Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Pistachio Macarons with a Dark Chocolate Ganache

Today has been a Good Day. The sun is shining and the sky is a bright, clear blue here in Cardiff. Sam  - who turned 6 months yesterday - and I have been baking, the house is quiet while the rest of the boys are at work or school, and all seems very right with the world.

It seemed like a day to try something new. I have wanted to try my hand at macarons for some time now, so today  felt right to be the day.

These pistachio macarons with a dark chocolate ganache were inspired by a little trip to the village Sam and I had yesterday. We stopped at our local deli for a coffee and a little something, and to sit in the sun. The little something turned out to be their version of these. They tasted so lovely, I knew I wanted to try my hand at them.

I did some macaron research, and became a little confused by which was the best method to try. I know they are notoriously difficult to make, and so I wanted to make it easy on myself for my first time. But there were questions. Macaroons or Macarons (I settled on Macarons as it somehow seemed right)? Do you age the egg whites? Do you use a hot sugar solution to add to the egg white or not?  How runny should the mix be? How do you make sure you get' feet' on them? How much space do you leave between them when piping?

I thought I'd made it easy on myself on that last one, as I had bought a macaroon mat from Squires Kitchen. Someone then also bought me a Lakeland macaroon mat, so I thought I would try them both out. The Squires one is a flat silicone mat with circles marked and evenly spaced. The Lakeland one is also silicone, with very shallow round indentations, to hold the macaron mix. It was interesting to see the differences.

There is a lot of information available on the web, and recipe wise, after confusing myself even more, I decided on what looked like a fairly easy method, from Delicious magazine. I particularly wanted to use pistachios though, so adapted the recipe slightly. This is what I did.

The recipe calls for 175g icing sugar, 125g ground almonds, 3 large egg whites and 75g caster sugar. I therefore used half the amount of ground almonds, (62g) and 63g of pistachios, which I ground in a food processor using some of the icing sugar to prevent them becoming oily.

I then added the rest of the almonds and icing sugar, processing again for a short time, to thoroughly combine it, and to get the nuts as finely ground as possible.The smell of the mix was gorgeous, with a real hit of pistachio.

I had separated the eggs, and allowed the whites to stand on the kitchen counter for about an hour and a half. Then, using my stand mixer, I whisked the egg whites to soft peak stage. I then continued whisking on high, while adding the caster sugar gradually. Once the eggs were smooth and glossy, I added a miniscule amount of Wilton Kelly Green food gel colouring, whisking briefly to mix it in well. You can't see it in the photo, but it gave a lovely pale green tint to the egg whites.

I then added half the nut mixture and mixed well until smooth, then folded in the remainder until the mix was glossy, and fell in a ribbon from my spatula.

I used a 1cm round tip on a piping bag to pipe out the macarons. This was an experience. Nothing prepares you for exactly how quickly the mix will run form the nozzle, and it took a few go's to get the right amount. I tried to ensure that I stopped piping before the mix filled the circles, to allow for spreading, but this was by far the trickiest part!

The photos below show the Squires mat, just as I stopped piping, and then a few minutes later - you can see that some of the macarons had spread into each other at that point.

Five minutes after piping the mix had spread even more!
The Lakeland mat was better at holding the mix in the wells, but it is smaller so I didn't get as many on this one (I was starting to run out of mix as well).

I rapped the trays on the counter to dispel any air bubbles, and then left the trays for 30 minutes to cure and form a skin (apparently you have to wait until the macaron is no longer sticky to the touch). I baked the Squires batch first, for 15 minutes at 140 fan.

As soon as I took them out of the oven, I carefully slid the mat onto a wire rack to cool. I then put the Lakeland batch into the oven for 15 minutes. Again, as soon as they came out of the oven, I slid the mat onto a cooling rack.

The first thing that struck me was the fact that they all had the little frilly edge, or feet, and certainly looked the business. The Squires batch were slightly flatter, but in a way neater, as the Lakeland ones had rougher 'feet' where they had been in contact with the indentations in the mat. The Squires ones also seemed slightly more fragile, with more of an 'air gap' under the outer skin, so that they tended to crumble/shatter more easily when biting them. Perhaps this was because they cooked quicker, being flatter?

Squires mat macarons 
Lakeland mat macarons
I was impatient though, and whilst they were still warm, decided to try one that had been mis-piped. It was certainly difficult to remove from the mat (although totally delicious!), so I left the rest until they had cooled completely. At that point they were much easier to remove from the mat, but you must peel the mat from the macaron, not the other way around or they will crack.

Squires mat after peeling off macarons
I paired up the macarons in equal sizes, and then using a chocolate ganache (125g Green and Blacks 70% dark melted with 55g double cream and stirred to form a smooth paste), sandwiched them together.

Well, what can I say? They were fantastic - chocolatey but with the flavour of the pistachios clearly there. The meringues were crunchy on the outer surface, but with that lovely chewiness inside. If it wasn't for the amount of washing up I had managed to accumulate, I don't think I would have believed that I made them!

There were a few points I'd bear in mind for next time (as there will be a next time):

  • If using food colouring, it seemed to get baked out, as the macarons turned a slightly brown shade, so I think I'd increase the amount to get a darker shade.
  • It's tricky to get the balance of filling right so that it doesn't overpower the macaron. As far as the ganache went, as it was quite intense, I found that less was more, and so those macarons that had a smaller amount of filling, were far better balanced in flavour.
  • Unless using the Lakeland mat, be very careful when piping so that there is a sufficient gap around the macarons to allow for expansion. You probably need a gap equivalent to the size of the macaron to be sure.
The most important thing I learnt, was that macarons are not to be feared, and I can do them! Which was brilliant. I'm not sure if there are any differences in the end product if you use a different method, and I'll probably try using one, one day, but if you've tried making them a different way, I'd love to know how you got on and whether you'd recommend it.


Sunday, 25 March 2012

Not Viennese, but Swiss Cakes for the Weekly Bake Off

One of my strongest childhood memories is the ritual of our family's Sunday Tea, which always took a certain form. My nan would put the kettle on at just before 4pm, and a pot of steaming hot tea would soon be brewed. There were sandwiches, and always, always some form of cake. Quite often, if nan and mum had had a busy weekend, it would be provided by Mr Kipling. My brother and I looked forward to this with some enthusiasm, as there were quite often French Fancies and Vienniese Whirls, which were our hands-down favourites. We could leave the Battenburg Slices, and the jam tarts were often a bit too dry  for us (definitely not as good as homemade). But the soft sweet inside of an iced French Fancy (my favourite being the lemon yellow ones), and the moistness of the Viennese Whirls were something to savour. Of course, you can still buy these. But they just don't seem to taste the same somehow.

So when Amy announced this week's Bake Off challenge as the Apricot Swiss Cakes from Mary Berry's 100 Cakes and Bakes, and I read through the recipe, it reminded me of those Vienniese Whirls. Throughout the week, my fellow bakers began their versions, and the feedback was that they were delicious - their likeness to Viennese Whirls being mentioned every so often. I was really looking forward to this one then, hoping to recreate a little of that magic.

This is a fairly straightforward recipe, but a new method for me of making cakes. The texture is quite short, due to the amount of butter (and no eggs!) and is more of a biscuit than a cake. If I was anticipating something along the lines of a Vienniese Whirl, I was wrong, as I don't think these were quite as soft. They were very delicate and fragile, easily crumbling if cut.

You cream softened butter with icing sugar, and then add in self raising flour and a much smaller amount of cornflour. This is beaten together to form a paste.

This is then transferred to a piping bag, and the mixture piped into prepared bun trays lined with fairy cake liners. I used a very large star nozzle for this, which is what MB suggests.

The mixture was very stiff and difficult to pipe, but nearer the end, it seemed to soften slightly, probably from the temperature of my hands on the piping bag.

I then baked them in a 160 fan oven for 15 minutes until golden brown.

MB's instructions then say to add a small amount of jam into the centre and dust with icing sugar - I did it the other way around, dusting first and then adding the jam, as I didn't want the jam to look 'dusty', and it seemed more in keeping with the photo in the book.

Whether it is the recipe itself, or my interpretation of it, I've got to admit that I was a little dissapointed by these. Neither Mike nor I are fans of apricot, so I changed the jam filling to strawberry. Again, referencing the Viennese Whirls. Sadly, all in all, I found these cakes a little too sweet and crumbly. They were, for me, just OK.

Maybe that's a lesson for me though as well. Trying to recreate a fondly held memory doesn't always work out. Maybe it shouldn't. Maybe it's better to leave them to that particular place in time, and simply enjoy them for what they are.


Thursday, 22 March 2012

Tart with a Heart of Gold - Chorizo, Feta and Butternut Squash Tart

I'm the kind of person that is constantly thinking of flavour combinations, and how best I can use my favourite ingredients. Chorizo, squash and feta are three of my all time favourites, but I've never used them together. As soon as I knew that I was going to make this, and I could envisage the golden colours of the chorizo and butternut squash melding into deliciousness, the phrase popped into my head.

"In television history, the "tart with a heart of gold" has become an important archetype in serial drama and soap opera, especially in Britain. During the 1960s, the character of Elsie Tanner in British series Coronation Street set the mold for future characters such as Bet Lynch (also Coronation Street) and Kat Slater (EastEnders). Characters of this nature are often depicted as having tragic lives, but put on a front when in public to create the illusion of happiness. More often than not, these female characters are vital to their respective shows, and inevitably become some of the biggest stars in British Television" (from Wikipedia)

However, this particular tart has a hint of elegance about it. More Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts' character in Pretty Woman) than Elsie Tanner or Bet Lynch. I think it is the cool saltiness of the feta, against the sweetness of the squash, and the spicy chorizo. This is definitely one of my all time favourite flavour combinations. 

You may remember that I recently posted about the pastry course I went on at Eckington Manor. I didn't want to leave it too long without trying out what I was taught, so a tart using the shortcrust pastry method we used seemed like a good idea. As Mike is away at the moment, the chorizo, combined with butternut squash and feta, is an indulgence just for me.

I began by preparing the chorizo and butternut squash. Cutting each into similar sized chunks and dry frying the chorizo, while roasting the squash in some olive oil (seasoned with 1/2 tspn salt and 1/4 tspn black pepper). The squash took about 30 minutes at 190 (fan), turning half way through.

Chorizo fried until tinged golden brown and the oil has run
Roasted Butternut Squash - some thyme added just at the end of cooking
I used the method for shortcrust pastry I was taught on the course (200g plain flour, 100g butter, chilled water), and once I had brought the dough together, let it rest for 20 minutes in the fridge. I then lined a 15cm (6 inch) flan ring, and let that chill again in the fridge, before baking blind in a 150  degree (fan) oven. I used an egg wash to seal the pastry, baking for a further couple of minutes. All I can say is that I'm glad I used a deep flan ring, because the pastry still shrank  from the edge, despite me taking real care to follow the instructions given on the course (but I may not have left it to chill long enough after lining the ring). Anyhoo, the picture below shows what I mean.

Once baked, I added the filling, using about 80g chorizo, 80g squash and 60g feta (crumbled). I then made a simple mix whisking 2 eggs and 150ml of milk together (and then passed through a sieve to ensure no lumps), then adding a pinch of salt and pepper. I poured this over the filling, and returned to the oven (160 fan) to cook until the custard had set.

Once the tart had cooled for about 30 minutes, it held up well to cutting. The taste was fantastic - sweet, salty, spicy, with a crisp buttery pastry.


Some of the golden oil from the chorizo had  spread through the custard to help give that lovely golden colour I had imagined. The chunks of feta held up well. I was really pleased with it, and will definitely make it again.

It was perfect for lunch. I hope you enjoy it.


Monday, 19 March 2012

Whole Lotta Lemon - Luscious Lemon Yoghurt Cake for the Weekly Bake Off

I'm going to let you into a secret.

One of my favourite little 'Me and Sam time' treats is every fortnight, when I take Ben and his friend Euan to their evening drama class. I pick them up, too, so there simply isn't enough time to go home inbetween. Sam and I (well, mainly 'I', clearly) have developed the habit of driving to a retail park near Cardiff City Stadium, where there just happens to be a really nice Costa Coffee, and a large branch of Hobbycraft. I get to browse the baking and craft goodies, and then, as it is approaching bottle time, we head over to Costa to take care of business. Once done, we get to have a good old chat (ie play) and mummy gets to look a bit of an idiot as she makes endless faces and funny noises to delight a six month old baby.

Of course, you can't go in to Costa without ordering something. So mine is always the same. A diet coke (for thirst), a regular cuppucino (for taste and that 'ahhh' feeling), and a slice of their lemon layer cake. I love lemon cake and Costa's lemon layer cake is pretty fine. It's just the right balance for me of sharp and sweet, and the buttercream icing is to die for. It's definitely one of my favourite cakes, and I guess I am a little surprised I found it in a chain like Costa. 

I've been searching for a recipe that comes close to the taste. I think I may have found it in this week's Bake Off challenge, organised by the lovely Amy, who chose Mary Berry's Lemon Yoghurt Cake. As my kitchen is now nearing completion enough to work in,  I was ablke to take part this week. Oh my, was I so glad to get back to baking! And what a cake to start off with.

The recipe comes from '100 Cakes and Bakes', which is our Bake Off Bible.

It's actually quite a simple cake, not many ingredients, but ones which really deliver on flavour. The main one being a generous dosing of Greek yoghurt, which alongside the lemon, enhances the sharpness of the cake. It's a dense sponge, which stays lovely and moist but you do need to keep it in the fridge. The simple icing glaze, made with lemon juice and icing sugar, really balances out the sweetness of the cake, and you can, of course, make it as sharp or sweet as you like by just tweaking the proportion of sugar to juice.


300g caster sugar
50g softened unsalted butter
3 large eggs, separated
225g Greek style yoghurt
zest of 1 lemon, grated
175g self raising flour

Preheat the oven to 160 fan / 180 conventional / gas 4.

Grease and base line a 20cm (8 inch) deep cake tin.

Crem the butter and sugar, then add the egg yolks and beat until smooth.

Add the yoghurt and lemon zest and mix well, then fold in the flour.

Whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form, then fold into the mixture.

Add to the cake tin and level, then bake for 1 - 1 1/4 hours until a cocktail stick comes out clean. Turn out after a few minutes and then leave to cool on a wire rack.

Make the icing glaze. I used approximately 150g sifted icing sugar and then lemon juice to taste, and to the consistency you like. I then used some lemon zest strips sprinkled over the top as decoration. But you can do pretty much anything. Some of the other entries used some lovely sugar flowers, or decorative piping. Why don't you check out the Bake Off page and have a look?

Excuse the lighting - taken at night while I had the whole cake

In the morning it resembled Pacman!



Monday, 12 March 2012

Wow! Look what I made : Pastry @ Eckington Manor Cookery School

Over the years, Mike and the boys have got used to my obsession with cookery and all things related. They don't sigh anymore when they ask what I would like for Christmas/Birthday etc, and simply go to my Amazon wishlist, where I have usually bookmarked books, bakeware or some other thing for later consideration and possibly purchase. This Christmas however, they surprised me with a gift voucher for the cookery school at Eckington Manor. As our kitchen is currently out of action due to building work - and I was suffering baking withdrawal symptoms - it seemed like a good time to use this for the weekend and get away from the general chaos and mess that has descended.
Lower End House Accommodation
I'd never heard of Eckington Manor before. It's a 260 acre working farm in the Worcestershire countryside, now owned by Judy Gardner, who has also created a fantastic cookery school and luxurious, 5 star B and B accommodation. When I first looked at the details of the cookery classes the school runs, I was overwhelmed by the choice, but the one that caught my eye straightaway was the Introduction to Pastry, which is sponsored by Baking Mad.com.

Banana Millefeuille
I've had a bit of a love-hate relationship with pastry. I always used to love making it with my mum - a rich buttery yellow dough that enrobed sausage rolls and mince pies at Christmas, or fruit pies throughout the rest of the year. I'd very often get told off for nibbling on bits of uncooked dough as we rolled it out. When I first made it myself, I was able to faithfully replicate it. But somewhere along the way, I lost my mojo, turning out tougher, greyish pastry with increasing frequency. Over the years this has got worse, and I've tried everything to get it back, with with variable levels of success. A pastry course, with a professional pastry chef, therefore seemed like A Very Good Idea.

Coffe Choux Buns
And it was. The day was structured around making four different recipes: a quiche lorraine using shortcrust, fruit tarts using sweet pastry (and with make your own creme patissiere), coffee choux buns, and finally, to show some of the ways you can use ready made puff, a banana millefeuille.

The course is taken by the wonderful Caroline Richards (who trained at Claridges under Nick Patterson, who in turn was trained by Pierre Herme). The cookery school facilities are fantastic, and arranged so that you share a workbench and oven with one other person. There were 10 of us alltogether. The demonstration area at the front of the class is flanked by two large screen TVs, and Caroline has a microphone attachment, so that you can see and hear everything that goes on.
My perfectly cooked sweet pastry tart shells - can't believe I made them!
The day itself is fairly fast-paced as there is a lot to fit in. It starts at 9.30am and finishes at 4.00pm. In that time, you cram in making your own shortcrust pastry (under Caroline's watchful eye  it was great to have guidance on the all important rubbing in stage), lining a flan ring, baking it blind and then filling the quiche lorraine and baking, then making the sweet pastry, and the creme patisserie. The final event of the morning was making the initial mix of the choux pastry before breaking for a delicious two course lunch (with wine if you're that way inclined). After luch we finished off the choux, piping it into buns and finishing with some slivered almonds, before baking it off.
Choux buns before baking, glazed with eggwash and sprinkled with almonds
Then we assembled the fruit tarts and made the banana millefeuille (learning how to sandwich the puff between baking sheets so that it doesn't rise and stays crisp, and then glazing with icing sugar).

At the end of what seems like a long day, you then get to parcel up your goodies and take them home. If, like me, you're staying overnight, you can store them in one of the fridges and retrieve them the next day. The school has its own cook shop as well, so you can take home more baking related souvenirs if you want!

Quiche Lorraine using a flan ring!
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the course, and it has certainly helped me to get my confidence back with pastry. For me, the real benefit was having Caroline on hand as we worked, to ask for guidance on whether the pastry had come together properly, was rolled out thinly enough, was baked properly etc, etc. Never having done choux before, it was also a real bonus having Caroline on hand to show me exactly what to do. I am also a convert to flan rings - never using one before but won over by the ease with which you could simply lift it off the cooked pastry! I can't wait to revisit some of the recipes and also try out some of my own.
Cookery school reception and cook shop
Finally, a quick word on the accommodation. We stayed for two nights, having decided to make a stay of it with the boys (on the Saturday, Mike took them to the East Midlands Safari Park, so they had a great time feeding giraffes etc). The rooms are lovely, and I can't thank the staff there enough for helping to make our stay a comfortable one. Especially when Sam, on the Saturday night when we had booked for the restaurant, decided to have the screaming abdabs for nearly three hours. They helpfully offered to set a table for us in a discreet, private dining area of the accommodation and bring our meals over from the restaurant, thus making everyone feel much more comfortable. It was a lifesaver and very much appreciated.
One tired but pleased and happy baker!
I can't recommend this course highly enough, and I already have my eye on a cake making course later in the year which happens to be on my birthday! The setting for the cookery school is lovely, amid the beautiful Worcestershire countryside, and it's easy enough to get to for just the day (not far from junction 7 and 9 of the M5 or junction 2 of the M50).

As work on my kitchen is progressing, I'm hoping to be back in it by the weekend. It's been a long couple of weeks and I sense a baking frenzy coming on... :)