Marshmallows

Country of origin: ancient Egypt?

These fluffy sweets get their name from the marshmallow plant, whose root – in its powdered form – was traditionally used as the thickening agent; nowadays most are made with gelatine instead. Not just for neat eating: pair with some hot chocolate, toast until gooey, flavour with chocolate, fill with raspberries, roll in shredded coconut, the list goes on.

It never occured to me to try and make them at home, until I tried some divine homemade peach-flavoured marshmallows at a party. Indeed, there are only a few ingredients: sugar, corn syrup (if using), water and gelatine; it’s the process that requires care. Getting the sugar syrup to the correct temperature, pouring it in a thin steady stream onto the gelatine and corn syrup and then ensuring that this mixture is whisked until completely cool before placing it in a pan.

David Lebovitz’s post on marshmallows is very informative; his recipe uses egg whites, and no corn syrup. There is even a  post on when and when not to use corn syrup. One great idea mentioned is to make a few free-form marshmallows and then placing them on a lemon or lime tart, perfect! I would like to try and pipe on a marshmallow topping the next time I make lemon meringue pie.

 Of course, you could also take the s’mores road and make a marshmallow and chocolate sandwich using Graham cracker/digestive biscuit. This reminds of a dessert I’ve had here (cubes of chocolate custard, ice cream, crumbled Graham cracker and lightly toasted marshmallow, yum.)

Once the marshmallow sheet is set, cut into desired shapes and rolled in sugar/cornstarch, they can be stored for a while, but make sure they are in an airtight container, separated with parchment paper.

The mixture becomes very sticky and gloopy, so lightly oil your hands or any implements before you go near it:

You can cut out any shapes you like, although being slightly squidgy, you don’t always get clean lines, like these bears:

Tips:

– Don’t – like I did – let the sugar syrup boil for ages, use a smallish pan, to avoid evaporating away the water. As a result of the long boiling time, I suspect that my marshmallow mix was particularly difficult to transfer from mixing bowl to tin.

– The recipe I used suggests just powdered sugar to dust the cut marshmallows in, but i made a mix of a third cornstarch and the rest powdered sugar, to ensure they stayed completely dry.

– Simple I know, but it’s a good idea to test your thermometer is working before starting! Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil and check that it shows up as 212 degrees F or 100 degrees C.

Churros

Country of origin: Portugal?


My first memory of churros was biting into a crisp and crunchy doughnut at an amusement park. Still warm and served in a long paper bag, it was soft and fluffy on the inside, and doused in cinnamon sugar, delicious! They aren’t really widely available in England, so with a heavy heart I gave up on ever finding them again, until Wahaca, where the churros are served with little pots of hot chocolate sauce.

I didn’t realise, but these doughnuts are just deep fried choux pastry. The recipe I tried was quick to prepare and makes about 24 little churros. Water, butter, sugar and a pinch of salt are heated until boiling point. This is then removed from the heat and all-purpose flour added and mixed until the dough comes away from the sides of the pot. Finally, this is cooled slightly and then two eggs are beaten in. In the meantime, oil is heated for the deep frying; you want it around 350 degrees F.

I was so looking forward to the star-ridges of professional churros – which also allow you to scoop up more cinnamon sugar – but I don’t have a piping star tip large enough, so I just cut the piping bag at what seemed the right diameter (about 1.5 cm).

Unfortunately, the churros had air bubbles on them, seen below, which are luckily hidden by the cinnamon sugar. I’m not sure why this happens.

While these are still hot, roll in the cinnamon sugar:

Here is the inside of one of the churros, cooked and crisp on outside, but still slightly soft and on the inside:

Tips:

– Test one or two out when the oil is at the right temperature, to get a feel for how long they take to nicely golden outside, but be properly cooked inside.

– You can make the choux batter in advance and leave in the fridge, then all you need to do is deep fry and dip in sugar.

– Use scissors to cut off the batter coming out of the piping bag and into the hot oil.

Handvho

Country of origin: India

If you ever crave something savoury with afternoon tea that isn’t a sandwich or a quiche, well this is it, handvo does the job nicely. A slightly spiced vegetable “cake”, made of flours (you can use all sorts, e.g semolina, gram flour, pigeon pea flour and rice flour) yoghurt, spices and vegetables like cabbage, bottle gourd, onions, carrots and peas. It can be served alone as a delicious snack, or with yoghurt, chutney or hot sauce.

This recipe has been adapted from, Cooking with my Indian Mother-in-law, by Simon Daley and Roshan Hirani. I halved their recipe, and got one 9-inch cake; I haven’t yet experimented with mini handvos or handvo scones but there’s a great recipe here.

You first mix yoghurt, oil and the flours together then add the vegetables and the flavouring (garlic, ginger, chilli, cumin seeds, salt, coriander, lemon juice and sugar). A vagar/temper is then made of oil, mustard seeds, sesame seeds and curry leaves; once their lovely aromas are released, pour it over the batter and mix. Finally add the raising agents, baking powder and Eno ( a fruit salt) and then pour the mixture into a baking tin. It’s cooked for about an hour until golden brown.

Nothing beats it sliced and warm from the oven, with a cup of tea.

Tips:

– I found that my handvo was golden and crisp enough after about 40 minutes in the oven, so I placed a piece of lightly oiled foil on top to stop it browning further.

– I only had red peppers, squash, carrots and frozen peas and sweetcorn available, so that’s what I used, but I’d recommend cabbage and courgette instead of the red pepper and squash.

Focaccia

Country of origin: Italy

I wanted to start my bread making with something nice and safe, and after pizza dough, focaccia seems the next step, having an almost identical dough. The recipe is for one large loaf, but I made five smaller ones, using ring moulds to shape them and split between rosemary and chopped black olives. These loaves came out delicious and fluffy, perfect to eat hot from the oven.

This recipe has the following steps: make the dough, let it rest and double in size, knock it back, shape and then let it rise again:

Once the bread has risen for the second time, on a well-oiled baking sheet, you punch little indentations in and then brush the bread with additional olive oil, to give the loaves some moisture while baking.

Tips:

– If you use a stand mixer for the kneading part of the recipe, you might need to hold it steady or even take the dough out and knead it by hand for a while, as the dough is quite dry and rocks the mixer about.

– It’s probably worth trying to make these on a pizza stone if possible, as the bottom of the loaves were slightly too brown using metal baking sheets.

– Another variation to try is to incorporate potato flakes or riced potatoes, especially with the rosemary.

The Lavender Trials

I’ve never worked with lavender: it’s floral, it’s in candles and bath oil, it has pretty flowers, but can you bake with it?

After umming and ahhing about which fillings to use for these lavender macarons I decided to try them all: white chocolate ganache, buttercream and a mousseline (made from crème pâtissière with butter and whipped cream added to it!). I went purple-crazy and made further variations by adding blackberry compote to each of these and separately, fresh blueberries.

The clear winner for the filling was the mousseline by itself, as it was nice and light and didn’t compete with the lavender flavor of the shells. There are only a few steps for this stellar filling: heat milk and vanilla until they are steaming. In a bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar, and then add the cornflour, making sure it’s nice and smooth. Add the hot milk a little at a time to the egg yolk mixture, whisking as you go, ensuring that you don’t shock the eggs into cooking. Then add all the mixture back to the heat and keep stirring until thickened. Take off the heat and add the butter, and once it’s cool, fold in the whipped cream. Leftover mousseline can be used to fill profiteroles, chocolate eclairs, in a fruit tart, eaten neat, the list goes on…

Buttercream and blackberry compote 

The buttercream was OK, rather sweet and my attempts to balance this out went too far with the the very tart blackberry compote.

The blueberries and white chocolate ganache filling 

Next, the white chocolate ganache filling. This was delicious, but pretty sweet again, and maybe overpowering the delicate lavender in the shells. I think white chocolate ganache would be more suited to dark chocolately shells instead.

All in all, a calorie-laden and informative afternoon. I am now a firm believer in using a variation on mousseline as a filling for many macaron flavors, especially for the more delicate ones. My only regret was that I didn’t have any teensy dried lavender flowers I could scatter on the macaron shells before baking but…a few days later, a friend and I made them again, with flowers. The result: almost too pretty to eat.

Tips:

– Go sparingly with floral flavors, about a teaspoon and a half of lavender extract was good (for a 200g icing/powdered sugar and 100g ground almond recipe)

– Definitely give the macarons time in the fridge to meet and greet with the fillings, it gives the filling time to permeate the shells

– After lightly burning many shells, I’ve learned that my oven is better at 300 Farenheit/149 Celcius oven for about 12 minutes (rather than the 325Farenheit/162 Celcius recommended by the book)