Challenge No. 21 – Carrot Cake

This recipe was suggested by another of my close University friends.  I lived with Kate in my first year and throughout the year, we shared the job of resident baker.  It was therefore so nice that Kate challenged me to make a cake 🙂 But this isn’t just any old cake, its one I’ve never made and have always been a bit apprehensive about making it.  Why was I apprehensive – it’s a cake which has carrots and cream cheese in it! There is just something about that which never quite sat right with me.  As I’ve said before, this is the whole point of Challenge 52, to take me out my comfort zone!

When I started searching for recipes, I was still trying my best to avoid the cream cheese but every which way I turned, there it was.  Finally, I found a recipe that didn’t use a cream cheese topping but by then I had come to realise that the cream cheese is an almost iconic part of the carrot cake and I felt guilty about leaving it out! So instead I kept looking and found this recipe by the Hairy Bikers for a carrot and sultana cake with creamy orange frosting.

For the recipe you will need the following:-

  • For the cake
    • 200g/7oz self-raising flour
    • 75g/3oz sultanas
    • 75g/3oz pecans, broken into rough pieces
    • ½ large orange, zest only
    • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
    • ½ whole nutmeg, finely grated
    • 1 tsp baking powder
    • ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
    • pinch fine sea salt
    • 3 free-range eggs
    • 175ml/6fl oz sunflower oil, plus extra for greasing
    • 175g/6oz soft light brown sugar
    • 200g/7oz carrots, grated
  • For the cream cheese icing
    • 100g/3½oz icing sugar
    • 100g/3½oz unsalted butter, softened
    • 1 tsp fresh orange juice
    • 200g/7oz full-fat cream cheese
    • ½ orange, zest only
    • 25g/1oz pecan nuts, roughly broken

Edited - ingredients

If you look at the ingredients photo carefully, you may note an extra ingredient which has snuck in there.  I accidentally included the vanilla essence which I had purchased to stock up my store cupboard but it isn’t needed for this recipe!

I started off by sorting through my pecans to remove all the nice whole ones to put to one side for the topping.  I then weighed the remaining bits to make sure I had 75g, adding a few of the whole ones back in to bring it up to the right weight.  I then chopped them up nice and small.

Edited - choped nuts

I put the nuts in a bowl with the flour, sultanas, ground cinnamon, grated nutmeg, baking power, bicarbonate of soda and the salt.  I then grated in the orange zest from one half of my orange.

Edited - dry ingredients

I broke the eggs into a jug and whisked with a fork until they were smooth.  I then added the oil and brown sugar, giving it a good whisk until well combined.  I created a well in my dry ingredients and poured in some of the egg/sugar/oil mix.

I stirred it all together with a wooden spoon, gradually adding more of the oil mix until it was all combined. I added the grated carrot and gave it a final mix.

Edited - well Edited - well filledEdited - cake mix

The recipe puts the cake mix into a 20cm square cake tin but I wanted to do something a little different.  I’ve found these adorable cases in the supermarket and thought it would be nice to make individual carrot cakes rather than one big one.   So i split the mixture between 14 cases, 13 of them weighing 79g with the mix in, and the 14th having a little less.

Edited - in the cases

I put the filled cases on a tray and into the oven on 180 celsius.  Given that I used individual cases rather than a big tin, I knew I needed to adjust the cooking time.  I originally set the timer for 20 minutes and then checked them.  I felt the tops of the cakes and decided they needed a little longer so I returned them to the oven for around 2-3 minutes.  I then tested the cakes and decided they were done.

Practical tip: I’ve given this tip a few times but it is one of the key points to perfecting your cake making skills – knowing when the cake is done.  To test whether the cakes are cooked, gently press the top of one of the cakes with your finger; if it is done it will be springy to touch and bounce back into place.  You can also take a tooth pick (or cake tester if you have one) and slide it into the centre of one of the cakes; if the cake is done the tester will come out clean.  If you think it’s not quite done return the cakes to the oven but keep an eye on them – 1 minute may be all they need but that 1 minute can make all the difference!

I put the cakes on a cooling rack and left them to cool completely whilst I got started on the icing.

Edited - cooked

I put the softened butter in my bowl, beat it with a fork until smooth and added the orange juice.

Practical tip: this is another one I’ve given before but in case you missed Challenge No. 5 I’ve included it again.  To soften the butter, cut it into cubes and put it in a sandwich bag in a bowl of lukewarm water for between 5 to 10 minutes until soft.  This can be a lot quicker than leaving the butter at room temperature, especially in the winter when your kitchen may not be so warm!

I then gradually sifted in the icing sugar a bit at a time, giving it a good stir between each addition.  Once it was all added, I used a wooden spoon to beat until light and creamy. 

Editd - softened butter

I stirred through the cream cheese and remaining orange zest before popping it in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Edited - cream cheese Edited - combined

When the icing was firm, I used a teaspoon to smooth a bit on each cake.  Finally, it was time to add the decoration.  The recipe uses the whole pecans (which I set aside at the beginning) but I wanted to do something a little bit cuter.  So I made mini icing carrots with some coloured fondant icing and added one to each cake.

Edited - topped

These cakes took a little trip with me to Sheffield to celebrate my friends birthday and new home.  Kate was part of the celebrations so she got to try her suggestion, along with all my University girls.  Everyone said it was delicious! 🙂

 Edited - in the caseEdited - served up1

I even managed to persuade Dave to try this one (he had an issue with the whole carrot in a cake thing!) and he said “actually, its quite nice”.  I feel this is a great review, all things considering.

Personally, I really enjoyed this challenge, both eating and making the cakes.  They weren’t too heavy and were just perfect with a cup of tea.

Coming up next week, Challenge No. 22 – homemade burgers.

Challenge No. 16 – Cornish Pasty

This challenge was suggested by one of my good friends from University.  My friend Laura is by all accounts a vegetarian, cake lover (amongst many other wonderful things) and I hadn’t registered that one of her suggestions was not only not cake, but a meat filled pastry! It took me by surprise when I realised what Laura had asked me to make.  So thanks for the suggestion Laura and I’m sorry you can’t get to try this one 🙂

This dish is said to be an important part of the Cornwall county culinary history.  The first references to cornish pasties appeared in the 13th century and during the 18th/19th century, it was a staple part of the diet of working men in Cornwall.  The wonderful thing about a Cornish pasty; it contains a meal within its golden crust.  When handled by miners/farmers, the thick crust could be held with dirty fingers and thrown away at the end. Today, it is enjoyed by many people (not just the miners/farmers) and we don’t throw the crust away – I mean come on, its one of the best bits!

I did a quick search and found a recipe by one of my favourites, Paul Hollywood.  You can find the recipe here.

For this recipe you will need:-

  • For the pastry
    • 500g/1lb 1oz strong bread flour
    • 120g/4oz vegetable shortening or suet
    • 1 tsp salt
    • 25g/1oz margarine or butter
    • 175ml/6fl oz cold water
    • 1 free-range egg, beaten with a little salt (for glazing)
  • For the filling
    • 350g/12oz good-quality beef skirt, rump steak or braising steak
    • 350g/12oz waxy potatoes
    • 200g/7oz swede
    • 175g/6oz onions
    • salt and freshly ground black pepper
    • knob of butter or margarine

Edited - test

I started by putting all the pastry ingredients (except the egg) into my bowl and used a wooden spoon to combine the ingredients.  I then used my hands to crush everything together to form a dough.  It didn’t really form into a ball very well (it was so dry) but I tipped it out onto the worktop and started kneading to bring it together properly. 

Edited - dry ingredients

Oh my gosh, this was such hard work! I watched the video included on the recipe link and Paul Hollywood makes it look so easy.  I however was literally have to put my full body weight into the kneading and it was a real work out.  Dave even had a little go but he didn’t quite get the technique right and was just kind of squashing the dough.  Anyway, after I took over again and gave the dough a last few bits of vigorous kneading, I had my smooth and glossy ball. 

Edited- dough ball

Practical tip: develop your own method of kneading.  This may sound silly but when I first starting making bread, I tried to replicate other people’s kneading styles.  Unfortunately, I have bad joints, particularly bad in my hands and I found it painful to use some of the methods I’d seen on TV.  Instead I found I rolled and stretched the dough between my two hands, using more of the heel of my hand than my fingers.  It takes a little longer for me to knead like this but I always get there in the end and it is less painful 🙂 So find a method that works for you and just go with that.

With the kneading done, I wrapped the dough in cling film and popped it into the fridge for 60 minutes. 

I then got started on the filling ingredients. I chopped the potato, swede and onion into what I thought were reasonable sized cubes.  I knew Dave was going to be a bit funny about eating this dish (he likes Cornish pasties but he hates chunky vegetables) and to try and keep him happy, I asked him to ‘approve’ the size on my cubed vegetables. He said they looked too big and was concerned they wouldn’t cook properly.  I re-read the recipe and sure enough, I’d cut them to about double the size suggested.  So I re-chopped to make them smaller.

I cut my braising steak to similar size cubes and put all the ingredients into a bowl, mixed and seasoned with salt and pepper. 

 Edited - vegEdited - beef

I divided my dough into 4 pieces and took the first piece to roll into a disc of approximately 25 cm.

Practical tip: in case you missed Challenge No. 11, when rolling out pastry (or fondant, or pretty much anything you want to roll), always roll from the middle up and middle down.  If you roll from top to bottom you’ll end up with a really fat bottom, whereas rolling from the middle helps to keep an even thickness all the way through.

Edited - rolled out

I then spooned a quarter of the seasoned mixture onto one half of my pastry circle.  The recipe says to add a knob of butter/margarine before folding over the pastry but I accidentally missed this bit.  Paul doesn’t add any butter/margarine in the video so I decided it wasn’t a problem that I missed this stage. 

Edited - filling

Next, I set about crimping; I used my fingers to make twists all the way along the round edge.  I put the pasty on my lined tin and made the remaining three pasties.  I put one more on the baking tray and then wrapped the remaining two in baking paper and cling film before putting them in the freezer for another day.  I’ve read mixed reviews about freezing cornish pasties before cooking them, so I’ll give a little update in the future to let you know if it worked 🙂

Edited - crimped

With two pasties in the freezer, I brushed the remaining two with the egg and salt mixture before putting them in the oven for 45 minutes.

When the timer went off, Dave and I tucked into these glorious looking little (okay huge!) parcels of goodness. 

Edited - golden brown Edited - centre

We both really enjoyed them, strangely Dave a little more so than me.  I have to admit the first few mouthfuls left me a little disappointed but the flavour soon developed and I started to appreciate it more.  To improve it, I think it could have done with more seasoning – I was probably a little too cautious with this.  Also, I thought it was a little dry in the middle and I wonder whether putting the knob of butter in with the filling would have helped with this. 

Whilst the filling definitely had room for improvement, Dave and I thought the pastry itself was great and overall it was a very tasty dinner.

Coming up next week, Challenge No. 17 – passion fruit cream profiteroles and hot chocolate fudge sauce 

Challenge No. 14 – Moussaka

This recipe was suggested by my friend Kate.  I’ve never made moussaka before and I’ve only eaten it a handful of times, without really knowing what was in it.  When Kate suggested this recipe, she delighted in telling me that her dad makes the BEST moussaka. So I knew I had a challenge ahead and a tall order to live up to.

Before we get started, My Gastro Adventure has hit a little milestone this week and the website has now had over 1,000 views and reached a total of 31 subscribed follows!! I therefore wanted to say a massive thank you to everyone who has viewed the site, liked the posts and opted to follow the blog 🙂

Also, for those of you who are following the blog by e-mail, you may have received a strange “Test” post update earlier this week – this was my attempt to set up My Gastro Adventure on bloglovin, which I finally successfully managed to do.  Sorry if it caused you any confusion and thank you again for choosing to follow me on my adventures!

Anyway, on with the moussaka. I did some searching and found this recipe by Antony Worrall Thompson.

The recipe calls for the following ingredients:-

  • For the filling
    • 75ml/6fl oz olive oil
    • 1 large onion, finely chopped
    • 675g/1½lb lamb mince
    • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
    • 1.25ml/¼tsp cinnamon
    • 1.25ml/¼tsp allspice
    • 2 x 400g/14oz tin of chopped tomatoes
    • 1 tbsp fresh oregano, chopped*
    • 2 bay leaves
    • 1 tsp fresh, soft thyme leaves
    • 175ml/6fl oz white wine
    • 4 medium aubergines, cut into 1cm/½in slices
    • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
    • Plain flour, for dusting
  • For the topping
    • 85g/3oz unsalted butter
    • 85g/3oz plain flour
    • 900ml/1½pt milk
    • 85g/3oz parmesan, grated
    • 115g/4oz gruyère, grated
    • 2 free-range egg yolks
    • 1 free-range egg

Edited - ingredients

*I couldn’t get hold of fresh oregano so I just used dried oregano (1tsp dried is the equivalent of 1tbs fresh).

I started by chopping my onion finely and added it to my casserole dish with the heated oil. The recipe says to cook the onion for about 10 minutes until soft and then to brown the lamb in a separate frying pan.  I however didn’t wait for the onion to finish softening and popped about half of the lamb into my frying pan to get started whilst the onions cooked.

Edited - browed lamb

When the first half of the lamb was browned, I added it to the softened onions, along with the garlic. I used a wooden spoon to try and break the mince down as much as possible.  I then set about browning the second half of my lamb.

Now those eagled eyed amongst you may have noticed something strange about my ingredients picture above.  I didn’t notice it myself until I opened the second pack of lamb to brown and when I added it to my pan it looked a bit odd. I double checked the packaging…yep, it was beef! Whoops! I clearly should have checked the pack a bit more carefully in the supermarket. Anyway, I’d previously read you can make moussaka with lamb, beef or even a beef/pork mix so I just carried on with the lamb/beef combination 🙂

Next, I added the cinnamon, allspice, chopped tomatoes, oregano, bay leaves and thyme into the casserole dish.  I then added the remainder of the browned meat, deglazed the frying pan with the wine and added this to the casserole dish.  I reduced the heat and left it to simmer for 1 hour.

Edited - Casserole dish

Practical tip: don’t measure your spices out over the pot of onion/garlic/mince.  Perhaps an unnecessary tip but one I’m including out of an experience with this challenge. I tried to measure out the 1/4 tsp of cinnamon over the casserole dish, however, the cinnamon wasn’t coming out and then suddenly the powder shifted, filled the measuring spoon and (quite) a bit extra went straight into the pan.  Luckily, it wasn’t too much extra so as to affect the flavour but it was a close shave!  Lesson learned 🙂

I then set about slicing the aubergines.  I didn’t know whether I needed to peel the vegetable first – this may be a simple thing which most people would know but I’ve never cooked with aubergines before and so I wasn’t too sure.  I did a quick search and found another moussaka recipe which specifically stated to leave the skin on and so I decided to do this.

Edited - aubergine slices

I put the aubergines slices into a colander and sprinkled salt on them – I don’t actually have a colander and I just used the top parts of my steaming pans!  I gave the aubergines a good toss to make sure all slices had come into contact with the salt and then I popped the ‘colander’ on top of a plate, leaving them for 30 minutes.

Edited - salted slices

Practical tip: don’t skip the salting stage.  This is done to take away the bitterness of the aubergine.  The salt draws out some of the liquid from the sliced aubergine and when you lift the colander at the end there will be quite a lot of brown liquid on the plate.  This is an important step and should not be missed.

Now I was making this on Saturday afternoon with plenty of time before Kate and her boyfriend were due to arrive for dinner. One of the great things about the recipe is that it can be made ahead of time! This meant, I wasn’t too stretched for time and so instead of getting straight on with the béchamel sauce, I had a quick tidy up of the kitchen.

With a few of the pots washed and the sides cleared, I cracked on with the sauce.  I was a bit nervous about this bit.  I’ve tried to make béchamel sauce before and it just ended up tasting of flour. It was absolutely disgusting! This time round I was making it for guests and it is such a key part of the moussaka I was really hoping things would go to plan.

I melted the butter in my saucepan and then added the flour, giving it a good mix.  I left it on the heat for a minute.  I’ve read somewhere that you have to cook off the flour when making sauces and I think this may have been part of the problem last time.

Edited - butter in pan Edited - flour and butter mixed

I then took the pan off the heat and started adding the milk a little at a time, giving it a good stir in between each addition.  Once all the milk was added, I put the pan back on the heat and kept stirring, waiting for the mixture to thicken.  This is when I realised I probably should have started the sauce a bit sooner! It took about 30 or 40 minutes before it had thickened properly.  Talk about an achy arm with all that stirring!

Edited - thickened sauce

In between all the stirring of the yet to thicken sauce, I removed the casserole dish from the heat and rinsed my aubergine slices.  I put them on some kitchen roll to dry and carried on stirring the béchamel sauce.

Once it was finally thickened, I let the sauce simmer for 7 minutes and then removed it from the heat.  I added 55g each of the gruyere and parmesan cheese and seasoned the sauce with a bit of salt and pepper.

Edited - cheese to sauce

The next step was to brown the aubergines.  I patted the slices dry, coated them in flour (by shaking them in a sandwich bag) and then fried them in batches.  This seemed to take forever to do.  It was only about 8 minutes per batch but because there were so many slices, it took ages.

Edited - browned aubergines

Once the aubergines were all cooked, I added the egg to the cooled béchamel sauce and finally I had all the component parts of the moussaka ready. 

It was time to start layering up.  First, I put 1/3 of the mince mixture into my dish and before topping with the aubergines, I cracked some pepper on top.  I hadn’t seasoned the mince whilst cooking and when I tasted it, I thought it could do with some black pepper.  I then covered the mince with a layer of the aubergines.

Edited - mince layer Edited - aubergine layer

I added the next layer of mince, some more aubergines and then the final layer of mince.  I topped it all off with the béchamel sauce and the left over grated cheese.  I didn’t actually use the full amount of gruyere, only because there was so much and it just didn’t seem necessary. I used all the parmesan and about 40g of gruyere.  

Edited - oven ready

I put the dish to one side whilst I got started on pudding – make sure you come back again soon to read about my passionfruit cream profiteroles and hot chocolate fudge sauce.

Anyway, Kate and her boyfriend arrived just as it was time to put the moussaka in the oven for 60 minutes.  We had some warm pitta bread with humous and fried halloumi to start whilst the main event cooked away in the oven.

When the timer went off, I took the moussaka out the oven and patiently waited for 5 minutes just like the recipe said.  I then served up and we all tucked in with some crusty bread and a Greek salad (cucumber, tomato, olives, red onion and feta, drizzled in Greek olive oil).

Edited - cookedEdited - served up

So, with such a high standard set by Kate’s dad, I had a lot to live up to. Whilst everyone agreed it was nice (even Dave who ate round the aubergines!), when I asked Kate and her boyfriend for their verdicts the answer was “it’s good…but the problem is Kate’s dad makes the BEST moussaka”.  So I didn’t quite hit the bar that Kate’s dad set but still it was very enjoyable. 

The best bit for me was the fact that the béchamel sauce worked! It was the right texture and tasted yummy 🙂 I did however feel the dish took quite a long time to make because of all the messing around with the aubergines! I’ve read another recipe which recommends simply baking the aubergine slices for around 25 minutes at 180 degrees celcius.  I’m definitely going to try this next time rather than frying them. 

Overall, I was pleased with how this challenge turned out and will be adding moussaka to my recipe arsenal for the future.

Coming up next week, an Easter treat for Challenge No. 15 – simnel cake! Hope to see you then.