Quick and Easy Flaky Pastry

I fancied making a pie yesterday, so I set out shopping in the morning and was quite perplexed to find that in all the shops I visited not a single one stocked any blocks of all-butter puff pastry. Now, a block of ready-made all-butter puff pastry is one of the few processed ingredients that I am happy to use, but though they all had the ready-rolled stuff it’s not quite the same.

I make rough-puff pastry quite a lot, but it does take a fair bit of time and attention – to be more accurate, you need to be around at various times during the day to roll and turn the pastry between chilling it. I didn’t have that freedom yesterday, but I really fancied that pie…

The answer was this: a super-quick and stupidly easy way to make flaky pastry. It doesn’t rise anywhere near as much as puff, but it laminates beautifully and is incredibly buttery. You do need to work quickly though, keeping the butter very cold is the key to success here so follow the instructions closely.


RECIPE – makes 450g of pastry

225g plain flour, sifted

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

170g unsalted butter

120 ml water


METHOD 

One hour before you will make the pastry, put the flour, butter and water in the freezer. Keep an eye on the water as it might freeze solid, which you don’t want. What you DO want are ice-cold ingredients.

Sift the flour and salt into a large, cold mixing bowl. Using the large holes of a cheese grater, quickly grate the butter into the flour – as fast as you can so that it doesn’t have time to warm up. Using a knife, stir the butter and flour around until each strand of butter is coated with flour and the butter is spread evenly throughout the flour. Add the ice-cold water and use the knife to bind the pastry together; a good way to do this is to act as if you are cutting with the knife, dragging the blade through the mixture three or four times, then giving the bowl a quarter turn and dragging the blade through another three or four times, until the water is all taken up with the flour. Once again, you need to move quickly while the mixture is ice cold.

Turn the pastry out onto a lightly floured surface and bring it together into a ball. Try to minimise the amount that you handle it, because you don’t want the butter strands to melt together, and handling pastry too much tends to make it tough.

Roll the pastry out into a long oblong, then fold one third of it into the centre of the pastry, and then fold the other third over the top of that. Wrap in clingfilm and leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes or until you need to use it, at which point you can roll it out and use it as you would a ready-made pastry.

Christmas Cake

I know, Christmas is seven weeks away so why post a recipe for Christmas cake now? Well, the truth is that if you haven’t already made yours, you’re in danger of it not being as good as it can be.

A good Christmas cake needs time to sit and develop, and you need time to ‘feed’ it. Feeding your Christmas cake is simply brushing it with alcohol several times before the big day. More details below, so let’s get cracking with this luscious recipe that is the culmination of years of experiments. This is the one that always gets eaten, and eaten fast!

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RECIPE 

250g sultanas

100g currants

400g raisins

75g mixed peel

zest of a lemon, finely grated

juice of 1/2 a lemon

zest of an orange, finely grated

80ml sherry

175g butter, room temperature

175g dark muscovado sugar

25g black treacle

3 medium eggs, room temperature, beaten

225g plain flour

1 tsp mixed spice

1 tsp cinnamon

40g ground almonds

165g glace cherries

25g glycerine


METHOD 

The day before you plan to make the cake, place the sultanas, currants, raisins, mixed peel, finely grated lemon zest, the juice of 1/2 a lemon, the finely grated zest of an orange and the sherry into a large bowl. Mix together thoroughly to combine, cover with cling film and set aside for 24 hours.

Heat the oven to 140C/ gas 1. Line the base and sides of a 20cm spring-form cake tin with baking parchment, leaving at least four inches of parchment standing above the level of the tin. Also, put baking parchment around the outside of the tin, also standing about 4 inches proud of the top of the tin and tied off with string. This prevents the top of the cake from drying out and burning.

In a large bowl, use a wooden spoon to beat the butter, muscovado and treacle until it forms a smooth paste. Mixing with a spoon prevents air being beaten into the mix, air in the mix of a fruit cake is a disaster as it allows the fruit to all sink to the bottom.

Now gradually add the beaten eggs to the butter mix, a little at a time to prevent the mixture from curdling. If it does curdle, just add a spoonful of your flour and beat it in.

When all the egg has been incorporated, mix the flour, mixed spice, cinnamon and ground almonds in a separate bowl. Drop the glace cherries into the flour and ensure they are fully coated – this gives them a coating that provides enough friction to prevent them from dropping to the bottom of the mix while it is baking. Now add the flour mix, with the cherries, to the butter and eggs. Fold in gently with a large metal spoon.

Add the glycerine to the soaked fruit and stir well, this will help to keep the cake moist. Add the fruit to the cake batter and gently fold it through until it is evenly mixed.

You will now have quite a stiff batter – don’t panic, this is as it should be. Spoon it into your lined cake tin and level it off with a spatula.

Bake in the centre of the oven for approximately two hours. Check it is cooked by inserting a skewer in to the centre of the cake, if it comes out clean then your cake is ready. If it comes out with some cake mix stuck to it then cook for a further 15 minutes, repeat the process if necessary, but do not cook your cake for longer than 2 1/2 hours.

Allow the cake to cool on a wire rack, in the tin.When the tin is warm to the touch you can remove it, but leave the parchment on the cake and the cake on the rack until it is fully cold.

When the cake is fully cold, use a pastry brush to generously brush the top and sides of the cake with sherry, Cointreau, rum, brandy, Calvados or any spirit of your choice. Don’t drown the cake, but don’t be frugal either. Here is the important bit:

DO NOT PIERCE YOUR CAKE!

It is the single biggest reason for dry, inedible fruit cakes. The alcohol will soak in quite happily – there is no need to dig holes in your cake so all of its moisture can evaporate more easily.

Wrap the cake in a large sheet of baking parchment, then cover that with a large sheet of baking foil and wrap it tightly. Store it in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.

To feed your cake, brush it as above, A MAXIMUM OF THREE MORE TIMES using your preferred fortified wine or spirit. Leave at least a week between each feed, and allow at least seven days after the last feed before you decorate the cake.

Now isn’t the time to give decorating tips, I will leave that until nearer the time…

Banana Oat Mini-Muffins

I hate wasting food. Okay, sometimes there will be a piece of past-its-best veg sitting in the fridge that has been forgotten because it has been buried under something else, but it’s rare that a use can’t be found for it. Vegetable peelings and trimmings, and not quite at their best leeks, celery, carrots and the like can always be pressed into service to make a stock. As for fruit, anything on the turn can be turned into cake fillings or immersed in alcohol and soaked for a few weeks to make a wicked punch, while bananas are (to my mind) at their most useful when the skins are seriously spotted with black but the fruit is still quite firm. From these you can make banoffee pie, banana bread, or these lovely little muffins.

Small enough to eat in two bites, loaded with flavour and (whisper it) they’re healthy as well. Made with a minimum amount of sugar and sunflower oil rather than butter, they are a great guilt-free treat, and are also great as part of your breakfast. They freeze well, so there’s no need to worry about eating them all in a hurry.

The ones pictured below have no topping or garnishing, but you can sprinkle a little demerara sugar over the top five minutes before they come out of the oven for a crunchy topping and a little extra indulgence.

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RECIPE – makes around 30 small muffins, or 15 large

100g oats

200g plain flour

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1/4 tsp fine sea salt

100g soft light brown sugar

4 large ripe bananas

1 large egg, beaten

60ml sunflower oil

75g chopped walnuts

demerara sugar to finish (optional)


METHOD 

Heat the oven to 180C/ gas 4. Line a cupcake tin with paper cases of the appropriate size.

In a large bowl, combine the oats, flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt and sugar. Mix well.

In a separate large bowl, mash the bananas until smooth then add the beaten egg and sunflower oil and mix thoroughly. Now add the dry ingredients and the walnuts over the top of the banana mix, fold through until all the ingredients are just combined; take care not to overmix.

Spoon the mixture into the pastry cases then bake for 15-20 minutes (for small muffins) or 20-25 minutes for larger muffins. They are ready when the tops are browned and firm, and when you insert a skewer or cocktail stick it comes out clean.

If you wish, five minutes or so before they are finished, sprinkle a little demerara sugar over the top of each muffin to add little crunch.

Sea Salt Crackers

Every Saturday night in our house is pizza night. We make our own (of course) and you can find my recipe for pizza here. The trouble is, we’re never quite sure how many of our extended family will turn up to eat – our children have all grown up and moved out, and their plans always seem to change. As a consequence, I often have a portion or more of pizza dough left over; that’s no problem, it will happily rest in the fridge for a few days, and it freezes well but… Saturday is pizza night and I will always make a fresh batch of dough up on the day. So the unused pizza dough often gets thrown away; I find that offensive because it tastes lovely and it doesn’t deserve that fate.

Last night we had a cheese and biscuits night. It had been a long, busy and tiring day so I knocked up some Provencal biscuits then spotted a lonely portion of pizza dough in the fridge. Mmm, surely I can do something with this… I wonder.

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RECIPE 

a portion of pizza dough

olive oil

sea salt


METHOD 

Heat the oven to 230C/ gas 8

On a lightly floured surface, roll the pizza dough as thinly as you can, then leave it to rest for five minutes. Roll it again, then place it on a lightly oiled baking sheet (or on a silicon mat, in which case you can dispense with the oil). Scatter lightly with sea salt.

Using a pizza cutter, or a sharp knife, cut the pizza dough into four strips, then cut across those strips at an angle to make triangles – or something close, it doesn’t matter too much. There is no need to pull the cut pieces apart, they will pull away from each other as they cook.

Bake them in the hottest part of the oven for around 6 minutes; they will turn golden and crunchy, and puff up into little salty pillows. The picture above was taken immediately after they came out of my oven, and because they are just made of thin, crusty dough they don’t deflate.

They are delicious straight out of the oven, and almost as good a couple of hours later. They are great with cheese, good for dips and as part of a canape, mezze or tapas selection. Or you can just pick them up to nibble on, they taste great all by themselves.

I doubt they will keep well, but I didn’t get the chance to find out – we scoffed them all!

Provencal Biscuits

I looked in the fridge yesterday and noticed that we had a LOT of cheese in there. All kinds: Roquefort, Danish Blue, Stilton, Cheddar, Red Leicester, goats’ cheese… I could go on, but you get the idea. This glut of cheesy comestibles gave me the perfect excuse to whip up these deliciously savoury little biscuits; they’re quick and easy to make and have a heavenly flavour – thanks to all the herbs that go in to the dough.

These stand head and shoulders above anything you can buy in a supermarket, and because they are so simple to make it doesn’t matter how inexperienced you are, they will also happily bear comparison with anything you can buy from an artisan bakery.

Dinner last night was twenty of these biscuits, a choice of cheeses, a simple green salad, chutney, vine tomatoes and grapes. At the end of it my wife said that we should put it into our regular meal rotation. Praise indeed.

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RECIPE 

100g plain flour, plus extra for dusting

100g plain wholemeal flour

1 tsp fine sea salt

1/2 tsp fennel seeds

1 tsp dried basil

1 tbsp fresh rosemary leaves, finely chopped

1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped

75g fridge-cold butter, cubed

1 egg yolk

1 tsp Dijon mustard

3 tbsp ice-cold water


METHOD – makes about 20

Heat the oven to 180C/176C fan/Gas 4.

Line a baking tray with baking parchment. Combine the flours, salt, fennel, basil, rosemary and thyme in a food processor. Pulse once or twice to ensure everything is thoroughly mixed, then add the butter and pulse several times until the butter has been combined and the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

Whisk together the egg yolk, mustard and water. Pour into the mixture while pulsing the processor, continue to pulse until the dough starts to come together. Take care not to overwork the biscuit dough as it will become tougher.

Empty the dough onto a lightly floured surface and, using your hands, bring it into a rough ball then gently knead it until it is homogenous and pliable. Roll it out until it is about 3mm thick (the thickness of a £1 coin), lifting and turning it regularly and dusting with flour underneath so that it doesn’t stick to your work surface.

Using a fluted pastry cutter – whichever size you have available that makes a biscuit the size that you want it, I tend to use one around 5cm in diameter – cut the dough out and place each biscuit on the baking parchment on the baking tray. These won’t spread so they can be placed quite close together.

Re-roll and use the dough trimmings to make as many biscuits as you can.

Bake in the centre of the oven for 20-25 minutes until they are firm and lightly browned. Cool on a wire rack and eat as soon as possible – though they will happily last for a few days in an airtight container.

 

Dutch Apple Cake

As with any classic recipe, there are probably hundreds of slightly varying versions of how to make a Dutch apple cake. The only test that matters is: does it taste good? This one does; I have been tinkering with it for a while and the absolute best version of it comes when it is made with duck eggs. They are fairly easy to obtain now and make a huge difference to cakes, perhaps because of the slight difference of the chemical make-up of the whites, but they give a lovely pillowy foam when whipped and make this cake featherlight.

Hens eggs are, of course, absolutely fine. The most crucial step here, whichever eggs you use, is to whip the eggs and sugar for at least 5 minutes in order to get as much air in to the mix as possible. It is also important to use the right size tin; I use a 30cm x 25cm baking dish that I normally use for lasagne – any smaller than that and the mix becomes a little too deep and requires longer to cook through, which in turn dries out the edges of the cake.

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RECIPE 

225g unsalted butter

3 duck eggs (or 4 medium hens eggs)

225g golden caster sugar

the zest of a lemon, finely grated

2 tbsp fresh lemon juice

250g plain flour

1 heaped tsp baking powder

2 heaped tsp ground mixed spice

500g cooking apples (Bramley or similar)

25g flaked almonds

2 tsp cinnamon


METHOD

Heat the oven to 190C/170C fan/Gas 5.

Weigh out all of the ingredients. Melt the butter in a saucepan set over a low heat; set aside.

Using an electric hand whisk, whisk the eggs and 150g of the sugar together for at least five minutes until the mixture has expanded and is thick and smooth. The whisks should leave a thick trail when removed. You can use a stand mixer to do this while you get on with something else, but I find the hand whisk gets much more air into the mix.

Beat in the lemon zest and juice, then carefully drizzle the melted butter into the mix while whisking continually. The volume will decrease slightly, that’s okay and expected, the mix is now much heavier.

Now sift the flower, baking powder and ground mixed spice into the batter. Gently fold into the batter until it is just combined – take care to be gentle so you don’t knock the air out of the batter.

Grease your baking dish with butter, pour the batter into the dish and set aside while you prepare the topping.

Combine the flaked almonds, cinnamon and 50g of the sugar in a large bowl. Peel and core the apples, cut into eighths, then thinly slice the apples (1mm thick or so). Toss the sliced apple thoroughly in the sugar mix and then scatter over the top of the batter. Press down very lightly to get a more or less level topping, then sprinkle with the remaining 25g of the sugar.

Bake in the centre of the oven for 35-40 minutes until well risen and golden.

I love this with single cream, my wife loves it with custard. It’s easy to love…

 

Chocolate Guinness Cake

There are a handful of cookery writers that I trust implicitly: Jamie Oliver, The Hairy Bikers, and Nigella Lawson chief among them. Pick up any of their books, turn to any recipe, follow the instructions exactly and you will end up with something delicious. Every time.

This is a Nigella recipe, and the first time my wife made it we knew that it was a cake that we could come back to time and again. It is now a firm family favourite, baked for birthdays, family gatherings and any other time we feel like it.

Yes it’s wickedly indulgent, but somehow, because it is so light and moist, it doesn’t really feel like it. It’s not one for anybody on a diet though!

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Photo Credit: James Merrell

RECIPE

For the cake:

250ml Guinness
250g unsalted butter, chopped into slices or cubes
75g cocoa powder
400g golden caster sugar
140 ml soured cream
2 large eggs
1 tbsp vanilla extract
275g plain flour
2½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

For the topping:

300g cream cheese
150g icing sugar
125ml double or whipping cream


METHOD

Heat the oven to 180°C/350ºF/gas mark 4. Grease and line a 23cm/9 inch spring form tin.

Pour the Guinness into a large saucepan over a medium heat and add the butter. When the butter has melted whisk in the cocoa and sugar.

In a separate bowl, beat the soured cream with the eggs and vanilla and pour into the beer and butter, then whisk in the flour and bicarb.

Pour the cake batter into the greased and lined tin and bake for 45 – 60 minutes.

Leave it to cool completely in the tin on a cooling rack, as it is quite a damp cake.

When the cake is cold, lightly whip the cream cheese until it is smooth, sieve in the icing sugar and then beat them both together. Add the cream and beat again until it is thick and unctuous. Spread the topping thickly over the top of the cake so that it looks just like a well-poured pint of Guinness.

Lemon and Coconut Bundt Cake

One of my favourite things to do in my spare time is wandering around charity shops, looking for cookery books. They seem to be bought as presents for people who don’t want to cook, so they end up being given to charity and you can find some amazing books in almost-new condition. I have picked up several hundred over the years, at a small fraction of what they would have cost new; it is fair to say that I’m addicted.

One book I picked up recently was ‘Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook’, it is turning out to be one of the best books I own. It is American, so the measurements are mainly in cups rather than the grams that we English are more familiar with; it can be a bit tricky to convert one to the other and still get the best results – cups are a measure of volume whereas grams are a measure of mass and they don’t always convert properly. Don’t let the cup measurements put you off, measuring this way is dead simple, and this cake is absolutely stunning – for vegans and carnivores alike.

I had to buy a Bundt tin for this one and I am glad that I did because though you can make it in a regular tin it comes out far better when made this way. You will need a 10-inch Bundt tin.

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RECIPE

1 cup of golden caster sugar

2/3 cup of vegetable oil

1 400g tin of coconut milk

1/4 cup soy or almond milk

1/4 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice

the zest of 2 large lemons

2 tsp vanilla extract

3 cups plain flour

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

The grated flesh of a coconut

A few tablespoons of icing sugar


METHOD

Preheat the oven to 180C/ 160C fan/ Gas 4.

Break your coconut open, take out the flesh and, using a vegetable peeler, peel off the brown skin on the back of the flesh. Grate using a box grater then chop the grated flesh a little more. The coconut flesh gives the cake great texture and gives you something to bite into; if the coconut flesh is too big it can be distracting, so make sure the pieces of flesh are no bigger than your little fingernail.

Lightly grease a 10-inch Bundt tin. In a large mixing bowl combine the sugar, vegetable oil, coconut milk, soy milk, lemon juice, lemon zest, and vanilla. Stir to combine. Sift the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt into the wet ingredients in batches, mixing well after each addition. Stir to combine, then stir in the coconut.

Pour the batter into the Bundt tin and bake for approximately 1 hour in the centre of the oven. A skewer inserted into the cake should come out clean.

Remove from the oven and let it cool in the tin for about 10 minutes, then place a cutting board over the cake pan, gently flip it over and release the cake from the pan.

Let it cool completely then sift a sprinkling of the icing sugar over the top.

Double Chocolate Cake with Almond Cream and Raspberries

Of all the challenges that baking presents, making cakes for vegans must rank as the hardest. When you can’t use eggs to give it a lift you have to go down the road of using raising agents, with the attendant risk of a soapy undertaste; when you can’t use the velvet luxury of butter you have to use oils, so you have to ensure you inject decadence in other ways.

Then there’s the texture: there are no eggs to hold air in and give the crumb its structure; there is no butter to give it strength. The most likely result is a dense, stodgy, unappetising cake that appeals to no-one. For that reason, when you find a great vegan cake recipe you should treasure it. When you find a great vegan cake recipe that carnivores also love… well, it’s treasure indeed. This one is clever, using baking powder and vinegar to give a good rise and open texture. Don’t worry, the vinegar is undetectable in this delicious cake.

This recipe comes from a book entitled ‘Peace & Parsnips’ by Lee Watson. Buy it. It is full of excellent recipes and ideas that prove that vegan cooking can result in delicious food that will hold its own against any cuisine.

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RECIPE 

For the cake:

150g unrefined brown sugar

220g plain flour

50g cacao powder

80g very dark vegan chocolate, chopped into very small pieces

1 heaped tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

75 ml vegetable oil

1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

250 ml water

For the almond cream:

80g raw almonds, soaked overnight, brown skins peeled off

75 ml unsweetened almond or soya milk

100 ml vegetable oil

2 tsp almond extract

2 tbsp maple syrup

For the topping:

fresh raspberries

2 tbsp crushed pistachio nuts


METHOD

Heat the oven to 180C/160C fan/Gas 4.

Oil and line the base and sides of a 24cm loose-bottomed springform cake tin.

Place the sugar, flour, cacao powder, chocolate, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl and stir it all together. Add the oil, vinegar and water – gradually – and whisk slowly until it forms an even batter. Take care not to overwork it.

Pour the batter into the cake tin and bake for 25-30 minutes. A skewer inserted into the centre of the cake should pull out with a very small amount of sticky cake clinging to it.

Leave to cool on a wire rack, in the tin, for 30 minutes or so. Remove from the tin when it is nearly cool.

Meanwhile, make the almond cream. Put the almonds into a food processor and process, scraping down the sides regularly, until it is smooth, then drizzle in the milk and process until it forms a smooth cream. Now drizzle in the oil, which will make it thicken up. Finally, add the almond extract and the syrup, process briefly until thick and smooth, it should be the consistency of whipped double cream.

When the cake is almost cooled, spread a thick layer of the almond cream on top. Arrange the raspberries decoratively on top, any way you like, and finally sprinkle with the crushed pistachios.

This cake not only tastes incredible, it also looks amazing – definitely one to show off with.

Pita Bread

A quick and very simple bread to make, Pita is a slightly leavened flatbread said to have originated in the Near East over 4000 years ago.

Most bread books have a basic white loaf as the opening recipe; Pita is much easier, and I believe it should be the first bread used to introduce newcomers to the art of bread making – if only to give pita its historic due.

The defining characteristic of pita is the internal pocket, and the secret to getting a good pocket is a hot oven, so make sure you give your oven plenty of time to thoroughly heat up before putting your bread in to bake.

There are two recipes here, one for white pita and one for wholemeal. The method is the same for both.

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RECIPE 

For 4 white pita:

100g strong white flour

100g plain or ’00’ flour

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 heaped tsp dried yeast

135g tepid water

olive oil

For 4 wholemeal pita:

50g strong white flour

50g strong wholemeal flour

100g plain or ’00’ flour

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 heaped tsp dried yeast

145g tepid water

olive oil


METHOD

Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl, make a well in the centre and add the tepid water. Using your fingers as a claw, drag the dry ingredients through the water and begin to mix everything together, gently kneading until everything comes together as a dough. The dough should be of a consistency that it leaves the sides of the bowl clean.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly oiled surface, leave for ten minutes, then knead for twenty seconds and shape into a ball. Lightly oil the bowl and put the dough back into it. Cover the bowl with a damp tea-towel or cling film and leave in a warm place for 40 minutes.

After 40 minutes, push the air out of the dough with your fingertips, fold the dough in half while still in the bowl, turn the bowl through 90 degrees and fold the dough in half again, then shape into a ball once more, cover and leave for a further 40 minutes.

Heat your oven to its maximum setting.

Remove the dough from the bowl and shape into a loose sausage. Cut the dough into four equal pieces then, using a little more oil, roll each piece out gently until approximately 5mm thick.

Turn the oven down to 220C/ 200C fan/ gas 8. Your pitas will cook perfectly in the falling heat.

Place the pitas on a baking sheet and bake for approximately ten minutes or until puffed up and golden.