Baking challenge: deep and dark and velvet – chocolate cheesecake

Denser than a black hole...but probably smoother

Denser than a black hole…but probably smoother

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the signature challenge for week six (dessert week) of series two: a baked cheesecake.

I’m not a cheesecake lover, especially not the ice-cold, slightly crumbly wodges of dense cream cheese served up by chain cafes around the world. And yet cheesecake is, simultaneously, very dear to me, because, since childhood, my father would always order me a slice of cheesecake, or Black Forest cake, when we were in a cafe together. It became so routine that, despite not particularly liking either bake (chain cafe Black Forest cake being typically sandy, somewhat dry, punctuated by a gloopy layer of tinned cherries of cheap cherry jam), I would ask for either whenever I was with him. Even a few years ago, when we were at the British Library cafe, I asked if he wanted cheesecake. “You’ve always really liked cheesecake,” he said happily, as he polished off about 99% of the little cake. I smiled to myself and kept mum – but really, I have no idea how this conviction that I love cheesecake began.

It took a bit of work to find a cheesecake recipe I wanted to bake, and eat, for my little baking challenge, still chugging along. I’ve owned Marian Keyes’ Saved by Cake for a pretty long time, and in fact I bought it (after borrowing a copy from the library) without having read a single of her novels (I’ve since read Watermelon). I was equally charmed and bemused: Keyes is a vibrant writer and this cookbook certainly showcases her voice and dark humour. Well-known for her struggles with alcoholism, Keyes came to baking as a hobby when she was suffering an intense depression. She started to bake and it became a sort of lifeline or pressure valve, bringing her back from the brink of suicide. Cake is serious stuff – although she is clear that baking wasn’t a cure, but a way of occupying herself until such time as she became well again. Indeed, Keyes has said she no longer bakes as it reminds her of the terrible depression she suffered.

And yet, despite the unusual, and dark, provenance of this cookbook, there is a deftness and a lightness of touch, and an unashamedly acquisitive joy in baking and in the fun and sheer silliness of it. Keyes likes bright colours and edible glitter and uses them with abandon: her bakes sparkle. She is not one for pretentiousness or being bogged down in pared down, minimalist portions of dessert, and she is not above using commercial products such as packets of lime jelly. The idea that sloshing in half a bottle of blue icing into whipped cream might be a touch declasse is not one that would resonate with Keyes. And there is a reason Keyes is a popular, bestselling author: she has that uncanny ability that many writers lack to pin down an exact word or phrase which describes something perfectly, and allows you to build a perfectly clear picture in your mind of what something is like. It was her description of her Black Hole Chocolate Cheesecake – “like being punched in the stomach by a chocolate-flavoured fist” – what made me decide to make it for the baked cheesecake part of my baking challenge.

Crust, oven, table. Plus added chilling time

Crust, oven, table. Plus added chilling time

I was rewarded, because it was worth eating, despite not being a natural fan of the cheesecake. The texture of this is delightfully smooth, without any jarring, dry crumbliness, with interest provided by the crisp crust, which is made with both traditional digestives and melted dark chocolate. I sometimes find cheesecakes, especially commercial ones, to be somewhat acidic, but the sharpness of the cream cheese was tempered by mascarpone and double cream, so that it complemented, rather than competed with, the chocolate then poured in. I was surprised that the final colour was somewhat light – a deep and polished chestnut rather than chocolate labrador, but the taste is gratifyingly rich.

This is a recipe that comes together relatively quickly and easily. The only potential pitfall is that, because the base is quite dark to begin with, it can be difficult to tell if it is catching – mine did blacken a little (my oven’s calibration is really off and it is running very hot), which was unfortunate. Also, the crust does set very hard and is somewhat difficult to cut as a consequence. Patience and a hacksaw…

Study in blue, and cheesecake

Study in blue, and cheesecake

This cheesecake is traversed with cracks – difficult to avoid with a cheesecake – and like many dense cakes it sinks in on itself. It’s also not a half hour job; though simple to put together, a lot of lengthy chilling is required at various stages. A good one to do if you have snatches of time to yourself over the course of a day.

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Posted by on September 27, 2015 in Recipes, Dessert, Baking, Cakes, Chocolate


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Baking challenge: my my, miss strawberry meringue pie

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week five (pastry week) of series two: a meringue pie.

During Wimbledon, it really gets crazy…and we eat strawberries and cream and root for our favourite tennis players. My boyfriend loves Roger Federer, and who can blame him? A beautiful man who plays a beautiful game. A man who can rock a cardigan and still look like a hero.

Who could blame a man-crush? - Roger Federer French Open 2015 by Carine06 from UK. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Who could blame a man-crush? – Roger Federer French Open 2015 by Carine06 from UK. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Personally, I’m always behind Andy Murray, which can be hard to justify since he doesn’t…make a habit of winning finals. For me, Murray is like an intrepid and determined schoolchild who works incredibly hard to achieve his ambitions and to reach the upper echelons, while Novak Djokovich and Federer are like the cooler kids who do everything flawlessly while also dressing really well and dating the hot cheerleaders and make it look easy. Yes, they may be fantastic, but who has more heart, eh?

Ladies and gentlemen, this is when personal psychology meets national sporting events. Because, let’s get real, Djokovich and Federer train incredibly hard too. But the more elegantly they play, the more I stubbornly root for Murray. (Though a part of me knows that only in tennis could you be ranked world number 3 and still be seen as a natural underdog). There is something elatable about that tenacity.

I’m not even British.

Right, back to baking, since this is, after all, a food blog. But it’s a food blog where baking and tennis intersected, be it ever so briefly. When I was thinking up what kind of meringue pie to back for the old baking challenge, I kept thinking that what I really wanted to make was an homage to the classic accompaniment to the Wimbledon Championships, strawberries and cream (it sounds really random now because I’m writing this up months after the event, but I baked it to serve at a Wimbledon Men’s Finals viewing party).

Strawberry meringue pie: naked filling

Strawberry meringue pie: naked filling. A tennis championship classic and baking intersected here

Well, it’s a classic for the viewers in the stands and at home – I doubt the players themselves are wolfing down sugary fruit and dairy once they return to their…tents/hotel rooms/wherever the hell they sleep. I mean, Djokovich doesn’t even eat gluten! Or tomatoes! Gluten and tomatoes – for the weak. Wimbledon grass – for the strong.


So, strawberry pie it was, with a thick, marshmallowy layer of slightly sticky meringue. The meringue I made was blasted with a blowtorch, which gives it an amazing toasted, scorched flavour. In fact I blasted every mouthful with the torch to ensure my portions of meringue were as toasted as they could get. Divine. A torch gives much more control than a grill – especially my grill, which is more smoke than heat.

A dazzling combination of sweet fruit and gooey, caramelised meringue - a match made in heaven

A dazzling combination of sweet fruit and gooey, caramelised meringue – a match made in heaven

I thought I’d made up strawberry meringue pie, as I’d never seen nor heard of it before, but no – people had gotten there before me. I contemplated making up my own recipe but opted for one from the enviably gorgeous Sift and Whisk blog. Blog envy: I have it. The photography, the lighting and styling – all beautiful. I’m more of a ‘throw on a plate, photograph for 30 seconds under murky yellow overhead light, eat dinner, wonder why photo isn’t all beautiful’.

This pie is filled with both fresh strawberries and a fresh strawberry filling thickened with tapioca. The recipe calls for the tapioca pearls to be ground and, although I tried using my mini food processor for this, as directed, it’s difficult for the blades to grind down such a tiny amount, and I’d recommend pounding with a mortar and pestle instead. I struggled to find tapioca pearls in standard supermarkets and ended up buying a bag from an Indian corner shop, where, predictably, they had multiple sizes of pearls and I came away with enough tapioca for the rest of my life and change from £1.00.

The recipe also calls for 1.25kg strawberries, and this was far, far too much when I made it. Since you both place cut strawberries onto the pie and pour over a strawberry puree filling, it really is much better to go by eye; once you have covered the circumference of your tart shell with the hulled berries, you’re done. I used slightly less than a kilo of strawberries in total, for both puree and whole fruit.

Finally: this is not a bake, slice and serve pie; it really benefits from lengthy and patient chilling at each stage so that the filling can set. Perfect for a make-ahead dinner party, less for a quickly dashed-off dessert to present to people who’ve just dropped by (for that category of visitor, make scones!). If you serve it soon after baking and assembly, the pie will taste nice but be decidedly leaky/sloppy.

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Posted by on September 23, 2015 in Baking, Dessert, Pastry, Recipes


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My week in breakfast

I thought it might be fun to write up my week in food – I love reading articles with that theme, as it satisfies that inherently curious/nosey part of me that’s interested in what people get up to, and it can provide mealtime inspiration as well. Instead of all my meals and snacks, however, I’ve put together my week in breakfast for the previous week.

I typically have a lighter breakfast (though not always), and this tendency has been exacerbated by my relatively recent weight loss regime, as I prefer a more substantive dinner. I have however experimented with having heavier and/or more protein-rich breakfasts as protein in the morning apparently keeps you fuller, and this has usually worked well for me. I do find that surprisingly small portions keep me going until mid afternoon for much longer than I’d expect if I add something like a tablespoon of almond butter to enrich them.


Bacon, eggs, toast - not a typical weekday meal

Bacon, eggs, toast – not a typical weekday meal

This isn’t a typical weekday breakfast for me, but we had a few rashers of leftover good-quality bacon in the fridge, and I occasionally have eggs in the morning as I’m trying to increase my protein intake, so I decided to put the bacon to good use. The slice of wholemeal bread is unbuttered and perfect for dipping into the egg yolk – I have the yolk as runny as humanly possible.



I have a mug of black tea with a teaspoon of honey every morning.


An egg, prosciutto, toast. Imagine the tea

An egg, prosciutto, toast. Imagine the tea

Similar to Monday’s breakfast, but with the last egg in the fridge…and this time making good use of some leftover prosciutto a friend brought us when she came round. (I have good friends).


A chocolate smoothie - spinach hidden

A chocolate smoothie – spinach hidden. And tea

Smoothies are all the rage, though I struggle to drink those kale, blueberry and maca powder concoctions so praised for their health benefits. Although this recipe does contain the usual suspects like spinach and coconut water, it’s cleverly disguised as a chocolate smoothie (using raw cacao powder, of course). The flavour is very good; it tastes rich, creamy and indulgent, despite not containing any dairy and, most shockingly to a smoothie sceptic like myself, it did actually keep me full until lunchtime, probably because of the addition of almond butter and chia seeds. The only sweetener in this is a banana – I let mine get very ripe indeed before using and this was sweet enough for me, but you could add a little maple syrup or honey to taste if you prefer it a little sweeter. I based this on a recipe found on Gym Bags and Glad Rags and have made it many times. My version below.

Spinach and coconut water chocolate smoothie

  • 1 banana
  • 20-30g baby leaf spinach (the more spinach you use, the less chocolatey it will taste and the muddier it will look. I prefer 20g)
  • 10g raw cacao powder (about 2 TBS if you can’t be bothered with the scales. I use the Bioglan brand of cacao powder)
  • 6g chia seeds (1 TBS)
  • 1 TBS smooth almond butter
  • 120ml unsweetened coconut water
  1. Put all of the ingredients together in your blender and mix until smooth.

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Posted by on September 21, 2015 in Healthy, Quick, Recipes


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The Friday Rummage: a variation on salad – featuring prawns, bacon and avocado

Dinner on a Friday evening – the end of the working week – is, I think, the most difficult meal to put together. By the end of the week you’re tired, thinking longingly about the weekend and dismally about the mountain of work still on your desk to clear. The meal plans I put together on the Sunday have probably unravelled by Friday and I’m left with either leftovers from three weekday meals (about three mouthfuls each) in unlabelled food storage containers at the back of the fridge, or maybe a couple of carrots, a sad looking bag of spinach and half a butternut squash. Probably half a cake, whose temptations now seem all the greater. By the time I’m home my imagination usually fails me entirely and I struggle with deciding what to cook – despite an hour of empty travelling time on the Tube to figure it out.

A salad anyone could get behind, packed with prawns, avocado, bacon and asparagus

A salad anyone could get behind, packed with prawns, avocado, bacon and asparagus

So on Fridays there tends to be either a bit of a rummage through a fridge of slightly wilted produce, or a capitulation in the form of a run to the local fish and chip shop. As good as the fish and chips and lovely as the couple who run the place are, this is not an option for me given the ‘dietary recalibration’ I am currently putting myself through. Instead, there are experiments with salad.

Salad! I have never hitherto really considered a bowl of lettuce a proper meal…and I still don’t. A bit of soft butter lettuce, a handful of cherry tomatoes, maybe a scattering of chives or parsley…this is the stuff of a side plate. To be a real, proper meal – satisfying, filling and nutritious – you need different textures, and it needs to be loaded up with more than twelve varieties of rocket. If you’re having salad for a meal, lettuce and its varients aren’t constituted of a whole lot beyond water, and finding nutritional balance is even more important for me as I’m restricting my calorie intake temporarily, giving me fewer instances in which to find the nutrients my body requires. At the very least there should be a protein component to keep you going for a bit.

So, a salad perfect for the Friday evening rummage (though no less suitable for lunch). This one is quick and offers enough interest to suit both a dieter and a non-dieting partner or friend, if those are your circumstances. The most important thing is that, in terms of taste, this salad is utterly rewarding to eat: delicate, slightly bouncy prawns; crunchy, salty lardons; sweet asparagus; creamy avocado. It all comes together beautifully. In many ways the lettuce is just token.

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Posted by on September 18, 2015 in Delightful dinner, Healthy, Lunchtime!


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Baking challenge: who ate all the miniature pork pies?

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the technical challenge for week five (pastry week) of series two: make six miniature pork pies with a perfectly cooked (of course!) quail egg in the centre.

Pork pies – who doesn’t love them? They are an essential part of British food culture, an indigenous tradition – and, much like the mince pie, not one I have taken to. Dense pastry and pork do not set this non-Brit’s heart alight, and the combination of eggs and meat is one I have serious difficulties with. I grew up in Singapore and scarcely ate any Chinese or Malay food when I lived there, and I’ve realised that the ubiquitous addition of eggs to meat stews and laksas had much to do with eat.

A tower of pies

A tower of pies

But to my British boyfriend and a dear friend these pies were truly delightful, with their fresh, meaty filling, the touch of bacon giving it depth of flavour, and the parsley a hint of freshness. For my boyfriend, the egg in the middle which was my personal nemesis was his favourite part – he described it as a ‘lovely surprise’ when he ate the first pie (as he wasn’t aware they were in there) and as something to look forward to. So there we go. It takes all sorts, really.

I actually ended up repeating this recipe (both batches eaten gratefully by the boyfriend and friend), and so below can go into some extra tips I picked up along the way.

Could have been more golden.

Could have been more golden.

A warning of sorts to those who may wish to try out this Paul Hollywood recipe for themselves: quail’s eggs are the very devil to peel. In the how-to video Mary recommends peeling the eggs as soon as they are cool, but even so I found it quite difficult.

This recipe is made not with shortcrust pastry, but the more traditional hot water crust pastry, which starts off life sticky but becomes dry and brittle relatively quickly. Work fast. I covered it in a damp tea towel in between rolling and stamping out the pie cases and tops to ensure it didn’t dry out. Don’t rest it as you would a shortcrust pastry. Lard – used in the pastry – smells disgusting, especially when melted, so be prepared. A food processor makes it easier to chop up all the pie filling, though be gentle – you don’t want to end up with a smooth, homogenous paste. Finally, I found using jumbo muffin tins about a thousand times easier to make the pies in than a standard-sized muffin tin.

Finally, reader – I did not make the gelatine. This was principally because the promised hollow or gap within the pie never materialised. My pies were crammed full of meat and egg and the filling didn’t shrink. It did bubble juicily out of the pastry, however, where it baked on sticky and black and actually looked quite appetising, I thought.

At risk of rambling I feel that I must add that although these are called ‘small pork pies’ they are by no means ‘mini’ – they’re small only relative to one of those huge full-size pork pies.

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Posted by on September 15, 2015 in Baking, Lunchtime!, Pastry, Recipes, Savoury


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Meat Free Monday: Crispy tofu, broccoli, and rice

This meal – crispy tofu, steamed or blanched broccoli, and plain brown rice – is one that brings me right back to my childhood, and in many ways I think it epitomises hippie vegetarian food for a lot of people (although vegetarianism is no longer the preserve of hippies). There’s the tofu, the brown rice, the lightly cooked cruciferous vegetables. This is healthy, wholesome food, plain (but not tasteless) and uncomplicated – I imagine this simplicity is actually what appealed to me as a child. But for all its simple lack of pretension, it has much to please an adult palate.

The quintessential hippie vegetarian triumvirate: tofu, cruciferous vegetables, brown rice. I love it!

The quintessential hippie vegetarian triumvirate: tofu, cruciferous vegetables, brown rice. I love it!

Firstly, the meal offers a contrast of taste: nutty rice, milky tofu and sweet green broccoli. There’s also a satisfying interplay of textures between the grains, slightly firm but silkily yielding vegetables, and the crunchy tofu coating which gives way to the jiggly beancurd beneath. For me this is a standby recipe: I don’t make it every week, by any means, but it’s always there in the back of my mind if I have a pack of tofu sitting in the fridge.

Serve with soy sauce, if wished

Serve with soy sauce, if wished

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The reality of salad

I don’t have very much time to write blog posts, and when I do, I tend to write about my Great British Bake-Off challenge. I love to bake; the challenge is, on the whole, fun; it’s what I do. But there is another reality, and that is, simply, that I am on a diet.

It is not a particularly fun thing to admit to (though it is much more unpleasant to do!). The reasons are primarily aesthetic – I want to feel happy about myself rather than out of control and ashamed, I want to fit into my nice clothes – but I have also been concerned about the way my body carries fat as I enter my late twenties: it’s undeniable that more of my excess weight is being carried around the waist and stomach, and belly fat is the clearest indicator of type 2 diabetes risk. I know people with diabetes and seeing their difficulties managing this very serious disease has made me want to mitigate my risks.

I have been dieting in the most old-fashioned way, simply calorie counting (using Myfitnesspal to keep track). I find it tedious and was very hungry and unhappy in the first week. But as with many things, it’s about adjustment. I can eat more low-sugar muesli than I could eat a muffin for a lower calorie count, so I eat the former. I can eat almost as many leafy vegetables as I want, until I’m full, for a low calorie count. The adjustments are both in the types of food eaten – endive salad instead of potatoes, fruit and veg instead of heavy carbs – and also, simply, in eating less. I’ve cut down my portions, reduced the sweeteners in my tea, and stopped nibbling on biscuits and cake. While it’s still a process, I am gradually learning to balance my calorie load throughout the day. Last week I attended a friend’s birthday party and ate a huge, delicious slice of the Hummgbird Bakery’s divinely moist red velvet cake, slathered in rich, voluptuous cream cheese frosting – and managed to stay within my calorie limit. Best of all, my slice of cake wasn’t associated with the feelings of guilt and greed that consuming sweets previously had for me – I shouldn’t, but I want it, I’ll get fatter, who cares I’m fat anyway, I might as well eat two slices. I felt in control of the process of eating and enjoyment.

Vibrant, colourful salad, perfect for summer - recipe below!

Vibrant, colourful salad, perfect for summer – recipe below!

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Posted by on August 10, 2015 in Lunchtime!, Quick, Recipes


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