June round-up: strawberries, muffins, pasta

July 4, 2013 § 1 Comment

July already?? What on earth happened? I’m sure it was only last week that I signed up for Food Blogger Connect, and was sure I would have a plan by the time it came around. I suppose that’s what the best-laid plans are for. Here are some things I’ve been doing/watching/reading in the last month:

Plum-strawberry jam

Bumper crop of strawberries this year

My strawberry crop has been a bumper one this year, partly due to the frequent rain we’ve had for the last six months, and partly because the runners all got out of hand last year, so even after weeding out about half of my strawberry plants over the winter, I still have a pretty substantial strawberry patch. Along with an out-of-season organic box delivery of red plums, I put the two together to make not quite a full jar of jam. But it is beautiful, the plums adding a purpley depth to the colour that the strawberries wouldn’t achieve alone. I like to add an acid fruit to my strawberry jam – I’ve previously used rhubarb, lemon and lime – which as well as contributing a higher-pectin fruit, also adds the acid that helps it to set. Plums seem to do this very well too.

Hedone

We made our first visit to Hedone a couple of weeks ago, after being reminded when it appeared on the World’s Top 100 list. It’s not far from our house, so it seemed particularly foolish to have neglected it for so long. We went for lunch and had the tasting menu, and had a great time (although it seemed relatively quiet for a Saturday lunch). Particular highlights for me were the five preparations of beetroot that came with the duck main course, and a fabulous warm chocolate mousse with dried raspberry powder and passionfruit puree – raspberry and passionfruit must be two of my favourite flavours to combine with chocolate (this blog post has a photo of that dish).

Black bean chili dinner party

I made dinner for some work colleagues a few weeks ago. As the party included a vegetarian and a no-wheat no-dairy person, I went for an easy make-ahead dish – black bean chili, with lots of toppings for people to add, salsa, guacamole and cornbread. Having a main course you can make on Sunday and keep in the fridge for a Wednesday dinner is an excellent idea for mid-week entertaining. (I use Deborah Madison’s Black Bean Chili recipe from The Greens Cookbook).

Scandilicious Queen Maud muffins

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With all of these strawberries, I needed more things to use them up, so I adapted the Scandilicious baking recipe for Queen Maud muffins, and used blueberries with strawberries cut into pieces instead of raspberries. They turned out really well – I’ve kept them in the freezer and brought them out for snacking at work – and produce the most beautiful muffin papers after you’ve eaten one!

Smitten Kitchen fava bean, tomato and sausage pasta

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I’ve started using Pinterest to collect together inspiration for that ‘but what can I make for dinner’ moment: board here. When my broad beans (fava beans) all flourished at once, and I had a huge crop to use, I turned to Eat Your Books and discovered this Smitten Kitchen gem. With so many fresh broad beans, we didn’t even miss the sausage.

Washington

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I took a work trip to Washington D.C. at the start of the month, where it was beautiful for a couple of days, and then a tropical storm moved in and it poured. Still, I got to do a handful of essential things in between meetings: Smithsonian Apollo and Wright brothers exhibits – check. Shake Shack burger – check. Sephora shopping opportunity – check. I also came across people queuing around the block for cupcakes in Georgetown, which apparently is because there’s a TV series based there – strange phenomenon (I didn’t queue up to try them myself). I’m very happy that Shake Shack has just opened a branch in London too, but I don’t think it will sway me from Byron.

Reading list

In things I have been reading, I love this piece by super-geek Sue Black. I saw her speak at a Girl Geek Dinner a couple of years ago about Bletchley Park, and I’ve always been impressed, but I had no idea how hard she had worked to get where she is today – worth a read if you’re in need of a dose of inspiration.

I’ve been slowly working more and more David Sedaris into my life. First the episodes of This American Life. Then the audiobook of Me Talk Pretty One Day. This month I added ‘Meet David Sedaris’, the Radio 4 series, and also bought my Dad ‘Let’s explore Diabetes with Owls’. He wrote a lovely piece on domesticity and guest rooms in the New Yorker this month.

What makes meringues chewy?

June 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Chewy almond meringue

Meringues are one of the simplest things to bake, with just two ingredients. But because of this simplicity, there isn’t much room for error. As with many baked goods that are difficult to get right, there is also a wide range of views on what the ideal meringue is like. Some want a completely crisp shell that shatters on the touch of a fork – ideal for something like Eton Mess where the meringue is smashed into pieces.

Others are looking for a chewy centre, almost like nougat. This is often the ideal state of a pavlova base. Finally, there’s the type of soft pillowy meringue used to top a lemon meringue pie.

All these are meringues that use egg whites and sugar – so what’s the X factor?

What is a meringue?

It’s an egg white foam that is made more stable by adding sugar. The sugar syrup supports the bubbles, and holds them up while they dry, leaving behind the sugar and egg-white-protein structure. Egg whites are pretty amazing at creating a foam anyway, owing too all these stretchy proteins they have. However, if you keep beating egg whites on their own, they will go too far – first becoming grainy and then collapsing on themselves.
Things to know:
- Adding sugar to the eggs right at the start will make it slower to foam in the first place, so wait until you have a foam.

egg whites - soft foam

- however, it’s really hard to overbeat meringue, so if in doubt, add it early on, when the foam is still quite soft (a lot of recipes ask you to wait until you have stiff peaks before adding the sugar, but this isn’t necessary, especially if you’re using an electric whisk or a stand mixer). After the sugar is all added, you can also leave it whisking for a good few minutes to make sure you have a really stiff foam.
- The more sugar you add the more stable the foam – you can use anything from 1:1 sugar to egg white to 2:1, with the upper end being more common.
- The sugar needs to dissolve, so use caster (superfine) sugar or icing sugar, and add it gradually. Warm or room temperature egg whites will make it easier to dissolve. Yotam Ottolenghi has a nice trick for his salted almond meringues – heating the sugar in the oven, then adding it gradually.
- A little bit of acid helps egg whites to foam – you can wipe the bowl with a lemon, add a little cream of tartar or a few drops of vinegar.

And one more thing? Because egg whites are pretty much just protein and water, there isn’t much in them to go off. This means that you can keep egg whites quite safely for several weeks in the fridge. Or they freeze well (but never defrost in the microwave – they cook too quickly!).

For a crisp meringue

Here, we are after a meringue with all of the moisture removed so all that is left is the brittle egg white and sugar structure. To do this, use a ratio of 2 parts sugar (by weight) to 1 part egg white. As a large egg white is about 28g, that means about 55g sugar for two large egg whites (or 50g for medium whites).
You also then need a very low temperature and a long time to make sure that all the water evaporates without browning the sugar. Something around 100C/212F is about right.

salted almond meringues to be baked

For a chewy meringue

If a meringue is chewy in the centre, it just means that it managed to hang on to some of the moisture in the centre. You still want a hard shell, so use 2 parts sugar again, or something close to it. You can add things to the mixture to help it hang on to this moisture – a little bit of cornflour being used most often. Chopped or ground nuts, as in french macarons or dacquoise, will also do this, partly by adding a bit of fat.
The other thing is to bake the meringues a little hotter and for a shorter time, meaning the centre doesn’t have the chance to dry out. Be careful of baking too hot though – this will cause the meringues to swell, and may overbrown the outside.

For a pie meringue

First a note of caution – I’ve never made one of these, so you may want to defer to more expert advice. It can be particularly tricky to make sure it sits nicely on top of the curd topping. But in principle, it’s like the chewy meringue, but more extreme – it needs even more moisture in it, needs to stay stable, and you want the outside to cook very quickly and brown, before the inside dries at all.

I’ve made a couple of really good meringue recipes recently. Via pinterest, and this blog post by Jillian Leiboff, Yotam Ottolenghi’s salted almond meringues are really lovely – crisp outsides, chewy in the middle, and scented with both toasted almonds and almond extract.

This one, however, is an old favourite – adapted from a recipe in Flo Braker’s ‘Sweet Miniatures’. These are gluten-free chocolate cookies – little drops of meringue flecked with chopped chocolate.

Meringue Bubbles

adapted from Flo Braker’s ‘Sweet Miniatures’

Chocolate meringue bubbles

- 100g caster sugar
- 2 large egg whites (55g)
- 45g dark chocolate

Line a baking sheet with parchment. Heat the oven to 110C/100C fan/225F.

Grate or finely chop the chocolate, or grind it in a food processor until fairly fine.

Whisk the egg whites with an electric hand whisk or the whisk attachment of a stand mixer. Whisk slowly to start, as the protein unravel and the egg whites loosen up. Then increase the speed and whisk until a soft foam forms. Add the sugar a few spoonfuls at a time, whisking thoroughly between each, and then keep whisking for about three minutes until you have a very stiff and shiny foam.

stiff, shiny meringue

Remove the whisk and fold in the chopped chocolate until it is fairly evenly distributed.

folding in the chocolate

Use your finger to put a little meringue on the four corners of the parchment, and turn over to stick the parchment to the baking sheet (this stops it moving around when you pipe onto it).
Scrape the mixture into a piping bag with either a plain or star-tipped nozzle. If you don’t want to pipe them, simply use teaspoons to drop pieces of meringue about the size of a golf ball onto the baking sheet.

Bake for 1 hour. The finely chopped chocolate, combined with a short bake time means the centres should be chewy and chocolatey.

chocolate meringue stars

May round-up

June 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Hazelnut jam scones

Walnut jam scones

I made these slightly insane ‘scones’ from a recipe by Zoe Nathan at Lottie + Doof, a Los Angeles bakery. When we were in California last year, we visited another of her bakeries, Milo + Olive, and had a rather wonderful lunch. These scones are a long way from cream tea scones, having a ratio of about 1:1 of flour to butter, and including cornmeal and ground nuts. Delicious as they are, they are a bit too crumbly and fragile for me, so I’m going to try and adapt the recipe and reduce the butter somewhat. Watch this space for a recipe.

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A plain chocolate cake

I was pointed to this lovely, straightforward chocolate cake by The Wednesday Chef (the same post that also links to the scones above). It behaves exactly as described – is subtlely chocolatey (I would consider increasing the cocoa next time) and needs to be a little underbaked (some ground almonds might help keep it moist).

Different sides of the Michael Pollan story

I picked up Michael Pollan’s ’’Cooked” last weekend, after reading a whole host of interviews and reviews. So far I’m enjoying it a lot. I like Pollan’s writing style, and he blends in the personal with interviews and authoritative references. This article, although the headline is clearly linkbait, is worth reading. I think there’s a useful debate to be had about whether everyone should cook, whether they enjoy it or not.

Amazing MRobin cake design

Via I-don’t-know-who, these cake designs are just beautiful. There’s a lovely video showing how she makes the cakes, which are entremets, a French style of layered mousses with thin layers of sponge. The fantastic exteriors are made by patterning and colouring a thin sponge cake which is wrapped around the outside of the cake. Stunning.

Heale House Gardens

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Another beautiful thing – Heale House near Salisbury has an small but enchanting garden that is open to the public. We went at the perfect time, with cherry blossom, bluebells and tulips all out simultaneously. The website doesn’t even slightly do justice to this garden, which is tucked away in an isolated valley below the A303. If you’re off to the West Country this summer, this could be worth a diversion.

As you like it

We spend a weekend in May in Stratford, and although the skies were pretty much slate-grey throughout, there was considerable sunshine in the RSC’s production of ‘As You Like It’. Pippa Nixon as Rosalind was by turns heart-wrenchingly lovestruck, androgynously masculine and then full of sunshine and smiles at the end. There’s a little video that gives you a taste – sincerely hoping this transfers to London.

Cherry Bombe

Cherry bombe magazine
While on hospital-visiting duties, I picked up yet another new food magazine in Selfridges this week – ‘Cherry Bombe’. What’s unusual about this one (apart from it’s price and thick paper) is that the contributors and interviewees are all women. While I could probably do without the cover interview with model-turned-cookie maker Karlie Kloss, the Oma & Bella behind-the-book feature is very good.

Brown butter financiers or friands

May 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

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I sometimes come across this sort of silicone bakeware, and wonder what on earth it’s for (although if it’s as nice as this sunflower one, I don’t worry too much about that). But then I remember financiers. Financiers, or friands, are not something you often come across, but they are a great recipe to know about. Made with egg whites, melted butter, flour, sugar and ground nuts, they are moist little cakes that keep really well.

Financiers are from the French kitchen, and used to be baked in little gold-ingot like bars, which gave them the name. Traditionally, they would be made with brown butter and ground almonds – a rich and somewhat expensive combination which may account for the name. Friands are the antipodean version, less likely to include anything as fussy as brown butter, and more likely to be a carrier for raspberries, blueberries or other fruit flavours.

Another good reason to have a friand or financier recipe on hand is that they are a great way to use up leftover egg whites. Unlike macarons and other egg white recipes that use a meringue base, these don’t require the whites to be whisked to peaks. They only need a little whisking to break them up, and you can easily use 3, 4 or 5 egg whites for one batch of cakes (handy if you’ve been making ice-cream).

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Because of the melted butter and nuts, these are quite dense and rich little cakes, that are best baked in small tins. Friand tins are little oval shapes, but mini muffin tins are the perfect size, if you grease them well. You can also use silicon bakeware in lots of beautiful shapes, like this sunflower mould I picked up in Paris. This seems to cook them more evenly, although you also get less of the brown crust. When baked, the outside should be lightly browned, and when cool, just a little crisp. The interior will be rich and dense with the nuts.

They are a great thing to have on hand if you think you don’t want a proper dessert or cake, just something sweet to nibble with tea or coffee at the end of a meal, or as a pick-me-up in the middle of the afternoon.

For these sunflower cakes, I wanted to keep the mixture plain – no berries or other decorations, so that the shape of the sunflowers would show up nicely. Instead, I used the traditional French approach and made brown butter, which along with a little vanilla, formed the only flavouring. There will be more on alternative flavours for financiers in a forthcoming post.

Scroll down for more on what’s behind the recipe, including details on brown butter and the role of the egg whites.

Brown butter financiers

  • 150g brown butter
  • 165g egg whites(5)
  • 175g icing sugar
  • 50g plain flour
  • 100g ground almonds
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

First make the brown butter, as directed below, and set aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 200C/180C fan/400F and thoroughly butter your moulds or tins.
Whisk the egg whites gently to loosen them, but not enough to create a froth. Sieve the icing sugar, flour and almonds onto the whites and stir together until combined.
When the butter has cooled but is still liquid, add to the mixture and fold together gently until completely combined and homogenous. If you like, add some vanilla extract or a drop or two of almond extract.

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At this stage, you can refrigerate the mixture overnight or for a few days, until you are ready to bake.
Fill the moulds about 80% full, and bake for 8–12 minutes. The timing will depend on the tins you are using – both the material and the size. They are ready when cooked through – test with a skewer – and with toasted brown edges.
Leave to cool for 5–10 minutes and then turn out of the tin while still warm. If using metal tins, you may need to use a knife to ease the cakes away from the sides. Eat the same day if possible – although they will keep for several days in a tin, the texture won’t be quite as good, and you won’t get the same contrast between crisp edge and soft, dense interior.

What’s behind the recipe?

Brown butter

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Brown butter is what happens when you cook butter until the water has all evaporated and the temperature rises high enough to toast the milk solids in the fat. This produces a little bit of brown sludge at the bottom of the pan, and a lovely toasty, nutty flavour in the butter. It’s sometimes called beurre noisette, and used as a sauce in some dishes of French cookery.

You may have made brown butter accidentally before, by putting butter into a too-hot pan, and seeing the little brown grains appear. Brown butter, made deliberately, is usually done in a small saucepan, of pale metal so that you can see the browning, with a larger quantity of butter. Melt the butter over a moderate heat.

Once the butter is gets close to 100C the water in the butter will start to boil (about 15% of butter is water, depending on the brand you use). Let this bubbling continue. When the water has all gone, it will stop bubbling, and go quiet. This is when you need to pay close attention, and probably stir occasionally. The milk solids – those white, milky parts that appear when you melt butter – will sink to the bottom of the pan and be the first to brown, so you need to scrape them off and stir them about to make sure nothing burns. You might also start to get a foam on the top of the butter. Once the solids at the bottom are a nice nut-brown, and the whole thing smells nutty, remove it from the heat and pour the whole thing into a heatproof bowl or measuring jug. This will help to stop the cooking and make sure it doesn’t brown any further and start to burn. Most recipes using brown butter, including financiers, will need the butter to be cooled – it will be extremely hot when it comes out of the pan.

Why whisk the egg whites if you’re not going to form peaks?

Financiers don’t need the aeration you get from an egg white whisked into snowy peaks, but the recipes often ask you to whisk them a little. Why? The proteins in egg white attach to each other very well, which is why a really fresh egg broken onto a plate will ‘sit up’, and why it’s so hard to divide an egg white in half, if you’ve ever tried to do that. Whisking the whites just a little helps to break apart the proteins and loosen the whole thing up. This makes it much easier to mix in the other ingredients.

Why do financiers only have egg whites in?

Financiers are a puzzle to me. Here is a little tender cake, that doesn’t have any baking powder in, and doesn’t whisk air in through creaming or whisked egg whites. So what makes it rise instead of being a flat pancake?

My best guess is that the egg whites provide a stretchy protein structure, so that when the water and fat in the recipe heats up, and steam is released, the stretchy egg proteins are there to capture it and keep the bubbles in the final cake. There is very little flour in the recipe, so the egg white proteins are likely to be contributing most of the structure that holds the cake together. Ordinarily, egg whites create quite dry, crisp things, but all those nuts and butter keep things rich here.

Some other great friand recipes:

Links and thoughts from April

April 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Cherry blossom in the park

April has been a waking-up month. This winter has seemed so long and cold that when the sun finally came out, and the ground started to warm and flowers started to appear, it was like emerging from hibernation. Suddenly outdoors was something to linger in, instead of something to be battled through as fast as possible.

I was nudged by someone to buy bulbs from Bloms Bulbs in the autumn, and now I am really glad I did. The tulips in particular have been spectacular. I’m always surprised by how many come up from previous years as well. I have a habit of planting them in tubs and forgetting about them as soon as they have gone over. So the ugly pot of weeds I’ve been hosting on my front step for the last six months or so is suddenly filled with creamy tulips.

Purple prince a week on

I said this on twitter but Gluten Free Girl has absolutely floored me with some of her writing this month. She writes honestly and from the heart anyway, but when her car was stolen, and when she marked an anniversary with her husband, it generated some truly absorbing prose.

60 year old Magnolia

I found this article about J Crew really interesting, especially the interaction between Jenna Lyons, the creative director, and the Chief Exec. If you’re in the UK, you may have come across J Crew in references to to Michelle Obama – she and her daughters often wear the brand. They are essentially a preppy, clean-cut clothing company, a little like Gap, but have moved towards a more cutting-edge look in recent years, as the article describes. I still have a couple of items from there that I really like that I bought when I was living in Palo Alto in 2004/5.

Although it’s just the two of us that sit down to dinner in our house (and sometimes not even that), I really enjoy Jenny Rosenstrach’s ’Dinner: A love story’ blog and [her book of the same name](“Dinner A Love Story – Amazon.co.uk”). I really loved her 100 Rules of Dinner post – not just rules for dinner, but rules for cooking, good food and life. My favourite is probably #71:

Performance enhancing drugs are to sports as butter is to cooking. Which is not
to say that butter is evil. But it is cheating.

although I am a completely on board with #29 and #54, and a total evangelist for #15:

Resist the urge to apologize when you’re cooking for people. Most of the time your
dinner guests won’t notice anything is wrong until you bring it up.

River

Making late-night birthday cake

April 28, 2013 § 2 Comments

Or How to bake a cake between 9:30pm and 11pm

Cutting the cake

There is something quite sad about supermarket birthday cakes. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve certainly bought them before now – but it’s just not the same as a homemade cake. There’s a particular large supermarket that sells a rectangular sheet cake, decorated with sweet chocolate buttercream and stars that often makes an appearance at my workplace. It looks so promising, with swirls of icing along the edges, but it always seems disappointing. The sponge is damp and collapses easily. The icing is gruesomely sweet. Even the chocolate stars on the top are have that waxy quality, more cake covering than chocolate.

I am an unashamed snob about birthday cakes. They need to be homemade, or from a good bakery. It’s not a celebration if the cake is going to coat your mouth, give you a sugar crisis, and is made of palm oil and emulsifiers. And it’s not too hard to come up with something better than those options.

Rectangular tins are perfect for low-hassle birthday cake. No complicated turning out or layering, just leave it in the tin, cover with frosting and then pop the lid on to take it to the birthday destination. I have an old traybake tin from Lakeland that I tried for the first time the other day. Although the tin is a little thin, and the non-stick looks a little fragile, its killer feature is a plastic lid with a handle that clips onto the edges for transportation. But even without a bespoke lid, if the tin is deep enough to allow the cake and icing to sit below the rim, the whole thing can be wrapped in cling film (plastic wrap) for transport.

It’s even possible to make a birthday cake if you’ve been to the pub after work and don’t get home until a bit late (as long as you’re fairly sober). Here’s how to make a late-night birthday cake:

  • Get in the door at 9:20pm
  • Immediately switch on oven, and get butter out of the fridge. Cold butter and sponge cakes don’t work well together.
  • Find Smitten Kitchen’s cookbook because you remember she has a sheet cake recipe in there (basically this one, but scaled down).
  • Find the weight of butter needed, and weigh it onto a plate. Put this into a microwave for two minutes on the lowest, lowest setting so it can soften.
  • Go back to the book and check that you really do have all the ingredients called for before you go any further. Yes, it seems OK. The only tricky one is buttermilk, but that can be taken care of with the last of the yoghurt, combined with some milk.
  • Dig out your traybake tin and check it is roughly the right dimensions. 20 x 30 cm is a typical size for a traybake recipe, but after last week and the coconut cake, I want to make sure this is deep as well. Put a piece of parchment paper in the tin – not only to stop sticking but to protect the non-stick from scratching when the cake is cut!
  • (Remember you haven’t had dinner yet, and re-heat the leftover curry)
  • Prepare the rest of the ingredients: whisk flour with the baking powder and salt in a bowl. Get the eggs from the fridge and immerse in a little bowl of warm water from the tap – everything as close to room temperature as possible. Whisk the yoghurt and milk together in a jug to make them smooth.
  • Once the butter is soft, add it to the bowl and mix it a few times to make sure it’s creamy. Weigh the sugar straight into the bowl and set the mixer running for a good five minutes or so. The mixture needs to become pale and fluffy, not sandy, and as there’s a lot of sugar in proportion to the butter, this takes a while. Don’t rush this bit – everything else is easier if you get this right. Go and eat dinner.
  • Once you have this fluffy state, add the eggs one by one (drying them so they don’t drip into the bowl). If you’re sensible, you would crack them into a cup or ramekin first, to make sure you don’t get shell in the mix. (I go for speed and crack them straight over the mixing bowl.) Mix in one at a time, until you get back to that fluffy looking mixture. Add the vanilla.
  • Now the job is to get in all the flour and the yoghurt/milk without either a) overworking the mixture once the flour is in, b) leaving big patches unmixed, or c) having it all curdle. A good rule is to alternate the two – one third of the flour; mix; half the liquid; mix; one third more flour; mix; rest of the liquid; mix; rest of the flour. This makes sure that nothing overwhelms the mixture at any one time.

Fluffy cake mixture

  • Once it’s all in (and you’re sure that you got the edges of the bowl mixed in too), scrape it all into the tin, smooth to the corners and bake. By now it’s about 10pm.
  • While the cake is baking, make some icing. The treacle chocolate fudge frosting on this page is a good option (I made it without the yolks and water, and with creme fraiche and 2 tablespoons extra icing sugar added). It uses a base of cornflour-thickened chocolate custard, with more chocolate mixed in while warm. Cover and leave until the morning. A simple buttercream of butter and icing sugar would also work.
  • When the cake is evenly golden on top, and a cocktail stick comes out clean, take it out and put onto a cooling rack. After about 10–15 minutes cooling in the tin, turned it out to cool, leaving the parchment still on the bottom. Leave to cool overnight and go to bed.

Frosting ready to spread

  • In the morning before work, put the cake back in the pan (the parchment will help). Beat the icing to make sure it’s smooth and spreadable. Scrape all of the frosting on top of the cake and spread it out with a spatula. Add sprinkles and other decorations if you want. It’s too early for piping.
  • The leftovers

Drømmekage – dream coconut cake

April 26, 2013 § 5 Comments

A slice of Drommekage

Drømmekage is a genoise sponge beneath a layer of coconut caramel – a plain cake made glamourous with a baked-on topping. This one is from a recipe by Signe Johansen, from her cookbook ‘Scandilicious’. It belongs to a class of Scandinavian baking that seems to be closely linked to German traditions of Kaffee and Kuchen – Swedish Toscakaka and German coffee-cakes with streusel toppings. There is a Danish word for the togetherness of coffee and cake, hearth and home: hygge. (It also appears on this excellent map of untranslatable non English words. These are cakes designed to be sliced and shared through an afternoon, not squirreled away in a tin for later. It was certainly devoured by my work colleagues last Friday, and generated not a little happiness.

A cake with a baked-on topping is a great thing. A plain cake, but with a little something extra. They strike a nice balance between the slight austerity of a very plain Madeira or pound cake, and the over-the-top elaborateness of a piled high cupcake or layer cake. Whether its flaked almonds on top of a bakewell tart, or a handful of granola on the top of a muffin, they provide not just decoration but a contrast in texture and flavour.

In this cake, the cake is too delicate to add the topping before it is baked, so the solution is to bake the cake, then add the topping and bake again to brown it and merge it with the cake beneath.

This makes it especially important to know when the cake is done – adding the topping too early will (as a Danish colleague warned me) sink the cake, collapsing the sponge into a dense layer. It’s also important to recognise when the caramel is thick enough to top the cake without sliding off.

I’ll give you the recipe, reproduced with very kind permission from Signe’s book, then discuss what’s happening behind the recipe – what are the critical steps?

Drommekage - Danish coconut cake

Drømmekage - Danish Coconut Dream Cake

from ‘Scandilicious – Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking’ by Signe Johansen, Saltyard Books
(and if you like this and live in London, you should definitely consider attending Signe’s Scandi brunch and supper club).

  • 4 medium eggs
  • 300g golden caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 150g butter, melted
  • 150ml buttermilk (or a mixture of yoghurt and milk)
  • 300g plain flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Topping
- 200g butter
- 200g light brown soft sugar
- 150g dessicated coconut
- 100ml whole milk
- 1 heaped teaspoon vanilla sea salt (I used a scant teaspoon sea salt plus half a teaspoon of vanilla bean paste)

Preheat the oven to 190C/170C fan/gas mark 5. Line a 20x30cm deep rectangular cake pan with parchment paper, leaving a 2 inch overhang to help remove the cake later. It helps to have the paper extend above the sides of the tin a little to contain the topping later.

Melt the butter and leave to cool a little. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl, and mix with a whisk to distribute the baking powder.

Using an electric mixer beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla together until thick and pale, the batter should form a ribbon when the whisk is removed from the bowl. This will take several minutes on high speed. If you’re not sure whether it’s thick enough, give it another minute.

Pour in half the melted butter and buttermilk and sift half the flour onto the batter. Fold the batter together with a large metal spoon, trying to incorporate as much of the flour, butter and buttermilk without knocking out the air from the eggs.

Pour in the remaining butter and buttermilk and sift over the remaining flour. Fold the batter as above.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for 20 minutes or until the cake has doubled in size, looks light golden brown in colour and is firm to the touch. A toothpick inserted into the cake should also come out clean. You want to be sure it has baked thoroughly and will bear the weight of the topping to come.

Whilst the cake is baking make the topping by adding all the ingredients into a medium saucepan set over medium heat, stirring constantly to prevent the sugar from burning. Cook for 5 minutes until the mixture has thickened and some of the liquid has evaporated. It will reduce a little and also change colour to a slightly darker shade of brown. You want something thick enough that it will spread over the surface, and not run too much.

Once the cake is out of the oven turn the temperature up to 220C/200C fan/gas mark 7. Spread the topping evenly over the cake, return to the oven and bake on the upper-middle shelf for 5–10 minutes until the topping is a toasted deep golden colour (I found this step took more like 15–20 minutes in my oven). Cool in the tin before cutting into squares to serve. As the topping had set into a lovely chewy caramel in some places, I found it easiest to turn it over onto a board, topping side down, and slice with a serrated knife.

Behind the recipe

So what’s going on behind the recipe? Where are the critical steps? I think there are four steps that are particularly important:

Whisking the eggs well enough to support the rest of the cake

What makes this a genoise-type of sponge is that it is based on a first step of whisking the eggs and sugar together until thick, rather than the more usual process of creaming together butter and sugar. This thick mixture is known as ‘taking it to the ribbon stage’, as the mix should form a thick ribbon as it trails down from the whisk into the bowl. Once this is done, the other ingredients – in this case, flour, melted butter and buttermilk – are folded in.
Eggs and sugar whisked together – whether just egg whites or whole eggs – will form a pretty stable foam that can hold lots of air, even when deflating ingredients like butter and flour are folded in. It’s almost impossible to over whisk eggs once a substantial amount of sugar has gone in, so if you want to err on the safe side, just keep going with the whisk a bit longer. This is one of those times where you will give up your right arm for an electric mixer – the handheld ones work really well and are not expensive. I used my Kitchenaid with a whisk attachment.

Baking until firm enough to support the topping

In order to support the caramel topping, it’s important to bake the cake until all trace of liquid cake batter has disappeared, and the cake is fairly firm. The recipe gives the baking time as 20 minutes, but given all the variations in oven temperatures and baking tins, you should always check for doneness before the time is up, then at five minute intervals until it looks close. The first thing I check for with a sponge, whether genoise or creamed, is whether you can still see a wobbly lake of batter in the centre. If a gentle shake of the tin reveals there is still a puddle under the surface you can safely give it another five minutes. Once that has gone, you might want to check more frequently with either a skewer, cocktail stick or small paring knife to see that crumbs rather than liquid batter sticks. To test whether it is firm enough to support a topping, lightly pressing the surface with your finger, to see if it will resist and spring back, is another good test.

Cooking the caramel on the stove

The recipe asks for the caramel mixture to be cooked in a saucepan before adding it to the cake. Caramel is a really temperature sensitive thing, and the thing to know about caramel temperatures is that it won’t start to rise much above 100C until almost all the water is removed from the mixture. This is (I presume), why the mixture is first boiled on the stove – to remove most of the water, and create something that will readily form a set caramel in the oven. I found that the volume reduced quite a bit, and the colour changed from a pale gold to a darker shade.

Baking the caramel to caramelise it further

The aim of this final stage is to convert the sugar from a runny caramel to a chewy toffee-like topping. This means baking it in the oven long enough to caramelise it further and ensure it sets in place. I had difficulty with this stage, as my tin wasn’t deep enough, and as it baked, the topping overflowed the paper lining and spilled over into the oven. Having a very even surface to the cake will help make sure the topping browns evenly, and if you know your oven has some hot spots, keep checking and turn it around periodically, so that it evens out (I put my tin on a baking sheet at this stage to catch any overflowing topping, and also to make it easier to turn around).

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