Monday, September 26, 2005

IMBB # 19 - Vegan Fudge Cake

A divergence from my traditional British baking; but not too far astray... With thanks to Becks and Posh for hosting the event.

First rule of cooking vegan is to concentrate. I got home from work, turned the oven on in readiness for my cake, and then went to the fridge to get the eggs out to bring them to room temperature. EGGS. Eggs have clearly no place in vegan cakes, and if one slips in then the game is over. Fortunately whilst sieving the flour (innocuous) I looked over at the carton and realised my mistake. Daft thing is that the main reason I wanted to take part in this IMBB event was to see how a cake turns out without eggs. I've made dairy-free cakes in the past, but never omitted all animal ingredients. To me a cake should be stuffed full of lovely ingredients such as eggs, milk, butter - all nice natural products and if bought from the right sources not too unfriendly to animals (I hope). This is a test to see how good a cake can be if it doesn't include any of these 'key' ingredients, and to see if it passes muster with my tasting panel.

My recipe comes from Oxfam's website, and is to promote their Fair Trade merchandise - Vegan Fudge Cake.

Having regained my concentration, I was a bit perturbed when reading through the recipe method to see soya flour included in the list of dry ingredients to first put together. No mention of soya flour on the ingredient list. Don't PANIC. Blimey, looks like a lot of water to add to the dry ingredients; are you sure that this isn't going to be a chocolate soup? A quick consultation of a few recipe books later, and I decide that the proportions of self-raising flour to sugar to fat look OK. Decide to add the water half at a time, and if all goes soupy add a little more flour. Proceed with caution (easy on the vinegar - I think this reacts somehow with the baking powder - could be wrong). Phew, looks fine.

Into the tin and into the oven. I baked for 25 mins as the recipe suggests, and then a further 10 minutes with a tin foil 'hat' on (the cake, silly), to prevent charring. Cake was pretty damp still after 25 minutes, but had a good looking crust to the top.

The fudge topping was a doddle to mix up, but as I had made a loaf cake I only used half the quantity of ingredients compared to the recipe. You need to keep whisking the icing until it thickens sufficiently to apply to the top of the cake. The (soya)margarine content means that the fudge icing keeps a nice gloss even when it has cooled completely.

So what did my tasters think? As the dish was pretty obviously a chocolate cake, I asked the tasters if they could determine what was missing from the cake. They were a little bit suspicious, but to be fair I am not sure that you could have spotted the lack of milk, butter of eggs from the appearance or the taste of the cake. The sponge rose nice and high, and the consistency was light and fluffy, with a good moistness. I thought the sponge was a little lacking in favour and would have been more tasty with a bit more cocoa powder added (or melted chocolate). However as the fudgy icing was so rich, the lack of strong flavour in the cake was not really too much of a problem. All in all I was pretty impressed by my animal-free baking. Eating vegan is obviously a piece of cake...

I some post-baking research about the combination of baking powder and vinegar. Baking POWDER needs a liquid to make it active, where as baking SODA need an acid such as vinegar to get it going. Although baking powder does contain a small amount of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), the water in the Vegan Fudge Cake recipe should have done the job of activation, so I am not convinced that the vinegar was really necessary. At least it didn't impart a fish'n'chip tang to the cake. Stephanie Jaworski explains the job of baking powder and soda so clearly on her Joy of Baking website, that it is best to read it for yourself if you are interested in learning more. Also, check out Bobby Thompson's site for more imaginative ideas for demonstrating the reaction between baking powder and water. I shall be buying a baking powder submarine directly.


Sunday, September 25, 2005

Goosnargh Cakes from Lancashire

Goosnargh cakes originated in the village of Goosnargh in Lancashire - one of those English placenames which you just have to say out loud for the pleasure of saying it. Goosnargh cakes are in fact type of shortbread or shortcake, so are actually a form of biscuit.

I have always been a bit puzzled about what the difference was between a shortbread and a shortcake so I did a swift bit of research:

The 'short' in shortcake or shortbread, refers to the use of 'shortening' (butter or lard) in the mixture, which gives a soft, crumbling texture to the end product, but with a certain 'snap' - think how a finger of shortbread can be broken up so satfisfyingly into smaller lengths to pop in the mouth. Historically shortcake and shortbread were one and the same - a form of sweetened pastry (flour, sugar, butter, water) rolled out, cut into shapes, and baked as biscuits. Shortcake has nowadays also come to mean a dessert which comprises of stacked shortcake/bread biscuits, strawberries and cream.

Shortbread/cake tends to be associated with Scotland, but different forms of the biscuit have been made elsewhere in Britain, and regional varieties have their own distinctions. What makes Goosnargh cakes different is that they are flavoured with ground coriander and caraway seeds (according to 'The Oxford Companion to Food', although the recipes I found used one or the other flavouring, not both). I love the flavour of caraway seeds, and have a large bag of them in my cupboard crying out to be baked.

My recipe was based on one from the Green Chronicle website, which has quite a few recipes for regional British dishes. The Green Chronicle aims "to celebrate and encourage the excellence and diversity which still exists in British food production today." However, the recipe the site gives for Goosnargh cakes does not include caraway seeds, and I only loosely followed the method that they gave.

Here is the recipe I baked to:
(made about 20 biscuits)

225g unsalted butter
125g golden caster sugar (plus more for putting over biscuits)
350g plain flour
1/2 tsp ground coriander seeds
1 1/2 tsp caraway seeds

1. Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Grease two baking sheets.
2. Cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
3. Sift flour over the creamed mix, add the coriander and caraway seeds, mix with wooden spoon until mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
4. Using your hand work mixture together to form smooth paste. Take out of bowl and onto floured surface and knead gently so that dough is smooth and ready to roll out.
5. Roll out to about 1/4" thickness, and using a circular cutter (mine was a 2" one), cut out circular discs of dough.
6. Place the discs onto the baking sheets, and sprinkle with caster sugar.
7. Put the baking sheets into your fridge (having cleared all your chilled wine off one shelf to make room). Leave for 30 minutes/1 hour until well chilled.
8. Pop into oven and bake for 15-20 minutes until just turned golden brown. Keep an eye on them as the minute you leave the room they overcook.
9. Remove from oven and sprinkle with more caster sugar. Leave to cool slightly then transfer to a wire rack.

Yes, they do build up a thick layer of sugar on the top. Some of it fuses with the hot biscuit, but if you haven't got a really sweet tooth, I suggest you knock a bit off the biscuit before eating.

The finished biscuits had that shortbread snap to them, giving a crisp, crumbly finish. The caraway flavour was clear, but the coriander was lost - perhaps the caraway was too dominant and the coriander unnecessary. So why would either of these two flavours added to a biscuit baked in the North of England. I'm afraid I couldn't find the answer. Both spices were popular for many British baking goods, so the Goosnargh Cakes were following a wider fashion.

The only additional snippet of information I could find about these cakes, was that traditionally they were eaten at Whitsuntide, as part of the associated festivities. Whitsun, or Pentecost, is observed on the seventh Sunday after Easter so the date varies from year to year, but falls in May. Of the British traditions and festivals which are associated with this weekend, many involving dancing, may poles, or rolling cheeses down steep hills are still practiced.

If you are interested in tasting some genuine Goosnargh cakes, they are still produced locally and sold in the village Post Office.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Chelsea Buns of London

Chelsea buns were created at The Chelsea Bun House, an establishment which was situated on the borders of Chelsea and Pimlico, London, and only a stone's throw (well, a hefty lob) from where I work. The Chelsea Bun House was in business for the best part of a century; eventually closing it’s doors in 1839. At the height of its success in the 18th century it was frequented by high society, including Kings George II and III, who called in for a bun en route to the nearby Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens. The Bun House was also noted for its hot-cross buns. Legend has it that on Good Friday in 1829, 240,000 hot-cross buns were sold, and crowds of over 50,000 thronged outside the shop in anticipation of delicious buns hot from the kitchen’s ovens.

Sources disagree about the exact historic location of the Bun House– either Grovesnor Row or Jew’s Row according to what you read. Neither exist now, but in today’s Pimlico there is a Bunhouse Place, which is within strolling distance of the remains of Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens. I would like to think that this might be very near to the spot where the bun shop was. What a great address to put on your letterhead!

Chelsea buns are made from enriched bread dough, filled with dried fruit, coiled into a distinctive spiral shape, and then smothered with a sticky honey glaze. Sounds good? My experience of the ones we were served at school had soggy bottoms, and were filled with what we were pretty sure were dead flies. The best thing about them was unrolling them to eat them (and to pick out all the dead insects). Jane Grigson in ‘English Food’says that Chelsea buns are, "the best of all buns, on account of their melting buttery sweetness."– so here goes!

My recipe comes from Linda Collister's 'Bread - From Ciabatta to Rye'. Linda's recipe is for 'Miniature Chelsea Buns', which appealed to me as I like petite cakes! However, I guess the size of the bun comes down to how you roll your dough out, rather than the ingredients or the method - still, the novelty worked for me.

I got up nice and early on Saturday morning to start my dough off, as the mixture needed two risings prior to baking. I put all the ingredients together, did my 10 minutes of kneading (always makes the hands nice and soft - is this a good thing?), and then put the dough into a bowl, covered it with clingfilm and sat back to watch it rise. Well, you know what they say about watched kettles. I thought perhaps I had killed the yeast with melted butter too fresh from the microwave. I then decided that it was the decidedly autumnal temperature of the kitchen, and switched the central heating on for the first time since Spring. How well I treat my bun mixture! I found the dough a snug resting place, and decided that if it needed a few hours to rise then I may as well whizz off to the real Chelsea to view the bun's origins. Hoorah for London Underground!

Bunhouse Place is a short walk from Sloane Square underground station, and is now a mix of contemporary townhouses in a Regency style, and mews housing. The road itself was obstructed by building work, so I could only really get a photo of the place-name on the sign. If previously I had been passing the road I would not have known the story behind the name, so it was nice to have gained that insight.

Back to the kitchen...

The dough had risen whilst I was out and about, although it had only just struggled to reach the size Linda suggested (doubling). I knocked it back, rolled it out, added the mixed dried fruit and dark muscovado sugar which fills the centre of the coil, and then rolled the whole up. After slicing the roll up into equal parts, I popped them into a greased roasting tin (you need something with high sides), and left them to rise for another 30 minutes.

Whilst the buns were doing their thing, I made up the honey, sugar, milk and butter syrup which goes over the top of the dough prior to baking. This smells great!

So, post-baking what do we have?

The buns all snuggled up to each other during the baking, which is the idea. The Chelsea bun should be a square shape with a circular spiral. Mine were all rather varying in size and included one large one which I assume was an Alpha Male. The buns ended up so tightly packed that I was a bit concerned about how to get them out of the tin. Linda says to take them out CAREFULLY, and divide them up when cool. I say, how do you remove a whole tray of buns in one piece?? I divided them up to get them out - no problem.

Once safely onto the cooling rack I thought that the buns looked rather nice, with the syrup gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. Couldn't wait to try one, and once they had cooled, which didn't take long, I took one (two) to eat. The dough is quite dense and rich, and could be quite heavy in a large bun, but in small one is moist and delicious. The syrup glaze turns the buns golden, as well as giving the extra sweetness that the dough needs. If I were to make them again I would add a little spice to either the dough or the dried fruit coil, as I think this would have added a nice extra touch. The buns were much nicer than those school buns I recall, and not a fly in sight. Because my buns were made small there wasn't a great deal to be made of uncoiling the buns to eat them, but I challenge you not to!

P.S. If you are a reader of Charles Dickens, check out 'Barnaby Rudge' (Chapter 42), or 'Bleak House' (Chapter 53). Both apparently contain references to the Chelsea Bun House.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Victoria Sponge Cake

To start my baking journey I decided to kick-off with a classic cake. The Victoria sponge cake is eaten throughout the UK, and owes its name to a past monarch. After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria spent time at her house on the Isle of Wight, withdrawing herself from society. In order to inspire the monarch to get back into the swing of civic duties, Queen Victoria was encouraged to host tea parties, at which the soon-to-be-known-as Victoria sponge cake was served. Victoria sponges became fashionable throughout Victorian England, and also became the measure of the home-baker.

To be able to produce a well-risen home-made sponge cake is still a domestic skill keenly prized. Think of the competitive bakers of the Women's Institute, as portrayed in the UK film "Calendar Girls', where the prize-winning sponge is shockingly revealed to have come from Marks and Spencer rather than being home-made. I admit that I had never made a Victoria sponge cake, which seemed a good enough reason to try my hand at one, and test my baking abilities.

I looked at various recipes, and decided to try Nigella Lawson's recipe from the 'Domestic Goddess' book. Her recipe includes corn flour alongside the self-raising, which she claims makes for a lighter cake. Having only ever used corn flour in sauces and soups, I was intrigued. The only variation I made to her recipe was to use two table spoons of rose water, in place of two of the four table spoons of milk. I planned to fill the cake with raspberry jam, and thought the hint of rose flavouring would be a nice complement.

Nigella's method is to stick all the ingredients into the food processor. Works for me! Creaming butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy is too much hard work by hand.

So, what of the cake. Would I get the first prize at the W.I.?

Well, I was a bit disappointed by the level of rise, but at least the sponges didn't sink once they came out of the oven. However, filled with jam and fresh raspberries (another Nigella suggestion), they stacked up nicely to produce a good proportioned cake.

I decided against putting cream as well as jam in the cake. Much as I like cream, I find it a bit much in an already (butter) rich cake. The fresh fruit gives a refreshing 'bite'.

The cake was beautifully light (down to the corn flour?), which made it easy to eat an enormous slice. I hope that Queen Victoria was as pleased with her cake!