Halloween horrors!

Horror of horrors,  an unexpected visitor and I had a bare cupboard.

Never knowingly under catered is my leitmotif. So how embarrassed was I when one of my friend’s sons popped in unannounced and found the cookie jar bare? I was mortified! He’s a bit of a cookie monster and when I visit his parents usually take him a batch of these cookies.

When I make a batch of cookies, I typically pop a few raw ones in the  freezer specifically to cover unexpected visitors. That way, within 20 minutes, the place smells of warm cookies and I have something delightful for my guest(s). If not cookies, I’ll have a few slices of cake in the freezer I can rapidly defrost or some fudgy brownies which are delicious straight from the freezer.

I tend to batch bake. That’s because it’s just as easy to make ten cakes as it is to make one. My repertoire tends to be biased towards my customer base, elite and professional athletes, many of whom eschew cakes made from refined products. Through much testing, I’ve developed a range of cakes which meet with the approval of their dieticians and team chefs who aren’t above sneaking a piece for themselves.

Cannondale’s chef and crew enjoying my fruit cake!

Many of our friends much prefer healthy home-baked goodies and I try to comply. Of course, I now can’t eat products containing refined sugar, white flour and diary which has pushed me to experiment though many vegan cake recipes often include products such as vegan butter which for me is also verboten. However, and happily, there are plenty of alternatives so my baking continues apace, just not so much recently.

This is partly as a result with the ongoing issues with my fridge-freezer which are now resolved but, as a result, the default cookie jar is empty. Also, it’s been far too warm this summer to spend hours baking in the kitchen and now I have to lay down some stocks. Because of my love of baking, I hardly ever buy biscuits or cakes. So not only was the freezer bare but the cupboard was too. My poor visitor was doubly disappointed.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. It was Halloween so surely I had laid in stocks for the trick or treaters? I don’t do Halloween nor is it really celebrated in France where kids are neither encouraged nor allowed to eat loads of sweets or snacks, except maybe a bit of top quality dark chocolate. I usually have some dark chocolate in the cupboard for my baking but my beloved has eaten it all. See, the cupboard’s truly were bare.

Nor do I celebrate Guy Fawkes night. I’ve never been over fond of fireworks and I’m now more than happy to watch displays from a distance on my balcony during the various festivities and national holidays in France. I know I’m giving the impression that I’m a bit of a kill joy but nothing could be further from the truth, though I do accept that my popularity may have slipped a notch on account of the empty cookie jar.

I’m attempting to rectify matters and have already started on my Xmas cakes. I like to soak the organic dried fruit in honey and rum for three weeks prior to baking the cakes which I find then remain really moist. I make Xmas cakes for family and friends most years but this year they’re assuming greater significance as I’ll be using them, specifically their decoration, as a dry run for a wedding cake I’ll be making next year. This is a bit of a departure for me and I’ve been watching loads of videos on YouTube which explain the various techniques for decorating with sugar paste.

The marbled effect I’m attempting does mean that the cakes won’t look particularly festive but, on the plus side, they’ll have marzipan and icing on the top and all four sides – I generally only decorate the tops. I’m going to use different colourways, within the bridal couple’s defined palette, on each cake so that they can select which one they prefer. It’s been an interesting project thus far and I had no idea that wedding cakes were so expensive! Needless to say it’ll be our wedding present to them.

The Musette: chocolate chip, oat biscuits

My Thursday evening English class were my first official guinea pigs. Now I agree that a bunch of teenage cyclists probably aren’t the most discerning of taste-testers. But mine were reasonably forthright and, while capable of inhaling their own bodyweights in baked goods, if they didn’t like something, I would be left with more than just crumbs. Unsurprisingly, anything with chocolate in it scored highly and they simply loved home-made biscuits and cookies.

These also found favour with a few professional cyclists who pretty much polished off the entire batch! I’m not sure exactly how many more kilometres on the bike were ridden to work off the surplus calories but safe to say it was plenty.

The recipe is based on one for shortbread type biscuits to which I’ve added chocolate chips – everything’s better with chocolate  – and oats for sustained energy.

You don't need many ingredients to make delicious baked good! (image: Sheree)

You don’t need many ingredients to make delicious baked goodies!

Ingredients (makes 24 biscuits)

  • 225g (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 120g (1 cup)  caster sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp of fine sea salt
  • 275g (2⅓ cups) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 30g (⅓ cup) oats (oatmeal)
  • 100g (6 tbsp) 70% min. chocolate chips

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°Cfan/ gas mark 6 (400°F/350°F).

2. Line two shallow baking sheets with greaseproof (parchment) paper.

3. Beat the softened butter until it lightens. Use really great butter as it does make a difference to the finished product.

4. Beat but don’t whip in the sugar and vanilla extract then gently fold in the sifted flour, salt, oats and chocolate chips. Don’t overwork the mixture, which should be of a similar consistency to that of pastry. Indeed you can roll the mixture into logs, wrap in greaseproof (parchment) paper and freeze for baking at a later date.

5. I use a small ice cream scoop – equally you could use a soup spoon – to portion the dough and ensure the cookies are a similar size. Place the balls on the baking sheets about 1cm (less than ½”) apart, as they’ll spread slightly while baking, and flatten the tops. I found the dough made 24 biscuits, each weighing around 30g (1 oz) uncooked.

6. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until they start to turn golden at the edges and they’re firm to the touch. Depending upon the size of your oven, you might need to rotate the sheets midway through the cooking process.

7. Remove from the oven and transfer to cool on a wire rack. Once cool, put them in an airtight container where they’ll keep for 3-4 days, providing you keep them out of reach of any cyclists, or enjoy with a cup of tea or coffee.

Gone in a flash! (image: Sheree)

Gone in a flash!

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the biscuits in the oven, put the timer on for five minutes less than they should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. I have also made the biscuits with milk chocolate chips but found them too sweet for my taste.

4. I’ve successfully substituted the chocolate chips for a similar weight of fat juicy raisins.

5. The biscuits work equally well with a mixture of 50g (1¾oz) tart chopped dried cranberries and 50g (1¾oz) white chocolate chips.

Where’s the car keys?

It’s been a while since we’ve had a key incident. And, when I say “we,” I mean my beloved.

At Christmas time I often make biscuits, cookies, truffles, Christmas cakes and brownies to give as presents or to offer to unexpected guests who pop in during the Festive Season. As a result, there’s usually the warm and comforting fug of baking all around the apartment.

A selection of some of my baked goodies
A selection of some of my baked goodies

Saturday afternoon, we drove round to friends for an unanticipated pre-Christmas high tea. We parked the car in my usual spot near their apartment that only fits SMART cars and, laden with parcels of baked goodies and presents, headed inside where we passed several enjoyable hours catching up with a number of friends, most of whom were heading back to parental homes for either Christmas or New Year. My baked offerings were well received, some of which I had made specifically to be taken home to their parents for Christmas.

A number of the other guests had newly returned from their teams’ first training camps and were already in restraint mode in anticipation of the forthcoming cycling season. I’m always amused when professional cyclists initially refuse my wares on account of weight-maintenance. They’ll then unobtrusively cut a piece of cake in half and eat first the one half and, a few minutes later, the other. A technique they’ll use to taste all of the cakes and cookies, at least once.

I had taken round some of my race winning brownies so it was understandable they were keen to tuck in but I’m not sure the benefits will last until the Europe Tour season opener, the GP Marseillaise. In no time at all, the guests had reduced the brimming plates to the odd crumb or two.

One of my friends’ adorable sons, a notoriously picky eater, single-handedly polished off four brownies. I was impressed, these are seriously dark, rich, sticky and typically adult only. He passed on the truffles but dug into the cookies, particularly the hazelnut and chocolate caramel ones.

Before taking our leave, we popped down to our friends’ cave to pick up some brochures. At which point my beloved asked me for the car keys. I replied that he hadn’t given me the keys. I usually take them off him as soon as we park up, but my hands had been full of parcels, so hadn’t taken possession of them. We returned to the flat, where I emptied my handbag – no car keys! My beloved checked he hadn’t left them in the car. He hadn’t. At which point, we were inundated with offers of lifts to fetch our spare set of keys.

Whenever my beloved loses anything, I attempt to re-trace his steps. This typically helps us locate the item in question. He had entered the flat and taken off his shoes. Had he left the keys on the shelf? No! He had played with our friends’ children. Were they on the floor or down the side of the sofa? No! Were they on the coffee or dinner tables? No! En route to the car, we had gone down to the cave. Had he put the keys down in the cave? Yes!

Rum soaked

My trainer, at my request, has ramped up the exercise regime. As a consequence, after our session yesterday, I have a few aches in areas best left unmentioned.

The weather the last two days has been glorious, just what I ordered. As I rode out of the Domaine this morning, my neighbours were picking the olives. Yes, we have our own olive oil from the 100 or so trees on the estate. The driver of the car in front of me stopped abruptly to encourage those picking, sadly without glancing in her mirror, so I nearly, but fortunately not quite, shot into the back of her car.

I decided that some interval training was in order and headed to the hill which goes up from Garoupe to boulevard Kennedy, in Antibes. The idea is to ride as hard as possible out of the saddle up the first incline, rest as it tails off and then pick it up again for the last bit. I did this six times much to the amusement of the builders working on the construction of what, I’m sure, is going to be an amazing (and totally wildly expensive) new property, “Villa Robert”. A couple of times round the Cap [d’Antibes] and then it was back home for lunch.

I spent the afternoon working on a translation before heading over to the cycling club. The offer of an English and/or IT course on Thursday afternoon seems to have been well received by my fellow, largely retired, members. I’d better get working on my first lesson plan. Loads of kisses, a couple of licence renewals and a new member later, I was back home in time to bake some cookies.

From time to time, my beloved speaks to the dental students at Nice University about aspects of dentistry in English, thereby satisfying some of their obligatory study of that language.The feedback from his first session suggested that he should have bought them something to eat. Remember, we’re talking about students. It was probably said tongue in cheek, more in hope than anticipation. So for his next visit, I sent him armed with cake: brownies, coconut macaroons and carrot cake. His ratings improved dramatically!

This time, I’ve decided on a selection of American style cookies.  I’ve made up large batches some of which can go into the freezer ready  for my first recreational afternoon at the club. We’ll need something to go with the tea and coffee.

I’ve also started on my Xmas cake. I like to soak the 2 kilos of dried fruit that I put into the cake for a couple of days in a mixture of rum, orange and lemon juice. Generally, I’m not a big fan of traditional UK Xmas food: disliking Xmas cake, Xmas pudding, turkey, sprouts, bread sauce, mince pies, brandy sauce and butter. You get the picture.

Our first Xmas in France, I decided to have one of my “once every eight years or so” family (mine) Xmas’s whereupon I needed to come up with a more acceptable (to me) Xmas cake. I decided to deconstruct the traditional recipe, eliminating the ingredients I don’t like and replacing them with ones I do. I came up with a recipe which makes a medium sized, square cake, choc full of lovely alcohol laden, dried fruit: prunes, dates, raisins, cranberries, cherries, pineapple, apricots and figs. After it’s baked, I soak it weekly in rum for a further 6 weeks and then I cover it in home-made marzipan and soft royal icing. Now I’m not an aficionado of fruit cakes, but my sister Lynn is and she reckons it’s the world’s best Xmas cake. I’m prepared to accept her opinion and concede that it’s probably one of the world’s most expensive.