This is a bumper post, I’m afraid.
Four recipes to mitigate the self-indulgent spiel, but feel free to skip the claptrap and jump straight to the baked goods. I won’t hate you. Mainly, because I won’t know. If I knew, I’d hate you, you heartless swine.
There comes a point after someone close to you has died when people just Stop Making A Fuss. This was mostly, in my quarters, wildly welcomed. My way of grieving is to get through each day as it comes, because no day is worse than any other, in that each day brings with it the same gaping hole and aching loss . So, the very well-meaning, and well-taken enquiries as to how you’re bearing up, and how you feel, and the unsolicited advice that you really mustn’t bottle your feelings up because you will have a nervous break down (thanks! As if the death of my mother wasn’t enough to deal with, now I have to deal with the worry that I’m not dealing with it and that I will — at some unspecified point in the future, and probably without warning — collapse sobbing in public) are not greatly missed. Anyhoo, although you are FULLY AWARE that all these questions and comments are made with all the love in the world, it’s a bit of a blessed relief when they stop.
You have normal conversations for the first time in ages. Conversations which aren’t either held with a caterer or undertaker (let me tell you: conversations with an undertaker are never normal. Forgive me for saying so if you are indeed an undertaker. [Shout out to undertakers!] I am not for one moment suggesting that you are not normal. I am saying that the one normal conversation I had with ‘my’ undertaker, ie a conversation that did not revolve around unexpected and excruciating death, was one in which he mocked me for being 25 and unmarried and told me to get a move on, and stays in my mind as one of the most surreal moments of that time. Although, in retrospect, being good-naturedly told to get on with living my life was probably Not Bad Advice).
Anyway, I digress: you begin having ‘normal’ conversations. Conversations where you talk about boys, about Geordie Shore, about people from school, about nothing. But even then, the conversation will eventually reach the shroud-draped elephant in the room.
It is surprisingly difficult when someone asks you how you are coping not to breezily dismiss it with ‘fine, fine’. Generally, I wanted to dismiss it. There is something to be said for being honest. For reaching out. For saying the words ‘actually, I’m not fine’. Especially if you are not in fact coping. But, often, I didn’t want to talk about my mother. It may have been a day where I was quietly and privately nursing my broken heart. A day where I had deliberately left that broken heart in my bedroom with the cat, and come to the pub to discuss anything but. And ‘fine, fine’ does not satisfy people, especially if accompanied by gazing into the middle-distance, with an Emma Bovary-esque expression of mournful longing on your face. It sets alarm bells ringing in their heads. ‘This woman is bottling it up’, they think, ‘this can’t last! She’s going to go MAD’. But, ah, now, you see, this is where baking comes into its own. Because if you say ‘fine, fine. I’ve been teaching myself to bake actually’, you THROW THEM. They try to follow the same line of thought, they start down that route: ‘This woman is bottl— wait, baking? Oohh, what have you made?’. And there you go, crisis averted.
Baking also has the added advantage that it reassures those around you that you are OK (as long as you are not totally manic, wide-eyed, and have your loved ones quite literally walking on eggshells). An apron makes you look EFFICIENT, and a tray of sweet nothings makes you APPROACHABLE. It just puts people at their ease.
But, and here we return to the initial point of this blog (Ooohh, chiastic structure! FANCY! Those years of Latin and Greek didn’t go totally to waste), it wasn’t just a means of fobbing off well-meaning interrogators. Baking was good for me. It helped me. It is a really, really good way of keeping you busy. Once you start on a baking project, it’s more bloody effort to stop and get rid of what you’re doing, than to see it through to fruition. And, if you’re making madeleines, you’ve got to GET ON WITH IT, before all the effort and AIR you put into whisking the damn mixture goes entirely to waste. And afterwards, you get to sit down with a cup of tea and something charming and a sense of satisfaction that you MADE THIS, and it is very hard not to feel a little bit cheered.
So, ONWARDS to the recipes. Biscuits are lovely, aren’t they? Just lovely. I make a lot of biscuits. Partly because I burn a lot of the batches. Partly because of the above. And partly because baking a batch of biscuits isn’t as much of an imposition on a household as a cake. Biscuits don’t LOOM. They’re just there, you know, if you want one. They don’t judge you if you end up opting for an after-dinner Easter egg instead or, God forbid, a piece of fruit.
Below we have two St John recipes for different type of biscuits, because when I met the lovely @littlebrogues (do you follow her? You should), she brought with her the St John’s cookbook. A gift! For us! Having never met us before! We could have been RUBBISH. Luckily, we’re not. And the baking section from the St John’s cookbook is EXCELLENT.
Next, a bastardised James Martin recipe for flapjacks. Totally bastardised. So much so that it’s basically my recipe. And my recipe worked fine. And I haven’t properly tried his. So I have included my recipe, inspired by James, with irritating clarification and disclaimer footnotes.
And finally, a viennese finger/whirl recipe. I learnt how to make this at a baking class, and people are always terribly impressed by it, I assume because it involves piping. But it’s really very easy, and completely delicious.
[For what it’s worth, I think the baking thing works well the other way too. The nicest thing that happened to me (and one of the few things that properly made me cry in the aftermath) was my housemates filling up the fridge with all my favourite foods and tidying my room for me on my return from home, without any fuss, without expecting thanks, just being there. If this happened to one of the people I hold dear — and it will: death happens, all too often, and without adequate warning — I would take biscuits. I would take biscuits, and milk, and some tea bags, in case they’d forgotten to go to the shops. I’d tell them what had happened in Eastenders whilst they were dealing with all the shit. I’d make them laugh with tales of how I fell out of the window trying to save the cat. I’d do their washing up. I’d throw out their mouldy bread, which they’d probably forgotten about whilst they were away. And then I’d leave. Oh, and I wouldn’t show up without warning. That happened to me after the first meal I’d managed to eat in six days. I thought it was the postman with flowers. I had pizza all down my white t-shirt, and hadn’t washed my hair for two days. Call first.]
They go like this:
Kola Kakor (Golden Syrup Biscuits)
These are Swedish biscuits. They’re pretty great generally, but ohmygod dip them in tea and you’re in heaven.
Makes 40 biscuits
Takes 30 minutes
Bakes 25 minutes
360g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 vanilla pod
Soft, unsalted butter
200g caster sugar
90g golden syrup
1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees C. Line a baking tray.
2. Sift flour and baking powder into a bowl.
3. Slit vanilla pod lengthways and scrape out all the lovely black vanilla. Mix into flour.
4. Add all the rest of the ingredients, and mix until you have a firm dough.
5. Divide into four equal lumps and roll out into sausages about 25 cm long by 2.5 cm thick. Place spaced out on a baking tray, and bake for 25-30 minutes until golden brown. NB. My first batched burnt at 25 minutes, so keep checking: sugar burns so quickly.
6. Remove from oven and allow to cool for a couple of minutes, then slice the sausages into strip biscuits. These will be really quite soft when you’re cutting them, and you may worry as you take them out that they’re not done, but they will continue to cook from the residual heat, and then harden post-cutting so DO NOT WORRY YOUR PRETTY HEAD.
7. TA DAH
Speculaa are Dutch spiced biscuits, although there are Belgian and French varieties. Apparently they’re traditionally made at Christmas. Who knew? Not me, when I made them in August.
Personally, if I made these again, I wouldn’t include the flaked almonds or candied citrus, and apparently a lot of recipes don’t include these.
Anyway, they are perfect with a morning cup of coffee.
I’m really sorry, but I can’t find a picture of these, so here is a picture of my cat helping with baking.
Makes 15-30 biscuits
Takes 20 minutes
Bakes 15 minutes
125g unsalted butter
150g demerara sugar
250g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
A pinch of salt
20g flaked almonds
10g mixed candied peel
100ml full fat milk
Zest of one lemon
2 tbsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground nutmeg
2 tsp ground cloves
2 tsp ground mace
2 tsp ground ginger
1. Make your spice mix. The spice mix makes more than you need, but will keep well in a sealed container, and provide you with the perfect excuse for subsequent speculaa adventures. PAY ATTENTION to tbsp vs tsp. I didn’t. I did all tbsp because I’m a MORON. Do what Livvy says, not what Livvy does.
2. Cream your butter, sugar and lemon zest together. It won’t become light and fluffy, because of the coarseness of the sugar, but it will bring out the flavour of the lemon.
3. Sift in the flour, baking powder and 3 teaspoons of the spice mix into the creamed mixture, and fold in.
4. Add the almonds and peel and fold those in too.
5. Add the milk and bring together as a dough. Roll into a sausage about 3 cm thick. Wrap this tightly in clingfilm and refrigerate for at least an hour, ideally over night, to let the spices do their thing. I left it for two hours and ate an oven pizza.
6. Preheat your oven to 150 degrees C, and line a baking tray (not a problem if you’ve just cooked an oven pizza. NOT JUST A HATSTAND).
7. Remove dough from clingfilm and ideally cut into 4mm rounds. I couldn’t do it that thin, and mine were fine, just thicker. Duh.
7. Place the rounds spaced out on a baking tray — they will spread a little bit — and bake for 10-15 minutes until golden brown.
8. TA DAH!
Cherry and Ginger Flapjacks
These come out super duper sticky, and quite thin. If you prefer a more unctuous flapjack, probably double the quantity and bake it in the same size pan so it’s double the depth?
Makes 16 squares
Takes 1 hour
Bakes 40 minutes
125g soft brown sugar
125 g butter
1 1/2 tbsp golden syrup
175g oats (I used golden syrup quaker oats because I am an AMAZING GENIUS and also, this was an impromptu bake and it’s all we had in the house)
2 tbsp chopped preserved ginger (in syrup; see my ginger cake recipe)
2 tbsp chopped glacee cherries
1. Preheat your oven to 150 degrees C. Grease yo’ pan.
2. Melt your sugar, butter and golden syrup together in a pan over a low-medium heat.
3. When all dissolved and mixed, pour the oats into the pan and mix thoroughly.
4. Add the chopped ginger and cherries and mix again.
5. Pour into pan and smush down into corners with the back of a metal spoon.
6. Bake for 40 minutes.
7. Remove from oven, leave for ten minutes until a bit cooler, then chop into squares.
8. TA DAH!
Makes Oh God, loads. It depends on the shape and size of your piping nozzle, but approximately 18 whirls, or 12 fingers.
Takes 20 minutes
Bakes 12 minutes
110g butter, room temperature
110 g plain flour
30 g icing sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
55g chocolate: traditionally dark chocolate is used, but I’ve done it with milk and white chooclate, and it’s really nice. Whatever you fancy.
You’ll also need a piping bag and medium-large star-shaped nozzle*
1. Preheat your oven to 190 degrees C. Put grease-proof baking paper on your baking tray, and fix your nozzle onto your piping bag. Nozzle’s a funny word, isn’t it?
2. Beat your butter until it is soft. By ‘beat’, I mean shove it around with a wooden spoon until it becomes a little more pliable, then start to make a whisking motion with your spoon until noticeably soft. This is relatively easy if your butter is room temperature to start with, and nigh on impossible if fridge-cold.
3. Add the icing sugar and beat to combine.
4. Sift in the flour and baking powder and beat until the whole mixture is combined.
5. Spoon the mixture into a piping bag*. It is pretty much an inevitability that you will make a mess here. You can minimise this by a) using a plastic-headed spatula to ‘spoon’ the mixture in, b) roll the icing bag down whilst you’re spooning the mixture in, so that you don’t have swathes of piping bag to get past before you’re getting towards the nozzle, c) placing the spatula with mixture into the piping bag and closing the piping bag around the handle. Slide the spatula out, and you’ll retain maximum mixture, and get minimum mess, and d) when you’re done spooning the mixture in, twist the end of the piping bag to eliminate air from the piping bag, and to prevent it spilling bag up at you when you put pressure on it, and ending up with mixture on your eyebrows and elbows.
6. Pipe onto a baking tray, holding the nozzle at a 90 degree angle to the tray. You can pipe in any shape you like, I do swirly patters, because I think they’re easier, but fingers are traditional (straight lines), and ’S’ shapes work well too. Leave sufficient space between the biscuits to allow spread and prevent one giant biscuit forming.
7.Refrigerate the tray for 15 minutes or so, as this will mean the biscuits retain their precision when baked.
8. Bake for 10-15 minutes, until just starting to turn golden. Remove from oven and allow to cool, first on the tray, and then after a few minutes, transfer to a wire rack. These biscuits are super fragile, so be gentle.
9. When completely cool, gently dip partially in melted chocolate, then return to the grease-proof paper to allow to set. They should, once set, peel straight off the paper.
10. TA DAH!
*Don’t have a piping bag? Not a problem. Just use a freezer bag and cut a hole in one of the corners. Voila, home-made piping bag.
Don’t have a nozzle? Not a problem. Spoon a teaspoonful of the mixture onto the tray and flatter it with the tines of your fork. It won’t be quite as elegant, but it’ll still look neat and taste lovely.