I used to bake a lot as a teenager. Brownies came out of our home oven quite often but with the exception of a batch used to woo my now husband, I’ve not baked brownies since I left home. Actually, I rarely bake sweet things – not contributing further to our already expanding waistlines is a major factor in this and I think a general lack of kitchen space is another. I do enjoy it though.

Cranberry and Walnut Brownie

Throwing caution to the wind, I whipped up a batch of brownies over the weekend and came up with these (and then promptly bought a new pair of trainers – no joke). The brownie is based on Katharine Hepburn’s famous recipe and they are rightly famous, having a great balance between cakey and fudgey. They are excellent brownies though I felt the need to tinker with amount of sugar in the recipe since I was using 85% dark chocolate and not unsweetened chocolate as in the original recipe. Walnuts and dried cranberries cut through the richness and gave these brownies some semblance of healthiness. Yeah, right.

Cranberry and Walnut Brownies

Cranberry and Walnut Brownies
makes 16.

60g dark chocolate (I used Lindt’s 85%)
112g unsalted butter
180g granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
45g flour
large pinch of sea salt
70g chopped walnuts
60g dried cranberries

Preheat your oven to 165 Celsius. Butter and flour a 20cm (8inch) square baking pan.

Place a large heatproof bowl over a pot of simmering water and in the bowl, melt the chocolate and butter together. When melted, take off the heat and mix in the sugar. Break in the eggs and stir thoroughly to combine. Stir in the vanilla. Add the flour and sea salt and again, stir to combine. Finally, add the walnuts and dried cranberries and stir to combine and distribute them evenly.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan and bake for 30 minutes, until a toothpick stuck in comes out clean. Cool the pan on a cooling rack and then turn out the slab and cut into 16 brownies. When fully cool, store in an airtight container. These brownies are best at room temperature.

Jane Mason started Virtuous Bread last year to get everyone to start baking and eating good bread and in the process, also bring about social change. As I understand it, there’s the commercial side with bread baking classes and her Bread Angels, people she teaches to start their own bread businesses, and there’s the charitable side where she gets involved with prisons, schools and shelters with baking classes. She’s got a blog, a newsletter and recipes on her site too; it all makes for an interesting read and one can believe that bread can bring people together. I had received an invitation to attend a class from Emmeline Westin who is currently helping with PR for Virtuous Bread and I chose to attend one last Saturday to learn about baking Celebration Breads – in particular, brioche and hot cross buns.

Jane

Jane has a fantastic flat in Hammersmith and an absolutely magnificent kitchen from which to teach. The small size of the class (only four students that day), the fact that Jane teaches from her own home, and Jane’s own warmth and friendliness gave a cozy feeling to the lesson and made for a wonderful day. Jane started by plying us all with coffee and then explaining the idea of celebration breads (breads made with richer ingredients) and how making them differed from baking regular white or brown breads.

It wasn’t all talking and listening to the class (though Jane is a fount of knowledge when it comes to baking and I learned so much that day) – it was hands on too. We first learned to shape brioche using a batch of dough that Jane had prepared earlier as this dough needs to rise for quite a while. You can see a traditional loaf shaped as an S shape and one made of small rolls that would bake into a pull-apart loaf.

Shaping Brioche

We did learn how to make brioche dough but got to take that with us raw to bake in our own homes; the brioche dough has to rise for much longer than the bun dough and there wasn’t enough time during the class. As there were four of us in the class, we were split into two groups, one to make brioche and the other to make hot cross buns; I was assigned the brioche. Both doughs started with pre-doughs to activate the yeast before all the rich ingredients are added. (Totally unrelated but those stainless steel bowls are fantastic. And so light too!)

Pre Doughs

When the yeast had activated, which you could tell by the mixture bubbling ever so slightly, we added the butter, eggs, and more flour (and spice in the case of the hot cross buns), mixed it all together, and then started kneading.

Jane Kneads

That’s me (well, my hand) below… kneading! It was surprising how wet the dough is even with all the butter and egg and working it was certainly challenging; amazingly, it did all come together to a smooth dough. Jane was on hand to give us all a hand if we tired – about 15 minutes of hand kneading were required for the celebration doughs.

Kneading

While all this was happening, the brioche loaves were rising and then were ready for baking. After about 30 minutes in a hot oven, they came out looking and smelling absolutely fantastic, all buttery and sweet.

Brioche Loaves

We were sent to the dining room where, surprise!, we found a table set for lunch. Jane had prepared a beautiful and delicious quiche with leek, endive and ground elder and served it with a couple of salads. And, of course, we had the freshly baked brioche to go with it; it was indeed buttery and fantastic but could have been a bit lighter had it had a bit longer to rise during its second rising.

Quiche with Endive, Leek and Ground Elder

My Plate, with Brioche

The bun dough was ready by the time we had finished lunch and so soaked raisins were added and it was on to learning to shape buns. Jane showed us how to roll the dough portions lightly against the table to shape each bun.

Weighing for Buns

Hot cross buns aren’t hot cross buns without their crosses! We all had a go at piping them on. The poor piping bag broke halfway through and so some got thin crosses while others got fat ones.

Piping Crosses

After another rising, the buns were popped into the oven. About 25 minutes later, hot cross buns! They were light and fantastic and I surprised myself my liking the flavour of cloves in them. We had them unglazed, being easier for transport, but were given instruction on how to glaze them at home.

Hot Cross Buns

And that was the end of the class – we took away the recipes, the leftover baked brioche, our portions of brioche dough for baking at home, and quite a few hot cross buns, and, of course, our newfound knowledge of baking rich breads. As I mentioned previously, Jane is very warm and friendly and a great teacher and the timings of the class were excellent with lunch in between the baking activities to give us a rest and the bread a rise.

It’s a little late now for hot cross buns but details of Jane’s other classes (including one on basic bread baking and another on sourdoughs) can be found on her Virtuous Bread website. If they’re anything like this class, they’ll definitely be fun.

Thank you very much again, Emmeline, for the invitation and to Jane too for having me along!

All my photos from the class can be found in this Flickr photoset.

I must’ve been about 5 or 6 years old when I first and last encountered a rock cake. My mother let me choose among the plastic-wrapped pastries (probably wrapped for freshness in Singapore’s humid climate) in the shop near our housing complex. I chose the rock cake. It was quite large (or that could have been because I was small) and had a glace cherry on top. How can anyone that young resist a glace cherry? But the sad thing is, I can’t remember what it tasted like; I don’t remember opening the packet nor do I remember consuming the cake itself. But very clear in my mind is when I selected that rock cake and holding the precious pastry with my presumable stubby and grubby hands. It made quite an impression on me.

Rock Cakes

Then I moved to Canada, where I never saw a single one of these geological specimens. And so it stayed that way until that memory came to me recently and I couldn’t stop thinking about them – I had to make them! I had to know how they tasted! A quick search online revealed that they don’t usually have any topping other than sugar and they’re also called rock buns here? Bah, I like the word cakes and I like putting that glace cherry half on top; it sounds and looks all twee and smacks of tea parties and pinkies out.

Would you like a rock cake?

These treats were thrown together in almost no time at all – in about half an hour, you’ll have freshly baked rock cakes for your tea. Any dried or preserved fruit can be used in there. For me, it’s all about the mixed peel and the currants and next time, I’d even chop up a few glace cherries for inside as well. These were quite tender and weren’t too sweet with much of the sweetness coming from the fruit but if your sweet tooth is particularly strong, I’d up the sugar content or eat them with jam. We like them just as they are.

Rock Cakes
makes 12.

220g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp mixed spice
100g cold unsalted butter
50g sugar
1 large egg
3 tbsps milk
100-150g mixed chopped dried/preserved fruit
golden caster sugar to sprinkle on top
glace cherries to go on top (optional)

Preheat the oven to 200C. Grease a baking tray or line it with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, salt and mixed spice. Cut the butter into small pieces and add them into the flour mixture. Use your hands to rub in the butter until it all looks like large breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar.

In a small bowl, beat the egg and milk together and then pour the liquids into the large bowl. Use a table knife to mix everything together just until they come together. Fold in all the mixed fruits.

Dollop heaping tablespoons of the batter onto the baking tray and top with half a glace cherry if using them. Sprinkle with the golden caster sugar (or whatever sugar really). I did six at a time on the tray. Bake for 15 minutes. When done, cool on a rack. Eat immediately (so good warm!) or store in an airtight container for up to two days.

Rock Cakes

I did bow to tradition and made a few without that glace cherry but they just weren’t as loved. How about you – would you have the cherry on top?

And here are the cookies from the previous picnic post. I don’t normally bake many cookies – I’m always afraid I’ll scoff the whole lot in one sitting. These very scoffable cookies come from a recipe I clipped out from the Guardian ages ago by baking extraordinaire Dan Lepard. They are crisp with a slight chew from the oatmeal within. The toasted seeds give a lovely nuttiness without any actual nuts, of course, thus making it perfect for those with nut allergies.

Cookies

Back then, when I tried the recipe for the first time, I even threw in some chocolate chips I had lying around and I do like them in there! They’re like healthier chocolate chip cookies. Well, “healthier” – I think the seeds really do fool me there. Blai likes them without the chocolate and honestly, they’re still pretty good that way.

Cookie

One-a-Day Cookies
adapted from a recipe by Dan Lepard
makes 12-20.

125g unsalted butter, softened
100g caster sugar (I used golden)
100g soft muscovado (brown) sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g plain flour
75g sunflower seeds (shelled)
75g pumpkin seeds (shelled)
100g rolled oats

Lightly toast the seeds first. Place both seeds into a dry nonstick frying pan over low to medium heat. Toss the seeds around occasionally. When they’re ready, they will have a light toasty nutty smell to them and you’ll hear them pop a bit. Leave to cool.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat.

Cream the butter and sugars together. Mix in the egg and vanilla until combined. Stir in the flour and when all mixed in, add the seeds and oats and stir together carefully.

Place heaped tablespoons of batter on the baking sheet (only 6 at a time as they’ll spread), flattening each heap slightly with the back of the spoon. Bake for 10-12 minutes until the edges are just turning brown. Take out of the oven and let cool for 1 minute before transferring the cookies to a cooling rack.

Before Baking

These cookies will keep for a few days in an airtight container at room temperature and they’re actually better after a night’s rest than on the day they’re baked.