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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Watermelon Cookies

Can you feel it? I definitely can. Summer is coming. Well, it’s definitely taking its time, especially here in the UK, but believe me when I say that at some point it shall be warm. Days are already getting longer and, most surprisingly, we have even had some sunny spells over the last few days. Also, on a more personal (and professional) note, I have recently started working as an interpreting tutor/professor at the same MA I completed 3 years ago at the University of Leeds. I now teach interpreting from and into Italian once a week and I will also be taking part in exams and marking the students’ performances. I have to say, it is a tiring job, but I’m really loving every minute of it! I also made it a personal resolution to bake something for the students each week and not, as you might think, because I want to buy their appreciation but, rather, because you should nourish your body AND your mind. Also, seeing as we only practice for 4 hours on one afternoon, sweet treats provide the necessary sugar boost and distraction to carry on without falling asleep.

Therefore, what better way to celebrate both these wonderful news than with a batch of watermelon cookies? Before you ask, no, they do not taste of watermelon. These are pretty standard vanilla shortbread cookies which are shaped to look like cute watermelon slices. The idea and the recipe come from this video on YouTube, which also details the steps to take in a more visual and interactive way. You will also see my cookies are not as beautifully shaped as the ones in the video even though I followed the recipe word by word. Not sure why that happened, I think maybe brushing the different layers of dough with egg whites before gluing them together would ensure they don’t peel off during baking. Alternatively, make sure your layers adhere well one to the other before you chill them. If you don’t feel comfortable working with food colouring, you can always replace it with natural dyes (beetroot for red and mint for green).

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Ingredients

  • 170g unsalted butter, softened
  • 170g caster sugar
  • 1 medium egg
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 250g plain flour
  • 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • red and green gel food colouring
  • 50g mini chocolate chips

Method

  1. In a large bowl or in the bowl of a freestanding mixer, cream the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and the extract and thoroughly combine them.
  2. Combine the dry ingredients, then slowly add them to the butter mixture and beat until fully incorporated. Remove 1 cup of the dough (I used an actual US cup measuring spoon), then set that aside.
  3. Use the red food colouring (sparingly, I shall add) to tinge the remaining dough, then shape it into a 15cm log. Wrap it in clingfilm, then put it in the fridge to firm up for a good hour.
  4. Now take the reserved dough and divide that in half. Wrap one half in clingfilm and put that in the fridge too. Use the green food colouring to dye the rest of the dough, then warp it and chill it.
  5. When it’s time to assemble the cookie log, take all of the coloured doughs out of the fridge. Roll the white and green ones to 15x16cm rectangles, then wrap them around the red log, starting with the white dough. Make sure to pinch and smooth the seals, then wrap it in clingfilm once more and put it in the fridge for at least 2 hours.
  6. Pre-heat your oven to 180C and line two baking trays with parchment.
  7. Remove the log from the fridge, then use a very sharp and clean knife to cut it into 1cm slices. Cut each slice into halves and there you have your watermelon slices! Press the chocolate chips pointy end downwards into the cookies, then bake each batch for 10 minutes. They will start to puff up towards the end of the baking time. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

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Melting Moments

In the past, I have always steered clear of very buttery biscuits. I didn’t like the taste and the crumb you get when you first take a bite: too much butter, not enough chocolate. Even now, I have breakfast the exact same way I used to when home in Italy, with milk and (chocolate) biscuits. However, little by little, I have come to appreciate a good buttery shortbread, as long as I can find someone willing to eat them all if I ever make some! These are delicious, crumbly and, to be technical, very ‘short’. The recipe uses the same amount of flour and butter and makes up the difference with icing sugar and cornflour. They also have a very strong vanilla scent, which I found perfectly marries the filling.

On that note, this recipe comes from the first GBBO book and was made on the show in 2011 by Mary-Anne Boermans. She called the unusual filling a ‘Depression Era buttercream’, thus referring to the fact it is mostly made of milk and flour cooked on a stove and a little bit of butter and sugar added retrospectively. The recipe comes from a time when butter was in shortage and you really needed to make the little you had go further. You can read further insights directly on Mary-Anne’s blog. Mary’s decorative idea, that is painting the inside of the piping bag with gel food colouring, is a very creative one. I have seen it done to meringues and this way the piping provides some lightly coloured shells which are more original and enticing.

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Ingredients (for the biscuits)

  • 250g unsalted butter, softened
  • 60g icing sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 250g plain flour
  • 60g cornflour
  • gel food colouring

Ingredients (for the buttercream)

  • 125ml full-fat milk
  • 2 tbsp plain flour
  • 125g caster sugar
  • 125g unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tbsp redcurrant jelly (the original recipe stated raspberry jam)

Method

  1. In the bowl of a freestanding mixer, combine the butter and the icing sugar, then beat until pale and fluffy. Add the vanilla extract, then beat for a few seconds. In a bowl, combine the flour and the cornflour, then sieve the mixture into the bowl and mix until smooth.
  2. Using gel food colouring, paint a straight line on the inside of your piping bag, then insert a star shaped nozzle at the end. Spoon the biscuit mixture inside the bag.
  3. Pipe the mixture into approximately 32 swirls on baking trays lined with parchment, then chill in the fridge or the freezer for at least 30 minutes.
  4. In the meantime, prepare the filling. Heat the milk and flour in a pan, whisking constantly to avoid lumps, until the mixture boils and thickens. In my experience, this happens quite suddenly, so make sure you are whisking the mixture. Transfer to a shallow plate, cover tightly with clingfilm and leave to cool completely.
  5. Beat the butter and the sugar together in a freestanding mixer until pale and fluffy, then add the vanilla extract and the flour and milk mixture and beat on high speed  for a good 5 minutes, until light, creamy and almost white. Transfer to a piping bag fitted with a star-shaped nozzle.
  6. Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
  7. Bake the biscuits for 12 minutes, until they are slightly golden on the top, then set aside to cool completely.
  8. Once cold, pipe a circle of buttercream on half of them, then fill the circle with the jam and sandwich with another biscuit to seal the filling inside.
  9. If you want to, you can serve them lightly dusted in icing sugar.

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Peschine – Boozy Pastry Peaches

It all began when my mother gave me an Italian pastry recipe book which contained this childhood classic (well, mine at least). These are small shortcrust biscuits sandwiched together with pastry cream, then rolled in a dark red liqueur and granulated sugar. The result is a peach-looking like biscuit, very boozy and finger lickin’ good. I remember going to the pastry shop as a kid and asking my mother to buy me one of these, only to devour it in a few seconds. Not that I showed any alcoholic obsessions from an early age (the alcohol content is minimal if compared to other desserts), but more because of the deep red colour and the intense flavour these biscuits have. Just divine.

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According to tradition, these should be made using two liqueurs. First, Maraschino, a Dalmatian liqueur obtained from the distillation of Marasca cherries, is added to the dough. As I didn’t have it, I used Cognac instead. These little beauties are then rolled in Alchermes, an Italian alcoholic concoction prepared with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and vanilla. Alchermes is renowned for its deep scarlet red colour, obtained with the addition of Kermes, a parasitic insect. When it came out the liqueur was prepared with insects, sales dropped and people refused to use it. As a result, modern preparations prefer vegetable colourings instead. I bought mine in Italy, but you should be able to buy it online or in specialist shops. Also, the filling can traditionally be either pastry cream or its chocolate version. I stipulated in favour of the second one, mostly because that’s the way I have always had them.

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Ingredients (for the dough)

  • 250g plain flour
  • 1 large egg
  • 100g golden caster sugar
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp Cognac
  • 100g unsalted butter, softened
  • pinch of salt
  • zest of one lemon

Ingredients (for the filling and decoration)

  • about 450g pastry cream and/or chocolate pastry cream
  • about 200ml Alchermes
  • 200g granulated sugar

Method

  1. Line two (or three) baking trays with baking parchment. Do not turn the oven on now as the pastry needs to chill.
  2. Using a freestanding mixer (or your hands), cream the butter and the sugar together until light and fluffy, then add the egg and mix that in.
  3. Mix the flour with the raising agents, then sift those in and work them into the mixture, ensuring not to overwork it. Add the liqueur and the lemon zest, then work those in too. Gather the dough into a ball.
  4. Dust your working surface with a good amount of flour, then place your dough in the middle and use a floured rolling pin to roll it out to the thickness of a pound coin. Use a 4cm round cutter to cut shapes, then roll each one into a ball and place on the prepared baking tray. Keep on re-rolling your pastry trimmings to make as many nugget-sized pastry balls as possible. Also ensure you have an even number as you will need to sandwich them. Transfer each baking tray to the fridge to firm up before baking. You will need approximately 20-30 minutes.
  5. Towards the end of the baking time, pre-heat your oven to 180C, then bake each biscuit batch for 15 minutes. Do not overbake to give them a deep golden colour as they will be too hard afterwards. Remove each batch from the fridge and leave on a wire rack to cool down and firm up.
  6. Once cooled, use a knife to slightly carve the peach halves. This will ensure more cream can be used to fill them and keep the two halves together.
  7. When you are ready to assemble, place the granulated sugar in a shallow bowl, the liqueur in another and have the pastry cream at hand with a teaspoon. In an assembly line sort of way, fill the two halves with some pastry cream, then join them on the flat side to make them stick. Dunk them briefly in the Alchermes (you don’t want them to become too soggy), then roll them in the granulated sugar. Transfer them to an empty plate and, should you feel particularly artistic, decorate each one with a small mint leaf.

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Boeuf Bourguignon

When you think of quintessential French cuisine, I bet this recipe comes straight to your mind. And rightly so, mostly because the name is in French – and all it means is ‘Burgundy-style beef’ – and because the recipe dates back to a time where farmers could not afford the most expensive cuts of meat and came up with a clever way of making even the less noble cuts tender and tasty – stewing. The recipe was then made famous by the likeness of Auguste Escoffier and Julia Child to the French and English-speaking audiences respectively and it has become a flagship dish ever since.

Let me start by saying that there are a few things you should bear in mind when making this. First of all, the meat should be lean and not excessively fat. Also, it should be cut in big chunks and not in small ones like you would for a British stew. Secondly, you need a big cast iron casserole which you can use both on the hob and in the oven. The meat needs to slow cook for at least 3 hours in a very low oven, so the better quality your pan is, the better. I have been asked to make this using a slow cooker, but as that does not involve much cooking at all, I refused to do so. I do however understand you might be pressed for time sometimes, so you could decide to use that instead. Last, but not least, the wine: the traditional recipe obviously asks for a good Burgundy red wine, but should you not be able to afford/get your hands on one, then a full-bodied red would be just as good.

You can serve this dish à la Française, that is with either tagliatelle or rice cooked in beef stock, or you can opt for a simpler approach and have it with either mashed potatoes or on its own. This recipe comes from the GialloZafferano website.

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Ingredients (for the beef stew)

  • 1.5 kg lean steak beef, cut into 6cm pieces
  • 1 litre Burgundy wine
  • 1 litre beef stock
  • 50ml olive oil
  • 200g pancetta or rindless streaky bacon, cut into small chunks
  • 200g carrots, chopped
  • 200g onions, chopped
  • 30g plain flour, sifted
  • 2 cloves of garlic, pressed/finely chopped
  • 25g tomato puree
  • 3 sprigs of rosemary and thyme, tied together to make a bouquet garni
  • 3 bay leaves
  • salt and pepper

Ingredients (for the onions and mushrooms)

  • 300g small onions or shallots
  • 500g button/chestnut mushrooms
  • 100ml beef stock
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp chopped parsley
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Method

  1. Once you have cut the meat in big chunks, lay some kitchen paper on a surface and put the pieces of meat on it, then cover with some more kitchen paper to pat dry the meat prior to searing it. This ensures the meat does not stick to the pan and forms a nice crusty layer on the outside, keeping all of the juices inside.
  2. Drizzle some olive oil in the cast iron casserole and put it on a medium heat, then add the cubed pancetta/bacon and fry for 10 minutes, until nicely browned. Use a slotted spoon to remove it from the pot and set aside.
  3. Now get rid of the kitchen paper, turn the heat to high and sear the meat chunks in batches of 4 or 5 pieces at a time (if you crowd the pan too much the meat will steam), then remove to a dish and continue until you have seared all of the meat.
  4. Turn the heat down to medium and add the carrots and onions, stirring frequently. Make sure to scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the casserole while stirring, then cook for about 10 minutes, until softened and golden.
  5. Pre-heat the oven to 250C and turn the fan on.
  6. Return the pancetta to the casserole together with the meat, then cook over a medium heat for about 5 minutes, until all of the juices have evaporated. Add the flour in two batches and stir well after each addition.
  7. Transfer the casserole to the (really) hot oven WITHOUT the lid and leave it for 10 minutes, mixing well every 5 minutes. This ensures the meat browns well on the outside and forms a slightly charred and harder crust, which will seal the juices inside and make the meat extremely tender.
  8. Remove the casserole from the oven and put it on a medium heat. Turn the oven down to 130C (no fan) or 110C (fan-assisted).
  9. Add the wine to the casserole and mix well, then add all of the stock, but reserve about 2 tbsp to melt the tomato puree in a small bowl, then pour that in as well. Add the bouquet garni and the bay leaves, then bring to a simmer.
  10. When the liquid is gently simmering (do not boil it!), clamp the lid on and put it in the oven for 3 hours. Once that is done, turn off the oven and leave the meat inside to gently cool down until stone-cold.
  11. In the meantime, prepare the onions and mushrooms. Peel the onions and remove the hard bit at the bottom, then drizzle some olive oil in a shallow pan and gently fry the onions until slightly browned. Add the beef stock, put a lid on and gently cook until softened.
  12. In another pan, prepare the mushrooms. Clean the mushrooms, then slice them in halves (or quarters). Drizzle some olive oil in the pan, then add the clove of garlic and gently pan fry it (do not burn it!). Add the mushrooms and pan fry them until golden but still firm. Add the chopped parsley, salt and pepper.
  13. Now take the big casserole with the meat and the juices. Using a slotted spoon, transfer all of the meat to a plate. Also remove the bouquet garni and any other herbs you might have used.
  14. Place a sieve over the casserole and pour the onions and the mushrooms into the sieve, so that the juices would run straight into the casserole. Transfer the juices to a blender and blend until smooth or transfer to a bowl and use a liquidiser to blend them.
  15. Place the meat, onions and mushrooms back into the casserole, then pour the gravy-to-be in a shallow pan and reduce by at least half its volume. You need to reach a velvety consistence, thick enough to cover the back of a spoon. Once that happens, pour the gravy over the meat and vegetables and serve at once.
  16. If you are feeling very French, you can serve it the original way, that is with some tagliatelle seasoned with a pinch of cracked black pepper.

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Red Velvet Choc & Cherry Muffins

First of all, let me start by saying that these are not very red at all. Rather, a very deep chocolate-like colour, probably intensified by the addition of red food colouring. Also, the latter is artificial and liquid not by choice but because I was following the recipe as published in the BBC Good Food magazine. If you can’t/don’t want to use bottled colouring, just substitute with the same amount of beetroot juice or, even better, simply use 2 tsp of powder instead and increase the amount of buttermilk by 15ml. These muffins went down a treat at work, I hope they’ll be twice as successful for you!

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Ingredients

  • 100g butter, softened
  • 140g golden caster sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 225g plain flour
  • 25g cocoa powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 150ml buttermilk
  • 28ml bottle red food colouring
  • 100g glacé cherries, roughly chopped, plus extra to decorate
  • 150ml double cream
  • 140g cherry conserve/jam, sieved
  • 100g dark chocolate, chopped

Method

  1. Prepare a 12-hole muffin tin by either greasing the holes or filling it with paper muffin cases (as I did).
  2. Using an electric whisk, beat the butter and the sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, allowing plenty of time after each addition to whisk.
  3. Sift in the flour, cocoa, bicarbonate of soda and a pinch of salt. Fold that in until there are no lumps. On that note, I kept on whisking here as I was in a hurry and it did the trick.
  4. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degree Celsius.
  5. Then add the buttermilk, red food colouring and chopped cherries, stirring that briefly with a spatula.
  6. Divide the mixture between the muffin cases. Bake for about 20 minutes until well risen and springy to the touch. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely at room temperature.
  7. To make the icing, warm the cream and jam into a pan over a low heat, then once that is well hot tumble in the chocolate, take off the heat and let is stand for a good 5 minutes. Whisk (by hand) until all the chocolate is dissolved, then leave to cool (and firm up) at room temperature for at least 1 hour.
  8. Spread the icing on the cakes and decorate with the reserved cherries.

Tips

  • My local supermarket did not have cherry jam or preserve, so I resorted to raspberry instead. It worked wonderfully.