Sunday 25 November 2012

Oatmeal raisin cookies

Christmas is coming and I, for one, am excited.  I know it’s still November, but I've already succumbed to having Christmas songs on in the background whilst I get on with my day (yes, they’re playing right now), and I’m beginning to feel that magical glow slowly spreading through me that only comes this time of year.  You know what I'm talking about, that warm feeling associated with watching Christmas films you’ve already seen umpteen times (my personal favourites are Elf and Home Alone), eating clementines and chestnuts, and walking past all of the houses in the neighbourhood beautifully lit up with Christmas decorations.

What baffles me is why I feel like this, since I don’t actually celebrate Christmas and never have.  I’ve never had a Christmas tree in my house, never got to open an Advent calendar and never woken up on Christmas morning to an abundance of presents.  Whilst this used to sadden me as a child and I felt a grave injustice had been done to me, perhaps it’s because I’ve never celebrated Christmas that it feels so special to me?  What I mean is, perhaps it’s because Christmas is something almost elusive, something that I have always yearned to be part of but have never quite been privy to, that it holds a magical mystery for me.  Or perhaps it’s not actually the day itself, but the build up to it that I love: the Christmas cheer, the plethora of chocolates in the office, the fairy lights and tinsel brightening up the dark winter nights.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s it - the world seems a happier, merrier place, just for one month and that is why I think Christmas is, quite frankly, absolutely T for Tremendous!

Now, maybe I've been a tad disingenuous painting this sad picture of a little girl who never got to celebrate Christmas, because whilst it’s true that I’ve never had the tree and presents or written a letter to Santa, my family has always had a big get-together on Christmas Day, when we over-indulge as much as the next family in a juicy roast with all the trimmings, followed by a few desserts, followed by a few boxes of chocolates, followed by seconds...!  What can I say, when you come from a family that loves food as much as mine, we’ll look for any excuse for a feast and Christmas provides the perfect one!

So to kick off the Christmas indulgences, I made a batch of deliciously soft and chewy oatmeal raisin cookies.  Not perhaps traditional Christmas fare, but the cinnamon in them certainly evoked a warm Christmassy glow in me.  They’re easy to make, quick and a great alternative to giving someone a box of choccies.

  • 300g plain flour
  • ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 190g butter, melted and cooled
  • 175g soft light brown sugar
  • 113g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1.5tsp vanilla paste or 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg, plus yolk from 1 large egg
  • 155g oats
  • 170g raisins
  • 35g desiccated coconut

Preheat the oven to 180C (160C fan) and line two or three baking sheets with parchment paper.

Sift together the flour and bicarb and set aside.

Beat the melted butter, brown sugar and white sugar together until well blended (I used a handheld electric mixer), then add the cinnamon, vanilla, egg, and egg yolk, beating for another 2-3 minutes until light and creamy.

Add the sifted flour and bicarb, mixing until just blended, then, with a large spoon, fold in the the oats, raisins and coconut.

If you want extra soft, chewy cookies – and I think you’ll find you do :) – chill the dough in the fridge for a minimum of two hours, but ideally overnight.

Place balls of dough onto the lined baking sheets.  I used a tablespoon measuring spoon to scoop out the balls of dough and ensure they were all roughly the same size and gently rolled each ball into a nice round shape.  These cookies don't spread like other cookies might, so you can place them fairly close together without worrying they'll all merge into one giant cookie.  For flatter cookies, gently press down the top of each ball of dough.

Bake for 12 minutes for soft, chewy cookies, 15 minutes for a firmer cookie.  Resist the urge to overbake - the centres should still be soft when the cookies come out of the oven.  They will firm up as they cool.

Let the cookies rest on the baking sheets for about five minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.

Monday 12 November 2012

Bounty (chocolate and coconut) layer cake

Coming back from holidaying abroad is always a painful business.  This is especially so when you live in the UK, because much as you are willing the sun to be shining as your plane hits the tarmac, deep down you know that when you look out of the tiny window of your aeroplane as it touches down, the weather outside will be bleak and grey.  Thus I am resigned to the fact that, as long as I live in London, whenever I arrive back from a holiday and step out of the airport, a biting chill is likely to greet me.

Sometimes it seems I am alone in this resignation; I’m always rendered awestruck and incredulous by fellow British travellers who return from their holidays dressed in shorts and flip flops.  You know the ones I mean, showing off their sunburnt skin in a short-sleeved t-shirt and often sporting a sombrero around their necks to complete the look.  Do they think, maybe, just maybe, if they keep dressing like this every single time they return from a holiday, one day they might magically manage to bring the weather back with them?  I’ve decided it’s best I don’t shatter their illusions by informing them it’s not going to happen, and instead watch them with mixed emotions of pity and smugness as they leave the airport gasping as the cold air hits them.

Anyway, I’ve digressed (not unusual, but I apologise nonetheless).  My point is that when you come back from a holiday, in all likelihood, you’re going to suffer from the post-holiday blues and so my not-so-secret tip for combatting this is to have something else to look forward to on your return.  Last year, after my holidays, I had arranged for a ‘Manly Baker Bake Off’ to take place in the office when I got back.  Each of my male colleagues had been set the challenge of baking a dozen frosted cupcakes of their choice, for me and fellow female colleagues to taste and judge.  This year, following a lovely little jaunt to the Amalfi Coast, I get to look forward to round two of the ‘Manly Baker Bake Off’!

The challenge I set this time around was for colleagues to bake a chocolate-bar inspired layer cake.  Of course, the reason I decided on this challenge was purely innocuous, nothing to do with the fact that it means I get to scoff five or six different CHOCOLATE(!) cakes…  Having set the challenge, I thought I’d better actually check whether I’d be up to it myself, and so I made this inside-out Bounty cake: chocolate sponge on the inside and a white cream cheese frosting, flavoured with fresh coconut* to sandwich it together and decorate.  The chocolate sponge recipe comes, rather aptly, from the winner of the 2011 Great British Bake Off, Jo Wheatley.  I’ve wanted to try it out for a while and I must say, it didn’t disappoint in the slightest – moist, dense and, as Jo describes, ‘well-behaved’, therefore easy to slice for layering.  It also worked just perfectly with the fresh coconut cream cheese frosting.  For me, this Bounty cake recipe is a keeper.

*A note on using fresh coconut.  I know first hand how time-consuming it is to shell, peel and grate a fresh coconut, but trust me, the creamy and moist flavour adds to this cake in a way desiccated coconut never will, so please, please, please try it, at least once, for my sake.  If you don't know how to shell a coconut, there are plenty of videos online where you can learn. It's not that hard, I promise!

Chocolate mud cake from Jo's Blue Aga.  Coconut Cream Cheese frosting adapted from Delia's How to Cook, Book One.

For the cake:

  • 165 g unsalted butter, softened
  • 300 g caster sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 65g self-raising flour
  • 200g plain flour
  • 1tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 70g cocoa powder
  • 200ml of soured cream
  • 50g cream cheese

For the cream cheese frosting:

  • One fresh coconut, shelled and peeled: of this you'll need 40g finely grated and 100g (or however much remains) coarsely grated
  • 250g mascarpone
  • 200g fromage frais
  • 1tsp vanilla extract
  • 100g icing sugar, sifted

Preheat oven to 180C (160C fan).

Grease and line one 8 inch, deep round tin, or two 8 inch sandwich tins.

To make the cake, beat together the butter and caster sugar until fluffy and pale, then add the eggs, one at a time, beating the mix after each egg is added.

Using two large bowls, sift the flours, bicarbonate of soda and cocoa powder together three times.  In a separate bowl, or jug, mix together the soured cream and cream cheese.

Now tip half of the flour mix in with the beaten butter, sugar and egg mix and fold together, before adding half of the soured cream-cream cheese mix and folding again.  Repeat.

Spoon the mixture into your tin and bake for 60-75 minutes, until a knife or skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean.  Leave to cool before removing from tin.

To make the frosting, place all of your ingredients, except the 100g coarsely grated coconut, into a bowl and beat together until smooth.

If you've made one large cake, once it has completely cooled, slice into two or three layers.

To assemble, spread a thin layer of frosting onto the bottom layer of your cake, then place the second layer on top, to sandwich the two layers together.  Repeat process if you have a third layer.  Use remaining frosting to cover the outside of the cake, both on top and the sides.

Finally, cover the top and side of the cake with the coarsely grated coconut, pressing it down lightly with your hands to ensure it sticks to the frosting.