, though I had not anticipated to spend quite so long.

If you want to tackle your own masterpiece I recommend viewing Gingerbread Source for inspiration.

31 December 2012

Half-Baked Cakes

Let me introduce you to a range of home-baked cakes, made from fresh ingredients. I discovered these in the chilled cabinet of Tesco and was initially enticed by the modern box design and eye-catching mascot.

What convinced me to try these was the simplicity - "Just add... nothing! it's all in the box". This is true, you don't even need the correct size baking tray as they come in their own paper case that sits straight on the oven shelf.

Their concept is that "We make them, you bake them". They pride themselves on using quality ingredients - free range eggs, patisserie flour, and real butter. Looking through the ingredients list, there was very little difference to what I would expect to use at home, just a thickening agent. No preservatives, or stings of chemicals.

In the box then is a case of cake mix, a booklet with simple step-by-step instructions to bake and decorate each of the four cakes, and separate packets of any needed extras. I liked that I could buy all the cakes in advance and freeze them. Take the box out of the freezer in the evening, and next day I was ready to bake a cake in time for lunch. No shopping  for forgotten ingredients. Very quick, and very easy.

Farmhouse Apple Cake
At 485g this is the lightest of the four cakes, and per 100g the lowest in energy and saturated fats. It comes with two 'extras' as pictured above. The sultana and apple is added on top of the cake mix before baking, and the icing drizzled criss-cross over the cooled cake to finish. If you follow the instructions, you'll get nice thin lines of icing, unlike me.

Scrumptious Chocolate Cake
At 600g this is the heaviest and the most indulgent cake. After baking, all that is required is to slather on a generous coating of chocolate buttercream.

Coffee & Walnut Cake
The walnuts account for the highest energy content in this 595g cake.This time a coffee buttercream is followed by a second sachet of walnut pieces.

Lemon & Lime Drizzle Cake
This is 490g. After baking and whilst still warm, smother with a sachet of lemon and lime syrup. When cooled drizzle icing, in the same way as for the farmhouse cake. I forgot to take a photo of this one, so checkout the box pictures.

Each of the cakes took 50 minutes to bake. All gave great results. The sponge was light, well risen and evenly baked. The chocolate cake perhaps was slightly more dense and less risen, but fine in its own right.

The flavours were all good, my favourite being the farmhouse. I got 8 slices from each cake. They were delicious freshly baked, fine for a few days, and OK with a drink at the end of a week.

I've avoided the numerous packet mix cakes in supermarket baking aisles. In my experience, those that do use them have often commented at how much nicer my self-made cakes are in comparison. I don't see myself buying packets in the future, but I will definitely buy these again.

I was interested in the Half-Baked Cake Co and did a little research. Fronted by mascot 'Victoria', the company based in Lancashire was incorporated in 2009 and has changed name three times since. Who knows whether Victoria is real, or just a nice idea? I missed the Half Baked Chocolate Yule Log at Christmas, but am hoping that new recipes will be appearing in Tesco soon.

23 December 2012

Christmas Pudding and Brandy Butter Crisps

Christmas Pudding & Brandy Butter
Roast Norfolk Turkey & Stuffing with Onion Gravy
Whilst on a routine supermarket shop I happened to notice these. Tesco Finest Handcooked  Crisps - Christmas Pudding & Brandy Butter flavour. I'd not encountered a sweet crisp before and struggled to imagine how it would taste, so picked a packet to sample.

Before pudding I decided to have a main course of Tesco Finest Handcooked Crisps - Roast Norfolk Turkey & Stuffing with Onion Gravy. These were perfectly nice crisps and nothing remarkable. If you've had chicken flavour crisps before, then this would be no leap.

Onward to dessert then. The wording on the packet states "The sweet seasonal flavours of rich dried fruit and spices complemented perfectly with creamy brandy butter".

On opening the packet my first indication that this was something different was the distinctly blackened colour to the potato slices. With no artificial colourings or flavourings, I eagerly selected one of the darkest snacks coated in the salty mix of fruit, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves.

Honestly, the sensation was unusual. It was kind of like eating Christmas Pudding with a mouthful of crisps. It didn't work. I still hold the opinion that crisps should be savoury. I haven't bought a second bag.

18 November 2012

Traditional Christmas Pudding

I remember that last year I missed the opportunity to make a Christmas pudding. I thought about it far too late and was preoccupied with present shopping and various parties. This year then, whilst fellow bakers were planning their Halloween masterpieces, I was reading up on Christmas puddings.

Basin Selection
I like things simple but pudding bowl selection is a little crazy. Basin can be specified in pints, litres, imperial pounds, kilograms, and even inches/cm. Also most recipes will specify just one measurement, but may include variations for a bigger or smaller pud. I decided to visit my local Lakeland store, and after speaking with their helpful staff selected a pack of 4 lidded 1 pint (600ml) pudding bowls. At just £5 I knew I'd not regret the expense. I'd considered the 2 pint bowls, but with all the other foods available at Christmas, a 1 pint pudding would be right for our table.

Recipe Selection
My research on traditional recipes that appealed to me left me a short list:.
I think my final selection was made on basic maths  By doubling Betty's quantities, I'd have enough mixture for three 1 pint puddings - Christmas day, New Year's Day, and one to mature for the Summer, or possibly next year.

Fruit Selection
Everything I read told me to use the best fruits I could get. For me this was Juicy Currants and Juicy Sultanas from Whitworths, Sun-Maid Raisins, and instead of glace cherries, Opies Black Cherries in Kirsch.

In addition to the 3 x 1 pint pudding bowls, you need a large mixing bowl, a zester/grater, a juicer, a large mug/small bowl, a fork, measuring spoons,a wooden spoon, some clingfilm, foil, 1-3 large saucepans (preferably with lids).

Fruit and nuts soaking in brandy
460g raisins
150g sultanas
100g currants
100g glace cherries
30g flaked almonds
200ml brandy
Zest of 2 oranges and 2 lemons
Juice of 1 orange and 1 lemon
100g vegetable suet
60g wholemeal breadcrumbs
100g plain flour
180g light brown sugar
1 tsp mixed spice
1/2 tsp each of ground nutmeg, ground cinnamon, ground cloves
1 1/2 tsp salt
4 large eggs

All mixed together
You want to soak the fruit in the brandy overnight; use your largest mixing bowl. Into this bowl you need to collect the zest from both oranges and lemons, but the juice of just one of each. The unused juice can be frozen in ice-cube trays for other recipes.

Add the dried fruit and almonds to the bowl. Pour over the brandy and mix roughly. Cover with clingfilm.

  • Break the eggs into a large mug or small bowl and beat lightly with a fork before adding to the mixing bowl.
  • Weigh or measure the remaining ingredients directly into the mixing bowl. Betty's recipe says to mix by hand. I realised before I got my hands stuck in that this means with a wooden spoon. Don't be tempted to use a machine. It is light work and won't damage the fruit like a machine could.
Filled and levelled
Large pans with foil cradles
Pudding ready for steaming
Drowning in brandy, well preserved
  • The plastic pudding bowls do not need lining, so now share the mixture evenly between the three bowls. Smooth them flat with the mixture sitting about 1 cm from the top of each basin.
  • Put the plastic lids on the basins.
The puddings will need to cooked in large saucepan(s). I had borrowed the widest pan I could find, but there was no way two would fit in at once. You'll need one per pudding.

I cooked two puddings on one day, and the third on the following day.
  • Making a cradle by folding a length of tin foil in thirds seemed easier than getting involved with tying a string handle, so I recommend doing that. Just make it long enough to sit across the inside of your pan.
These plastic basins can be sat directly onto the base of  the saucepan. I did try sitting one of the puddings on an upside-down saucer but found it to make little difference to the cook.

  • Pour water at least halfway up the basin. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat so it just simmers. Cover with the lid and simmer for 5 hours.
  • You need to keep adding boiling water from a kettle to keep the water level halfway up the basin. On the first cook I set the kitchen timer to check every 30 minutes. When I steamed the third pudding, I checked only every hour, which was fine.
During cooking the mixture expanded and pushed up against the basin lid. One did pop off, so must have been slightly over-filled. This didn't cause a problem. When the puddings cool the mixture shrinks back down.

The puddings should be stored in a cool dark place to mature. The plastic lids aren't airtight so I recommend you cover the basin with clingfilm. To get moist, rich puddings, I fed the puddings with additional brandy before storing.

The pudding will need to be steamed in the same way for a further two hours before serving.

The finished pudding is lighter golden brown. I was surprised how easy it was to make. The biggest commitment is staying in for five hours. I'm looking forward to Christmas Day to see how well this has turned out.

22 August 2012

Super Pops by Tamsin Aston with Judith Fertig

You've seen cake pops, now discover Super Pops. In this bright and fun book we are taken on a colourful journey into the world of gourmet cake. The book starts with an explanation of the kitchen equipment and ingredients needed to produce the many creations. I was pleased to find I had much of the equipment, and would be working with lots sugary, sparkly decorations that were new to me.

A page on 'showing off your pops' reminds me that these pops are miniature works off art; but these are not all style over substance. Ten base flavour recipes are described with many suggested variations - plenty of flavours to keep up the excitement. Ingredients are given in both metric and imperial measures, so there is no need to do your own conversions. Step-by-step guides lead us to secure the stick, coat the pop with chocolate and work on the decorations.

Over three quarters of the book is dedicated to the fantastic designs. Specific recipes accompanied by full-page beautiful pictures that tempt and inspire. Super Pops has been well written and well laid out. A handy 'pick a pop' page of photo thumbnails or the more traditional index will quickly help you find that design you were looking at.

As someone comfortable with baking, but new to cake pops, I am confident that following the simple steps I'll achieve great results. Buy this book!

14 January 2012

Pistachio & Cranberry Cookies

The week before Christmas is a busy time for most people. I was particularly busy in the kitchen baking lots of treats as gifts. This "make ahead" recipe was brilliant as I prepared the dough a month in advance, meaning that it was very quick to finish the bake one morning.

The recipe used was another from November 2011 BBC GoodFood Magazine available here.

In a large mixing bowl I added 175g of Flora Buttery (rather than softened butter), 85g of golden caster sugar, and ½ tsp of vanilla extract.

I creamed these together with an electric hand mixer. I'm sure it is possible to use a wooden spoon, but I'm lazy and this seemed easier.

I added 225g plain flour and cautiously lowered the hand mixer straight down into the bowl on a low speed. No cloud of flour generated. The mixture came together.

I added 75g pistachios. If like me you buy these in these in their shells, and do the hard work yourself, then you'll need to buy about 300g. Them shells are heavy packing.

In went 75g dried cranberries. The hand mixer met my final ask of it to distribute the fruit and nuts evenly through the dough. I used the lowest speed and when the whisks got a little clogged,  just lift them out a little so the mixture spins free.

To bring the dough together it was time to get my hands dirty. There's a photo to prove it.

I brought the dough to form a ball. Using a plastic spatula I cut the dough ball into halves.I cut two lengths of clingfilm and on them shaped the dough into two 5cm thick logs.

These need to go in the fridge to chill for an hour, but I kept them in the freezer for a month. (They keep for 3 months).

Time for washing up. You probably don't want to here about this, so lets jump ahead 30 days.

You need to take the dough out of the deep freeze some time before you come to use it. I moved it to the fridge the night before so it was fine.

I set my fan oven to 180°C. I lined my baking sheet with a silicon mat.I could have used parchment, but I've been impressed by these mats.

I used a sharp knife to slice 1cm thick rounds. I inevitably encountered fruit or nuts as I made my cuts. This was no time for panic. Flick 'em out, complete the cut, then squish 'em back in.

For sharper edges, I could have cut them when the dough was harder, however I was quite happy that the biscuits were not uniform. I wanted the chunky, rustic, home made feel and think I achieved this well.

After 12-15 minutes in the oven the biscuits had spread a little on the tray. They had kissed but not joined. The colour didn't change much at all, but they were done.

I left them to cool on the tray before bagging for gifts. The recipe says you'll get 22 biscuits. I had 20, plus a smaller taster for quality control. I like this recipe and can imagine it could be varied easily to get many flavour combinations.

8 January 2012

Chocolate Marzipan Sweets

After my haphazard attempt at panellets, I was left with just short of a kilo of marzipan to put to use. Not being well, this had been left wrapped tightly in clingfilm in the bottom of the fridge for a month. In my childhood my family would make marzipan sweets, coloured and shaped to resemble fruits. Occasionally some marzipan was left over, and we'd coat it in chocolate. This chocolate covered marzipan stayed moist, whereas the fruits would dry out. I decided I would make chocolate coated marzipans, three ways for my family Christmas.

Unwrapping the first 300g block of marzipan, I was cautious as to whether it had gone off. Fortunately it did not smell at all bad, and had become quite dry and very hard to work. This lack of moisture was important to it staying fresh.

I continued to put the full force of my weight into kneeding the crumbling block of paste. After a few minutes of working the almonds released their natural oils and I was able to roll some conker sized balls. As an afterthought I flattened these to prevent them rolling about.

I prepared a tray with a silicone mat. You could use greaseproof paper, but I prefer these.

In a medium glass bowl over a small pan of simmering water I melted 200g of Tesco Finest Swiss Plain Chocolate with Mint. When it was runny and glossy I simply rolled a sweet in the chocolate and lifted it to the tray using two teaspoons.

Looking in my store cupboard I found Dr. Oetker Sugar Crunch, which I'd bought without a specific use in mind. I knew this would easily identify my minty sweets and add a little crunch so liberally scattered over the tray.

With this batch finished I transferred to the fridge to harden.

To be honest with you. It was another day that I came to make the second batch. After working the second lump of marzipan a little to soften, I made a shallow well and poured in about a shot of Three Barrels VSOP French Brandy.

I then just folded it in on itself and worked it more until any spillage was soaked into the paste. This made it much easier to handle.

For a different shape I rolled the ball into a sausage. Where the sausage broke, and it will, I just rolled each piece in turn until it was again the thickness of a conker.

Next I pressed gently to square-off the sausage, and then with a sharp knife cut 1cm slices. It doesn't matter if they aren't identical. It lends to the handmade charm and everyone likes to find the oversized 'bonus' sweet.

I used 200g of Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate. I could not get the same gloss that I achieved with the dark chocolate, and I also found it harder to work with. It seems milk chocolate is more prone to overheating than plain. I should have removed the bowl from the simmering pan once the chocolate had melted. Another lesson learned.

To decorate my brandy sweets I placed a single yellow sugar star on each. These I'd got from Asda as a 'sprinkles' selection.

For the third and final batch I allowed my marzipan to absorb 2-3 shots of Disaronno Originale. I formed these sweets into rounds and coated them in Tesco Finest Swiss Plain Chocolate. I topped these with a dried cranberry 'hat'. Festive.

No chocolate was wasted. Any left over from the marzipan was used to coat walnut pieces and raisins; anything for a little surprise.

I can tell you that all of the sweets were enjoyed over the holidays. The marzipan enriched by the fruity Disaronno was by far the best sweet. It went so well with the cranberry and the bitter dark chocolate.