Christmas cookies

My first venture back into baking…

I stopped baking when I got the diabetes diagnosis. It just wasn’t safe to expose myself to any quantities of tasty baked goods, as my willpower, initially at least, wasn’t up to the challenge. The Husband, a true saint, backed me up, and has willingly sacrificed his own access to the good stuff in order to support me in losing the excess weight and maintaining my blood sugar at safe levels.

Seven months down the line, I’m able to control myself! So it was time to do some seasonal baking for the benefit of the Chiconi Fam, who came for Christmas lunch. No need to impose my dietary restrictions on them… Everyone got a little carton with five bickies to take away afterwards. Tasty, but not a sweet overload.

The red velvet cupcakes with white frosting and sprinkles were fine, but nothing spectacular, so I’m not bothering with them. The bickies (cookies to my American/Canadian friends) are another story. I haven’t baked bickies/cookies much, aside from my default, 20-minute start-to-finish Peanut Butter Cookies. But I saw this recipe on the Emmy Made YouTube channel, and wanted to give it a try. Y’all should give it a go, it’s a winner.

Ready to go into the oven. Top left to bottom right: spice thins, jam drops, raisin, peanut butter and double chocolate

You make a Master Dough, to which you subsequently add a variety of flavourings for different variants. It’s a smart, time-saving idea, and it works really well. I made her suggested variants except for one, and tried one additional option of my own.

The dough is delicious, versatile, well-behaved and forgiving. It’s not too sweet, and is yummy enough to eat raw, if you’re not concerned about raw egg (which I’m not). It cooks up quickly and responds well to both dry and oily additions.

Plus, Emmy is such a delightful, funny and inspiring presenter, and makes me laugh out loud at least once every time I watch her, whether she’s testing a recipe or trying some weird food. Worth a visit, people!

And in case you’re wondering? No, I didn’t have any bickies! 😇

Nothing to see here

Isn’t that what they say?

When there’s actually quite a lot to see, but they want you to move along? I, on the other hand, have literally had nothing to see for quite some time. But now I have things to show and tell.

Let’s start with… Baking. I have always been fascinated by cooking from the Southern states of the US. The names of the dishes are mysterious and wonderful, the combinations and flavours can be strange to UK and Australian palates, and many of the ingredients are not at all easily obtained here. But one thing I’ve always loved the sound of is ‘biscuits and sausage gravy’. For breakfast, mind you. Now obviously, these are American biscuits, which closely resemble our scones, rather than being the sweet, flat, crisp jobs we dunk in our tea or coffee. And sausage gravy? Not the rich, meaty brown liquid we make from our Sunday roasts, but a thick, pale, creamy sauce flavoured with crumbled ‘breakfast sausage’. This latter ingredient isn’t snags, or bangers (‘links’ to my US friends), it’s a large roll of seasoned sausage-meat cut into thick slices and fried, served with eggs, etc, for breakfast. I haven’t seen breakfast sausage anywhere in Australia*. You can take a pork snag or two and squeeze it out of its skin, mash it up and that will do the job, fried in a skillet and crumbled. After that, add flour, seasoning and milk, and stir till the whole thing thickens. It takes patience but is very tasty. Anyway, failing the sausage gravy, I made biscuits. I think they turned out rather well! Yummy eaten warm with butter. I would have added honey except, you know, diabetes… If you’re an expert biscuit baker, I’d love to know what you think of my amateur effort.

Gardening. As you’re probably well aware by now, we have a caravan (travel trailer). We keep it in the front yard on a not quite level piece of ground between two flower beds. Because of the curved, banana shape of the outer, raised bed, nearest our front boundary, it has been difficult to back the ‘van into her spot when we come home. So I have shortened and straightened it. Which involved heavily pruning some ornamental trees (ixora, hibiscus, variegated ficus, azalea, Bankok Rose and Snow on the Mountain), shifting what felt like several hundred edging bricks, hacking out soil, repositioning irrigation pipes and some power-weeding. Total time, 2 days of hard labour, but so worth it. I also enlisted the Husband and his angle grinder to remove the old and nasty mailbox which lives in that raised bed. It had finally rusted past the point of no return so that rain more or less guaranteed soggy mail, and will be turned into something more useful in its next incarnation. We also got rid of the ‘ornamental’ street number some aesthetically-challenged previous owner had crafted out of welded steel chain and tack welded to the supporting post… A new, functional, powder-coated steel mailbox improved matters no end, and I wrapped the now-disfigured post in a square of imitation buxus panel. It looks rather fetching…

And finally, Sewing. I have finally got back to the Twilight quilt, and the first two rows are sandwiched and quilted, although I’m not sure you can tell from this photo. I’m using a rather beautiful purple Rasant thread, which blends rather well, but also has a pretty shine. It’s made by Amann, and is  cotton spun on polyester core thread which is both strong and smooth-running. So far, so very good! I’m quilting a cross hatch a hand’s-width wide, which is enough to safely hold the layers together but also results in a very soft and drapey finish to the quilt. There has also been activity on my Hopscotch quilt blocks, but I’ll leave reporting on that until ScrapHappy Day.

Amazing what a long post I’ve written about nothing at all!

 

*If you’ve seen it, do tell me where, as it’s just the sort of thing the Husband would love…

Not so dusty

I’ve been baking again.

This time, it was an Australian classic which I’d never had until a few months ago: Lumberjack Cake. The version I tried was so absolutely lush and delicious that I determined I’d try it for myself. You may wonder why it’s called Lumberjack Cake. I wondered a little myself, but the most common explanation makes perfect sense. The topping of caramelised shredded coconut resembles  a crust of sawdust. But believe me when I say that there is nothing at all dusty about this cake.

The base is a tender, damp layer of dark cake filled with chopped dates and apple. This is topped with a crunchy-edged layer of caramelised shredded coconut. It’s simple but absolutely delicious, easy to make and with ingredients I already keep in the pantry.

Here we go then:

LUMBERJACK CAKE

Ingredients for cake
3 tart green apples, peeled and finely chopped
200g dried dates, finely chopped
1tsp bicarb soda
250ml boiling water
125g unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla extract
200g caster sugar
1 large egg
180g plain flour
½ tsp cinnamon

Ingredients for topping
60g salted butter
100ml whole milk
110g dark brown sugar
60g shredded (not desiccated) coconut

Method
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F
Grease and line with baking paper a 23cm springform cake tin.
Put apples, dates and bicarb in a bowl with the boiling water, mix well and leave to steep until the water is at room temperature.
In a stand mixer, beat the butter, vanilla and caster sugar until thick and pale, scraping down the sides occasionally. Beat in the egg, then fold in the fruit mixture and liquid, and the flour. Pour into the lined cake tin and bake in the centre of the oven for 45 minutes.
While the cake is baking, put all the topping ingredients into a small pan. Over a low heat, stir everything together until the butter and sugar have melted and dissolved. Set aside.
After 45 minutes, remove the cake from the oven and pour the topping over the cake, spreading out the coconut to form an even layer. Return to the oven and bake for a further 30 minutes, covering with foil if the topping gets too dark brown. Test at 25 minutes with a skewer; the cake is ready when it comes out clean.
Cool the cake in the tin on a rack. Once full cool, carefully remove the paper. Cut cake so each portion has some of the crispy edge.

This is based on the recipe by The Cake Mistress; I’ve made a few minor modifications, notably the addition of extra apple, the inclusion of cinnamon without which my Dutch blood will not allow me to make a cake containing apple, and using salted butter for the topping.

I hope you’ll try it, it’s really, really yummy.

The Power of Nine

Sometimes, you can get away with shortcuts and ‘cheats’.

Other times, you can’t, and it’s a matter of keeping an experience authentic, honest and true to heritage. I think everyone would agree that commercial foods and treats aren’t what they used to be. Quality, flavour and size are reduced from what we remember, like the Jamaican Ginger Cake I posted about recently, which is apparently now a shrunken, dry and disappointing shadow of its former self. I have a lot of family in Holland; my mother was Dutch and her cooking ‘set’ my tastes and preferences at an early age. One of the foods I’ve always loved is ontbijtkoek, Dutch ‘breakfast cake’. It’s a rich and heady blend of spices and honey in a sticky loaf form, most often enjoyed spread with butter and accompanied by a cup of coffee. I like it best without butter, so that I can appreciate the full spice flavour.

Like the ginger cake, you can buy a pale shadow of it here in Australia. Just… don’t. It is the size and shape and texture of a brick. It is dry and hard and the colour of baby poo. If you read the ingredient list, it contains exactly one spice and ‘honey flavouring’, as well as a whole load of things that don’t belong in a proper cake.

Instead, you can try the recipe below. I make no claim for originality, only for testing. It, and others very similar, is freely available on the internet in a variety of places if you Google ‘ontbijtkoek’. It contains no eggs or butter, and if you need to be dairy free, you could use unsweetened nut or rice milk. It needs a bit of preparation as it contains no less than nine spices: cinnamon, ginger, clove, nutmeg, cardamon, aniseed, pepper, coriander and vanilla. Together, they provide the authentic aroma and flavour, and a recipe that doesn’t contain the full set does not result in an authentic experience. Rye flour and molasses are also necessary. I do appreciate that not everyone has all that in the pantry, and indeed, I had to go shopping for the aniseed and the rye flour. But if you’re interested in trying this recipe, I’d urge you to at least try for the full set before you decide to modify.

Already half gone… I could eat this till the cows come home.

If you love spice, I think you’ll be glad you did. Ontbijtkoek exists in many regional formats, evolved over hundreds of years. It reached its spicy peak when Holland became a major spice trader, the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) or Dutch East India Company bringing to Europe a wealth of exotic flavours. It was a sign of wealth and prestige to incorporate them into your everyday food. We are so accustomed today to the availability of the world’s food wealth that the former heady novelty of tastes as everyday to us as pepper and vanilla is forgotten. Oh, and don’t be tempted to leave the pepper out of this recipe. It has its place among the nine, a gentle hum of heat and a fugitive aroma at the back of the nose.

Without further ado, then:

Ontbijtkoek

Ingredients
120g/4oz rye flour
120g/4oz all-purpose (plain) flour
3 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
1 tsp ground cardamon
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground coriander seed
¼ tsp ground clove
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp freshly-ground black pepper
⅛ tsp ground aniseed
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g/3½oz soft dark brown sugar
170g/6oz honey
75g/2½oz dark molasses or treacle
250ml/8floz warm whole milk

Note: all these spices are necessary for the authentic flavour, but you can reduce them to cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg as a minimum if you don’t have everything. If you’d prefer less sweetness, reduce the sugar, not the honey or molasses. I would recommend against substituting fennel seed for aniseed; the flavours are similar but fennel is more savoury and woody and it will change the taste. As already noted, you can use unsweetened nut or rice milks instead of the dairy version.

Instructions
Preheat the oven to 150°C/300°F. Line a large loaf pan with baking paper.
Mix rye flour, plain flour, baking powder, salt and ground spices in a bowl.
In a separate bowl, mix brown sugar, honey, molasses, vanilla extract and warm milk, until everything is mixed well.
Combine wet and dry ingredients into a smooth batter.
Pour into the prepared loaf tin and bake for 80 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean.
Cover the top with aluminum foil if it gets too dark: it should be deep brown but not burned-looking.
Leave to cool completely in the tin or wrapped in foil to get the traditional soft and chewy crust, or remove from the tin after 5 mins and cool on a rack for a more crispy crust.

If you decide to try it, I’d love to hear what you think!

Accentuate the postive…

You gotta accentuate the positive, they say. Lots of people have said it in lots of ways, but this is my favourite version, and a bit of a leitmotif for my life 🙂

Positive signSo I did. Accentuate it, that is. The positive sign for Stay+ is done. When I’ve finished some secret F2F2 sewing this week, I’ll do a little more work on ScrapHappy, and then get cracking with Stay+. I’m having a busy week, so there hasn’t been a huge amount of free time to sew, but I’m happy to report that I have in fact emptied one whole shoebox of scraps…

OffcutsThe leftovers from trimming out ScrapHappy. I don’t believe even the most frugal would find anything useful in that little lot, so they truly don’t count as scraps any longer!

We’re away down south on Miss Scarlett for the weekend to visit some motorbiking friends. I need to get the pannier bags out and start the packing, assemble the wet weather gear we hopefully won’t need, and bake some visitor-gifts.

Right, back to the kitchen. Two date and gingerbread loaves, some peanut butter cookies and an apple cinnamon upside down cake in the oven to be watched.