Tuesday, 25 October 2011

After dinner mint macaroons

This week, I decided it was time for a baking challenge - so I decided to jump in at the deep end with that most challenging of biscuits: the macaroon.

Having read a good amount of recipes, blogs and general macroon-related paraphernalia, I discovered not only that there are a huge number of slightly different ways to make macaroons (although I still haven't quite worked out the difference between the French method and the Italian method..!?), but that the general consensus is that they're difficult. And that most people apparently have to throw away several batches before getting them right.

Having made them, I've now discovered one of two things. Either, I've got a gift for macaroons. Or, I've got much lower standards than the rest of the internet population. To be honest, the truth is probably somewhere in between...

Anyway - here are my macaroons - not perfect, I admit - the first batch were slightly overcooked, and therefore a bit more brown than green (these were baked in an Aga, so it took a little time to find the exact temperature), and they're not all quite circular or smooth... but for a first batch, I don't think they're half bad:

So, the recipe. In the end, I adapted a few different ones to come up with a recipe which was somewhere between the two popular extremes of vaguely laid-back and pendantically anal - and here it is:

125g icing sugar
125g ground almonds
3 medium egg whites (around 90g)
2 tbsp water
110g caster sugar
Green food colouring

Preheat the oven to 170 degrees.

First, blend the icing sugar and ground almonds in a food processor to get the mixture as fine as possible - and pick out any stray bits of almond peel. Pour into a large bowl and mix with 40g of the egg whites (which is approximately an egg white and a half) until it forms a thick paste.

Using an electric whisk, whisk up the rest of the egg whites (50g - or thereabouts) until it forms fairly stiff peaks.

Mix the caster sugar with the water in a heavy-based saucepan, and put it over a high heat - melt the sugar, and allow it to boil and heat up to 115 degrees C. Use a baking thermometer for this part - if it's anything like mine, it'll be too bubbly to work out when it's got to the right consistency!

As soon as the sugar syrup is up to temperature, add it to the egg, and whisk at a high speed until the mixture is stiff again, and shiny. Add your food colouring now - drop by drop is safest, but it'll take at least half a teaspoon to get to a decent strength of green.

Finally, use a spatula to gently fold the meringue mixture into the almond paste - it's important to get it as smooth as possible, but avoid losing any of the air and lightness of the mixture. Add any more food colouring as required.

Now, spoon the mixture into 1.5inch circles on a flat baking tray, lined with baking parchment (or even better, one of those non-stick reusable meringue sheet). The circles should be as smooth as possible, and about half an inch high. Alternatively, pipe the circles - this will make them more even and smooth. Allow at least half an inch between circles to allow for spreading.

Slam the baking sheets on a hard surface a few times to smooth out the mixture a little, then leave them to sit for 30 minutes to spread and smooth some more.

Then - at last - they're ready to bake! Into the oven with the door slightly ajar for 12 minutes - but check them (and turn them if the oven has a tendency to cook unevenly) after 8. It's vital that they don't colour at all.

Allow them to cool on the baking paper for a good 15 minutes or so before trying to move them - use a palette knife to remove them smoothly from the sheet.

And finally, stick them together! I used a white chocolate peppermint ganache for this, the recipe for which I found at: http://www.cuisine.com.au/recipe/mint-macarons-white-chocolate-ganache

Pipe the ganache onto one round (I did this using a make-shift piping bag made from a folded cone of greaseproof paper), right up to the edges, then stick the other round on top - pushing gently so that the ganache shows nicely at the join. This ganache recipe has quite a strong flavour, so if you want to taste the almond of the biscuits, try to use the ganache sparingly - while still making sure it looks good, of course!

And finally, stick the macaroons on a baking tray in the fridge for a while - a couple of hours will do. If at all possible, don't cover the tray so as to avoid any condensation forming and dampening the biscuits.

Then, eat! Perfect with a cup of coffee after dinner... yum.

Mary Berry's Tarte Au Citron

For a dinner party this week I decided to make Mary Berry's Tarte Au Citron - as featured on the recent series of the Great British Bake-Off:


Great recipe - one of the most lemony tarts I've ever tasted - and the basics of the recipe are fairly straightforward. However, my particular version was far from perfect, and I think I've learnt a few lessons...

1. It's equally important to check that your tart tin is the right depth as it is the right diameter. Mine was not - meaning that my lemony filling didn't fill it up, and the tops of the pastry case got a bit browner than they should have done during cooking...

2. It's a good idea to actually take the tart out of the tin... I didn't quite manage to do this for over an hour after cooking - by which time the pastry had cooled enough to weld itself somewhat to the bottom of the tin...

3. In fact, it's quite a good idea to NOT make a tarte au citron at the same time as preparing the rest of a dinner party, as it does seem to lead to general chaos...

Anyway, despite a few problems, the tarte did taste rather good - as is evidenced from the fact that I didn't manage to take a photo of it before half of it got eaten:

And of course the main thing - I avoided the soggy bottom!

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Berry pink cupcakes: the verdict

The first two cupcakes have been eaten, so it's time to announce the verdict, which is... (drum roll, please)...

Not too moist! In fact, perfectly so. This was two days after initial baking, and they were delicious. The raspberries and cranberries in the cake bring quite a strong, and sweet, flavour, so I'm glad I went for a simple vanilla icing. And as a variation, I think a lemon butter icing could also be delicious - and a good way to counteract some of the sweetness.

Yum - will definitely be making these again!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Blue Peter Brownies - a classic

Whenever I'm asked to bake at short notice, this is my go-to recipe. It takes no time at all to make and cook, and is a guaranteed winner - I can't remember the number of times that I've been asked for the recipe after sharing them.

The recipe originally came from an episode of Blue Peter - well over 10 years ago. Although I copied it down religiously from Ceefax, it was a few years before I actually tried out the recipe - but once I did, it wasn't long before I did it again... and again...

Blue Peter Brownies
Makes 12

100g butter
225g caster sugar
40g cocoa
2 large eggs
A few drops vanilla essence
50g SR flour
50g chocolate chips

Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees, gas mark 4.

Beat the eggs in a large bowl, then add the sugar and mix until smooth.

Melt the butter in a small pan, then mix in the cocoa powder. Add this mixture, and the vanilla essence, to the egg and sugar mixture.

Sift the flour in to the mixture, and mix together gradually until completey smooth. Add the chocolate chips. Done!

Spread the mixture into a lined baking tin (one of those small, rectangular, ones - around 10" x 7") and place in the oven. Cook for around 20-25 minutes, or until the top has begun to brown.

Leave to cool in the tin for 5-10 minutes, then turn out onto a baking rack. Or on to a plate, and eat while they're still gooey. Mmm.

Berry pink cupcakes

Cooking for a birthday party this week, I decided on two recipes - a brand new, experimental recipe suited to the birthday girl - Berry Pink Cupcakes - and my favourite go-to recipe - Blue Peter Brownies (more on those later).

So - the idea behind the cupcakes was, essentially, the colour pink. My favourite - and a favourite of my friend of the birthday party, too. I didn't want to stick to food colouring, however, but decided that most of the colouring would come from fruit. I spent a while umm-ing and ahh-ing about which pink fruits in particular - and a fair bit of research to work out quite how I would use them, before coming up with the recipe below.

Did it work? Yes - and no. The cakes are a beautiful purpley-pink, but the addition of all that raspberry puree, without taking away any of the egg from a standard sponge recipe, made them rather moist. Perhaps they'll be delicious (I haven't actually tried any of the cooked product yet) - but I think they might just be a little too damp for cupcakes. The icing's great, though - so I'm sure that'll carry them through.

A final note - I did attempt to create some candied raspberries to decorate these cupcakes... but failed. The recipe that I used was one where the raspberries are dipped in a meringue-like mix, sprinkled with sugar and left to dry out... But, it's now 24 hours later, and my raspberries are far from dry - and more like eggy, sugary mush. I'll add a fresh raspberry to each cupcake just before serving - and at least I got some good meringues out of the leftover mixture...!

Berry Pink Cupcakes
Makes 12 with space for icing (or 8 if you want them spilling over the top of the case)

For the cakes:

120g baking margarine
120g caster sugar
2 small-medium eggs
120g SR flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
50g ground almonds (optional - I added them to help the cakes keep fresh for a few days before serving)
100g raspberries, pureed and strained (around 100ml of liquid)
50g rehydrated cranberries (place dried berries in a bowl of water for around 30 mins or more)

For the icing:

250g icing sugar, sifted
80g butter (leave it out of the fridge for a few minutes to soften)
25ml milk
A few drops vanilla extract
A few drops pink/red food colouring

Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees (gas mark 4).

Place the margarine, sugar, eggs, flour, baking powder and almonds in a large bowl and mix using an electric whisk or mixer, until smooth - this won't take long. Gradually add the pureed (and strained - use a sieve to remove the seeds) raspberries while continuing to whisk - don't add them all at once, or else the mixture will curdle. Chop up the cranberries into smallish chunks, and mix them all in.

Divide the mixture evenly into 12 muffin cases (the large size) in muffin tins. Bake for around 15 minutes, or until just starting to turn golden brown.

To make the icing, place all ingredients except the food colouring into a bowl and mix with a wooden spoon until smooth. Then, whisk with an electric whisk for around 5 minutes until the mixture is light and fluffy. As you whisk, add the colouring a drop at a time until you reach the desired colour.

When the cupcakes are cool, ice thickly using whichever method you prefer (I went for spreading with a knife this time - but I'll be trying piping soon) and decorate with pink sprinkles. Add a fresh raspberry to each cake just before serving. Enjoy!

Monday, 10 October 2011

Amazing battenberg

While I'm on the subject of battenbergs...

Reproduced from the BBC Food website

Wow. Maybe one for the Queen's jubilee next year...?

The cake that started it all...

It was this coffee and walnut battenberg that prompted my grandmother to say "I think you're in the wrong career":

I'm not sure I can lay claim to being a professional-standard baker just yet, but it did get me thinking. I love baking. I love sharing my baking (both the food itself, and pictures and recipes). And I have a lot of friends on Facebook who love commenting on my baking.

So - time to get a blog and do this properly.

My aim: to share my baking experiences, favourite recipes and even the disasters (of which there hopefully won't be too many) with the world at large. And, to create my own recipes, trial them and tell the world about them. I'm full of ideas - and now I have an outlet for them! Now, all I need is willing eaters to sample the various concoctions which could come out of this...

So, anyway - back to the cake in hand: Mary Berry's Coffee and Walnut Battenberg. Unlike many, I haven't been glued to this year's Great British Bake-off - not least because I didn't actually know it existed until last week. However, having watched one of Mary and Paul's masterclasses, I am now a fan, and couldn't help but give one of the recipes a go myself.

The full recipe can be found at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/coffee_and_walnut_88342

Essentially, it's a standard 2-egg sponge, with some added ground almonds (to help with the keeping), a little baking powder (it's an all-in-one - so this helps it to rise), then divided into two, cut up, stuck back together again and rolled in marzipan. Easy.

The tricky bits:

- Creating the divide for your tin! I actually didn't have a 7 or 8 inch cake tin to hand, as is suggested in the recipe, so used a 6 inch Christmas cake tin instead. I found that this size actually created slightly more square pieces than in the version seen on TV - although did come with the added challenge of having rounded corners to be trimmed. Not that any of my family members minded eating the leftovers. I used baking paper, with a little tin foil inside the actual dividing barrier, for stiffness. And make sure that the baking paper flaps well over the edges of the tin, to avoid it curling inwards during cooking.

- Leaving the cake to cool for long enough so that it cuts evenly (use a bread knife). It's far too tempting to cut it up as soon as it comes out of the oven! I left mine for just under 10 minutes, and that worked fine.

- Sticking the pieces together - it may sound obvious, but make sure you stick the flat sides together to obtain an even chequerboard throughout.

- Rolling your marzipan to the right size. I actually failed to measure the size of my cake correctly, and ended up with some leftovers. However, the bonus to this was that the marzipan ended up nice and thin, which is no bad thing - this is quite a sweet recipe, and I think having the marzipan too thick would make it almost sickly.

- Making sure you have enough icing sugar. I did not. However, butter icing is easy enough to make with caster sugar, as long as you beat it vigorously enough. And to roll out the marzipan, 'flour' your surface with caster sugar, then give it a bit of a bashing with the rolling pin to make it a little finer before you start. Or I'm told you can put caster in a food processor to make it into the consistency of icing sugar - although I couldn't be bothered!

- Don't get your fingernails stuck when crimping at the end. Note to self: cut fingernails before baking - no one wants little lines in their battenberg!

Overall, I was very pleased with the results - and the cake got eaten up in one sitting, so it can't have tasted bad either!