Dunk Dastardly & The Unsinkable Biscotti

Sunday mornings are one of my favourite times to be up early (I like to begin baking before everyone wakes up) & this weekend was no exception.  The stunning sunrise at  “OMG it’s early” o’clock was glorious, bringing with it a bright, albeit chilly, day & …. (drumroll please) …. a new hob!  After being hob-less for eight very long weeks now, you can imagine my eager anticipation!  With a fresh biscotti & coffee in hand, I sat fantasising about heavenly hob cooking: silky Spaghetti alla Carbonara, rich risotto & fat, fluffy pancakes – it was as if my Fairy Godmother had popped in for a coffee & brought Prosecco instead!

While the two great guys from a well-known electrical company (think spicy food) turned up & got to work fitting the new hob, I discovered they had been on the road since 6.30am with no breakfast or coffee (& they were still smiling!).  Obviously, I had baked & there was a selection of biscotti & breakfast bars for them to share, as my way of thanking them (I did the Mum thing too, packing them off with a little bag of goodies).  Big thanks to Michael & Steve, you are stars!

Italian food has always been my passion & when our Son was working in Naples last year, we would chat almost daily about the amazing food there, the fabulous people, wonderful fresh food markets, coffee, Grappa & of course, the Biscotti!  Biscotti are one of our favourite treats, especially as they travel well & can resist a good dunking in a drink.  When you’re having a relaxing afternoon break sipping your caffè macchiato, you want a good solid biscuit to dunk.  That first, almost trepid, dip as you submerge it a little into the steamy liquid & the smug relief you feel as you retrieve it is quickly replaced with sheer horror, as you helplessly watch collapsing chunks plunge back into your cup!  It’s happened to us all & when your dunk is sunk, no matter how fast you try to spoon it out, it’s gone to the bottom of that cup faster than a brick & is now a murky, mushy mess waiting for you to sup up.

It’s as if biscuits are just not dunkable anymore – they lull you into a false sense of security, thinking their dense sweetness will hold up to that cappuccino you’re so carefully clutching – believe me, it won’t!  Then there’s that sneaky fracture, the one you can’t see until it’s too late & half of your biscuit is bobbing around like flotsam on a coffee pond, the rest sunk to the dark depths of your cup.

However, there is something to make difficult dunking a thing of the past: the bellissimo Biscotti.  Actually, to refer to these luxurious lovelies as a mere biscuit doesn’t do them justice!   Here’s a bit of history for you:  Biscotti comes from an old Latin word “biscoctus”, which basically means twice-baked.  In the old days, storage options were quite limited & so by cooking them twice, the biscotti would keep for a lot longer & still be good to eat (I knew those Latin lessons would come in handy one day!).  For a while, I’ve been buying them from a little local supermarket & at one point, we had a serious stock pile in the pantry (just in case there was a world shortage, you know).  Recently however, they didn’t have any & our stash was running low, so my Husband (who adores them as much as I do) suggested I make some.  Challenge accepted! This recipe is for a nutty biscotti called Cantuccini & although I’ve adapted it slightly, it’s as close to a traditional recipe that I can get, so I hope our Italian friends like it as much as we do!

What you need:

300g Plain Flour
175g Golden Caster Sugar (or use Golden Demarara Sugar & chuck it in the coffee grinder until fine)
2 large Eggs
25g melted salted Butter
1 heaped teaspoon of Baking Powder
Half a teaspoon of Vanilla Extract
200g whole Almonds (or 100g each of Hazelnuts & Almonds)
Zest of an Orange (optional – you can make it with either nuts, zest or both)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 180*C.

Firstly, you need to toast your nuts.  Lay a sheet of greaseproof paper on a baking tray & evenly spread the almonds (& hazelnuts too if you’re using them).  Place the tray in the oven & let them toast up for about ten minutes, until their colour deepens slightly & you can smell their toastiness.  Once done, turn the oven down to 150*C & remove the nuts from the oven.  Gently ease the greaseproof paper, with the nuts on top, onto a chopping board (not a plastic one!).  Leave to cool for about five minutes or so.

Wearing oven gloves, pick up a small handful of the nuts & gently massage together in your hands, which will remove some of the papery skin easily.  Chop the nuts into large pieces – you want to be able to taste the nuts in your Biscotti, so take it easy when chopping.  Set to one side for later.

Prepare your orange for zesting by giving it a good wash in some warm soapy water.  It’s best to use unwaxed or organic oranges for this, as the last thing you want is a mouthful of icky wax!  Once washed & dried, get a fine cheese grater or zester & give it firm, quick strokes to just skim the top off the skin – if you’re getting the white pith underneath as well, you’re doing it too hard (don’t take the pith – it’s bitter).  Set the zest aside too.

Get a couple of medium-sized mixing bowls – one for the dry ingredients, one for the wet. In one bowl, sift the baking powder & flour together.  In the second bowl, crack the eggs in, add the sugar & vanilla extract.  Whisk well for a couple of minutes or so by hand until it becomes a creamy coloured, glossy mixture, then gradually pour in the melted butter & whisk again as you do so.

Add the zest & mix well, then pour the creamy mixture into the dry ingredients, stirring well with a spatula & as everything begins to combine, tip in the chopped nuts & mix to form a firm dough.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured worktop & shape into a flattish sausage shape, about half an inch deep & roughly three inches wide.  Carefully transfer onto a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper, cutting the sausage into two equal portions if necessary & leaving a couple of inches gap between the two on the tray.  Make sure any escaping nuts are squished back into the dough, otherwise they might burn & spoil your biscotti.

Place in the centre of the oven & bake for about 25-30 minutes, until firm & slightly risen.  Slide them onto a cooling rack & leave for about 10 minutes or so, keeping the greaseproof paper on the baking tray for later.

Once cool enough to handle, cut the large biscotti into slices, about half an inch wide.  Return them to the greaseproof lined baking tray, standing up & slightly separated, then pop them back in the oven for about 20 minutes for round two, until lightly golden & bronzed on top.  I like to turn the tray around halfway through, just to make sure they are toasted all around.

Remove from the oven, leave to cool completely on a wire rack & your biscotti are ready!  They make great gifts, or will keep for a week or so in a jar (if you hide them, otherwise they last about an hour if you’re lucky!).  I also like to use them as a base for no-bake cheesecakes (I make a mean lemon cheesecake with these crumbled up).

Traditionally, Biscotti are dipped in a glass of gorgeous Vin Santo wine, but these unsinkable beauties can be enjoyed with a coffee whenever you need a nutty nibble.  So for a dastardly dunk, be brave with a bellissimo Biscotti!  Stay hungry 😉 A x

 

Cakes, Cookies & Celebrations!

It’s been a very busy couple of weeks here, so apologies for the delay in writing – we had three birthdays within the first three days of August, plus there are a few more to come & a wedding anniversary at the end of the month.  The anticipation of August arriving always hits me as July begins & reminds me of when I was younger – birthday parties being planned by my Mum, all kinds of pastries & party foods being prepared & she would always bake me a lovely birthday cake.  One year, she made me a fabulous cake in the shape of a punk rocker’s head, covered in fluffy buttercream & complete with a magnificent multi-coloured mohican hair style! Everyone loved it & we all had different coloured tongues by the end of the party!  If only I had a photo of that cake, but it didn’t last very long!

My Grandma used to make the most amazing velvety rich chocolate cake, which was a well-loved family favourite.  It was truly lovely – light, creamy chocolate buttercream would sandwich the fluffy, moist layers of cake together & completely coat the outside in a smooth, simple layer.  Grandma would freeze some, so she always had a slice ready for unexpected visitors (you never know when you will need cake!).

It doesn’t matter what your age is, everyone likes a good birthday cake & for me, homemade means so much. Someone has taken the time to create something personal, just for you, rather than nipping down to their local supermarket & buying one (I’m not dissing shop-bought cake – some are lovely, but it’s just not the same).  When I worked in an office, I would make cakes for business clients & deliver them on the way to work as a surprise. Now I just do it for family & friends – sometimes I’ll even make a bunch of flower cookies (edible flowers – what’s not to love?!).  It’s just a nice way to help someone start their special day with a smile!

The best recipes are those that work for you with little fuss & no faffing – the “chuck it in a bowl & whisk” kind of recipe.  This is that kind of recipe, because I love how easy it is.  I have adapted a traditional Victoria Sponge recipe that was handed down to me & it is quite versatile – I have adjusted it to make various other cakes over the years, so you might want to try adding other ingredients & have a play around to find your favourite too – my Husband absolutely loves the coffee & walnut version of this cake.   One tip I will share is to go easy on the wet ingredients, as they will affect the moisture of the cake & you might just end up with a soggy mess. Cake is all about balance, so remember that when you are baking & you won’t go far wrong.

What you need:

4 oz Plain Flour*
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
4 oz Softened Margarine or Butter (personal choice here)
4 oz Vanilla Sugar (pop a vanilla pod in some sugar overnight)
2 large Eggs

* If you are making chocolate cake, replace 1 oz of flour with 1 oz of cocoa powder, plus a teaspoon of coffee granules – trust me, this will make the chocolate flavour more intense.

(These amounts make a dozen cupcakes or a 7 inch sponge cake, so you might want to double the recipe to make more, depending on the size of your cake/party – for each 2 oz of additional ingredients, add one egg & one teaspoon of baking powder).

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 190*C.

Prepare your tins – lightly grease with butter, then sprinkle flour inside & tap it all around to cover the butter, shaking out the excess.  This makes them sort of non-stick & the cake will be much easier to remove later.

Cut out a circle of greaseproof paper to the size of the base of your tins & lay in the bottom.

Cream the butter & sugar in a mixing bowl – you can do this by hand with a wooden spoon or with an electric mixer (I have done both & it takes about the same time).  The colour of the mixture will become a light cream & the sugar will lose it’s grittiness.

Measure the flour into a separate bowl & add the baking powder.  If you are using cocoa powder, add this along with a teaspoon of instant coffee granules.

Crack one egg into the creamed butter & sugar, then sift in half of the dry ingredients.  Cream these together to make a smooth cake batter, either by hand with a wooden spoon or with an electric mixer.

Repeat the above step with the remaining egg & dry ingredients.

If you are making chocolate cake, add a splash of milk (about a tablespoon is enough) & whip it up again briefly, just to incorporate everything.

Pour the batter into your prepared baking tin, using a spatula to ensure you get it all out of the bowl.  Smooth gently to the edges of the tin to make a level cake, then put in the centre of the oven for 18-20 minutes.  It is important that you do not open the oven during the cooking time & make sure there are no draughts – any gust of air will make your cake go sad & sink in the middle.  If it does this, don’t worry about it too much – you can always cut the cake into pieces & use it to create a different shape.

Test the cake is cooked by inserting a skewer in the centre of the cake.  If it comes out clean, the cake is cooked.  If not, give it another couple of minutes or so in the oven.

Once cooked, place the tin on a cooling rack & leave for a couple of minutes to cool.  Slide a pallet knife around the edge of the cake to separate it from the tin, then gently tip it onto the cooling rack to cool completely.  Never leave your sponge in the tin to cool completely – it will just go heavy & dense.

While the cake is cooling, make your filling.  If you’re making chocolate cake, you really need a chocolate filling.  I have on occasion used a jar of chocolate spread – it’s OK, but it needs to be very soft to do this so pop the open jar in a pan of warm water (not boiling though!), just for a couple of minutes.  It should loosen up nicely & then you can spread it between the cake layers.  If your cake is going to be eaten that day, you could always use fresh cream, whipped up with a teaspoonful of icing sugar to help keep it firm.  However, if you’re making a cake in advance, I recommend homemade buttercream as this will keep for a few days in an airtight container & it freezes well too.

To make the buttercream, you will need to use 5oz softened butter or margarine (again, this is just personal choice) & 10oz icing sugar.  This is more than enough to fill & cover a double layer cake or a dozen cupcakes.

Using a flexible silicone spatula, beat the butter to make it soft & smooth.  Add half of the icing sugar & using the back of the spatula, press the sugar into the butter to make a paste.  Once all the icing sugar has been mixed in, add the rest & repeat.  You should be left with a very thick buttercream icing (yes, your arms might ache a bit, but that’s the hard bit done).  If you do it this way, you don’t get clouds of sugar dust in the kitchen & everywhere else (your hair, your clothes, the kids, the cat – you get the idea).

In a bain-marie, melt a small bar of milk chocolate (about 3-4oz should be sufficient).  If you don’t have a bain-marie, put some boiling water in the bottom of a pan & a bowl over the top with the chocolate in it (not touching the water!).  This is great if you’ve got broken leftover bits of chocolate in the pantry (yes, even I laughed at that – leftover chocolate is a myth in our house, just like leftover wine).  Once melted, let it cool for a few moments before pouring it into your buttercream (otherwise it will curdle & you will have to start again).  Give it a good whisk (get the electric one out for this), until the chocolate is mixed in & then add a tablespoon of milk, just to give it a silky smooth consistency & a nice satin sheen.  It should be easy to work with & thick, so you can either pipe it onto your cake or use a pallet knife to spread it onto the layers.

Once you’ve smoothed your buttercream onto your cake, you should start decorating it before the chocolate sets!  I like to use huge white chocolate buttons to add a bit of contrast, some of my own chocolates (I made a heart shaped cake for my Husband’s birthday using them), or pipe on some chocolate swirls & squiggles all over – it’s your design, so have some fun!  That way, every one is unique & you can even do some chocolate writing on top – just melt your chocolate as I mentioned before, put into a piping bag made from some greaseproof paper, then snip off the end & get writing!  Once everything is finished, pop your cake into the fridge for an hour or two to set (this also makes it easier to slice).

If you make cupcakes instead of a large cake, these are more portable & you can make all kinds of fabulous treats!  Create cupcakes with googly eyes using mini marshmallows & different sizes of chocolate buttons, or make cupcake shoes adorned with pretty pink cookie flowers.

Remember, this is cake – it’s for eating & you’re not going to hang it in the Louvre, so if it’s not perfect, that’s OK.  Get the kids involved, have fun creating your own mini masterpieces & enjoy yourselves!  Make some cake, make a mess & make some memories.  Whenever your special day is, have a Happy Birthday! A x

 

The Swiftest Sweet & Sour!

It’s not every weekend that my son comes home to visit, because we all have such busy lives, jobs, uni, etc, but a couple of weeks ago he finished his work & drove up here with his friend as a surprise, knowing that there would be a mini feast (yes, I know – I don’t do mini, let’s just say it was more of a small banquet).  I’m not sure what other parents feel like when their adult offspring come home, but for me it’s an opportunity to whip up some of his favourite foods & spoil him whilst he’s here (for my husband, it means he can share the truckload of treats I make).  The hardest decision the guys have to make is what they want to eat (I try to limit them to about half a dozen options, because I want to eat before midnight).   Within half an hour, the whole weekend’s main meals have been decided (along with a few breakfast requests thrown in for good measure!).

By the time my son arrived it was very late & a takeaway-style dinner was ready: homemade sweet & sour chicken with egg fried rice, along with a few bowls of locally bought prawn crackers (even I draw the line somewhere & the Chinese restaurant up the road makes the most lovely huge, crispy crackers, so it would be rude not to buy them).

That afternoon, I had already filleted a chicken & put everything in double bags in the fridge, so had some prep done.  You can use any meat really, or leave it out altogether (it tastes just as good either way).  If you’re going to use the legs, fry them in a little oil to brown them on the outside & crisp up the skin, sealing the juices in, then pop them into a casserole dish with a lid on – they don’t need to be cooked through at this stage, they are going to be slowly baked in the oven in a sauce.  If you use the darker, thicker meat (on the bone or not), it needs to be cooked low & slow (low heat, longer time).  Once cooked through, use a sharp knife or skewer to pierce the meat & if the juices run clear, then it’s cooked.  I usually give it an hour at 180*C, baked in the middle of the oven, just to be sure.  The meat usually falls apart, so it’s easy to tell that it’s cooked.

Obviously, this was not one of those occasions where I had much time, as I needed to make dinner at warp speed!  I sliced chicken breast thinly (so it cooks quicker) & fried the pieces in a large skillet with a little oil until opaque (white with no pink bits showing), while I started to prepare all the other ingredients – grated fresh ginger, finely chopped garlic, thinly sliced strips of multi-coloured peppers & button mushrooms, wafer thin wheels of chopped spring onions, all laid on a plate ready to be stir-fried into a beautiful, bright blend.   Sometimes, I chuck in some strips of baby sweetcorn & a few slices of water chestnut, it just depends on what I’ve got in the fridge or pantry.

Everything is stir-fried in a hot skillet, before I add some smooth tomato ketchup (trust me on this), a good splodge of honey & a splash of balsamic vinegar, with a few spots of light soy sauce mixed in.

Plump pineapple chunks are sprinkled across the top, sinking into the simmering sauce like little yellow pebbles.   Then everything gets tipped into a casserole dish, lid on & goes into the oven (on very low), just to keep warm while I make the egg-fried rice.  

Egg fried rice is one of those really easy foods that I love making – it takes a couple of minutes in a hot pan & that’s it.  Once you’ve drained your rice, heat the pan with a little oil in it (I use olive oil for everything & it tastes fine, but it’s up to you).  Beat a couple of eggs in a bowl & tip into the hot pan, using tongs or chopsticks to stir fry around the pan until just cooked, then add the rice & stir well together until everything is combined.  That’s it!   Actually, that’s when I have to tell my boys to wait until I’ve dished up, because they’re jostling behind me with plates, ready to eat!

Once everyone has their plateful of sweet & sour chicken, with a small hillock of egg-fried rice, there’s a big bowl of prawn crackers on the table & a bottle of soy sauce to sprinkle on.  All you can hear then is crunching & munching, along with “is there any more?”, before they’re dashing into the kitchen to scoop another spoonful onto their plates.

So next time you fancy a takeaway, have a go at making your own!  A x