Spiced Banana and Dark Chocolate Chunk Cake: the first foray into baking in Cambodia

Banana and chocolate chunk cake

I hadn’t meant to create an entirely different cake when I decided to bake the chocolate, whiskey, currant banana cake (or Dumb Rum Banana Cake, as it’s known in Emma’s house) as my hello gift to Liberty Family Church.  The cake just morphed into something different as Becci and I trawled along the aisles in Lucky Supermarket, looking for ingredients, on my first Saturday in Cambodia.

  • Firstly, I discovered that butter is expensive.  The cheapest block of 227g of butter was $3.50
  • Chocolate is expensive as I expected.  There isn’t a tesco value or sainsbury basic equivalent block of dark chocolate that I can use either.  Hmm…
  • Sultanas and currants are ridiculously expensive.  The 180g of sultanas was going to cost me $1.90.
  • I couldn’t see a bag of walnuts or pecans that I can use in baking.
  • Rum or whiskey – well, alcohol is pretty cheap in Cambodia.  I wasn’t sure whether Cambodians would like the flavour of either one of them in a cake.

I’m standing looking at the dried food shelves and wondering if there’s any cheap dried fruit in Cambodia.   I’m scratching my head, ‘what am I going to do about flavour and texture?’  All my normal options were out and obviously I needed to economise on some ingredients.  And thus the cake transforms from a chocolate, nutty, whiskey, currant, banana cake into a spiced, banana cake with chocolate chunks.  ‘Out with the dried fruit and nuts’, I decide.  ‘I’m going to add flavour with a mix of spices and create texture by adding a greater quantity of chocolate chunks to it.’

Plenty of chocolate surely covers over a multitude of improvisations.

There was never a moment of questioning whether I should bother baking.  Needs must and all that – I wanted to give a hello present to the church and I needed to do some baking.

ingredients for banana and chocolate chunk cake

Ingredients for the Spiced Banana and Dark Chocolate Chunk Cake

  • 175g plain flour
  • 2 tsps of mixed spice or 1 tsp of cinnamon powder, 1/2 tsp of ground ginger, 1/4 tsp of ground nutmeg, 1/4 tsp of ground cloves
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 125g unsalted butter, melted
  • 90-100g soft brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3 large or 4 small very ripe bananas, mashed (about 300g in weight with the skins off)
  • 200g dark chocolate, roughly chopped

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 170°C/325°F/gas mark 3 and line (preferably) springform cake tin, anywhere between 23-25cm. I only had a 25cm round cake tin at hand.  It was the first time I’d used it and it worked beautifully for sharing with so many people.

2. Measure out the plain flour, spices, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder, salt and give them all a good mix with a metal or wooden spoon. This means that you don’t get any lumps of salt or bicarbonate of soda in the eventual cake.

3. Melt the butter either in a pan or in zap it in the microwave in a pyrex bowl.  Now add the sugar to the butter and stir well until the sugar is well blended into the butter. It should look almost toffee-like in colour because of the brown sugar. Follow with the eggs. Beat them in, one at a time, to the sugary buttery mixture.

Top tip: Emma shared a really good tip with me, if you are going to melt the butter in the microwave.  Use a pyrex bowl, add the butter and COVER IT WITH KITCHEN PAPER.  It means that if the butter happens to explode in the microwave, because you zap the butter for a bit too long, it won’t go all over the inside of your microwave.

preparing to bake banana and chocolate chunk cake

4.  Now add the mashed bananas,vanilla extract and the chopped chocolate to the mixture and mix them in well.

5. Add in the flour mix (from step 2) but add a third of it at a time, stirring well after each addition. Once all of the dry mixture is mixed in, add the cake mixture into the cake tin and bake in the middle of the oven for 50-60 minutes. I check after 40 minutes and if the cake looks like it is browning at the top too quickly, then I cover it with some baking paper to protect the cake from burning. The time needed for the cake to bake will vary depending on the size of the cake tin that you use, so don’t worry if the cake needs an extra 15-20 minutes in the oven. You’ll know when the cake is done when you insert a cake tester, or I use a sharp knife, into the cake and the tester comes out clean.

6.  Let the cake cool completely.  Then cut it up into as many pieces as you like and share it around.

Of course, you could serve it whilst it’s still warm with cream or icecream.  I just find that the cake is easier to cut when it is cold and you don’t get so much chocolate goo all over the knife as you are cutting it.  The cake stores well in an airtight container – not that this one had a chance.  It was all gobbled up in under 10 minutes.

The verdict? The cake is really tasty.  The chocolate chunks give it texture and bite that would be missing if you omitted them.  The spices worked really well in transforming the flavour of this cake and it went down really well with the Cambodian palette too.  I still prefer the chocolatey, whiskey and currant version of the cake (who would blame me) but while I’m here, I will quite happily bake this new banana and chocolate cake.

Cake, anyone?

Chewy Cornflake, Pecan and Chocolate Chunk Cookies: baking across the pond

cornflake cookies

I finally got to bake an american recipe, using american measurements in America. I know that, for some, that doesn’t sound remarkable; it was personally rather enlightening on a typical US baking environment and experience. I hope that any americans reading this don’t mind me saying that.

Let me fill you in quickly on the back story. This all came about when Chang-Bum op-pa*, a friend of the family, invited my mum and I to spend New Year with them in Southern California. My mum and his parents go way back; I think that the last time I had met our host was when I was the age of his youngest son, aged 9. I remember going to Loch Ness with him and his sister. (*Chang-Bum is his name but op-pa is how I address him. Op-pa translates into older brother in Korean in case you’re wondering)

I offered to bake them Fiona Cairn’s amazing shortbread for them, as a taste of Scotland, and it is a great recipe.

cornflake cookie helpers

Well, it isn’t that they turned me down. It’s more like they redirected my offer. Chang-Bum op-pa had already read my food blog. So, his question was, “Would I like to bake a cookie/biscuit*/scone* recipe with his family instead? It would be the first time for them and they are mad for cookies/scones/biscuits.” (*US and UK versions of biscuit and scones are different.)

“Absolutely!”

Alarm bells ring when I am given a negative to the question, “Is there a set of weighing scales?” That’s when I’m pushed out my comfort zone and my education into american baking culture really starts.

So, I search online specifically for an american recipe, and in doing so, introduce my friend’s wife to Smitten Kitchen’s reliable collection of recipes. The next part is a trip to a grocery store, where we put all purpose flour and butter measured in sticks into our cart. But my biggest culture shock moment is whilst gazing flummoxed at the spices rack. There are no jars of mixed spice! I’m a bit shocked. (Question: why don’t they sell mixed spice in american grocery stores?) I apologise to any Americans who have hunted for mixed spice on account of my recipes and been given a blank look from a grocery assistant. And at that moment, I appreciate why some american recipes are so particular on their spice measurements. E.g. ¼tsp of ground cloves; ¼tsp ginger; ½tsp cinnamon…

After that culture shock, the actual baking of the cookies seemed fairly unremarkable. I understand why american recipes list the number of sticks of butter, because that is how they are sold. Besides, sticks of butter are exactly what we needed in the absence of weighing scales. Having said that, now that I’m writing this back in the UK, I’ve converted the recipe to grams and ounces.

The original recipe is for an oatmeal, pecan and chocolate cookie. The cornflakes were a subsitute for the oatmeal that had gone off. I like to think that I was truly original and no-one had ever thought to put cornflakes in cookies before. Then a few days later I read the side of the cornflake packet: a recipe for cornflake and cranberry cookies. Perhaps, I was being innovative rather than original then, but I still think fondly of my ingenuity.

This recipe made between regular sized 36-46 cookies. We baked them ALL. I haven’t tested this yet, but if you wanted to, I guess you could bake the amount you wanted and freeze the rest. Freeze them, unbaked, in a baking tray and then once frozen, you can store them in a container. To bake from frozen: lay them out on a baking tray and let them defrost for an hour or so before want to you bake them. Once I try it out, I’ll re-edit this post with how it worked.

Ingredients

  • 110g/4oz butter
  • 100g/3½oz granulated sugar
  • 150g/5½oz light soft brown sugar
  • 1tsp salt
  • 1tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 225g/8oz plain flour
  • 1tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1tsp mixed spice
  • 120g/4oz crushed cornflakes or 90g/3oz oats
  • 250g/8oz pecans, chopped (rough or fine depending on your preference)
  • 2tsps orange zest
  • 300g/12oz dark chocolate chopped into chunks or use chocolate chips, if you prefer

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4. This recipe makes LOTS of cookies so line various baking trays with baking paper.

2. Measure out the flour, bicarbonate soda, mixed spice and salt in one bowl and sift together.

3. In a big bowl, cream the butter until it is light and fluffy. It’s much quicker when done with an electric mixer (about 4-5 mins), which my hosts didn’t own unfortunately. So, I had to use arm power and it took much longer, but good for toning the arms.

4. Add the orange zest, vanilla extract, white and brown sugars and cream together with the butter until they are thoroughly mixed.

5. Now mix the eggs into the butter/sugar mixture, one at a time.

6. Add the flour mixture in two batches, ensuring that the first batch is well-combined with the butter/sugar mixture before adding the second. The reason for doing it like this is that it is easier on you to beat out any lumps of flour in the dough.

7. Now, obviously if you had to use a wooden spoon/spatula all this time because there wasn’t an electric mixer then you don’t have to switch over. But if not, with a wooden spoon/spatula, mix in the chopped pecans, chopped chocolates. Finally add in the crushed cornflakes or oats and mix well.

cookie doughbaked cornflake cookies

8. Using a tablespoon to measure it out, dollop out the cookie dough onto the baking tray, making sure that each of the tablespoon sized dollops are evenly spaced out. The high fat content in them means that they will spread out while baking, so don’t worry – they will flatten out!

9. Bake them in the oven for 12-14 minutes. Take them out when they are golden brown in colour and still soft in the middle. They will harden more in the cooling process. Let them cool for 2 minutes on the baking tray and then let them cool on a wire rack. If you’re limited on space, you’ll be itching to get the next batch onto the baking tray and in the oven as soon as possible.

And yes, since I was in America, I can confirm that they are perfect when they are still warm, with a glass of milk and the house has that wonderful smell of freshly baked cookies. Deb (from Smitten Kitchen) rates these as the perfect balance between chewy and crispy and that the combination of the spice and orange zest give it a grown up feel. I agree. Adapt it with milk chocolate, if you prefer. Next time, I think that I’ll try baking it with oatmeal or muesli, just to see how it turns out.

cookies and milkchewy cornflakes, pecan and chocolate cookies

On reflection, nowadays, I get the impression that kitchens on both sides of the Atlantic, make allowances for each other cultures. Most UK kitchens have US style cups, and lots of recipe books will give a glossary list of US and UK terms. Having majoredspecialised in cultural history, I find this all rather fascinating. (self-conscious note on my choice of vocabulary. A relic of my sojourn in the States.) Nevertheless, having grown up in the UK, I personally consider it normal to:

  • weigh out ounces and grams vs cups;
  • use plain and self-raising flour vs all-purpose flour style;
  • differentiate types of sugars, such as caster, granulated, demerara… vs white, brown or molasses;
  • and buy a jar of mixed spice in the supermarket!

But I am partial to the cookies and milk combo.

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