Saturday, 8 May 2010

Shannoncita à le Cordon Bleu

I can’t believe that it has taken me so long to publish this post but the dreary Spring we are having is causing a bit of a creative block. I will warn you before you get too far that this post does not contain any recipes, but I will try to keep it short and sweet... geeky pun intended!

It all started last Autumn. I had tried to sign up for classes at the Cordon Bleu last year but they apparently book up ages in advance, so I signed up to their mailing list for updates -just in case. The moments following the email announcement of new classes arriving in my mailbox are a bit of a blur, but the final result was a booking for two pastry classes, Patisserie a la carte and Viennoiserie... not to mention a substantial hole in my bank account.

As you can imagine, the months of waiting caused a bit of over-excitement and by the time I finally arrived for my class (far too early of course as I feared I’d be late) I was barely able to contain myself. Upon arriving I was given my course pack consisting of the course recipes, a Cordon Blue crested apron and a tea towel. Over the next three days, myself and eight other wannabe patissiers, would cream butter by hand(!), whisk vast amounts of pastry cream and fold various types of laminated doughs.

Our chef instructors were very friendly and patient, answering all of our questions as quickly as we could fire them at them, all the time explaining the importance of each step they were demonstrating. At the end of each day we took home box upon box of pastries not to mention a lot of new skills and experience, but before we knew it our Cordon Bleu experience had come to an end.

Though much of what we learned was not entirely new to me, there was something very fulfilling about recreating it all at the Cordon Bleu. I would highly recommend it to anyone with even the slightest interest in cooking. It was certainly hard work, but being up to my elbows in flour and eggs, not to mention talking to the chefs over those three days, was really a fantastic experience and has really fuelled my desire for career in pastry.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Financiers with Lemon-Lime Curd... you had me at brown butter.

I was beginning to think that Spring might never arrive, it seems to me that it has been dark and rainy for years... but then again I am known to exaggerate a bit. On the bright side, when all seems dark and dreary the little things can really lift your spirits. For example on a typically dark rainy day several weeks ago I arrived home from work to find a parcel waiting for me. I ripped it open to find a lovely tin box of Chinese Flower Tea and a lovely little book sent from my friend Marieke. Marieke, though we haven’t seen each other since she moved to Texas a few years ago, is perhaps the most sunshiny person I have ever known, and this little gift was like a personalised ray of sunshine via Royal Mail. Though I am usually a coffee person I couldn’t wait to taste Marieke’s tea, but I thought it deserved an equally elegant and aromatic accompaniment and I knew just the thing...

I had wanted to make Financiers for a while now but I had been having some difficulty finding the right pans. I know that many people cook them in muffin pans, but I really wanted them to be the little gold bars that they were intended to be in origin (as they were so when first introduced in Paris’ financial district). Finally after a bit of a pan-palaver, involving having to cancel an order that had still not arrived after almost a month, I stumbled across the perfect sized pans (both standard and mini) almost by accident on Ebay listed as a silicone chocolate bar moulds.

Financiers are lovely little tea cakes made with ground almonds, sugar, egg whites and brown butter, also known as buerre noisette. It is worth noting that the difference between melted butter, brown butter and ultimately blackened butter, is no more than a sightly distracted conversation away, so pay attention. You will know when it is ready when the room fills with the smell of toasted hazelnuts. Mmmm... toasty buttered hazelnuts!

The lemon-lime curd is incidentally the result of the leftover egg yolks, but the zingy citrus contrasts perfectly with the rich buttery almond sponge as if they were somehow made for each other.

So even if the clouds above are grey and wet, these Financiers with Zingy Lemon-Lime Curd will surely to brighten your day..., whether you have them with tea or coffee.

adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets... 
180 g unsalted butter
200 g caster sugar
100 g ground almonds
6 large egg whites
90 g plain flour

Put the butter in a small saucepan and bring it to the boil over medium heat, swirling the pan occasionally. Allow the butter to boil until it becomes a rich brown colour. Pour the browned butter from the pan to a bowl (or it will continue to cook) storing it at room temperature

In a large bowl mix the sugar, flour, salt, and almond meal until blended. Add the egg whites, 1/3 at a time, until fully incorporated. Take a small amount of the batter (2 or 3 tbsp) and mix into the melted butter, once smooth and silky add to the rest of the batter- this will make it easier to combine the butter.

Cover the batter with plastic wrap and refrigerate from 1 hour to 3 days.

Preheat the oven 200 degrees °C. If you do not have silicone moulds, butter the financiers moulds dusting the interiors with flour and tap out the excess.

Fill each mold almost to the top with batter and bake in the middle of the oven for about 10-15 minutes (ovens can really vary!), or until the financiers are golden. When the are done you should be able to press down and they should spring back.

My moulds are about 9 x 4.5 cm (3 x 1 3/4 inches) but if you are making mini financiers you will have to adjust your cooking time accordingly.

Lemon-Lime Curd
250 g caster sugar
6 large egg yolks
1 large egg (whole, lightly beaten)
200 ml lemon or lime juice (or both)
120 g unsalted butter

Combine the butter, lemon juice and sugar in a bain-marie, stirring until the butter is melted sugar is completely dissolved.

Add the egg yolks, one at a time, stirring constantly and then add the lightly beaten egg. Continue stirring until the mixture thick and yogurty in texture- probably about 15-20 minutes.

Pour into sterilised jars or a plastic container if you are going to use it up fairly quickly.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Happy St Patrick's Day: Irish Soda Bread

Okay, this one is going to be quick. St Patrick's Day is upon us and I'm gonna keep it simple and fairly understated. Last year I made Guinness and Bailey's Cupcakes, very sweet and a bit over the top. This year staple food - bread. Soda Bread is technically more of a cake than a bread as it does not contain yeast but baking soda, but I figure if half the world can pretend it's Irish every March 17th then this cake can pretend it's bread.

The first time I had Soda Bread was many years ago in Cork, where my then flatmate was from. His mom, a lovely woman who filled me with so much tea I am pretty certain she had shares in a tea company, had made a loaf of what looked like stone and I really only tasted it to be polite. To my surprise I loved it!

Soda Bread is lovely with smoked salmon and dill but I could honestly eat an entire loaf with just butter. It takes no more than 10 minutes to mix up and then in the oven it goes.

Irish Soda Bread
200 g plain flour
200 g whole-meal flour
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
3 tablespoons old fashioned rolled oats
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
360 ml buttermilk

Preheat your oven to 190 degrees °C and lightly oiled (or lined with parchment paper) baking tray.

Combine flours, sugar, oats, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and add 300ml of the buttermilk. Mix with a spoon until the dough comes together, the dough should be moist but not sticky, add more milk if the dough is dry.

Transfer to a lightly floured surface and kneed the dough until smooth, forming a round shape. Place the rounded dough on a lightly oiled baking sheet and cut a cross in the dough with a sharp knife.

Bake for about 40 - 50 minutes or until nicely browned. A handy trick for checking if (most) bread is done is by tapping the bottom of the bread - it will sound hollow. 

Happy St Patrick's Day!

Saturday, 27 February 2010

A Taste of Spain: Membrillo and Olive Oil Crackers

Isn’t it amazing how food can stir up memories: a place, a person or a moment in time? For example, the taste of rhubarb immediately takes me back to childhood summers every time I taste it -even in January. Just as escargots in garlic butter always reminds me of my Mom. I am always amazed that, even in adulthood, new tastes I encounter continue to create such strong associations.

I can remember clearly the first time I travelled to mainland Spain, tasting so many new flavours. It was August in Madrid and it was so hot I could hardly breathe. Clearly my upbringing in the East coast of Canada did not prepare me for such heat! In an effort to cool down E. suggested that we escape to his family’s summer house in a little town near Avila. What a relief! Though still quite warm I think it was easily 10 degrees cooler than the sweltering heat in Madrid. Having arrived at siesta time to find the local market closed, we proceeded directly to the house. The only food to be found was rice, a few tins of calamares en su tinta and a packet of membrillo in the fridge. We put on the rice to cook and sliced open the packet of membrillo as we waited for lunch. To this day one of my clearest memories is standing in that kitchen tasting the cold, sweet taste of membrillo for the first time.

Membrillo is a paste made from boiled down quince and sugar, firmer than jam but softer than pate de fruit. It has a sweet but subtle taste and a slightly grainy texture and is usually served with cheese. Up until last year, when I found a local shop in London that stocked it, it was the one item I always brought back or requested from visitors from Spain. It had never occurred to me that it could be made at home until I saw a recipe for a special Spanish food feature in a magazine a few months ago. This year our local Turkish supermarket has been abundant with quince, and I had originally planned to make membrillo in November when it first appeared, but ended up poaching it instead. So last week finding some fine looking specimens I decided now or never!
I have to say that I am very pleased with the results and couldn't wait to get some Manchego to accompany it. Though the membrillo & Manchego was amazing on its own, I wanted some sort of contrasting crunch. Having seen a few blogs posting crackers lately, I thought I might give it a try. Who knew that crackers didn't have to come from a box? Trawling through blog after blog I finally found a recipe for Olive Oil Crackers in the Ottolenghi Cookbook. What better way to finish off my project than with olive oil - the quintessential taste of Spain!*

The olive oil in these crackers is intense and would simply not work without it, so is worth using the best available. I love the odd shapes and sizes that shout out "Hey, I am home-made and I am amazing!". Once you see these little wonders become golden in your very own oven, you may never buy crackers again.

Quince puree (I had 1.2 kilos)
Sugar (the same weight as the quince puree)
Juice of 1 lemon
Peel and core the quince and cut into thick slices or chunks place in a large pot with just enough water to cover. Simmer for 40-50 minutes or until soft.

Once soft, drain the water and weigh the cooked quince. With a hand blender (or a food processor) blitz until smooth. Add the quince and sugar to a heavy bottomed pot with the lemon juice ensuring the sugar and quince puree is is mixed through.

Bring to a light boil and turn town to a medium-low heat and let simmer for about 1.5 - 2 hours. Stir and scrape the sides of the pan from time to time to ensure it does not burn or cristalise. Be very careful as the mixture will spit and sputter and there s nothing wore than a hot sugar burn!

The mixture is ready when it turns a pinky/orange colour and is very thick. At this point pour into a pan lined with oiled parchment paper- I used a 33cm x 24cm swiss roll pan. Once cool let the mixture dry out in the oven preheated to 50°C for about 2 hours. Remove from oven and let cool.

Cut into desired size and store in the refrigerator.

Olive Oil Crackers
adapted from
250 g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
115 ml water
25 ml extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp pepper
olive oil for brushing
sea salt to sprinkle (optional)

In a bowl add all the dry ingredients (except sea salt) and mix together with a fork. Add olive oil to water and mix quickly and add to flour mixture. Continue to mix until incorporated. Once the water and flour is incorporated, kneed until it becomes a smooth dough- I used the hook attachment on my hand mixer. Place dough in a bowl wrapped in cling film and place in the fridge for an hour.

Preheat your oven 220 °C just before removing the dough from fridge

Once rested, divide the dough in two halves. On a floured surface roll the dough until about 3mm thick. With a sharp knife or pastry cutter, cut into squares. Mine were about 4cm x 4cm but you can make them an shape or size. Place the dough squares on to a parchment lined baking sheet and prick a few times with a fork. Brush liberally with olive and sprinkle with sea salt (or not).

Bake for 8-10 minutes or until they look like little squares of gold. Remove from the pan and let cool on a wire rack.

Although I didn't try it this time I think these crackers would be absolutely lovely with rosemary or thyme mixed in.

*Ironically, the olive oil I used was not Spanish at all, but actually from Greece.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Black Bottom Heartbreak and Red Velvet Cupcakes

This is the story of a cupcake post that was almost not to be, a story about getting older and wasting perfectly good ingredients; but most importantly a story about learning that sometimes things go wrong and all you can do is reassess your methods and move on! You see, recently Shannoncita had birthday and in the tradition of offices throughout London, and probably the rest of England as well, it is the job of the birthday girl/boy to bring cakes to their colleagues to enjoy. While most people make a quick stop at M&S, after a couple of years I have developed somewhat a reputation in my office: I always bring home-made cakes. As the UK does not have the same baking tradition as we do in Canada, it is kind of a big deal to have something made from scratch and I am only too happy to provide.

After the cheesecake brownies I made (ages ago) were such a success, I decided on a variation of a theme and make a batch of Black Bottom Cupcakes from the cookbook of a famous London bakery; unfortunately it did not go to plan. Maybe I should have realised that the measurements seemed a bit off to begin with -not enough liquid-to-dry ingredients, but it wasn’t until the batter started to clog my hand mixer that I truly realised there was a problem. A quick internet search for similar recipes confirmed my suspicions that there was significantly less liquid than usual and also that the cheesecake mixture was far too liquid to balance the textures properly -not to mention that the cream cheese icing was far too sweet. Though I tried to incorporate enough liquid to solve the problem, it was no use -the cupcakes were ruined! What a heartbreaking waste!

Having to return to work the next day empty-handed, I promised a birthday/valentines compromise for the end of the week. It was an easy decision, a tried and tested classic Red Velvet Cupcakes -after all I had to make use of the cream cheese icing that I had prepared for the failed Black Bottom Cakes!

I have made this cake before, not as cupcakes but as a layer cake, and if it is possible it looks even more beautiful. Layer after layer of red sponge interspersed with the white of the icing. I think this cake is easily E.’s favourite and it’s not hard to see why. The lightness of the cake balances perfectly with the smoothness of the cream cheese icing..., and not to overstate the obvious: the colour is mesmerising!

This cake is a bit unusual because instead of adding the bicarbonate of soda with the other dry ingredients and then mixing with the liquids, this recipe combines all of the dry ingredients (EXCEPT the bicarbonate of soda) and then mixes them with the liquid ingredients to make a smooth batter, finally the bicarbonate of soda is mixed with vinegar and added as fizz at the end -as if it were some sort of fifth grade science experiment. I don’t know of any other cake recipe that does that!

I imagine bakers everywhere were whipping up the same thing for St Valentines Day and I was only too happy to join in.

Red Velvet Cake
adapted from
250 g plain flour -sifted
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp cocoa powder
115 g unsalted butter -room temperature
300 g caster sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
250 ml buttermilk*
2 tbsp liquid red food colouring
1 tsp vinegar
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

Preheat oven to 175°C and divide 12 cupcake cases in a cupcake pan.

In a bowl sift together the flour, salt, and cocoa powder and set aside.
In a separate bowl, beat the butter until soft and pale in colour. Add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time and once smooth. Add the vanilla and mix by hand until combined.

Mix the buttermilk with the red food colouring in a glass or metal measuring cup (food colouring will stain plastic and your clothes so be careful not to splash). Add half of the flour mixture and then half of buttermilk to the butter mixture, mix until just combined and then repeat.

In a small cup combine the vinegar and baking soda. Allow the mixture to fizz and then quickly fold into the cake batter ensuring that the fizzy mixture is evenly mixed through the batter.

Divide the batter amongst 12 cupcake cases (fairy cake cases will yield more). Bake in the preheated oven for approximately 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cakes comes out clean. Let the cupcakes cool completely before icing.

*Buttermilk can be easily substituted by adding 1/2 tsp of vinegar or lemon juice to 240ml of milk and letting it sit for 10 minutes.

To be honest I really had to freestyle the icing because it was left over from the Black Bottoms and was sickly sweet, but after a bit of troubleshoting it was something like this:

Cream Cheese Icing*
200 ml double cream
250 g full fat cream cheese -room temperature
250 g mascarpone cheese -room temperature
200 g icing sugar- sifted

Mix the the cream cheese and mascarpone cheese on a low speed until smooth. Add the confectioners and continue to mix until combined.

In a separate bowl whip the cream on high speed until stiff peaks form. Fold the whipped cream into the cream cheese mixture a bit at a time until it is fully incorporated. Cover and place in the refrigerator for an hour.

*You may actually wish to make the icing first as it will be ready to use by the time the cupcakes have cooled.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Happy New Year with Clementine & Almond Syrup Cake

Happy New Year! I realise we are now mid-January, but I am never sure when the cut off date is to stop saying that. Perhaps April would be too late but I think for now we're still okay.

So a new year is upon us, all of the out with the old in with the new. To be honest I don't really believe in New Year's resolutions, I always worry that once you announce resolutions you expose yourself when you just don't quite get around to it. I know that I am a procrastinator, and jut because I am a bit excited and full of sugar from Christmas doesn't mean I am going to decide to change my entire life in an instant.

Though, I have to say that this year has been somewhat of a revelation to me; I finally realised that you actually get things done by doing them. But I certainly didn't have to wait until the New Year to figure that out.

Of course I do have some plans for the coming year..., and for the next decade for that matter. I have a long list of things I plan to cook in the new year and I hope that Shannoncita's Independent Café will continue to grow. E. and I also plan to start a non-baking food blog. So watch this space...

These lovely little cakes were the last thing I baked in 2009. We took them to our neighbours for their New Year get-together. It's funny, we have lived in our flat for almost three years but had only ever exchanged pleasantries until just before this last Christmas when we brought them (and some other neighbours) some mince pies. We had a lovely evening: we met some other neighbours and exchanged stories of our respective Christmas and New Year's traditions just before rushing back home to count down & eat our twelve grapes.

The recipe comes once again from my culinary crush, Yotam Ottolenghi, who has inspired much of my cooking this year. I think that this might just be the best cake ever! A feast for the senses: aromatic, moist not to mention visually stunning.

This cake is best made a day in advance as it actually improves with time as the syrup really permeates the cake, but it tastes great just-baked as well.

Clementine Almond Cake

adapted from Ottolenghi
200g unsalted butter
300g caster sugar
Grated zest of 4 clementines
Grated zest of 1 lemon
280g ground almonds
5 medium free-range eggs, beaten
100g plain flour, sifted
1/8 tsp salt

Clementine Syrup
80g caster sugar
Juice of 4 clementines
Juice of 1 lemon

Preheat the oven to 160°C

Mix butter, 300g of the sugar (the remaining 80g is for the syrup) and citrus zest in a bowl until combined. Add half the ground almonds and continue mixing to fold through. Add the eggs gradually, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl as you go. Add the remaining almonds, flour and salt, and mix until smooth.

Spoon batter into mini bundt or muffin tins and bake for 25-30 minutes - a skewer should come out a little bit moist.

When the cake is almost cooked, in a small saucepan bring to a boil the remaining sugar and citrus juices then remove from the heat at once. The moment the cakes comes out of the oven, brush all over with the hot syrup, making sure it all soaks through Alternatively, poke the cakes with a skewer while still in the tins and drizzle syrup into the holes. Leave to cool down.

Chocolate Glaze
90g unsalted butter, diced
150g dark chocolate, broken up
½ tbsp honey
½ tbsp cognac

To make the Glaze, put the butter, chocolate and honey in a heatproof bowl and microwave on medium for about 2 minutes- stirring after 1 minute. Once the mixture is completely smooth stir in the cognac. Drizzle the glaze over the cool cakes and allow to set.

Garnish with strips of orange zest and accept praise graciously.