Millionaire’s Shortbread

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21/03: How weird it feels to be somewhat stranded in my own home, wearing a mask and maintaining distance from my own family members. Weirder still to know there is potentially something incredibly deadly I’m harbouring in my own body, because ‘statistically speaking, there was definitely someone with Covid on that plane…’, in the parlance of my friend!  Day 1 of my quarantine started at 8pm last night, after a groggy long flight home. I remember the very sudden, very sad decision I had to make back in Oxford just a couple of days ago, to come home. Mostly to appease family, to at least be (nearer) them during such a strange and curious time. Anyway, walking around the city centre was not the same anymore, this virus which has manifested itself as the anomie of the new decade turning every city we know and love into practical ghost towns.

Maybe you’ve all have seen the statistics, but it’s still worrying to know that despite Italy’s early efforts to contain the virus by shutting down many of its schools and quarantining a dozen towns in its northern regions, 600 people died by 10 March, up from just 100 on 4 March. It’s clear to see how Covid-19’s course has put us all on a trajectory of uncertainty and stress. As imprisoning as it felt to sign the 14-day quarantine form, it was pretty relieving to face the familiar, vigilant, Singaporean healthcare system, knowing I’ll be able to walk and visit cafés (as you do), and see dear friends afterwards. More than 12 hours in and feeling fine, and hopefully some planning and scheduling of distracting yet enjoyable hobbies, together with some mind-ticking activities, will dampen the stress and anxiety that has yet to build up over the course of the next few days. I am lucky enough to have a space at home large enough to see me through hours of sleeping, exercising and writing, with the occasional trip to kitchen because these baking fingers won’t calm down by themselves. These things help. Baking, can help.

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A close friend mentioned his penchant for Millionaire’s Shortbread, something I have only tried once on a whim from a corner store, and only ever seen in the UK (although it’s apparently Australian). It seemed too simple not to try, with its pleasing three layers of crumbly, buttery shortbread, caramel and milk chocolate, in that very order from base to top. I toyed around with a few recipes and utilise a very handy microwavable caramel, an experiment which arose from a combination of laziness and curiosity. And it’s during times like these that that very combination can be so rewarding.

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Easy Millionaire’s Shortbread (makes 16 squares)

Ingredients

For the shortbread:

226g (1 cup) salted butter (add a half teaspoon of salt to the flour if your butter is unsalted), at room temperature

100g (0.5 cup) white sugar

250g (2 cups) plain flour

 

For the caramel:

113g (0.5 cup) salted butter

1 tsp extra salt

300ml (1.25 cup) heavy/double cream

350g (1.75 cup) brown sugar

 

For the chocolate layer:

200g (2 thin bars) milk chocolate

 

Directions

Preheat your oven to 180C and line an 8×8 or 9×9-inch baking pan with parchment, with two longer sides to help you lift the squares out of the pan easily later on. In a medium bowl, cream together the room-temperature butter and sugar with a fork or whisk. The butter should either be a little too cold or just about room temperature, not melting. Add the flour (and salt if you did not use salted butter) and mix everything together with a spoon until it all just about comes together. You should have a crumbly mixture that holds together when you squeeze it with your hands. Tip this mixture into your baking pan and press down until you get an even layer of shortbread. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes or until you see the edges go a very light golden.

While that is baking, make the caramel. Melt the butter by putting it in a microwave-safe bowl and microwaving it for 30 seconds or until just melted. Then add the salt, cream and brown sugar and mix everything together until well combined. Microwave this on high for 3 minutes, then take it out. The mixture will be very hot and bubbly so just be careful here. Stir the caramel briefly, then microwave it on high for another minute. Open the microwave door and leave the caramel to cool for at least 15 minutes.

Once the shortbread is done, take it out of the oven (you don’t need the oven anymore at this point so you can turn it off) and leave it to cool for half an hour before pouring on the cooled caramel.

Now for the easiest part of all the easy parts: Break up your milk chocolate into another microwave-safe bowl and microwave it for 1 minute on high. Take out the bowl and use a fork to mix the chocolate to spread out the heat which will continue to melt the remaining chunks of hard milk chocolate. Leave the chocolate to cool for 10 minutes or until it’s just warm to the touch, before pouring it on the caramel layer. This is an important step because pouring on too-hot chocolate will melt the hardened caramel layer and the chocolate and caramel will merge into one homogenous mess. Not that it won’t taste good, but you want the three separate layers for taste and visual impact.

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).

Brownie Sharing Pudding

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Experimenting with writing from home this time. The familiar hum of the washing machine, occasional opening and closing of the café doors, and lack of ambient buzz typically isn’t conducive to any good writing from my own experience, but let’s see how this goes.

Last exam done, and I’m sat here wondering if this truly may be the last exam I ever will have. The past few days have been a blur, and I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing. Now back to proper weekly experimentation recipes now that all that is over! Feels unreal. Taking a few snippets from the past week’s diary entries, and I’m wondering if anyone can empathise with any of these, even if not in a totally literal sense:

  • Monday, 9.23am: Gail’s chocolate sourdough is to die for
  • Monday, 12.13pm: Omotesando‘s little kashi cakes are also to die for. I appreciate good company here and the cold brew. I should come here at least once more, again.
  • Tues: Things that made me feel good: reading, exercising, food, going to the cinema alone, watching certain things with certain people, massages (oh my god)
  • Thurs: Everyone should go to Bancone here in London for their silk handkerchief pasta, and there’s also a delicious vegan options for you vegans
  • Fri, 7.07pm: Once the brain and blood gets pumping, a little cycle, a little heel kick, an easing of the joints.. everything else seems to fall into place.

And finally, does anyone else hate it when a face or thought can’t seem to escape your brain… ever? Please hit me up with any possible solution. A solution for dissolution.

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In short, the most versatile, the best, the fudgiest and chewiest-edged, brownie. I curated this recipe as a ‘sharing pudding’, which is just my way of saying I underbaked this during the experiment and it turned out still to be a very beautiful thing. It’s very reminiscent of a molten lava cake, except this time it’s meant for sharing.

Brownies are pretty close to my heart, which explains why one of my very first recipes was a brownie with some raspberry jam rippled through because I tried to be cool like that. A brownie may be less versatile than a cookie, but there is something so indulgently satisfying about preparing a disgustingly easy tray bake in less than 10 minutes and have something too moreish for your own good a little while later. It’s incentive enough to do something productive, like read two chapters of a book or call up an old friend or do your nails (if you can do that sort of thing, because I can but then realise it looks terrible), in those 20 minutes of waiting. Who doesn’t want a good, classic brownie recipe. The wonderful thing about this brownie is that it’s a brownie, normal and fudgy and satisfying, and also a sharing unit, something to bring you and family or friends together over whatever else may be occupying your night on any occasion.

If you would rather have this individually you can still split the batter into a muffin tin and cook it at the same temperature for 10-12 minutes. I had some extra batter left the first time I played around, so did that, and it turned out beautifully.

It’s muddy, gooey and all-round chocolatey. It takes 10 minutes tops to put together, 20 to bake. You can prep the batter before guests come round for dinner, then put it in the oven just when dinner is about to wrap up. Then. Then you serve this quick and easy babe of a dessert piping hot and ooey-gooey from the oven when dessert time calls. Hand everyone around the table a spoon and you just dig in. No waiting, no cutting, no fretting about when to cut or how big to cut it. You just do. Vanilla ice cream, or cream, or yoghurt on the side for everyone to help themselves.

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That stretch.

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Brownie Sharing Pudding (serves 6-8)

Ingredients

115g salted butter (normal/vegan), melted (add 1 tsp of fine salt to the wet mixture if you only have unsalted butter)

100g brown sugar

100g white sugar

2 eggs or flax eggs (make the flax eggs by combining 2 heaped tbsp of ground flaxseed with 5 tbsp water in a bowl, then set that aside for a while to set)

1 tsp vanilla extract

60g plain flour

55g cocoa powder

90-100g roughly chopped dark chocolate, or you can use a mixture of chocolates (e.g. dark and white)

 

Directions

Preheat your oven to 180C (350F) and line a standard 9×5-inch loaf tin with a loaf tin liner or parchment paper. Alternatively, simply grease the pan with butter or vegetable oil. If you’re making individual molten cakes, split the batter in a 12-cup muffin tin.

In a bowl, mix the melted salted butter, two sugars and vanilla. Then add the eggs and whisk well. Finally, add the cocoa powder, flour and chocolate, and fold until everything is just incorporated. Pour the batter into your loaf tin/muffin cups and place in the preheated oven to bake for 22-25 minutes (11 minutes if you’re doing the individual molten cakes– check to see if the top and edges have set at the 11-minute mark and leave them in for another minute if it doesn’t look quite dry on top yet). I found that the perfect time for these brownies is 22-23 minutes if you want them extra fudgy, but cook for 2-3 more minutes if you want them slightly more set. A wooden skewer inserted into the middle will reveal a still-wet batter at the 22-minute mark, but that’s what you want, and it will continue to set a little more once you take the tin out of the oven.

Let the brownie sharing pudding cool for at least 5 minutes before serving with ice cream or cold yoghurt. Just let everyone have a spoon for digging in immediately. Perfect.

White Chocolate Kladdkaka

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The sun is streaming in bright and warm in this café. The shot of soy milk in my iced Americano is a weak ivory, colour and taste slowly being watered down by all that ice. As ivory as the white chocolate that was the death of me the past weekend.

So a word or two about white chocolate. The ‘low-grade, ‘fake’, the stuff that will never live up to the heady lusciousness of her dark and milk sisters. If white chocolate has no quality of chocolate to offer (cocoa solids, caffeine maybe), perhaps it should not even be called chocolate. But it’s still a chocolate derivative– cocoa butter, sugar, milk solids, and the process and pleasure involved in consuming chocolate, dark or white or in between, is nevertheless the same. A silky richness, a smooth going-down.

And now for kladdkaka, a simple Swedish cake, and very much more of a brownie in its own right. Typically made with dark chocolate, or a mix of dark and milk. White chocolate? The Swedish may dislike this, but with some white chocolate Easter eggs lying around, why not, I thought. The prevailing thought: why not. It’s as fudgy as fudge gets, moist, and most importantly, sticky, especially in the middle. That’s what makes it pretty unique. I took a risk baking this jussst until set at the 20-minute mark, but that was perfect, and set up just as well as I had hoped, as it continued to cool after baking.

Last week consisted of more work, feeling more strongly upon seeing people than I anticipated, almost as if totally out of control, leading to dreams similarly on this same level of bewilderment, too vivid for me to process as not real, to the point where I woke up and literally said, oh shit, that wasn’t real at all, out loud. I guess we all have those days. Making this cake was a sweet, sensible end to all the incomprehension the past week, incomprehension borne out of my own incapability of teasing out my own emotions about a variety of things in work and in relationships. It’s not that I don’t know at least a little bit why I feel this way, but I wonder if my mind is playing up, or if I’m simply someone who becomes too emotionally attached to everything and everyone too easily, making myself think I’m ok with doing things which a lot of other people get away with, with no consequence. I wonder what other people do when they don’t know how or what to feel.

I’ve also finished watching Osmosis and Dark, two short but intense series on Netflix, which probably made me feel a lot of things and contributed to that lack of self-comprehension on a subconscious level. In any case, and after all that blabber, I highly recommend both series.

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In the original recipe I referred to, the eggs and sugar were beat together for 7 minutes, although I found my mixture to reach a pale and fluffy consistency at the 5-minute mark with aquafaba, so play around with 5-7 minutes. An electrical whisk/beater is crucial here. You don’t want too-tired arms getting in the way of the fun of the whole process, and the speed and efficiency of an electrical whisk will get your egg-sugar mixture to where you need it to be in no time. You want it to be quite a bit more voluminous than what you see when you first start whisking the mixture. Same goes for the aquafaba, the stuff I used, which takes quite a while to whip up anyway.

I’m not sure if people have strong opinions on using salted butter in their recipes, but since I always have salted butter in my fridge, I almost always end up using it to bake anyway. It adds a nice dispersed flavour of salt, without ever making your final product actually taste salty. Also saves you the hassle of going out to buy a new block. The easy incorporation balances the heady sweetness of white chocolate. Look at that squidge, below, right there, in the centre, and tell me you don’t want to make this.

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White Chocolate Kladdkaka (makes 1 9-inch cake, modified from this recipe)

Ingredients

150g salted butter (if not salted, add a 1/2 teaspoon of salt to the dry mix later on)

150g good quality white chocolate (vegan/normal)

150g plain flour

1 tsp vanilla extract

150g white sugar

6 tbsp aquafaba (the egg-white looking liquid left after draining a can of chickpeas), or 2 whole eggs

 

Directions

Preheat your oven to 180C (350F) and grease a 9-inch cake pan. I used one with a removable bottom (like for cheesecakes) just so it’s easy to take out, and I’m lazy when it comes to greasing and lining things just like other humans sometimes.

Melt the butter and white chocolate together in a saucepan on medium heat, or in the microwave in a microwave-safe bowl. If microwaving, take out every minute to stir, and so the chocolate doesn’t catch and cook too fast in the middle. Set aside this melted mixture aside for now while you put together the rest of the cake.

In a bowl, and using an electrical whisk, beat together the aquafaba/eggs and sugar for at least 5 minutes, until light, fluffy, and more voluminous than when you first started. Then add the white chocolate-butter mixture, vanilla extract, and flour (and salt if you did not use salted butter). Pour the thick but droppy batter into your greased tin and bake for 20-22 minutes. A wooden skewer inserted will come out pretty wet, but this is normal. The cake will continue to cook when you take it out to set. Once you’ve left it to cool for around 10 minutes, dust on some icing sugar, then eat plain, or with yoghurt and berries. Simply divine.

Cornflake-crusted Stuffed French Toast

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Well, hi guys, it’s been a while. With everything seeming to happen at the same time, it feels almost strange to be typing on this platform again about things closest to my heart (aka sugar, spice and all things nice).

Above all, and most importantly, let there be french toast. The one food I will gladly eat every day three times a day. The one thing I love so much that I have a whole section in my recipe page dedicated to it.

There have been pockets of time in the past few weeks which have granted me access to memories only of the sweetest kind. I’ve tried making all sorts of fancy french toast get-ups, usually never with any regret (hello bagel french toast and black sesame french toast), although I have to say this childish cornflake-crusted banana-stuffed one is  not only a weekend winner, but a fanciful play on all things childhood-sweet. It’s any golden childhood memory on a plate– swinging through falling leaves on a swing, drinking hot chocolate by a fire.

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I understand that french toast isn’t considered french toast unless made with real, proper egg, so perhaps me going plant-based (it’s been over a year now) has put, on a subconscious level, the idea of good weekend french toast aside. But coming across multiple mouth-watering french toasts on Instagram and elsewhere on the www has made me determined to recreate a vegan version that’s just as good, and possibly better, than what most of us may find out there in the cafe-sphere. So if you’re quite the purist, go ahead and use real or vegan egg. But perhaps just once, try this combination of mashed banana, cinnamon and milk, which saturates your soft bread to the most ideal degree, resulting in french toast that’s neither too soggy nor rubbery. Oh, rubbery is the worst, isn’t it?

As human beings we require simple sustenance. But sometimes the simplest matters turn out to be the most delicious, and the smallest twist using something as ubiquitous and childish as cornflakes makes all the difference. Making a most delicious french toast right in your own kitchen is truly the most rewarding thing. Not much fuss, no wallet-burning, and a 100% goodness guarantee. So you can make this, and get back to whatever you’re doing the rest of the day, all the while knowing you’ve done something terribly good for yourself.

Quote of the day: ‘We are human beings, not human doings’

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Cornflake-crusted Cinnamon Banana French Toast (serves 1)

Ingredients

2 slices vegan brioche/ any soft bread of your choice

2 bananas, one mashed, and one sliced thickly at a slight angle.

60ml (1/4 cup) almond milk

1 tsp ground cinnamon

handful of cornflakes

3 tbsp brown sugar

vegan butter for caramelising

handful of frozen berries (optional)

icing sugar (optional, for decoration)

Directions

Place the cornflakes in a bowl and use your (clean, hopefully) hands to crush them into chunks. Pour the cornflakes into a shallow dish. Don’t worry if you are left with quite a few larger chunks– this will only give more texture to your french toast. In another bowl, use a fork to briefly mix together your french toast batter– the mashed banana, almond milk and cinnamon. Don’t worry about little chunks of banana in there. Add a pat of vegan butter or oil to a medium nonstick pan to start making the caramelised banana.

Once the pan is hot, add a little more vegan butter to the pan, together with the brown sugar. Add the sliced banana to the hot pan and let it caramelise for a minute. Once the side facing down is a nice caramelised golden colour, use a spatula to flip the banana slices and cook the other side. Once the bananas are nicely soft and caramelised, set them aside in a bowl while you make the french toast. Leave the pan on medium heat.

Dip both sides of one of the bread slices into the mashed banana mixture, then dip one side into the crushed cornflakes. Repeat for the other bread slice. Place the cornflake-side of one bread slice onto the hot pan to cook, add the caramelised bananas on the side facing up. Add the handful of berries if you wish– I think it adds a lovely tang to cut through all that sweet chimerical flavour. Then close your french toast sandwich with the other slice of bread. Once the side facing down has been cooking for a minute or so, use your spatula to check if that side is golden-crisp and cooked. If it is, flip the sandwich over and cook the second side.

Once finished, cut your french toast sandwich on the diagonal, then top with any leftover caramelised banana you have, and a sprinkling of icing sugar. Serve with more berries and a splosh of yoghurt. HELLO Saturday.