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.

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.

No-bake Strawberry Cheesecake

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Rain, outside. Currently listening to Millie Vernon’s That Old Feeling, and feeling swingy. I haven’t given enough verbal weight to the importance of smooth jazz to my creations. Its silky notes have a way of churning the cogs up there. The rain is helping, too.

Cheesecake, cheesecake! Inspired by none other than my favourite Ben&Jerry’s ice cream flavour as a child. Am I the only one who thought it was better than every other flavour they had? Phish food was fine, Cherry Garcia was an atrocity only because I had no appetite for cherries in any form at that age, the banana thing was a no. It was a picky phase, I could only stick to solid chocolate and cheese sort of flavours, and anything nutty or fruity was sacrilege. Except for strawberry cheesecake.

I approach most vegan cheesecake recipes with caution. Cashews and coconut? The furthest things from that signature dairy taste? I think not. But this one proved me (and will hopefully do the same to you) wrong. A good soak of your cashews will yield a fine, smooth texture, similar to your typical New York cheesecake, I promise. I kept this one base-less to keep the focus on the pure filling, but you can use this crust if you wish. That crust is also featured in my recipe for a classic vegan cheesecake, if you wish to try a proper baked one instead. It’s good to remind oneself of why it’s important to use more plant-based foods and proteins in anything you cook and bake. Just look at the power of cashews, the main star of this event:

  • They are almost a quarter total protein
  • 62% of its fats are monounsaturated, and have less fat than most other nuts
  • They are brimming with a sort of flavonol that starves cancer tumours
  • They help manufacture enzymes involved in the formation of haemoglobin and collagen, and are therefore key in skin and hair health
  • I keep forgetting that full stops don’t belong in bullet points

So you see, I guess this whole cashews-not-milk-plus-save-cow-exploitation sort of headspace isn’t so bad. The better you blend all this up, the better your result. You really want it to be as smooth and creamy as possible. What’s great about this recipe is also that i’s no-bake, which means it satisfies all you lazy bakers (me included sometimes).

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Ingredients

250g raw cashews, soaked overnight or for a couple of hours in lukewarm water, and drained. You can leave the cashews in the fridge or on the counter. Alternatively, you can add boiling water to the cashews and let this sit for half an hour before using.

1/2 tsp turmeric

1/2 tsp fine salt

120ml lemon juice, freshly squeezed from about 3-4 lemons

1 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste

80ml maple syrup

60ml vegetable oil (sub: melted vegan butter/melted coconut oil)

3 heaped tbsp coconut yoghurt or any yoghurt you like (sub: applesauce or milk)

3 heaped tbsp strawberry jam

Directions

Blend all ingredients except for the jam in a high-speed, powerful blender. Continue to blend until you get a smooth, pale consistency. It should be thick and runny. Pour the filling into a bowl, add the strawberry jam and then use a spatula to fold the jam in, creating a ripple effect. Tip this into a 8 or 9-inch cheesecake pan with a removable bottom and place it into the freezer to set.

*To create the swirly effect as you can see above, take the cheesecake out of the freezer after 30 minutes, and run a small knife or spatula in the formation of a spiral from the outside to the inside. You may get this all messy the first time, especially as the cheesecake starts to thaw, but don’t worry, the fact that the cheesecake thaws easily means it’s also easy to scrap whatever pattern you’ve done and start again. You can also put the cheesecake back in the freezer and take it out 10 minutes later to re-mold whatever pattern you want. Enjoy with coconut yogurt and strawberry jam.

Earl Grey Chocolate Chip Spelt Waffles

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Back home in London again, after a long summer. The past few months have truly been something, and as my thoughts spin faster than I type, perhaps just jotting down a few highlights would be slightly more comprehensive.

Highlights of summer:

  • meeting old friends in Singapore and eating all the good, cheap Asian dishes of my childhood!
  • travelling alone to New York for the first time, for my first science conference. Then, going there again with family for a cute fam holiday because all. The. Food. Once again. My favourite things were pistachio halva at Seed and Mill,  the ravioli, lasagna and french toast– goodness that ravioli had my whole family screaming– at Blossom Vegan restaurant, and the ice cream from van Leeuwen. Thick, stretchy ice cream. New York was essentially one big blur of food ecstasy.
  • travelling all over Italy (Padua, Modena, Bologna, Bonassola, with my boyfriend and spending time with his family, too. It was weeks of less internet connection and more real connectivity, something I’ve found more and more necessary in an up-and-going, busy city such as London. Ignorance is truly bliss, sometimes. Padua, our first stop, is a gem with her cheap aperols and tramezzinis, and so is Modena with her divine food (pretty sure we saw Massimo Bottura on a bike) and pretty streets. Those two areas were probably my favourites, and to visit again would be a blessing.

Things I’ve learnt after returning to London:

  • always clean your waffle iron really well after each use; you don’t want gross black burnt bits of waffle from two months ago left behind on that thing…
  • spend enough quality time with both yourself and the people who mean the most to you
  • short naps are underrated
  • London is amazing, period– I always forget how vibrant, diverse and fun it is here. I also have yet to find elsewhere with an architectural scene as unique as it is here, and yes, I like the cold, the grey, the soft sun and tender clouds, I like it all. Further, there’s something for everyone here, anytime, anyplace. Want some fun? Head straight to Shoreditch or somewhere in Central London for a drink or delicious bite. Feel too overwhelmed? Escape to the outskirts or have a solo picnic in Hyde Park. Or stay home and make…

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Well, waffles. Of course.

Not just any plain old American-style waffle (although there will always be a case for that, and one will always be partial to that classic combination of butter and maple syrup), no. It’s a waffle with class, with taste, but all in good measure, not stuffy in the slightest. The earl grey lends a note of sophistication to the sultry blend of spelt and chocolate. Who knew spelt made such a good case for your Sunday stack? Not I, not I for too long a time. The nutty, almost sweet angle to spelt has made it popular in more and more dishes, both sweet and savoury, recently. Although it’s not gluten-free, its relatively low in gluten, making it easy on the abdomen for the more gluten-sensitive of you. It is incredibly rich in many B vitamins such as niacin (like mushrooms!), protein and minerals, and even used to brew beer in Belgium and Bavaria. If you’re not convinced by its versatility, then check out these waffles. They’re perfect in every sense of the word in waffle world– soft and chewy all the way through, and golden-crisp around the edges.

These are truly one of the best waffle recipes I’ve developed. I have always wanted to experiment with spelt, but the combination of earl grey, chocolate and fluff makes for something so wonderfully extravagant yet humble in the simple shape of a waffle. Easy to make, and take no time at all to cook. Compared to my other waffle recipes, these take less than a minute to cook fully– how sublime is that when you’re cold and starving on a weekend morning?

They pair magically with coconut yogurt, more chopped chocolate and strawberry jam. Maple syrup isn’t necessary since the waffles themselves are relatively sweet, but go for it if you wish– I understand than some liquescent element is necessary for it to feel like a Sunday sometimes.

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Ingredients (makes 5-6 mini waffles and serves 1-2 people, double or triple the quantities if necessary)

130g spelt flour (use plain if you wish, but spelt will make your waffles softer and chewier)

1 heaped tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

80ml milk of your choice (I used almond)

half tbsp apple cider vinegar/ white vinegar

1 tsp vanilla extract

50g agave syrup/ maple syrup/ honey

90g yoghurt of choice (I used coconut)

2 tbsp oil (any type such as vegetable/ rapeseed/ coconut/ sunflower)

2-3 tbsp earl grey tea, made by steeping your favourite earl grey tea (loose/teabag) in hot or boiling water for a couple of minutes

40g chopped dark chocolate (use whatever chocolate you want but dark is preferable– I used Lindt’s 70% for a strong and true flavour)

Directions

Preheat your waffle iron according to its instructions. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Then add the rest of the ingredients, the chopped chocolate going in last. Mix until everything is evenly incorporated, but don’t overmix the batter as this will result in rubbery waffles.

Liberally grease your waffle iron and place two heaped tablespoons of batter on the hot surface. Press the lid of the iron down and let the waffles cook for 30-40 seconds. Check if they’re golden and crisp on the outside by carefully lifting the lid. If not, let them continue to cook until golden-brown. There should be melting or cooked bits of chocolate all around the edges… yum.

Carefully remove the waffles (use your hands if you’re daring, and a fork if you’re not stupid) from the iron and place on a paper towel to let them cool while you handle the rest of the batter. Serve with coconut yoghurt, fruity jam and a little extra chopped dark chocolate.