When Science goes bad, there’s always Cake

Many of the scientists at work are talented bakers, and the rest are pro’s at eating cake. Quite a few of us have the back up plan “if the science doesn’t work out, I’ll open a bakery/café/restaurant”, after all, baking is a sort of science…

During an experiment that wasn’t going very well, I started chatting with Laura about cakes that could represent various aspects of science, whether the experiment is working or not. So here’s some of my possible science-cake suggestions, and some examples of how science can learn from disaster cakes.

The device isn’t capturing cells at all:
Super rich dense chocolate brownie, with walnuts. Served sandwiched with a very good vanilla icecream and a dark chocolate and whiskey sauce poured over the top.  In a bowl, because you’ve learned your lesson about fluids misbehaving and a plate would make a mess.

A sadly batched tray of muffins, tasty but unbeautiful

Don’t buy the cheapest gloves, don’t buy the cheapest muffin cases. Science and baking have learned many similar lessons

The perfect micrograph using all those fiddly fluorescent stains
Summer fruits tart, with a rich, chewy batter half enveloping the fruit, and a very crisp yet crumbly base. Served with whipped cream with a hint of vanilla. The juicy fruits might stain the cream but it’s all terribly beautiful and neatly presented.

Even Linus Pauling gets it wrong
An orange drizzle cake, moist and delicious, with a scoop of lemony moussey curdlike stuff. No longer full of vitamin C after baking, but hey, megadosing vitC doesn’t work anyway!

Poor melty cinnamon rolls, but they went to a good home

The rolls have leaked in the oven? Still delicious. The PBS leaked in the autoclave? Still a sterile buffer.

Have you any science-cake suggestions? Could you happilly substitute science for cake in your every day life (or vice versa)?

Modifying the lemon drizzle cake, a little

I love lemon drizzle cake. It’s really wonderful, and not so hard to make, and in my experience, (almost) everyone loves lemony cake. As I make this cake often enough, I made some adjustments to it, to see if the people who like it a lot could find it in them to like it even more!

Inspired by my labmate’s love of lemon and poppyseed cake from the canteen (I’m impressed, they didn’t mess up the cake), I threw a teaspoon of poppy seeds into the cake batter and baked like normal. The seeds give a gentle bite to the cake, it’s really wonderful.

Poppy seeded lemon drizzle cake

Lemon drizzle cake filled with poppyseeds and super tangy drizzle for my sister’s graduation

In addition, my beloved’s favourite part of the cake is the lemon drizzle part (and quite a few other people, I’ve found), so I doubled up on the lemons to make his face pucker up even more. I used the juice of two lemons for the drizzle but the same amount of sugar. The centre of the cake is the most dangerous for those of us who like moderately (rather than insanely) tangy cake, I have yet to master the art of getting the drizzle to hang around the edges. As the cake top is a bit wetter with the extra juice, only dust it with icing sugar right before you plan to show off.

The above pictured cake was dusted with icing sugar twice, once before heading to the university for my sister’s graduation (yay! she’s got a PhD now, in microbiology though, yucky), and then again when we got home and were about to eat the cake. The cake didn’t last long, but that’s ok, cause when you get a PhD, many people make cake, so there was carrot cake, caramel squares, and cheesecake too!

Peanutbutter Brownies

A number of members of my collaborator’s group are leaving for pastures new, so I have made cake as a goodbye-you’re-really-gonna-miss-it-here gift.

raw brownies

The brownies prior to baking. The peanutbutter and chocolate chunks sink into the hot brownie batter during cooking, so this method allows even distribution of filling.

The recipe is my usual brownies recipe (also found in the cheesecakebrownies recipe) with the addition of blobs of peanutbutter instead of nuts. I did have nuts, but it was a bag of hazelnuts, and would have needed roasting and skinning, but peanut butter is delicious with chocolate, so this “laziness” worked out well too.

  • 225g butter
  • 375g caster sugar
  • 3 eggs (orignal recipe called for 4 medium, but we buy ex large normally)
  • 75g cocoa powder
  • 100g self raising flour
  • 100g bar of chocolate (or “chocolate”, as I often use scotbar)
  • Peanutbutter (about 3 tablespoons, have more than enough anyway, there should always be peanutbutter in a kitchen)

Grease and/or line a cake tin (I used my 17cm tin and a small dish, the small dish is for have a small set of home brownies when the big tin is brought to work). Pre-heat the oven to 180°C (170° for fan ovens).

Melt the butter and add the sugar. Beat in the eggs one by one. Sift the cocoa and flour together, and add to the mix in three parts.

Divide between cake tin(s). Break up the chocolate bar and plop pieces around on the brownie. Get a teaspoon and a knife and plop 0.5tsp sized dollops about the surface. The chocolate and the peanutbutter will sink during cooking anyway. Put into the oven for 40 mins.

Cooked brownies

See? Allllllll sunk into the brownies. The greaseproof paper means the sunk/melted chocolate chunks wont glue the cake to the tin (trust me, voice of experience, chocolate glue is hard to get off tins without heating).

Let the brownies cool in their tin, then turn them out and cut them up. Alternatively, don’t wait for them to cool and attack them with a spoon… just mind yourself, they’re pretty hot.

spoon on a brownie

Too impatient to wait for them to cool…

Rashery appley pancakes

The cooking apples havent been great this season. It seems most fruits haven’t been faring too well with the wet cool summer. I managed to find three small decent cooking apples a few weeks ago, and I turned them into stewed apple deliciousness. Add some rashers and pancakes and I had a particularly delicious breakfast.

Delicious breakfast, beware the venus fly trap monster coming to steal it away….


Continue reading

Cheesecake brownies (bonus three recipes in one)

I’ve been meaning to make cheesecake brownies for a few years. I’ve a great recipe for brownies from Chocolate Cookery (you’ll have to look this one up on abebooks) and an equally great recipe for white chocolate cheesecake. Others have combined these before with much success, so it was my turn to have a go off them.

Slices of cheesecake brownies waiting to be brought to college

Continue reading

Further adventures in biscuit land

I love a good shortbread so I do. It’s quick enough to make, and the buttery delight means it’s hard to make shortbread that doesn’t taste good. People always go on about shortbread being quick enough to make if guests suddenly arrive and you want to show off / not go to the shop for biscuits, but seriously, who does actually do that. I just make it on a whim, so the lads in college will be in for a treat tomorrow, lucky folks.

The recipe was derived from a barely remembered (misremembered?) ratio of 3 parts flour to 2 parts butter to 1 part sugar. It’s VERY buttery, so if you don’t like buttery shortbread you won’t like this (also, how can you not like buttery shortbread). It’s a simpler cousin of this recipe, it’s not as delicate and fragile, an altogether more robust shortbread than can survive the trip to work.

It is pretty quick to make, about ten to fifteen minutes making the dough and then fifteen to twenty while they bake in the oven. If you want to chocolate coat them then that will take extra time. This makes about twenty biscuits (4-5cm in diameter).

Delicious chocolate covered shortbread waiting for the chocolate to set, and some naked ones waiting to be nommed.

  • 240g plain flour
  • 160g butter
  • 60g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp almond essence

Preheat the oven to 170°C (mine’s a fan oven). In a bowl, mix together the butter and flour until it starts to resemble breadcrumbs. Then add in the sugar and essence. Mix about a bit, then start to knead it all together. The kneading takes a little work as it’s a pretty crumbly dough (the only thing holding it together is butter!). When it’s come together as a lump, you can roll it out. (I stuffed it into my biscuit gun and cut off neat circles, as it’s too stiff to pass through the shapes). (I made about 20 biscuits)

Put your (about 8mm) thick cookies on your parchment lined tray. Leave a little space around the biscuits, they’ll spread by about 20% due to the massive amount of butter in them (they melt basically). Put them in the oven for 15 to 20 mins until starting to brown very very lightly. Leave to cool on the tray for five minutes before transferring to the wire rack.

Optional:
You can coat the biscuits with chocoalte if that’s your thing. I coated 15 of the biscuits with about 200g of chocolate. While the oven is cooling, put the broken chocolate into a borosilicate (pyrex is a tradename dontchano) bowl and while the biscuits are cooling the chocolate can melt and you dont have to watch for it burning in the microwave. Dip each biscuit into the melted chocolate using a pair of forks, turn and then place on parchment to set (I’m using one of these nonstick sheets for the oven that you get in Aldi). And be patient. When they’re set, you can eat them!

My first coffee and walnut cake

I’ve been meaning to get around to making coffee and walnut cake for years, and what better excuse to make a big decorated cake than a party! So, today, I made one, finally! Taking inspiration from Darina (did I mention how much I love the Ballymalloe Cookery Course book?), I added walnuts to the basic coffee cake recipe and doubled the buttercream quantity so there’d be some to go on the top.

A beautiful coffee and walnut cake.

The cake speaks for itself. In the background: a lemon (we know I love lemon), an aeropress (for making coffee in college), and my favourite coffee tin (it has the sleaziest coffee bean on the back, I must show you some time).

In the unlikely event that you don’t like walnuts, you can leave them out. In the more probable event that you do, buy more than you need for the recipe, I find other halves are inclined to start gobbling the nuts before you realise.

The original recipe called for irel, which is a coffee essence sort of product. I think it’s a sort of chicory/coffee syrup that you can use for cooking or making hot drinks with. Instead I used some strong coffee and misused my mokka pot to make it. I half filled the water resevoir and filled the coffee part as normal, giving a shorter stronger coffee (this is not how you’re normally supposed to use them). I poured the coffee over ice into a jug when it was done and put it in the fridge to cool completely. I had some leftover coffee after the cake, so I stirred in some milk for a lovely iced coffee treat. (I love coffee, in case you didn’t know this 🙂 ).

  • 225g butter
  • 225g caster sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 225g self-raising flour
  • 6 dessert spoons strong coffee (you could probably substitute in instant or irel if you prefer)
  • 100g of walnut halves (keep the 8 best looking halves for the top of the cake, and roughly chop/crush the remainder)

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease and line two 20cm cake tins (a bit of butter under the baking paper helps to keep it in place.

Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Then beat in the eggs one by one, beat them thoroughly, the first one is the hardest. Add the (sifted) flour and mix well. Add the coffee and walnut pieces and then divide the mixture between the two tins. Bake for 30 minutes until the cakes are firm and the sides start to come away from the edges of the tin.

Turn out on to a wire and remove the baking paper and then you can flip them over if you don’t want to have lines on the cake. Wait until they’re cool before you begin to ice them.

  • 125g butter
  • 250g icing sugar
  • 4 tsp instant coffee in 1 tsp of hot water (I know, the shame of having a jar of instant, had to buy my first jar in years just to make the cake, ruining my coffee snob credentials)

There are two ways to make the icing, the easy way and the hard way. The hard way is to cream everything together by hand (I tried this at first). The easy way is to bung everything into a food processor, or in my case, a chopper and blitz till it’s smooth. When it’s all creamed together by either method, place the bottom piece of cake on the plate you’ll be showing the cake off on, then spread half the icing on. Place the top part on top and put the remainder of the icing on top. Decorate with the remaining walnut halves. If you want enough to cover the sides, increase the quantity of icing by at least half (I always make a mess of the sides of cake so extra icing is handy for patching holes).

NOM WITH A BIG MUG OF COFFEE AND SOME FRIENDS! (after everyone’s admired your icing skills of course).

Experimentation – peanut butter

I am told that there are “people” out there who don’t like peanut butter, not because they’re allergic and their face will swell up, but because they just don’t /like/ it. Well, this is not for those “people”, this is for us normal folk who enjoy smushed nuts smeared on toast.

We like peanuts in this house, they’re tasty, very tasty, and go great with beer, cider or just a big mug of milk. Every once in a while, we end up picking up a bag of peanuts that aren’t nice and crisp and seem to be under roasted. One day himself decided we should figure out how to make peanut butter to use up these less nice nuts.

In the quest to learn how to make peanut butter, it was discovered that stick blenders aren’t very good for making peanut butter, and that my mother will sleep through using her (loud) food processor to make the same. After a time, we picked up a handy wee chopper in Aldi for blitzing the nuts, as we don’t have room for a full-size food processor.

This evening’s experiment was to see if maple syrup would work nicely as it’s a good substitute for half the golden syrup in peanut butter cookies (recipe to follow at some point).

Ramekin of peanut butter

A handy ramekin, filled with delicious peanut butter.

  • 200g salted peanuts
  • 1 dessert spoon of maple syrup (proper stuff, you know, the stuff in glass jars that’s pretty runny) (Aldi do a good one that won’t break the bank, Marks and Spencer do a good one that will)
  • 3 teaspoons vegetable or peanut oil (for the love of god don’t use olive oil or other strong tasting oil)
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt

In theory you can shell, skin and roast your own nuts, but buying bags of salted peanuts is just as easy. If you like a well roasted nut (an even more roasted one that how it was roasted before you bought it), scatter them on a lined tray and put into a 200°C oven for 10 minutes. Check them after five minutes and give a little shake, don’t let them scorch.

Then tip the nuts into your chopper/food processor, and start whizzing. When the nuts have turned into a coarse powder, add 2 teaspoons of the oil, the maple syrup and keep whizzing. My chopper isn’t amazing, so I periodically stop, scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, and go again. It takes longer than you’d expect but the nuts should break down to a paste. Taste the butter, and add the salt if it’s needed (some salted peanuts are saltier than others). Add more oil if the paste is too stiff (you need to be able to spread it on toast at the end of the day).

So basically, lots of whizzing and a bit of extra oil is all you need to make peanut butter. The oil seems to be necessary to get the butter to come together enough to be chopped finer. Sugar is optional, but I like slightly sweetened pb, salty and sweet things are what taste buds were made for!

I’m looking forward to smearing this on thick slices of toasted scotch batch in the morning and drinking some fine fine coffee with it. (Also, next time I make it, I’ll be doubling the maple syrup, so you might want to experiment with that if you’ve a sweet tooth).

Microwave experiments – chocolate sauce

After rearranging the freezer to fit stuff in properly, I (re)discovered a tub of Aldi Strawberry flavour frozen yoghurt. This stuff is actually really nice, more fake strawberry sweets flavour than Wexford’s finest, but that suits me down to the ground. On its own it can be a little dull, and I’m all out of chocolate or otherwise sauces, so I decided to have a bash off making a quick chocolate sauce.

Many of the nice chocolatey sauces I’d come across before contained golden syrup to make them sticky, so I figured I’d bung some of that in (well, honey, as there was a squeezy bottle to hand, and the tin of golden syrup is a bit of a pain). I also threw in some butter, to give that nice buttery flavour and also to stop the chocolate being so firm (just in case the syrup didn’t do it’s thing). The chocolate came from Lidl and was very nice. “Bellarom creamy milk chocolate” is what the packet tells me.

After microwaving, the chocolate still looked solid, but the liquidy ingredients were well hot, so after years of making ganaches, I just gave it a few second to stand and then stirred it till the chocolate was smoothly distributed. At first the sauce on the frozen yoghurt (I keep calling it icecream tbh) was nice and saucey, but when it got chilled by the icecream it turned into a lovely soft-chewy toffee. So there was both failure and success in the same chewy bite. Will certainly refine this micro-sauce method in future.

Chocolate sauce on frozen yoghurt

Chocolate sauce on Aldi's finest fake strawberry flavour frozen yoghurt (it's actually well tasty if you like that sort of thing)

Into a microwavable mug add:

  • 40g milk chocolate (the total bar weight, divided into the relevant number of chunks, practising arithmetic is good for you)
  • 2 tsp honey or golden syrup (squeezy bottles of these are great)
  • 1 heaped tsp of butter (ie a chunk that fits on a teaspoon and some bit above)

Microwave on full power for 20 seconds (I have no idea what wattage my microwave oven is, and I have no intention of pulling it out to read the sticker on the back (why they can’t write these things on the front is beyond me)). Be careful, the honey/syrup will have gotten pretty hot at this stage. Stir until all the chocolate is melted and pour quickly over icecream. If you eat it immediately the first bits of sauce are still runny, if you take loads of photos until you get a non-blurry one, it’ll be a bit toffee/chewy, but still nice (guess what happened to me…). Makes enough for one bowl of icecream for greedy people, two if you can share and aren’t fond of loads of sauce.

Lemon shortbread (for dipping in lemon curd)

Obsession with lemons you say? Who? Me? Surely not….

Intending to make lemon cake during the week, I bought a net of six unwaxed lemons in the supermarket. Sadly, I didn’t get around to it in time for my final day in my most recent lab rotation. So there were six lemons staring up at me for the past few days. Now, much and all as I love lemons, using all six at a go was going to be quite the feat, so I’ve done an experiment in lemon preservation (details to come shortly) and also made some curd. The curd used up two lemons. I used the zest of these two lemons to make the shortbread that follows (I decided I dont much like the bits of zest in curd, as my zester makes them too big).

Normally, Darina is my go to girl for kitchen help, but this time I followed Prue’s directions for shortbread, save that I substituted the rice flour for cornflour as I had that to hand. Rice flour and cornflour have no gluten in them, so when mixed with the wheat flour serve to reduce the overall gluten content of the biscuit to make it much lighter. Generally about a quarter of the flours is gluten free and the rest is wheat flour. Reducing the gluten content too much can result in a biscuit that disintegrates.

Lemon shortbread dough

Lemon shortbread waiting to go into the fridge. Admire my quality fork-pricking of the dough...

  • 110g Butter
  • 55g Caster sugar
  • Grated zest of two lemons
  • 40g cornflour
  • 125g plain flour

I used my Aldi chopper to speed things up, if you have a proper food processor, use that, if not bring your mixing arm to the gym…

Beat the butter to soften it. Cream in the caster sugar and then mix in the zest. Sieve the cornflour and flour together and add to the creamed sugar/butter mix (I dont tend to sift flours when using the chopper, it’s fiddly and I’m lazy…) Blitz until it just about comes together then turn out and give it one last mix. If you’be been doing it by hand, it’ll come together into a nice smooth paste round then.

Roll the shortbread dough out to about 1cm thick on some greaseproof paper (if you try to do it on the worktop, it’ll just smush into place and stick, even if you flour it). Cut into your desired shape (I went with fingers, for good dipping times). Lay on greaseproof paper on the baking tray. Prick with a fork all over, and right through to the tray. Put the biscuits in the fridge to chill until firm. Pre-heat your oven about now to 170°C (I used 160°C as we have a fan oven, damn, I miss conventional ovens).

When the shortbread has firmed up, sprinkle on some caster sugar, for that authentic shortbread look. Pop into the oven for about 20 minutes, until the shortbread has turned a pale golden colour. Prue recommends scooshing under the shortbread with a palette knife (who owns a palette knife like) after they come out of the oven, leaving to cool for 5mins and then transfering to a wire rack, but I just slid the baking paper off the tray on to the wire rack. Be careful though, hot shortbread is fragile, so if they overhang the rack, they’ll break or if you try to move them without COMPLETELY supporting the underside, they’ll break. When they’ve cooled they’re much more robust.

Serve with lashings of lemon curd and some coffee!