Short and Tweet Challenge 26: Cheesecake Cheer

For 29 April’s #shortandtweet challenge from Dan Lepard’s Short & Sweet I had hoped to discover that a month with five Sundays has a special name but it seems that it doesn’t. My disappointment could only be salved by thoughts of the sense of cheerful indulgence that accompanies the prospect of cheesecake. Everybody who’s eaten the Classic cheesecake on pg 458 has declared it to be the best that they’ve ever eaten. The East End cheesecake pg 460 has a very short pastry-shortbread base and different texture for those whose preference is for that: option 3 was a Cherry crumble cheesecake, pg 462. This cheesecake has a sponge base that absorbs fruit juices, and a crumble topping which covers any cracks (a useful tip). For people who can not bear cheesecake (an ugly rumour, I know, but I’ve heard this), then the Apricot meringue tart on pg 451 offers a more abstemious bake. I’ve offered some observations on the vexed issue of why cheesecakes crack: these are not meant to be comprehensive but I hope they might provide some helpful tips. (The above photograph is from @BakerHay who baked the East End Cheesecake)

As some of you know, I worked at a bakery that specialised in cheesecake when I was at school. I liked the owners so much that I’ve had a soft spot for cheesecake ever since that is conflated with my enjoyment of the frequent mentions of Mindy’s Cheesecake in Damon Runyon’s stories.

@lapindor of Lapin d ‘Or and More made several changes to the classic cheesecake recipe as part of her Kitchen Catch Up (pictured above). @lapindor's Kitchen Catch Up has particularly snagged my attention because of her strategic use of the Eat Your Books site to guide her in using up excess ingredients or those nearing expiry dates. I enjoyed her strategic substitution of hazelnut butter in the cheesecake biscuit base to use up some remnants lurking in the fridge. Her overall verdict: “This cheesecake was very easy to make as there was no fuss with the usual separated eggs having to be whisked and folded or water baths to struggle with”. I applaud the post as, alongside @zeb_bakes' recent Home-made Jaffa Cakes, it offers a useful sanity check as to the reality of menu planning and recipe execution in domestic kitchens.

I doubt that I’m the only one to smile in wry recognition when reading @underthebluegum of Under the Blue Gum Tree's account of her childhood exposure to cheesecake in the form of frozen Sara Lee: “I always hated that gloopy fruity sauce which sat a top the weirdly tangy cheesy stuff, like gone off cream, and invariably the cheesecake would still be slightly frozen in the middle”. Claire has a memorable account of dinner table glares and being compelled by ‘good manners’ to eat something that she loathed.

Claire opted for Short and Tweet: East End Cheesecake (above photograph) as a conscious decision to extend her repertoire. From her description of the flavours, she has no cause to regret this decision. The base was, “a very thin layer of shortbread on the bottom of your cheesecake and is utterly scrummy…As for the filling, on first bite it is very subtle but becomes ridiculously addictive with each subsequent forkful. Along with the hints of lemon and vanilla, there is a gorgeous caramel undertone which I think must come from bringing the butter and cream to the boil before adding to the cream cheese”. Claire mentions a crack. A common tip is to leave the cheesecake in the cooling oven (having vented it gently or even wedged open the door a little to ensure a gentle reduction in temperature). Depending on your preferences (and how easy it is to reduce the oven temperature in a controlled fashion), it might be as well to cover the top of the cheesecake with sour cream to conceal any crack.

@BakerHay delivered a “very light, smooth, delicious cheesecake: @BakerHay’s East End Cheesecake. Like @underthebluegum's, Heather's cheesecake cracked so she camouflaged it with a sifting of icing sugar (a useful tip).

In general, cheesecakes tend to crack as they settle because of the temperature drop after being removed from the oven. However, the filling may also crack if too much air has been introduced to the mix. The filling should be sufficiently well mixed to blend the ingredients but not over-mixed to the point where too much air is incorporated. If too much air is present then the cheesecake may puff up (in an attractive manner) while in the oven but then deflate. If an oven is too hot, then not only air but moisture is lost from the wet mixture. This moisture loss can be uneven initially (particularly in large, deep cheesecakes) and as this stabilises across the cheesecake, it can lead to cracking or even contraction and shrinkage.

The type of cream cheese (or cottage cheese) can influence not only the texture but the cracking of the cheesecake. It’s not unusual for lower fat cream cheese or cottage cheese to produce a coarse, somewhat grainy texture. The amount of whey will affect the moisture content of the mixture and this may crack. Likewise, changing the specified extra thick double cream of a recipe for whipping cream or single cream will alter the fat and moisture content and therefore how it responds to baking and cooling.

My Best Beloved (BB) opted for the Cherry Crumble Cheesecake. This was partly to indulge my fondness for cherry cheesecake but also because the crumble topping held out the promise of concealing a multitude of errors, should the cheesecake crack. The sponge base was a surprisingly fussy method. The egg and sugar foamed in a satisfactory light and fluffy manner but adding the syrup and lemon zest thinned the mixture and it didn’t approach a state of thickness again. Folding through the flour was tricky and there was such a tiny volume of sponge that it was difficult to spread it over the base of a 25cm tin (above photograph).

BB made the crumble topping but continued to rub in the fat until it resembled fine breadcrumbs rather than “dry pastry crumbs” which meant the topping didn’t resemble the one in the illustration. We reduced the almond extract in the filling to a scant 2.5 tsps rather than the specified 3 but, even so, the taste was overpowering (for the first 4 days, thereafter, it mellowed considerably).

We had to bake the sponge base for longer than specified as it was scarcely holding together after 12mins (our mixture was probably considerably more dense so wasn’t cooking as quickly) and was sickly yellow rather than golden. The filling was not at all set after being baked for 20mins so we were a little concerned that the crumble topping might sink into it. It didn’t, but putting the topping on took so long that the oven cooled substantially (BB found it difficult to pull the cheesecake out a little, avoid burns from the oven door and shelves and sprinkle the crumble, all within a reasonable timescale). Suffice it to say that the cheesecake was not merely “a bit wobbly” after the extra 30mins, it was scarcely set more than 1.5cm in from the edge. We baked it for another 20mins after which it was still rather more unstructured than I liked but we were in danger of overcooking it.

Against the advice to leave the cheesecake alone until it was firm and chilled for 4 hrs, my BB tried it after 2hrs. It was almost inedible. The sponge was well-flavoured but the overwhelming taste of almond extract made the filling unpleasant. The filling was no better after standing overnight and the texture was sloppy rather than “dense and creamy” (I think the photograph is from day 2). We were so unhappy with the cheesecake that we didn’t distribute it to friends and neighbours so it remained in the fridge, with tiny slivers sampled for more than 10 days. After 4 days, the filling mellowed and firmed up. After 5 days, the cheesecake was good and its flavour and texture continued to improve over the remainder of the lifespan.

BB seems to have made a number of mistakes with this cheesecake that played havoc with the baking time and it took a lot of maturing in the fridge before it pulled itself together and became edible. I haven’t had the heart to bake this again but might try it in the future as it has the potential to be a good recipe.

Although it hasn’t been another trip to the Broadway of Damon Runyon, it was a treat to read about everyone’s cheesecakes. Thank you.

Short and Tweet Challenge 23: A Bevy of Beautiful Buns

This week’s #shortandtweet challenge from Dan Lepard’s Short & Sweet was for Banana maple pecan buns, pg 83; Spiced stout buns pg 84; Sticky toffee apple buns, pg 85: by special extension we’ve included Dan’s bun recipes from the Guardian [above photograph is from @tomasi_carla who baked Dan’s Hot Cross Buns].

I’ve often thought that I dislike buns. As ever, I realise that’s because the ones that I’ve eaten have mostly been commercially-prepared ones with the wrong sort of texture and far too much spice. Nonetheless, I have an emotional affinity for buns that possibly has its roots in childhood associations although I never had the experience of this woman who has strong memories of being searched for buns by elephants (Anna369):

"As children we were sometimes taken to the Zoo (Chester) and in those days one could actually reach out and pat the elephants…

They were extremely friendly and used to search our pockets for bread. There was a fence, but with their trunks the elephants could reach us. Mum and Dad always ensured we had pieces of fresh bun for them to find in our pockets. I had pigtails, and can remember being a very small child standing in front of a very large elephant. It went through my pockets with care and ate its bit of bun. Then it returned to me and with the tip of its trunk it explored my pigtails, each in turn. Next it explored me; all the way down my front it explored me with its trunk…With the tip of it’s [sic] trunk it felt over my face; I could feel it tickling; a bit whiskery; and I could feel its ever so gentle breath.

I can remember standing absolutely still with my eyes tight closed, trying to hold my breath; not afraid; I just didn’t want to frighten the elephant away by moving.”

I think the Chester Zoo elephants would have liked both @tomasi_carla's buns and her adaptation of the recipe into a braid (above) with cranberries and walnuts (buns, braid and loaves are Storifyed: @tomasi_carla’s East Bun Parade).

@miskmask of Misk Cooks has composed a poem to accompany her hot cross buns: Dan Lepard’s Hot Cross Buns. (Like @tomasi_carla, she opted for the recent Guardian recipe). It’s difficult not to quote the entirety of 100% yellow but my favourite lines are, “cardamom and cinnamon that lingered in sweet warm aromas of rich gilded colours”.

Beyond the seasonal poem, @miskmask has produced a superb illustrated walk through of how to make these buns, along with her own substitutions. Go, see how another baker has done this. Cheer for her as @miskmask declares, “Thanks to Dan Lepard, I’ve broken the tradition of baking bullet-proof buns”. Her overall verdict: “I recommend these wholeheartedly. Easy to make and absolutely delicious”.

The lovely @zeb_bakes of Zeb Bakes tried out the Toffee apple buns (storifyed) and enjoyed them despite finding the process rather a faff at some points. I think it’s fair to say that we all had a little difficulty with the rolling, filling and slicing into tidy pieces part of this recipe. What with it being the first attempt for most of us, perhaps it’s not that astonishing.

@underthebluegum of Under the Blue Gum Tree definitely shared my instinctive dislike of hot cross buns but was nonetheless game enough to try two of these week’s recipes: Short and Tweet: ‘Banana Maple Pecan Hot Cross Buns’ and ‘Sticky Toffee Apple Buns’. Being very open-minded, Claire’s assessment of the banana pecan buns is: “although we didn’t really like them, they were probably the best hot cross buns we had ever had”.

@underthebluegum is considerably more enthusiastic about the “sticky toffee apple buns.This recipe has definitely made it into my top five favourites that I have tried so far from “Short and Sweet.” The buns are kind of like a Chelsea bun with attitude – instead of raisins, these spiral buns are stuffed with pecans and chunks of apple cooked in a caramel and rum sauce”. There are very helpful notes about cutting the dough and Claire has good suggestions for variations on this recipe.

After recent baking disappointments, I’m delighted to report that @lapindor of Lapin d ‘Or and More pronounces herself: Pleased as Punch and has a charming photo’ to illustrate that. Serendipity and some overripe bananas led to her baking both the Banana maple pecan buns (pictured above), and the Spiced stout buns (below). There are intriguing notes about the tea and dark ale used for the spiced stout buns.

My ever game Best Beloved baked both the Stout spice buns and the Toffee apple buns. You will have to take my word for this as I can’t locate the camera card and both sets of buns were dispersed to neighbours before they were cool although a couple of each may have remained behind for quality control purposes. Best Beloved’s comment (after forgetting to put the pecans in the toffee apple dough and having trouble with the syrup was that although tasty, “These buns are far from a relaxing afternoon bake”. We might attempt the recipe again and follow @zeb_bakes' example in using the Silverwood .

Thank all of you for sending along your bun bakes. Apologies for the delayed compilation of the posts as there were some unusual techical problems.

Short and Tweet Challenge: May 2012 Schedule

May 2012 schedule for the #shortandtweet challenge from Dan Lepard's Short & Sweet. (Read about #shortandtweet challenge and its conditions.)

The dates are those by which I’d like to receive links or photographs: please tweet these @foodcraftspace or @evidencematters using the hashtag #shortandtweet or leave links in the comments for the appropriate challenge announcement post. I’ll then collate these into the compendium post for that challenge.

The choices for some of these challenges vary as I realise that some of us have different ingredients available (or want to use up previous special purchases) or may be concerned about exposing ourselves or others to particular temptations. Nonetheless, I hope that it is stretching some of us to experiment with unfamiliar techniques or to tweak our familiar routines or recipes.

There is no challenge set for the first Sunday of May.

My optimism about picnics in April was spectacularly misplaced. The long-range weather forecast for the UK indicates that we may have a snowy Bank Holiday.

13 May As the weather forecasts don’t mention a heatwave I hope that having an oven on to bake bread will not be oppressive, so it’s a bread week again. The two-day loaf pp 41-2 has a long slow rise in the fridge. The sponge and lengthy fermentation delivers a flavourful loaf, as does the blend of flours. If you haven’t baked this loaf previously it’s good to do it now before Summer so that it’s easier to observe how much the dough rises and estimate whether the sponge yeast needs to be reduced for the warmer months.

Although it’s based on Doris Grant’s famous no-knead wholemeal loaf, the Sprouted grain seed bread pp 38-9 may need to be planned 4-5 days ahead of time if you prefer to sprout your own grains rather than purchase them. Dan gives some guidelines for sprouting grains and advises the baker to “leave [the loaf] a day before slicing”. Misky of Misk Cooks has some notes on her sprouting experiences (the speed of sprouting is affected by the ambient temperature and light). Sprout People have some good photographs to illustrate various sprouted grains and seeds as well as a video of sprouting instructions. It seems rather blithe to say that this is an easy loaf to bake once you have the sprouted grains but it’s straightforward and is good with the spreads and chutneys linked in the Weetabix muffins section.

If you didn’t bake the Wholemeal loaf for the last challenge, then please read the notes and guidance pp 30-1. The Wholemeal loaf pg 31 is a good, basic recipe. We tend to sieve out the bran from the wholemeal flour for the initial standing period and add the bran back during the micro-knead. Take a look at the posts linked from the wholemeal loaf compilation because there are lots of helpful tips and you’ll learn about Gamle Ole - a cheese that is so strong Misky says “it squeaks and waddles across the worktop when you turn your back on it”.

The Spelt and ale loaf pg 32 is a variant of the wholemeal loaf. Dan highlights that the malt in the ale can “[make] the dough work very quickly so bake it as soon as it’s increased in size by 50 per cent, as the spelt dough will collapse if left too long”. Another useful note from Dan is that heating the ale drives off some of the alcohol which might otherwise slow down or even stop the yeast action. This is a good loaf for a ploughman’s lunch.

20 May I propose we bake muffins which double up either as a decent breakfast or tea item as well as being portable enough for picnic items. Read the tips and notes on pp 180-2.

The Weetabix muffins pg 189 match well with fruit or a nut butter for breakfast: eg the spiced apple butter (you might need to modify the spicing of the muffin to suit this), banana curd or banoffee curd. Without the cinnamon, the muffins are a good savoury option: eg cheese spread; a fairly thick peanut chutney or is a tasty complement alongside a little cheese or meat/substitute (the muffin similar options team well with banana chutney). This recipe yields approximately 10g of raisins, 16g of added sugars (11g of sugar and 5.5g syrup) per muffin.

Banana bran muffins pg 185: Dan highlights that this recipe makes a large batch of muffins or a cake tray bake. Each muffin (assuming a batch of 20) contains approx. 15g of added sugars and 15g each of banana and raisins.

The Dark blueberry bran muffins pg 188 can be dairy-free but also bake well with dairy milk or hemp milk. If blueberries are expensive or not in good condition then it might be useful to substitute an eating apple or dried apricots chopped into appropriately small chunks. (I sometimes find bran a little bitter so adding some ground cardamom can be useful to mask this if you’re baking for someone with a similar level of bitterness detection.) Each muffin has around 15g of added sugars and 20g fresh/dried fruit.

The Clementine and oat muffins pg 186 work well with other citrus fruits (it’s quite straightforward to substitute as Dan gives useful quantities). These muffins are large: each contains approx. 20g of added sugars without the icing (an additional 16g if glazed); and 10ml of fruit juice and bits.

The Double-corn bacon muffins pg 533 should suit people who prefer a savoury to sweet bake. It’s good for breakfast, a snack or picnic. The muffins are large and bake well as a batch of 16 rather than the suggested 12 with a suitable reduction in baking time.

27 May I havered about the order of the last two bakes. However, for this week it may be a good time to experiment with pizza if you don’t usually make your own dough. I worked in a pizzeria when I was at school and we only baked ‘thin and crispy’ pizza as thick crusts were anathema to the owners. Dan offers a basic pizza dough recipe on pg 529 with a suggested variation for a longer fermentation dough or a sourdough pizza on pg 530. Read the notes for the shape and bake pg 529 and the personalised pizza pg 530 because there are good ideas there for modifying the dough to enhance the bake and the flavour (eg, including whey from mozzarella). In the pizzeria we used a very wet dough with minimal bakers yeast, some old dough and a long, slow fermentation.

My favourite topping is still black olive and anchovy over crushed tomato and oregano. It will be interesting to learn about other bakers’ preferences. I can only echo Dan’s advice to be sparing with the sauce and topping and to heat the oven as high as is bearable. (You may have a better idea of what works for your oven after baking the first one or two pizza of the batch. NB, the doughs keep well in the fridge if you don’t want to bake the whole batch in one night.)

3 June My optimism about the need for picnic foods continues as we head towards June and the deferred Bank Holiday for the Diamond Jubilee. Hot water crust pastry for raised pies pg 513 looks as if it involves extraordinary effort but is a straightforward bake. The pastry can be converted to vegetarian if vegetarian white cooking fat is used rather than lard.

Dan’s recipes for the fillings are mostly based on pork. Gammon and pork pie pp 514-6 describes how to shape the raised pie and is the method for the other recipes. This is a classic pork pie with a well-flavoured jellied stock.

The Ruddy pork pie filling pg 517 takes its colour from a reduction of red wine that is pureed with bacon and used as a marinade for the pork pie filling. The stock from boiling bacon ribs can make a particularly good jelly for this pie.

Pigeon, pork and herb pie filling pg 517 uses less pork than the other recipes and Dan suggests that the pigeon breast might be substituted with dark turkey leg meat. Note the use of lardons to supply some of the fat that is otherwise missing from the reduced amount of pork and the use of pigeon or turkey.

Dan comments that this pie is not readily adaptable for vegetarians: “As I can’t think of a vegetarian filling that would suit the long cooking time, this one is strictly for the meat-eaters” (pg 513). However, for anyone who would like to try a vegetarian version, I’ve had something that resembles this Deep Mushroom Family Pie with chestnuts poached in red wine which was very savoury. I can also recommend the original Gayler recipe on which this Mosaic carrot and green bean pie is based so this might be a good picnic pie.

I look forward to seeing people’s contribution to the May challenges.

Short and Tweet Challenge 25: Cookies, Oatcakes, Sweet or Savoury Biscuits

This week’s #shortandtweet challenge from Dan Lepard’s Short & Sweet was for Sesame, date and ginger biscuits pg 255; Peanut butter cookies pg 240; Walnut chocolate cookies pg 238; the savoury biscuit options were the Buttermilk oatcakes pg 259 (a previous challenge) or the Blue cheese and oatmeal biscuits pg 256. [The opening photograph is from Jo of Zeb Bakes' peanut butter cookies.]

This selection of biscuits and cookies put me in mind of picnics and indulgences. They’re the sort of food that I associate with the desire to share them with others or enjoyable solitude.

zeb_bakes of Zeb Bakes made a social event of this challenge: Peanut Butter Cookies from Short & Sweet. Jo’s chum, E, visited and was a “good sport, not only did she do the washing up, but she made these fantastic peanut butter cookies !” Go along and admire the photographs and specialist baking mat; note the technique for flattening the cookies part-way through the bake. The final verdict: “Even Brian, who hates peanut butter with a vengeance, ate two of them and said they were good”. Jo tweeted that she’s not normally a fan of such cookies but these are so good she will bake them again.

@north_19 of North 19 blog was so smitten by Jo’s photographs of the cookies that she gracefully acceded to a friend’s request that she should make these and produced some very sociable-looking tins of them.

@BakerHay had guests who prefer milk-free items, so she prepared the walnut chocolate cookies and was delighted with them (we’ve storifyed her account: @BakerHay’s walnut chocolate cookies from Short & Sweet). Heather’s guests had run the marathon so were suitably revived by the cookies that they declared, “deliciously dangerous”.

@lapindor of Lapin d’Or and More fair hummed with delight about her choice: My favourite things, in a cookie. I’m rather envious of the china set in the photograph. In summary, the verdict was: “lovely light and delicate texture but pack a punch of flavour. I had one with an espresso style coffee as recommended and the two go really well together. I have yet to try the after dinner option with a shot of grappa but it sounds good to me.”

@underthebluegum of Under the Blue Gum Tree has been cooking up a storm with all of the various cooking challenges in which she’s participating at present and I’m intrigued to follow her diversity of cooking and baking exploits. Claire decided to eschew the sweet bakes and try out the savoury options for this week:Short and Tweet: Buttermilk oatcakes and Blue Cheese & Oatmeal Biscuits. Echoing reports from the previous challenge with the Buttermilk oatcakes, Claire found these a tad sweet but overall, “they have the potential to be the perfect cheese board accompaniment”.

Claire’s experience with the Blue cheese and oatmeal biscuits was mixed. It looks like there were problems slicing the mix thinly and the colour was grey rather than toasty golden. Claire used Blue Tower cheese (an unknown variety to me). Blue Tower seems to be a soft, creamy blue: when I’ve made these previously I’ve used a relatively harder blue cheese, such as a Stilton or a Dorset Blue Vinney and this may well have made for a stiffer mix that made slicing more straightforward after sufficient chilling. Despite their appearance, and in common with other bakers, Claire finds these “addictive”: ” Taste wise, however, they were fantastic. Having shunned blue cheese for a long time, I am slowly coming round to its pungent charms and these biscuits were perfect – quite mellow with just the right hint of cheesy ripeness”.

Like Claire and other bakers, the savoury biscuits and crackers in Short & Sweet have been particularly popular in our household. From the first time we made the rye crackers and buttermilk oatcakes, we haven’t bought commercial versions since. The other option we bake is the salted oat cracker that Dan Lepard terms the “matinee idols of the cracker world – suave, sophisticated and scrumptious”. (The above photograph shows oatcakes after they’ve been through the burger press.)

My Best Beloved baked buttermilk oatcakes, the peanut butter cookies and the sesame, date & ginger biscuits. We tend to flatten the peanut butter cookie batter after three minutes in the oven: we do this because it means we can control the size and crispness of them more easily (we use the bowl from an individual tea-strainer - as pictured above - alongside the baked cookies). We used the burger press again for the sesame, date and ginger biscuits (pictured below).

I’m increasingly concerned that the Baker’s Self-Criticism Bug might be crowding out some of my Best Beloved’s enjoyment of baking. ‘Eating to critique’ isn’t in line with my sunshine thoughts of picnics, visitors and special treats. The following passage makes me think of this because it blends childhood, food (both as nourishment and a social event that is intended to bond families) and provenance.

Rose Edelman is a empath who can taste the emotions of a cook in the food they produce. Her first experience of this is when sampling her mother’s test-run for the cake for her 9th birthday. “My birthday cake was…built from scratch—the flour, the baking soda, lemon-flavored because at eight that had been my request; I had developed a strong love for sour. We’d looked through several cookbooks together to find just the right one, and the smell in the kitchen was overpoweringly pleasant. To be clear: the bite I ate was delicious. Warm citrus-baked batter lightness enfolded by cool deep dark swirled sugar. But …as I finished that first bite, as that first impression faded, I felt a subtle shift inside, an unexpected reaction. As if a sensor, so far buried deep inside me, raised its scope to scan around, alerting my mouth to something new. Because the goodness of the ingredients—the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons—seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was beginning to push up from the bite. I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a crowded sense of her thinking, a spiral…None of it was a bad taste, so much, but there was a kind of lack of wholeness to the flavors that made it taste hollow, like the lemon and chocolate were just surrounding a hollowness. My mother’s able hands had made the cake, and her mind had known how to balance the ingredients, but she was not there, in it…I was hoping I’d imagined it—maybe it was a bad lemon? or old sugar?—although I knew, even as I thought it, that what I’d tasted had nothing to do with ingredients…with each bite, I thought—mmm, so good, the best ever, yum—but in each bite: absence, hunger, spiraling, hollows. [Aimee Bender: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake]

Next week’s challenge is shamelessly luxurious to make up for my disappointment that months with five Sundays don’t have a special name. Classic cheesecake on pg 458 is regularly declared to be the best that people have ever eaten. It is pretty much “cream cheese and little else”. The East End cheesecake pg 460 has a pastry base and different texture for those whose preference is for that: Dan has additional suggestions for people who prefer grainier, coarser-textured cheesecakes. Option 3 is a Cherry crumble cheesecake, pg 462. This cheesecake has a sponge base that absorbs fruit juices, and a crumble topping to the cheesecake. Dan helpfully points out that if you have the sort of family that carps about cracked cheesecake, a crumble topping conceals this rather well. You might wish to adopt this suggestion for other cheesecakes. For people who can not bear cheesecake (an ugly rumour, I know, but I’ve heard this), then the Apricot meringue tart on pg 451 offers a more abstemious bake.

If you blog about your experience with one of the above recipes, please post links in the comments or tweet pictures or links to @foodcraftspace or @evidencematters using the hashtag #shortandtweet - Thank you. It’s the same procedure if you don’t blog but just post a photograph of your work. Please send the links by 8pm 30 April or as soon thereafter as practical (it’s slightly delayed because I shall be on holiday).

Schedule for the #shortandtweet April 2012 challenge. The schedule for May is being drafted but I’d be grateful for suggestions in the comments.

Thank you for sharing your biscuits, cookies and sweet bites. I look forward to learning about your preferences for cheesecakes or other options.

Short and Tweet Challenge 24: Soda Bread

This week’s #shortandtweet challenge from Dan Lepard’s Short & Sweet was for the slab form of Oatmeal soda bread, or its seaweed variation on pg 51; the Breakfast soda bread on pg 52; or the North-South cornbread on pg 53. [The opening photograph and one below are from @BakerHay who baked a delightful spelt version of the soda bread.]

Soda bread is inextricably linked with the taste of terror for me. Years ago, on a family holiday near Dublin, soda bread teas were ubiquitous. We ate more than our fair share of soda bread from bakeries and tea-rooms. Despite this, when somebody told my mother that we couldn’t leave without tasting the soda bread from a certain tea-room, she decided we should go. Her plans included a cliff top walk that was vertigo-inducing at the best of times but perilous after two days of heavy rain of the sort we’d just had.

Despite the mud and the absence of a guard rail between the walker and a sheer drop of what felt like 300 feet to the Atlantic beating the bottom of the cliffs, my mother insisted that we walk in search of this special soda bread. At various points, the path was less than six inches wide, and our walking crocodile of one adult and five children had to turn our backs towards the gorse, and shuffle sidewards along the crumbling path that occasionally gave way beneath our feet, sending a clod of mud and grass on a long drop. My younger sisters were openly weeping but as they were at the back of the line it was too difficult to abort the trip and negotiate the unseen curves to return. So, we pressed on to further horrors and dangers.

When we reached the end of the walk, our faces were numb with fear and the outlines of our arms, legs and neck were softened by the hairs that had been standing on end for far too long. Inevitably, the tea-room with the special soda bread was closed. We walked stiff-legged into the nearest teashop we could find and even my young sisters drank tea as they needed to wrap their hands around something warm. The damp texture of the soda bread seemed distressingly like the clods that had given way beneath our shuffling feet. The taste was metallic and almost made us retch. But, the taste was probably the after-effects of the adrenaline, rather than bad judgment by the baker.

We returned by a different route. As we passed the start of the cliff walk, we saw that it had been roped off, with a sign warning of ‘Extreme Danger’. Since that day, I’ve rarely eaten soda bread and remain absurdly sensitive to the metallic taste of bicarbonate of soda.

So, when @lapindor of Lapin d ‘Or and More opted for the oatmeal soda bread it brought back memories: So So Soda Bread. “We ate the bread fresh from the oven with a ploughman’s type lunch. I liked the chewy crust but found the crumb a little too damp for my taste.” She’s resolved to experiment with Dan’s other soda bread but do go across and admire her Thelma & Louise (aka “useless and the layer”) sub-par baking recycling system.

I’m often intrigued by the substitutions that bakers in other countries have to make and I’ve learned interesting bits and pieces from @underthebluegum of Under the Blue Gum Tree over the past challenges, from the need for different ingredients to the adaptations for altitude. This week’s challenge has a lovely, Mma Ramotswe, feel to it, as Claire substituted sorghum for oatmeal: Short and Tweet: Seaweed, Onion and Toasted Oatmeal Soda Bread: “I couldn’t find oatmeal of any variety in the shops. Plenty of oats, yes, but oatmeal, no…I spotted a large sack of coarse sorghum meal languishing at the bottom of the supermarket shelves. The only thing I know about sorghum is that, like oatmeal, you can make porridge from it.”

Claire then had some different problems with the Breakfast soda bread which she resolved after consultations with both Misky and Dan Lepard. It’s a valuable reminder, yet again, of the importance of different baking parchments, and understanding the impact of fans in convection ovens (head over there for the details).

My Best Beloved had many plans to make these soda breads but they didn’t materialise. It may be some time before the memory of the cliff walk subsides enough to allow me to bake and taste soda bread (much as I think it’s a useful item in any baker’s repertoire).

This week’s challenge is for sweet or savoury biscuits. The unbaked mixture for Sesame, date and ginger biscuits pg 255 stores well in the fridge, ready for a quick bake. Dan suggests options to replace the fruit, the seeds and the spice flavour so it’s well worth a consideration. Peanut butter cookies pg 240 are a good, oaty chew by themselves but add a lot to an impromptu sundae, served as Dan suggests, with ice-cream and a drizzle of sauce. We bake a batch of peanut cookies every 10-14 days which may indicate something about how much we like this recipe.

Walnut chocolate cookies pg 238 are a useful standby for gluten intolerant guests or family members: the recipes uses cornflour which is interesting to bake.

If bakers are more interested in a savoury biscuit option, then I’d suggest the Buttermilk oatcakes pg 259 from a previous challenge (the compilation has some useful tips) or the Blue cheese and oatmeal biscuits on pg 256. I found shaping the oatcakes to be finnicky so the following photographs show my current method which uses a burger press (we bake the oatcakes every fortnight). (Sprinkle finely ground oats onto the bottom sheet of waxed paper, put a spoonful of mix on top, then place the top circle of waxed paper on top, and compress in the burger press.You can smooth out the grid pattern on top before baking or after a couple of minutes in the oven.)

If you blog about your experience with one of the above recipes, please post links in the comments or tweet pictures or links to @foodcraftspace or @evidencematters using the hashtag #shortandtweet - Thank you. It’s the same procedure if you don’t blog but just post a photograph of your work. Please send the links by 8pm 22 April or as soon thereafter as practical.

Schedule for the #shortandtweet April 2012 challenge.

Thank you for sharing your soda breads. I look forward to learning about your preferences for biscuits, cookies and sweet bites.

Short and Tweet Challenge 22: Various Flavourful & Colourful Breads

This week’s #shortandtweet challenge from Dan Lepard’s Short & Sweet was for Spelt and ale loaf, pg 32; Simple walnut loaf (pleasingly purple), pg 35; Soya and linseed loaf, pg 36 (works well with hemp milk as a substitute for soy milk); Multigrain and honey loaf, pg 39; and the well-named Black bread, pg 43. The April Challenge Schedule has some suggested spreads and fillings for these breads. [The opening photograph is @underthebluegum.]

It was store cupboard clear out week for @underthebluegum of Under the Blue Gum Tree: Short and Tweet: ‘Soya and Linseed Loaf’ and ‘Black Bread’. The Soya and linseed loaf (above) was probably a little under-proved but despite this the flavour combination was well received and, “[the loaf] got the thumbs-up from the OH who said it made “good butties” the next day (that translates as “sandwiches” for us southern softies)”.

I admit that I laughed when Claire reported her apprehensions about the “ominous sounding black bread”. It’s time for a small confession. One of my very glamorous aunts used to smoke Sobranie occasionally: both the Black Russians and the Cocktails. She had socials where she served a selection of small chequerboard black and white bread with vibrant toppings. Many of the toppings were revolting (I have a, fortunately, hazy memory of toppings that involved pink cocktail sauce with tinned mandarin orange segments and another of chicken breast slices atop rough chopped green grapes and olives) and it was probably a very dark pumpernickel bread rather than this sort but I’ve had a soft spot for black bread ever since.

Claire has some baking notes (eg, dust the bread with flour, not sesame seeds) and an overall summary of the black bread: “I reckon this is one of those breads that will divide opinion. All those random ingredients come together to create a loaf with a deep, complex flavour that is very far removed from your everyday sandwich loaf. Me and the OH both enjoyed it and it was also still good and moist the next day”.

@BakeCakeCrumbs of Cake, Crumbs and Cooking has a well-illustrated account of various stages of the recipe: Black Bread - Short and Tweet. I commend these photographs to you because at various points during this rather unusual bake, you might otherwise question whether or not you’re doing the right thing, and these process shots might reassure you. There’s no getting away from it, the ingredients are odd and the technique unfamiliar. The bread crumb looks good and I feel that my aunt would have approved of its dramatic appearance. @BakeCakeCrumbs' feedback on the black bread: “[It's] a stunning loaf - visually, texturally and flavourwise, but use seeds that you know you like the flavour of”.

Fans of Little E should brace themselves for an indirect rather than verbatim critique from her this week. @jerronimissus of Jerronimissus under-baked her loaf and was disappointed with the outcome but should nonetheless be proud that she has such an astute daughter, as amply demonstrated in the course of Multigrain honey loaf. When offered a piece of a handsome-looking loaf, Little E refused to be taken in by appearances. “Sensibly she turned my offer down. I guess Mummy shouting “oh no my bread’s completely ruined!” made it seem less appetising.”

@lapindor of Lapin d ‘Or and More has more than a touch of tristesse in her account of the multigrain and honey loaf: One step forward, one back. Embracing the joie de vivre of my picnic vision, we learn that, “the weather has stayed pretty light and sunny but my loaves are rather leaden”. Now, it seems the loaf tasted good enough after the first attempt to justify a second try to improve the texture. However, the second attempt resulted in a different texture problem (photograph above).

My Best Beloved baked the Multigrain and honey loaf (above) and we were both delighted with it. We both have a sweet taste for some savoury items so the level of honey in this was fine for us. The crumb was light and it sliced well. The sponge was left to stand overnight. I’d mention that our oats and seeds didn’t disintegrate into a porridge but looked like soaked grains (we used Flahavan’s Jumbo Oats which are quite sturdy) which may have given us a more robust dough. And, it’s a quirk rather than an evidence-based practice, but we tend to sieve the bran out of wholegrain flours and then add it back in at the end of the second micro-knead. (It seems a little pointless for this loaf as the flax and sunflower seeds would be sharp enough to cut the gluten without the bran.)

With a tin loaf, we usually take it out of the tin at 15-20mins (when it holds its shape). We then lie it on each side & the bottom for the remaining bake time because otherwise the sides of a tin loaf can be uninteresting and this way improves the all-round crust.

My Best Beloved’s Black bread was on course for an interesting bake until a fumble with it during proving broke the nicely taut shape (which sounds rather like a cautionary tale that Edward Gorey might have illustrated in a baking focused version of The Gashlycrumb Tinies). Thereafter, the dough spread into a dark ooze of the sort that a sci-fi film afficionado watches nervously in case it flies through the air and wraps round the face of the unwary. The dough was irregular and quite shallow which made it difficult to bake but we persevered. It was so wide that we had to over-bake it a little to ensure that the middle cooked (at its widest point it exceeded 12ins/30cm). That aside, we were pleasantly surprised by the taste of the loaf albeit we’d further reduce amount of seeds when we next bake it (1tsp of cumin and fennel the blend is a good accompaniment to caramelised carrot soup and also peanut chutney). In memory of my aunt, the bread is smeared with almondaise and some semi-dried plum tomatoes.

8 April is Easter Sunday. Dan Lepard has some interesting twists on traditional bakes for this time of year. The Banana maple pecan buns, pg 83, are a fine option to replace hot cross buns: they are moist and full of flavour, rather than the disappointingly dry doughs with overpowering spices that are too commonly available and that have so disappointed me that it’s been many years since I’ve agreed to sample one. For anybody who does want a well-spiced dough with plenty of fruit, the Spiced stout buns pg 84 are good (if your spices are very fresh, you might want to reduce the suggested quantity). For both of these recipes, there is a useful tip for piping the crosses on pg 85. Bakers whose families are jaded with exposure to too many hot cross style buns might be able to tempt their kith and kin with Sticky toffee apple buns, pg 85. The rum syrup can be replaced by an orange or lemon syrup (dilute some blitzed marmalade or concentrate some squash) if you prefer.

If you blog about your experience with one of the above recipes, please post links in the comments or tweet pictures or links to @foodcraftspace or @evidencematters using the hashtag #shortandtweet - Thank you. It’s the same procedure if you don’t blog but just post a photograph of your work. Please send the links by 8pm 8 April or as soon thereafter as practical.

Schedule for the #shortandtweet April 2012 challenge.

Thank you for sharing your flavourful and colourful breads. I look forward to learning about your preferences for buns.

Short and Tweet Challenge 21: Light Spelt Rough Puff Pastry in Various Presentations

This week’s #shortandtweet challenge from Dan Lepard’s Short & Sweet was for Light spelt rough puff pastry, pg 497. Dan Lepard suggests using it as pie top, tart bottom, wrap-around, or nibble. A flexible item, suited to sweet or savoury, and very accommodating. Yet, it’s hard to escape the feeling of conflict, great effort and strategic manoeuvering that accompanies pastry-making in essential baking techniques: “We shall meet at Philippi, Jeeves”. (PG Wodeshouse: Thank You, Jeeves). [The opening photograph is @joellybaby's Red Onion Upside Down Tart.]

@joellybaby of Joelle McNichol tweeted the rather wistful comment: “my first puff pastry didn’t break my record of not being much cop at pastry. Shame, I had high hopes for that nice dough”. I’ve storifyed her tweets, so if anyone can troubleshoot what might have gone awry, please speak up. Although the tart tasted fine, it would be good to have the crisp flakiness of the pastry to offset the soft sweetness of those unctuous red onions. I’d not have thought of pairing red onions and fresh figs but the colours complement each other well on the plate and now that I’ve mulled it over, I’d think that the marzipan sweetness of the fig would not only be a pleasant combination with the onions but might entice otherwise reluctant fruit and vegetable eaters to try both.

@Zeb_Bakes of Zeb Bakes sent along her baking notes for these attractive tarts. “I made this one with a light wholemeal flour called Swiss Dark as I didn’t have any spelt and I forgot to egg glaze the pastry. The toppings were mozarella cheese, roast peppers skinned and butternut squash, some griddled asparagus found in the fridge and fresh tarragon and pepper. Dan’s instruction to bake your squash whole and then peel is is not easy, unlike slipping the skin off a roast red pepper which is definitely easier! Perhaps most of us would find it easier and more fuel efficient to cut the squash into chunks and roast it.” The overall verdict, mentioned in brief in The Russians Are Coming: “they were scoffed down in seconds”.

It’s fair to say that @underthebluegum of Under the Blue Gum Tree approached this week’s challenge with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. However, being as curious and up for experimentation as ever, Claire participated and used the challenge to re-evaluate her current favourite rough puff pastry method and recipe: Short and Tweet: Light Spelt Rough Puff Pastry. “I must admit my heart didn’t leap when I saw this listed on the S&T schedule… My previous go-to rough puff recipe was Yotam Ottolenghi’s…but this requires the rather tedious task of grating copious amounts of frozen butter. In contrast, Dan advocates just mixing fridge cold cubes of butter into the flour which was a darn sight easier.”

Claire has included a good photograph of her folded pastry and her usual helpful observations on cooking at altitude and notes that the recommended oven temperature is too high for her. I’m intrigued by this as the typical advice is that oven temperatures need to be increased slightly at altitude for various reasons relating to decreased air pressure, the more rapid evaporation of water vapour, the more intense action of leavening agents etc. The family’s reactions to the savoury fillings were that they ranged from OK to tasty. Overall, however: “the pastry was very, very good. It was airy, crispy and the addition of the spelt flour definitely added flavour…Would I rush to make Dan’s rough puff again? By ‘eck I would and I have definitely found my new puff pastry recipe of choice. Sorry, Yotam. You have been usurped.”

Welcome back to @jerronimissus of Jerronimissus with Piff Paff Puff. I’ve missed the comments from Little E so was pleased to read that she’s still in fine form. “[The apple turnover] layers all puffed up beautifully. I will definitely use this recipe again… and again… Little E left the [pasty which used the same pastry] at dinner without even trying it (“pastry is yucky”) but gobbled up the turnover quite happily. I think that we can conclude from this that pastry is, in fact, not yucky and she’s just being contrary.”

Welcome back also to Louise McLaren of Please Do Not Feed the Animals! who baked the chorizo tarts for an al fresco dinner: Spelt Rough Puff Pastry. In a recurrent pattern that will be recognised by reluctant pastry-makers everywhere, although not expecting to find the recipe straightforward, @LouMcL had a pleasant surprise. “How lovely to have a bit of extra flavour and goodness from the spelt flour. I really wasn’t expecting to be able to make a successful puff pastry so easily. There is a bit of rolling and folding but I just let the pastry rest in the fridge each time and got on with whatever else I was doing…it really felt I had done virtually nothing. The pastry puffed up brilliantly. Just as good as the ready-made stuff. The taste, however, was far better”.

@BakerHay offers yet another elegant presentation: Light Spelt Rough Puff Pastry with Tapenade and Roasted Peppers (storifyed). @Zeb_Bakes and Heather have a silky sheen to their peppers that adds a lot to the visual contrast and appeal of their dishes. As noted in the Storify of this, I often enjoy the process photographs because it helps to show other (nervous) bakers that there’s usually a time when rough puff pastry is full of generous smears of butter that sometimes stick to the rolling pin but it still comes good, after chilling and good handling. Occasionally, I fantasise about organising myself enough to achieve @BakerHay's stylish presentation of food: some day.

Heady with successful bread-making (Short & Sweet 2 day loaf), and drawing a discreet veil over the Sophia Loren-related upset, my Best Beloved set about the light spelt rough puff pastry with a will. We started the pastry in a cool kitchen but several interruptions meant that by the time the second roll out was done for the second set of roll and folds, the kitchen had warmed up so much that the butter smears were sticking to the rolling pin, and the pastry was beginning to drag, rather than roll. Now, our fridge maintains 2C for most of its zones but as luck would have it, we only had room in the 5C zone when we were making this pastry (that’s not intentional zoning, I keep several thermometers in the fridge as well as its own digital readout so I track the temperatures that way). The pastry just didn’t seem to chill down sufficiently to allow it to roll out properly.

We decided to leave the pastry until it had chilled properly and felt cold all the way through. This took several hours. However, you can see how much the pastry has relaxed and it was much easier to roll out after its long rest.

We were very pleased with the taste of these pastry bakes: both the tapenade and pepper and the apple puffs. The fillings were good and the outsides of the puffed pastry left nothing to be desired. However, honesty compels me to admit that all of the pastries were damp at their centres and under-cooked. I havered about mentioning this but it wouldn’t be right to leave anyone thinking that they’re the only ones who’ve had difficulties with this. Julia Dunway mentions, in passing: “One secret I learned is that puff pastry cooks fast on the outside but the inside is often undercooked (convection oven) If I put the pastries in the still oven at a lower heat for 15-20 minutes and covered them with foil then the insides were fine”.

Next time, we might add in a 4th roll and fold set but make the final roll thinner as we tend to prefer quite small amounts of pastry to filling. We can’t turn off the fan in our oven but next time we might start them lower to try and ensure that the pastry cooks through properly. (I suspect an over-hot oven at the start which led to a reduction in baking time overall may have contributed to our pastries’ outcome.) For a lifetime first in making this pastry, however, my Best Beloved is very pleased in parts with this curate’s egg but disappointed in others: we’ve had to have the “Baker’s bug” discussion about getting too caught up in “getting things right”. We met at Philippi, and have retired from the field with an creditable performance but no outright victory here.

It’s tricky to think of something seasonal for an April Fool’s Day bake other than stating, “It’s a croquembouche - no options”. However, as it’s warm weather, I’ve been looking at added flavour loaves that make it easy to gather together spontaneous picnic foods but are not so summery that no one particularly fancies them if April Showers start with a vengeance. Whether you have cheese, hummus, jam, taramasalata, or meat in mind as a filling, a good flavoured bread makes an extra special sandwich. I propose that we bake the Spelt and ale loaf, pg 32; Simple walnut loaf, pg 35, which is pleasingly purple and might intrigue children who’ve ended up with an indoors picnic because the weather changed; Soya and linseed loaf, pg 36 (I loathe soya milk but have made this with hemp milk and it was very good); Multigrain and honey loaf, pg 39; and finally, a bread that looks spectacular with a red, white, pink or vivid green filling, the well-named Black bread, pg 43 which owes its colour not only to the treacle but the small amounts of cocoa and coffee that add a rich, savoury note to the dough. The April Challenge Schedule has some suggested spreads and fillings for these breads.

If you blog about your experience with one of the above recipes, please post links in the comments or tweet pictures or links to @foodcraftspace or @evidencematters using the hashtag #shortandtweet - Thank you. It’s the same procedure if you don’t blog but just post a photograph of your work. Please send the links by 8pm 1 April or as soon thereafter as practical.

Schedule for the #shortandtweet April 2012 challenge (partially complete: to be updated as I’m checking some items).

Thank you for sharing your pastry bakes. I look forward to learning about people’s preferences for picnic breads.

Short and Tweet Challenge 20: Sophia Loren Cassata Cake, Saffron Peach Cake & Butterscotch Banana Cake

This week’s #shortandtweet challenge from Dan Lepard’s Short & Sweet was for Saffron peach cake pg 137 (an earlier challenge resulted in some useful tweaks); what Dan styles the “‘Sophia Loren’ of cake: four layers of orange sponge cake filled with a simplified Sicilian cassata mixture and drizzled with a light orange syrup”, pp 132-3; option three was a deep-flavoured Butterscotch banana cake, pp 126-7. It’s been an interesting selection of bakes that has generated questions about cakes with dome tops, what variety of cinnamon is commonly available in South Africa, and why a period of fast and abstinence has a cake associated with it. [The opening photograph is @joellybaby's banana cake.]

This week’s cakes have felt uncannily family and nostalgia related. Because of the saffron, the Saffron peach cake nods toward traditional associations with Mothering Sunday and, for me, the Butterscotch banana is reminiscent of childhood toffee smells. Looking at #shortandtweet-ers’ Orange cassata cake, there’s a sense that if we did not quite reach the acme of Sophia Loren, we brought to mind a glamorous aunt who somehow manages to wear a frilly-tiered outfit with panache. Monday 19 March was St Joseph’s Day (celebrated as Father’s Day in some countries) and in Italy, this is celebrated with regional food (this is Italy, what isn’t?). When I was at school, I had a weekend job in a pizzeria that was owned by Sicilians: so, from my n=1 experience, Sicilians (and others) celebrate by making and eating Sfinci di San Guiseppe (also pasta topped with breadcrumbs to recall the carpenter’s sawdust). Anyone who had been following #shortandtweet would have been able to do this because it involves frying choux puffs and filling them with a custard or creamy filling that is very similar to ‘Sophia’s Cassata’ filling. I was charmed to learn that @tomasi_carla made these traditional pastries and we’ve storifyed her account: @tomasi_carla’s Sfinci di San Giuseppe.

@underthebluegum of Under the Blue Gum Tree baked two cakes: Short and Tweet: ‘Butterscotch Banana’ and ‘Orange Cassata’ Cakes. There were some hiccups with both: “I can say straight up that neither would win “Prettiest Cake in Show” but taste-wise, there were varying degrees of success”. In an entertaining mix of personal preferences and interesting adjustments to allow for the impact of baking a sponge at altitude, @underthebluegum has a number of grumbles and misgivings about the Orange cassata cake. “Given my cake’s stunted stature, cutting it into three gave me a queasy moment but it was just about manageable. However, even after padding it out with the ricotta filling and giving it a drizzle of orange icing it looked a bit squat and lopsided..In the recipe intro, Dan refers to this dish as the ‘Sophia Loren’ of cakes. I am not sure what decade he was talking but my cake was certainly no sixties screen siren. I guess with a squint and in the right light it could possibly pass for today’s septuagenarian Ms Loren but that is probably being generous.” Remarkably enough, despite the low expectations: “I was surprised to find just how much I enjoyed this cake”.

@north_19 of North_19 kindly sent along her account of making the Orange cassata cake. I’ve storifyed her experience but reproduced some of it below because it highlights some common problems.

"To be honest, with my consistent lack of ability to bake sponge with a flat top, I should have known I would never have resulted in the poster-child of layer cakes. I should have baked just one large one and sliced it up, rather than two with their very domed tops (see ‘wonky cakes’ pic.")

"On the day it was baked, the cake was ok. Ricotta filling lumpy, and strangely textured…The after-taste was a little sharp and peel-y (my brand of candied peel?). However, the next day, something rather splendid had happened. The ricotta filling gently leaked into the sponge, mellowing the flavours beautifully, creating something far greater than the sum of its ingredients. I would make it again, to relish the next day."

"Oh, and I could do with some practise (advice?!) at creating the perfect flat-top sponge."

Please read @north_19's full account on Storify (where I’ve made some comments) and chip in with any advice. My additional suggestions are mundane and remedial rather than a pointer towards flat-top sponge perfection. It’s possible that the cakes rose unevenly because: i) the batter wasn’t level in the tin (an offset spatula might help to rectify this); ii) the oven isn’t level; iii) the oven has temperature zones that cause one side of the sponge to rise/set more rapidly (rotate the cake tins halfway through the cooking time; heat a bake stone in the oven and place the cake tins on that to reduce the temperature imbalances).

Domed tops can occur for several reasons. One of the likeliest problems is uneven transmission of heat so that the outer walls of the tin conducted the heat quickly and set the outer edges of the sponge while the centre of the sponge mix heated more gradually and then rose higher than the sides. In recipes with chemical leavening agents, the gases can’t escape from the cake mix once the crust has formed around the edges and they crowd towards the weakest spot (the unset centre) and push that up more. Domed tops can sometimes be fixed if you act quickly: as soon as the cakes are out of the oven, keep on the oven gloves and, using a clean tea towel, gently press down to flatten the dome and level the cake (watch out for steam as it can scald). Alternatively, when the cakes have cooled enough to be removed from the tin, invert the cake onto its top so that the top flattens under its own weight while cooling on the rack. This is helpful when slicing a cake into even layers for sandwiching.

It is at this point that I should mention that my Best Beloved succumbed to the siren promise of the Sophia Loren description and baked the Orange cassata cake. This was an ambitious choice for somebody who has never previously baked a sponge cake and so it was, perhaps, inevitable that at various points there were moments that resembled The Great British Bake Off in drama and emotion. The cake was fragrant and tasted delicious but a too-hasty turning out of one of the cakes, in combination with inadequate preparation of the sponge tins, meant that at one point we considered converting the presentation to an orange sponge and cassata trifle.

My Best Beloved removed the two cakes from the oven, and, giddy with success, turned one of them out before it had cooled enough. A section of the cake stuck to the silicone pan, and some of the part that did release broke up: despite the recipe instructions, neither tin had been lined. At this point we had nothing to lose as plan B was to serve it as a trifle so we placed the still warm sponge topside down onto some clingfilm, drizzled it with a small amount of warm sugar syrup, scraped the remaining sponge out of the pan and matched/patched up the holes, then gathered the clingfilm together to create a slight tension and gently slid the whole cake back into the still warm pan and left it to set (topside still down). We twisted and pegged the clingfilm to provide a gentle pull to encourage the cake to stick back together. (If the cake tin had been metal rather than silicone, we would probably have just folded the excess clingfilm flat and put a plate and suitable weight on top of the sponge to press it together but the silicone is flexible enough that it might have bulged.) The sponge was coaxed into sticking together well enough that it formed a sound base for the cake (we didn’t attempt to slice it into layers and the topside remained at the bottom) and held together without falling apart when it was cut and served. The final cake was just two layers of sponge, sandwiched and topped with the ricotta filling. It lasted 4 days in the fridge and matured delightfully.

I feel as if I’m highlighting the mistakes that my Best Beloved made rather than celebrating the fact that most of the procedure was correct, the cake crumb was light and it was delicious. It’s the more impressive that this was a lifetime first attempt at baking a sponge and it feels mean to detail the errors. However, it’s sometimes useful to have some back-up plans for taking remedial action and I’ve offered the above description of ‘how to stick a sponge cake back together’ in that spirit. Nonetheless, I’m conflicted precisely because I think that a number of home bakers are discouraged when their own attempts don’t look as fabulous as the photographs in a book or because other people criticise their mistakes while ignoring how good something tastes. None of the bakers who attempted it has any criticism of the taste, but none is wholly content with the appearance of their very first attempt at baking this cake. If none of the cakes achieved Sophia Loren status, I still think that we have a baker’s collection of aunts, wearing frilly outfits with panache.

I’m pleased to welcome back @joellybaby of Joelle McNichol. Her photographs and comments are storifyed: @joellybaby bakes Butterscotch banana cake. Go and admire the photographs, you might well think you can smell the caramelised banana just by looking at them.

As mentioned above, @underthebluegum of Under the Blue Gum Tree baked two cakes: Short and Tweet: ‘Butterscotch Banana’ and ‘Orange Cassata’ Cakes. In her account of the banana cake @underthebluegum speculates whether the taste of the delectable caramelised banana was smothered by her substitute spicing and wonders if other bakers had a similar experience (from the other accounts of this cake, it doesn’t seem as if this is a common problem). My own observation is that cinnamon is notoriously tricky to judge in recipes from other countries because it’s rarely clear which variety of cinnamon the recipe writer is using (eg, a floral or hot variety with varying strengths). Eg, we purchase Sri Lankan cinnamon in the UK; the commonly available cinnamon in the US is Indonesian cassia: it would be interesting to know which cinnamon is typically available in South Africa.

@BakeCakeCrumbs of Cake, Crumbs and Cooking has a helpfully illustrated account of various stages of the recipe: Butterscotch Banana Cakes - Short and Tweet. The write-up includes several useful tips. “Verdict? Great recipe - quite time consuming in terms of making the caramel, cooking the banana in it and then leaving to cool but once that bit is done, it’s plain sailing…[One] of my colleagues said that she thought these were possibly the best cakes I have ever taken to work!”

@BakerHay likewise baked the Butterscotch Banana Cake and had good intentions about giving them to her neighbours although it’s murky as to how many managed to make the handover. Her assessment is: “oil based cake light, moist and delicious”.

@lapindor of Lapin d ‘Or and More gave us: Reasons to be cheerful Jill’s variation on the Saffron peach cake substituted frozen nectarines for the peaches (in keeping with the desirable gold colour). Jill has some wisdom from Prue Leith and some praiseworthy reasoning on the health virtues of cake that contains fruit, nuts and saffron. Jane’s post triggered a series of questions from a visitor. Condensing the Q&A, I mention the following as it seems arcane to some people. Saffron has traditional associations with Mothering Sunday and Simnel Cake in the UK. Although Mothering Sunday is part of the Lenten calendar in the UK, and therefore a period of fast and abstinence, it has a cake associated with it because there is an official relaxation of Lenten observance to allow a day of celebration, also known as Refreshment Sunday.

It’s apparent that #shortandtweet search doesn’t always show everyone’s tweets so I apologise if I missed any notifications - please let me know and I’ll update this compilation.

I propose that we close the month with Light spelt rough puff pastry, pg 497. Dan Lepard notes that, “A smidgeon of baking powder softens the pastry and helps to gently aerate the tender buttery flakes as they bake”. This is a fairly free-form recipe as Dan suggests using it as you would puff pastry (lids for pies, or bases for tarts); as a wrap-around for items such as Pigs in blankets, or simply prepped for nibbles.

However, pp 498-503 have some excellent “ideas for individual savoury tarts”: be sure to read the additional baking notes for First-class tarts pg 498. The tarts can be as small or large as it suits you and the toppings can be simple or sophisticated. They’re flexible and allow a range of toppings to be baked at the same time (useful in families where people rarely agree on a single dish). For smaller households, the pastry freezes well and defrosts without mess for fast pie tops or tarts.

If you blog about your experience with one of the above recipes, please post links in the comments or tweet pictures or links to @foodcraftspace or @evidencematters using the hashtag #shortandtweet - Thank you. It’s the same procedure if you don’t blog but just post a photograph of your work. Please send the links by 8pm 25 March or as soon thereafter as practical.

Schedule for the #shortandtweet March 2012 challenge.

Thank you for sharing your cakes. I look forward to our spelt rough puff pastry, whether whether it’s acting as a pie top, tart bottom, wrap-around, or nibble.

NB: apologies for the delay in sending out this compilation, it’s taken me a while to recover from a lengthy migraine. I’ll update this post with a link to the April Challenge schedule as soon as practical.

Short and Tweet Challenge 19: Glorious Choux, Paris-Brest and Fripperies

This week’s #shortandtweet challenge from Dan Lepard’s Short & Sweet was for choux pastry, in one of several forms. My parents had a French cookery book that would have stoked the imagination of any 9 year-old whose pocket contents included a penknife, biro and a miniature brandy in hopes of being called upon to perform an emergency tracheostomy (the brandy was to sterilise blade/tube/skin). One of the more memorable recipes was for an eel dish that stipulated freshly-drawn eel blood for the sauce (the method involved impaling live eels on a hook, a sharp knife and a dish to collect said blood). When it came to pastry, however, the author assumed that eel-slaying sophisticates with sufficient sang-froid to hold a wriggling, inverted eel would be in no need of guidance: “Take a quantity of rough puff pastry” was as detailed as it got. I knew what puff pastry was but the recipe that fired my imagination was Paris Brest. I had no idea what choux pastry was but I instinctively knew that I liked the sound of a praline filling and toasted almonds on top. And I dreamed of the time when I could eat this delight. What made this recipe the more intriguing was the account of origins of the recipe: developed, allegedly, in honour of the Paris-Brest cycle race (hence the shape).

"[The baker’s] tire-shaped choux pastry was piped full of a huge amount of calorific praline cream, perhaps mimicking the newly invented inner tubes of the day and traditionally baked almonds and icing sugar decorated the cake, imitating the tread of the tyre and dust from the road." The Hungry Cyclist: Paris Brest – The Breakfast of Champions

Whether we had similar associations or not, all of this week’s featured participants chose the Mini coffee Paris-Brest pg 418 for this week’s (the opening photograph is from @joellybaby).

I’m delighted that @joellybaby of Joelle McNichol joined in such style. I think several of us might identify with the self-doubt about pastry skills (“not much cop at pastry”). I’ve storifyed her tweets and photographs and they’re worth a look and a warm, “Hello”. The following is a photograph of Joelle’s piped paste before it goes into the oven.

Recuperating from a recent unpleasant bug, @underthebluegum of Under the Blue Gum Tree produced: Short and Tweet: Mini Coffee Paris-Brest. The write-up includes helpful guidance on ‘What not to Google’ (I can only second this: a search for a routine gadget that vibrates air pockets out of wet concrete yielded results that were startling and disturbing albeit not in the way I needed); oven temperature (matched experience with our fan oven); and how you might serve this if you can’t slice your pastry wheels in half, horizontally. It says a lot that, despite a couple of bumps with the custard and the wet caramel, the verdict is: “Despite the slip ups, the resulting dessert was delicious and one I would definitely make again”.

@lapindor of Lapin d’Or and More tackled: Paris-Brest, a challenging subject. In a theme that runs through #shortandtweet, Jane declares, “Pastry and I are not the best of friends and I felt apprehensive throughout making these”. After working through the recipe, she summarised the matter thus: “The finished pastry did taste very good but I really don’t think I would make them again unless I can rid myself of the fear of pastry; it just makes the process feel hard work rather than fun”.

As I said in@lapindor's comments, I feel that pastry is one of those things that we tend to attempt infrequently, and because we do it so irregularly, there’s no accumulation of competence with it. We tend to remember the problems from our last attempt rather than the fact that it tasted fine and that any errors could probably be fixed by tweaking the technique or that we would know more about what to expect if we did it again, within a reasonable time scale.

I wanted to write something here about how difficult it is to bake alongside someone who is baking something like this for the first time but that’s in danger of being a very long, off-topic digression. Let’s just say that reading the recipe through several times is essential, not optional. If someone is hurrying you along, so as to not boil off too much water at the early stage, this is not the time to start cross-examining that person as to why that detail isn’t in the recipe (because every recipe would be impossibly long if you had to explain every detail and anticipate every, “Why?”). This stage lead to a more con brio explanation of the water content of choux paste (and types of butter) than I would have anticipated even a few moments earlier.

Plainly, pastry causes disruption even in otherwise tranquil kitchens. In an attempt to circumvent what was an increasingly sharp-toned interrogation about why and how the water content in choux paste turns to steam in a hot oven, and how the increased pressure pushes out the skin of the dough, resulting in an airy, crisp shell, I played the McGee joker. I fetched McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture and read aloud the following:

"Choux is the French word for “cabbage,” and choux pastry forms little irregular cabbage-like balls that are hollow inside like popovers. Unlike popovers, choux pastry becomes firm and crisp when baked. It provides the classic container for cream fillings in such pastries as cream puffs (profiteroles) and éclairs…and deep fried beignets, whose lightness inspired the name pets de nonne, “nun’s farts.”

Choux paste was apparently invented in late medieval times, and it’s prepared in a very distinctive way. It’s a cross between a batter and a dough, and is cooked twice: once to prepare the paste itself, and once to transform the paste into hollow puffs…As with the popover, the surface sets while the interior is still nearly liquid, so the trapped air coalesces and expands into one large bubble.”

I can report that even the most inquisitive of people can be diverted away from questioning the fine detail of steam expansion puffing out a pastry ball by learning of the existence of “nun’s farts”. (Having learned that “nun’s farts” are fried beignets, retribution awaits the person who mislead in my formative years by confidently assuring me that “nun’s farts” was the colloquial translation for Religieuses (Mintwonderland has some charming pictures of Religieuses)).

Pour revenir à nos moutons, we had to tinker with the oven temperature because you can see how well advanced the browning of the dough and almonds was after 7 minutes (as above). They did puff up but not as dramatically as the first-time choux baker had hoped (we revisited the issue of whether the water and butter mix had been left to boil for too long and if the pan had been too large). We belatedly learned that one of the intended recipients of the pastries doesn’t like coffee and another was apprehensive about dentures and caramel. So, the wheels were served, intact, with strawberries and something my family refers to as Tangy Cream (it’s double cream with natural yoghurt/crème fraîche, stirred together, with dark brown sugar to taste and left to stand; after standing you can mix it to form a uniform colour, streaks or a marble effect).

Update: Peter Evans (@EvansPeterJ) tweeted a picture of his Paris-Brest from Short & Sweet that he’d prepared for a New Year’s Eve celebration. “Was indeed a lovely thing to do, my first time with choux and by heck they were tasty!”

It’s Mothering Sunday in the UK next week so this week’s challenge recipes are: Saffron peach cake pg 137 (an earlier challenge resulted in some useful tweaks for people who haven’t tried this previously); what Dan styles the “‘Sophia Loren’ of cake: four layers of orange sponge cake filled with a simplified Sicilian cassata mixture and drizzled with a light orange syrup”. Dan has provided notes for advance preparation on pg 133, specifically for a special occasion. The recipe for Orange cassata cake is pg 132 and the cassata filling is delectable (see March schedule for more notes and suggestions); option three is a deep-flavoured Butterscotch banana cake to evoke nostalgia in anyone who lost a filling to Banana Split Toffees and would appreciate both a more adult version and less dental jeopardy (again, the schedule has additional notes and reminders).

If you blog about your experience with one of the above recipes, please post links in the comments or tweet pictures or links to @foodcraftspace or @evidencematters using the hashtag #shortandtweet - Thank you. It’s the same procedure if you don’t blog but just post a photograph of your work. Please send the links by 8pm 18 March or as soon thereafter as practical.

Schedule for the #shortandtweet March 2012 challenge.

It’s apparent that #shortandtweet search doesn’t always show everyone’s tweets so I apologise if I missed any notifications - please let me know and I’ll update this compilation.

Thank you for sharing your Paris-Brest. I look forward to our cakes, whether or not they’re associated with Mothering Sunday.

Short and Tweet Challenge 18: Perfect Pita Bread, Simple Bagels and Double-Corn Muffins

This week’s #shortandtweet challenge from Dan Lepard’s Short & Sweet was for Perfect plain pita pg 76 or the Garlic, thyme and lemon version pg 77; Simple bagels pg 61; or Double-corn bacon muffins pg 533. The opening photograph is from Carla (see below) because, as ever, I’m in awe of her tidiness and am smitten by her kitchen.

I’m not a bagel enthusiast, mostly because I find the supermarket versions to be clammy and dense. For no particularly good reason, such bagels remind me of acres of sun-starved goosepimpled flesh in a park on the first sunny day, slathered with sun-screen or drenched in a tanning oil to accelerate the burn. I was therefore delighted when Dan Lepard gave headnotes on how to tweak his bagel recipe to adjust the chewiness and crumb. @lapindor of Lapin d’Or and More rose to the challenge of: Simple bagels. This is a good, illustrated account of shaping and poaching the dough. I like the summary and concur with the crumb sentiment: “I am no bagel expert so am not sure if I should have retained a bigger hole in the centre and if they should really be a bit flatter in shape…[Inside, you can see that] I have a few big air holes and I suspect a more open crumb than a traditional bagel. No complaints though as they were delicious and I was actually quite proud of them”.

Although she was stricken by a nasty bug, @underthebluegum of Under the Blue Gum Tree baked her way through the bagel recipe twice: Short and Tweet: Bagels. Go along for the useful notes and the briefly alarming digression into “poaching beagles”.

Although Bialys aren’t strictly related to bagels, the chew and the crumb are likewise important so I’d point people towards @Zeb_Bakes of Zeb Bakes's post: Bialys for Mellow Bakers. There are some good hints and tips here for additional toppings and serving ideas that might be adapted to this bagel recipe. It is also via the ever-helpful @Zeb_Bakes that I found these How to shape & bake your bagels videos.

Most of us opted for the pita bread challenge, egged on perhaps by the enthusiasm of those of us who’ve made them before (“almost qualified for the title of ‘the easiest bread in the world’”) and been taken aback by the difference between these and what is typically available in supermarkets. There’s also a whiff of kitchen excitement with pita bread. The baker arms-lengths a thin piece of dough into a searingly hot oven, and within a couple of minutes the heat turns the water content to steam, puffing up the dough to the point where nervous watchers suspect that the tension will be too much and it will burst and deflate, only somewhat less spectacularly than a over-stretched balloon. When the bread cools it relaxes and deflates but the pocket remains, waiting to be opened and stuffed.

@Misky of Misk Cooks offers a picture of Elmo Gnome alongside a description and shots of her ideas of how to stuff them: Dan Lepard’s Perfect Plain Pita Bread. There are clever suggestions for how to roll the dough out to the correct depth, how to move the bread with tongs and plenty of enthusiastic appreciation. “So, will I make them again? Yes. In every language recognised by the human ear, I say “Yes!”

Will I ever buy store-made pitas again? Not by the hairs on your chiny-chin-chin.”

There’s interesting discussion in @Misky's comments. I'm one of those who confesses to finding Short & Sweet to be both a remarkable baking resource and a fountain of benign domestic tyranny as the vast difference between home-made versions of items such as pita bread and that which is commonly available means that it’s unlikely one would voluntarily purchase them again.

@BakeCakeCrumbs of Cake, Crumbs and Cooking sent along a well-illustrated account of mixing dough and baking: Perfect Plain Pittas. “Tender and chewy, these are a million miles from the long-life excuse for pitta bread that you find in the supermarkets…[It’s] quite fun to keep seeing them pop out all puffed up! My one regret is that my oven has a solid door so I can’t see the magic happening!”

@Mitchdafish of Mitchadafish blog joined the WI not long ago and used their recently launched flour to bake her delightful breads: Pita.

@tomasi_carla tweeted a very helpful series of photographs and comments about making these pita, griddling them (rather than baking them in an oven) and serving suggestions: Dan Lepard’s Perfect Pita. There are helpful notes about cooking them from frozen. Update: Carla cooks the pita on both sides when she griddles them.

@BakerHay tweeted some pictures and comments about her experience in baking both the plain and garlic, thyme & lemon pita: @BakerHay bakes Dan Lepard’s Perfect Pita Bread.

@Choclette8 of Chocolate Log Blog tweeted her semi-wholemeal pita, baked at 225C. These pita have more colour than those made wholly with white flour and the pattern reminds me of reticulated seed pods.

My Best Beloved baked both the plain pita and, in the sweet flush of success, the double-corn bacon muffins. The pita were a light-crumbed triumph. In a (perhaps) poignant commentary on our lives there was lots of excitement derived from staring through the glass door of the oven to see the pita swell and then suddenly expand (see first photograph).

The Double-corn bacon muffins tasted fine but were a tad claggy in the centre (the empty case shows how damp the muffin mix was even after standing when first removed from the oven). This is possibly because Best Beloved’s reservoirs of patience had been sapped by the keen attention to detail paid to executing the pita bread recipe well so parts of this recipe went awry. Not least, grated aubergine had to substitute for the courgette and a misunderstanding meant that far too much of the aubergine was added. I suspect that the surfeit of aubergine accounted for the muffins being cooked and golden on the outside at the end of the baking time but claggy within: we returned the muffins to the oven for an additional 7 minutes which improved the texture (albeit the centre was heavier & damper than I like) but over-baked the top and darkened the colour.

This week’s challenge recipes are: Mini coffee Paris-Brest pg 418; Rhubarb and custard buns, pg 422; a third option is to use the sweet choux paste as a pie crust, as Dan outlines, pg 525. If you have any sweet choux paste left over, then if you adapt Dan’s recommendation for Soup choux, pg 524, and pipe/bake tiny blobs of it, you might sprinkle them on top of a stewed fruit dish (with or without tossing them in a dipping sugar of, eg, cinnamon and icing sugar). It looks very special and far more complicated than it is: it also offers a good texture contrast. (There are additional notes in the Schedule for the #shortandtweet March 2012 challenge).

If you blog about your experience with one of the above recipes, please post links in the comments or tweet pictures or links to @foodcraftspace or @evidencematters using the hashtag #shortandtweet - Thank you. It’s the same procedure if you don’t blog but just post a photograph of your work. Please send the links by 8pm 11 March or as soon thereafter as practical.

Schedule for the #shortandtweet March 2012 challenge.

It’s apparent that #shortandtweet search doesn’t always show everyone’s tweets so I apologise if I missed any notifications - please let me know and I’ll update this compilation.

Thank you for sharing your pitas, bagels and muffins. I look forward to our many explorations of choux pastry.