Tuesday, 29 September 2009


Although it was fun making the vol-au-vents for the Daring Bakers, using circular cutters meant I had loads of puff pastry scraps. Unlike shortcrust pastry, these can't just be scrunched up and re-rolled. The scraps have to be stacked to preserve the layers, but even then they probably won't be able to achieve the same rise as the original pastry could.

So, having a massive pile of scraps that weren't going to rise properly, it seemed sensible to follow Joy's advice and make palmiers!

I couldn't decide whether to go sweet or savoury. I went with both.

The sweet were dusted with vanilla sugar and mixed spice. The sugar caramelised and made them crunchy and chewy and delicious. The speckles of vanilla and spices mingled to give an appropriately autumnal flavour.

Sweetly Spicy Palmiers

The savoury ones were layered with an extra mature cheddar and cayenne pepper. The cheese is far too strong to eat on it's own, and even T, who loves a good cheddar found it too harsh. However, when baked up, the cheese flavour mellowed out and became more pleasant. The cayenne gave it a bit of a kick and stopped it feeling too fatty.

Cheesy Palmiers

Although I preferred the taste of the sweet palmiers, the cheesy ones would be perfect for a pre-dinner snack, and are a great way to use up any puff-pastry scraps you might have lying about!

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Vol-Au-Vents with The Daring Bakers

After many months of umming and ahhing, I finally plucked up the commitment to join the Daring Kitchen, specifically the Daring Bakers. When I saw the challenge, I was nervous but relieved. The first time I attempted puff pastry it was a total disaster, but earlier this year I went to a pastry class and made a more successful attempt.

The September 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat, Vols-au-Vent based on the Puff Pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking With Julia by Dorie Greenspan. You could choose to make large or small vol-au-vents, and any filling. I followed the recipe exactly, with the only substitution being plain flour instead of cake flour.


Initially things went well. The dough "wrapper" came together easily, and the butter was shaped into a square and then chilled. The first two turns of the dough went really well, and the butter didn't leak. Yay! Off I went to watch The Wire for an hour before the next two turns. Gritty urban drama and baking. A perfect match.

Turn 3 went wrong. I'm not sure if the dough was over-chilled, or if I rolled it too thin or roughly. The butter burst through underneath, so when I tried to do the turn, the dough was stuck to the worktop! I completed the turn as best as I could, reasoning that given there would be hundreds of layers by the end of the process, and one or two with a tear wouldn't matter.

The rest of the turns went ok, with lots of flouring to make sure there wasn't any more sticking. I think I might have been a bit over-enthusiastic with rolling out the dough too thinly, which was causing it to be prone to tearing. I made it to 6 turns, and added a 7th as the dough was looking a bit streaky in places.

Lots of Vol-Au-Vents!

Now I just had to think of a filling! Initially I wanted to do something Asian inspired, and was considering something Vietnamese as this would suit the French aspect of the pastry. However, I thought it would be strange to pair rich, buttery pastry with a light Asian filling, and I decided to go for something more traditional and "heavy".

The first attempt was large size vol-au-vents for dinner, filled with chicken, lemon and tarragon stew. Although they were delicious, they weren't lookers. They were also a little undercooked. I decided it was best to try again, and to make smaller ones that would be more manageable.

Next day I was flicking through the Saturday papers, and saw a recipe for coronation chicken. This was traditional and heavy, but also had an Asian influence! I also liked the very retro aspect of the dish. I used this recipe here, which was a big success. It's fruity and creamy, with a good spice blend. The mayonnaise isn't too overwhelming either. In fact, I liked this recipe so much I'm copying out by hand to go in my recipe binder. (That's the rule, if I don't like it enough to be bothered to write out the recipe with a fountain pen, it doesn't make the folder.)

Vol-Au-Vent with Coronation Chicken

As you can see from the photos, I didn't get that much rise from my pastry. I think I rolled it too thin again. It was crispy and flaky though, so not a total disaster. I was also proud of the good glaze I got from the egg wash, it was quite shiny in places!

Even though puff pastry takes a while to make, very little of that time is actually active. There's a lot of waiting around for the pastry to chill and rest. However, once you have got the hang of the "book fold" technique, it's a pretty simple and satisfying process. There's plenty of the pastry left in the freezer, so I shan't be buying any ready made puff pastry anytime soon. Given that the pastry can be easily made over a lazy weekend, I might not buy it ever again, and just have a massive pastry making session every few weeks.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Strawberry Baked Cheesecake

I knew this day would come. "Bake" has finally let me down.

While moving in to the new flat, we somehow acquired a pack of coconut biscuits. As neither T nor I are particular fans, I decided to use the biscuits to make a cheesecake base. I found a recipe in "Bake" for a blueberry cheesecake, and set to work.

The base was easy enough, and was the usual mix of crushed biscuits and melted butter. On to that, I arranged plenty of chopped strawberries, as the blueberries in the shops were ridiculously expensive.

Next up was the cheesecake mix. Cream cheese, vanilla, sugar and eggs were whisked until smooth and creamy. Although I know you are not meant to eat raw eggs I couldn't resist a spoonful of mix, just to test it was alright... As it was delicious I poured the mixture over the strawberries and put it in to the oven.

It might be a tad unfair of me to totally blame Rachel Allen for my cheesecake fail. It was my first time cooking with the new oven, which is a combined oven and grill. I had an oven thermometer in there to see how accurate the oven was. Despite turning the oven up to full blast, it seemed unable to get hotter that 170C. Since the cheesecake wanted to be at 180C, I thought this was close enough and ploughed on regardless. It was only after the top of the cheesecake started burning after 5 minutes that I realised I had set the dial to grill instead of oven. In my defence, both symbols had a fan on them, and the only difference was a slightly thicker black line at the bottom!

I switched it over to oven mode, and kept an eye on the oven thermometer (which E, my old flatmate, once described as "a gadget for calling your oven's bullshit") so the temperature stayed around 180C the whole time. After 40 minutes, the cheesecake was mostly golden (except the burnt patch) and wobbled pleasingly.

Baked Strawberry Cheesecake

After chilling in the fridge, and topping it off with a strawberry and white wine syrup, it was time to eat. Although the strawberry flavour was good, the texture was a little too eggy in places. Instead of being smooth and custard like, it was granular and coarse. I can't decide if this was my complete inability to work an oven or just the wrong ratio of cream cheese and eggs.

The texture wasn't bad enough to scrap the cheesecake totally, and I've been working my way through it over the past few days. The flavours have matured nicely, and it does seem a little less granular after a few days in the fridge.

Strawberry Cheesecake - slightly granular

Hopefully now I have mastered how the new oven works, I can start making up with "Bake".

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Chocolate Chip Cookies

I'm still in limbo between flats, and I'd sworn off baking until we reached the new flat. However, with T passed out on the sofa watching Jonathan Ross, and this month's issue of Delicious already read, I was bored and the kitchen was calling.

Raiding the cupboards showed there was some flour, baking powder (no idea how T managed to obtain that, I must have bullied him in to buying it at some point) and a bar of chocolate left over from the chocolate terrine. I didn't have any cake tins or a baking sheet, only a roasting tin, so today was not the occasion to attempt the Daring Baker's back catalogue.

Instead I opted for a classic chocolate chip cookie, with hefty chunks of chopped chocolate. I reappeared from the kitchen 30 minutes later with cups of tea and a couple of freshly baked cookies. Not the most exciting Friday night, but certainly a tasty one.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

You can also save this dough in the fridge for a few days, so I baked up the rest of these this morning for elevenses.

115g softened butter
100g brown sugar
25g caster sugar
1 egg
1tsp vanilla extract
215g plain flour
1tsp baking powder
pinch salt
110g chocolate (cut in to chunks or chips)

Makes 24 cookies

1) Preheat the oven to 190c (Gas Mark 5)
2) Cream the butter and sugar until smooth, then add the egg and vanilla extract.
3) Add in the flour, salt and baking powder and briefly mix to form a dough.
4) Add in the chocolate and mix again to distribute the chips throughout the dough.
5) Divide the dough into 24 balls, and place on a greased baking sheet, lightly pressing each ball to flatten it in to a cookie shape. (At this stage you can store any extra dough in the fridge for a week or the freezer for a month.)
6) Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden. Transfer to a wire rack until cool. (If your cooling rack is in a self-storage facility, you can use the rack from a roasting tin that you found at the back of a cupboard)

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Mexican Style Spinach and Chicken Wraps

Although I've moved out of my student flat, I don't get the keys to my new flat for another week. My worldly possessions (including my beloved Le Creuset casserole dish and all my baking equipment) are currently languishing in a self storage unit on the outskirts of Edinburgh. In an attempt to actually get our deposit back, I spent 3 days cleaning the flat. A lack of equipment, energy, time and a kitchen meant I hadn't eaten properly for several days.

I'm currently camping at T's until we can move in to the new flat together, so I decided I should attempt to get something vaguely healthy inside me and recover from the last few days so that the next move won't be so stressful. I'd been planning on some kind of avocado and chicken salad, but the avocado was a bit brown and over-ripe. Instead I mashed it up with some chilli, lemon juice and garlic to make a sort-of guacamole.

Spinach and Chicken Wraps

I poached half a chicken breast, and then wilted a couple of handfuls of spinach in a dry pan. The shredded chicken was put in a wrap, alongside the spinach, guacamole and a drizzle of yoghurt. I would have liked some fresh tomatoes in there too, but there were none in the fridge.

The guacamole and chicken were delicious, and the varying greens when I cut the wraps open made me think I should call this something like "tortilla fresca", but my knowledge of Mexican cuisine is only marginally better than Jamie Oliver's, so I thought better of it.

Letting the side down was the spinach. It was a bit healthy tasting for my liking. The taste of iron was overwhelming, and masked the flavours of the guacamole and chicken too much. Perhaps using baby spinach with a milder taste would have been a better plan.

Anyway, this was a tasty little lunch time treat, and has 2 of my five-a-day. Hopefully all those vitamins and minerals will have me raring to go for another round of hardcore box moving next week...