Cakes for Hansel and Gretel

July 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

The challenge for this year’s Clonter Opera (Cheshire’s answer to Glyndebourne) picnic was to produce a themed dessert which could be eaten during a 30 minute interval. This year’s production was Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel”, so a selection of German mini-cakes, plus sweets and the obligatory gingerbread seemed to fit the bill.

I love proper cheesecake, so a traditional German-style baked cheesecake cooked in a rectangular tin and cut into dainty squares was first on my list. I chose my recipe from my newly acquired baking book, Dan Lepard’s “Short and Sweet” and found it to be excellent. This was the “Classic Cheesecake” from p.458 and was everything a cheesecake should be – deep cream cheese flavour with hints of orange zest and vanilla and great texture. The Hobnob biscuit base was an inspired variation on the usual digestives and was neither too hard nor too soggy, but just right. You can see the cheesecake squares presented in pink foil cases in the picture above.

Talking of which, the dinky self-assembly cardboard three tier cake stands I used attracted at least as much interest as the cakes! These were a Caroline Gardner design, stocked by online supermarket Ocado and maybe also Waitrose and John Lewis too.

That much-bastardised 1970’s dinner party favourite, Black Forest Gâteau just had to be on the menu. Forget dry chocolate cake, too much buttercream and garish decoration, my version was constructed with featherlight chocolate génoise (I used Rose Levy Beranbaum’s recipe from “The Cake Bible”); kirsch-infused syrup; luscious smooth chocolate custard (another winner from Dan Lepard’s “Short and Sweet” book); white chocolate ganache which tastes and behaves like a super-stable whipped cream, great for a cake which has to sit in a warm room for a little time. The final decoration was a griottine-style morello cherry, a chocolate stick and for a final touch of bling, a shred of real edible silver leaf. The result was a delectable little mouthful:

So good in fact that I just had to put together another batch the next day for afternoon tea, this time with a double layer of sponge, fresh cherries and grated chocolate:

Both the chocolate génoise and custard are really good versions of these classic components and I’ve given both recipes at the end of this post.

Strawberry tartlets presented German style on a sponge cake rather than pastry base, completed my trio of mini-cakes. I used more of the white chocolate ganache and incorporated my mother’s trick of glazing the strawberries with redcurrant jelly for extra sweetness and shine. The cakes were finished off with a little edible gold leaf:

You can’t do Hansel and Gretel without a gingerbread house. I didn’t think a fully assembled gingerbread house would survive the minibus journey along bumpy country roads from home to Clonter so used the templates for mini gingerbread houses from the BBC Good Food site recipe here to make house-shaped biscuits. I didn’t use their gingerbread recipe though, opting for yet another Dan Lepard recipe from “Short and Sweet”, the gingerbread biscuit recipe from p. 243. Another winner, producing a dark, deeply spicy biscuit, its colour coming both from muscovado sugar and also a tablespoon of cocoa powder added to the dough, a neat trick producing a deep colour and rich flavour pointing up the spices but not overpowering them with obvious chocolate.

I decorated the biscuits very simply with white royal icing and a number 1.5 writing nozzle producing a stylish black and white effect:

A selection of old-fashioned sweets from Altrincham market’s pick and mix stall and Hale’s fabulous Gobstopper sweet shop (sugar mice, chevron lolly pops, candy canes, bon bons, comfits, sugared almonds..) plus squares of home-made fudge completed the spread. Shame the opera director had a slightly different vision of the story and went for a pyschedelic Affleck’s Palace style emporium complete with skateboard gear rather than a recognisable gingerbread house. Ah well, you can’t win them all…

Recipe for Chocolate Génoise

Adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s “Cake Bible”. I’d recommend buying the book for all Rose’s invaluable tips and tricks though. This recipe is sufficient for a deepish 23cm diameter round cake. I wanted thinner sheets of cake so scaled up the recipe to a 7 egg version and baked two 25cm square trays of cake.

Ingredients

37g clarified beurre noisette
28g cocoa powder (I like Valrhona or Green and Blacks)
60g boiling water
4g vanilla extract
5 large eggs (250g shelled weight)
100g golden caster sugar
75g sifted plain flour

Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C (fan).

Warm the beurre noisette until almost hot and keep warm.

In a smallish bowl, whisk together the cocoa and boiling water until you have a smooth paste. Stir in the vanilla extract and set aside, covering the bowl with the whisk still in it with cling film if you don’t plan to use it immediately.

Mix the eggs and sugar together in the large mixing bowl from your Kenwood or similar mixer. Set the bowl over, not in, a pan of simmering water and stir constantly until the mixture is just lukewarm. Take care and do not allow the eggs to coagulate or you will end up with hard little lumps in the finished cake. The heating of the eggs helps stabilise the mixture when whisked which is helpful when the dense chocolate is mixed in. I wouldn’t bother with the heating for a plain génoise.

Remove the bowl from the hot water, dry it off and return it to the mixer. Whisk at high speed until the mixture has tripled in volume and leaves a trail when the whisk is lifted.

Take a couple of big spoonfuls of the egg mixture and whisk them into the cocoa mixture using a balloon whisk.

Sift the flour over the remaining egg mixture and incorporate thoroughly but carefully using a balloon whisk. Add the cocoa and egg mixture and stir with the balloon whisk until half-incorporated. Fold in the beurre noisette in two batches by which time everything will be thoroughly combined yet still aerated.

Pour immediately into the prepared cake tin (greased and base lined for a deep round tin; fully lined with baking parchment if you’re baking a sheet of cake in a shallow square or rectangular tin as I was) and bake for about 30 minutes. You can tell when the cake is done as the cake shrinks away from the sides just a little.

Turn out straightaway onto a lightly greased cooling rack and peel off the parchment after a couple of minutes.

Recipe for Chocolate Cream Custard

From Dan Lepard’s “Short and Sweet”. Makes enough to fill 30 mini cakes with plenty left over.

Ingredients

100g golden caster sugar
25g cornflour
25g cocoa powder (I like Valrhona or Green and Blacks)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
225 ml milk (I used semi-skimmed)
2 egg yolks
50g unsalted butter cut into pieces
50g dark chocolate in small pieces (I like Valrhona Manjari buttons)
150ml double cream

In a heavy-based saucepan whisk the sugar, cornflour, cocoa powder and vanilla extract with the milk until smooth. Add the egg yolks and whisk again. Heat gently over a low to moderate heat beating with a wooden spoon all the time. As the mixture warms, gradually add the butter piece by piece, stirring all the time. As the mixture begins to thicken, beat hard to keep it smooth.

Remove from the heat, tip the mixture into a medium sized bowl (you’re going to add cream to the mixture later) and cover the surface of the custard directly with cling film to stop a sking forming. Leave to cool then chill in the fridge until completely cold.

When you’re ready to complete the custard, take it out of the fridge and remove the cling film. Using a hand-held electric whisk, whisk the custard at a slow speed. When the custard is smooth, increase the speed to medium and gradually whisk in the double cream until the mixture is very smooth, shiny and thick. The mixture will thicken up further to a consistency which can be piped and will hold its shape if returned to the fridge to chill for a while.

Lime tea and madeleines

July 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

The air outside is still fragrant with the scent of the blossom of the stately lime trees which line our pleasant suburban street. This is the year that I have finally harvested and dried some of these blossoms. They make the most delicately flavoured of tisanes to serve alongside a plateful of madeleines to recreate that oft-referenced literary reminiscence in Marcel Proust’s “Du Côté de Chez Swann”, the first instalment of the mighty novel cycle “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu”.

Towards the beginning of the novel, the narrator’s mother sends out for a small cake to serve with tea “un de ces gâteaux courts et dodus appelés Petites Madeleines qui semblaent avoir été moulés dans la valve rainurée d’une coquille de Saint-Jacques”.

Tasting the morsel of cake dipped in hot tea triggers in the narrator a childhood memory of eating madeleines dipped in his Aunt Léonie’s lime tea. The narrator is fascinated by the shape of the madeleine “the form, too of the little shell made of cake, so fatly sensual within its severe and pious pleating”.

The shape of the madeleine is undoubtedly part of its appeal. Its dainty size and unadorned simplicity make it the antithesis of an oversized, overfrosted, overdecorated cupcake.

The good news is that madeleines are very simple to make. The recipe I use comes from Frances Bissell’s book “Entertaining”. The key step before you start is getting hold of the essential madeleine moulds. Be sure to invest in at least two trays as it’s very frustrating being able to bake just 9 madeleines at a time. I picked up my pair of silicone moulds in a kitchen shop in France but there’s no need to travel – there’s a huge selection of similar moulds available on Amazon.

Some cooks insist that only metal moulds give good results but I’ve had excellent results with my silicone moulds which I grease lightly before use. I sit them on a baking tray to make the job of putting them in and taking them out of the oven risk-free.

I give the full madeleine recipe below, together with a slightly more complex recipe featured recently on BBC Radio 4’s “Woman’s Hour” which I haven’t tried out yet. Why bother when the basic recipe works so well?

You can ring the changes a little by flavouring the madeleines classically with a little orange zest and a teaspoon of orange flower water, or a little lemon peel. In the last batch I made, I finally found the opportunity to use my latest food purchase – a precious little tin of must-have Tonka beans – and grated just a little into the batter to impart a subtle spicy richness.

Another trick to add depth of flavour to your madeleines is to take your melted butter to the beurre noisette stage before stirring it into the mix – this is something I learned to do from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Génoise Classique recipe from her aptly named “Cake Bible”. It’s also something that the second more complex madeleine recipe suggests.

Mixing the batter is very straightforward – no tricky creaming as the butter is melted and is incorporated very easily. It takes only a tablespoon of batter to fill each mould and the mixture really is quite runny – don’t be alarmed, this is how it should be.

OK, so that’s the madeleines taken care of. Now for the tea to dip them in.

The lime trees outside my front door may smell divine but are too close to the road to contemplate gathering the flowers to make a tisane. Lime trees are in flower for a very short time – just a week or so – so when a warm dry day arrives to gather the blossoms, you have to drop everything and seize the moment.

When the right day arrived, I headed off to nearby Dunham Park where lime trees grow in a perfect rolling parkland setting well away from roads:

I spread out the blossoms I’d collected on a wicker tray to dry gently in the dining room out of direct sunlight:

And a week later, I was ready to prepare my tisane and enjoy my Proustian moment.

So much more refined than dunking a jaffa cake into a mug of PG tips. Come to think of it, there’s a great literary pastiche to be written here…

Recipe for madeleines (1)

From Frances Bissell’s “Entertaining”

Makes 24

Ingredients

100g (4 oz) caster sugar
100g (4 oz) self raising flour
pinch of salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
130g (5 oz) unsalted butter, melted

Butter and flour madeleine moulds. Sift together the sugar, flour and salt. Beat in the eggs, and then mix in the melted butter. Pour the batter (which is quite liquid) into the prepared moulds, and bake in the top half of a preheated oven at 220 degrees C/450 degrees F/gas mark 8 for 5-7 minutes. Remove from the oven once the madeleines are golden, well risen and have the characteristic “bump” in the middle.

Recipe for madeleines (2)

Michael Vanheste of Betty’s cookery school’s recipe as featured on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour earlier this year.

Ingredients

60g (2 oz) lightly salted butter
1 medium egg
50 g (1.5 oz) caster sugar
30g (1 oz) plain flour
20g (1/2 oz) ground almonds
1 lemon, zested

1. Preheat the oven to 190 degrees (fan assisted). Gas mark 5.

2. Warm a heavy-based pan over a moderate heat and add the butter. Cook the butter slowly until it has melted, turned a golden colour and gives off a nutty scent, hence the name “beurre noisette”. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly.

3. In a metal bowl, whisk the egg with the caster sugar until the mixture has become light and airy. You should be able to briefly leave a figure of eight with the balloon whisk on the surface of the mixture.

4. Sift the flour and ground almonds into the bowl and gently fold into the egg mixture together with the lemon zest. Finally, gently stir the beurre noisette through the mixture. Leave to rest for about an hour if you have the time, this will allow the gluten in the flour to relax, ensuring the cakes are light.

5. Spoon the batter into the madeleine moulds filling them 3/4 full. Bake in the preheated oven for 8-10 minutes or until golden brown and springy to the touch.

6. Leave to cool in the mould for a while until cool enough to handle and then turn out onto a wire rack.

7. Once cooled, store in an airtight container.

Instructions for preparing lime or linden tea

Choose a warm sunny day to gather lime blossoms. Pick your trees carefully, away from roadside dirt and pollution. Using a pair of scissors, snip off the blossoms including the leaflike bracts. Transport the blossoms home carefully ideally in a wicker basket. Lay them out to dry on trays and leave in a warm dry place out of direct sunlight for about a week. Store in an airtight container.

When ready to brew, place 2 tablespoons blossoms (7g) in a teapot, pour on boiling water (I used 835 ml) and leave to infuse for at least 5 minutes. Strain into your favourite china cup, and if liked, sweeten with a little runny honey – choose one which is light and floral in character to complement rather than overpower the flavour of the tisane.

A birthday Zuger Kirschtorte for Vivienne

January 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

After a teeny bit of excess over Christmas, it seems it’s the time for reinvention and self improvement which in food terms seems to mean restraint and raw vegetables. Well I’m going to buck the trend and write about a cake I made in December for a friend’s special birthday. This was a Zuger Kirschtorte, a traditional almond and cherry liqueur flavoured cake from the canton of Zug in central Switzerland.

Click here to view a short movie featuring the whole process. The kitchen scenes were shot by my son George who provides that authentic edgy camera wobble.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0wxHIfKYcs&feature=mfu_in_order&list=UL

The cake idea came from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s amazing book “The Cake Bible” and she calls it “A Taste of Heaven”, a light as air heart-shaped confection of crisp almond meringue discs sandwiching a cherry liqueur-sprinkled sponge, frosted with cherry-flavoured buttercream and finished with toasted almonds.

I discovered The Cake Bible a decade or so ago on the shelves of the Mayfair library on South Audley Street in London round the corner from where I worked at GEC’s head office on Stanhope Gate. When work pressures became too much I would occasionally seek sanctuary here at lunchtimes, leafing through the pages of Rose Levy Beranbaum’s book and marvelling at her descriptions of pistachio marzipan, white spice pound cake, orange fruit mousseline and the like.

It turns out that “A Taste of Heaven” is Ms Beranbaum’s version of the classic Swiss cake, a Zuger Kirschtorte. I find myself drawn to all things Swiss so it was funny I’d picked this cake not knowing its Swiss origins at the time.

The different components of the cake are two heart-shaped Dacquoise (nut meringue) discs; 1 Génoise Classique (whisked sponge) heart-shaped cake; syrup flavoured with kirsch for moistening the Génoise; kirsch flavoured buttercream; and finally a handful or so of toasted flaked almonds.

The crisp Dacquoise discs were spread with a thin layer of buttercream and used to sandwich the kirsch-syrup moistened Génoise. The top and sides of the cake were frosted with the remaining buttercream and the flaked toasted almonds were gently pressed around the sides of the cake.

I suggest just two changes to Ms Beranbaum’s recipe:

1) To halve the quantity of buttercream from the full heart attack-inducing 1 pound 9.25 ounces to a more modest 12.5 ounces.

2) If, like me, you like to avoid artificial food colouring, you can achieve a pink buttercream by beating into the mix 4-6 tablespoons of puréed cherry compôte instead of a few drops of red food colouring. This gives a gorgeous ever so slightly sour true cherry flavour to the buttercream.

I went ever so slightly over the top when I added the cherry purée to my buttercream and ended up with an in-your-face pink frosting which, I assure you, despite its garish looks, is 100% natural.

I give the recipe for the Génoise Classique below as this is arguably the most useful and versatile component of the cake. Ms Beranbaum’s special twists to the classic French recipe are to substitute browned butter (beurre noisette) for the usual plain melted butter and to use half cornflour half cake flour rather than just cake flour. If I were to attempt to reproduce here the recipes for all the cake components, plus all the advice and troubleshooting tips in the Cake Bible I’d be writing this post for days. If you are at all serious about baking I’d urge you to buy or borrow a copy.

I started by making the Dacquoise (nut meringue) discs. There was nowhere near enough mixture to pipe the heart shaped discs so instead I piped a border a few millimetres inside the template I’d drawn (to allow for a slight spreading of the mixture as it bakes) and spooned the meringue mixture into the centre and gently spread it to fill the outline using a small crank-handled palette knife.

This is how the cooked Dacquoise disc looked:

The next step was to make the Génoise Classique whisked egg sponge. Ms Beranbaum’s special twist is to fold in not ordinary melted butter but browned clarified butter. This imparts a subtle nutty depth of flavour to the finished cake. Here’s my browned butter and the dregs left behind to show the depth of toasting achieved without going so far as to burn the butter:

Ms Beranbaum’s other handy tips when making Génoise are to use a mixture of cornflour and cake flour and is to whisk a spoonful or so of the beaten egg mix into the melted butter before adding the butter to the main bowl. This certainly helps incorporation of the butter. Whenever I’ve made Génoise before I’ve always encountered the problem of the melted butter sinking to the bottom of the bowl which didn’t happen this time.

Here’s the bowl of butter and egg mix ready for incorporation, along with the flours, into the big bowl of super-foamy whisked egg:

The cake batter was carefully spooned into the prepared heart-shaped cake tin, base lined with a double thickness of baking paper. This is how the finished cake looked:

It wasn’t quite as deep as I was expecting so I decided not to attempt trimming it before drizzling with the kirsch-flavoured syrup.

The next major cake component was the cherry buttercream. Here are some of the raw ingredients – note the authentic Alpine butter for this Alpine cake (though my butter was in fact German rather than Swiss).

The Bonne Maman cherry compôte was a real find – intense sour cherry flavour, gorgeous colour and not too sweet. Definitely a new store-cupboard standby for whipping up a sauce for duck or adding to a pudding.

The buttercream is no mere amalgamation of icing sugar and butter. Looking at the recipe it’s immediately apparent that there is quite a low ratio of sugar to butter which means that the end result is silkily textured yet not too sweet. I began by beating a hot sugar syrup into my egg yolks, a slightly tense step without a sugar thermometer relying on the cold water test, speed and a bit of luck. The resulting mix if it all turns out right is a pale, foamy mass. The picture shows a 6 egg yolk quantity which turned out to be way too much for one cake.

The next step involves combining the egg yolk foam with the softened butter:

And the final step was to beat in the kirsch and sieved cherry compôte to flavour the buttercream and tint it a 100% natural totally girly pink:

A word of warning – do stick to Ms Beranbaum’s guidelines when it comes to beating in extras to buttercream: I went above her recommended ratios when beating in the water-based cherry compôte to the fat-based buttercream. Although it was fine at first, I set the bowl aside in a cool room to use later and, horror of horrors, when I attempted to beat the mixture to soften it it split! I managed to re-emulsify it by warming the bowl very gently, adding a little more sifted icing sugar and beating like crazy.

The end result was a beautifully flavoured, unusual cake, a welcome change from the current surfeit of chocolate (and would be a great choice for a Valentine’s Day treat too).

Recipe for Génoise Classique

From Rose Levy Beranbaum’s “The Cake Bible”. She says “Since this recipe first appeared in print in 1981, I have received more calls about it from readers than for any other recipe. Many say that for the first time in their lives they have succeeded in making the perfect génoise”. Praise indeed.

For a 9 inch by 2 inch round or heart shaped cake tin or 8 inch by 2 inch square cake tin, greased, bottom lined with parchment, and then greased again and floured.

Ingredients

37g clarified beurre noisette*
4 g vanilla extract
4 whole large eggs, 200g weighed without shells
100g sugar
50g sifted cake flour (not self raising)
50g cornflour

*In a heavy saucepan melt 4 tablespoons butter over medium heat, partially covered to prevent splattering. When the butter looks clear, cook uncovered, watching carefully until the solids drop and begin to brown. Pour immediately through a fine strainer or a strainer lined with cheesecloth.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Warm the beurre noisette until almost hot. Add the vanilla and keep warm.

In a large mixing bowl set over a pan of simmering water heat the eggs and sugar until just lukewarm, stirring constantly to prevent curdling.

Using the whisk beater, beat the mixture on high speed for 5 minutes or until triple in volume.

While the eggs are beating, sift together the flour and cornflour.

Remove 1 scant cup of the egg mixture and thoroughly whisk it into the beurre noisette.

Sift half the flour mixture over the remaining egg mixture and fold it in gently but rapidly with a large balloon whisk, slotted skimmer, or rubber spatula until almost all the flour has disappeared. Repeat with the remaining flour mixture until the flour has disappeared completely. Fold in the butter mixture until just incorporated.

Pour immediately into the prepared tin (it will be about 2/3 full) and bake 25-35 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown and starts to shrink slightly from the sides of the pan. (No need for a cake tester. Once the sides shrink the cake is done.) Avoid opening the oven door before the minimum time or the cake could fall. Test toward the end of baking by opening the door slightly and, if at a quick glance it does not appear done, close door back at once and check again in 5 minutes.

Loosen the sides of the cake with a small metal spatula and turn out at once onto a lightly greased rack.

Many Happy Returns Vivienne and here’s to the next decade!

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