Conquering the Scone

Scones are easy, right? Most kids can bake them. I couldn’t.

For some reason every time I’ve tried to bake scones in the past, it has been a complete disaster. They always came out hard and dry or cakey. The texture was never right. I had pretty much given up and resigned myself to a life devoid of homemade scones until a miracle happened, and these came out of the oven.

I think buttermilk in this recipe helps keep them flakey and moist, and the trick seems to be to handle the dough as little as possible.

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Buttermilk Scones
Makes 6 scones

225g self-raising flour
40g sugar
75g butter, at room temperature
1 medium egg, at room temperature
4 tablespoons buttermilk*
pinch of salt
1/3 cup raisins

*If you don’t have buttermilk, use 4 tablespoons of milk and add a few drops of lemon or cider/white wine vinegar. Let sit at room temperature for 5 minutes and use.

Preheat oven to 220°C and line a baking tray with baking paper.

Sift the flour and the salt into a bowl. Add the butter and rub it into the flour using your fingertips until everything resembles breadcrumbs. Add the sugar and raisins and mix well.

In a smaller bowl, beat the egg with 2 tablespoons of buttermilk. Add to the flour mixture and mix with a wooden spoon until everything begins to come together. Finish mixing with your hands, but work the dough as little as possible. If the mixture seems a bit too dry, add just enough buttermilk to bring everything together, one tablespoon at a time. As soon as the mixture comes together, form into a ball and transfer to a lightly floured surface. Pat down to about 2.5cm thickness and cut using a round cookie cutter. Do not twist the cookie cutter when bringing it up as this will prevent the scones from rising in the oven.

Place the scones on a baking sheet and lightly brush them with the remaining buttermilk.

Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden brown.

Best eaten on the same day. Can be frozen.

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Petits Ecoliers

I’ve become a hardcore cyclist. Well, if you’re picturing Tour de France, scrap that. My version is piling on as many layers of clothes and waterproofs as I own and braving the snow in my cornflower blue town bike. Yes, it snowed here this week, and instead of walking and taking a little longer to get to work, I slept those extra five minutes and took the trusty bike. Luckily the snow didn’t stick to the road this time.

Anyways. Petits Ecoliers. They’re a very popular biscuit in France, and literally mean ‘small schoolchildren’ (which sounds creepy in English but I assure you, in French it sounds normal). I used to have them all the time as an after-school snack. The base is a simple and not-too-sweet ‘petit beurre’ biscuit, and it is topped with a generous layer of chocolate. I like calling these biscuits, as opposed to cookies, because to me they are so far removed from the typical American cookie. Crisp, square, not-too-sweet, and subtle. The epitome of Frenchness.

nb. The biscuit base was easy to make, and turned out really crisp. I think it would make a great tart crust, and plan to try it out soon!

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Recipe from here and here .

Makes about 25 biscuits.

Biscuit Base

250g flour
100g sugar
100g butter
62.5g water
½ tsp salt
¾ tsp baking powder

In a small pan, bring the butter, water, salt and sugar to a boil.

Leave to cool, stirring occasionally so that the butter does not harden on the surface. Cool until it has the consistency of a light custard.

In a large bowl, combine the flour and baking powder. Pour the cooled butter mixture into the flour mixture, and stir using a wooden spoon. Do not over-mix, stop mixing as soon as a smooth dough is formed. Cover with dish cloth and leave to rest in the fridge for a minimum of three hours (can be left overnight).

Pre-heat oven to 170°C

Remove dough from fridge and roll between two pieces of greaseproof paper until it is about 3mm thick. Use a cookie cutter to cut the biscuits out. Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake 10-15 minutes (until edges begin to turn a light golden brown).

Remove them to a wire rack to cool.

Chocolate Topping

200g milk chocolate (can be replaced by dark or white chocolate if you prefer)

Break half of the chocolate up into even pieces. Place in microwave-proof bowl. Place bowl in microwave and heat on medium setting, checking every few seconds that the chocolate is not fully melted.  When it is mostly melted but a few lumps still remain, take the bowl out and stir until all lumps disappear. Leave to cool for about ten minutes so the chocolate thickens a bit. Put into a piping bag with 2mm nozzle and pipe borders on the cooled biscuits.

Break up the other half of the chocolate and repeat as above. This time, do not wait for the chocolate to cool and thicken. Immediately spoon into centre of biscuits using a small teaspoon. The borders previously piped will prevent the chocolate from leaking over the sides. Leave half an hour for the chocolate to set.

If desired, sift icing sugar over the top of a stencil to decorate.

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Bala de Coco (Coconut Candy)

In Brazil, most families who can afford to have live in help who help with the cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the kids. More often than not, these employees become part of the family, and affectionate ties form. Picture the heart-warming moments in The Help sans racism.

My grandmother’s cook was called Celina. Sadly, she has now retired, but she has known me my whole life, and I consider her my ‘second grandmother’.  Whenever we went back to Brazil on holiday, my sister and I would stay at my grandmother’s house. I remember going into Celina’s room after lunch to chat and play cards with her, even taking naps in her bed. She was an amazing cook. Lavish lunches, fruit preserves, baking; she did it all, following no recipes, which made it very hard for me to learn from her when I became interested in cooking. I have a few scribbled notes on scraps of paper which I wrote down as she told me how she made certain dishes, but her instructions were always very vague. “Add flour until it looks right” or “cook until you get the right consistency”. She was an intuitive and natural born cook, with years and years of practice.

Although my grandmother had help, she had a few ‘specialties’ which she insisted on making herself for her grandchildren.  There were her Christmas cookies, her chocolate cake, brigadeiros for birthday parties, and these coconut candies.

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This is not her recipe, but I scoured the internet and found one that produced the exact sweets I remember. Now, this is complicated. The recipe in itself has very few ingredients, but there are a couple of critical points at which all can go wrong. I should have ended up with about 80 candies, but I only managed to get 25 as I messed up one of these steps. First, all ingredients are boiled together, like a caramel, to the hard crack stage (about 150°C, I got to use my candy thermometer for the first time which was very exciting). Then, the mixture is dumped out onto greaseproof paper and left to cool. Once it is cool enough to touch, the candy is ‘pulled’ to aerate it, which turns it from a beige colour to the white you can see in the pictures. This pulling part is the critical point, as the candy can suddenly crystalize, ending up in a powdery mess. This is what happened to most of mine. Before I got to pull it, it was already crystalizing. I did some research and suspect it may have been because: 1. I touched the edges too much, folding them in as they cooled and 2. The air in this country is too damn humid. So my suggestions are: as tempting as it may be, leave the mixture to cool for a while (but not until it goes so hard you can’t pull it, and not so early that you burn yourself, as I did) and well… don’t live in England.

Ingredients

200ml coconut cream
200ml water
1kg sugar

Line two large baking trays with greaseproof paper.

In a medium-sized pan, whisk the coconut cream, water and sugar together until well blended. Cook on medium heat until the mixture begins to bubble, reduce, and turn yellow in colour (about 15 minutes). Insert the thermometer and when the temperature reaches 150°C, remove from heat and immediately divide the mixture between the prepared pans.

Leave to cool (about 15 minutes). When the mixture is cool enough to touch, divide the dough in four and stretch by pulling each end away from each other with your hands. Fold over and repeat the stretching until the candy turns white and striated. Once this is achieved, use scissors to cut into 1cm candies. You will notice the candy gets harder as you stretch, so make sure you cut it while it’s still possible. Leave to dry overnight on greaseproof paper.

*Tips:

  • Start pulling as soon as your hand can bear the heat.
  • Don’t touch the mixture excessively as it cools, as this may cause it to crystallise.
  • If the mixture crystallises, it can be saved! Grind down to a powder, return to pan with 200ml of water and repeat the process.
  • Store in an airtight container. Keeps about a week.

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