Almost instant banana bread

Banana bread

I have a real problem with throwing bananas away. I like them when they are already quite spotted, so for me, the line between perfectly ripe and brown and shrivelled is not that big. Added to that are the bananas that travel around in a bag in case of toddler snacking needs and emerge a bit bruised from the experience, but otherwise edible, and there are often bananas that are a bit past it in our house.

When this happens, I like to make them useful, and make banana bread, or banana muffins. Not everyone enjoys the smell of banana cake. It is certainly distinctive. I’ve read that bananas that ripen on the tree smell quite different, and that there are many varieties of banana, with different scents.

I like to think that baking with a very ripe banana recaptures some of those tropical aromas and complexities. For me, it’s a buttery, fruity smell, reminiscent of toast and apricots and flowers.

Banana bread is a quick bread, meaning that it’s not structured the same way as a cake, and is risen with baking powder or bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) rather than eggs or yeast.

Bananas add a lot to a muffin or quick bread mixture. They bring sweetness, allowing you to cut back on the sugar. They help bind things together, removing some of the role that eggs would usually play. They provide a flavour in their own right, and some added liquid for moisture.

As banana bread is a solution to a fruit problem, I like the recipes to be as quick and easy as possible. I have posted on here before about my go-to banana muffin recipe. I have also tried a banana cake recipe, made in muffin cases, which uses dates as the sweetener, and seems to work well for my toddler.

More recently, I’ve been looking at ways to make banana bread in my Thermomix (or food processor), without getting any other dishes dirty, and having some success.

Behind the recipe

This is a cake made much like a muffin, with oil, not too much sugar, and leavened with bicarbonate of soda (baking soda). The usual direction for this sort of recipe is to mix the wet and dry ingredients separately, and then combine them together very gently, even leaving in a few lumps so as not to mix too much.

While this will probably give the optimum texture, a great virtue of these recipes is speed and convenience, so if you can apply a little power with a blender or food processor (I use my Thermomix), it makes these even more feasible on a weeknight (or during naptime).

As a quick bread only needs the ingredients mixing briefly together, it’s important to not overmix using the motor. If needs be, stir the last bit together by hand. It also helps to layer the ingredients in. Start with the liquid ingredients on the bottom, including the bananas, and put the dry ingredients on top, finishing with the flour. This way, the flour is the last to be mixed in. You can also leave the flour not quite combined, or with some flour still remaining around the edges, and fold the last bits in while scraping down with a spatula.

There is no need to mash the bananas, as they will just be pureed with the other liquid ingredients at the bottom of the bowl. Pulse the blades of the blender or food processor so that you don’t mix more than you have to. Then scrape down and combine the last bits with a spatula.

Scrape and pour into a lined loaf tin (I use these Lakeland tin liners for extra speed) and bake for anything from 45 minutes to an hour – it should be risen with no wet mixture remaining.

Almost instant banana bread

Banana bread. Hastily made in the Thermomix, not too sweet. Adapted from @smittenkitchen

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s jacked-up banana bread.


  • 3 to 4 ripe bananas (230g peeled weight)
  • 75g sunflower oil
  • 150g light brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of (baking) soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 200g plain flour

Add the peeled bananas, broken into pieces to the bottom of the processor bowl. On top, add the sugar, oil, egg, vanilla essense and bourbon/rum. Mix the flour, the bicarbonate of soda, spices and salt in a small bowl and add on top of the other ingredients. This helps to make sure the bicarbonate (baking) soda is evenly distributed, and to make sure there are no lumps in it. There may not be time for these to be thoroughly mixed in otherwise, and lumps of bicarbonate of soda taste revolting.

Pulse or mix on a medium speed until just mixed together. Scrape down the sides and mix any remaining flour in by hand. Pour into a lined 2lb loaf tin and bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour at 180C/160C fan. I often use two 1lb loaf tins (as above) and bake for 40-45 minutes.

This will keep, wrapped up, for several days, and freezes really well.

A taste of spring: making fresh ricotta

Ricotta on toast with olive oil and salt

I read a New York Times article some years ago that really annoyed me. It was an edition of food questions and answers, and in the cooking section they posed the question “what should I stop buying and make instead?”. And their answer? Condiments. They actually suggested that the best thing to spend your precious home cooking time on was mayonnaise and ketchup!

The only reason I can think of to make your own ketchup is if you have a serious glut of tomatoes, and have exhausted all the tomato sauce, soup and purée options. But I can’t deny that there is something deeply satisfying about making very basic foods from scratch: things like bread, cheese, or jam. You can delude yourself into thinking you’re some kind of frontierswoman (only with central heating and YouTube). “In the event of an apocalypse”, you think “I can make my own bread! All I will need to find is clean water and ready-milled flour and I’ll be fine!”.   I have made plenty of bread, and quite a few jars of jam, but I hadn’t attempted cheese since cooking school. Smitten Kitchen wrote about making ricotta, and that post, and particularly the video of the company making fresh ricotta in Brooklyn stuck  with me.

Fresh ricotta

Ricotta is a soft, slightly grainy cheese that you may have come across in plastic tubs in the supermarket. It is used to fill pasta, to make flourless gnocchi (called gnudi), and can also be used for lasagne, cheesecakes and more. The supermarket incarnation is fairly uninspiring. Ricotta, meaning recooked, is made from the whey left over from making other cheese. When reheated with acid, more curds can be generated, and ricotta is made by draining these.

However, there is another ricotta, one that doesn’t resemble the authentic original, but something between a cream cheese and ricotta that is fresh, and lemony and makes you want to spread it thickly on toast. By heating not leftover whey, but milk and cream with acid, you can make something that is a hybrid between true ricotta and soft cheese. And by using good quality milk, salting it judiciously, and eating it fresh, you can make something really good to eat, rather than something that is just functional.

But more than the flavour or the (dubious) economy of making your own ricotta, its more worth doing for the science experiment thrill of seeing this cheese emerge from a pan of liquid. This transubstantiation, and the (fairly small) effort involved are more than repaid in fascination and satisfaction with the end result.

Of course, this isn’t something you really need to do every day, but the remarkably small effort involved means you can do it much more regularly than you might think. The best thing to do is spread it thickly on slices of toasted bread, sprinkle with coarse salt and drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil. As Smitten Kitchen enthuses, it’s perfect summer food. But it’s also a way of imagining it’s spring, slightly before it actually appears.

Ricotta curds before draining

Behind the recipe: what happens when you make ricotta?

Why does ricotta form? Most cheese uses rennet, containing enzymes that cause the protein to cling together into curds, so that the liquid whey can be separated and drained off. Ricotta uses acid instead of rennet to create the curds. The acid you use will have some affect on the taste. You can use vinegar, lemon juice or buttermilk (Serious Eats details the differences here). Lemon juice is the least precise but most delicious one of these.

You heat the milk, add the acid and then leave it to form the curds. Then gently drain off the whey through a cheesecloth or a a very fine sieve. Leave it for a short time for really soft cheese, let it drain longer for something firmer.

The essential elements are just enough heat, but not too much, and enough acid to start clumping the proteins together. I have had good results using a Thermomix to gently heat the milk, stirring all the time.

The cream is optional: it gives a lovely creamy result, a bit more like cream cheese than true ricotta. You can use single cream or whipping cream if that’s what you have.

Recipe: homemade ricotta

  • 1 litre whole milk
  • 150g double cream
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon (15g) lemon juice – about half a lemon
  • 1 tablespoon (15g) distilled white vinegar

On the stove:

Heat the milk and cream in a saucepan, just until you see the first bubbles appear at the edges, or until it reaches 85-90C on a thermometer. Stir as it heats to prevent the milk proteins catching on the base of the pan. When it is heated, stir in the salt, if using, and then gradually add the lemon juice and vinegar. Stir in very gently, and then leave for two minutes for the curds to form.

Meanwhile, line a sieve or colander over a bowl with a layer or two of damp cheesecloth, or damp paper towels. Spoon or ladle the curds very gently into the cheesecloth and leave to drain for 15-20 minutes. After that time, spoon the ricotta out of the sieve into a container and refrigerate. This will keep for four days in the fridge.

Spooning the ricotta curds

In a thermomix: (Adapted from a recipe on Super Kitchen Machine)

With the butterfly attachment fixed, add the milk and cream to the Thermomix bowl, and heat to 90C on speed 2. Turn off as soon as the 90C light comes on (will take around 10-12 minutes). Set 1 minute/speed stir and add the lemon juice and vinegar through the lid. Turn off and leave to rest for a few minutes to let the curds separate. Gently scoop the curds into a sieve or colander lined with cheesecloth. Leave to drain for 15-20 minutes, depending on how thick you want it.

Things to do with your fresh ricotta:

Spread it on really good toasted bread. Scoop it onto roasted veg as a salad.

Make ravioli or tortellini. Add it to pasta sauce.

Serve as dessert with fruit and drizzled with honey.

Make this excellent Jean-Georges Vongerichten recipe for squash on toast.


Milk bread

Milk bread

I sometimes feel that we mis-sell homemade bread. All of these ‘best bread of your life’ articles and books sell a particular vision: a craggy, very dark brown loaf, with a thick crust, and chewy, irregular interior. Loaves that take long and patient work and probably require a starter or levain of some sort. And it’s true that these loaves are achievable at home and all that time develops lovely flavours. But not everyone really likes eating them.

When you want to make a sandwich, or some really good, golden toast, that isn’t what you need. Sometimes there is a place for a soft, fluffy bread, with a thin crust that will toast really well, and won’t take three days to make. When that is what you’re after, and if that is your definition of really good bread, then what you need is a milk loaf, or a pain de mie.

This bread comes together in a few hours (although you can leave it overnight if that’s more convenient). It’s a great choice for sandwiches, toast, and even toasted sandwiches. It’s likely to be popular with children. It is gently golden on the outside, with a soft texture inside, but not as spongy and squishy as a cheap sliced loaf. A little sugar helps it to brown nicely when toasted. Not too much liquid means a nice even interior, without jagged holes that let the filling through.

Behind the recipe

All those macho, craggy loaves are flour, water, salt and yeast (or sourdough starter). Milk bread contains a number of other things: milk, butter and sugar. All of them get in the way of the flour a bit, and turn the interior from chewy and stretchy to soft and fluffy. You can also use eggs, or even a roux of cooked flour and water to soften bread. But milk, and a little butter and sugar make a nice soft loaf, but without too much richness.

The fat in the milk, and in the small amount of butter help to interrupt the gluten structure, and stop it from becoming too coarse and chewy. Baking at a high temperature for a short time prevents the crust from drying out too much and getting too thick and crusty. You can also cover the bread with a tea towel when it comes out of the oven to keep the crust soft. Some say that scalding the milk briefly will help to deactivate an enzyme in the milk, and allow the bread to rise a little more and be fluffier. I tried this with and without scalding, and couldn’t tell the difference. I warm the milk up to give the dough a headstart, and to melt and dissolve the butter and sugar, making them easier to distribute, but there’s no need to simmer it.

Milk bread recipe

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 1 tsp fine salt
  • 2 tsp instant dried yeast
  • 150ml whole milk
  • 1 scant teaspoon sugar
  • knob of butter – 15g/1tbsp
  • 160ml water

Mix the flour with the salt and yeast.

Add the milk, butter and sugar to a small saucepan and heat the milk just until the butter melts. Take off the heat and pour in the cold water, and wait until it has cooled down so it feels just warm to the touch. (Temperatures over about 50°C will kill the yeast – that feels very hot to touch).

Add the liquid to the flour and mix everything together with a wooden spoon until all the dry flour is gone. If you have time, leave it for 20 minutes for the liquid to be absorbed and to help develop the gluten (this is called an ‘autolyse’).

After that time, knead for about 5 minutes by hand, or with a dough hook on a mixer (or even in a food processor) until you have a smooth and springy dough. Put into a bowl and cover with cling film. Leave to rise for about 1.5 – 2 hours in the kitchen  – no need for a warm place – or overnight in the fridge.

When the dough has roughly doubled in size, and seems very puffy, briefly knead it and pat into an approximate square. Shape into a loaf by rolling it up, and put into a greased 2lb loaf tin. Alternatively you can shape the dough into two or three balls of dough and tuck them into the tin together.

Dust the top with flour, cover again with cling film, and leave to rise for about half an hour. While it is proving, pre-heat the oven to 210°C/190°C fan for about 40 minutes or until golden brown. Leave to cool before slicing – the bread will be gummy if you slice it while it’s hot.

This dough can also be made into rolls, for burger buns or sandwiches.

Bread rolls


Friday food links – 19 Feb 2016 – and a homemade pizza recipe

Gorgeous but freezing run this morning

It has been a real where-did-the-week-go week.  My kitchen saviours have been the freezer and the oven timer. From the freezer came a container of Chinese-flavoured braised pork, which made the most of a vegetable fried rice. Also from the freezer, I dredged up a container of beef stew, which was mostly mushrooms and shallots in rich gravy. Some boiled potatoes and wilted cabbage were all that was needed there. And then Tuesday was a pasta bake with cheese sauce, some scraps of broccoli, spinach and spring onion and pancetta, which also did duty as leftovers last night. I made the sauce and cooked the pasta and veg in the afternoon when E was occupied, and put it into the oven with the timer set so it switched on with a delay, and was ready 15 minutes before we were sitting down to eat.


  • Homemade pizza – see recipe below
  • Leek and potato soup in the Thermomix
  • Two ingredient microwave chocolate pudding – from Stephen Harris (a bit dark when made with 70% chocolate, but would be good with something milder).
  • Slow cooker caramelised onions – from Slow Cooked

Without a recipe:

  • Beef stew from the freezer, with boiled potatoes and savoy cabbage
  • Fried rice with chinese pork
  • Cheesy pasta bake with pancetta, broccoli, spinach and spring onion.
  • Fish and oven chips


Recipe: Homemade Pizza

Homemade pizza

I have tried any number of ways of making pizza at home, but my oven doesn’t really get anything like hot enough to attempt to replicate a real pizza oven, so I’ve gradually adjusted to the idea that homemade pizza is rather like oven chips – still good, but not what you’d get in a restaurant.

This means I have come around to a process that is as low effort as possible, but still produces something tasty with a crust that’s fairly thin and crisp on the edges and base. This is largely inspired by Smitten Kitchen’s approach in her cookbook.

The most important step is stretching the dough. Each time you stretch and work the gluten, it gets springy and wants to contract back. So stretching and shaping is best done in gradual stages, letting the dough relax in between. This makes it easier to get the dough really big and thin.

The other trick is to do the stretching on the baking sheet you use to bake it. You will lose something by not putting it directly onto a hot surface, but I think that’s outweighed by the ease of not having to slide the dough around.



  • 300g strong white flour
  • 1 tsp dried yeast
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 180g water
  • 1 tbsp olive oil


  • small box of passata
  • 1 packet pre-grated mozzarella
  • 1 pack fresh mozzarella
  • toppings

Prepare the dough a couple of hours before you want to have dinner. Alternatively, you can prepare it the night before, and put it in the fridge. In that case, it helps to get it out of the fridge a bit before you want to bake with it.

Weigh out the flour and add the yeast and salt. Mix briefly together, and then add the water and oil. Stir everything together, or use a mixer with a dough hook.

Then knead everything for about 5 minutes, either by hand or in the mixer. Try not to add any extra flour. You can also use a food processor, with brief pulses.

Put the dough into an oiled bowl and cover with cling film. Leave at room temperature to rise (it doesn’t need to be somewhere warm).

When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 250C or as hot as you can get it – my highest temperature is 220C in a fan oven.

Divide the dough into two pieces, and shape into balls. Pat the dough out into a rough rectangle or oval, or use a rolling pin. Do this in stages, leaving the dough to rest for at least 5 minutes under a tea towel before trying to roll or stretch the dough again. This helps to get it really thin without breaking it or having it spring back.

Sprinkle a large baking sheet with cornmeal/polenta or semolina, or line it with baking parchment. Put the dough onto the sheet, and stretch the edges again to fill the sheet as much as you can.

Top the pizza with passata or tomato sauce, cheese and any other toppings. Bake at 220C for 10 minutes, until the edges are lightly browned, and the cheese is melted and bubbling.

Leave to stand for a couple of minutes before cutting into pieces.

Friday food links – 12 Feb 2016

Camellia in the gutter. A casualty of yesterday's storm, a sign of spring.

This week has been powered by a big joint of pork shoulder that my mum slow-cooked on Saturday. It has been served with baked potatoes, in burrito bowls and in tortillas. It would have made it into pasta too if I’d remembered. I also made some freezer supplies for E: muffins to toast and banana date cakes. As it’s been a long time since a recipe featured anywhere on here, I’ve included the recipe for these below.


Without a recipe:

  • Pulled pork
  • Pasta with red peppers and mushrooms
  • Pork and black bean burritos
  • Pork burrito bowls
  • Slow cooker chicken curry
  • Carrot and sweet potato soup


A bit light on reading this week. I’ve been working through Anne-Marie Slaughter’s ‘Unfinished Business’, on the challenge of the work-life balance and the low value we place on care.

Banana date cakes

Recipe: Banana and Date cakes

Adapted from a banana cake in the Baby Led Weaning Cookbook, these little cakes have no sugar, but are still sweet from the bananas and dates, especially if you use really ripe bananas. They make great toddler food, or a good breakfast or mid-morning snack.

  • 100g self-raising wholemeal flour
  • 1/2 tsp mixed spice
  • 50g unsalted butter
  • 2 very ripe bananas (200g peeled)
  • 1 egg
  • 75g dates

Prepare a muffin tin by greasing or with paper cases. Preheat the oven to 180C/160C fan.

Chop the dates. If they are somewhat dry, cover with hot water and leave to soak for about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Rub the butter into the flour. Stir in the mixed spice.

In another bowl, mash the bananas and mix in the egg. Add to the flour with the drained, chopped dates and mix everything together.

Spoon into cupcake or muffin cases and bake for 15 – 20 minutes.

Behind the recipe: How to make Christmas cake


A couple of weeks ago I made this year’s Christmas cake. I make my husband’s grandmother’s recipe, although, much to his horror, I do make some adjustments here and there. But it produces a fruit-packed dark cake that we both love, so it always seems worth it. And more than ever now we are a family of three, I enjoy the ritual of digging out the fruit in October, and making the cake, knowing that it promises cosy evenings and feasting to come in a couple of months. Even when all my good intentions of early Christmas shopping and house decorating come to nought, I feel comforted knowing that at least I have a cake stored away, that will make tea times feel festive.

Shauna from Gluten Free Girl wrote a lovely post earlier this year about the ritual of making the same food each week, of having a pattern to the week that everyone recognises. I feel the same way about these annual rituals of cooking. There is great comfort in a cooking ritual that evokes a specific time of year: marmalade in January, strawberries in June. But for a Brit, Christmas is the one time of year that we celebrate with specific festive foods. Americans have Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, the Super Bowl to mark their cooking year. With Hot Cross Buns seemingly available all year round, Christmas is the last food feast in the calendar, even if it does seem to start in September.

When making a fruit cake for Christmas, there are certain rituals to the process that seem arcane. It seems to be a very complicated recipe, and it’s tempting to shortcut as many steps as possible. But why is the process so peculiar, compared to baking a straightforward sponge cake?

The main thing to remember about fruitcake is that it is (or should be) more fruit than cake. And dried fruit needs a few things to bake well: to be moist enough not to dry out; to be cooked slowly so that all the sugar in it doesn’t scorch; and to be suspended in a cake batter firm enough so that it doesn’t all sink to the bottom when baked. Here are some of the steps you might find in your Christmas cake or fruit cake recipe, and why they are worth doing:

Soaking the fruit

Many recipes start with measuring the fruit, and soaking it overnight (or for even longer). This plumps up fruit like raisins and currants, and the liquid they take in here will help keep the cake moist as it sits. And if you soak in brandy, rum, whisky or another spirit, it will also help to preserve the cake.

Wrapping the tin in brown paper

Using all my Blue Peter skills on the cake tin for the fruit cake

This is what really says Christmas to me. The idea when lining the tin with multiple layers of paper, and then wrapping newspaper or brown paper around the outside is to insulate the tin, and prevent the outside from browning, and ultimately scorching, before the centre of this dense cake is cooked through. You may also be asked to cover the top with paper, to prevent it browning too far.

Brushing/soaking with brandy/rum

This one definitely depends on how far in advance you’ve made it, and how often you remember to do this. It should serve two purposes – to help keep the crumb moist, and to further preserve the cake, and prevent any mould from forming. You should also make sure you wrap the cake well each time you do this, so that the moisture is kept in.

Wrapping in marzipan

So it’s been baked, and soaked, and wrapped, and it’s nearly Christmas. Just time to ice it. But first you have to cover it in marzipan and then let it dry out?? This is really a royal icing thing. The marzipan is there to stop the dark fruit of the cake from bleeding through the pristine white icing. And letting it dry out prevents oils from the almonds from leaking into the icing.

I’m not a huge fan of royal icing, or of shop-bought marzipan that is so sweet it makes your teeth ache. But I could be persuaded by Nigel Slater’s homemade almond paste with orange zest, and golden icing sugar icing.

Here is the recipe I use. The dried fruit can be varied, as long as you keep to the same weight. I like to keep a base of raisins and currants for their dark, rich flavours, but you may prefer paler, sweeter fruits: sultanas, figs and apricots chopped small, dried cherries. I have to confess that I no longer whisk the egg whites separately – I just couldn’t see how the air would survive folding in with the fruit. Instead I mix the whole eggs into the creamed butter and sugar. 

Recipe: Pendleton Christmas Cake

PREP TIME: 1 hr plus soaking

TOTAL TIME: 5 – 6 hr

This recipe – for 9 inch round tin (or 8 inch square) – 20cm square.


  • 450 gram Raisins
  • 450 gram Sultanas
  • 340 gram Currants
  • 110 gram Candied Peel — finely chopped
  • 110 gram Glace Cherries — halved
  • 75 ml Brandy
  • 75ml orange juice
  • 110 gram Almonds, Blanched — shredded
  • 285 gram Flour, Plain
  • 1/2 tsp Salt
  • 1 tsp Ground Cinnamon
  • 1 tsp Mixed Spice
  • 1 pinch Nutmeg — grated
  • 225 gram Butter
  • 225 gram Sugar, Soft brown
  • 1 tbsp Black Treacle
  • 6 Eggs
  • 55 gram Plain Chocolate, melted
  • 1/2 tsp Bicarbonate of Soda
  • 1 tsp Warm water

Combine the fruit with the brandy and the orange juice. Leave to soak overnight.

Line tin with 2 thicknesses of baking parchment and tie a band of brown paper around the outside of tin that comes 2-3 inches above the rim.

Set oven at 300F/150C/130C fan or gas mark 3.

This recipe is in three parts: the cake mixture, the fruit, and the whisked egg whites. Each part gets a separate portion of the flour mixture until they are all combined at the end.

Sift flour, salt and spices together and divide into 3 portions. Mix one portion with the prepared fruit and nuts (especially coat the cherries well in flour).

Cream the butter in a mixer, or with a handheld mixer, then add the sugar and beat well until fairly light and fluffy (at least 3-4 minutes), then stir in black treacle. [To measure the black treacle, take the lid off the tin and stand it in hot water for a few minutes – this makes the treacle more liquid and easier to measure. Also, oil your measuring spoon with a little vegetable oil before scooping out the treacle- this will help the treacle to slide off the spoon]. Melt the chocolate in the microwave, or over a pan of gently simmering water. Stir in the melted chocolate.

Separate eggs, and whisk yolks together until slightly thickened, and add to butter mixture alternately with second portion of flour. Mix gently, so as not to overwork the flour and make the batter tough.

Fold the 1st portion of flour (mixed with fruit and nuts) into the cake mix.
Dissolve bicarbonate of soda in the warm water and stir gently into the mixture.

Whisk the egg whites until holding very soft peaks and fold into the cake mixture with the third and final portion of flour.

Turn cake mixture into prepared tin, smooth top with palette knife and brush with a little tepid water to keep cake soft while cooking. Put cake into oven and bake at least 3 and up to 4.5 hours. After the first hour, place a folded square of baking parchment on the top to reduce browning (this can go on from the beginning, but then tends to stick to the mixture).

When cake has been in the oven about 1.5 hours, turn cooker down to 290F (145C) or Mark 2. At the end of cooking time (or after about 3 hours) test with a skewer to see that it comes out clean with no batter clinging to it. Leave in tin to cool for 30 minutes then turn out carefully on to wire rack.

When cold wrap in several sheets of greaseproof paper and store in completely airtight tin. Store for at least one month. Will keep for a year or more. Cover with almond paste two weeks before needed and ice one week later.

More about making fruit cake, and some recipes:
BBC Food Fruit cake
Nigel Slater’s Christmas cake
Felicity Cloake on her perfect Christmas cake

Banana granola

Banana granola

I have always been keen on breakfast. I can’t leave the house without it, and if I am forced, by travel or illness, to miss out, I know I will feel worse for the rest of the day. My pre-baby regime was a bowl of cereal and muesli at home, usually followed by a muffin, a smoothie or a pot of yoghurt and fruit at the office.
Post-baby, breakfast has taken on a talismanic importance. The first meal after a long night, I load up my bowl with as much cereal, muesli and fruit as it will hold, and then hope that baby will sleep long enough for me to finish it!

I tend to eat granola as a sprinkling on top of this bowl, rather than having it on its own. This is somewhat healthier, as well – if you’re going to eat granola, you need to come to terms with the fact that it’s basically another form of biscuit.
This recipe is better than most, with a fairly scant amount of fat and sugar. The bananas provide the additional sweetness and stickiness that is needed for the oats to stick together a little. I tend to use brown rice syrup because I keep it around for another granola recipe (Nigella’s Fairfield granola), and because I find it leads to a crunchier result than either honey or golden syrup.

Banana granola recipe

I got this recipe from Green Kitchen Stories. It perfectly fit the brief of a simple-to-make granola, with the added benefit of using up a couple if ripe bananas. What I wasn’t expecting was the fruitiness of the mix – not precisely smelling of bananas, but a harder-to-place fruit fragrance. Combined with the coconut oil, this is a wonderful scented granola, with a texture balanced between crisp and chewy. It’s the perfect thing to have for an energizing breakfast after a sleep- interrupted night with a newborn.

Recipe lightly adapted from Green Kitchen Stories

  • 375 g rolled oats
  • 150 g flaked almonds (or chopped whole almonds, or a mixture)
  • 150 g pumpkin seeds (or a mixture of other seeds – sunflower, sesame, flax)
  • 1 pinch sea salt
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 tbsp runny honey or maple syrup
  • 2 tbsp brown rice syrup (or replace with honey/maple syrup)
  • 2 large, very ripe bananas, peeled and mashed

Warm the coconut oil, vegtable oil and syrups or honey until all is combined. (I use a table spoon to measure the vegetable oil first, then the syrup, so it slides out).
Break the bananas into the mix in pieces and mash until smooth.
Mix the liquid with the oats and nuts.
Spread on an oiled baking tray and toast for around 30-40 minutes at 160C/140C fan, or until some of the oats and almonds have become golden brown.

Soft set strawberry jam

Strawberry jam

I have a very neglected strawberry patch. When we first changed our garden to create space to plant vegetables, I planted five Cambridge Favourite strawberry plants along with the lettuces and tomatoes. Since then, I have been very inattentive and have let them multiply all over the place until they take up a good third of the growing area. This year, because of pregnancy and baby, I have been particularly neglectful, but despite that, and the efforts of some greedy local wood pigeons, there has been a bumper crop.

Strawberry-mint syrup underway for @JenniferPerillo roasted strawberry frozen yoghurt

I put the first batch into roasted strawberry syrup and strawberry frozen yoghurt, following Jennie’s recipes. Then as another batch started to look neglected in the fridge, I knew the only way to hang onto their fragrance and flavour was jam.

Strawberry jam

Strawberry jam has a particularly tricky reputation. This is because strawberries contain very little pectin, the sticky substance that makes jams thicken, and so need lots of encouragement to set. It’s easy to end up with strawberry soup, which slides and drips off scones and toast. To combat this tendency, recipes typically include lemon juice, lots of sugar and added pectin, either from a bottle or using jam sugar.

I wanted a fresh tasting jam, without excessive boiling, and something I could do quickly (babies require you to shorten all tasks as much as possible). Many recipes ask you to macerate the fruit and sugar overnight, so they were out. I decided on Kim Boyce’s recipe in ‘Good to the Grain‘. This one is unusual in a few ways. First, it asks you to cook the sugar with water into a syrup before adding the fruit. My guess is that this allows you to cook the berries for a shorter time. It also contains much less sugar than other recipes: a cup for 3 lbs of fruit (or 230g sugar to 1.3kg fruit).

I liked the idea of this recipe, but was a bit scared that it would produce a soup, so I made the following changes:
– although I had only 900g (2lbs) fruit, I kept the sugar quantity the same
– I added the juice of half a lemon
– I then chopped the rest of the lemon half into slices and boiled it in water with the pips for 10 minutes. I then strained this into the pan with the berries.

This is a quick way to extract some pectin, and if you have more time, can be done more thoroughly, with the pieces squeezed through muslin (see marmalade post). This is loosely adapted from a June Taylor method, and a Christine Ferber recipe. As well as helping the set, I find adding lemon to strawberry jam really lifts the flavour, and prevents it from being cloying. (Felicity Cloake agrees).

[to see how effective this approach can be, when you have a lot of lemon pips, put them in a bowl and cover with cold water, and leave them to stand. The water will likely gel as the pectin coating the pips dissolves in the water.]

Strawberry jam

After boiling for 15-20 minutes, the mixture reduced down to a thick bright-red syrup, and after testing for a set, I took it off the heat. I then added a final lemon flourish by zesting the remaining lemon half straight into the jam before putting into jars.

This does not produce a remotely stiff jelly, and is a decidedly spoonable consistency that needs to be kept in the fridge. But the bright colour and flavour are enough to convince me to try this approach again when strawberries come around next year.

Strawberry jam

Recipe: Soft set strawberry jam

adapted from Kim Boyce ‘Good to the Grain’, an inspiring book of recipes for unconventional flours and grains

  • 900g strawberries
  • 240g sugar
  • A lemon

Wash and hull the strawberries. Cut most of them in half, leaving the tiny thumbnail sized ones whole, and cutting the big monsters into quarters. The berries will break down as they cook, so the pieces don’t need to be small.

Halve the lemon, juice one half and reserve, and slice the empty half into thin pieces. Put into a small saucepan with any pips, cover with cold water and boil for about 10 mins to extract the pectin.

Put a couple of saucers or small plates in the freezer to check the set later on.

Place the sugar into a large saucepan or preserving pan and add about 100ml water. This is the pan you will make the jam in, so it needs enough room to allow the jam to bubble up (minimum of 4 litre capacity). Put on a medium-high heat and bring to the boil to dissolve the sugar. Swirl the pan occasionally to ensure the sugar crystals all dissolve, and to make sure there are no hotspots where the sugar could start to caramelise.

Once the syrup is clear and bubbling, add the strawberries, lemon juice, and strain in the water from the lemon half, pressing down on the solids. If you have time, you can cool these pieces and put into muslin and squeeze it to extract even more pectin.

Bring everything to a rapid boil, turning the temperature down if it threatens to boil over. Stir occasionally to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom. The mixture should reduce down and thicken. When it seems thick, take out a spoonful onto one of the cold saucers or plates. Leave it in the fridge for a minute or two, and take the pan off the heat. When you push the side of the blob of jam with a finger, you should be able to see wrinkles on the surface, which indicate a set. Mine reached 102.5C with a thermometer when I took it off the heat (usually you look for 104C for jam to set, but as this has little sugar, and sets softly, it won’t get there).

With the jam off the heat, zest in the remaining lemon half and stir in. Allow the jam to settle and thicken a little in the pan before putting into clean, sterilised jam jars. As this has so little sugar, it should be kept in the fridge.

What makes meringues chewy?

piped meringue stars

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.

Chewy almond meringue

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

What is a meringue?

A meringue is 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 to 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.

Tips for making meringues:

  • 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, unlike egg whites on their own, 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 (by weight) to 2:1, with the upper end being more common. For a 2:1 ratio, weigh your egg whites out, and then add twice the weight of sugar.
  • 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 110g (4oz) sugar for two large egg whites (or 100g 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 100°C/212°F is about right. When you have finished baking, leave the meringues in the turned off oven to cool, and remove any last moisture.

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 foam. 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 that will help make a chewy meringue is to bake them 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. A temperature of about 130°C/265°F is good.

For a pie meringue

Meringue-topped pies can be difficult. It can be particularly tricky to make sure it sits nicely on top of the topping, and to avoid moisture from the filling moving into the meringue, and making it ‘weep’. 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. So add cornflour to stabilise it, and bake in a much hotter oven – around 170°C/340°F – to get a nice crisp top. Felicity Cloake’s Perfect Lemon Meringue Pie is a good guide.

Meringue recipes

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, dairy-free chocolate cookies – little drops of meringue flecked with chopped chocolate.

Chocolate Meringue Stars

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 110°C/100°C fan/225°F.

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 unravels 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

Further reading:

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Brown butter financiers or friands


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).


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.

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

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: