Lucy’s guide to festive baking

Last week I got a press release about Valentine’s Day. Seriously. It happened the day after I’d walked through Auckland Airport, mentally shaking my fist at the large Christmas tree in the arrivals hall. I anticipate Easter eggs popping up on Pinterest any minute now. Shall we just fast forward to Christmas 2014 and be done with it?

Christmas Mazurka – a hot favourite in 2012 (hence the baker’s twine)

This week, I feel differently. That’s because yesterday I realised there are just 29 more sleeps until The Big Day. Now I understand why Christmas things are appearing on blogs and on Instagram (I don’t count magazines, because everyone knows they operate in a kind of hyper-reality). Now I understand why a friend was so keen to seek my counsel (not to mention my copy of Nigella Christmas and my 20cm square cake tin) in order to make her first-ever Christmas cake.

This week, I am in no position to do anything Christmassy. I have a new job (which is consuming all my mental energy) and we’re in the start-up phase of a house makeover (which is consuming mental energy, time and money). And the Small Girl is rehearsing for a ballet recital, so if I hear Baby Love by the Supremes ONE more time before breakfast, I may go insane.

But next weekend, when these other life events are a little more under control (well, at least the first two), I am going to start baking and making in earnest. I’m going to start by buying a bottle of brandy and the best dried fruit I can lay my hands on. Then I’m going to see what happens…

In the meantime, here’s a handy checklist of festive things to make and bake. By next week, I may not be able to find any of these recipes, so this list is as much for me as it is for you. It’s better to give than receive, don’t you know?

Lucy’s Christmas Cheatsheet

Haven’t made your Christmas cake yet? Don’t fret. This one – studded with prunes, apricots and nearly a kilo of dark chocolate – doesn’t need time to mature. Nor does this one, which mixes the wisdom of Alison Holst with a bottle of green ginger wine. Neither need icing, but you could give the second one a pretty glazed topping (instructions found here).

I made so much Christmas mince last year that I’m going to be able to pull the jar out of the cupboard and say, ‘look, here’s one I prepared earlier’. I use this recipe – dead easy, includes caramelised banana – and the pastry is fab too.

Now we head into the ‘things to give away’ territory. My best tip here is to Think Big – making industrial-sized quantities of a couple of things is much easier than a bespoke biscuit here and a steeped vinegar there.

This chutney is always popular and very easy – last year some non-cooking friends requested the recipe so they could make it for Hannukah presents and it went down a treat. 

Beginners will also have fun making vegan biscotti and this chocolate body scrub (also suitable for vegans).

You’ll need a few more skills for my all-time best-ever brownies, but they’re not difficult to whip up and the recipe makes a huge amount. The same goes for these gingerbread Christmas decoration cookies, which taste as good as they look.

If you want to go a little off-piste, try my totally addictive white chocolate rocky road (the hardest thing about making this is not eating it all on the spot) or these luscious apple blondies, with added cranberries for extra festive-ness.

Have you started your Christmas prep yet? Go on, make me feel inadequate. Even better, share your favourite recipe links in the comments below…

Treat me: DIY Cronuts

Do excuse my absence but I’ve had a big week. I’ll spare you the details, but it has involved a lot of late nights, early mornings and much busy-ness in between. Because I like making things hard for myself, I decided it was also a good time to conduct a little cronut experiment.

This isn’t as mad as it sounds, you know. Have you read those studies that link poor sleep to the blue light emitted from iPads and other screens? Nigella Lawson once told a reporter she wore special glasses in bed while reading on her iPad (Charles got upset if she kept the light on to read a normal book – and history has shown the consequences of upsetting him). I think a little late-night kitchen activity is far more soothing – though I probably looked a bit deranged, making creme patissiere at midnight on a Monday night while listening to a documentary about Dr Zhivago.

Anyway – cronuts. Everyone knows about the croissant-doughnut hybrid by now, attributed to pastry chef Dominique Ansel. Here’s a primer if you’ve been busy doing other things. My relentless, selfless quest to perfect Little & Friday’s famous doughnuts has made me quite confident in the arts of deep-frying, so I figured cronuts couldn’t be that much harder. And you know what? I was right.

Easy Homemade Cronuts

Lucy’s Five Tips For Making Cronuts At Home
Have faith. All you are doing is making some dough in the food processor, letting it rest, rolling it out and then cutting shapes that you will then deep-fry before squirting full of creme patissiere (thickened custard). I wouldn’t advise doing the deep-frying bit with small children or pets underfoot, but the rest is not hard. Really.

1. Use Edd Kimber’s 20-minute croissant dough recipe. It’s really, really easy – the initial stage (making the dough in a food processor) takes about 10 minutes. The dough chills in the fridge for a few hours, then you roll it out and fold it a few times before resting it overnight. I actually rested it for 36 hours and there was no harm done.

2. The night before you want to serve the cronuts, make the creme patissiere. Beat three eggs yolks, 1/4 cup caster sugar and just under 1/4 cup cornflour until pale and thick. Bring 500ml of full cream milk, 1/4 cup caster sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla paste in a saucepan to the boil, then remove from the heat. Pour half of the hot milk onto the egg mixture, whisking frantically. Put the saucepan (with the rest of the milk in it) back on the heat, then when it starts to bubble, pour in the egg mixture. Keep stirring and removed it from the heat as soon as it starts to bubble and plop like a mud pool. Pour it into a clean bowl, press some clingfilm onto the surface. Let cool, then refrigerate.

3. In the morning, take the rested croissant dough out of the fridge. Let it adjust to room temperature for 10 minutes or so, then roll out to 1cm thick on a lightly floured surface. Cut shapes – I used a 5cm fluted cutter, but you can make them any size you like. The offcuts can be deepfried too and they are a handy pick-me-up for the cronut maker who has had five hours’ sleep. Let the incipient cronuts prove for 20-30 minutes until they have doubled in thickness.

4. Deep frying 101: Use a deep saucepan, a neutral oil with a high smoke point, and be careful. If you don’t have a thermometer, use the wooden spoon handle trick: dip the handle of a wooden spoon in the oil – if it bubbles up immediately, it’s hot enough. Fry the cronuts in batches – about four a time is enough – for about two minutes a side. Remove them from the saucepan with a slotted spoon and let drain on some kitchen paper.

5. When you’ve finished frying and the cronuts are cool, take the pastry cream out of the fridge. Beat well, then squirt it into the cronuts (use the pointy nozzle attached to a disposable piping bag). Some cronuts are then rolled in caster sugar and glace icing, but I think a light dusting of icing sugar is more than enough. The light, lovely layers of the dough are the star here, why burden them with more sugar?

Have you made cronuts? Do you have any further tips?

Have a great weekend, everyone. I’m off to Dunedin for the Guild of Food Writers Conference. Hurrah!

A date with a German breakfast

Do you want to get a little fatter? Move to Germany. Seriously. I’ve never known a country for super-sized meals, at least one that’s not America. Last month I sat in a cafe in Koln and watched as a huge platter of spaghetti was served to a woman sitting with her partner and three children. ‘How nice,’ I thought to myself, ‘what a convivial way to eat’. Then I realised the pasta platter was just for her – the dad got a steak as big as a placemat and the kids gobbled a pizza each.

We are a reasonably greedy trio but we quickly learned that we needn’t order very much while eating out. Since my German is limited, to say the least, this certainly made things easy on the language front. But my it also meant that I had no hope of asking about the little dish of cream cheese and something that came with the enormous ‘Bio Breakfast’ at a cafe in Berlin, pictured above. (Not pictured: the accompanying basket of bread and tumbling pile of walnuts that were taken by a small hand.) I took this photo to help jog my taste memory when we got home and now, a month later, I think I’ve got it.

Spiced cream cheese and date spread
I am such a glutton when it comes to cream cheese I could eat this neat, but it’s also good on all manner of baked goods, from simple toast to slices of fruit loaf. Or you could use it as a dip for green apples, if you are an alternative eater (Catherine, are you reading this?). It’s not quite the same, eating it in my kitchen as it was sitting on a cafe terrace in Prenzlauer Berg, but it’s not a bad substitute.

125g good, full-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
1 Tbsp honey
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
100g dates, roughly chopped

To make this the lazy way, put all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until it is a chunky mixture. To make by hand, chop the dates finely (scissors is easiest) and stir into the cream cheese, along with the spices and honey. Store, covered, in the fridge, for a week.

Have a good week, everyone.

No-knead spelt bread

A mystery visitor changed my life last Friday. I went out for a few hours and returned home to find crumbs all over the kitchen floor and a tea towel draped artistically over the stovetop. Now, neither of these things are that unusual – our floors are usually so covered in crumbs it looks like Hansel and Gretel have been passing through and tea towels are often appropriated by a pair of small hands to make doll beds or princess dresses. But the strange formation of these crumbs, and the teatowel’s odd positioning, spoke of something else. All at once it dawned on me – the oven man had come! I jumped up and down on the spot beside the oven, both in utter joy and to test whether or not the door was going to fall open. It didn’t budge. I pulled on the door handle and it reluctantly opened, eager to spring back into position. I was so excited I took a video of myself opening the oven door and sent it to my beloved. “This is one of the nicest things you’ve ever done for me,” I wrote.

You may think this indicates that a) I need to get out more and b) that my relationship is in serious trouble, but if you’d spent the last 18 months grappling with an oven that didn’t close properly, you’d be excited too. I’ve spent all weekend marvelling at how easy it is to cook things when the oven door doesn’t fall open at whim and how quickly the oven heats up now that half the heat isn’t escaping. One of the first things I made was a spelt version of my ye olde DIY Vogels bread. Here’s how I did it.

Slices Of No-Knead Spelt Bread

No-knead spelt bread
I’m on a bit of a spelt kick at the moment, not least because I can buy organic spelt flour from a great shop just minutes away – but most supermarkets stock it now too. If you can boil a kettle and stir (not simultaneously), then you can make this bread. I use my own toasted muesli – like this one or this one – when making this but any decent bought one will suffice. If you leave it out, consider throwing in some seeds instead.

300g white spelt flour
300g wholemeal spelt flour
120g toasted muesli
2 tsp dried yeast
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp honey
300ml milk
350ml boiling water

Put everything into a large bowl and mix well – it will be like porridge. Scrape into a very-well oiled and lined large loaf tin (internal measurements roughly 20cm x 10cm x 8cm).
Put into a cold oven and turn the dial to 50C. Leave for about 25 minutes, until the dough has risen to the top of the tin. Turn the heat to 200C and bake for another 40 minutes, until crusty on top and hollow when you tap it on the bottom.
Turn out to a rack to cool. This makes excellent toast, or you can cut it into canape-sized bits and have it with cream cheese and pickled ginger or smoked salmon.

What was the best thing that happened to your kitchen last week?

Post-modern Annadama bread

Have you ever heard the story of Annadamma bread? I hadn’t until recently – and like most fables, it’s a grim tale (though not one of Grimm’s tales, if you know what I mean).
The story goes that it was invented by a hard-working farmer/fisherman/hunter in New England, who had married a hopeless cook. All hapless Anna could make was cornmeal mush (in my house that’s breakfast, but perhaps tastes have changed).
Anyway, one night, when the hero (?) of the piece got home from a long day’s farmin’ and fishin’ and huntin’, he was so enraged by finding another bowl of this waiting for him that he threw in some molasses and flour, muttering ‘Anna, damn her, ‘Anna damn her’ and put the resulting mixture in the oven.
Of course, it was a resounding success, and the moral of the story is, if you want something done right, do it yourself. Or something like that. I shudder to think what became of poor Anna.

Annadama Bread

Post-modern Annadamma bread
This is a very adapted and updated version of a recipe from my prized Time-Life Breads book. which is great on inspiration and history, but some of the recipes are just a bit weird. The original features four times as much molasses, which would render it too liquorice-ish (don’t say that too quickly) for my taste and the instructions seemed very long-winded and impractical. This is a post-modern version, in which no one mutters obscenities about the cook and the bread turns out perfectly. See, dreams do come true…

60g fine cornmeal/polenta
650ml water
3 Tbsp blackstrap molasses
3 Tbsp golden syrup
2 Tbsp butter
1 1/4 tsp salt
600g strong white flour
1 Tbsp dried yeast
a little extra polenta for dusting

Put the polenta in a small saucepan and gradually add 500ml of the water, stirring all the time. Set it over medium heat and bring to the boil, stirring often, until it is very thick (about 5-10 minutes). Remove from heat and add the molasses, golden syrup, salt and butter. Beat well and set aside to cool briefly.
Put the flour and yeast in a large bowl and stir well. When the polenta mixture is lukewarm, beat this, plus the remaining 150ml of water, into the flour until a soft, sticky dough forms. Cover the bowl with a cloth and let rest for 10 minutes, then turn the dough out onto an oiled worksurface.
Pick up one side of the dough, stretch it up, then bring it down again on top of itself. Repeat from the opposite corner. Do this from each opposing corner, then scrape the dough from your hands and walk away. Leave the dough to rest for 10 minutes, then come back and repeat the pick up and stretch process again. Then leave it again for 10 minutes. Do this process once more, then scoop the dough into a well-oiled large bowl. Cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place for about 45 minutes, until nearly doubled.
Heat the oven to 200C. Tip the dough out onto the bench and knock back gently, pressing it out into a rectangle. Gather up into a round ball, tucking the ends underneath and leave on a polenta-sprinkled, baking paper-lined tray for 25-35 minutes – if you poke it gently with your finger and the indentation stays hollow, it’s ready to go in the oven. Slash the top of the loaf – a cross-hatch pattern will get you the checkerboard crust in the photo above and sprinkle with a bit of polenta – then bake for about 40 minutes, or until the bottom sounds hollow when you tap it. Slide onto a rack to cool completely before slicing.