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Every now and then, for a couple of days, or a week or two, I suddenly lose interest in food. I mean, I don’t lose my appetite. I still get hungry, but nothing holds much appeal. And I end up living on cheese on toast and apples, or junk food (cheese on toast and chocolate). Until I get my food mojo back again. This week has been one of those. Can’t seem to find any inspiration. Which is really a big bad pity, considering the brand new Ottolenghi recipe book sitting on the shelf waiting to be explored. Please will someone bring back my food mojo… or tell me what you do when yours goes missing…

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On some days…

A warm piece of baguette with butter and apricot jam is actually nicer than a croissant. Don’t know how it happens, but it does. Today was one of those days.

All done and pretty
All done and pretty

This is my first post as a Daring Baker!! To be honest, I thought I’d join this group for fun – hey, I like baking bread and cookies, and I know my way around a yeasted pastry recipe. No sweat.

This month’s challenge was hosted by Chris of Mele Cotte. When Chris posted this month’s challenge, I gulped a little. She chose the Filbert Gateau with Praline Buttercream, from Carol Walters’ Great Cakes. As I read the recipe, I realised: I am actually a Lazy Baker. Firstly, I tend to make and remake and remake recipes that I’ve known for years. Secondly, I tend to veer towards the easiest (read one-bowl) recipes, or to tweak recipes to make them as easy as I can get away with. Now, that’s not exactly Daring! Time to let the DB crew yank me up to a new level of Daring Bakery!!

This month’s challenge was a Filbert Genoise with Praline Buttercream. It’s not a cake I would ever have chosen to make: laden with buttery icing, heavy on piping, finicky with layers. But quickly it dawned on me: this is the point of a challenge. What’s the point of an easy challenge? I had to google filbert, and then come up with a plan for how to make such a thing whilst working around a 3-month-old baby.

What I learned:
– that you can bake around a 3-month-old baby… if you do it in stages and plan it carefully
– what a genoise is, and how you make one
– how to divide a cake into layers (different techniques for slicing it)
– what buttercream is, and how to make it – and how not to make it
– a little about how sugar melts
– how to pour ganache (a skill I shall be using OFTEN from now on!)
– how to set aside my qualms about complicated recipes and unbelievable fat content, and just enjoy making and eating something complex and gorgeous!

This is how…

7 July: Take Kolya for his immunisation shots. Discover we have half an hour to kill before the appointment. Walk down to Holland and Barrett and buy a load of hazelnuts. Only discover later that Sainsbury’s have much more reasonable hazelnuts.

Hot hazelnuts ready for rubbing


16 July: Toast the hazelnuts to have them ready for cake and praline making. I discover via the internet that the way to do this is to put them on a baking tray in an oven heated to 190 for about 10 to 20 minutes. Then throw the hot nuts into a teatowel and wrap them up for a couple of minutes before rubbing it all together to peel them. The best part is opening up the teatowel and rubbing hot hazelnuts between my hands to get the more stubborn skins off. Hot nut hand therapy.

17 July: Bake the genoise. Easier than I thought, and a great technique for baking a cake. I like cakes that involve melted butter. I only realise later, when the cakes are wrapped and frozen, that I was supposed to seal them with apricot glaze while they were still warm. Oh well. They’re in the freezer.

Operation genoise

Operation genoise

18 July: I make praline. I have difficulty not eating half of it. I can’t bring myself to blend the lovely crunchy hazelnut candy into a fine paste.

Melting sugar on a skillet

Melting sugar on a skillet

The heavenly smell of caramel sugar and warm nuts

The heavenly smell of caramel sugar and warm nuts

22 July: First buttercream disaster. The original recipe calls for a Swiss buttercream that needs to be beaten into meringue over bubbling water. I don’t really have the facilities for that in our tiny kitchen, so I find an alternative buttercream recipe at Zoe Bakes, a wonderful baking blog I find via the Daring Bakers Blogroll. Great texture, but it tastes like… butter. Only later, when I’m breastfeeding Kolya, do I realise that this is because I left out half the ingredients when I boiled the sugar. Instead of dissolving it with water and cream of tartar, I simply put the sugar in the pot and waited for it to boil. And am surprised when it turned into a thick toffeeish stuff that solidified on contact with the butter mixture. Oh, well, bung it in the freezer.

Can you see the solidified caramel on the side of the bowl?
Can you see the solidified caramel on the side of the bowl?

24 July: Second buttercream disaster. This time I make Zoe’s amazing buttercream again. This time, it tastes great, but the texture is…. cake batter. Oh well. Freezer.

26 July: Dani’s having some friends round for tea tomorrow. I’ve promised to bring a marvelous cake. I express enough breastmilk that Nik can feed Kolya all morning and all I have to do is make more buttercream and ganache and do some piping. It’s about 29 degrees Celsius outside.

This time I get the buttercream a bit more right – still not quite as glossy and stiff as I’d like, but a half hour in the fridge and more beating works a treat. Thanks to several useful videos from youtube, I have a sneaky plan for my ganache-pouring. I cover the cake in buttercream, refrigerate it, smooth the buttercream all over the place like Polyfilla, refrigerate it more. Then I flood the ganache with perfectly warm-but-not-too-hot ganache. It’s the most glorious moment.

The piping is less glorious as it starts coming out in unpredictable forms every time a bit of praline gets jammed in the piping nozzle. Sounds like most DBs had this problem, so I’m not particularly surprised, just relieved when it doesn’t make a total mess

27 July: Cake-eating day!

To my surprise the cake is delicious – not as heavy and dense as I expected, and the buttercream is lovely, not offputtingly heavy either.

Pretty inside too
Pretty inside too

Notes
The full recipe for the Hazelnut Genoise with Praline buttercream can be found here.

There were several rules about variations. For the most part I stuck with the original recipe. The combination of apricot, orange and hazelnut, with the dark chocolate ganache worked beautifully, I think. I used Cointreau instead of Grand Marnier, and as mentioned above, chose an alternate buttercream which I found at Zoe Bakes, although it was flavoured with the praline and liqueur, not with chocolate and coffee as in Zoe’s recipe.

Eat like an Egyptian

This post has nothing to do with breakfast and everything to do with the wonderful book that arrived at my door yesterday from Amazon: the recipe book from Ottolenghi. For a while, I’ve been wondering where to find a bit of new culinary stimulation. Most of my recipe books got left in South Africa, and after so many years as a vegetarian, I find myself a bit illiterate in the ways of cooking meat and chicken. Anyway, Nicole has been raving about the Ottolenghi book, so I sent away for that, and for Elizabeth David’s classic Italian Food.

So. The parcel arrived yesterday (“Another day, another parcel for Greenstein,” says Nik), and I discover with much pleasure that Nicole has not been exaggerating. You can just about smell the olive oil and garlic and cumin off the pages. I flicked it open to a random page and found a recipe for koshari. I have only ever eaten koshari in Cairo – at a street restaurant with a crowd of scuba diving mates; in a publisher’s office as a rushed order – in lunch with teachers and education officials, and in the desert midway along a horse ride to see the pyramids at night. Everything about koshari conjures up for me memories of Egypt.

Koshari vendors fill your bowl – first they pile it with a mix of rice, noodles and lentils, then scoop on spoonful of darkened onions – fried to somewhere between soft, crispy and slightly moist with rich olive oil, then top that with a bright red tomato-chilli sauce. Bowlfuls of crunchy tomato-and-cucumber salad and yogurt might get passed around as additions.

I didn’t get a chance to photograph it last night, so here’s a picture of the dive crew sampling it on the streets of Cairo.

Diving crew from Red Sea dive trip 2005

Diving crew from Red Sea dive trip 2005

Koshari

for main dish:

300 g green lentils
200 g basmati rice
40 g unsalted butter
50 g vermicelli noodles (I used spaghetti), broken into 4 cm pieces
400 ml chicken or vegetable stock or water
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
4 tbsp olive oil
2 white onions, halved and thinly sliced

for spicy tomato sauce:

4 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 red chillies, seeded and finely diced
8 ripe tomatoes, chopped (can be fresh or tinned)
370 ml water
4 tbsp cider vinegar
3 tsp salt
2 tsp ground cumin
20 g coriander leaves

1. Start with the sauce. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan, add the garlic and chillies and fry for 2 minutes. Add the rest of the sauce ingredients besides the coriander. Bring to the boil, then simmer for about 20 minutes til slightly thickened. Remove from heat, stir in coriander. Season to taste with salt, pepper, more coriander if you like. Keep it hot or leave it to cool – either will work with the hot kosheri.

(I used fresh tomatoes, and went for the cool option – weather too hot for hot-on-hot food!)

2. To make the kosheri, wash the lentils in a large sieve under a cold running tap. Transfer to a large saucepan, cover with lots of cold water and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat, simmer for 25 minutes. The lentils should be tender but far from mushy. Drain and leave aside.

3. In a large bowl, wash the rice in cold water. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add raw noodles, stir and continue frying and stirring til the noodles turn golden brown. Add the drained rice and mix well until it is coatedin the butter. Now add the stock or water, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, cover and then reduce the heat to a minimum and simmer for 12 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove the lid, cover the pan with a clean tea towel; this helps to make the rice light and fluffy.

4. Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan, add the onions and saute over medium heat for about 20 minutes til dark brown. Transfer to kitchen paper to drain.

5. To serve, lightly break up the rice with a fork and then add the lentils and most of the onions, reserving a few for garnish. Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly. Pile the rice high on a serving platter and top with the remaining onions. Serve hot with the tomato sauce.

Heavenly green

Nik says I just like getting parcels. He says that’s why I keep ordering stuff off the internet. Me, I say internet shopping is simply the bomb. You can spend as long as you like finding exactly what it is that you want, then buy it in a few minutes, and a day or two later it arrives at your door. So it was with my handheld blender. I was a little suspicious of it at first, as it came with about five different blades, so it wasn’t as straightforward as the Braun blender I was used to. But it’s won me over. And this, my friends, is because it can do what no man can do: it can blend up ice to a thick smooth crush.

I found this recip e at MadCapCupcake’s blog. Like her, I was a little tentative about the idea of a spinach smoothie. It sounds like something only hardcore vegans would like. And despite a foray into veganism some years ago, I no longer count myself among the ranks of what Anthony Bourdain calls “the hizbolla-like splinter faction of vegetarianism”.

So gone are my days of crushing linseeds to make egg substitutes and whipping tofu into sauces. Why, then, would I fill a cup with blended up spinach and ice? Only one, reason, friends, and I ask you to trust me on this one. It’s goddamn delicious. The spinach is mellow and sweet – even sweeter if you add banana as I like to do. Oh, and it uses up the glut of spinach from the allotment.

Spinach smoothie

a cup of spinach leaves, torn up

a few ice cubes

a banana

some milk, just enough to cover (dairy or soya, whatever takes your fancy)

You’ll need a blender that can crush ice. Blend it all up til it’s smooth and green. It will make you feel virtuous!

It’s never a good idea to go to a supermarket when you’re hungry. Chances are, you’ll buy much more than you need, and plenty that you don’t need at all… I do it regularly. So I was on my way back from the allotment one time, and passed the little superette along the way, and stopped (as I oh-so-regularly do) for some orange juice. And, well, maybe one of those nice pain-au-chocolat things that they do so very nicely for a supermarket in a crappy area. But to get to the pain-au-chocolat shelf, I had to pass that other shelf. You know – the one with the packaged biscuits and cakes and mini-rolls and stuff. And of course, I’d been working in the garden the whole morning, so a box of cupcakes by the so-called Fabulous Bakin’ Boys seemed like A Good Idea.

Ha ha. These guys ought to be called the Not-so-Fabulous Bakin’ Boys. Either that, or the boys had a really off day when they made these. The baked items in the box looked like little fairy cakes with a dark chocolate icing layer. Adorable, really, until you tried to eat them. Dried out, much-too-small fairy cake bit, and utterly unlickable chocolate layer on top. It resembled, uh, dark brown wax. An altogether depressing cupcake experience, and one that left me wanting the thing I’d imagined. Luckily the thing I’d imagined was all too easy to put together.

These are the cupcakes I made. The cake recipe is from Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess. I usually find Nigella a bit too AbFab for my taste, but Domestic Goddess does contain more than its fair share of classic recipes (if you have it, go get yourself some orange marmalade and a few slabs of chocolate and go make Store-Cupboard Chocolate-Orange Cake).

Nigella Lawson’s Fairy Cakes

(from http://www.nigella.com)

125g self-raising flour

125g caster sugar

125g soft unsalted butter

2 eggs

Half a teaspoon real vanilla extract

Approximately 2 tablespoons milk

1 x 12-bun muffin tin

12 muffin papers

Preheat the oven to 200C and line the tin with the muffin cases.

It couldn’t be simpler to make cup cakes: just put all the ingredients except for the milk in the processor and then blitz till smooth.

Pulse while adding milk, to make for a soft, dropping consistency, down the funnel. Or using a bowl and wooden spoon, cream the butter and sugar, beat in the eggs one at a time with a little of the flour.

Then add the vanilla extract and fold in the rest of the flour, adding the milk to get the dropping consistency as before.

I know it looks as if you’ll never make this scant mixture fit 12 bun cases, but you will. I promise you this mixture is exactly right to make the 12 cup cakes, so just spoon and scrape the stuff in, trying to fill each case equally, judging by eye only of course.

Put in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes or until the cup cakes are cooked and golden on top. As soon as bearable, take the cup cakes in their cases out of the tin and let cool, right way up, on a wire rack

For the chocolate topping, I just melted a slab of plain dark chocolate with about a tablespoon of butter to make it soft and glossy. Spread the cooled, melted mixture onto the cooled cupcakes.

A fine adulteration

Before I started this blog, I put a cooking-related post or two on my other blog. So, what follows is a copy of a long-ago chocolate brownie post. Because today I made the Moosewood Chocolate Brownies (recipe #3 below, and my abiding favourite). With one adulteration: the addition of cream cheese. I wasn’t sure what would happen. It turns out that the heavy chocolateyness and the pale, almost salty sourness of the cream cheese are a happy combination. Heaven. Also, today’s baking adventure really tested how forgiving Molly Katzen’s recipe is. Not only did I make a curdled mess of the butter and sugar mixture; I also somewhat burned the chocolate – and didn’t have enough time to let it cool before mixing it in. And you know what, the brownies were goddamn gorgeous, as Nikolai put it. The whole post follows below – scroll down to the bottom to find the Moosewood recipe.

So. Chocolate brownies. I’ve made a lot of these this year, in a variety of ways. The revelation about chocolate brownies was a thing I read by Nigel Slater, who points out that if you stick a skewer (or knife or whatever) in your brownies and it comes out clean, you have screwed it up. Really truly. Just start again. I mean, the thing in the pan might taste quite nice and chocolatey, but it will not have the magical squishiness of a true brownie, ok? Yes, you can redeem it with ice cream, but in the long run you’ll have to make more because the first lot won’t have fulfilled that special brownie thing you were after.

So in this post I’ll give you three brownie recipes, starting with the muddiest and richest, and ending with the lightest (though there’s nothing really light about any of these).
1. Nigel Slater’s recipe – the richest, darkest heaviest brownies imaginable. Closer to pudding than to anything like a chewy cookie.
2. A slightly cakier brownie – still rich and squishy, but closer to something you’d keep in a cookie jar (as opposed to the fridge).
3. Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Fudge brownies – a classic, that strikes a heavenly balance between lightly cakey and slightly chewy.

Nigel Slater’s brownies
(I can recommend Mr Slater’s fabulous article about these.)

300g golden caster sugar
250g butter
250g chocolate (70 per cent cocoa solids)
3 large eggs plus 1 extra egg yolk, beaten lightly
60g flour
60g finest quality cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder

You will need a baking tin, about 23cm x 23cm, preferably non-stick, or a small roasting tin.

Set the oven at 180°C/Gas 4. Line the bottom of the baking tin with baking parchment. Cream the sugar and butter well til it’s very, very white and fluffy.

Meanwhile, break the chocolate into pieces, set 50g of it aside and melt the rest. As soon as the chocolate has melted, remove it from the heat and let it cool a bit. Chop the remaining 50g into gravel-sized pieces.

Sift together the flour, cocoa and baking powder and mix in a pinch of salt.
With the food mixer running slowly, introduce the beaten egg a little at a time, speeding up in between additions.
Mix in the melted and the chopped chocolate with a large metal spoon.
Lastly, fold in the flour and cocoa, gently and firmly, without knocking any of the air out.
Scrape the mixture into the prepared cake tin, smooth the top and bake for 30 minutes. The top will have risen slightly and the cake will appear slightly softer in the middle than around the edges.Pierce the centre of the cake with a fork – it should come out sticky, but not with raw mixture attached to it. If it does, then return the brownie to the oven for three more minutes. It is worth remembering that it will solidify a little on cooling, so if it appears a bit wet, don’t worry.

The second take is a fraction less like chocolate pudding. When I say a fraction I mean a very small fraction.

Brownie recipe #2

340 g dark chocolate
250 g butter
3 eggs
250 g dark brown sugar
110 g flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 170°C and line a baking tray with baking parchment. Grease well.
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
In a small bowl or jug (or double boiler) melt the chocolate and butter together.
In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and slowly beat in the sugar. Beat in the flour mixture and lastly fold in the chocolate mixture. Scrape it all into the pan, and bake it for about 17 minutes, then keep checking every 3 minutes til it’s done just well enough to be midway between gooey and cakey. But not liquid.
Take it out and leave it to cool before cutting.

The last lot is Mollie Katzen’s recipe, taken from her lovely classic, “The Moosewood Cookbook”. She has a lovely blog which you can find here. I’ve been making these since I was 12 and I LURVE them. I’ve put the metric measures in though the original recipe is in non-standard and imperial measures.

Moosewood Fudge Brownies

Let soften: 1/2 lb. (250 g) butter (don’t melt it)

Melt: 5 oz. (150 g) bittersweet chocolate. Let cool.

Cream the butter with 1 3/4 packed cups (about 200 g) light brown sugar and 5 eggs. Add 1 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract. Beat in the melted, cooled chocolate and 1 cup flour.

Spread into a buttered 9 x 13″(23 x 33 cm) baking pan. Bake 20-30 minutes at 350 degrees (180).

Optional: chopped nuts, or 1 tablespoon instant coffee, or 1 teaspoon grated fresh orange or lemon rind, or 1/2 teaspoon allspice or cinnamon, or a mashed over-ripe banana, or none of the above.

Yet another option: instead of uniformly blending in the chocolate, you can marble it. Add chocolate last, after the flour is completely blended in and only partially blend in the chocolate. It looks real nice.

Cream cheese adulteration: When you are putting the batter into the pan, spread about half of it in first. Then slice in 200 g Philadelphia cream cheese in a layer on the batter, smearing it in a marbly effect if you like. I guess you could mix it into the batter for a more evenly marbled effect. In mine, the cream cheese sank to the bottom anyway. Then pour in the rest of the batter. I used low-fat, simply because that was in the fridge. Full fat would be, well, even better in the decadence stakes, or worse, in the heart-attack stakes. It really depends what your priorities are.

I hope you like these. I know I also have a recipe for vegan (!!) brownies somewhere at home in Cape Town – I will dredge it out and link it into this post soon.