Category Archives: School fete

Sonia’s Swiss crescent biscuits

Growing up, my mum made friends with a woman called Sonia, who worked in the dry cleaner’s kinda opposite our flats. The dry cleaning would be wrapped in this lovely navy blue paper, the like of which we seemed to have at home for years afterwards (I guess she gave us some).

We didn’t have a car, growing up, but we used to go out with Sonia and her husband, who drove a red VW Beetle. We would go to the airport and watch the planes take off, in the days when this was still possible. We also went to Windsor castle. I loved our trips out as they were the only car-trips out we had as children. (This isn’t meant to sound sad, we went to Italy a lot and I had a great childhood.)

I have a picture, of us at Windsor castle, me with a right sulk on (I peed on my mum’s lap on the way home, I think I might have done it on purpose, the shame), wearing a very flash red coat and a rabbit fur hat, Sonia and my mum looking really glamorous, but in a totally nonchalant way.

One of the things Sonia used to bring with her were these amazing little hazelnut crescent biscuits. She would have them, layer upon greaseproof-paper layer, in a tin, and as you opened the tin, the smell of them – they were coated with vanilla sugar – would hit you. They were not like any biscuits we could buy, or that my mum made.

Because they were so occasional, they were especially delicious. Sonia also used to bring  a flask of coffee, which I would drink (I was an early caffeine drinker).

When I was seven, my mum and dad opened up a coffee shop on London’s Bayswater Road. I started making cakes and biscuits for my dad’s shop. I started baking. I tried to recreate Sonia’s biscuits but I never could. For some reason I didn’t dare ask her for the recipe, or perhaps I didn’t want to because I didn’t want to make them less special.

Occasionally, these days, I will go to my mum and dad’s house, and Sonia will have been, bringing with her a box of her special biscuits. And just opening the lid of the biscuit tin (she always brings them in a biscuit tin) will transport me back to being a very little girl, sitting in a red VW Beetle, watching planes taking off, treading that fine line between showing my appreciation for her biscuits and eating a fair few, but not toppling over into greed. It’s still a line I struggle with balancing on.

The other day, I saw Sonia and I plucked up the courage to ask her for the recipe. I don’t know why it’s taken me four decades to do so. Amazingly she had it written down (none of that “oh I do it from memory”) and she gave it to me, and, here it is:

250g plain flour

200 butter, unsalted, fridge cold

100g ground hazelnuts (I buy the chopped, toasted version and then grind them, it really makes a difference, but you can use pre-gound hazelnuts or almonds, but it won’t be *quite* as good as if you toast and grind them yourself)

80g icing sugar

5g vanilla sugar (Sonia says you can buy these in little packets but I leave this out and just add a tablespoon of vanilla essence)

Pinch of salt

Caster sugar for after (vanilla sugar if you have it)

In a food processor, pulse the butter and flour until like breadcrumbs. Add the sugar, salt and nuts and then pulse until it comes together in clumps. Don’t over mix. It will work out I promise. Of course you can do this all by hand, but I’m lazy.

If you’ve made it in a processor take it out now and, by hand, bring the mixture together. Chill for 20/30 mins.

Preheat oven to 190C

Take small bits and roll into crescent shapes. I weigh each one to make sure I don’t end up with tiny/huge biscuits, roll into sausage shapes and taper the ends, curve into crescents. If you’re interested, I do them so mine weigh about 21g in raw dough.

Put on a parchment lined trays and cook for 10 mins. Cool and then coat in vanilla caster sugar if you have it, (I put a vanilla pod in a jar of normal caster sugar and just keep it there for, like, ever) normal caster sugar if you don’t.

Then don’t eat four whilst you’re writing a blog post, because that will make you feel really, really sick.

Store in a biscuit tin, each layer interleaved with greaseproof paper.

(Sonia calls these traditional Vienna biscuits but as she’s from Switzerland, I call them Sonia’s Swiss crescent biscuits.)

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Halloween spider’s web cake

We do Halloween in our own way in this house, which is not very much. We don’t do trick or treating because that kinda contradicts everything we say the rest of the year (“knock on strangers’ doors! Eat lots of sweets! Ghosts and ghouls do exist!”).

But we aren’t total killjoys, either. We do stuff and have our own traditions and one of them is that I make this cake.

It’s basically a red velvet chocolate cake – or that’s how it started – but I don’t add red colouring so mine isn’t red, it’s just a light chocolate cake with cream cheese/sugar/butter filling and covered with a chocolate ganache, then iced with white chocolate. It’s actually fairly easy and really tasty and if you have one, a plastic spider on top looks good.

This recipe is adapted from a recipe in Waitrose magazine. The changes I’ve made are: no salted butter, no red food colouring, more cocoa, I used kefir instead of buttermilk (don’t worry if this means nothing to you!) and I cut the sugar down. But you can’t tell. It’s still very much a proper cake.

The cake

200g butter at room temperature

350g plain flour

1 tsp of baking powder

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

4 tablespoons of good cocoa powder

quarter of a teaspoon of sea salt

300g caster sugar

3 eggs

1.5 tsp vanilla extract

284ml buttermilk/kefir

Cream cheese filling

120g butter

120g cream cheese

100g icing sugar

Chocolate icing

300ml double cream

250g 70% cocoa chocolate, chopped

1.5 tablespoons of liquid glucose (you can buy it in tubes in the baking aisle)

50g white chocolate (I use Green and Black’s – absolutely the best white chocolate there is that doesn’t cost loads)

You’ll also need an icing bag and fine nozzle

What to do

Oven to 170C.  Line a 23cm spring-form cake tin with parchment or treat yourself and buy some cake tin liners. Put all the dry ingredients in a bowl, but not the sugar. Put the sugar and butter in a separate bowl and either beat by hand or put in a food mixer with whisk attachment and beat until smooth. Now add the eggs (continue with the food processor if you have started with it, but by hand is also, of course, fine) one at a time, beating well with each addition.

Now add the dry ingredients, alternating with the buttermilk/kefir until all combined. That’s it, your cake is done. Scrape into a tin then bake for about an hour.

It needs to cool completely. When it is cool, slice it into three. You’ll probably have two flat layers – the bits of the cake that were the middle and the bottom – and a slightly domed layer – the natural top of the cake. You can, if you want, straighten the slightly domed layer out by cutting it, or you can just use it as the middle layer of your cake. Either way, you want a very flat layer for the top, please.

Place what will be the bottom layer on a cooling rack on top of a baking tray (this is important for later) and spread half the filling on, place other layer on top and finish with a flat layer. Put it in the fridge for about 30 mins (longer if you want).

When you are ready to do the topping: place the double cream, dark chocolate and liquid glucose in a bowl atop some simmering water until all smooth and melted. At roughly the same time, melt the white chocolate in the same way and prepare to put into an icing bag with a thin nozzle icing head-piping-thing.

Now, spread the chocolate layer over the top with a spatula knife – this is where the baking tray comes in useful. It takes some practise but you will get some chocolate on the sides as you really need to cover the whole thing. Flatten the top. Now you pipe a spiral of white chocolate around the cake – start a bit off centre. When you’ve covered the whole cake, take a cocktail stick or skewer and make lines from the centre out, to make that ripple effect. Put back in fridge to chill and take out and serve at room temperature.

It’s good. Happy Halloween!

Sticky cinnamon buns

Buns is a word you simply can’t say enough. If it’s not already, it should be a control word, used by psychologist in experiments, to put people in a good mood. It is a fabulously English word and, even though I try, there isn’t really any alternative in Italian. We have the rather more catch-all phrase meaning, simply, ‘pastries’.

Although we don’t really celebrate Mother’s Day (I really don’t need a day to tell me to appreciate my mum), if you were so minded, these would probably go down a treat if you made them today (as I write, tomorrow is Mothering Sunday), put them in the fridge to prove overnight, then cooked them in the morning.

They take almost no kneading. I got the initial inspiration from Edd Kimber who won the Great British Bake Off five years ago, but I’ve cut the sugar down (with no ill effect) and changed the kneading process so there isn’t really any, Dan Lepard style. I also don’t use currants or any dried fruit because my children don’t like them. I’d never thought of using cream cheese in an icing before but it’s wonderful and entirely Kimber’s idea, not mine. I am not a fan of sugar/water icing and the addition of a protein-rich food really takes the teeth-janglyness out of the icing. It doesn’t make them any less delicious, only more so.

These are life-affirmingly good about half an hour out of the oven, I’ve just eaten one and am in a seriously good mood. I’ve done a lot of gluten/dairy free baking recently and was just about to put up a recipe for a green smoothie, so thank goodness for these. My inner Nigellas and Gwyneths are still fighting but, for today, Nigella wins.

This made 20 for me.

For the buns, you will need:

250ml whole milk (I don’t suppose the world would fall in if you used semi skimmed)

50g unsalted butter

500g strong white bread flour

30g caster sugar

1 teaspoon of salt

7g fast action yeast

1 large egg, beaten – the egg should be at room temperature

vegetable oil for greasing

For the filling, you will need

100g light brown sugar, smash any lumps out

3 tablespoons of cinnamon – yes tablespoons. It seems a lot, but these are cinnamon buns

60g butter, melted

For the topping, you will need

50g soft cream cheese

50g icing sugar

This is what you do

Warm the milk and the butter up in a small pan until the butter has melted then let it cool until it is just luke warm. (If you haven’t taken your egg out of the fridge yet, do it now and set it aside to warm to room temperature.)

The milk/butter is ready when you put a clean finger into it and you can’t really feel hotness or coldness. If it’s too hot or cold it won’t activate the yeast efficiently. If you want to speed up the cooling process, take it out of the pan and put it into a wider-lipped vessel like a bowl.

In the meantime, in a large bowl, mix together the: flour, sugar, salt and yeast.

When the milk and butter mixture is lukewarm, make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients (the flour etc) and pour the milky buttery liquid in, followed by the beaten egg. Mix this all up as best you can using a fork. You’ll have a lumpy dough that will look most unpromising.

Leave it for ten minutes.

Turn out onto an oiled surface and knead gently for a few seconds, cover with a bowl and leave for another ten minutes. Knead again for a few seconds. You should now have a smooth, soft-ish dough (it won’t be super soft and may seem a tad dry). If not, if there’s still obvious ‘bits’ to it, give it another 5-10 minutes rest and another quick ten second knead.

Now, put  it into an oiled bowl and cover with cling film and leave it until it’s doubled. This may take much longer than you think. In my kitchen (which is kept at a Spartan 18C and a humidity level of under 50) this took nearly three hours. In a hotter kitchen it can take as little as an hour. I know this bit is scary – knowing when the dough is ready always used to scare me – but what I do is I put it in a large bowl, so that the dough fills up about half the bowl. This is because, as the dough rises, you can never remember what height it was, can you? So it’s difficult to judge when it’s doubled. But if you choose a bowl where the dough comes up about half way to begin with, and then cover with cling film, you know it’s done when the dough starts to push up the cling film.

At this point tip onto a lightly oiled surface and roll out the mixture until it’s about 40cm x 50cm. It should roll out really quite easily. You may need to oil the rolling pin – I did. You will get rounded edges, no right angles. That’s okay.

Now the mixture: mix together the sugar and cinnamon and set aside for a momentino. Now, with a pastry brush, brush the melted butter all over the slab of dough, right to the edges. This is quite meditative. Think of all the people who have done you wrong whilst you do this and think that they won’t be getting any of your cinnamon buns, the bastards.

Now, on top of the dough, sprinkle the sugar and cinnamon, making sure to go to the edges as best you can. You will spill some onto your work surface, try to pick these up and put them back on or, at the end, gather the up with a clean hand-sweep and sprinkle them on top of the made up rolls.

Now, with the filling all spread, roll up the dough, with the longer end towards you so you get one long cinnamon bun roll. With a sharp knife, trim the edges off, then cut slices of about and inch and a half or so. Place the buns flat down on a lightly oiled tray measuring about 23cm x 33cm (you can even got a bit bigger, but no smaller). There will be a little gap between them, see picture.

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(If you have any sugar/cinnamon stuff left on the work surface, don’t waste it but gather it up and sprinkle it on top at this point.)

You now have a choice. If you fancy eating them soonish, cover them with cling film and leave until they have doubled in size. Anything from 45 mins to a couple of hours. But. I put them in the fridge at this stage and leave them all night. (Also, see update, below.)

Whenever you cook them, you need to a) preheat the oven to 180C b) brush the cinnamon buns with melted butter before they go in the oven (this is important). If you prove them in the fridge you can cook them straight from the fridge, or leave them at room temperature just until the oven warms up. No longer.

Cook for 20-30 minutes (mine took 25).

Whilst they are cooling make the icing, just mix together the icing sugar and the cream cheese until it’s pourable but not too liquidy. It will really seem like it’s not going to work for a bit but then it all comes together. Drizzle on top of the buns (it’s okay to do this when they are about 20 mins out of the oven). Then, prize them apart with a spatula thing and eat with a good coffee whilst making whimpering noises.

(Have napkins handy, these are sticky.)

UPDATE 20 April 2015

Having now made these a few times, I offer these observations:

These buns are fabulous when freshly made, but they go stale disappointingly quickly. Unless you plan to eat them all in one go (!) then what I suggest you do – what I do – is I now cook these in two batches. You can easily keep them in the fridge for that final stage of proving (i.e. the bit just before they go into the oven) for two days. I divide mine up onto two smaller trays and cook them over two days, thus giving me fresh buns for breakfast two days in a row. Just mix up 25g cream cheese and 25g icing sugar for each batch. Which brings me to my next observation:

I think that 50g of cream cheese and 50g of icing sugar is AMPLE icing for these in total so I’ve amended the original recipe above.

Chocolate and nut oat bars

I live in hope of finding some sort of cereal bar, that I can make, that my children will like. I think a good cereal bar is an excellent thing to be eaten when you don’t have much time, but need something that will keep you going. But so many bought cereal bars are full of crap.

Many years ago, I co-ran a parenting website called I Want My Mum (because that’s all I said when I was pregnant and not long after having my baby, “I want my mum, I want my mum!” I would lament. Luckily she wasn’t far). I posted a recipe on there for some sort of healthy cereal, chewy bar. Loads of people went crazy for it, saying that their children loved it.

Not mine. My children have never liked any sort of bar that I’ve made, but they look at the Kellogg’s Special K Raspberry and Chocolate bars with longing every time they go past them in the supermarket aisle.

So I saw these in my Dale Pinnock Healthy Every Day book. He’s the one I got the chocolate/coffee smoothie idea from. I adapted his recipe, changing the proportions and also, he said you should sandwich the chocolate/peanut butter layer in between the layers of oats. But this didn’t look great to me, and also, in a bid to entice my children, I thought it’d be better to coat the whole lot in chocolate. I even wrapped them up in little bags to make them look shop bought. Did they love them?

No.

The ungrateful bastards. But I really like them (just as well as I have about 18 of them now) and if you need a healthy but delicious, quite treaty snack, you can try these. Or, if you’re lucky, your children might like them.

65g unsalted butter

50g coconut oil

45g raw honey

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

300g porridge oat flakes

125g 70% cocoa chocolate

80g nut butter of choice – not one that’s full of sugar but if your nut butter doesn’t have salt in it you may want to add a pinch

Melt the  butter, coconut oil and honey in a pan. Add a pinch of sea salt if your nut butter doesn’t have it. When melted, add the vanilla extract and the oats, and coat everything.

In a bowl atop another pan of simmering water, melt the chocolate and nut butter. When melted, add to the oat mixture and stir really well.  Tip into a tin (I use one that’s about 20cm square but you can see how much mixture you have so use a tin accordingly. I line mine with baking parchment to make thing easier). Then just chill for an hour or two, cut into slices and offer to your children and when they refuse, sit down and eat the lot yourself whilst writing them out of your will.

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Iced buns for a Wednesday

There are many other things that I should be doing. I am in the middle of a piece about Death, I interview somebody in an hour, I have a study that looks like a store cupboard nobody cares about, and everybody chucks their stuff into. I should be researching, planning and tidying to enable a more structured work routine.

But all I want to do is write about buns. Iced buns. I don’t even, particularly, like iced buns. I never wake up and think “I really fancy an iced bun”. But they are a perfect, unassuming little cake. Very English (to my Italian mind). And humble. My partner, who is English going back to the beginning of time, said that “iced buns were what you bought your children when they really wanted a doughnut”. I have no idea if this is true

This is how you make them. It’s a recipe from a Jamie Oliver magazine from a few years back, the method of which I’ve adapted slightly. The recipe says it makes 12, but you could easily make 24 small ones (and even then, not that small). These were, actually, iced ‘fingers’ but I prefer the word bun. I made 12 and they were as oversized as the eyes on a Bratz doll. Next time I’d make them smaller.

14g dried yeast

150ml milk, tepid

500g strong white bread flour

50g caster sugar

2 teaspoons of salt

40g very soft butter, unsalted

2 eggs

140ml of water straight out of the tap

For the icing: 300g icing sugar, 2-3 tablespoons of water

Stir the yeast into the milk and set aside. You don’t need to wait for it to froth up or anything.

Mix together the flour, sugar and salt together. Now stir in the yeast/milk mixture and the rest of the ingredients, mixing it all together.

You’ll have a very wet dough that looks almost unmanageable. Leave it in a bowl for 10 minutes.

Oil a work surface or board (wooden boards don’t work so well for bread kneading, I use a Top Gourmet one which is made of recycled cardboard and it’s brilliant for all my bread making) and tip the dough out. You may need to scrape it up with a scraper to begin with but don’t be tempted to add flour and don’t panic. You can do this. It’s buns you’re making, just think of that.

Knead it very lightly for about 10 seconds, then cover and leave for ten minutes.

Do this twice more. By the end you should have a smooth dough that is slightly more manageable. Now leave it, covered in an oiled bowl, for about an hour and a half. It should have doubled/risen quite a bit.

At the end of this time, knead it lightly one more time and cut bits off it and roll into either circles (I used flour for this last bit) or sausage shapes. If you want to be really precise, weigh the whole dough, work out how many buns you want, then divide one by the other so you end up with buns the exact same size.

Place whatever size/shape bun you’ve made onto a parchment lined tray. The buns shouldn’t be touching yet – they reach out to each other as they rise.

Cover and leave in a warm place for 30 minutes. I left them at room temperature – 20c – for 90 minutes (not on purpose, I got held up) and when I came back they’d blown up to enormous proportions. All was fine, I had very big, very light, very fluffy buns. But it was touch and go until I got them in the oven. I’d say give them an hour at an average room temperature.

Into a preheated oven of 200C, place the buns for 10 minutes or so. You want them to be lightly golden. When done, take them out and cool completely. They’ll be all squashed up against each other and you’ll have to tear them apart to reveal their inner fluffy softness.

Now  mix up the sugar and water to make the icing and spread it on top. The icing won’t be pouring consistency – it’s much thicker than that. So you need to spread it on with a knife but as it dries it smooths out so don’t worry about it not looking lovely and slick when it first goes on.

Don’t store these in an airtight container. The buns need to breathe or the icing will slide off. So you may want to freeze half (un-iced in which case make half the quantity of icing) as these make rather a lot. But they are fun to give away. Everyone seems to like an iced bun.

These are great for school fetes for that reason – children and adults like them – and they are not overly expensive to make. I think, and my eldest agrees, that these taste even better the next day. They didn’t last into a third though.

 

Chocolate banana cupcakes with a chocolate cream frosting

My friend Vicky made this chocolate banana loaf the other day with her ducks’ eggs. I’m not usually a fan of banana bread. I want to like it, ever since I read that Nigella says making banana bread fills your house with domestic fug, or some such. But I just don’t really like it. I’m not a fan of an overly banana taste in anything other than in a, you know, banana. But this looked different, thanks to the abundance of chocolate and cocoa in it and on it. And then I had a child off sick the other day and so we decided to make it together; but into cupcakes not a loaf. And it worked brilliantly.

As you will see in the comments below the actual recipe in BBC Good Food magazine, lots of people have modified the recipe to make it even healthier with less sugar, more bananas, honey etc. I am obedient so, as it was the first time I made it, I followed the recipe.

I used Isigny Creme Fraiche instead of ‘sour cream’ (it’s the same thing anyway isn’t it?) and I used Tesco’s Finest Cooking Milk Chocolate with 40% cocoa content which is fantastic, even if you do have to go to Tesco to buy it (stock up). I hate hate hate buttercream icing so this is great for me.

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My youngest didn’t like the topping so I left some clear for her which was convenient as, making it into cupcakes rather than one loaf, I didn’t really have enough frosting (if you want to cover all of them, make double of the topping).

You can top with a banana chip if you want. I make my own, using my dehydrator, but obviously you can just BUY THEM.

Update: I have since made these again using coconut oil instead of sunflower oil (v nice, you don’t really taste the coconut) and also half wholemeal flour plus half a teaspoon of baking powder. Just to make it more healthy. If anything, I think the cupcakes tasted better..and because I’m lazy, I’m reproducing the recipe, as I now use it (i.e. adapted) here for my reference..

for the cupcakes

100g coconut oil

110g caster sugar

90g white self raising flour

85g wholemeal, plain flour

half a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda

half a teaspoon of baking powder

4 tablespoons of cocoa

100g chocolate chips – I use plain

175 very ripe banana (about two) – I weigh them with the skin on

3 medium eggs, two separated

50ml milk

For the topping (double this quantity if making cupcakes and you aim to ice the whole batch)

100g high cocoa content milk chocolate

100g creme fraiche/sour cream

a pinch of sea salt for real wowness

banana chips if desired

Line each cupcake mould with a case – this makes about 16 so you may need to cook in two batches.

Heat oven to 160C. Mix the sugar, flour, bicarb, cocoa and chocolate in a big bowl. Mash the bananas in another bowl and mix in two egg yolks plus one whole egg. To this, add coconut oil and milk.

Beat the egg whites until stiff.

Add the banana mixture to the dry flour etc mixture, mixing well but not overmixing (I never understand why, what happens if you over mix it??). Stir in a bit of the egg white mixture to loosen it all up, then fold in the rest to keep the air in as much as possible.

Spoon into cupcake cases and bake for about 25 minutes – 30 mins. A skewer should come out clean, unless of course you hit a bit of melted chocolate chip.

Let them cool completely. In the meantime, melt the creme fraiche and chocolate together, in a bowl over simmering water, with the pinch of sea salt if desired. Then spread over cupcakes (if it’s really gloopy let it firm up a bit in the fridge first, but not too much). Top with a banana chip if you like.

 

 

 

Blueberry and yoghurt loaf cake

Ever since I started making my own yoghurt, I’ve looked out for recipes involving yoghurt. Prior to last year, I’d never used yoghurt in cakes. I’d used it, with much success, in pancakes, but cakes? No.

Last year I found an amazing recipe for a very plain, but none the less delicious, lemon yoghurt cake. I’m not reproducing that one here because although the actual cake was delicious, the topping it recommended, was not. Using yoghurt in a cake makes the cake really moist and light, making it a bit more ‘shop bought’ in texture, which sounds mad, but sometimes I do like the texture (if not the taste) of supermarket cakes.

This cake is a Donna Hay recipe. It’s light, easy, delicious, wonderful. And sometimes you need something easy, yet spirit lifting. Especially on a Monday. I hate Mondays. I find it so difficult to wrench myself from the bosom of my family and send my children out to school and me out to work. Cake makes it all better, and if it’s made of yoghurt and blueberries, that can’t be bad, can it?

You need:

150g unsalted butter, melted or very very soft.

220g caster sugar

2 eggs

140g thick plain yoghurt

Zest from a small lemon

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

225g self raising flour

125g blueberries

icing sugar to dust.

This is what you do:

Oven to 160C. Put the butter, sugar, eggs, yoghurt, lemon zest and vanilla in a bowl and whisk to combine (I use a food mixer with a whisk attachment but it’s fine to use a wooden spoon/hand whisk and some muscle). Now add the flour and whisk until well combined Gently fold through the blueberries and spoon into a lined loaf tin of about 22cm x 8cm x 7cm. Smooth the top and bake for about an hour, bit more if it’s still very moist. A cake tester should come out clean. Cool and dust with icing sugar.

Another favourite cake recipe that uses yoghurt in the icing is here and it’s delicious.