Mendl’s Courtesan au Chocolat

We Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is a joy to watch, both for the eyes and the senses. The meekness of the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, located somewhere in the Alps and ravaged by war and poverty, is set against the grandeur of the equally fictional Grand Budapest Hotel, the place to be if you had some cash back in the 1900s. The plot follows the misadventures of Gustave, the first ever concierge of the popular hotel, as he trains the future owner of the hotel, Zero, who starts his career as a bellboy. The cast is exceptional, with Ralph Fiennes playing the leading role and rendering a magnificent (and very camp) Monsieur Gustave. The film also features its own pastry, local pastry chef Mendel’s Courtesan au Chocolat which, much in the same way as the rest of movie, is the result of a very vivid imagination.

The dessert, which looks very similar to a religieuse, consists of three choux buns filled with chocolate pastry cream, decorated with pastel-coloured icing sugar and butter cream and topped with a coffee bean. If you are interested in what is claimed to be the original recipe, here is an article fully dedicated to it. It looks impressive and, believe me, it is. As complicated as it might look, however, it isn’t. Once you have made your choux buns and have filled them, it’s just a simple assembling job. The recipe below is my take on Mendel’s Courtesan. I started off by following the recipe in the article above, then decided to make it my own. The quantities below make 6 whole desserts, plus you’ll have extra choux buns in case some of them don’t come out as planned. The whole recipe takes about 2 hours to make (although I suggest you make the pastry cream the night before), so don’t panic and get baking!

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Ingredients (for the choux buns)

  • 100g plain flour
  • 75g unsalted butter
  • pinch of salt
  • 175ml water
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature

Ingredients (for the chocolate pastry cream)

  • 300ml whole milk
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 60g golden caster sugar
  • 25g dark chocolate
  • 1 tbsp plain flour
  • 2 tsp corn flour
  • 2 tsp cocoa powder
  • 1 sheet of gelatine

Ingredients (for the icing and butter icing)

  • 50g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 250g icing sugar, for the butter icing
  • 2 tsp whole milk
  • 500ml double cream
  • 3 x 100g icing sugar, one for each colour + extra milk
  • violet, pink, green and blue food colouring

Method

  1. To make the choux buns, start by putting the water, salt and butter in a saucepan over a medium heat. Melt the butter and bring to the boil, then take the saucepan off the heat and add the flour all at once. Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture comes together. It will look like a lumpy mess, but that is perfectly fine.
  2. Put the saucepan back over a low heat and slowly dry out the lump of pastry with a wooden spoon. Keep on cooking the pastry until it easily comes off the sides of the pan and it forms a cohesive lump of dough. Transfer to a big glass bowl and leave to cool slightly. Pre-heat the oven to 200C and line two baking trays.
  3. Once the dough has cooled to slightly below body temperature, start adding the eggs, beating them into the pastry one by one with a wooden spoon. Be confident the pastry will eventually come together and keep on beating with the spoon. The consistency you are looking for is soft but holding, so that if forms a beak when it falls off the spoon.
  4. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle, then pipe mounds in three sizes. As a guide, the bigger ones should be about 5-6cm in diameter and about 3 in height, then you will need some medium ones and some small ones. Use all of the choux dough you have and remember you need at least 6 buns per size. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove from the oven, make a small indentation on the bottom of the choux buns with a sharp knife and put them back in for another 5 minutes to dry out. Leave to cool on the side.
  5. To make the chocolate pastry cream, slowly heat the milk in a saucepan with the dark chocolate pieces. In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar, flour, corn flour and cocoa powder until pale and frothy. When the milk has come to a boil, slowly pour it onto the yolk mixture, whisking continuously. Transfer the mixture back into the saucepan, then heat over a medium heat to cook the flour off. Keep on whisking as the mixture will thicken very quickly.
  6. In the meantime, soak the gelatine leaf in a bowl of cold water for about 15 minutes, then add it to the cooked pastry cream. Whisk until smooth. At this point, you can also add liqueur or chocolate flavouring, if you like. Cover the pastry cream with a sheet of clingfilm and leave to cool completely on the side.
  7. To assemble the dessert, make some butter icing by mixing the softened butter with the icing sugar. Add the milk to soften the mixture, then beat until fluffy and pale. Divide the mixture in two, then add the blue food colouring to one half. Transfer the two mixtures, the white and the blue one, into two piping bags fitted with a small star nozzle.
  8. In three bowls, make the icing mixtures to decorate the choux buns. Mix each batch of icing sugar with 2-3 tsp milk and the pink, violet and green food colouring. You are aiming for a thick but glossy paste to cover the choux buns, but try not to make too liquid or it will run off the buns. Whip the double cream with 2 tbsp icing sugar and transfer to a piping bag fitted with a small star nozzle. Using a piping bag fitted with a small nozzle, pipe the chocolate pastry cream in the middle buns, then pipe the whipped cream in the big and small ones. Now you are ready to assemble.
  9. To assemble the courtesans, dip the biggest buns in the pink icing paste, the medium ones in the green one and the small ones in the violet mixture. Position the biggest choux buns on a serving plate, then pipe a small mound of plain butter icing on top. Place the medium choux bun onto the bigger one, using the butter icing to stick them together. Repeat by piping some more plain butter icing on top of the medium bun, then position the small one on top.
  10. Use the blue butter icing to cover the joints by piping small star-shaped collars all around the base of each bun, when it joins the following one. Pipe the remaining double cream in a star-shaped pattern at the base of the biggest choux bun. Leave to harden slightly, then serve and enjoy.

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Szarlotka (Polish Apple Pie)

A traditional apple pie the Polish way. This is a very warm and wintery dish and, in comparison to its American cousin, the dough is also made in a different way. First you make the base, then you scatter it with apple slices and then, and here comes the funny part, you grate the rest of the dough on top. Yes, you read correctly. This ensures the lid of the pie, if you wish, is very crunchy and has a squiggly look as well, which I find very appealing. The recipe is by Polish home cook and food blogger Ren Behan and was featured in the January issue of the BBC Good Food magazine.

There’s something so homely and warming about Polish cooking which reminds me of the Italian culinary tradition. The kitchen really is put at the heart of the family and this is evident even in the food itself. Plenty is an option here, as this makes a huge cake. Also be careful to stick to the advised chilling time (if not to prolong them), otherwise you will end up with a big mush on top. This cake is best enjoyed with some whipped cream, but I bet it still tastes amazing even if paired with some vanilla ice-cream. Must try!

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Ingredients

  • 6 large Bramley apples
  • 4 tbsp light brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 a lemon
  • 450g plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 200g unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces
  • 225g golden caster sugar
  • 3 medium egg yolks
  • 1 medium egg
  • 1 tbsp Greek yogurt
  • 1 tbsp lemon zest (optional)
  • 1 tsb vanilla extract

Method

  1. Grease and line a 20 x 30cm rectangular tin (or equivalent). Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
  2. Start with the filling. Zest the half lemon and put it aside for the dough. Peel, core and thinly slice the apples, then drizzle them with the lemon juice to prevent them from turning brown. Add to a large pan, then tumble in the sugar, cinnamon and 200ml water. Cook for about 5-7 minutes, then take off the heat and leave to cool in the liquid.
  3. To make the dough, you can either use the food processor (easier and faster) or do it by hand. If you’re doing it by hand, crush the butter pieces in the flour, then add the rest of the ingredients. Otherwise, put the flour and baking powder in a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the butter and mix again until the mixture is sandy. Add the sugar, lemon zest, egg yolks and egg, yogurt and vanilla extract, then mix to combine again. Tip it onto a lightly floured surface, then bring together to form a ball.
  4. Cut the dough in half. Wrap one half in cling film and put it in the freezer for at least 1 hour. Use the other half to cover the base of the previously lined baking tin, using your hands to squish it into place and cover any cracks which form in the dough. Try to ensure the surface is smooth, then cover with clingfilm and chill in the fridge for a good 40 minutes.
  5. When you’re ready to bake it, remove from the fridge, prick the base with a fork and bake for 15 minutes. Remove and set aside to cool.
  6. Remove the dough half from the freezer, then grate it coarsely (much in the same way as you would do with cheese). Sppon the filling and half of its cooking liquid onto the cooled base, then top with the grated dough. Try not to press it in place but, rather, scatter it. Bake it for 40-45 minutes, until golden and cooked through. Remove from the oven, then leave to cool completely on a wire rack before unmoulding. Enjoy!

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Red Velvet Melting Moments

I have to be honest with you: there’s not much red going on in these and neither is there any velvet. The recipe is from Edd Kimber, the first winner of the GBBO series, who states he decided to combine two of the main classics: melting moments and red velvet. The thing is, these remind me more of whoopie pies and, as I said at the beginning, the red hue does not come through once baked, possibly because these are too dark. That said, they are very nice and I have had quite the positive feedback from these, including my hairdresser, who is usually subjected to pictures of my creations but had never got a chance to taste them herself.

The decoration on top is highly optional. I do like the ridges as they add an extra dimension and I had eyed this type of cookies a while ago, so wanted to give them a try. The filling is a standard cream cheese one, but feel free to use your favourite butter icing recipe instead or substitute that for an equal amount of jam, for instance. The original recipe also called for lemon extract in the filling, but I decided to ditch that and keep it nice and simple instead. A gentle dust of icing sugar at the end would probably increase the dramatic effect.

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Ingredients (for the biscuits)

  • 250g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • red food colouring
  • 225g plain flour
  • 35g cocoa powder
  • 85g icing sugar
  • 30g cornflour
  • 1 tbsp milk

Ingredients (for the cream cheese frosting)

  • 50g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 125g icing sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 50g full-fat cream cheese

Method

  1. Line two baking trays with parchment.
  2. To make the dough, put the butter and vanilla into the bowl of a freestanding mixer equipped with the paddle attachment, then beat on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add enough colouring to tinge it a deep red, then sift the remaining biscuit ingredients into the bowl and mix until it comes together to form an uniform dough. Add the milk if you see the mixture is too dry.
  3. Using your hands, roll the dough into small balls (even number!) and place them onto the prepared baking trays, leaving some space in between them. Dip a fork in plain flour, shake the excess off, then press it lightly onto each of the biscuits, leaving an indent and pressing the biscuits a little flatter.
  4. Transfer the trays to the fridge for at least 30 minutes. I like to give them an extra 5 minutes in the freezer right before I bake them.
  5. Pre-heat the oven to 160C.
  6. Bake each batch for 20-25 minutes, then remove from the oven and allow to cool on the trays before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.
  7. To make the filling, cream the butter with the icing sugar and vanilla, then beat together until light and fluffy. Add the cream cheese and beat until just combined. Transfer the filling to a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle, then pipe a good dollop onto half of the biscuits and sandwich with the remaining ones.

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Pink Chess Cake with Ombre Icing

Yes, I know that, strictly speaking, I have already posted about these two items separately. If you can’t remember them, here are the links to the Chocolate Chess Cake and the Ombre Icing posts. However, this is a cake I made for the 6oth birthday of one of my partner’s work colleagues, Stef. She loved the way I decorated the cake with different tinges of pink buttercream in the shape of roses and asked me to make a similar one. The cake, however, had to look beautiful both on the inside and on the outside, so we opted for a chess cake. Being it for her mum, though, she asked me whether I could make it a pink checkerboard cake and I do like a challenge.

It only took a few twists of the original recipe to make this stunning cake. I decided to fill it with mixed berry jam to echo a traditional Victoria sponge, but the possibilities are, I believe, endless. Also, needless to say, this cake requires you to be extremely patient and to be proficient enough at piping, as that is what makes the sponges and the buttercream decoration. If you don’t like the method indicated here to make a checkerboard cake and you prefer something a little bit more defined, then I suggest you bake 4 different sponges (this is a three-layer cake, but you’ll need the extra sponge to compensate), 2 for each colour, and then you cut equal circles from the cake and re-arrange them as needed.

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Ingredients (for the cakes and filling)

  • 400g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 400g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 6 large eggs, slightly beaten
  • 400g plain flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 tbsp whole milk
  • pink food colouring
  • 200g mixed berry jam

Ingredients (for one batch of butter icing, you will need at least 4)

  • 125g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 400g icing sugar, sifted
  • 3 tbsp whole milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • pink food colouring
  • dark chocolate, to write on top (optional)

Method

  1. To make the sponges, start by pre-heating the oven to 180C and greasing and lining three 20cm round tins. The quantities above might make more mixture than needed, but I always prefer to have extra than to have to improvise.
  2. Put the butter into the bowl of a freestanding mixer equipped with the leaf attachment and beat until very creamy. Gradually beat in the sugar, followed by the vanilla extract. Occasionally scrape down the sides of the bowl to ensure the mixture is evenly combined.Keep beating until the mixture is very fluffy and much lighter in colour.
  3. Gradually add the eggs, beating well after each addition. Scrape the sides down to ensure the whole butter mixture is thoroughly incorporated. beat on medium speed for about 5 minutes, then slowly add the flour and the baking powder and keep on beating until the mixture is even and you can’t see any lumps.
  4. Transfer half of the mixture to a big bowl, then add enough pink food colouring to tinge it a good shade of pink. Remember when baked the colour tends to fade slightly. Add 1 tbsp milk to the pink batter and the remaining milk to the plain one. Transfer both cake batters into two piping bags with no nozzle.
  5. Snip the end of each piping bag so that you end up with a hole about of about 1cm, then start alternating the colours and piping circles in the baking tins. Start from the outside and move towards the inside, ensuring the colour rings are even and alternated between sponges (if you started with a pink outer ring in one tin, the remaining two will have to have the plain one on the outside).
  6. Bake each sponge for about 20-25 minutes until well risen. Check with a skewer that the sponges are cooked, then remove from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool. After about 20 minutes, remove them from their tins and invert them onto a towel on the wire rack. Peel the parchment off the bottom and leave to cool completely.
  7. Now that your sponges are made, you can start making 1 1/2 batches of butter icing to sandwich them together and make the crumb layer. The latter is a plain butter icing layer on the outside of the cake which ensures no crumbs get mixed up with the intricate outer design and spoil it. You will need to apply this in two stages, so allow plenty of time for refrigerating the cake.
  8. To make the butter icing, put the butter and the icing into the bowl of a freestanding mixer equipped with the leaf attachment, then beat on medium speed until creamy. Slowly add the icing sugar (this can get very messy!) until fully incorporated and increase the speed to high. Beat for a few minutes, then add the milk and vanilla and beat the mixture for a good 3 minutes, until fluffy and very light in colour.
  9. Transfer the mixed berry jam to a small bowl and lightly beat with a fork to loosen it up. Transfer about 1/3 of a batch of butter icing to a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle and get your sponges ready. Place the first sponge onto your cake base/platter, then pipe a thick and even circle of butter icing on the edge. This will ensure the filling does not escape while assembling. Fill the space in between with half of the jam. Top with another sponge, ensuring the outer layer is the opposite colour to the one of the bottom sponge. Use the rest of the butter icing to pipe another ring and fill it with the remaining jam. Top with the third and last sponge.
  10. Now spread the remaining butter icing onto the top and the sides of the cake using an offset spatula or a rubber one, ensuring all the gaps between the sponges are filled and the cake is evenly covered. The final result doesn’t have to be perfect as this layer will be covered with another one. Refrigerate the cake for about 30 minutes, until the butter icing is solid.
  11. Cover the cake with another layer of butter icing, this time ensuring the finish is as smooth as possible, especially on the top. Take your time and don’t rush things as this can be quite tricky. Don’t panic if the butter icing is slightly uneven as you can sort it out with the next step. Refrigerate the cake for a further 30 minutes.
  12. Remove the cake from the fridge and warm your spatula in a jug of hot water for a couple of minutes or under hot running water. Use it to smooth the surface of the butter icing and remove the excess one. The warmth from the spatula will help the butter icing to slightly melt and fall into place. Once done, refrigerate the cake for 15 minutes and prepare more butter icing mixture for the next step.
  13. Now, I find it easier to colour the butter icing gradually as I go and to start from the bottom of the cake as it ensures the roses do not fall off and have something to lean on. That said, if you prefer to make different butter icing colours at the same time, please be my guest.
  14. Start adding a few drops of pink food colouring to the butter icing until you tinge it of a delicate shade. Remember you will have to build up with the colour and in my experience there is a limit to the amount of colour butter icing can take and how dark it can get. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle and start piping rosettes all around the base of the cake in an even layer. Once you have completed a layer, squeeze the leftover butter icing back into the bowl and make it a darker shade. As you create each shade, use the darker one to fill the gaps left between the rosettes in the previous colour. This will ensure the colours blend in more gradually. For this cake, I had to leave the top free so as to be able to write something onto it. However, you can also choose to continue the decoration as on the sides (in which case you might want to double the rosette layers you make per shade) or do something else altogether, the choice is yours. Once you are done decorating your cake and are satisfied with the end result, chill it in the fridge for at least 1 hour, but ensure you serve it at room temperature.
  15. If you’re wondering why it looks like the writing is detached from the cake, it’s because I wrote the different letters on baking parchment and then transferred them onto the cake. I wanted it to be perfect and didn’t trust my piping skills enough to do it on the cake directly. If you serve the cake at room temperature, the chocolate will slightly melt and the letters will adhere to the cake better.

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Chelsea Buns

There’s something about yeasted doughs which puts me off them. I don’t know whether it’s the fact they need time to rise or whether it’s simply that sometimes they seem not be working quite right. I am also terribly scared they might not cook in the middle, something I don’t fear when baking a cake. I also think I don’t make enough of them, so I started this week by making these and a loaf of yummy bread. I need to start facing my (unfounded) fears, so better be practicing. Needless to say, it’s important to knead these breads by hand as much as possible. Therefore, I usually start the mixture in a freestanding mixer, but tip it out once it’s combined and knead it by hand. I also don’t flour the surface when possible, neither I drench it in olive oil. Rather, I leave it plain. I read in a really good book that by doing so you increase the friction of the dough on the work surface, which in turn means it kneads better.

Chelsea Buns, which date back to the 18th century, are a great example of British baking. A sweet dough is rolled out and then filled with dried fruits (usually currants). Then you roll it all up (much in the way as a Swiss roll), cut it into portions and bake it. This recipe is Paul Hollywood’s, although I ended up tweaking it slightly because 1) I didn’t have all of the ingredients and 2) I forgot to add the egg. Personally, I think it makes the whole thing lighter. I incorporated the missing apricots with dried prunes and I have to say it worked really well. I gave them to my partner to take to work and they went down a storm (he says). Also, rather than drowning the baked buns in jam and icing, I decided to simply drizzle some on top, thus making it look a lot nicer than the mess Mr Hollywood makes on TV and, probably, slightly less sweet.

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Ingredients (for the dough)

  • 500g strong bread flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 x 7g fast-action dried yeast
  • 300ml milk
  • 40g unsalted butter, at room temperature

Ingredients (for the filling and to finish)

  • 25g unsalted butter, melted
  • grated zest of 2 oranges
  • 75g soft light brown sugar
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 100g dried cranberries
  • 100g sultanas
  • 50g dried apricots, chopped
  • 50g dried prunes, chopped
  • 75g icing sugar
  • 1 tbsp apricot jam

Method

  1. Put the flour into the bowl of a freestanding mixer (equipped with the hook attachment). Add the salt and the yest, taking care to put them in opposite corners.
  2. In a small saucepan, heat the milk and the butter until the latter melts and the mixture is lukewarm. If you heat the milk too much, don’t worry! Fill your sink with about 2cm of cold water, then plunge the base of your saucepan (taking care not to let the water get into the saucepan) and leave to cool slightly.
  3. Add the liquid to the flour mixture and start the engine of the mixer on low. Leave it to knead until it forms a soft dough, then tip out onto a non floured surface and knead by hand for a good 5 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic.
  4. Shape the dough into a ball, then tip into a lightly oiled bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave to prove for a good hour at room temperature or until doubled in size.
  5. Punch down the dough to its original size, then turn out onto a working surface. Roll out the dough to a rectangle about 40cm long and 5mm thick. Place it horizontally in front of you, that is with the longest side horizontal and facing you.
  6. Brush the dough with the melted butter, then sprinkle the orange zest from 1 orange over it, followed by the cinnamon, brown sugar and fruits.
  7. Tack down the long side of the rectangle nearest to you (that is, press it onto the working surface with your fingers so it sticks to it) and begin rolling from the opposite side towards you. Try and keep it as tight as possible. Once completely rolled, use a scraper or a knife to untack the pieces attached to the work surface.
  8. Line a rectangular baking tray with some baking parchment, then cut the log into 10 pieces, about 4cm wide (you’ll see only 9 in the picture!).
  9. Place the pieces cut side up and leave a little space in between them as they will expand. Cover with clingfilm and leave to prove for another 30 minutes at room temperature.
  10. Pre-heat the oven to 190C, then bake the buns for 30 minutes, until nice and golden on top. If you see them turning too brown during baking, cover the tin with some foil and keep on baking.
  11. Remove from the oven and leave to cool slightly. Melt the jam with a splash of water in a small saucepan, then brush liberally over the top with a pastry brush.
  12. In a bowl, combine the icing sugar with 1 tbsp cold water and the remaining orange zest (add more water if you see the mixture is too thick), then use a spoon to drizzle the icing on the buns. Leave to cool completely (if you can resist!).

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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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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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Strawberry, Chocolate & Pistachio Pinwheels

Ever heard of schnecken? Neither had I, but it turns out these are the German version of the Chelsea buns. The pastries, whose name literally means ‘snails’ and clearly refers to their pinwheel shape, are made from a dough enriched with sour cream and are usually topped with a sticky cinnamon glaze. Now, the pastries below only have the shape of a schnecke, but are in fact pinwheels – sweet ones, to be precise. The recipe comes from a very interesting book I bought on my last trip to Spain: Bollería, by Xavier Barriga. This Basque pastry chef, who I understand is a bit of a celebrity, has some really fresh takes on some pastry classics, such as roulades, brioches and, obviously, pinwheels.

The yeasted and laminated dough is the same as you would use for croissants, except faster, no fuss and a lot tastier. In fact, you could use the same dough to make croissants or pains au chocolat! The filling here is gorgeous: fresh strawberry jam dotted with dark chocolate chips and sprinkled with pistachios. The chips tend to melt slightly in the hot jam, while the pistachios retain their crunch, thus providing for a feast for the senses both in terms of flavour and texture. I have made my own cheat’s strawberry jam here, but feel free to use a shop-bought one if you prefer.

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Ingredients (for the pastry)

  • 500g strong bread flour
  • 10g salt
  • 40g caster sugar
  • 25g unsalted butter, melted
  • 250ml icy cold water
  • 1 x 7g sachet of fast action yeast
  • 280g unsalted butter, fridge-cold

Ingredients (for the strawberry jam)

  • 300g strawberries
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1 tbsp plum jam
  • 1 tsp corn flour
  • 1 tbsp water

Ingredients (for the filling & decoration)

  • 50g dark chocolate chips
  • 70g pistachios, roughly ground
  • 1 medium egg, slightly beaten

Method

  1. Start with the pastry, so then you have plenty of time to chill it. The rising is left to the very last phase and the dough should be kept as cold as possible to avoid proving.
  2. If you have a freestanding mixer, put all of the ingredients in there and mix with the hook attachment until a soft dough forms. You might have to add some extra water or keep some back from the quantity above, this depends on the weather conditions and, most importantly, on your flour. Turn out the dough onto a work surface (don’t flour it!) and knead until smooth and pliable. Roll the dough to a ball and place it in a bowl, then cover with cling film and put it in the fridge to rest for at least 1 hour.
  3. In the meantime, you can make your strawberry jam. Wash, hull and halve the strawberries and put them in a saucepan over a medium heat with the sugar. Stir occasionally, until the sugar has melted and mixed with some of the strawberry juices. Leave to cook for about 15 minutes, until the strawberries have lost their shape and you are left with a slightly mushy purée. Now add the plum jam and mix that in. In a small bowl, mix the corn flour with the water, then pour that in. This will help to thicken the jam. Cook for another 5 minutes, stirring frequently, then once you have reached a spreadable consistency tumble the jam into a small bowl, cover with cling film and leave to cool down completely.
  4. Once your dough has rested enough, take it out of the fridge and punch down it. Turn it out onto a slightly floured surface, then roll it out to a large rectangle. Place the cold butter between two sheets of baking parchment, then use a rolling pin to bash it down and make it both pliable and slimmer. You are aiming for 1cm thick and the width of half of your pastry rectangle. Once your butter has been beaten into submission, place it on one half of the pastry and pull the rest of the pastry on top to cover it. Press it down to seal the pastry around the butter, then turn the rectangle around so that the shorter edge is facing you and start rolling the pastry up and down. You want to distribute the butter evenly and stretch the pastry to a long thinnish rectangle. Once you have doubled the length of the pastry, fold the top third back on itself and the bottom third on top of this one, then give the dough a 90 degree turn and repeat.
  5. Repeat this procedure for a total of 4 times, then wrap the pastry in cling film and leave it to rest in the fridge for at least 2 hours. You will notice that towards the end of the last turn the pastry will not roll out as much as before: this is due to the gluten in the pastry, so it needs to rest to allow the gluten to relax.
  6. Once you pastry has had plenty of chilling time, take it out of the fridge and roll it out to a big rectangle, approximately 25x50cm. Use a sharp knife to trim the edges.
  7. Spread an even layer of jam on top, leaving about 2 cm alongside one of the longer edges (this will help when rolling it up). Sprinkle the chocolate chips and about 2/3 of the ground pistachios on top, then get rolling! Starting from the long edge (the one without the big border), start rolling the pastry on itself and try to make it into a tight roll. Once you have created your sausauge-like roll, wrap it in clingfilm and chill it for another 30 minutes.
  8. In the meantime, line two baking trays with parchment.
  9. Take your sausage-like roll out of the fridge, unwrap it and use a very sharp knife to cut even slices, approximately 1cm thick. Don’t worry if they look a bit squashed when you put them on your tray, they will turn out beautifully in the oven. Put the slices evenly spaced on the tray and leave to prove for 1 hour in a warm environment. Towards the end of the proving time, pre-heat your oven to 210C.
  10. Bake for 15 minutes, until golden on top, then turn the oven down to 180C and bake for a further 7 minutes to ensure the centre is cooked too. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on wire racks, then enjoy!

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Piernik – a Polish Christmas Cake

Piernik means ‘gingerbread’ in Polish. Traditionally, this Christmas sweet is made not in the form of a cake but, rather, as a very dense and spicy bread. This is then layered with plum jam and left to ferment for a few weeks, so that the flavours have time to develop. Not wanting to wait weeks before trying it (and considering I already have a boozy British Christmas cake slowly maturing away in the spare room), I decided to opt for Edd Kimber’s cake adaptation of this recipe, which is just as good. I hope Polish traditionalists won’t hate me!

This cake is made with the melting method, which involves melting the fat and the sugar over a low heat in a pan and then, once cooled, combining them with the other ingredients. Usually, cakes made this way result in a moister, darker and softer crumb, much in the same way as my Guinness Cake. Another word of advice: do let the ganache set a little before trying to pour it over the cake. You do want to end up with a nicely thick chocolate layer on top, so the ganache needs to be firm enough to adhere to the cake surface when poured over. Also, you can try and experiment with different flavours of honey. Personally, I combined standard clear honey with a darker and woodier brown honey.

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Ingredients (for the cake)

  • 140g unsalted butter
  • 300g honey
  • 100g light brown sugar
  • 365g plain flour
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 3 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground pepper
  • 3 large eggs

Ingredients (for the filling and the ganache)

  • 250g plum jam
  • 225ml double cream
  • 140g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
  • 3 tbsp clear honey

Method

  1. Grease and line the base of a deep 20cm cake tin with baking parchment.
  2. In a saucepan, put the butter, honey and sugars, then cook over a medium heat until fully melted. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
  3. Pre-heat the oven to 140C.
  4. Sieve all of the dry ingredients in a bowl and mix them together.
  5. Once the butter mixture has cooled, whisk in the eggs, then pour that into the flour and spice mixture and mix until fully combine. Careful not to overmix the mixture of you will end up with a dry cake. Pour into the cake tin and cook for about 1 hour. Check whether the cake is done with a skewer, then remove from the oven and let it cool completely.
  6. In the meantime, prepare your ganache by putting the chocolate, honey and cream into a saucepan and melting over medium heat, mixing to combine the ingredients together. Remove from the heat and let it cool and slightly thicken. Mix it from time to time.
  7. Once the sponges have cooled, use a serrated knife to slice the cake into three equal layers. Position the bottom layer on your a wire rack, then spread half of the jam on. Top with the second layer and cover that with the rest of the jam, then position the remaining layer on top.
  8. Put a sheet of baking parchment/foil under the wire rack, so that it collects any extra ganache which will drop off the cake. Once the chocolate ganache has reached a slightly denser consistency, pour that over the cake and let it completely drip down the sides, so that the whole cake is covered. Leave to cool and harden.
  9. When ready, use a palette knife to transfer the cake onto a serving dish/platter.

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Apple & Cinnamon Cake

Let’s face it, it’s getting colder, the days are lasting less and less and Christmas is only round the corner. Autumn, if not winter, has already arrived. What best way to face it than with a nice, warm, comforting and soothing cake? Apples are in season, so they provide a cheap and tasty base to work with. Cinnamon is a natural pairing for apples and helps boost their natural flavour, not to mention evoke that conforting and warming Christmas-y feeling.

The cake is very easy to whip up. If you have a freestanding mixer, you can just put everything in there. Otherwise, use a handheld one and a bowl.

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Ingredients

  • 175g unsalted butter, softened
  • 175g light muscovado sugar
  • 3 medium eggs
  • 270g plain flour
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 4 eating apples (I actually used 3 and a half)
  • 2 tsp apricot jam (to glaze)
  • 1 tsp demerara sugar

Method

  1. Line the bottom and butter the sides of a 20cm round cake tin. Pre-heat your oven to 190C.
  2. In a freestanding mixer, cream together the butter and the sugar, then gradually beat in the eggs, adding a tablespoon of flour if the mixture curdles.
  3. Add the vanilla extract, then the rest of the flour, followed by the bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and cinnamon. Once thoroughly combined, spread the mixture into the prepared tin.
  4. Now prepare your apples. Halve them all, then core them and peel them. Run the prongs of a fork on the back of each half or use a knife to slightly score the surface, then arrange on top of the cake.
  5. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until golden, puffed up and cooked through. Check with a skewer.
  6. Take the cake out of the oven and brush with the apricot jam. Sprinkle the demerara sugar on top, then serve with some custard or vanilla ice-cream.

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