The Best of 2013

I’ve never done one of these before, but actually, it’s quite easy to forget what went wrong, and what went well in the past year of baking, cooking, and yes, all those non-culinary activities you get up to in life. So here goes!

The year started off with me having lost some of my baking mojo, having tucked myself up into my cubbyhole of a London bedroom to watch films and eat bagels by the dozen. I did pick up enough by February to make a gorgeous four-layered chocolatey cake.

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On a theme of cake, I wanted to test out flavours I hadn’t tried before in baking, and thus out came these syrup-soaked Lemon and Pistachio cakes, that were light, moist and absolutely divine I really ought to bake them again soon!

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As Spring crept into my life, onwards with a burst of baking activity. It became all about Ottolenghi and French patisserie. I finally cracked macarons….

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Made some pretty tarts….

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Chocolatey tarts…

IMG_0261And absolutely yummy amaretti!

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Then I went off onto my travels and no baking was done for quite a few months, but there was plenty to come when I came back. Summer had arrived and with this, lemon sponge and fresh strawberries, savoured in the soft afternoon sunlight with good friends.

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With Autumn, I revisited the fiery flavours of ginger in these simple but absolutely mouthwatering fork biscuits

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And saved the best of the windfall apples well into December, as with pride, I produced an Apple Pie at last to be proud of! It’s all in the stewing folks.

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Then into the final stretch of 2013 with festive bakes galore, topped with this delicious Gingerbread House! I felt so proud after completing this – a real way to end the year of baking, and looking forward to many more gingerbread creations in 2014?

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I don’t want to dedicate too much space to all the things that went very wrong but believe me there were plenty!

There was the weird-tasting Ottolenghi pear and amaretto cake, and apple and olive oil cake; soggy puff pastry apple tart; bland butternut squash risotto; somewhat raw homemade pizza; sickly lemon yoghurt cake; just plain wrong apple and blackberry open pie….yeah there were a few mishaps.

So there we have 2013 in a nutshell. Wonder what 2014 is going to bring? Meringues? More pies? Roulades? Brain cake à la Mary Berry? Perhaps I will even include something savoury into the hotlist next time? (hahahahahaha…as if)

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Gingerbread Owls

The idea for decorating these cuties came from the winner of the last Great British Bake Off series, Frances Quinn. They are the sweetest way to finish off the Christmas tree.

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If you want to find Quinn’s biscuit recipe, and decorating instructions, they are on BBC Good Food. I used my leftover dough from the Gingerbread House, and got a dozen owls in total.

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I find their stoned expressions unbelievably adorable. I forgot to punch any holes in the biscuits, they’re happily packed into the biscuit tin, where they are likely to last for a little longer too. Otherwise, the decorations are up, and there are Christmas songs on the radio. I’m already sick of Quality Street, and trying to figure out what to do with my leftover sweets from decorating these! Any ideas?

Also, despite finishing these off at Midday, it was so dark outside that I used the light box to take these photos. I’m very happy with the result!

Christmas Gingerbread House Part 2

Good daytime light is scarce during the winter season. After taking the first round of photographs for my Gingerbread House, I decided to play around with my new light box (Christmas gift from A 🙂 ) and see what I could come up with.

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I’m still working on the best way to position the lights so they aren’t harshly silhouetted in the backdrop, but so far so good! As I couldn’t decide which photographs to use in the final post, I thought…why not have two?

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I’m sure that there will be many more experimenting with light and angles to come!

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Christmas Gingerbread House Part 2

  • 250g icing sugar
  • 1 egg white
  • mixed sweets

It’s now time to assemble the Gingerbread House, and decorate it.

Firstly, make some royal icing by mixing the icing sugar together with the egg white in a mixing bowl to make a thick, fairly stiff icing. Put the icing into a piping bag with a narrow nozzle. Twist the end of the piping bag to seal the icing inside, and pipe designs onto the gingerbread pieces. Leave these to set for a few minutes.

Then prepare a board for the gingerbread house to sit on. Using the icing like glue, pipe each gingerbread wall piece to each other, and to the board itself, to assemble the structure of the house. Prop the interior of the house up with tins. Leave to set.

Then remove the tins, pipe on more icing, and stick the roof on, holding the pieces in place until they start to stick. Leave these to set. Change the nozzle on your piping bag to a crescent shaped one, and pipe on a trimming of snowy icing along the roof and the gables of your house. Finally use the remaining icing to stick sweets onto the house in decorative patterns. Now admire your gingerbread house, it’s all done! 🙂

Gingerbread goes soft after keeping, particularly if its slathered with icing, so I would recommend eating the Gingerbread House within a week of making. Make sure there are plenty of ready mouths and tums!

Christmas Gingerbread House Part 1

Christmas food in the UK relies deeply on aromatic spices, dried fruits, sugar, nuts and a dash of brandy. Honestly, most of it doesn’t float my boat. I wanted to make an alternative to the traditional Christmas Cake, and so, this Gingerbread House came into being.

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I’d wanted to make a Gingerbread House for years, but the images online looked so impressive I was quite intimidated at the prospect of making my own.

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Two years ago, I tried to freestyle what turned out to be an inedible biscuit church that was thoroughly glued together with gallons of overboiled fondant icing.  This year I wanted to aim for something pretty, but something that would remain tasty too.

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I have a lot of recipes for gingerbread biscuits, but the one from Peggy Porschen caught my eye. I made a few changes based on what I had in the cupboard: I substituted extra golden syrup for the treacle, contributed the spice flavours from a jar of French quatre d’epices, and added a little wholemeal flour. Crisp, crunchy, and full of Christmas spice, this is my new favourite recipe.

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Gingerbread House Part 1

Adapted from Cake Chic by Peggy Porschen

  • 5 tbsp water
  • 210g brown sugar
  • 6 tbsp golden syrup
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 4 tbsp quatre d’epices
  • 250g salted butter, cut into cubes
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 80g wholemeal flour
  • 480g plain flour

Put the water, sugar, golden syrup and spices together in a saucepan, and heat until it comes to the boil. Then take off the heat, and mix in the butter until completely melted and amalgamated. Add the bicarbonate of soda and briefly whisk in. Then leave to cool until just warm, and mix in the flours to form a fairly wet dough. Wrap this up, and pop in the fridge to chill for a few hours.

Make the template for the gingerbread house. I downloaded mine online.

Roll out the gingerbread dough in batches between two sheets of greaseproof paper. Lay the templates on the gingerbread and cut out shapes, removing the scraps to be re-used. Don’t move the cut shapes around, but transfer them to the baking sheet by sliding the tray underneath the sheet of baking paper. Put them in the fridge to chill.

Preheat the oven to 170˚C, and bake the sheets of gingerbread for approximately 15-20 minutes. The differently sized shapes will vary in their baking times. Take out of the fridge, and quickly, whilst the gingerbread is still soft, lay the templates on again, and trim the baked gingerbread.

Put the gingerbread on a cooling rack and leave until cold.

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Next, the decorating step, coming up in Part 2!

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Fairytales and Festive Biscuits

Fairytales and folklore are best enjoyed during the colder months of the year. Endlessly open to reinterpretation, retelling and reimagination, just think of the wild contrast between Disney’s pastel films, and the twisted tales in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. While Disney’s saccharine formula is wildly successful, that’s not the sort of fairytale I’m talking about.

I like a dose of realism mixed into the magic, and Sarah Pinborough get this balance just right. By pulling out a completely new take of several traditional fairytales, and weaving them together, we get Beauty, then Poison, then Charm. I spent the last few weeks reading them all jumbled up in the wrong order but it didn’t matter. A good book is a fantastic way to spend a cold winter’s night huddled up in bed.

Now I’m working my way through Gossip from the Forest, by Sara Maitland. It intersperses loving descriptions of the British woodlands with short retellings of traditional fairytales, and entwines the two in a really rather beautiful way. The book is brilliant in that you can happily read one chapter at a time, like a sweet treat savoured once in a while.

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Anyway, reading material aside, it is indeed the festive season. December tends to bring out my inner Scrooge (along with Valentine’s Day and my birthday). It doesn’t help being at work throughout the holiday, but I thought I would try to make a bit of an effort, and bake something cheery to herald all that is Joy Unto Us.

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The making of Christmas biscuits is commonplace throughout many European countries. I had a flatmate from Austria who made it an event every year to painstakingly roll out and form hundreds of tiny, beautifully formed little biscuits that she would hand out to us in ribbon-festooned bags. This lovely tradition hasn’t quite crossed the Channel into the UK, although I do remember making Advent Biscuits at school ( the combination of cardboardy biscuit, gluey icing and rock-solid silver balls wasn’t the most tempting of repasts).

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Here I’ve used a basic biscuit recipe by Peggy Porschen that has a simple, elegant but subtle flavour. This makes it infinitely adaptable. Not only can you slather on icing, but also adapt the biscuit itself with different flavourings. I’ve used lemon zest, but you can easily put in vanilla seeds, orange zest, cocoa powder, ginger and other spices….the possibilities are endless!

Gran Canaria

I needed a bit of a break from drizzly grey skies, and cold dark mornings, so off I went for a sunny week in the Canaries. Only once the plane landed, I realised that my hopes for perfect weather might not be completely fulfilled – it was windy, and yes, there was a little bit of rain. Looking back, all my photos seem to be permeated with the gentle shades of softened sunlight, so perhaps there was less rain than I initially thought.

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I certainly returned home with the tan to prove that I did catch plenty of sunshine, especially hiking outdoors in the mountains.

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I feel like I’ve really seen a side to Gran Canaria that most tourists don’t realise exist. There is a true joy from wandering  though miles of orange, almond and olive groves. Then the mad scramble past indigenous cave houses perched against steep inaccessible cliffs of fiery red rock scattered sparsely with prickly vegetation.

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I wish I had more photos although my camera really can’t do the spectacular (or sometimes, downright odd) scenery justice.

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Lost in the heights there was a wonderful sense of peace. If you stopped and were still – all that could be heard was the soft rustle of trees, and faraway birdsong; and far away in the distance, the dormat peak of Mount Teide.

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On a slightly aside note: for foodie followers – don’t expect to have your tastebuds tickled anything fancy. I spent my week eating mostly sandwiches and salad. If you’re feeling brave, the prickly pear fruits are edible, but I confess I never got round to trying one.

The Perfect Apple Pie

Winter is a season that needs small comforts to tide you through the gloom of cold weather, dark nights and rain. Little treats make all the difference – fragrant steam curling from hot drinks; warm mixed spices; the delights of wintery shopping, and the slow, creeping arrival of Christmas. With a good book, and a slice of hot apple pie, life takes on a cosier tone.

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I’ve just gotten into Nail Gaiman’s books, which have the perfect escapist tone for this sort of weather. Somewhat better than the cheering up I needed after finishing Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings – definitely don’t try reading that when you’re feeling blue.

Apples have a long shelf life so even in December, you can quite happily use your windfall bounty without ill-effects. I’ve made several versions of this pie over the last few months, and that’s given me plenty of time to experiment in finding the best recipe out of the many versions tried.

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The apple pie has two key components:

  1. The apple filling
  2. The pastry

Clearly the filling must have apples in it to qualify as being a true Apple Pie, although the more experimental may wish to try the infamous “Mock Apple Pie.”

In the past, I would simply use apples, diced up and thrown raw into a dish with a gentle sprinkling of cinnamon, but what tended to happen was that on opening the oven I would find a soggy pastry lid floating on a sea of water, and crunchy apple pieces. Not nice.

By precooking the apple filling, it is possible to stop this disaster from happening. The Hummingbird Bakery provides a divine indulgent filling cooking the apples in liberal amounts of butter, sugar, and spoonfuls of cinnamon. It really ups the flavour games. So to me, a good apple pie filling definitely has got to have a bit of butter, sugar, and an American-sized dose of cinnamon. Yes, you may scorn, but wait until you’ve tried it.

Others advocate adding lemon juice to their apples, particularly as it helps stop them from oxidising and turning brown. I never bother with it, finding the sharpness a rather off-putting contrast with the warm cosy sweetness I’m trying to produce.

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For the pastry, there are yet more conundrums. Puff pastry, flaky pastry, shortcrust or sweet? A crust underneath or none?  I found both delicious, but puff pastry only works as a top layer as it needs room to rise. Shortcrust is pretty happy in both roles, and a dash of sugar always elevates it into dessert status. The BBC Good Food recipe is pretty fabulous, and the positive ratings seem to indicate that a lot of people agree. Browsing on the net, there are always other options if you want to take your Apple Pie to a whole new level. What about bacon?

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The Perfect Apple Pie

Adapted from The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook and BBC Good Food

For the pastry:

  • 225g butter, cut into cubes
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 350g plain flour

For the filling:

  • 1.5 kg apples (I like a combination of Granny Smith and Golden Delicious) peeled and cut into chunks
  • 50g butter
  • 3 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 100-150g caster sugar (depending on how tart your apples are)
  • 1 tbsp cornflour

For the pastry, beat the butter and sugar together until combined, then beat in 1 egg and 1 egg yolk until it resembles scrambled egg. Then bit by bit, mix in the flour and form into a soft dough. Knead roughly for a moment to bring it together without overdoing it (which makes the pastry tough) then wrap with clingfilm and rest in the fridge.

For the filling, melt the butter and cinnamon together in a pan. Then stir in the apple chunks, followed by the sugar and gently cook until the apple chunks have softened, and partly broken down. If they are very watery, then stir some of the liquid with a spoonful of cornflour to form a paste, then add this to the apple mixture, as this will thicken up the juices. Let the apple mixture cool completely.

Preheat the oven to 190˚C.

Remove the pastry from the fridge, divide into two. Roll the larger piece out into a circle, and line a pie dish with pastry. Trim the edges with a sharp knife. As the pastry will shrink as it cooks, make sure there is a bit of extra overhang. Fill the dish with the cooled apple filling. Roll out the second piece of pastry to form the lid. Lay this over the apple filling, and trim the edges with a sharp knife. Seal the pie crust by pressing around it with the tines of a fork.

With a sharp knife, prick 5 holes in the middle to let the steam escape. Use the pastry scraps to decorate the pie lid, then baste with the remaining egg white. Bake for around 40 minutes until the pastry is golden brown. The pie is at its best when hot, so dig in!

Note: the sharper-eyed amongst you will notice that I have actually posted my photos of two pies. The cut pie was the final version, but I didn’t have quite enough apples so you can see that it has a flatter lid as a result.

Winter Roasted Medley

Do you ever go shopping and come away with a heap of things but not the item you originally went to buy?

Yup, today, that was me. I went to Sainsburys intending to buy a loaf of bread, and came out with two bags bulging with veg. So this is my effort to use some of it up – throw it in a tin into the oven, and hey presto.

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With roasting, getting crispy edges is imperative, which can be difficult unless you spread everything out with plenty of space. Ideally, two tins would be perfect, but my flat oven only has one shelf, so in the end, I had to sacrifice some of the crispness (the idea of cooking everything indivdually crossed my mind but I don’t have that much time to spend on a fairly simple recipe).

Many souls on the internet have been raving about the joys of roasted broccoli. It’s nice, but I prefer it sauteed as retains a little crunch and texture, and the colour of the broccoli itself stays brighter.

Still, this works very well as a meal in its own right, maybe bulked out with some cooked shredded meat for extra protein. I think this dish probably works best in its Christmassy incarnation – as it is the perfect, perfect companion to a roasted hunk of meat.

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Winter Roasted Medley

  • 3 roasting potatoes, scrubbed and cut into bite-size pieces
  • 1/2 small butternut squash, peeled, de-seeded and cut into bite-size pieces
  • 1 small red onion, cut into wedges
  • handful of broccoli and cauliflower florets
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 200˚C. Parboil the potatoes in salted water until they are soft when you stab them with a fork. Drain throughly. In a roasting tin, toss the butternut squash with 1 tbsp oil, and roast for 15 minutes.Then add the onion, parboiled potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower, and toss together with another tbsp oil. Season well. Roast this for a further 25-30 minutes, tossing throughout until some of the edges brown and become lightly golden, and serve hot.