Friday, 30 August 2013

Peanut butter banana bars

If you’re looking for something really quick, simple and tasty, you can’t go far wrong with these. They’re also a great way of using up any old bananas that you know you’re never going to eat but feel too guilty to throw away. You know the type, the ones you glance at one day and think ‘oh, they’re getting a bit brown, better eat them before they’re too far gone’ and before you know it they look like they’ve been brushed with Creosote. Make these yummy bars and you will feel much better about yourself, particularly as – in cake terms, at least – they’re actually sort of good for you. Not as good as the banana on its own would have been, but you can’t have everything, can you?
Another thing I like about these is that they're something a bit different. Peanut butter and banana together might not be to everyone’s tastes, but if you’re new to this particular  combination or unsure whether it's for you then this recipe provides a nice, subtle introduction to the flavours. The bars also have a rather lovely texture, somewhere between a cake and a flapjack, and are substantial without being heavy. We like them a lot in our house!
On a side note, UK readers may have noticed that a lot of the recipes featured here use measuring cups. This is an American thing and, I’ve got to say, whoever thought of measuring butter with a cup needs their head testing. However, converting the measurements into grams etc. is often quite tricky, so I would definitely recommend purchasing a set of measuring cups if you don’t already have one. It opens up a whole new world of baking possibilities, which can only be a good thing! You can pick them up very cheaply – my own set is from a well-known budget shop (*cough*Wilko's*cough*), comes in nice bright colours and only cost me a pound! I was a very happy bunny the day I discovered that particular bargain. It’s the little things in life…

Recipe courtesy of Bake or Break.

1 and a 1/2 cups plain flour
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup caster sugar
1/2 cup soft light brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 ripe bananas, mashed
1/2 cup peanut butter (I used smooth, but it's down to personal preference)

1. Preheat oven to 175C.
2. Sift flour and baking powder into a large bowl and add salt and oats.
3. In a separate bowl beat butter and sugars together until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and mix well, then add the bananas and peanut butter and mix until just combined.
4. Gradually add the flour mixture and mix until just combined.
5. Spoon into a greased, lined 8x8 inch baking tray and level the top. Bake for 35-45 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and a pick inserted into the centre comes out clean.
6. Cool in the pan before turning out and cutting into bars (I cut mine into 9 generous servings, but you could easily stretch it to 12 or even 15, as these are great for kids or picnics).

Friday, 23 August 2013

Bakewell Chelsea Buns

You may be be pleased to know that, in a departure from the norm, today’s bake is about as British as tea and scones at the Dorchester. In fact, they may very well serve these at the Dorchester, but you can bet money on them being nothing like this particular version, which is the brain child of one of last year’s Great British Bake Off contestants (have you seen the new series? Even in the first week they’re putting me to shame!), Danny Bryden. Danny’s idea was to jazz up the traditional Chelsea Bun with the flavours traditionally associated with Bakewell, almond and cherry. And boy, does it work like a dream.
I’ve adapted Danny’s original recipe slightly, reducing the yield by half (if you have a lot of people to feed – or are just very hungry – you can always double it up again) and using less milk, as it’s an incredibly sticky dough that I found too difficult to work by hand. I also didn’t have any Chambord available so simply left that out, although having tried Chambord before I would definitely recommend including it if you can (for those who don’t know, Chambord is a French, berry flavour liqueur, very tasty and not too expensive if you feel like giving it a go). As with all yeast baking, these buns do take a while to make, as you have to factor in time for the dough to prove (rise), but they’re well worth the wait. I must admit I caved in towards the end and iced the buns before they were completely cold, but for once my chronic lack of patience actually turned out to my advantage, as to eat them fresh is an utterly fantabulous experience. That’s not to say they won’t still be good later, or even after freezing, but do make sure you try them at their freshest first, as they’ll never be quite the same.
Recipe makes about 8 buns

250g strong white bread flour
20g caster sugar
5g dried active yeast
5g salt
100ml lukewarm milk
30g unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 large egg
60g soft butter
60g caster sugar
60g ground almonds
10g plain flour
1 egg
1 tbsp amaretto
½ tsp almond extract
100g sour cherries chopped
1 tbsp Chambord or other berry liqueur (optional)
egg beaten with a pinch of salt for egg wash
100g fondant icing sugar, sieved and mixed with 2-4 tbsp water
a handful of unglazed glacé cherries, halved

  1. Combine the flour, sugar, yeast and salt in a bowl.
  2. Rub in the butter, then add the egg. Gradually add the milk to form a sticky dough (you may not need it all, especially if working by hand, but try to get in as much as you can manage).
  3. Knead on the unfloured counter for 10 minutes until smooth and transparent when pulled and held to the light. Then lightly flour surface and form the dough into a ball.
  4. Return the ball to the bowl, cover with cling film and leave until doubled in size (at least 1 hour).
  5. Make the almond paste by beating the butter with the sugar until pale and fluffy. Then stir in the almonds and flour. Add the egg, then the almond extract and Amaretto. Chill until ready to use if not using immediately.
  6. Chop the sour cherries and leave to absorb the liqueur, if using.
  7. When the dough has risen, turn it out and then roll out to a rectangle (roughly 30cm in length) on a lightly floured surface. Spread half to three quarters of the almond paste thinly over the dough to the edges and then scatter the cherries over the top, leaving one long edge clear for 2cm (you can discard the rest of the paste as this is just leftovers). Roll up the dough from the long edge opposite to this one so that it looks like a Swiss roll and using a pastry brush dipped in water, moisten the opposite edge and press to seal.
  8. Cut off the ends each side to neaten and then cut the roll into 6-8 equal pieces each around 2-3cm thick.
  9. Turn each piece on its end, flatten slightly until no more than 3cm high and then arrange on a baking tray.
  10. Glaze with egg wash.
  11. Set oven to 180 degrees C and leave to prove covered lightly with a towel in a warm place for 30 minutes by which time they should have roughly doubled in size.
  12. Bake for 18-20 minutes until golden brown (if browning too quickly then cover with foil/parchment). The buns should be firm underneath.
  13. Leave to cool on a wire rack.
  14. Mix the fondant icing sugar with the water and then pipe over the cooled buns in irregular zigzag strokes. Decorate with a halved glacé cherry.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Pecan Tassies

My fellow Brits are going to have to forgive me, as I’m about to go all American again. American baking has always been my favourite and lately I’ve become ever so slightly obsessed with US baking blogs such as the Brown Eyed Baker. Honestly, the number of recipes I’ve bookmarked is ridiculous, to the point where I had no idea where to begin. Fortunately, last week I was faced with an Emergency Baking Situation where I had people to feed unexpectedly and had neither the time nor the inclination to go to the shops, which narrowed the choice down hugely. I had been steering towards some sort of biscuit (or should I say cookie) – until I saw these. Like most people not from southern USA, I didn’t have a clue what a ‘tassie’ is (still don’t, despite some internet searching), but a photograph alone was enough to sway me. They’re actually a sort of mini pecan pie – fortuitously one of my favourite desserts. I had to make them.
As often happens with American recipes, there were times during the baking process when I veered on perplexed – cream cheese in the pastry?! – but that only added to the intrigue. (As it turns out, the pastry came together beautifully and tasted even better. You could taste the cream cheese, but it worked, providing, as you would perhaps expect, a lovely creamy flavour.) All in all they were extremely easy to make and the recipe was correct to the letter, even when I deviated from it slightly by halving the mixture, as well as using a mince pie tin (see, I haven’t forgotten my British roots!) instead of the mini muffin pan stipulated. One tip I will give is that I found it a lot easier to use a pastry cutter for the bases – unless you’re a great freestyler, which I’m not, it gives much neater results.

Seriously, tasting these is an experience you'll never forget. The filling seems crunchy from the outside, but as soon as you break the surface you open the door into a wonderful world of gooeyness which is as delicious as it is surprising. Everyone said that they wished they were bigger – a little concerning seeing as they were already larger than they were supposed to be – so next time I might have to go the whole hog and bake them in a standard muffin tin (which is actually what I already do with my mince pies – busted). One thing I can promise is that shop-bought pecan pie will never be the same again. Even Marks and Spencer’s.

Recipe can be found here.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Cinnamon Breakfast Loaf

I must have been about 16 or 17 when I started baking with a passion – a passion which has admittedly grown all out of proportion in the decade since – but baking bread is a much more recent development for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge bread person; in fact, that’s probably the very reason I never thought to have a go at making it myself. I always assumed that I’d never be able to do justice to the stuff you buy in the shops. However, last year’s series of The Great British Bake Off (aka the best show on the telly) got me drooling over Chelsea Buns, brioche, focaccia, doughnuts…the list went on. And so began a whole new obsession (my poor parents, who I live with, are doubt despairing by this point. Sorry, Mum, you will get your kitchen back one day!). Anyway, this is a lovely recipe taken from, aptly, The Great British Bake Off: How to turn everyday bakes into showstoppers. It’s nice and simple for bread novices like me, but the key is it doesn’t look it. It’s super-pretty and, just as importantly, tastes fantastic. Enjoy it fresh or toasted, with lashings of butter, as Enid Blyton would say. Then bung any sliced leftovers in the freezer for a weekend treat that will keep you going for weeks.

500g strong white bread flour
1.5 tsp salt
2 tbsp caster sugar
1 x 7g sachet fast-action dried yeast
175ml milk (full-fat if possible)
50g unsalted butter
1 large egg

50g caster sugar
1 tsp plain flour
1 tbsp ground cinnamon

1. Mix the bread flour, yeast, salt and 2 tbsp sugar in a large bowl.
2. Gently warm the milk with 125ml water and the butter until the butter has just melted (the liquid should be lukewarm). Remove from the heat and beat in the egg, then add the mixture to the dry ingredients. Work together to form a very soft but not sticky dough (if like me, you're forced to manage without an electric mixer, a wooden spoon and your hands work just as well, plus it will save you going to the gym! Woohoo!). If the dough is too dry, add more water or milk one tbsp at a time. If it's too sticky, do the same with flour.
3. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about ten minutes (this is where the work-out really comes in), or knead in the mixer with a dough hook on low speed for 5 minutes. The dough should be smooth and pliable. Return it to the bowl, cover with cling film and leave to rise in a warm place for an hour.
4. Cut a long strip of baking parchment and use it to line a 900g loaf tin, going over the sides at both ends (you will use these to lift the bread out after baking). Mix together the cinnamon, plain flour and 50g sugar in a small bowl and set aside.
5. When the dough has risen, punch it down with your fist to deflate, and then knead again on a lightly floured surface for a few seconds. Pat out to a rough rectangle (it will be very rough, but don't worry, this just means you've got good dough!), about 2cm thick. Cover lightly with cling film and leave to rest for 5 minutes.
6. Lightly flour a rolling pin and roll out the dough to about 48cm and the same width as your tin. Brush liberally with milk, then sprinkle over the cinnamon mixture, leaving a 1cm border at one of the short ends. Starting at the other short end, roll up the dough as tightly and neatly as you can, pinching the seam together to seal (a bit of extra milk helps with this).
7. Lift into the tin, tucking the ends under to make a neat shape. Slip the tin into a plastic bag and inflate slightly to leave room for the dough to rise, then tie the ends together. Leave until just doubled in size (not too long, I'd say about half an hour). Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180 degrees.
8. Brush the dough lightly with milk. Bake for about 35 minutes until a good golden brown. The loaf should sound hollow when you tap the underneath (put it back in the oven for a bit longer if it makes a 'thudding' sound instead).
9. Whilst the loaf is hot, rub a knob of butter all over its surface to give a glossy finish. Cool on a wire rack and wait until cold before slicing (if you can resist!).

Monday, 5 August 2013

Diabetic, Nut-free, Chocolate Birthday Cake Extravaganza!

I love birthdays. So when it recently came to light that three of my wonderful colleagues have their birthdays in the same month, I was the first to suggest a party. After much diary crunching we finally set a date for a big birthday BBQ and I was declared official birthday cake maker, much to my delight. That was, until I realised that the various dietary requirements of the guests would make it no mean feat.
I’ve tried a couple of diabetic recipes before with good results, but never anything on this scale. Originally the plan was to adapt my trusty sugar-free Red Velvet cupcake recipe into something larger, but that went to pot when I ran out of red food colouring and couldn’t find anything in the shops that didn’t turn my mixture vomit-brown (this is a recent problem with UK stockists, which resulted in my first attempt going straight in the bin). So I got to wondering, as Carrie Bradshaw once said. What would happen if I just made the Red Velvet cake without the, er, red?
Food colouring is just food colouring, after all. It doesn’t actually add anything, flavour-wise. What I found out after a spot of Googling is that there’s a big online debate over the nature of Red Velvet cake: is it a chocolate cake, a buttermilk cake, or something else entirely? My own view is the latter. Yes, there’s chocolate involved, but it’s not really enough to make the cake look or taste like chocolate, which is where I initially came unstuck in my endeavours. I discovered that I needed to add a lot more cocoa powder to the mixture to prevent it turning out an unappetizing beige colour, but failed to realise the obvious: extra dry ingredients lead to extra dry sponge. And that was how Cake #2 met its doom.
To my extreme joy and relief, on the third attempt I got the science right. More cocoa, less flour (and zero sub-par red food colouring) and I was left with two layers of wonderfully squidgy chocolate sponge. The frosting was easy-peasy, with just a bit of cocoa powder needed in the diabetic cream-cheese frosting I usually use. And there it was: a diabetic, nut-free, rather humungous birthday cake that everyone seemed to enjoy (I got the tin back a few days later without a crumb in sight, which is always the acid test). Understandably, it wasn’t as sweet as cake made with real sugar, but it had a nice subtle flavour and the texture was rather fab. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the chocolate fanderols I used for decoration are definitely not sugarless, but were just too pretty to resist. As I told my lovely diabetic friends, sometimes you just have to suffer for art (or else they could always pick them off and give them to me).
6 heaped tbsp cocoa powder
270g plain flour
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
10 tbsp Splenda Granulated
2 large eggs
250ml buttermilk
150ml sunflower or olive oil
2 tsp vanilla extract
3 tsp white or white wine vinegar

300g cream cheese (light or full-fat are both fine, though full-fat will produce a better consistency)
75g butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
3.5 tbsp Spenda Granulated
Chocolate fanderols, to decorate

1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees and line two deep 16cm cake tins with parchment.
2. Place the flour, cocoa, bicarbonate and Splenda in a mixing bowl and stir to combine.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk oil, egg, buttermilk and vanilla, pour into the dry ingredients and mix to form a thick batter.
4. Lastly, add the vinegar and mix again, but don't over-beat.
5. Spoon into the prepared tins, even out with a spoon and bake for 25-30 minutes, until the sponge is springy but still moist. Leave to cool for 10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely before frosting.
6. To make the frosting, beat the cream cheese and butter until smooth. Beat in the vanilla, then the cocoa and Splenda to make a thick buttercream.
7. Cut a thin layer off the top of one of the cakes, then sandwich the sponges together with a small amount of the frosting. Use the remaining frosting to cover the cake, spreading with a palette knife and swirling the top. Finish with chocolate fanderols or other decorations of your choice.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Pumpkin Bars

Hello everyone, welcome to the blog, and my very first post! One of the things I love about baking – and there are a lot – is trying out new ingredients. As a devout fan of the Hummingbird Bakery cookbooks, I often find myself yearning to have a go with some of the more unusual American products that can be quite hard to find over here in the UK. One such item that I’ve been intrigued by for ages is pumpkin purée. As luck would have it, Amazon recently introduced a new way of buying which allows you to ‘add on’ products that would otherwise have a high import charge for free when you spend a certain amount. I almost whooped for joy when I realised that I could now purchase a tin of pumpkin puree for less than a fiver and have it delivered to my door.
Anyway, this is not an advert for Amazon, so back to the important bit: the cake. Although I had several options, deciding what to bake was a no-brainer. Ever since February when I finally got my hands on the latest glossy volume of Hummingbird recipes, Home Sweet Home, I’ve been itching to try their recipe for Pumpkin Bars. This is in no small part because, weirdly, I have a thing for square food – cakes, pies, pizza (yes, pizza); all appeal to me that much more when they have four neat corners. So there was something about the lovely, chunky squareness of the Pumpkin Bars that called to me. And I wasn’t disappointed. They were surprisingly easy to make; so much so that it wasn’t even worth photographing the steps involved. It’s basically just ‘shove stuff in a bowl, mix, shove more stuff in the bowl, repeat’. So far, so good.
The only slight issue came after I put them in the oven. Although my cake tin was much nearer to the recipe’s dimensions than usual (is it just me, or do the measurements in cookery books never seem to match what you can actually buy in the shops?), they took a lot longer than the stated 30 minutes. I actually started to get a bit worried, which was silly because they baked beautifully – just very, very slowly. After around an hour, however, they were finally done, and the result was well worth the wait. Finished with a simple cream cheese topping and a sprinkling of toasted coconut, these are wonderfully moist, tasty, cakey cakes. The flavour is very similar to that of carrot cake, but lighter, and without the fibre of carrot the texture is nice and springy. It’s also worth mentioning that they’re even better after freezing (minus frosting). Somehow the moist fruitiness seems to develop even further once they’re defrosted, so it’s definitely important to try them before and after. All in the name of research, right? ;-)
Recipe makes 15 generous portions (or 18 if you care about, you know, arteries and things)
4 large eggs
250ml sunflower or olive oil
360g soft light brown sugar
1 x 425g tin pumpkin puree
340g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp salt
120g full-fat cream cheese
50g unsalted butter, very soft
200g icing sugar
30g desiccated coconut, toasted
1. Preheat oven to 170 degrees and line a 9x11 inch baking tray with parchment.
2. In a freestanding electric mixer with the paddle attachment (or, like me, with a plain old bowl and wooden spoon) mix the eggs, oil, sugar and pumpkin until well combined. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate, salt and spices.
3. Mix the dry ingredients into the wet ones to form a smooth, even batter.
4. Pour into the prepared tray and bake for 30 (I’d say 45-60) minutes, until the sponge bounces back when pressed. Leave to cool completely before frosting.
5. To make the frosting, beat the butter and cream cheese until smooth. Add the icing sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Spoon onto the cake and spread with a palette knife.
6. Top with the toasted coconut and cut into bars.