Cracking Easter Treats

I love everything about Easter. It is a time for family, friends and frivolity. Spring has sprung and there is a lightness to the mood and atmosphere, a hopefulness for the coming seasons and a slight (rabbit-like) spring in everyone’s step. It is also a time for indulgent treats – decadent and decorative chocolate, dark and rich in both colour and flavour; squidgy, aromatic hot cross buns, bursting with plump sultanas and draped in golden butter which seems to twinkle with glee as it melts into the toasted buns; slow-cooked spring lamb with all the trimmings, the tender meat falling seductively off the bone and bathing in its juices.

Yet it is not just the taste buds that are in for a treat. The air is filled with the smell of fresh, evaporated raindrops and smiling spring blossom as their petals fan out and they sigh in appreciation of the sun on their faces. Then there are the smells from the kitchen – the homely scents of Easter cupcakes, dense Simnel cake and rich roasting meats floating out from the oven door and lulling the house into a state of comfort and contentment.

But it is chocolate that is always on everyone’s mind at Easter – without a doubt if you ask someone what they think of when they thing of Easter it will be at the top of their list. I have always loved chocolate – it is a trait I inherited from Marge who often has a hankering for the sweet stuff as a last piece of bedtime luxury. Chocolate has the ability to improve even the sourest of moods, it offers the kind of comfort second only to a hug from one of your closest family and friends, so it seems perfectly fitting to me that it is so closely associated to this seasonal celebration, when we spend quality and valuable time with our loved ones.

As I have got older, my taste for chocolate has developed, moving away from the saccharine delights of Cadbury’s and the velvety indulgence of Galaxy milk chocolates (although don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for ALL types of chocolate and I never say no to a bit of Fruit and Nut) towards the darker, more sophisticated treats, those with a high percentage of cacao. The brilliant thing about this taste-shift is that, whilst you are still eating an uplifting, soothing treat, you are also nourishing your body. Cacao – the purest and least processed form of chocolate you can consume – is one of the richest sources of antioxidant polyphenols of any food on the planet and contains many vital vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, calcium, sulfur, potassium, and manganese, as well as monounsaturated fats, cholesterol-free saturated fats, fibre, natural carbohydrates, and protein. This nutrient-dense food has a number of health benefits: it can lower blood pressure and cholesterol and improve circulation, thus promoting cardiovascular function & health; it supports immunity by boosting the response of antibodies and protecting the body from a buildup of free radicals; and it can help improve digestion.

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It therefore seemed not only seasonal but also completely sensible to make Marge a delicious Easter treat with this superhero ingredient. Nothing is more satisfying and more indulgent than a sticky, gooey brownie – they are one of life’s simple pleasures. However, by making a variation of this decadent dessert and by replacing the chocolate/cocoa with raw cacao and the processed flour with black beans, you not only improve the nutritional value of this tea-time treat, but you can prove to everyone that you can treat yourself with delicious sweets whilst still feeling entirely virtuous.

There are a number of different recipes out there, but I opted for Hemsley + Hemsley’s Black Bean Brownies as it seemed to require minimal ingredients and effort. They turned out brilliantly and went down a storm with the entire family. The texture was fantastically fudgy and dense, almost truffle-like in its consistency, and though very moreish and rich they remained surprisingly light. But the best part: you don’t feel guilty about going back for seconds (or thirds…).

Recipe: Black Bean Brownies 

Ingredients.

  • 2 x 400g tins cooked black beans, drained
  • 230g (8oz) unsalted butter or coconut oil
  • 4 medium eggs
  • 85g (3oz) unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 150ml (5fl oz) maple syrup
  • 1½ tbsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp coffee extract, or use extra vanilla extract
  • 130g (4¾oz) chopped walnuts or dried fruit, optional

Method.

  1. Preheat the oven to 170°C/330°F/160°C fan.
  2. Rinse the black beans and leave to drain. Melt the butter/cocnut oil in a saucepan over a gentle heat, then set it aside.
  3. Place the drained beans, eggs, cocoa powder, maple syrup, vanilla extract and coffee extract (if using) into a food processor with a large pinch of salt. Pulse a few times and then blend until smooth.
  4. Add the melted butter, very slowly so as not to cook the eggs, while the machine is running. Taste the batter – add more maple syrup if needs be – then stir in most of the chopped walnuts or dried fruit, reserving a handful (if using).
  5. Grease the inside of a 24 x 20cm (9¾ x 8in) china or glass baking-dish. Pour in the brownie batter and gently tap the baking-dish on to a kitchen counter to even out the batter.
  6. Sprinkle the remaining walnuts on top and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until the brownie feels firm and springy and its surface is cracked. Allow to cool completely before cutting into squares.

 

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Using my Loaf

There is nothing quite like the smell of baking bread. That nutty, wholesome scent that wafts warmth from room to room, lovingly stroking the senses and spreading feelings of comfort and content throughout a household. And there is nothing quite like the satisfaction of baking bread for those that you love, knowing that this small, straightforward action will cause so much happiness and please so many rumbling tummies.

Baking bread is a smell of my childhood. When I was about 10, Marge bought a miraculous new machine, one that soon had me springing out of bed on school mornings rather than reluctantly dragging myself, out from under the duvet, limb by limb: the bread maker. It was without a doubt the best alarm clock you could ever imagine. Being gently nuzzled by the smell of freshly baked bread was the gentlest and most lovely wake-up call a child could ever ask for and it soon caused a slow grumbling sound to rise from under the bed sheets before a stampede of hungry children raced down the stairs to wolf down the doughy, buttery goodness.

It is this kind of comfort that Marge needs right now, so baking bread seems like a natural thing for me to do. The beauty of it is that there are so many amazing and contrasting varieties that baking tow loaves over the course of two days didn’t seem in the least bit over-indulgent. The weekend started with a Wholemeal Soda Bread – that miraculously easy yet decadently wholesome loaf that, as Felicity Cloake eloquently states, “can be in the oven in less time than it takes to brew a pot of tea, and is ready to eat by the time you get out of the shower”. Despite being so simple, the moist, cakey texture of this bread means that it is incredibly dense and satisfying and will most certainly sooth even the most upset of tummies.

I have to say it was a triumph – not only did Marge enjoy a few slices alongside a warming, vitamin-packed Minestrone soup on Friday evening, but she helped herself to a couple of slices for breakfast the following morning too, topped with mashed avocado, a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of chilli flakes (I am so proud)! Soda bread it absolutely delicious toasted – its nutty flavour further enhanced by the heat and the charred, crunchy exterior acts as the perfect contrast to the moist crumbly middle.

The second loaf I made I was more nervous about – both making it and of Marge’s reaction – as it was a bread of a more unusual variety: Quinoa Bread. I came across the recipe when perusing through the beautiful and innovative cookbook The Detox Kitchen Bible and was immediately intrigued. I am a huge fan of this nutrient-dense grain (it provides a source of all the essential amino acids) and so to have it in bread form and to be able to pile on delicious toppings such as avocado, hummus, nut butters and fruit seemed like a dream come true. Plus it is an excellent way to help ensure Marge is eating enough protein, even when all she can eat is plain grains and simple fare.

Yet again, the loaf came out extremely well and went down a treat. Very different from the soda bread, it obviously didn’t have the same doughy, homely texture but, as you eat it, you feel as though you are doing something good for your body and that is a comfort in itself. It also has a subtle, nutty flavour, lifted by a touch of lemon juice, and a lovely light texture, making it an absolute pleasure to eat.

I loved spending pretty much my entire weekend pottering around the kitchen – it was a joy to see spoil Marge and see her slowly regaining her strength, gradually overcoming the worst of her side-effects. I know that it may just be timing and coincidence, but I like to think that these loaves helped her spirits and energy rise and that they played a part, no matter how small, in her beginning to feel a lot less crumby (pun definitely intended)!

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Recipe: Wholemeal Soda Bread

Makes 1 loaf.

  • 450g coarse wholemeal flour
  • 50g rolled oats
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tbsp treacle
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 450ml buttermilk (or sour milk, or milk with 1 tbsp lemon juice)

Method.

  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/gas 6/180°C and grease a baking sheet.
  2. Put all the dry ingredient into a large mixing bowl and mix to combine.
  3. Make a well in the middle. Stir the treacle and honey into the buttermilk until well mixed, then pour this into the well and, very quickly, stir together with your hands until you have a soft, sticky dough.
  4. Form this into a round on your baking sheet and cut a deep cross in the dough.
  5. Bake for 50 minutes to an hour, keeping an eye on it, until the crust is golden and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped underneath.
  6. Leave to cool before diving in. Eat as soon as possible, as it doesn’t keep very well.

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Recipe: Quinoa Bread

Makes 1 small loaf.

  • 30g chia seeds
  • 350g quinoa
  • 70ml olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • A pinch of flaked sea salt
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • A handful mixed seeds

Method.

  1. Put the chia seed sin a bowl with 100ml water, stir well and leave for 30 minutes to form into a gel.
  2. Preheat your oven to 200°C/gas 6/180°C. Line a small loaf tin (25.5 x 13.5 x 6cm) with baking parchment.
  3. Place the weighed quinoa in a saucepan and cover with three times its volume of cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 3 minutes – the quinoa will only be part cooked.
  4. Drain the quinoa in a sieve and rinse under running cold water until completely cooled. Leave to drain for a few minutes (this is important as if it is too wet, the bread will be stodgy).
  5. Combine the chia gel and quinoa in a food processor and blitz to combine. Add 150ml water, together with the olive oil, bicarbonate of soda, salt and lemon juice. Run the food processor for five minutes until the mixture becomes a similar wet texture to muffin batter.
  6. Pour the mixture into the loaf tin and sprinkle the seeds over the top. Bake for 1 hour until the bread is firm and slightly golden.
  7. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the tin for 15 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool completely. Wrap in clingfilm and keep in the fridge until ready to slice.