The Perfect Bakewell Tart

Bakewell is a pretty little place way up north in Derbyshire. It’s not too far away from Chatsworth House, a mansion well-known as being Jane Austen’s inspiration for Pemberley in her novel, Pride and Prejudice. In fact, I think Bakewell is mentioned in the book, if only in passing.

Anyway, Bakewell is a lot more famous for being the birthplace of the beloved British dessert – the Bakewell tart.

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This is not to be confused with Bakewell pudding, also invented in the same locality. Bakewell tart is a delicious relation to the frangipane tart: a rich shortcrust pastry encasing a layer of jam, followed by thin layer of almond-rich sponge, which is topped with flaked almonds and baked until golden.

For a classic recipe, there are hundreds of riffs on a standard theme. Felicity Cloake in her Guardian “How to cook the Perfect…” series adds a little lemon zest for her Perfect Bakewell Tart. The Hairy Bikers add ground almonds to their pastry. Nearly everybody, like James Martin, goes for raspberry jam, but you get a few recipes that go on a bender with apricots and blackcurrants.

I’ve tried all kinds of pastry. Plain pastry in a 2:1 ratio of flour to fat works really well. Then I discovered a wonderful keeper of a pastry recipe in the making of apple pies, and now it’s my firm favourite.

You can use all kinds of jam, but I think raspberry treads the balance between sweet and tart absolutely perfectly. Strawberry doesn’t quite achieve that element of sharpness. It doesn’t have to be a fancy jam – in Bakewell Tart I like ones with a pretty firm set.

 

Most Bakewell tart recipes use very little flour in the almond sponge. All the recipes use predominantly ground almonds. I prefer a higher ratio of flour, as the almond sponge bakes to a light, yet substantial finish, which is much better than the overly damp, heavy almond frangipanes I have disappointingly produced in the past.

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I’m not a fan of icing so no glacé for me, but I can’t resist a good sprinkling of flaked almonds. It adds extra flavour and crunch, and sets the whole tart off perfectly!

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Just wonderful with a good book!

The Perfect Bakewell Tart

  • 200g shortcrust pastry
  • 3 tbsp raspberry jam
  • 120g butter
  • 120g caster sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 60g ground almonds
  • 60g self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp almond extract
  • milk
  • flaked almonds

Preheat the oven to 200˚C. Line a tart tin with the shortcrust pastry, prick all over with a fork, and blind bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to cool. Reduce the oven temperature to 180˚C.

Make the almond sponge filling by creaming the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, then whisk in the eggs and almond extract. Finally fold in the flour and ground almonds, and add a little milk to loosen the mixture to softly dropping consistency.

Spread the jam over the base of the tart. Top with the almond sponge and smooth the surface. Sprinkle with ground almonds and bake for around 25-30 minutes until golden. Leave to cool and then unmould from the tart tin. Cut into slices, and serve.

The Perfect Dark Chocolate Cake

Chocolate cake, universally loved around the world. With so many recipes, which one honestly comes closest to perfection?

Firstly, I had to choose sides. Chocolate cakes fall into two distinct camps. The first – fluffy spongy cakes that are perfect for layering, icing and Birthday parties. Popular, pretty, actually pretty good – but not what I wanted to go for.

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I’m referring to the second category. The dense and the dark; the tortes and rich slivers of 70% cocoa, requiring minimal adornment. They’re given seductive names in restaurants, they never lose their place on dessert menus, and I simply wanted to try more.

The recipes all startlingly similar, relies on the heady combination of butter and melted chocolate , with whisked egg whites for airiness. Some add ground almonds, others just a touch of flour. I’ve made and loved Sophie Dahl’s recipe, but was curious to try out some others to find out just how different the results could be. I tested in total five popular recipes, to see how they differed and which one (would I be able to decide?) would be closest to perfection? Most of these recipes are designed to serve at least 8 people, so I halved the ingredients to bake the cakes in a 15cm tin. It worked very well, so if you are baking for smaller numbers I can happily recommend this.

  1. Sophie Dahl’s Flourless Chocolate Cake
  2. Chocolate and Zucchini’s Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cake
  3. David Lebowitz’s Chocolate Cocoa Nib Cake
  4. River Cafe’s Chocolate Nemesis

Sophie Dahl’s recipe is one that I have made a few times, and I have always been happy with the results. The cake is very, very rich, but delightfully satisfying. The method is very failsafe, and although a food processor or blender is needed, there’s no lengthy use of hundreds of mixing bowls. A deep crater forms in this cake, which forms a great receptacle for cream and fresh fruit, and there is a textural contrast between crisp exterior, and melting, almost mousse-like interior.

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David Lebowitz’s recipe was actually adapted from one he found scribbled inside the men’s toilets inside an upmarket Parisian restaurant. You can read the full story here.

This cake doesn’t sink as much as Sophie Dahl’s. The combination of less sugar, and a shorter baking time means you don’t get the development of that very crisp crust, but I quite like it this way, and the cocoa nibs provide textural contrast.

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Although this recipe requires 3 bowls, it was remarkably quick and simple. With an electric whisk, you can easily whip this up within an hour. I enjoyed it very much, but I think Sophie Dahl’s cake won this particular contest by a narrow margin.

Next up is this recipe from popular French blog Chocolate and Zucchini. The results are very, very good. It is adapted from another popular recipe by Trish Deseine, but Clotilde Dusoulier has reduced the sugar, and cut out one egg. The method was even easier – no electric appliances needed – and the whole thing could be made in 1 pan, which is always a bonus.

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The cake was utterly delicious – unctuously dark and rich, with Clotilde’s genius addition of a sprinkle of salt flakes on top. At first I was sceptical, but the way the salt dissolves against your tongue produces a magnificent burst of chocolatey flavour that I think would be impossible to replicate any other way.

The fourth and final recipe I tried was the most infamous chocolate cake of them all. River Cafe’s Chocolate Nemesis is notorious for its difficulty, and I approached it with considerable apprehension. I opted to use the recipe for the Easy Small Nemesis, which still seemed pretty complex  – making syrup, whisking eggs for what felt like hours, and boiling the kettle three times for the deep water-bath that the cake luxuriates in as it bakes. I had a bit of an issue with the water-bath, and my cake tin not being watertight, but all was well in the end. The finished result was full-blown chocolate intensity. It doesn’t get richer than this.

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There were a lot of other chocolate cake recipes I wanted to try, but for the sake of my wallet, waistline, and sanity, didn’t get round to baking. In particular I omitted flourless recipes incorporating ground almonds, such as Elizabeth David’s Chocolate Cake, but I have no doubt they are just as good.

So best cake out of them all? I would have to stay that Chocolate and Zucchini’s Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cake is a resounding winner. It’s a combination of two very good things – easy to make, and absolutely flipping delicious. The Chocolate Nemesis is impressive stuff, but oh so complicated. The others? Still delicious but ousted!

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.

The Perfect Carrot Cake

With autumn, it’s all about the spices, and the cakes made out of the allotment glut. While I have, as yet to bake anything with courgettes, pumpkins, or squashes, I am very fond of good old carrot cake.

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The recipes I tested were stupendously varied. And here they were:

  1. The Hummingbird Bakery carrot cake
  2. The Hummingbird Bakery carrot cake, adapted
  3. BBC Good Food yummy scrummy carrot cake
  4. Ottolenghi’s carrot cake
  5. Geraldene Holt’s Cakes

The first recipe I made was the Hummingbird Bakery one, which I enjoyed very much, although the quantities did make for the most enormous cake of truly American-sized proportions. This was a few years ago, when I first started baking, and although I loved the recipe, one niggle was the large volume of oil that was going into the cake. I read on the internet that others had managed to cut it down substantially, so I did that, replacing the lost volume with milk instead. It worked beautifully – I had a light risen sponge, with shreds of carrot running throughout, studded with walnuts.

BBC Good Food have a recipe that has hundreds and hundreds of positive reviews. Not all that different from the Hummingbird recipe, I was anticipating great things. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.   Like the Hummingbird Bakery recipe, it relies upon a very large volume of oil, and here, I could really taste it. Eau de vegetable oil was not appealling. Plus points – it was indeed moist and fluffy, and certainly had potential for improvement.

Ottolenghi obviously always gets thumbs up all over the internet, and his carrot cake has been cited as a favourite by loads of food bloggers out there. It was a nice sponge, but I just didn’t think it was as tasty as the Hummingbird recipe. I did make a very small sponge (what with testing so many recipes) so perhaps I shall try and make a full-size version in future and see what that is like. Additionally, I also feel many Ottolenghi recipes improve with keeping, so this may be a cake to make, and wait, before judging.

Geraldene Holt’s recipe looked promising. It doesn’t use oil, which is a change from the recipes above, instead relying upon melted butter. The cake is packed full of orange zest, dried fruit, and nuts, and at the end, is much denser than any of the recipes above. My testers liked it, but I felt that it didn’t seem like carrot cake anymore, and seemed closer to a Christmas fruit cake, or a hot cross bun. I did use the wrong sugar, and perhaps a lighter one would have produced a more desired taste, but this wasn’t what I was looking for from a carrot cake.

So final verdict? Well, it was overwhelmingly in favour of the Hummingbird Bakery recipe, in its adapted form, which got the most ticks in the box.  I really love, love love this recipe, and will be posting it up soon!

The Perfect Chocolate Truffle

When you don’t know what to get somebody, an edible gift is usually a good way to go. Whereas a box of chocolates or macarons is pretty amazing to receive, I do enjoy going the extra mile, and making presents from scratch!

Today I was reading the Guardian article on making the Perfect Chocolate Truffle, and immediately had a strong desire to make some. Chocolate truffles always go down well as gifts, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to experiment with some new recipes instead of always sticking to my go-to formula.

I tested out four recipes in total:

  1. My recipe for milky chocolate truffles
  2. Paul A. Young‘s chocolate muscovado truffles
  3. Cocoa & Me classic chocolate ganache truffles
  4. Tartlette’s truffes au chocolat

For the truffles, I used a mixture of Lindt Cooking chocolate, Lindt 70% eating chocolate, and Valrhona Noir 68%. I dusted the results in Green & Black’s cocoa powder. All of the truffles tasted equally fabulous, it was quite actually hard to discern any difference between the chocolates I’d used, but my favourite was the Lindt cooking chocolate, which had the most round-bodied flavour.

My own recipe for truffles always turns out slightly soft, which makes it perfect for using as a topping for chocolate cakes, but slightly difficult when it comes to forming little spheres, rolling them in cocoa powder, and packaging them up neatly.

I melted down milk and dark chocolate together, and combined it with an equal quantity of double cream. This mixture I popped into the freezer to set. It is quite soft, so it was with speed, and some difficulty that I rolled them out into balls, covered with cocoa powder, and stuck into the fridge.

Next up was the Paul A Young truffles. They looked very straightforward, and in terms of method and ingredient volumes – very similar to my own go-to recipe. However, the cream and sugar formed a much thicker mixture in the pan, and it was much richer-tasting as well, the dark chocolate being unadulterated by any additional milk chocolate flavours. Very delicious. This also took quite a long time to set, so I resorted to chilling the ganache in the freezer, and similarly, was on the soft side when it came to rolling them out and coating the balls in ganache. Another one to keep in the fridge.

Cocoa & Me  is one of the cutest blogs ever, written by a Japanese market stallhaller in London, she has some of the most beautifully crafted baked goods I’ve ever seen. Not surprisingly, I was keen to give her basic ganache truffles recipe a whirl.

The ganache split as I was making it, but it wasn’t too disastrous, so I gave it a good whisking, poured it into another bowl, and stuck it into the fridge, hoping it wouldn’t do any further separating whilst it was chilling.

The Cocoa & Me truffles set really well; a lot firmer than my usual go-to recipe, rich and dense. Whilst I do enjoy the convenience of not having to coat the truffles or leave them in the fridge permanently, these had a slightly crumbly texture which I wasn’t too fond of. The meltier texture of softer truffles somehow seems more luxurious, although it is more tricky to handle. This would be a good robust truffle if you were packaging them up and handing them out as gifts.

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Cocoa & Me truffles

Finally, Tartlette’s recipe! It is unusual here in that it doesn’t require any double cream, but relies on dark chocolate, butter, icing sugar and egg yolks. This was handy as I’d just used all of the cream up!

I made a half batch as I didn’t have quite enough butter, reduced the quantity of icing sugar to 50g, and altered the method for greater simplicity by heating the chocolate and butter together in a bain-marie; whisking the egg and icing sugar together, and finally mixing the sugary eggy mixture into the melted chocolate and chilling the tempting chocolatey goo in the fridge.

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Tartlette truffles

I actually really loved the Tartlette truffles, and they went down very well with everyone (except the resident chocolate hater). They had a great texture and flavour, and like the Cocoa & Me truffles solidified nicely, which is always a plus in my book as it means I don’t have to roll them in an additional coating of chocolate. They had a slightly less smooth mouthfeel than my usual truffles and I’m not quite sure why. It wasn’t unpleasant at all, just noticeable.

These truffles are definitely one to make again, and possibly experiment further with by adding other flavourings e.g. adding a bit of jam, and rolling them in freeze-dried raspberry powder.

So …

What wins the prize of Perfect Truffle?

Well, I still prefer my go-to recipe in terms of simplicity, and all-round pleasing flavour, especially when it comes to a younger, more sweet-toothed audience. Accolades for flavour and ease of packaging go towards the Tartlette ones. For the sophisticated palate, the Paul Young truffles are a winner. Pick and choose your chocolate vice 🙂

The Perfect Baking Chocolate

“Only use the best chocolate money can buy. Anything less than 70% cocoa solids will destroy your cake/biscuits/mousse and all your time and precious money will be wasted.”

This statement (or a variant of it) crops up time and time again. Food writers, bloggers, cookbook recipes seem obsessed about the cocoa content when it comes to cooking with chocolate. But how true is it really? Should we really be eschewing much maligned cheaper chocolate in favour of the cocoa content? I had a look online to see what others out there said.

David Lebovitz, in his excellent blog recommends using mid-range chocolate with a cocoa content of 35-64%. His reasoning behind this is that the depth of flavour you get in more expensive chocolate brands can get lost in the cooking process. He also had the interesting idea, which I’d very much like to try in future, of using chocolate extract to boost the flavour in baked goods. So I decided here to conduct my own experiment. I selected a range of chocolates – some of the cheapest and most expensive varieties out there, and baked a batch of brownies all to the same recipe. The chocolates I tested (in ascending order of price):

  1. Morrisons value
  2. Sainsburys Basics*
  3. Cadburys Bournville*
  4. Tesco 74% dark chocolate*
  5. Waitrose Continental chocolate*
  6. Green & Blacks Cook’s chocolate
  7. Lindt cooking chocolate*
  8. Lindt 70% dark chocolate*
  9. Valrhona Noir cooking chocolate

My main findings were that the Morrisons chocolate brownies lacked a certain depth of flavour whilst the Green & Blacks had a slightly bitter note I actually found rather unpleasant. All the other chocolate brands produced delicious results.

I’ve assigned an asterisk (*) next to all the brands I would use most commonly in cooking. All in all, it’s just common sense. Simply the best chocolate to use in baking is the sort you enjoy eating au naturel anyway. I personally prefer a sweeter dark chocolate such as Bournville, but to others, Green & Blacks would be more to their taste.

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It also depends on the dessert itself. Sweeter brownies seem to pair up better with sweeter dark chocolates, but I say still go for 70% cocoa content when you are making something knee-breakingly decadent. Just experiment, and see what you like the best!