Saturday 27 September 2008

Preserving what's good

It's that time of year again - jams and preserves. Well, I'm actually a little late I suppose, but better late than never. J and I have quite often made jam together in the past, either with fruit from the garden (blackcurrants, damsons and gooseberries - not all together though!) or from the pick-your-own farm after an afternoon of picking (raspberry, redcurrant and a particularly memorable incident with a rather enthusiastic vat of strawberry jam - the ceramic cooker never did recover from the overflow of boiling sugar and fruit to which it was subjected!). Unfortunately neither of us have currently got any cultivated fruit bushes growing in our gardens (and embarrasingly for me this is because I forgot to plant my raspberry canes and gooseberry bush so they subsequently died - serve me right) but J's neighbour isn't particularly into gardening and her garden is overrun with various weeds. Some of these are brambles, which in the invasive way brambles do, are attempting to take over the world. Thus far they have made it into J's garden, so I was able to pick wild brambles. Yum! I love brambles and am quite willing to brave the inevitable scratches sustained during a picking session. There seemed to be plenty this year although some were rather overripe (J doesn't like brambles on account of them being too seedy) and I got enough to make jam. Blackberries don't contain very much pectin, so they are often partnered with apples to give enough pectin to allow the jam to set. I decided to take this a step further and as well as partnering them with apples (a natural partner - think blackberry and apple pie and crumble) used jam sugar which contains added pectin. This was a mistake as we'll see later! As far as I can tell, in UK supermarkets you can buy 'Jam sugar' which contains added pectin, ordinary standard granulated sugar and 'Preserving sugar'. Preserving sugar doesn't contain added pectin, but has larger crystals, which apparently makes for easier dissolving or some such - I've never used preserving sugar.
A quick point - as I'm sure you know, boiling sugar is extremely dangerous and can cause severe burns. Proceed with caution, having been duly warned. On the other hand, this isn't difficult, is extremely satisfying when you've done it and is good fun. I wouldn't want to put you off! A really good place to read more about jam making is Delia Smith's website. She gives all the background about preserving and also tells you how to sterilise jam jars at the bottom of this page. You can also get most of her recipes there (not just for jam, for everything!) free of charge.
Anyway, onto the recipe:
Blackberry and apple jam
375g/12oz apples (after peeling and coring - I used Bramleys)
1kg/ 2 lb blackberries (wild are best because they have a more intense flavour than cultivated)
150ml/1/4 pint water
1 1/2kg/3lb granulated sugar (don't need jam sugar!!!)
15g/1/2oz butter
- Put a couple of small saucers in the freezer - this is to test for setting point later.
- Measure sugar into a large ovenproof bowl and put into a low oven (about gas 2 or so) to warm up. This is not essential but helps the sugar to dissolve more quickly. Don't have the heat too high or the sugar will scorch.
- Slice apples thinly and put in saucepan with blackberries and water.
- Bring to the boil, reduce heat and cover pan, simmering gently for 10-15 minutes crushing fruit against sides of pan until soft and pulpy.
- Add warm sugar (be careful - bowl of hot sugar is unwieldy) and heat slowly, stirring all the time until the sugar dissolves (when the sugar has dissolved, you will no longer be able to feel grittiness when stirring the mixture, and when you lift out the wooden spoon you won't be able to see any sugar crystals on the spoon).
- Bring to boil, boil briskly (a rolling boil) for 10-15 minutes (or until setting point is reached - when you dribble a little jam onto a plate cold from the freezer it should wrinkle when you push it - see step 6). Alternatively wait for your sugar thermometer to reach 104C (according to wikipedia) and the jam should set. Check with the plate test if you want.
- Move pan off heat. Stir in butter to disperse scum. (I missed out this step - there didn't seem to be any scum on my jam!)
- Pot the jam into sterile jam jars, cover with waxed paper seals and then put lids onto jars. If, like me, you are reusing old jam jars with tamper evident seals, you will quite often find that a couple of hours later, as the jam is cooling and the air space above the jam shrinks, the seals will pop in. I like that. It's very satisfying!!!
- When cold label them. If you do it while they're still hot the labels drop off.
NB If you don't have this quantity of blackberries, scale the recipe, I think I may have halved it.
Jam at a rolling boil. You can just see the thermometer in the corner of the picture. There is a reason why this recipe isn't step by step and that the only photo I have of the jam is blurred. It's actually quite scary contemplating taking a photo of a boiling vat of sugar without someone else to help! Apologies for the picture then! You do need a big pan though.

Potting the jam up - the photo came out blurry because for some reason my camera decided that the teatowel in the background was a far more interesting subject matter than the jam in the foreground. Anyway, I was just trying to show the waxed disc on the top of the jam. You need to fill the jars as full as possible, and it's a good idea to have one more jar ready sterilised than you think you'll need, just in case.

One of the best ways to enjoy homemade jam - in a homemade scone with butter and a good cup of tea!!!

Hmmm, so I've kept saying that actually I didn't need to use that jam sugar with added pectin - this is why! I had a little excess jam which wouldn't fit into my jars, but wasn't enough to put in a new jar, so I just put it into a small bowl to eat later. It has set like a rock and has taken the shape of the bowl - you can't see that it isn't drooping over in the slightest but is standing erect and to attention. Ah well, it tastes great and that's all that really matters, but like I say, granulated sugar is probably all you need for this!!!

Wednesday 24 September 2008

Chocolate caramel mud cakes

Well, if the name isn't enough I don't know what'll tempt you to make these rather delicious little cakes. I recently treated myself to one of the Australian's Women's Weekly little cookbooks - Cupcakes and Cookies. I quite like this series, the books are small and light, perfect for carrying around and well priced, at £3.50 each, which is only about 20p more than the current food magazine prices in the UK. Plus you then have a neat little book to keep, rather than thinking about whether or not to throw away/recycle the magazine (I usually, well always I suppose, keep my magazines, and yes, I am running out of space to store them....) and whether those recipes you ripped out will ever get made or not. Anyway, I digress. This particular book has been well perused during coffee breaks at work and there is a large mental list of 'bookmarked recipes' in it. So I thought I'd make a start on them.
I had in mind the caramel mud cakes (pg 17, if you're interested!) but when it came to the time for cooking, I discovered I had no white chocolate. (Unheard of for me not to have every type of chocolate under the sun in the house, but it somehow came to pass - fear not though, I've now rectified this oversight and have a couple of bars of the white stuff stashed in case the urge to make the original recipe overcomes me.)
So, improvising like the best of them, I noticed a bar of fairtrade milk chocolate asking for a home:
Divine chocolate is a fabulous brand, and I am of the opinion that we should all do as much as possible to promote fairtrade brands. The divine website is great, I really recommend you visit it for all the background on their brand and also an explanation of the meaning of the West African Adinkra symbols used on the packaging. The 70% is rather good too..... So with the chocolate issue solved I decided that having modified the recipe slightly, I'd modify it again to be exactly what I wanted. The other recipe in the book that was crying out to be made was the coffee caramel cakes. So, dropping the coffee idea, but retaining the caramel (in the form of chunks added to the batter just before cooking) I set to work. (I was obviously intended to make the caramel cakes, as I'd even bought the right kind of toffees for them in the weekly shop!).
On to the recipe:
Chocolate caramel mud cakes
125g butter, chopped
100g milk chocolate, roughly broken
150g light muscovado sugar
90g golden syrup
160ml milk (I used semi-skimmed)
150g plain flour
50g self-raising flour
1 egg
12 Werther’s original chewy toffees, chopped into 3 each (not the hard candy ones) - NB these tend to annoyingly stick together again.

- Preheat the oven to 160ºC/140ºC fan assisted, line a 12 hole muffin tin with paper cases.
- Combine butter, chocolate, sugar, syrup and milk in a small saucepan; stir over a low heat until smooth. (Make sure the heat is low, and keep stirring – I think I had my heat too high and I ended up with a few lumps that I had to blitz with a stick blender). Transfer mixture to medium bowl; cool 15 minutes.
- Whisk sifted flours then egg into chocolate mixture. Divide among cases. (NB, mixture is extremely runny – I ended up pouring it into a measuring jug in order to be able to pour it into the cases).
- Place 3 pieces of toffee into each case – I just put them on the top, with the resulting caramel explosion – if you want, push them in a bit, I was worried they’d sink, but I don’t think they would.
- Bake for about 30 minutes until cocktail stick inserted comes out clean (NB don’t insert it through a bit of toffee!!!)
- Dust with icing sugar if you want, or make a buttercream and pipe it on, or enjoy as they are!!!!!

Mmmmm, all the yummy ingredients melting together.

Just out of the oven, the cupcakes tend to dip a little as they cool - as you can see from the top picture. I love the way the caramel pieces make the cupcakes look as if they are miniature volcanoes exploding!

These were an absolute hit at work - I actually had to type out the recipe for two people, which may not sound like very many, but I usually have to fish for compliments! (I know I should probably have more confidence and try not to care what other people think, but it's nice to know the cakes are good occasionally!) so it was nice that they went down well.

They are quite sweet and sticky, so depending on how much of a sweet tooth you have, you may want to pipe a little buttercream onto them, or just dust them with icing sugar (as you can see from the photos I didn't have time for either decoration, which was a shame, but they were well received without!).

Sunday 21 September 2008

Apple spice muffins

There was definitely an autumnal nip in the air the morning I decided to bake these (the weather has subsequently improved and we've had the nicest weekend for about two months or so but there's no accounting for the weather here at the moment) and so I wanted something slightly warming and using the apples just coming into season. I suppose cake baking isn't a particularly seasonal hobby - sugar, butter, flour and eggs don't really have seasons, but using other ingredients certainly adds a seasonal slant. The new season's apples are really coming in now, and the ones pictured above are Delbard Estivale. I may have said before that I do my shopping at the supermarket, as do many (although in an ideal world I'd avoid supermarkets) and the range of apples they have does tend to increase slightly in the autumn. Not as much as you'd think, given the massive range of apples that can be successfully grown in the UK, and there is still a preponderance of foreign apples, even in the middle of our season (similar to importing raspberries from the USA in middle of summer - why - it's sheer madness!) but at least they're trying.

I decided to deviate from my usual muffin recipe and try one from a little book I've had a while - Muffins - Fast and Fantastic by Susan Reimer. A Canadian who moved to the UK, she discovered that although recipes could be changed from cups to metric/imperial measurements, they didn't always work out properly. Having discovered why, and overcome the hurdles of baking in a different country (ounces, cup sizes, differences in flour being the main ones) she published this book, which contains lots of delicious recipes and variations (and handy hints for gluten free muffins).

The apple spice muffin recipe fulfilled my baking desires and here it is.

Apple spice muffins
245g self raising flour
1tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp mixed spice
85g caster sugar
1 egg
170g finely chopped apple (I used one apple - it weighed a little less than this, and then I lost some in coring etc, but it was ok)
150ml milk
90ml sunflower oil
50g raisins
2 tbsp demerara sugar, for topping

- Preheat oven to 200C/Gas 6. Place paper cases in a muffin tin (makes 10-12)
- In a large bowl, sift together the dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, spice and sugar.
- In a second bowl, beat egg with a fork. Stir in chopped apple and milk, followed by oil.
- Pour all of wet mixture into dry. Stir until just combined, adding the raisins in the last few strokes of mixing. Mixture should still look lumpy.
- Spoon into tins. Sprinkle with the demerara sugar if you want a crunchy topping. Bake about 20-25 minutes until tops are lightly browned and spring back when pressed gently. Cool for several minutes to make removal easier.
- Remove to wire rack and allow to cool completely.

These are really delicious muffins. Lots of different textures due to the juicy apple, chewy raisins, the lovely crunchy sugar topping and the light cake. Went down extremely well at work.

Monday 15 September 2008

Banana bread

Hmmm, I seem to have had a bit of a hiatus - I can't believe I haven't blogged for so long. In my defence, I had to finish the thesis for my masters and hand it in by the 5th September, so in spite of having spent ages writing it up last year I found I still had plenty to do on it. So I lost a weekend of baking to finish that instead. But enough moaning, it's handed in now, yippee!!! Then the following weekend I was packing up for a week long training course for work, so sadly no time for baking then either. Anyhow, one of the consequences of being away for a week was the rather sad looking banana you see above. It had some friends too, and banana cake was crying out to be made. I've tried a few different banana cake recipes over the years, with a particularly successful variation being chocolate banana cake. I've tried a different recipe a couple of times, the first time didn't work, the second was slightly better, but still not edible so I've abandoned that recipe and stuck with a tried and tested recipe.
This one is a winner, and comes from Sue Lawrence. I perhaps shouldn't say this, but I haven't had a failure from her recipes and have a few of her books. This particular banana bread is from her 'Book of Baking' and is in the healthy section. I'm not so sure about that, but I suppose it's healthier than chocolate brownies or cupcakes topped with swirls of buttercream. It is, however, absolutely delicious - the bananas keep it really moist but not squidgey and the spice is very subtle. I like it on it's own at breaktime or lunchtime, but it would make a fantastic dessert with sliced bananas and custard poured over the top. Mmmm, custard! And since I've still got a couple of pieces in the freezer, I think that's what I'll do with one of the remaining pieces. A fitting end for an unloved and overripe banana.

Anyway, on to the recipe.
Banana bread
150g light muscovado sugar
85g unsalted butter, softened
2 large free range eggs
3 medium ripe bananas (weight before peeling about 400g), mashed (I used two very very ripe bananas - the riper the better)
250g self-raising flour
scant 1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
-Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4 and butter and base line a 900g/2 lb loaf tin.
-Cream the sugar with the butter, then add the eggs one by one.
-Stir in the mashed bananas, then sift in the flour, nutmeg and a pinch of salt. Once well combined, tip into the prepared tin and bake for about 1 hour 10 minutes, covering loosely with foil for the final 20 minutes or so. It is ready when a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.
-Remove to a wire rack and cool in the tin for 20-30 minutes. Remove from the tin and leave on the rack to cool completely before cutting (this is extremely difficult because the cake smells so so divinely gorgeous during the baking that you want to slice a piece off as soon as humanly possible!!!). Sue Lawrence says that it crumbles if you cut it warm. I managed to wait, and my slices were fine!

The whole delicious sticky looking cake. If you can leave it for a couple of days the top becomes even more moist and sticky and delicious.

Cut up and ready to take into work. This was a well received cake. They just didn't receive quite as much of it as they might have done ;-)

Monday 1 September 2008

Victoria sponge cake

Sometimes simplicity is what you crave. Victoria sponge is what to make if you want the ultimate in simplicity, yet still want something very special indeed. Personally, I always think of Victoria sponge as slightly mundane, boring even. I mean, who wants plain sponge when you could have chocolate? But that's the chocoholic in me speaking and as I have been known to be wrong, I thought I'd give this another go. I suppose it also reflects a slight lack of confidence on my part - with a plain sponge cake there is nowhere to hide if it goes wrong. Thankfully it didn't go wrong, in fact this may be the best sponge cake I've made.
The simplicity of the ingredients means that you have to go all out for the best. For me, that means proper butter (and remembering to get it out of the fridge in time to soften enough to make the cake) good vanilla extract, a generous slug of vanilla is called for here and really flavoursome jam for the middle of the cake. I used Bonne Maman raspberry.
I used Delia Smith's recipe for an all-in-one sponge cake. However, my butter wasn't quite soft enough so I creamed the butter and sugar together first and then added the flour and eggs along with 1tsp baking powder all at the same time. A slight cheat, but I didn't want to risk the mixture curdling - quite a lot of my mixtures seem to curdle slightly and the all in one method avoids this. So apologies cake purists, but my Victoria sponge turned out very well; it was moist and tasty and it was quickly snaffled up by my ever willing colleagues.
I used a three egg mix and divided it between two 8" sandwich tins, baking for 35 minutes at gas 3 1/2 but with hindsight I would have used a four egg mix, for a slightly deeper, more decadent cake.

Baked cake ready to be spread with yummy jam. I turned the bottom layer upside down to ensure that I had a flat surface for spreading the jam, and so the upper layer would sit evenly.
Generosity with the jam is called for here - it's a very quick cake to put together. I did mine in the morning before going into work.

Well, I think that says it all really doesn't it?!

I'm entering this cake into Sweet and Simple Bakes August Bake.


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