Friday, 5 October 2012

Banana Bread

Finally back in the kitchen to bake…I blame a combination of lack of time, family commitments, and not having anyone around to bake for. So when my brother came to stay for the weekend, I had to make the most of it. Although I still didn’t have the energy to try anything particularly exciting.

Instead, I tried a new twist on something I love and had been hankering after for a while: banana loaf. When I was little, banana cake was a semi-regular occurrence. My dad was always fussy about when he’d eat a banana – it had to be green and still slightly woody. As soon as they started to ripen, the likelihood of consumption began to decrease, and once they were tinged brown, the only way of getting rid of them was to bake them in a cake. My mum always baked them in a shallow bundt tin, then iced them with a slightly lemon-y buttercream. And to this day, that’s my absolutely favourite way of eating bananas (I’m not fond of them as fruit, though I like the flavour).

Knowing my brother was coming and that he too appreciated a decent banana cake, I picked up a bunch whilst out shopping and set about deciding on which recipe exactly to follow. I’m fairly sure than when my mum makes one, she simply uses a basic sponge cake mix and adds some mashed bananas and spices. I was all set to do the same, but in my usual pre-baking web browse I found a recipe that replaced one of the eggs with some milk and used a different method from my usual beat and stir sponge cake method, and decided to give it a go.

The results are something I was really rather pleased with. I tweaked the recipe a little bit to suit my tastes – using brown sugar instead of white to give a vaguely caramelised taste, and adding some mixed spice to emulate my mum’s spicy banana cake – but will definitely be using it again next time I want to make an easy, tasty banana cake. The recipe calls for melting the butter and sugar with some vanilla essence, then mixing in the bananas, egg, milk and flour. The result is a super-moist cake with a lovely banana flavour that shines through even with the added spices and vanilla essence. The other innovation in the recipe was the suggestion of sprinkling demarara sugar over the top just before baking, which gave the cake a lovely crunchy top which meant that icing was not really a requirement (making the cake feel slightly healthy and very afternoon-tea-ish, which I liked).

My brother seemed to appreciate it too, although I did make him some lemon buttercream to add to his slices. The cake lasted well too. I cut it into slices and gave most to my brother to take with him when he left to move into his new home and job. I kept several for myself though, and they were just as moist and tasty several days after baking as they were fresh, which is great news for a girl who doesn’t usually get through cakes particularly quickly!

Banana Bread Recipe
2 bananas, roughly mashed
180g flour
125g butter
155g brown sugar
1tsp vanilla essence
1 egg, beaten
60ml milk

1.       Melt the butter, sugar and vanilla in a pan.
2.       Mix in the mashed bananas
3.       Mix in the beaten egg
4.       Mix in the flour and any desired spices (I used mixed spice).
5.       Bake at 175C for 35 minutes

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Smoky Beef Stew

Quick Post-Work Supper!

                I haven’t done much baking in the last few weeks, resulting in a marked paucity of posts…but in my defence, it has been a very busy period! The two main events have been starting work and moving house, and between the two they have left me very little time for anything else. There will hopefully be more baking soon, but for the time being I’m sticking to cooking food that can be quickly re-heated when I finally stumble through my front door after a long day at work (I was on call last week – 13 hour days!).
              Last week I made a quick curry following the instructions off a back of the jar of curry paste. This week I’m being a little more adventurous, so I do actually have some ‘baking’ to share (if you count putting some meat and veg into a pot and sticking it in the oven!). I part of my Saturday avoiding the numerous bags I was supposed to be unpacking to scour the internet for a suitable recipe. My requirements were relatively simple: not too expensive, not too tricky, and which can be reheated quickly on subsequent evenings. This ruled out a few of my favourite meals – lasagne, quiche etc. which all take around the 30minute mark to reheat. Maybe that’s not a bad thing though, as it meant that I ended up selecting a recipe I wouldn’t usually consider: slow cooked beef stew.

                The recipe itself is dead simple – chuck the ingredients in a pot and stick them in the oven. The one thing that could have been a sticking point was the time required, which totalled 3 hours of cooking time. Given that most of my Sunday was also devoted to unpacking and sorting through my belongings, this wasn’t as much of a problem as it might sometimes be. Having gathered the ingredients, I set to work, and was very pleased with the results.

                The stew itself has a lovely flavour – beef mingled with smoky paprika and chilli, and a great undercurrent of rich tomato. The slow cooked meat was wonderfully tender and very tasty, which always surprises me with beef (I’m not a big fan usually!). It does well reheated in the microwave too, keeping all it’s flavour. I’ve been eating it with chapatti and peas, and as a make-ahead meal, I think it’s pretty good. Certainly something I look forward to heating up and tucking into at the end of a long, tiring day in the hospital!

Smoky Beef Stew from the BBC Good Food website
(NB. I made half this amount, because as much as I liked it, I don’t really want to eat the same meal every night for a week! Next time I might make the full amount and freeze half.)

·         1kg stewing beef , cut into large chunks
·         onions , chopped
·         800g (2 cans) chopped tomatoes
·         2 tsp each sweet paprika , ground cumin and mild chilli powder
·         2 tbsp red or white wine vinegar
·         2 tbsp caster sugar
·         400g can butter beans , rinsed and drained

1.       Heat oven to 160C/ 140C fan/gas 3. Mix the beef, onions, tomatoes, spices, vinegar and sugar in a casserole dish. Cover and bake for 2½ hrs. Stir in the beans and bake for 30 mins more (with the lid off if the casserole is a little wet or lid on if good consistency), until the beef is tender.
2.       Cool, then freeze in 6-8 portions in small food bags or plastic containers. Defrost in microwave or overnight in fridge, then heat in the morning and transfer to a thermos container, or heat in the microwave at lunchtime.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Buttercream

                I’ve just spent an exhausting week in Lithuania with my university music society – lots of sun, two brilliant concerts and rather more alcohol (and less sleep) than I’m used to! Needless to say, the closest I got to cooking anything was the occasional picnic lunch. However, I’m now staying at my parents’ house for a week before heading back to my own home and my new job, so I’m taking the opportunity to do some baking in my mum’s shiny, spacious kitchen.

                For a while now, I’ve wanted to try making swiss meringue buttercream. I’ve seen so many beautifully iced cakes which use it as their topping, and I love the silky, shiny look of it. But I’ve never actually seen in in real life. It doesn’t seem to be a big thing around my neck of the woods, and when I’ve baked in the past I’ve always stuck with plain buttercreams or occasionally ganaches. So now seemed like a good time to finally pull my socks up and give it a shot.

                Before making the buttercream, I needed a cake to put it on. Left to my own devises, I probably would have gone for something coffee or fruit flavoured, but as I’m at home I let my brothers have the last say, and the consensus was that a chocolate cake would be most appreciated. I’ve tried many chocolate cake recipes over the years, but have never found one that really stuck. I can’t decide exactly what it is I look for in a chocolate cake. I’m not really fond of those which are too dense and rich, but chocolate cakes which are too dry and light always seem a little inappropriate too.

   My usual approach to finding a new recipe is to browse the internet, but there are so many chocolate cake recipes online that it’s not really a useful place to look. Instead, I went back to the most basic cook book my mum owns – one I’ve always been very jealous of – her Reader’s Digest: The Cookery Year. It’s a brilliant book, covering everything from meats and fish to puddings, cakes and biscuits. Each section has a few detailed recipes than a lot of simple recipes that can be varied. And of course, there’s a chocolate cake recipe.

                The ingredients were pretty conventional: egg, flour, butter, sugar, cocoa powder. For the most part, the method is also pretty basic. The one unusual step – at least to me – was the suggestion that the cocoa powder be made into a paste with a little bit of water before being added to the cake. I did as instructed, adding a splash of strong coffee (because I think it brings out chocolate flavour in a cake) and was quite pleased with the result. The cake itself was moist and chocolatey, without being overpoweringly rich. The only criticism I had of the recipe at all was that it suggested baking the cake for 30 minutes – mine only needed 22 minutes, but that may have been because I split it into two cake tins to make layering easier.

                Cake finished and cooling, it was time to attempt the SMB (as I believe Swiss meringue buttercream is often referred to). I was a little nervous about this, and I have to admit that I made a couple of mistakes which probably nearly ruined it. But with a little help from Sweetapolita’s wonderful post (make that a lot of help!) it turned out exactly as I’d hoped, and complimented the chocolate cake perfectly. My first near miss was due to a scale meltdown: the kitchen scales decided to tell me that 230g of butter only weighed 140g, and had I not been suspicious about the fact that I’d finished up a pat of butter in one go, I could easily have wound up adding double the required amount of butter to my meringue mix. Luckily, I caught that one early! My second mistake was to misread 140F as 140C, and spend quite a while attempting to get my meringue mixture to reach twice the intended temperature (140F is about 60C…). Luckily, it never got above 75C anyway, and it didn’t seem to do much harm in the long run! I finished it off with the scrapings from a vanilla pod, producing a beautifully textured, delicious tasting, indulgent frosting I was happy to spread on my cake.

                Overall, I’m really quite happy with today’s experiments. The cake recipe is one I’ll certainly revisit, and it may even become a standard. The buttercream was easier and tastier than I had expected, and whilst it’s more time consuming that my standard icing recipe, it’s worth the extra effort for the smooth, buttery finish and the silky appearance. I can’t wait to try out other flavours in the future!

Reader’s Digest Chocolate Cake (from Readers Digest The Cookery Year)
4oz butter
4oz caster sugar
2 eggs
1oz cocoa powder
2tsp strong coffee
4oz flour
Pinch of salt

1. Beat the butter until it is soft, then add the sugar and cream the two until they are light and fluffy.
2. Beat the 2 eggs separately (I did this in a bowl with a fork - they only need to beaten enough for the yolk and the whites to be combined), then beat into the butter and sugar mixture, adding a little at a time.
3. Mix the cocoa powder with the coffee and enough water to make a thick paste. Gradually beat this into the other ingredients.
4. Fold in the flour and salt gently.
5. Place in your baking tins and bake for 22-30 minutes at 180C.
6. Turn out onto a baking rack to cool.

Swiss Meringue Buttercream - I followed Sweetapolita's instructions here, using the following volumes to make enough to ice and fill my small layer cake. 

2 egg whites
140g butter
100g caster sugar
1 vanilla bean

I had enough left over to cover an extra layer, or possibly to go around the outside, but I tend to be a little bit mean with my frosting...

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Lemon, White Chocolate and Blueberry Shortbread

                I’ve always loved being in the kitchen. I like cooking, but more than anything I like baking. I’ve been baking since I was little – I was making microwave cakes before I was 10, and my range has been increasing ever since. It took a back seat when I started university though: for a start, I didn’t have an oven in my first year. Then other things took over, which I may or may not decide to talk about at some point in the future.
                Suffice to say, I went from baking fairly often to hardly ever. But now life is taking a big change again – I’ve graduated and am starting work in a month, I’m moving house (again) and I’m working on some health issues. So I’ve decided that I’m going to add baking to that. It’s a hobby I used to love so it’s one I’m going to revive.

                New resolution made, the only thing to do was to decide on a recipe to try. Life has been a wee bit hectic with finals, results, moving and various summer trips, so I didn’t want to make anything too big, or which couldn’t be kept or easily shared. Browsing the (numerous) baking blogs I visit in my spare time, I stumbled across a recipe for Lemon, White Chocolate and Blueberry Shortbread on Piece of Cake, which you can find here. Its a combination of three things I absolutely love, with some healthy blueberries chucked in, so sounded perfect. I’ve been gradually accumulating the required ingredients over the past few days, and today I finally got around to baking them.

            The recipe is simplicity itself, and it doesn’t take long to mix the ingredients together into a gorgeous smelling (and tasting) cookie dough. The most time-consuming step is the chilling, with the recipe I used suggesting at least 3 hours in the fridge. When I do bake, I always chill my biscuit or cookie dough, but usually for no more than 30 minutes to an hour. I did check on these after an hour though, and they definitely needed more time to solidify, so I stuck with the recommendation. 

The other novelty in the recipe was the first step, combining the sugar and the lemon zest by hand. I’ve never seen this done anywhere else, but I think it did make a difference. The lemon flavour was spread much more evenly through the finished product, and was more prominent than I expected, which was a very pleasant surprise. I had fun rubbing the oily zest into the sugar until it was moist too – though I had to convince myself that the resulting mix really should go into my batter and not into my stomach! Still, I might make the sugar-zest mix as a filling for pancakes or puff pastry biscuits at some point in the future…

When it came to slicing the dough, I struggled a bit. My knife kept getting caught on chocolate chips and refusing to go through neatly. The cookies turned out slightly less regular than I’d hoped, and I think the error may have been mine. Seeing how much they spread out during baking, I’ve reached the conclusion that next time, the biscuit log needs to be longer and thinner, and the cookies themselves need to be cut a bit thicker.

Still, the end result was heavenly. A gorgeous lemony crumbly cookie with punches of white sugar and blackberry…this was always going to be a combination I’d love and it certainly didn’t disappoint! I’m usually pretty restrained about tasting things straight out of the oven, but one of these beauties crumbled as I was putting it on the cooling rack and it would have been silly not to put it out of its misery there and then!