Mexican Wedding Cookies…Or Are They?

I first came across these cookies (or puffs) in Waitrose Illustrated. Sophie Grigson called them pecan puffs and cited The Joy of Cooking as her source. Then I spotted that Phil Vickery was making something called Festive Pecan Puffs which looked exactly the same. Finally, I noticed that Cook’s Illustrated had devoted an article to something called Mexican Wedding Cookies which replicated the Grigson-Joy-Vickery puff in both ingredients and method.

This recipe is so short and so unassuming that I can’t quite believe it has been claimed not only by individuals but by a nation. But then I suppose the Scottish have done the same with shortbread, the Welsh with Welsh cakes and the English with, erm, fruit cake? Not sure about that one. I’m not really sure what I conclude from this; perhaps that the best recipes, the ones that people make over and over again, don’t really belong to anyone since they become part of a culture. And that, despite what book publishers and food writers would have us believe, there is no such thing as an original recipe. You only have to read a bit of Elizabeth David or dip into the Larousse Gastronomique to see that most recipes are derivations of certain basic and well-trusted techniques. But I’m not sure that matters. If it works, if it’s easy and if it tastes good then, well, who cares who invented it. And the recipe for these nutty, shortbread biscuits, wherever they came from and whatever they’re called, is so simple and yummy it deserves to be shared.

Pecan Puffs (adapted from Waitrose Illustrated)

You will need:

Very few ingredients; my favourite sort of recipe

110g pecans, shelled

110g unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 tbsp caster sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

150g plain flour

icing sugar, for coating/dredging

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 150C (or 130C fan-assisted)/gas 2.

2. Line a baking sheet with baking parchment or, if you have one, a reusable baking liner.

3. Grind the nuts to a powder in a food processor or (clean) coffee grinder.

4. Beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

5. Add the vanilla extract to the beaten butter and sugar, mix together then beat in the nuts and finally the flour.

It doesn't look very edifying, yet...

6. Break off small lumps of the mixture and roll into balls (I find having slightly damp hands helps for this).

7. Place the balls on the baking tray, leaving a bit of a gap between them (mine have never spread far and I find I can get 25 or so on a standard size tray) and bake for about 25 minutes or until golden (Sophie G says 29 which strikes me as madly exact).

Before the icing sugar...

8. Take them out of the oven, but leave it turned on, and leave to cool for a couple of minutes.

9. Whilst the puffs/cookies are cooling, sift some icing sugar onto a plate and, after the couple of minutes are up, roll them in the icing sugar, return them to the baking sheet and to the oven for about a minute so that the icing sugar can ‘set’ on them.

10. Leave them to cool again and store in an airtight container.

See, they almost look like the 'official' picture!

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Posted in Biscuits, Cook's Illustrated, Egg-free, Fast food, Simple, Very few ingredients, Waitrose Kitchen | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Improving on Perfection: the Best Ginger Cake Gets Better

Whilst I was making my prune, fig and apricot cake this morning, I made a ginger one to take to work. The first cake needed to be baked at 160ºC and I thought I’d take a risk and bake the ginger cake, which usually requires 45 mins or so at 180ºC at the lower temperature and see what happened. Well, I shall never bake it at 180ºC ever again. Normally it gets a little bit burnt on the top and sinks. But at 160ºC, baked for a little bit longer (about an hour), it is just perfect: no burning, no sinking, just an even more perfectly formed cake.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

HFW’s Prune, Fig and Apricot Cake

I have an issue with marmalade. In fact, I have an issue with marmalade, jam, jelly, honey and any vaguely gelatinous substance (aspic, ugh) all of which I can’t bear to touch. It’s not quite a phobia but I certainly go out of my way to avoid getting the stuff on my fingers. When my sister’s children were small they were big fans of honey sandwiches and my love for them was always sorely tested when they asked me for one. The whole thing is random and illogical: I can eat a jam doughnut, for example, as long as the sticky stuff goes into my mouth not onto my hands, but not a jam sandwich. And although I put honey and golden syrup into cakes I won’t go near them in any other form.

Marmalade, however, has always remained beyond me. Sticky, lumpy and without any positive attributes as far as I’m concerned, it has never entered my shopping basket, let alone my house. But recently I’ve been intrigued by recipes that use it for its citrussy qualities and yet swear you can’t taste it. Nigella’s How to Eat has one, my friend Ben sent me a chocolate marmalade one and then, yesterday, I spotted this prune, fig and apricot cake in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Everyday. Unlike the others he doesn’t make any claims for not being able to taste it but, since my friend Kate made her first ever batch of Seville marmalade this week, I thought I’d take a jar and a risk. And, no, you can’t taste it and, yes, it was worth it.

Fig, Apricot and Prune Cake (adapted from HFW’s recipe)

You will need:

225g light wholemeal cake flour (I used self-raising; the recipe doesn’t specify)

1tsp baking powder

1tsp ground mixed spice (I didn’t have this, so I used 1/3 tsp each of ground cinnamon, ground cloves and ground ginger)

Pinch of sea salt

150g each of dried figs, dried apricots and stoned prunes (I could have sworn I bought all three in the supermarket but, by the time I got home, I had no apricots. I ended up with 75g apricots dug out of the cupboard and about 185g each of the prunes and figs.)

85g orange marmalade

Zest of 1 lemon (I ran my lemon, which was cheap but waxed, under the hot tap, to get rid of most of the wax before zesting)

Zest of 1 orange (how come there’s no market for the unwaxed orange then?)

200g unsalted butter, chopped into cubes

200g light muscovado sugar

4 medium eggs

Method

1. Grease and line a 20cm springform pan. Preheat the oven to 160ºC (140ºC if fan-assisted).

2. Put the flour, baking powder, spice (or spices if you’ve made your own blend) and salt into a bowl and whisk to mix together.

3. Using kitchen scissors, cut up the dried apricots and prunes (a couple of pieces from each one should do it), remove the hard stalks from the figs and cut them up too and combine them all in a bowl.

4. Lightly beat the marmalade with the orange and lemon zest in a bowl then mix it with the dried fruit.

5. Put the butter and sugar in a mixer or food processor or, if you need the exercise, in a bowl and beat until light and fluffy.

It will start out like this...

 

…and end up a bit like this.

6. Beat in the eggs one at a time, adding a spoonful of flour as well to prevent the mixture curdling.

7. Fold in nearly all of the remaining flour (keep back a couple of tablespoons) to end up with a mixture like this:

8. Mix the dried fruit and marmalade with the remaining couple of tablespoons of flour and spices then combine with the rest of the mixture. (I recently read in Cook’s Illustrated magazine that if you dust fruit with flour before baking it in a cake or muffin, you can stop it sinking. This is the first time I’ve tried it and it works.)

9. Put the mixture into the lined tin, smooth the surface, then put it into the oven and bake for an hour and a half (mine took exactly that) or until a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean.

10. Remove from the oven and leave in the tin to cool completely. Apparently it will last a week stored in a cake tin but mine’s already half gone.

Perfect for marmalade-lovers and haters.

Posted in Autumn food, Cakes, Cakes that can also be pudding, Cook's Illustrated, Fruit cakes, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Kenwood Chef, River Cottage Everyday | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kitchen Lessons 2010

2011 is already almost a month old and I have yet to write my first blog of the year. But what with a new job, a tax return to complete (somehow it always wipes out weeks, however prepared I think I am) and the misery that is January I’ve had neither the time nor the inclination. Nevertheless, even though it’s 11.30 on a Sunday night and I should be in bed, I’m determined to write something before February starts. And, since I learnt quite a few interesting tricks and recipes through writing this blog in 2010, what better way to start one year than to round up the gems of the last.

1) Buy an oven thermometer.

If the following two statements – ‘I have a really old oven’ and ‘I love baking’ – apply to you, then invest in an oven thermometer. Mine was about £9 and, instead of having to keep opening the oven door towards the end of a cake’s baking time because the results were a bit hit and miss, I now know that my oven runs 10 degrees over and I can relax. What’s more my cakes no longer look like pin cushions because I’m not stabbing them every five minutes to see if they’re done.

2) Buy some reusable baking liners.

It doesn't look much but...

A couple of these liners are worth every penny. If you bake, you need to line your tins. And if you line your tins you keep using baking paper/parchment and, if you’re me, keep feeling a bit guilty that you can’t recycle the stuff once it’s covered in food. Then, ta-dah, you discover the delights of a reusable baking liner. One that you can wash by hand and, if you’re lucky enough to have one, in the dishwasher. They’re cheap (about £2), they work brilliantly and they even do their bit for the environment.

3) Baked risotto is just as good.

I didn’t believe it either, and I still have friends who don’t, but baking a risotto (starting it off in the pan on the hob, then putting it with the stock in the oven) is a very very acceptable substitute for the stirred version. You may have to fiddle a bit with the proportions (is there anyone who minds a bit of extra butter and cheese anyway?) but the result, combined with the fact that you win some of your evening back, is brilliant. I’ve done it with this recipe, with Delia’s risotto carbonara and with a few other ad hoc ones and I’ve not been disappointed yet.

4) Baking a cake, and eating it, cheers everyone up.

I started this blog when I wasn’t working, or at least not working in any sustained way and I had plenty of time to bake. Since then I’ve got a permanent job but, although I have less time, I still find myself baking at the weekend. Not because I’m a big fat pig (when you live alone, unless you are a little odd, it’s very hard to eat a whole 20cm cake) but because I have got into the habit of baking for others. What could be lovelier than making your friends or colleagues a cake? A miserable Monday afternoon in the office in winter can be made just that little bit brighter with a slice of ginger cake or two.

5) The more you cook, the more you cook.

That sounds a bit trite and obvious and for that I’m sorry. But blogging about food, and paying attention to it, has really taught me that even with very little time or energy I can make something a bit more original than beans on toast (though I must stress there is always a place for beans on toast, as long as they’re served with mayonnaise…). I was always a bit of a foodie and I still am; however, now I’m really obsessed with finding the simplest and best methods for cooking and eating well. One of my favourite new cookery books, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Everyday, follows exactly that thinking and I’m planning to blog about some of its recipes soon. Here’s to 2011, all eleven months of it.

Posted in After-work dinners, Delia Smith, Favourite Kitchen Toys, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, River Cottage Everyday, Tips | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Shopping for America

Erm, I only have about 70 cookery books so, now that I’ve arrived in the States for Christmas, I thought perhaps I needed a few more. Going into Barnes and Noble with my mother’s discount card is a dangerous process.

I've overdone it again...

Not sure how they’re all going to fit in my bag though. Ah well…

Posted in Cookery books, Foodie Heavens | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Fast French Florentines

I first started writing recipes down in France, when I was a student. I don’t have many; most of the food that others cooked for me seemed madly complicated (blanquette de veau for example which only Gordon Ramsay could describe as simple…) so I spent most of my energy on eating it, praising it and getting fat. But every so often the lovely Denise (practically my surrogate French mother, who I met on an exchange aged 16) made something that I was sure even I could manage.

These Florentines are just such a recipe. Denise made them to accompany after-dinner coffee and froze them in great batches. They never seem to last long enough to reach the freezer round here and, well, my freezer’s so tiny I might as well just have another…

You will need:

250ml crème fraîche (more durable when heated than fresh cream)

100g unsalted butter

270g sugar (the original recipe uses 250g of sugar and 2 sachets of vanilla sugar; in the days when flavoured sugar wasn’t as common as it is now I used to spend ages hunting little sachets of the stuff, which I guess were about 10g each. These days I just shove a broken vanilla pod into a jar of caster sugar, which is quicker and cheaper.)

200g glacé fruits (or just cherries if that’s all you can find), chopped into dice

200g flaked almonds

65g flour (the recipe doesn’t specify but I use plain)

65g ground almonds

2 knife-points (1/4 teaspoon or so…) ground cinnamon

Method (dead easy…)

1. Put the butter and crème into a saucepan over a gentle heat and bring to the boil.

It will end up looking a little like this…

2. Add everything else (told you it was easy).

3. Stir everything together well. The recipe then says ‘bring to the boil again’ but since you now have quite a sticky mixture I’ve never quite understood how you can boil it. As I understand it, and make it, I mix it really well over the heat for about five minutes then stop when I have something like this…

4. Using a couple of teaspoons place small amounts of the mixture on a greased baking tray and flatten down slightly. (Avoid putting them on greaseproof paper, especially if you might not remember to take them off and cool them on a rack; it will stick to them and be impossible to remove. Try reusable baking parchment instead.)

5. Bake at 175C (155C for fan-assisted ovens), 325F, gas mark 3 for 20-25 minutes until golden then try fighting off the admirers.

Not as handsome as shop-bought but twice as yummy

Posted in Biscuits, Fast food, Short order, Simple, Uncategorized, Very few ingredients | Leave a comment

Ottolenghi: a Pre-birthday Lunch

Going out to eat in London can sometimes feel exhausting. All the most popular places will either be full (if they take reservations) or have a queue out of the door (if they don’t). I’ve been trying to get into Trullo since it opened and, six months later, I’m still trying. So, unless you’re organised enough to plan such occasions well in advance it’s always wise to be prepared for disappointment.

But, sometimes, not planning can have its benefits too. My friend Angela and I had arranged to go out for lunch today as a treat for my birthday; since this year it falls on a Tuesday there’s not much chance of me doing much on the day itself. And, as ever, Trullo and St John’s Bread and Wine were not available (The Blue Hour’s mention of Eccles cakes and Lancashire cheese has me intrigued) so we decided to meet up in Highbury and then wander to find something.

Our walk took us past one of my very favourite places, Ottolenghi on Upper Street. I’ve only eaten there once before but I am obsessed with the gorgeous combinations they create for salads and their brilliant baking. And the first cookery book, which makes their magic seem accessible to everyone, is truly inspirational.

We might as well ask how long the wait is we thought, seeing the queue out of the door. And, huzzah!, the wait was for the bakery not for the restaurant. In ten minutes we were seated, glass of Prosecco in hand, gleefully toasting our good fortune. The food didn’t disappoint, the service was smiley and, bar a small sliver of glass on my coffee saucer it was a perfect and unexpected treat.

Posted in Foodie Heavens, Great places for coffee, Salads, Yotam Ottolenghi | Tagged , | 2 Comments