Category Archives: Celebration

Hot cross buns, and Easter baking

I have never made hot cross buns, but always wanted to. A few weeks ago, I spied a recipe in Waitrose magazine for Brandy-spiced hot cross buns (on the cover of the March issue if you fancy picking up a copy). The recipe is by someone called Lily Vanilli, I must confess I’ve never heard of her but will certainly look out for her things from now on as these turned out amazingly well. My partner gave a little whimper as he ate one, warm from the oven, split and buttered.

Lily Vanilli says to soak the sultanas overnight. I did, but if you don’t have time, leaving them for a few hours will I’m sure be fine.

No recipe on the Waitrose site so I can’t link to it.

I found it made 12 buns.

for the brandy spiced sultanas

225g sultanas (I ran out and used some raisins in there too, fine)

100ml of brandy (I didn’t have brandy so used half marsala and half orange vodka)

1 star anise

quarter of a teaspoon of ground cinnamon

quarter of a teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg

Zest of one orange

2 tablespoons of plain flour

for the buns

600g white strong bread flour

50g caster sugar

7g sachet of easy blend yeast

Freshly grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon of salt

50g soft dried figs or prunes

50g soft dried apricots (see note below called Update March 2020)

250ml whole milk

80g unsalted butter

1 egg

for the crosses

50g strong white flour

60ml of water

a piping bag and a very fine, writing nozzle. I used one that was a bit too thick and ran out so some of my buns – shock horror – were uncrossed. Vanilli puts hearts on them but I’m Catholic and you know..

for the glaze

3 tablespoons of apricot jam, and you really do need 3 good tablespoons, nothing worse than a dull bun

1 teaspoon of brandy, don’t sweat it if you don’t have this

1 tablespoon of water

The very first thing to do is put the sultanas to soak. So put those ingredients: ie the sultanas, spices, zest etc, except the 2 tablespoons of flour, all together in a bowl and leave overnight or for a good few hours.

Then, when ready to start baking, strain the sultanas. Discard the liquid and the star anise; although personally I don’t see why you can’t DRINK IT the liquid. It’ll be very alcoholic though so you know, not before the school run or before the social worker calls.

Now scatter on the two tablespoons of flour and mix around. This soaks up any excess juice.

Put the milk and butter on and heat gently until the butter has melted, stir around. You need to get this to lukewarm, not hot so you may need to set it aside to cool a bit. Don’t let it get cold either. Ooh the pressure (it’s fine don’t worry).

Get a large bowl, put the strained sultanas in it and now add the flour, sugar, yeast, nutmeg, salt, figs and apricots. Mix it around, thinking of Easter eggs and having a lovely weekend.

When the milk is lukewarm, whisk in the egg and then add this milk, butter, egg mixture to your sultana, flour etc mixture. Mix it around until you get a dough.

Give it a little knead on an oiled board. Leave it for ten minutes. Give it a little knead, leave it for ten minutes, give it a little knead, leave it for ten minutes. The timings are important (Vanilli just kneads for ten minutes flat out, I don’t do this) as you’re dealing with commercial yeast. Now knead for one last time and leave it for about an hour.

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Here’s a pic of the dough just before I shaped it.

Now, either gently knead it again and shape it into buns and cook it (more on this in a mo) or shape it into buns and do as I do, put it in the fridge to prove overnight. I took it out for a few hours before hand to bring to room temperature, but only because the youngest woke me up at 4am. Otherwise I had every intention of just putting them straight in the oven.

If you don’t prove overnight in the fridge, shape them into buns and place onto a greased baking tray. I got 12 out of them, it figures that you can make these fuckers as big or as small as you like. And then leave until doubled in size. God they always say this don’t they, but who remembers what size they were in the first place? I always leave for longer than 45 mins as I live in the country and it’s cold here. So use your common sense. 45 mins, an hour, maybe longer. As I said, academic as I did them in the fridge overnight with two hours to get to room temperature.

When ready to cook, preheat oven to 220C, mix together the 50g of flour and the 60ml of water and pipe a cross onto the buns.

Cook for ten mins at 220 then lower to 200 for another 10 mins. Whilst they’re cooking, mix together the jam and water and brandy.

When out of oven, immediately brush the tops with the jam mixture to make a lovely glossy top.

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Here they are glistening in the morning sunshine. I really had no idea they would be so good. These are the best hot cross buns I’ve ever eaten. I hope you enjoy them! Happy Easter.

If you fancy something a bit more continental this Easter, try panettone tea cakes or colomba. Or even torrone!

Freezing note: These freeze really well. The only note I’d add is that the ‘cross’ part doesn’t survive freezing too well, it goes hard. So if you do plan to freeze these, don’t decorate the ones you plan to freeze. If you freeze excess ones and they have decoration crosses on them, then be aware of this. We ended up picking our crosses off (sorry God). The rest of the bun was still delicious!

Update March 2020

Two things I’ve found, one quite by accident, which I think makes these a bit better. One is that I soaked the sultanas as described, but, by mistake I also put the two tablespoons of flour in at the same time (you’re meant to put it in after you’ve strained the sultanas). This means you can’t drink the alcohol when you drain it but it did seem to make the sultanas extra plump and juicy! So give it a try.

The other thing is that I have reduced the dried fruit in the actual bun, from 70g (which was the original recipe) of each to just 50g of each (ie 100g in total of figs/apricots). I’ve also made these with prunes instead of dried figs (and amended the recipe) as I actually prefer them. But see how you go!

White chocolate cream

A mini doughnut, with all sorts of gloriousness, on it and in it

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about eclairs. Which I am, now, well into. Not so much eating them (although I’m getting there…) but making them. I have just gone mental for piping stuff. I think eclairs are going to be the new macaroons which were the new cupcakes which were the new doughnuts which were probably the new eclairs.

I am slightly obsessed with thinking of new fillings and toppings. Not that I’ve got that experimental yet. But give me time.

It was my youngest child’s birthday last week, and I made her these small celebration cakes (okay, okay, they’re cupcakes, but cupcakes are so over aren’t they? I daren’t mention them…). And some bourbon biscuits with her name stamped on them. And some mini chocolate eclairs with white chocolate cream in them.

Mini eclairs with white chocolate cream.

They were delicious. But they still looked like ‘normal’ eclairs, so with a dark chocolate topping and a white cream filling. Not that eclairs have to look like this, but I wanted them to.

The white chocolate cream was amazingly good and people couldn’t quite work out what was in it but it just tasted so good.

Have I mentioned how good it tasted? So good that today, whilst making the mini doughnuts you see above, glazed with chocolate and dipped in sprinkles, sliced and with white chocolate cream PIPED inside (for I wanted to use up this wonderful stuff), I almost, almost, just stuck the icing bag straight in my mag and squeezed in the style of, probably, Homer Simpson.

But I didn’t. Time, still, for that.

So here’s how you make white chocolate cream. An idea I got from here.

For the eclair recipe here, I’d recommend 300ml of double cream (or whipping, which I will try next time, but I used double) and 100-125g of white chocolate. I only ever use Green and Black’s white chocolate as it’s fantastic.

Break up the chocolate into individual pieces and put in a heat proof bowl.

Heat half the cream in a pan, until boiling. If you use another sort of white chocolate, you may want to add a teaspoon of vanilla extract into the cream. But the Green and Black’s already has vanilla in it, so I don’t. When it’s reached boiling point stir it around for a few seconds, then take off the heat. Pour it onto the chocolate. Give it a count of 15/20 seconds then whisk together.

Chill for an hour or until needed.

When you are ready to make the eclairs, add the other cream (the one without the chocolate in it) and add to the cream with the chocolate in it. Or vice versa, just introduce them! Now whisk until firm, you know, so it’s pipe-able.

Put in a piping bag with a nozzle and pipe into your eclairs. If the piping bag happens to get stuck in your mouth, squeeze, swallow and then hide the evidence.

Jam tarts for a Monday

My jam tarts. The orange ones are apricot jam, the darker yellow ones are the Duchy Originals lemon curd, the bright yellow the Waitrose lemon curd.

As I look at the list of things I’ve written about on here recently, I see it’s a lot of food stuff.

And here’s more.

Jam tarts. I don’t often eat them, because the shop bought ones are like cheap jam spread on layers of newspaper. But they seem so easy to make. Except the last time I made them, they were a disaster. It’s too long ago now to remember what happened.

On Thursday I was looking through my recipe books, deliberating what to cook for Sunday lunch (I menu plan in a fierce way, this keeps spending under control and I can also make sure we have a good balance of food during the week in terms of ‘have we eaten enough fish?’ etc. You can hate me if you want, but I AM that organised).

I skimmed through Jamie Oliver’s Best of British and found a recipe for jam tarts that didn’t just say “shop bought pastry, jam”, so I tried them.

They were delicious, a bit superior in fact. The pastry is chewy. Jamie says to use all different coloured jams, and I’m sure that’s a great idea if you like a rainbow effect on the serving plate (he does indeed call them “Rainbow Jam Tarts“, p. 178 of Jamie’s Best of British). But I found that, in reality, some are more popular than others.

And let’s face it, no-one likes a green jam tart.

My children really liked the apricot jam ones. Me and their father shoved down the lemon curd ones as if we were trying to hide evidence.

A word about lemon curd. I used the Duchy Originals one and the Waitrose own make. No comparison. The former was vastly superior, a darker colour (more natural looking), a far nicer taste: rounded and subtle, the Waitrose one was too sharp, ringing that “I’ve got lemons in me” bell a little too shrilly. The curds also acted differently in cooking. The Waitrose one exploded out of the tarts, the Duchy one was all well behaved and stayed put.

This made 24 tarts for me:

Pastry

250g plain flour
250g icing sugar (try not to think about how much sugar that is)
125g unsalted butter
pinch of sea salt
1 large egg
The rind of a lemon or an orange, I used orange
A splash of milk

For the filling you will need a heaped tablespoon of your favourite jams or curds.

You need a jam tart tin, which is to say one of those shallow 12-hole tins. Not a deep one like you’d use for muffins or cupcakes. The sort you’d probably make mince pies in.

I greased mine very lightly.

Now, put the flour, sugar, salt and butter into a food processor and pulse until like breadcrumbs. Although in truth because there’s so little butter to dry ingredients, this will look more like what it is: lots of flour and sugar, rather than breadcrumbs. Crack in the egg, grate in the zest and pulse again, adding just enough milk to bring it all together. You’ll have a soft dough, flecked with zest.

Rest it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, or until you’re ready to use it later.

Now preheat the oven to 180. Dust a surface with some flour, roll out the pastry to about 0.5cm thick (don’t make it too thin or they will collapse when cooked as they’ll be too thin to take the weight of the filling) and cut with a fluted cutter to a size bigger than the holes in the bun-tray. Place each circle in, gently push down.

Then add tablespoons of the jam/curd in: about one heaped tablespoon per tart. Don’t overfill but don’t be mean with it either. About half a cm below the top of the pastry shell should do it. Now, gently  spread the jam/curd around so it lies flat and fills the shell. Don’t just leave it in a blob as fell off the spoon as it won’t spread out whilst cooking, the pastry rises to fill the gaps and you’ll end up with something less than perfect looking.

This won’t do.

Put into the oven (you may need to cook in batches if you only have one tray, but that’s okay cos the pastry can sit in the fridge for a day or two). Cook for 12-15 minutes. You want the tarts golden round the edges.

Leave in their tray for a few minutes before prising out. Mine came out quite easily although the ones with the lemon curd were the hardest to take out. The ones with the Waitrose lemon curd in were the hardest of all and broke up quite easily (I am never again buying this lemon curd).

If it interests you, these are also really easy for children to make. I didn’t let mine near it as it was my self-soothing project.

How to make your own jaffa cakes

Inside. Luscious. The perspective makes these look giant, they are in fact the same size as regular jaffa cakes. And that’s a three year old holding one.

I bake, not only because I love cakes ‘n’ stuff and I prefer home made, but I bake when I need to feel safe. I find baking immensely therapeutic. The fact that I’m quite skilled at it is helpful because when I’m, say, grappling with a difficult deadline, as if it were a salt water crocodile (and we know how slippy they can be)  I have a need to achieve.  I have an almost pathological need to achieve. Something. Anything.

And when that something happens to result in baking a good biscuit, just baked into a chewy crispness, with hidden little bullets of chocolate. Or a fluffy, jolly cake, heavy with a mascarpone frosting stained red with raspberries, so large that you have to dislocate your jaw to get a slice in…well where’s the fucking harm in that.

When the news makes me feel like the world is too big, baking reminds me that the gentle stirring (or sometimes, vigorous whisking) of a few fine ingredients, can come together to make something good.

This is how I found myself making jaffa cakes.

Jaffa cakes. I don’t even really like jaffa cakes. But they seemed tricky enough to take my mind off all the bad news.

This recipe is from Jamie magazine. They weren’t tricky at all, but they did result in something so excellent and delicious and authentic (similar enough to shop bought ones to not alienate fans, different enough from to entice the not so keen) I had to keep eating them to make sure.

You need:

1 egg
50g caster sugar
65g self raising (I never sift flour but I guess you should)
butter for greasing
250g marmalade
100g 70% cocoa chocolate, chopped
Finely grated zest of half an orange
2 teaspoons of vegetable oil
 (the original recipe also asks for a tablespoon of water to use when melting the chocolate) but I didn’t use it and never use water in when melting chocolate).

You need a jam tart tin or shallow ‘bun’ tin with 12 holes. Grease this well, I also dusted it with flour (not from the 65g!)

Oven to 200C.

You do:

Okay so whisk the egg and sugar together, using an electric mixer if you have one (don’t sweat if you haven’t, you think sponge cakes were never made before the advent of the electric mixer?) if not by hand. Get those biceps and triceps working. Beat until the colour has lightened and the mixture has thickened. I’ll admit this is a a hell of a lot easier with an electric mixer.

Now stir in the flour by hand.

This is so easy isn’t it?

Now dollop about a tablespoon of the mixture into each hole, evenly. So if you get it wrong you’ll need to go round and nick a bit from the moulds that have too much.

Bake in the oven for 8-10 mins. Be careful: you want them lightly golden.

When done turn out and let cool. When cool slice in half horizontally. Are you seeing these jaffas taking shape?

Hopefully you’re the sort of person who reads recipes through before embarking on making something. And therefore you’ll know that whilst the cakes are cooling, put the marmalade in a pan, on the stove. I didn’t use the whole 250g but if you have any left over, once cool, you can put it back in the jar.

The sponge cakes fresh out of the oven.

So, heat the marmalade until it’s melted and stirrable and all one big thing and not little clumps of marmalade skulking round the pan, like nervous teenagers circling each other at a party, and then take off the heat and leave to cool. You can leave it for a good 20-30 mins, perhaps more and in fact it’s easier to use when it’s cooler. You could sieve out the peel in the marmalade but come on! Butch up and leave it in. I did and it was delicious.

Note the bit with a slice off? I ate it. Couldn’t wait.

Now. Take a teaspoon of the marmalade and dollop it in the centre of each sponge.

Melt the chocolate, with the orange zest and oil (oil not essential but gives a nice gloss), in a bowl over a pan of water. When melted, spoon over each marmalade covered sponge. What I did was put the cooling rack over a baking tray to catch any drips (ahem, I took it away for the photo below for better contrast), and then pick up each sponge and spoon the chocolate over, spreading it delicatedly with the back of the spoon – you don’t want to compromise the blobs of marmalade – then putting each back on the rack over the tray to catch any drips. And there were hardly any drips. I guess you could be more slap happy and just spoon the chocolate over each sponge whilst they’re sat on the rack and let the chocolate drip gaily.

Just one left to do.

But I think that’s more wasteful.

I ate at least six of these waiting for the chocolate to set. My youngest went potty for them. My eldest doesn’t like jaffa cakes and wasn’t convinced by these.

Make them and tell me what you think.

Eclairs

The best compliment I got was from a nine year old girl (not mine) who said “these are like real eclairs”

Here is a confession. I really am not that into eclairs. I know people who go cuckoo for them. Not me. I’m not overly a fan of choux (unless in a Paris Brest), nor whipped cream. Basically, eclairs aren’t piggy enough for me.

The first time I made choux pastry I was very young, about eleven and it was in HE. No-one told me it was difficult so I didn’t sweat over the choux pastry and I made the most amazing profiteroles. (Equally, no-one told me puff pastry was difficult and I used to make a great puff pastry.)

As I got older, and everyone went on about how hard choux pastry is, well that, coupled with my slight meh-ness towards them…meant I didn’t really try.

My children love eclairs so I decided to give them a go. They were easy. So easy I was expecting the sky to fall in.

I’d love to hear how you customise them.

The recipe for choux is pretty standard:

125ml water
50g butter
75g plain flour
3 medium eggs (at room temperature, this is important)
pinch of salt (I think this is key, choux is pretty tasteless, but the salt adds something).

The filling

I just used double cream, about 300ml, whipped up with a spoon of vanilla essence and a tablespoon of icing sugar. Or try delicious white chocolate cream, which is what I use as a default filling these days.

The topping

I used 150g 70% cocoa chocolate and a teaspoon of vegetable oil, melted in a bowl, over a pan of boiling water. Then manually just dipped the eclair tops in and set them down on a cooling rack. Hardly any drips..

Obviously with both filling and topping you can change it. Next time I’m going to try something a bit more adventurous.

You also need a piping bag and plain nozzle of about 1cm diameter. A baking tray and some baking parchment.

Oven to 180C.

Put the water and butter in a sauce pan and cook over a high heat. Stir until butter is melted and bring to the boil. When this happens, lower the heat and add in the flour. Beat with a wooden spoon until smooth and the mixture leaves the sides of the pan. For me this happened almost immediately.

Remove from the heat. Now. Some recipes say to let the mixture cool and then add the eggs. I can only tell you how I did it which was to add the eggs straight away to the mixture, once in the electric mixer bowl.

So. Put the butter/water dough in an electric mixer with the whisk attachment and add the eggs one at a time.

This is the important bit. After you’ve added the first egg, the mixture must be absolutely smooth before you add the next egg. At first the mixture seems to curdle, more so if your butter/water dough is hot and the eggs are very cold. It will look like scrambled eggs. You will want to cry.

Don’t. And don’t panic. Keep mixing. It will eventually blend together and go smooth. Honestly mine took a good five-ten minutes during which I started to panic and think “why the hell did I not LISTEN to everyone who told me choux pastry was so hard.” Keep the faith. Keep mixing. It will smooth out. Then, add the next egg and mix until smooth and then the next one. I added the salt with the third egg. No idea why just did.

The mixture is ready when you lift the whisk and it leaves ribbon marks – indentations in other words.

Put into the piping bag. I find it useful to a) use a clip to secure the top of the icing bag – just above the nozzle – so that the mixture can’t ooze out. By clip I mean like those Klip-it things you use to keep food in a plastic bag fresh. b) put the bag in a tall glass and fold the top of the bag over so you can spoon the mixture in. Obviously when you are ready to pipe, you take the Klip-it off.

This mixture pipes really beautifully, so pipe eclair shapes (or profiterole shapes) onto the tray, leave a good gap as they do grow.

Put in the oven. I cooked mine for 30 mins and they were perfect, dry and crispy. My patisserie expert said that’s how high quality eclairs should be – kinda dry and not soggy like shop bought ones. You can’t really overcook eclairs (well, actually you can but you know…). I cooked some profiteroles another time and gave them 35 minutes and they were fine.

Don’t be tempted to open the oven at all if possible and certainly not before about 25 minutes.

They should be puffed and golden. Mine were almost empty inside. There was no need to dry them out inside as some recipes suggest, by placing them back in an oven.

I just cut them lengthways when they were completely cool and did the topping first (put the topped eclairs in the fridge for five mins to make the topping set if you’re in a hurry), then I added the cream with another piping bag (I was piping bag mad by this stage).

They all got eaten that day. And when I served them the second time round, because I had some salted caramel left, I added a dollop of that in too. I am salted caramel crazy though.

The reason I’m writing about these is that they were so easy and the return to effort ratio so madly unbalanced in favour of the return part, that I did wonder why I had left it so long.

Update on 6th March 2013. I thought it might be useful to have some troubleshooting here.

There are a couple of key important bits in making eclairs. The bit in the saucepan, with the flour and the butter/water…make sure you really dry this mixture out. By that I mean, even when it starts to come off the sides, keep going for a minute longer. The more you dry it out now, the more eggs you will be able to add (more on this later). The more eggs you can add, the more the eclairs will rise.

What do you mean, the more eggs I can add? Don’t you say three eggs?

Yes, yes I do. But here’s the other thing. I make this all the time with three eggs but mine are medium (in fact I’ve altered the recipe above to say this). Eggs differ in size, although it’s usually the amount of white in an egg that differs between the different sizes. So if you were to crack open a medium and extra large egg, the real difference is in the white, not the yoke.

Anyway, when you’re at the adding the eggs stage, if you’re new to this, I’d whisk up the third egg before adding it and then add it a bit at a time. What you want is a mixture that’s thick. Don’t be afraid to give it a really good whisking, don’t stop just the moment you think it’s done. You want the mixture to be able to stand in stiff peaks. If it’s not thick enough at this stage, it won’t get any thicker at the piping them out stage. So when you stop whisking you need to be absolutely sure it’s thick enough, otherwise,  you pipe it the eclairs will spread.

If you add too much egg, then the mixture might get too sloppy which is why I recommend adding it in stages if you’re new to this.

Should I cool down the butter/water/flour mixture before putting it in the mixer?

Almost every recipe tells you to do this, to cool it down otherwise it will cook the eggs.

I don’t. I know, madness, but I’ve tried it both ways and for whatever reason I’ve found that if I add this to the mixer and add the eggs straight after the sauce pan stage, my eclairs rise more. Yes you do need to beat the first egg in for much longer and it will go through a scrambled egg phase. Try it whichever way you want and see how you go. I’m fairly brave with patisserie making so I like to fly by the seat of my pants. You may want to go more slowly. Both are fine approaches.

If you’d like more ideas about what to fill them with, other than cream: chocolate ganache filling recipe here; white chocolate cream filling here (this is YUM). And not long after I originally wrote this I stopped cutting the eclairs in half and instead using a piping nozzle to fill them.

Alternative Christmas ‘pudding’ ideas

Jamie’s Winter Pudding Bombe
My actual bombe

I don’t mean as a direct alternative to that dried fruit pudding English people have after Christmas dinner (which I now love, I actually made my own two years ago for the first time and make them a year in advance now). But I mean, something to eat for pudding on or around Christmas Day.

Chocolate Chestnut Rum Roulade

Every Christmas I make this amazing Chocolate Chestnut Rum Roulade. It’s an Icelandic recipe that I got from the Waitrose magazine twelve years ago. It is so good. I make it every Christmas and my eldest asked for it for her birthday this year. It’s really not that difficult, can be made ahead and put in the fridge.

Another thing I make is Jamie’s Winter Pudding Bombe. This is superb made in advance and stuck in the freezer. I do make some changes to this as the clementine he asks for just freezes solid (obviously) and I don’t find it very nice to eat. So I do his recipe but instead of the bits he asks for  I add some dark glace cherries, some candied fruits, some sour cherries soaked in marsala (I use marsala instead of vin santo throughout) and then some toasted pistachios and hazelnuts. I think you could easily customize this bit.

I also use home made vanilla ice cream because it’s tastier and cheaper.  The quantity in that recipe I’ve linked to make the perfect, perfect amount for this recipe.

Need I point out that you don’t use expensive panettone for this.

You can make it in advance, as I said, and then just turn it out when you want to serve it, and pour the chocolate over the top.

Annie Bell’s Blackout cake, as near to chocolate cake perfection as possible.

Lastly, for something that doesn’t look as festive but is really, really delicious. Annie Bell’s Brooklyn Blackout cake which is as close to chocolate cake perfection as I can take you. I guess you could make it more festive with gold leaf or something. I don’t know, up to you. It’s sensational however and once people start eating it they won’t care if it looks festive or not.

Do feel free to share your Christmas pudding alternatives.

update: mid January 2013. We just at the last of the bombe, which had been nestling in the freezer since I made it on 21st December. I thought you might like to see inside. It was still really really good.

Hot chocolate pops

A hot chocolate pop

I cannot lay claim to this. Hot chocolate pops are all over the place. But I’d never tried them before and I gave them a go.

Here’s what you need:

Some milk or plain chocolate. I used plain, 70% cocoa
Some white chocolate, I always use Green and Black’s
Some marshmallows
Something to make them in, either cake pop moulds or something similar. I do, of course, have a special mould just for these which is just a round chocolate mould but bigger than what you’d use for chocolates.

Put the marshmallows at the bottom. Small ones work best so you can pour the chocolate around them.
Melt the dark chocolate (either milk or plain) and pour on, half way up the mould.  Put sticks in, I put mine so they stick out at the side (as seen) not so they come out perfectly at the  centre as I have no way of keeping them upright and I like the off-centeredness. Set in the fridge.
Melt the white chocolate, pour on til it comes to the top. Fridge until set.

When ready to eat, heat some milk and dip in. I can’t pretend it’s the best hot choccie you’ll ever have as the chocolate melts in bits and it’s not all homogenised. You could, I guess, whizz it up. But really the fun here is in half licking, half stirring the melting pop.

Pretty fairy lights, battery operated

John Lewis LED finewire snowflake lights, £6

Some years ago, as a present, Tesco sent me some really pretty blue flowery fairy lights that were battery operated. Doesn’t sound like much now, but at the time, they were pretty innovative (the battery part). They cost £5 in the shops and I wish I’d bought more as they’ve proved strangely useful. My children use the in tents, we drape them over any corner that needs a little pretty illumination. I’ve been tempted to go out wearing them (you could, with the battery pack in a pocket. I mean, come on). I don’t know, they just make me feel good. Even though they are, you know, from Tesco’s.

Anyway. These are not like them. They are very very fine and delicate. The wire between them is really fine wire. But they still look nice on my mantelpiece and every evening, as dusk fades and “the clouds turn pink” as my daughter says, I switch them on and they make me go aaah.

I’m easily pleased.

They also come in little green trees, red hearts or blue stars. And the size above is about actual size.

Buy them here.

Home made bourbon biscuits

Although I make almost all the biscuits and cakes we eat, I do think there are some things that are just better shop bought. Shop bought custard creams are just what they are and impossible to replicate at home. (This doesn’t mean I won’t try but I won’t expect to get them to compete with shop bought and compete is the right word here.)

But a few weeks ago, I was out for brunch and gossip a very important business meeting with my friend Fiona Hughes and we went to the Orchard Cafe in London’s Holborn.  On the way out, after we’d devoured extremely good scrambled eggs with home made bread and smoked tomato ketchup, I spotted a giant bourbon biscuit, filled with salted caramel goo.

Now. I don’t eat biscuits and cakes ‘n’ stuff like that, during the week, only at the weekend. And as this was a Tuesday, I couldn’t justify it.

However, because I am a greedy thing at heart, the memory of these biscuits scratched away at me, like a sticky out label on a T-shirt, and eventually I decided to try to make my own.

I finally found a mention of an edition of Jamie Magazine that had a recipe for home made bourbon biscuits and so determined was I, I tracked a back issue down, paid for it and waited for it to arrive.

These biscuits are great. Really, really good. I do of course want to get a specialist rectangular cutter and maybe a Barbieri stamp. [Update: believe it or not, I now have both of these.]  But until then, I just cut a line of these, and then cut the rectangles by hand. It made for a very artisan finish but no less impressive.

You need:

For the biscuits:

50g soft butter, unsalted
50g soft brown sugar (I used dark)
1 tablespoon of golden syrup
110g plain flour
20g good cocoa powder (don’t go using any of that ‘bad’ stuff)
half a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
a bit of caster sugar for sprinkling

For the filling:

75g icing sugar
50g soft butter
1 tablespoon of cocoa powder
1 teaspoon of cold, strong coffee (use milk if you don’t like coffee, but the coffee really, really adds something)

Put the oven on to gas 150C. You need a baking tray lined with baking parchment.

Either cream the butter and sugar for the biscuits by hand, or use an electric whisk (the recipe calls for latter, I did former). Do this until pale and fluffy. I love the word fluffy.

Then beat in the golden syrup using a wooden spoon (even if you’ve used an electric whisker you’re now instructed to STOP and use a wooden spoon and put your arms to work). Then sift in the flour, cocoa powder and bicarbonate and beat into an even dough. You may need a few drops of milk. Try not to use it but if you do, literally put the milk in half a teaspoon at a time, you want a fairly dry, low hydration dough not something really sticky.

Turn it out onto a piece of baking parchment and top it with more baking parchment so you roll it out between two sheets of baking parchment. Roll until about 3mm thick. Because you want the biscuit to be crisp, don’t make it too thick, although you can’t make it too thin either. Get the ruler out, this is biscuits for goodness sake. It’s important to get it right.

Cut the dough, however works for you, into about 24 fingers of about 5cm x 3cm. I cut long rectangles and then cut into smaller rectangles. Place on parchment lined baking tray, with about 1cm gap in between (they do rise a bit but not much). I prick with a fork for a birruva pretty pattern.

Sprinkle with caster sugar and cook for 8-10 minutes. Make sure they are cooked, not soft as they won’t harden up much and you really do want these to be crispy not cakey. But of course, don’t overcook (am I being too bossy? I want you to get these right you see).

When done, wipe the sweat from your brown, transfer to a wire rack etc. Cool.

For the filling mix the sugar and butter together, add the cocoa powder. At this point it will look pale and unpromising and you may start to panic. Have faith! When you add the milk (a scant teaspoon, just to bring everything together), it will go dark and glossy and glorious and you will be SO pleased with yourself.

Spread on one biscuit, sandwich with another. Daintily arrange. Eat and be amazed.

Ice cream cake

Very yummy ice cream cake

When I used to go to Italy, up to Salsomaggiore Terme, provincia di Parma, where my father is from, we used to go to Pasticceria Tosi on Sunday to buy little cakes and pastries (a very common tradition in Italy). In the fridge/freezer display there would always be ice cream cakes.

They seemed impossibly luxurious and I can still see myself looking in at them.

When I saw this recipe by Bill Granger in the August edition of Waitrose magazine, I knew I had to try it (unfortunately I can’t find a link to it on the Waitrose site). He calls it tiramisu ice cream cake. Of course, being Italian, I cannot call it this.

I adapted it quite a bit, halving the proportions, adding more sponge fingers, less chocolate and taking out the Kahlua that Granger asks for (I haven’t got any in my cupboard and I’m not going to spend £17 on a bottle of it to keep in said cupboard, but if you have some, do use it, maybe half and half marsala or all Kahlua, up to you). I know this recipe may seem imprecise, but the beauty of it is that you can add more or less of something you like/don’t like.

This is what I did:

65ml espresso/strong black coffee
30ml marsala (or use sherry)
Nearly a whole packet of sponge fingers (about 170g)
Some vanilla ice cream, I used about half of one batch of this home made stuff
About 50g of grated dark chocolate

I lined a small loaf tin (about 6″ x 4″) with some parchment paper. Then I started layering up the dessert.

Mix the coffee and marsala together in a small dish. Individually dip the sponge fingers into it. Don’t linger or they will fall apart. Lay the fingers down on the base of the dish, break some up if they don’t fit but end up with a base of soaked sponge fingers.

Now layer with vanilla ice cream, then grated chocolate. Grating chocolate is possibly one of my least favourite jobs EVER, as the chocolate ends up going everywhere and sticking to the grater. So I didn’t use loads, you can use more if you like. I probably should have used my grater attachment on my food processor, but I don’t like to use it for what I consider small jobs..

Then  just keep going. Dip the sponge fingers in the mixture, ice cream, grated chocolate. Until you run out of space. I ended up with a layer of sponge fingers as I like them, Granger says to end up with a sprinkling of chocolate.

Cover with cling film and put in the freezer. Take out for about 30 mins before you need it and keep it in the fridge. It slices beautifully and my eldest loved it (although I need to point out that it DOES HAVE ALCOHOL IN IT and it is ILLEGAL TO GIVE ALCOHOL TO A CHILD UNDER THE AGE OF FIVE). I gave my youngest a separate bit with no booze in it.

Afterwards it struck me that if you preferred you could layer these up individually in little ramekins or some lovely little glasses and freeze them individually.

If making for a large party, double the recipe above and use a big old square tin. Granger recommends 26″ square but use your common sense. No reason you couldn’t make this in a loaf tin like I did just a bigger one.