Sourdough muffins

Muffins are one of my favourite tea-time treats, but the ones you buy in the shops are often heavy and disappointing. A friend who, like me, has been baking sourdough bread during lockdown mentioned that they were easy to cook, so this week I tried them out. They are indeed easy to make and you can use the sourdough starter you discard when you’re refreshing it. All the recipes I found online suggested that you needed to add dried yeast too, but yeast has been as rare as hen’s teeth in supermarkets so I thought I would experiment with just relying on my starter.

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The results exceeded my expectations – the muffins (English muffins for anyone reading from across the pond) have an almost fluffy, toothsome crumb and delicious sourdough flavour. They proved exceedingly popular, disappearing even faster than a fresh loaf of sourdough bread. So I’m writing this post primarily to remind myself of what I did so that I can make them again.

My starter is drier than many, following my brother’s formula (probably originally derived from Richard Bertinet) of 50g flour to 30ml water. If your starter is 50/50 flour and water you may need to adjust the amount of water in the recipe accordingly. I make quite small quantities of starter as I only bake bread once a week, but refresh it about twice a week. Each time I put the discarded starter in a separate jar in the fridge, and then use it for baking crackers – and now muffins.

I used strong white flour without thinking and then realised that many recipes specify plain flour, so next time I will try a 50/50 mix and see how that works. Most recipes also seem to include milk or milk powder, but I didn’t have any, and the results seem to be just fine without it. I may experiment with the adding milk if I have any in the fridge next time around. This quantity makes a dozen muffins.

  • 120g sourdough starter discard
  • 420g strong white flour
  • 30g butter
  • 1 dstsp sugar
  • 220ml warm water
  • 1.5 tsp salt
  • semolina or polenta for dusting (about 2 tbsps)

I started in the late afternoon by mixing together 120g of the starter discard with 120g flour and 90ml of warm water. I covered the bowl and left it to get going for a few hours. Mine took about 4 hours to start showing signs of activity, but how long it takes will depend on how old your starter is, how warm it is in the room and other variables. If your starter discard is still very active you could probably skip this step and move straight to mixing the dough (using the full quantity of flour and water). Mine was a bit sluggish and I have learnt the hard way that baking with a sluggish starter is a sure route to disappointment.

The next step is to rub the butter into the remaining 300g flour, just as you would for making scones. I did this by hand but in the bowl of my mixer, so that I could knead the dough using the dough hook. You could use the mixer to incorporate the butter, and doing the whole thing by hand would be equally fine. Scoop the starter mixture into the flour and butter. Dissolve the sugar and salt in the remaining 130ml of warm water, add that too and mix everything together well. Now knead it until it comes together into a fairly firm, elastic dough. Put it into a bowl, then into a plastic bag and pop into the fridge overnight.

In the morning, pull the dough out of the fridge as soon as you wake up (I know, baking does weird things to your morning routine). About an hour later the dough should be starting to wake up and look a bit lively. Now you need to shape your muffins. Prepare two baking sheets by sprinkling them with the semolina or polenta.

I couldn’t follow the method of rolling out the dough and cutting out the muffins as you would scones, as I don’t have a plain 7cm/3in cutter, and my attempt to use a suitably sized glass didn’t work. Instead I shaped the muffins by dividing the dough into 12 pieces and briefly kneading each piece into a muffin shape. I read that you get a better rise if you use a cutter to stamp out the dough, and you would certainly get a more uniform shape than my slightly wonky ones. Lay the muffins out on the two trays as you go, sprinkle the tops with semolina/polenta, then cover with a tea towel and leave to prove for around 45 minutes. They should visibly puff up and relax.

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When they’re nearly ready put a heavy frying pan or plain (not ridged) griddle on to heat  up on a medium setting. Once it’s well heated, put the first batch of muffins in (unless you have a big griddle and can do all 12 at once). After about 10 minutes – keep an eye on them, as they may need a little less or more time – they should be ready to turn over. The bottom should become firm and browned, the top will dome a little and therefore be a bit less brown, while the sides stay softer. I found mine needed 10-11 minutes on the bottom and 8 minutes on the top. Put on a cooling rack while you cook the second batch.

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Now use a fork to pull the muffins apart, slather with good butter and eat greedily. My timings mean that the muffins will be coming off the stove in time for morning coffee! I can recommend mature cheddar and apricot jam (separately) as excellent adornments.

You can keep them wrapped in a paper bag for a day or two (if you can stop yourself eating them) or freeze them. They are most delicious eaten while still warm, so if you’re eating them later warm them through in the frying pan or griddle. I warmed the top and bottom for a couple of minutes, then split them and warmed the crumb too.

Dark chocolate & walnut cookies

Dark chocolate and walnut cookies

Instagram discovery number two (see previous post) has been these dangerously addictive cookies, from Ravneet Gill’s new book The Pastry Chef’s Guide, which is now top of my wish-list. She shared this recipe on Instagram live (where she is @ravneeteats) and, aside from enabling you to make these fabulous cookies, the videos show that she will surely have a TV series soon, being  as charismatic as she is talented. I have now signed up for the online pastry school that has just been launched by PUFF the bakery, run by Ravneet with fellow pastry chef Nicola Lamb, who ran very successful  pop-ups before lockdown. So expect more pastry and desserts on the blog – and that I will be two sizes bigger by the time you next see me!

These quantities make about 6 cookies and they are pretty rich so probably not wise to make a larger batch unless you are locked down with the whole family, as they are totally irresistible. However, should you be lucky enough to be with a crowd then its easy to double or triple the quantities. Apparently, this recipe also works with vegan margarine and a flax egg, though I haven’t tested this. I have taken the liberty of dialling down the quantity of sugar a bit, using soft light brown rather than caster sugar, and adding some ground almonds. You can use chopped chocolate instead of the nuts, but in my view that would be too much of a good thing – you need the crunch of the nuts to set off their glorious brownie-like squidginess.

IMG_6285The cookies are very straightforward to make, taking less than 30 minutes of your time (with an hour rest in the middle). So if you need a treat for tea – and who doesn’t at the moment – I heartily recommend them.

  • 110g dark chocolate
  • 15g butter
  • 1 egg
  • 60g soft light brown (or caster) sugar
  • 12g cornflour
  • 1 tbsp ground almonds (optional)
  • 3g (1 tsp) cocoa powder
  • 1g (1/3 tsp) baking powder
  • 35g chopped walnuts (or roasted hazelnuts)
  • pinch of Maldon salt

Bring a small pan of water to a simmer. Break the chocolate into a heatproof bowl, add the butter and set over the simmering water to melt, ensuring that the bowl doesn’t touch the water. You could also melt the chocolate and butter in a microwave, but I never do this, so can’t give advice on it. Once the chocolate is nearly melted, which shouldn’t take more than a few minutes, stir to amalgamate and put on one side.

Break the egg into a mixing bowl and beat with a whisk. Then add the sugar half at a time, whisking to incorporate after each addition. Combine the cornflour, baking powder and cocoa powder, sieving if they are lumpy. Stir in the ground almonds if you’re using.

By now the chocolate and butter should have cooled a little. Whisk them into the eggs and sugar, then whisk in the dry ingredients, at which point the batter will become quite a bit stiffer. Finally, stir in the chopped nuts (don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the salt – that comes later). Tip the mixture into a container which will hold it in a shallow layer so it will cool down quickly and put it to rest in the fridge for an hour. I used quite a large mixing bowl, so I just spread the mixture out in that and popped it in the fridge. You can leave it in the fridge overnight (but no longer than 24 hours or you will inactivate the baking powder).

Pre-heat the oven to 160°C fan/180°C and line a baking tray with a silicone liner or piece of baking paper. Take the mixture out of the fridge and using a teaspoon, an ice cream scoop or your hands (best to use a disposable glove unless you want to end up with a lot of cookie dough on your hands; on second thoughts…) scoop out balls of the mixture, weighing them to ensure that your cookies are evenly sized. Ravneet used 50g per cookie but I made mine with 35g in the vain hope that I would eat a smaller portion. Roll each scoop into a ball then flatten it slightly and put it on the baking sheet. Pop the shaped cookies back in the fridge while the oven finishes heating.

Once the oven is up to temperature put in the cookies, which should be quite firm by now, and bake them for 8-9 minutes. At this point they should have risen and spread a little, the outside will look dry and crackled, but they will still be soft if you touch them. Take them out of the oven and crumble a little Maldon salt over each one. Leave them on the baking tray until they have firmed up, which will take at least 5 minutes. They will keep in a tin for a few days.

Walnut biscuits

Try these light walnut biscuits if you can’t face another mince pie or chunk of Christmas cake but still want something sweet with your coffee or alongside a fruity or creamy dessert. They went down well with clementine salad and clementine semifreddo at a friend’s New Year’s Eve dinner.

This started as a recipe for Hazelnut Crescents given to me many years ago by the Hungarian mother of a Canadian friend. The original hazelnut biscuits are possibly even more delicious than this walnut version, but I had ground walnuts that needed eating and the substitution was a success. I increased the amount of ground nuts and reduced the quantity of flour to make them nuttier, which improves the taste at the expense of making them slightly more fragile. I think this is an acceptable trade off (especially as the cook gets to ‘tidy-up’ any broken ones) but if you prefer a more robust biscuit, then revert to the original ½ cup of nuts to 1 cup of flour (US cups, so 60g and 140g respectively). I’ve dialled down the sugar and vanilla a bit too – use the larger quantity of vanilla if you are fond of it. The original recipe used half-and-half butter and lard as the fat, which makes for a shorter biscuit, but I never have lard in the house these days so have defaulted to using only butter.

These are half the original quantities and, as you can see, still made around 36 biscuits – enough to feed a crowd, especially as I think the biscuits are supposed to be smaller and more crescent shaped, so this could make more: I clearly need to perfect my shaping technique. The biscuits keep well in an airtight tin, though they are very more-ish.

115g butter
85g sugar
½-1 tsp vanilla
110g ground walnuts (or hazelnuts)
90g plain flour
¼ tsp salt
icing sugar to serve

Line two baking trays with greaseproof paper, and heat the oven to 150° F. Cream the butter with the sugar until it is light and fluffy. Making these is quickest in a stand mixer but easy enough with a hand-held mixer or a good old wooden spoon too. Add the ground walnuts (or hazelnuts) and then the flour bit by bit. Finally add the salt and vanilla and mix until it all comes together. Turn out the mixture onto a floured bench and knead into a fat log.

Then divide the biscuit dough, first into four and then cutting each quarter into 9 or even 12 pieces. Shape each little piece into a crescent by rolling it into a thin torpedo shape between your palms and then curving the ends together as you place it on the prepared baking tray. Leave space between the biscuits as they expand in the oven.

Bake for 20-25 minutes until they are golden brown, switching the trays round after ten minutes so that they cook evenly. Leave them to cool a little on their trays before moving them to a cooling rack and dusting with icing sugar.

A perfect chocolate cake

In my book, this is a perfect chocolate cake: dense, moist, made with good dark chocolate and delectable eaten with a spoonful of whipped or clotted cream. As a child I would have preferred Felicity Cloake’s perfect chocolate cake, with its fluffier crumb and chocolate buttercream filling; no doubt my nieces and nephews would agree.  However, these days I find buttercream too sweet and sickly, preferring my cake unadorned, not too sweet and tasting of dark chocolate rather than cocoa.

I have been making this chocolate cake since 1983 when I acquired Arabella Boxer’s The Sunday Times Complete Cook Book. It became my bible, back before Nigel Slater, Nigella and Ottolenghi had started publishing, let alone entered my kitchen bookshelves. I have found Boxer’s recipes to be reliable and in impeccable taste, though somewhat more formal and classically English or French than much of the food I cook now. It is structured as a cookery course, with sections on different techniques such as braising or grilling. The section on menus for different occasions – with contributions from other cooks such as Antonio Carluccio and Claudio Roden (though Boxer’s own suggestions are generally more practical) – is particularly useful for a cook still learning to entertain. The book is now available very cheaply online, so treat yourself.

IMG_4549The simplicity of the method mean that this chocolate cake can be produced within an hour or so and uses ingredients that are probably in your cupboard (or definitely available in the corner store). You do not need beaters to cream the mixture, nor to remember a complicated list of ingredients. I have adapted the quantities to fit my tin and slightly reduce the proportion of eggs, also making it a very easy recipe to remember. It will work in any shape tin, or foil container, of the right size and I have made it successfully with all sorts of dark chocolate from corner-shop Bournville to posh 85% chocolate. It will keep for a couple of days in the tin wrapped in foil, if you have that sort of willpower, and will survive being transported like that for a picnic. So it’s a very handy recipe to have up your sleeve for cooking on holiday or when you have unexpected guests for tea.

Enough chat: here’s how to make 8 portions of chocolate happiness.

100g dark chocolate
100g unsalted butter
2 eggs
150g caster sugar
pinch salt
1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
100g plain flour (or 70/30 flour and ground almonds)
whipped cream to serve

Break up the chocolate and put in a heatproof bowl over a pan of just simmering water, with the unsalted butter cut into cubes. Allow them to melt together then stir and take off the heat as soon as the mixture is smooth. Leave to cool – Boxer says for an hour, but I’ve never been organised enough to leave it for that long, and it has always worked fine.

Set the oven to heat to 175 C/Gas Mark 4. Grease and line the base of an 18cm cake tin or similar. Beat the eggs in a bowl and beat in the sugar, salt and vanilla extract (if using – Boxer doesn’t). Stir in the melted chocolate mixture, then fold in the flour lightly but thoroughly. If you want to gild the lily, and you have some ground almonds, then you can use a mixture of flour and almonds, which makes it a little more dense and moist.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and spread evenly. Bake for about 35 minutes, until the cake springs back when pressed, and is starting to come away from the sides. If you test it, the centre should still be moist.

Leave to cool in the tin. Serve in slices or squares with whipped cream, and berries if you wish. If you want to serve a chocolate cake for dessert, I think Lucy Boyd’s Chocolate and Almond Cake is a better candidate, whereas this is the perfect chocolate cake for morning coffee or afternoon tea.

 

Greengage and Almond Cake

This cake was inspired by some lovely greengages we found in a greengrocer in Totnes, near where we are staying on holiday. There weren’t quite enough to simply poach them, and I didn’t have a tart tin or any plain flour, so a greengage frangipane tart was out.  What I made instead was a Victoria sponge with half the flour replaced with ground almonds, flavoured with the grated zest of an orange and the greengages arranged on top as if it were a tart.

The result was a moist light sponge crowned with juicy greengages – it was delicious served for dessert with whipped cream, and I am looking forward to another slice with our coffee tomorrow morning.

I used a tip I saw in a recipe for the French quartre quarts cake, which is to put a pan of boiling water in the bottom of the oven. The resulting steamy atmosphere is said to make the cake particularly light – and on the evidence of this cake I will be doing it again. Sometimes the constraints of a holiday home kitchen, without all one’s usual ingredients and equipment, can lead to happy discoveries!

100g butter
100g caster sugar
2 large eggs
70g ground almonds
70g self-raising flour
Grated zest of an orange
8 greengages

Take the butter and eggs out of the fridge at least 30 minutes before you start cooking so they can come to room temperature. My eggs weighed 70g each – if yours are a different size simply adjust the other quantities accordingly.

Grease and line the base of a 18 cm sponge tin. Preheat the oven to 170ºC Fan/190ºC, with a baking tin half full of hot water in it (this is not advisable, or necessary, in a gas oven). Wash the greengages, take out the stones and cut them into quarters.

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Greengage and almond cake ready to go in the oven

Cream the butter with a wooden spoon, add the sugar and beat until light and pale. Beat in the eggs one at a time, with a good scoop of flour, until well blended. Fold in the remaining flour, the ground almonds and orange zest. You can of course do all of this in the mixer if you are at home – or in a particularly well-equipped holiday cottage. Turn the mixture into the prepared tin and arrange the greengages in a circular pattern on top.

Greengage and almond cake
Bake for 25 minutes until golden brown, and the sponge springs back when lightly pressed. Leave to cool in the tin. Serve just warm with whipped cream. A glass of orange muscat dessert wine would go very well, too.

 

Stem Ginger Cake

IMG_4357With a long walk on Friday and a trip to Compton Verney yesterday, I had two picnics to cater for this week, so my thoughts turned to cake. Picnics are one of my favourite things – I still have a vivid memory of an idyllic picnic many summers ago in a field full of buttercups by a stream, with my brothers and some family friends. My favourite alfresco meals include something other than sandwiches (good though these can be): yesterday we had boxes of lightly dressed lentil salad, a bag of lettuce washed and kept fresh in a little cooler bag, crisp radishes, hard-boiled (but only just – 8 minutes) eggs and a couple of pink satin slices of prosciutto, cheese, apples – and of course ginger cake!

Ginger cake (or gingerbread) is a traditional picnic staple: it keeps well – indeed improves with keeping for a day or two – travels well and is delicious eaten with an apple and some crumbly Lancashire or Cheshire cheese in the fresh air with an appetite sharpened by walking. Mind you, it is equally welcome with a mug of tea by the fire on a cold winter’s day.

I spent an enjoyable half-hour reading ginger cake recipes – from Constance Spry’s Belvoir Ginger Cake and everyday gingerbread (‘suitable for nursery tea’) to Delia Smith’s more genteel stem ginger cake. In the end I went back to Nigel Slater’s Double Ginger Cake from his first Kitchen Diaries, albeit with some alterations: I replaced some of the golden syrup with treacle to give that distinctive gingerbread taste and used spelt flour and baking powder as I didn’t have any self-raising flour. The method is easy, as it doesn’t require creaming the butter and sugar, and I particularly like his inclusion of stem ginger in syrup, which some traditional recipes omit. The result was entirely satisfactory – the three of us on our walk managed to polish off a large chunk without any trouble, and I was very happy to eat it again with Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire and an apple at the end of yesterday’s picnic.

This recipe makes a large cake, which filled a 21 cm square by 5 cm high baking tin. Nigel Slater says the recipe is enough for eight, but I cut it into 20 generous square pieces, so even if some people can manage two I reckon it feeds 10-12 comfortably.

250g spelt flour
3 tsps baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tsps ground ginger
half tsp ground cinnamon
a pinch of salt
120g golden syrup
80g treacle
2 tbsps of the ginger syrup
125g butter
3 large lumps of stem ginger
2 heaped tbsps sultanas
125g muscovado sugar
2 eggs
240 ml milk

Line the tin with baking parchment and put the oven on to warm at 180ºC/Gas 4. Start by sifting the flour and other dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl, making sure they are well combined. Measure the two syrups, treacle and butter into a small pan and warm over a low heat. Dice the ginger and add it too, followed by the sultanas and sugar. Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring it until all is incorporated, then take off the heat.

Measure out the milk in a measuring jug, then break in the eggs and beat gently to mix together.  Pour the contents of the saucepan into the flour and stir with a large silicone spatula. Add the milk and eggs and stir the sloppy mixture until you can’t see any flour.

Pour the mixture into the lined tin and bake for 35 minutes , when a wooden skewer poked into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Put the tin on a rack and leave to cool. If you can resist trying some straight away, wrap in clean greaseproof, waxed paper or foil and leave it to improve for a day or two – or just wrap the whole tin and take it to your picnic.

May the sun shine on all your picnics!

 

Hazelnut Cake

Jeremy Lee’s king of puddings column in the Guardian’s cook supplement had become a highlight of my Saturday, much mourned since its disappearance when the supplement metamorphosed into Feast recently. I haven’t actually cooked his recipes that often (lest I lose all semblance of a waistline), just salivated over how delicious and comforting they sounded. However this cake sounded just too tempting to be savoured only in the mind.

I made a smaller cake than the original (which used 5 eggs rather than 3 – just scale up if you have more cake-lovers to feed). I used a big bag of excellent toasted and ground hazelnuts, found in the kosher section of my supermarket (alas they only have them around passover, but I stock up), rather than roasting and grinding them myself. This only takes a little longer, though, and the taste will be even better, so don’t worry if you can’t find ground hazelnuts.  As suggested, I served it with cream; raspberries or some lightly stewed plums would be great alongside it too if you want to serve it for pudding.

This cake is simpler to make than our much loved hazelnut and raspberry birthday cake, or this hazelnut cake, making it suitable for less momentous celebrations: small triumphs or a weekend treat.

210g hazelnuts, whole or ground
3 eggs, separated
120g caster sugar, plus 1 dstsp
60g butter
zest of 1/2 lemon

Heat the oven to 170° C. If you are using whole hazelnuts, put them on a baking tray and toast in the oven for 5-10 minutes (keep a close eye on them) until they are brown and the skins are coming off. Tip into a clean tea towel and rub off as much of the skins as possible, then grind to a coarse meal in a food processor.

Line an 18cm cake tin (or similar) with baking parchment. Melt the butter in a small pan.

Separate the eggs and beat the 120g sugar into the yolk using a wire whisk, until they are pale and foamy, stopping when you can write your initial with the trail from the whisk. Using a clean whisk, beat the egg whites until they are stiff, then add the extra dessertspoon of sugar and beat again.

Fold one third of the egg whites into the yolk mixture, then add half the hazelnuts, amalgamating them lightly and swiftly. I use a large silicone spatula for this, which makes easy work of incorporating all the mixture. Follow this with another third of egg whites, and the rest of the hazelnuts. Finally fold in the last of the egg whites, the melted butter and lemon zest until all is amalgamated.

Pour into the prepared tin and bake in the pre-heated oven for around 30 minutes. Use a wooden skewer to check that it is done before turning out onto a wire rack to cool. Allegedly, it will keep for a couple of days in a tin…