The scents of a season

(Quince brown butter cake)

Two months into Autumn and I’m finally getting a sense of the season we’re in. Chestnuts are in the shops, along with fuzzy yellow quinces, mandarins and gorgeous ripe persimmons. It strikes me that chestnuts and quinces in particular are two things that require a bit of work before they bridge that gap between why-bother and food-nirvana. I couldn’t resist combining the two in a dessert for friends recently, and know just how laborious it is to cook with them.

Prior to being taught more about quinces, I’d only ever thought of them as the sugary rubbery stuff usually served with cheese. Now every year, I cook them slowly in a not overly sugary syrup, and store them in jars, to be folded into steamed puddings, ice-cream or baked as tarts. When the last bit of cooked fruit has been scooped from the jar, the remaining liquid is then used to soak a sponge, make a custard (Eliza Acton’s recipe for quince custard uses the poaching liquid, egg yolks and not much else. No dairy!) or even reduced to glaze a ham. If you don’t have the patience or the dessert gene, try the lamb and quince tagine from Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Fruit instead. The fragrant fruit makes such a statement even in that simple savoury dish.

Today, I really wanted cake, so I made one based on a recipe by Claudia Fleming in her book, The Last Course. This cake is somewhat like an over-sized financier, and has a tight crumb with a deep caramel-like flavour of brown butter. You could serve it with cream or ice-cream, but really I think it’s perfect with just a simple cup of tea.

Quince brown butter cake :

115g butter, browned, strained and kept warm
120g icing sugar
130g buckwheat flour
pinch of sea salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground long pepper (if you don’t have this, use a spice of your choice)
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
150g egg whites
finely grated zest of 1 mandarin
1 large slow-cooked quince, sliced

Grease and line the base of a 7.5″ round pie tin. (see note below)
Preheat the oven to 190’C.

Combine the icing sugar, flour, baking powder, salt, spices and zest in a bowl. Whisk in the eggs whites thoroughly, then gradually whisk in the warm brown butter. Pour the mix into the prepared tin. Top with slices of quince. Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean. Once cooked, allow to cool on a wire rack. Brush the cake with some of the quince cooking liquid, and just before serving, dust the top with a little icing sugar.

[To cook quinces : Wash and peel the quinces, cut in half and place them into a pot with a solution of 3 water : 1 sugar. Add sliced lemon, 1 cinnamon stick, a few crushed cardamom pods, and a split vanilla bean if you wish, and bring to a boil. Once it comes to a boil, turn the heat down, place a cartouche (circle of baking paper) over the quinces and continue to cook on very low heat for several hours until the fruit is completely cooked through and have turned a deep ruby colour.]

[Note about baking tin : I used an unusual sized tin for this cake. You can use a larger one or bake individual cakes, and adjust the baking time accordingly.]

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Of Easter eggs and buns

Hot Cross Buns

Every Easter, for quite a few years now, I’ve been trying out different hot cross bun recipes. It’s not something I intentionally set out to do, but all the same has turned into a delicious, much-anticipated annual experiment. One that rarely results in any duds and instead quite often uncovers a few gems.

Since I also happen to have the luxury of time this year, I decided to try my hand at decorating Easter eggs. For this, a batch of eggs were dyed with food scraps (pictured above) and the remainder were covered with patterns using a neat trick as seen here.

Of the two techniques, using food scraps to obtain natural dyes was the most interesting, especially for a big kid like myself. The eggs were boiled until just cooked, cooled, then left to soak for several hours in jars of various dyes. The unpredictable nature in which the colour would form and be absorbed into the shell meant that the pattern on every egg you scooped out of the dye bath, was always a surprise. So far the best colours have been extracted from the use of boiled onion skins (orange brown), red cabbage leaves (shades of blue and purple) and turmeric (bright yellow).

Once you’re done admiring them though, you’re then left with the task of eating eggs for the remainder of the week – an idea rendered somewhat more palatable by having started with good quality, organic, free-range eggs, and the fact that the eggs weren’t boiled to the point of dry and greying yolks. We had yellow tinted eggs with a noodle salad for dinner last night. Very delicious.

But back to the buns. This year I’ve tried a recipe using an Asian bread baking method that incorporates a water roux also known as Tangzhong, into the dough. The roux supposedly helps retain moisture in the dough, resulting in a fluffy baked product that also doesn’t dry out as quickly. Two dozen very consistent, great tasting batches later and I think this just might be the recipe that puts an end to my hot cross bun baking experiments for good.

Of course, if there was some way to logically incorporate boiled eggs and baked buns into more of our meals, you’d probably find me still experimenting for many years to come.

Hot Cross Buns :
(makes 12; slightly adapted from this recipe)

For the water roux :
25g flour
125g water

For the dough :
350g flour
35g sugar
5g salt
1 egg
125g milk
1 sachet dried yeast
30g soft unsalted butter
100g raisins
20g chopped dark chocolate
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

To decorate : flour paste for crosses and a glaze of your choice (Here I’ve used an Earl Grey tea jelly. Alternatives include : warmed apricot jam, lemon or vanilla-flavoured sugar syrup or a reduced malt/maple syrup)

First make the roux. Whisk the flour and water together in a small pan over medium heat. Cook, whisking at all times, until the mixture thickens. If you’re unsure as to what this is supposed to look like, you can also test the temperature of the thickened mix. It should have reached 65’C. Once it has thickened, scrape the roux into the bowl of your mixer (it should weigh 120g). Place some cling film over the surface of the roux and allow it to cool to room temperature.

When the roux has cooled down, add the egg, milk and sugar to the bowl, followed by the yeast, flour, salt and spices. With the dough hook attached, start mixing the dough until it comes together and looks smooth, about 2 minutes. Add the butter and continue mixing on medium speed for another 2-3 minutes. Mix in the dried fruit and chopped chocolate, then cover the bowl and leave the dough to prove for an hour or until doubled.

Once doubled, divide the dough into 12 pieces (12 x 65g). Roll into balls and arrange them roughly 1.5 inches apart on a lined tray. Cover lightly with greased cling film and allow to prove again for another hour. Meanwhile, make your flour paste (see note below), place it into a piping bag and set aside.

Once the buns have proved, pipe the crosses on the buns and bake them in a preheated 190’C oven for 14 minutes. When they are ready, they should be golden brown and sound hollow when tapped. Remove them from the oven and brush with a glaze of your choice while they are still warm.

[Note : Make a flour paste by mixing 8 tablespoons of flour to roughly 4 tablespoons of water to achieve a pipe-able paste. This is for the crosses on the buns, and is more than you will need, because I find it easier to pipe the crosses evenly when there is a decent amount of mixture in the bag. If you think flour paste crosses taste horrible, you can leave them out and instead pipe a sugar or white chocolate cross on each bun once they are cooled]/strong

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Apple Pie Cake

(Apple Pie Cake)

I woke up yesterday morning with the words apple pie cake still lingering in my head between layers of sleep and a rapidly evaporating scene involving two turnips who twalked (talked and walked). Tip : cheese before bed, is rarely a good idea. Especially cheesecake.

Since twalking turnips are too challenging to conjure up, I settled on making the apple pie cake of my dreams. Rifling through the internet over a bowl of warm oatmeal revealed that such a singular thing did indeed exist. In its many forms, it is a well known Russian dessert, a Dorie Greenspan or Martha Stewart recipe, and also something that resembles apple pie filling between layers of frosting and butter cake. For the purposes of this dessert exercise, I chose the Dorie Greenspan route.

If you find the decision between having pie or cake a particularly taxing one, this recipe cleverly has a foot in each realm. The pastry tastes just so, but with a cakey consistency. Its baked craggy bumps and folds and that gentle lifting scent of warm cinnamon brought to mind the pies I never baked cooling on window sills of houses I never lived in. Seemingly heavy stuff, but not really. Just something incredibly easy to make, enjoyable to eat and pleasing to share. Below is the recipe, a down-sized version of the original which made 18 servings and seemed like overkill even to the two pie lovers of this household.

Apple Pie-Cake :
(a down-sized version of a recipe from Baking by Dorie Greenspan)

For the dough :
110g unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1/2 tablespoon baking powder
pinch of salt
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 1/2 cups plain flour

For the apples :
4 large green apples
juice of 1/2 lemon
3-4 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 generous teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the dough, place the butter and sugar in a mixer and beat until smooth. Add the egg, lemon juice and pinch of salt, beating to combine. Add the flour and baking powder and slowly mix until the dough comes together. Add a few more tablespoons of flour if the dough looks too wet. Wrap the dough and chill for at least 2 hours before using.

When you are ready to roll the dough, first prepare the filling. Peel, core and slice the apples roughly 1/4 inch thick. Toss with the lemon juice, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon, then set aside.

Cut the dough in half and roll the first half to fit a 8 or 9 inch pie pan. Line the pan with the dough. Pile the sliced apples on top of the dough, then roll the second half of the dough as a lid. Crimp or press the edges of the pastry together. Cut a few slits on top of the pastry and sprinkle with extra sugar and cinnamon if you wish. Bake in a preheated 180’C oven for approximately 1 hour, until the pastry is golden brown (cover loosely with foil if it appears to be browning too quickly, half way through the baking time).

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