Raspberry Crumb Bars

When M was little and I used to collect her from Preschool at lunchtimes, I could only ever find out how she’d spent her morning by a process of elimination.

Me: Did you have a good morning?

M: Yes.

Me: What did you do?

M: I didn’t do the cylinders (she went to a Montessori Preschool)

Me: So … what did you do?

M: I didn’t do any painting.

Me: And instead you did …?

M: I didn’t polish the mirror.

And in that way, I’d eventually discover that she had had a thoroughly enjoyable morning absorbed in weeding the garden, climbing the apple tree and pegging out woollen socks to dry on the clothes line.

L has a similar habit. As part of her recent science project for school, she decided to label a picture of a capybara to show “their adaptations to an aquatic lifestyle” (a phrase that featured often in the course of working on this project). After highlighting their webbed feet, highly-placed eyes, ears and nostrils, and water-resistant fur, she took great pleasure in adding a label to show ‘no tail’. I’m not convinced this lack has anything to do with an aquatic lifestyle, but she found the idea of labelling something that wasn’t there particularly amusing.

I think there are similarities here somewhere to Lacan’s theory that la femme n’existe pas, but it would be a bit of a conversation killer if I go any further along that line of thinking …

Anyway, if you ask M what she’ll be wearing to school next term, she’ll probably tell you, “Not a yellow jumper.” Which will be true. It’s the end of term and the end of key stage 1 for M. In September, she will be growed up enough to wear blue instead of yellow – only you’ll have to find that bit out by a process of elimination.

It being the end of term, I baked a couple of trays of raspberry crumb bars for my children to take into school for their teachers. There very nearly weren’t any of these left after L and I ‘sampled’ them last night. It was just to make sure we weren’t going to poison the staff – honest! Scientific measures of quality control.

At least, that’s the line we’re sticking to. We didn’t eat three slices each straight from the oven, we didn’t burn our tongues on hot, gooey jam and Captain Blackadder definitely did not shoot the delicious plump breasted pigeon, sir.

Raspberry Crumb Bars (adapted from a recipe by Joanne Chang)

12 oz unsalted butter
3 1/2 oz caster sugar
3 tbsp icing sugar
2 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla extract
6 oz plain flour
6 1/4 oz cake flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1 jar of raspberry jam (with seeds)

Cream the butter with the sugars until the mixture is light and fluffy.

Beat in the egg yolks and vanilla.

Whisk the dry ingredients together, then add gradually on low speed to the buttery sugary eggy mixture. Stir just until the flour is incorporated and evenly mixed.

Remove 8 oz of the dough, wrap it in clingfilm and put it in the freezer.

Press the remaining dough into a flattish disc shape, wrap it in clingfilm and chill it in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.

Roll out the fridge dough to a 9″x13″ rectangle between two lightly-floured sheets of baking parchment. Leaving the dough on the lower sheet of parchment, transfer the dough to a 9″x13″ baking tray. Neaten the edges and trim any excess overhanging parchment.

Bake for 20 minutes until golden.

Let the shortbread base cool for 10 minutes and then spread the jam evenly over the top. Use a large-holed grater to grate the frozen piece of dough over the top of the jam.

Bake for a further 20 minutes until the top is bubbly and golden.

Leave to cool completely in the tray on a wire rack before removing and cutting into bars.

Not A Chocolate Fudge Birthday Cake

My oven and I have had a serious falling out. I want cakes with smooth tops. My oven obviously prefers cakes with cracked tops – because that’s what it keeps giving me. Volcanic eruptions and craters to rival those on Venus.

I know the theory. Peaked and cracked tops = oven temperature too high so the sides set too quickly and the uncooked batter pushes up through the top of the cake.

Simple, no?

I baked four chocolate fudge cakes last week, hoping to resolve my disagreement with my oven in time for T’s 5th birthday.

Cake 1: Having already discovered that my oven has a rather blowy fan, I reduced the temperature for the first cake by 10 degrees C. The top cracked.

Cake 2: I reduced the temperature to 160 degrees C. The top cracked.

Cake 3: I kept the temperature at 160 degrees C and used magi-cake strips. The top cracked.

Cake 4: I reduced the temperature to 150 degrees C and used magi-cake strips. The top cracked.

Cake 5: There wasn’t one. Or a cake 6 or 7 or 8. Huh.

I know for 99.9% sure that there isn’t a problem with either the recipe or with my mixing technique. And my oven thermometer is accurate. So, it has to be something the oven is doing. O said it didn’t really matter – T’s birthday cake would taste fine anyway. But that’s not the point – it DOES matter! (Well, it matters to me if not to O).

Frustrated (an understatement), I fired off a tirade of abuse against my oven in an email to Rose. She sympathized (phew, at last – someone who understands!) and wondered if there’s an upper heating element in my oven that kicks on every few minutes. She suggested putting the cake on the bottom rack and putting a sheet pan on the upper rack to protect the top. I’ll try that next time … if I can ever bring myself to forgive my oven for its attitude problem.

As for T’s birthday cake – well, I salvaged the two least-volcanic examples, grouted the cracks with generous dollops of buttercream, smothered the entire cake and crumbled a chocolate flake over the top. Far from disappointing, the extra chocolatey gooiness filling the cracks delighted T and his party friends. There’s no accounting for taste, I guess.

No, I didn’t snap any nude shots of the cracked cake tops – you’ll just have to image what they looked like underneath their chocolate clothing.

My recalcitrant oven did manage to pull off one redeeming success however. Conceived originally as nothing more than an attempt to use up the various odd bits of things in my baking cupboard, it’s a happy miracle that I actually kept some sort of account of what I was throwing into the mixing bowl. Without that, I wouldn’t have a clue how to make them again. And L has demanded more of these – even though she can’t say ‘Chocolate Cookie Choc Chip Bounty Bar‘ without getting her tongue in a twist.

Chocolate Cookie Choc Chip Bounty Bars (aka Not A Chocolate Fudge Birthday Cake)

Cookie Base
7 3/4 oz butter
5 1/2 oz caster sugar
6 oz light muscovado sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
9 oz bread flour
4 oz cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt

Coconut Topping
7 oz desiccated coconut
4 oz caster sugar
2 eggs, beaten
12 oz chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C (depending on your relationship with your oven. Ha) Grease and base line a 20 x 30 cm baking tray with parchment (leave a couple of handles if you like so you can hoik the whole thing out of the tray when it’s cool).

Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl.

Lightly beat the eggs together with the vanilla and add gradually to the creamed mixture.

Mix together the dry ingredients, then stir into the dough until just combined.

Drop large spoonfulls of the dough into the baking tray. Bear in mind that the dough will spread during baking – aim to place the spoonfulls so that they will spread into each other and cover the base of the baking tray. I had enough dough left over to make 6 or 7 cookies or so (sorry, I haven’t adjusted the cookie recipe so that it makes exactly the amount you need for the base. Just enjoy the extra cookies).

Bake for 7 mins until the cookie is just beginning to set but is still underdone underneath the upper crust. Set aside to cool a little.

Make the coconut topping. Mix the coconut with the eggs until they are well combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Carefully spread the coconut mixture over the cookie base. Pat it gently with the back of a spoon but don’t press it so hard that it falls through the cookie.

Bake for a further 10 to 15 mins until the coconut is golden and set.

Leave to cool in the tray, then cut into bars.

Jubilee Nutella Cookies

There is a connection between The Queen’s 2012 Diamond Jubilee and these chewy Nutella cookies. Honestly, there is – just bear with me.

My Mum likes trees. A lot.

So … for her birthday last year, we gave her a gift membership of the Woodland Trust, the UK’s leading woodland conservation charity. She hence became the proud owner of a native tree in a wood not so very far away from here. I’m not sure where that wood is, but Mum received the details in her welcome pack.

Mum also receives regular copies of the members-only magazine, Broadleaf. It was in one such issue recently that she discovered the Woodland Trust’s plans to get everyone madly planting trees in celebration of the Jubilee. I hadn’t especially registered the fact but it turns out that Her Majesty The Queen is the only British sovereign ever to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee (other than Queen Victoria in 1897, that is). I guess the Woodland Trust can be forgiven for getting so excited about the whole thing then. And also for using it as a springboard for planting 6 million trees across the UK.

The part of the magazine article that most interested my Mum however was the statement:

We hope neighbours, communities, schools and families will come together to plant thousands of individual trees in their gardens, playgrounds and community spaces – each taking the chance to mark this special moment in history in a way that will stay with them forever.

Can you see where this is heading?

Yep, both my sister and I are in line for receiving a special Jubilee tree that we can plant in our own gardens at home.

It’s good timing. O has been hacking and slashing the overgrown heather in our garden since we moved here last November, whilst my sister also has a new garden to plan after moving house only a few weeks ago. Going down the edible route, we have each requested a Jubilee Hazel from the selection of trees on offer in the Woodland Trust shop. Thanks, Mum 🙂 .

So you see, there is a connection after all.

Hazel trees make hazelnuts … hazelnuts make Nutella … Nutella makes cookies.

Jubilee Nutella Cookies

6 oz plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 tsp baking soda
4 oz butter
6 oz Nutella
3 1/2 oz light muscovado sugar
2 1/2 oz golden caster sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
4 oz chopped roasted hazelnuts (optional)

Preheat the oven to 175 degrees C and line several baking trays with parchment paper.

Put the flour, salt and baking soda in a bowl and whisk to combine thoroughly.

Cream the butter and Nutella in a mixer bowl, then add the sugars. Beat until light and fluffy.

Add the eggs and vanilla gradually, beating after each addition.

Fold in the flour mixture, stirring just enough to combine. Stir in the hazelnuts, if using. Pop the batter in the fridge for 15 mins or so until it’s firmed up a bit.

Plop dollops of batter onto the prepared baking trays, leaving plenty of space between them for the cookies to spread (I used about 1 1/2 tbsp of batter for each dollop).

Bake for 15 mins (for soft and chewy cookies) to 17 mins (for crisp and chewy cookies), rotating the baking trays once during baking.

Leave the cookies to cool on the tray for a couple of minutes before removing them to a wire cooling rack.

Makes 14 to 18, depending on the size of your dollops.

Ancient Roman Banquet

After L’s successful guest post in October, my younger daughter told me today that she also wanted to write a guest post for A Merrier World (not that there’s ever a hint of sibling rivalry between them, of course …) So, here is M – she is six years old and has been having a lot of fun at school this term …

We have been learning about the Ancient Romans at school. A Roman centurion came in to help us learn about them. We made shields and then we had a battle with the Year Ones. We used balls instead of cannons and swords. The Year Ones (who were supposed to be the Celts) kept on running away, so we won. The centurion also brought in some fish sauce that smelled disgusting!

Anyway, on Friday the 23rd we did a Roman presentation. I was in the Roman banquet scene. My line was, “The Romans loved holding feasts. One of the things they loved was… peacock brains!” Somebody else in the Roman banquet said they also liked surprises in their food such as doves flying out of the stomach cavity of a roasted suckling pig. We discovered that the Romans lay down to eat and that they made themselves sick so that they could eat more (but that was only in fancy banquets).

Today we had a Roman banquet in our classroom. Everyone dressed up as Romans. I was a slave who opened the door. Here’s an interesting fact – the slaves who opened the doors had to look fancy so everyone knew that the person who owned the house was rich.

Our teachers had researched lots of Ancient Roman recipes. Some of the recipes were in the cookery book that I took into school for them. At our banquet, we tasted lots of food that the Romans would have eaten. I only liked the grapes and the apple as well as the bread dipped in olive oil. I didn’t like the peacock brains, which were really just mince cooked in the oven. When we were making the peacock brains, we had to put our hands in the mince. I hated the honey cake – it looked like an omelette (and I don’t like them either!). There were some olives as well, but I didn’t try them.

For dessert, we all ate some Ancient Roman biscuits that I had baked last night with my Mum. They were called ‘serpette’ and they used honey instead of sugar. We sprinkled sugar on the top instead of sesame seeds because we thought they would be tastier that way. Unfortunately, the Romans didn’t have sugar, so that bit wouldn’t have been invented in Roman times. We made them into ‘S’ shapes like the serpette biscuits that are made today in the Castelli Romani near Rome.

My friends said that the biscuits were really delicious. They asked me how I had made them into ‘S’ shapes. I told them that we rolled some of the dough into a sausage shape and then we curled it around so that it looked like an ‘S’.

Ancient Roman Honey Serpette

12 1/2 oz plain flour
1 tsp baking powder (which the Romans didn’t have – sorry!)
1/8 teaspoon baking soda (as above … sorry!)
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 oz unsalted butter, room temperature
6 oz honey
2 eggs
1 egg white and castor sugar to sprinkle (or sesame seeds)

Put the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a mixing bowl and use a whisk to mix them all together.

Use another bowl now. Put the butter and honey into it and beat them together. Add the eggs a bit at a time. Make sure that everything is mixed up very well.

Tip the flour and stuff into the bowl and mix it all together to make a dough.

Cover the dough bowl with cling film and put it into the fridge until the dough is cold and firmer.

Put the oven on to 180 degrees C.

Grease some baking trays and line them with baking parchment.

Sprinkle some flour on the work top. Roll bits of the dough into long sausage shapes. Cut them into shorter lengths and curl them to make an ‘S’ shape. Put the S’s onto the baking trays.

Brush some egg white onto the top of each serpette (this is a bit like glue) and sprinkle the tops with a bit of castor sugar.

Bake the serpette in the oven for about 7 minutes or until they are just turning golden.

Cool the serpette on a wire rack.

Eat – yum, yum!