Category Archives: Cakes & desserts

Lebkuchen (my version)

Taking the leap, trusting the fall.
~ Dani Shapiro

These babies came to be because I wanted to bake with honey, and because my kitchen felt like being doused in Christmas perfume.

I used this recipe as a guide. While I doubt this is “authentic” lebkuchen, it does yield a bounty of beautiful-smelling bars which keep for a good length of time, becoming softer and lovelier each day.

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We had this meal three weeks ago, and I can still taste it

Some people have a sixth sense, and some are duds at it. I believe I must have it, because the moment I stepped into the house I felt a trembling along my skin, a traveling current that moved up my spine, down my arms, pulsing out from my fingertips. I was practically radiating. The body knows things a long time before the mind catches up to it. I was wondering what my body knew that I didn’t.
~ Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

It was like paprika occupied the wind and blew itself into my face, and dark chocolate took the shape of a willowy man and stood up to hug me. The limes were as sweet spring showers, the tortillas like warm fluffy blankets fresh from the dryer. It was smoky and mysterious, and I easily imagined the sound of foreign chants; of a mortar and pestle in use; of singing. Each bite further led my mind’s eye towards a secret chamber, towards the charred base of a solid black pot, towards a flickering flame…

The memory of this meal has been hovering on the brink of my consciousness for about three weeks now, ever since we ate it. Jian came back for a visit from the good US of A and cooked chicken mole for his family and I, you see, that was a treat to eat. Delicious food and amazing company – what’s not to like?! We sat at a table adorned with platters of chicken, mole paste, warm tortillas, fluffy rice, beans, salsa, cilantro, lime wedges – and had fun assembling our own mole parcels. I loved it, and was especially struck by how elusive the mole paste tasted, and by how beautiful and different everything tasted when they were combined. It was difficult to think about what I was eating in words. Suffice to say, the food was very delicious, tickled my imagination and made me smile :-)

After we had our fill of mole, Jian brought out a very pretty pastel de tres leches (or “three milk cake”) and we hastily commanded our stomachs to make room for dessert…

It looked to me like a sunny island in the middle of a white lake, and tasted like a cross between cheesecake and bread and butter pudding. Sweet, soft and decadent… mmmm!

Jian gave me some mole base and a few Mexican chocolate pellets which smell very exciting (gracias Jian!) and I certainly look forward to experimenting with them soon* :-)

* Though a little part of me would rather just eat Jian’s cooking, he is very talented in the kitchen.

If ever a routine is to claim my morning

Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and in high heels.
~ Faith Whittlesey

Some people have morning routines. I am not one of those people, except that I am loathe to begin any day without brushing my teeth/washing my face. But I don’t do morning runs, or yoga; I don’t stumble to the coffee pot or walk out the door at precisely 7.45 every morning.

If ever (however unlikely this “ever” is) I am to adopt a morning routine, I hope it’ll have something to do with sunrise and cooking. Honestly, cooking is one of the very few things I have ever felt wonderful waking up for at 6am. Not even catching an early bus to go to the airport makes me feel that way (and that is saying something, because I really like going to the airport to catch a plane).

This morning at 6.15, I skipped down the stairs two at a time, and headed into the kitchen. My corner of the world was still quiet and half hidden by shadows.

I baked, half feeling like I was in a trance, half feeling like dancing. Three eggs, propelled by my handheld mixer, whirled swiftly and became like custard. With a sharp knife, three peeled Bosc pears became quarters, then strips, then smooth white dice. I relaxed into the sweet, nutty scent of browned butter.

I dressed for work while my oven worked. Just after 7.40, the cake proclaimed that it was ready to pop out of the oven. I walked out the door while my kitchen waved goodbye, with the scent of chocolate, cake and the promise of a good day lingering at the doorway.

Recipe here.

P.S. I am very excited that my dear friend Tabitha arrives today!! (She has been hiding in Canada).

P.P.S. I keep forgetting to mention it, but you can now find me on Facebook, if that is your sort of thing!

Return of the (now rather pretty) ugly apple cake

The original, shimmering self gets buried so deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all. Instead we live out all the other selves, which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s weather.
~ Frederick Buechner

Right now, my head throbs like a wall has just slammed itself against me 50 times. It hurts. Both literally, and figuratively. I am angry with and thoroughly tired of pretense, pride, and people with a shaky set of principles/values. I want to say to Life, “oh why bother?” and storm off.

But I refrain (barely), because that isn’t a party I want to crash. There are moments like now at which my resolve to remain optimistic and true weakens, but I really want it to stay intact. Somehow.

Maybe I have a naïve sense of optimism, maybe the world says “grow up kid, and start joining in if you want to go somewhere”… but I can’t. I don’t know how. If being real means losing, then I suppose I’ll have to learn how to contend with loss. And I get tired of people with ugly hearts but I keep trying again for some bizarre reason that even I don’t understand. I remember I am far from perfect too. I remember that everyone carries their own pain. I try. I fail. I try to try again.

I find myself journeying sometimes repeatedly to the centre of disaster in a completely mad quest for truth, and from a belief that deep down people are still good before they are bad.

But can I just be honest about how I feel right this moment. I am exhausted. I doubt my own sanity. I wonder if maybe honesty just “doesn’t work” in some places, if people are actually really happier if they can sweep things under the carpet and leave them there to rot. I am tired of feeling empathy. I want to not care. I have temporarily lost the sense of optimism I woke up with today (6.30am, I was making caramel for the cake topping in my kitchen, and I was feeling happier than Maria singing on the hills).

Tomorrow will be better.

Hmm. This post is not conducive to a food blog, you are saying…… and yes of course you are right. I’m sorry. Will you accept cake as an apology?

It’s not my cake, it’s Tessa Kiros’s. And it’s got apples below and caramel on top :-)

Last night, I made the cake bit of Tessa Kiros’s apple cake with toffee topping (made the topping this morning). I was excited whilst making it because I thought it was a new recipe… and I am glad I didn’t realise I had made it before until I looked through my blog archives. If I had, I would have recalled the disaster it was last time and not discovered the recipe for what it’s meant to be (a lovely cake).

Funny, even as I conclude this post I realise that this cake is apt for today. It’s “try again” cake. If it turns out ugly the first time (and it may, if you have a funny oven and no electric beaters), try, try again.

And that’s all folks. I’ve got a very busy day tomorrow, so time to hit the sack. Have a beautiful Saturday filled with hope and perfect caramel!

Au revoir janvier, bonjour février!

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.
~ Frederick Buechner

If you’ve read my blog for a long, long time, you may recall (vaguely) that I once made a project of cooking through Tessa Kiros’s “Falling Cloudberries”. As it is, I reached #62 with her champagne risotto… and mysteriously fell off the cookbookwagon after that.

I still feel a little bad about that.

To be honest, I’m not sure if I’ll get around to completing that project. I’m considering the amount of $ that will go into this if I do it (and the resultant smaller budget for other things). I’m hesitant about the sound of a few recipes. I do not think I can afford to pour the necessary time into it if I am to live the rest of my life, love humans, see the light of day, work full time, and sleep too.

But if I find a friend who’ll force me to make stuffed fried herrings and then eat them with me, or a friend who will dry my tears as I burn my lingonberry jam crazy, perhaps I will pick up the project again. (Chances aren’t high though, if you must know).

In the meantime, I’m happy to share that I made something from her book, the first new Tessa-recipe I’ve attempted since… October 2010! Ding ding ding!
#63 Nut Meringue Cake with Whipped Cream – Page 268

I almost didn’t make it. When my eyes first fell on the phrase “you will need two springform tins that will fit in the oven at the same time”, I got ready to turn the page… you see, I’m a little afraid of sandwich cakes. Somehow I always imagine them turning into catastrophes… being too thin, looking stupid, getting uncomfortably “smooshy”, collapsing, etc.

But something about the recipe title caught my attention, too. “Nut meringue cake with whipped cream”… it definitely sounded like something different, something light and floaty and fun. Something challenging… I like challenging. Lastly, a two-tiered cake felt strangely apt for the day: saying bye to January and saying hello to February.

I followed Tessa’s recipe as best as I could (without kitchen scales) and modified a few things to use what I had (blueberries for raspberries, kahlua for vanilla essence, and 9″ cake tins in the absence of 8.5″ ones).

The two cakes came together pretty easily, especially with a handheld electric whisk that I still feel grateful for each time I see it! (Gone are the days of beating egg whites till my hand cries). The finished product was light-tasting, nutty and fragrant – and I like the cream and berries in the middle. I took it as a lovely compliment that most everyone ate and finished their slice even though we’d all already shared a marvellous carrot cake just before! (Yes, we ate two cakes in an evening).

The last picture in this post is courtesy a boy who made my cake blush with the number of pictures he took [so we could “tag” a girl on Facebook, who left early, and let her know that she missed cake]. (Thank you Daniel M).

Prune and apricot clafoutis

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
While the secret sits in the middle and knows.
~ Robert Frost

It is my friend Jane who caused me to take a second look at prunes.

She made a marvellous stovetop lamb tagine once, and from then on I no longer regarded prunes as ugly things prescribed to people battling with constipation. No… despite their dull appearance, they shone in that dish. They were rich and mysterious, exotic and strangely exciting. Sticky-sweet and tinged with a faint liqueur-like flavour. In my imagination they are a little like intoxicated summer fruits waltzing in winter coats.

Incidentally, Jane is also the girl who introduced me to the world of tagines long before I visited Morocco (and in my memory, her tagines rival the ones I tasted there). She didn’t have a tagine pot, but she made beautiful tagines just in a deep saucepan on an electric stove…

Mmmm… I can still remember my first taste of that delicious prune and spice-flavoured lamb. The meat fell gently off the bone with minimal coercion, the moist prunes collapsed clumsily and sweetly as soon as they passed from the fork to my mouth, and everything tasted of love and distant lands.

Somehow, prunes haven’t made their way to my kitchen very much. I’ve eaten them in restaurants once or twice (with duck), and I’ve taken them to work as snack food on occasion, but I can’t remember the last time I cooked with them at home. I guess I also regard them as one of those things that people can have Strong Feelings about, and thus omit them when cooking with/for others (this group of evocative food includes mushrooms, offal, lentils, red bean and eggplants – some of my friends’ faces seem to nearly change colour when I even mention those things).

So recently the prunes called out to me from their home in the baking aisle in the supermarket, and I bought a pack of them without knowing what I was going to do with them. As it is, I cooked them with lamb chops the other night and enjoyed that (though I still prefer Jane’s lamb!) – and I had a faint idea of making something sweet with them…

This morning, I woke up wanting to make something for my friend E but unsure of what to make. Various pruney ideas paraded through my mind, but nothing seemed right… till I chanced upon Molly Wizenberg’s recipe for black plum clafoutis. I hadn’t tried clafoutis before, but I was inspired reading this and so my prune and apricot clafoutis experiment came to be.

Verdict: I’ll make clafoutis again, but I won’t make it exactly this way again. E seemed to like it, but I liked the “clafoutis” part of it (somewhere in between custard/milk tart/a soufflé) better than the prunes and apricots in it, as the fruits were still more chewy than tender. I think it would work brilliantly with fresh fruit, or if I had soaked the prunes and apricots for longer. Might try soaking dried fruit overnight next time!

    Prune and apricot clafoutis
    Inspired by Orangette
    Ingredients:
    olive oil or butter, for greasing
    1 cup prunes (or use other fruit)
    1 cup dried apricots (or use other fruit)
    juice of half a lemon
    1 cup dessert wine or brandy (I used a dessert wine – thanks Jono for this!)
    1/4 cup + 1 tbsp caster sugar
    pinch of salt
    3 eggs
    1 tbsp vanilla
    1 cup milk
    1/2 cup flour
    icing sugar
    Method:
    Place the apricots and prunes in a small bowl and pour the lemon juice and wine over them. Cover the bowl with cling film and refrigerate for 40 minutes (I think it would be better if you soaked them for longer though! See note above).
    Preheat the oven to 170°C. Lightly grease a 9-inch pie dish with olive oil or butter. Set aside.
    In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs and the sugar until the mixture turns pale yellow (approximately 1 minute). Then add in the vanilla, salt and milk, and whisk further to combine. Sprinkle the flour over the mixture with your fingers and continue to whisk till you have a smooth batter.
    Using a slotted spoon, take out the prunes and apricots from the wine and arrange them in a single layer in the bottom of the pie dish. Pour the batter over gently and evenly across the fruits. Do not stir.
    Bake the clafoutis for around 45 minutes or until puffed and golden around the edges. Then remove the clafoutis from the oven, and allow it to cool for at least 20 minutes. Dust with icing sugar just before serving.

I’m also submitting this entry for Sweet New Zealand, hosted this month by Arfi at HomemadeS by Arfi. Click here to join in the Sweet NZ fun!

Heute haben wir für Euch eine Linzer Torte

I’ll obey them in the winter when the doctors say to me
I must give up ham and spinach, and obedient I’ll be.
To relieve my indigestion in December they can try,
But there’s none of them can stop me when it’s time for cherry pie.
~ Edgar A. Guest, The Milwaukee Journal, 1935 May 29

In a previous job, we hired a sweet intern Susanne who once brought in a delicious linzer torte to share. She gave me her recipe before she returned to Germany, but somehow I never got around to making it… for three whole years!

I was most delighted to rectify this linzer torte situation today with my friend Gudrun, who showed me how to make it with a recipe she got from her friend. (Incidentally, Gudrun makes yummy treats in the form of design goodies too – she made the header on my blog!) :-)

Just for fun, here is a rough step-by-step guide to making linzer torte:

First, you reduce some hazelnuts to a fine grind (we used a blender)…

Next, measure the flour and other ingredients (oh kitchen scales – what a luxury! I think I should consider getting some.)

Make a mini volcano with the flour, placing everything else in its centre (we did this, the photo below is lying…)

Then you need to be harsh and furious, attacking everything with a knife or two. Certainly a new move in my baking repertoire!

When the butter and dry ingredients have mingled for a while and gotten to know each other a little better, knead the dough with your hands till you find yourself with a lovely mound of nutty, sweet-smelling dough. It should be moist but not elastic/sticky like bread dough. Nutty bits may fall off – that is okay. Just gather it all in a bowl and put it in the fridge to chill for a while. The dough will be easier to work with when cold.

In the meantime, grease your cake tin (or in our case, one cake tin and two muffin trays).

Let your pastry cutter go skating in the flour across your benchtop (strictly optional).

When the dough is nice and cold, take it out from the fridge. Lightly flour your benchtop/rolling pin, and roll approximately 2/3 of the dough into a thin sheet. You may wish to roll it in between two sheets of baking paper if it’s all too sticky. (A note here: we found the dough quite fragile, so we rolled out the dough for the muffin trays before lining them, but used a combination technique of rolling and patting the dough to get it into the cake tin).

Line your muffin trays and/or cake tin with dough, and add in spoonfuls of jam.

Use the remaining dough to decorate your linzer torte. We cut little stars out for the muffin-sized linzer torte, and strips for the cake-sized one (photos below).

Lay the little stars on top of the muffin-sized jam beds and dot the doughy bits with egg yolk… (a note here: we ran out of egg yolk for the second tray of muffin-sized linzer torte, and there was a marked difference in colour between the two trays of baked linzer torte – refer to the photo near the top of this post. I can’t decide which I prefer, but I think our free range eggs are very yellow…).

This is what we did with the cake-sized one:

We rolled the dough for the strips in between two sheets of baking paper, cut it into strips with a pastry cutter, then carefully attempted to place them nicely on top of the prepared base in the cake tin.

It was A LOT harder than it looks. You need confident and graceful fingers (Gudrun has them – I’m working on it).

Finally, everything was ready to go into the oven. We baked the muffin-sized ones for around 30 minutes, and the cake-sized one for the recommended 45.

The house smelled lovely and sweet… we took the baked fruits of our labour out of the oven when they turned golden and left them to cool.

After baking all afternoon, it was time for a snack. Gudrun’s red cabbage was soft, comforting and gently scented with notes of cloves and nutmeg – amazing!

We went for a walk.

And then we had afternoon tea with N and H.

Complete with coffee, tea and cream.

Yes, it was every bit as good as it looks here. Perhaps better.

The original recipe is as follows (I typed this from a printed sheet and I don’t speak/read German, so please forgive any errors):

    Linzer Torte
    Zutaten:
    250g Mehl
    1 TL Backpulver
    250g Margarine oder Butter
    250g Zucker
    150g Haselnüsse, fein gemahlen
    1 EL Kakao
    1 EL Zimt
    1 EL Rum
    1 Messerspitze Nelkenpulver
    1 Glas Himbeermarmelade (250g)
    1 Eigelb zum Bestreichen
    Zubereitung:
    Mürbteig herstellen…
    In der Mitte des Mehlbergs eine Mulde graben und alle anderen Zutaten drauf geben, mit zwei Messer zusammenhacken/mischen – dann mit den Händen weiterkneten. Wichtig: alle Zutaten sollten gut gekühlt sein, sonst bricht der Teig beim „Basteln” leicht.
    2/3 des Teigs zum Boden verarbeiten und in eine gefettete (oder mit Backpapier ausgelegte), runde Springform legen und mit Marmelade bestreichen.
    1/3 des Teigs für 1cm breite Streifen (Gittermus-ter siehe Foto – den Außenrand nicht vergessen). Diese Streifen vorsichtig oben drauf geben und mit dem Eigelb einpinseln.
    Bei 160°C für 45 Minuten backen.
    Und Guten Appetit!

And this is the recipe in English, I have added in a few notes.

    Linzer Torte
    Ingredients:
    (Note: we used 1.5 times of everything so we could make one cake-sized linzer torte and 12 muffin-sized ones)
    250g flour
    1 tsp baking powder
    250g margarine or butter (we used unsalted butter, cubed)
    250g sugar
    150g hazelnuts, finely ground
    1 tbsp cocoa
    1 tbsp cinnamon
    1 tbsp rum (we used brandy)
    1 pinch ground cloves
    250g raspberry jam
    1 egg yolk, for brushing the top (you may need 2 if you make as much as we did)
    Method:
    Preheat the oven to 160°C.
    Make the pastry:
    Pour the flour onto a clean benchtop, or on a large chopping board if you don’t have a metal bench like we did. Make a well in the centre, pour all the other ingredients into the well, then use a knife or two to chop/mix it all. Once you have everything looking pretty fine and well mixed, knead it with your hands. Place the dough into a bowl and chill it in the fridge – we only put ours in the fridge for 15 minutes, but it could do with longer so it doesn’t break when you work with it later.
    Press 2/3 of the dough into a greased (or lined) round springform pan (and two muffin trays if using), and spread jam across the bases. The sides will rise a little during baking, so you don’t need to make the edges too high.
    For the cake-sized linzer torte: cut some of the remaining dough into 1cm-wide strips (we made slightly wider strips so we didn’t have to lay as many strips across the top – it was rather fragile)! Carefully lay 3 or 4 strips across the linzer torte, then another 3 or 4 strips at a 45 degree (or in our case, almost 90 degree) angle to the other strips. Brush the rim and dough with egg yolk. We used a star-shaped cookie cutter to cut out stars for the muffin-sized linzer torte, but you can decorate these however you wish.
    Bake the cake-sized linzer torte for 45 minutes, and the muffin-sized ones for around 30 minutes – or until the dough is nicely golden and your house smells heavenly.
    Serve with thickened cream, coffee and tea – Und Guten Appetit!

Danke Gudrun!