Friday food links – 25 March 2016

Product of toddler baking session: Idiot biscuits. Actually, she mainly poured sprinkles around, but kept her occupied.  Recipe:

I knew at the start that this could be a tough week. Lots of travel, a few end-of-year things at work, combined with lots of people on leave meant I already knew time would be at a premium. Add to that a bit of a sniffle for me, full on vomiting from E on Wednesday evening, and a bit of a grey and damp week, and it hasn’t been a brilliant time.

There have definitely be rays of sunshine breaking through, though. Last Sunday the sun came out, and it was actually warm, at least with the sun on you. I got into the garden and planted a few things, and generally felt better about the state of things. The first of my tulips have started showing their heads. And in between being a bit tired and under-the-weather, E has been very funny. In the Disney store, she spotted a clip of ‘Snow White’ playing on the monitors, and started dancing along with the dwarfs. I bought her a pack of farm animal stickers, and she sang ‘Old Macdonald had a Farm’ to them.

Knowing it wasn’t going to be an easy week, I planned some easy meals to get us through. A bought lasagne for midweek. A big batch of curry at the weekend that saw us through three meals. A fridge-tidying soup that covered a couple of lunches and a dinner too.


Without a recipe:

  • Charlie Bigham lasagne with a grated carrot salad and some radishes and cucumbers
  • Egg fried rice
  • Fish and chips from the freezer
  • A green minestrone, using up lots of leftover veg from the fridge, with a parmesan rind, a can of cannellini beans and lots of parmesan grated on the top.
  • Leftover coconut curry – reappeared twice


Friday food links – 12 Dec 2014

Mirrored sky

Sorry for the delay in publishing – we were away for the weekend. It’s the time of year for lists and ‘best ofs’, so I’ve been looking at a few best books of the year posts, and also bookmarking recipes to make over Christmas.

Gingerbread men (or stars, or trees…)


Every year I try and make a few homemade things for Christmas to send to friends and take to family. All right, not a few, a lot. There was the year I decided to make two sorts of truffles, dipped in tempered chocolate, and also candy about 5 oranges, slice the peel really thin and dip each piece individually in tempered chocolate. Very messy. I have done brownies, David Lebovitz’s Chocolate cherry fruitcake, and last year, Raspberry truffles. This year, I went for mainly biscuits (with a few caramel brownies thrown in for good measure), and the king of Christmas biscuits is the gingerbread man.

Gingerbread is something that seems quintessentially festive. It has the deep spices that I love about Christmas cooking and decorated with white icing, it reflects ideas of snow and decoration, without being showy. You can make gingerbread biscuits with holes in to hang on the tree – and they will keep remarkably well that way – but I prefer to heap them into a tin, and snack on them. They will always outlast my appetite for them.

This year I made some biscuits to send to friends, and some to keep. I took the leftover scraps of dough with me to my mum’s, as I hadn’t had time to roll them out and bake them. They came up a little chewier and puffier than the rest of the batch, but delicious all the same: my 99 year old grandmother had two (and she doesn’t normally have sweets). Something about the almost austere plainness of these biscuits appeals across the ages. My two year old nephew pronounced them very good, and my 5 year old niece had three in a row just yesterday.

The recipe for these comes from an old issue of the veteran US cooking magazine, Gourmet, now sadly deceased. A few years ago, they did a round-up of cookie recipes from their history, choosing one recipe to represent each year the magazine was in print. This gingerbread recipe was reproduced from a 1959 issue of Gourmet. Although the recipe has now disappeared from the website, you can see the gingerbread men in this video about the project, at 1:42. All the cookie recipes they selected are now in the Gourmet Cookie Book.

The first time I made these, I used currant eyes, and sliced almond mouths to make the faces. These were beautiful, but so time consuming to place every piece. I have decided I much prefer to ice with a little royal icing after they are baked instead. I can add faces and buttons to the gingerbread men, as well as dots and snowflakes to star-shaped cookies, and snow-laden branches to the christmas trees. Or they are very good just plain, as they are or dipped into a cup of tea to soften the edges a little. Like the best gingernuts you’ve ever come across.

The other benefit of not fiddling with currants before baking is that you can put the dough into the oven still cold, which makes the shapes better defined when baked, and less puffy. When first made, the dough will be quite soft. I have added even more flour than the original recipe states, to make it a little easier to handle, and to make sure that the cut-out shapes stay well defined. However, if the dough gets warm as you roll it out, the shapes will become floppy and will be hard to transfer to a baking sheet without distorting them. For this reason, I think the best answer is to make the dough ahead and chill it overnight, or for several hours at least, and then take out one piece at a time to roll out and cut. This should mean you can deal with the whole piece, and everything should remain cool enough, even in a warm kitchen. I tend to keep the scraps from each piece as I go, and then re-roll them all together at the end. The re-rolled shapes might be a little chewier and a little puffier than the earlier ones, but will still taste very good.

Recipe: Gingerbread men (or stars, or trees)

  • 350g plain flour
  • 1.5 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda/baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 150g light brown soft sugar (I use muscovado)
  • 50g dark brown soft sugar
  • 195g black treacle
  • 30g golden syrup
  • 110g unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 large egg, beaten

Sift the flour together with all of the spices and the salt (or use a whisk to mix them all together in a bowl.

In a separate bowl (I use a mixer bowl), combine the rest of the ingredients. The butter must be soft enough to evenly mix with the rest of the ingredients – in fact, it doesn’t matter if it’s a bit melted. When combined, stir in the flour and spices. When the dough is smooth, wrap tightly in cling film and chill overnight or for several hours until firm.

Heat the oven to 375°F/190°C/170°C fan.

Flour a work surface, and roll out to about 4mm thickness. Cut out shapes with a floured cutter. Transfer the shapes carefully to a non-stick baking sheet, or a baking tray lined with baking parchment. Bake at  for 12 minutes or until very slightly browner at the edges.

Allow to cool completely, then decorate with royal icing (or icing sugar mixed with a little lemon juice).

Beginning to bake #6: Cookies

Cookies 1 and 2

Biscuits or cookies – there are hundreds of variations. Providing a basic recipe for biscuits is hard – there are thousands of different biscuit or cookie recipes out there, and every country has it’s own favourite variations: bourbon biscuits, gingernuts, speculoos, chocolate chip cookies, macarons de Paris, biscotti, shortbread, digestives – the list is *long*.

But let’s start with some generalisations: most are a combination of flour, butter and sugar. Many also have egg to bind the dough together and to help it become crispy. Some will include some leavening – baking powder or bicarbonate of soda – to help it puff in the oven.

The shortbread-type cookies contain just flour, butter and sugar. They are mixed in the same way as pastry, but with softened instead of cold butter. This makes it hard to roll out, but gives you that characteristic shortbread crunch and really crumbly texture.

American cookies usually have a lot more sugar and some extra liquid or egg. They are usually designed to be scooped into balls and then spread out in the oven, and they usually have plenty of additions – chocolate chunks, nuts, dried fruit, oats.

Looking at different cookie recipes, there is a huge variation in them (and, because I’m a complete geek, I assembled a spreadsheet to check this. I know. But it keeps me in gainful employment). Look at different people’s shortcrust pastry recipes and you’ll probably find they are almost identical. No two biscuit recipes seem to be the same. That gives you a clue – if there is a very wide range in existing recipes, that tells you that you can probably play around and adjust recipes quite safely, and still come out with something that works/is edible.

To prove that, I tested two different but basic cookie recipes for this post. Use whichever you like the sound of. When you make such plain cookies, though, remember that the taste of the butter will be very prominent, so use something good, and definitely don’t use margarine or low-fat spread.

Make sure the butter is soft before you start. If you usually keep butter in the fridge, as I do, there are a couple of things you can do. One is to get the butter out of the fridge and put it on the counter several hours before you plan to bake. Hmm. No, I don’t usually remember to do that either. Instead, I most often slice the butter I’ve weighed for the recipe into thick slices on a plate and put it into the microwave. I use 1 min bursts on the lowest setting (90W) until I can press a finger in without too much trouble. You don’t particularly want to melt it, but if part of it does, just let it stand for a bit, and then mix it all together again. For cookies, it’s not a big deal, though it will get more important next time when we move on to cupcakes…

Cookie recipe 1 – shortbread type

Baked sliced cookies 1

This is a very plain dough, and almost the only difference with recipe 2 is the much reduced amount of sugar. On its own, it’s a bit boring, but it would work well as a thumbprint cookie (where you press a depression in the centre of the cookie and fill it with jam). The contrast with something very sweet would work with this plain dough. Because it’s quite fragile, I rolled this dough into a log, chilled it, and then sliced it into discs before baking. You can also use this method to make a sweet tart case – take the discs and press them together in a tart tin to form a complete crust.

  • 200g butter, room temp
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 300g plain flour
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 large egg, beaten

Put the softened butter into a bowl and add the sugar. Beat together – it will make a paste.

Add the vanilla. Put a sieve over the bowl, and add the flour and baking powder. Sift into the bowl and mix together. It will be crumbly.

Add egg and knead gently until it comes together as a dough.

Cookie dough 1
Wrap into a cylinder in baking parchment and twist the ends. Chill for about 30 minutes.

Cookie dough roll

Slice into discs about 5mm thick, and place the slices onto a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. If you want, press in chopped chocolate or coarse sugar as a topping.

Sliced dough with toppings 1

Put into the oven and bake for about 14 minutes at 150C (fan)/170C. When they’re done, they will still be very pale, but should just start to colour slightly brown at the edges.

Cookie recipe 2 – cookie type

Chocolate chip cookies 2

This is more recognisably a cookie. It won’t be chewy, but crisp instead. If you want chewy you can do a few things: use brown sugar instead of caster sugar; replace plain flour with bread flour, and beat the dough to develop the gluten a bit (you’ll need a mixer or a strong arm).

  • 200g butter
  • 300 plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 300g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg, beaten

Cream the butter and sugar together, to make a stiff paste.

Butter and sugar 2

Add the vanilla and egg, and mix together. Place a sieve over the bowl, and add the flour with the baking powder. Sift into the bowl to make sure the two are combined. Mix together – it will form a stiff dough.

Cookie dough 2

Mix in any chunks, flavourings or other additions. For this recipe I used 70g of chopped dark chocolate.
Chocolate chip cookie dough 2

At this point you can chill the dough for 10 or 15 minutes (especially if it’s very soft) or up to a couple of days. Use a scoop or a spoon to pull off about a tablespoon at a time of dough, form it into a ball and place it on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment.

Scooped cookie dough 2

Bake for 15-20 minutes at 150C(fan)/170C, depending on how crisp you want them. As for the other cookies, you are looking for at least a little colour at the edges. These won’t colour like most cookies because they don’t contain brown sugar, so they will remain quite pale.


Mini chocolate walnut cookies

There’s something in the air about miniature desserts. Dan Lepard profiled mini-cakes in Sainsbury’s magazine last month. Yotam Ottolenghi wrote a piece for the Guardian‘s weekend food column on miniature financiers, mini cheesecakes, mini cookies. Could the mini-dessert become (gasp) the New Cupcake? (or the new whoopie pie, by now). But foolish food trends aside, there is something quite compelling about demolishing a little cookie or a baby cake, in its entirety.

Mini chocolate walnut cookie on Flickr

Although this might look large, this is an espresso cup and saucer.

It was this that attracted me to Heidi’s Itsy Bitsy chocolate chip cookies when they appeared on her blog. I returned to the recipe recently when I wanted to make some cookies, and only then remembered that I had adapted it to be almost a one-bowl recipe, if you have a food processor. If you don’t have one, you can head over to 101 Cookbooks, and Heidi has great instructions for making this by hand. But I love the simplicity of this method, combined with the cute-factor of the tiny cookies, and the amazing toasted flavour that comes from the walnuts and the crisp edges. These are not chewy chocolate chip cookies – they are crisp little discs, with a nubbly quality from the nuts and chocolate rubble – perhaps invoking a souped-up hobnob? They are flavourful, but not cloying; crisp but not too crumbly or greasy – ideal cookie jar-cookies in other words.

Mini chocolate walnut cookies:

(adapted from 101 Cookbooks’ Itsy Bitsy Chocolate Chip Cookies)

Preheat the oven to 180°C /160°C fan / 350°F.

  • 140g dark chocolate (I used Green & Blacks cooking chocolate, 72%, but something sweeter would also work)
  • 70g walnuts

–> Break the chocolate into pieces, add the walnuts and process to rubble in a food processor.

  • 140g wholewheat self-raising flour
  • 1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt

–> Add to processor with the nuts and process again to mix everything together, and grind the chocolate and nuts a little finer.

–> Empty the processor contents into a separate bowl (you’ll add them back later).  Add to this bowl:

  • 110g rolled oats

–> Add to the empty processor:

  • 110g butter, softened
  • 120g dark brown muscovado sugar
  • 120g caster sugar

–> Process together until fairly smooth and creamy. Add

  • 1 large egg
  • 1.5 tsp vanilla

–> and process again until smooth, scraping down the sides to make sure it is combined fairly evenly.

–> Return the chocolate, nuts and flour to the processor.

–> Process fairly briefly to mix everything together – you don’t want to overmix, or the gluten will start to develop and the cookies will get tough. Scrape down with a spatula to make sure there are no more floury patches.

Either refrigerate (for up to two days) or use immediately. Scoop off teaspoons of mixture, roll into a small ball, less than an inch across, flatten a little with a fork and bake at 180C/160C fan for 10-12 minutes, until slightly cracked around the edge and crisp. They will crisp up further as they cool.

[Refrigerating chocolate chip cookie dough is a NY Times recipe trick, attributed to Maury Rubin of City Bakery, and it does seem to develop a bit of extra flavour, but these are fine without it as well.]