baking


A search for internet inspiration for kid-friendly cookies – sweet but not overly so, easy to make and fun to look at – let me yet again to Heidi’s great site with her recipe for Animal Cracker Cookies.  While this is a really straightforward recipe in which you essentially stir the wet into the dry, the resulting dough for me was a little crumbly and hard to hold together.  It was only after its resting time in the fridge that it was able to yield to the pressure of the rolling pin (albeit rolled between sheets of baking paper).  From that point, cutting out the shapes and transferring them to the baking tray was easy (I rolled out the dough to about 3mm thin), the cookies take just a few minutes to bake, and look super cute with rainbow sugar sprinkled on top!

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Have a look at Heidi’s site for the recipe (here), which I can thoroughly recommend.  I used regular plain flour instead of the wholewheat pastry flour, and simply used the dessicated coconut I had on hand (this didn’t need further chopping).   You could use demerara sugar (our Australian substitute for the American turbinado) in place of rainbow sugar.  The coconut flavour is not too strong here: it works well as a lovely background flavour to a simple, plain cookie with a great snappy bite.

Enticed by its big welcoming sign (“Apples! Quinces! Pears!”, or something like that), we decided to check out a local apple orchard and immediately found ourselves pacing down a row of fruit-heavy apple trees leading in from the road.  Even on that gusty grey day, we could smell the apple in the air, and were very excited to bring home a big bag of granny smiths and quinces for a little bit of orchard-goodness at home.  This weekend we had an apple-baking bonanza, and I want to recommend two excellent recipes if you might be in a similar apple-baking mood.

img_3920_1First, there was  Molly’s apple tart-cake. The golden glow you see in this photo is from the glorious morning sun that decided to come out yesterday just at apple cake photo time.

This cake is something that you can pull together from everyday ingredients, and, with the help of a food processor, is straightforward to make.  The amazing thing is the tart-cake base, which starts out being crumbly and mealy: but somehow, during cooking this base mixture both sets at the bottom and bubbles up to fill the nooks and crannies of the apple slices up above.  Who knows how a base mixture can know to do both things?  And in terms of technique, no special cake making skills are here required.  Once  you press the tart-cake crumbs into your tin, then just you need to really pack in the apple slices on top (as prettily as you please), and then do the topping stage.  I pretty much decided to follow Molly’s recipe so won’t repeat it here.  (Though next time I make this one, I will take up some of the suggestions in the comments to reduce the sugar in the base from 1 cup to 3/4 cup.)

img_3925_1Second, my husband requested apple pie.  Cindy led me to a recipe for old-fashioned apple pie by Martha Stewart, which uses a fabulous pate brisee recipe for the pastry that I had tried with great success in the past (eg for beetroot and feta tart).  This recipe is the real deal, and has a very simple idea for the filling (just sliced apples tossed in lemon juice, sugar and spices with some flour and butter).  I have never made apple pie from scratch before so followed the recipe closely, but I would like a bit more of the spice flavour next time.  But I admit I was a little daunted by the prospect of making a pie that uses 1.8kg of apples, so decided to make a half quantity.  Here’s the resulting golden pie, in the rather less golden glow of the afternoon sun by our window.  While the pie here looks like it is bathed in mysterious cool blue light, the photo is taken in the same spot as the apple tart-cake was the previous morning.  I promise you that the pie was as appropriately bronzed and burnished as a sugar-crusted apple pie should be!

(And because even with half the amount of apples I could not fit them in, this is the little ramekin-pie I made with the leftover filling and pastry scraps.)

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A recent work trip to Switzerland provided the ideal opportunity to conduct some sideline research on something which the Swiss can fairly claim authority: muesli.  I set out to try a different kind of bircher muesli every day, and very nearly succeeded:  I was given some on the aeroplane, then I had some from the local bakery, a few different kinds from the corner supermarket, and some from the hotel breakfast bar too.  All very tasty, but I can report that the highlights were one with stewed rhubarb, and another made with a strawberry yoghurt base.

Another branch of my muesli research centred on the muesli bar.  This was something I had already been preoccupied with back home, in an attempt to find something tasty,  easy to make and healthy for my son.  Many of the supermarket-bought varieties here seem to contain about 1/3 of their weight in sugar, which is far from ideal.  Unfortunately, my Swiss supermarket research yielded much the same results (except that they did also have my favourite flavour – pear!).

So when I returned I resolved to have another go at home-made.  These turned out a tasty, chewy mix – which I loved and so far my son seems to take to as well – but I think the key to this recipe lies in your mixture of dried fruit.  I used 1/3 dried apple, 1/3 turkish dried apricot, 1/3 dried figs, and the end result turned out to have a dominant apricot flavour.  I guess the end result was only very vaguely Swiss, so maybe I should just try to hunt down some dried pear to make a healthy version of those delicious pear muesli bars…

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Rustic Muesli-Bar-Bites

1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup dessicated coconut
2 weetbix, crushed (or 1/2 cup wheatgerm)
1/2 cup wholemeal self-raising flour
400g mixed dried fruit, chopped (see notes above)
1/2 cup currants or sultanas
2 eggs
1/2 cup fruit juice
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup milk

Preheat oven to 180C, and line 2 trays (25cm x 17cm) with baking paper.

In a large bowl,  combine the dry ingredients, including the dried fruit.  Stir to mix well.

In a small bowl, stir together the wet ingredients.  (Don’t worry if the honey doesn’t mix through properly at this point.)

Tip the wet ingredients into the dry, and stir very well to mix through.  Press the mixture into the baking trays, making the tops as smooth as you can.

Bake for 35-35 minutes, until the tops are just golden and the mixture has shrunken away slightly from the sides.

Cool in the tins until the bars are cool to the touch, then cut into whatever size bars or squares you like.

Yield: Depends on the size of your bars, but I got out 42 bites from a batch.

A confluence of random factors led me to this happy experiment: what to bring for sweets at a picnic, when the day is forecast to be just hot enough to numb the mind and slow the senses, which could be eaten with fingers only, which would be robust enough to survive transportation on the back of a push-bike, and which could make use of my mostly-full tub of sour cream?

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These little bites were salvaged from the leftovers to show you just how sturdy they are.  And yet, the effect is still somehow light-tasting and strangely delicate with the drizzled icing.  This cake is largely a variation of this recipe for a “blueberry bake” but I opted for raspberries because I just love the way they mush into whatever they are baked into and yet  retain their amazing colour.  The original recipe calls for walnuts but I was aiming for a kid-friendly version here:  if that’s not a concern, I’d try pistachios or almonds.

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Raspberry sour cream tray cake
Adapted from Cuisine

125g unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup caster sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups plain flour
1 teaspoon each bicarbonate of soda and baking powder
200g sour cream (reduced fat is fine)
1 tbsp lemon juice
250g raspberries (frozen is fine)

For the icing
3/4 cup icing sugar
zest of half a lemon
2-3 tbsp hot water

Preheat the oven to 175C, and prepare a 30x21cm shallow baking tin.  (I used a silicone one that was unfortunately a bit too small, so there was some overflow, but that didn’t hurt the rest of the cake.)

Beat the soft butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl with electric beaters until pale and creamy.   Beat in the eggs one at a time, then the vanilla.

Into another bowl, mix together the flour, bicarbonate of soda and baking powder.  Get your sour cream and lemon juice ready.

Fold in half the flour mix into the butter mixture, then alternate with half the sour cream, then the remainder of the flour, and finally the remainder of the sour cream and lemon juice.  The mixture will be quite stiff.

Spread out the cake batter into your prepared tray and smooth out the surface until even.  Scatter over the berries (still frozen is fine) – don’t worry if they sit on top as they will sink in later.  Bake for 50-60 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.  Cool completely in the tin.

When you are ready to ice, mix all the icing ingredients with a spoon, and drizzle over the cooled cake.  Cut into squares (I cut 24 out of mine) when the icing is completely set.

Yield: about 24 small pieces.

Apart from being tasty and high in fibre,  dates – I recently was glad to learn – are a fairly decent source of iron.  So that’s just another reason to recommend this easy and flavoursome date loaf.  It’s a melt and mix kind of thing, doesn’t need any fancy equipment, and you’ll soon have afternoon tea sorted and lunchbox treats for the next day too if you’re lucky.   I snaffled some for work and think it was even better than fresh out of the oven.

Perhaps it had something to do with the special mysterious goodness that came from the German lebkuchen spice mix that I used here: the cinnamon, cardamom and clove flavours complemented the dates really well.   In the absence of the spice mix you could probably substitute your own blend of those ground spices – maybe even a half-and-half combination of cinnamon and ginger, which I’d be keen to try next time – or you could skip the spices altogether for a satisfying, simple fruit loaf.

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Spicy date loaf
Adapted from the Sanitarium website

1 1/2 cups chopped pitted dates
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tbsp margarine or butter
1 cup water
1 egg
1/2 cup each of self raising white and wholemeal flour
2 tsp lebkuchen spice mix, or other spice mix of choice

Preheat the oven to 180C and line a shallow loaf tin (14 cm x 21 cm) with baking paper.

Place the dates, sugar, margarine and water in a small saucepan.  Bring to the boil, then simmer lightly for 2 minutes.  Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.

When the date mixture is just cool enough to tough, add in the egg and stir through the flours and spices.  The loaf  batter doesn’t melt much while cooking so if you want a loaf with a nice neat top, smooth out the top of the cake batter now.

Yield: 1 loaf, about 12-14 slices.

It’s a time of year when there’s been no shortage of sweet treats. I certainly feel like I’ve eaten a huge amount of indulgent celebratory food since I made these cookies a few weeks ago, but perhaps it bodes well for the new year that this first post’s recipe will keep you (or set you!) on a path of healthiness.

Since I am a person who, whatever the season, feels the pangs of a snack attack most afternoons, I’m particularly grateful for the invention of this “healthy cookie”.  Initially I wasn’t sure about the recipe for many reasons: I’ve never really ventured into vegan baking, I was a bit sceptical about whether the words ‘healthy’ and ‘cookie’ could legitimately be used to describe the same food item, and I was unsure about using coconut oil*.  However, the simplicity of the recipe and the many positive comments about it encouraged me, and I now want to spread the word.

These yield a tasty,  soft cookie that you can put together in a matter of minutes (seriously, the measuring out takes the longest time). I made a few alterations to the original recipe: replacing some of the banana with apple puree to make the banana a bit more of a background flavour, and replacing half the chocolate with raisins.  I’m sure you could do many other variations, and even – amazingly – make the cookies sugar-free by omitting the chocolate altogether and substituting your favourite dried fruits.

Also, in a blitz of new years’ assiduousness, I have made an index of the recipes on this blog (see the link on the top right of this page).  I hope it helps you to locate recipes a little bit more easily.  Happy new year to all!

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Surprisingly virtuous choc-oaty cookies
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks

1 ripe banana, well mashed (about 1 cup)
1/2 cup unsweetened apple puree
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup coconut oil (warmed just enough to be stirrable; or you can substitute olive oil)
2 cups rolled oats
2/3 cup almond meal
1/3 cup shredded coconut
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
100g dark chocolate, roughly chopped (a heaping half cup)
1/2 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 170C and line 2 baking trays with baking paper.

Into a bowl mix together the banana, apple, coconut oil and vanilla.  Into another bowl mix the oats, almond meal, shredded coconut, cinnamon salt and baking powder.  Stir in the fruit mixture into the dry mixture until well combined.  Fold through the chocolate and raisins.

Drop into bite-sized mounts onto the baking paper, a few centimetres apart.  Bake for 15-20 minutes, rotating the pans if needed, until the bottoms of the cookies are golden and they have firmed up a little.  The cookies will continue to firm up a bit more on cooling.

Yields: about 40 bite-sized cookies

* While many promote the positive health benefits of coconut oil, and health food shops seem to readily stock the stuff, it does seem like there are just as many people who aren’t sure if it is any better than other kinds of saturated fat.  Following the guidance of the trusty Harold McGee on the kitchen-scientific (I’ve mentioned him before), I’m content to cook occasionally with good quality coconut oil (I used organic extra virgin),  and enjoy the riches of the coconut in small doses.  Also, I think that in this kind of recipe it adds a subtle coconut flavour to the whole thing which I rather like.  And what’s 1/4 cup of oil anyway divided between 40 cookies?

We’ve been patiently watching a pot of baby beetroots grow on our balcony over the past couple of months.  On the weekend, when thinking of something interesting to try out for a brunch with friends, we wondered whether our home-grown baby beets might fit the bill nicely.  Cute though they were, when we pulled some up they were truly miniature – each the size of a plump blueberry!  We would have needed dozens and dozens to make the equivalent of 2 medium sized red beetroot!  So we supplemented the meagre handful of miniature beets with regular sized ones, and when I sliced one of the big ones open, I was just stunned that a root vegetable could be so gorgeously coloured, psychedelic-patterned, and slightly scary-looking at the same time:

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It was a good omen.  The beetroot roasted up beautifully sweet and tender, and were a perfect filling in this beetroot and feta tart.  As a special treat, I decided to make the pastry from scratch as well.  I hadn’t attempted it for years and years, but remembered that frozen shortcrust can often be just a little bit disappointing.  While it is a great convenience and time-saver, there’s always just something a bit inadequate about it: the shape isn’t right, you can’t get it the right thickness, it is too sticky or too dry.  Don’t get me wrong – there’s definitely a place in my kitchen for convenience foods – but I do want to recommend this basic shortcrust recipe if you want to make an outstanding pie crust.  The effect is amazing: crisp, a bit flaky, tasty and hardy.

I largely followed an old recipe from the archives at Orangette (a place well worth digging through for pie and tart ideas, I might add).  We found this tart to be an ideal balance of filling and pastry, and also great for a light meal as the egg and feta mixture isn’t too heavy as there’s only just enough to bind and flavour.  And while there are just a few simple ingredients, there are lots of steps for the recipe, so be patient as you read on (of course, you can make the pastry and roast the beetroot ahead of time, and just assemble on the day).  So when you have dear friends coming over, or when you just feeling like treating yourself, go the whole hog and make pastry, roast beets and glory in a triumphant pink pie.

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Beetroot and feta tart
Adapted from Orangette

For the pastry
2 1/2 cups plain flour
1 tsp salt
250g unsalted butter
1/4 – 1/2 cup iced water

For the beetroot filling
2 medium sized beetroot
2 large eggs
3/4 cup milk
125g creamy feta, crunbled
pinch salt

To make the pastry: Process the flour, salt and butter in a food processer for 8-10 seconds until it resembles coarse meal.  With the motor running, add 1/4 cup iced water in a steady stream.  Pulse until the dough just holds together without being wet or sticky.  Do not process at this stage for more than 30 seconds.  Test if it’s done by squeezing a small amount between your fingers.  If it is still crumbly, add more iced water 1 tsp at a time.

Remove the pastry and divide in half.  Shape into two rough discs and wrap in plastic wrap.  Chill until you need to use it.  [Note you will only need one of the discs for this tart. Stash the other one in the freezer till next time; it should keep for a month.  To thaw it, put it in the fridge the day before you want to use it.  The dough should be cool (ie just cooler than room temperature) when you want to work with it.]

To make the filling: First, cook the beetroot.  Scrub the trimmed beetroot well and cut in half.  Seal in a couple of foil parcels, and roast at 200C for 45 minutes to an hour, until tender.  Cool slightly, then cut into 5mm slices.  (Some people peel the beetroot too, but I’ve never found it necessary after a good scrub and roasting.)

Next, prepare the pastry case.  Turn down the oven to 190C.  When your pastry disc is just cool to touch, roll it out on a floured surface and fit it to a nice fluted dish (mine was about 25cm).  Don’t worry about the edges looking messy (if you want to you can trim it after cooking, though I never bother).  At this point, if you have time you can put the pastry in the freezer for 10 minutes or so to really firm up.  I did, as my beets were still going in the oven.  Apparently it is supposed to contribute to a crisper crust: but the freezing stage isn’t essential, so if you are pressed for time just move on to the blind baking stage.

To blind bake the pastry case, put down a sheet of foil over the pastry tart bottom and weigh down with some rice or dried beans, and bake in the hot oven for 15 minutes, until the edges look set and barely golden.  Remove the foil and pie weights, and bake the case again for another 6-8 minutes, until the whole case is lightly golden.  Remove from the oven, and cool slightly.  Turn down the oven to 180C.

In a jug mix together the milk, eggs, feta and salt.  Arrange the beetroot slices nicely in one even layer on the cooled pastry tart base, trying to fill in any gaps.  Pour over the milk and feta mixture.  Bake for 40 minutes to an hour, until everything is set and golden in spots.  Cool for 10 minutes before serving.

We ate this with a green bean, baby spinach and pistachio salad, and scrumptious pumpkin and chive bread brought by our visitors.  Yum!

Yield: one 25cm tart (plus, you will have enough pastry to make another 25cm tart, plus perhaps bonus scraps from each to refashion into a wicked dessert mini-tart – more on this later!)

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