Saturday 30 March 2013

Four Years

Today, Poires au Chocolat turns four.

To celebrate, I've decided to give out some presents. To thank you all for reading, for making my recipes, for the emails, the comments, the opportunities and generally being so enthusiastic and supportive (and because four is my favourite number).

I've picked the two things that I use every single time I bake: electric scales and high-quality heatproof spatulas. When I went to California last year, I packed my scales and two of these spatulas into my suitcase.

I am a big supporter of scales, metric and weighing ingredients for baking - and not just because I grew up with the system. If you're still not convinced, try reading this excellent post by Stella of BraveTart, or this article by Alice Medrich. As for the spatulas, a perfectly scraped bowl or pan makes washing up much easier and means you never waste mixture.

I wish I could send presents to all of you but four is all I can manage. But still - thank you. I genuinely wouldn't be where I am without your support.

How to get a present/the small print:

- This is open to everyone. I will post to anywhere in the world. You don't need to be a longtime reader or a regular commenter. I only ask that you genuinely want to use them.

- To enter the draw, leave a comment below (or, if you're reading this on email or a reader, click through to the post and leave a comment), telling me if you would like to receive the scales or one of the three spatulas. If you already have some scales, please let them go to someone who needs them (I hoard spatulas so you can have as many as you like). The draw will close at midnight GMT on Tuesday the 9th April 2013, ten days from today. I will randomly pick four people and email them for address details.

- To emphasise the fact that this is completely free of any links with the companies that make or sell these items, I've only shown them wrapped (and because it feels more like giving a present). I promise they exist. I went out to the shops and bought them with my own money and I will post them out of my own pocket too. Both are brands that I use everyday and trust to work for you too.

10/04/13: I have now closed the draw, randomly selected the names and sent out the emails... please check your inbox!


Finally, out of curiosity, who remembers the early days of this header? I found it in the depths of my filing system a few days ago.

Three more celebratory posts:
One year: Pear and Chocolate Loaf Cake
100 posts: Butterfly Fleur de Sel Caramel Cake
Three years: Poires Belle Helene

Thursday 28 March 2013

Lemon Posset: A Guest Post

Today my post is over on My Darling Lemon Thyme, a lovely Australian blog. Emma used to be a pastry chef and is now busy finishing off her first book and asked me to fill in for a week. Emma's blog is gluten-free (and mostly dairy-free, though my recipe didn't have to be). I kept clinging to awkward ideas, which caused quite a few kitchen disasters (part of the nightmare ten days I mentioned before). In the end I gave up on something new and tweaked and updated an old favourite.

So if you're interested in creamy, tangy puddings made with three ingredients, Shakespeare quotes, food history or want to check out My Darling Lemon Thyme, I suggest you click here.

P.S. There will be an exciting post coming your way on Saturday, so keep an eye out for that...

Three recipes from My Darling Lemon Thyme that I want to try out:
Spiced Orange Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Peach and Mulberry Cake
Strawberry Coconut Popsicles

Friday 22 March 2013

Hot Cross Buns v.4

If you flip to the 'Bun: Hot Cross Bun' entry in the Oxford Companion to Food, you'll find the idea that the Saxons ate buns marked with a cross in honour of Eostre, a goddess of light, and that her name was transplanted to the Christian festival of Easter.

It sounds fascinating. Yet the only vaguely contemporary mention of Eostre is in Bede's eighth century 'De temporum ratione' (a.k.a. The Reckoning of Time). Chapter 15 describes the Anglo-Saxon names for the months of the year - April is called Eosturmonath, after Eostre "in whose honour feasts were celebrated". Bede notes that her name has transferred to Easter, "calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance". (ed. Wallis, 1999). In this - the only mention of Eostre - there's no description of the contents of the feasts or of crossed buns.

As this is part of the time period I studied (though I really focused slightly later), this whole idea started nagging at me, especially when I saw how often it's repeated. Where did it come from?

According to the OED's etymology section for 'Easter', some scholars believe Bede made the goddess and the name connection up. I don't think I agree - it seems odd for Bede, a devout monk, a famous biblical scholar and a historian, to invent a claim that Easter had any association with paganism. We have a small number of surviving manuscripts from the period so it's perfectly feasible that other references were lost or never recorded. The OED's alternative claim for the history of the word sounds convincing - but that doesn't mean Bede made Eostre up.

During the conversion of the English, the Christians tried to adapt the existing structure of worship to the new religion. The idea of the transference or merging of a festival - and, within that, food - therefore seems possible. This concept of adaption and exchange is recorded in Pope Gregory's letter to Abbot Mellitus in 601, which was preserved by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History. Pope Gregory writes that they should not destroy the existing temples but clear them, destroy the idols and turn them into churches, so the people can worship at the place they are accustomed to. Instead of sacrificing oxen to their pagan gods, the people should kill the oxen for a Christian feast.

After all, "there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place, rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps." (ed. McClure, 2008).

Next, I had a look through my books on medieval food to see if I could find any relevant information. I couldn't find anything, so I sent an email to my beloved-tutor-now-friend asking if she had any ideas about where I could look. She pointed me towards the rest of chapter 15, where Bede mentions that Solmonath (February) "can be called 'month of cakes', which they offered to their gods in that month" (ed. Wallis, 1999). As the cakes were given as offerings to 'their gods' in general, Eostre was probably included. The division between bread and cake would not become clear for centuries, so it's not too much of a stretch to imagine the cakes were what we would call loaves or buns. But where does the cross come from? Did the buns become associated with Good Friday because of their existing cross or were they made to fit the occasion?

I haven't found the answer to the cross questions, but I think I've found the possible origin of the Oxford Companion's claims - an article in the New York Times from 1912, Who were the first to cry 'Hot Cross Buns?'. Along with the Saxon claims, it includes the Greek and Roman versions that the book mentions (that I haven't seen elsewhere), including the amazing note that two small loaves were found plainly marked with a cross in Herculaneum (destroyed and preserved with Pompeii in AD 79). It's worth noting that many people slash their loaves twice before baking them without thinking of the significance of the symbol - the bakers of Herculaneum or the Anglo-Saxons could have done the same.

I want to keep digging to find the answers (though, of course, it could easily be a figment of a long lost imagination), so - as with the recipe - I'll come back with any updates next year. I hope you don't mind me getting geeky about this (though I feel like I'm on slightly shaky ground - I know enough for it to be shameful if I get it wrong, but not enough to be sure of it). I love revisiting the buns every year, moving forward step by step, as Gregory advocates. Here are the other versions: three, two, one.

This year I have:
- Doubled the fruit and added some extra cinnamon.
- Decided to use dried yeast as it's easier to find (though you can adapt it back if you can get fresh yeast).
- Switched the water for milk and added a touch of extra liquid.
- Altered the cross mixture so it's a bit thicker, so they look a little bolder.
- Lowered the oven temperature a bit.

I also tried soaking the fruit in hot water (before I changed to milk) but I discovered that as it kneaded, the softened fruit was smashed into the dough until it basically disappeared. I've found that it can do this even without soaking, so for the buns in the pictures I tried kneading it on the machine until ready, then hand kneading the fruit in. I can't decide if half the charm of the buns is the way some of the fruit becomes part of the dough or not. I think I might try half at the beginning and half at the end next year.

Hot Cross Buns v.4
(heavily adapted from Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course)

For the dough:
225ml milk
50g unsalted butter
450g strong white bread flour
50g caster sugar
7g instant yeast
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
5 whole cloves, ground (optional)
1 egg, beaten
100g sultanas
100g currants

For the candied peel:
1 orange
1/2 lemon
100ml water
100g granulated sugar

For the crosses:
1 tbsp plain flour
2 tsp water

Pour the milk and butter into a small pan and place over medium heat until the butter melts. Turn the heat up until the milk starts steaming (this scalds the milk, which makes the dough softer). Pour into a bowl to cool (I often put it into the fridge to speed it up if I've already made the candied peel).

Use a vegetable peeler to take big strips of peel off the orange and lemon - try to have as little white on the inside of the strip as possible. Chop into 2-3mm little squares, stacking a few strips together for speed. Place them in a medium pan and add 3-4 cm of cold water. Bring up to a strong boil and let bubble for a minute or so until the water is bright yellow. Strain into a bowl, then add more cold water and the peels to the pan and repeat. Repeat for a third and final time, leaving the peel in the strainer. Throw out the bitter yellow water.

Combine the 100ml of water and sugar in the pan and heat on medium until the sugar has dissolved, swirling every now and again. Turn up the heat a little and add the blanched peel. Occasionally brush a little cold water around the sides to stop the sugar crystallizing. Let it bubble away until the peel is translucent, about 8-10 minutes. Let cool for five minutes then drain the peel off from the syrup, reserving both.

Sift the flour, sugar, yeast, cinnamon, ginger, salt, nutmeg and cloves into the bowl of your stand mixer (or a mixing bowl if making by hand). Stir the peel into the milk (this stops the peel clumping). Add the sultanas, currants, peely-milk (it should be around room temperature or less or it'll kill the yeast) and beaten egg into the bowl. Stir with a spoon until the mixture comes together. Attach the dough hook and knead for 6 minutes (if making by hand turn out onto floured surface and hand knead) until smooth and bouncy - it should pass the windowpane test. Place the dough into a big, lightly oiled bowl, cover with cling film and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled (usually about 1hr 15 mins in my rather warm kitchen - can be quite a bit longer if it's cold but time develops the flavour so don't worry - you can also leave it to rise in the fridge overnight).

Turn the dough out of the bowl onto a lightly floured surface. Cut the dough with a sharp knife into 16 pieces and place them under a sheet of cling film. Roll into balls one by one, keeping them under the cling film when you're not shaping (see v.5 for a video of the technique). Line a tin with baking parchment then arrange the buns on the sheet. Cover again with cling film and leave to rise for 45 minutes until puffy. Preheat the oven to 200C/390F.

Combine the flour with the water to create a smooth, thick paste (you may need to add a few extra drops of water) then scoop it into a piping bag. Unwrap the buns and pipe the paste over each bun in the cross pattern. Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown and hollow when tapped. Brush the reserved peel syrup over the buns then remove to a cooling rack.

Serve split, toasted and topped with lots of salted butter. They freeze very well - I usually split them with a serrated knife then toast from frozen but you can defrost them first too.

(Makes 16)

Edit 27/03/16: This year, I took out the cloves, which was good - less effort for no obvious loss. I've put them as optional above.

Three more recipes that use dried fruit:
Apricot & Fig Tea Loaf
Chelsea Buns
Fig & Hazelnut Crumble Bars

Thursday 14 March 2013

Caramelised Milk Chocolate & Espresso Shortbread

For the past ten days or so - ever since I got back to Oxford - I've been in the midst of one of those patches where every recipe I try seems to go wrong. It drives me up the wall (and, occasionally, drives tears down my face).

Earlier this evening I was reading The Year in Food when I came across Kimberly's description of weeks like these: "Where one week will feel smooth and productive, another will feel like I am trying to herd cats – the recipes are stubborn and lopsided and resist coaxing to the place where I’d like them to go." It inspired me to finally stop procrastinating and herd some words onto the screen.

To be honest, life seems to be full of herding unruly and unpredictable cats at the moment. One opportunity turns up, then disappears, then mutates, then another appears, changes, tangles, clashes and so on. Every opportunity I'm getting at the moment - both food and teaching related - is a challenge and seems designed to push me to my limits and out of my comfort zone.

I know that's a good thing and nothing makes you learn faster - but it doesn't make it any less dizzying or scary. Especially when everything is going wrong, the days are vanishing and the deadlines are looming.

Thankfully caramelised milk chocolate never seems to fail and this shortbread behaved itself impeccably three times in a row, like a little purring cat. Most of my recipes for this chunk of time seem to be finally coming into control too, perhaps taking note from these two.

Yet this obedient shortbread wasn't the first version of this post. My first idea was to make some viennese biscuits - you know, the ones that you pipe into nice shapes then dip into chocolate.

I couldn't find a trustworthy recipe to try out and surprise, surprise, the one I picked didn't go well. They literally resisted being coaxed into the right shape. I stood there squeezing and squeezing on the piping bag full of mixture, trying to make the dough come out. The piping bag became streaked with pale stretch marks but the mixture wouldn't budge.

In the end, I snipped the tip off and formed the biscuits by hand. Once baked, they were bland and boring. My guess is that getting it to a pipeable consistency that won't spread in the oven while maintaining taste is pretty difficult, so I shelved it for a later date. Do you have a good recipe for them? I'd love to know.

So, aware that I really needed something to just work, I went back to my Whole Vanilla Bean Shortbread and adapted from there. When I was tasting all the milk chocolate last week I kept thinking that coffee would go really well with it, so I flavoured it with espresso powder. I haven't tried it with real espresso but I imagine it would work too.

I also tried two more chocolates: Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Belgian Fairtrade Milk Chocolate (£1.39) and Tesco Finest 40% Cook's British Milk Chocolate (£1.28). Both worked well and were cheaper than all of the ones I tried last time. The Tesco one has a totally inexplicable but pleasant honey aftertaste.

I tried drizzling the biscuits with chocolate, spreading it on the bottom and sandwiching. The sandwiches won both on taste and because you can't see the chocolate cloud once it's cooled.

Finally, while I really like making the caramelised milk chocolate and I do think it's worth it, for this recipe I think you could just melt the chocolate and stir the pinch of salt through if you don't have time. It won't be quite the same but I think they'd still be delicious.

The light coffee and chocolate flavours remind me of opera cake - it's such a good combination. These are the sort of buttery biscuits that come in a fancy tin (though, made at home, they're a bit fresher).

Caramelised Milk Chocolate & Espresso Shortbread

For the chocolate:
100g milk chocolate*
pinch of fleur de sel or fine sea salt

For the shortbread:
100g unsalted butter, cold to the touch but not rock solid
50g caster sugar
1 tsp espresso powder
1/2 tsp boiling water
2 pinches fine sea salt
135g plain flour

For the caramelised milk chocolate, heat the oven to 120C/250F. Break the chocolate up and place in a small oven dish. Place in the oven and bake for 5 minutes, then take out and stir until smooth. Repeat every 10 minutes until it has been baking for 65. Stir in a pinch of salt then scrape into a bowl to cool.

Put the butter, sugar, combined espresso powder/water and salt into the bowl of a food processor. Blend until you have a smooth paste. Add the flour then blend until the dough forms clumps (you may need to scrape down once or twice). Tip out onto a sheet of baking parchment then form into a square. Roll out, turning the dough by a 1/4 between turns and trying to keep a square shape, until it is 3-4mm thick. Place on a tray and put in the fridge to chill for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 170C/340F to bake the biscuits. Lightly grease a baking tray. Trim the sides and cut into squares - I use the width of my ruler, which is 3.5cm, and cut along it for a straight edge. You should have about 26 squares with a few odd shaped offcuts (I had 7 partial squares last time). Place onto the tray and into the oven and bake for 9-11 minutes, turning the tray halfway through. Leave to cool for a few minutes on the tray then remove to a rack.

When the biscuits have cooled, pair them up according to size then sandwich them with the chocolate (you may well need to re-melt it to spread it - place the bowl over a pan of simmering water). They keep for a few days in a sealed tin.

(Makes about 13 sandwiches or 26 singles + a few odd shaped ones)

* I used about 60g of the milk chocolate to fill the biscuits but I haven't tested caramelising less than 100g. If you're not caramelising it, perhaps try melting 70g (for a little leeway).

Some more recipes that include coffee:
2009: Coffee and Walnut Cake
2011: Tiramisu
2013: Toscakaka (Caramel Almond Cake)

Thursday 7 March 2013

Caramelised Milk Chocolate

You've heard of caramelised white chocolate, right? It's been popping up all over the place since Food 52 posted about it a few weeks ago. I joined in and made Caramelised White Chocolate Éclairs filled with softly whipped cream. Just the memory of them makes me feel a bit weak at the knees.

One day when I was testing for the éclairs, I asked mum to get some extra chocolate from the shops. When she came back there was a bar of Frey Milk in amongst the selection, a sweet and creamy Swiss chocolate that she'd mistaken for a bar of white.

So, ever curious, I decided to see what happened if I applied the same process to milk chocolate.

For the first thirty minutes, nothing seemed to change. Then another flavour started to creep in, bit by bit. Once finished and cooled, it was quite different. It's not as big a change as with white, but I rather like it.

It's still sweeter and creamier than dark chocolate, but it's richer and more complex than usual. The difference is hard to describe - there's a touch of extra caramel, a bit of bitterness (even a touch of sourness in one of the chocolates I tried) and a roasted-coffee depth. The salt, as ever, heightens the flavours and takes the edge off the sweetness. Unlike white chocolate the colour doesn't change, though it does thicken a little. The flavour deepens as it cools.

I couldn't find much information on caramelised milk chocolate, though quite a few chocolate manufacturers talk of caramel notes and caramelised nuts are often folded through or paired with it (i.e. this is the first time I've ever googled an idea and not been able to find anything specifically about it. Cue shock and an uneasy feeling.)

In the oven it stiffens and the surface becomes rough, but it all smooths out if you work it with a spatula. You can see the difference the oven makes in this pair of photos (the first is after 5 minutes of baking, once the melted chunks - as above - have been stirred, and the second is after ten more minutes i.e. 15 in total):

Given all the talk about how you need to buy expensive, professional brands to make caramelised white chocolate (certainly never pick something conveniently from the supermarket), I thought it would be interesting to see what people thought of caramelised milk chocolate made with a variety of different brands.

I haven't organised a blind taste test since 2010. The first one I did was for chocolate hazelnut spreads, where I roped in four friends to taste Nutella, two other brands and a homemade version. Later in the year I organised a larger test for vanilla ice cream - four brands and two homemade versions tested by ten people. They're good, geeky fun - at least for me (though I've never had a complaint...).

So I persuaded five neighbours to come round and eat chocolate for me.

For the test, I tried six types of chocolate (the price is per 100g, calculated from the amount I paid):

Valrhona Jivara (£5.71)
Green & Black's Milk (£2)
Green & Black's Creamy Milk (£2)
Hotel Chocolat Milk 40% Cooking Chocolate (£1.87)
Lindt Excellence Extra Creamy Milk (£1.85)
Marks & Spencer Milk Chocolate (£1.49)

There were so many brands and types I wanted to try but in the end I had to stop somewhere (stirring every ten minutes, hour on hour, was messing with my mind). I tried to create a range of prices and cocoa/milk percentages. (As always, I bought all of the ingredients myself and do not have any links to any of the brands.)

The six were all baked at 120C/250F for 65 minutes, stirring after the first five minutes and then every ten. I used 100g of each, except for the Valrhona, which was 70g (due to the packet size). As I wanted to do two at a time, I used glass dishes as I don't have two appropriate metal dishes. A pinch of fleur de sel was stirred in at the end of the process, before it was all scraped into a numbered bowl and cooled. Once firm, I sliced it into squares for easier tasting.

I asked my testers to make comments (including on the suspected price) and then rank them. I then scored them so that their top choice received 6 points, the second 5 and so on. The result:

1 - M&S
2 - Lindt
3 = Hotel Chocolat
3 = Valrhona
4 - G&B Milk
5 - G&B Creamy Milk

As you can see, the rank is almost reversed in comparison with the price list. The Valrhona divided opinion, with two testers putting it last and the others ranking it highly (though only one placed it first). None guessed that it was the most expensive (I should note that if I had wanted to have a kilo of it, I could have reduced the price per 100g to £2.59). The G&B Creamy Milk behaved weirdly - it didn't seem to roast like the others and kept a milder, neutral flavour.

The amount of cocoa and milk didn't seem to make a huge difference. The M&S has 36% cocoa and a minimum of 26% milk, very similar to the G&B Milk (34%, min 25%), whereas the Lindt has 30% cocoa and a minimum of 20% milk.

The only ingredient that did make a visible difference was the amount of cocoa butter. The series of photos are of the Green & Black's Milk, which goes particularly thick when you roast it. Cocoa butter is the fourth ingredient in its list, compared with the fluid Valrhona, where it is the top ingredient.

Interestingly, the M&S chocolate lists 'caramelised sugar syrup' as an ingredient, which probably added to the effect. Other common flavourings included vanilla and malt (though the Hotel Chocolat has no flavourings, presumably as it's for cooking).

Obviously it's a small, imperfect test, but I think it shows that you can get a delicious result with a variety of chocolates. Perhaps it would have been different if I'd tried other brands or had a gathering of professional pastry chefs and world class chocolate experts around my table (but then when do I ever feed them?).

I think that the caramelisation and salt makes the most difference to the cheaper chocolates, where the conversion of the pure sweetness to a richer, deeper flavour is most needed.

So there you go. A little experiment. I'll be back next week with a recipe that uses some of my rather large pile of caramelised milk chocolate...

For the moment, my tip is to toss a few chunks into a mug then pour steaming hot milk over the top. Leave for a few minutes, then stir or whisk together. It makes glorious hot chocolate.

A few more recipes that use milk chocolate:
2009: Triple Chocolate and Pecan Cookies
2010: Milk Chocolate and Hazelnut Biscuits
2013: Champagne Truffles