Pandoro

In Italy, Pandoro (literally ‘golden bread’) is a bread/cake which regularly features on dinner tables during the Christmas period. It is star shaped, golden brown on the outside and has a moist, buttery crumb on the inside which reminds of a brioche and a croissant. Some people believe that, although traditionally associated with Verona, this dessert actually comes from Vienna, where it was prepared under the name of ‘Bread of Vienna’. Others, on the other hand, maintain the cake is an evolution of the ‘pan de oro’ baked for the rich Venetian merchants. Pandoro was patented on 14th October 1894 by Domenico Melegatti, the owner of the sweet manufacturing industries by the same name.

As with other traditional desserts, there are several recipes available. The one below has been devised by the Simili sisters from Bologna, well known in the Italian culinary tradition for their aptitude and competence with yeasted doughs. Their breakthrough achievement was to use yeast in the cake and to layer it, which provide extra softness, a honeybee-like structure and a really crumbly texture. The preparation is long and takes place in stages which require at least 9 hours. A good idea would be to stretch the preparation over two days, which also intensifies the flavour of the Pandoro. Also make sure to use plenty of vanilla, which is the natural and only flavour used in this cake. The original recipe asks for vanillina, the vanilla flavour compound which is widely sold in Italy. Seeing as this is not available in the UK, I substituted it with a good amount of vanilla beans, but you could as well use the extract. You will also need a 1kg Pandoro cake tin, which you can easily find online. I bought mine from Bakery Bits.

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Ingredients

  • 450g strong bread flour
  • 135g golden caster sugar
  • 170g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 4 medium eggs
  • 1 x 7g sachet of fast action yeast
  • lukewarm water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp vanilla beans
  • extra butter and icing sugar, for the mould

Method

Start with the poolish. In a big bowl or the bowl of a freestanding mixer, combine the following:

    • yeast
    • 60g lukewarm water
    • 50g strong bread flour
    • 2 tsp golden caster sugar
    • 1 egg yolk

Use a whisk to combine all of the ingredients together, then cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave in a warm environment until you see some tiny bubbles forming on the surface.

When that happens, start with the actual dough by adding the following to the poolish:

    • 200g strong bread flour
    • 25g golden caster sugar
    • 30g unsalted butter, at room temperature
    • 1 tsp lukewarm water
    • 1 medium egg

I used my KitchenAid to mix it all together, but you can do this by hand. Mix all of the ingredients but the butter, then add it once the rest is thoroughly incorporated. Knead either by hand or with the dough hook until the mixture is silky smooth, then cover with clingfilm and leave to prove in a warm environment for a good hour or until the dough has doubled in size.

Then move on to the third stage by adding the below:

    • 200g strong bread flour
    • 100g sugar
    • 2 medium eggs
    • 1 tsp salt
    • 1 tbsp vanilla beans

Incorporate these ingredients and knead the dough until soft and pliable, then transfer to a buttered bowl and leave to prove until doubled. Put the dough in the fridge for a good hour to firm up. Take the dough out of the fridge and roll out to a rectangle. Spread the butter in the middle and pile it up to a small mound, then fold the four corners on to the middle. Fold the dough over and start rolling it to a long rectangle away from you. Fold the top third of the dough onto the middle, then fold the bottom third on top of that – much in the way as for croissants of puff pastry. Wrap the folded dough in clingfilm and leave in the fridge for 30 minutes. Take it out of the fridge and repeat the folding process for 3 more times.

In between the folding stages, generously butter the Pandoro cake tin.

Once the last folding is complete, shape the dough to a ball and put in the tin, smooth side down (that is, with the non smooth surface facing you). Cover the tin with clingfilm and leave to prove in a warm environment for about 4 hours, or until the dough reaches the edge of the tin.

Towards the end of the proving time, pre-heat your oven to 170C.

Bake the Pandoro for 15 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 160C and bake for another 15 minutes. Check with a skewer that the Pandoro is cooked through, otherwise give it another 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and unmould as soon as you can. Leave to cool, then serve generously dusted with icing sugar and enjoy.

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Storage: treat this cake as a brioche, so keep in a bag in a cool place to maintain it soft and spongy. It is very versatile and can be used for French toast, bread and butter pudding, etc. Just to give you an example, here what I did with a leftover one. I sliced it horizontally and sandwiched it together with custard, whipped cream and plenty of fresh fruits and chocolate chips. The whole cake has then been dusted in icing sugar. (edited 01/01/2014)

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Traditional Christmas Cake

I know I have already posted a fruitcake recipe, but seeing as that was a non conventional one, I wanted to give you the recipe of a more traditional Christmas Cake. This recipe is from the Betty’s Cookery School in Yorkshire and, as far as tradition goes, it ticks all of the boxes: strong taste, full of plump dried fruit and deliciously boozy. I also thought it would be a nice idea to give you an alternative way of decorating the cake. Rather than covering it in marzipan and then a thick layer of white icing, which then solidifies and becomes a real threat to your teeth, this Christmas forest decoration is both stylish and impressive, not to mention extremely easy to make. The idea comes from Mary Cardogan, a well seasoned baker.

I started my Christmas cake a good moth in advance. As you all know, this type of cakes benefit from ‘maturing’ or ‘feeding’, that is being regularly brushed with more alcohol to keep the cake moist and make it last longer. On that note, I suggest you warp the cake tightly in both baking parchment and foil and keep it in a cool place. Feed it regularly, but make sure you don’t do it more than 3 times per month and leave at least a week between each feed. As for the liqueur, I went for a golden Sherry, but feel free to swap for Cointreau, brandy or the like.

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Ingredients (for the cake)

  • 250g sultanas
  • 100g currants
  • 400g raisins
  • 75g mixed peel
  • 165g glacés cherries
  • zest 1 lemon, juice of 1/2
  • zest 1 orange
  • 80ml Sherry
  • 175g unsalted butter, softened
  • 175g dark muscovado sugar
  • 25g black treacle
  • 3 medium eggs
  • 225g plain flour
  • 1 tsp mixed spice (or 2 tsp made of your combination of favourite spices)
  • 40g ground almonds

Ingredients (for the pistachio paste & decoration)

  • 100g shelled pistachios
  • 100g icing sugar, sifted
  • 100g golden caster sugar
  • 100g ground almonds
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 medium egg yolks
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • green food colouring
  • 2 tbsp apricot jam, warmed up

Ingredients (for the icing)

  • 2 medium egg whites
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 2 tsp liquid glucose
  • 300g icing sugar, sifted

Method

  1. Start the day (or a couple of days) before by soaking the fruit. Tumble all of the dried fruits in a large bowl with the lemon and orange zest. Pour over the lemon juice and Sherry. Mix the fruit thoroughly to combine. Cover with cling film and leave to stand overnight.
  2. The following day, line the base and the sides of a deep, loose-bottomed 20cm cake tin with baking parchment. Ensure there is enough paper overhanging at the top, this will protect the cake top while baking. Heat the oven to 140C.
  3. Use a wooden spoon to beat the butter, muscovado sugar and the treacle in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Stir the beaten eggs into the butter mixture, a little at a time, to avoid the mixture curdling.
  4. Once all of the eggs have been incorporated, add the flour, spices and ground almonds. Gently fold together with a large metal spoon and thoroughly combine. Add the fruit to the cake mixture and fold through until combined.
  5. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and level the top off. Put in the oven and bake for 2 hours. Check if the cake is cooked with a skewer: if it comes out clean, then remove from the oven. Otherwise, bake for another 15 minutes.
  6. Let the cake cool in the tin. When you can hold the tin, remove the cake and leave to cool on a wire rack. Once it has completely cooled, brush the top and sides of the cake with Sherry, then wrap in parchment and foil as per above.
  7. Once you are ready to ice your cake, start with the pistachio paste. Grind pistachio in a food processor as finely as possible, then tip into a bowl with the sugars and the ground almonds. Add the egg yolks, lemon juice and vanilla extract, then mix to combine. Use your hands to knead the mixture to a firm dough, then shape into a ball. Pinch about a third of the mixture, wrap it clingfilm and set aside.
  8. Dust your work surface with icing sugar, then use a rolling pin to roll out the remaining paste to a thick sheet larger than the top of the cake. Brush the top of the cake with the apricot jam, then cover with the paste. Trim the excess at the sides with a sharp knife.
  9. Next, move on to the icing. Beat the egg whites, lemon juice and glucose in a freestanding mixer, then slowly add the icing sugar. The final result should be a thick bright white icing. Use a rubber spatula to spoon the icing on  the cake, then swirl it over the top and tease it over the sides.
  10. Last, make the pistachio trees. Add a couple of drops of food colouring to the leftover pistachio paste, then knead that thoroughly to combine. Pinch small balls of paste, then flatten them between your fingers. Don’t worry if you get a few cracks, that is desirable. Stack the discs on top of each other and have them decreasing in size as you build up. When you get to the top of the tree, pinch the last ball to a point, then place on top.
  11. To decorate the cake, place the pistachio trees on the icing, then dust liberally with icing sugar. Sprinkle a few silver edible balls on the icing and, if you want a little bit of extra sparkle, dust with some edible glitter.

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Gingerbread & Blue Cheese Canapés

If you make the pain d’épices, what best way to use it up than making these very festive and extremely easy canapés? These come from Elle à table, a French magazine I bought on my last trip to Paris. And they were called “calissons”, in honour of the almond-shaped traditional French candies. Truth is, however, that you can make them in different shapes. For instance, I chose holly leaves.

The combination of gingerbread and blue cheese, I will admit it, is a weird one. When served at my Christmas party, only one of my friends swore by these canapés, while most of the other ones said they were nice but not their cup of tea. The tang of the blue cheese marries well with the sweetness of the dried fruit on top, while the gingerbread at the base provides a more earthy note and a cake-like consistency. I won’t take it personally if you decide not to try these, as they are a bit of an acquired taste.

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Ingredients

  • 150g St. Agur or soft blue cheese (Gorgonzola, just to name one)
  • 3 tbsp mascarpone cheese
  • 10 slices of pain d’épices
  • 6 dried apricots
  • 3 dried figs

Method

  1. Start by using the chosen cookie cutter to cut shapes in the gingerbread slices. Set them aside. In a bowl, beat the mascarpone and the cream cheese until soft, then set that aside. Finely chop the dried fruit and combine them in another bowl.
  2. Now start assembling. Place your cookie cutter back on the gingerbread slice, then dollop about 1 1/2 tsp of the cheese mixture on and use a teaspoon to spread it inside the cutter. Push slightly on the cheese mixture and hold the cookie cutter to ease the contents out, then arrange on a serving platter and sprinkle some of the chopped dried fruit on top. Repeat with the rest of the gingerbread and the blue cheese.

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Pain d’épices

To those of you who might be wondering what this is, let me tell you it’s nothing more than a fancy French version of gingerbread. Thanks to my researches online I found out that, much in the same way as for gingerbread, there seems to be countless recipes, all resulting in a slightly moister or harder cake. The recipe below is copied from La Tarte Maison, where Marina wholeheartedly confesses having been given the recipe for pain d’épices while she was in Paris by a very friendly market stall owner, who also sold her the mixture of spices to make this cake.

According to this French website, pain d’épices has long been eaten in throughout history, although in the past it was known as honey bread – the Greek “melitounta” or “melilates”, the Roman “panis mellitus” and so forth. “Lebkuchen”, or German gingerbread, is first mentioned at the end of the 13th century. A later source specifies this food was consumed at Christmas by monks. During the Renaissance, Alsace (a French region with deeply rooted ties with Germany) boasted so many gingerbread makers that they joined forces in a dedicated corporation whose symbol was a bear holding a pretzel. After spices were introduced in the Western world, the recipe was adapted from a simple honey flavoured cake to a spicy one, which the end result we eat nowadays.

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Ingredients

  • 200g plain flour
  • 130g wholemeal plain flour
  • 180g honey
  • 50g light brown sugar
  • 80ml olive oil
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 large eggs
  • 50ml whole milk
  • 1/2 tsp each of ground clove, ground cinnamon, ground ginger and ground nutmeg (or allspice)

Method

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 160C and grease and line a loaf tin.
  2. Combine all of the dry ingredients in a bowl and all of the wet ones in a jug.
  3. Slowly whisk in the wet ingredients into the dry ones either by hand, using a balloon whisk or a freestanding mixer on the lowest speed. The resulting mixture will be a bit gluey, but that’s fine.
  4. Transfer the mixture to the tin and bake on the middle shelf of the oven for one hour. Check if the cake is done with a skewer, then remove from the oven and let it cool completely.

This cake lasts for up to 4 days wrapped in clingfilm and kept in a cool place. I used it to make my blue cheese canapés, but I used the leftovers for a very tasty bread and butter pudding with fresh cranberries.

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Fondant Fancies

If you are British, love the UK and its culture or have spent some time here, you will be familiar with fondant fancies. These pale, pastel-coloured little cakes are quite popular as an afternoon tea-time treat and go really well with a cup of tea. They were also one of the technical challenges on the GBBO, just to give you an idea. The difficult bit is balancing the different stages. First you have to make the cake, then put the marzipan on top, cut it into squares, cover them with butter cream and finally smother them in fondant icing. One really good thing about them is that you don’t have to stick to the recipe you’ll find below (which is Mary Berry’s), but you could just as easily custom them by changing the flavours and the colours – I did it.

Allow plenty of chilling time once the small squares have been covered in butter cream and make sure your fondant icing is liquid enough but still hold its shape, or smothering the fancies will be your worst nightmare. Also, you can buy fondant icing in supermarket, but it comes in solid blocks. You’ll need some electric beaters or a very sturdy wooden spoon (and some good muscles!) to mix some water in and turn it into a smooth liquid. As I said, there are a few steps in the process, but don’t let that frighten you as the result is outstanding. I have made these cakes twice already and they have been a roaring success both times.

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Ingredients (for the sponge)

  • 225g self raising flour OR 220g plain flour + 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda + 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 225g soft unsalted butter
  • 225g caster sugar
  • 4 medium eggs
  • 1 lemon, grated zest only

Ingredients (for the assembly and decoration)

  • 250g soft unsalted butter
  • 200g sifted icing sugar
  • 3 tbsp sieved apricot jam
  • 200g marzipan
  • 1 kg fondant icing
  • 50g dark chocolate, melted
  • food colouring (optional)
  • flavouring (optional)
  • water

Method

  • Start by lining a 20cm square cake tin with some baking parchment and buttering the sides. Pre-heat your oven to 160C.
  • Make the cake batter by creaming the butter and sugar together, then adding the eggs and last the flour and lemon zest. You’ll get a soft and spongy mixture which needs to be transferred to the cake tin. Level the top as you would normally do, then use your spatula/preferred implement to push some of the batter from the centre of the cake towards the edges and the corners. This will avoid the cake rising too much in the middle and you having to trim off most of the sponge to obtain equal cubes.
  • Bake in the oven for 40 minutes and check for doneness with a toothpick or a metal skewer.
  • Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the cake tin for approximately 20 minutes, then turn out to a wire rack, flip it upside down (put a cloth between the cake and the wire rack) and leave it to cool completely.
  • Now, at this point, I suggest you wrap the cooled cake in clingfilm and put it in the fridge overnight. This will ensure that the cake stays moist, the flavour develops and it’s easier to cut the following day. If you want to do it all in one day, then give it a good hour in the fridge or, if you want, half an hour in the freezer.
  • While the cake is chilling, you can make the butter cream. Put the softened butter in a big bowl and use an electric whisk to make it all nice and fluffy. Start adding the sieved icing sugar a little at a time, making sure the sugar is fully incorporated in the butter before adding any more. Keep your beaters still, then turn your bowl with your other hand to beat the mixture evenly. I have a KitchenAid, but I still prefer to do this with a good old electric whisk. Mix in all of the sugar, then put to one side. If you want, you can add a couple of drops of flavouring.
  • When the cake has thoroughly chilled/cooled down, it’s time to add the marzipan topping. Dust a working surface heavily with icing sugar, then roll out the marzipan to a slightly bigger square than your cake base. Use that as a template. Once you have rolled out the marzipan enough, position your cake tin on the marzipan and use a sharp knife to cut alongside the edges. This will ensure a snug fit on top of your cake.
  • Now take your cake and keep the base on the top as this will always be a more even surface. Brush the apricot jam on top, then use your cake tin base to transfer the marzipan on the cake and press lightly to make it adhere to the jam. Leave to stand for about 15 to 20 minutes, then arm yourself with a ruler!
  • Now, we want cakes which are 4x4cm, so perfect cubes. If you have used a 20cm tin, you should be able to get 5 per each side for a total of 25. My tin is slightly bigger, so I always have to trim the edges (which is good as I obtain a smoother finish). Use your ruler to make marks every 4cm, then take a dry very sharp knife and use it to cut alongside the marks and obtain first big slices of cake, then small cubes. Your finished product should look like this:

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  • Once you have cut them all, it’s time to start applying the butter cream. Arm yourself with some patience now as this can be very stressing! Save about 70g butter cream and put that in a piping bag – this will be used for the small dot on top. Take a snife/palette/spatula and use it to apply an even coating of butter cream on the sides of the cake. Don’t put it on top (where the marzipan is) or on the bottom but cover the sides only. Don’t panic if it looks messy or is really rough as you can smooth it out later.
  • Once you have done the sides of the cakes, snip the end off your piping bag and squeeze a small blob of butter cream on top of each one. The end result, once again, should look like this:

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  • Now, you can either attempt to smooth the butter cream while it’s soft or you can refrigerate the cakes and do it later. I tend to go for the second option or I’ll probably end crying in a corner, covered in butter cream and screaming for help. Little exaggeration there, but I find chilling the cakes now (1 hour in the fridge will be enough), then dipping a spatula knife in some warm water, drying it with a towel and using that to smooth the surface works a lot better.
  • Once you have smoothed them all out, it’s time to ice them. Cut your fondant icing in fairly small cubes, then put them in the bowl of a freestanding mixer and start adding water a couple of tablespoon at a time. Once you have reached the consistency you like, add a couple of drops of food colouring (or paste) and mix that well in to obtain a pale coloured icing. Transfer to a bowl.
  • Now, arm yourself of a fork, a wire rack and a large surface. Place some baking parchment on the work surface so as to catch the dripping icing (and chocolate later). Use the fork to stab each cake from the bottom, but make sure you go in at an angle. This way will be much easier to drop them on the wire rack. Dip each cake in the icing, swirl it around and use your finger to ease any excess icing off the little cakes, then put each cake base facing down on to the wire rack. Leave there to solidify for a good 3 hours or overnight, if possible. Don’t put them in the fridge or they will lose their shine.
  • Once the cakes have all hardened, drizzle the chocolate on top and leave that to harden too. I like to serve them in white muffin paper cases, I think it adds a bit of wow factor. Enjoy!

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Faux Mexican Chicken Stew with Rice & Beans

I have to apologise to people with a preference for savoury dishes as there have been a lot of desserts and cakes recently. Thing is, on top of being a very sweet tooth myself (which doesn’t help), December is a really cold month which calls for comfort food. And for me, comfort equals chocolate, which in turn takes the shape of a cake/biscuit/dessert. Christmas being round the corner also clearly doesn’t help…

Anyway, this time we’re down to cooking. I called it ‘faux’ chicken stew because I found it on a cooking magazine as a chicken stew, but due to the shorter cooking time it can’t be quite considered as such. I have also slightly changed it, so mine wouldn’t necessarily be *that* chicken stew anyway. It’s a really rich and dark chicken pot, if you wish, with plenty of peppers and smoky flavour. I served it with rice and beans, but you can just as easily leave those out or substitute them with mashed potatoes, a salad or some roasted vegetables. One last note: you really need the lime to cut through all that richness and tomatoes. Lemon juice wouldn’t quite work here, but be free to give it a go.

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Ingredients (for the chicken pot)

  • 1 red onion, finely chopped
  • 2 red & 1 yellow peppers, chopped into large chunks
  • 4 tbsp chipotle paste
  • 2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
  • 3 skinless chicken breasts
  • 3 tbsp chopped coriander
  • 1 tbsp light brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • olive oil
  • salt
  • black pepper

Ingredients (for the rice and beans)

  • 150g basmati rice
  • 1 x 400g tin red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • black pepper

Method

  1. Heat some olive oil in a deep frying pan, then tumble in the onion and peppers. Cook until softened. Stir in the chipotle paste and continue cooking for another minute.
  2. Now add the tomatoes, then fill half a can with water and pour that in too. Lay the chicken breasts on top of the sauce and push them right into the mixture with a wooden spoon. Gently simmer for about 30 minutes. Stir occasionally.
  3. Once the chicken is fully cooked, remove it from the pan with some tongs, then use two forks to pull the meat apart. Tumble the chicken shreds back into the pan, then add the sugar, Worcestershire sauce and season well. Leave to cook for another 15 minutes until the sauce has thickened slightly.
  4. In the meantime, bring a small pan filled with water to the boil, then tumble in the rice and cook for about 15 minutes, until just right. Keep stirring to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Towards the end of the cooking time, stir in the beans and give them a quick stir, just to warm them through. Drain the rice and beans, then tumble into a bowl. Add the rice, lime juice, salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Remove the chicken pot from the heat, sprinkle some coriander on top and some lemon juice, then serve and enjoy.

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