Muffins merely made in the microwave

Because who can resist a bit of alliteration?

The Book
Harumi’s Japanese Cooking| Harumi Kurihara
(Conran Octopus, 2004)

The Recipe
Steamed Cream Cheese Muffins

The Reason
I’ve had this book for ages, and it’s one of the few that I actually use regularly, but I’ve never ventured into the desserts section of the book before. Add in the fact that it was one of the few nice days of the summer so I wanted something not too heavy, and there we go.

The Cooking
Ha! Well, they’re stupidly easy. Microwave stuff. Mix stuff. Microwave stuff again. End of. The most complicated bit was lining the ramekins with baking parchment and making little clingfilm tents so that they steam properly. That and actually gathering the ingredients. For some reason, the supermarkets were conspiring against me and either not selling cream cheese or not selling cream. Well, there were selling cream cheese, but I don’t think the world is ready for garlic and chive and vanilla muffins. There’s really not a lot to say about them, in terms of preparation. It’s interesting to find things that are baked without the oven; I guess it partly stems from so many Japanese flats being tiny little shoeboxes and a lot of people not even having ovens. That sidebar dealt with, in summary: easy.

The result

Attractive, I’m sure you’ll agree

Yeah… these aren’t going to win any awards for presentation or get me a pastry chef internship any time soon. But given that that were made in the microwave, I don’t think they’re too ugly. And they do look rather like the ones in the book, so I’m confident that they’re meant to look like that. The microwave mug cake that was doing the internet rounds a year or two ago was really not pleasant to look at, all lumpy and bulbous where it boiled over the mug. At least these have kept their shape and are a fairly pleasant yellow colour. I’m not entirely sure they deserve the name ‘muffins’ to be honest, but there you go.

I think I may have overcooked them slightly, because they’re a bit spongy. But on the other hand, perhapsyou can’t set your sights too high with microwave cake. They’re light, and fresh-tasting, but I think they’d really benefit from being served with fruit, say, or even ice-cream. They’re not quite … satisfying enough by themselves.

Horribly misshapen pretzels

So, I’ve neglected this a bit. Suffice to say Real Life Stuff has been in the way a bit, but I’m determined to keep it going, and I’ve still been doing a bit of cooking.

The Book
Street Food | Rose Grant

(The Crossing Press, 1988)

The Recipe
Chewy Soft Pretzels

The Reason
Put simply, my flatmate was in the mood for pretzels. So I made pretzels. (Aren’t I an amazing person to live with?) Also, pretzels are amazing, and it was a recipe from a new book, so it was a good plan. Street Food is fun, because it’s got all sorts of details about the various, erm, street foods it covers. It roams all over the world – the USA, Europe and Asia, with recipes from Baltimore Crab Cakes to Croque Monsieur and Pad Thai. Apparently pretzels arose in the fifteenth century when a monk who didn’t want to waste any dough from the unleavened bread he was making rolled the scraps to represent people praying. The more you know.

The Cooking
Hoo boy. This did not go brilliantly. I suffered from the usual problem of too big a batch. It was to make 20 pretzels, if not quite the size of the New York street vendor ones, then definitely heading in that direction. The dough ended up far too elastic and stretchy, so for the most part I couldn’t shape them properly. In turn, when I boiled them, they mostly kind of drooped off the edges of the slotted spoon and lost their shape even more. I think I need to steal the giant flat pierced ladle that my dad used to use to make potato latkas. So I ended up mostly rerolling them all into just stubby little pretzel sticks instead. Which is fine, because the whole point of pretzels is the salty oily chewy amazingness; the shape is secondary. And no, I am NOT just saying that because I couldn’t get the shape right. Nope. No siree.

The result

Pretzels. After a fashion.

Sticks. Not pretzels.


Well, you be the judge. It was basically a lot better when I gave up trying to shape them and just baked them as nobbly little sticks. But tastewise, hummunuh hummunuh. Even the places that sell pretzels (like Pret, say) do them with poppy seeds or sesame seeds. I did a few sesame seeds but let’s be honest, what I wanted was proper monstrous chewy but also crunchy pretzels with salt crystals on. And that’s what I got. Salt is good. The two of us ate pretty much the whole batch in two days, so something must have been right. I think if/when I make them again, I’ll just make them smaller so that the shape is more manageable, but other than that I’m marking them in the success column.


Jaffa cakes!

So, this isn’t a recipe. This is my ‘bored at work and having an idea that might be interesting and then actually following through on it’ experiment. I generally don’t get beyond the ‘have an idea’ stage, so yay me. Progress!

That idea was basically: ‘I bet I could make Jaffa Cakes’. All it is is sponge base, orange jelly, and chocolate. How hard can it be?

I gave it a try. I made a sponge cake mix, but rather than baking it in cake tins, I smoothed it onto a cookie sheet, kind of like you would a Swiss roll. (Although this would never have worked as a Swiss roll; way too stiff.) Once it was cooked, which was barely any time at all, I cut out a bunch of cookie cutter circles – I guess 1.5 inch. That obviously left me with a whole load of non-circle cake mix, but that’s hardly the end of the world. ‘Oh no, I have to eat cake!’

Then I needed to make the jelly. So I got some orange juice (with bits, in case that matters), and some agar flakes. I was undecided between gelatine and agar, but vegetarian friends demanded agar, I guess in the misguided belief they’d get to eat some, which: lol no. I think agar is better, really, because I get a bit grossed out about ground-up bones if I think about gelatine too much. Also, it’s not like you an easily get hold of free-range gelatine, and I get weird visions about industrial farmed animals and all that stuff, because my brain likes to take unpleasant ideas and run with them. So agar it was, but that stuff is expensive. ¬£5, compared with about 70p for the same amount of gelatine. Oh well, it just means I’ll have to make lots of jelly, and I’ve already got ideas for that (green tea, maybe Pimm’s in the summer, ooh, maybe coconut milk).

I’d literally never made a jelly other than from blocks before, and I’d certainly never used agar. But I just had to boil up the orange juice with the agar flakes (1 tablespoon per cup/240 ml, fact fans) and then let it set. I used the cookie sheet again, because I needed it to be flat and thin. It worked better than I had hoped. It didn’t want to cool down at first, but I lost patience and shoved it in the fridge, and then it set within like ten minutes.

I took the cookie cutter one size down and cut out circles of jelly. It took a little while to work out how best to remove them, but in the end I worked out a method: slide the jelly circle onto a pallete knife, place the sponge circle on top of that, and then flip them over. A couple were a bit misshapen, but it was pretty successful.

Again, there was a lot of non-circle leftovers, and I confess that in this instance I just threw it away. Bad Joel. Wasteful.

Then I just melted down some pain chocolate in a bain marie. Well, I say bain marie. A cereal bowl over a pan of water, obviously. I didn’t want to try dipping two-part biscuits into hot chocolate, because they’d probably slide apart or melt or otherwise collapse, so I just painted it on with a pastry brush. They didn’t look the most delicate or anything, but it did work. They looked like this:

Kind of clumsy, but lookit! There’s a layer of orange jelly and everything! They tasted pretty good. The fresh orange worked against the richness of the chocolate to keep them from being too rich, and the sponge was light. Cooking it in the tray made it a bit crisper, which worked well; I was a bit worried they’d be too soft and collapse, but they didn’t.

I definitely need to work on my Presentation Skills, as India Fisher would undoubtedly say on Masterchef, but as a complete wild idea experiment, they were really successful. I know that I can cook from recipes, but it’s reassuring to know that I can try stuff from my own brain and it can work. It makes me think I can go further with baking, which is kind of cool.

Rosemary shortbread

Yup. Time to delve into the Flour cookbook again. I swear one day I’ll make something that isn’t by Joanne Chang..

The Book
Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe | Joanne Chang
(Chronicle Books, 2010)

The Recipe
Rosemary shortbread

The Reason
It was my mum’s birthday, so I wanted to bake something for her. She likes shortbread, and these seemed fun and interesting. Also, logistically, it’s hella easier to transport some biscuits than it is an iced cake. Or indeed any cake. Plus it was something I’d never tried before, and the whole point of this project i to get myself doing new things.

The Cooking
I have to say, in the absence of an electric mixer, I’m seriously glad that I had my little brainwave of microwaving the butter before trying to blend it in with the sugar. It’s hardly revolutionary and it’s not exactly got Heston Blumenthal quaking in his boots, but compared with beating and beating and beating to soften the butter, it’s amazing. Yes, I’m amazed that I can walk and chew gum at the same time, too. I’m learning.

Because they’re so buttery (obviously, being shortbread) you’ve got to chill the dough before you roll it out. It wasn’t really firming up though, so I whacked it in the freezer for a few minutes, which seemed to be a mistake, as the dough kept cracking and was still very sticky. But with a bit of reworking and a bit more flour thrown in, it got back to the right texture.

You’re meant to cut out regular shapes with a knife but I have zero confidence in my ability to get things consistent, so I just used a cookie cutter. The advantage was the regular size achieved; the disadvantage was the leftover dough after cutting out. I ended up throwing a bit away, because I’d already filled up three baking sheets with cookies and I didn’t want to do another batch, especially as I’d have to rechill the dough.

I needed to use a pallete knife to slide them off the counter onto the baking sheet. I’m not sure how I ever even tried to do baking without a pallete knife to be honest.

The Cooking
They look like this:

Yes, yes, I did put them on tissue paper and toss about some sprigs of rosemary in an attempt to get all food stylist in the hizzay. And what? In my defence, the tissue paper was to wrap them in to go into a gift bag for my mum. (Seriously. So much easier than a cake.)

Tastewise, the rosemary wasn’t really detectable. There was only a teaspoon in the whole mix, so I think I’d up that a bit in future. I was paranoid about undercooking, and as a result they got a wee bit overcooked, but not to the extent that it affected the taste.

I hate ‘melt in the mouth’, as a phrase, because it’s a cliche, and always sounds kind of gross and pervy. Nonetheless, that’s what they did. Which is perhaps unsurprising given that they’re about 75% butter. My mum liked them, so yay for that.

What I’m really liking about this whole project, though, is that it’s giving me a basis of solid recipes that I can experiment from. I’m probably going to do some lavender ones (to use up the lavender sugar that will otherwise sit there forever). And some coconut ones because coconut. Any other suggestions?

Maple sponge cake

Hooray! I decided to be inventive and it wasn’t a desperate failure.

I’d entered the ‘I want to make something and I don’t know what’ phase again, but then I had thought. I’d got almost a whole bottle of maple syrup left over from Shrove Tuesday (because maple syrup and bacon is the best thing to have on pancakes and I’ll cut anyone who says otherwise) and no real means of using it up.

So I made a basic sponge, and added a bit of maple syrup to the mix, just for ease of spreading in the tins, really. Then for the icing I made a buttercream and thinned it out with maple syrup. So yes, that’s butter, sugar, and then liquid tree-sugar basically. I ended up with so much icing that I managed to do a middle layer, and a crumb coat, and then fully ice it, sides included. I was only aiming for enough to keep the pecans on top.

Of course, I salted the cake batter and the icing, which was definitely a good thing. The salt, along with the slight smokiness in maple syrup means that it’s not too cloyingly sweet. Which is not to say that I can’t feel my arteries slamming shut after eating a piece, or that the sugar rush I’m feeling right now isn’t making me dizzy, or that I’m not fairly sure that I’m seeing unicorns. Because I can and it is and I am. Just that it doesn’t TASTE too sweet.

It looks like this:

I’m pretty pleased with it, to be honest. It’s not the wildest creation ever, but it’s something that I did without a recipe and it worked. I work without recipes all the time for savoury cooking, making sauces and what have you, but experimenting with baking is still pretty new. It gives me confidence to try more inventive stuff in future.

Back to basics

I’ve been cooking for a good twenty years, now, to one degree or another. Baking for less than that, and never really to the extent that I’m doing it now. But the fact remains that I’ve never made a basic sponge cake. I can make/have made polenta cake, meringues, pineapple upsidedown cake, red velvet cake, and then all the things I’ve blogged about – the creme brulee and the Oreos and so forth. But in the same way that I’ll happily put together Christmas dinner for six people but wouldn’t be that confident about boiling an egg (because ew, why would I want to do that?), I’ve run before I walked in terms of baking.

So, given that I hadn’t selected a recipe to make, and that I’m requiring myself to make at least one new thing a week, it seemed like a good idea to go back to the starting blocks. I used the BBC’s recipe because none of the books I have tell you something as basic as a sponge cake and I didn’t quite trust myself to just work it out.

It was mostly fine, but god damn do I need a hand mixer at bare minimum, if not a proper Magimix-style upright mixer. Creaming butter by hand gets tiring, and I’m going to end up with one enormous gross bicep, like some third-tier Marvel mutant, or Rafael Nadal. Of course, I thought it was a good idea to make a buttercream for the filling, rather than just whipped cream, because, well, I don’t really like cream. I used the same one from the the Oreos because it was simple, and tasty. Obviously I didn’t blend any peanut butter into this one. However, it did involve more creaming of butter and sugar, although that’s hella easier with icing sugar than caster.

Second problem was that the BBC recipe called for 7-inch cake tins and mine are 8-inch. There’s no way I’m traipsing about buying cake tins just for the purpose of one recipe at the best of times, let alone when London has been hit by APOCALYPTIC HORROR SNOW FROM THE DEPTHS OF SIBERIA as we apparently have. Obviously this meant that the cakes were wider and shallower than intended, which isn’t great, but isn’t the end of the world either. It does look a bit sad and flat, but in a way I prefer that to gigantic foot-high cake that you need to unhinge your jaw to eat.

Taste-wise, it’s good. Even though the sponge didn’t rise a lot, it’s still very light, and there’s a crispness at the edges that I really like. I’m not going to immortalise my flat-sponge shame with a photograph. I think next time I’ll do half as much again for everything, to make a deeper cake. Anyway, I’m glad to have the basic recipe under my belt for future reference. Hopefully I’ll eventually be one of those unbearable people who just ‘whips up a cake’ because they feel like it. Dare to dream.

What’s not to like about deep-fried chilli bread?

The Book
Red Hot Chilli Pepper| Jenni Fleetwood (ed)
(Anness Publishing, 2001)

The Recipe
Chilli Pooris

The Reason
I’ve had this book for like a decade. Like most of my cookbooks, it’s just sat in the cupboard, but as it is, I think, the first cookbook I bought of my own accord, it’s worth another look. I got it when my old housemate was a member of one of those weird book clubs that make you buy more books or they’ll steal your children. Considering its provenance, it’s not bad. Actually, that’s not fair; it’s a great book in its own right.

It’s got what I love in cookbooks, which is loads of background information. The origin of chillis, how to grow and store them, explanation of the Scoville scale, and so on and so on. Not all of it was new information to me, but it’s still nice to have it there. And to say the book is generously illustrated would be an understatement. Every recipe (140+) has colour photos, not just of the end result, but of the cooking stages as well. It’s the sort of book that makes me want to be a food photographer. (That is TOTALLY a job. Stop looking at me like that.)

I went for the chilli pooris because, well, they look good, and also because I wanted to make something savoury. Also, I figured just making a stir-fry or something was a bit lazy, so I should branch out. Also: it’s deep-fried chilli bread. What more recommendation do you need?

The Cooking
Yeah, I say that stir-fry is lazy and then make something that just involves making dough. I’m not exactly stretching myself to the culinary limit here. It seemed a remarkably small amount of chilli – half a teaspoon of chilli powder in half a pound of flour – but I guess they’re going for warmth without overpowering the flavour. The diced chilli fresh chilli should add a little kick, I guess.

I’m not good at deep-frying it turns out. It’s hard to keep the oil at an even temperature, for one. I was excited that I got to use my slotted spoon that I bought for the sole purpose of deep-frying. Such is what passes for excitement in my life. They all cooked well enough, although some got more done than others, as the oil get hotter despite my best efforts at moderating it. (I don’t know how anybody cooks on electric hobs. It was hard enough doing this with the instantly adjustable gas, doing it on a hob that retains the heat would be a pain in the arse. I guess the newest electric hobs are a lot better about that, but still. Gas all the way.

The result
They’re … fine. They don’t really deserve a photo. They’re just kind of little bread nuggets. They taste not bad. I think they need a bit more chilli powder, or some more herbs and spices, or something, if they’re going to be used as snacks. Oregano might be good. For an accompaniment to curry or even stews and stuff, I think they’d be really good.

And it’s occuring to me that they’re incredibly moreish, because I’m going to go and now stuff them in my mouth like a pig.