Category Archives: Student Life

All things pertaining to being a student and student life (involves a lot of procrastination)

Bring in some pears, I’ll bring back a cake

Ten days ago it was suddenly so cold that I got my winter sheepskin slippers out and was considering changing over to my thicker duvet.  Today it’s so warm that I’m back to rocking shorts and jandals… but with my Barbour thrown on because of the rain-in-every-possible-direction that we’re currently being treated to.  This topsy-turvy weather is difficult to deal with.  We’ve had some rather full-on stormy weather the last few days – rainy, blustery gales that make me feel like I’m in Scotland in November… if I ignore that it’s 22°C at the moment, April and we have palm trees in our garden.

It's a wee bit wavy out in Matheson's Bay…

I do love watching the sea when it’s all ferocious like that.  Aside from dramatic sea views, there are a couple of good things about this weather.  Firstly, the rain has filled up our water tank (yay, showers and clean hair all round!*) and secondly, somebody brought in a glut of pears to the lab yesterday that had all been blown off their tree in the wind.  I’ve had an upside-down pear cake recipe bookmarked for ages, just waiting for pear season to start, so as soon as I saw the small mountain of pears, I knew some of them would be reappearing in the lab today in the form of cake.  Well, assuming the recipe worked of course…

And this is what I'll turn a small mountain of pears into…

I had a moment of panic when, having popped the cake in the oven, I decided to have a little munch on a sliver of leftover pear and discovered that it was sour as (let’s not dwell on why I didn’t think to try the pears before I baked with them).  Oh no, I thought, what have I done?  I can’t possibly bring a horridly sour cake into the lab.  I needn’t have worried though; the caramel completely mellowed out the pears.  In fact, I’d go as far as saying that firm, slightly sour pears are the best to use in this cake, as they’ll hold their shape when cooking and retain their pear flavour but the sourness will get baked out.  The cake went down an absolute storm at the lab – I even overheard claims from several people that it was the best cake they’d ever tasted.  I’m not sure that I quite believe that, but I’ll still take that as very high praise.  Unfortunately, the cake went so quickly that I didn’t really manage to get any decent photos of it.  A victim of its own success, clearly.  No doubt I’ll be making it again soon, so I’ll update the photos then.

This would have been a good time to test the pears.

Upside-down pear & ginger cake

Serves 8-10
Adapted from A Treasury of New Zealand Baking

Firm, slightly sour pears would be the best to use for this recipe – the baking will mellow their sourness but they’ll still keep their shape and won’t disintegrate into mush.  The actual number of pears required obviously will depend on their size and the size of the cake tin.  Whilst utterly delicious as a snack (or breakfast…), this cake would also make a wonderful dessert, served with whipped cream or a caramel sauce.  The cake is best eaten the next day so that the caramel can really soak in, and will keep for a couple of days in an airtight container.

Ingredients

For the cake:
225g unsalted butter, softened
300g light brown sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
250g all-purpose flour
4 tsp baking powder
3 tsp ground ginger
Pinch of salt
3 or 4 firm pears

For the caramel:
100g unsalted butter
130g light brown sugar

Directions

To prepare the cake:
1.  Line the base of a 24 or 26cm round deep cake tin with baking paper.  Pre-heat the oven to 190°C/fan oven 170°C.

2.  In a large bowl, cream together the butter and brown sugar with an electric whisk until light and fluffy.  Beat in the eggs one at a time.

3.  Sift the flour, baking powder, ginger and salt into the egg mixture and stir together with a spatula or large spoon until just combined.

4.  Peel, core and cut the pears into eighths.  Set aside.

To prepare the caramel:
5.  In a small saucepan, melt the butter and sugar together to make the caramel.  Once the sugar has completely melted and the mixture is smooth, pour into the prepared cake tin.  Arrange the pears over the top of the caramel, then cover with the cake batter, smoothing the top (it doesn’t have to be perfect).

6.  Place the cake tin on a baking tray large enough to catch any caramel that might bubble over the sides (way easier than cleaning a caramel-encrusted oven…) and bake for 50-55mins until a skewer comes out clean.  Cool in the cake tin for about 5 mins before turning out onto a serving plate to cool completely.  The cake is best eaten the next day.

Enjoy!

My housemates got to the cake for breakfast before I did…

*Just to clarify, we have actually been showering over the past three months.  Just quickly and not necessarily at home.  And there may have been some scrimping on the hair-washing.  Isn’t that a lovely note to end on?

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Filed under Recipes, Student Life, Sweet Foods

Sunday Smiles: Uhm… Can I distract you with some eagle rays?

Sunday Smiles seems to be taking a bit of a hit at the moment – well, that’s true for the blog in general actually.  I was full of good intentions about getting back to a regular posting frequency this past week, even though I knew it was going to be a very busy week at uni.  Real life won out and that didn’t happen.  In my last post I briefly mentioned something about moving eagle rays, but left it at that.  Time for a little explanation I think, since those darling eagle rays are pretty much the crux of why things have been so busy (and stressful) lately.  If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you might already have a rough idea of what’s been happening over the last week or so.

Meet Bombay. Eagle rays hang out on the bottom of their tanks a lot.

Just as a recap, I moved to NZ in February for an MSc, with a thesis hand-in deadline at the end of February 2013.  So that’s in six weeks.  Currently, I have no results of any sort, which makes it a little difficult to write a thesis.  Basically, over the last nine months or so, my MSc has been steadily going nowhere, mostly because I’ve been having major issues with the technical side of my experiments.  Issues that I haven’t been able to solve since I’m not an electrical engineer and the electrical technician to whom I went for help has been rather useless and I wasn’t pushy enough about it.  Without access to Hermione’s Time-Turner, magically resolving all those technical issues, collecting all my data and producing a coherent 40,000 word thesis in the space of six weeks is evidently not even remotely realistic.  Thankfully, I’ve been granted an extension until the end of May, which is a huge relief.

But an extension itself doesn’t solve the technical hold-ups.  Luckily, the electrical technician up at the Marine Labs in Leigh (I’ve been based down at the School of Biology in Auckland, although I am actually a Leigh student – they’re different departments so it gets a bit complicated) is supposed to be a lifesaver and super helpful.  And he’s also back from paternity leave, so I’m basically pinning my hopes of a solution on him.  Fingers crossed.  But we’re still left with the teeny tiny issue of my experimental subjects – I have three adorable New Zealand eagle rays (Myliobatis tenuicaudatus) that have been hanging out at Kelly Tarlton’s aquarium in Auckland, patiently waiting to be the stars of my experiments.  Kelly Tarlton’s have been looking after them very well (obviously) and have been incredibly kind about housing them for so long, but they need the tank space back, so my eagle rays were effectively homeless.  The School of Biology doesn’t have suitable facilities for housing them, so the only option was to take them up to the Leigh Marine Labs, which does.

Leigh Marine Labs

So we transferred my rays up to Leigh on Thursday – not a complicated operation, but as with anything which involves transporting live animals in tanks of seawater, rather stressful nonetheless.  Both for us and the rays.  Thankfully the rays have all recovered wonderfully and gobbled up their food the next day like little pigs – the best indication that they’ve settled into their new homes (if they weren’t settled, they wouldn’t eat).  So that’s another massive relief.  So now for the final bit of news.  I’ve just told you that my rays are up in Leigh, I’m looking after them, I’m supposed to be talking to one of the Leigh technicians and conducting experiments in Leigh.  So guess where I am?  That’s right, in Leigh.  I’ve moved up for a few months until I’ve got all my data and we can release the rays.

"Hello!  Do you have food?"

Sidenote: the rays tend to move a little too fast for my phone to take sharply focussed photos of them, so apologies for the quality, but that’s the male (I’ve got one male and two females) being inquisitive and probably wanting to be fed.  He was named Winky by the Kelly Tarlton’s aquarists because he only has one eye (he’s always had only one eye, so please nobody get in a tizz about it).  I’ll probably write more about my rays in future posts, once I have some better photos.

All this means that things are a little bit up-in-the-air at the moment.  I’ve got temporary accommodation at the labs until Friday, but after that I have to find somewhere else to live.  There’s no public transport here, I don’t have a car and the nearest supermarket is a 25 min drive away, so I’m very dependent on other people, which I don’t particularly like (being dependent that is, not the actual people – everyone I’ve met so far has been lovely).  So that’s a bit stressful at the moment.  But on the other hand, I can see and hear the sea as I type, with a lovely view of Goat Island.  I’ve been swimming in the sea every day since I got here (my bikini is obviously going to be earning its keep over the next few months).  It’s idyllic.  I’ve only been here for four days and I already love it.  Try not to feel too sorry for me.

Goat Island.  It doesn't have any goats on it anymore, and is surrounded by a marine reserve

So that’s what’s been happening in my life outside the kitchen – with real live elasmobranchs instead of inanimate oven glove ones.  Although I did bring my oven gloves with me (don’t judge – my previous experience of big shared kitchens has been that oven gloves tend to be crusty and gross), and I did whip up a batch of double chocolate muffins yesterday afternoon with the double intention of kick-starting Operation Make My New Labmates Love Me (And Thus Help Me Find Somewhere To Live And Drive Me To The Supermarket) and testing out the ovens here.

It's so hot here that the chocolate started melting a little as I chopped it.  It's a hard life.

Anyway, I will try my hardest to at least get Sunday Smiles back up and running, but it might take a little while to settle back into a regular blog posting routine – I hope you all understand.  I’m sure you’d pick snorkelling over sitting at your laptop, too…

Enjoy the rest of your day, wherever you are in the world!

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Filed under Rays, Student Life, Sunday Smiles

A Bond-themed Cocktail in a Macaron: Leiter Fluid

Super-duper exciting news: Skyfall was finally released in New Zealand yesterday!!  I’ve been vastly unimpressed at having to wait a month after its release in the UK to see it, particularly since I’ve been hearing how good it is.  Miraculously, I’ve managed to avoid hearing about or seeing any spoilers, which, over the course of an entire month spent on facebook and Twitter, is a rather impressive feat, though I’m assuming that I’ve managed this mostly through sheer luck.  And I suspect that perhaps some of my closest friends who share my Bond love have carefully avoided posting spoilers since they knew I wouldn’t be able to watch it yet.  If so, I’m incredibly grateful.  Anyway, the suspense has been killing me.  Not helped by having to walk past a giant Skyfall billboard every day…

I was finally able to watch Skyfall yesterday evening with some of my labmates.  Wow.  Fantastic.  I can’t really say much more without giving away any spoilers, but I loved it.  Whilst Kat, Craig and I were watching our way through all the Bond films during the summer between our third and fourth years of undergrad, Craig made us a particular cocktail one evening.  I believe it’s mentioned in one of the books (possibly Casino Royale), so we didn’t really invent it, but I think he slightly adapted it and then we re-named it.  It consists of equal parts of gin, red vermouth and Campari and then topped off with tonic to fill the glass.  So basically a Negroni with tonic.

But we wanted a Bond-themed name for the cocktail, and we eventually settled on Leiter Fluid (that’s Leiter as in Felix Leiter).  By “we” I really mean Kat and Craig – I’m not particularly inventive, so I was probably more focussed on sampling the drink itself.  Anyway, in honour of Skyfall’s release and also of this month’s Baking with Spirit theme of “gin,” I decided to take the Leiter Fluid and turn it into a macaron.  Leiter Fluid macarons – oh yes.  I decided that the flavours of the drink (particularly the Campari) would pair well with a dark chocolate ganache, and indeed they did, although they ended up coming through rather more subtly than I expected.  Which is no bad thing.  And the sweet shells balance the bitter ganache perfectly.  My only gripe is that the shells didn’t come out quite as swirly as I wanted, but luckily that doesn’t affect the taste!

Leiter Fluid macarons

Makes about 60 small macarons (so about 120 shells of 1.5/2 cm diameter)
Macaron shell recipe based on Mad About Macarons!
Ganache recipe by me

I used Gordon’s gin in the ganache since I find that the Campari and red vermouth mask any real subtleties of good gins.  The ganache can be a little finnicky and is best if you can avoid cooling it in the fridge as it may cool too quickly and harden.  If you do need to cool it in the fridge, just make sure not to forget about it!  (Not that I’m speaking from experience…)  Make sure you leave these at least 24h before eating them, in order to allow the ganache to soak into the shells a bit.  They’re best stored in an airtight box in the fridge – just remember to bring them out at least 30mins before eating them, so that you can appreciate the flavour fully!

Ingredients

For the macaron shells:
Red food colouring paste or gel (optional)
100g room temperature egg whites (take them out of the fridge 2h beforehand)
66g caster sugar
120g ground almonds
180g icing sugar

For the ganache filling:
50g whipping cream (NZ: pure cream)
150g dark chocolate (at least 70%)
20g Campari
20g gin
20g red vermouth
A small glug of tonic

Directions

To make the macaron shells:
1.  Line three or four flat baking sheets with baking paper and set aside.  Prepare a piping bag with a plain round piping tip.  If you want to make the macarons swirly, brush three or four lines of food colouring up the inside of the prepared piping bag (this might be a bit messy.  I did three stripes).

2.  Blend the icing sugar and ground almonds together (don’t skip this step!).  Sift them through a medium sieve into a large bowl.  Sift them again if necessary.

3.  Make the French meringue by whisking the egg whites into glossy firm peaks, gradually adding the caster sugar.  If you want to make the shells a uniform colour, add a few drops of food colouring gel to the mixture just before the end and mix well.

4.  Incorporate the French meringue into the dry ingredients using a large spatula and mix well.  Now work on the mixture by pressing down well with the spatula, going backwards and forwards, to press out the oxygen from the egg whites (this is the macaronnage stage), until you have a smooth mixture.  Don’t do this for longer than 5 minutes.  The result should be a soft and brilliant mixture that forms a “ribbon” on the spatula.

5.  Transfer the mixture to the previously prepared piping bag and pipe out the desired size of rounds (mine were about 1.5-2cm in diameter).  Press the nozzle right down on the paper and finish off with a flourish to obtain a nice round.  Leave a good space between them so they can spread out.

6.  Sprinkle the shells with the raw sugar and leave the shells to set for about 30 mins (this helps to produce the feet).  Preheat the oven to fan-oven 160°C.  When you can feel that a skin has formed over the top, they are ready to go into the oven.

7.  Bake one tray at a time in the centre of the oven for about 8-10 mins (to see if they are done, touch the top – if there is a “wobble,” leave them in 2-3 mins longer).  Leave them to cool on the baking trays, and when they are completely cool, carefully remove them and pair them up by size.

To make the ganache filling:
8.  Whilst the macarons are setting and cooking, make the ganache filling.  Heat the cream, and as soon as it starts boiling, add the chocolate (broken into pieces), the Campari, gin, red vermouth and a glug of tonic and mix with a wooden spoon until smooth (don’t let it boil or you will boil off the alcohol and we wouldn’t want that now, would we?).  Remove from the heat and allow the mixture to thicken on the countertop (or in the fridge if necessary – if it’s taking too long or not setting).

10.  Once cool, use a teaspoon to deposit a dollop of ganache onto one shell of each pair.  Then place the partner shell on top, and use a slight twisting motion to squash the shell down onto the filling.

11.  Leave in the fridge for at least 24h before serving (I know, it’s difficult!  But so worth it!!)

Enjoy!

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Filed under Recipes, Student Life, Sweet Foods

Lemon macarons of the award-winning variety…

I mentioned the School of Biology baking competition in my last Sunday Smiles.  We later found out that it was actually a pretence to lure us all into the tea room so that we could get ambushed by a Health & Safety lecture.  The theme of the baking competition was ‘Health & Safety,’ so perhaps we should have actually seen that coming…  Anyway, when the theme was announced, for some reason the first science-related H&S thing I thought of were hazard symbols.  Possibly because we have a variety of them all over the various cabinets in the lab.  Plus a lovely biohazard sign on each door to the lab.

Now I could have done hazard symbol-themed cupcakes or something, but I figured that a rather flash entry was in order – it was a baking competition after all…  I decided on macarons with little hazard symbols drawn on top, because macarons tend to look rather fancy-pants and thus seem impressive.  Most of the hazard symbols are black on a yellow background, so I needed yellow shells, and since I like to match a macaron’s colour to its taste, I had to think of a yellow flavour.  Lemon seemed a little obvious, but I was rather stumped for alternatives.

I needn’t have worried though, because I ended up winning “Best Tasting.”  Yay!  To draw the hazard signs I used a handy edible food colouring pen.  I initially thought of doing the biohazard symbol, but my drawing skills aren’t quite up to that, so I limited myself to the radioactivity sign.  Halfway through drawing the radioactivity symbols on the shells, I realised the irony of a French person presenting radioactivity-themed French baked goods at a baking competition in New Zealand…  Awkward.

Several of my labmates missed the competition and were upset that they didn’t get to try the “award-winning” macarons, so I made them a second batch (but with swirly shells this time) since I had plenty of the lemon curd filling left over.  I’m nice like that.  Plus these are just so good that everybody deserves to try one – not only are they fantastically lemony, but the zingy filling perfectly cuts through and balances the sweetness of the shells.  Of the people that I’ve spoken to who aren’t really fans of macarons, most say that they find them too overwhelmingly sweet, which I can totally understand.  If you’re one of those people, these might be the macarons for you.

Lemon macarons

Makes about 60 small macarons (so about 120 shells of 1.5/2 cm diameter)
Macaron shell recipe based on Mad About Macarons!

The lemon curd recipe makes more curd than you’ll need, but there are plenty of other uses for it (including just eating it out of the jar…), so don’t worry about that.  Make sure you leave the macarons at least 24h before eating them, in order to allow the curd to soak into the shells a bit.  They’re best stored in an airtight box in the fridge – just remember to bring them out at least 30mins before eating them, so that you can appreciate the flavour fully!

Ingredients

For the macaron shells:
Yellow food colouring paste or gel (optional)
100g room temperature egg whites (take them out of the fridge 2h beforehand)
66g caster sugar
120g ground almonds
180g icing sugar
Raw sugar or golden granulated sugar, to decorate (optional)
Black edible food colouring pen (optional)

For the filling:
About 150g lemon curd (you won’t need the whole recipe)

Directions

To make the macaron shells:
1.  Line three or four flat baking sheets with baking paper and set aside.  Prepare a piping bag with a plain round piping tip.  If you’re planning on making swirly shells, brush three lines of food colouring up the inside of the prepared piping bag (this might be a bit messy).

2.  Blend the icing sugar and ground almonds together (don’t skip this step!).  Sift them through a medium sieve into a large bowl.  Sift them again if necessary.

3.  Make the French meringue by whisking the egg whites into glossy firm peaks, gradually adding the caster sugar.  Add three or four of drops of yellow food colouring gel or paste to get a pale yellow colour just before the end and mix well.  If making ‘radioactive’ macarons, add a few more drops to get a stronger yellow colour.

4.  Incorporate the French meringue into the dry ingredients using a large spatula and mix well.  Now work on the mixture by pressing down well with the spatula, going backwards and forwards, to press out the oxygen from the egg whites (this is the macaronnage stage), until you have a smooth mixture.  Don’t do this for longer than 5 minutes.  The result should be a soft and brilliant mixture that forms a “ribbon” on the spatula.

5.  Transfer the mixture to the previously prepared piping bag and pipe out the desired size of rounds (mine were about 1.5-2cm in diameter).  Press the nozzle right down on the paper and finish off with a flourish to obtain a nice round.  Leave a good space between them so they can spread out.

6.  Sprinkle the shells with the raw sugar (only if you’re not planning on drawing on them later) and leave the shells to set for about 30 mins (this helps to produce the feet).  Preheat the oven to fan-oven 160°C.  When you can feel that a skin has formed over the top, they are ready to go into the oven.

7.  Bake one tray at a time in the centre of the oven for about 8-10 mins (to see if they are done, touch the top – if there is a “wobble,” leave them in 2-3 mins longer).  Leave them to cool on the baking trays, and when they are completely cool, carefully remove them and pair them up by size.  If making ‘radioactive’ macarons, draw the symbols on the shells using the edible food colouring pen (if any of the shells are looking a little less-than-perfect, they make good practice runs).

To assemble:
8.  Once the shells have fully cooled, use a teaspoon to deposit a good dollop of lemon curd onto one shell of each pair.  Then place the partner shell on top, and use a slight twisting motion to push the shell down onto the filling evenly.

9.  Leave in the fridge for at least 24h before serving (I know, it’s difficult!  But so worth it!!)

Enjoy!

PS – This is the marine H&S-themed cake baked by one of our technicians that won the “Best Looking” prize.  Isn’t it amazing?  She even made the little chocolate decorations.  Between the two of us, the Marine Lab cleaned the competition up.  Not that we’re competitive or anything…  Ahem.

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Filed under Student Life, Sweet Foods

Lemon curd

I have a friend who once decided to make a cake.  This might not sound particularly extraordinary, but let’s just say that baking wasn’t really his thing (although he was always a willing recipient of baked goods).  He convinced himself that the cake was baking too slowly, so decided to turn the temperature right up to make it bake faster.  And to switch the oven to grill mode.  Perhaps it might have worked… if he hadn’t forgotten about it.  As I said, baking wasn’t really his thing.  And yet, despite the cake-grilling incident (I believe he declared that he’d never attempt to bake again), once he tasted my lemon curd, he somewhat sheepishly asked me for my recipe.

I adore lemon curd (indeed I can be a bit snobbish about it), and it’s one of my little life pleasures.  Spread over toast, crumpets or little pancakes I can easily eat half a whole jar in one sitting, particularly when slathered on Digestive biscuits (seriously, try it).  The great thing about lemon curd is that not only is it a great way to use up lemons and egg yolks, it’s incredibly easy.  If you can stir, you can make lemon curd.  It is literally that straightforward.  Granted it is a little time-consuming since you have to stir continuously until the curd is done and thus are rather tied to the hob, but the zingy, not-too-sweet results are completely worth it.  So how did my aforementioned friend get on with the recipe?  Well apparently he “didn’t destroy the kitchen” (his words) which means it was a roaring success.  He even said he’d try it again.  How’s that for a recommendation?

Lemon curd

Makes enough to fill about two 350ml jars
Adapted from Waitrose

You can use curd in loads of different ways: on crumpets, on toast, on Digestive biscuits (my favourite), to make dessert canapés, on sponge cake, in cupcakes, etc.  To sterilise the jars, wash in hot soapy water, rinse thoroughly and dry in an oven pre-heated to just about 100°C.  The curd will keep for about a week in the fridge (possibly longer, but I’ve never had a batch remain uneaten for more than a couple of days).

Ingredients

5 unwaxed lemons
4 eggs + 2 egg yolks
110g butter
220g caster sugar

Directions

1.  Zest and juice the lemons into a small bowl or measuring jug.  In another small bowl, beat the eggs and egg yolks together well.

2.  Melt the cubed butter in a large heat-proof bowl over a simmering pan of water (make sure that the water doesn’t reach the bottom of the bowl).

3.  Add the sugar and the zest and juice from the lemons, followed by the eggs.  Stir the mixture carefully and constantly with a spatula, making sure the mixture doesn’t boil.  Once the mixture coats the back of the spatula (turn the spatula flat and run your finger through the mixture coating it – if you can draw a line through the mixture and it doesn’t re-fill, then it’s done), remove from the heat.

4.  If using the curd straightaway, pour into a bowl, otherwise, pour into a sterilised glass jar.  Allow to cool (it will thicken further) before sealing and storing in the fridge.

Enjoy!

PS – Since this recipe is made entirely from scratch, I’m submitting it to this week’s Made with Love Mondays blog event over at Javelin Warrior.

PPS – It feels a little strange not to mention the US elections since the results came through earlier and I’ve followed them for most of the day since unfortunately their outcome rather affects the rest of us, but it’s kind of difficult to tie them into a post about grilling cakes and lemon curd.

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An (utterly delicious) egg-free birthday cake!

It’s birthdays galore in the lab this week with both the technicians celebrating their birthdays – one yesterday, and one tomorrow, but she’s taking the day off so we celebrated today.  We’ve named it Technician Week.  Birthdays mean cake, and we don’t do things by halves in the lab so it’s been cake galore over the past two days.  Brownies and cake yesterday, and then two more cakes and biscuits today (plus all of yesterday’s leftovers).  We’re set for the week.  I was in charge of Monday’s birthday cake, which was for the technician who doesn’t eat egg.  The girl who was organising the present and card doesn’t like chocolate, so I needed to find a (reliable) cake recipe without egg and without chocolate.  Quite a challenge, particularly since I didn’t want to go down the vegan route – my limited experience with vegan baking so far hasn’t been particularly spectacular and a birthday is not the occasion to attempt to rectify that.

I searched for some tips on egg-free baking, and found several credible-seeming sites that suggested that you can often substitute half a mashed banana in cake recipes calling for just one or two eggs as apparently it has similar binding properties and still keeps the cake moist.  Obviously this won’t work if you need to separate the eggs or anything, but it’s a good to know.  The next step was to find a cake recipe that only called for one or two eggs (and didn’t have any chocolate), which was a little more elusive than I expected – most seem to ask for at least three.  A Treasury of New Zealand Baking came up trumps with a spiced date cake recipe requiring only one egg.  The original recipe was for a 20 cm cake, and that seemed a little small for a birthday cake so I doubled it.  I’ll be honest, I wasn’t 100% convinced that the banana trick was going to work, so I spent quite a while crossing my fingers whilst it was baking away.  The original recipe is supposed to be made in the food processor, adding ingredients as you go along.  Apparently my food processor had other plans, however, and instead of putting together a cake, it decided to make a strange noise, die and then emit a heck of a lot of smoke.  Marvellous timing.

So I reverted back to my trusty electric whisk to rescue the situation, which thankfully it did with flying colours (and no flying batter).  Luckily the taste of the cake wasn’t affected by the food processor mishap.  In fact, the cake was utterly delicious with the spices and the date flavours coming through wonderfully.  And it wasn’t at all dry, which is what I was most worried about (and had to wait until it was cut to find out whether it had really worked or not).  I covered it in cream cheese icing, piped some little fish on top and boom, a marine-themed birthday cake!  By the way, all the photos were taken on my phone and in the foyer or in our printer room (the only part of the lab we’re allowed to have food), so I apologise for the quality and slightly odd set-ups.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go claim the warranty on my food processor and then have a little lie-down after two days of cake…

Spiced date cake

Serves 10-12
Adapted from A Treasury of New Zealand Baking

The un-iced cake will keep for 4-5 days in an airtight box, so it can be prepared in advance.  The iced cake will keep for about 2 days in an airtight box.  Any leftover icing will keep for up to a week in an airtight container in the fridge.  If you need the icing to be smooth for piping, I’d recommend using lemons extract instead of lemon zest.  The cake can also be decorated with a sprinkling of ground cinnamon and a handful of toasted walnuts.

Ingredients

For the cake:
500g pitted dates, roughly chopped
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
250 ml boiling water
220g caster sugar
220g unsalted butter, softened
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
¾ mashed banana
300g all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp ground nutmeg

For the icing:
200g icing sugar
100g cream cheese
100g unsalted butter, softened
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon or ¼ tsp lemon extract

Directions

To make the cake:
1.  Roughly chop the dates and place them in a heat-proof bowl along with the bicarbonate of soda.  Pour the boiling water over them, stir and leave to soak for 30 mins, stirring occasionally.  Set aside.

2.  Butter the base and sides of a deep (mine is about 5 cm) 24 cm round cake tin.  Line the bottom of the tin with baking paper (even if your tin is non-stick).  Pre-heat the oven to 150°C/fan oven 130°C.

3.  In a large bowl, cream together the butter, sugar and lemon zest until pale and fluffy.  Add the mashed banana and mix well.

4.  Add the flour, baking powder, spices, dates and the soaking liquid to the butter mixture and whisk until just combined.  Transfer the batter to the prepared cake tin and smooth the top with a spatula (it doesn’t have to be perfect).

5.  Bake for about 1h10 (start checking after 1h) until golden and a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.  Allow to cool in the tin for 5 mins before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

To make the icing:
6.  Once the cake is fully cooled, transfer it to a serving plate and prepare the icing.  Sift the icing sugar into a medium bowl and add the cream cheese, cubed butter and the lemon zest or extract.  Whisk together with an electric whisk until white and fluffy (I kept aside about 2 tbsp for the orange piped icing), then spread over the top of the cake with a palette knife.  Decorate as you wish.

Enjoy!

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Walnut shortbread

There’s no way I can eat a whole cake or batch of biscuits all by myself on a regular basis, so I take most of what I bake into the lab.  Not only are my labmates very enthusiastic taste-testers, but baked goods have the added advantage of being a great way of integrating into the lab.  However, one of the technicians doesn’t eat eggs.  Now something like nuts aren’t usually too difficult to omit from a recipe, but eggs?  Eggs are tough.  (Side note: I find the concept of fake egg rather freaky so I refuse to use egg substitutes).

Thankfully, she doesn’t mind when somebody brings in baked goods with egg in them and she can’t eat any, which is lucky because I regularly bake with eggs since the vast majority of my recipes call for them.  I have to admit that even if she doesn’t mind, I still feel a little guilty, so I’ve been on the lookout for egg-free recipes – I don’t intend to bake egg-free all the time, but at least from time to time so that everybody is included.  I’m well aware that there are plenty of vegan recipes out there, but my initial foray into vegan baking came out rather dry and not particularly presentable, so I’ve yet to be convinced (although I’m open to recipe recommendations).  Plus I’d rather not deprive myself of dairy products without reason.  So anyway, I discovered over the weekend that shortbread is egg-free.  Oooooo…

Now, I’ve never tried making shortbread before, and I’d always been under the impression that it was difficult and technical to make.  Rather than start with basic shortbread, it was thus clearly totally logical to complicate things a little by adding toasted walnuts.  I’m not sure why I thought shortbread was such a challenge, and I’m also not sure why one of the recipes I looked at said that shortbread was “a test of cook’s skill” – it really didn’t seem that difficult to me.  If anybody could enlighten me, that would be lovely.  Of course I’d love to think that I’m clearly just a brilliantly accomplished baker, but that’s really not the case.  Perhaps it’s my Scottish side shining through.  Or beginner’s luck.

Adding walnuts turned out to be a rather fabulous idea – toasted walnut and nutmeg are such wonderfully wintery flavours, and the shortbread itself was the perfect amount of buttery and utterly scrumptious.  They were super popular in the lab, and everybody was able to enjoy them whilst we watched the gymnastics highlights from the Olympics over our coffee break.  Whilst watching those girls do flips and (mostly) managing to land on the balancing beam and bounding and somersaulting across the carpet, we concluded that those gymnasts probably don’t eat much deliciously buttery shortbread.  We also concluded that it was their loss.

Walnut shortbread

Makes about 20 biscuits
Adapted from The Great British Bake Off: How to Bake

Toasting the walnuts really elevates their flavour, so try not to skip that step, even if a little pushed for time – I promise it’s worth it!  If you want to make shortbread shapes I’d try rolling the shortbread dough out to a thickness of 1cm (before the refrigeration step) and using cookie cutters in the shape(s) that you want, then refrigerating the individual biscuits on their trays.  I haven’t tried that method however, so I’m not sure how well it would work.  These will keep for up to a week in an airtight container (though I highly doubt they’d last that long).

Ingredients

50g walnut pieces or halves
260g all-purpose flour
40g cornflour
¾ tsp ground nutmeg
Good pinch of salt
200g unsalted butter, softened
100g caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling

Directions

1.  Toast the walnuts in a small frying pan over a low heat until fragrant and lightly toasted.  Remove from the heat, roughly chop if necessary and set aside to cool.

2.  Sift the flour, cornflour, ground nutmeg and salt into a medium-sized bowl and stir together.

3.  In a large bowl, cream the butter with an electric whisk or wooden spoon.  Slowly add the sugar and cream together until light and fluffy.

4.  Add the flour mixture and the walnuts to the butter and sugar and mix together using your hands until well combined (this may take a little while, but it will come together although it will still be a bit of a crumbly dough).  Shape the dough into a log of about 20cm in length and even thickness and wrap in cling film (since dough will still be crumbly, you may need to gently push it together to compact it enough to make a log).  Refrigerate for 20-30 mins until firm.

5.  Butter two baking trays.  Pre-heat the oven to 170°C/fan 150°C.

6.  Remove the cling film from the dough log and slice into about 20 rounds of 1cm thickness.  Place on the baking trays, with about 1.5cm space between each biscuit.  Bake for about 20 minutes, or until firm but still pale.  Sprinkle the biscuits with caster sugar and allow to sit on the baking trays for 2-3 mins before transferring to a wire rack to cool fully before serving.

Enjoy!

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Greek yoghurt & honey cake: Deliciousness guaranteed, sharing optional

A large portion of this blog wouldn’t have been possible without the help of my trusty electric whisk.  All the macarons, the seal cake, the meerkat cake and most of the cupcakes – basically anything involving whisking egg whites into peaks or creaming together butter and sugar (which I’m too lazy to do by hand – shocking, I know).  The whisk also had a stick blender attachment, which made it ideal – only one appliance to make both cakes and soups saves on storage space – and was why I commandeered it from was given it by my mum when I moved up to St Andrews for uni (maybe also because it was free).  I forget whether it was my mum’s just before or just after she was married, but either way, it was older than me.  By several years.  And yet it still worked wonderfully.  It served me well whilst I was in St Andrews, and I loved it to bits, but by the time I started packing for my move to NZ, it was nearing the end of its (long) life span.  The motor was clearly just a few icing sugar explosions away from giving up (I’d had a couple of scares towards the end of my time in St Andrews).  Rather than shipping it over, having it break and then having to get a new one, I figured I’d skip the first two steps, give the whisk/blender an early retirement and just get a new one when I arrived here.  Simple as.

Well… in theory.  Apparently electric whisks with a stick blender attachment are few and far between now, and those that do exist have pretty poor reviews.  Damn.  So I’ve had to buy an electric whisk and a stick blender separately, which is slightly frustrating in terms of storage, but I guess that now I can whisk egg whites or make buttercream icing and blend soup at the same time.  Because that would totally end well…  I’m just hoping that they last me a long time (although their predecessor has set the bar pretty high).  It’s taken me four months to actually get round to buying them.  Four months of getting excited about recipes until realising they require egg whites to be whisked into soft peaks.  Four months of no soup (I like my soups smooth).  A bit ridiculous really, but when I realised that my Random Recipe entry for this month involved whisking egg whites I finally had to get my act together (thanks Dom!).  And it turned out to be a fantastic recipe to test out my new electric whisk.

Following on from last month’s theme of “first and last,” the theme for this month’s Random Recipe challenge is “the middle.”  I randomly picked A Treasury of New Zealand Baking as my book, which has 232 pages of recipes, so I turned to page 116, which houses a recipe for… Greek yoghurt and honey cake with a raisin lemon syrup.  I’ve been rather lucky with my Random Recipe entries over the last few months, and it seems that the streak continues.  I’m not complaining!  The cake turned out rather scrumptious.  It’s wonderfully moist and full of flavour thanks to the syrup that gets poured over the top at the end.  It’s excellent for breakfast (the amount of whisky in the syrup is minimal and it gets simmered anyway), for morning tea, for afternoon tea and for dessert.  I can say that with confidence, because I’ve (enthusiastically) tested all those options out personally.  I know, I know, I totally took one for the team.  It also keeps for a good few days, and it’s almost tastier after a couple of days as the flavours in the syrup pervade the cake over time.  Confession: this cake is so tasty that it’s a little difficult to share.  I had originally planned to take it in to the lab, and well… that never really happened.  Ahem.  I’ve had great breakfasts this week though (it has raisins, thus it’s totally breakfast food…  Don’t judge).  I think next time I’ll tell them I’m bringing cake so that I have to actually follow through with it.

Greek yoghurt & honey cake, with a raisin, lemon & whisky syrup

Serves 8-10 as a snack, 5-6 for breakfast
Adapted from A Treasury of New Zealand Baking

The syrup would also work wonderfully with spiced rum instead of whisky, or alcohol-free if necessary.  It’s quite dense so it works wonderfully for breakfast or as a snack (in smaller portions) accompanied by tea.  The cake is kept moist by the yoghurt in it, so it’ll keep for a good few days (in fact, I think I preferred it after a couple of a days as the flavours of the syrup develop).

Ingredients

240g all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
Pinch of salt
240g unsalted butter, softened
120g caster sugar
3 tbsp honey
Zest of 2 lemons
4 eggs
240g unsweetened Greek yoghurt

For the syrup:
180ml water
120g caster sugar
120g seedless raisins
Juice of 2 lemons
2-3 tbsp whisky
2 tbsp honey
1 star anise

Unsweetened Greek yoghurt, to serve (optional)

Directions

1.  Butter a 24cm round cake tin.  Pre-heat the oven to 180°C.

2.  Sift the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt into a medium bowl and stir together.

3.  Zest the lemons into a large bowl (keep the lemons to use the juice in the syrup later on) and add the cubed butter, sugar and honey.  Beat together until light and creamy.  Then beat in the egg yolks one at a time (put the egg whites directly into a large clean bowl for later).  Once all the egg yolks are incorporated, add about a spoonful of the flour mixture and beat in, followed by about a spoonful yoghurt, and continue alternating between the two.

4.  In a large, clean bowl whisk the egg whites into soft peaks.  Gently fold the egg whites into the cake mixture.

5.  Pour into the cake tin and bake for 1h05 until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.  Cool for 10 mins in the tin before turning out onto a wire rack to cool fully.

Making the syrup:
6.  Whilst the cake is in the oven, start prepare the syrup.  Add all the syrup ingredients, except for the yoghurt, to a small saucepan and allow to marinate whilst the cake is baking.

7.  As the cake is cooling, heat over a low heat until the sugar dissolves.  Bring to the boil and then simmer for 10 mins until thickened and syrupy (a syrupy syrup – my descriptive abilities amaze me sometimes).  Allow to cool a little, but not completely, and fish out the star anise.  Once the cake is completely cool, slide it onto a plate and then gently pour the syrup over the top and spread the raisins out evenly.

8.  Serve warm or cold, with a large spoonful of yoghurt if desired.

Enjoy!

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How to accidentally feed a small child caffeine…

Coffee breaks are a big thing in my lab.  Before I elaborate, I should probably explain my work situation (work as in uni work).  As a postgrad, I have a desk.  A whole desk all to myself, which is kind of exciting.  I mean I effectively had my own space in the computer lab in the last few weeks that I was writing my dissertation (of doom) in St Andrews, but that was more because I claimed it by spending about 18h a day there and leaving my papers and files scattered around it for the 6h that I wasn’t because I was sleeping or eating, but now I have a desk that’s actually mine and doesn’t require scattered highlighters and papers to mark my territory.  I’m clearly going up in the world.

Now this desk is located in the fairly large marine lab, half of which consists of postgrad desks and the other half is the actual lab bit with lab benches and microscopes and chemicals, none of which I actually use.  Other than an invisible line there’s no separation between the desk-filled half and the proper lab half of the room, so the whole thing is classed as a lab.  Food and drink aren’t allowed in labs.  Thus, no food and drink at our desks.  Which means… no coffee.  Which is an issue.  And explains the importance of the coffee break.  The lab is also quite cold, which makes it all the more frustrating that we can’t have hot drinks at our desks.  Coffee breaks mean that we get to venture upstairs where it’s a bit warmer.  Coffee breaks are also ideal for bringing in baked goods that you don’t want to eat an entire batch of by yourself.  And baked goods are a great way of making friends with your labmates.

This month’s We Should Cocoa challenge is being guest hosted by Lucy of The Kitchen Maid and she has chosen “coffee” as the special ingredient, which is an excellent choice because I love the combination of coffee and chocolate.  In fact, they almost pair a little too well, and I actually found it rather difficult to choose what to make because there are just so many possibilities.  I think that coffee and chocolate complement each other best in something fairly rich, so after much indecision I finally settled on coffee and walnut brownies.  The walnuts were the result of some last-minute inspiration, but they go so well with both coffee and chocolate, that they just seemed like they’d make the perfect addition.  And they really did work wonderfully, adding a little bit of crunch and balance to the soft, rich chocolateyness of the brownies.  The coffee blends perfectly with the chocolate – you can definitely taste that it’s there, even if it’s not a distinct flavour and you can’t quite put your finger on it.  I think this might be my favourite brownie recipe ever.

I brought the brownies in for yesterday’s afternoon coffee break and they went down a storm.  One of the guys who works in an offshoot of the marine lab further down the corridor had his kids in with him so they joined us for our coffee break.  I think they’re about 5 and 8 years old.  Whilst their dad was making his coffee and whatever drinks they were having they were eyeing up the brownies sitting on the table, but clearly too scared of all the adults they didn’t really know to ask for some.  I didn’t want to offer them some without first checking that nuts were ok though – I hear that inducing somebody’s child into anaphylactic shock is considered rather bad form.  The fact that there’s caffeine in the brownies totally didn’t cross my mind until after they’d each had half a brownie and their dad said “these are so good, but they taste a bit different to standard chocolate brownies, what’s that extra flavour?”  “That’s probably the coffee.  Oh my gosh, coffee.  I just gave caffeine to your kids.  I am so sorry!!”  Awkward.  I don’t have any younger siblings or young cousins, so I’ve had minimal experience with small children…  Can you tell?  We concluded that there was probably less caffeine in a brownie than in several sips of coke, so they probably wouldn’t go totally crazy.  He even let them have another half each when they asked for more.  Since I’m spending this morning at the aquarium, I won’t have seen him by the time this post publishes, so I’m not sure how that worked out…

Coffee & walnut brownies

Makes 20 brownies
Adapted from Le Larousse des desserts

If you’re not a huge fan of coffee or you want a slightly more subtle flavour, you can decrease the amount of coffee down to 1tbsp dissolved in 2 tbsp of boiling water.  You can also use freshly-brewed espresso rather than instant coffee if that’s what you have at home.  These will keep for a several days in an airtight container, though they’re so moreish that I doubt they’ll last that long!  These are probably best enjoyed with a coffee.

Ingredients

140g dark chocolate (at least 70%)
125g unsalted butter
2 tbsp espresso-style instant coffee
4 tbsp boiling water
150g caster sugar
2 eggs
70g walnut pieces or halves
60g all-purpose flour

Directions

1.  Line a 20 x 25 cm baking tin with baking paper.  Pre-heat the oven to fan 170°C.

2.  Break half the chocolate into pieces and add to a medium heat-proof bowl with the cubed butter.  Place the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water (make sure that the water doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl).  In a little ramekin or glass, dissolve the instant coffee in the boiling water.  Add to the chocolate and butter mixture and melt together, stirring occasionally.  When all melted together and smooth, remove from the heat and allow to cool a little.

3.  Sift the flour into a small bowl.  Roughly chop the remaining chocolate into small chunks and stir into the flour, along with the roughly chopped walnuts.

4.  In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar and eggs until well mixed and a little foamy.  Stir in the chocolate and butter mixture.  Fold in the flour mixture with a spatula then pour into the prepared baking tin.  Smooth the top of the mixture if necessary and bake for 15-20 mins until a knife point comes out with a little mixture still stuck to it.

5.  Cool for about 20-30 mins in the tin until just warm, then remove and allow to cool fully on a wire rack before slicing and serving.

Enjoy!  And uhm, perhaps avoid feeding them to small children…

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A stressed-out postgrad’s Diamond Jubilee weekend (or lack thereof)

For the last month or so, the blogosphere has been littered with Union Jacks and blue, white and red baked goods in preparation for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  Well, the part of the blogosphere occupied by Commonwealth citizens anyway.  Sharky Oven Gloves, I’m afraid, has been bereft of any Jubilee-related baked goods and blog posts though.  Not because I don’t want to celebrate, or I’m anti-monarchy (quite the contrary), but I quite simply haven’t really had the time to do anything special.  I don’t think that the Jubilee has been that big of a deal here in NZ – the shops certainly haven’t been plastered in bunting and full of Union Jack-themed everything as they seem to have been in the UK.  I may just be out of the loop, but I don’t think anything in particular was organised for the occasion either, aside from lighting a beacon in Blenheim (at the top of the South Island).  Incidentally, it seems that every single other Commonwealth country had flaming torches to light their beacons with, whilst NZ made do with one of those standard gas lighters that you use to light the cooker (if you have a super old-school cooker).  Something tells me that the Jubilee isn’t that huge of a deal here.  Perhaps there will be more excitement when Charles and Camilla visit in November as part of the Diamond Jubilee tour.  At least it’ll be summer (and thus hopefully sunny and warm), so that’ll probably help enthusiasm levels.

The Sky Tower was lit up in blue over the long weekend – I don’t know if it was supposed to be royal blue in honour of the Jubilee or if it was just a coincidence.  Let’s go with the first option.  If they light it up in green for St Patrick’s Day, I think they can make the effort to honour the Queen’s 60 years on the throne.  Whatever your views on the monarchy, you have to admit that’s a heck of a long time to unrelentingly dedicate yourself to your country and be in the public eye, always expected to behave impeccably, not express any personal political opinions and represent not only the UK but a number of other Commonwealth countries, too, some with vastly different cultures to the UK.  And apparently not to express any emotions except when it comes to corgis and horses (I love the monarchy, but I find that a little odd – keeping a stiff upper lip is all well and good but seriously, a little genuine emotion now and then wouldn’t hurt, would it?).  Of course, it’s a role that she inherited, but over the last 60 years, I think she’s shown her aptitude for it.  Which is lucky – imagine having a monarch that clearly didn’t give a rat’s bottom for 60 years.  I don’t think anybody can fault the Queen for taking her duty very, very seriously.  And for that I congratulate her – she is truly admirable, even if I find the non-emotion thing a little disconcerting (perhaps that’s just my French side shining through…  Awkward).

I would have liked to throw a Jubilee party this weekend, but I don’t really know enough people here to do so, and even if I did, I wouldn’t have quite had the time to prepare for it.  I’d have probably organised an afternoon tea – because you can’t possibly do anything more British than that.  A proper afternoon tea, however, requires a heck of a lot of preparation, so it wasn’t really an option.  If you’re going to do something, do it properly, particularly if you’re celebrating somebody who has been the epitome of doing things properly and with great pomp and circumstance for 60 years.  Last year, despite being within days of the deadline for my dissertation (of doom), I still managed to bake up some Pimm’s cupcakes to nibble on in the computer lab during the Royal Wedding.  This year though, whilst I don’t have any impending deadlines (that I’m aware of…), I feel like I’m slowly sinking into a quagmire of physics that I don’t understand.  Physics which happens to be crucial to my thesis (despite it being a Marine Biology Masters) so it’s really stressing me out at the moment.  And impinging on my baking creativity, too, it seems, as I couldn’t come up with a straightforward recipe that I deemed suitably regal for today’s post.  Yesterday was a public holiday for the Queen’s official birthday in NZ, so I gave myself the day off and we went to see the Degas to Dalí exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery followed by a trip to the cinema, but most of the rest of my weekend was spent reading about electromagnetic fields and electroreception, rather than throwing a Jubilee party.  Usually when I say that I have my priorities right, I mean it ironically (because I usually don’t), but for once, I actually did get them right (sorry Your Majesty – I hope that doesn’t make me a traitor or something).  The most Jubilee-related thing that I did was to drink tea out of my Jubilee-themed mug (don’t judge the mug) and eat a couple of scones.  Which isn’t as sad and pathetic as it might sound – it’s just the life of a postgrad student.  Don’t worry, contrary to what the photo might suggest, I did not lose the plot and plaster my flat or desk in Union Jack tissue paper.

So even if I didn’t do anything special, I hope that you were able to and had a wonderful Jubilee weekend!  Or a wonderful normal weekend, depending on where you are in the world and whether Queen Elizabeth II is your head of state.

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