Oatmeal Brown Butter Bars

DSCN2502 Full disclosure: I don’t like oatmeal. I really don’t understand why so many people automatically categorize it in the breakfast-of-champions category (my first and only choice for breakfast of champions? Beer.) Most supposedly healthy and nutrient-packed bowls of oatmeal just translate to cold, lumpy spoonfuls of goop in my mouth and it seems to me that nothing – absolutely nothing – can distract me from the fact that it essentially tastes like soft brains with a smattering of sugar on top (as the metaphor should imply, I am not a fan of eating brains). DSCN2515 But apparently there is a way to make oatmeal a touch more palatable and that is by incorporating it into a baked good. The funny thing is, what I hate most about oatmeal is its texture (or lack thereof – didn’t the brain reference tip you off?). But when you bake it into cakes, cookies or bars, that’s exactly what it lends to the entire affair: a lovely, chewy texture and slight nuttiness in taste. I know there’s this huge, healthy, get-on-the-nut-oils bandwagon thing going on, but most of the time I think oatmeal goes best with brown butter: smoky, dark, caramel-colored brown butter, which – in this recipe – you stir into a base of oatmeal and wholewheat flour. The whole thing is topped off with some sugar, spices and pecans and then baked. When you slice bars off the finished product, they will crumble slightly and smell really fragrant because of the spices – not in the lush, decadent way that some desserts do but as a sweet, snacking option that isn’t altogether too unhealthy. DSCN2480 DSCN2488 Makes: One 9 inch-by-6 inch baking dish of bars Time:
Prep (20 mins) + Cooking Time (15-20 mins)

Ingredients
1 cup of wholewheat flour
1 cup of raw oats
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup softened butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp powdered cinnamon
1 tsp powdered nutmeg
1 egg
1/2 cup pecans (whole or chopped)

Method
Pre-heat your oven to 350 and grease a 9 inch-by-6 inch baking dish.

In a shallow pan, heat the butter until it melts. Continue heating until it turns a dark shade of brown, bubbles slightly and smells nutty. Keep this aside to cool.

In a large bowl, sift together the wholewheat flour, baking powder, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Add the oats and keep aside.

Pour the cooled brown butter into a bowl and add the egg and vanilla extract. Beat until all three are well combined. Make a little well in the bowl with the dry ingredients and pour the butter-egg-vanilla mixture into it in three batches, beating in between.

Empty the batter into the greased cake pan – it shouldn’t be too runny. In fact, it should be fairly on the dry side. Press the pecans on to the surface of the batter and bake for 15-20 minutes, until done. Once it’s out the oven, let it cool before slicing off bars.

Perfect for late afternoon snacking and maybe even a picnic?

Spicy Pumpkin Loaf

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Am I the only person who got sick of the influx of pumpkin-infused recipes that took over the web this winter? Because there were A LOT – I know that everyone has to do at least one pumpkin pie over the holidays, but surely we don’t have to ram pumpkin into our coffee, cupcakes, frosting, buns, cinnamon buns, breakfast bowls and oatmeal? What really got to me was that most of the recipes followed the same format: take a lot of pureed pumpkin, add a lot of cream, top with a lot of cinnamon and brown sugar and voila! – you’re done.

Yes, it really irritated me.

Which is why I’m mildly ashamed to show you this. It is, I will admit, pumpkin, and there’s no getting around that. But I suspect that in this case, you won’t mind.

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This isn’t one of those overloaded-with-caramel pumpkin dessert recipes. In fact, this is a savory loaf. A deceptively light savory loaf that you can slice and enjoy with a bit of butter at breakfast, or tea time. It isn’t made with pumpkin puree or stuff from a can, but honest-to-god fresh pumpkin that is diced, sprinkled with olive oil and herbs and roasted for the better part of an hour, until it is tender and aromatic and altogether delicious.

This is then mashed with the back of a fork (or, if you’re super enthusiastic, a blender) and mixed with some flour, herbs, a smattering of cheese and crushed red peppers for a bit of a kick. This recipe (which is adapted from one of my mother’s passed-down recipes for a cheese loaf) is beautifully simple, does not require any finicky steps and produces a thick, chewy loaf that’s a nice palate cleanser from all the over-sweet pumpkin dishes we’ve been eating the last few months.

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Ingredients

3 eggs

1/2 cup milk

1/4 of a large pumpkin (should reduce to a cup of mash after being roasted) + 1 tbsp olive oil

1/2 cup grated or crumbled cheddar

2 cups whole wheat

1 tbsp baking powder

1 tbsp dried sage

1 tsp dried oregano (or any other herb of your choice)

1 tsp crushed red peppers

1/2 tsp salt + more to taste

Method

Dice the pumpkin into square-inch cubes and lay it out on a well-greased/sprayed baking tray. Sprinkle a tablespoon of olive oil and some salt on it, then add the oregano/herb of your choice and bake at 150 C for around half an hour to 45 minutes. If you bake it for longer and at a lower temperature, the flavours should intensify best. When it’s done, the pumpkin should be a rich, golden-orange shade and tender.

Let the pumpkin cool, and then mash it with a fork or in a blender. Once it’s pulpy and as smooth as you can get it, whisk together the eggs and milk and pour it into the pumpkin mash, beating to ensure everything combines well.

Sift together the dry ingredients: the whole wheat, baking powder, sage, crushed red pepper and salt, and then add the pumpkin mixture in three batches, beating in between. Once it’s holding together, stir in the crumbled cheddar.

Pour the batter into a greased/sprayed loaf pan and bake at 180 C until it’s well done, around an hour. Test with a toothpick to make sure it’s done (the top should be golden-orange and puffy), and then allow to cool before slicing. Tastes best with a knob of butter.

Notes: this recipe, while it had a lovely crumb and held together beautifully, was a touch on the eggy side. If this isn’t your style, you can reduce the number of eggs to 2 and it still works out perfectly (I tried it the following week).

Strawberry Cream Biscuits

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Every time someone says they’re coming over for tea, my imagination promptly creates a situation that is undoubtedly ripped off from one of the many Enid Blyton books I read as a kid: a table set with a pretty checked cloth, a china teapot and a selection of dainty, sweet eats that would put a Downton Abbey tea table to shame. This obviously rarely happens, but every once in a while I like to bust out a snack that makes people believe I spend most of my time flitting around in the kitchen. And one of the easiest ways to do this is to bake up a batch of biscuits – not the nasty, sugar-filled variety that you can buy at a department store but fluffy, light homemade biscuits that crumble when you bite into them and go perfectly with a cup of sweet tea. What’s more, they’re easy to make, don’t use any fancy ingredients and you can have them out of the oven in 15 minutes as long as you don’t spend too much time snacking on raw dough (bad habit, I know).

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While I’m a huge fan of plain biscuits, a little flavouring can go a long way. These strawberry cream biscuits, very slightly adapted from this genius recipe, are very faintly sweetened, with the tart, fruity strawberry flavour occupying centre stage. Beaten cream is stirred into the dough and the raw cookies are brushed with a few teaspoons of melted butter, so that they puff up and flake with each bite. They aren’t particularly healthy, but are an indulgent addition to any evening meal and a great option for gifting.

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Ingredients

2 cups flour

1 tbsp baking powder

1/2 tbsp sugar

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

3 tbsp melted butter

2 tbsp strawberry jam

Method

Sift together the flour, sugar and baking powder and set aside.

Beat the cream for about 5 minutes, until it turns pale and fluffy. Add the strawberry jam and beat again until it’s well combined. Fold the cream into the flour mixture and combine to form a dough.

Roll the dough to a thickness of 3/4 inch, and cut out biscuits. The original recipe called for a 2 1/2 inch-diameter cutter, but I used a 2 inch one. Brush the tops of the biscuits with melted butter and bake at 425 F for 10-15 minutes. When they’re golden-brown, with the faintest champagne-pink tinge, take them out of the oven and let them cool before serving.

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Notes

I cut down on the sugar used in the dough because of the slight added sweetness of the jam. If you prefer your biscuits on the sweeter side, you can a full tablespoon of sugar instead.

The jam I used was organic and had whole stewed strawberries, which gave the biscuits a more natural flavour. I’m guessing artificially-sweetened jams won’t have the same effect. Alternately, you can puree strawberries and add them to the cream before beating for a more tart, but authentic, flavour.

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Orange Tea Cakes

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I love the idea of sitting down for tea. You know what I’m talking about – sunny Sunday afternoons, a white table on a lawn, buttered scones and crumpets, a butler in coat-tails and possibly an English castle in the background. When I cannot recreate this scenario, however (which is surprisingly often), I like to pick up/make foods that are associated with tea-time. Scones (which I’ve attempted earlier) are one of my favorites but tea cakes come a close second.

The USP of tea food, I think, is that it’s sweet and pleasant but not too rich. Meaning, you can eat a lot of it and not sit in a dull, sugar-induced haze after. These tea cakes fit the bill perfectly – they’re spongy (no denseness at all, here), have citrus undertones, a dash of sweetness and a little crunch. They’re the sort of cakes you’d pile on a platter and eat (in one shot) while downing a pot of spiced tea.

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Each cake is made with light batter that fluffs up into a little cloud of sugar and butter while baking. They’re flavored with spoonfuls of orange rind and a hefty slug of juice, for a sweet finish. They are then covered with a little vanilla-orange glaze, before being topped with crushed walnut. The result is a fun combination of sugary, fruity and nutty flavors, which would make it both a kiddie and adult favorite.

Orange Tea Cakes

2 cups flour

1 1/2 cups butter

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 tsp baking powder

1 tbsp vanilla

1/2 cup orange juice

1 tbsp orange rind, crushed

2 eggs

Cream together the butter and sugar for around three minutes. Break the eggs in, one at a time, and beat until everything is well incorporated.

Powder the sugar and then sift the flour, sugar and baking powder into a large bowl.

Stir the vanilla and orange rind into the orange juice.

Pour the flour and vanilla mixtures into the butter-sugar-egg mixture in batches, beating at the lowest setting until it’s all combined. The final batter will be thick and shiny, with the slightest tint of orange.

Grease a cupcake tray and pour in the batter (this much batter will make around 20 cupcakes).

Bake at 170 C for 15 minutes. It might take a little longer, depending on the size of your cupcake tray, so check with a toothpick before taking the trays out of the oven.

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Vanilla Orange Glaze

1 cup powdered sugar

1 tsp vanilla

2 tbsp orange juice

1/2 tsp orange rind

Stir everything into a bowl and beat until well combined and sticky.

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Crushed Walnut

1 cup chopped walnuts

Toss the cup into a blender and pulse it until it’s coarse and crumbly. Make sure you don’t process it for too long, though, or it will start to leave oil and turn into a butter.

Once the tea cakes are cool, scoop them out of their trays. Add a spoonful of glaze on top of each (I turned them upside down, for fun) and then dip it into a bowl with the crushed walnut.

Eat it with a large pot of mint tea, with maybe a basset hound lying at your feet – preferably on a lawn somewhere.

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Spiced Biscuits

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Normally, I belong to the school of thought that believes that desserts should be filled with everything that is sweet, gooey, extravagant and altogether too scrumptious to be good for your waistline. But every now and then, I come across a recipe that temporarily threatens to change my mind: like this plain vanilla biscuit that I found in an ancient Oysterizer cookbook that’s been rattling around inside our cupboards for decades now. The recipe was simple and fresh, with all the attention drawn towards the sweet vanilla flavor and crispness of the biscuit.

I tried it out the other day, but with a twist that I think completely redefined the biscuit. I left off the vanilla and instead, used powdered spices. They went perfectly with the simplicity of the biscuit, giving each bite a certain sharpness. I also skipped the cold-cut butter for browned butter, which added a slight nuttiness.

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The biscuit is perfect for tea-time. It’s not so sweet as to overpower the palate, but has a delightful crunch that makes them a great way to enjoy a lazy Sunday afternoon

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Ingredients

1 1/2 cups flour

1 tbsp cardamom

3 sticks cinnamon

1/2 tsp nutmeg powder

1 clove

1/2 tsp baking powder

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup butter

1 egg

Method

Brown the butter and tip it into a large bowl. Add the sugar in three batches, whisking it while you do so to blend it in properly.

Crack the egg into the bowl and blend some more, until it’s combined into a smooth dough.

Grind the cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg powder and clove until it becomes a fine powder. The cardamon skins won’t be as fine as you like but don’t worry about them – you’ll be sieving them out.

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Tip the flour, baking powder, and spices into a bowl, combine them and then sift the entire amount into the dough. Knead the dough with your hands until it’s well combined, and then wrap it in a zip-lock bag and put it refrigerate it for an hour.

After that, take it out and roll it into a log before cutting of slices. These biscuits will spread, so it doesn’t matter if your slices aren’t perfect – the point of the rolling and slicing is to ensure no dough is wasted.

 

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Grease a baking pan with olive oil and place the cookies with at least 1 1/2 inches of space between them. Bake at 180 C for 10 minutes. Let them cool for at least 15 minutes before snapping them off and serving them. A sprinkle of cinnamon or powdered sugar would really bring their taste out.

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Papaya Tart with Thyme and Brown Sugar

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I’m not the biggest fan of papaya. In fact, the intense smell (and the fact that chopped papaya sometimes looks a tiny bit like raw flesh) puts me off it completely. But I do appreciate that it has a great texture and the other day, when I was hunting around for something to put in a tart, I started to wonder whether papaya would fit the bill.

I wanted to make a tart that was fruity but not too sweet – something that was simple and could be eaten at teatime, rather than a rich after-dinner dessert. Unfortunately, my house is not bursting with exotic fruits that are begging to be doused in honey and stuffed into tarts; in fact, after heading enthusiastically to the kitchen, all I found in the fruit bowl was a single papaya.

Very well then. Papaya it was. With clueless optimism, I told myself that papaya cut raw and papaya in a tart are two completely different things: which is how this tart was born.

I used a slightly modified version of this recipe for the tart crust, which I really loved because it did not involve rolling out the pastry and then flipping it into a pan (I’m pretty sure I would have been completely incapable of that). It uses melted butter, sugar and flour and produces a shell that’s rich and melt-in-your-mother buttery.

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For the filling, I simply chopped half a papaya and tossed it in melted butter, brown sugar and a bit of thyme. I also used a bit of marmalade to give a little depth to the dish. The whole thing came together pretty well. After 15 minutes of baking, the papaya lost the intense flavor that makes me hate it so much, but retained its juiciness and fruity texture. The brown sugar added a bit of caramelized crunch to it and the thyme actually combined well with the papaya, providing just a hint of sharpness to each bite.

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The end result: did I love it? If I’m going to be painfully honest, no. Even baked and drizzled with sugar and honey, I did not like the papaya flavor. On the other hand my mother, who wolfs down papayas like they’re buttered popcorn, couldn’t get enough of it – which goes to show, I suppose, that if you’re a papaya fan, you’re definitely a fan of this tart.

Papaya Tart with Thyme and Brown Sugar

Ingredients

6 tbsp + 2 tbsp melted butter

2 tbsp granulated sugar

1 cup flour

Pinch of salt

Half a papaya, diced

1 cup brown sugar

1 tbsp chopped thyme

2 tsp honey

2 tbsp marmalade

Method

For the tart shell, blend 6 tbsp of melted butter with the granulated sugar and pinch of salt. Once it’s combined, sift in the flour.

Knead the flour and butter until it just about holds together. The dough will be buttery and more pliable than your average pastry.

Coat a 6-inch pan with a teaspoon of olive oil and drop the dough into the center. With your hands, push down and spread it out so that it forms a shell over the pan. Then, take a fork and press down on it until it becomes thin. The dough should be buttery enough to hold together. Bake the shell for ten minutes at 180 C, until it turns a light golden brown.

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Meanwhile, put the chopped papaya in a large bowl and add 2 tbsp of melted butter, the brown sugar and chopped thyme. Toss it until the pieces of papaya are coated and keep aside.

Once the shell is golden brown and half-cooked, take it out and give it a few minutes to cool down. Then spread the marmalade across the base of the shell. Heap the papaya pieces over this – it’s okay if it looks like there’s too much papaya for the shell, since it will sink as it bakes.

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Bake the entire pie for another 15-20 minutes at 180 C. Once it’s done, the crust should be a deep golden and the sugar caramelized. Let it cool for about ten minutes before cutting out slices. The focus of the dish will be on the fruit, without the complication of a sugary filling or overly sweet crust – but with the added savor of the thyme.

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Of Sticks and Scones

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Apple and Cinnamon Scones

There’s nothing quite so delicious as a perfectly-constructed scone. I had my first scone at a small tea shop near Oxford, and spent the next few hours ordering platter after platter. The combination of lightly crisp crust and soft, flaky interior had me absolutely hooked, especially when served with generous bowls of clotted cream and strawberry jam.

Last week, I baked up two separate batches of scones and came to a very important realization: scones are not for the faint-hearted, but they do allow for some short-cuts. The first batch I made (following this recipe), called for all forms of torture in the kitchen: the dough had to be kneaded just so, rolled into specific dimensions and folded in a particular number of times. After about an hour in the kitchen, though, it seemed the effort was worth it – the scones were light, fluffy and perfectly crisp on the outside. I switched the blueberries in the recipe for large grapes, which gave it a slight tartness, and scooped the dough onto the baking tray instead of cutting it into triangles for the cloudy perfection that I remembered from my first taste.

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Grape Scones with Strawberry Jam

The second batch, which I bravely attempted a few days later, were a pleasant surprise. I dug out an old recipe from one of my mother’s handwritten cook books and stirred some chopped apple and cinnamon into the dough. It was a no-nonsense recipe (the just-put-everything-in-a-bowl-and-mix-it variety) and although it didn’t have the same texture as the previous batch, it was still delicious. They kept for a couple of days and were great at teatime or even for breakfast.

Apple and Cinnamon Scones

Ingredients:

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3 cups flour

1/2 cup sugar

2 tsp baking powder

2 tsp ground cinnamon

1 cup chopped apple

1 cup frozen butter

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 cup milk

Method

Sift all the dry ingredients into a large bowl and then cut the butter into it in dime-sized pieces. Mix it so that the butter is well-coated and a crumbly dough is formed.

Combine the milk and vanilla essence, whisk for a minute and then add to the dough. The best way to do this is to create a well in the middle of the bowl and pour the mixture in.

Toss the chopped apple with cinnamon and stir it into the mixture.

Sprinkle some flour on any clean surface, and knead the dough until it holds together in a firm ball. Then, roll it out into a circle (mine was about 9 inches in diameter) and cut off slices like a pie.

To add some extra crispiness, brush melted butter on each scone and sprinkle some sugar over that.

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Grease a baking tray and bake them for around 15 minutes at 200 C.

They’re best enjoyed with clotted cream, if you can get your hands or some or have the eight hours it takes to make it. Otherwise, they’re also delicious spread with orange marmalade or a slightly tart jam.