29 May 2012

Nobody puts Veggie in a corner

Vegan : Noun. A person who does not eat or use animal products. 
Example: a hippy wearing saroual pants, leaving in a tipi tent outside town, refusing to use electricity (or any modern amenities for that matter) and hunting for roots, flowers and wild mushrooms to provide food for his family.

Alright, I’m pushing it for the sake of the joke but this was more or less how I pictured vegan people and vegan food few years ago. Coming from Cheese-and-sausage Land, I did not understand people who chose to be vegetarian…. so vegan? 

(Drum rolls…here comes the twist in the drama. In romcoms, this is the scene when the guy and the girl who hated each other suddenly fall in love)

Since then, I’ve been leaving in a country where:
  • Vegetarians are not looked down onto and can find nice veggie options in every pub and restaurant
  • You find such a wide range of pulses and weird vegetables in every supermarket, which makes it much less boring to be a Veggie or a Vegan here than back in France 
  •  I have shared a house with a Vegetarian (not an extremist one that shouts at you when you eat a big steak in front of him, a super tolerant Vegetarian)
I’ve also travelled a little and discovered other diets. I’ve read few things about the consequences of meat production on the environment and I realised that cutting down a little on meat could do some good to both myself and the planet (don’t worry, I still need my fix of roast chicken and beef stew every now and then!)
But mostly, I have realised that I love trying new foods. The stranger, the better!

So when a colleague requested a vegan cake as a Friday Cake, I was totally up for the challenge. She even asked for the ultimate scary vegan cake: an avocado and chocolate cake. A cake with no egg, no butter, no milk? With water…and avocado in it?! Yeah, that would be good fun.

Avocado and chocolate vegan cake, with raspberry frosting

Friday came.
Everybody gathered in the main conference room around my green cake and thought that I had lost my mind. To everybody's surprise though, even if I had to force my poor colleagues / guinea pigs to try my cake, they did like it!
"Wow...but....that's...NICE ??!" "Yeah right?!"
The avocado frosting wasn't my favourite thing in the world, but the chocolate does is one of the best I’ve ever made. It’s very chocolatey, very light but very indulgent. You can’t really taste the avocado but it (along with the water and the oil, which make wonders to chocolate cakes) brings smoothness and almost fluffiness to the cake.

So I know, you’re scared and if I could hold your hand right now I would, I swear. I can hear my fellow Frenchies thinking “Another crazy British food, she’s lost it. Forever” from the other side of the Channel!
But trust me, you’ll love it. And life is about taking risks, isn’t it?

With avocado icing, for The Braves

I even came up with a safer raspberry frosting alternative, which goes wonderfully well with this cake.

Vegan Chocolate and Avocado Cake

Ingredients for the cake
3 cups all-purpose flour
6 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil (rapeseed or sunflower)
1/2 cup soft avocado, well mashed, about 1 medium avocado
2 cups water
2 Tablespoons white vinegar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Make the cake:
1/ Preheat oven to 180deg C.  Grease and flour two 20cm round cake moulds (unless you use silicone ones, in which case you don't need to grease or flour them).

2/ In a big bowl, sift together all of the dry ingredients except the sugar.  Set aside.

3/ Mix all the wet ingredients together in another bowl, including the mashed avocado.

4/ Add sugar into the wet mix and stir.

5/ Mix the wet with the dry all at once, and beat with a whisk (by hand) until smooth.

6/ Pour the batter into the cake moulds. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

7/ Let cakes cool in the moulds for 15 minutes, then turn out onto a cooling rack to cool completely before frosting with avocado buttercream.

Ingredients for the avocado buttercream frosting
225g avocado meat, about 2 small to medium, very ripe avocados
2 teaspoons lemon juice
300g icing sugar, sifted
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Make the frosting
1/ Peel and pit the soft avocados.  It’s important to use the ripest avocados you can get your hands on.  If the avocados have brown spots in the meat, avoid those spots when you scoop the meat into the bowl.

2/ Place the avocado meat into the bowl of a stand mixer fit with the whisk attachment.  Add lemon juice and whisk the avocado on medium speed, until slightly lightened in color and smooth, about 2-3 minutes.

3/ Add the powdered sugar a little at a time and beat.  Add vanilla extract until combined.  If not using right away, store in the refrigerator. 

Alternative frosting: Raspberry and cream cheese frosting
300g pack of light cream cheese
384g pot of whipping cream or double cream
1 cup of icing sugar
1 punnet of fresh raspberries

Make the frosting:
1/ Put aside the 12 nicest raspberries for decoration

2/ Whip the whipping / double cream until just thickened

3/ Add to the cream the sugar and the cream cheese and whip together until smooth. Add delicately the rest of the raspberries

4/ Refrigerate until thickened (if need be)

Frost and decorate the cake:
5/ spread a layer of frosting between the 2 cakes and the rest on top of the cake. Decorate the top of the cake with the raspberries that you have put aside

22 May 2012

The muffin, or the delights of no-brain baking

Baking belongs to these hobbies that I find therapeutic.
When I run, I have all the time in the world to think about my day or a project that can be stressing me at work. On the other hand, when I bake I focus on all the small steps of the recipe which keeps me from thinking about anything else. And magically, I relax.

Some days I like tackling complicated recipes which require my whole brain to be put to contribution but I often just want to go home at the end of a bad day, turn my brain off, put my apron on and tuck my hands into flour and eggs.
This is when Mr Muffin is my best friend. May they be sweet or savoury, muffins rely on a dead simple series of steps:
  • Mix all the dry ingredients together
  • Mix all the wet ingredients together
  • Mix the dry ingredients with the wet ones together, as little as possible
  • Bake

There you go. Like that, with no warning, I just gave you the secret for perfect muffins.

Whatever the recipes might tell you, just forget it, follow the above and you’ll end up with amazing muffins.
So simple, so good. What else?

I read that three States in America adopted official muffins. For example, the blueberry muffin is the official state muffin in Minnesota (you think you might be a bit crazy sometimes? Go to the US, you’ll feel better about yourself! ). So I decided I wanted to have my own official muffin too. Here it is!

Onion and Thyme savoury muffins


For the muffin base:
275 g plain flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 large eggs
225 ml milk
1 teaspoon sea salt

For the flavouring:
2 tablespoons thyme (fresh or dry)
60g grated cheese (cheddar, comté or even goat cheese if you prefer)
3 big red onions, finely chopped

1/ Prepare your flavouring: soften the chopped onions and the thyme in a tablespoon of olive oil in a pan on low heat for 15min. (the onion must not fry, but should become very soft). Leave to cool completely.
2/ In a bowl, mix well all the dry ingredients together: flour, baking powder, salt, grated cheese
3/ In another bowl, mix well all the wet ingredients together: eggs, milk
4/ Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ones and add the onions. From there, mix them together with a wooden spoon at little as possible until just combined (I allow my spoon to touch the dough 10 times maximum). The less you mix, the better! That will keep you muffins moist and help them rise evenly. Don’t worry if you still have lumps, they will disappear in the cooking process.
5/ Bake in 14/15 silicone muffin moulds for approx. 15 min in a preheated oven at 200deg C, or until well risen and golden.
6/ Eat warm.
You can also prepare them ahead and freeze for up to 2 weeks: once cooked, leave to cool completely and freeze in a freezing bag. On the day of eating, defrost and heat up for 10min in an oven at 120deg C.
Ideal served as a starter with green salad or as nibbles (Zis is what we call Ze aperitif)

Few ideas of possible variations: just replace the onions and cheese by the ingredients below at the last stage of the recipe.
Indian: aubergines and courgettes (softened as well) + curry powder + 60g cheddar
Mediterranean: sundried tomatoes + black olives + basil + feta
Alsacian: onions + bacon + cheddar
Forest burst: mushrooms (softened and drained)+ mustard (2 teaspoons) +diced morbier or comté cheese

15 May 2012

Back to the future with French glacé cherries

You know these groups on facebook going like "You know you are born in the 80s when you were a Cat's Eyes fan when you were a kid, you ate Twix when they were still called Raiders..."

They could easily include "You know you are born in the 80s if you know nothing about glacé cherries".

"- Cherries what? 
 - Glacé cherries... You know, the candied red fruit you find on top of bakewell tarts and in fruitcakes. They used to be the ultimate cake decoration in the 70s.
 - Ohhh
 - Any idea where they come from? 
 - Nope. 
 - How are they made? 
 - Hum... (mouth opened, blank eyes, big fat silence)"

That was me until I got staffed on the ultimate funky baking product: French glacé cherries.(I work in a marketing agency for food and wine. Yes, my life could definitely be worse!)
In the last 2 years, I got to learn everything about glacé cherries, taste premium French glacé cherries, watch top chefs cooking amazing recipes with them. I even got to visit the main French glacé cherries producers in Provence…and I saw la vie en rose

Nostradamus is said to be the first to perfect the candying process, using sugar to preserve fruits. French cherry growers in Provence (where the weather and soil conditions are perfect for cherry trees) mastered the candying of many fruits and Napoleon Bigarreau cherries in particular. Once picked, cherries are de-stalked, blanched, stoned and then steeped in sugar syrup for 10 days until all the fruits’ water content has been completely replaced by sugar. Super cool, isn't it?

British bakers traditionally baking lots of fruitcakes (ie Christmas puddings) use much more glacé cherries than French bakers. This is why they have long been imported in the UK. Even though other countries are now producing glacé cherries (Italy, Greece, Spain) France is still considered as the reference for quality and traditional heritage. I know, I am such a glacé cherry buff now!

In my condition of passionate baker, I had to give glace cherries a go. So I started to put glacé cherries everywhere; galette des rois, whoopie pies, muffins…They actually taste really nice and are so easy to use. You can pretty much swap candied or fried fruit by glacé cherries in any recipe. As they keep their shape, texture and taste throughout the cooking process, they even almost work better than fresh fruits in some recipes. 
They are so much contemporary that one could think!

So when a friend threw a pink party for her birthday, I knew the score. I ran off to the local M&S, bought a Diamond Jubilee biscuit tin (I love everything that is related to the royal family), got rid of the shortbreads and replaced them by my favourite pink biscuits.

I got this cantucci recipe from http://provencecalling.com/. As the glace cherries caramelize when cooking, they give a wonderful twist to these biscotti!

Almond and French Glacé Cherries Cantucci

100g almonds in their skin
50g ground almonds
100g French glacé cherries
250g plain flour
125g caster sugar
a generous 1/4 tsp baking powder
2 large (extra-large) eggs
unsalted butter for the tray

1/ Heat the oven to 200/400 Gas mark 6. When it is hot put the almonds onto a tray and lightly toast for 5 minutes and remove from oven and let cool and do not turn down the oven.

2/ Sieve the flour, sugar, ground almonds and baking powder into a large bowl. Mix and make a well in the center. Lightly whisk the eggs and pour into the well. 

3/ Gradually mix the dry ingredients with the egg, adding the nuts and the French glacé cherries when everything is well mixed. Be careful not to smash the glacé cherries You should have a stiff dough. Your can use your ends at the end. 

4/ Flour your hands and divide the dough into two 30 cms long sausages and place on a buttered and floured tin (or a plain silicone baking mat) and bake in the oven for 15 – 18 mins.
5/ Take out of the oven and lower the heat to 150. Let the cantucci sausages cool for 10 minutes and then cut them diagonally into 1cm slices

6/ Lay the slices onto the tray and return to the cooled oven for a further 30-45 mins (depending on how crunchy you want them) or until golden round the edges. 

7/ Put them on a wire tray to cool completely and then put into a glass jar. They will keep for 2 – 3 months.