Tuesday, 29 September 2015

My GBBO Challenge #8: Mokatines

Paul went home. Sad.  But his mokatines were rubbish.  I can do better than that with a full recipe, can't I?  Can't I?

OCD Panic Rating: 2/5 
Handwashes: Standard

Definitely a tricky technical challenge, but I liked the look of the coffee-flavoured mokatines made on this week's episode.  I'm not normally a dainty cook, nor one that goes in for pretty things, so it seemed like a great way to challenge myself.  Especially after the 'tennis' part of my tennis cake was abandoned last week.

It really was a tasty fruit cake though.

This recipe calls for a genoise sponge, made without fat but with the eggs whisked to give lift to the cake.  I do have an electric whisk but it's a bit of an OCD hazard for me.  It's 'unclean', for reasons that I can't even remember now, so I decided to cut that whole misery out by whisking by hand.


In order to have any chance of making a successful genoise, the mixture must be doubled in size before you add the flour, and the flour must be added with care.  Knock out too much air and you're going to have a flat sponge.

Of course, I knocked all the air out of what was an already-under-whipped mixture.  After baking, this was my light and airy genoise sponge:

I knew it was going wrong, but I have never made such a bizarre looking sponge. The fact that it didn't rise is one thing; why it is a bobbly mess is a mystery to me.

Time to reassess.  There was no way I was going to be able to cut this through horizontally to spread buttercream through the middle.  The only way I could think to make it look a bit more presentable was to use coffee-flavoured icing on the top, then stick the chopped hazelnuts onto that icing.  It might not look like a mokatine but it would have the associated flavours.

Once complete, one of my ready-to-eat mokatines looked like this:

It's not even a proper square!  You can see from this that the sponge is closer to a thick pancake than a sponge, but the icing/hazelnut combo at least makes it look edible.  It tastes pretty nothingy.  I thought I could use coffee from the pot to flavour the icing but it doesn't have a strong enough taste to give the icing that hit of coffee.  The hazelnuts take away from the weird sponge texture and add some flavour, which is good.  I had a piece and decided to leave it to my husband.  He's eating it but I think it's out of proximity rather than real enjoyment.

Last week, I teased David Baddiel about his tennis cake and it backfired:  

The same has been true with Paul and his mokatines.  I shall be more careful with my mockery in future.

Key Points:
  • A bit of icing can only rescue a bake fail so far.
Win Rating: 2/5.  It's not in the bin, so there's that.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

My GBBO Challenge #7: Tennis Cake

I had to think long and hard about my bake this week.  The Victorian theme for GBBO meant that I had to choose between a game pie (when my OCD control is nowhere near good enough to cope with that), a tennis cake (which involves artistic skills), and a posh dessert I'd never even heard of.

In all honesty, I came very close to making the pie.  After all, the meat only has to be put into the pastry case raw and cooked in the oven, so it doesn't involve a massive amount of faffing with it.  But I just couldn't do it.  I have been so focused on making sweet yummy things recently that I don't feel prepared for taking on a meat challenge of such epic proportions just yet.  I will return to 'proper' cooking soon, probably as soon as GBBO finishes.

It was a pretty good GBBO episode, thinking of.  Tamal got star baker, which was popular with all of his adoring fans on Twitter.  I'm not a big eater of game but his spiced pie did look incredible.  Considering how fiddly the technical challenge was, I was impressed by how good most of the tennis cakes ended up looking.  Matt's neon green icing was a thing of beauty.  Had to laugh at David Baddiel's attempt at the same thing:

Embedded image permalink

Although, knowing how my own cake turned out, I probably shouldn't have laughed...

I took the recipe from Mary Berry herself.  Unlike a technical challenge, it came with all the necessary instructions but, as you'll see, I don't think even Mary herself could have rescued this.

OCD Panic Rating: 4/5.  The only saving grace was that I was pretty sure it wouldn't poison me.
Handwashes: not an excessive number.  

I don't even know where to start.  It was a nightmare.  I knew that the cake tin I had was going to be too small – I knew! - but I just carried on regardless.  There was a slightly larger cake tin that I could have used, but it seems to have rusted a bit on the inside and I just couldn't bring myself to use it.  Even knowing that it would be lined with paper, I couldn't use it.  OCD 1, cake 0.

So, like an idiot, I lined this clearly-too-small, clearly-not-tennis-court-shaped tin with paper, preheated the oven, and got into cutting up the dried fruit.  A lot of dried fruit.  Enough to almost fill my biggest bowl.

There is a theme emerging here.

In a separate, not-quite-as-large bowl, I creamed the sugar and butter, then mixed in some eggs and flour.  Incorporating the fruit into this mixture was fun, as there was physically not enough space in either bowl for all the ingredients.

Again, I ploughed on regardless, managing to mix the ingredients liberally in the two bowls, on the work surface, and on the kitchen floor.

It all went into the tin.  Just.  

Time to bake.

This is what happens when you try to cook a cake in a too-small tin:

Total cooking time was meant to be two hours.  I finally took my cake out of the oven after almost four.  Four hours! It just wouldn't cook.  After Googling how to get the centre to cook through, I lowered the oven temperature and covered the top of the cake with foil to stop it burning.  I had to keep checking the internal temperature with a thermometer but it rose depressingly slowly.  As a desperate final measure, I even scooped a chunk of cake out of the middle, leaving the 'finished' bake looking like this:

I won't make any grand claims about it looking good, but it certainly came out looking something like a fruit cake.  A fruit cake with a hole in the middle, granted.  The middle was as cooked as it was going to be, with enough of a cakey texture to avoid it being fruit gloop.

At this point, it was meant to be cooled, then covered in almond paste, icing, and decorated to look attractively tennisy.  Yeah, fuck that.  I had spent five hours of my life just trying to get it to cook through and I was done with the whole thing.  More done than the cake would ever be.  So I threw in the towel and decided to move on with my life.

I did eat some, mind.  Once sliced, there were some things to admire about it:

The fruit is reasonably well spread throughout the mixture and it has that pleasant Christmassy flavour.  It's a very nice fruit cake, full to the brim with cherries, sultanas, apricots and other loveliness.  It even has, almost, the texture of a proper cake.  The centre is a little too gooey, but not enough to give away just how difficult the baking process was.  Hilariously, I would use this recipe again.  Just with the right tin next time.

Key Points:

  • There is a reason why baking recipes specify the size of tin.  Disregard at your peril.
  • Don't laugh at David Baddiel's rubbish cake until you've done better.

Win Rating: 3/5.  It's a really delicious fruit cake but it is not a tennis cake.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

My GBBO Challenge #6: Bakewell Tart

Oh god, pastry week's a stressful one, isn't it?  Even without the threat of a soggy bottom, pastry-making can be a real challenge.  It's a fickle mistress: a recipe that works well one time can resolutely fail the next, despite everything apparently being the same.  Suffice it to say, I was a little nervous about my bake this week.

GBBO itself saw one of the people's favourites go home.  Alvin seems like a genuinely lovely chap but he was the right choice to go.  Nadiya had a difficult week too.  It's lucky that her flavours were strong enough to carry her through the collapse of her signature dish.  Highlight of the episode was definitely Tamal getting all dreamy about his favourite sandwich.  


Food-lovers around the world all nodded in understanding.

Anyway, to continue with my GBBO bakealong challenge, I decided to go for a classic Bakewell tart.  It's one of my favourites, yet I had never made it from scratch before.  To add to the GBBO theme, I went for Mary Berry's own recipe.  Results below…

OCD Panic Rating: 1/5
Handwashes: I lost count.  The rubbing-in method is not a clean one.

I think my main issue with pastry recipes is that there are usually multiple stages to them.  It's why I have such a vast array of loaf cake recipes: you just bung everything together before baking and it always comes out well.  Not so pastry.  It's a bit of a sod.

At least shortcrust pastry is pretty simple.  I used the rubbing-in method then added 3 tbsps water to get the dough to the right consistency.  Not owning a flan tin, I decided to use a loose bottom cake tin for this recipe.  It doesn't make a vast amount of difference, but it did mean I had to judge for myself how high to have the pastry.  I decided to make it a little higher than seemed right, safe in the knowledge it could always be trimmed if necessary.  Once lined, the tin went in the fridge to chill, then was blind baked (lined with foil and rice – none of that baking beans nonsense for me), then was baked for a few extra minutes without the foil and rice.  The base rose from the tin a little at this point but not enough for concern.

I then had to make the frangipane loveliness.  I had almost enough ground almonds for the recipe but had to grind some flaked almonds in a pestle and mortar to make up the weight.  These went into melted butter with sugar, egg and a bit of vanilla essence.  The recipe says to use almond essence but I didn't have it in the cupboard and couldn't see enough times when I would use it to justify the purchase.  Regardless, the mixture seemed to form the right consistency, thick but pourable, so I piled it on top of the thin jam layer.  Flaked almonds were sprinkled over the top as a finishing touch before baking.  There was about 1.5 cms of pastry around the edge that I decided to trim down, leaving just a little lip of pastry around the top.  Then it was in the oven to bake for about 30-35 minutes.

Towards the end of the cooking time, I put foil over the tart to stop it browning too much.  I saw my pastry error straight away: the frangipane had actually risen above the top of the pastry!  Thankfully, it had set enough to not leak out.  I decided to use icing to try and cover the rather haphazard look of the final thing:

I would like to think that it has a good homemade look.  I'm sure Mary would just call it messy.  She's probably right.

The good news is that it has the lovely delicate Bakewell tart flavour.  Bad news, the frangipane is not quite as set as I would like.  It's almost a bit greasy.  I wonder if that's my fault for using flaked almonds in it: maybe they were not ground up enough, leaving the texture a little off.  It's not unpleasant though and, most importantly, the blind baking prevented a soggy bottom.  The pastry is actually very good, thick enough to carry the filling but not so thick that it overpowers.  

I doubt this would have won me star baker, although I think it would have been enough to see me through this week!

Key Points:

  • Roll out pastry on baking paper.  It makes cleaning up a lot easier and you tend to need less flour.  Also, if you are an OCD sufferer like me, it helps avoid panics over how clean the work surface really is.
  • Pastry will shrink during baking.  If you think you might need to trim down the sides, give it the benefit of the doubt.  It's easier to trim the pastry at the end than it is to add pastry back on!

Win Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

My GBBO Challenge #5: Sugar-Free Lemon Drizzle Cake

OCD Panic Rating: 2/5
Handwashes: too many (I was having a bad OCD day...)

I had a couple of issues with the free-from GBBO episode this week.  The sugar-free cake challenge saw contestants using honey and agave syrup, which isn't exactly going to help my diabetic grandpa.  On that basis, I went for a sugar substitute recipe, one which uses xylitol.  Not only will this not lead to a spike in blood sugar, it actually seems to have health benefits, particularly for dental health.  So I have deviated a little from the GBBO structure this week but I stand by it.

The recipe I chose is found in full here on the BBC's Good Food website.  My dad LOVES anything with a lemon flavour - it's something of a long-running joke in my family - but has always suffered with dental issues.  As mentioned before, my grandpa is diabetic as well, so this recipe seems to cover both of them well.  It's a bit weird, substituting the butter for yoghurt and oil as well as removing the sugar.  Approaching such a different version of lemon drizzle cake worried me slightly but I went in eager to give it a try,

Mixing the dry ingredients was nice and simple.  Xylitol has a very similar appearance and texture to regular sugar so there wasn't much to catch me out here.  I did grate the hell out of my thumb when I was zesting the lemon but that was user error.  Had a minor panic when putting the wet ingredients together as I realised that we didn't actually have any sunflower oil.  My husband guaranteed that vegetable oil would do the trick.  I was unsure but was also too far through the cooking process to go to the shops.  Vegetable oil was gonna have to do.  (Editor's note: Google agrees with my husband.)

Once mixed, it went into the oven to bake.  It mentions in the recipe that it needs to be watched for the last 10-15 minutes as the top can brown too much if left alone.  I definitely noticed this.  After 50 minutes, it was still light and golden; by 55 minutes, the edges had started to darken dramatically.  I put foil over the top and left it for about 15 minutes more.  This was the outer limit of the recommended cooking time but the skewer didn't come out clean after an hour.  Always trust the skewer.

For the final five minutes of baking time, I put together the drizzle, again with xylitol.  There seemed to be a lot of it so I skewered the cake all over to allow it to soak better into the cake.  Once cooled, it looked like this:

It just demanded thick-cut slicing!

The inside seemed very moist and quite dense, and I was concerned that I might have put too much of the lemon juice/xylitol mixture over the top.  Nope, it was perfect.  Juicy and light with a strong lemon flavour and aroma.  The cake does have a springy texture that could look like underbaking but I think it's just the way that the yoghurt and oil cook.  

The highest praise I can think of for this is that you would struggle to notice that it's sugar-free.  You might spot that the fat used was not butter, but the xylitol works as a straight sugar swap very well.  I can see this becoming part of my regular repertoire.

Key Points:
  • Check you have all the necessary ingredients before you start cooking, dumbass.
  • Like I said, always trust the skewer.  If you're still getting crumbs when you stick the skewer in, the cake probably needs longer in the oven.
Win Rating: 5/5

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The highs and lows of German food

They do love their meat
I had the privilege of spending the week in Cologne, Germany, piggybacking on my husband's work trip to get a cheap holiday before I start my new job.  Having spent an excellent week in Munich a few years back, I was hoping for a great trip, particularly when it came to the food.  This was not the common consensus.

When people think about European food, there are a few cuisines that spring to mind.  French food is rich but refined.  Italian food is family-friendly, simple and divine.  The Spanish know their way around seafood.  The Brits...ugh, let's not.  The Germans?  The same, but at least they have good beer.  (And the Belgians?  Nothing but WAFFLES!)

I'm not going to make a claim for British cuisine today (although, rest assured, there is a case to be made), but I do think that German food is unfairly maligned.  Yes, it is very meat-based, but it is excellent meat.  Dishes like bratwurst, weisswurst, and schnitzel are filling, satisfying and undeniably delicious.  Their food is particularly pleasing to an English palate, comprising mainly of meat and potatoes.  It rarely has the flair of French food, but has a simplicity that makes it feel like a great homemade meal.  A steak in France is likely to be buried under a sauce; in Germany, a dollop of quality mustard will suffice.  Paris will pour cream all over your potatoes; Munich will fry them or mash them, allowing them to complement the meat better.  

Bavarian food is like high-quality British food, but Cologne has a much more Mediterranean feel.  Nestled on the side of the Rhine, it can feel very Italian when the sun comes out.  Everyone sits outside with an ice-cream or coffee, whiling away the afternoon with friends.  The food reflects this.  You can find the traditional beerhouses with the long benches and sausage-based menus, but you can also enter a trattoria for thin-base Italian pizza or, shock horror, an actual salad.  For those who don't get pub culture, this café culture might be more familiar and comfortable.

As a non-drinker, the beerhouse culture is actually one of my favourite things about Germany.  You see, in England, if I go to a pub then I either have to have a fizzy drink or a Becks Blue.  It tastes like piss.  In Germany, people are much more likely to drink beer throughout the day, so they have a culture of non-alcoholic varieties.  On a menu, you will find all types of beer and a number of these will also come with non-alcoholic options.  Yet they still taste like proper beer!  Going out for a drink becomes a real pleasure when you can drink alongside your friends without feeling like the designated driver all the time.  

There is also something to be said for the snack culture of the Germans.  Sure, you have the fast food chains that you'll find in any big city, but most people still go to the smaller kiosks and cafés to pick up something freshly baked.  A German pretzel is a baked miracle (and something I think I'm going to investigate baking this week) and they have an astonishing array of doughnuts and cakes that it would be a real travesty not to sample.  No offence to the Americans but your greasy over-fried excuses for doughnuts pale in comparison.  Here, they're soft, fluffy and often beautifully decorated.  Delicious.

Apple Strudel
Martha Stewart's
apple strudel (recipe here)
To briefly celebrate Koelner food in particular, the city seems to take pride in two foodstuffs: apples and Kölsch.  Apples, I can appreciate.  I'm from cider country myself so it's always pleasing to see a menu that prioritises the fruit.  It finds its way into many main dishes, including one involving blood pudding and mash that my husband tells me is divine.  They are also fond of plopping a bowl of applesauce on your table when you're having a pork dish and will get upset if you don't try it.  You have been warned.

Kölsch is a slightly different, and more controversial, matter.  Whereas in many parts of Germany, buying a beer means getting a massive tankard of the stuff, 'beer' in Cologne will default as a 0.2 litre glass of their local brew.  When you finish a glass, a fresh one is likely to be put in front of you within seconds, but it still encourages a very different kind of drinking culture.  My husband was not a fan.  He likes a tankard, and he also likes a beer with less fizz.  Obviously, I can't drink it as it is not alkoholfrei, but I am reliably informed that it has quite a standard flavour and one that doesn't match up well against the output of some of the more famous German breweries.  He preferred the local beer of Dusseldorf but wisely chose to keep this to himself.  The drink and the drinking style do sit well with the more Mediterranean café culture though, so I can understand its local popularity.

In the spirit of full disclosure (and I warn you, this is not a pretty mental image that I am about to put in your head), I have had two food-related unpleasantnesses on this trip.  After a very rich dish of marinated beef and potato dumplings, I woke up in the middle of the night with the kind of indigestion that manifests itself with all the symptoms of a heart attack.  I was doubled over with pain and could find no, ahem, release.  I had the opposite problem after a dinner of very delicious beer-goulash with spätzle, which left my body looking disarmingly similar to how it entered, and not that long after either.  Now, I hesitate to blame this all on the food – after all, I had been drinking a lot of non-alcoholic beer, which is gassy and rarely on my menu at home – but the two instances seemed to match up quite convincingly.  I never had this problem in Munich, so I might be forced to put this as a mark against Koelner food or, at least, the two establishments involved.  Even knowing how it ended, I would still order that beer-goulash. It was that good.

This was meant to be a celebration of German food and a recommendation for you all to go and try it, but I'm not sure I've sold it with quite the conviction that I felt.  Maybe it is not as obviously winning a cuisine as Italian, but there are some real gems to be unearthed.  If you're at all a beer drinker, and particularly if you can see the attraction of the famous Oktoberfest, then trust me in that the food on offer is a fantastic accompaniment to beer, music and good conversation.  However, like beer, it might haunt you a bit the next day...