Christmas biscuits

These are actually molasses spice cookies, or in England, treacle spice biscuits, or as my team at work call them, Christmas biscuits. What’s in a name? Any biscuit with a similar blend of spices would smell as seasonal. These, though, also have a  delicious combination of textures, a little crunchy on the outside but meltingly smooth inside.

You’ll need all of this. It looks like a lot, and you can miss out the cloves or allspice if you don’t have them, or skimp on the ginger and cinnamon a bit. Or, as I’ve discovered while writing this out, you can just about get away with 1/3 cup of treacle rather than 1/2. Oops.  But the recipe really is better with everything thrown in.

  • 11 oz/ 2 1/4 cups of plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 1/2tsps ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 tsps ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp ground allspice
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 6 oz/1 1/2 sticks butter, softened
  • 2 oz/1/3 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
  • 2 oz/ 1/3 granulated sugar + some more for rolling the biscuits in
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup treacle

Line a baking tray with baking parchment and heat the oven to 200C/375F.

Whisk the flour, spices, baking powder, pepper and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.

You’ll be adding the flour mix to the wet ingredients, so in a large bowl, beat the sugars with the butter until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolk and vanilla extract and beat again until it’s all combined. Add the treacle, and beat again until that’s all mixed in.

Gradually blend in the flour until it’s thoroughly mixed in.

Pour some granulated sugar onto a small plate, and get a small bowl of cold water ready. Dip your hands in the water, then use a tablespoon measure of biscuit dough and roll it into a ball. Roll the dough in the sugar (the water will make sure the sugar sticks) and pop it on the baking tray. Leave about 2in between each biscuit.

Bake until the biscuits are brown and cracked. This should take about 10-11 minutes but you’ll need to turn the tray halfway during the baking. If you aren’t sure if they’re ready, flip one over. It should be nicely brown on the bottom.

Leave the biscuits to cool for a few minutes on the tray, then move them to a cooling rack.

If you want to be fancy, you can mix up a bit of icing and drizzle that over them once cool.

Baking round up

My poor, neglected blog. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about it, it’s just that thought has not translated into action. I did consider calling time completely; but not for very long, which means instead I have to pull my finger out and post something for the three remaining readers (You guys! I love you guys!)

So here’s a baking roundup, just to get started again. I’ve been doing a fair bit of baking. It started as something to keep me busy during The Archers omnibus on Sunday mornings. Then I made a couple of things for the office, and now I’ve got a list of requests and am more valued for my baking than my professional skills. Oh well.

Mini Bakewells

My recollection of making a Bakewell tart was that it was a  right hassle, so I wasn’t loving this request. But, they actually turned out to be easy and delicious. I discovered that my mince tart pan is better than the muffin pan, and also that the recipe was a bit stingy with the jam. I get through the best part of a jar with a batch of these.  GetAttachment-1.aspx

(Rustic) Chocolate eclairs

Yes. Well. The choux pastry actually turned out fine but it would not pipe through my icing set and I didn’t have an eclair mould. Turns out that you fill a pastry shell with sweetened cream and drizzle chocolate on the top, and no one really complains. But I need to try these again, this time with an eclair mould.

Chocolate eclairs

Lemon drizzle cake

Of which I do not have a picture because the darn cake sank in the middle. I thought I might have used the wrong sized loaf tin, but nope, I don’t have that excuse. I just messed it up. I regularly knock half the baking time off recipes because my oven is a furnace, so it might be the old opening-the-oven-door-too-soon problem. Regardless, I took the sad, sunken cake round to my sister’s studio, because her attitude is ‘It’s cake, innit?’ Apparently it tasted fine, but why did it sink? Why? I’m going to have to make the damn thing again and get it right.

Spiced apple cake

This has turned into a bit of a favourite of mine. It’s dead simples for a start, but it’s also lush and you can eat it warm as dessert. Custard would work well. Oddly, this one does require full baking time, which in my oven means putting a foil hood on it halfway through so the top doesn’t burn. On a more recent version, I drizzled agave syrup across the top and sprinkled it with brown sugar.

Spiced apple cake

Coffee and walnut cake with Kahlua icing

This was your basic coffee sandwich cake, slathered in icing that simply wafted booze. I say Kahlua, it was a Tesco’s knock off I bought on the grounds that it was only for icing and I’m never going to drink the stuff. Still, it went down well with its intended recipients. I didn’t try it because I don’t like coffee flavored cake, so what do I know.

GetAttachment.aspxVictoria Sandwich cake

A good Viccy Sandwich is pretty much my favourite type of cake, and I cannot make one that I think is up to scratch. The last one was fine and garnered favourable comments but still. In some unidentifiable way, it wasn’t quite right. I think that the cake cooks on the top and round the edges too quickly, which means that by the time the centre is cooked, the edges are getting a bit dry for my liking What do I do about that? Will reducing the oven temperature help? Or position in the oven?

Victoria Sandwich

Good things

This may or may not be a new, regular post, depending on how much of a grumpy cow I am. Yeah, all right, I know, you can stick those smart ass comments… Wait… Oh… #fail…

Anyway, as a start, good things of the week, in no particular order. So there:

  1. Purring cats. Charlie has hurt his paw a bit, so is asking for lots of sympathy. The fact that he still climbs and play-fights with Belle says that he’s fine, really.
  2. The sourdough starter that’s looking like it’ll work; and the 2-quart Kilner jar to keep it in. Sunday will be the literal proving.
  3. Dinner with the ever-fabulous Ms G.
  4. My first trip to the Sackler library, in which I got my account sorted out and figured out this year’s printing/copying system.
  5. The fact that it’s light in the morning by the time I leave.
  6. These shoes that I just ordered. In red. Because one day, it will be spring. Oh yes.
  7. The mini-stack of Persephones awaiting my attention, plus the copy of Small Gods that is on the way, and which sort of counts as research. Plus, the illustrated hardback of Gormenghast that is on its way, which totally counts as a gratuitous book-buying treat. Mwah ha ha ha.
  8. A thank you card from my friend Ms H for her Christmas present.
  9. The flowers the GOM bought. He does keep me in flowers, as is only right and proper.
  10. Going to my first yoga class in forever and lasting most of it.

In which I set ridiculously easy goals for 2013

It’s the time of year for good intentions, but given that all I really want is a quiet year, I’m not shooting for anything difficult.

  1. Make sourdough bread (the starter is already underway)
  2. Make lemon curd – inspired by this post from Dovegrey Reader
  3. Make croissants. Because really, how hard can they be?
  4. Revise my MPhil proposal for the OU (I checked with the tutor, and the OU are still interested; and today I got a Bodleian card so I can go back to the lovely, lovely Sackler Library and geek out with the Classics journals).
  5. Do more yoga. This is kind of a perennial aim, but I really can’t keep getting to the end of the year in such an exhausted, stressed state and then losing a week to illness.
  6. Read one Patrick O’Brian book every month
  7. Make at least one trip to the US
  8. Go to more plays. The Oxford Playhouse has a fair range of stuff showing and it’s possible to get very cheap tickets. I should take more of a punt than I do.
  9. Write more letters or postcards  – which shouldn’t be hard given that I barely put pen to paper last year.
  10. Finish vol 3 of Proust.
  11. Do more walking.
  12. Eat more healthily. This isn’t too much of a deal, I just need to break the carbs habit again.

Ok, that’s enough. And I totally reserve the right to change, ignore or abandon this list at whim.

Wondering what to read

Last week I finished Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, which might get its own post if I’m not too lazy. I found the book difficult for a couple of reasons: it uses phonetic spelling and I always struggle with variant spelling; and I’m not sure I understood all the riddles that were encompassed within that spelling and the traditional tales that were recounted.

Anyway, I do know that I want to read something entirely different next, which should be easy because I’ve never read anything that is like Riddley Walker. I just can’t make my mind up. I think this is partly down to book guilt. I bought three books last Saturday and then read them all over the remainder of the weekend, in an orgy of book gluttony of which I enjoyed every page. So now I ought to read something off my paltry TBR pile, but nothing takes my fancy.

Then, too, I’m trying to stop using Amazon in favour of local book shops. Let’s face it, I must spend about a grand a year on books, and Amazon don’t need my money when they’re getting everyone else’s. For a small business owner, though, a thousand quid can be a lot of money. And in fact, it’ll probably be more than that, because not using Amazon means I’m paying full price for my books. I don’t begrudge it, but it does make booksluttery an expensive habit. All of which means I should not nip into Woodstock and buy that biography of Wilkie Collins that Peter Ackroyd just wrote, because it’s 12 quid at least for a slim hardback I could read by lunchtime. (Authors! Write longer books!)

I don’t want total fluff, I want to put some effort in, but not loads. And I want good writing and a bit of humour, and romance and adventure. I know this mood of old, though. It’s the one in which I eventually go to the bookshop, sigh heavily at the presence of Other People, pick disconsolately through the display books, browse moodily through the shelves and feel increasingly disgruntled that The Perfect Book hasn’t been handed to me on a silver salver, with a cupcake and cup of tea and without the outrage of me having to find it for myself. Then I come home and force myself to read something from the shelves. Ten minutes later, I’m quite happy with it.

So I could negate this theoretical and fruitless book buying expedition by simply picking up with the Sword of Honour trilogy, because I am neglecting poor Guy Crouchback. Hmmm.

But first, hot cross buns! Which require a ton of patience, I can tell you. I made the dough yesterday and it’s been sitting in the fridge overnight. Then it had to get back up to room temperature; I just made the buns themselves and now they have to prove for 45 minutes, then there’s a glaze, the cross and finally they go in the oven. Well, maybe with a couple of warm-from-the-oven hot cross buns and another pot of tea, this Sunday procrastination will fade.



Apple muffin Tuesday

This morning I baked some apple muffins, and I declare them to be good. The recipe keeps evolving based on what I have to hand, so this is today’s version. The chestnut flour, which I used (a) because I didn’t have quite enough self-raising and I’d already weighed it out and (b) because I happen to have chestnut flour in the baking cupboard, is by no means essential. It makes for a heavier, cakier muffin mix that supports the uncooked apple quite well, and it gives an ever so slightly grainier texture and a non-sugary sweetness that I like. In any case, these are supposed to be breakfast muffins so the whole thing works for me!

  • 225g self-raising flour (or, 275g self raising flour)
  • 50g chestnut flour (if going for the full sr above, skip the chestnut)
  • 40z brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 125ml buttermilk (or, regular milk, which for me would be semi)
  • 125ml vegetable oil
  • 1 egg
  • 2-4 eating apples, depending on size and your own preference as to how apple-y you like things.

Pre-heat the oven to 200C/350F and line up 12 muffin cases.

Peel, core and chop the apples up small. Mix the flour(s) and cinnamon in a bowl. Add the apples and stir a bit.  In a separate bowl, put the sugar, milk, oil and egg, and whisk to combine. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix until just combined. If you’re using the chestnut flour, the batter will be that little bit stiffer – it’s fine.

Fill the muffin cases with batter. They won’t rise much, so 3/4 full muffin cases will be 1/4 empty of muffin. 😦

Bake in the middle of the pre-heated oven for 15-20 minutes, depending on how fierce your oven is. Mine is fierce and uneven so they went in for 10 min, then I turned the baking tray around and they went back in for another 5 min. They’re done when you stick a sharp knife, toothpick or cocktail stick in and it comes out clear of batter.


Saturday baking: tea bread

A point of cultural confusion for me in the US was that coffee cake does not taste of coffee. Instead, it is the cake that you eat with coffee. I don’t know if there other foodstuffs that are named for their function, but just to clarify, tea bread is not one of them.

Tea bread is named with pleasing efficiency, since it both contains tea and may be eaten while drinking tea. It might be ok with coffee too (in which case, would it become coffee cake?)

I’ve been making a loaf of tea bread almost every week because it is easy, quick and unless I’m a complete heiffer, will last a week. I am, in fact, finishing off last’s week loaf while I write, but for the rest of the week I was taking slices in to work as my snacks, or, when I’d run out of milk, eating it for breakfast.

This is Nigella’s recipe, only now that I check I find she calls it ‘Fruit Tea Loaf’. Whatever.

  • 250 ml tea – N says use a teabag, I use whatever tea is in the pot; so far, I can confirm that Tetley’s, Lapsang Souchong, Darjeeling and a blend of the two works perfectly well. As did the spicy, Christmas Tea that I had leftover.
  • 375g mixed dried fruit
  • 125g dark brown sugar
  • 250g plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarb of soda
  • pinch cloves (I’m using mixed spices)
  • 1 egg
Pour the cup of tea and add it to a bowl with the dried fruit and sugar. Leave to soak overnight, or all day. (Nigella says ‘macerate’ for ‘soak’. I think this is a great word with which to impress people with your domestic prowess: ‘Sorry I’m late, I was up all night macerating the fruit’ or ‘I must dash, I’ve got some fruit macerating’. They will be left impressed by the fact that you are engaged in some cooking activity that has a specific name, and if anyone asks what it means you can just wither them with a pitying stare, or say ‘It’s too complicated to explain now.’)
You can just leave the bowl out, I tend to stir it when I’m passing but I don’t suppose that is necessary.
As for the fruit, I use the Holy Trinity of British baking: currants, sultanas and raisins, with a handful of whatever else is to hand. I’ve added dried apricots and, most recently, some particularly lush and juicy prunes. They made the cake richer, veering in the direction of Dundee cake and making me think glace cherries would be a welcome addition, too.
Preheat the oven to gas mark 3/170C/. Line a 450g loaf tin with baking paper.
Beat the flour, baking powder, bicarb and cloves into the fruit mix, then beat in the egg. The mix should be gloopy. Scrape the mix into the loaf tin and bang it in the oven for an hour and a bit.
I usually the reduce baking times in my oven, because it blasts away, but this cake consistently works the other way. So I set the timer for an hour, by which point the cake will look pretty cooked, but then I stick a knife in it and use the consistency of the mix to judge how much longer it needs: around 5-10 minutes. If in doubt, I’d say under cook rather than over because the mix will continue cooking in the tin while it cools, and you want moist rather than dry for the texture. Although if it does turn out a bit dry you could presumably eat it with butter (butter cake!) and can certainly put lemon curd on it (lemon curd cake!).
Let it cool in the tin on a rack, and it will then certainly survive a few days wrapped only in foil.
Bask in the glory of having hand baked something and realise this is a ticket out of all remaining domestic chores for the rest of the weekend. Or if it isn’t, it should be and you are surrounded by ingrates.