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plum and hazelnut financiers

27 Oct

autumn gourmet desserts

Working on recipes over the summer holidays, I made what was possibly the ugliest dessert of all time. It didn’t taste terrible but it looked a mess. It reminded me of being an apprentice, trying to cut corners to go faster and having to start again entirely. Short cuts take twice as long, I learned. And I could feel the ghost of our strict French chef breathing over my shoulder as I attempted to pipe this monstrosity.

My friend was polite about it: I’ll save half for breakfast! No, it was nice, honestly. But she was betrayed by her comparative enthusiasm for the second thing we made that day, these simple, little plum and hazelnut cakes. We made them in cupcake pans with sliced plums on top, and in little moulds the size of corks that we ate hot as soon as they came out of the oven, not even a mouthful.

The financier is a cousin to the madeleine, and a superior cousin at that (though I share a name with the latter). (I’m also the oldest cousin in my English family, so.) Both are little buttery snack-cakes, but financiers are made with browned butter, what the French call beurre noisette, so they already have a toasty aroma that is only enhanced by the ground nuts, in this case hazelnuts. They stay fresh for a few days too, unlike madeleines which are best eaten on the first day. Plums are a perfect autumn accompaniment, the thin slices turning jammy in the oven, with a few halved hazelnuts on top for crunch.

Apart from browning the butter, the preparation is pretty easy. Stir, chill, bake. Ideally the mixture should rest in the fridge for a few hours to properly chill for the perfect texture. It will keep for a few days refrigerated, so if you have more mixture than tins, you can make a second batch later on.

Plum and hazelnut financiers

adapted from Hugues Pouget in Fou de Pâtisserie 12. It is an easily customisable recipe – substitute almonds or walnuts; add spices, citrus zest, vanilla or even finely ground tea for different effects; use seasonal fruits like raspberries, apples, pears…

makes 20-24

80g plain flour

120g ground hazelnuts

200g caster sugar

200g butter

20g honey

215g egg whites (about 7-8)

grated nutmeg

pinch of salt

3-4 ripe plums

whole hazelnuts for decoration

Sift flour, hazelnuts and sugar into a large bowl. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat and keep going until it starts to foam and sizzle, then subside. After a couple of minutes, you should smell the milk solids in the butter toasting, similar to hazelnuts. This is easiest in a light coloured pan, as you can see them turn brown (but not black!). If you have a thermometer, cook the butter to 145C. Remove from the heat, add honey and allow to cool. Mix egg whites into flour/nuts/sugar, then stir in the cooled butter, nutmeg and pinch of salt. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours (up to several days).

Grease cupcake moulds or line with papers. Fill each mould about 3/4 full. Finely slice plums and halve hazelnuts and arrange 2-3 slices of plum and 2-3 hazelnut halves on each financier. (This step can be done straightaway if preferred and then refrigerated in the pans).

Preheat oven to 170C and bake for 12-15 minutes. They should be golden all over and brown around the edges. Will keep for 2-3 days in airtight tin.

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coffee cheesecake with a walnut crust and salted caramel ganache

21 Sep

cheesecake ingredients

Bringing a cheesecake to a party seems like cheating: pretty much everyone will love it. Forgive the fashion metaphor: after five years I finally caved and bought a black leather jacket, to match everyone else in Paris. And you know what? It makes everything else I wear instantly cooler. I have never looked cool before. Cute or quirky or colourful maybe. There is a reason that the French word for a leather jacket is un perfecto.

It feels like cheating because it is the same, simple recipe I have used forever, from the wife of my Italian tutor. Blend biscuit crumbs, whisk filling, pour into a tin, bake. Ice if you are fancy. I just adapt it to every occasion – with lemon zest and a poppy seed crust; kumquats and apricots; or Earl Grey tea – but keep the basic ratio the same. My trick is to bake it in a long loaf tin, which makes it less likely to crack or leak, and elegant and easy to slice later on. You can have the whole thing in the oven in about ten minutes. Leaving you lots of spare time to watch the Great British Bake Off and marvel at how complicated they make things for themselves.

Last time I tried another recipe, an involved one with several layers, a frozen ganache, extra bells and whistles, I was disappointed. My oven ended up covered in butter and chocolate. So I have gone back to my staple recipe. (It was high time I drew a new picture for cheesecake anyway.) Not too sweet, not too heavy. This version has a biscuit base of speculoos (cinnamon) biscuits as well as savoury crackers, and some ground coffee and walnuts for a grown-up edge. (Since I had some grapefruit marmalade lying around, I spread a little over the base too.) The mascarpone cream is flavoured with more coffee and rum, as well as a touch of grapefruit zest. On top, a bitter caramel white chocolate ganache and a few flakes of sea salt. No more decoration needed.

~~~

Coffee cheesecake with a walnut crust and salted caramel ganache

Ganache topping borrowed from Dana Cree’s not nutter butters. Feel free to substitute cream cheese or Quark for mascarpone; change the biscuits; swap the walnuts for any other nuts/seeds; change the coffee flavouring to cinnamon, lemon or tea… For a lighter topping, just smooth over some crème fraîche or sour cream when cool. Use this recipe as a template for your favourite flavours!

makes enough for at least 8 generous slices

crust:

120g speculoos biscuits

55g TUC crackers

35g walnuts

1 tbs ground coffee

25g caster sugar

75g butter, melted

(optional: 2-3 tbs grapefruit marmalade)

cheesecake:

2 tsp instant coffee

1 tbs rum

450g mascarpone

150g caster sugar

4 eggs

zest of one grapefruit

caramel ganache:

20g water

50g caster sugar

75g whipping/heavy/single cream

20g butter

150g white chocolate

flaky sea salt to finish

~~~

Grease and line a 24cm-long loaf tin with baking paper, with an extra few centimetres sticking up to make it easy to pull out of the tin later on.

Preheat oven to 170C.

Blend the biscuits, coffee and walnuts in a food processor to make fine crumbs. Add sugar and melted butter and blend again to combine evenly. Press the mixture into the bottom of the loaf tin firmly with the back of a spoon. Optional: carefully spread grapefruit marmalade over the crumb base.

Rinse out the food processor then blend instant coffee with rum to dissolve it. Mix in mascarpone, sugar, eggs and zest and blend until smooth. Pour into tin and bake for 45-50 minutes until puffed up, starting to crack slightly and a skewer inserted in the top comes out clean.

Let the cheesecake cool in the pan for at least half an hour before making ganache:

Finely chop white chocolate, put in a bowl with a sieve on top. Gently heat cream in a small pan or microwave. Measure out the butter. Heat sugar and water in a medium saucepan, without stirring, to make a very dark caramel. It should be just on the point of smoking, almost burnt, to balance out the sweetness of the white chocolate. Quickly take off the heat and slide in the butter. Let it melt before stirring it into the caramel. Add the warmed cream, stir again to combine. Strain the caramel sauce through the sieve into the white chocolate. Let it absorb the heat for 30 seconds then stir together to combine. If it starts to split or look a bit greasy, whisk in a teaspoon of hot cream or hot water and it should come back together. Carefully smooth onto the surface of the cheesecake. Refrigerate to set.

Just before serving, sprinkle some flaky salt over the cheesecake. Carefully lift out of the pan with the paper, cut into thick slices, cleaning your knife each time you cut it.

fanny zanotti’s earl grey tea loaf, with grapefruit confit

29 Jun

earl grey weekend loaf

A Sunday morning free is a precious thing for a pastry chef. At 11am normally my day’s work would be half-done, my eyelids at half-mast. This weekend though, I was on the sofa by the window, watching the grey sky.

I feel like today is a cooking day.

Isn’t every day a cooking day for you? replied my friend at the other end of the sofa, her legs crossed over mine.

No, but, cooking for fun. Like jam, or something. 

There was a recipe book already on the windowsill, under the pile of FT cuttings my mother likes to send me. The Paris Pastry Club is full of dreamy photos and snippets of poetry, as well as very precise recipes. I’ve been following Fanny Zanotti’s blogs through their various iterations for longer than I remember. I discovered the matcha brioche thanks to her. I took notes for my first month in Paris, visiting Pierre Hermé and Angelina. Eventually realising I would like to be a pâtissière too.

earl grey, twinings

The spicy nougatine was tempting, as well as the roast garlic bread. And the shameless crème brûlée for one. But the Earl Grey Weekend Loaf ticked all the right boxes: a simple loaf cake, flavoured with my favourite tea. For which I had nearly all the ingredients. That last grapefruit would be an admirable substitute for the clementine confit, to all intents and purposes a speedy marmalade.

It turned out a sweet, fluffy cake, elegantly speckled with fragments of tea. Delicately perfumed, it was good on its own, even better with a spoonful of bittersweet candied grapefruit peel. Next time I would make an effort to use real leaf tea (as advised) for a stronger flavour, but we had run out. And it was a Sunday and I had already left the house once to buy bacon. A slice of cake and a sliver of sky and I was happy to stay in the corner of the sofa for the rest of the day.

grapefruit confit

Fanny Zanotti’s Earl Grey Tea Weekend Loaf, with grapefruit confit

from the book Paris Pastry Club

In the spirit of the weekend, I adapted the recipe to what I had lying around the house. It is supposed to be with crème fraîche and clementines, among other things. Which I imagine only makes it more delightful. The book has more precise instructions too, including tips for the neatest cracks on top of the loaf, the lightest madeleines. Zanotti’s original ingredients in brackets.

2-3 Earl Grey tea bags (or 1 tbs leaf tea)

250g caster sugar

4 eggs

200g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

zest from one orange (or bergamot orange)

150g plain yoghurt (or crème fraîche)

50g butter, melted

For grapefruit confit:

1 large grapefruit, 450g (or thin-skinned clementines)

160g caster sugar

100g water

15g cornflour mixed with 30g cold water

Heat oven to 180C. Grease or line a large loaf tin.

Put butter in a large heatproof bowl and place in oven to melt. Blend tea leaves and 50g caster sugar. (Skip this step if using teabags, as the tea is normally fine enough.) Whisk eggs, sugar and tea until thick and fluffy – a few minutes with an electric beater. Mix flour, baking powder and zest into egg. By now the butter should have melted – add the yoghurt to it. Add a little cake mix to the butter and yoghurt and whisk well to combine. Fold this into the cake batter. Pour into tin.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, turning the oven down to 170C after five minutes then 160C after 15. (My oven is so small and basic that it only does increments of 25 degrees, so my cake baked at 175C for the duration.) When the cake is nice and brown, has come away from the sides of the tin and a skewer comes out clean then it is done! Allow to cool for 10 minutes then remove from tin, place on cooling rack.

For the grapefruit confit:

Bring water to a boil in a medium-sized saucepan, enough to cover the grapefruit. Add whole grapefruit and let it simmer for 5-7 minutes. Drain, put grapefruit in a bowl of cold water. Repeat with fresh water. (Using a kettle to boil the water makes this step faster.) Slice grapefruit in half, then into very thin half-moons. Heat slices with the sugar and water and let simmer for 30 minutes the liquid is gone and the fruit is almost candied. Add the cornflour mixed with remaining cold water and give the confit a good stir. Boil for a couple of minutes. Tip into a jar.

Serve cake with confit and a dollop of yoghurt or crème fraîche.

Wrap cake in clingfilm and keep in the fridge. Or cut into individual slices, film each one and freeze for future packed lunches.

Chocolate passion-fruit torte

15 Nov

passionfruit torte 1

It always make me sad when, upon admitting what I do for a living, I am told “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly bake a cake for you!” I learned to be a pastry chef because I like to eat cake and because I know how much pleasure it affords to offer cake to others and have them enjoy it. Baking is a pure indulgence, both in the construction and consumption, a fairy tale of spun sugar. If people are afraid to bake for me, they lose out on that satisfied feeling of having created something totally frivolous and yet universally appreciated. What’s more, I would miss out on their speciality, their tricks and tastes. I love collecting others’ recipes and have miles more to learn.

My cousin said exactly that when she brought over my birthday cake and it turned out to be wonderful, a soft chocolate sponge iced with a mix of whipped cream and Greek yoghurt, covered all over with sweet shreds of coconut. (Almost like a reverse lamington?) It was actually a variation on my favourite kind of summer cake, sponge and fruit and cream. So when the family challenged me to make something for the next week, I had to think again.

passionfruit torte 2

This was the result, a total show-off’s torte, two punchy flavours and five different techniques. Soft almond meringue sponges sandwich glossy passion-fruit jelly, rich chocolate ganache and buttery passion-fruit curd, all iced with a delicate chocolate Chantilly. The thin layers all meld for a bittersweet mouthful, tempered by the luxurious cream. In reality though, it is not difficult to prepare, as long as you start the evening before so everything can cool. The sponges, less than a centimetre thick, take a few minutes to cook and the ganache and jelly are both left to set in cake tins so they can just be flipped out in the morning.

This quantity of passion-fruit curd makes more than you will need for the cake, but it uses up the egg yolks and is delightful on toast. (A friend of mine introduces me not as ‘Frances, pastry chef’ but ‘Frances, this one time she made passion-fruit curd…’ It is that good.) For a simpler cake, omit one or two of the layers: just use passionfruit jelly and curd, for example. Or easier still, make the meringue sponge then fill and decorate with Greek yoghurt and fresh passionfruit.

passionfruit torte 3

Chocolate passion-fruit torte

makes 12 elegant slices

The passion-fruit pulp I used came in a tin, 55% fruit including seeds, plus water and sugar. You can find it in supermarkets or speciality baking stores. G. Detou in Paris sells passion-fruit purée which is less sweet and has no seeds, so sweeten the curd and jelly accordingly. I wouldn’t recommend using fresh fruit simply because it will require too many, at least a dozen if not more. Alternatively, substitute with half orange and half lemon juice. 

The curd, jelly, ganache and Chantilly need to be made the day before. If  possible, assemble everything a few hours before serving. Continue reading

a giant jaffa cake (or les pimpants)

11 Sep

jaffa cake 2

The extraordinarily nice French flatmate is leaving for a few months in Berlin, to be replaced by a new English girl. I am testing each nationality – from Italian to French to English – as the perfect colocatrice. Luckily so far they all like tea as much as I do; we have collected at least 20 kinds over the last three years.

The progression reflects my life in Paris so far: first I made friends with Italians, because they were the most friendly and the most forgiving with my clumsy language; then I found some French friends, colleagues, even a boyfriend. I worked on improving my conversation, my subjunctive, my petit accent. I purposefully avoided anglophones. Then I got lazy – single again, I found a lovely group of Canadian, American and British girls with whom I could relax and be myself.

jaffa cake 5

Full circle. This cake too marks a circle. In the first year of university, a girl on my staircase discovered Pimp That Snack, and we passed sunny afternoons creating sugary monstrosities in the kitchen below the stairs. We made an enormous and heavy Jaffa Cake that fed more than a dozen people out on the quad. It was a good moment. (I forget when we studied?)

Now at least five years have passed, and the nice French flatmate tells me that les Pim’s were her favourite childhood snack. Les what? Somewhere the French got their wires crossed: though they admit that the little sponge cakes with orange jelly and a chocolate coating are indeed ‘so British’ they choose to name them (minus an M) after another British institution.

jaffa cake 1

She explained that she was furious by the Pim’s slogan when she was small, ‘biscuits pour adultes.’ Mais pourquoi! Not unlike the English advert I still remember, in which the school teacher eats all the Jaffa cakes herself while teaching astronomy: full moon, half moon…

For her leaving party then, another supersized Jaffa-Pim’s biscuit/cake. This time a la francaise, from a cute book called ‘La  Super Supérette,’ recipes to create all your (French) childhood favourites. The quantities will make 50 something biscuits or one sponge cake to feed eight. It is less hefty than the English sponge we made years ago, this is a thin génoise scented with orange zest. Not rich at all, almost exactly mimicking the fluffy and light shop version. A simple jelly made of marmelade and orange juice and of course a chocolate topping. It turned out remarkably like the real thing and vanished before you could say “total eclipse.”

jaffa cake 3

 

A  Jaffa Cake – or multiple ‘Pimpants”

makes 1 large cake or 50 small biscuits 

Recipe adapted from La Super Supérette – I suggest using the orange zest as well, so as not to waste the deliciousness.

25g flour

50g cornflour

1 tsp baking powder

a pinch of salt

75g caster sugar

zest of 1 orange

3 eggs

for the jelly:

250g orange marmelade

50g fresh squeezed orange juice (half a large orange or one whole small one)

1 tbs vanilla sugar (use caster sugar if not)

5g leaf gelatin

for the chocolate coating:

150g dark chocolate

~~~

Heat the oven to 180C. Grease a 22cm cake tin and line the bottom with greaseproof paper.

Sift the flour, cornflour, baking powder and salt together. Rub the orange zest into the sugar. Separate the eggs. Whisk the whites in a clean metal bowl (with an electric beater if you have one) until you get soft peaks. In another bowl, beat the yolks with the orange sugar until pale and tripled in volume. (You do not need to wash the beaters if you do it this way round – but for whites you should always start with clean dry utensils.) Carefully fold in the flour mix with a spatula, and then the whites, trying not to lose any of the air you have incorporated.

Pour into the tin and bake for about 20 minutes, until golden and the top springs back when pressed.

**If you want to make little biscuit versions, pipe small circles or dollop a heaped teaspoon worth onto a tray lined with greaseproof paper, and bake for 10 minutes.**

Meanwhile, prepare the jelly. Soak the gelatin leaves in very cold water. Heat the marmelade, orange juice and  sugar in a small saucepan until it bubbles, then remove from the heat. Let it cool to under 60C before adding the gelatin. Stir well. Line a shallow bowl, smaller than the size of the cake, with clingfilm. Pour in the jelly and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. (You can cheat and start it off in the freezer for 30 minutes.)

**For small biscuits, let the mixture cool until it starts to set, and spoon a little jelly onto each cake. Then refrigerate for 2 hours.**

Carefully flip the set jelly onto the middle of the cooled sponge, peel off the clingfilm. Melt the chocolate gently over a bain-marie, and smooth over the top with a spatula or palette knife. Let the chocolate set and enjoy!

jaffa cake 4

wild garlic

5 Jun

wild garlic in cup

This piece was originally written for the new and shiny Gravity Serpent zine.

Most of my memories are punctuated by something edible, one great meal or a transcendent piece of cake. That weekend in Cornwall will always be linked to wild garlic for me. It fixes the people in my mind more firmly, anchored by the scent of cliff paths and the taste of waxy new potatoes scattered with green.

My granny is lemons, always lemons: her fresh lemonade, her sticky lemon curd on soft white bread and that one time, stitched into family lore, when I had seven helpings of her lemon pudding. Now at the bakery when we have to squeeze hundreds of lemons for our special crème au citron, I think of her. When you zest enough, the little puffs of lemon oil given off form a thin mist that sparks green in the gas-fired hobs. And the smell conjures up my granny instantly.

At the moment, in her letters she is telling me lots of stories about her father, my great-grandfather, who was a psychiatrist as well as the author of several books on plants. According to her, “Wild Foods of Britain” was dashed off in the week before he was called up to be a naval doctor in WWII. It is a thin volume with simple line illustrations, matter of fact descriptions of each foraged herb, fungus or weed, and recipes with now-curious names like frumenty, kissel and caragheen mould. He is erudite with a dry wit. My favourite line so far comes under Pig Nut (Conopodium denudatum):

‘Caliban dug them with his fingernails but most people prefer to use a kitchen fork.’

I never met him, never could have, but through the stories and recipes he belongs to me somehow. He is a solid figure. Now I pay attention to all the food around us for the picking, though I couldn’t identify a pig nut to save my life. On holiday with my university friends in Cornwall, we picked the delicate white flowers whose stems, crushed between our fingers, were reminiscent of chives, a more subtle version of shop garlic. Finely sliced over boiled potatoes, with the bell-shaped flowers as a garnish, they made a perfect accompaniment to my most travelled recipe, mustard chicken. The one that I make to thank my hosts but also, in a selfish act of immortality, to have them remember me. It has made it as far as Australia and even onto a café menu, of its own accord. You need to allow a whole chicken leg and thigh, a big dollop of crème fraiche and a heaping teaspoon of mustard per person. It will certainly be more mustard than you think wise, but persevere. Massage it all into the chicken with salt and pepper, some cumin seeds if there are any lying around, and bake in a very hot oven. The mustard’s bite is tamed by the heat, leaving a crisp skin that is delightfully savoury, full of flavour.

We passed around bowls and plates, spun wine on the lazy Susan, laughing and talking over one another. I listened from the stove, mixing a last minute icing for the fresh banana cake. On just a short weekend in a seaside cottage, I didn’t have all the right bits and pieces, no whisk, no icing sugar. So just a packet of cream cheese, several tablespoons of raspberry jam and a squeeze of lemon juices. Light and sweet, flower-pink, rich but not cloying. The cake too was easy: two mashed ripe bananas, three eggs, some melted butter (about 50g), one small water glass of sugar, two of self-raising flour and a teaspoon of cinnamon. Mixed with a fork, poured into a greased tin and baked at about 180C for about 30 minutes, just enough time to run to the supermarket for chicken and wine and to pick some wild garlic from the path.

Now when I think of that meal, I can conjure all of the faces around the table. I hope they recreate and share the food too, or at least the memory of it. Sending a recipe off into the ether is almost as good as writing a book. It is a tangible piece of the past, the wild captured on our plates. It keeps that moment in the present; it keeps my friends close, and my great-grandfather as close as he will ever be.

Find information about the zine at gravityserpent.wordpress.com – or email gravityserpent@gmail.com to get your hands on a real paper copy.

upside-down pomegranate cake

3 Nov

More post! Lucky me. A black and white postcard of Clint Eastwood, and an envelope full of recipe cuttings. Something about having a paper copy is instantly more appealing to me. It makes me want to run to the kitchen, prop the recipe up in the toaster but still manage to smudge it with butter.

Digression. I like post and paper and also pomegranates. (Things beginning with P.) Apart from adding a jewelled touch to fancy salads, pomegranates have never seemed to me an obvious ingredient for baking. They are pretty on their own, red seeds hiding in the hard orb. Like pistachios, the pleasure comes in cracking them open and popping out the insides.

The picture for this recipe really showed off the fruit: a sparkling ruby slipper-made-cake. A layer of pomegranate seeds that melded into a buttery yellow cake with the help of a deep red caramel. It tastes just as it sounds. The cake itself is dense and rich with butter, just a touch of vanilla, the caramel-pomegranate top sweet but tangy.

We had it for afternoon tea, still warm. It was admired all round.

And now, a pomegranate peeling tip pinched from Smitten Kitchen (this is clearly a day for Ps): fill a clean sink with cold water. Score the pomegranate skin as if you were going to cut it in quarters, but just pull it apart with your hands and let it fall into the water. Crumble the seeds gently to separate and remove the inner membranes. The latter will float to the top and the seeds will sink. Scoop out the floating debris with a sieve and chuck out. Then scoop out and drain the seeds.

That was too many words for a simple concept. You get the idea: no explosions of scarlet pomegranate juice, no seeds squashed in the cutting. No fiddling.

Just like this cake, no fuss, delicious reward.

Upside-down pomegranate cake

from a French magazine of which I only have the initials CWF; they recommend POM juice or to halve a pomegranate and squeeze it like an orange

1 large pomegranate

for the caramel: 

150g sugar

100ml pomegranate juice

1 tsp lemon juice

for the cake: 

150g butter, melted

3 eggs

120g sugar

150g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp vanilla essence

Heat the oven to 180C. Melt the butter in it at the same time if you are being efficient.  Grease a large round cake tin and line it with baking paper.

Peel and de-seed your pomegranate. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring the sugar and pomegranate juice to a boil. Let it bubble away merrily for 5 minutes or so, until you only just start to smell caramel. (The colour is deceptive because of the juice.) Off the heat, stir in the lemon juice and tip into the cake tin. Swirl to coat the bottom evenly. Sprinkle your pomegranate seeds on top.

Whisk the eggs and sugar until thick and pale. Sift the flour and baking powder and stir into eggs, with melted butter (not too hot) and vanilla. When smooth, pour into tin to cover caramel/pomegranate seeds.

Bake for 35-40 minutes. When the cake has risen, come away from the sides of the pan and turned a nice golden-yellow, you should be done. Check with a skewer. Let it sit for 10 minutes, then run a knife around the edge, place a plate over it and turn upside down. Peel off the paper, replace any stray seeds.

Serve with crème fraîche or sour cream to balance the rich texture. Still good kept in a tin at least 3 days later. (I cannot verify further for it is All Gone.)

pain d’épices

15 Oct

Paris is a city of smells, runs the spiel of my tour-guide friend. Good smells, bad smells.*

He’s right. To descend into the metro is to risk being assailed by a whiff of urine, the remnants of lat night’s drinking binge. A smashed bottle of wine.

Equally, just around each corner comes the scent of the local boulangerie, the baugettes made fresh on the hour. It’s hard to wander around without noticing one smell or another. Plenty of flower shops too, their light, bright perfume reminding me of my childhood ambition to be a florist. Then there are the crepe stands, the roast chestnuts when the cold evenings draw in.

I am lucky enough that most of my day is punctated by one fragrant smell after another. I can tell when someone has opened the box of vanilla sugar at the end of the tiny kitchen. I love the moment that the cocoa biscuit sans farine comes out of the oven, a toasty, chocolate fug fills the small space. I don’t even hate squeezing 50 lemons at once (because of course, everything is fresh, down to the stinging cuts on our hands) because of the lemon oil that is released into the air.

And I get paid for this? Touch wood, lady.

The other day, while waiting for the charming flatmate in the Japanese quarter on rue St Anne I drifted into a spice shop. A spice boutique. A spice emporium?** It was Fancy, capital F. A black interior, lined with jars and jars of spices, whole and ground.

There was a display cabinet for various whole chilis displayed like driftwood, polished by the sea and washed up as seaglass. There was a whole table of bottles of vanilla to sniff. (I liked the one from Ile de Réunion  as well as the Madagascar.) I tested the different cinnamon sticks, admired the house blends of spices and rubs. Basically, I got lost to one of my senses for a few short minutes and came out happy and calm.

~~~

An appropriate recipe then, the ‘pain d’épices’ sometimes mistranslated as gingerbread, for it does not contain the quantities of ginger as the English adore but a mixed variation of cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, aniseed. It has a little rye flour and what seems to be an alarming amount of honey which creates a sweet but complex quick-bread that will stay moist for a long while. Just out of the oven it is a beautiful autumn brown with a coarse crumb: it begs for a slab of butter and a cup of tea. Later when slightly stale it will be easier to slice whisper-thin and toast to spread ripe goat’s cheese and chutney or even, luxury, foie gras.

~~~

*Apologies for shameless plagiarising, mate.

**J et O Roellinger – 53 rue st Anne, Paris 75002 – metro Pyramides

~~~

Pain d’épices

makes 1 loaf – as for the spices, feel free to play around if you haven’t exactly the same ones, only the French need to stick to the rules – a teaspoon of ground cardamon and /or aniseed would be nice, as would a tablespoon of molasses for an extra dark version

360 g dark, strong honey (preferably Corsican)

50 g brown sugar

75 g crème fraîche

80 ml milk

1 large egg

195g rye flour

65g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp ground coriander

1/2 tsp ground cloves

Preheat oven to 170C. Grease a large loaf tin (line with paper as well if it’s not non- stick).

Melt the honey and brown sugar in a small saucepan, not too hot. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Beat the egg, creme fraiche and milk together then add the honey a little at a time.

Sift the flours, salt, baking powder and spices. Mix everything together, tip into the tin. Bake for about an hour – turn the oven down to 150-160C after half an hour. If it goes brown too quickly, cover with tin foil. When it is done, it should have come away from the sides of the tin and a skewer stabbed in the middle will come out dry. Cool for 10-15 minutes then remove from tin so it does not stick.

Enjoy with butter, cheese and chutney or even pâté. Keep in an airtight tin or freeze wrapped in clingfilm.

stollen (step 1)

12 Oct

Since the beginning of September we have been determinedly preparing for Christmas. Long gone the days when, as children, my brother and I were forbidden to talk about Santa Claus until November.

In the bakery, we have been planning and executing Christmas logs for weeks. First the biscuit at the bottom, then the middle insert – a fine chestnut ganache or a passionfruit gelée – and finally the mousse. The freezers are small (space is limited in Paris for parks and bathtubs and commercial kitchens) and one of my most valuable skills is at the game of Puzzle, in order to find the space for one more log, a last stack of rum cakes into the chest freezers. That, and my unique ability to reach boxes down from the highest shelves. Like a superhero, me.

Besides these preparations one of my nicest colleagues has started on her Christmas presents. Just like for our rich moist rum cakes, the dried fruit in the stollen she is making has to be soaked for several months. Last year she gave away 25 of the sugar-dusted loaves, sweet with marzipan and the boozy fruit.

I love the idea: a universally appreciated Christmas cake, one that keeps and travels well. With 10 weeks to go (eek!) I might soak some fruit too, just in case I should miraculously find the time to bake stollen. Maybe not 25 of them. Worst case scenario, the dark rum perfumed with apricots, prunes and raisins can be skimmed off and used for Noel cocktails or added to hot grog with a little honey and lemon. Or the fruit could be stirred into icecream to make extra-special rum and raisin, or festive (alcoholic) pancakes or or or…

The recipe for stollen is still forthcoming, for the moment there is only the very easy:

Stollen, step 1

1 kg dried druit (raisins, apricots, prunes, cranberries, figs)

1 bottle dark rum (Negrita, for example)

Roughly chop the larger dried fruit (apricots etc). Tip all fruit into large container, cover with rum. (I used about three-quarters of the bottle.) Seal and leave for 2 months in a cool (not refrigerated) dark place.

pear and poppy tart

15 Jul

Sometimes you make a mistake. In trying to fix it, you only compound the error.

Soon, your hair is six inches shorter, from a desperate effort to even up the left hand side. Your cake looks like it has been attacked by a rabid horde of neon fruit, which is trying to cover the blurry squiggle of chocolate… that was supposed to cover the uneven cream.

That is to say, I had my final patisserie exam. I wished my efforts had been shinier.

Then I called my Granny to recount the whole thing. As cheerful and encouraging as she is, I had to tell it with a positive spin. And felt better as a result.

To celebrate, I baked a tart. (Twenty four hours later, when the shock had worn off.) This time too, I made mistakes. I could feel them. The butter wasn’t properly cold. An extra-large not a medium egg. The poppy flour was a fingers-crossed-no-scales guess. The pastry, not yet chilled, was sticky and recalcitrant. It got pushed into the pan anyway.

I poached some pears with a star anise. They turned soft and sweet and scented. In a rush to get outside, I forgot to pat them dry. Into the oven went an uneven tart shell, finger marks all over it. Pear juice threatening to run overboard.

Out of the oven came

“it’s a star!”

my friend said. A five-legged pear starfish nestled in almond cream, in a stony grey poppy shell. It was pretty. Definitely rustic. Like a classic French pear tart, but with a touch of spice. The earthy base of poppy seed flour adds colour and a indefinable nutty taste,

“like basement!”

said the same friend, searching for an appropriate simile. (Don’t listen to her, she had three slices.)

Sometimes you make a choice. You rush to get outside in time for sundown over the canal. Sometimes it turns out just right anyway.

Pear and poppy tart

for six – or two as a main course! I think ground walnuts would give a similar flavour and texture if you can’t get hold of poppy seed flour

3 small pears, unripe

500ml water

250g caster sugar

1 star anise

for the pastry:

160g plain flour

40g Mohn – poppy seed flour

80g caster sugar

100g butter, cold

1 medium egg

for the almond cream:

50g butter, softened

50g caster sugar

50g ground almonds

1 medium egg

for decoration: poppy seeds

Peel, halve and core/destalk the pears. Place in a large pan with the sugar, water and star anise. The water should just cover the pear halves. Cover and bring to a boil. Let simmer until tender – 15 minutes or so. Leave to cool in the liquid. (Remove the star anise if you leave them for longer than a few hours, it will be too strong otherwise.)

Make the pastry: mix the flours and sugar. Cube the butter and rub in lightly with fingertips to form a breadcrumb texture. Work in the eg and bring the mixture into a ball. Add a teaspoon of water if too dry. (You can do this in the food processor, if you like.) Flatten into a disk, clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Make the almond cream: whisk the softened butter and sugar until white and fluffy. Stir in ground almonds, then the egg a little at a time.

Preheat oven to 175C. Grease a 22cm tart tin or thereabouts. Roll out the pastry with a little flour, press into tin. If it is too sticky to roll, press it in with your fingertips. (There will be some leftover.) Smooth the almond cream over the pastry.

Drain the pear halves and pat dry carefully with a paper towel. Slice them very thin horizontally. Arrange each half on the almond cream, keeping the slices together like spokes in a wheel. (I could only fit five halves, so I ate the last one!)

Bake for 25-30 minutes until the shell is crisp and the almond cream set and turning golden-brown.

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