Off-topic: a short break in Edinburgh

There haven’t been any posts for a few days due to my boyfriend and I skipping off to Edinburgh for a short break. It was our first time there and we definitely want to go back! Everything was brilliant. The hotel (Apex Waterloo Place) was excellent and very centrally located, the weather was mostly dry (but windy!) and the attractions were fascinating.

We went to explore Mary King’s Close shortly after arrival. A guide in a typical medieval costume gave us a tour of the spooky underground passages there, telling lots of stories about the people who used to live there (and the ghosts who still apparently do). We then enjoyed an ale in the super cosy Jolly Judge and had a fantastic meal at Black Bo’s, a vegetarian restaurant. Everything we ate was wonderfully flavoursome; I
opted for the smoked tofu starter with a port and plum sauce, and then roasted peppers stuffed with cheese souffle, served with herby roast veg and a Blue Curacao sauce. We were too full for dessert, so we finished with some Drambuies instead.

The next day was spent doing all the main touristy things – looking round the castle (where I had my only baked treat of the holiday, a slab of Rocky Road), visiting the Camera Obscura and going on the Scotch Whisky Experience tour, where we saw the world’s largest collection of Scotch whisky and learned how to tell the difference between whiskies from the different regions of Scotland.

The Diageo Claive Vidiz Collection

Some of the Diageo Claive Vidiz Collection

More of the Diageo Claive Vidiz Collection

And more...

We went to David Bann, another vegetarian restaurant, in the evening. The food was again exquisite; I started small with just some olives and bread in the hope of being able to fit in dessert this time, but soon realised my error when I tasted the sublime main course – Jerusalem artichoke and celeriac in white wine, sage and cream, with a triangle of puff pastry, artichoke sauce, green beans and roasted cherry tomatoes. Absolutely gorgeous, but so filling I again went without dessert! We did, however, have room for drinks at Whiski, an excellent bar on the Royal Mile where we enjoyed some fantastic Scottish/Irish folk by The Gorms.

Friday was the last day of our break in Edinburgh. We treated ourselves to some extremely cocoa-y drinks in Chocolate Soup (its hot chocolates are so intense they could indeed be chocolate soup) and wandered around a section of the huge National Museum of Scotland before browsing LPs at Avalanche Records and drinking in the magnificent views of the castle from a cafe on the Grassmarket.

We managed to fit quite a lot in considering we were only in Edinburgh for a couple of days, but there’s definite scope to go back and do even more! I’m a sucker for historic destinations with lots of interesting stories to learn about – especially if there’s a castle, too – so if you’re the same, this is certainly a city worth considering for your next break.

First bake: mochachino brownies with white mocha sauce

Mochachino brownies

I went to visit my boyfriend yesterday and took a batch of mochachino brownies with me at his request for something sweet to follow his wonderful Raymond Blanc beetroot risotto (this isn’t his blog, but it’s the same recipe). These are from an M&S brownie recipe book I received in a work Secret Santa a few years ago and contains some particularly delightful brownie desserts perfect for wowing a dinner party.

These brownies manage to make use of all three kinds of chocolate; milk chocolate chips and dark chocolate in the cake and white chocolate in the sauce. Despite this (and the fact I used dark chocolate with 72% cocoa solids) they aren’t overly chocolatey and you still get a strong sense of the cinnamon, walnut and coffee flavours that run throughout, which I find very pleasing indeed! That being said, I do think the recipe could stand a little more of the dark chocolate, so I would recommend trying this if you’re a real cocoa fiend.

Overall, I found these very quick and easy to make and well-received by everyone who tried them. I think this recipe is a good one to have on standby for when you need to whip up an impressive dessert at short notice – I would estimate a total prep/cooking time of a little over an hour. The portions are very generous and the dessert is pretty rich overall, so bear this in mind when planning your menu.

I didn’t have any golden caster sugar, so I substituted it for 200g of standard caster sugar and 50g of golden granulated sugar, which worked fine (I probably could have stuck 250g of the granulated stuff in a spice grinder, but didn’t really have time). I also used instant coffee in the cake as I’d run out of coffee for my cafetiere. This may have slightly diluted the coffee flavour, but it was still there as a background note, and I managed to get some ‘real’ coffee into the sauce when I whipped it up at my boyfriend’s house anyway.

A note on the ‘white’ mocha sauce: the picture in the book suggests the sauce should be white/cream in colour, but after adding the coffee I found it turned the chocolate-brown shade you can see in my pic. It still tastes very much like white chocolate, though, so I wouldn’t worry if you experience the same effect.

Mochachino brownies in the tin

Mochachino brownies in the tin

The recipe

From Blissful Brownies, published by M&S

Makes 8-9

  • 115g/4 oz unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
  • 115g/4 oz plain chocolate
  • 2 tbsp strong black coffee
  • 250g/9 oz golden caster sugar
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 85g/3 oz plain flour
  • 55g/2 oz milk chocolate chips
  • 55g/2 oz toasted walnuts, skinned and chopped, plus extra to decorate

For the sauce:

  • 100ml/3.5 fl oz double cream
  • 85g/3 oz white chocolate
  • 1 tbsp strong black coffee

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Grease and line a 23 cm/9-inch square baking tin.

2. Place the butter, chocolate and coffee in a medium saucepan over a low heat and stir until just melted and smooth. Cool slightly.

3. Whisk in the sugar, cinnamon and eggs. Beat in the flour, chocolate chips and walnuts. Pour into the prepared tin.

4. Bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes, until just firm but still moist inside. Cool in the tin and cut into squares or bars.

5. Meanwhile, make the sauce by placing all the ingredients in a small pan over a low heat, stirring occasionally, until melted and smooth.

6. Place the brownies on individual plates and spoon the warm sauce on top. Decorate with chopped walnuts and serve.

First bake: spicy pepper biscuits

Spicy pepper biscuits

My boyfriend claimed the other night that I’m “always” trying to get out of making this particular recipe, from Baking by Martha Day, which is a complete lie! So, I thought I’d prove him wrong by simply baking them.

The name ‘spicy pepper biscuits’ suggests these are savoury treats, but they are actually sweet with a strong savoury edge. And they’re extremely delicious. The sweetness comes from the brown sugar, almonds and vanilla extract, while the spiciness is created with allspice, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, salt and that all-important pepper.

The texture of the biscuits in this batch are more cookie-like than biscuit-like; the recipe calls for an awful lot of butter and a dash of cream, and requires the dough to be shaped into balls, which I think means it’s inevitable that the middles will be a little soft.

I’m not sure I’ve got these spot-on, as the picture in the book suggests they should be a lot smoother. However, I had to grind the almonds myself in my not-very-good food processor, so they weren’t as fine as I would have liked. I also had to use my Argos value electric mixer, which on its lowest setting is far too fast for my liking. So, it’s possible I didn’t mix the dough enough to create the texture needed for these.

It’s an odd one, because when I took these out of the oven, some of them had retained their compact, round shape (the ones shown in the pics) like they were supposed to, while others had completely flattened and were starting to caramelise around the edges.

Despite all that, these really are tasty. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this bake, it’s that I should put a new, quality mixer (preferably with a bowl) and food processor at the top of my list when I’m next shopping for baking tools.

Spicy pepper biscuits - up close

I also really need a camera suitable for taking drool-worthy close-ups of my baking efforts; please let me know of any recommendations!

Three simple but essential baking tips

The first post on this blog contains lots of pictures of my baking successes, but I’ve also had my fair share of cake disasters. I usually manage to learn something from my mistakes, though, so here are three tips I’ve picked up over the last few years that I hope you find useful.

1. Sifting flour does make a difference

I’ll admit that when I first started baking a lot I was occasionally too lazy or in too much of a rush to sift flour if the recipe called for it. It’s something that a lot of people don’t really see the point of, but (unfortunately for us lazy types) it really does make a difference to the overall quality of the cake.

You don’t need to sift your flour for something where the texture is going to be a little rough anyway (such as cookies), but sponge cakes in particular benefit from the extra fine texture that passing flour through a sieve results in. If you want a super-light sponge that rises magnificently, try sifting the flour more than once.

Just remember to do it from fairly high up and a little at a time; overload your sieve and you will end up with more flour outside the bowl than in – another tip that lazy bakers will just have to learn to get on with!

2. Always use vanilla extract instead of vanilla essence

A lot of recipes call for vanilla essence as a flavouring, but the truth is vanilla extract is just so much nicer.

Vanilla essence is pretty much all artificial, whereas the extract version is actually produced using vanilla pods. Essence, to me, just tastes too sweet and a little weird, while extract is much more vanilla-y and tasty.

If you usually use vanilla essence, give extract a go next time you bake. You really will notice the difference.

3. Only make your own self-raising flour if you know what you’re doing

A few months ago I came up with what I thought was a cunning plan to save money and cupboard space – make my own self-raising flour with plain flour and baking powder instead of buying separate bags of each kind of flour.

A Google search revealed lots of different thoughts on the right balance between plain flour and baking powder to create the perfect self-raising flour. Unfortunately, none of these seemed to actually work for me.

I made maybe five or six cakes, changing the combination every couple of times, with varying degrees of success. I ended up with a sinking or flat cake in most cases. I went back to buying self-raising flour fairly recently, and haven’t had a sinking cake since!

I would love to know if there really is a definitive way to make your own, though, as I only have two-thirds of a cupboard for all my ingredients. And it’s possible the sinking cakes weren’t entirely the self-made self-raising flour’s fault (does that render this tip null and void?!)!

Upcoming posts: spicy pepper biscuits and (hopefully) a yet-to-be-decided brownie-based dessert.

Why I bake

My first experience of baking was at secondary school, when we had to make coconut pyramids in Home Economics (is it still called that? Or is it all Nutrition Technology or something now?). Although I enjoyed eating what actually turned out to be little piles of sugary dessicated coconut vaguely held together with a bit of egg, it didn’t really give me the baking bug.

I remember making a lemon drizzle cake for Mother’s Day a few years ago (it was a bit soggy and my mum was rather disdainful of it, unfortunately), and then I moved to Manchester and suddenly I had the urge to bake things like peanut butter and chocolate cookies, pecan pie and the now-famous toffee brownies.

Peanut butter and chocolate cookies

The brownies were such a hit with everyone who tried them (except my mum, who is mysteriously anti-brownie) I trotted them out every time it was my turn to do the charity baking for work. I started trying other recipes from the same book and something clicked. So I kept baking.

I joined Weight Watchers in the summer of 2010 and, curiously, baked more than ever, giving most of my efforts to my boyfriend/family/friends/colleagues and allowing myself a little morsel to spend my weekly ‘treats’ points on.

I made several full-fat Victoria sponges while on WW. The queen of cakes.

I also started to rely on baking as a way of de-stressing, most notably when I was burgled (of just my handbag, fortunately) while I was living on my own – pretty much the first thing I did after dealing with the police, bank etc was rustle up some marbled chocolate brownies!

Mostly, though, the combination of creating something utterly delicious all by myself and making other people very happy by sharing my baking efforts with them seems to be why I bake so much. In a way it’s partly about gaining approval from others; I find positive feedback incredibly motivating and inspiring.

If we’re going to get all Freudian about it I suppose it might be slightly related to absolutely hating being forced to help my mum in the kitchen when I was younger. I was (and still am) terrible at making chapattis and my mum would shout at me every time I got it wrong, which just made me feel even less inclined to keep trying.

While I’ve since learned to at least make a curry that *might* pass muster at home, I’m very glad to have found one area of cooking that I love and that I think I’m actually good at! Although my mum still shouts at me for baking ‘too much’ – I just can’t win…!

Right, that’s the self-analysis over with. Coming up soon: a post on baking tips and pics of my next sugary creation.

This post was requested by my friend and fellow cake lover at Japanophile. Post a comment if you’d like me to cover something in particular in a future post!

Here it is…

I’ve finally decided to start blogging about my baking endeavours. I’ll still post pics on Facebook, but will move all my baking-related waffling here.

I don’t think I’ll be baking my next batch of goodies for another few days, but in the meantime here are some pics of my previous efforts!

Want to see a specific photo or a blog about something in particular? Just let me know!