Monday, 31 August 2015

My GBBO Challenge #4: Crème Brûlée

OCD Panic Rating: 1/5
Handwashes: 1

It was a sad moment when we had to say goodbye to the hilarious Sandy on this week's episode.  Where some contestants seem to take themselves oh-so-seriously, she had a sense of humour (and sense of perspective) about the whole thing.  However, her crème brûlée was just custard.  She had to go.

I felt a serious sense of dread whilst watching as each challenge seemed more difficult than the last.  Mary's meringue technical challenge was a real horror, leaving me doubtful if I was going to be able to make any of this week's recipes.  I decided that crème brûlée was my best bet, although Google's results seemed to bring up some fearfully tricky versions as well.  Despair!  Then I found this on the BBC Good Food page.  It's a suspiciously simple recipe for white chocolate crème brûlée, one that seemed both delicious and manageable.  The challenge was set, but would my brûlée be?

Just to demonstrate how unprepared I was for this, I had to go out and buy ramekins before starting. I tend not to make desserts because I'm not a dinner party person and most recipes are hard to cut down for two people.  This recipe was simple to halve, making four individual portions that would make tasty puds for two nights.  Result!

In terms of the cooking, it was as easy as it sounded.  The chocolate and vanilla (I used vanilla bean paste) melt into the cream, then the egg yolks and sugar are added.  I don't have an electric whisk so I had to beat the yolks by hand until pale.  It was not an easy task, but I like to think that the calories burnt made up for the ones I was about to eat.  Once the custard was made, I poured it into the four ramekins, baked it until just set, then put into the fridge to chill.  Judging the wobble is genuinely tricky.  I cooked them for longer than recommended because it seemed too liquidy when I first checked.  After an additional five minutes, they gave a slight shudder when I moved them, and I decided (based on very little) that this was what I was looking for.  They had a nice look to them:

When it came to caramelising the top, I had a few reservations.  This was my first time using the new grill and I had also never used a grill in this way before.  I think this caught me out.  Maybe they weren't close enough to the grill so I had to leave them under a bit too long, meaning the set custard melted back into its liquid form.  The caramel cracked beautifully though, and it looked very tempting:

The taste was fantastic.  The vanilla and white chocolate weren't overpowering but added a subtle flavour to the custard instead.  It was light but rich, and intensely satisfying.

Based on the mistakes of the previous night, I tried to do the caramel top a different way with the other two.  I put two circles of sugar on baking paper and put them right under the grill.  This did make circles of caramel - one burnt, one perfect.  However, it almost set the kitchen on fire too.

We just ate the set custard straight from the fridge instead, and I can happily state that it had a wonderful velvety smooth texture.  It was maybe a smidgen less firm than it needed to be, but it was a better result than I had expected.  A simple and enjoyable recipe that I think I can master with a little more practice.

Key Points:
  • Test the grill on something less critical before trying to make a crème brûlée under it.  Toast, maybe?
  • Baking paper can cope with some pretty high temperatures, but everything has its limit.
Win Rating: 3/5.  I'm predicting a 4 or 5 next time.

Monday, 24 August 2015

My GBBO Challenge #3: Soda bread

First of all, as of Monday 24th August, I still weigh 11 stone.  I'm nothing if not consistent.

Now, to the fun stuff.

Apparently, Mary Berry gave away that Dorret was leaving GBBO this week, taking some of the tension out of the episode.  However, it had been on the cards since the beginning, with Dorret struggling throughout.  This week, it was her showstopper that really failed to impress.  Considering she hadn't even bothered to practise it, I don't think there was much of a surprise even before Berry's blunder.

The signature challenge this week was to make a quick bread.  As it's without yeast, it doesn't have to be proved or kneaded in the same way as normal bread.  I'd never made soda bread before so I turned to the original GBBO tie-in book for my recipe.  It's only got four ingredients and requires little more than mixing together, so I went in feeling confident...

OCD Panic Rating: 1/5
Handwashes: 1

Sieve together some flour, bicarb and salt.  Make a well.  Add buttermilk.  Mix.  Make a vaguely loaf-shaped object.  Put it on the baking tray, score the top, and bake until yummy.

It really is that simple a recipe.  Considering I only needed four ingredients, I did manage to mess up 25% of them by not having table salt.  I tried to grind up some rock salt but it wasn't quite what I was looking for.  No matter.  I followed the recipe and had a ready-to-bake dough like this within about seven minutes:

Based on what they said on the show, I scored quite deep in the hope of getting a good bake throughout the loaf.  My dough wasn't quite as sticky as some that the contestants made but it felt too late to add any extra buttermilk.  I decided to try the bake as it was, putting it in for about 35 minutes.  When it first came out, it didn't sound hollow when I knocked it, so I gave it another five minutes.  It still didn't sound quite right but I didn't want to risk it burning, particularly as the edges were already nicely brown:

Slightly weird turrets on the corners but a well-risen loaf otherwise.  

I can't resist freshly-baked bread so I cut into this as soon as it was cool enough to handle.  Turns out my concerns about the bake were justified: it was slightly underdone in the middle.  The texture was fine otherwise, but the very centre was a bit doughy where it hadn't fully baked.

On the positive side, it had a pleasant taste and the crust was perfectly cooked.  Some soda breads can taste too heavily of bicarb, but I think I got away with it.  I ate a slice (or 3) with soup for lunch, and it was a really excellent accompaniment to it.  Considering the whole bake took less than an hour, I can see why this is such a popular bread.

Key Points:
  • Trust your ears.  If it doesn't sound hollow when you knock the base, it probably needs longer.
  • Rock salt is great in cooking, less so in baking.
Win Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

My GBBO Challenge #2: Biscotti

OCD Panic Rating: 1/5
Handwashes: Um, loads.  And I had to change my top.

Watching GBBO this week, I learnt a couple of things about making biscotti.  First, you want to let the biscuits cool sufficiently after the first bake so that they won't entirely crumble when you cut them.  Second, using cocoa makes it a lot harder to judge visually if they are undercooked, overcooked, or just right.

Two things about my biscotti.  First, I'm not very good at waiting for things to cool.  Second, I chose to use cocoa.  So there's that.

My biscotti from this Good Housekeeping book use cocoa, chocolate chips and pistachios for flavour.  The theory behind the recipe is pretty simple.  You throw together the dry ingredients, then the wet, then combine the two into a thick dough.  A really thick dough.  It took me about twenty minutes to shell a sufficient number of pistachios, and then it took another ten minutes to form the dough.  The recipe suggests that you don't need to get your hands dirty for this bit, but I saw no other way to do it.  I got elbow deep, smooshing it all together until I could form it into the flattened log shape.  I'm not good at judging the size of these things, and I think one was clearly better formed than the other.  I persevered though, and bunged them into the oven.  

I then spent a chunk of the cooking period washing my hands, cleaning all the gunk from under my fingernails, and changing my splattered shirt.  My OCD over eggs has all but gone thanks to the amount of baking I've done this year but there was no denying that I was a serious mess.  

I followed the time guide in the recipe and took the biscuits out after about forty minutes.  They had enlarged slightly but I think I may have flattened them down a bit too much.  The size discrepancy was more obvious now too:

The recipe said that ten minutes would be enough time to let them cool before cutting.  It was not.  The first log cut into about ten blobs of biscuit, with numerous broken corners and offcuts that I just dumped back on the baking tray.  I left the second log a bit longer and it cut a lot better.  I still didn't get the fifteen identical pieces from it but they held together much more promisingly.  After an additional fifteen minutes in the oven to crisp up, they looked like this:

I'm not going to win any approval from Paul and Mary for the regular appearance of the biscotti.  However, I think they would approve of the taste and the crunch.  They have the brittle texture of proper biscotti and a lovely chocolatey flavour.  The pistachios are a bit overwhelmed by the chocolate chips and cocoa, so I would probably alter the ratios a little if I made these again.  Otherwise though, they make a good biscuit and an excellent teatime treat.

Key points:

  • If it says to cool them for fifteen minutes before cutting, double it just in case.  If they are too warm, you've got no chance of getting them neat and regular.
  • Wear an apron.

Win rating: 4/5.  They're great biscotti but I still prefer the texture of a normal biscuit or cookie.

Monday, 17 August 2015

A bake-off and a weigh-in

A bit of a shock this week on Great British Bake Off, as last week's star baker Marie was sent packing after three decidedly ordinary bakes.

She shall be missed, mainly because of the amazing faces she pulled each episode.  I too have a face that expresses every fleeting thought and passing fancy: it can be a burden to live with but is always good for a chuckle.  There had been some controversy after it emerged that Marie had received a small amount of training in the past, with some questioning whether this meant she should be excluded from the competition.  It sounds like a mountain from a molehill to me; either way, it certainly didn't help her this time.

Anyhow, this week's challenge was to bake biscuits, which is generally an easier proposition than baking the perfect cake.  The judges upped the ante by requiring the contestants to make a literal box of biscuits, with very mixed results.  Alvin overstretched himself but produced beautiful brandy snaps to secure his return next week, while Flora had created something very impressive that managed to crack in half at the last minute.  Trust me, I could do no better.  

My GBBO challenge this week is to make the twice-baked coffee accompaniment of biscotti.  I've turned to a Good Housekeeping book for the recipe and plan to follow it in all its glory tomorrow.  I quite like this book as it has recipes ranging from the stupefyingly easy to the 'not in a million years' hard.  These biscotti should be on the easier end of the spectrum, as long as I can fight my inner nature and allow them to cool properly after the first stint in the oven.  They warned on GBBO that trying to cut the slices before they have cooled down is likely to cause them to crumble and split, but I always want to go ahead with the recipe straight away.  It's why my icing ends up pooling around the cake rather than sticking to it.  At least I know my weakness and can try to tackle it.  Results to follow.

Speaking of results, let me mention that, as of Monday 17th August, I still weigh 11 stone (69.9 kg).  In a world of so much baked temptation, I thank the Lord for gyms.

Monday, 10 August 2015

My GBBO Challenge #1: Madeira Cake

First of all, Monday's housekeeping: as of Monday 10th August, I weigh 11 stone (69.9 kg).

There's not much more to say on this topic, so I'm going to keep myself accountable by posting my weight each week but without the longer post.  Now that my weight is down to a manageable and maintainable level, it's just a case of plodding along, making sure I behave myself after any indulgences.  Not the stuff of an exciting post.

Now, to the cake!

OCD Panic Rating: 1/5
Handwashes: 2

I mentioned last week that I was going to try to focus my baking using challenges from this year's series of The Great British Bake Off.  Having never made a Madeira cake before, this seemed like a good starting point, particularly as the original tie-in book had a simple-looking recipe for it.

The recipe really is simple.  There are very few ingredients as the flavouring comes from the addition of a small amount of  citrus.  I used lemon for this, but I get the impression from GBBO that you can get away with other flavourings.  The trick with this cake comes from the order in which you add the ingredients and the extent to which you mix them.  Starting with whipping the butter a little, you then add the sugar and cream it until it's got a light, fluffy texture.  I don't have an electric mixer so I burnt off some cake calories by hand at this point.  Then you add the lemon zest, juice and the eggs individually (my OCD handwashes occurred here), followed by the rest of the dry ingredients.  The recipe warns that you don't want to overcombine here.  You need to gently fold the ingredients until there are no longer any streaks of flour, but no further.  I suppose this is because a Madeira cake already has quite a close texture; if you overmix the batter, you lose all the air and the lightness of the cake with it.

After I had combined everything, I had a batter that looked like this.  It's not too clear from the picture but the mix is quite firm, much more doughy than the usually loose cake mixes I've worked with.  Undeterred, I moved the batter into the prepared loaf tin and put it in the oven for half an hour.  After half an hour, based on the cookies I made last week, I turned the cake around to make sure that the bake was even.  The recipe suggested putting a couple of strands of lemon peel on the top of the cake.  I did not.  I will never be an aesthetic baker (my showstopper challenges would be brutal).

I gave the cake about an hour, until it was firm to the touch.  It came out of the oven with a big crack across the top, just as they had wanted in the show.  I left the cake to cool fully in the tin before revealing my creation to the world.  It looked something like this:

You can just make out the distinctive Madeira texture.  Even though it has quite a dense crumb to it, it is still light.  The lemon flavour doesn't come through straight away, instead hitting the tongue at the end of the bite.  The only minor complaint is that there are a couple of pockets of salt and baking powder in the cake.  You have this lovely mild flavour then get hit by an offputting sting of salt.  I think this is because the dry ingredients are only lightly mixed into the wet ingredients, so they don't disperse as fully as they do in a more heavily mixed cake.  It's definitely worth sifting the dry ingredients together and mixing them fully before you put them in the batter.  That should be enough to spread it all around.

Only a small issue though.  Overall, it was an easy cake to put together, producing a bake that goes beautifully with an afternoon cuppa.  Compared to the bold flavours of a chocolate or coffee cake, it seems very refined and delicate.  A real taste of what Great British baking is all about.

Key points:

  • The order of ingredients is important here.  You can often get away with chucking loaf cake ingredients into the bowl all at once: do that here and the texture will suffer.
  • Mix those dry ingredients well.  Sift them together, mix them, then sift them again, to avoid those pockets of sharp flavour.

Win Rating: 4/5.

Friday, 7 August 2015

My Great British Bake Off

GBBO6-The Bakers
This year's crop of bakers
Yay, it's back!

I was a bit late to the party with The Great British Bake Off.  Whether it was the twee look of the show or the fact that everyone seemed to be watching it, I was resistant to the idea of the show for many years.  Then, about six months ago, I was stuck at home, poorly and bored.  There wasn't much on TV, but one of the food channels was showing old reruns of Bake Off.

So I watched one.

Then I watched another.

And another.

Then it was about four hours later and I was utterly hooked.

There is something rubbish about it.  The way the competitors get so absurdly upset about a 'soggy bottom', Mel and Sue's innuendos, the whole idea of watching people bake for an hour.  But it is compelling and, as a keen amateur, I have learned some useful tips for getting the most out of my baking.

This next paragraph contains spoilers from the first episode.

The trouble with the early episodes is that there are a lot of bakers so less time is spent with each person or looking at their bakes.  Stu was always going home.  He must be a strong baker to have made it into the tent but nothing was going his way.  Fail of the week though had to be the layers of mousse disintegrating in Dorret's black forest gateau.  I think even I might have cried if that had happened.  The three early standouts were Nadiya, Tamal and star baker Marie, but there's plenty of room to mess up still.

Spoilers endeth here.

As a tribute to GBBO, and also as a way to stretch my baking skills, I'm going to try and cook one of the recipes from the show each week.  As I've made a walnut cake and a beast of a black forest gateau before, I'm going to try out a madeira cake this time.  In fact, I'm going to use a recipe from the tie-in book itself, so it must be good.

I'll post up the results of these experiments as they go.  I'm already dreading French patisserie week...

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Delicious irony (mmmm, irony *drools*)

Homer Drool1003 -  DELICIOUS IRONYThis week, I've been to the gym twice and have eaten such homemade delights as stuffed mushrooms and aubergine and mince bolognese.

This week, I've also developed one stinker of a summer cold.

I thought it was just a resurgence of my hayfever but the lethargy and achiness I'm feeling suggests otherwise.  I did spend the other night in an absolute sweatbox watching Less Than Jake play, so I'm assuming that was a contributing factor.  Totally worth it, but a nuisance when I was working both days following.

It's far from the end of the world; it just feels ironic that this bug should strike at a time when I'm probably treating my body better than I have for the past month.  Two weeks ago, I spent an entire day soaked to the skin in London after getting caught in an epic rainstorm and I suffered no ill effects at all.  This week, I work out more and eat out less and this is when I get poorly.  How unreasonable.

The positive news is that my new home seems to encourage me to walk more.  There are lots of things to see and do within walking distance and I also have a longer walk to get to and from work, meaning I spend a good deal of my day on my feet.  My legs have been a bit stiff and I've been quite tired as a result but I know my body will adapt to it very quickly.  I've had to leave the house whenever I've wanted to use the Internet, meaning more steps (and more coffeeshop tea!).  We also have not got a sofa yet for the new place, a situation that has definitely led to me spending less time sat down.  Our dining chairs are comfy enough but not the kind of seats you want to watch a film on.  

Maybe that's my advice for the week: if you want to sit down less, get rid of your favourite comfy chair.

(Don't.  You'll really miss it)

I've not specifically thought about my diet this week.  I have eaten at home more but there have been quite a lot of treats to help me get through my busy work schedule.  For instance, a list of my food for the week would include cookies, cake and, shock horror, a fried breakfast.  This can partially be excused by my illness (feed a cold, starve a fever, and all that probable nonsense) but is also indicative of the fact I feel a lot more confident in my body and appearance now.  I would like to lose more weight, sure, but I know that I have sustained my current weight through what has been a hectic and often miserable few weeks.  That is more important than the number on the scale.

However, for the record, as of Monday 3rd August, I still weigh 11 stone 1 (70.3kg).

If I was being specific, I'd say that I've lost half a pound.  As I'm not, I'm counting this as maintaining last week's weight.  It would be nice to be under the 11 stone barrier as I've been lurking around it for a while now, but I don't want to go to the gym until I definitely feel better.  I'm still too full of head gunk to risk anything more ambitious than a nice walk.

I should also mention that I've cancelled my subscription with the Hairy Bikers' Diet Club.  It was a fantastic support and motivation while I was getting started and it allowed me to get results that I think I would have struggled with by myself.  However, I'm strapped for cash and keen to prove that I can eat well without fastidious menu plans and calorie counting.  

If I've put on three pounds next week, I can always sign back up...