I don’t know what the correct term is, but in Cambodia and I believe certain parts of northern Thailand, there is a difference in how they use the colours blue and green. As the poem references, a lot of vegetables and ‘greenery’ are described as blue. If you’re interested, I’ll write up more about it in another post. I’ve embraced how all encompassing the Khmer blue is in this poem that embraces the ombré, and it was mostly written after a coastal walk in Stonehaven.
Rarely will I just make something up and immediately conclude that it is amazing. Those who know me will testify to how I critique what I make, and recipes go through several iterations before I am happy with them. As I write, I’ve suddenly realised that this recipe also had several predecessors as a cookie re-enacted as a blondie. Wow – I had dismissed that because I hadn’t been trying to tweak that recipe. Nonetheless, this blondie came about with happy accidental happenstance.
Basically, a couple of Mondays ago, I decided that I wanted to bake brownies or blondies. On the Tuesday I ate a rich peanut brownie from Chocnroll, which satisfied my craving for brownies and so I turned my mind to blondies. When Wednesday evening happened, I had finished disseminating the findings of the first round of testing we had done on a major project I’m working on at work, written a lot of action points and very much needing to bake as therapy. Does anybody else do this? I know that I’m not alone in this.
Baking has often been a creative outlet that helps me to complete the stress cycle and thus switch off my buzzing work brain. I listened to Brené Brown’s podcast with Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s work on Burnout and how to complete the stress cycle and doing something creative is a way to complete the stress cycle and so now I feel very much validated.
I mentioned before that I have been working on another – yet unfinished – blondie recipe and I set out to make that. However this time, I added in another egg for extra hoped for fudginess, so that it mimicked my fudgy brownie recipe. As I browned some butter, I realised that I had no pecans nor white chocolate. So the substitutions began and a new blondie was birthed.
I’ve since seen on the internet other recipes that call their version of a hazelnut and chocolate blondie a gianduja one. I’ve since thought about grinding up hazelnuts to make a chocolate hazelnut butter that I add in as a layer in the middle or on top. Then in consultations with friends, I decided that this added layer of complication takes away from the simple joy of baking blondies. Admittedly the browning of the butter may be a step too far for some, but it is so essential for the flavour! I promise you that it will be worth learning a new technique that you can use over and over again.
Ingredients for Brown Butter, Hazelnut and Chocolate Blondies
- 200g butter which I then browned
- 200g dark brown sugar
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 200g plain flour
- 100g hazelnuts
- 150g chocolate. I used 100g of milk and 50g dark chocolate.
- Preheat the oven to 350F/180C or 170C fan.
- Roast the hazelnuts first for 10 mins using the baking tin for the blondies, until the skins come off them. Use a dry tea towel to rub the skins off the hazelnuts, then chop just over half of them. Don’t miss out this step.
- Brown the butter: melt the butter in a medium saucepan on a medium heat and it will start to froth and cackle. That is the water evaporating. Continue and stir the sides and scrape the bottom a few times so that it doesn’t burn. When it is ‘as quiet as a ninja’ (quote from Stella Parks) it is ready. Take it off the heat and either pour the butter in a bowl to cool down, not forgetting to scrape the browned bits from the sides and bottom. Or as I often do, fill up the sink with cold water and carefully place the hot pan in there to cool down.
- Now whisk the eggs and sugar together until it is at a ribbon stage. I used a stand mixer on a medium setting (3 on a Kenwood) for about 8 mins. I have instructions on whisking to a ribbon stage in my fudgy brownie recipe
- As the eggs and sugar are whisking, line the tin. I used a 20cm square tin.
- Now on the lowest setting, continue whisking but pour in the butter and add the salt. Whisk again on a medium setting until combined. I’m always amazed by the reaction and how it goes to almost like a buttercream consistency.
- Fold in the flour, chopped hazelnuts and chopped chocolate.
- Pour half the mixture into the tin, sprinkle over the unchopped hazelnuts and pour the rest of the mixture into the tin.
- Bake in the middle of the oven for 17-20 mins until cooked on top. If it looks a bit jiggly, that is ok. It’ll harden up as it cools.
- Allow to cool completely. I like to leave mine overnight. And then cut into 12-16 pieces.
And the verdict? Suitably more-ish, dense and fudgy. Surprisingly not overly sweet with the milk chocolate because of the dark chocolate. Lastly, it is always worth roasting the hazelnuts because it improves the texture and flavour.
Back when a long layover meant that you could leave the airport, explore the city outside and go on a date, maybe.
A layover date, maybe
I wanted to make hot cross buns. Every year, for the past 9 years, I have made my version of Paul Hollywood’s Hot Cross Buns. However, mixed citrus peel hadn’t been available in the Asda online shop for almost a month and we had, actually still have, a surplus of green apples in the house. So I decided to think of it as an opportunity to try out a new hot cross bun recipe without mixed peel but using green apples and a new method. One that I’ve been hearing about and seeing on my social media feeds for a while: the tangzhong method.
I’ve been really intrigued by this method, which originated in Japan and was popularised by Taiwanese cookbook author Yvonne Chen, and how it helps to create a soft fluffy texture that lasts longer than a couple of days. This is useful for something like this as this recipe makes between 17-18 buns. I don’t think anyone or any family could consume them all in one day. I researched a few other posts and found these really useful by way of introduction to using it:
- ‘An introduction to Tangzhong’ (King Arthur Baking)
- For more Tangzhong geekiness, ‘How to convert a bread recipe to Tangzhong’ (King Arthur Baking)
- Tangzhong – How to make and use it (Oventales)
The chemistry of it is quite precise. When flour is cooked with a hot liquid, it can absorb more water. You mix it together and cook it until a roux or slurry forms (pictures below), which is when the temperature of the slurry reaches 65°C/149°F. It pre-gelatinises the the starches in the flour meaning that it can absorb more liquid more, thus creating a dough that has a higher percentage of water.
To make a tangzhong, it suggests that you use 5-10% of your flour. Thus in the recipe below 560g x 0.05 = 28g
- 1 part flour to 5 parts cold liquid. e.g. 28g flour to 140g liquid.
- Whisk to combine until no lumps remain.
- Heat, whilst stirring, until a roux/slurry forms to 65°C/149°F
- Allow it to cool before adding to the dough
As it holds a higher percentage of water, the hydration level is important too. When you’re not a natural mathematician, like me, then you may spend a fair chunk of time adding the wet ingredients out loud and dividing it by the flour in order to figure out the hydration ratio. King Arthur Baking says that you’re looking for a hydration ratio of 75%. When I calculated it for this recipe, the result was 67%. Hmmm… my next question was whether eggs add hydration to a dough. The internet answer is yes. I learnt that eggs are 75% water. Therefore, an unshelled UK large egg weighs about 60g, so 60g x 0.75 = 45g. This recipe uses 2 eggs, thus adding 90g of water to the recipe. When I did the maths again, with the addition of the water from the eggs:
(375+90)/560 = 0.83 = 83% hydration level.
Does it matter that the hydration is far above 75% and is 83%? By this stage I’m hoping not and just wanting to get on to baking the hot cross buns. On a related tangent, in my research I also learned that the weight of a large egg differs depending on the country. A large egg is bigger in the UK than the US or Australia. Did you know that? I did not.
I’ve heavily adapted this recipe from Not Quite Nigella’s Apple and Cinnamon hot cross buns, who is an Australian food blogger. Do you remember that in my previous blog post, I highlighted that US cup measures differ from Australian ones? This was a useful titbit of information to remember whilst converting her recipe into grams. I decided to add raisins because I wasn’t ready to move on from not having dried fruit in my hot cross bun. Sultanas or currants would work too. The first time, I added in 100g and I felt like they could do with more. If you don’t like dried fruit then you could omit them completely.
I adapted her method too by simplifying some of the steps and adding in an extra rise. I almost forgot to add in the salt the first time I made the recipe. I realised just as the dough was finishing proving a second time (I’d decided to prove the dough three times) and so I sprinkled it in hoping that it would be absorbed. Sadly not. I had a mouthful of salt in the first hot cross bun that I ate. Thus, I decided to add the salt in at the beginning when I made these a second time. I don’t think that it made a noticeable difference but it improved the flavour of the bun, as one didn’t randomly get a mouthful of salt, and there’s less chance of forgetting the salt at a later step. I also added all the wet ingredients and the butter into the roux and whisked it together before adding it all into the flour. I gave the dough three rises, rather than two, so that the dough would be less sticky and easier to work with when shaping them. One rise before adding the fruit, another afterwards and one more time after I shaped them into buns.
Both times, I made this using a stand mixer. If you were wondering how to knead it by hand, then my iced buns recipe explains how add the ingredients slightly differently in step 2. My earlier hot cross bun recipe for a step by step visual explanation on how to shape the buns.
Ingredients for the buns
- 560g strong bread flour
- 140g water
- 14g fast action instant yeast (or two 7g sachets)
- 3 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1tsp salt
- 3tbsp runny honey (this is about 80g)
- 235ml full fat milk
- 1tsp vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs
- 50g of butter, roughly cubed
- 1 medium sized, tart, green apple, chopped (I used a Granny Smith). I don’t peel it. I rather like the look of the bright green skin in the buns
- 200g raisins
Ingredients for the crosses
- 40g plain flour (about 3 tbsp)
- 4-5tbsp of water
Ingredients for the sticky glaze
- 2tbsp water
- 2tbsp of granulated sugar
1. In a big bowl (I use the standmixer bowl), measure out the bread flour. Then, take 2 level tbsp of the flour and put it into a small saucepan to make the tangzhong. If you want to be more precise than this, then measure out 28g of flour. Next add the water to the saucepan.
2. Use a whisk to mix the flour and the water together for the roux. Heat on a low-medium heat until the roux reaches 65°C/149°F. If you don’t have a thermometer handy then on a low-medium heat, this will take between 1.5-2 mins. Leave to cool while measuring out the dry ingredients. I’ve used both a whisk and a spatula for this. The whisk works much better to mix the water and flour together. (See the photos above for the consistency of the slurry.)
3. Add the yeast, salt and cinnamon to the bowl that has the bread flour. Mix it together with the dough hook. *If kneading by hand, rub in the butter to the flour at this stage. It will make the kneading of the dough much easier.
4. To the tangzhong, whisk in the butter, milk, honey, vanilla extract and eggs. The butter won’t melt and that is okay. It will be incorporated into the dough in the kneading process.
5. Use the dough hook to mix the liquid and the flour together so that it roughly combines. Then knead until it is soft and very elastic. At a medium setting (3 on a Kenwood), I let it knead for 7 minutes. Keep an eye on your stand mixer so that it doesn’t walk off the counter. I have let that happen before – a big ooopsadaisy!
6. Then cover and leave to rise until doubled in size for about 45mins – 1 hour. In the meantime, chop up the green apple and weigh out the raisins. Add them into the dough after the first rise. I just add them into the bowl with the dough and use the dough hook to knead it again so that it combines. By doing so, it knocks back the air in the dough and as it rises a second time, will create a more even crumb. Shape into a ball, place in an oiled bowl and cover to rise again until doubled in size, about 45 mins – 1 hour.
7. Whilst the yeast is doing its magic, this is a good time to decide how many buns you’d like. I wanted 18 but did I tell you already that maths isn’t my strongest point? I ended up with 17. If you’re my brother-in-law, this fact may make you laugh. I want the buns to bake evenly, so I will weigh out the dough then divide by the number of buns that I want.
8. Once the dough has doubled in size, lightly flour the surface and turn the dough out of the bowl. Strengthen the dough by shaping into a vague rectangle. Take hold of a longer side, fold one third towards the centre and press down with your thumbs or the heel of your hand. Fold the other third towards the centre and press down. Finally fold it in half lengthways, press down and roll it out a bit with your hands into a long sausage shape. The dough should feel stronger.
9. Divide the dough into the number of buns. If you want 15, then divide it into 3 equal parts, then into 5. If you want 18… well I think that you should tell me what I should do .
10. Lightly flour the surface in order to roll each piece a smooth ball. To roll the buns, turn the sides into the middle, then turn over so that the seam side is on the bottom. Make your hand into a claw shape and roll the ball inside your claw and move your hands quickly in circles. Arrange the buns on a baking tray lined with baking paper, leaving just enough space so that buns touch when they expand. Lightly cover with oiled clingfilm or a damp tea towel. Leave to rise for a 45mins to an hour.
11. Preheat the oven to 200°C and make the paste for the crosses. Measure out the flour. Add in the water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it forms a smooth, thick paste. It needs to be pipe-able, not too thin so that it disappears when it bakes and not too thick that it’s impossible to pipe. Put the paste into a piping bag.
12. Once the buns have risen, pipe crosses onto the buns, by piping a line along each row of buns and then repeat in the other direction. The crosses want to hug the sides of the buns.
13. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 10 mins and then lower the temperature to 180°C. Bake for another 15-20 minutes, until golden brown. My oven has hot spots, so I turn the tray around after the first 20 mins.
14. Measure out the sugar and water into a small saucepan and melt the sugar over a gentle heat. Brush the sugar syrup over the warm buns and leave them to cool.
15. Gently break apart the sticky buns and enjoy.
Verdict? They are fast becoming a favourite and I was surprised that I didn’t miss the citrus flavour of my usual hot cross buns. 3 teaspoons of cinnamon may seem like a lot, but it disperses in this amount of flour producing a flavoured but not heavily spiced bun. If you wanted to experiment and adapt the spicing then please comment below and share.
‘I hate cups!‘ is how I began this post in a fit of frustration. I was trying to follow a recipe from the Cook’s Cook which had provided their cup measurements and the volume so had written 59ml (1/4 cup) of flour. Who weighs out 59ml of flour? What would have been more helpful would have been to write it as 1/4 cup (30g) of flour. Either they don’t understand the concept of measuring scales or they were trying to add precision to using cups.
Before I start explaining my irritation with cups, however, I’d like to be more measured (pun very much intended 😉) and state that I do see the value in using cups. When I’m measuring out rice, I like using the cup measure that comes with the rice cooker because it’s quicker and much more convenient. The same goes with other dried grains and pulses, such as lentils and barley. Furthermore, as cups measure by volume, I don’t mind using them to measure out liquids. It’s worth noting here that US cups measure 240ml whereas Australian, Canadian and South African cups measure 250ml. This is something that Caroline, one of my Australian friends highlighted to me.
In addition, say a recipe asks for a tablespoon or three of flour or sugar, it doesn’t bother me much either. Normally it seems to appear more in cooking recipes rather than baking. Thus, even though the same inaccuracies will happen, I have less of an aversion to some measurements in tablespoons and teaspoons, apart from butter! Sticks of butter didn’t make any sense to me until I baked in America and saw how butter is packaged into sticks and each stick is divided into tablespoons. By the way, one stick of butter is 4oz/113g/8tbsp.
From that experience, I also realised that many households may not own kitchen scales and therefore use cups. For most of the years that I lived in Cambodia it was difficult to buy kitchen scales to measure smaller measurements, although the big ones that market sellers used to sell their produce were abundant. Thus once again, cups were used. Forewarned, I packed kitchen scales with me when I moved out there. I knowingly admit that growing up, in the UK, using scales influences my views on the cups vs measuring scales debate. I hate measurements in cups in baking because there are such disparities in the measurements in a matter that does require consistency and a level of precision.
My heart sinks when I see recipes with a list of the ingredients in cups because inevitably I will look up various conversion tables to adapt the recipe into grams and revisit that familiar feeling of resentment and annoyance when the web throws up differing measurements. Look let me give you an example of the inconsistencies on the web when it comes to volume and weight conversions. In the UK Doves Farm website they say that 1 cup of brown sugar is 180g whereas in the US King Arthur baking website they state it is 213g. At this point, I probably trust a US website to translate it from cups to grams for me because in the King Arthur table they know to specify that this is packed brown sugar and thus displays their greater experience of baking using volume rather than weights. But do you see the difference? ‘So what?’ perhaps you’re asking, ‘what is in 33g?’ Okay, so what? Well, let’s multiply this number when a recipe asks for 2 or 3 cups of brown sugar. I’ve illustrated the difference in a table below:
|No. of cups||Doves Flour||King Arthur||Difference|
66g or almost 100g makes a big difference in the taste and texture of what you’re baking and it can be the difference of whether you have enough of an ingredient when nearing the bottom of a bag. At this point, to be fair, I’d also be questioning why there needs to such a high amount of sugar and whether I’ll reduce it to prevent future me from developing type 2 diabetes. So, why am I quibbling about it?
Well my second point is about wanting clarity and precision, particularly when trying out a new recipe. I know that there is a knack to using cups with flour and sugar to do with a little shake to let the flour settle and using a knife to run over the top to level it. Even when I do that, I find it irritatingly inconsistent. Clearly I am not a pro at it. To add an added element of difficulty, different cooks measure their cups differently and how am I to know what a cup of flour weighs for them? It’s a bit of a lottery whether I’ll guess it correctly. Here’s the proof. At Lunar New Year, I was trying to make steamed buns and I decided to follow Maangchi’s jjinbang recipe and method which asks for 3.5 cups of flour and 1.5 cups of milk. Using both the Doves Farm and King Arthur tables, which agreed with each other, I converted that into 420g. However, it turned into such a wet, sticky dough, reminiscent of a ciabatta dough, and nothing like the photos of her dough, that I decided that there was no way I’d be able to shape it into buns with cute ox faces on them and then steam them. So then I added some more flour to make it a firmer dough but either that is never a remedy or I didn’t add enough. In the end, I relinquished that dough to bake into a tasty focaccia style bread, turned to What to Cook Today’s Year of the Ox steamed bun recipe and started a new dough. She also specifies a total of 2 cups plus 11 tablespoons of flours and 2/3 cup of milk but I didn’t get irritated because she also gives the weight in grams. A smooth, pliable dough formed and I made steamed baozi buns for the first time. I’ve posted the photos of the end result of both doughs at the end of this post.
Interestingly I came across this golden nugget of information in Maangchi’s Hotteok filled with vegetables video beginning at 3mins 11secs onwards when she weighs her cup of flour and it is 5oz or 156g. I will keep this in mind when I use her recipes. By the way, King Arthur and Doves Farm Flour weigh 1 cup of flour as 120g. So I guess then going back her jjimbang recipe that her 3.5 cups of flour = 546g, and not 420g. *Big sigh* Now we’re back to my rant about big discrepancies.
Sidenote: I’m considering blogging a monthly post with my cooking/baking failures, mistakes and disasters that happened that month. Would you be up for that?
I’d planned to share this recipe in January in case anyone had resolved to do veganuary. I wanted to let you know that this scrummy, flavoursome cake was possible to make and eat. You probably have the ingredients in your cupboard and fridge already, unless you aren’t vegan and possibly don’t already have an alternative dairy free milk in your fridge.
However, I don’t know whether people will have given up on their January resolutions, like dry January (not drinking alcohol in January) and veganuary (going vegan for January) after last week’s announcement about England going into lockdown 2.0. Whoever had been hoping that the stroke of midnight on Hogmanay 2020 was going to herald in a better year had their hopes cruelly dashed. Lockdown was something that I’m guessing most people were hoping would be left behind in 2020.
In the last real lockdown in March 2020, (I’m not counting what happened in November because there were fewer restrictions than what we have now), the internet exploded with stories and images of people baking banana cakes, banana breads, cookies and sourdough breads. Flour and yeast disappeared off the supermarket shelves and a little black market for flour and yeast began. I’ve bought a 25kg bag of flour, who wants to buy some from me? XX bakery is selling yeast. I understood the sourdough bread fascination – more time at home on their hands perhaps, so could feed the starter, watch the starter, turn the dough, bake the bread. I didn’t understand why banana cake or bread held the same fascination. I still don’t. Anyone want to enlighten me?
I created this vegan cake simply because of a combination of reasons. I’ve been wanting to create a good vegan banana cake recipe for a while, one of my colleagues is vegan and on Fridays, it had become a custom to have some sort of sweet treat that one of us would share. That was before Christmas, and the wildfire spread of the new Covid variant when we were able to go into the office.
Previously when I had researched vegan baking, bananas came up as a common, easily accessible substitute for eggs. If you’re interested, the other common substitutes in a cake are applesauce or a mixture of vinegar and bicarbonate of soda. Often they suggest replacing one egg with one banana: it helps to hold the structure of the cake together, which is what an egg does in a cake. I’m still a novice when it comes to vegan baking and I’ve only tried this in a banana cake, so I don’t know how it would affect the flavour of another type of cake.
I mushed together my recipes for vegan chocolate cake and spiced banana cake to come up with this recipe. The addition of boiling water at the end, was the one final comparison test that I did before I wrote up this blog post. In the final taste test when I was paying particular attention to the texture, my taste testers and I noted that the addition of water created a slightly lighter and more moist cake crumb.
You can play around with the filling. In version 1.0 I used purely currants and in 2.0, a mixture of currants and raisins. Both work. I think that walnuts and pecans, or dark chocolate would work too. You can also vary the spices. I chose to go with vanilla so that more of the banana flavour would come out. However, I know that lots of people like to add ground cinnamon or ginger or mixed spice to their banana cakes. I like doing it too. I also vary whether or not I add the icing. I think the addition of the lemon drizzle icing takes the cake up another level. However, if parents are trying to limit refined sugar from their children’s diet (or their own) then you can omit it completely. I think there is enough sweetness from the bananas and the dried fruit. It’s also less messy to transport as muffin snacks if there is no icing.
Edit 30th Jan: yesterday, I added an extra banana because I had one; reduced the sugar slightly to 80g (I think that I could have reduced it further) because overly ripe bananas have their own sweetness; replaced vanilla with ground ginger for a hint of heat and paired it with the lemon icing. It produced a bigger loaf and the house smelt glorious. Half of it disappeared within a day.
Just to add, I’m currently living with 4 other humans.
Lastly, I experimented to see how easily this cake could adapt from a banana loaf to muffins. Very easily. This recipe will bake in a 2lb loaf tin (21x11x7cm) or 16 muffin cases.
The verdict? “Moist, scrummy, yummy, amazing, delicious..” – my colleagues, former housemate and the family that I currently live with are fans of this banana cake. Sometimes though, I’m not sure whether they’d say anything negative because they like homemade baked goods. You’ll have to try it for yourself and let me know.
Ingredients for Vegan Banana Cake or Muffins
- 75ml vegan buttermilk (70ml soy milk or any vegan alternative milk + 1tsp of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice)
- 85 ml of sunflower oil
- 3-4 very ripe bananas mashed (about 300g-400g)
- 80g-90g light brown sugar
- 1tsp vanilla extract
- 75g currants + 1/2tsp bicarbonate of soda – soaked in boiling water
- 225g self raising flour
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 3/8 tsp salt
- 50g boiling water
Ingredients for the lemon drizzle icing
- 80-100g icing sugar
- juice of half a lemon, you want between 3-5tsp so it really depends on the size of the lemon.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mask 4. If you are making a loaf, then oil and line a 2lb loaf tin. If you are making muffins, then line two muffin tray with 16 muffin cases.
- Prepare the dried fruit and make the buttermilk. In a cup combine the soymilk with one teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice. Leave to one side for 10 minutes so it curdles. Boil the kettle and in a heatproof cup, measure out the currants and 1/2tsp of bicarbonate of soda. Add in the boiled water and leave it to one side while preparing the other steps.
- In a medium sized bowl, whisk together to combine the sugar with the mashed bananas, oil, buttermilk and vanilla extract. There will be white flecks where the buttermilk breaks up (I’ve included a photo below so that you don’t worry when you see this.)
- In another small bowl, measure out the flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and salt. Whisk together to combine.
- Drain the currants and I rinse them with cold water to wash off any residual bicarbonate of soda.
- Add the currants and the flour to the wet mixture and use a spatula to combine together.
- Finally carefully add in the boiling water and mix thoroughly.
- Pour the mixture into a 1.5lb loaf or measure out into the muffin cases. I used silicone ones and put in 2 tablespoons of mixture in each.
- For the loaf: bake in the centre of the oven for 40-50 mins. Check after 30 mins and if it is browning at the top too much then cover with foil and continue baking. For muffins: bake for 15-18mins. To check if they are done, test with a sharp knife and it should come out clean. Leave to cool for at least 10 minutes.
- Prepare the lemon drizzle icing by sifting the icing sugar in a bowl and add in the lemon juice one teaspoon at a time until you get a runny consistency that coats the back of a metal spoon. Once the cake/muffins have cooled for 20 minutes poke holes in them and drizzle it over the cake or muffins in whatever shapes you desire.
Storage: Store the loaf/muffins in an airtight container. I think it tastes better the second and third day. It keeps well for 5 days and maybe longer, but it has always been all eaten by then.
A bag of kale, reduced down to 20p, was the last thing I bought before I received a notification from the Covid-app informing me that I had been in close contact with somebody with Covid-19 and I had to self-isolate for the next 8 days. So at 6.11am that morning I sent a message to cancel a run with my friend that morning, emailed my work to let them know and we did some rescheduling gymnastics so that I could work from home. Isn’t it odd that a bag of kale holds this memory for me now.
To be honest, I didn’t mind staying at home. My housemate didn’t have to self-isolate so she could get groceries for me and update me on what was happening in the realm outside of the front door. That is an odd detail, I know. I don’t fully understand the track and trace system we have in England. We figured out that my phone must have picked up something on my 20 minute train journey to work. Commuters who don’t wear their masks properly or socially distance appropriately stress me out. I was happy to temporarily cut out that bit of stress from my life.
I still had leftover pumpkin, lentil and goats cheese salad in the fridge, so I decided that for dinner that night, I’d crisp up kale and add it to the salad. I had only just mastered it the previous week whilst making a roasted squash risotto with crispy kale.
I have been trying to make crispy kale for about 8 years and failing each time. Somehow, I had it in my head that I had to bake the kale at a low heat and so each time it would just come out soggy and burnt: an odd combination. This was due to the fact that I had first read about crispy kale in a post by Gwyneth Paltrow that also told me how to make oven dried tomatoes and either the recipe is actually wrong or I got confused between the two recipes. Then it was compounded by other recipes which told me to bake at a low temperature for 15-20 minutes. Instead, this roasted squash risotto with crispy kale recipe told me to preheat the oven to 230°c for the baking of the kale. I read that instruction twice to check and it worked.
Top Tip: the secret to crispy kale is a short baking time in a hot oven and dry kale.
Yes, once you’ve chopped and washed the kale, leave it to dry in a colander, or even better a salad spinner, for a while then spot dry it with a clean tea towel. This saves your tea towel from getting completely soaked. That is, unless you happen to have a bag of already prepped and washed kale.
Ingredients for Oven baked crispy kale, adapted from the Cooks Cook recipe
This will feed between 2-4 people.
- 160g Kale
- 1tbsp Sunflower/rapeseed or vegetable oil (depends on how much kale you have)
- Salt and pepper to season, maybe a 1/4 tsp of each.
- 1/2 tsp – 1tsp Paprika/Cayenne pepper/Chilli flakes or whatever spices you’d like (optional but highly recommended)
- Preheat the oven to 220°C/425°F/Gas Mark 7 and prepare two large baking trays.
- Prepare the kale. Cut the kale, 2-3cm long. Remove any particularly tough bits of stalk, nearer the bottom of the kale. As you can see from the photos, I don’t really bother that much with removing the stalks because I don’t mind the extra bite. Wash the kale to remove any dirt. Leave it to dry in a colander or alternatively use a salad spinner. Then use a clean tea towel or paper towel to spot dry the kale so that it is as dry as possible.
- Add the kale into a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle over the oil, salt, pepper and any optional spices and massage in to make sure that each leaf has been coated. I prefer to do this part in a bowl because I find it gives a more even coat than when I do it on a baking tray. However, if you want to save on washing up, do this step on a baking tray.
- Lay out the kale in a single sheet as much as possible. This prevents steaming and sogginess. There will be a bit of overlap, don’t worry.
- Bake between 8-10 minutes so that they crisp up and are a mix of darker green and brown. Some leaves will get browner than others. I think that’s okay but if you want a more even crisp, then halfway through the baking time, move the leaves around.
- Leave it out on the baking trays to cool a bit before munching on it. It can be eaten on its own, added to a salad or a risotto for extra texture. Enjoy.
Here’s a seasonal recipe for you, perhaps not the sweet one that you were hoping for this Christmas from me. If you like brussels sprouts or are somewhat ambivalent about them, do me a favour and give this recipe a go. I had boiled ones the other week at my work cafe as part of a Christmas lunch, and to be honest, I was a bit disappointed by their lack of imagination with this humble vegetable, given that they teach culinary skills.
I’m obsessed with roasted brussels sprouts. I first made them 3 years ago and they were a game changer. Roasting them brings out a nutty flavour somehow that you do not get when boiling or frying them. And texturally I find it really pleasing: soft but not soggy. Another bonus to roasting is that there is no bad smell when you cook them, although at the other end, I can not promise that the gasses will smell any sweeter.
Since being back in the UK, I have discovered that roasting brassica is my favourite way of cooking and eating them. Bold statement, I know. But so far, it holds true.
I have not given you quantities. Sorry. I have never measured out this recipe and now I’ve become that recipe writer who might say to you annoyingly, add a glug of olive oil and if you’re like me, you’d get peeved with them because how many millilitres is there in a glug of oil? Nevertheless, the only thing I can offer by way of excuse is that I have never measured this out because I always vary the amount of brussels sprouts depending on the number of people. I believe I think that 8 brussels sprouts per person is normal, based on the photo at the top, but then again, I do really love brussels sprouts.
Ingredients for roasted brussels sprouts
- Brussels sprouts (however many that you’d like)
- Olive oil (enough to coat the brussels sprouts)
- Salt (to season)
- Pepper (to season)
- Chilli flakes (optional)
- Juice of a lemon (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.
- Slice the bottoms off and halve them.
- Place cut side down on a baking dish.
- Sprinkle with olive oil and season with salt, pepper and if you want, chilli flakes.
- Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes. Check halfway and shake them around a bit. If you forget this bit, don’t worry, there will be a bit of charring on some, but that tastes alright too.
- For a tangy finish, squeeze a bit of lemon juice over them at the end.
One of my friends recommended adding a drizzle of honey with chilli on them before baking them for additional flavour. That is a new twist that I’ll try this season.
Incidentally, I have also discovered whilst writing up this post that I’ve been spelling brussels sprouts incorrectly all my life, as brussel sprouts. Well, now I know.
What is your favourite way of cooking and eating brussels sprouts?
When are the hairdressers going to be allowed to reopen? What am I going to do about my hair?
I heard this a lot during the 12 week lockdown earlier this year. It appears that managing our hair growth was something all of us bonded over during lockdown. I think that I’m not alone in wanting to have hairdressers classed as essential services that can continue to stay open if we go into tighter restrictions, or dare I say, another national lockdown.
By the way, I don’t normally like to post photos of myself on my blog, but I’ve taken the plunge for this post because I couldn’t see a way out of it. Anyway, this is me in my final few weeks as I’m having one of my goodbye *sob sob* lunches with friends. I think I’d recently had a hair cut.
About 4 years into living in Cambodia, I was finally brave enough to get a pixie cut.
It turned out to be perfect for life in a tropical climate, albeit at that point viewed upon as an unusual hairstyle for a female. In Cambodia, there is a custom of shaving one’s head when there has been a terrible tragedy. Normally you’d see the eldest in the family do this when there had been a death in the family. Thus when some of my Khmer friends saw my pixie cut for the first time, they thought that I had received some awful news and was very upset. Not so. There’s an interesting cross-cultural difference titbit for you.
I was still pretty attached to my pixie cut after I left Cambodia. It was one of the ways I could hold onto a remnant of me in Cambodia. Nonetheless, come May 2020, I asked on Instagram:
‘This is annoying. Maybe it’s time to cut my fringe myself or shall I endure growing it out?’
Most replied: grow it out.
Then in June 2020, I wrote a little ode to my pixie cut, which I’ve revised a little here.
Dear Pixie Cut,
Dear Pixie Cut,
It’s been a long time since we saw a hairdresser.
Now you tuft out at the back,
You get in my face when we run,
We can’t decide what to do about the fringe,
And you tuck beautifully behind my ears.
Is it time for us to part, move on and let you grow out?
Can I hold onto you for one last cut?
In July, I was finally able to book an appointment with the hairdresser. I wrote a haiku.
4 months in lockdown.
Turned into a bob.
Yes, I decided the time had come to say goodbye. And honestly, I was alright with it. Time, eh. There’s no substitute for it being a healer.
By the way, are hashtags in poems allowed? Are they a thing?
Recently, I was asked in an interview, “what do you contribute to a team?” The first thought that popped into my head was brownies. However, perhaps that wouldn’t be such a professional way to answer the question? So, instead I answered something about how I am a really good team player and the many different skills I’d bring to the team, rather than saying that my contribution is a baked sugar high laden with chocolate. I meant to mention my excellent brownies at the end as an aside, but I forgot.
Immediately once the interview was over and as I reflected on how it went, I wished that I had led with the brownies though because it would have revealed more of my true self. My flatmate and colleague concurred (now assigned to the status of previous flatmate and colleague: that teaching job contract having just ended and we’ve moved out). Though, we then agreed in the next breath that my crack cookies are my best work. So, another time, I’ll be that little bit braver, relax and say, “brownies and cookies.”
The first time that I made these during lockdown was at the beginning of marking many, many student essays whilst living at my sister’s. I’d broken a personal record and spent 5 hours on a paper, checking for plagiarism and looking up citations, and still hadn’t finished it when thoroughly fed up and discouraged, I decided to put it down until the next day. A WOD (workout of the day) with 100 burpees and an evening spent singing, baking these brownies put me in a better mood. I left it out on the side to cool down and develop even more flavour overnight. My sister said that her contribution to my happiness was not diving into them that night. I shared a photo of them on a work group chat and subsequently made friends with a colleague who wanted the recipe.
Awkwardly, I didn’t have the recipe at hand to share. It lived in the form of an excel spreadsheet, a hangover from my baking business days. Instead, I sent her a link to my raspberry burst brownies and made a mental note that it was time to publish this recipe.
I created this recipe in Cambodia whilst supplying brownies for a cafe because I wanted to create a brownie with more height and volume that I could adapt with a variety of fillings, such as cheesecake and salted caramel. In addition, my usual go to, very easy brownie recipe which the raspberry burst brownies are adapted from suddenly stopped working for me after I upgraded my oven. They were coming out cakier. Some people prefer their brownie consistency like that but I much prefer them to be fudgier with that delightful cracked top. The timing of it might have been purely a coincidence and have nothing to do with me switching from one of these electric toaster ovens to a standing oven cooker. I’ve shared the only decent photo that I appear to have of my toaster oven for you. If you’ve always lived in the UK, then you may have no concept of what I’m talking about. In most parts of S.E Asia, ovens do not come standard in a furnished kitchen. This is the oven in which I began my baking business and I used it for the first 2 years. It only allowed me to do one tray of cookies, a cake or brownies at a time and by the end it wouldn’t heat above 150°C. When I moved and invested in a new oven, it was a game changer.
Anyway, it gave me an excuse to try out a new brownie making method for me that I’d seen Ed Kimber use in this video in which you mix the eggs and sugar for about 10 minutes until they form into a ribbon stage (I’ve explained what ribbon stage is in step 4 of the method) and then add the melted chocolate and butter. Mixing the eggs and sugar for that long, creates volume and structure and I deduced, would help me create that dense fudgy consistency and crinkly top each time. It did. At the bottom of the post, I’ve also included for you, a few photos of the different flavours that I’ve played with and how I’ve adapted them.
I played around with the sugar quantity. Most brownie recipes ask for larger quantities of sugar, but I’ve always liked the challenge of seeing how little sugar I can add to baking and it still taste good. From experience, 150g is too little but anything between 200-230g is perfect. I’ll adapt it depending on the additional flavours I want to add. For example, with salted caramel, I use less because of the added sweetness from the caramel. With raspberry I use more to counteract the tartness of the raspberries.
I prefer to make these in a stand mixer using the whisk attachment because it is easier to leave the stand mixer running during the egg and sugar whisking part whilst getting on with other tasks, rather than holding an electric hand mixer for 10 minutes.
Top tip 1: if using an electric hand mixer, place a tea towel underneath the bowl to keep it stable and stop it moving around.
Top tip 2: once baked, leave these to cool down completely, cover and place in the fridge overnight. Not only will they taste better as the flavours mature and deepen, but they will also be cold. Cut them with a sharp knife and you’ll get those beautiful clean lines.
So here’s the recipe for the Infinitely Adaptable Fudgy Chocolate Brownies. They’ll make between 12-16 brownies or 20 mini brownie bites.
- 150g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
- 150g dark chocolate (at least 60%), broken up, roughly chopped
- 3 large eggs
- 200-230g caster sugar (depending on how sweet you’d like them and the additional flavours you want to add)
- 100g plain flour
- 20g cocoa powder
- 1/2 tsp of salt
- 1 tsp of vanilla extract
- 1 tsp of instant coffee granules (optional) – I use it because it helps bring out the chocolate flavour
- And then whatever flavours* you’d like to add, or not.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C/355°F/Gas Mark 4. Line a deep tin. For this quantity a 20cm square tin or a rectangular 27×20 or 28×18 will work.
- Melt the chocolate and butter together and just after it has melted, add in the salt, vanilla extract and the optional instant coffee granules and leave it on the side to cool down. There are various ways you can melt chocolate and butter.
- The more cautious, ahem proper, approach is to use a bain marie, that is put the butter and dark chocolate in a heatproof bowl that can sit on top of a saucepan with simmering water. Make sure that the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the hot water in the saucepan. Slowly melt the chocolate and stir regularly. This way you won’t burn the chocolate.
- Another easier way is to use the microwave. Put chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl, place a paper kitchen towel on top of the bowl so that butter won’t pop out as it melts. Melt it in 20 second bursts, stirring each time.
- My way, is to use a heavy bottomed saucepan. I put the chocolate and butter in it and melt it at a low heat, stirring regularly. I take it off, just as the last few chocolate/butter bits aren’t quite melted because they will melt in the residual heat of the saucepan.
- In the meantime, measure out the flour and cocoa powder into a small bowl. Sieve it if there are lots of lumps in the flour and cocoa. Otherwise, use a whisk to loosen and mix them together.
- As soon as the chocolate/butter mixture is off the heat, crack the eggs into a medium sized bowl and add the sugar. Use a stand mixer or an electric hand mixer on high speed to start whisking the eggs and sugar until they are at a ribbon stage. Ribbon stage is when the egg and sugar mixture are a pale yellow colour, doubled or even tripled in volume and when you lift the whisk over the mixture, the batter will fall slowly and leave a trail like a ribbon that will hold its shape for a few seconds. It will take about 10 minutes. I still use a timer to make sure I beat them for long enough. Don’t start beating the eggs/sugar until the chocolate/butter has melted because the chocolate/butter mixture needs this time to cool down.
- When the eggs and sugar have reached a ribbon stage, reduce the speed to low and add the melted chocolate and butter mixture to the eggs and sugar. Whisk until it all appears to have mixed together. If you are using an electric hand mixer, you may need to turn off the mixer, add the chocolate/butter and then switch it back on again to avoid a mess. I speak from experience, haha.
- Now fold in the flour and cocoa powder using a spatula, or a spoon until it is well combined.
- Pour into the baking tin.
- Bake in the oven for 18-20 minutes. They should be firm to touch at the top but still wobble when you shake it. Leave to cool completely in the tin and if you can bear it, cover them and leave them overnight in the fridge. They will be easier to cut and the flavours will have deepened.
*You can add various flavours to this, or not if you want them plain. I’ve given you a few of suggestions and photos below. Do let me know how else you adapt them.
What happened next with that interview? How many points have I accumulated? In this current job hunting cycle, I racked up 103 points. Incidentally, I got offered that job, even without the promise of these brownies. So, I’m currently in the throes of transition once again and relocating down to the Midlands.