There are two baking memories that stick with me from my childhood: beating Stork margarine with white sugar in the big red bowl as the first step to making a Victoria sandwich and using a Betty Crocker box mix to make awesome chocolate brownies after doing The Big Shop on a Friday evening (before Friends came on TV).
I also remember my mum being a good baker, although I don't think we baked that much. We had an old Good Housekeeping recipe book and, in time, Delia's Complete Cookery Course. I kept a folder of snippits from magazines (still do), although I rarely referred to them (still don't).
Whatever the bake, it always involved granulated (white) sugar, cooking margarine, white wheat flour and eggs. That's all there really was, as far as I knew anyway.
So when I started really reading cookery books and food magazines, and being more aware of how ingredients go from origin to packet, it blew my mind that these basics could be replaced! These people are magicians, I thought. Usually due to health reasons or dietary choice, ways around the old sugar-marg-flour-eggs combo were just run-of-the-mill to some. Flour blends? Flax 'eggs'?! "I'm not going to get into any of that weird stuff," I told myself. But then I tried it. And sometimes it worked. So why not make something without eggs if it means that everyone can enjoy it? Cut down or eliminate the gluten so that people won't feel left out? Replace high-GI, nutrition-free white sugar with more natural, beneficial sweeteners so that treats can be guilt-free whilst still tasting great?
And this is how my real passion came about. Sure, I like to use 'clean' ingredients that haven't had the goodness stripped out of them through processing, but I also love exploring the chemistry of ingredients that I would never have thought of putting together.
I'll be making a list of some of the more unusual ingredients (I'm relatively new to all of this, after all, so I'm very much still learning the characteristics of lots of them) but, for the time being, here's a clean little something to whip up without too much consequential mind-blowing .
Pear & Buckwheat Cake (GF, vegan options)
(adapted from Love.Bake.Nourish by Amber Rose)
what you'll need
3 pears, peeled, cored and quartered
2 TBSP maple syrup, agave nectar or date syrup*
20g butter or coconut oil
1 tsp ground ginger
a star anise (optional)
1 tsp ground ginger
a star anise (optional)
150g unsalted butter, softened
75g buckwheat flour
75g ground almonds or sun flour** (or a mix of the two)
2 large eggs
half tsp baking powder
half tsp cinnamon
100ml maple syrup
An oven, preheated to 170C and a lined cake tin, about 21cm across.
what you'll do
- prepare the pears: melt the butter/oil, spices and sweetener together in a frying pan over a medium heat. When the mixture starts to sizzle, add the pears with their thin ends meeting in the centre of the pan. Turn every couple of minutes until they are tender (a sharp knife slides in easily) and evenly coloured (about 12 minutes).
- cream the butter in a large mixing bowl until pale and fluffy (this can take up to 5 minutes with an electric mixer).
- add 2-3 tablespoons of the buckwheat flour and then beat in the eggs, one by one. Beat until the mixture is light and fluffy (adding a touch more flour if it curdles - you won't have much flour left)
- fold in the remaining flour, along with the rest of the ingredients
- pour the mixture into the tin and level it with a spatula. Place the pears on top, again with their thin ends meeting in the centre and drizzle any pan juices over the top (once, I had about a mugful but it all got soaked up so go ahead and pour it all in).
- bake for 30-40 minutes, or until a skewer or toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the tin for a few minutes and then on a rack to cool completely.
- enjoy with a nice cup of tea, on its own or with some cream or yoghurt
*I've also made this with date or raisin 'mush' (puree), which give different flavours and levels of sweetness, and also a little, umm, texture, like in the this photo.
**because ground almonds are so expensive, one day I decided to take a punt on grinding some (much cheaper) sunflower seeds in our coffee grinder. I figured that they'd be a decent replacement, being of a similar fat/carb/protein content and, guess what - they've worked in everything I've tried so far. You can taste them a little in a plain cake like this one, but their nutty, wholesome favour really suits it.
So there you are: no white sugar, no margarine and no white wheat flour (we still have eggs, but their rep has been salvaged so I've nothing against them). And so begins our trip into the wonky world of Better Baking. See you next time!