not quite florentines

Not quite a florentine. Perhaps a londontine.
Not quite a florentine. Perhaps a londontine.

Sometimes things don’t quite go to plan.

I had this idea in my head that I couldn’t let go. A florentine, but not exactly. Something gluten-free and nutty, something biscuit-sized and circular, something delicate held together with a caramel cage and strands of chocolate.

That was the idea in my head. Of course, in execution it was maybe a little more Pro Hart than Raymond Blanc.

I feel Pro Hart would have approved.
I feel Pro Hart would have approved.

What happened? Well, I’ve never made caramel before. Several recipes advise that you make it, then put it into cold water to stop it from cooking. I dutifully followed instructions, waiting for it to turn the requisite dark gold colour and plunged the base of the saucepan into cold water. And then promptly panicked when the caramel started to set and I hadn’t even gotten around to drizzling it over the nuts.

(Will I spoil the story if I tell you you can actually re-liquify caramel by heating it? – naturally, something I found out the hard way.)

 

Beautiful neat circles, waiting to be adorned.
Beautiful neat circles, waiting to be adorned.

After the panic had cleared, my beautiful Londontine dream lay in golden puddles rather than wispy cobwebs. The whisk was firmly stuck to the bottom of the saucepan with caramel and a distinct air of permanence. Shards of caramel pointed threateningly towards the ceiling. I had sugar strands on my face.

Oh, what a mess.
Oh, what a mess.

My inner perfectionist could have cried. But I had this wonderful, valuable conversation with my bestie this weekend, where she reminded me that it doesn’t do to take everything so seriously all the time. ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff, Kahmen,’ she said, and she’s right. I cook because I love to create, and share, and it fills me with a sense of joy and fulfilment and happiness. And sometimes recipes don’t quite do what you want them to. But that’s perfectly ok; in fact, sometimes it takes you somewhere just as good anyway.

Glorious mess.
Glorious mess.

With that in mind, the not-quite-Florentines are going to work with me tomorrow, and I’ll stand by them in their misshapen glory and all. What a beautiful London weekend it’s been!

Not quite a florentine. Perhaps a londontine.
A little messier than I envisaged, but still beautiful.

Not quite florentines
500g mixed nuts, lightly roasted
25g dried cranberries (optional)
300g sugar
6 tbsp water
100g dark chocolate

Line a large area with baking paper.

Arrange the nuts and fruit in circles – use a glass to get a good shape. Make sure they’re only in one layer, otherwise they won’t take the caramel and they’ll fall when you lift it.

Make sure the nuts are in a single layer.
Make sure the nuts are in a single layer.

To make the caramel: place the sugar and water in a saucepan with a light-coloured heavy base. Swirl a few times to roughly combine. Place over a high heat until the edges start to bubble. It’s very important that you don’t touch the sugar or water with your hands at all, because it’s extremely hot.

Swirl the pan a few times to make sure the sugar melts properly and take care that it doesn’t burn. When it begins to colour, slow the heat down until it’s a dark amber, then remove from heat.

Dip the base of the pan briefly into cold water, then remove. If this cools the caramel too much and it becomes hard, just return to heat until it liquifies again.

Too light, and it'll just be sweet. Too dark and it'll taste burnt.
Too light, and it’ll just be sweet. Too dark and it’ll taste burnt.

Working quickly, use a whisk to drizzle strands of caramel over the nut rounds. Make sure you connect each nut in the round, otherwise it’ll fall apart when you lift it.

Melt the chocolate in a bowl over boiling water and drizzle over the rounds. Allow to cool and set, then carefully lift from the paper with a knife.

hazelnut chocolate chip cookie pizza

There's just more to love about a cookie pizza.
There’s just more to love about a cookie pizza.

Cronuts. Duffins. Dagels. Bruffins. I’m not sure what it is about hybrid bakery products that I find so amusing, but whenever I see them – the cheeky yet artful blending of the best of two beloved classics and some reckless portmanteau assigned – I giggle like a schoolgirl. Sure, they’re classics for a reason… but weren’t rules made to be broken?

With that in mind, let me introduce you to the pizzcuit.

chocolate chip pizza cookie
The latest bakery hybrid.

 

The pizzcuit is a rather delightful combination of glorious crumbly cookie and the harmonious shape of a pizza. Baked in a large circle and cut into slices, the pizzcuit is a family cookie. And by that I mean it’s sweet and nutty and special and made for sharing.

There’s a cup of oats in this cookie, which makes the edges chewy and a little crisp, and the centre stays fudgy and moreish. I haven’t strayed too far from the original recipe except to choose hazelnuts over walnuts and a different type of dark sugar – and I’ll admit it took me two goes to get this right!

So here’s what I learned:

  • Be careful about how you chop your chocolate. Too fine and you don’t get those satisfying chocolate chunks; too large and the cookie won’t hold together properly. 1cm chunks is as large as you should go.
  • Use a pizza tray or the bottom of a cake mould. It’s possible to shape a perfect circle with your hands, but it won’t stay perfect for long when it goes in the oven. This cookie spreads at least a good 2cm in every direction.
  • It’s super hard to resist eating a warm cookie, so you should definitely split the dough into 2 batches and make smaller pizzas so you can dive in right away and still have something to show the guests the next day. Or you can make one large pizza cookie and feel smug about your self-control, don’t mind me.
Anyone for a slice?
Anyone for a slice?

Hazelnut chocolate chip cookie pizza
¾ cup flour
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp baking soda
6 tbsps butter
1/3 cup muscovado sugar
1/3 cup white sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup oats
¾ cup dark chocolate, chopped
½ cup hazelnuts

Sift the flour, salt and baking soda together in a large bowl.

In a saucepan, melt the butter on low. Remove from heat and stir in the sugars.

When slightly cool, whisk in the egg and vanilla.

Pour into the flour mixture and combine with a wooden spoon.

Stir in the oats, dark chocolate and nuts

Spoon the batter onto a pizza tray lined with baking paper, then shape into a neat circle. Bake for 20 minutes at 190C, allow to cool for 5 minutes on the tray and then slide onto wire rack to cool for another 10 minutes.

Cut into slices and serve with glasses of (almond) milk.

banoffee pie

I know I was supposed to whip the cream. It was a long day, ok?
I really did mean to whip the cream, but sometimes loose & unstructured is just fine.

Even the most savoury-toothed person would have to admit that there’s something quite delightful about the idea of banoffee pie.

The name immediately conjures up all sorts of lovely images: golden, sticky caramel cascading onto a bed of crunchy biscuit crumbs; smooth slices of pale sunshiney banana; and curls of rich, bittersweet chocolate raining down in a dark flurry onto fluffy clouds of whipped cream.

You may think I’m waxing ridiculously lyrical, but you’ll understand when you eat it.

There are lots of variations of banoffee pies, but all of them involve the delicious combination of banana and toffee, and most will advise you to add whipped cream to the top. I feel, however, that there would be no great crime in adding chocolate or nuts or honeycomb pieces or even a smattering of peanut butter. These things are meant to evolve.

This banoffee pie doesn’t need to be baked, so it’s perfect for the oven-free amongst us. Who said that tiny kitchens need be deprived?

You can make this gluten-free if you like.
You can make this gluten-free if you like.

Banoffee pie
250g digestive biscuits (I used gluten-free biscuits, but feel free to go ahead and use whatever digestives you like)
2 x 100g unsalted butter
100g dark brown sugar (I used muscovado)*
400g can of condensed milk
4 bananas
300ml double thick cream

Grease a 20cm loose-bottomed springform cake tin.

Crush the digestives into powder; I used a freezer bag and a Vegemite jar to work off some aggression, but a rolling pin would probably be faster.

Melt 100g of butter and add to the digestives, mix into a soft, damp sand.

Press the biscuit mix into the cake tin, coming slightly up the sides and making sure it is packed tightly. You want to form a hollow that is about 1.5cm deep.

A biscuit base doesn't need to be baked
a biscuit base doesn’t need to be baked

Place the tin into the freezer for at least 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, place 100g of butter and the sugar into a pot and melt together, stirring constantly.

When you can no longer feel the sugar granules, add the condensed milk and bring to a rapid boil, stirring constantly. Boil for at least two minutes, until the mix forms a golden, caramel colour.

thick, luscious caramel
thick, luscious caramel

Allow to cool slightly, then pour the caramel into the biscuit base and place in the refrigerator for at least one hour.

at this point, it's just a toffee pie
at this point, it’s just a toffee pie

Before serving, top with sliced banana and whipped cream.

Note: A few of my guests thought this pie was a little too sweet, so I’d say you could safely reduce the sugar content. I haven’t tried it out to see how it goes, but next time I’d try halving the sugar. I mean, that almost makes it healthy – right?

barley soup

One of the many tastes of my childhood.

When I was growing up, one of my very favourite stories in the world was Stone Soup.

If you’re not familiar with the tale, it’s about a poor and tired traveller who convinces a rather cranky old bat to shelter him for the night. She agrees to let him stay, but tells him that she has no food to give him. He offers to feed her instead.

‘You – feed me? With what?’ she scornfully asks. ‘Stone soup,’ says he, and places a stone into a pot of water over the fire. He then proceeds to coax all sorts of things out of her – barley, carrots, celery, a bit of meat, potatoes – by telling her the stone is old, and might need a bit of help with flavour. That night they dine like kings in the little cottage, and in the morning she gives him a good breakfast, coffee and some coins to help him on his way, her crotchety old heart having been touched by the restorative powers of sharing food.

The story always got to the bit about barley and I would shiver – for it seemed, to my young ears, to be the transformative substance that took the water and stone and finally made it a soup. I had no idea what barley was, or even what it looked like. I just knew that it had to be magical.

This soup is a remembrance of how much I loved that story and everything it stands for. It reminds me of my childhood, of somehow feeling but not yet understanding that cooking and sharing a meal with someone can be a deeply healing experience. The heartwarming feeling I get when I make this soup is the same feeling I had when I got to the end of the story.

Barley Soup
1/2 cup barley
Yellow rock sugar
Handful gingko nuts
Dried bean curd sticks, roughly broken
Boiled eggs

Wash the barley and check for any pebbles that might have made it in.

Place the barley in a large pot of water – you’re looking for a ratio of about 1:5, but you can start with a litre of water and add as the soup boils.

Bring to a boil and add a large lump of yellow rock sugar, plus the gingko nuts.

Turn to a low boil and simmer for 1 hour. Barley has a tendency to bubble up, so make sure you’re around to watch or hear the pot. You might need to top up with water as it boils away.

Add the dried bean curd sticks and simmer for an additional 30 minutes. Again, you might need to top up the pot with water as the bean curd rehydrates. You might also need to add additional sugar to taste.

The end result is a light, translucent soup that is sweet and perfectly toothsome, thanks to the barley. It is traditionally served with a boiled egg, which enhances the sweetness.

A small note about gingko nuts: they are funny things. Widely used in Chinese cooking, I hated them when I was young and would pick them out of my soup, piling them in large heaps to be tossed back into the pot – or my parents’ bowls. They seemed to me to have a vaguely oniony taste, and I thought they had no place in my soup.

These days, I appreciate the slight pungent tang they lend the soup; it cuts through the sweetness and adds depth. I am, perhaps, not quite reformed – my parents would possibly use quite a lot more than a handful of nuts to make their soup, but I would never go beyond a handful and occasionally I leave them out altogether.

They are, however, said to be extremely good for you, helping cognitive function, memory and blood flow and fighting free radicals.