Shortbread has got to be one of the best British biscuits. In fact, I’m struggling to think of any near contenders that satisfy on every level as a simple piece of sweet, buttery shortbread. Even if I wasn’t Scottish and slightly biased towards my birthplace’s fine culinary exports, then I would still be passionate about this fine biscuit. The magic of shortbread is the sheer simplicity of only using three ingredients – butter, sugar and flour – to create something so utterly delicious. The texture should have a crumbly, almost sandy texture, with an indulgent rich buttery taste that melts in the mouth.
Everyone likes bananas, right? It’s meant to be the most popular fruit in the UK (according to sales anyway), but I’ve met a fair few people in my time who detest them with a passion. I’m sitting on the fence between loving and loathing these tropical boomerangs: a banana cooked slowly on the glowing embers of a BBQ stuffed with slabs of dark chocolate and a generous slosh of rum, then I’m definitely in the love camp; and, as a child I have fond memories of tucking into a big bowl of chopped bananas drowned in lashings of golden Bird’s Eye custard. But now, to eat a banana in its natural state really fills me with revulsion – do I sound overly dramatic? Perhaps.
On holiday in Belize recently, with my banana-a-day boyfriend, I tasted bananas full of flavour and musky sweetness, and if they weren’t served with our breakfast tropical fruit platter I queried their noticeable absence. But what sealed my reignited love was the most delicious banana bread I’d ever eaten – pleasingly moist, with an intense banana flavour and a texture; somewhere between bread and a light, fluffy cake. I requested an extra slice to make its way into our lunchboxes that day. With our stomachs rumbling, after a strenuous hike and bike ride up leg-screaming hills in the baking Belizean heat, we arrived at a jaw-dropping beautiful waterfall. We sat on some rocks, admired the beauty and ate our banana bread with smiles on our glowing faces.
Back home, I knew it would be tricky to recreate the deep banana flavour using our bland supermarket varieties, but there’s certainly no harm in trying. I think organic bananas have a better flavour, so I used these, along with creamy Brazil nuts to add a welcome crunch to the bread, and also because they seemed a more ‘tropical’ partner than, say, walnuts. I’ve used a blend of light muscovado sugar and molasses; the latter adding depth of flavour and appealing pockets of dark brown sugar throughout the bread. Using a mixture of both butter and oil gives you the best of both worlds – a bit of richness from the butter as well as extra moisture from the oil. The result was moist, moreish and utterly delicious. Was it as good as the Belizean version? Not quite, but then again, the only waterfall I can see right now is the trickling rain down the windowpane – but it tastes exceptionally good and has brought a slice of sunshine into my kitchen as well as a beaming smile to my face.
3 very ripe bananas (300g peeled weight)
60g butter, melted
70ml sunflower oil
2 eggs, beaten
100g light muscovado sugar
70g molasses sugar
200g plain flour
1.5 tsp baking powder
1 tsp fine salt
60g brazil nuts, roughly chopped
- Grease and line a 450g/1lb loaf tin with non-stick paper, and preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4.
- Sift the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl.
- Mash two-thirds of the bananas in a medium bowl until smooth. Cut the remaining banana into small chunks and add to the bowl. Stir in the Brazil nuts and set aside.
- Put the sugar, eggs, oil and melted butter in a large bowl and use an electric mixer to whisk them until slightly increased in volume. Fold in the dry ingredients, followed by the banana and Brazil nut mixture until you can see no more flour.
- Spoon into the tin and bake for about an hour until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes before turning out on to a rack to cool completely.
I absolutely love Eccles cakes! In my opinion they are certainly not cakes as the name suggests but more like parcels – whatever their title they are delicious buttery flaky pastry ‘cakes’ packed with succulent currants and a joy to eat. I have come across the nickname ‘dead fly pies’ which are more than a discredit to these scrumptious cakes as they are so tasty it doesn’t really matter what they look like.
They are definitely a now-and-again treat as obviously the butter-laden pastry makes them highly fattening but Xmas time is no time to be worrying about calories. For an even more indulgent treat, I have served these as a dessert – warm from the oven and with a big dollop crème fraiche on top. Heavenly.
With Xmas fast approaching I wanted to put a Xmas spin on my Eccles cake although I’m sure purists which shriek in horror at my tampering with the recipe. The filling is more like mince pies with a hint of orange and spice and is encased in light, but butter rich, melt in the mouth flaky pastry. They are divine. Selling it to you yet? I have tried this recipe both with shop bought puff pastry and home made. Is it worth the effort? It sure is – by a long way. Making rough puff pastry might seem daunting but it really is straight forward to make. Yes, it takes a bit of time but it’s not as delicate to handle as shortcrust pastry and once you’ve got the hang of the rolling, folding and turning process you’re away. There are many recipes out there and I’ve tried a few but I would recommend following Valentine Warner’s recipe available on the BBC food website as I had good results. I used half the quantity for the Eccles cakes and froze the rest.There is also a useful video on how to make rough puff pastry here:
Why not have a go at making these instead of the usual mince pies? If you don’t want to eat them all (and there is a real danger of this!) then take them into work and I guarantee they’ll be gone in a flash to the sound of appreciative comments from your colleagues.
500g puff pastry
1 egg white, beaten with a fork
Caster sugar for sprinkling
50g light brown sugar
50g unsalted butter
50ml sherry or brandy
Zest 1 orange
30g mixed peel
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground mixed spice
- To make the filling, melt the butter in a saucepan over a low heat and add the sugar. When the sugar has dissolved, turn up the heat, add the alcohol and allow to simmer for 1 minute.
- Pour this mixture onto the rest of the ingredients into a large bowl and mix well to combine. Allow to cool.
- Roll out the puff pastry to about 1/2 cm thick and remove 12 discs using a 10cm/4 inch cutter.
- Place a heaped tbsp of the filling mixture into the middle of each disc. Brush water around the edge of the pastry and then gather the pastry into the middle around the filling and pinch to seal. Make sure it’s sealed well as the filling will ooze out.
- Turn the sealed parcel over and shape it into an oval using your hands and then gently flatten. Put each one in the fridge as you go along so the pastry doesn’t get too sticky.
- Cut each cake diagonally a few times and place on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. Then brush the egg white all over the top of the cake and sprinkle with caster sugar.
- Bake them in a pre-heated oven at 200/390F/gas mark 6 for about 20 minutes until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack (although they are delicious still warm from the oven) and devour at the earliest opportunity with a nice cup of tea.