Easy, Morning or Afternoon Tea, Sweet

Gratitude / Chocolate, Caramel & Marshmallow Cookies

“Some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses.” Alphonse Karr

Something I’ve been struggling to write about, mostly because my tightlipped Britishness isn’t sure how, is the incredibly kind words sent to me over the past few months. Scores of The Imperfect Kitchen readers sent me messages, either on the blog or by private message and I read each of them frequently during my time away from here.

DSC_1181

I didn’t respond to any individually. I’m still unsure how to express my gratitude appropriately, convinced that each would have turned into some awkwardly gushy tome of thanks. I’m sorry if you were hoping for a response to your notes and hope that it’s sufficient to write here that every single one of your messages meant the world and were one of the things that kept me waking into the possibility of light each day.

I shouldn’t be surprised by now that the world is full of wonderful people. And I should be even less surprised that my readers and fellow-bloggers are some of the most thoughtful. I’m not nearly as competent at expressing my thanks as I want to be. But if a little warmth sinks into your heart today and you find yourself smiling for no real reason — that might just be a tiny piece of my gratitude seeking you out.

DSC_1246

As a small offering of thanks before I start writing in earnest again; here’s a very favourite recipe that I often play with liberally from Paris Pastry Club for you all to share with those whose kindness means something to you. Or may be with those you would like to introduce to a little more kindness. These cookies are charmingly soft in the middle and slightly crunchy on the outside, almost like brownies. The marshmallow is sweet and gooey, counteracting the almost sharp sweetness from the dark chocolate; and sitting unobtrusively in the middle, comforting and cradling, is the caramel. If I could bake these for each of you and share them over a cup of coffee at my kitchen table, I’d be one happy lady.

Until then, enjoy.

  • 100g (3 ½ oz) dark chocolate, chopped into chunks
  • 3 tbl sp dulce de leche (if you can’t find any in the shops, here’s a link to a couple of ways you can make your own)
  • 1 tbl sp unsalted butter
  • 90g (3 oz) plain (all purpose) flour
  • ¼ tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • 1 egg
  • 75g (2 ½ oz) light brown sugar
  • 24 mini marshmallows

Preheat the oven to 200˚C / 390˚F and line a baking sheet with baking paper

Place the chocolate, dulce de leche and butter in a large heatproof bowl set over simmering water until melted (you can also do this in the microwave, just be careful not to burn the chocolate)

Set the bowl aside to cool down slightly

Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl

Beat the egg and sugar in a separate bowl for a few minutes, or until light and fluffy

Gently fold in the melted chocolate mix

Working quite quickly, tip in the flour mixture and mix well with a wooden spoon

The dough will feel quite sticky and soft so use a couple of teaspoons to shaped into 12 walnut-sized balls and arrange them on the prepared baking sheet. Place two mini marshmallows in each ball and press down slightly

Turn down the oven heat to 170˚C / 340˚F and place the tray in the oven to bake for 10 minutes

The cookies should still be soft and their tops will be slightly cracked

Leave to cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes before transferring to a serving plate

I have no idea how long these last in an airtight container, they’ve never lasted anywhere near that long in my house. Please feel free to let me know if you ever manage to find out…

Standard
Dessert, Easy, Sweet

Lover’s Ache / Hot Chocolate, Orange & Szechuan Pepper Cake

“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back.”
Plato

I wander into one of my regular cafés and catch the eye of the barista. He’s the young surfer-dude stereotype; soft drawling voice, small scruffy goatee and dark hair cropped at chin length. I followed him here about 6 months ago from another café where he used to work. He’s just that good at making my drug of choice. We chat, as usual. He’s quiet, a little dampened. His fun and flirty banter doesn’t have its normal sparkle.

“What up?” I ask, “You look pretty flat.”

He sighs, ducking his head and looking up at me from eyes that I’d never before thought to meet, “Really? I mean, you really want to know? Cos I could seriously blurt today.”

I laugh, thinking if only he knew about the thoughts that whirl madly around my head on a daily basis, “Give me your best shot.”

Hot Chocolate, Orange & Szechuan Pudding - TIK

He sighs heavily, silent while grinding the beans and sliding the coffee basket into place before starting the machine, then glances around the cafe to make sure we’re alone, “It’s a girl. An ex.”

“Ah. The worst.”

“Yeah, well, we broke up, y’know, two months ago. I mean, I broke it off man, y’know? I was so into her and she just brushed me off all the time. So, I ended it. Thought it was okay, and she’d started seeing someone else, so y’know, time to move on.”

He breathes in deeply and stares at the last drips of coffee spilling into my cup.

“But, y’know, we got together again, a few weeks ago. And, ahhh man, I just love her man. I just fucking love her.”

His pain’s almost tangible as it comes up for air, his usual professionally shallow cheer swallowed down low. It’s tempting to dismiss his feelings as a naivety of youth, but he’s so raw and aching that I just ask whether he’d said anything to her.

DSC_0522

“Yeah man, I told her. I told her. She didn’t say anything. She’s still seeing this other guy, y’know? I dunno what to do. All my friends say I was so unhappy with her, but I love her, I just dunno.”

He huffs a small laugh, attempting to insert social acceptability into a pain that rarely shows in public, “Whatever man. Doesn’t matter. Fuck love, right? It’s all Hollywood bullshit anyway.”

I try to tell him that it does matter but he barely hears me, pride and vulnerability fighting for the same spot in his heart. There’s more silence as he steams the milk and swirls it gently. He suddenly leans back against the wall, continuing to stare at the milk like it’s holding more answers than dairy ever really could, before looking up at me, his uncertainty shining through. And in that moment, he’s not a surfer-dude barista, he’s a vulnerable and slightly fractured twenty-something man looking for the safety of certainty and not sure when he’d drifted so far from it, “What should I do man? Should I just give up? I just don’t know what to do.”

I look inside for wisdom and find myself severely lacking. We’re silent again as he pours milk over the coffee and pushes the cup my way. And, as I start to stumble over words that feel wholly inadequate, someone walks into the cafe and he quickly buttons back up his soul, flipping out the hospitality frontman routine. He’s good at it too, before long he and the other customer are laughing and chatting; you can barely see the pain leaking out, like an old ballpoint pen in his shirt pocket.

DSC_0636

I take my coffee and he vaguely waves at me as I wander out the door. And all through the day, the conversation keeps popping into my mind and I think about how much love aches, and how incredible it is, and how bloody confusing it can be and I decide that this bake’s going to be about the love that’s unspoken in Hollywood movies. The sweet, satisfying and bitter flavours of dark chocolate, layered with the light bite of orange and finally, szechuan pepper — both smoking for the good times and numbing for the bad. And all of them in innocuous little molten cakes, so innocent looking until your first bite of incredible, explosive, unforgettable flavour.

Enjoy.

  • 185g (6.5oz) dark chocolate
  • 185g (6.5oz) unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 6 tbl sp caster sugar
  • 3 tsp plain (all purpose) flour
  • Zest from 1 large orange
  • 1 tsp szechuan pepper

Preheat the oven to 230˚C / 450˚F and grease 6 moulds or ramekins

In a small saucepan, dry toast the szechuan pepper for 2-3 minutes until the aroma is wafting up and they are just threatening to smoke. Remove from the stove and grind into a fine powder using a pestle and mortar

Break the chocolate into small pieces and melt with the butter, either in the microwave or over the stove.

In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs, yolks and sugar until thick and fluffy

Whisk in the chocolate and orange zest

Working quickly but carefully, fold in the plain flour and szechuan pepper

Divide the mix evenly between each mould and bake for about 8-10 minutes, until the outside is set and the centre is still soft

Turn each pudding onto a plate and carefully remove the moulds

Serve immediately with double (heavy) cream, ice cream or crème fraîche

Eat fearlessly…

Standard
Morning or Afternoon Tea, Super Easy, Sweet

Six Dollar Man / Peanut Butter, Chocolate & Shortbread Blondies

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Plato

I met a guy at the petrol station this morning. Dark haired, Mediterranean heritage, wiry body. He jittered constantly, as those on large doses of speed do; his hands, eyes, legs and speech all falling over each other for attention.

He was standing in front of me in the queue to pay, quibbling over the cost of cigarettes and repeatedly asking about newspapers.

“How much are the cigarettes?… 25 dollars? But I’ve only got 23!… I’ll give you 23 for the cigarettes and the newspaper. Although I need two newspapers don’t I? What if I miss some news?… What?… No! I said I’d give you 23! I don’t have 29, I only have 23!… But I need them… Nonononononono, I need them.”

Peanut Butter, Chocolate & Shortbread Blondies - TIK

With four people behind me and the guy becoming increasingly agitated, I lean forwards and offer to add another 6 dollars onto my petrol.

The attendant looks relieved and immediately takes my card. The speeding guy spins around and peers closely at me, “Thanks mate. Thanks so much. I wouldn’t normally accept but I got to get them, see? I’m on my way to my parole officer. Just out of jail. Yup, just last week out of jail.”

I smile at him and start typing in my pin as he peers a little closer, “Hey mate, I know you, don’t I? Yes! I never forget a face! I know you from somewhere! Where is it?”

Peanut Butter Chocolate & Shortbread Blondies - TIK

I finish paying and look over at him. He looks vaguely familiar, but in the way that all strangers who insist they know you look vaguely familiar, “Maybe,” I say, “are you local?”

“Nope.” he jitters, “Nopenopenope. Not me. Just out of prison. Just out. Been in a long time this time. Ha! Got out though, yes I did! Hey! Are you on the prison board?”

“No.” I smile, watching the index and middle fingers of his left hand as they tap a furious, syncopated rhythm on his thigh, “When did you go in though? May be we knew each other before?”

He suddenly rears up on his toes and squeals in excitement, “Yes! Yesyes! I knew I knew you! You know Dave and Linda! And plumber Ron! You! I know you!”

Peanut Butter chocolate and shortbread blondes - TIK

And it hits me who he is. Eight years ago I was living with a woman called Linda, who was friends with a guy called Dave. We spent a bit of time together and he had a friend called Frank who would occasionally come along. Dave was worried about Frank because he was drinking too much and had just started taking drugs. Dave said that Frank was a guy who couldn’t help how much he drank once he started and became nasty after too many beers. Frank’s job as a high powered executive in an advertising firm was under threat because he’d attacked a client when drunk, and his wife was threatening to leave.

Eight years later, this man standing in front of me; just out of jail, off his head on speed at 10 in the morning, without enough money to buy cigarettes, was practically unrecognisable from the successful family man I’d been introduced to so many years previously.

“Ah!” he shouts, pointing at the road, “My bus’s here! Gotta go see my parole officer! Yupyup, gotta go! Good to see you mate! I never forget a face!”

And he runs down the road, cigarettes firmly clasped in one hand, the other waving frantically at the bus headed away from him, his flannel shirt ripped from armpit to stomach, his trousers held up by string.

Peanut Butter, Chocolate & Shortbread Blondies - TIK

I climbed slowly into my car, all worries and plans about my life temporarily stilled. And sent out a quiet word to whichever powers in the universe save us from the worst of ourselves, asking them to show him as much love as they could spare this day.

And then I came home and slowly made this bake. I’d planned something complex and a bit flamboyant this week. But in the end my heart needed simple and loving. Something to still the ache for those who haven’t managed to make it through this day without a painkiller for their soul. Something that reminds me of where I came from — and of where I am.

Enjoy.

Print this recipe

  • 150g unsalted butter, softened
  • 225g peanut butter (I’ve used both crunchy and smooth in this recipe and either work well)
  • 260g light brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1½ tsp vanilla essence
  • 185g plain (all purpose) flour
  • 1½ tsp baking powder
  • A pinch of salt
  • 100g great quality white chocolate, chopped roughly into small pieces (today I used Green & Blacks. Dark or milk chocolate also work well)
  • 100g shortbread, roughly broken into chunks slightly bigger than the chocolate, about the size of a fingertip

Preheat the oven to 170˚C / 325˚F

Grease a 20 x 20cm (8 x 8 inch) square cake tin and line with baking paper

In a large bowl, cream the butter and peanut butter together until very soft. Add the sugar, eggs and vanilla and continue to beat until completely incorporated

Combine the flour, baking powder and salt and gently fold into the peanut butter mix until just combined

Separate half the mix into another bowl and carefully stir in the shortbread

Stir the chocolate into the remaining half

Spoon the shortbread mix into the prepared tin and spread right to the edges before adding the chocolate mix on top and smoothing with a palette knife

Bake in the oven for 35-40 minutes, or until golden brown and almost firm in the centre (always err on the side of caution here, slightly underdone is gorgeously fudgy and definitely preferable to overdone)

Allow to cool in the tin, before removing and cutting into squares

Eat. Smile. Repeat.

Standard
Easy, Morning or Afternoon Tea, Sweet

Making the Grade / Maltesers Madeleines

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Nelson Mandela

This blog is about the inspirations and struggles of life and this week, a school in central London provided the perfect inspiration to write about a group of people, and one in particular, who I think are dedicated, passionate and wonderfully human.

If you don’t live in England, you may not be aware that national exam results for schools came out this week. It was the first time I paid much attention to the announcements — because my sister’s year at King Solomon Academy in central London, also the school’s inaugural year group, were receiving their grades.

Maltesers Madeleine - TIK

Here’s the thing about my sister’s school; it’s an organisational model of education that didn’t exist in England until only a few years ago. And because of that all the children receiving results yesterday, living in the poorest ward in London were, according to statistics like the one below, almost completely guaranteed to fail at school. 58% of her year’s students receive free school meals (children living below the poverty line receive free meals in Britain) and over 75% don’t speak English at home.

A universal and heartbreaking statistic about education is the more free meals in a school (ie: the more poverty), the greater the rate of failure in exams. It’s a well known and much debated fact.

Graph of Doom...

Graph of Doom…

There are lots of opinions and shouty people talking about this. I’m not going to add my voice to theirs, because what I want to tell you about today is my personal experience of watching my sister and her friends from Teach First who, in their 20s, started working with the ARK Foundation to build a school and education model from the ground up into a game-changer of British education.

These teachers regularly worked over 100 hours a week, teaching for 41 weeks a year. They were usually up at 5 each morning and worked until midnight almost every day for the last 5 years. My sister would be at the houses of her students frequently; calming parents while convincing her more intractable students out of bed and into the classroom. She spent hours reassuring parents who couldn’t speak English and so felt utterly overwhelmed, while desperately caring for their children’s happiness and success. And in frequent phone and email conversations with politicians and journalists as the idea of their school caught on. All that before she taught a single English lesson.

Maltesers Madeleines - TIK

During regular sessions from their first term onwards, the teachers set aside time to teach basic skills like how to get on and off a bus politely, how to hold a knife and fork, how to behave in public, how to speak in job interviews. When older, the students went on field trips to universities, theatres and concerts; they learned to play musical instruments (one of my favourite memories of my sister is hearing of her weeping incoherently as she watched her students perform in their first orchestral concert).

A large percentage of students had low levels of literacy when they came into her English classroom at 11, and the poverty-stricken local community struggles with all the usual crime and drug problems, based on their poverty alone academic failure can seem assured. But this isn’t just any group of teachers and, based on their principle of ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goals’ my sister had her students put on a full production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth when they were 12. In case you’re wondering, they rocked it. I visited one of her English classes when these students were 13, they were reading classical Greek literature and debating philosophy.

And they have so much fun. The teachers make up chants for the whole school to learn, they set the world record for the largest number of people rolling numbers, they create times table rock stars, students and teachers also Harlem Shake pretty well…

Amongst the successes were profound challenges. I can’t count the number of times my sister wept on the phone to me about a student’s living conditions, about the personal struggles some of them were experiencing, about her utter exhaustion, about the fear that maybe it wasn’t going to work and they were going to fail the kids — it was never once about her, always about the students she’d come to care for so deeply.

So this week, as her year group received Britain’s highest results ever for a school with over 50% of free lunches; and 93% of students received five A* to C grades, guaranteeing them places in further education and beating top private schools at the core subjects, I’m filled with overwhelming admiration for the tenacity and passion of these young teachers and their students. And I’m about the proudest big sister in the whole world.

A surely-as-inspiring idea I had this week were these chocolate, malt and honey madeleines… I was on the way to a completely different recipe and just wasn’t happy with it, before I was suddenly struck by a memory of my sister and I as children eating almost our entire body weight in maltesers before causing havoc with our sugar highs. It’s a lovely childhood memory and I wanted to honour both it and her.

Enjoy.

Maltesers Madeleines - TIK

  • 90g unsalted butter, very soft
  • 100g caster (superfine) sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • a pinch of sea salt
  • 80g plain (all purpose) flour
  • 20g cacao powder (if you don’t have cacao, a dark cocoa will work as well)
  • 10g powdered malt (I use Horlick’s)
  • ½ tsp baking powder

Cream the butter with a tablespoon of the sugar

Whisk the remaining sugar with the eggs and a pinch of salt in a separate bowl until light and fluffy

Hand whisk together the flour, cocoa, malt and baking powder in a separate bowl before gently folding into the egg and sugar mix

Scoop a third of the batter into the butter and whisk vigorously

Transfer into the remaining batter and fold very gently

Scrape the batter into a plastic piping bag and chill for at least 3 hours or up to 3 days

Preheat the oven to 220˚C / 430˚F

Butter a madeleine pan and dust with cocoa powder

Snip a small (8mm) hole from the tip of the piping bag and pipe the batter three-quarters of the way up the prepared moulds

Reduce the oven temperature to 180˚C / 350˚F and bake for about 15 minutes, until the edges are slightly crisp

Remove from the oven and leave to cool for a few minutes in the pan before turning out onto a wire rack

While the madeleines are still slightly warm, pop the piping nozzle of the honey malt cream (recipe below) into the mound of each baked madeleine and squeeze about a heaped teaspoon’s worth of the cream into each madeleine while slightly wiggling the nozzle to get into all the spongy crannies

Dust with icing sugar and serve immediately, while still beautifully warm

Honey Malt Cream

  • 80g double (heavy) cream, cold
  • 15g powdered malt (again, I use Horlick’s)
  • 30g set honey
  • Seeds from 1 vanilla pod

Place all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and whisk until the cream is super thick and all ingredients are well combined

Maltesers Madeleines portrait - TIK

Standard
Dessert, Not So Easy, Sweet

Unfulfilled by Unicorn Rides and Jazzy Hands / Caramel Chocolate Ganache Tart

I wrote last week about finding a reconnection with helpless laughter by singing and dancing to cheesy music. This week, I’ve been thinking a lot, after reading a thought provoking post from Kelly over at This Mom Gig, about the change that’s come over me in the last ten years that I was able to unselfconsciously sing and dance terribly, let alone write openly about it.

I then saw that Jon Richardson (a wonderful, occasionally vulnerable British comedian) is going to start filming a show where he travels around England to find how to grow into a ‘happy adult’. I ended up reading a little further and it looks like he’s not mindlessly jumping on the happy bandwagon, but for a moment I felt an insensible rage at this insistence of constant happiness, like a drug that’s only owned by a lucky few and we all have to scrabble for the best dealer we can possibly find.

I spent so many years knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that something was wrong with me. That I had already failed as a human because I didn’t have a cloak of happiness always swept around me. That those who appeared in magazines, on television, in self help books and on the posters that adorned my walls had cracked the secret to eternal happiness and that, if I could just watch and follow them closely enough, then the constant fear and occasional emptiness and therefore obvious failure of my existence would be swept up into a sparkly mass of unicorn rides and jazzy hands.

What seems to have been at the base of my happiness misunderstanding was a belief that negative feelings were unacceptable and something to be feared. I’d spent years pushing down my feelings of depression, rage, ineptitude and failure to the point that I didn’t even know where to start being happy, other than hide everything I felt was the real me and only ever leave the house with an emotional mask in the contorted shape of happiness.

Lots of gurus promise eternal happiness, but I cast-iron guarantee you that the only reason you believe them is because you don’t know them. You haven’t had the opportunity to see the darkness that always pairs with light. They’re as imperfect as you and me and just as prone to the emptiness that they promise you can beat if you just buy their books and sign up to their podcasts and do a month of healing at the low, introductory price of $99.

They’re lying, or they’re insensibly stupid. I suspect the former, as they’re smart enough to make a business out of happiness. They have to lie to make a living and I feel sorry for them that that’s their life. But they’re making our lives more miserable by insisting that we’re doing something wrong and for that I don’t like them very much at all.

The truth is that life is frequently hard for everyone, and often full of things like washing the dishes, sorting out whites from coloureds for the washing machine and eyeing the fly that’s currently close enough to you that you feel uncomfortable, but not quite close enough to swat away.

Challenges are mostly there to be lost, especially when we’re young. Exams and friendships are to be failed horribly. And relationships are to be screwed up so badly you don’t even want to walk in the same country as that person for the 5 years it takes to stop wanting to hide under the floor every time you think about that last, dramatically pathetic, begging conversation (totally happened to me. Twice). It’s what makes life and people interesting. It’s what makes us relatable. It’s what makes us funny as hell.

Because here’s the rub about perennially happy people — I really don’t like them, and I’ll bet you don’t either. They’re annoying; like a really needy puppy — it looks like something you want in your life on first smitten glance, but after a short amount of time you will want to give it back. And they’re hopelessly unrealistic and unsympathetic; there are a couple of people I know who, no matter what’s happened, breathily utter something like, “You’re so lucky that you have the opportunity to walk through this.” I want to slap them when it’s about a parking ticket, but I know that one of them once said it to a mutual friend whose partner had just committed suicide. They’re not better than other people for their Pollyanna approach to life, they’re just more irritating and boring.

Happiness is a momentary feeling, sometimes of a few days or weeks, but more often it’s a fleeting moment when you finally learn all the words to the Frozen theme song, or your child’s singing Old MacDonald Had a Farm on his own for the first time. The reason it doesn’t last for longer is because it’s not meant to. It’s just one feeling out of many, and we’re evolved and capable of feeling them all.

Now, please don’t take the above to read that I’m saying there’s something wrong with being happy. I love feeling happy. But it’s only by fully engaging with all my emotions that my happiness has become completely free from the hangups that come from pretending it’s the only worthwhile emotion. I’ve quoted this passage before on my blog, but it seems relevant to quote it again

“But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing floor.
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.”

He’s saying you’re going to be really boring if you only allow for the good bits. Don’t do it. There’s far too much life to be had in living a full, painful, messy, fun-filled life.

Speaking of full lives, I made a chocolate caramel ganache tart this week. The filling’s another one from the very talented head pastry chef, Chloë Thomas, at Stokehouse restaurant. I was going to save this one for later in the year, but I made these during the week and they were so delicious I just couldn’t resist.

Enjoy.

Puff Pastry

  • 250g strong plain flour
  • 1 tsp fine sea salt
  • 250g butter, at room temperature, but not soft
  • about 150ml cold water

Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Roughly break the butter in small chunks, add them to the bowl and rub them in loosely. You need to see bits of butter

Make a well in the bowl and pour in about two-thirds of the cold water, mixing until you have a firm rough dough adding extra water if needed. Cover with cling film and leave to rest for 20 mins in the fridge

Turn out onto a lightly floured board, knead gently and form into a smooth rectangle. Roll the dough in one direction only, until 3 times the width, about 20 x 50cm. Keep edges straight and even. Don’t overwork the butter streaks; you should have a marbled effect

Fold the top third down to the centre, then the bottom third up and over that. Give the dough a quarter turn (to the left or right) and roll out again to three times the length. Fold as before, cover with cling film and chill for at least 20 mins before rolling to use (you only need half for this recipe so save the rest for up to 3 months in the freezer for other recipes – like the delicious Imperfect Kitchen roasted garlic and pumpkin recipe!)

Lightly dust your rolling surface and roll out to about 3cm thickness

Spray olive oil on four 12cm tart tins with loose bottoms (or use melted butter)

Using a the tart cases as a guide, cut 4 rough circles, slightly bigger than the tins

Line each tart case with a pastry circle, ensuring you press into the edges along the bottom of the ring, before pricking the base of the pastry a couple of times with a fork

Freeze for at least 30 minutes

Preheat oven to 180˚C / 350˚F

Blind bake the pastry cases for 10-15 minutes until the cases are dry. Remove the baking beans (or rice, coins, or whatever you’re using) and continue to bake for another 10-15 minutes until the pastry is a satisfying golden brown

Remove from the oven and set aside to cool

Chocolate Caramel Filling

  • 500g single (pouring) cream
  • 600g dark chocolate
  • 400g milk chocolate
  • 400g caster sugar
  • 100g unsalted butter
  • ½ tsp salt

Heat the cream and salt in a small saucepan until it reaches the boil and then set aside to cool

Mix dark and milk chocolate in a mixing bowl

Heat a heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat

Once hot enough (you will know when this is reached as a small sprinkle of sugar will melt almost instantly) add handfuls of sugar at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon until melted and caramelised before adding the next handful

Once all the sugar has been completely melted and caramelised, add the butter and stir until melted

Slowly whisk in the hot cream

Pour the caramel mix over the chocolates and whisk until all chocolates are fully melted and everything is completely combined

Pour the chocolate caramel mix into the four tart cases and refrigerate for about 4 hours, until set

Standard
Morning or Afternoon Tea, Not So Easy, Sweet

Letting It Go To Disco / Chocolate & Peanut Brittle Truffles

How often do you sing out loud? I was listening to my son belting out a classic last weekend, Old MacDonald Had a Farm, and found myself hollering along. My son thinks Mr MacDonald farms a fair number of dinosaurs and trucks, so we experimented with gusto.

By the time we finished we were both grinning all the way through the house and I realised I couldn’t remember when I’d stopped playing the kind of music that inspired singing along loudly, but it was probably time I started up again.

Consequently, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, Queen, the Pitch Perfect soundtrack and all the cheesy music my lungs can handle have been cranked all the way up to 11 this week. And it feels great. I now also know all the words to the Frozen theme song, Let It Go. The proper way to learn those words is to sing the song 16 times in a row — just so you know the level of dedication you’re going to need to achieve the same Disney singing skills I now exhibit.

It began with singing but didn’t stop there. The next step started with some arm flinging, Elsa-style, during my Let It Go marathon, but rapidly crescendoed (or diminuendoed, depending on your attitude towards these things) into pretty fabulous boogying. Not dancing, you understand, nothing as simple and tame as mere dancing. In my mind I was a So You Think You Can Dance finalist — as long as the mirror was well hidden. No need to be reminded that I really look more like a mid-sized orangutan suffering from epilepsy.

By the time I went to a chocolate masterclass later in the week, I was in a fine mood — and had been for a few days. I can’t believe that I’d forgotten the simple joy of being silly, and I was loving rediscovering gasps of laughter during faux-serious dance routines.

It later came to me that we live in a world filled to the brim with potential worries. Work, family, politics, religion, science, climate, self help, war; the fabric of modern life threatens to be lonely and frightening. Existence seems lopsided at times, imperfect and overwhelming. The choices we need to make grow as our world gets smaller. We’re no longer guaranteed jobs for life, or marriages for life, or even that we get to live in one town, state or country. Education is increasingly a luxury, certainly in Australia this week as the government announced a budget that left everyone who doesn’t own a coal mine reeling.

And in this midst of overwhelming choices and underwhelming options, it feels more important than ever before to hold onto the ability to be a little foolish, to clown for no other reason than it makes you smile. And then to carry that smile with you, deep in your stomach and at the base of your throat, so that you can pass it on for the next person to discover. A reminder that we really are all together on this small, spinning ball; so we may as well have a good laugh about it.

I carried my smiles to a small group of passionate chocoholics and one fabulous pastry chef. Chloë Thomas, head pastry chef at a top Melbourne restaurant, The Stokehouse, showed us chocolate techniques and recipes for hours, during which her humour and talent filled the room with laughter and the best kind of greed. This truffle recipe was one of my favourites and when I remade it at home, it turned out just as beautifully as hers. It turns out that good company + truffles + singing + dancing is really the best recipe of all.

Enjoy.

Chocolate & Peanut Brittle Truffle

Peanut Praline

  • 300g raw peanuts
  • 300g sugar
  • 100g water

Preheat oven to 160˚C/320˚F

Line a baking tray with baking paper and roast the peanuts until they’re golden brown and you can smell that lovely peanutty aroma

Set aside to cool slightly

Meanwhile, heat the sugar and water over a medium heat until the sugar starts to colour

Swish the sugar around the pan (don’t use a spoon, it will crystallise the sugar and make your caramel grainy)

Continue heating and swirling until the sugar is dissolved and the mix is a dark amber colour

It’s super hot now, so be very careful as you add the peanuts and stir gently with a wooden spoon

Once the nuts are coated, pour back onto the tray covered with baking paper and set aside to cool

Once cool, break into small chunks and blitz in a food processor until the mix resembles large breadcrumbs

Truffles

  • 20g glucose
  • A pinch of salt
  • 300g double cream (heavy cream) make sure it’s just cream without any thickeners or other additives
  • 200g good quality milk chocolate, roughly chopped (I used Valrhona 40%. Just use the best you can afford)
  • 50g good quality dark chocolate, roughly chopped (I used Valrhona 66%. Again, use the best you can afford)
  • 100g crunchy peanut butter
  • 25g unsalted butter, softened
  • 150g peanut praline (from the recipe above)

Heat glucose, salt and cream in a small pot until it reaches a rolling boil (meaning the bubbles don’t disappear when you stir the mix)

Meanwhile, mix 150g of the milk chocolate with the dark chocolate, peanut butter and butter in a medium mixing bowl

Pour half the hot cream mix over the chocolates and whisk

Pour the remainder of the cream mix over the chocolate and whisk until all the chocolate and butter is melted

Stir in 100g of the peanut praline, pour into a container about 5cm deep and place in the fridge overnight

Once it’s reached rolling consistency (overnight will be long enough); prepare a tray with baking paper before using a tablespoon to spoon out balls and roll between your hands into truffles

Place each truffle on the baking paper and return to the fridge to set, about an hour

Melt the remaining 50g of milk chocolate and place in a bowl

Place the remaining 50g of peanut praline in a separate bowl

Roll each truffle in the melted milk chocolate followed by the praline crumbs and place back in the fridge until you’ve devoured them all.

Standard
Dessert, Easy, Sweet

A Public Private Life / Maltesers Cake

A very rushed, last minute piece of writing today. I had an opinion piece written for tonight on a topic that may have ruffled some feathers. And now, 20 minutes before publishing, I realise in a panic that I can’t publish it.

I met up with some girlfriends today for brunch and we spoke about the dangers inherent in thinking our online lives are private in any way. The words and images we post stay with us for the rest of our lives.

I find this leads me to a quandary when writing online. I may have an opinion I hold to be true, but am I going to hold that opinion in ten years time when a potential employer conducts an online search before offering me a role? Or, I could share photos and details of my family on here, but am I comfortable with all potential outcomes to that?

I’m hugely relieved that Facebook and the like weren’t around when I was a teenager and at university. The thought that some of the photos from those days, currently hidden in physical form in my attic, would be available for public perusal fills me with horror. I wasn’t a classy drinker. I made some shockingly poor choices (as I think lots of us do) in the photos I allowed to be taken of me. There’s a particularly lovely one that springs to mind of me, wearing a dress the size of a large belt, throwing up in bushes after a day of drinking.

Ask me when I was a student if I was ashamed of any photograph, I would have loudly proclaimed something noble and self-righteous, like, “I am who I am and I’m not ashamed.” Sweet, but completely untrue 15 years later, when I’m passionately relieved that I don’t have to live with them in my 35 year old life.

With that in mind, I strongly believe in the views I had written for tonight, but during some meditation I realised that I felt a disquiet at the thought that these views would be associated with me for the rest of my life. I’m conscious that, as someone who’d like to work as a writer, and currently wants to keep my options as open as possible, this view could close a few doors.

I also feel guilty for pulling the pin, like I’m slightly cowardly for not standing loud and proud before my thoughts, but I can’t shake the feeling that something’s not right, and until I clarify that the fear is unreasonable, the post’s staying in drafts. I just wish I’d been as able to listen to my instincts when I was younger.

But here’s some photos and a recipe I am happy to share from my son’s 2nd birthday last weekend. We had an afternoon of good company, laughter and too much sugar. We found our son hiding under a table while sneaking icing into his mouth in large quantities and had to laugh at how impressed he was with his deception.

Enjoy.

For the cake (adapted from Nigella Lawson’s “Feast”)

  • 300g soft light brown sugar
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 6 eggs
  • 350ml full cream milk
  • 30g unsalted butter
  • 4 tbl sp Horlicks (or any chocolate malt powder)
  • 350g plain flour
  • 50g cocoa, sifted
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

For the vanilla frosting

  • 350g unsalted butter softened
  • 550g pure icing sugar, sifted
  • 1 ½ tbl sp vanilla essence
  • A large pinch of salt
  • 8 tbl sp double cream

Decoration

  • About 500g maltesers (for similar products in your country, look here)

To make the sponge

Preheat the oven to 170˚C / 340˚F

Butter and line two 20cm x 30cm x 5cm baking tins with baking parchment

Whisk together the sugars and eggs

Heat the milk, butter and Horlicks in a saucepan until the butter melts, and it’s hot but not boiling

When the sugars and eggs are light and frothy, beat in the hot Horlicks mixture and then fold in the flour, cocoa, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda

Divide the cake evenly between the two tins and bake in the oven for about 30 minutes, by which time the cakes should have risen and will spring back when pressed gently.

Let them cool on the rack while you make the frosting

To make the frosting

Place softened butter into a large bowl and whisk until it’s smooth and has lightened

Add the icing sugar, half a cup at a time, whisking all the while

After each full cup of icing sugar, whisk the icing as fast as you can for about 30 seconds (I use an electric whisk and turn it to high), this will lighten the colour and texture of the finished frosting

Add the vanilla and salt and whisk until completely combined

Add the cream slowly until you have the frosting at your preferred consistency

If the frosting becomes too loose, slowly add more icing sugar to firm

To finish the cake

Sandwich the cold sponges with about a third of the frosting, and then finish the top and sides with the remaining frosting

Starting from the base of the cake, place the Maltesers in rows on top of each other, pushing lightly into the frosting to cement them in place

Store in an airtight container in the fridge until serving

Standard