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 …

Flour tortillas–old dog, new tricks

A week or so ago, I ran across an article somewhere on the internet extolling the virtues of using boiling water in breads and pastries. I was curious, and a bit dubious (particularly in regards to the pastry) but they mentioned that in Mexico, flour tortillas are made with boiling water.

Hm. I’ve been making flour tortillas regularly for two decades. It never occurred to me to use boiling water.

So yesterday evening I gave it a go. Using my own tortilla recipe (see below), I simply replaced the water with boiling water.

As the article mentioned, the flour absorbed the boiling water much more quickly than cold water. The texture of the dough was more dry and crumbly than usual, and at first I was worried it wouldn’t roll out well.

But I was able to work each ball of dough into smoothness, and the rolling out went like a dream—I was able to roll the tortillas thinner, with little sticking or ripping.

They cooked as usual, and then came the real test—eating.

The finished tortillas were pliable and strong, and the flavour was definitely superior to the cold-water version—less floury, more cooked.

And just like that, my tortilla recipe changed… Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

Go ahead and try it for yourself.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup wholemeal flour
1 cup cornmeal
3/4 tsp salt
2 tbs olive oil
1 1/2 cups boiling water

Heat a large heavy cast-iron skillet on high.

Whisk together the flours, cornmeal and salt in a bowl. Drizzle in the olive oil and mix. Add the water and stir until evenly moistened. Lightly knead until the dough comes together in a ball. Pinch off small balls of dough (about 5 cm (2-in) in diameter). Knead each ball lightly, then roll out on a generously floured board until they’re 1-2 mm (1/16-inch) thick. 

Lay the tortillas, one at a time, onto the preheated skillet. Flip after a minute or two—when the tortilla begins to bubble and the bottom is spotted with brown. Cook a scant minute on the second side, then stack inside a folded tea towel. Flip the whole stack over before serving (this helps equalise the moisture levels in the tortillas so the bottom ones aren’t too soggy, and the top ones aren’t too dry).

Gevulde Speculaas

I recently purchased the book Sweet, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh (because the book was always checked out of our local library when I went for it). Like Ottolenghi’s other cookbooks, Sweet is a celebration of flavours, and unapologetic about excess.

My first foray into making some of the glorious recipes in the book was gevulde speculaas—stuffed speculaas.

Speculaas is a staple cookie in my household—richly spiced, quick to make, and delicious any time of year. Ottolenghi’s gevulde speculaas recipe, however, is speculaas for special occasions.

His spice mix includes cinnamon, aniseed, white pepper, ginger, coriander, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves. These are incorporated into a soft dough that is wrapped around an almond paste filling flavoured with lemon and candied citrus peel.

The cookies are baked as a log and cut into slices when cool. Each bite is a spectacular flavour explosion. Unlike traditional crisp speculaas, these stuffed speculaas are soft and moist. They’re the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee or tea, and look amazing too.

They are a lot of work to mix up, but they partly make up for it by being baked as a log, so there’s no individual cutting or shaping of cookies to do. They’re definitely celebration cookies, not everyday ones, but I’m certain I’ll be pulling the recipe out again.

Crazy Cake Season 2021: Cake #3

After my daughter’s octopus cake, the remainder of Crazy Cake Season has been less than crazy. My son’s cake was a bit of a do-it-yourself kit, and consisted of plain cupcakes and a tub of frosting posted to him, since he was back at university for his birthday. 

Cake number three, for my husband, was a small affair, since it’s only the two of us at home now. I don’t think I’ve ever made a cake this small—it seemed hardly worth the effort when I pulled the single 18 cm round out of the oven. 

He had asked for ‘fruity chocolate’ cake this year. So I made a chocolate madeira cake, filled with lemon curd and a lovely whipped cream and yogurt filling. I topped it with chocolate ganache, more whipped cream and yogurt filling, and fresh strawberries.

The cake was a new recipe for me, inspired by a slice of commercial cake I ate at a dinner party a few weeks ago. The commercial cake was delicious, with an intriguing texture—quite different from the usual bland froth of commercial cakes. A little research on the bakery’s website revealed it to be madeira cake, so I’ve set myself a goal to try making madeira cakes. My first try was a bit dry—something to work on—but with the fillings and fruit, the total package was delicious. 

I was particularly taken with the whipped cream filling, which came from CookingLight, and was easy to make:

1/2 cup cream
1/3 cup icing sugar
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/4 tsp vanilla (I increased this to 1/2 tsp)

Whip the cream and sugar together until stiff peaks form. Add the yogurt and vanilla and beat until smooth.

I had extra strawberries and was munching on them as I assembled the cake. In the process I discovered that the filling makes an amazing fruit dip. Worth making some extra, just for dipping strawberries into.

Inspirational Flavours

I was surfing the internet last week for something different to do with lentils and found a recipe for an intriguing lentil stew topped with roast broccolini and lemon on Bon Apetit’s website (Marinated Lentils with Lemony Broccolini and Feta).

I didn’t have broccolini, but I did have an overabundance of zucchini (surprise, surprise … It’s January; of course I have too many zucchini).

I was intrigued by the idea of roasting lemon, so I substituted zucchini and spring onions for the broccolini in the recipe, vaguely took inspiration from the herbs and spices in the lentils, and ran with it.

The result was delicious and refreshingly different from my normal lentils. The roast lemon was good—sour, bitter, and slightly caramelised. It enhanced the lightness of the vegetables and was quite pretty, too. And the spicy, tangy lentils were a nice complement to the vegetables. I can envision the dish working well with many different vegetables—eggplant, green beans, even beetroot—a great way to highlight an individual vegetable against the richness of lentils.

It’s gotten me thinking about other places I might include roast lemon slices—in mixed roast vegetables over couscous, in a lemon/butter sauce over pumpkin ravioli, floating atop a bowl of vegetable soup … there are lots of intriguing options. I love when a recipe inspires new ways to prepare old ingredients.