Written by (Claire Patk & Henry Dimbleby)
‘Baking and Puddings’ is another fine-looking colourful tome, from those lovely people behind the eating phenomenon that is Leon. It follows the series in format – educational but not preachy in the first part, recipes following on confidently behind, peppered throughout with personal hints and tips and pictures that we wish we’d taken with our Hipstamatic app.
The overwhelming theme behind the series, is that food can be tasty with cunning ways to boost your mood/energy/breast milk production (I kid you not). The team look at different ingredients and substitutions, to make everyday recipes better for you, but not in a 100%-wholemeal-at-all-times kind of way. They want you to enjoy the food, not give up because it looks like it will take to much chewing.
Having said that, as two out of the three people in my household have severe nut allergies, my only concern generally with Leon’s puds up to this point has been, well, that those Leon types love nuts. They enthuse over their nutritional properties and eulogise the subtle flavours, while happily skimming over their potentially death-inducing characteristics. I fretted that I was only going to be able to make a few odd bits and bobs to feed the hoard, but actually my fears were unfounded and the book is 77% nut-free. Yes I worked that out.
The natural sweeteners section in the guide to baking ingredients chapter was very enlightening. I tend to be a bit old school when it comes to sugar. I detest all forms of artificial sweetener so I have always used a form of traditional sugar or honey in my cooking, but I am tempted to seek out some of the more exotic suggestions, purely in the name of experimentation you understand. I want to know what sweetness ‘passing through the body without being metabolised’ actually feels like (in the case of yacon syrup), and I dare say the green-fingered other half would like to try her hand at growing stevia, a sub-tropical plant in the sunflower family which has been used for centuries in Japan as a calorie-free sugar substitute. Intriguingly, stevia is currently not widely licensed as a foodstuff in many parts of the world. The book alludes to cloak and dagger political warnings from the sugar companies being a contributing factor. Heady stuff. Cooking via insight into political lobbying by corporate giants - you don’t get that in Mary Berry’s Baking Bible.
For the recipes I chose to contrast a healthful fig cake (Tommi’s more-fruit-than-cake cake) and the more traditional pineapple upside-down cake. The fig cake was to be the pudding to go with a meal cooked for us in our new house by our previous neighbours. Isn’t that lovely? Everybody needs good neighbours. One question though: since when is 375ml wine classed as leftovers? That’s just bad planning in my book. Anyway, I only had about 225ml of red wine ‘left over’, so I made up the rest with some sparkling rose and a dribble of cava that were all genuine remnants. Apart from that substitution, I stuck to the recipes, although please note; spelt flour is hard to find and I live 25 mins from London, not the Outer Hebrides.
The absolute best thing about making this cake is the smell. I imagine Agatha Christie would have described the perfume of the figs steeping in the wine and spices, as heady and exotic, redolent of Moroccan bazaars and Kasbahs. Nigella would probably start talking about Christmas and gingerbread. All I can say is it was like the best mulled wine ever. (Did I mention I rarely have any wine left over?) The other great thing about the method is that it includes an awful lot of periods of ten minutes when you don’t have to be actively baking, so you can negotiate iPlayer for your four year-old or whatever. Brilliant.
When it came to the eating however, the taste of the cake somehow did not match the fragrance. The texture was perfect - light but with the right amount of a quality I like to call ‘squodge’, but it seemed to lack a depth in flavour. I did wonder if it would improve with keeping, but there was no noticeable difference the next day. Even a friend’s one year-old was not overly impressed, and he eats everything. Maybe I should save enough red wine for next time.
As child of the seventies (just), I have always been a fan of food that can be symmetrically garnished with glace cherries, so I looked forward to serving the pineapple upside-down to other similarly nostalgic friends. I had to adapt the caramel method slightly as my tin has a glass insert, but heating the sugar and butter together in a pan and then pouring into the base worked very well indeed. I used tinned rather than fresh pineapple (a suggested substitution) for true retro appeal. The glass-based tin was an accidental stroke of genius. There’s nothing like being able to see a cake covered in fruit and caramel ease out onto the plate. It was perfect culinary theatre. Couple this with the crown of luminous cherries and it’s no exaggeration to say there were gasps of delight.
The sponge was light and buttery and the caramel was the perfect rich foil to the still-firm fruit. The room fell silent as we tucked in. I always take that to be a good sign. There wasn’t much left over, but it kept well for lunch box treats over the next day or so. All in all, this recipes is a keeper, whether you chose to go down the garish garnish route or not.
Baking and Puddings will sit proudly on my kitchen shelf, with my other Leon cook books, and I will turn to it when pudding is to be the main event. You might have to hunt a little harder for the ingredients, but you can eat the sweet treats safe in the knowledge that somewhere, it’s probably doing you a little bit of good.
Published by Conran Octopus, RRP £20.00.
Reviewed by: Camilla Shepherd