Sunday, 12 April 2015

Brownies with Hazelnut Praline Crust

I sometimes go to great lengths not to waste food. I've been known to decide on dinner on the basis of half a tin of tomatoes in the fridge. So when I tried making hazelnut praline to decorate last week's chocolate cheesecake, and ground it too finely, there was no chance it would be thrown away.

I thought about incorporating it into a chocolate refrigerator cake (tiffin), but decided it would end up like finely chopped hazelnuts, and the flavour of the praline would be lost. I tried making balls of praline mixed with Biscoff spread, which I would place in brownie batter so that each square had a nutty 'truffle', but the mixture was just too sweet to be pleasant. In the end I decided just to sprinkle it over a tray of brownie batter and hope that the sugar didn't dissolve quickly, leaving just chopped nuts on the surface, or even worse, that the praline didn't just sink.

The plan worked just fine - the praline made a crisp crust on top of the brownie, which was a nice contrast in texture, and the crust still had the praline flavour of caramel and toasted hazelnuts. I used my favourite brownie recipe, which I don't feel quite as guilty about since I reduced the sugar content by 25%, scaled down to an 8" square baking tin. *The praline was made from 50g chopped toasted hazelnuts mixed into 50g of caramelised sugar which was spread out on a piece of baking parchment to cool, then broken into pieces and ground to a fine crumb after it had set.

140g unsalted butter
140g 74% plain chocolate
300g light muscovado sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 medium eggs
160g plain flour
3 tablespoons cocoa
100g praline (see above*)

Melt the butter and chocolate together in a large bowl - I prefer to do it over hot water, but the microwave also works. Cool to lukewarm, if necessary, then mix in the sugar and vanilla extract, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, then sift in the flour and cocoa and fold in.
Transfer the batter to an 8" (20cm) baking tin, lined with parchment paper, and sprinkle over the praline to give an even layer on top. Bake at 180C for 25-30 minutes until a test probe comes out with a few damp crumbs still clinging.
Cool in the tin then cut into as many pieces as you think fit. I make 16 pieces out of this size tin.

The only criticism I had of these brownies was that they were slightly overcooked. I didn't check until 30 minutes had passed, and they were past the optimum point for a really moist brownie by then. It doesn't spoil the flavour but it does make them slightly drier than I really like.

I will also be interested to see if the praline stays crisp for longer than a day or two - it takes us a while to get through a whole batch of brownies.

I'm entering these into the Tea Time Treats April link-up party - this month, with Easter in mind, the theme is chocolate. Tea Time Treats is co-hosted by The Hedge Combers and Lavender and Lovage, and this month's host is Karen at Lavender and Lovage.

As I'm short of baking time this month (I don't often bake more than once a week now, because we're both weight watching), these brownies will also be my entry into this month's AlphaBakes Challenge, which is the letter B. I realise brownies aren't very original, but it's better than no entry at all! AlphaBakes is co-hosted by Caroline at Caroline Makes and Ros at The More Than Occasional Baker, and Caroline is this month's host.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Chocolate Cheesecake

An Easter Eggstravaganza!

Easter wouldn't be Easter, in this household, without chocolate. Not Easter Eggs though - our children quickly caught on that you didn't get much chocolate for your money in an Easter Egg, so our tradition became a Terry's chocolate orange (or something similar) and a chocolate dessert for the weekend. Now that they are adults we've stopped buying chocolate presents, but the tradition of a chocolate dessert lingers on.

I decided on a baked cheesecake because it's fairly light on added sugar, compared to some of the desserts I could have chosen. I picked this recipe from Good Food, because it sounded quite light (despite some of the reviews claiming it was too rich!). The recipe uses cocoa and relatively small amount of plain chocolate to get a good flavour, rather than a lot of chocolate.

As usual, I only used the recipe as a guide to the correct quantities for the cheesecake mixture. I introduced a hint of nuts by adding finely chopped toasted hazelnuts to the biscuit base, and Amaretto liqueur to the cheesecake mix instead of a coffee liqueur. I also used plain chocolate instead of one with coffee flavour.

The base was made from 170g of chocolate and oat biscuits from IKEA, 50g toasted hazelnuts and 60g butter. I reduced the butter a little from the usual 50% of the weight of biscuit because I wasn't sure how absorbent the biscuits would be, and I didn't want the base to be too heavy - I prefer a slightly crumbly base rather than one which is dense and crisp. I followed the recipe for the cheesecake mixture as far as quantities of ingredients were concerned, just making the changes I've already mentioned.

I was rather concerned about how liquid my cheesecake mixture was - the recipe said to smooth the top after pouring it onto the base, but my mixture flowed like custard and certainly didn't need any help from me to become smooth and level. Perhaps because of this, the cheesecake took a little longer to cook than stated in the recipe. It also cracked badly, with one deep crack going right down to the base (which explains why there's no photograph of the whole cheesecake!). When cold, I decorated the top with a drizzle of plain chocolate, rather than the cream and chocolate sauce suggested in the recipe. I thought it better to serve cream as an optional extra, rather than force everyone to eat some.

Although I'd expected this cheesecake to be light, it was very different in texture to what I had hoped for. It was more like a set cheesecake or a mousse than other baked cheesecakes I've made. It still tasted good though, which is the main consideration. The hint of nuttiness was just right, and the chocolate flavour was strong enough without being too rich at the end of a meal.

I didn't really manage to get any good photographs after the cheesecake was cut. By the following morning the remnants were a bit worse for wear  - the chocolate topping was a bit weepy, and the cheesecake was crumbly to cut straight from the fridge. I think this bottom photo shows the texture quite well, despite all that.

I'm entering this cheesecake into the April 'Simply Eggcellent' link-up set by Dom (of Belleau Kitchen); with due consideration for our priorities at Easter, his theme for this month is chocolate.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Chilli-Chocolate and Green Tea Marble Cake

for a Clandestine Cake Club 'Mad Hatter's Tea Party'.

I went to my first Clandestine Cake Club meeting recently; I joined the organisation almost a year ago, but this is the first local event that has been arranged since then. The theme for the cakes was Alice in Wonderland, and the meeting was called, appropriately, a Mad Hatter's Tea Party.

I have to admit I was thrown a bit by the theme; I'd hoped just to bake something with spectacular flavours, but my cake was obviously going to need some decoration too. I haven't decorated a novelty cake since my youngest child stopped having that sort of birthday cake about 25 years ago, so I approached the task with some trepidation. After seeing lots of  'bunny bottoms' on cupcakes while I was researching the theme (basically using Google Images!), I decided to make a large version using my bundt tin as the basis of the rabbit hole, with a fondant icing white rabbit disappearing down into it. Making the back end of a rabbit seemed infinitely easier than making a whole rabbit or even the front end of one, especially as the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland was dressed, and carried a watch!

I choose the flavours for the cake to fit in with the 'tea party' theme by using green tea and chocolate layers in a marble cake, and flavouring the chocolate layer with chilli too, as an extra 'madcap' idea. I used my favourite recipe for a marbled bundt cake - the reduced size version of this Alice Medrich recipe which I use here. For this version I used sunflower oil instead of olive oil, and added almost half a teaspoon of cayenne pepper to the cocoa mixture and two tablespoons of green tea powder to the plain layer.

The decorations were made from fondant icing and edible wafer flowers, plus two chocolate 'bunny paws'. I needed the best part of 500g of fondant icing sugar to make enough modelling fondant to fill the hole and make the legs and tail of the rabbit, and 250g of green ready to roll fondant for the grass and flower leaves. The top photo was taken before I roughed up the 'tail' by cutting into the fondant ball with a pair of scissors to make it look more like fur - it was quite an effective technique, as you can see in the photo to the left.

Neither of the cake flavours were overwhelming, and the bitterness of the green tea was nicely balanced by the lingering warmth of the chilli and the sweetness of the fondant icing. It was fortunate that I didn't use too much chilli, as many of the Cake Club participants were mothers who had brought their young children along (something I hadn't expected!).

This was a small meeting, although a few more cakes arrived after I'd taken my photos. The theme was quite loosely interpreted, so I needn't have worried about not doing enough! The gorgeous pink and purple Cheshire Cat cake was flavoured with almonds and rosewater, and was really delicious, and there were two other cakes using tea - a fruited tea loaf and an Earl Grey loaf with lemon icing. I also got to bring home slices of the cakes that I was too full to sample during the meeting, so I think the only thing I didn't taste at all was the strawberry tart.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Tropicana Banana Cake

- revisited for Formula 1 Foods

Although blogging about my baking has made me more adventurous, one of my frequent regrets is that I don't get a chance to remake things that I really liked first time around. It's one of the penalties of always looking for something new; although I often make flavour adaptions of good recipes, so that they are a little bit different the second time around, some recipes inevitably fall by the wayside. This was true of this Dan Lepard recipe, which he calls Tropicana Banana Cake (for the totally tropical taste, I guess!). I made the cake back when the recipe was originally published in 2009, noted my dislike of the very sugary tropical fruit mixture I'd chosen, and then almost forgot about it.

I say almost, because when Caroline of Caroline Makes started her Formula 1 Foods challenge at the beginning of the month, this was the first thing I thought of for the Malaysia leg of the journey around the world. The idea behind the challenge is that we make something inspired by the country where the current Formula 1 Grand Prix race is taking place. Caroline often bakes while her partner watches the GP, as it doesn't interest her, and thought there might be others in the same situation. I do actually watch the races, although they are not as interesting as they used to be (and a snooze on a Sunday afternoon, in front of the TV, is no bad thing if the race gets too boring), but thought the challenge sounded fun.

I looked at recipes for traditional baked sweet treats originating in Malaysia, but didn't think any of them were quite within my capabilities or budget. Pineapple tarts looked delicious but most recipes used 3 or 4 pineapples cooked down with sugar to a solid mass, which was then formed into balls and put into pastry cases. However, what all the recipes had in common was their use of the tropical fruits of the area, which brings us back to the Tropicana Banana Cake. This contains banana(!), coconut, pineapple, mango, papaya and orange - what could be more evocative of the tropical far East?

This time I managed to find soft dried mango and pineapple which had been dried without adding any sugar, but the papaya had been processed with a lot of extra sugar, so I only used a small amount of that. The 175g of dried fruit needed was made up of 70g each of mango and pineapple and 35g of papaya. I followed the recipe exactly - it's a slightly unusual method but it does give the good results promised by Dan Lepard.

The cake was as good as I remembered - a subtle blending of all the added flavours, with coconut as the predominant flavour, and a light, but moist, tender crumb. The added bonus, for me this time, was that the fruit stayed evenly distributed throughout the cake - last time the sugar heavy fruit pieces sank dramatically.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Cranberry, Pecan and Orange Loaf

This was a strange recipe! The cake tasted good but managed to be both fragile and too dense at the same time; usually a dense cake holds together like a builder's brick, but every time I handled this cake I expected it to fall into a pile of crumbs. I found the recipe  here, on Sally's Baking Addiction, while looking for recipes using orange and frozen cranberries together. Although I wondered about the advisability of relying on just bicarbonate of soda to raise the mixture, the cake looked very attractive, and a streusel topping adds interest without having to add the optional glazing afterwards.

I followed the cake recipe exactly, but reduced the butter in the streusel topping to 30g and added 35g of finely chopped pecans too.

I had fun chopping frozen cranberries, but my mini-processor just about coped, although it shaved a lot of small flakes of fruit off too, which perhaps accounts for the much darker cake crumb in my loaf, compared to Sally's photos. The cake batter was very wet, and I expected to find that all the fruit and nut pieces had sunk, but they were fairly evenly distributed.

The flavour of this cake was OK, but nothing exceptional. None of the cake flavours really stood out, despite there being strongly flavoured ingredients there. The best part was the crunchy, nutty and spicy streusel topping, which was a good contrast to the rather bland cake. Overall, not a cake I'm likely to repeat.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Chocolate Macadamia Slice

This is definitely a 'slice', not a traybake, not just squares, because it's my entry to the new cooking challenge at Caroline Makes - Formula 1 Foods. Caroline's partner is an avid Formula 1 fan and the new Grand Prix season starts this weekend. Caroline says she often bakes while the GP coverage is on TV, but admits that the fixtures dominate their weekend social life. Readers - we used to be like that! However, my husband's interest is waning a little, as the rules have changed (to the detriment of the sport, in his opinion) over the years and only the richest teams are competitive now. The fact that the races aren't all shown live on terrestrial TV doesn't help either, but at least we don't have to plan our activities around race times any more! He doesn't mind missing a race, or watching the highlights only.

Anyway - back to Caroline's challenge! She wants us to prepare something inspired by the country where each race is taking place, and the first race is in Australia. That brings us back to my stipulation that my bake is a 'slice', that mainstay of Australian baking, and not a fudgy brownie (as one of the recipes I used calls it!). To reinforce the Australian experience, I added macadamia nuts to the top fudgy layer, and just a hint of coconut into the bottom biscuit layer. Macadamia nuts are one of the few food products that is only produced in Australia, so what could be better to use?

I even chose the recipe for the base layer from one of my Australian Women's Weekly Cookbooks - Cakes and Slices. It was really simple to make - 125g melted unsalted butter was mixed into 155g SR flour, 2 teaspoons cocoa, 60g caster sugar and 20g desiccated coconut. Once everything was well mixed, the dough was pressed evenly into a lined 20cm (8") square tin and baked at 190C for 15 minutes.

The topping came from this recipe for Fudgy Mocha Brownies, which I've used once before. I left out the coffee and used 100g of roughly chopped macadamia nuts instead of the hazelnuts. I accidently left out the baking powder too, but this was an improvement, I think, as the first time I used this recipe I said the top layer was more cakey than fudgy, but this time it was denser and more fudge-like!

I cut the slice into 16 squares, which gave decent sized portions (2" (5.0cm) square). Getting 36 squares out of the slice, as the recipe suggested would have meant tiny portions - nice for some occasions, but not for everyday eating!

These squares (what do Australians call the pieces from a slice?) were delicious! A dense, rich, intensely chocolate, fudgy topping on a crisp buttery cocnut shortbread base, which had just a hint of chocolate in it. The base was a little crumbly, but made a good textural contrast to the topping. The macadamia nuts added crunch but not a lot of flavour - the small amount of coconut in the base had a stronger flavour!

I hope Caroline gets a good response to her challenge; it's relatively easy to get inspiration from Australia for all sorts of cooking, but I think some of the venues will prove more difficult, especially for people like me, who only want to bake.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Semolina Cookies

One Batch of Dough, Two Delicious Cookies

The same basic dough is used for these Date Bars and Pistachio Cookies. It's a Dan Lepard recipe, given Middle Eastern flavours with pomegranate molasses, rose water and orange blossom water. I made one batch of dough from this recipe, and made a half quantity of the Date Bars and half a batch of these Pistachio Cookies.

I had decided to use semolina for this month's AlphaBakes Challenge (Ros of The More Than Occasional Baker has chosen the letter S), and was trying to decide between a cake  or biscuits when Janie of The Hedge Combers announced that the March Tea Time Treats challenge was for cookies and biscuits. The decision was made for me - I would make semolina cookies which could be an entry for both baking challenges.

Semolina seems to be common in Middle Eastern and Asian cooking, but is less well known in the UK as a baking ingredient. It's sometimes added to shortbread to make it crisper and crumblier, but is best known as the basis for the sort of milk pudding that we all hated at school! Semolina is the coarse centres of durum wheat grains, left after the flour has been milled away. 

I looked at many recipes for semolina cookies, which all looked similar, but they had small differences in the proportions of fat, flour and eggs, so that it was impossible to decide if one recipe was going to work out better than another. In the end I found Dan's recipe and was persuaded by the extra flavours added to the cookie dough. After trying it, I'm sure the dough on it's own would have made delicious cookies.

In the first recipe the dough is rolled out and wrapped around a filling of spiced date purée and in the second, chopped pistachios and a little more sugar is added, and then the dough is just rolled into balls. Both recipes were fairly straightforward - just a little fiddly - and gave good results. One tip I can pass on - if you are going to purée dried dates in a food processor, cut each one in half across the length, to check that the stones have been removed. I found two left in in my pack of dates. Trying to process a date stone could be a costly blunder!

The dough was a little dryer than I expected, and I eventually realised (after it was too late to put things right) that I hadn't added quite enough liquid, as I had used less of the rose water and orange flower water (mine are quite concentrated and I've been caught out in the past by following recipe instructions and finding out I'd used too much) but hadn't made up for the lower volume of liquid.

The dry dough was difficult to roll out and meant that the dough round the Date Bars cracked a little during baking. It was also difficult to incorporate all the chopped nuts for the Pistachio Cookies, but I'm not sure if that was due to the dryness, which made the dough crumbly, or the sheer volume of nuts - probably a bit of both.  At least I know how to remedy the problem - a couple of tablespoons of milk or water is all that is needed next time.

Additionally, next time I will flatten the Date Bars a little before cooking. This wasn't mentioned in the instructions, so I expected that they would flatten naturally during cooking to turn out as in the photograph accompanying the recipe (see the link above). As you can see from the photographs of my Date Bars, this didn't happen!

Both these cookies were delicious, in different ways. The Date Bars were the best - the moist spicy date filling and the crunchy sesame seed coating were a good contrast to the crumbly cookie dough.

However, with the Pistachio Cookies the added flavours in the dough shone through, particularly the rose water, as the pistachio nuts did not have a strong flavour.

AlphaBakes (rules here) is hosted alternately by Ros, of The More Than Occasional Baker and Caroline of Caroline Makes.

Tea Time Treats (rules here) is hosted alternately by Janie of The Hedge Combers and Karen of Lavender and Lovage.