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Almond financiers (a step-by-step guide)

11 Aug

A few years ago, I discovered almond financiers while shopping at Joostenberg Deli. They produce a wide range of French-inspired pastries within their bakery, also including madeleines, croissants, etc. These unassuming little pastries looked intrigueing: no icing, no impressive decoration, just rectangular golden nuggets with their characteristic cracked tops. I’ve always been a sucker for any type of almond pastry, so I expected to love them. But when I finished all six in the packet by myself before even getting home, I knew I was hooked. Crunchy on the outside, densely moist in the middle, with the distinctive yet subtle almond flavour that all frangipane-style pastries are globally adored for.

I’ve since created a recipe for baking my own, using a mini-muffin tin instead of the original iconic rectangular molds that I cannot seem to find anywhere (I suppose they do look like little gold bars, and perhaps therefor the “financiers” name). I’ve baked many batches of these, and they never disappoint. Over the years I’ve adapted the recipe slightly to suit a number of easy substitutions (even using home-ground whole almonds) and to make sure that they didn’t stick to the pan as easily (the purists prefer buttering the moulds, but I honestly think non-stick spray does a better job).  I’ve also found David Lebovitz’s financiers post very handy, and specifically found the comments section very insightful (because so many people wanted to know if you atually stir in the egg whites without giving them a whisk first, and the answer is yes, you stir them in just a gloopy as they are). Apart from turning the butter into browned butter over the stove top, the rest is literally a stir-together vibe – it couldn’t be simpler.

I’ve created a few visuals in my kitchen, showing you what the process and the mixture look like – keep scrolling down to get the full recipe at the end of the post. Have fun in the kitchen and prepare to fall in love with these humble little nuggets.

Browned butter – take a look at the essential darker bits that form at the bottom of the pan. Keep swirling to prevent the butter from burning.

 

Separating my eggs – you’ll only use the whites, so keep the yolks for making custard later.

 

Add the ground almonds to a mixing bowl, along with flour, salt and sugar. Use store-bought “almond flour” (blanched ground almonds) or make your own by grinding whole almonds to a powdery consistency in a blender.

 

Add the yolks to the dry ingredients and mix to a sticky thick batter.

 

Add the slightly cooled browned butter to the batter and stir until fully incorporated.

 

It’s a stirring game – no technique, very easy.

 

Keep stirring until the butter is fully incorporated.

 

Use two spoons to drop the batter into a mini-muffin tin that’s thoroughly sprayed with non-stick cooking spray.

 

Optionally, top with a few flaked almonds.

 

Bake for 12 minutes at 220 C (or 200 C for fan assisted ovens).

 

Remove carefully from the tin using a sharp small bladed knife, and cool on a rack.

 

 

 

French simplicity at its finest: freshly baked almond financiers, baked in mini-muffin tins.

 

Ingredients: (makes 24 mini-muffin financiers)

  • 100 g salted butter
  • 140 g (1 cup tightly packed) ground almonds / almond flour (or grind your own from raw almonds)
  • 180 g (4/5 cup) light brown sugar (or white sugar)
  • 60 g (1/2 cup) white bread flour (or cake flour)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 4 XL egg whites 
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • about 1/4 cup flaked almonds (optional)

Method:

  1. Make the browned butter: Place the butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, swirling every now and then until melted. It will start to sizzle and bubble with a slightly “split” look. Continue to swirl from side to side (do not stir) every 15 seconds, watching it carefully. The large spattering bubbles will change to a gentler fine coffee-coloured foam – when this happens, check for a golden brown residue on the bottom of the pan. As soon as you spot this golden brown residue starting to form, remove the pot from the heat and keep on swirling until the foam subsides and you are left with a liquid, nutty, brown butter. Be careful not to burn the butter. The butter should now be around 80 ml in total, which is perfect. Set aside.
  2. Preheat the oven to 220 °C (or 200 °C if using fan-assisted oven). Spray a 24 hole mini-muffin tin generously with non-stick spray.
  3. Add the ground almonds, sugar, flour and salt to a large mixing bowl and stir with a spatula. Add the egg whites and extract and stir well – it will be a sticky, thick batter.
  4. Add the slightly cooled but still liquid browned butter and stir until well mixed. Divide the mixture evenly between the mini-muffin holes using two spoons. Top with some flaked almonds (optional) then bake for 12 minutes until golden brown and risen.
  5. Remove from the oven and let it cool for a few minutes in the pan before use a sharp small knife to loosen the sides of the financiers. Leave on a cooling rack to cool to room temperature.
  6. Serve with tea/coffee. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Note: If you are using unsalted butter, rather add 1/2 teaspoon salt. If not topping with almond flakes, the financiers with rise a little more and you’ll see more of the characteristic “cracked” top.

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Olive and cheese bread with capers and thyme (with step-by-step pictures)

3 Jul

Warm, fragrant bread rolls that ooze with cheese when pulled apart. The extra virgin olive oil leans a wonderful flavour and texture to the bread.

 

These pull-apart bread rolls are so good, they cannot be categorised as a side dish. They demand to be the showstopper of the table – golden and sizzling as it comes from the oven, packed with pitted kalamata olives, mozzarella, parmesan, capers and thyme, and drenched with only the best extra virgin olive oil. In its essence, it’s a soft type of pizza bianca – easy to make, but with maximum results.

Cooking and baking with extra virgin olive oil is something that I do daily. In this case, the EVOO is in the dough, it get’s drizzled over before rolling the dough up, and it gets drizzled again once the bread comes from the oven. The oil lends a fresh and vibrant flavour to the rolls, and assures that they have a pleasant “wet” mouthfeel here and there. The bread don’t need anything else – in fact, after photographing it, we had it for lunch ánd dinner, as is. My plan was to add boerewors and a salad, but we were blinded by the bread, love at first bite.

After rolling out the dough in a rough rectangle, top it with mozzarella, parmesan, halved olives, capers and thyme. Then drizzle all over with extra virgin olive oil.

 

Carefully roll up the assembled bread dough into a log.

 

Cut the rolled dough into slices.

 

Arrange the sliced dough cut-side-up in a lined baking dish and top with more thyme, salt & pepper. Leave to rise for a second time before baking.

 

When the bread is golden and fully cooked, remove from the oven and drizzle with more extra virgin olive oil. Ceramics by Mervyn Gers.

 

For the dough: (serves 6)

  • 500 g stone ground white bread flour
  • 10 ml (2 teaspoons) instant yeast
  • 1,5 ml (1,5 teaspoons) salt
  • 300 ml lukewarm water
  • 15 ml extra virgin olive oil

For the filling:

  • 300 g mozzarella cheese, roughly grated
  • 1/2 cup (about 40 g) parmesan cheese, finely grated
  • 1 cup kalamata olives, pitted & halved
  • 2-3 tablespoons baby capers (in brine, drained)
  • 4-5 sprigs thyme, leaves only (woody stalks discarded), plus extra
  • about 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling, plus extra
  • salt & pepper

Method:

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the K-beater, add the flour, yeast, salt and mix well. Add the water and oil and mix on low speed until it comes together, then switch to the dough hook and continue to knead for about 7 minutes until you have a very smooth dough (you can also do this by hand in a large mixing bowl, kneading for at least 10 minutes). Shape the dough into a ball, then leave to proof in an oiled bowl, covered with plastic or reusable wax wrap until doubled in size (about 30 minutes, depending on the temperature outside).

Preheat the oven to 200 C and line a large deep baking dish with non-stick baking paper (I used a 26 cm round casserole). On a clean floured surface, roll out the dough to a rough rectangle of about 30 x 40 cm, making sure that it doesn’t stick to the surface. Distribute the mozzarella evenly all over the surface, then the parmesan, then the olives, capers and thyme leaves. Carefully roll the dough up in the length, then cut evenly into rounds, transferring each round to the prepared baking dish (cut side up) immediately after cutting to prevent the oil from leaking out onto the working surface. Shallower slices will cover a larger baking dish, of course. Cover loosely with a tea towel to rise for 15 minutes, then bake in the heated oven at 200 C for 35 minutes or until golden brown and cooked.

Remove from the oven and leave to cool for 15 minutes before sprinkling with salt, pepper, more thyme leaves and another drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. The bread can be transferred to a serving plate by pulling on the edges of the baking paper and lifting it out. Serve warm.

(This recipe was proudly created in association with the SA Olive Industry.)

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Chocolate eclairs with salted caramel custard and pecan brittle

28 Apr

 

During lockdown, many of my readers have shared how they are cooking recipes from my blog. It’s such a wonderful feeling – to know that my recipes can provide others with a little pleasure and inspiration during a very uncertain and serious time! Thank you so much for all of your feedback, photos, comments and shares. It makes me feel warm and valued, and it is a shining beacon carrying me through this uncertainty with all of you.

I am at a point where I’m searching for recipes that will bring the most amount of joy, for the least amount of money. With a limited spectrum of recreation and entertainment available during lockdown, baking and cooking has become just that: a recreational activity. Yet with limited funds because of limited (or no) work opportunities, many of us need to get really creative in making the most of what we have, while still feeding our families. Every now and then, a special homemade treat can provide some kind of light hearted escape from the gloom that otherwise hangs over all of us. And for me, in allowing myself this special joy, I choose hope.

One of my friends, Anele Horn, recently sent me a photograph of her homemade chocolate eclairs – she used a recipe from my blog that I haven’t made in years. Then I remembered that basic eclairs (choux pastries) are made of a handful of very simple ingredients: water, flour, eggs, sugar, salt. I also remembered that a custard filling can be made of very simple ingredients too: milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla, cornstarch. I found a recipe online for making salted caramel flavoured custard, because hey, it sounded like a good idea. With the addition of a simple caramel syrup (made from sugar and a little water) and some salt, I made a salted caramel custard perfect for piping into the choux buns, without buying a single exotic ingredient. So when my husband went to buy a few essential fresh supplies, I asked him to buy 2 slabs of the cheapest dark chocolate he could find (they costed R11,99 each) for the topping. I found a handful of pecan pieces in our cupboard (the last of my “lockdown” nut supply) and with a little extra effort I made a simple nut brittle (using just sugar and the nuts) that I chopped up for decoration at the end.

 

These were some of the best sweet treats we’ve had the pleasure of enjoying in the past 5 weeks, and we only spent R24 (excluding the cost of the basic ingredients that we had in the house). The recipe makes about 21 medium size eclairs. I do hope that you’ll try it – SO worth the effort!

Notes for substitutions: You can also use whipped sweetened cream to fill the eclairs, and a very economical cocoa glaze for the top (if you have cocoa powder and icing sugar in your pantry). And yes, you can certainly also use cheaper peanuts for the brittle!

Notes on effort/skill levels:

  • The choux buns are moderately easy to make, but the following tools will make the process easier: a digital scale, an electric mixer (stand mixer) and a piping bag. Without these, you’re going to apply some decent elbow grease for mixing, and you won’t be able to pipe rows (just use two spoons instead to create round choux “balls”).
  • The salted caramel custard requires medium skill levels and time. It is best to make it the day before you want to make the eclairs, to split the effort into 2 days. Make the caramel first, let it cool, and then use it to make the custard. Let the custard cool completely before making the choux buns.
  • The nut brittle requires medium skill levels, but only because you’re working with very hot melted sugar that requires timing – otherwise it’s a simple recipe with only 2 ingredients. It is an optional extra, but I promise you it delivers BIG on added texture, luxury and flavour.
  • To melt chocolate: I do it in the microwave, so it should be easy enough. Just follow the instructions and be patient.

 

Ingredients: (makes about 21 medium size eclair buns)

For the salted caramel custard filling: (recipe adapted from Jo The Tart Queen)

  • 200 ml (170 g) white granulated sugar
  • 60 ml (1/4 cup) tap water
  • 80 ml (1/3 cup) hot water from a recently boiled kettle
  • 500 ml (2 cups) milk, preferably full-cream
  • 5 ml vanilla extract
  • 125 g egg yolks (about 7 XL yolks)
  • 50 g (about 7 tablespoons or 105 ml) cornflour
  • 50 g butter, cubed
  • salt, to taste (I used about 1/2 teaspoon salt flakes, but if you’re using fine salt, use less)

To make the caramel: place the sugar and tap water in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Let it come to a boil without stirring, only tilting the pan now and then. Boil until it changes colour to a light golden, and get your hot water ready. When it reaches a darker amber caramel colour, carefully add the hot water all at one (if will splutter!), then remove from the heat at once, tilting it from side to side to mix. Set aside to cool completely – you’ll use it later for the custard.

To make the custard: Place the milk and vanilla in a medium size pot over medium heat. While it is heating, whisk the yolks with the cooled caramel in a mixing bowl, then add the cornflour and whisk again to mix well. When the milk just starts to simmer, pour it carefully into the yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Now pour the mixture back into the pot and place over medium heat. Stir constantly, until the custard starts to thicken. Continue stirring until it makes a few slow boiling bubbles, then lower the heat to very low and cook for at least another minute or too until it becomes very thick. Remove from the heat, then  stir in the butter.  When melted, season with salt – you don’t want the salt to be overpowering, but you want to taste it. Transfer the custard to a wide container and cover with a layer of clingfilm to prevent a skin from forming, then leave to cool fully. Keep refrigerated until ready to use (will keep for up to 5 days in the refrigerator).

For the choux pastry:

  • 250 ml (1 cup) water
  • 2,5 ml (1/4 teaspoon) salt
  • 10 ml (2 teaspoons) sugar
  • 65 g (1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon) butter, cubed if cold
  • 140 g (250 ml / 1 cup) white bread flour or cake flour
  • 3 XL eggs

Method:

Preheat the oven to 220 C. Add water, salt, sugar and butter to a small saucepan. Heat until the butter melts, then bring to the boil. As soon as the mixture starts to boil, add the flour all at once and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon, cooking the paste until it thickens and pulls into a ball (it takes about 20 seconds for the mixture to form a ball). Remove from the heat at once and transfer the ball to the bowl of an electric mixer (if doing by hand, transfer to a large mixing bowl). With the K-beater fitted, turn on the mixer on medium-low, releasing steam from the hot flour mixture. Now add the eggs one at a time, mixing until it comes together before adding another (it will look like it is splitting at first, but be patient, it will come together). Continue until the mixture is smooth and glossy but still stiff enough to hold shape. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag, then pipe buns of about 8 cm long and 2,5 cm wide on a greased/lined baking sheet, leaving enough space between them for swelling (or use two spoons to drop balls of paste on the baking sheet). Bake in a pre-heated oven at 220 C for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 160 C for 25-30 minutes (smaller buns will take 10-15 minutes) until the buns are golden brown and crisp to the touch. Remove from the oven and pierce with a small sharp knife to allow steam to escape. Leave to cool completely before filling.

For the nut brittle: (optional)

  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1/3 cup chopped pecan nuts

Have a small baking tray ready, lined with non-stick baking paper. Place the sugar in a small pan or pot over moderately high heat. Leave until the sugar starts to melt (without adding any liquid), gently tipping the pan from side to side. When the sugar has melted, it will change colour. Watch it carefully, gently tipping the pan now and then, until it is a deep amber colour. Remove from the heat and add the nuts at once, tipping the pan to coat all over (only a few seconds). Tip out on the lined baking tray, using a silicone spatula to remove from the pan (work quickly before the caramel hardens). Use the spatula to flatten the brittle slightly. Leave to cool completely, then chop into smaller pieces for topping your eclairs. (Preferably don’t make this too long ahead, as it will become sticky again on standing. Keep in an airtight container, when completely cooled.)

For assembly:

  • about 150-180 g dark chocolate, broken into pieces

Remove the cooled custard from the fridge, use a whisk to mix it to a smooth consistency, then transfer to a piping bag. Cut the buns open on one side horizontally, then pipe the filling into each one. To melt the chocolate, place it in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for 30 seconds at a time, stirring inbetween with a spatula. After about the third or fourth session, it should be warm enough and fully melted. Spread each bun with chocolate on top (or transfer the chocolate to a small plastic bag or piping bag, and snip off the one corner to neatly pipe onto the buns). Top with a few shards of brittle. Store any leftovers in the refrigerator.

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A simple white bread loaf (with video)

9 Apr

I’ve had many requests for posting a simple bread recipe, so here it is. A simple white bread loaf that doesn’t need any special tools (other than a mixing bowl and spoon, baking tins and your oven – and yes, you can also bake it on a fire in a pot). You’re going to have to knead it, so if you’ve never done it before, just give it a try. It’s quite therapeutic – anyone who’s done it before will agree. Then the dough simply rises in the tins, so you’re not going to have to knead it a second time.

Here are a few handy tips to keep in mind when baking this bread:

  • What type of flour works best? I’ve listed white bread flour (I prefer stoneground), but you can also use cake flour, wholewheat flour etc. for a variety of end results. Remember, stoneground white bread flour can “take” more water than regular commercial white bread flour or cake flour, so adjust your liquid quantities accordingly (less water for fine cake flour). If your mixture is very sticky after adding the liquid, just keep adding a little flour while kneading until your dough is soft and not sticky.
  • Why milk? Milk will keep your loaf softer for longer, but you can certainly substitute the milk for more water of the same quantity.
  • What if I don’t have bread tins? You can bake the shaped dough free-form on a roasting tray, or you can bake it in cleaned canned-food tins (those large 800g food tins work well), or you can bake it in in a ceramic or glass baking dish (like the one you use for lasagne etc.). You can also bake it in an oven-safe pot (no plastic handles allowed). For very large pots, use all of the dough, and increase the baking time to 1 hour (cover the pot with a lid for the last 20 minutes).
  • Should I grease the tins? Absolutely yes. The bread will stick to the tins if you don’t, and it will break when you try to turn it out. Use oil, butter or non-stick spray.
  • Can I bake this bread on a fire? Yes, in a cast iron pot, over mild coals, with a lid on (coals on the lid as well), for about 1 hour.
  • Can I half the recipe to only make 1 loaf? Yes you can, but while you’re taking the time to make one loaf, it makes sense to make a second one for tomorrow, or for the freezer (and bread flour gets sold in neat 1kg packets). Frozen bread can be thawed on the counter, and then refreshed in the oven at 180 C for about 10-15 minutes – as good as freshly baked.
  • For a softer crust: If you prefer a softer crust, wrap your freshly baked loaves in a clean cloth while they’re cooling. This way the crust will steam and soften while cooling. Don’t try to slice the bread when it’s straight from the oven, give it at least 15-20 minutes to cool (otherwise it will make dense “clots”).
  • How to store: Wrap in a plastic bag and keep in a cool, dry place. The bread is always best on the day it was baked, served warm, but it will last for a few days on the shelf, and tastes great when toasted.

 

Ingredients: (makes 2 medium loaves, or one extra large loaf)

  • 1 kg white bread flour, plus a little extra for kneading (I prefer stoneground unbleached white bread flour, see my tips above)
  • 1 x 10g packet instant yeast
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) sugar
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) salt
  • 1,5 cups (375 ml) warm water
  • 1,5 cups (375 ml) milk (use a little less milk if you’re using cake flour or commercial bread flour)
  • vegetable oil, for brushing

Method:

In a large mixing bowl, add the flour, yeast, sugar and salt. Stir to mix. Add the water and milk, then stir with a wooden spoon until you have a sticky mixture. Turn it out on a lightly floured surface, then start folding the dough over, and over, and over (see video). Keep on kneading for at least 5 minutes (up to 10 min), adding a litle more flour if the dough is too sticky, kneading until the mixture is smooth and elastic and not sticky at all. Cut the dough in half, shape into oblong loaves, and place in two greased tins (brush with oil or spray with non-stick baking spray). Cover loosely with plastic, then leave to rise in a warm place for about 40 minutes or until doubled in size. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 220 C. Remove the plastic, then bake the loaves for about 40 minutes, or until golden brown and cooked. Remove from the oven, turn out of the tins (be careful, very hot!), wrap in a clean cloth and leave to cool at least 15-20 minutes before slicing. Serve warm or at room temperature with your choice of butter/jam/cheese etc, or dip into soups and stews.

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Oat and bran digestive cookies

28 Mar

Baking is a form of self-care for me. It’s one of my happy-place activities, something I do when I really have time on my side, not feeling rushed or restrained. I’d much rather bake than read (although I love reading), because there’s a tangible end result to baking – an edible reward.

With many recipe developers confined to their homes at the moment, all across the world, there’s an endless stream of recipe inspiration to be absorbed and enjoyed for everyone who has access to the internet. One of these stream comes from Bon Appetit. I subscribe to their newsletter, and their recent recipe for digestive cookies was delivered straight to my inbox. Theirs looked so perfect, I couldn’t look away. I absolutely adore digestive cookies, especially when they’re covered on one side in chocolate, and these looked delectable. So when I scanned the ingredients list, I realized that I missed 2 key ingredients: wholewheat flour and wheatgerm. It turns out you can substitute the wheatgerm for toasted oats (according to the recipe writer, because many people didn’t have wheatgerm in their pantries), and I made my own plan with the wholewheat flour, using a mixture of unbleached stoneground white bread flour and wheat bran (wheat bran is the same stuff that you’d use to make bran muffins). I needed a little less milk than the original recipe stated, but the rest worked like a charm. Incredibly “short” and crunchy, almost like wholewheat shortbread, just sweet enough, tasting very very similar to original digestives. What a triumph!

 

 

I only had enough chocolate to partly cover about 3/4 of my cookies, but hey, nothing wrong with a few plain digestive cookies either.

You’re going to need a food processor for this recipe, as well as a rolling pin and a cookie cutter. The rest is quite literally childsplay.

Ingredients (slightly adapted from Bon Appetit’s original recipe, developed by Sohla El-Waylly)

  • ½ cup regular oats, toasted in a dry pan
  • 90 ml or 6 tablespoons (75 g) sugar
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) salt
  • 1 cups (125 g) white bread flour*, plus more for rolling
  • 3/4 cup wheat bran* (about 25 g)
  • ½ cup (125 g) cold butter, cut into cubes
  • 2-3 tablespoons (30-45 ml) milk
  • about 100 g chocolate (milk or dark), chopped (optional)
Method:

Place two oven racks in upper and lower thirds of your oven and preheat to 180°C. Using a food processor, add the oats, flour, bran, sugar, baking powder and salt into the bowl. Process until very fine. Add the butter and pulse until it is well incorporated, then add the milk little by little and pulse until a crumbly dough forms (add just enough milk, you don’t want a dough that’s too sticky).

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead into a ball. Now flatten it into a disk. Roll out on a lightly floured surface until 5mm thickness (it doesn’t have to be perfect). Lightly flour a cookie cutter (I used a 45 – 45 mm square cutter with round edges, you can use whatever shape you want) and punch out cookies, dusting lightly with more flour as needed to avoid sticking. Dust any excess flour off the cookies with a dry pastry brush.

Using a spatula, transfer cookies to 2 baking trays lined with non-stick baking paper. Gently knead the scraps together, reroll, and punch out more cookies. (Bake any smaller scraps as is and crumble over ice cream!)

Prick each cookie 3 times with a fork and bake, rotating baking sheets top to bottom halfway through, until bottoms and edges are browned, 15–18 minutes. Let cool on baking sheets (cookies will crisp up as they cool).

If using, melt the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl in the microwave in 20-second increments, stirring after each burst, until almost fully melted, about 1 minute total, then let it stand for a minute to fully melt. Stir, then eave to clool for about 10 minutes before using.

Using a small offset spatula or butter knife and working one at a time, spread about 1 teaspoon of melted chocolate over the flat underside of each cookie. Using the side edge of the spatula, tap a few lines into the chocolate to make a slight pattern. Chill cookies on baking sheets until chocolate is set, about 10 minutes.

Cookies will stay fresh for at least 3 weeks. Store airtight at room temperature.

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Easy flatbreads with roasted shallots

25 Mar

Roasted shallots make a phenomenal topping for flatbreads. Personalize your other toppings according to what you and your family likes.

 

As we’re all navigating a strange new reality within lockdown restrictions across the world, home cooking has become the centre of joy and recreation for many households. With limited outings to the shops, we’re all making the most of simple pantry ingredients plus whatever we have stocked in our fridges.

Dutoit Agri has approached me to create a shallot recipe a few days before our President’s first announcements of social distancing in South Africa, and we’ve decided to continue with this project as it can be a source of inspiration to many of us. Using a few economical pantry staples, you can whip up an easy dough for making flatbreads, even giving the kids a wonderful way to keep their (washed) hands busy. Shallots have a fantastic shelf life of 1-2 months, a long seasonality timeline (January – August), and they are so very versatile to use in an array of recipes. With a sweeter, milder taste than onions, they are also much more popular with kids. From using them raw in dressings and salads, to roasting them for a deeper flavour, they are an all-round winner in my pantry.

Shallots have a rose gold tint on their skins and are just so beautiful to look at. They are locally grown by Dutoit Agri and available from most leading supermarkets.

 

 

Shallots are members of the allium family, closely related to onions, garlic, and chives. Their bulbs grow in clusters, similar to cloves of garlic. The biggest distinction between shallots and other onions, besides their milder flavor, is their cellular structure: shallots break down much more easily when cooked, allowing for a softer level of caramelization, or a more subtle touch when creating a foundation in sauces etc.

Here’s my recipe for roasted, caramelized shallots – a fantastic topping for easy homemade flatbreads, but also a great side dish, or an addition on burgers etc. While I like my flatbread simply topped with feta, roasted shallots, thyme and olive oil, my daughter preferred to make hers more like a pizza, using pommodoro sauce, mozzarella and roasted shallots. Both were delicious! I topped mine with a swirl of good quality balsamic vinegar afterwards – just heavenly. It’s a meatless meal, economical, fun and full of flavour. Other toppings could be diced ham, fried bits of bacon, shaved courgettes, sliced brie or camembert, sliced figs etc. If you don’t have any of these, a drizzle of olive oil and some dried herbs plus a generous pinch of salt could also make a simple feast.

Before you start, remember to wash your hands (and the hands of your little helpers) properly, and to clean your work surfaces where you’ll be kneading the dough. Get ready, it’s a lot of fun!

 

My choice of toppings: roasted shallots, feta, thyme, black pepper, and olive oil. Serve with a swirl of balsamic vinegar – such a winning combo.

 

My 9-year old daughter’s choice of toppings: pommodoro sauce, mozzarella and roasted shallots. The freshest pizza in minutes!

 

Roasted shallots are so versatile – use it to top your next burger, or serve it with scrambled eggs for breakfast.

 

For the roasted shallots:

  • 1 kg shallots, peeled and quartered lengthways (look out for Dutoit Agri shallots) 
  • 45 ml olive oil
  • 15 ml red wine vinegar (or sherry vinegar)
  • 30 ml honey, slightly warmed (pop it in the microwave for 15 seconds)
  • salt, to taste

Preheat your oven to 220 C. Arrange the shallot quarters in a roasting tray, then drizzle all over with the olive oil, vinegar and honey. Season with salt, then roast for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, stir, then return for 10 more minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

For the flatbreads: (serves 4)

  • 2 cups stone ground white bread flour (or use regular cake flour if it’s all you have)
  • 10 ml (2 teaspoons) instant yeast
  • 5 ml (1 teaspoon) sugar
  • 2,5 ml (1/2 teaspoon) salt
  • 180 ml lukewarm water
  • 15 ml olive oil

Place the flour, yeast, sugar and salt in a mixing bowl and stir. Add the water and oil and stir until it becomes sticky. Turn out on a clean surface, then knead to a soft, pliable dough. This is a great activity to get the kids (or a co-isolation housemate) involved! Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover to rise in a warm place for 30-40 minutes.

In the meantime, heat your oven to 230 C. Divide the puffy dough into 4. On a floured surface, roll out each of the four pieces into a freeform shape – basically oval works great. Transfer to a baking tray lined with non-stick baking paper. Top with your favourite toppings (see below), then bake at 230 C for 8-10 minutes or until golden. Remove from the oven, transfer to a wooden board or a plate, slice and serve immediately.

Possible toppings for assembling your flatbreads:

  • pommodoro (tomato) sauce, grated mozzarella and roasted shallots – great for kids
  • olive oil, feta, roasted shallots, thyme (fresh or dried), black pepper (add a drizzle of balsamic vinegar after baking)
  • grated cheddar, fried bacon bits, roasted shallots – great for kids
  • anchovies, capers, garlic, roasted shallots (top with fresh rocket leaves after baking)
  • basil pesto, sliced baby tomatoes, roasted shallots 

Thank you DuToit Agri for the inspiration.

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Chocolate chunk cookies

3 Mar

Nine years ago, one of my first blog posts was a recipe for chocolate chip cookies by Sannie Smit. Although the photograph showed that I still had a lot to learn (I’m being kind to myself here), it remains one of my blog recipes that I’ve returned to most over the years. I even have it bookmarked on my phone. If done right, they have a crispy edge and a chewey centre that reminds of a buttery blondie – the ultimate goal of the perfect chocolate chip cookie. The slightly larger chocolate chunks give another textural layer apart from the actual chocolate flavour, so I prefer to eat them cooled and not warm. My daughter and I just love baking these together and the dough tastes just as good as the baked end result. It is choc chip cookie decadence at its best.

I’ve always found that the quality of chocolate chips (the small round ones, for baking) that we find in regular South African supermarkets is far inferior to what I actually want to taste, so I’ve resorted to mostly chopping my chocolate for these cookies from a slab of my choice. This way you also get some really chunky pieces of chocolate here and there, and each cookie is different. I made this batch with Valrhona’s Equatoriale Noire 55% chocolate – it comes in a catering size bag in the shape of bean-like discs, easy to chop with a knife. You’ll find these Valrhona disks in specialty stores like Wild Peacock in Stellenbosch, but you can certainly also use any good quality eating chocolate from your local supermarket, especially local brands like Afrikoa or De Villiers Chocolate (I prefer dark chocolate with a minimum of 55% cocoa, but some people prefer milk chocolate – the choice is yours).

Chocolate chunk cookies goes down so well with a glass of cold milk. 🙂

 

 

Ingredients: (makes about 26 medium size cookies)

Note: Recipe adapted from The A-Z Guide to Food and Cookery in SA by Sannie Smit and Margaret Fulton.

  • 125 g (1/2 cup) butter, softened
  • 45 ml (3 tablespoons) tightly packed brown sugar
  • 125 ml (1/2 cup) white sugar
  • 1 XL egg
  • 5 ml (1 teaspoon) vanilla extract
  • 300 ml (1 cup plus 3 tablespoons, or 160 g) cake flour
  • 1 ml (1/4 teaspoons) baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
  • 2.5 ml salt (1/2 teaspoon)
  • 100-200 g good quality chocolate, chopped (don’t use less than 100 g, but 200 g is the maximum that I use)

Method:

Pre-heat oven to 180 C. Line a large baking tray with non-stick baking paper.

In a medium size bowl with an electric mixer, cream the butter and both sugars until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and beat well. Sift the flour, baking soda and salt together in a second bowl. Stir the dry ingredients into wet mixture with a spoon or spatula until just combined. Stir in the chopped chocolate until just combined.

Drop tablespoons full of dough onto a greased baking tray,  leaving enough room for spreading. Bake for about 12-14 minutes or until the edges start to turn golden brown (do not overbake). Remove from oven and leave to cool on baking tray for a few minutes, before removing and cooling further on wire racks (they will still be very soft when straight from the oven, but will firm up on cooling). Store in an airtight container and enjoy within a few days.

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Blueberry pecan picnic cake

24 Feb

Gooey, pillowey, crunchy – all in one. One of the best picnic cakes I’ve ever tasted. The large black round plate is from Hertex HAUS.

 

This recipe comes from Food52’s Genius DessertsBlueberry Snack Cake with Toasted Pecans. Since I’ve bought the book, I’ve had this page bookmarked as one of the (copious) recipes I knew I needed to try. The cake came out exactly as it looks in the picture, and it is so incredibly good that I finished four slices before even writing this post.

I decided to bake it after picking a batch of blueberries from some of the wild trees that grow adjacent to the cultivated blueberry orchards on the farm that we live on. They’re the last few berries of the season, and most of the trees only carry a few shriveled little fruits. But if you look closely, here and there, a few hidden gems remain – perfect, small, plump, matte blueberries that would otherwise just fall from the tree in a few days.

A snack cake, or picnic cake, is a cake without icing that is easy to transport for enjoying elsewhere (like a picnic, camp, the office or school). Originally written by Brooke Dojny, this recipe is “a study in textures” according to Food 52’s Kristen Miglore. “There’s just enough cornmeal to give it structure and a yellow tint, without weighing down the batter. It bakes up airy and tender, with a crackly sheen and a top dotted with pecans.” I have to tell you, I cannot agree more. It’s moist en gooey because of the fruit, yet light and airy in the cake department, with a crunchy top that is a delight in itself. Kristen says that smaller blueberries will stay suspended in the cake, while larger berries tend to sink to the bottom – “neither could possibly be bad”.

I’m going to keep this one in my repertoire for good. It’s an absolute winner – my tweaks are minimal, you’ll see if you compare it to the original. I’m confident that you’ll love it just as much as I do. Happy baking!

A 23 cm square cake tin is a very versatile vessel for baking. I only recently bought one (November 2019), and I’ve used it very often since.

 

Ingredients: (serves 8)

  • 1 cup (125 g) stone ground white bread flour (or cake flour)
  • 3 tablespoons (45 ml) polenta / maize meal (medium or fine)
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2,5 ml) salt
  • 1/2 cup (110 g) butter, softened
  • 1 cup (200 g) sugar, plus about 1 teaspoon extra for sprinkling
  • 2 XL eggs
  • 1/3 cup (80 g) milk
  • 1,5 teaspoons (7,5 ml) vanilla extract
  • 1-2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
  • 2 cups (300 g) blueberries (fresh or frozen)
  • 1 cup (100 g) pecan nuts, coarsely chopped

Method:

  1. Heat the oven to 180 C with rack in the center. Grease and line a 23 cm square deep baking tin (I left some overhang on the baking paper so that the cake is easy to lift out afterwards).
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, use a whisk to stir the flour, polenta, baking powder and salt together.
  3. In a food processor (or bowl with electric whisk), cream the butter and sugar together, then add the eggs, milk, vanilla and lemon zest. Process (or whisk) until it is well combined – it might look a little curdled, that’s fine! Add the wet mixture to the dry ingredients and mix with a spoon until just incorporated.
  4. Gently fold in the berries until just combined, then scrape the batter into the prepared tin, smoothing the top. Sprinkle evenly with the nuts, then use your finger tips to sprinkle evenly all over with about 1 teaspoon of sugar.
  5. Bake at 180 C for 45 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown and just cooked (test with a toothpick to see if it comes out clean). Remove from the oven and let it cool complete on a rack.
  6. Once cool, remove from the tin (use the baking paper flaps to lift it out) and cut into squares. Store in an airtight container in a cool place – best eaten within a day. (Can be frozen for up to a month.)
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Chocolate berry cake

3 Feb

Chocolate cake drenched in mulberry coulis, topped with dark chocolate buttercream and fresh raspberries. Not perfect by a long shot, but incredibly satisfying – just like my blogging journey.

 

This is a celebratory post: The Food Fox blog is officially nine years old! Happy birthday to my digital baby!

Nine years is a long time, friends. The Food Fox was the start of a crazy ride in 2011, one that I jumped into with blind faith in the hope of carving out a way to create a sustainable income while being surrounded by food and writing. I learned that you can figure out almost anything via Google, made incredible connections online and in real life and actually found my tribe (coming from someone that’s fiercely independent, it was quite a revelation). Although the hustle is still very real – you’ll know what I mean if you’re a self-employed creative in a niche industry – I couldn’t have dreamt of a life that would reward me with this amount of freedom: creative freedom, freedom to schedule when and where and with whom I work, freedom to spend time with my family. Freedom, it might seem, turned out to be one of my most valued fundamental needs in life – something that I only realized over the past few years.

Although this blog probably won’t live forever, it has already opened so many doors of new possibilities. To celebrate this 9 year milestone, I baked a cake that resembles my journey over the past few years: far from perfect and certainly not as smooth on the surface as I’d hoped it to be, but rich, multi-layered and very rewarding. It’s a slight adaptation of a recipe from the book The Italian Baker by Melissa Forti, that I bought in December 2019 before embarking on a two-week catering marathon for an extended Italian family. I bookmarked the recipe for “Torta al cioccolate e lamponi” (chocolate and raspberry cake) because when anyone touts a chocolate cake to be the best they’ve ever eaten, you’ve got my attention.

The cake-part is one of the most deliciously moist chocolate cakes I’ve ever tasted, and I’ll definitely keep it in my repertoire. It includes buttermilk, oil and bicarb, and it’s very easy to put together. It also features a strained berry coulis made from raspberries blended with a simple sugar syrup and a dash of raspberry eau de vie (which I substituted with mulberries from our tree that I froze in December for a special occasion like this, and a little dash of aged brandy). The coulis makes the cake a little more expensive and time consuming, but it adds even more moistness and some stunning berry flavours that work incredibly well with the dark chocolate. Then, the chocolate frosting was quite a find: Melissa uses less butter than a normal buttercream (I would usually use 1 part butter to 2 parts icing sugar, or in this case 250 g butter for 500 g icing sugar), but she uses 170g butter with 560 g icing sugar, adds a whopping full cup of cocoa powder, and mixes it with 80 ml milk to soften it. This results in a very soft and creamy buttercream that can be refrigerated after you’ve frosted the cake, without turning brick hard (because with the February heat in Stellenbosch, and a cake topped with fresh berries, you’re going to want to store it in the fridge).

A slice of cake – it slices beautifully when refrigerated. Thank you Tasha for the use of your beautiful plate that stayed behind from a previous shoot!

 

I iced and photographed the cake when it was still a little luke warm, which you shouldn’t do. I was just being hasty because I’m a total glutton and couldn’t resist tasting the cake. After eating three messy but super delicious slices and then refrigerating the cake, it turned out to be much more stable for slicing (I then photographed the neat slice above). Do refrigerate it in warm weather for a beautiful result when cutting.

I’m feeling ready for renewal and growth in 2020 (definitely still involving a lot of writing, recipes, photographs and videography) and I look forward to sharing the changes and exciting new additions with you as we go along. In the meantime, I’ll be honing my photography skills with my new (well, second hand) 100 mm Canon lens – something that I’ve been yearning to own for years, and finally got to do so end of 2019. I’ve also enrolled in learning Italian on a nifty little phone app – quite fun, and a sure way of finding inspiration for saving up to FINALLY visit Italy.

I wish you all a year of finding freedom, creative inspiration and the courage to follow your true path.

 

Ingredients (recipe adapted from Melissa Forti‘s The Italian Baker)

For the cake:

  • 250 g cake flour
  • 400 g (2 cups) caster sugar
  • 80 g (3/4 cup) good quality cocoa powder
  • 10 ml (2 teaspoons) baking powder
  • 5 ml (2 teaspoons) baking soda / bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 ml (1/4 teaspoon) salt
  • 3 XL eggs
  • 250 ml (1 cup) buttermilk
  • 250 ml (1 cup) warm water
  • 125 ml (1/2 cup) vegetable oil or olive oil
  • 5 ml vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 180 C. Grease 2 x 20 cm loose bottom cake tins and line the bases with non-stick baking paper. In a large bowl, sift the flour, caster sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, bicarb and salt together. In a second large bowl, add the eggs, buttermilk, water, oil and vanilla and whisk together using an electric whisk (or stand mixer with whisk attachment). Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and whisk until just combined, scraping the bowl. Divide the batter into the two tins, then bake for 35 minutes or until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tins for 15 minutes before turning out to cool completely on wire racks.

For the berry coulis:

  • 100 g caster sugar (use less if your berries are very sweet)
  • 45 ml water
  • 340 g frozen berries, thawed (raspberry or mulberry or mixed red berries)
  • 5 ml raspberry liqueur, optional (or brandy)

Place the sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook for 5-7 minutes or until the sugar has completely dissolved, then remove from the heat to cool for 15 minutes. Add the syrup and berries to a blender, process to a puree, then strain to remove the seeds, then stir in the liqueur or brandy (optional). Refrigerate the strained coulis until ready to use.

For the chocolate frosting:

  • 180 g butter, softened
  • 5 ml vanilla extract
  • 105 g (1 cup) cocoa powder
  • 80-100 ml milk, at room temperature
  • 500 g icing sugar, sifted

In the bowl of a stand mixer with paddle attachment, beat the softened butter and vanilla until creamy. Add the cocoa powder and mix for about 15 seconds, then add a little milk and mix. Continue by adding a little icing sugar, then milk, then icing sugar, beating until it is very smooth and creamy and a soft spreadable consistency (if the mixture is too stiff, add a little more milk, if it is too runny, add a little more icing sugar).

To assemble:

  • about 125 g fresh berries, for topping (or more, if you want to cover the full top surface of the cake)

Slice the rounded tops off both cake layers if you want a neat, flat result (I always ice the off-cuts and eat them while icing the rest!). Place the first layer on a cake plate and top generously with the coulis (it will continue to penetrate the cake on standing). Top with a generous layer of frosting, then place the second cake layer on top. Use the frosting to cover the top and sides of the cake, using a spatula to neatly scrape the sides to form a smooth-ish surface. Cover and refrigerate for best slicing results; best eaten at moderate room temperature.

Note: Melissa spreads the coulis only on one cake layer, before topping it with the other half, but I cut each layer horizontally to spread it with more coulis – it’s not necessary but the choice is yours. The cake is very soft when freshly baked, so handle with care.

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White chocolate & pecan nut blondies

9 Dec

Blondies – one of my favourite indulgent treats.

 

During this time of the year, all I really want to do is bake. I whip out all of my favourite baking books and I page through them for festive inspiration. Yesterday, I was looking through my Food 52 Genius Desserts book when I saw a marker for this blondie recipe – one that I haven’t had time to make since putting that marker there exactly one year ago.

I absolutely adore brownies. If you don’t know what a blondie is, it’s the “blonder” version of a brownie – a sweet and fudgey square made from flour, eggs, brown sugar, vanilla (no cocoa powder) that is very close in taste to a chocolate chip cookie with a butterscotch edge. Chocolate chips and nuts are optional, but you’ll find a wide array of variations online from all over the world. This specific recipe was originally developed by America’s Test Kitchen for Cook’s Illustrated (the Americans are wonderfully obsessed by chocolate brownies and any dense baked sweet square) and they did everything to take the “fluffiness of cake” out of the recipe, resulting in an almost crackly top, a comforting chew and a welcome medium density – all marks of a great blondie. I’ve gone a little further by swopping the cake flour for white bread flour, using XL eggs instead of large and reducing the brown sugar from 300 g to 250 g (using relatively sweet white chocolate only instead of white and milk, to keep it “blonder”). Although white chocolate isn’t technically a chocolate, it provides a great creamy textural element and added richness. The toasted pecans are the bomb, as well as their choice of adding 4 whole teaspoons of vanilla extract (!). Quoting from Food 52 Genius Desserts: “Once you stop putting a single teaspoon into baking recipes because it’s what you’ve always done, you can embrace vanilla as a flavor all on its own – complex, haunting, memorable.” I couldn’t have said it better!

Here’s their recipe, lightly adjusted. You’ll find the original on Food 52’s website.

Toasted pecan nuts adds the necessary crunch and a deep nutty flavour to these blondies.

 

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup (100 g) pecan or walnut halves
  • 1,5 cups (190 g) all-purpose flour (I used stone ground white bread flour)
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2,5 ml) salt
  • 3/4 cup butter, melted and slightly cooled (I used salted)
  • 1,5 cups (300 g) light brown sugar
  • 2 XL eggs, lightly beaten
  • 4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 150 g white chocolate chips, or a mixture of white and milk chocolate chips (or just chop a slab of chocolate by hand)

Method:

  1. Heat the oven to 175 C with rack in the centre. Spread the nuts on a large rimmed baking sheet and toast in the oven until deep golden, about 12 minutes. Let them cool, then transfer to a cutting board and coarsley chop them.
  2. While the nuts toast, line a 23-33 cm (or 27 x 27 cm) metal baking tin with non-stick baking paper.
  3. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. In another bowl, whisk the butter and brown sugar, then add the eggs and vanilla and mix well. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until just combined. Fold in the chocolate chips and nuts and scrape the batter into the prepared tin, smoothing out the surface and edging it into the corners.
  4. Bake until the top is shiny, cracked and lightly golden at the edges, about 22 minutes – err on the side of underbaking so they won’t dry out. Let cool in the pan on a rack.
  5. Lift out the lined slab of blondies tugging on the paper onto a cutting board, then cut into squares or bars. Store airtight at room temp or keep them a bit longer in the fridge or freezer (they taste great when cold!).

Although your edges will turn a litter darker than the middle, never overbake a blondie. You want that soft chew magic.

 

They cut easily – if you use a sharp non-serrated knife – with very few crumbs.

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