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How I found grace in a gooey, chocolatey indulgence

Florentines

June was a difficult month in our household and I didn’t feel able to do any blogging. Somewhere in the middle, I experienced a crushing disappointment.

It wasn’t completely unexpected, and I found myself responding as I usually do to life’s hurts. I withdrew from all but my dearest. I ignored pinging text messages, the telephone and the doorbell. I took time to cry, sleep, think and mooch about. I know from experience that solitude and space help me recover.

But what I hadn’t anticipated was a sweet moment of grace that taught me something new about myself.

In the midst of my sadness, I thought about baking. Seriously.

And this from a woman who in the past could have given lessons in kitchen avoidance techniques.

It wasn’t so much the idea that some extravagant treat would produce a feel-good sugar rush and sweet-coat the bitter pill I had swallowed. It was more that the process itself might have some kind of mind-and-heart soothing effect.

Perhaps I reasoned subconsciously that a concentrated focus would help me forget the ache for a while. Or perhaps I was inspired to create something new and satisfying out of disparate parts, or to bring joy to those who would eat the treats. I really don’t know.

But I trawled through my recipes and settled on Florentines. Despite them being one of my favourite indulgences, I haven’t made them before. So bake I did.

And those mouthfuls of crunchy nut-and-toffee deliciousness, layered with dark chocolate turning more gooey with every mouthful, not only delighted friends and family, but – surprisingly – took me a step closer to my healing. Making them brought a fresh and different rhythm of grace into difficult circumstances.

It is such sweet moments of grace, gifted to us by a loving Father who knows what we need just when we need it, that often sustain us on our journey.

*****

Chocolate Florentines

Here’s the Sainsbury’s recipe I used (it makes about 12). The combination of nuts, toffee and chocolate is difficult to resist (and why would you want to)!

50g unsalted butter

100g light brown soft sugar

1tbsp plain flour

75ml crème fraiche

50g flaked almonds

¼ tsp mixed spice

125g unsalted peanuts & raisins

50g Brazil nuts, roughly chopped

125g dark chocolate, broken into pieces

25g white chocolate, broken into pieces

 

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (fan 160°C). Line two baking trays with baking parchment.

2. Put the butter and brown sugar in a pan and melt over a gentle hear. Stir in the flour and bring to the boil. Stir in the crème fraiche and remove from the heat. Add the almonds, mixed spice, peanuts and raisins, and Brazil nuts, and mix well.

3. Spoon tablespoonfuls of the mixture onto the trays and gently flatten with a spoon. Space them well apart as they will expand as they cook.

4. Bake for 12 – 15 mins until golden. Leave the Florentines on the baking parchment and lift onto a cooling rack. Once cooled, turn them over ready for the melted chocolate.

5. Melt the chocolate in separate bowls in the microwave (on medium, in 30 second bursts; keep checking). Or bring a little water to a simmer in a pan and suspend a heatproof bowl over it (don’t allow the base of the bowl to touch the water). Add the chocolate pieces and stir until smooth and melted.

6. Spread the Florentines’ bases with the melted dark chocolate. Then drizzle over the melted white chocolate in thin lines. Chill to set.

 

If I make them again I’ll probably avoid adding the crème fraiche when the mixture’s boiling, and follow the Hairy Bikers’ instructions to gradually combine it over a medium heat, stirring continuously.

The Florentines really do spread over the baking sheet, making them thin round the edges. Next time I might try spreading the mix into a baking tray, and cutting it into neat squares once it’s cooked and slightly cooled. Another recipe suggested using walnut-sized scoops of the mixture and, once baked, immediately reshaping them into circles using a cookie cutter or knife, before allowing them to cool. Enjoy!

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Of bakers and bikers

The Hairy Bikers' chocolate & hazelnut cake (pic from: http://www.orionbooks.co.uk/promotions/the-hairy-bikers-big-book-of-baking)

When I first heard about the Hairy Bikers, the mental image of portly, leather-clad motorbike riders with excess facial hair was not something I wanted to associate with cooking. Actually, if I’m truthful, the thought slightly turned my stomach.

But I can now cheerfully confess that Tuesday evenings in the Koeksister household have been particularly agreeable since the Hairy Bikers’ Bakeation cookery series began airing on BBC Two. Since being introduced to Dave Myers and Si King, I’ve discovered how surprisingly enjoyable they are to watch.

What makes Bakeation a gem in the plethora of cookery shows out there, I believe, is the successful combination of four elements: interesting multicultural dishes that are accessible to regular cooks like me, beautiful European scenery (with bits of historical background info thrown in), the light-hearted repartee between the two down-to-earth northerners, and the friendly chats they have with some of the best artisan bakers on the continent.

My baking skills are only just passable… in fact, pastry and I have a rather hostile relationship, so I will not be attempting all the recipes Dave and Si have demonstrated!

But being able to experience beautiful and diverse destinations while being introduced to the delectable culinary delights of these nations (and potentially recreating some of them for my own table) is immensely appealing to me. And that probably goes for most of us.

Last week I was ooh-ing and ah-ing over the glorious French sunshine under which the bikers cooked fresh, ripe apricots into a delicious tarte tatin. In another episode I drooled over a Belgian chocolate truffle cheesecake made in the heart of chocolate-laden Bruges. And after the Germany show Mr Koeksister pleaded for homemade ‘bierocks’ – meat and cabbage filling inside a dough casing, brushed with melted butter and served with Bavarian beer. Could it get much better than that?

The last episode of the Hairy Bikers’ Bakeation flights this Tuesday, 1 May 2012, and features their ride through Spain. For recipes from the shows, go to the BBC’s website here.

Do you follow any television cooks or chefs? Do they inspire you in your cooking? Who do you enjoy watching and why?