Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Guild of Food Writers Awards

Last night I won the first Food Blog of the Year award at the Guild of Food Writers Awards party in London.

I can’t begin to describe what an honour it is. I never thought I’d win. I still can’t believe I have.

It was a lovely evening, filled with lots of familiar (mainly from book flaps and TV, I barely knew anyone) and new faces. It all seems like a dream. I even had to make a totally impromptu speech to all 330 people - hopefully I didn’t embarrass myself too much.

I don’t have any photos from the night yet so the photos are of my trophy in its home on my brand new mantelpiece. I had to polish it before I took the photograph as I stubbornly refused to put it down all evening (much to the despair of my wrists, it’s terribly heavy) so it was smeared with greasy canapé fingerprints and oh-god-I’m-nervous sweaty palms (I’m all about the glamour).

In case you’re interested (or are new to Poires au Chocolat– the last few pages of posts have been a bit different as I’ve been away), here are the five posts from 2011 that were under consideration by the judges:

Dusky Caramel and Raspberry Crêpe Cake
Apple and Quince Pie
Caramel Popcorn
Ginger Root Bundt Cake
Plain Scones with Clotted Cream and Raspberry Jam

There’s one more Foundations post to come on Friday – after that I’ll return to normal recipe posts.

Finally - thank you. I wouldn’t be where I am without my readers.

UPDATE: Here's a photo of me looking shiny (it was so hot that night) with Claudia Roden and Clare Blampied from Sacla (sponsors of the blog award) just after I'd won.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Foundations no.5 - Chocolate Ganache

Ganache is a great playground to experiment in. There are so many ways to personalize and adapt the technique.

The first way is to try different liquid combinations. The gratuitous food porn shot above features a coconut milk ganache. Then there's half cream and half crème fraîche in a white chocolate ganache. Spiced water in deep, dark chocolate sauce. A splash of buttermilk, a touch of tea. The different water and fat contents give a variety of thicknesses and flavours.

Play around with ratios and you can have a pouring sauce, a cake glaze, a slick icing, a truffle and many other things. Add more liquid to thin the mixture and more chocolate to thicken it (funnily enough). Keep the serving temperature in mind - ganache thickens as it cools. It's so versatile.

The flavour will, of course, also depend on the chocolate. I usually use the most expensive chocolate I can afford - but then on one occasion I tried a Dairy Milk & single cream ganache and was utterly addicted (try it in a small pot with a light sprinkle of sea salt). Rules are made to be broken.

In this example I used 150g dark chocolate (72%), 125ml of double cream, 25ml of buttermilk and 1 tablespoon of brown sugar.

There are two ways to incorporate the cream/liquid into the chocolate. The way I've always used - and the faster way - is to heat the cream and then pour it over chopped chocolate, as you'll see here.

At Cordon Bleu they used a second method where you incorporate warmed cream into already melted chocolate. This might betray a lack of sophistication but I couldn't tell the difference between the finished ganaches. Leaving the hot cream sitting over the chocolate for a minute means it starts to melt anyway (which takes the heat out of the cream - if you use melted chocolate the cream needs to be cooler) and means less time and washing up.

Prepare the chocolate and put it into a big bowl - the chunks need to be fairly small (as you can see a few photos above).

Put the liquid and any additions over a medium heat and stir together - usually any sweeteners will be added to the cream. I like a bit of brown sugar when I'm using cream. Heat it until it just starts steaming - I look for little wisps curling out from the edges.

Pour the liquid over the chocolate.

If you wanted, you could infuse the cream (or any other liquid you're using) with spices or other flavours, then strain it into the chocolate bowl.

Use a spatula to push any pieces of chocolate under the liquid that are still poking out. Leave to stand for a minute or so.

Start stirring the mixture in the middle, using small circular motions. At first it'll look like nothing is really happening (as above), but then a rich dark swirl will start to form...

Keep stirring, incorporating more and more of the chocolate into the cream.

I used to use a whisk to make ganache. I think it makes it slightly easier to get any last lumps out - but it does mean you incorporate lots of little bubbles. These are a pain for almost every application of ganache so now I use a spatula.

Keep stirring until the ganache is homogenous. It should be gloriously shiny.

Like custard and ice cream, ganache is an emulsion of fat-in-water. This is why it tastes so rich and creamy, even when you use water. It is also why it can start to split if you mistreat it. As you can see below, it can look a little dodgy around the edges but keep stirring. It should come together.

If it does split, heat a bit more cream up and add it in small amounts, stirring quickly as you go. It should emulsify.

Also, if there are still a few lumps of unmelted chocolate, pour some boiling water into the cream pot and set it over the lowest heat you can. Place the ganache bowl over the top and stir for a minute or two - if the heat is gentle it should melt the chocolate without harming the ganache.

At the end some recipes call for a bit of room temperature butter to be stirred in. I don't usually do this as in my mind it has enough fat already and doesn't make a huge difference. You can also add other things at this point - for instance I added the whisky to the ganache for my Beautiful and Damned Cake.

Cool the ganache a little (for instance if you're using it to ice a cake or pour over something) or a lot (if you're going to scoop truffles out of it).

Four recipes that use this technique:

Honeybee Chocolate Cake
Poires Belle Helene
Muscovado Truffles
Malteser Layer Cake


This is the fifth post of my Foundations series. The first post focused on rubbing in to make pastry. The second looked at brown butter, followed by a third on creaming butter and sugar and a forth about icing cakes. The next post, on the 1st of June, will focus on egg yolk custard.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Best of... Strawberry Recipes

As the glorious days of summer and strawberry season approach, I thought we could look over some recipes from the archives.

First, I had to mention my Wild Strawberry Custards or 'une douce pour l'été'. They're still one of the most delicious things I've ever made. My little baked custards (a Crème Brûlée base) were topped with a strawberry syrup and foraged wild strawberries - but you could use normal strawberries on top or try another small fruit.

Eton Mess is a British classic for a reason. Softly whipped cream, chewy and crisp chunks of meringue and ripe summer fruit. Simple is so often the best.

Last year I had a Strawberry Cream Layer Cake for my birthday. The fluffy layers of sponge are soaked in vanilla syrup and strawberry puree before being layered with fresh slices of strawberry and whipped cream. It's then iced with a marscarpone & icing sugar & puree frosting (the version pictured had a bit of extra whipped cream in it, so it didn't hold up as well as my second test). It's a perfect summer cake.

I was really surprised to find that Strawberry Frozen Yogurt has a much stronger strawberry flavour than normal ice cream. Definitely worth a try.

Two other recipes you could try - the unusual Pink Peppercorn Strawberry Ice Cream or the simply delicious Strawberry Meringue Cake.

Or, of course, you could just eat them out of the punnet or drizzled lightly with cream...


P.S. I'm sorry if this post appeared in your reader a few weeks ago then disappeared - I got confused and didn't schedule it for the right date.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Foundations no.4 - Icing Cakes

As a perfectionist, I struggle with icing cakes.

I can never get it absolutely spotless. There's always a slight line, a shallow hollow, an uneven surface or a bald patch caused by an overenthusiastic sweep. Sometimes I give in to the rustic look and swish and swirl the icing into patterns and loops - though, I have to admit, even then I'm always searching for the right look, the 'effortless' but pristine finish.

Even though I'm still never satisfied, I can tell that I've improved a lot over the past few years. A few simple tips and techniques can help to create a slick finish - and anyway (much to my continual surprise) most people don't notice the (glaringly obvious, horrific, can barely look at the cake anymore) flaws in my icing skills when I place a fresh cake on the table. I bet your friends and family are the same.

First cut four strips of baking parchment and arrange them on the plate, covering the edges. These stop the crumbs and drips of icing from marking the plate - even if you clean them off they tend to leave a smear.

Secure them by placing the bottom layer of your cake in the middle of the plate. Usually you reverse the cake so the bottom of the cake is at the top - it will be smooth and flat from the tin.

Add a big dollop of filling to the middle of the cake. Use a palette knife to spread the icing evenly over the middle and out to the edges. I often brush each layer with a bit of soaking syrup before I add the icing - this helps to keep the cake moist. You can also flavour the syrup for an extra boost.

Place the next layer on top, trying to align it with the first so it creates a flat surface. Sometimes I lightly score a vertical mark before I split the cake so I can align them perfectly when I reassemble it after filling. Repeat with any other layers, finishing with the smooth top.

Add another dollop of icing on top to start making a crumb coat. You don't need a huge amount.

The idea of a very thin coat is to secure the crumbs and create a smoother surface for the final layer of icing. It makes it easier to get a professional finish.

Use a palette knife to spread the icing over the top and down the sides. If you have a cardboard cake board the same size as the cake and put it underneath then you can lift it up - this makes the sides easier to ice, especially if you use a smooth diagonal downward movement. I didn't have a board so I couldn't show you this technique.

Run your spatula around the sides. Finish the top by pulling a spatula over the top in one sweeping motion, using both hands. When you're masking a cake confident, big sweeps give a better result.

I find that offset spatulas are easier to work with - I like to have a big one and a small one. They're the ones pictured here.

When you remove the paper slips - gently pull them straight out - you might need to tidy a flick or two. If you have the cardboard cake board underneath you can just set it down onto a clean plate.

I took a video of the final coat I put on the cake, which you can see below. I've only shown the crumb coat in the photographs as I didn't have two cakes to ice.

As you can see towards the end, my ganache started to deteriorate as I kept working with it. I had a bit of a dilemma at this point - most other icings can deal with more fiddling and finishing touches, so I kept going for a bit, then chickened out. I probably should have used a buttercream or something more stable to show you but this was the cake I had baked (it's the Peanut Butter and Chocolate Cake). So it's not quite as flawless as I'd like (perfectionism strikes again...) - but you can get the idea.

Four recipes that use this technique:

Rose and Pistachio Layer Cake
Butterfly Fleur de Sel Caramel Cake
Strawberry Cream Layer Cake
Buche de Noel


This is the fourth post of my Foundations series. The first post was on rubbing in to create pastry. The second covered brown butter. The third looked at creaming butter and sugar. The next post, on the 28th, will focus on making chocolate ganache...

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Foundations no.3 - Creaming Butter & Sugar

The creaming stage is often overlooked. It's not glamourous or innovative - it's been a basic baking technique for centuries. Yet it does make a difference.

Unless you have experience baking, it's easy to read 'cream the butter and sugar together' and think that this just means to combine them quickly. I only realised quite how long you should beat the two together when I started baking seriously - my mum, though an excellent cook, never had much patience for creaming.

To cream butter properly, it needs to be at the right temperature. Recipes normally call for room temperature butter, expecting you to plan and remember to take it out early. I almost always forget (possibly because when I was taught, mum always used from-the-fridge butter, so it's not etched into my routine).

Microwaving and other shortcuts often melt the butter on the outside or make it oily. There's only one tip that always works for me, which is to use the method for plasticizing butter for puff pastry and other doughs.

I prefer this to chucking the butter into the mixer on its own for a minute or two before you start - but that is another option.


1/ Get a sheet of baking parchment and lay it on a work surface. Cut your butter into slabs (about 1 cm thick) and place them on the paper with a bit of a gap.

2/When you've arranged your butter, fold the paper over it, making sure you leave space all around.  Grab something to bash with. A rolling pin is perfect but if yours has disappeared into thin air like mine, try a roll of tin foil or anything similar.

3/ Start whacking the butter (not too hard or the paper might split). It will spread out - you want to get it quite thin. (If you wanted to use this for making puff, you'd now need to roll it to make it perfectly even, but we don't need to).

4/ Touch the package. If it still feels very cold, hold it between your palms and let your body heat warm it a little. You don't want it too warm or oily - just malleable. Unwrap from the paper and place in the mixer bowl.

Bonus = you can use the buttery paper to grease your cake tin.

Add the sugar to the butter in the mixer bowl (beat the butter briefly by itself first, if you haven't bashed it). Put it onto the machine with the beater attached.

In this example I used 100g of butter and 100g of granulated sugar.

Beat on medium speed - the two will clump up as they start to combine. Keep beating.

I used to cream butter with the whisk attachment but now I think the beater gives a better result. If you don't have a stand mixer the whisk sticks on a hand beater work. Or, if you have very strong arms and a lot of time, you can attempt it by hand with a wooden spoon.

It will start to stick to the sides and as it comes together. Eventually it'll be spread evenly over the bottom of the bowl, as below. Keep beating - this usually takes four or five minutes at least.

Make sure you keep scraping the sides down to bring everything into the middle.

I stop beating once the mixture has visibly thickened on the side of the bowl (in volume not texture). It looks puffy and leaves a droopy peak when you scoop it up.

Keep in mind that creaming isn't just combining the ingredients - you're trying to create tiny air bubbles. The sharp edges of the sugar crystals cut into the fat to create the little pockets - this only works if the sugar is crystalline (i.e. caster sugar instead of honey). Chemical aeration helps give lift but the creaming is still important to give a great rise and texture.

The samples start from the top left and swing round. As you can see, the mixture goes from very solid at the top to fluffier. The colour changes from pale yellow to cream or ivory - obviously only if you're using white sugar, if you're using brown sugar it just gets paler. If I had used caster sugar instead of granulated, it would look smooth instead of grainy.

Some biscuits and cookies require a shorter creaming time, though they use the same method - for instance,  Triple Chocolate and Pecan Cookies.

Usually recipes now call for the eggs to be added. To avoid the mixture splitting (and ruining all your creaming volume), beat the eggs together first and add them slowly, beating well between each addition (it needs to be totally incorporated). If you're worried about it splitting, add a tablespoon of flour from the amount used in your recipe. Don't add too much, though, as the gluten in the flour will start to form and toughen the mixture if you keep beating it. If it does split, don't cry - the cake should still taste delicious.

To give another example, I took a photo of the creamed mix for the Peanut Butter Cake. This was a combination of peanut butter, butter, caster sugar and soft brown sugar - so quite a different mix. As you can see, it fluffed up nicely - look at the little peaks created by the beater.

Four recipes that use this technique:

Blueberry Loaf Cake with Lemon & Mint Syrup
Coffee and Walnut Cake
Spiced Apple Cake
Espresso, White Chocolate and Rose Cake


This is the third post of my Foundations series. The first post was on rubbing in to create pastry. The second looked at brown butter. The next post, on the 20th, will focus on icing/masking cakes...

Friday, 11 May 2012

Best of... Ginger Recipes

Ginger is one of my favourite ingredients to bake with. As well as the traditional powdered ginger, I love using the fresh root, infusing it into syrups and grating it into pies and jam. When you add stem and crystallized ginger to the mix, you've got a party.

One recipe that uses three types of ginger is the utterly divine Ginger Bourbon Pecan Pie. The multiple punches create a deeply nuanced pie.

I am addicted to ginger biscuits. The Gingernuts below, Ginger Oats or even Ginger, Orange & Chocolate Biscotti - I don't care. They're all amazing.

All I need now is someone to solve the mystery of why gingernuts increase in ginger-power when dipped in tea...

Though it started off as a random experiment, Ginger and Apple Jam has become a staple in our family. It's very easy to make and stores brilliantly. The apple flavour appears first, followed by the kick. It somehow feels clean and fresh. (I sound like a toothpaste advert. Error!)

Though the shock-factor ingredient in the Ginger Root Bundt Cake is the parsnip, the ginger (stem and ground) makes the cake. I used a lemon drizzle because the flavours work brilliantly together (see also the Lemon, Date and Ginger Cake). It tastes like dark, nutty gingerbread.

Finally, you could go back a few years to the Blueberry and Ginger Layer Cake I made for mum's birthday. I infused a simple soaking syrup with slices of fresh ginger then brushed it over rounds of plain sponge. The cake was then layered with a blueberry compote and covered with a ginger cream cheese icing and fresh blueberries.

Though I was worried that I could never improve upon chocolate as the flavour choice for her cakes, ginger proved me wrong.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Foundations no.2 - Beurre Noisette

Beurre noisette is a way of life. Once you've started, you can't stop.

I keep trying to simply melt the butter but somehow I always give into temptation. Before I know what's happened my kitchen is swirling with the heavenly smell of toasted hazelnuts.

My name is Emma and I am a brown butter addict.

There's something magical about making beurre noisette. Of all the baking processes I've tried, this one has captured my heart.

Maybe it's because it represents a rare still moment in the kitchen. There's no need to touch the pan, it develops in its own time and you can't do anything but stand there watching carefully, enjoying the show.

I've also wondered before if it's because it engages so many of the senses. It changes before your eyes, developing almost like a polaroid picture. It crackles loudly as it transforms. Sometimes it spits and you feel a tiny pinch on your hand or arm. The smell is one of the most divine I've encountered in the kitchen. And, of course, it tastes spectacular.

I first discovered brown butter when making Joy the Baker's Brown Butter Blueberry Muffins. I remember being nervous and unsure of what was happening - what was this noise? This smell? Why is it foaming? What colour should it be? Was I doing it wrong?

It's a simple process but I thought it was worth showing the various stages that the butter goes through as it heats so you don't worry if you've never made it before. There's only so much you can do to describe it mid-recipe.

(This is the point that I get rather red-faced at the fact that I hadn't properly wiped the dust off the hob before I started...)

First, take your unsalted butter and add it to a pan over low to medium heat. The quantity pictured is 50g.

I often use a small saucepan but some people prefer a wider frying pan or skillet - I haven't noticed any difference. If possible, use a pan that has a light colour inside so you can see what's happening.

The butter melts into a yellow pool.

Once it has melted, you can see the milk solids floating in the butterfat. The milk solids are the part that toasts to create the characteristic flecks in brown butter.

Slowly, then faster and faster, it starts to bubble. At this point the water is evaporating from the pan - this has to happen so the fat can reach high enough temperatures for the solids to brown.

I took a short video of my pan at this point. I've uploaded a tiny clip so you can hear the crackle and watch it bubble:

Eventually the bubbles get smaller and turn into a foam. It slowly stops crackling and the wonderful nutty smell gets stronger - it's named beurre noisette because the smell resembles toasting hazelnuts.

Keep cooking until you have the colour you desire. I like my brown butter toasty with fairly dark brown flecks but you can pull it off a bit before - but make sure it's a deep golden amber with visible specks before you do. You may have to sweep back a little of the foam to see what is hiding underneath.

At this point you need to take it off the heat and pour it into a bowl to stop the cooking. If you're nervous, it might be worth putting the bowl in the fridge so it stops very quickly or dunking the pan into cold water (though if you have a heavy pan like mine it would take ages for it to cool down so the cold bowl is better).

It will eventually solidify, though it stays liquid for quite a long time at room temperature. It keeps well in the fridge. I usually make it as I need it but you can store it in bigger batches if you like.

You can also strain out the toasted milk solids if you like. I always leave mine in - if you tip the bowl you can see them at the bottom (as below).

I should probably note that - shock horror - people often use it outside baking, in sauces and so on.

Finally, if you want to know how many grams of brown butter you'll get from solid butter, look on the pack for how many grams of fat is in 100g - it's usually about 80 to 83g. This will be the amount you're left with when the water has evaporated and the butter has browned.

18/01/13 - I've also written out a formula to work out how many grams of solid butter you need to replace a volume of oil with brown butter on my Brown Butter Pound Cake post.

Four recipes that use this technique:

Dusky Caramel and Raspberry Crêpe Cake
Banoffee Pies
Almond Financiers
Toasted Coconut and Dark Chocolate Blondies


This is the second post of my Foundations series. The first post was on rubbing in to create pastry. The next post, on the 16th, will focus on creaming butter and sugar...