Bake Off Technical; Batter Week – Lacy Pancakes (Or not)

It’s been a busy week and a bit and I’ve only just found time to finally attempt the fourth technical challenge of the final series of Bake Off  as we know it, how apropos on the day Mary Berry follows Mel and Sue in staying with the BBC, leaving just Paul Hollywood and the tent remaining on the painful journey to C4.

It was a new one for 2016 – Batter Week. The bakers had to make 12 filled Yorkshire Puddings for their signature; the technical was classic pancakes with a twist, whilst the showstopper was the Spanish traditional snack, churros.

Obviously I am concentrating on the technical, which for this week again, was set by the blue-eyed wannabe Simon Cowell of baked goods, Paul Hollywood. Joy.

This time the bakers were instructed to make 12 lacy pancakes. Not the delicate, thin French crepes, but pancakes in the shape of lacy heart patterns. OK. The bakers reached varying degrees of intricacy with theirs…

Pancakes? I thought. I can do that! Lacy ones? Sure! No problem…

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This what they should look like. Image copyright: BBC

Oh how wrong I was.

I can make a pancake. I have NEVER bought the add-water-and-shake travesties on Shrove Tuesday, instead choosing to make the batter from scratch. Generally speaking, I have always done OK. I would have the ingredients in, and it’ll all be fine. But, perhaps to my detriment, I decided to not waste money on a plastic squeezy bottle, instead opting to use a washed-up old ketchup bottle – it was already in the house, it was plastic and squeezy. No problem.

HA HA.

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Oh dear….

I think somehow my dislike of Hollywood came through as the two practice ones (yes I know) came out dismally. The batter came out of the bottle unevenly without much control, and instead what resulted were not delicate ornate hearts, but hot messes. We even tried piercing the lid of the bottle but it was just coming out the same. So much so, that halfway through, I decided to completely abandon the ‘lacy’ part and just use the batter up by making boring but much easier ‘normal’ pancakes.  My money saving, ultimately cost me.

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Ahem. Yes. These are not lacy.

But usually if I fail a recipe, it involves tantrums, strops and questioning my very competence as a cook. I have been known to make a recipe twice if the first one goes wrong, almost like if getting it right cancels out and vanishes the ‘bad one’. This time however, I regretted nothing. It wasn’t a waste of time or ingredients as we still ate pancakes. We had a pancake day in September. How can this be anything other than joyous?

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That’s more my thing. Substance over style.

Final verdict. Pointless challenge and really doesn’t test one’s technical skills, except perhaps how steady your hand is. Yes, I’m saying that because I failed it appallingly, but I really couldn’t give a damn. What is even the POINT of ‘lacy pancakes’ other than being the ultimate in style over substance?

Frankly, churros or Yorkshires would have been more suitable as a technical because I haven’t made either (yes. I have never made a Yorkshire pudding, usually leaving it to someone else in the house who doesn’t mind fiddling with tins of hot fat. I NEVER buy them in!) and they both have their own requirements:

Yorkshires – need to be beaten enough to allow for a good rise, and the batter shouldn’t be too thick. Also the oven temperature needs to be hot enough otherwise they become doughy.

Churros – batter needs to be stiff enough to hold its distinct ridged shape from the piping bag, and they need to be cooked correctly to achieve the crispy outside and fluffy interior.

Lacy pancakes though? Most people can make a pancake. Yes, they look pretty if you can be bothered, but you can’t douse them in lemon juice and sugar (it just spills out everywhere), let alone Nutella or golden syrup (whatever your choice of pancake accoutrement may be) and who eats a ‘plain’ pancake?

Eaten standing alone, they are bland to say the least. I wasn’t going to go out and buy a plastic bottle just for this because let’s face it, I wouldn’t make them this way normally. Life is too short to draw ornate patterns in a hot frying pan when you can just as easily make a duller plain disc pancake, which comes alive when dressed in sharply sweet, citrus-soused sugar or cloyingly addictive Nutella.

At least the sauté pan I bought for the dampfnudel  (ugh those wretched things still haunt) actually has other uses in the kitchen so I can sort-of justify that.

My partner summed it up – “making pancakes is usually fun….and this isn’t fun.”

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It may not be lacy. But it was a damn good pancake. We had a pancake day in September. Screw you Hollywood.

I write this the day after seeing Pastry Week with a far more interesting technical – Bakewell tart. I have made bakewell slices before so that should be slightly more challenging and makes more sense as a technical (more skills put to the test – pastry making, frangipane, icing feathering, timing, being aware of the layers and proportions). Funny how all of Mary’s technicals seem appealing (I will make the Viennese Whirls again as they had rave reviews from my work colleagues) whereas all of Hollywood’s are stressful and pain-inducing. The ‘botanical week’ of next week’s technical in the preview looked to be some kind of herb fougasse (a leavened Mediterranean flatbread in a distinctive spoked shape) that is no doubt set by Hollywood…..so that stressfest is also to come.

So I leave you with this. Don’t bother with lace pancakes unless you are dying to show off on Instagram. Make normal ones instead and have an off season pancake day instead. Far more enjoyable.

 

Bake Off Technical; Bread Week – Dampfnudel

In the wake of the sad news about #Breadxit (BBC losing the rights to Bake Off to Channel 4, and Mel Giedroyc, Sue Perkins and Mary Berry all stepping down), I figured I’d left it long enough to blog how Bread Week’s technical went for me (though in light of a recent financial blow, writing about superfluous baked goods I’m still trying to make my way through almost 4 days later seems a tad…bad form but that’s another story).

The nation watched with open-mouthed bewilderment as the 10 remaining bakers were instructed to make a curiosity known as ‘dampfnudel’, which, according to the insufferable Paul Hollywood was the toughest technical to date (and he was on smug, Cowell-lite form the entire episode. It’s JUST BREAD MATE. Calm the EFF down.)

Dampfnudel, despite the name, are not some weird form of noodle (Nudeln is German for noodle) but steamed buns, cooked in a lidded pan, and using my ultimate baking nemesis, enriched dough – I cannot get on with the stuff, I hate kneading, it never seems to rise for me but just about comes together upon baking. They should also have distinctly caramelised bottoms.

The particular recipe issued by the blue-eyed demon also instructed the bakers to make a plum sauce and vanilla custard as accompaniments. So this meant a fair bit of shopping to boot – although there’s loads of wild plums around my local area, I had to buy foreign imports for this as he asks for 4 ripe examples. Knowing how long it takes the home ripening billiard balls to do so, I had to splash out on ‘Perfectly Ripe’ versions (you can tell where I shopped), of the Flavor King variety, which admittedly do have a wonderful fragrance and glisten crimson upon cutting.

Like Hollywood himself, the recipe is anal, pernickety and frankly annoying. Here’s a link because I cannot be bothered to list every ingredient here. First I had to make the dough, making sure yeast and sugar were correctly placed, blah blah. It made a heinously sticky mess and was a bitch to knead. Repeated flouring of surface and hands was required and it eventually came together. I grated the zest of a lemon over it, kneaded it in again as barked at by Paul.  It was placed in a greased bowl and dumped in a warm place (my top oven, already warmed thanks to the main one at 120C sterilising jam jars, as I was also making wild plum jam that day. I may publish a recipe but it was too similar to my Cherry Plum jam in method) to rise for an hour.

Whilst the dough was rising, it was an ideal time to make the two sauces (I chose to not bake the dampfnudel for work because it required too much paraphernalia (serving buns from a pan – a saute one especially bought for this, and because it was reduced to clear at Sainsburys – great timing! – and two jugs of sauces to serve with.). Thankfully, these were easy enough to make; I’ve had experience of making ‘real’ egg yolk custard before and that came together pretty nicely (though I had such buyers remorse at having to get vanilla bean paste for this, especially as I HAD extract and would only need a half teaspoon – but again, I had to stick to doing exactly as the bakers did on the show). The plum sauce also thankfully came out OK, I didn’t overboil them and make it too thick, and it blended to a velvety, glossy, claret goo, heavily scented with fruity aromas.

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Plum sauce – glossy, tart and fragrant.
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Vanilla sauce AKA custard. Probably the best custard I’ve ever made.

Slight delay to proceedings owing to the wild plum jam taking ages to set, it was time to shape the buns. Quelle-surprise, the dough, despite having over an hour’s proving, stayed obstinately the same size. Rolling my eyes, I shaped it into 12 balls, which cracked a little (too much flour, no doubt because I’m shit at kneading) and left them aside whilst I got on with the poaching liquid, which is milk with a bit of butter and sweetened with caster sugar. Dickhead (sorry but it’s shorter than writing Paul Hollywood every time) instructs that you place the dough balls in the warm liquid and leave them for a second prove for 15 minutes. JESUS. These things had better taste amazing. I was getting irritable.

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Here goes nothing….the dampfnudel start steaming after showing barely any rise.

Surprise, suprise, they stayed the same size. Had I murdered my yeast? Would I have wallpaper paste after the cooking time. And it was now time to cook supper. Bugger. They’d have to be served cold after dinner because I wasn’t going to stop now – thankfully my understanding better half stepped in to help with supper so I could FINALLY cook these wretched dampfnudel.

I placed the pan on the hob over a low heat and let cook, remembering to leave the lid ON at all times for 25 minutes. And FINALLY, it looked like things were going right. They began to swell like lemon scented Adipose (yes a Dr Who reference) in their sweet milky bath and when the buzzer pinged, only a scant splash of poaching liquor remained. I lifted off the lid and let them cook a further 5 minutes. YES. The bottoms had caramelised without burning, and the tops did not feel raw.

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Success. Thankfully they cooked through in the allotted times…

Supper eaten (chicken enchiladas, all made from scratch FYI) and allowed to go down…It was time to finally try the bloody dampfnudel and see if an afternoon’s slaving was worth it. Turning them out, they didn’t stick to the pan but did come out as one, like a challah loaf, but were easy enough to separate. And the caramelised bits off the pan….WOW. Burnt toffee in the best possible way. They should be served as a snack by themselves.

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The buns out the pan. Those caramelised bits are definitely a cook’s treat..

I reheated the sauces and served us one bun apiece, drizzling them artfully with a rough St George’s flag of custard and tangy plum, and then dived in.

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Attempting and failing artful presentation

Dense, somewhat tightly structured within, with a subtle lemon flavour, but one thing was for sure, they definitely needed the sauces to finish the job. I was chuffed with the custard (but I usually use skimmed milk and no cream if I ever make it, this was a total splash out) and will keep the recipe for that for the future, the plum sauce was nice and tangy as a contrast. However, the buns themselves were a tad underwhelming. It’s Wednesday as I write this and I still have 4 buns remaining, no custard left. Myself and the better half have been gamely trying to eat them to avoid needless wastage (I will not throw any food away unless it’s unsafe to eat). Microwaving them doesn’t soften them, but dries the crumb inside out to almost inedible levels. Best served warm on day of making, I think.

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I can already hear Hollywood criticising the crumb structure.

However, tonight I split a couple and toasted them under the grill, spreading them with a little butter and leftover raspberry jam from the Viennese Whirls. This is highly recommended if you, like me, have dampfnudel haunting you for the following days. They toast brilliantly and their lemony flavour stands up well to sweet jam on top.

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If like me, they haunt you for days after making, splitting and toasting breathes new life into the stale dampfnudel, especially with home made jam atop them.

Verdict: Yep, the technicals are getting tougher, and I am doggedly still doing every single one to test my baking skills to the limit. Would I make dampfnudel again? NO. Not unless I was feeding a crowd of Bake Off fans and had enough time beforehand to do so. But I;m glad I did because learning about other countries’ traditional foods is one of my favourite things about being a ‘foodie’ and I got to make something I never would have before.

Technical Challenge gate is proving to be a twisted love affair. The recipes are gruelling, but they are interesting additions to my repertoire, push my abilities and plus, ya know, it’s Bake Off, and I’ve had some awesome responses on my social medias about doing them. However, it seems that ‘Technical Bake Along’ is the trend after a quick Instagram trawl…still, at least I now know I’m not alone in this mission and hopefully, I can reach out to other bloggers trying their GBBO hand.

Stay tuned to see how I fare with Batter Week’s technical, which I understand to be ‘lace pancakes’. Oh. Dear. I’m already predicting a hot mess…..

T.

Bake Off Technical; Biscuit Week – Viennese Whirls

So here we go, the second week’s Technical Challenge is upon me (this week’s is actually Bread Week, which won’t be for work, so I shall be attempting the fiendish dampfnudel this weekend!), and my work colleagues will once more be subject to my ham-fisted, woeful-no-doubt attempts at the buttery classic sandwich creation with jam and buttercream.

 

Despite their name, they are an entirely British creation, said to be inspired by the pastries of the Austrian capital (a country well known for its patisserie – its most famous being the upmarket chocolate and apricot sponge cake known as the Sachertorte) but are entirely unrelated – they are more closely related to the Empire biscuit, another British bake (interestingly also called ‘german biscuits’, ‘Deutsch Biscuits’ and ‘Linzer Biscuits’ – you can see the resemblance).

The Viennese whirl as we know it, was popularised by Mr Kipling and is two shortbread rounds, piped using the star nozzle and sandwiched with buttercream and raspberry jam. Fairly easy, no?

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This is how most of us have eaten one of these…by the way, they’ve been nowhere near Austria.

However, the shortbread dough needs to be stiff enough to hold its shape, but not so stiff that it is impossible to squeeze out of the icing bag (I tried to avoid the double entendres but it’s unavoidable isn’t it?).

Ingredients list once more short and straightforward. Though you are instructed to make the jam from scratch too. OK. Cool. I’ve just blogged a jam recipe.

Mary asks for 250g unsalted butter, 50g icing sugar, 225g plain flour and 25g cornstarch for the biscuits, whilst the jam asks for 200g raspberries and 250g jam sugar. The buttercream filling called for 100g unsalted butter, 200g icing sugar and 1/2 tsp vanilla. All basic stuff that any supermarket or even corner shop would sell. Perhaps not the jam sugar.

Off I went to make sure I had the correct things in….though I did try and be cheap by using salted butter (Waitrose sell it in 500g blocks which worked out cheaper than buying 2 x 250g unsalted as I’d need a good 400g for the recipe in total), which is a choice I make with all bakes as I think the small percentage of salt just cuts the relentless sweetness slightly and enhances the flavours – it was a tip I picked up from a colleague whose shortbread is the best I’ve ever tasted and can never hope to match.

I also opted for frozen raspberries (£2.20 for 400g instead of £2 for a 180g punnet fresh berries) as they were far cheaper. Good job too, as I found out…

… because my Viennese expedition didn’t get off to a flying start, having chosen a crappy light-bottomed saucepan to make the jam in…. predictably, it burned and caught on the bottom of the pan and I had to start over again. Yippee. Thank God for my penny pinching as I had another 200g of berries ready to go. Using a better pan, I had the jam made. Phew. I poured it into an oblong dish to allow it to set quickly. And set it did. Hard. I could flip it out as one square jam panel – a problem with the jam sugar is that it has a tendency to set jams a bit too hard. However, with a few moments work with a spoon, the jam loosened up a bit and was able to be spread.

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A sheet of raspberry jam. Being a cheapskate paid off as the first batch of jam burned owing to bad choice of saucepan. Thankfully as I chose to use frozen berries, I had enough left to start again.

Next came the tedious task of drawing 24 4-cm circles on 3 sheets of baking parchment. I only had 2 baking sheets, so it would have to be done in 2 batches. And neither of my pastry cutters were small enough. I used a small Old Fashioned glass which was more like 4.5 cm but let’s not split hairs here (or perhaps we should, ya know, being the TECHNICAL challenge.). I

When I made the biscuit dough (I had to check the recipe on the BBC and Bake Off sites that the 50g icing sugar wasn’t a typo) I had a flash of horror…WHY did I think I knew better than Mary Berry and use SALTED butter  – initial tasting of the biscuit dough proved a horror – it wasn’t sweet at all! However it was easy enough to pipe, not too stiff and soon, I just about had 24 piped rounds in varying degrees of uniformity (informal, as Mary would say). Unlike the jaffa cakes, I only just had sufficient biscuit dough to make the 24…looks that 0.5cm cost me a bit then.

I stuck to the fan oven temperature listed as biscuits are way too easy to overbake and gave them the minimum 13 minutes (13-15 in the recipe). I did 2 trays of 8, and then once they were cool enough to free up a tray, 1 more tray of 8. Thankfully, they came out nicely gold…..and most importantly they kept their definition! YAAAAS.

 

Now it was time to let them cool – I gave them a timed 5 minutes on the trays before transferring to a rack to finish cooling off. They felt short and likely to break if handled too enthusiastically. Time to be delicate I think…something I am not.

Finally, once the dreaded washing up was completed, it was time to make the buttercream (like with the biscuit dough, my stand mixer was put to more use. Aint nobody got time for doing it by hand, soz Mary.) which was pretty easy. Piping bag filled, it was time to turn these dull (and no doubt salty AF) biscuits into 12 Viennese whirls. The jam, thankfully spread without breaking the biscuit bases, but was still perhaps too thick to be technically perfect. Piping on the buttercream was also easy enough, and once the ‘tops’ were added…..this uneven bunch of biscuits, too-thick jam and buttercream came together and actually didn’t look half bad! I’d done it…12 Viennese whirls.

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I’d happily score myself 6/10, at least going by appearance as there is no total uniformity…

…however the acid test was in the eating, and when the time finally came at work to try them…and just maybe, I DID know better than Berry as the fear of salty, bland biscuits was unfounded. The jam was intensely flavoured with raspberry and the buttercream unctuous, rich, sweet and thick with the nursery aroma of vanilla…so they more than balanced with their light butteriness, resulting in a pretty damn delicious whirl. 3 colleagues took seconds…as did I.

So I have to say, Biscuit week’s technical, despite starting stressfully, was just about managed with a small amount of patience, though I’m sure I’d lose marks for them not ALL being exactly the same in looks. The flavour more than made up for it I think, and obviously, there’s plenty of scope for being creative and changing the kind of jam used, though the flavours of raspberry and vanilla I think work best with the rich shortbread biscuits.

Next…..the evil-looking dampfnudel from Bread Week get the treatment. Have I bitten off more than I can chew this time? And can I bring myself to work to the arrogant, overbearing Paul Hollywood’s pernickety standard? After all, I don’t want wallpaper paste that people will refuse to eat…and bread is not a strong point of mine. Especially enriched dough…….watch this space (if I don’t have a dampfnudel-induced-nervous breakdown first)

 

Jam For Free? Cherry Plum & Five Spice Jam

I was debating to call this a recipe as I didn’t weigh the fruit or the sugar. This was all done by eye, and only made 1 and a bit jars. But whilst we head into British plum season (and all their glorious hedgerow relatives beloved of countryside cooks for generations – sloes, damsons, bullaces), it seemed appropriate to at least honour a British native fruit that is available free of charge  – I have foraged for these small tart fruits in the countryside before, but suburban Cambridge is full of them. So all I had to do was walk up the high street with an empty Hovis wrapper (an ideal small bag, don’t judge me).

Cherry plums are a small dark red to black plum, (yellow/green when unripe) bigger than the bullace and about the same size as a damson. They are often planted as ornamental trees because some varieties have beautiful dark purple leaves. Often ignored due to many not realising they are edible, and most sadly end up squashed into pavements during July and August, it’s a real shame as these fruit for free have many uses and whilst they are nothing to write home about fresh off the tree, they have a myriad of other uses – as this Guardian article goes into.

However, after finding out a brilliant partner to them is lemon thyme via an episode of The Food Programme, and it of course being slap-bang in the middle of the season, I picked the plums for this jam from a tree near a primary school on my street, and they grow abundantly in large bunches. I came home with 2lbs worth (I was out for about 10 minutes if that) and sadly when i got round to using them 2 days later (a few were still half-yellow at the time of scrumping) a large amount had rotted – you should use foraged fruit quickly! – but I had enough to make jam without turning the house into a cannery.

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Ripe Cherry Plums or Myrobalan Plums -Prunus cerasifera- on a tree, Bavaria, Germany – stock photo, not my own. German food incidentally, celebrates the plum.

I’ve done cherry plum crumble before, used them in a chutney and in jams as they are, but this time I fancied adding extra flavours. I’d forgotten to buy lemon thyme, but I found another good partner to the plum is star anise. Taking this on board, I sprinkled in some Chinese 5 spice, of which star anise is the main event player. The added salt within the blend helped to add complexity – it was a tiny amount, just enough to give it a hint without shouting over the flavours of the fruit.

Sorry there’s no specific amounts, it was a freeform affair, and I only had 2 clean, empty jars to hand! However much you make is up to you – plums contain pectin so no need to add apples or lemon.

You should make this even without the spice if I’m honest – these plums are everywhere right now, and they cost nothing to get whilst even the British plums currently on the supermarket shelves are somewhat overpriced. You may even have a tree in your garden or on your street. Plus, the jam is a beautiful, startling scarlet from the skins, and you can control the sweetness. The traditional ratio is equal weights fruit to sugar, but I think you can get away with a little less if you want more tartness. You will need enough to help preserve and set the jam though. So I recommend doing it by eye.

Cherry Plum & 5 Spice Jam

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Cherry Plums
Granulated Sugar
Chinese 5 Spice to taste

  1. Place plums whole into a large pan with a small amount of water to prevent them from catching. Bring to the boil and then reduce heat and cover.
  2. Simmer with a lid until the fruit completely breaks down.
  3. Now the not so fun part – use a slotted spoon or tongs to fish out the stones. You can halve and stone them before if you have more patience than me, but generally these are a clingstone fruit and you’ll end up losing half the flesh before you begin!
  4. Once all the stones are out, snow over the sugar (ideally the same weight as your plums but you can use slightly less if you don’t want it too sweet – I did it purely by eye and it set) and stir to help dissolve. Sprinkle over the five spice powder (to taste, but go easy if you can!), and crank the heat to high. Bring to a rollicking boil and do so for 5 or so minutes until jam is set.
  5. To test the set, place a clean saucer in the freezer for a minute or 2 to chill then spoon a tiny bit of the jam onto it. If it wrinkles when you put your thumb through it and doesn’t run back together, it’s done.
  6. Pour/spoon into clean, sterilised (washed in hot soapy water and kept warm in a 120 degree C oven, or put through 1 dishwasher cycle) glass jars are and screw on lids. Label and let cool!

 

 

 

Bake Off Technical; Cake Week – Jaffa Cakes

Well we’ve reached the end of another Great British Summer, and we all know what that means? Yes. A tent is erected somewhere in rural Berkshire and 12 diverse, previously-unknown British people from all walks of life, become the most A-list celebrities in the country for the following 8 weeks.

Welcome, to the Great British Bake Off.

Many food bloggers will no doubt be cashing in on this epicly-successful baking competition, it is one of the most-watched programmes on the BBC and reinvigorated the career of Mary Berry. But rather than tell people what they already know about GBBO, I’m going to try something.

For those who’ve been living under a large rock the past few years, Bake Off is a contest – one elimination each week until a final 3 bakers remain. Each week has a theme – cakes, enriched doughs, bread, biscuits, gluten free etc, and the bakers have to tackle a signature challenge, where they produce their own spin on an established classic, a technical challenge where they must test their skills from a minimally-written recipe, and a show stopper where they can push themselves to the limit with presentation.

I thought that this series, I am going to take on EVERY technical challenge. No matter how tough they are, or how much I dislike Berry and Hollywood (sorry! Mrs Berry once made some shady remarks about Nigella Lawson’s weight and I find her rather twee tbh. Hollywood I think is just too arrogant. It’s just bread, mate.), I am going to attempt them. Though unlike the bakers, I will have access to the ‘full recipes’. People tell me I should apply, but my answer is always no – I’d fail the first technical!

So without further ado, let’s get into week one, which is always cake week (and tbh, the week I’d get eliminated) – I only started watching the series in 2013 (Ruby Tandoh’s series). This year’s cake technical broke the internet – as the bakers were instructed to bake 12 jaffa cakes – and Instagram got flooded with people’s own attempts at them. Recipe by Mary.

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Nearly everyone in Britain knows the jaffa cake. The name comes from the ‘Jaffa’ orange variety, which of course is also the flavour. Though they also come in other fruit flavours.

Jaffa cakes are a British national institution. Is it a cake or a biscuit? The debate actually went to court in the 1980s. Most British folk will know what one is (and I’ve not met anyone who DOESN’T like them. Or indeed anyone who can have just 1 out of a packet. It’s one of those ‘seal breaker’ bad snacks. Like Pringles.). It is essentially a flat disc of genoise (fatless, whisked) sponge cake, just like that used for trifle sponge fingers, topped with a disc of orange jelly and a layer of dark chocolate.

“So you’re just blogging Mary and Paul’s recipes? Why?” I hear you ask.

Not quite – I’m merely blogging how each challenge went for me.

Ingredients list seemed straightforward enough – 3 large eggs, 50g castor sugar, 50g self raising flour (just 50g?!! WHAT?!), plus orange jelly cubes, dissolved in 150ml hot water, zest 1 orange and 180g dark chocolate.

Fortunately I own a stand mixer and am familiar with a genoise sponge, so the making of the cake itself shouldn’t be too tough. I beat the eggs…having to make the 3rd one a Medium egg as I’d run out of large – never mind….the folding, a kitchen job I LOATHE as much as sifting, was a bit of a mare (I’m one of those who is scared of eggs and egg whites when it comes to the Fear Of Knocking Out Precious Air) but was easy enough with my trusty rubber spatula (my preferred folding utensil). It actually made too much cake batter for the 12-hole-bun tin so I had 2 tartlet tins filled as well to make 2 roided-up jaffas. Baking took a good few minutes longer than the 7-9 minutes stated on the recipe, but for safety I did use the ‘fan’ temperature – I think fan ovens these days (ours is about 3 years old) are a closer match to electric than a few years ago perhaps? However, the sponges were baked…but were a bit of a struggle to get out at first. Yes I had greased all tins. Once out, the bases were left to cool. However, I noted how soft they stayed as opposed to crisp on the outside like a bought jaffa. Useless for dipping in tea, but as Miss Prim..sorry, Mary said…’we don’t do that in the South’, with a huge side order of (acted?) lemon-mouthed disapproval.

I decided to do the jelly in advance (I know, cheating but I work nights and was suffering a 24hr fever at the time), which thankfully set, but I used the wrong size dish and it came out a mite too thick, as well as being a struggle to turn out later on. So I painstakingly sliced each jelly round in half. Not perfection, but I figured they were going to be covered in chocolate anyway.

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Varying shapes of ‘smashing orangey bits’. No matter, they will soon be shrouded in chocolate.

Now for the chocolate. Other people on my social medias seemed to have had a problem with this part – melting the jelly or not spreading. The recipe requests you melt it in advance so it cools and thickens, so being the paranoid mess I am, I had it melted whilst the cakes were still cooling in their tins. Luckily this seemed to do the trick and I managed to keep the tops reasonably level. Albeit messily.  Managed somewhat of a criss cross on the tops with a fork. Now it was a case of waiting for them to set hard so I can taste them….

I took all 12 of them into work, and came back with none (though I did eat 2 of them). Taste verdict – just like the McVitie’s original. Though the soft bases took a little from the experience in my opinion as it meant they weren’t dunkable!

Final verdict: Worth a go, for sure, however you can purchase supermarket own-brands (which don’t have much taste difference from the real McVitie’s ones) for as little as 50p a pack, so can this somewhat fiddly effort be jusitified? However, the cake bases are just 3 ingredients instead of the massive list of them usually seen on bought cake, and plus you get that smug feeling of ‘yeah I made jaffa cakes!’. The jelly though, is still out of a packet (personally I think the orange zest adds nothing but un-necessary stringiness as the flavour of the jelly is already highly concentrated without, so I would dispense with it next time), but the good thing is, you can get creative and change the jelly flavour if you want (The Polish are fans of cherry jaffa cakes for example). I suppose, you could also make proper orange jelly using juice and zest with gelatine sheets but personally, I think this is just extra effort for a minimal gain.

Watch this space when I take on Biscuit Week’s technical, Viennese Whirls! Stay tuned.

T x

Pud In A Flash: Strawberry Jam Sponge

Firstly, let me apologise for my 2 month absence. I’ve honestly not been inspired to post as much lately.

However, why throw in the towel? This isn’t Bake Off or MasterChef. Not everything has to re-invent the wheel or be worthy to be the top trending topic. I am a home cook first and foremost, and I started this blog to appeal to other home cooks.  Anyway, I’ve pontificated enough and onto the recipe.

Snobs will carp, I’m sure, because this recipe is cooked in a microwave. Yes. The slovenly’s best kitchen friend. I can make a sponge pudding the ‘proper way’. But they can also be made perfectly acceptable via nuking. And you can have a home made, classic British dessert on the table in less than 10 minutes. And you don’t have to open one of those flat Heinz tins or raid the chiller cabinet. Chances are you’ll have all the ingredients in.

Sponge puddings are seen as dowdy these days. A hangover from the 1950s school dinners. Dull. Bland. Full of sugar and cheap jam that barely contains any fruit. They’ve been shunned by the Bake Off brigade and haven’t even been subject to the trendy 2010s baking revival with new, hipster flavours. But like other British baking classics that I’ve written about, why not? Made well, they can be fantastic. Yes, even in the microwave. It’s still homemade. And the harried midweek cook can have a proper dessert on the table in the time taken to brew a cup of tea, or to heat up a shop bought one – why wouldn’t you?

The closest thing to this that’s become popular over the past few years are mug cakes, which is along the same lines really.

You can of course use any jam you like for this, preferably one of decent quality; (I was lucky enough to have some home made stuff courtesy of my partner’s mother) , no nasty cheap ‘mixed fruit’ sugar bombs here! Or, you could forsake it altogether and replace 1-2 tbsp of the flour with cocoa to make a chocolate pud (though I’d recommend using dark brown sugar in place of the caster and maybe put chocolate chips in the mix too).

You will need a medium sized plastic pudding basin, and the sponge is made using the all-in-one method, so no need to get out the mixer. If you’re using butter, make sure it’s soft, but margarine or any spread that states ‘suitable for baking’ on the tub is absolutely fine – in fact, here, it’s recommended for speed as no softening required. Easy, quick, tasty and homemade.

Strawberry Jam Sponge Pudding

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1 large egg

2 oz caster sugar

2 oz butter/margarine

2 oz self raising flour

Splash vanilla extract – NO synthetic essence please.

Splash milk

1 dessertspoon good quality strawberry jam

 

  1. Place the jam in the bottom of a medium sized plastic pudding basin (the kind left from a bought Christmas pudding that most households use for microwaving things in).
  2. In another bowl, whisk together the egg, margarine, sugar, flour together until smooth. Add milk to loosen it to a soft dropping consistency if it behaves impossibly.
  3. Spoon and scrape onto the jam and level the top.
  4. Place in microwave and heat at full power for 5 minutes (for an 800W unit – check your oven and adjust accordingly). A cake tester should come out clean.
  5. Upend onto a plate or saucer – it should come out easily without any need to have greased the basin, be aware the jam will be volcanically hot -and serve as is or with cream or Greek yoghurt.

 

 

Cucina di mia madrina: Eileen’s Lasagne

Choosing my favourite food is about as easy is growing money on the apple tree in my back garden. Who has the time to think about such things?

I eat everything pretty much.

But if there’s one meal that always gets me weeping with gratitude every time, it is lasagne. To me it sums up comfort food. The sight and sound of bubbling cheese. The rich savouriness and creaminess beneath the crispy top and velvety sheets of pasta (especially if it’s verdi)….it’s rare that I’ve had a bad one….maybe a ready meal but then they’re all shit if you ask me. Pardon my French.

And I don’t think I’ve ever met one person who doesn’t like it. There’s versions for vegetarians, versions for lactose-intolerant, low-fat, even low-carb and gluten free. Everyone can enjoy lasagne. Except perhaps Calgary Avansino or any of that lot. But if you’re on this blog you shouldn’t care for those delusional stick insects’ food fascism anyway.

I feel there’s no need to explain lasagne (though interestingly the American spelling ‘lasagna’ means single pasta sheet’ whilst the way us Brits spell it is the plural form) but it originated in Naples.

The northern Emilia-Romagna region (also famous for being the home of Ferrari,, Pagani, Maserati and Lamborghini)’s intensive farming economy resulted in plentiful dairy and meat products, and their commonality in regional cooking – more so than the olive oil found in southern regions of Italy. Pastas from Emilia-Romagna and its capital, Bologna, are almost always served with a ragù, (hence why it’s called a bolognese sauce) a thick sauce made from ingredients such as onions, carrots, finely ground pork and beef, celery, butter, and tomatoes.

I have numerous ways of approaching this simple baked pasta dish, from various sources – my way which is essentially similar to how my mother made it; I’ve also once made a chilli con carne lasagne (I had leftover chilli and was looking to extend it) in a surprisingly effective example of fusion food done good – the heat and earthy pungency of the chilli matched up pretty damn well to the rich bechamel sauce.  The Calabrian take, as published by Nigella Lawson is another regular on my repertoire, and it dispenses with the bechamel altogether and uses sliced ham and eggs between the layers along with finely cut mozzarella cheese.

So why am I sharing a recipe for something most people know? Simple, the amount of pre-made and heinous ‘lasagne dinner kits’ available now infuriate me and it’s frankly not a complicated dish to put together – never equate difficult with time-consuming. It was one of the first ‘proper dinners’ I made sure I knew how to cook before going to university as it ages well and can last a good 2-3 days so even if you live alone, you can still make it yourself.

The recipe I’m sharing here however, comes from my maternal aunt and godmother Eileen Maturi, and as I understand it, came via her father in law who was Italian. I will put up my own version in due course should anyone have a burning desire to make it.

I remember having this as a child numerous times whenever we visited hers, and it was literally a case of seeing ricotta, one of the ingredients,  on the supermarket shelf a few years back and being suddenly hit with a flashback to this and subsequently reaching out to my mother to contact my aunt (whom I since have on Facebook and will tag in this post) for her recipe to see if I could recreate it.

The ingredients as prepared. I am unashamed in the obvious austerity present - as Jack Monroe rightly says, the value-brand items are mere building blocks of a finished dish. it's how you put them together that counts.
The ingredients as prepared. I am unashamed in the obvious austerity present – as Jack Monroe rightly says, the value-brand items are mere building blocks of a finished dish. it’s how you put them together that counts.

I tend to make lasagne somewhat on the wet side just for fear of dryness but if you want it to come out in picture-perfect slabs, reduce the ragu for longer or use less liquid.  You will want enough there for the pasta sheets to absorb and cook in, so try not to make it too dry.  Another way, as shown in the abysmal third photo below, is to allow it to rest for 15 minutes-half an hour if you have stronger willpower than me, as this will make it a bit easier to cut clean and retain its characteristic layers.

A final note, if the mince you’re using is pretty fatty (especially on top of the fat from the bacon and the cooking oil for the vegetables) then pour off any excess, but because you’re twice-cooking the meat I recommend not bothering, as the fat will keep the mince moist as the lasagne bakes and it won’t make it greasy.

This is the order in which you build the layers - ragu, a blob of ricotta-egg mix in each corner and a scattering of chalkily stringy mozzarella. You don't need to drown it in béchamel either, just 1-2 serving spoonfuls trailed across will suffice.
This is the order in which you build the layers – ragu, a blob of ricotta-egg mix in each corner and a scattering of chalkily stringy mozzarella atop that before the white sauce. You don’t need to drown it in béchamel either, just 1-2 serving spoonfuls trailed across will suffice.
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Be sure to alternate the direction of the sheets – for example, for the following layer to this, place the vertical sheet on the right hand side as opposite to the left as shown here. Overlapping is desirable as it helps with the structure.
An appalling image of the served-up result. I was too hungry to wait. Ideally you want to allow a cooked lasagne to rest a while (like a roast joint it improves upon standing) as this makes it easier to cut clean if aesthetics are of importance. Patience is not a virtue I was blessed with unfortunately so initial serving was somewhat imperfect and wet. Once cooled for the following day it will slice like a dream for that better Instagram shot.
An appalling image of the served-up result. I was too hungry to wait. Ideally you want to allow a cooked lasagne to rest a while (like a roast joint it improves upon standing) as this makes it easier to cut clean if aesthetics are of importance.
Patience is not a virtue I was blessed with unfortunately so initial serving was somewhat imperfect and wet, because I dished up very soon after it left the oven so naturally the distinct layers were lost.. Once cooled for the following day, however,  it will slice like a dream and retain said layers better for that better Instagram shot.

Eileen’s Lasagne

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Serves: 4-6

For the ragu:
8oz /250g minced beef
3 large mushrooms (finely chopped) or around 200g regular size, sliced
1 regular onion, chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
2 rashers streaky bacon, roughly diced, or 1 small pack pancetta cubes or lardons
1 large carrot, diced
Half a pint/280ml beef stock
3 tbsp tomato puree
Bay leaf
Dried basil, to taste
1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
Red wine, to taste

For the béchamel:
4tbsp butter
4tbsp plain flour
500ml milk
Around 50g grated cheddar (optional)

For assembling lasagne:
1 x 250g tub of ricotta cheese
1 x 250g pack grated mozzarella cheese
Lasagne sheets

1. Sweat chopped onion, celery, carrot and bacon in 2tbsp oil until soft .

2. Add mince and cook until raw red colour disappears.

3. Pour in tinned tomatoes, basil and bay leaf and season with salt and pepper. Mix the tomato puree in with the stock and pour in, if necessary use this to swill out tomato tin. I recommend keeping a bit of the stock back in case you need to add more later. Bring to boil.

4. Simmer for about 20 minutes.

5. Add wine to taste and a little bit of sugar if needed if it’s a bit too acidic. Continue simmer and reduce for about 20 minutes more, but do not let it go too dry. If necessary slacken with any remaining stock or just add some water. Once it’s reduced sufficiently, remove from heat and set aside. Preheat oven to 180 degrees C.

6. To make the béchamel, first, heat the milk in the microwave or on the stovetop (this will stop lumps forming in the sauce) and set aside. Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat and add the flour, whisking to make a roux.

7. Pour in milk and stir constantly with a whisk to stop lumps until sauce thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Season well with salt, pepper and nutmeg. You can add grated cheddar cheese if you want to.

8. Whisk egg into the ricotta cheese with a fork to make a smooth, droppable consistence, and then place an ovenproof dish on a baking sheet and get ready for the grand assembly.

9 .Place a bit of white sauce in the bottom of your dish, put Lasagne sheets on top. (don’t worry if there’s overlapping) .For the bottom layer add some (about 1-2 ladles) of meat sauce, put a little ricotta on ( I usually blob a bit in each corner)followed by a handful of the mozzarella, then pour a little white sauce over. Cover with more lasagne sheets.

10. Repeat (about 2 or 3 more times) until the ragu and ricotta are used up – which is why I haven’t given a specific weight for the lasagne as it depends on the size of your dish – be sure to leave some mozzarella for the top . It’s a good idea to alternate the direction of sheets to help it stay together.

11. Put a layer of sheets on top of the final ragu layer, pour the rest of white sauce over, and the remaining mozzarella cheese.

12. Bake for 45mins – or until golden and bubbling on the top and cooked through (easy way to test is stab the centre with a knife and if it slides down easy, all the pasta has cooked). Rest for a few minutes before cutting into fat slabs.

ENJOY
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