Friday, 29 January 2010

Chocolate Oatmeal Almost-Candy Bars

I seem to be spending a lot of my spare time (and I seem to have had a lot this winter) looking at other cooking blogs; jumping from one to another to find blogs which resonate with my style of cooking - or my ambitions! When I find a photo like this, then I look very closely at the recipe. Caitlin, the Engineer Baker, uses her engineering skills to good effect in both photography and baking, and her blog is a joy to look at. A really superb photo will easily sell a recipe to me; in fact I no longer like cook books unless the recipes are all photographed. Very shallow of me, but a picture speaks a thousand words, they say!

The recipe lived up to its promise. All the things I like in a tray cookie were there - chocolate in abundance, oats, peanuts, cinnamon, condensed milk. (Just don't think about the calories!). I picked up the recipe from here at Confectiona's Realm, and decided to halve it, as the Engineer Baker had done. I also 'translated' the quantities to metric weights, as cups make me quite uncomfortable.

Here are the weights of ingredients for a half batch (without the raisins), cooked in an 8" square tin lined with baking parchment:

Oat dough:
160g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
115g butter
100g light muscovado sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
150g rolled oats
75g salted peanuts, roughly chopped
Chocolate Filling:
1/2 tin condensed milk - 200g
175g plain chocolate chips
25g butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
60g salted peanuts - roughly chopped

The recipe was easy to follow, and I didn't encounter any problems with making or cooking the recipe. With hindsight, I should have spent more time and care sprinkling smaller blobs of the reserved oat dough over the chocolate filling, to give better coverage with the top layer; I expected it to spread a bit more than it did during cooking.

When it came to cutting the refrigerated cake into squares, I found the cooked oat layers to be quite crumbly, so I didn't get the really neat squares I was expecting. When I checked a similar recipe which I use for something called an Oaty Toffee Bar, I found that it used more butter in the oat dough, so that might rectify the problem in future. Or it might have been that my 'translations' to weights were innacurate enough to produce a drier dough!

I cut the traybake into 16 pieces. As with other bakes this size, it seemed a realistic estimate of the amount anyone would want to eat - however, my son ate two pieces, one straight after the other! I tried a piece from one bar cold, straight from the fridge and found the flavours very muted - neither as sweet nor as salty as I expected. The flavour improved when they warmed up to room temperature, and the chocolate fudge filling softened, but was still vaguely dissatisfying - for all the promises of the extravagent ingredients, the end result was fairly plain
and ordinary.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Coffee Spice Cake

Following on from a cake for eating with coffee comes a cake containing coffee. Confused? You will be, as this one doesn't even taste of coffee! I'm sure the coffee made a difference to the flavour, and that the same cake made with milk or water would taste different, but the coffee does not make its presence known in a big way here. The flavour of the cake is very similar to gingerbread, but the spicing is more subtle, as there is more cinnamon than ginger and the other spices, although used in small quantities, have a big flavour. Overall it's not as heavily spiced as most gingerbread, where the hit from the ginger can be quite powerful.

I followed this recipe, the only difference being a substitution of butter for shortening. I baked the cake in my new springform tube pan, and it cooked a little faster than the time given in the recipe - perhaps because it was shallower than if I'd used a bundt tin.

Then I ruined the cake!

I'm a cake maker who started cooking almost before non-stick baking tins existed, so I don't really believe they are going to work. I like springform tins because you can loosen the cake round the edges and take the side support off, and it doesn't matter if the base is stuck - just leave the cake on the base for serving! Or you can use the belt and braces approach of lining the base with parchment or silicone. My new springform tube tin is non-stick, but I still greased and floured it well, particularly the base and tube, mindful the the cake couldn't be left on the base.

After removing the cake from the oven and leaving it to cool for about 15 minutes, I unclipped the side of the tin. I then realised I had no idea of the best way of getting the cake off it's base and the inner tube which protruded upwards well above the level of the cake. I tried to cushion the cake with a cloth as I turned it over, hoping that I could invert it fully before it moved. No such luck! As I turned the cake I could feel it slipping off the tube and falling downwards. By the time I'd got it flat on the cloth, on a solid base, it was cracked through in several places, and still too hot to move. By the time it had cooled enough to move, it was stuck to the cloth! Double disaster!

I'm still not sure how I should have done it; probably left the side clipped on and inverted the cake in the complete tin. Perhaps the cake crumb was too delicate to survive being turned out like this, even if I'd done it better.

Despite it being in several pieces I managed to salvage a piece to photograph, and fortunately it was just for the family, so I didn't have the embarrassment of it being on show.

Although the cake tasted very good, I'm not sure it has enough advantages over my traditional gingerbread recipe, which is much easier to make, to bother using again. It would be simple to use this spice mix in my old recipe, instead of just ginger and mixed spice.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Chocolate Chip-Cinnamon Coffee Cake

This does not look pretty, and that's not all down to my non-existent photography skills. The cake turned out too shallow to show properly that it is layered, with a streusel of cinnamon, sugar, chopped pecans and chocolate chips in the middle, as well as liberally sprinkled over the top. It's delicious though, so I'm still including it here!

I made half of this recipe, using an 8" square tin, even though 'scale downs' which end up using fractions of eggs usually annoy me. The cat certainly appreciated half an egg! I felt I couldn't justify using 350g chocolate chips in something which we might not like, and 32 portions sounded enormous - far more than three of us could eat. In the event, I couldn't cut half the cake into 16 portions - I only got 9 pieces of a decent size! What's the point in being unrealistic about how much cake someone is likely to eat?

I made one change to the recipe - I used demerara sugar for the portion of sugar that went into the streusel mix - both for colour and crunch. I would recommend making the streusel in two parts. It was very difficult (nay, impossible!) to mix the sugar and cinnamon thoroughly with the nuts and chocolate, then divide it into two. It would have been easier to manage if the sugar and cinnamon was in one bowl, and the chocolate and pecans in another.

It was very difficult to spread half the batter over the base of the tin, and even more difficult to spread the second half over the streusel layer, as the amount of batter seemed so meagre. I think ideally, halving the streusel, but only reducing the batter by 1/3 would have been better, making a deeper cake which I could have cut into 12 good sized portions.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Pear and Almond Cake

I made some Peanut Buddy Bars midweek, but have blogged about them already; still as good as ever, especially made with plain chocolate!

If I've got time to prepare something more than a fruit crumble, this Pear and Almond Cake is one of my favorite desserts, and also one of the few fresh fruit desserts my son will eat. It's also a great way of using up those supermarket pears which stubbornly refuse to ripen, before they change, almost instantly, from hard to rotten!

I first saw this Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe in the Guardian a couple of years ago, but it's since been published, with slight variations, on the C4 food site. I carried on with the original version, as I'm not a great fan of wholemeal flour. If I'm treating us to a 'proper' dessert, then I'm not bothered about making it slightly healthier - if I want healthy I'll stick to fruit and yogurt!

This is a fairly simple recipe; the only point which might trip you up is cooking the pears. To get the best result, I think you need to do it at a fairly high heat, so that most of the juices evaporate, leaving a sticky caramel clinging to the pieces of pear. If you end up with a large volume of juice, either reduce it separately, or don't do what the C4 recipe suggests, which is pouring it on top of the cake - too much liquid may affect the baking time. I thought about scattering some chocolate chips over the sufrace, but resisted this time!

You can see from the photo that the almond sponge rises up around the pears, half submerging them and keeping them moist. The texture of the almond cake is dense but soft and moist. This is great eaten warm or at room temperature with whipped cream or creme fraiche.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Chocolate, Date and Walnut Squares

This delicious traybake is based on chopped dates softened in fruit juice/water - so it turns out similar in texture to a sticky toffee pudding. It's moist, chewy and richly chocolatey, but not too sweet - it makes a (slightly) healthier alternative to rich, but sugar laden, brownies. The dates are more noticeable for making the texture chewy than for their flavour, as is the case with sticky toffee pudding, but they seem to make the chocolate more intense. The recipe comes originally from 'Wicked Chocolate' by Jane Suthering.


255g chopped dates
250mls water or 50:50 orange juice:water (I used OJ from a carton, but couldn't taste it in the cake - all water would be easier to use!)
170g plain chocolate, chopped (I used 74% cocoa solids)
115g softened butter
115g light Muscovado sugar
2 large eggs
170g SR flour, sifted
115g walnuts, roughly chopped


Preheat the oven to 190C and line a 30 x 20cm (12 x 8") rectangular baking tin with baking parchment. The tin needs to be at least 4cm (nearly 2") deep.

Put the chopped dates into a small saucepan and add the 250mls liquid. Bring just to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes to soften the dates. Not all the liquid will be absorbed. Remove from the heat and add the chopped chocolate; stir briskly until the chocolate has melted.

Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and increased in volume, then beat in the eggs one at a time. (I usually beat in the eggs at a slower mixer speed - I find it reduces the chances of curdling).

Next fold in the flour, followed by the date and chocolate mix (it will still be quite warm!), and the walnuts. Make sure all the ingredients are thoroughly blended, then spread into the baking tin.

Bake for about 20 minutes until firm and well risen - the cocktail stick test isn't the most helpful guide as the cake is so moist. Cool in the tin, then cut into serving sized pieces. I made 18 pieces, but the original recipe suggested cutting into 24 pieces - use your judgement!

The original recipe suggests frosting with a mix of 115g melted plain chocolate cooled and mixed with 115g Greek natural yogurt, and topping each squre with a half walnut, but I didn't think a frosting was necessary. A dusting of icing sugar would improve the appearance, if you worry about that sort of thing!

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Sticky Lemon and Poppy Seed Cake

I wanted to make a lemon cake of some sort, to use the last of the lemons bought before Christmas. Unwaxed lemons don't keep well, and these were well over two weeks old by now. I like really sharp lemon cakes and desserts, but know that others in the household prefer things a little sweeter. I also know that I need to use more than one lemon in the average cake to get an intense enough flavour for me.

That is something I can rely on Dan Lepard for - whatever the flavour, he's going to do his best to make it intense and dominant, so that it really stands out. The zest of 3 lemons in one cake sounded ideal to me, and with the addition of oatmeal and poppyseeds, his Sticky Lemon and Poppy Seed Cake promised to be more than a moist lemon flavoured sponge cake, which is what most lemon drizzle cakes turn out to be.

One thing worrying me about the recipe was the baking temperature - 175C in a fan oven sounded high to me, so I checked the recipe as it was published in the Guardian. This gave a more reasonable oven setting, so I decided to go with that, and assume a typo in the recipe on Dan's site. I was also worried that several members on Dan's forum complained about the cake sinking in the middle, so irrationally decided to bake this cake with the fan in use, set at 160C. I don't really know why I expected this to make a difference, particularly as I think fan ovens hamper normal rising in cakes, so usually bake with the oven set conventionally, rather than with the fan on. Hey Ho! We can't be logical all the time!

Once all the ingredients were prepared and weighed, this was a very quick cake to make; I like it when every stage can be done with the electric mixer! It baked in the time stated, with only the slightest hint of a dip in the middle - definitely not sunken.

I was a bit concerned about the volume of lemon syrup used - I don't like lemon drizzle cakes which are so wet that you need a fork to eat them. The fact that I could see some unabsorbed syrup leaking from the corners of the loose-based tin wasn't very encouraging either, but when the cake was cut it was perfect - moist but not dripping with excess syrup. The flavour of the cake was well-balanced between giving a strong lemon flavour, but not being excessively sharp. The oatmeal gave the cake a firmer texture, and the poppy seeds an extra nutty dimension to the flavour as well as a chewiness to the texture. This was a robust, rather than delicate, cake - just the way we like them!

Friday, 1 January 2010

Chestnut Chocolate Cream Biscuits

I don't often fuss around with individual cakes and biscuits that have several stages before they are complete; I'd much rather make a big cake or a traybake and portion it out as needed. However, today is the first day of the New Year and in the post-Christmas lull I had plenty of time to spare. I couldn't resist these neat little Chestnut Chocolate Cream Biscuits from Dan Lepard, which have the added advantage of using some of my Christmas leftovers.
I don't have a full size food processor, so I used my Braun mini-chopper and divided the chestnuts and sugar into two portions, then used an electric handmixer to beat in the butter.
I also used Tia Maria rather than brandy in the cream filling - it just happened to be the most suitable liqueur I had available.

I didn't have any problems with the recipe, and was really pleased with how well both the biscuits and filling turned out. They even look very similar to Dan's own photo on his site - always something of a surprise!
The biscuits have a very subtle flavour - I'm not sure I'd know it was chestnut - and the texture is soft and crumbly rather than crisp. The chocolate cream filling is really tasty and I'm sure I'll find a use for it with other biscuit recipes. My only tiny criticism is that, for me, there was too much filling for the number of biscuits made - I used the leftover filling to sandwich digestive biscuits together.