Honeycomb Toffee

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I always try and make edible Christmas gifts. This decision, made in November, always seems like the easy, simple and relaxing option. Instead of braving the hordes of Christmas shoppers, I envision that I will be smugly ensconced at home, effortlessly whipping up batch after batch of delicacies. The reality, however, is always far from this. I end up leaving it until the last minute, then spend a couple of days covered in smudges of chocolate, trying to hold back the stress-induced tears.

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This year was no exception. I chose to make honeycomb, having read several recipes that insist it’s a piece of cake, only requiring three ingredients and a casual fifteen minutes. Having seen the process on Masterchef, including the rather showy moment when the bicarbonate of soda is whisked into the caramel and froths up spectacularly, I thought that this would provide the elusive balance of ease and impressiveness.

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Oh how wrong I was. I ended up trying several different recipes, no one of which quite provided the desired effect of crisp, crackling honeycomb. One batch made nowhere near the quantity I had expected, requiring a dash to Sainsbury’s midway through to replenish my stocks of golden syrup and sugar. Another batch set too soft, rendering a hasty re-labelling of the finished product as ‘burnt sugar toffee’ (so you’ll know if you’re a recipient of batch one). Finally I found a recipe that seemed to set close to the imagined crispness, but still took a fraught three hours to firm up, in which I couldn’t resist wandering over and prodding it every five minutes.

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The resultant stickiness of the soft, toffee-like honeycomb was slightly maddening, as it stuck to the kitchen cabinets, my socks, hair and pretty much everything else. I was prising bits out from between the sofa for the rest of the day. I slathered the end product, hastily titled ‘honeycomb toffee’ to account for said stickiness, in a generous amount of dark chocolate, the tied it up in cellophane bags. Finally, I sat down with a cup of tea, surveying the carnage that covered every surface of the kitchen, and wondering, as I do every year, whether simply ambling around the shops would be all that bad.

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Date and Ginger Cake

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I recently heard of the concept of a ‘house-cooling’ (from the infinite wisdom that is Kinfolk magazine). This is pretty self-explanatory, being the opposite of housewarming: it involves saying a fond farewell to a dwelling that has provided so many memories, and welcoming in the transition and all its exciting new developments. My friends Alex and Heather have lived on a houseboat for the past 3 years. The time has come to say goodbye to the converted Dutch barge, and they are moving out of the boat onto dry land.

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I made this dark and sticky ginger and date cake to take to the ‘boat–cooling’ gathering. I felt that feeling something stodgy and spicy might be in order, not least to fuel the impending sorting and moving of an entire boat-worth of stuff. We ate the cake huddled in the warmth of the boat, feeling the calm sway of the water and remembering all the many previous days and evenings spent there. This time felt poignant given the shift in seasons too – saying farewell to the boat and farewell to summer. There was a definite fizz of excitement around the anticipation of the next exciting phase, of things to come.

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Tiramisu

 

tiramisu in bowl

If I had to pick a country’s cuisine to eat for the rest of my life, it would have to be Italian. Disregarding the resulting enormity of my thighs, of course. There just seems to be infinite possibilities surrounding a love of simple ingredients. Endless varieties of pasta and risottos to keep me entertained for a long while. And Italian puddings are often so decadently creamy, and don’t have the fiddly precision of French desserts – both epitomised by this recipe.

tiramisu

As is often quoted, ‘tiramisu’ means ‘pick me up’ in Italian. This is due to the fact that it is laced with coffee and a more than generous (in this recipe, anyway) amount of booze. This is one of my go to recipes when I bring a pudding to a party, and has, on more occasions than I’m willing to admit, made a perfect hangover breakfast the next day.

tiramisu in bowl

The combination of alcohol suggested seems to vary a bit in between recipes. One most have in common is Marsala wine, a sweet fortified wine originally from Scicily. So I used this, along with amaretto liqueur, as I have a long-abiding love of the stuff.

tiramisu and chocolate

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Lemon Drizzle Cupcakes with Yoghurt Icing

cupcakes and fork

I am currently unemployed. The café that I was working at has changed hands, so I took it as an opportunity to move on, move out of home and get on with my life. However, for now I am still in fully-fledged holiday mode (which will only last a little while longer, or so I’ve told myself). This leaves lots of time to sit around in my onesie watching trashy daytime TV, eating toast and trying not to think about life. One of my many distraction techniques is to spend ludicrous amounts of time on Instagram. For the uninitiated, Instagram is like Twitter, but with photos. For those still dumbfounded, it’s an app that lets you post photos on a live feed, and follow other people doing the same.

lemons and bee pollen

One of the things that is (horribly 21st century word) ‘trending’ on Instagram at the moment is bee pollen. It is especially prevalent among the health-obsessed Instagrammers, the type of people who see a spinach, kale, kiwi and avocado smoothie as a desirable breakfast. Things like porridge topped with chia seeds, hazelnut butter and bee pollen (and yes, I did just quickly pop onto Instagram to do a search for ‘♯beepollen’) are appearing. Bee pollen is formed by bees when they gather nectar- apparently they roll pollen into balls then discard it. It’s supposed to be very good for you, allegedly containing all the nutrients that humans need, which balances out the large amount of butter and sugar in the cupcakes ever so slightly.

cupcakes

I thought I would sprinkle some bee pollen on top of these cupcakes, definitely more for aesthetic appeal than for taste. It’s fair to say it looks much nicer than it tastes – it has a pleasant chewy texture but tastes oddly savoury.    I also used honey rather than sugar for the drizzling syrup, to stick with the bee theme and to give a sticky moistness to the cupcakes, which is complemented by the slight sourness of the yoghurt icing.

yoghurt and lemons

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Crème Brûlée

creme brulee

One of my more specialised Christmas presents this year was a cook’s blowtorch. We have been trying in vain to come up with uses for it other than caramelising the sugar on top of a crème brûlée, tentatively suggesting things like charring the outside of aubergines, but it really only has one purpose. I love this particular dessert so much, though, that having a piece of rather expensive kitchen gadgetry designed solely to make it seems fine to me.

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Crème Brûlée originated in England, in Cambridge, under the appellation ‘Burnt Cream’. The dessert was then adopted, and probably perfected, by the French, and given a much more elegant name. On a recent trip to Paris I opted to try many incarnations of the dessert, ranging from passable to sublime. The exact combination of a thin layer of crisp caramel hiding a luscious, wobbly underneath is surprisingly hard to come by. Often they are fiddled about with, and things like ginger, blueberries or cardamom are added. For me, the most successful crème brûlée will always be one flavoured purely with vanilla.

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The blowtorch took a bit of getting used to: the rushing of gas and the sudden ignition are slightly alarming – my first couple of attempts definitely deserved the description ‘burnt cream’. After a few practices and some YouTube tutorials, I was able to get something resembling gently caramelised. A few black patches are fine though- the slight bitterness greatly complements the creamy, sweet custard.

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Cranberry and Orange Florentines

florentinesI have started feeling very festive all of a sudden. I guess it must be due, in part, to decorating the tree today. This was accompanied by the crashing overtones of Handel’s Messiah, not directly Christmas-y, but, being choral, it puts me in the festive mood nonetheless.  Having resisted the descending season with some effort for the last few weeks– even with the repetitious Christmas playlist pounding its way into my head at work – it now seems time to embrace the inevitable.

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I made the optimistic, blasé resolution way back in October to make edible Christmas presents this year. I already have the Rhubarb and Ginger Gin in the bag, along with some Quince Cheese, but need to supplement it with something else. I decided to take the plunge with Florentines, which I have never attempted before. More to the point, I’ve only ever eaten a nice on one occasion. I managed to eat a total of about ten in small little ‘tastes’, which I assured myself were for quality control purposes.

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I underestimated just how many I would need (due to, unfortunately, having lots of friends and family to give them to) and the amount of time it would take to make around 100 Florentines. They are basically simple, but anything made in a large quantity gets a bit stressful, and you end up staring around slightly manically, covered in bits of whatever it is you’re making. I kept leaving trays of cooked Florentines around the house to cool, then forgetting about them. The tipping point came for me when I’d thought I’d finished, only to find a rogue batch on top of the washing machine a few hours later.

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Cinnamon Sugar Biscuits

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I have had a lovely day off today. An upshot of working lots is that I really appreciate my time off. This morning, I wrote a letter to a friend in Boston – an actual letter, with a pen and paper, rather than a Facebook message- that I have been meaning to write for ages. Then I wandered up the lane to feed my horse, spending an idle few minutes brushing the twigs out of her mane.

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Another activity I usually reserve for a day off is baking. It’s such a pleasure to bake slowly and carefully, with no pressures on time.  Today I chose to bake some cinnamon biscuits. I have a friend coming over shortly to help me eat them. We’ll sit in front of a fire that I have made, luxuriously and slightly pointlessly, at three o’clock in the afternoon.

biscuit dough

The recipe is from a book that I have featured on this blog before, called ‘Tea with Bea’. Bea calls these biscuits ‘Snickerdoodles’ – apparently a traditional Amish cookie. But this name is misleading, as my friend pointed out, as you might assume they have something to do with Snickers bars. Or at the very least be slightly baffled as to what they actually are. I decided to rename them ‘Cinnamon Sugar Biscuits’, due to the fact that they are dipped in cinnamon sugar before they are baked. I ate rather too many – another perk of a day off being pretty much constant eating.

biscuit in half

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