How to make Scrabble Shortbread: improvising a birthday special shortbread in lockdown

Scrabble Shortbread Tiles
Scrabble Shortbread tiles

It was my sister’s birthday recently and I asked her if she’d like a cake or baked goodie. She answered, “shortbread, if that’s possible!!” I laughed when I read the message. It didn’t surprise me. She had declared previously that shortbread was her favourite item from everything that I had baked whilst living with them, during lockdown for 3 months. The week before, I had moved out into university accommodation when lockdown measures had eased allowing me to social bubble with them.

However, how was I going to go about making it a birthday special shortbread with limited baking equipment and none of my usual baking and decorating tools?

  • Make a cake structure out of shortbread biscuit? Maybe, but I wanted to make something more personal.
  • Stamp out happy birthday with cookie cutters? I didn’t have any alphabet cookie cutters and didn’t know any shops within walking distance that would stock them. I couldn’t ask her to drive me to a shop because, well that would ruin the surprise.

So, I let the thought percolate for a night and then I hit on the idea to create shortbread scrabble tiles, spelling out Happy Birthday Ee-Reh. My sister really likes playing scrabble so this would be special and personal to her. Importantly, I figured out how I’d be able to make them by improvising with what I had in the kitchen already. So yesterday I spent a happy Saturday morning improvising baking tools and creating these shortbread scrabble tiles, whilst working out how to do my laundry in the on-campus laundrettes.

Here’s how I made the scrabble tiles, if you’d like to make them.

I searched the internet for an image of scrabble tiles and counted out how many letters I needed for my birthday message to my sister. I used my go to Fiona Cairns shortbread recipe. This blog post has a more detailed methodology, and worth reading if you’ve not made shortbread before. This time, in the absence of salted butter in my fridge, I substituted it with unsalted butter and added salt. I also accidentally softened half the butter in the microwave for 10 seconds too long, so it was a liquid goo. But it was okay because when I added the rest of the still cold butter chunks, it started to harden and sort of get to the right temperature and consistency. I used cornflour because it is more readily available in UK supermarkets than rice flour but either is fine. I resisted the urge to use a ruler (didn’t have one, haha) or measuring tape (which I do have) and eyeballed the shaping and cutting. It’s homebaking, you know, not the GBBO.

Equipment you’ll need

  • Medium sized mixing bowl
  • Clingfilm – baking paper will also work
  • Chopping board
  • Tea spoon
  • Hand mixer
  • sharp knife
  • metal or wooden improvised carving tool – I used the end of the beater. I kept thinking that a metal chopstick would have been great.
  • Metal baking tray and baking paper
My improvised cookie decorating tools

Ingredients

  • 250g unsalted butter, softened and cubed
  • 100g golden caster sugar, plus some more for sprinkling post-baking
  • 1tsp table salt – about 5g
  • 250g of plain flour
  • 125g of cornflour

Method

1. Cream together the butter, salt and the sugar together first. I use a hand mixer because it’s faster and easier.

2. In another bowl, measure out the flour and cornflour. Mix it with a whisk. Unless you’ve got weevils or clumps, that is all the ‘sifting’ you need to do. Mix into the butter and sugar in three batches to stop the flour flying out of the bowl until it starts to come together. Then gently knead the dough for about 5 minutes, until it is smooth.

3. Get a piece of clingfilm or baking paper. Place half the mixture evenly in a long oblong shape on the clingfilm. Fold the clingfilm over to cover the dough and use your hands to massage it into a more recognisable rectangular oblong log. I tried to make each side 3.5cm, which is the length of my thumb. I was eye-balling it. Try to give it corners so when you cut it, it will look like a square. Twist the edges of the clingfilm and pop it into the fridge for at least 30 minutes. This will make the dough easier to cut. Do the same with the other half of the dough.

The shaped oblong rectangular logs

4. In the meantime, write the message on a piece of paper, count the number of scrabble letter tiles that you’ll need and check the internet for the font and numerical value of each letter tile. Also wash up the beaters.

5. Preheat the oven to 170°C/340°F/gas mark 3. Line a metal baking sheet with baking paper.

6. Take one of the logs out of the fridge and place it on a chopping board. Unwrap and cut off the rounded edges. Slice each log into 1cm thick squares. I eyeballed it. Rotate the log every 4-5 slices to ensure that they keep an even square shape.

7. Take one square and transfer it onto the lined baking tray. I used the end of the hand mixer beater to carve out the letter and the end of a tea spoon to make the numbers, holding the square with my other hand to keep it still. Carve about 5mm deep. Every so often, I would use a sharp knife to remove the shortbread ‘debris’ and if it was a letter like a B or an E, I would pad some of the ‘debris’ gently in between the carved furrows to strengthen the shape of the letter, hoping that it wouldn’t disappear as it baked. Curved round 3’s proved impossible for me.

8. Bake in the middle of the pre-heated oven for 14-16 minutes. It should be a lightly golden colour on top and little browner on the bottom. DON’T pick one up when fresh out the oven to check if the bottoms are browned because it will break!* Wait until they have cooled down and are stronger. Instead trust the oven and sprinkle a little caster sugar on top immediately when they come out of the oven. If any of the pieces have baked into each other, separate them with a sharp knife.

*I needed 19 letters, but as I picked up the ‘I’ to do exactly what I told you not to do, it broke in half. So I got my second log out and decided to carve out some more letters so that my sister’s family could spell out each of their names, if they wanted to. Sometimes, this is how the creativity juices unfold.

And that’s it. Tada!

I was so excited to show her what I’d made for her. I asked my 3 year old nephew to say which letters he saw as I ‘wrote out’ her birthday shortbread.

P.S I asked my sister for a lift so that the shortbread biscuits wouldn’t break into crumbs whilst walking the hour over to her house.

P.P.S She really liked them, and so did the rest of her family.

How to blanch almonds

blanched almonds

It seems that I spend most of my time learning, nowadays.  Learning language, learning the geography of the city, learning where to go shopping, learning how to, or rather how not to, negotiate with tuk tuk drivers.  The other day, I had a tuk tuk driver explode in my face because I hadn’t told him that I wanted him to drop my friend off at her house en route to mine, prior to agreeing the price. The frustrating thing was that, even after I apologised, the tuk tuk driver refused to tell me what I should have done to ‘not treat me like a slave’ – quote verbatim from the tuk tuk driver – because he ‘didn’t know my plan’.  What?  Once he’d said that, I figured it was best that this strange tuk tuk driver and I never meet each other again and we go our separate ways, swiftly.  I paid him for that part of the journey and walked the rest of the way to my house.   Typing ‘how to negotiate with tuk tuk drivers’ into a search engine and reading the results doesn’t prepare oneself on this eventuality.

Whinge over.

What I love is, even on the other side of the world, fortunately there are food blogs, youtube and google for so many of my food-related questions.  Somewhat  naively, I hadn’t anticipated that my move to Phnom Penh would necessitate me learning some back-to-basics skills: the supermarkets here haven’t got a readily available of supply of conveniently prepared cooking ingredients, like in the UK.  For example, the other day, I’d decided to make ouzi for my friends and discovered that you can’t buy blanched almonds anywhere.  If you’re lucky, you’ll find some whole, unblanched almonds in the supermarket.  So, what’s a girl to do?

But learn.

Google search and a peruse on about.com greek foods later…

I find that there’s something therapeutic about the repetitive nature of this simple task.  And as I’m standing by the sink, popping almonds out of their skins by myself, I imagine that in other countries, this could be a community, or at least a familial, endeavour, in which you get together and have a good gossip.

20 minutes later, I’ve got a bowlful of beautifully blanched almonds drying on the countertop, ready to be roasted for ouzi.

Ingredients and Method for Blanching Almonds

You’ll need raw shelled almonds, a pan of boiling water and a colander.

  1. Bring the water to boil in the saucepan, take the saucepan off the heat, add the almonds and keep them in there for 1 minute.  If you leave them in for too long, then the almonds get soggy.
  2. Drain them in the colander and rinse them in cold water for a few seconds so that they are just cool enough to handle.
  3. The skin removal process begins as soon as the almonds are cool enough, not to burn your fingers.  Take an almond in between your thumb, forefinger and middle finger, massage or squeeze the skin and let the almond pop out of its skin.

Allow the blanched almonds to dry before using them.

If you want to ground almonds, you can put the dried, blanched almonds into a food processor and grind them up.

Ta da!  Simple.

Now to learn about the proper etiquette for negotiating the price with a tuk tuk driver. 😛

removing the skin

Water Orange Cat, aka Lime Juice

Curious?

Before I left the UK, I was asked what I was most looking forward to eating in Cambodia.  The first thing that popped into my mind was a drink, lime juice.  I developed a liking for it on my first visit to Cambodia over 3 years ago and now I’m sort of addicted to it.

lime juice

That being the case, I guess it is quite fortuitous that my favourite Khmer word is the one for lime juice, which I learned on my second day here. Ttuk kreu’ik ch’mmaa.  Let me break it up for you:

Ttuk is the word that they use to describe water/liquid.

Lime is called kreu’ik ch’mmaa – orange cat. I think that most citrus produce is a type of ‘kreu’ik‘ – orange and they add a descriptive word after it in order to specify it. Limes get the description cat because the face you pull when you eat a lime, is like a cat. Apparently!  I’m only explaining the language.

Ttuk kreu’ik ch’mmaa.  Water orange cat.

Ingredients for making lime juice

It made me laugh – a lot!  I do love learning languages and there were two reasons why I was so keen to get stuck into learning the language when I arrived.  Of course, my main reason was simply to be able to communicate with people and get around.  Secondly, don’t you think that you learn so much about the culture from the language?  For example, one thing I’ve found out about Khmer is that they love to put words together to make up new words, like they do in German.   Then today, I learned that onions are, ‘k’tum barang‘ which translates literally as garlic french. It led me to ask my teacher whether onions were brought over by the French, and thus not native to Cambodia. He’s a 21 year old who isn’t as interested in food as I am. “Yes” he says slowly, not entirely sure why I am so interested in finding out about the history of onions.

the laborious part of making lime juice

Anyhow, back to ttuk kreu’ik ch’mmaa.  I especially loved Tuesdays and Fridays, when I was living with Simon and Becci because their househelper came round and made a big container of fresh lime juice and yummy food.  Not that Simon and Becci don’t make yummy food – it’s just… ugh… I’m digging myself into a hole.  So, anyways, Simon and Becci had taught her how to make the lime juice and I asked them to tell me.  Then on one bank holiday, I spent an hour making sugar syrup and squeezing the juice of 13 limes.  Perhaps I don’t work out enough, but I really felt it in my hands and arms the next day.

You can vary the amounts of the sugar and the limes, according to how you like your lime juice to taste.  I like it a bit on the tart side and not overly sweet.

cup of lime juice

Ingredients for homemade lime juice – this makes 2.4 litres

  • 200ml of freshly squeezed lime juice – about 8-11 limes, depending on the size of your limes
  • 225g white sugar – caster or granulated
  • 250ml water
  • more water – I make it in 2.4litre bottles (see step 2)

Method

Top tip: make the sugar syrup first so that it has a chance to cool down while you are squeezing the limes.

1. Add the sugar to the water in a saucepan.  Put the saucepan on a low heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved completely.

2. Once the sugar syrup has completely cooled, add the lime juice and pour into an empty container and dilute with water by filling the container to the top with water.

3. Serve poured over ice.

lime juice - ttuk kreuik chm'maa

How to… A beginners guide to creating chocolate butterflies


Cupcakes decorated with salted caramel buttercream and chocolate butterflies

Butterflies resting on banana cupcakes with salted caramel buttercream

I wanted to make a chocolate butterfly, the moment that I saw Emma’s beautiful chocolate butterfly resting on top of her Fleur de Sel Caramel Cake.

But I’d never made any form of chocolate decoration before. So, how could I do it?

I found out that Emma had bought some special chocolate that didn’t require tempering, which I didn’t want to splash out on. Otherwise, I needed to temper my chocolate using a thermometor. That put me off for a few weeks because it felt a bit too complicated and pricey, if I’m honest.

And then, a cherry blossom cake started to take shape in my imagination. Dark chocolate forms the silhouette of the tree and branches and I’d use real cherry blossoms for the flowers. However, I’m not sure what the cake mixture will be so this cherry blossom cake is still locked away in my mind. Since then, I’ve looked at some pictures of beautiful cherry blossom cakes but they mostly seem to rely on sugarpaste and fondant decorations. I’d still like to do my chocolate version.

Well, true to character, I read a few more blogs and watched a couple of youtube videos. On the note of youtube videos, I recommend watching Ann’s How to cook thattutorials for the variety of methods and decorations that one can attempt with chocolate.

Then, at 11 o’clock on Saturday night, armed with a bit more confidence and knowledge, I simplified the process of tempering chocolate as much as I dared, filled a piping bag, traced a butterfly template and gave it a go.

There are more complicated ways of tempering chocolate than the one that I’m going to share with you. Strictly speaking you need to use a minimum of 300g of chocolate in order to temper it. I chose to use 100g because it was meant to be a small trial and if it went wrong then it would be less of a waste. I also wanted to experiment with white and dark chocolate to see if they differed at all and 100g of each felt like it would be sufficient.

Next, I realised that I didn’t have enough pyrex bowls. Perhaps it’s a sign that it’s not meant to be – as if! I used my Denby bowls (they’re microwave and oven proof, so I was pretty sure they’d be okay).

Here’s how I did it.

You’ll need:

  • Chocolate for melting. I began with 100g but, as you know, you’re supposed to have a minimum of 300g of chocolate to temper it.
  • Non-stick baking paper
  • Template
  • Pen/Pencil
  • 1 large hardback book. I used 1 hardback and 2 smaller books to lift it up even more.

1. Preparation: I found a template of a butterfly and traced it onto my baking paper. Then I flipped the paper over, so that the chocolate doesn’t pick up the ink, folded the paper down the middle of the butterfly’s body and opened the paper back out so that it was flat on my worksurface. I opened up the hardback book in the middle. That’s where I rested my butterflies so that they’d dry in 3D.

butterfly template

2. I chopped up the chocolate and set aside 20g of the chocolate and put 80g of chocolate in the bowl and zapped it in the microwave at 15 second intervals to begin with, reducing it to 10 seconds. I burnt my first batch, but only in the middle. Rather than waste the chocolate, I scooped out the burnt bits with a teaspoon, gave the remaining chocolate a good stir and learned my first lesson.

When microwaving chocolate to melt, the chocolate in the middle of the bowl melts quickest. Stir the chocolate at each interval, even if they don’t look like they’ve begun to melt.

3. Once the chocolate in the bowl had melted, I stirred in the 20g. By doing this step, you are, in effect, bringing down the temperature of the chocolate. This is my very simple way of tempering the chocolate.

filling a piping bag with melted chocolate

4. I filled a disposable piping bag with the chocolate, pushed the chocolate down and twisted the top end. It’s better to do it now rather than when you snip off the tip, otherwise the chocolate will squirt out the hole. I’m not sure what you’d do if you weren’t to use a disposable one… If anyone’s got any helpful suggestions then please leave them as a comment at the bottom.

5. I snipped a bit off the tip. I began with the tiniest of openings and gradually made it bigger. Mostly because I realised, whilst piping, that I hadn’t fished out all the burnt bits and they were causing a blockage. Ooopsies.

piping bag readysnipped off end of piping bag

6. I barely used any pressure on the bag to pipe the chocolate carefully over the butterfly template. Once I finished, I lifted up the tip and quickly began work on my second, third, fourth.. you get the picture. That night, I went on to make chocolate stars and dragonflies.

chocolate butterfly 1butterfly setting in the books

7. I rested the baking paper in the open book so that the fold in the paper nestled into the fold of the open book.

8. Leave them to dry and then carefully peel the baking paper away from the chocolate.

gently peel off the butterfly

See. Not so difficult afterall and the decorations will certainly impress your friends.

The Han-Na of 6 months ago would have been put off making a chocolate butterfly because of the notion of tempering chocolate; I guess my resolution to push myself in developing new baking skills is slowly paying off. Recently I noticed that my attitude is taking on a bit more of a ‘if it’s difficult, I’ll give it a go’ sheen.

This makes me giggle ruefully. I always describe myself as one who ‘doesn’t like pushing themselves’. Honestly, really, I’m not. I’m part of a triathlon club and I constantly see evidence of everyday athletes pushing their physical limits. I don’t do that: my swimming at the end of lane two just doesn’t mirror their drive.

So… is it baking that is going to knead that push and determination into me?

Maybe.

LOOK what I MADE for my MUM!

How to present a cupcake bouquet in a watering can

(SsssshH! This is a secret.)



Buy a vase,

(or in my case, a pint-size dotty watering can).

Take an oasis. Half it.
Choose some flowers
and foliage,
Charm a few canes from the florist.
“Thank-you.”


Get out the strawberry cupcakesI baked earlier.
Now, meringue buttercream is a faff

– this step takes about an hour –

but once you’ve piped roses and tasted it, you’ll see it’s worth, the faff.
Poke a hole in the bottom of the cupcakes with the canes.
Make a mess whilst arranging them all – and
Ta DA!


Look what I MADE for my MUM!
– a cupcake bouquet!



mummum cupcake bouquet 1

happy birthday mum

p.s. she liked it A LOT! but I don’t think that she wanted to eat it because it looked so nice on the table.

Baking Tip: How to Make your own Buttermilk

I have a newest favourite ingredient. Buttermilk. Who would have imagined that buttermilk would hold that honoured position? Not only is it my current fad, but learning how to make my own buttermilk has felt liberating. I no longer feel like there’s a barrier stopping me from baking a recipe because buttermilk is ‘another ingredient that I don’t have’ or ‘where can I buy that from?’ when I come across it in a list of ingredients. Since discovering how to make my own cultured buttermilk, my oven has been turning out soda bread, raspberry and buttermilk cake and vast quantities of Allinson’s Banana Cake.

buttermilk and raspberry cake and banana cake

I first came across it when baking scones for an international tea party for 300 students. A friend of mine recommended Delia’s buttermilk scone recipe to me and every single batch turned out great. They rose perfectly and were springy in the middle. Then, I made the banana cake that was on the back of the self-raising flour packet with the leftover buttermilk. Wow – that turned out to be a winner too.

Buttermilk is the liquid that is leftover from the butter making process. Cultured buttermilk that is commonly sold in supermarkets today is curdled, sour milk. I know… I’m really selling it to you, aren’t I? Appetising, it does not sound. However, it is a lovely ingredient when you use it in baking because you’re pretty much guaranteed lightness and a good rise. When I researched the chemistry, I was told that the acid in the buttermilk reacts with the sodium bicarbonate to release carbon dioxide. Those large bubbles help the mixture to rise quickly. Oh, and means you can bake soda bread within an hour from start to finish.

There are two ways that you can make it:

1. Shake double cream really, really hard for a long time and not only will you have butter (and a new muscle-toning exercise) but you’ll have buttermilk from the leftover liquid, or

2. Add 1 tbsp/15ml of white or cider vinegar or lemon juice to 225ml/8fl oz of milk (preferably whole, or at least semi-skimmed) and wait about 10-15 minutes for it to curdle. This is the much easier way. Essentially, buttermilk is curdled, sour milk. I prefer to use lemon juice because the smell is that wee bit more safer when baking a sweet cake, but it doesn’t matter really.

I experimented, as you’d expect me to, with whether the fat content of the milk makes a difference. I think it does. Full-fat milk will curdle better. My results with skimmed milk were disappointingly watery. Those of you who are lactose intolerant or vegan will be pleased to read that you can make it with unsweetened soya milk too. It just needs a bit more vinegar/lemon juice.

I’m still chuckling to myself, as I write this, because it is a random ingredient to get excited about. Oh, I should also add that Miss Buttermilk comes as a pair with Mr. Bicarbonate of Soda.

makeyourownbuttermilkbuttermilk