Chocolate Olive Oil Cake

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It’s getting cold here, and there’s a lot on my mind. Had a rather therapeutic and somewhat emotional talk with a stranger this morning. It’s hard to admit that one needs therapy, let alone talk to others about it. Nevertheless, it was oddly, strangely therapeutic. I’m even thinking of starting some sort of online blog to chart progress. It’s mostly to do with a great deal of self-doubt and esteem issues, possibly stemming from some stuff that happened in the past. I don’t know who reads my blog, as old as it is now, but it does help to type things out, because although the daily journal does help a great deal too, sometimes my brain runs too fast and it’s just a tad more gratifying to see everything immediately leap from brain to post. It’s also juicier stuff that I can instantly plop onto here, too, for my (hopefully more regular) blogposts. And if it helps just one person today, then that will be all the more rewarding.

Before me: French Toast. So let me describe it to you. The crusty, almost too-hard outside is deceiving, there is a world of golden softness within. The right degree of egged saturation, not too soggy, although that would still be better than stiff or overdone. A pile of whipped cream and melted berries. Some fresh, some frozen, all warmed up to let a bounty of juices seep out. French toast is like a person. You don’t know what he/she is really like until they open up. It’s been a while since I’ve had a nice, big breakfast like this. Some days I forget to have proper meals and it all ends up being a big mess of sugary snacks all the way through the day, which I know sounds like child’s play but sadly it’s true, at the grand age of 22 (coming on to 23). You’d think I’d have at least a healthy side to me… Not to say it’s non-existent, but it could definitely be 3.5x better. It’s a bit disappointing; sometimes I imagine my younger self thinking about the woman I would be now in 2019, and although I’m not too far off, I do wish some bad habits which I currently harbour were not so etched into my sense of self that the sense of self is, ultimately, warped, half-false.

In times like these, when I feel out of control, I always have to remember to come back to my element. That meditation on the sweet, can help one see the sweet things in life. But there should be a careful line drawn between allowance (of the sweet stuff) and dependence (on the sweet stuff). I can’t classify my love for sugar as a sickness, but it would do me good to be mindful, and not always have the French toast at every café I visit (ok who am I kidding). It is only a distraction if you let it be that way. Some fleeting thoughts that I’m not sure may resonate with any of you:

  • Fresher’s week here at Oxford a couple of weeks ago was overwhelming but I met a good number of incredibly interesting individuals. It does seem therapeutic to engage in conversations with these people, it’s a nice peek into the grander problems of the world, and I’m whisked away into the real world, that of heavy issues that I can be part of a solution to, away from the trivialities of my own head. I do tend to get stuck in my head a lot, forget about the big picture. Why I’m here, why I love it here, why I love doing what I do.
  • I met people who I really got on with, but many are here just for a year. I’m trying to figure out who I can truly connect with over my 3 years doing a PhD here.
  • Talking about PhD, I still don’t quite know what I’ve gotten myself into, ha.
  • Looking at babies makes me happy. Oh, the innocence and bluntness.
  • I hate the way nails split or crack at the most undesirable places.

Today isn’t a recipe for French toast, but that for an olive oil chocolate cake. Yes, olive oil and chocolate. I had this wonderful olive oil cake with my friend Zoe back when I was still living in London, at the famous Towpath café overlooking the lanky swishing river. I wanted to recreate such a cake, airy and flavourful without feeling like you’re just glugging down tablespoons of pure olive oil. More flavour, less grease, I guess you could say. I had a half mind to leave out the chocolate entirely, but 1. Everyone loves a chocolate surprise and 2. The olive oil taste here is pretty strong so the chocolate addition is actually complementary, if not necessary. It’s dense and sticky, so if you prefer a more cake-like cake then add slightly more flour and reduce the volume of olive oil.

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An easy process of mixing, in a single bowl. Almost an hour in the oven yes, but it’s worth it, especially when paired with something dairy or dairy-like, such as vanilla ice cream or coconut yoghurt. Eat this warm while looking outside, crisp air heralding the new season. My favourite season.

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Olive oil chocolate cake (makes one 9-inch cake)

Ingredients

100g dark chocolate, chopped roughly

240ml (1 cup) olive oil)

2 tsp salt

240g (1.75 cups) sugar

250g flour

½ tsp each baking powder and baking soda

3 eggs

120ml milk (of your choice, such as oat, almond etc)

80ml yoghurt

 

Directions

Preheat your oven to 180C. Grease and line a 8 or 9-inch cake tin. In a bowl and with a metal whisk, whisk together all the ingredients except the flour, chocolate, baking powder and baking soda. Then add the remaining ingredients and fold in until you get a rather wet batter. Pour into your prepared pan and bake for 55 minutes in the preheated oven. After baking, leave to rest for 10 minutes before cutting in and serving with yoghurt or ice cream.

Banana bread cream cheese blondies with salted brown butter frosting

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Today is a Wednesday, but I am trying to frame today as a new start to the week, considering the mess of yesterday. Tuesday started off on an incredibly tired note, as I hauled myself to places where I had to be at but where my heart wasn’t. A revival was needed, I thought, when I collapsed on the couch yesterday afternoon. It tends to be during moments of stress and tiredness that I am weak of mind, giving in too much to the simplest pleasures without thinking (processed, sugary food), which leaves me feeling even more tired and disgusting, and I simply am totally unproductive and useless to talk to for the rest of the day. I wish a break in routine did not have to be so tiresome or intrusive, but that’s the reality of it.

A ‘revival’ to different people can mean different things, and most are valid- entertainment, learning, education, a walk, reading, something good. For me, it’s long walks and nourishing food, or playing around with new ingredients to create something. I recently discovered a beautiful block of salted butter in my local gourmet grocer (which you can find here), somehow so soft and creamy even right out of the fridge, when I pressed it. I came home and cooked some vegetables in a generous pat of the stuff, discovering the beauty of salt crystals from the North of France– truly a work of wonder. How have I not had the pleasure of biting into a salt crystal in a piece of butter spread on sourdough toast (or anything) before? I had to make some good use of it. With ripe banana, a new beautiful block of butter and leftover cream cheese, these delightful squares, an extravagant combination of tang and luxury, were born. Banana bread and cream cheese sounds very, um, American, since anything involving cream cheese is very typically USA, no? Anyways, I could talk for days about this recipe, but best to keep it brief.

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The use of salted butter in general here is paramount to the success in making this good salted browned butter frosting. It was magical to watch the salt crystals separating while melting the salted butter. The frosting is optional but really something special, and I literally squealed upon my first bite, which was chewy, fudgy, brimming with a natural banana flavour without being too sweet, even with the frosting on top. The cream cheese is almost a necessary component to enjoy all dimensions of this dessert, as its mild sourness offering a creamy cut-through the layers of different degrees of sweetness, from simple banana bread to rich salted frosting. It was all a simple matter of mixing a few things in different bowls and assembling the components before and after baking the blondies.

I definitely felt better about making these, by the end of the day. Still tired, but better. Creating and playing, these are the free blessings we all have.

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Banana bread cream cheese blondies with salted brown butter frosting

Ingredients (makes one 8×8 or 9×9-inch pan, or 16 medium-sized blondies)

KEY:

For the blondies:

120g (1/2 cup+ 2 tbsp) salted butter, melted

¼ cup tahini (can also use yoghurt or apple sauce)

1+1/2 bananas

200g (1 cup) brown sugar

80g (3/4 cup) almond flour (ground almonds)

1 tsp ground cinnamon

70g (1/2 cup) plain flour

1 egg

220g cream cheese (or 1 standard 8oz tub) cream cheese

90g (1/3 cup) icing sugar

For the frosting:

60g (1/4 cup) salted butter

60g (1/4 cup) brown sugar

100g (slightly less than 1 cup) icing sugar

3 tbsp heavy cream

 

General notes:

  • Use all plain flour instead of half flour and half almond flour if you wish. Would be equally delicious, just a little less kind on the gut.
  • I baked mine for 22 minutes for a fudgy centre, but bake for longer if you like a more cake-like consistency.
  • If you don’t have salted butter, add a teaspoon of salt to the dry ingredients.

Directions

Preheat your oven to 180C (350F), then grease and line your 8×8-inch or 9×9-inch pan. In a medium bowl, mash your banana and then whisk in the melted butter and brown sugar. Then whisk in the egg If you just melted the butter before mixing the sugar, make sure to wait a minute after mixing in the egg so that you don’t unintentionally scramble the egg, unless that’s your kind of thing. Then add the flour, cinnamon, and a teaspoon of salt if you did not use salted butter in the beginning. Mix everything together. The batter should appear quite sticky and not too thick, easily dropped off a wooden spoon. In a separate bowl, make the cream cheese middle by mixing the cream cheese with icing sugar.

Pour half of the blondie batter into your greased and lined pan, then add the cream cheese frosting and spread it in a thin even layer on top of the batter. I find that it helps to put 9 equal dollops of the filling on the batter and then using a knife or your finger to spread it out to fill the gaps. Then pour over the rest of the blondie batter and smooth it out into an even layer. Place your pan into the preheated oven and bake for 22-23 minutes, or until a wooden skewer inserted into the middle comes out with moist crumbs (not dry!).

For the frosting, melt the salted butter in a pan on medium heat, until it goes an amber colour and you can see the milk solids separate from a darker, browned liquid. This will be clear to see after 4-5 minutes of heating on the oven Skim off some of white bits so most of the darker liquid is left. Once the butter is browned and there’s a waft of something toffee-like and nutty in your kitchen, add the brown sugar and heavy cream bring the liquid to a boil. Once bubbling, set aside to cool down for 5 minutes, before adding the powdered sugar. The frosting may not look like a lot but is pretty rich, enough for all 16 blondies.

Once the blondies are baked, take the pan out and leave to cool on a heatproof surface for at least 10-15 minutes. Spread on the frosting and cut into squares. These are best eaten on the same day but will keep for the next 3 days.

 

Strawberry Streusel Cake

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This is, briefly and simply put, absolutely sublime. When I shared this loaf with my godparents, my mother and godsister, they all exclaimed it was incredible, especially doused in some heavy cream, after a lighthearted meal over denser conversation. And I do agree.

I’ll say it first before you get to the ingredients: This is a gluten-free cake. Yes, it is gluten-free, but. A but. I’ve recently become more aware of the effects of gluten not just in myself, but in others. I love my bread and might never stop eating it, however one too many a slice and I will feel it. The bloat, you get it. The carbohydrate may be the most demonised item in this current era of food-demonising, and it’s hard to determine what we could or should eat, if we end up eating anything at all. But this article puts things into nice perspective. That being said, the effects of refined flour cannot be denied and I too have to force myself to take it slow with the not-so-great stuff. There will always be room for dessert, just not every day of the week.

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Therefore, the side effects of a Saturday morning’s adventurous spirit include stepping outside of my little box of refined flour and sugar and trying things like almond flour. And how simple, plain and easy, it was. How joyous, to mix something as nondescript as almond flour with eggs and then boom, a perfectly intact cake is born.

The cake is moist without being gluey, with that perfect golden-brown all over after the single hour in the oven. I used strawberries here but feel free to use any berries you have on hand, and the same goes for the streusel topping which has mixed nuts, in which case you can use whatever nuts you like.

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Strawberry Streusel Cake (makes one 9×5-inch loaf)

Ingredients 

For the filling:

2 cups strawberries (fresh or frozen), stems cut off and diced

100g (0.5 cup) sugar

1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

0.5 tsp cornstarch

 

For the streusel topping:

45g (0.5 cup) almond flour

handful of chopped nuts (I used a mix of almonds, cashews, brazil nuts and walnuts)

90g (little less than 0.5 cup) sugar

35g (0.15 cup) salted butter, melted

 

For the cake:

3 eggs

50g (0.25 cup) light brown sugar

60g (0.25 cup) caster sugar

150g (around 1.5 cups+ 2 tbsp) almond flour

0.5 tsp baking powder

0.5 tsp baking soda

1 tsp vanilla extract

*Substitution notes:

VEGAN: Make 4 flax or chia ‘eggs’ in replacement of the 3 eggs, made by mixing 4 tbsp ground flaxseed or chia seeds with 8 tbsp water, and setting that aside to gel up for a bit. Substitute the butter with vegan butter.

KETO: Substitute the half cup of sugar with half cup xylitol or two-thirds cup erythritol

 

Directions

Preheat your oven to 180C (350F). We start with the juicy berry filling: In a saucepan heated on medium heat, add the strawberries, cornstarch, sugar and lemon juice and cook until the mixture turns glistening and sticky.

Now for the cake. In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugars, vanilla extract, baking powder and baking soda. Then add the almond flour and whisk. The mixture should look pretty wet, but don’t worry since this will set nicely in the oven once it is finished baking.

Make the streusel topping by whisking all the streusel ingredients together with a fork in a separate bowl. Grease a 9.5-inch loaf pan, then add half of the cake mixture. Add the mixed berry mixture evenly on top, and then add the rest of the cake mixture, and then finally the streusel topping. Bake in the oven for 1 hour exactly. Remove and let the cake cool in the pan before serving (with powdered sugar and doused in heavy cream, preferably).

Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

5051011 Processed with VSCO with e3 presetNothing quite beats a café with ‘70s-‘80s music blaring everywhere. I do suck energy from my surroundings. A dearth of atmosphere, a tinge of something exciting, is sure to drain me. Don’t get me wrong, I love a deathly quiet, but I also like looking up from my screen sometimes, examine faces and bodies so different and unique, or sip a coffee without bothering the librarian. Here in London, the sun is shining. Yesterday it was pouring like every cloud was trying to squeeze out its last drops for all of eternity.

Diary excerpts:

9/6: Always looking for an excuse to start anew. But why not now? Why not on a Sunday? Isn’t Sunday the first day of the week in many parts of the world anyway?// dark turquoise is my new favourite colour.

10/6: Why does coffee everywhere in London have to be so expensive? Never mind, it’s worth it for all the café ambiences I soak myself in everyday// researchers can now use single-cell sequencing to detect differences in RNA expression in cells, thus showing when they decide to progress from neural crest cells to something more specialized.

After watching Chris Morocco speak sweet nothings in his video demonstration of Bon Appetit’s ‘best’ chocolate chip cookie, I decided to give it a go. The way he talked about the beauty of the mosaic made when ripples of unevenly chopped heap of chocolate melt and bake in a creamy batter, the way something as simple as a cookie is transformed upon a simple, short cook of butter… it was all too tempting. Having not made anything with browned butter in ages, I took the risk (I still tend to burn things, so yes this was considered a risk) and set to work. He states in this particular recipe to brown just half a cup of the butter first before adding the rest in, but I went ahead and browned all of it at once, which yielded (perhaps) not an identical result to Chris’, but nevertheless retained the toffee-like, smoldering notes of butter cooked down to an almost clear brown liquid.

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Secondly, the recipe specifies that one large egg and 2 egg yolks be used, but with exactly 2 eggs left in the fridge, I used that instead. Due to that alone, I was afraid of the cookies not turning out as dense and chewy as demonstrated, but I was proven wrong with my final, accidental amendment: So, Chris used dark brown sugar, and so did I. But unlike what I saw in the video, mine was dark. As in, straight-up camp molasses. Almost. It was therefore much harder to incorporate when mixing with the butter, because of how much stickier and clumped together it was. But that exact density and stickiness, although they did make the cookies darker in colour, also let them retain a most tempting, delicious density and chewiness all throughout its body.

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Brown butter chocolate chip cookies (inspired by BA’s Best Chocolate Chip Cookies– makes 16 cookies)

*= vegan substitution

Ingredients

200g (1.5 cups) plain flour

1 tsp fine salt (leave out if you’re using salted butter)

1 tsp baking soda

170g (0.75 cups) butter (*vegan butter or margarine)

50g (0.25 cups) sugar

200g (1 cup) dark brown sugar

2 tsp vanilla extract

2 eggs (*2 vegan eggs, made by mixing 2 heaped tbsp. ground flaxseed with 5 tbsp water in a small bowl, and letting that gel up for a minute)

170g dark chocolate, chopped

Directions

Preheat your oven to 180C (350F) and line two baking trays with parchment paper.

Place your butter into a saucepan and, on medium heat, melt the butter and continue to let it cook until it turns a toffee brown and looks almost clear. There will be some frothy, lighter bits on top. Swirl the pan occasionally while the butter melts. Once it is browned, set it aside for a while to cool. In a small bowl, briefly whisk together the flour, salt, chocolate and baking soda. Add the brown and white sugar to the browned butter and whisk until the sugar dissolves. Make sure there are no lumps. Add the eggs (or vegan eggs) and whisk to incorporate everything well, and you get a smooth, lump-free batter.

Add the dry mix containing the chocolate to the wet egg mixture. You should get a moist batter that still drops off a wooden spoon relatively easily.

Using an ice cream scoop or a tablespoon, place dollops of equally-sized batter on your lined sheets, making sure there’s at least 2 inches of space between each circle of batter. As the original recipe states, let the flour hydrate by letting the batter sit for a while on the trays for 5 minutes. Then bake the cookies (one tray before the other, or both at the same time), for 8 minutes. Let them sit for a while before eating up. Alternatively these can be made and frozen ahead of a time you want to consume them.

Berry Cheesecake Muffins

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Diary excerpts:

17/5: vegan magnums are terrific// the gravity of writing my thesis has not fully weighed down on me yet

18/5: so glad to have found a fitness routine that doesn’t require a gym (more walking, running)

23/5: honestly rather sad that I’ve become addicted to the temporary pleasure of something crunchy, something sweet.

2/6: Brown adipose tissue has uncoupling proteins that allow protons to travel form the outside to inside, effectively creating its own energy? A study in mice found that during periods of overeating, the TRIP gene is activated and causes massive inflammation, triggering fat storage.

3/6: fliesen= tiles

4/6: ventouse= suction device applied to baby’s head in childbirth, to assist birth. Wow.

When efforts to bake are stymied, say due to travel or the fear of people who are at your house smelling something even mildly burnt, the itch later on comes on hard. Hard. I’ll try and write an essay or put something into Excel and then I have to physically get up and go to the kitchen to play. This muffin experiment, one extrapolated from a previous one, was borne out of one of those impulsive childish outbursts, and possesses that exact childlike quality. Such a relentless need to do something with my hands is almost childish, and perhaps it would be wise to use my hands for something else, yet this is all I want to do with them, with my time.

It has nothing of the mature notes of dark chocolate somethings, but all of the decadence. It’s much welcome in light of the past week, when a few disappointments came through, but of which were also softened by a recent trip to Vienna, Austria.

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And it’s simply beautiful there. I stayed in the suburbs with a beloved family, away from the bustle of the more touristy centre. There, a different light hits the streets, a soft one which seems to imbue all its residents with the same attitude towards life. It enables a brisk but more serene walk, or perhaps a cycle, to take in the details between cement tiles or patches of grass. It enables you to observe, feel and be. Very unlike what it feels like here, where it seems rather uncommon for people to walk not for the sake of enjoying it, and mealtimes are for sustenance, never pleasure. That light, that feel, has made me want to drown in the impossible (‘unmöglich’ in their language) beauty of everyday life. From our sun-drenched brunches pregnant with pretzels (bretzeln), to cuddling near a thermal bath, to reading (The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf) and swallowing it up easily because my phone notifications are now, permanently, off.

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A soft and gossamer muffin studded with tangy berries and sweet cream cheese.

These berries are like a dense piquant forest, pleasantly tart and just slightly biting, uprooted and plunged into new beige territory. To sleep. To rest without dying, their inborn qualities of tart and fresh and zing there, always there. A cream cheese river cutting through the forest, right in the middle, breaking up the forest and letting it lie nonchalantly on either side.

Quote of the day: “Feelings are important. But they’re important not for the reasons we think they are. We think they’re important because they say something about us, about the world, and about our relationship with it. But they say none of these things. There’s no meaning attached to feelings. Sometimes you hurt for good feelings. Sometimes for a bad reason. And sometimes no reason at all. The hurt itself is neutral. The reason is separate.”

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Berry Cheesecake Muffins (makes 12 medium muffins)

*=vegan substitution

Ingredients

For the muffins:

250g (2 cups) plain flour

2 eggs (*3 vegan eggs, made by mixing 3 tbsp ground flaxseed with 6 tbsp water in a bowl and letting set aside for the timebeing)

210g (slightly less than a cup) sugar

113g (0.5 cup) melted butter (*vegan butter or margarine)

1 tsp baking powder

0.5 tsp baking soda

240ml (1 cup) yoghurt or sour cream (*any plant-based yoghurt)

1 tsp vanilla extract

0.5 tsp salt (leave out if you used salted butter)

around 1 cup of fresh or frozen berries (I used frozen since I always have frozen berries stuffed in my freezer)

 

For the cream cheese filling:

110g cream cheese (*vegan cream cheese)

2.5 tbsp sugar (you can also use icing sugar)

 

Directions

Preheat your oven to 180C. Spray your 12-muffin pan with cooking spray or grease it with some butter, going all over the insides of the pan, including the whole surface on top. This is because the batter will rise and then fall to create the signature muffin top look, so greasing the surface will help you easily get the muffins out. Line your pan with paper liners.

First, in a bowl, make the cream cheese filling by mixing together the cream cheese and sugar. Put this in the fridge while you make the muffin batter. Using a whisk or electrical mixer, whisk the butter and sugar together. Then add the eggs, vanilla, and salt and mix until everything is frothy and well combined. In a separate bowl, briefly mix together the flour, baking powder and baking soda, then tip this into your egg mixture. Lastly, fold in your berries. Make sure your berries are not too big– cut large raspberries or blackberries in half before mixing them in.

Fill each muffin cup halfway with the batter. Then take your cream cheese filling out from the fridge and put teaspoons of this filling into the centre of the muffin tins. Repeat until you’re done with all 12. Finally, fill the muffin cups until the top (or three-quarters full) with the rest of the batter. As a final touch, sprinkle the tops of your muffins with Maldon salt and granulated sugar. Don’t be too liberal though, since the muffins themselves are already rather sweet by themselves.

Bake for 20-22 minutes in your preheated oven. Check with a wooden skewer or knife after 20 minutes– if there are moist crumbs clinging to it, take it out. If the skewer/knife is still obviously wet, leave the muffins in there for another 3-5 minutes. These are best enjoyed warm with some vanilla ice cream or yoghurt, or plain, but can be kept in an airtight container for 3-5 days.