Comfort Food Week: Chocolate Peanut Butter Brownies

I just couldn’t do a comfort food week without mentioning brownies; they are my favourite sweet treat and over the years have sort of become my trademark cake. I made a brownie tower as my wedding cake, and bake them for most occasions. I find them one of the best things to serve at a barbecue as dessert (apart from Eton Mess, obviously), as they’re one of the few cakes that are dense and squidgy enough to pass as a dessert. They are also amazingly low effort; no icing to fiddle around with, less washing up, easy to double up into larger quantities – they really have their advantages. Their gooey richness makes them so comforting to eat; you can’t help but feel a bit better after eating a good brownie.

So after years of making the same (admittedly, delicious) brownies (my favourites are Nigella’s brownies from How to be a Domestic Goddess), I felt it was time to branch out into something slightly different. As I’ve recently discovered the kilogram jars of Skippy peanut butter at Costco it seemed logical to try and incorporate peanut butter into the brownies. So I found a recipe from BBC Good Food and, once I’d tried it, I wondered what I’d been doing all these years making plain brownies. These are a-m-a-z-i-n-g, not only are they squidgy and sticky and rich, but they have that delicious sweet/salty thing going on which is my favourite flavour combo. Also, as the peanut butter replaces regular butter in the recipe I can only assume that they are healthier and that by making them I have, therefore, done myself and everyone else who eats them, a huge favour.

So without further ado, the recipe:

Chocolate peanut butter brownies

I would say how many this makes but it entirely depends on how big you cut them! It’s about 16 squares.

225g crunchy peanut butter

200g dark chocolate

280g soft light brown sugar

3 medium eggs (I generally use 2 large)

100g self-raising flour

Method

Preheat the oven to 180C and line a square or rectangular baking tin roughly 20cm long with greaseproof paper/parchment. Melt 175g of the peanut butter, 150g of the chocolate and the sugar in a pan and melt gently until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is liquid.

Take the pan off the heat and beat in the eggs one at a time. Stir in the flour and pour into the tin.

Melt the leftover peanut butter in the microwave or in a pan until it’s runny and drizzle it over the top of the brownie mixture.

Bake for around 35-40 minutes until it’s cracking on top but the middle is still squidgy.

Melt the remaining chocolate and drizzle over the top. Leave everything to cool, cut into squares and enjoy! Once you’ve gone peanut butter you’ll never go back…

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Plum, hazelnut and chocolate cake

I’m really excited about the arrival of autumn, because it’s my favourite time of year and I have a lot to post about! I love everything about this season; root veg, squashes, game, soups and comfort food.

This cake is probably one of the first things I made as autumn arrived; in fact I sort of made it to mark the onset of the season as it felt so autumnal to me. It was really really delicious too! I love cakes with fruit in (as opposed to fruit cake, which is the devil’s work) as they’re always nice and moist. The chocolatey chunks provide a welcome touch of sweetness and richness which works really well with the hazelnuts which are pretty savoury here. The real beauty of this cake is not just that it’s autumnal in its flavour and ingredients, but even the look of the thing is autumnal; the burnished hazelnuts split their skins and go all golden brown, and the redness of the skin on the plums oozes into the golden flesh in the centre and it looks like a real autumnal show in food form. I love it when that happens. In fact, I love it so much I made it into the new blog header picture for autumn!

I got the recipe from BBC Good Food, and it says to use ground hazelnuts in the recipe. Now, I’ve never seen ground hazelnuts in the supermarket, and as I didn’t have any ground almonds in the house either to substitute I ground my own in the food processor. They didn’t grind down as fine as ground almonds, but then the slight grainy texture was quite nice in the finished cake. This is a really great way to use plums, and actually I think it would be great to just make a plain, spiced sponge cake, heavy with cinnamon, and poke some plums into the top before it goes in the oven. I might try this very soon! In the meantime, the recipe for the plum, hazelnut and chocolate cake:

Plum, hazelnut and chocolate cake

175g butter

500g plums

175g light muscovado sugar

175g self-raising flour

175g ground hazelnuts

3 eggs

1 tsp baking powder

50g dark chocolate

2 tbsp hazelnuts

2 tbsp redcurrant, damson or plum jelly

Method

Preheat the oven to 180C and butter and line the base of a 20cm cake tin (I used a loose-bottom one for convenience).

Halve and stone 4 plums and keep by for later, and chop the remaining plums.

If you can’t find ground hazelnuts, grind them in a processor. Then put the sugar, butter, flour, ground hazelnuts, eggs and baking powder into a large bowl and beat with a wooden spoon or electric hand mixer for 1-2 mins, until smooth and light or do what I did and put it all in the processor. Roughly chop the chocolate into fairly small pieces.

Stir in the chopped plums and chocolate, then tip into the prepared cake tin and smooth the top.

Arrange the halved plums over the top of the mixture, pressing them down lightly, then scatter over hazelnuts.

The recipe says to bake for 40-50 mins, but mine took about 10 minutes longer to cook, but I did cook it in a non-fan oven. Once it’s golden and feels firm in the centre, remove it from the oven and cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then take it out and cool on a wire rack. Heat the jelly, then brush over the top of the cake before serving (I left this bit out actually).

This cake is so delicious. Hope you enjoy it!

Homemade crumpets with homemade salted butter

If you fancy a bit of pottering around in the kitchen this weekend then making some crumpets could be the very thing for you! I’m on a total crumpet kick at the moment; I’m having them for breakfast every morning (breakfast at my desk has been replaced by breakfast in my car) and feel like I could never get tired of eating them. So a few weeks ago I figured I’d have a go at making them, since everything home-made generally tends to taste better than shop-bought. I have always wanted to know how they get their bubbly tops and stringy, spongy centre.

I used Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe which was SO easy. It took just a few minutes to whip up the batter; the limiting factor on making these is the time the batter takes to rest and the time the crumpets take to cook. It’s best to make them on a day when you’ve not got much else on, and can just keep checking on the batter/cooking crumpets as and when you need to (I wouldn’t advise making them on a Sunday morning when you’re supposed to be going out like I did!). One thing I will say about the recipe is that it says to add 10 grams of salt, and once I’d measured this out I realised that this is a LOT of salt. Even though the recipe makes a lot of batter, I still didn’t think that 10 grams was necessary, and as a result I put in probably about 6 or 7 grams. Still though, my husband complained that they were too salty, although I did make salted butter so maybe it was just all too much. Next time I’d put in even less salt though; there’s nothing worse than eating something that’s too salty.

Cooking the crumpets was, er, interesting. Not that it was hard, but it took a bit of trial and error to get the correct thickness. Unfortunately I had one of those moments where you just blindly follow the recipe rather than using your own common sense, so I added enough batter to come ‘almost to the top of the crumpet ring’, although my crumpet rings are particularly tall. So I ended up with a crumpet about an inch thick that took about 20 minutes to cook, and even then was still a bit gooey in the middle. I obviously made the subsequent crumpets a lot thinner. Next time, I will be more prepared for the time they take to cook, they’re totally worth it. They were really delicious!

I’m convinced this whole enterprise was doomed from the start, as when I bought the egg rings I took them to the till at the supermarket with a 15-rated DVD and got ID’d. What 14-year-old buys egg rings?! Seriously. I am obviously retaining my youthful good looks, being mistaken for a 14-year-old at the ripe old age of 26.

As for making the butter, it’s something I’ve wanted to do since one of my work colleagues bought a book on making “traditional” things like cheese, butter, bread etc. In this book, the method seemed slightly laborious, but luckily I was watching an episode of Jamie Oliver’s 30 Minute Meals and he made butter in the processor and it took no time at all. Obviously then I had to give it a go. Even if you don’t have a processor you could do it, essentially you just need to over-whisk double cream until the curd separates from the whey. You could do this by hand (Hulk arms are a MUST though) or with a marble in a jam jar, or any other weird and wonderful way you can think of to whip cream. Then it’s just a case of squeezing out all the fluid (I do this via a combination of a sieve and lots of kitchen towel, although since I made these I managed to score some butter pats from a car boot sale), putting any flavourings into it that you want, and then eating it! I couldn’t believe how easy it was and it’s really delicious too. A really easy way to impress friends or family that you’ve had to stay at breakfast!

Crumpets

The recipe says it makes 12 but once my batter was rested I could have easily got a lot more than that out of it!

450g plain white flour

350ml warm milk

350ml warm water (approximately)

5g powdered dried yeast

10g salt

1 tsp baking powder

A little sunflower or vegetable oil

Homemade butter

Tub of double cream (it really doesn’t matter what size, it all depends how much butter you want to make! I think I used a 284ml tub which makes a generous amount)

Pinch sea salt

Method

In a large bowl whisk the flour, milk, water and yeast into a runny batter the consistency of single cream. Cover with cling-film and leave for an hour until really bubbly (or three to four hours, if need be).

To make the butter, use whatever method you want to whip the cream. Keep whipping it until it goes really stiff, then it will get lumpier and lumpier, and eventually you’ll see the fluid come out and will hear a sloshing sound. This means it’s done!

Now tip everything into a sieve and squeeze the butter to get rid of the worst of the fluid. Next, I spread the butter out onto a sheet of greaseproof paper into a thin layer and dab all over with kitchen towel until the liquid has all gone.

Once you’ve done this, scatter the salt over the surface, and fold the greaseproof in half, smooshing the butter together. Peel back the greaseproof and fold the butter in half again using the paper, so that it’s a quarter of the original size. Do this several more times; flattening it out and folding it up so that the salt is evenly distributed. Using the paper to squash it together stops the heat from your hands melting it. Once it’s done, cut a circle from greaseproof paper, dollop the butter into the middle of it and squash up the sides, making a little patty encased in the paper.

Obviously you could just leave the butter plain, or put in herbs/garlic/chilli etc and use it on steaks or over vegetables. Yum! If you want to use it for these things you can freeze it; just form it into a sausage in some greaseproof paper, wrap it and put it in the freezer. Then you can cut disks off as and when you need it.

Once the crumpet batter is rested, heat a frying pan or griddle over a medium heat. Whilst the pan is heating, whisk the salt and baking powder into the batter. Lightly grease some crumpet/egg rings and the pan, and then make a test crumpet. Pour some batter into the ring, about 1 1/2 cm thick. If the mixture runs out the bottom of the ring, you’ll need to add more flour to the batter to thicken it. Otherwise, as the crumpet cooks small holes will appear on the surface. Once the surface is set and the crumpet looks like it’s cooked through (this will take around 8 minutes or so), flip it over and cook for a further few minutes until golden. Once you know your batter is ok you can cook several at once.

They’re best eaten straight from the pan, with the homemade butter and jam, nutella, cheese… anything!

 

Culinary disasters: cranberry and almond flapjacks

Unfortunately, all too often things in the kitchen don’t quite go as planned. It doesn’t take much to take your eye off something for a few minutes, during which time it’s burnt; to break egg yolks when you’re trying to separate them from the whites or to misread the scales/measuring jug and put way too much/little of something into a recipe, which you might not notice until you come to eat it.

I have taken steps to try to prevent the egg disaster from happening though; I now break the eggs into a small bowl before transferring the yolk-free whites into the main mixing bowl, so that if the yolk breaks I don’t end up contaminating another 2/3/4/5/6 egg whites (believe me this was a slow learning curve). Unfortunately though, there are some things that you can’t really avoid unless you apply Mad-Eye Moody’s philosophy of CONSTANT VIGILANCE, and even then you might still make mistakes. I therefore figured that there was something to be gained from sharing my culinary disasters in the hope that I can pass on the benefit of my experience, and hope that you don’t make the same mistakes as I do!

I guess this particular flapjack disaster was more of a lack of rational thought than of neglect or lack of dexterity. I wanted to make a sweet treat for my colleague on his last day before he leaves for his new job, but as I knew he was cycling to work I thought he probably wouldn’t appreciate a cake full of fat and sugar when it came to cycling the 13 or so miles home. So I thought I’d make flapjacks, as oats are pretty energy-tastic. As it was for a special occasion (i.e. not for me to eat the full batch by myself) I thought I would use my “posh oats”; that is to say the whole rolled oats which I bought for my muesli making. Whilst I was making the flapjacks, which I rammed full of flaked almonds and dried cranberries, the oats looked so lovely and glossy when I coated them in the melted butter and syrup. However, when I took them out the oven I thought they felt quite soft still, but as they were nicely golden on top I didn’t want to leave them in the oven any longer. I let them cool and tried to cut them in the morning, but when I did they just crumbled into bits in the tin. I was so gutted; I bought them into work anyway as some bits remained in reasonable-sized chunks but the bulk just crumbled into a fine rubble (much more like granola, actually!). They might have ended up as little bits but they’re some very tasty little bits!

They didn’t cohere properly because the oats are too large – they don’t form such a strong cement as the quick-cook oats I usually use. In the past I’ve made these exact same flapjacks with total success when made with the quick-cook oats. That’ll teach me to try and show off! If I’d have blitzed these in the processor for a few seconds before using them they would have turned out perfectly.

The recipe is really straightforward and, as you might imagine, takes about 5 minutes to make. Here is the recipe, from Nigella’s How to be a Domestic Goddess:

Cranberry and almond flapjacks

Makes around 18 bars

450g quick-cook rolled oats (i.e. not readybrek!)

300g butter

150g golden syrup

75g light soft brown sugar (although I didn’t have enough so I used about 45g light brown and 30g dark brown soft sugar)

A few handfuls dried cranberries

A few handfuls of flaked almonds

Method

Preheat the oven to 190C. Weigh out the butter and golden syrup and melt gently over a low heat.

Whilst the butter and golden syrup are melting, mix together the oats, sugar, cranberries and almonds in a large bowl.

Once melted, pour the butter and golden syrup over the oat mixture and mix everything together really thoroughly. Everything should be glossy.

Press the mixture into a greased (and lined if you want to) tin around 25cm square (it depends how thick/thin/crumbly/sticky you like your flapjacks) until it’s all level, and bake in the oven for around 20-25 minutes until golden brown.

Leave it to cool in the tin and then cut into bars. They’re delicious! (When they turn out right…..)

The ‘C’ word – (pistachio) cupcakes

I am almost loathed to post a recipe for cupcakes because I’m so conscious of not only their ubiquitousness, but also the twee associations they’ve gained, particularly from the blogosphere. Like it or not though, cupcakes are everywhere and have probably been covered by every food (and fashion) blogger ever. As I mentioned in a previous post, the cupcakes I go in for are those with water icing; there is something so wonderfully thick and fudgy about water icing and I love the way it sticks around your teeth and to the roof of your mouth. It also lets the flavour of the sponge do the talking, which in this instance made it the perfect partner for this pistachio sponge.

I came upon the recipe on the BBC Good Food site, which is my favourite way to while away the last few minutes of work, deciding what to cook when I get home. I knew instantly I wanted to make them tonight, and knew I had a HUGE amount of pistachios at home. I love pistachios, though they’re a relatively new thing for me. In the past I’ve never really been that bothered by them but we recently bought a gigantic bag of salted, giant ones that I couldn’t stop munching on and since then I’m a total convert. I must admit the first things that pop into my mind when I think of pistachios are the pistachio macarons from Laduree, which is another blogger cliche! Well, I also think of the book ‘The Pistachio Principle’ by Paula Danziger that I read as a teenager, of which I can remember nothing except that the main character used to eat bucketloads of red pistachios which dyed her fingers red.

These cupcakes are really something special though. The pistachio flavour is delicate but still obvious, and the crushed nuts in the sponge give it a dense texture with a satisfying bite. I really think they look the business and will definitely be serving these up as petit fours with coffee next time I invite people round. Although I don’t really go in much for fancy decoration and I’m certainly no master when it comes to icing, I think they look so pretty – I love the vivid green and pink of the crushed pistachios against the palest green icing. Water icing is so easy though, as long as you make it the right viscosity then it will just level itself out nicely with nothing but a little coax from the back of a spoon. I find there is something quite serene about smooth, unblemished icing which is very relaxing and mesmerising. Or maybe I need to get out more.

The recipe was to make 12 cupcakes in muffin cases, but I halved the mixture and made some miniature cupcakes and a few regular sized cakes in bun cases with the leftover mixture. I got 12 miniature and 6 regular bun sized out of half the mixture, so you’d definitely get 12 muffin-sized cakes out of the full mix. The recipe was SO easy, on the website it said to blitz up the nuts and sugar in the processor and then beat everything else together in a bowl. In the interests of saving time AND washing up, I did it all in the processor which took SO little time it was unbelievable. In fact, it took me longer to shell all those pistachios than it did to make the cakes! As I said, I only had salted ones, so I washed and dried the pistachios before putting them in the processor which worked fine – the sponges don’t taste in any way salty!

The only downside about making the miniature ones is that you get pretty much as much icing as cake, which makes them quite sweet. But as a small little mouthful, is that such a bad thing?

Pistachio cupcakes

Makes 12 muffin-sized cakes

Cakes

100g pistachios

140g golden caster sugar

140g butter , very soft

2 eggs

140g self-raising flour

5 tbsp milk

Icing

250g icing sugar , sifted

Green food colouring

Method

Preheat the oven to 160C and line a 12-hole muffin tin with cases (or whatever size you want to make them).

Put 85g pistachios into a food processor with about half the sugar, then whizz until very finely chopped.

Add the remaining sugar, butter, eggs, flour and milk into the processor and beat until smooth. Divide between the cases, then bake on a low shelf for 22-25 mins until a skewer poked in comes out clean (I cooked my miniature ones for about 5 minutes). Cool on a wire rack.

For the icing, mix just enough water into the icing sugar to get a very thick but still runny icing – just add 1 tbsp of water at a time. Stir in enough food colouring to give a pretty, pale green colour. If any cakes poke above the top of the cases, trim with a small knife, or scoop out with a teaspoon – being very careful not to release any of the case from the sides of the cake. Put a generous spoonful of icing on each cake and let it gently spread to cover. Chop the remaining pistachios and scatter these over. Leave to set, then serve. Enjoy!

It was only with the flash that you could see the pale green of the icing!

Sticky peanut butter cake

There aren’t many times when I wouldn’t rather eat a slice of cake than a bar of chocolate. Although obviously making a cake takes considerably more effort than buying a bar of chocolate, so I really only tend to bake cakes for occasions now. I would rather have a slice of cake than a cupcake any day, with cupcakes (especially the kind that are everywhere these days) there is just too much frosting for the amount of cake, and I find them way too sickly. I do LOVE cupcakes made with water icing though, though that is a story for another day!

Yesterday I was in one of those moods where I couldn’t be bothered to do ANYTHING, but then I had a nap and suddenly I sprang into life and proceeded to spend the next 3 hours in the kitchen, cooking dinner and this cake. I looked through all of my failsafe recipe books for chocolate cake recipes (i.e. all Nigella books) but her chocolate cakes all use sour cream which I didn’t have enough of in the house. So I looked through the Divine Heavenly Chocolate Recipes book I was given as a gift one year, and came across this chocolate peanut butter cake. I was sold pretty much immediately, especially when I realised I had all the ingredients. It was dead easy to mix everything up in the processor, although it wouldn’t exactly be a stretch by hand, and the cake was dense and springy and the icing SO rich and fudgy.

The only things I did differently is that I used 4 medium eggs instead of 3 large, and I only had crunchy peanut butter, so after debating whether I should just use the crunchy I figured it would spoil it if the icing weren’t silky smooth, so I just pushed it through a sieve. I also used all dark chocolate for the icing cause it’s all I had – it did make the icing much darker (i.e. you wouldn’t know it was peanutty until you ate it) and I had to put quite a bit of icing sugar in to make it sweet enough, but it made it really rich and delicious.

This would make a really good birthday cake, and it’s so quick and easy, especially since the icing requires almost no effort at all!

Sticky peanut butter cake
Makes one ~20cm cake
Sponge
175g soft unsalted butter
150g caster sugar
25g light muscovado sugar
3 large free range eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
150g self-raising flour
30g good cocoa powder
2 tablespoons milk

Icing
45g milk chocolate
45g dark chocolate
125g smooth peanut butter
25g soft butter
Icing sugar/cocoa powder as needed

You also need two cake tins around 20cm in diameter, greased and the bottoms lined with parchment

Preheat the oven to 180C. Make sure that all your ingredients are at room temperature (the butter needs to be REALLY soft if you’re doing it by hand, and if you keep your eggs in the fridge then take them out to warm up).

In a processor/freestanding mixer (or by hand), beat the butter until soft and creamy. Beat in the sugars until really fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time and beat well after you’ve added each one. By now the mixture should look really smooth and light. Beat in the vanilla.

Sift the flour and cocoa powder and add to the mixture, along with the milk, and mix gently until everything is combined (in the processor I just added the flour in two stages and poured the milk down the funnel). The mixture should be a smooth, pale, dropping consistency.

Spread the mixture into the two tins, making a little depression in the centre so that when it rises in the oven it stays flat. Put the tins in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes or until the top is springy to the touch and it’s coming away slightly from the sides of the tin. If in doubt poke a skewer or a piece of uncooked spaghetti into the centre; if it comes out clean it’s done.

Run a knife around the edges of the tins and turn out onto a wire rack and leave them to cool completely. Don’t be tempted to ice the cake before it’s cool otherwise the icing will melt and run off!

While the cake is cooling, make the icing. Melt the chocolate in a saucepan on a very low heat (don’t let it burn otherwise it will seize up and be useless). Once it’s melted, leave it to cool a bit for a couple of minutes, then stir in the butter and the peanut butter which will melt into the warm chocolate. Taste the icing and add icing sugar or cocoa powder until it’s as sweet as you like. I put the saucepan in the fridge for 10 minutes to firm up the icing. It needs to be solid enough to not run off the cake, but you need to be able to spread it easily across the cake.

Once the cake is cool, sandwich it with the icing and spread another layer on top. Enjoy!

Nigella’s Chocolate Cloud Cake

Despite being called a cake, I think this is much more of a dessert. Yes, I made it for my husband this year as his birthday cake, but it’s definitely chic and rich enough to pass as a pudding for a dinner party. I first came across it watching Nigella Bites and instantly wanted to just throw my face into it because it looked SO GOOD. The cake is flourless, which makes it really light despite its richness. In fact, after I made it for my husband’s birthday we had leftovers which I put in the fridge, and if you eat the cake chilled it takes on a totally different texture; it’s much more dense and truffley. In my book, this can only be a good thing.

I decided to make one as a dessert for my aforementioned barbecue because it was easy to prepare ahead and would be plenty to go around. The only thing I change about the recipe is that I don’t use the Cointreau or orange. I’m really not a fan of Cointreau and I personally think all sweet things are ruined by the addition of alcohol (e.g. rum truffles, gag). So I omit the orange too because I’m intolerant to oranges. To be honest, I don’t think it suffers at all! Below is the recipe and method as it appears in the book. Enjoy!

Chocolate Cloud Cake

Serves 8-12

250g dark chocolate, minimum 70% cocoa solids

125g unsalted butter, softened

6 eggs: 2 whole, 4 separated

175g caster sugar

2 tablespoons Cointreau (optional)

Grated zest of 1 orange (optional)

23cm springform cake tin

Cream topping:

500ml double cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon Cointreau (optional)

1/2 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder for sprinkling

Method: 

Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4.

Line the bottom of the cake tin with baking parchment.

Melt the chocolate either in a double boiler or a microwave, and then let the butter melt in the warm chocolate.

Beat the 2 whole eggs and 4 egg yolks with 75g of the caster sugar, then gently add the chocolate mixture, the Cointreau and orange zest.

In another bowl, whisk the 4 egg whites until foamy, then gradually add the 100g of sugar and whisk until the whites are holding their shape but not too stiff.

Lighten the chocolate mixture with a dollop of egg whites, and then fold in the rest of the whites. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 35-40 minutes or until the cake is risen and cracked and the centre is no longer wobbly. Cool the cake in its tin on a wire rack; the middle will sink as it cools.

When you are ready to eat, place the still tin-bound cake on a cake stand or plate for serving and carefully remove the cake from its tin. Don’t worry about cracks or rough edges: it’s the crater look we’re going for here. Whip the cream until it’s soft and then add the vanilla and Cointreau and continue whisking until the cream is firm but not stiff.

Fill the crater of the cake with the whipped cream, easing it out gently towards the edges of the cake, and dust the top lightly with cocoa powder pushed through a tea-strainer.