Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Victoria's Star Bakes!

Any fans of the Great British Bake Off will have seen our Chief Executive, Victoria Chester in action  - being chosen as the a 'star baker' no less, in week one, for her Four and Twenty Blackbirds sponge cake.

Here Victoria shares three more of her favourite recipes. Give them a go and let us know what you think!

"I try to use Fair trade + local + free range + sustainably sourced ingredients when possible - so eg if using wild flowers to frost for decorations or foraged mushrooms/wild garlic for bakes try to ensure enough are left for others to enjoy + next season's baking.

I have wondered what would be the bake that uses the most plant ingredients - perhaps some kind of fruit cake?? Suggestions please!

Note: I have always worked in imperial measurements so am very sorry but don't always  to convert recipes properly to metric - have tried to convert from American to British though! 

'Bling' BrowniesThese are yummy but not too sticky and keep a really chocolatey moist 'crumb'
4 oz unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsps instant coffee powder made up with 4 fl oz boiling water
8 oz unsalted butter melted
1lb 2oz golden granulated sugar (sorry, this isn't a slimmer's delight)
3 large eggs at room temp.
1 tsp vanilla extract
6 oz plain flour
[4 oz chopped walnuts - optional]
Edible gold glitter or leaf to decorate

1. Preheat oven to 180 (160 fan)/350/Gas 4
2. If you have good bakeware then just lightly butter and flour a 9" x 13" baking tin (or similar proportions) - I go for a 'belt and braces' approach and also line the base of my tin to ease turn out at the end.
3. Sift cocoa, baking powder and salt into a medium bowl.
4. Whisk the coffee liquid and half the melted butter into the cocoa mix until smooth (don't worry if it looks curdled) - I use an electric whisk as it saves a lot of arm ache!
5. Whisk in sugar and remaining butter until smooth
6. Whisk in eggs one at a time then the vanilla
7. Stir in flour using a wooden spoon until just blended - don't beat
8. Add nuts if desired
9. Pour mix into tin and bake for 30 - 35 mins until tester comes out with a moist crumb
10. Cool in tin.
11. When cool cut to desired size in tin and then sprinkle with glitter/leaf - if you have some edible flower heads available (small ones like primroses or violets work best) try dipping these in the glitter instead, or wrap gold leaf very carefully with a brush round individual nut pieces.  Very more'ish for those at the office, tea with 'les gals' or try serving with creme fraiche + fresh raspberries as a dessert.

'Oranges and Lemons' Biscuits
These are the lightest most fragrant biscuits and sooo easy to make:
8 oz [125g] self raising flour
5 oz [120g] golden caster sugar
6 oz [150g] salted butter (not too soft)
Grated rinds of one orange and one lemon - keep separate
2 large egg yolks
1 egg white
Golden caster sugar to finish

1. Preheat oven to 180 (160 fan)/350/Gas 4
2. Lightly grease as many baking sheets as you can fit at one go in your oven
3. Sieve flour and sugar into a medium bowl and rub in the butter - or combine in a food processor - until the mix is like breadcrumbs
4. Divide the mix into two equal halves and add the orange rind + one egg yolk to one half and the lemon rind and other egg yolk to the other half.
5. Knead both mixes separately until they are smooth - then roll each out to about 1/4 (5mm) thickness
6. Cut out using cutter (I like to use different shapes for each flavour) and place on baking sheets
7. Brush cookies quickly with egg white then sprinkle sparsely with caster sugar
8. Bake for 10 - 15 mins until just turning golden - watch them like a hawk because they darken quickly and the best result is when golden not brown.
9. Remove from oven and cool for 5 mins on their trays before removing - they are quite easy to break if moved straight from the oven.  Finish cooling on wire rack.

These are particular delicious when accompanying a fruit fool - lemon biscuits with blackcurrant fool or orange biscuits with strawberry fool for example.

Basic Chocolate Cake that always works
(Note: this uses drinking chocolate powder not cocoa - a really good result I promise!)
8 oz [225g] soft salted butter
4 oz [125g] golden caster sugar
4 oz [125g] dark brown or muscovado sugar
5 large eggs
10 oz [285g] drinking chocolate powder
3 oz self raising flour
1 oz plain flour
Few drops of vanilla essence

1. Preheat oven to 180 (160 fan)/350/Gas 4
2. Grease and flour 2 x 9 ins sandwich tins
3. Cream butter and sugar together well until light and fluffy - I always use an electric hand whisk for this as it gives me good control over the whisking process
4. Add eggs one by one and beat well between each addition - you can add a bit of the plain flour to the last addition if worried the mix might curdle
5. Sieve the flours and drinking chocolate together and stir into the butter/egg mix making sure they are thoroughly incorporated (better not to whisk at this stage as the flour mix tends to blow everywhere - as I found to my cost one day!)
6. Stir in the vanilla essence.
7. Divide the mix between the tins and bake for about 30 - 40 mins (use clean skewer to test).
8. Remove from oven and cool in tins for 5 mins then turn onto racks to cool completely

I haven't included specific fillings or icings because there are so many to choose from and this cake is wonderfully chocolatey and moist already.  However, some combinations I have used include:
Coffee buttercream filling and chocolate fudge icing on top - quite rich so a little goes a long way
Whipped cream and raspberries inside and icing sugar stenciled on top - very pretty for tea!

(Huge apologies but it never occurs to me to take pictures of my bakes so don't have any to show - but it would be lovely to see your results though!)"

Friday, 10 August 2012

A bees eye view of flowers

Posted by Sue Southway, Plantlife's Wildflowers Count Survey Officer

We are at a time of year when wild flowers brighten up our countryside. Predominant colours are white, yellow, shades of pink, blues purples, and all of them are trying to attract insects to pollinate them. However the colours that we see do not look the same to the bees.

Common silverweed as we see it (top) and
under UV light (below).  © Bjørn Rørslett/NN 
Bees and other insects see in the ultraviolet spectrum of light, and this means blues, greens and violet shades, and they cannot see red at all, to them it appears black. A look at a guide to British wildflowers shows that there are very few native red flowers with the poppies being the truest red. In tropical areas many flowers that are red will be pollinated by mammals such as bats that are attracted to the bright colour.

So how do plants attract the bees? The answer is that they produce designs that we cannot see unless we use UV light, and they light up the pollen producing area luring the bees in.

The photo above-right (courtesy of www.naturfotograf.com) shows two images of Common Silverweed, Potentilla anserina. The first, the one on top, is how we see it - entirely yellow. Under ultraviolet light, however, a dramatic change occurs. A clear target has been provided for the bees to aim at.

Meadow cranesbill as we see it (top) and
under UV light (below).  © Bjørn Rørslett/NN 
The pattern has been highlighted in red in the second image (the bees, of course, will not see it as red, this is only so we can see it ourselves. How exactly they perceive the pattern no-one is entirely sure).

The photo of Meadow Cranesbill, Geranium pratense on the left, shows a similar effect: a pattern is created in the UV spectrum that acts to attract the bees to the pollen at the heart of the flower. There is evidence to show that the chemical compounds producing these patterns can also deter herbivorous insects, in particular caterpillars, protecting the plant’s reproductive capability.

If you would like to help us keep track of some our most common wildflowers, why not sign up for Wildflowers Count - the UK’s only annual national wild plant survey? 2012's survey is still active until the end of August. Find out more at www.plantlife.org.uk/wildflowerscount