Oatmeal Caramel Crumble Bars

Like being hit by a powerful wave, I felt knocked off my feet this week. Sluggishly going through the motions, out of bed, into work, home and back to bed. I blame it on the weather, which has taken a turn for the chilly. Baltic breezes have hit this island, and I most definitely need my raincoat.

Now I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of Outsider Tart, an American-style bakery in London, who do the most fabulous bars and brownies. So when I finally perked up enough to do a spot of baking, of course, I turned to their Oatmeal Caramel Crumble Bars.

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They are the last word in decadent calorie-packed baking. A buttery oaty base serves as a prop for a thick layer of caramel, pecans, chopped up chocolate, and yet more oat crumble scattered on top. In fact, they reminded me of flapjacks, only sandwiched with lots of extras. I took a second look at the recipe, and yes indeed, it was startlingly similar.

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I wasn’t hugely enamoured of these bars when they first came out of the oven. They seemed too sweet, too rich, and just a bit sloppy. Once they’d cooled down, and settled, the caramel firmed up, they cut like a dream, and actually tasted alright, but there were too many rich components vying for attention. SALTY, SUGARY, CARAMELY, BUTTERY, NUTTY CHOCOLATY…ehhhh.

I think it must be a characteristic that forms part of the character of American baked goods but my palate just got confused here. Not sure I’d make them again sadly!

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Is Butter Always Better?

In the baking world, butter has a far better reputation than its greyer industrial cousin – margarine. Butter is pretty fabulous, but Stork baking margarine is the magic producing some of the best cakes I’ve ever made – light, fluffy, well-risen and delicious.

But still…it’s margarine. No self-respecting foodie uses margarine surely??

Thus torn betweeen my desire to make wonderful cakes, and my ethos of only using natural ingredients, I thought it was about time I did a direct comparison betwen the two, to see if the difference was really that marked.

I made up two single-egg-victoria sponge batters: one using Stork baking spread, and the other using Président Unsalted butter.  They turned out surprisingly different.

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In the image above, you can see that the cake on the left is darker in colour. Texturally, it made for a crisper crunchier top. The sponge on the right is not only paler, but also rose better, with a softer, more open crumb.

But which cake used which baking fat?

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The darker cake is made from butter. The lighter one  – Stork. Did you guess correctly?

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Both cakes had a pleasingly aerated texture, but the Stork cakes definitely won on the fluffiness factor, with an almost-cloud-like crumb. The butter cakes were firmer, and had a richer, fuller flavour, whereas the Stork cakes stood on more neutral ground, and required more additional flavouring as a result.
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I reckon butter is great in baking, especially when its flavours are allowed to really shine. I still choose it over anything else in cakes, pastry, biscuits and butter-rich bakes. However, I can also visibly see that Stork manages to consistently make better cakes, especially these classic English teatime favourites.
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This experiment isn’t totally complete, as I’d still like to pit Stork against spreadable forms of butter containing vegetable oil and a higher water content next. Let’s see what results emerge!

Running is Baaack!

As you can see from my blogging history, my last running post was a while back. March 2013 in fact. After that, it just trailed off, and eventually I just stopped writing about it.

It’s not that I stopped. I still did an odd 5km here and there. But I didn’t really feel the joy from going outdoors in my trainers from before. It had become a chore – I was obsessed about speed, intensity, distance, and when it didn’t hit the mark, I got pissed off.

So I took a break for 12 months, and just concentrated on plodding through.

But now, I’m optimistic that my mojo is finally back! The endorphins are buzzing, I’ve started timing my runs again, really pleased with the pace (though I’m never going to be a speedy bean). Now that the evenings are getting lighter too, I’m thinking of prolonging my distances, and hopefully entering an Autumn race if all works out. 🙂

Anyway, you know this blog is very much about the baking so I’m also going to post about these flowery fairy cakes. I made them a while ago for my work colleagues, and as an experiment in trying out ways of reducing butter in baking.

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Fairy cakes are really great, as they are just the right size for a few mouthfuls. This is based on the usual fairy cake recipe, but I replaced half the butter with natural yoghurt. It worked out beautifully, the cakes were texturally extra light, yet moist. I’d accumulated a lot of sugar flowers, so plonked them on top of the icing.

Yoghurt Fairy Cakes

Makes 16-18 cakes

For the cakes:

  • 65g unsalted butter
  • 130g caster sugar
  • 65g natural yoghurt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla paste
  • 65g wholemeal self-raising flour
  • 65g self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt

For the icing:

  • 100g butter
  • 200g icing sugar
  • splash of whole milk
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla paste
  • food colouring (optional)
  • sugar decorations

Preheat the oven to 180˚C. Line a bun tin with fairy cake cases.

Beat the butter and sugar together until creamy, then add the yoghurt. Beat this in well, then add the eggs one by one, followed by the vanilla paste. Then, add the flour, baking powder and salt, and gently fold together until combined. Plop a dessertspoon of cake mixture into each paper case, then pop into the oven for around 12 minutes until golden-brown, risen and springy. Put the cakes onto a cooling rack and wait until cold.

Make up the icing by beating together the butter and icing sugar until combined, then adding in a little milk, drop by drop, and beating in until creamy and spreadable. Add the vanilla paste and taste. Add more or less depending on how you like it. Pop a spoonful of icing onto each of the cold cakes, and ssing a small palette knife, spread it to cover the top of each cake completely. Decorate however you fancy – they went down really well at work!

Salted Caramel Macarons

My favourite macaron flavour is definitely salted caramel. It’s so addictive. I’m not alone in thinking this.  I was once standing in a queue at the Pierre Hermé counter in Selfridges, and every single person in front of me got a salted caramel macaron as part of their purchases.

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After cracking the art of salted caramel, and my bounty still stashed in the fridge, I thought that this lent itself perfectly to salted caramel macarons being my next bake.

This time, instead of turning to my old faithful Ottolenghi recipe, I thought I would finally try making macarons using Pierre Hermé’s italian meringue method. I gleaned the recipe off the internet. Still dithering about buying his macaron cookbook. I possess Hermé’s Larousse des Desserts, and it’s pretty intimidating.

Anyway, I followed the basic macaron recipe for the shells here, so there isn’t any extra colouring or flavouring there. I think it would definitely benefit from the addition of coffee extract for colouring and flavouring.

The original recipe states the macarons should be cooked at 180˚C, but they turned out crispy and overbaked, so for chewy macaron perfection, definitely lower the temperature to 160˚C! The filling turned out to be very buttery too so I might re-try that with different proportions of sugar, butter and cream.

Recipe updated 29th April 2014: see my post here

Peanut Butter Cookies

I love that the sun is still out when I get home from work these days. It’s even inspiring me to do more exercise after my long commute. I can go out, destress, bask in that last bit of evening sun, then the purpley hours of twilight, and come back to savour these nutty, chocolate-stuffed cookies.

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These are based on the much-loved Hummingbird Bakery peanut butter cookies. I’ve swapped a few things around, halving the recipe, reducing the sugar (I found the originals too sweet), throwing in some wholemeal flour, and upping the chocolate. There can never too much chocolate in a cookie 😉

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Peanut Butter Cookies

Makes 12 big cookies

  • 110g butter
  • 120g peanut butter
  • 100g light brown sugar
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
  • 80g wholemeal flour
  • 40g plain flour
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 75g dark chocolate, chopped coarsely

Preheat the oven to 170˚C.

Beat the butters and sugars together, then add the egg and vanilla extract. Finally beat in the flours, bicarbonate of soda, and the chocolate chips.

Use an ice-cream scoop to transfer balls of cookie dough onto 2-3 baking trays. Keep plenty of space between each cookie as they will spread! Bake in the oven for 12 minutes. Leave to cool before transferring onto a cooling rack.

Peanut Butter and Jam Bars

Spring has arrived! I’m so excited, it’s my favourite season of the year, flowers are coming into bloom, and the air smells fresher, more fragrant, and full of sunshine.

I’ve been gallivating about, eating my way around London. There’s nothing else quite like it. I am perpetually surprised at the variety, the vastness, and the sheer quality of the produce you can find.

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Anyway, I was reminded of these all-American Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars whilst lusting after the bars served at Outsider Tart. I last made them two years ago and thought it was about time they resurfaced!

They are super easy and quick to make. You can have them rolled out and ready for eating in about 40 mins, which is always a bonus.

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I changed the recipe around a little, reducing the sugar and butter, throwing in a little wholemeal flour and rolled oats. They turned out just as I remembered, that classic combo of salty-and-sweet, slightly crumbly, and very, very moreish.

Peanut Butter and Jam Bars

  • 115g butter
  • 200g crunchy peanut butter
  • 60g caster sugar
  • 60g soft light brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 150g plain flour
  • 50g wholemeal flour
  • 50g rolled oats
  • 1/2 jar raspberry jam
  • handful of coarsely chopped peanuts

Preheat the oven to 180˚C. Grease and line a square baking tin.

Beat the butter, peanut butter and sugars together, followed by the egg, then the flour and oats. Split this in half. Press half the dough into the tin to form the base of the bar and spread a layer of jam on top. Break up the remaining dough into crumbs and sprinkle on top. Sprinkle finally with the handful of chopped peanuts and bake for 25 minutes until the top is golden brown. Slice into squares.

Take a big slice outdoors, eat blissfully, and bask in the wonderful Spring sunshine.

Banoffee Cupcakes

I find my job pretty hardcore, but I don’t think I could ever work with food professionally. The thought of the stress, and even earlier morning wake up calls is beyond hideous to imagine. However, whipping up a quick batch of cakes in my home kitchen, the radio on, and work behind me, now that’s a wonderful way to relax.

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We are real banana fanatics in this house. They go so fast, you have to eat them green, or simply go without. I surreptitiously hid a banana behind some baking stuff to let it finally ripen into brown-speckled sweetness, purely so I could make these banoffee cupcakes.

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Make sure the cakes are completely cold before filling them with gooey caramel. Otherwise the warm cakes melt the caramel, so it runs into the crumb of the banana sponge rather than staying put as a gooey blob in the centre. Not that I did this of course…

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Banoffee Cupcakes

Makes 10-12 cupcakes

  • 110g soft butter/margarine
  • 110g caster sugar
  • 2 eggs, lightly whisked
  • 1 small ripe banana, mashed
  • 110g self-raising flour
  • 1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 jar thick caramel sauce
  • 300ml whipping cream, whipped into firm peaks
  • 4 squares dark or milk chocolate, shaved into shards

Preheat the oven to 180˚C. Line a muffin tin with cupcake cases.

In a bowl, combine flour, bicarbonate of soda, and salt together. Beat the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy, then slowly whisk in the eggs. Beat in the mashed banana. Fold in the flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt until just combined. Fill the cupcake cases and bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes until the cakes are golden and springy. Put on a cooling rack, and cool completely.

Using a sharp knife, carve out a circular hollow in the centre of each cupcake. Put a spoonful of caramel into the hollow. Pipe a whirl of cream onto the top of each cake, and toss some chocolate shards over to finish off.

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Look at that caramel oozing its way out. Yum.

Salted Caramel

Saturday was a Salted Caramel Day.

Let me start with why. I adore Waitrose’s caramel dipping sauce. It’s like thick, edible gold, rich and scrummy. Sadly, I don’t live near enough Waitrose anymore to get my caramel fix whenever it rolls by (sob, sob). But I did buy a pot of double cream, and turned to the internet to see what solutions it could come up with.

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I first cooked Rachel Khoo’s recipe from The Little Paris Kitchen. I don’t own the cookbook, but watched her cooking from YouTube. Video link here. I love her cutesy vintage dresses, fringe and red red lipstick. Oh, if only I was Rachel Khoo.

The second sauce I whipped up was from another doyen of the kitchen, Nigella. Her recipe was really straightforward. I cooked it a little longer than the recipe stated just because I wanted this one to turn out a gloopier thickness.

Needless to say, both caramels were very, very tasty.

Rachel Khoo’s caramel was like eating a handful of Wether’s Originals toffees, melted down into this….

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Nigella’s caramel was a lighter shade of gold, and sweeter too. I was a wimp when it came to adding salt, and erred on the safer side of that half teaspoon, but next time I’d be much happier going with a full whammy.

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I can’t resist saying that my fridge looks incredibly tempting with these pots of edible gold hiding inside. Mmmmmm, just think how amazing these would be on pancakes tomorrow!