Spring Cleanout

The equinox has passed and we’re on the sunny side of the year. The greenhouse is filled with vegetable seedlings. Flowers bloom in the yard. Asparagus spears and artichoke buds are popping up to grace our dinners.

Now is the time to scour the cupboards and freezer for what’s left of last summer’s bounty. It needs to be eaten before this year’s crops start to come in and make us forget.

As usual for us, the frozen peas and corn are long gone. The carrots I froze from last year’s bumper crop have been eaten, too. The currants, peaches and strawberries never stand a chance of making it to September—they are like bright sparks for winter’s darkest days.

As usual, what remains is pumpkin. Baked and frozen when the fresh pumpkins started to rot back in July, frozen pumpkin has become a staple in our springtime cooking as we scramble to finish it off.

Maybe I should plant fewer?

Except it’s the only vegetable left at this time of year. And maybe pumpkin isn’t traditionally considered a springtime vegetable but pumpkin pie, cake, galette, and pancakes are delicious any time of the year.

So bring on the flowers, the sun and the warmth. And bring on the pumpkin! We’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

pumpkin cake glazed with yogurt frosting
Pumpkin cake … best way to eat pumpkin?

OOOOOh my! Chocolate cookies

I dipped into Ottolenghi’s book, Sweet, again the other day. This time I made Chocolate O Cookies. 

All I can say is  OOOOOOh my!

These could possibly be the best chocolate cookies ever. They’re a lot of work, and the recipe only makes 20 cookies, but those 20 cookies are truly divine.

The cookies themselves are a rich chocolate shortbread—alone, they’re worth making. But the piece de resistance is the water ganache filling.

I’d never made a ganache like this before, and I have to say I was dubious at first—mixing chocolate and water is a no-no, right? To make matters worse, the ganache starts with a sugar syrup, which has always been a bit of an Achilles heel for me.

But somehow it worked, and the infusion of cinnamon, chilli and orange gives the ganache a complex richness that lifts it above any other ganache I’ve made.

I’ll definitely be making these again … and again … and again.

Incidentally, I had extra ganache, which I popped into the fridge and slathered on lemon cupcakes later in the week—an excellent bonus!

Here’s the ganache recipe:

1/2 cinnamon stick
shaved peel of 1/2 orange
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
90 ml boiling water
125 g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), roughly chopped
scraped seeds of 1/2 vanilla pod (I used 1/2 tsp vanilla)
1/4 tsp salt
50 g caster sugar
50 g liquid glucose (I used honey)
50 g butter, cut into 2 cm cubes

Place cinnamon, orange peel and chilli flakes in a small bowl and cover with the boiling water. Set aside for 30 minutes. After the water has been infusing for about 20 minutes, prepare the sugar syrup.

Place the chocolate, vanilla seeds and salt in a medium bowl and set aside. Place the sugar and glucose in a small saucepan and warm over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has melted. Increase the heat and boil until the caramel turns a light amber colour (this doesn’t work if you use honey—it will already be amber. I boiled to about the soft ball stage), about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the infused water and aromatics. Return the liquid to a boil and then strain over the chocolate and vanilla. Discard the aromatics. Leave for 2-3 minutes until the chocolate has melted. Stir until smooth.

Add the butter, one piece at a time, stirring constantly until it is incorporated and smooth. Refrigerate 30 minutes to firm up.

Butterless Pumpkin Lockdown Cake

iced pumpkin cake

Lockdown grocery shopping is always a bit frustrating. Our local grocery store is calm and safe-feeling. There’s never a line out the door, and social distancing is relatively easy. The problem is the store is small (little choice in brands—you take what you can get), and the prices are high. Under normal circumstances I do my shopping at cheaper, larger stores in the city.

So during lockdown, I buy as few groceries as possible and limit expensive foods like cheese and butter.

Which is why last week’s baking challenge was an iced cake with no butter. 

I based the cake on a whole-grain pumpkin cake recipe from the King Arthur Flour Wholegrain Baking book. The recipe calls for 1/2 cup each of oil and butter, so I simply used a cup of oil instead. I’ve done this before with other cakes when I needed to make a cake for lactose intolerant friends, so I was confident it would work well. It did, and the cake turned out light and moist.

The icing was more of an issue. I wanted a nice thick icing, not a simple glaze. What I really wanted was a cream cheese frosting, but I had no cream cheese. To get the cream cheese frosting flavour, I used yogurt instead. I drained about a third of a cup of yogurt for a couple of hours to thicken it. Then I blended it a spoonful at a time, along with a teaspoon of vanilla, into 2 1/2 cups of icing sugar until I hit the consistency I wanted.

It wasn’t a butter icing—it still had the feel of a glaze more than a frosting—but it spread on thickly, oozing slightly over the edges of the cake and drying to a beautiful glossy sheen. Best of all, it had the lovely cultured tartness of a cream cheese frosting. All in all, a darned good icing on a fabulous cake.

And it didn’t cost me $7.95 for a block of butter. An excellent lockdown experiment!

Cheese sablés

Cheese sables

Move over Cheez-its! Cheese sablés have entered my baking lexicon.

Well over a year ago, I copied a recipe for Cheese and Sun-Dried Tomato Sables from a cookbook I got from the library. Sadly, I don’t know what the cookbook was, or I’d recommend it to you.

I finally got around to making them yesterday. In addition to learning that ‘sables’ are actually ‘sablés’, which is French for sandy (the texture of the mixture before the cheese is added), I discovered that these little savoury biscuits are amazing.

There are so many flavours—all of them distinct and strong—in these glorious things, I can hardly describe them. They’re more work to make than your average cracker, but they are so far beyond the average cracker in flavour, it’s hardly surprising. I made them without the tomatoes, because I had none in the house. Even without tomatoes they were heavenly. Here’s the recipe, sans tomatoes, and with a few modifications based on my experience.

100 g plain flour
75 g wholemeal flour
1/2 tsp salt
good pinch cayenne pepper
good pinch mustard powder
1 tsp caraway seeds
freshly ground black pepper
125 g cold butter, diced
50 g sharp cheddar, finely grated
75 g Parmesan, finely grated
4 tsp sesame seeds
2 tsp nigella (black onion) seeds
1-2 tsp milk

Mix the flours, salt, cayenne, mustard, caraway and a good grind of black pepper in a large bowl. Add the butter and cut with a pastry knife until there are no visible flecks of butter remaining. (The original recipe suggests doing this in a food processor, which would be quicker and easier). Add the grated cheeses and mix until the dough just starts to come together in clumps. Now knead it with your hands until you can bring it together in a smooth ball. This takes some time, as the only ‘liquid’ in the dough is the fat from the butter and cheese. Be patient. It will happen. Shape the dough into a log roughly 5 cm in diameter. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate about 2 hours until firm. 

Preheat the oven to 180ºC (160ºC if using fan bake). Butter two baking sheets.

Mix the sesame seeds and nigella seeds on a tray. Brush the sablé log with the milk and roll in the seeds, pressing them into the dough so they stick. Slice the log into slices 4 mm thick and place 3 cm apart on the baking sheets.

Bake for 12-15 minutes, until golden. Cool on a rack. Fight off the rest of the family who hover around waiting for them to be ready to eat.

Cake is My Love Language

I invited a friend over for dinner last week, and she mentioned her birthday was the day before our dinner date.

Cookbooks and coffee spread out on a table
Cake planning over coffee

Oh shit! I forgot! was my first reaction. But before I could kick myself for once again forgetting a friend’s birthday, I thought I’ll make her a cake!

I immediately started scheming—trying to pair flavours I thought she’d like with what I could realistically create in the middle of winter (no fresh berries!).

Pretty soon I found myself surrounded by cookbooks, making a grocery list, and wondering if I could roll an oil cake like a jelly roll (the answer, by the way, is no … that’s another story …).

I snapped a photo and sent it to her, laughing at my geeky cake-baking nature.

A while later she texted back, saying how touched she was by the photo.

My first reaction was It’s just a cake.

But then it dawned on me—it wasn’t just a cake. Cake is my love language. I may completely forget your birthday and your anniversary, I will never be able to say the right thing when a loved one dies or you tell me you’re pregnant, and I will laugh at your memes on social media but not even click ‘like’. But if I like you and you give me even half an excuse, I’ll make a cake for you—all the ‘likes’, right words, and birthday wishes baked right in.

It’s no wonder I get giddy when my kids’ and husband’s birthdays come around. It’s no wonder I plan a month ahead and go over the top on their birthday cakes. I think nothing of making a fancy cake when one of the kids comes home for the weekend. And those ‘ordinary’ cakes? Well, of course I make them nearly every week.

So please don’t be offended if I seem to ignore your Facebook posts. Don’t think I don’t care if I forget to ask about your kids. Forgive me if I forget important dates. Just … have some cake.

Brownies from Heaven

I dove into Yotam Ottolenghi’s book Sweet again the other day, making a recipe for tahini and halva brownies.

tahini and halva brownies

The recipe defines decadence, involving 250 grams of butter, 250 grams of 70% cocoa chocolate plus additional cocoa powder, 200 grams of halva and 80 grams of tahini. It’s not something you make on the spur of the moment with whatever’s in the pantry—it takes planning. But I’ve been eyeing that recipe for months now, dreaming of that combination of chocolate and sesame flavours that I doubt I would have ever thought to combine.

The result was beautiful to look at, with swirls of glossy blonde tahini on a deep chocolate base.

They smelled divine in the oven, and it took immense willpower not to cut them before they cooled.

And the taste? It was everything you could want from a brownie, and then a little more. The texture was moist and gooey, studded with delightful chunks of dry, flaky halva. And the chocolate flavour was so rich, it was practically a candy bar. Definitely a brownie to savour in small quantities … but one that invites gorging.

I predict that a year from now, the tahini and halva brownie page in my copy of the book Sweet will be spotted with butter and chocolate, like all good recipes are.

Winter Baking

Pumpkin cakeWinter is a great time to try out new things in the kitchen. Weeks of cold, rainy weather always make me want to bake.

Last weekend I tried out two new things.

The first was a recipe for baked donuts. I was keen to try them, because I love donuts, but hardly ever make them because of the hassle of frying them. The idea of making up dough the night before, and then baking up fresh donuts for Sunday breakfast was tempting.

Unfortunately, the recipe didn’t work particularly well for me. I followed it to the letter, since it was new to me, but I did worry about the fact it had you mix the yeast into the flour, rather than proofing it first. The yeast never got off to the start it should have, and the dough didn’t rise as much as I would have liked. The resulting donuts were somewhat leaden. I also think the baking temperature of the donuts was too low—the recipe yielded a fully baked but anaemic-looking donut, barely browned at all. A hotter oven would produce an attractively brown crust with a moist interior. 

With a few tweaks to the recipe, I think there’s potential for a delicious (and dangerously easy) donut recipe there. I have no choice but to try again. 

The second new recipe I made over the weekend was a cream cheese frosting so simple, I had to give it a go. A block of cream cheese and three tablespoons of maple syrup, beaten until fluffy and spreadable.

The result is barely sweet, and beautifully flavoured. It’s denser than a standard cream cheese frosting full of confectioner’s sugar, but the density doesn’t bother me in the least—the texture is smooth and silky—delightful in the mouth. I used it to frost a pumpkin spice cake, and the flavours were perfect complements to one another. It’s definitely a recipe I’ll make again.

Saturday’s weather forecast is for snow. I’m already considering what I’ll experiment with in the kitchen.

Lemon Nutella Tarts

“It’s what a neenish tart wants to be when it grows up.”

lemon nutella tart

That was my husband’s assessment of the little tarts I made last week. They’re worth a try. If you make the Nutella and the lemon curd ahead of time, they’re quick to whip out.

You’ll need:

1 recipe homemade Nutella
1 recipe lemon curd (see below)
1 recipe pie dough (enough for a double crust; my recipe is below)
Dark chocolate for decorating

Lemon curd

2 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
2 Tbs butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 tsp vanilla

Whisk together the eggs, sugar and lemon zest in a saucepan. Add the lemon juice and butter. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the butter is melted. Continue to cook, still whisking, until the mixture thickens. Remove from the heat, stir in the vanilla, pour into a jar or covered crock, and refrigerate.

Pie dough

1 1/4 cups wholemeal flour
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp salt
125 g cold butter
125 g Olivani
5 – 8 Tbs ice water

Whisk together the flours and salt. Cut the butter and Olivani into the flour mixture until the largest pieces are the size of peas. Sprinkle the water over the mixture and combine with a fork until evenly moist. Knead in the bowl just enough to form the dough into a cohesive ball. Cover and refrigerate at least an hour before rolling out.

To assemble the tarts:

Roll out pie dough quite thin. Cut into 10 cm rounds with a cookie or biscuit cutter. Line cupcake tins with the rounds of dough. Blind bake for 20 minutes at 200ºC (400ºF). (If you don’t want your dough to slump while baking, fill each tart with pie weights for the first 15 minutes of baking, then remove them for the final 5 minutes.)

Remove the tarts from the tins and, while they are still hot, press a teaspoon or so of Nutella into the bottom of each one. The heat from the crust will soften the Nutella and help it spread across the bottom nicely. 

When fully cool, fill the tarts with lemon curd. Melt a small quantity of dark chocolate and pipe chocolate squiggles onto the top.

These tarts should be kept refrigerated, if they last long enough to make it to the refrigerator.

Crunchy Granola Bars

I’ve been tinkering for years with granola bar recipes, and have never come up with one that is crunchy and robust enough to take on a long hike.

granola bar

But I may have just managed it …

Starting with a recipe that was supposed to be a soft bar, I did a fair bit of tweaking and have ended up with a beautifully crunchy and robust bar full of yummy oats, nuts and seeds. 

Give them a try, and let me know how they work for you!

50 g hazelnuts
50 g cashews, roughly chopped
200 g old fashioned rolled oats
40 g pumpkin seeds
40 g sunflower seeds
15 g sesame seeds
50 g dates, chopped
100 g butter
100 g brown sugar
75 g golden syrup
grated zest of 1 orange
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt

Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Grease a 23 x 33 cm baking pan and line with baking paper.

Spread cashews, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and sesame seeds in a shallow baking tray. Place hazelnuts in a separate tray. Toast both in the oven for about 10 minutes until the nuts are lightly browned. Rub the skins off the hazelnuts and roughly chop. Transfer all the nuts and seeds to a bowl.

While the nuts are toasting, grind 80 g of the oats in a food processor until they become a coarse meal. Add all the oats to the nut mixture and stir to combine.

Place the butter, golden syrup, sugar and orange zest into a small saucepan and stir gently over medium heat until the butter is melted. Stir in the cinnamon and salt, and then pour over the nut mixture. Mix well, and then press evenly into the prepared baking tray.

Bake about 35 minutes, until the bars are a dark golden colour. Allow to cool for about 20 minutes, and then cut into bars while still slightly warm. Allow to cool completely before removing them from the pan.

* I used golden syrup in this recipe because I had some left over from another recipe that called for it. Next time, I’ll try it with honey, because I rarely have golden syrup on hand, and honey tastes better.

Beautiful Gingerbread

Sometimes you just have to take the time to make something beautiful, even if it is destined to be chewed up and swallowed.

fancy gingerbread cookies

I made gingerbread cookies out of Yotam Ottolenghi’s book Sweet last week. The gingerbread itself is nothing out of the ordinary, but the recipe calls for stamping the cookies and topping them with a boozy glaze.

I have a couple of wooden pasta stamps that were perfect for the job. The resulting cookies, brushed with a brandy-laced glaze, were as lovely as they tasted. The extra work was minimal, and the final product looks far fancier than it deserves to. 

In fact, I like the technique, and am thinking it would make pretty speculaas, too. I might even try an extra-fancy batch of homemade Oreos, stamped and glazed before sandwiching.

And of course, because I easily go overboard in my excitement, I’m also now wondering if I could carve my own little cookie stamps. Maybe bees or dragonflies, or a little dragon to go along with my books …