They were referred to in our family as Happy Unbirthday presents (borrowing from A A Milne), those gifts gratuitously bequeathed, out of the blue, for no particular reason. Now it is winter and mostly very much indoors weather, the quite perfect opportunity offers itself to hand-make some happy unbirthday presents for people you love or just care about. Because I love baking sweet things – well, cooking in general but specifically cakes and biscuits – the notion of setting aside a weekend afternoon in order to engage in that activity has elements not entirely altruistic in it. But then, it’s surely a case of everyone winning: I as I waft unhurriedly from one soothing culinary act to another as well as the recipient of my baking, with the collateral benefit of a fragrant kitchen. So, if your creative outlet is cooking, I suggest equipping yourself with the sort of inexpensive plain glass jars you can find almost anywhere, wrapping an apron around your waist and indulging in a glorious bake-a-thon. The outcome is jars of lovely homemade biscuits and I do not believe there exists the person who would not be made happy to receive one. Here, then, are some of my favourites:
Mini Melting Moments
Using a hand-held beater, work 250 grams of room- softened butter into a well-sifted mix of 5 tablespoons icing sugar mixture, 5 tablespoons cornflour and 11⁄2 cups plain flour. Dash in a teaspoon of vanilla essence and form into a soft dough. On greased baking trays place heaped teaspoons of the dough rolled into small balls, ensuring they are not too close. Flatten gently with a fork and bake at 160 ̊C until just beginning to colour. Cool completely then sandwich together with icing made from 30 gr. softened butter beaten into 11⁄2 cups sifted icing sugar mixture, 1 – 2 tablespoons boiling water and 1 tspn vanilla extract. Colour with cochineal if you like pink.
Using hand-held beaters, whisk together 125 gr. room-softened butter, 1⁄2 cup firmly packed brown sugar and 1⁄2 cup castor sugar until light and creamy. Add 2 eggs and beat until combined. Sift 1 cup plain flour over butter mixture and on low speed mix until just combined. Stir through 250 gr. coarsely chopped dark chocolate then spoon mixture into a lamington tin base-lined with baking paper. Spread evenly and bake in a pre-heated 180 ̊C oven for 30 mins or until firm. Cool then cut into squares.
Peanut Butter Biscuits
Again, using hand-held beaters, cream together 60 gr. room-softened butter, 1⁄2 cup crunchy peanut butter and 1⁄4 cup brown sugar. Beat in 1 egg. Stir through 3⁄4 cup sifted plain flour, 1⁄4 tspn bicarb soda. 1⁄2 tspn powdered ginger and 1 tblspn milk. Add 1⁄2 cup raw peanuts. Dollop teaspoonfuls on to greased baking trays and bake in 180 ̊C oven for 15– 20 mins. Cool.
Best Chocolate Brownies
In a double-boiler melt together 300 gr. chopped dark chocolate and 200 gr. butter, stirring occasionally. Set aside 10 mins. Separately, beat 3 large eggs and 250 gr. white sugar until pale and creamy, add 1⁄2 tspn vanilla extract then fold in 1 cup sifted plain flour, 1 tspn baking powder and 1⁄2 tspn salt. Fold in 1 cup chopped walnut pieces then pour into a lamington tin lined with baking paper. Bake 30 – 35 mins in 180 ̊C oven or until skewer inserted comes out moist but not wet. Cool, cut into squares and dust with icing sugar.
Sift 250 gr. self-raising flour and add a pinch of salt and cayenne pepper to taste. Rub in 185 gr. butter until mixture resembles breadcrumbs then add 250 gr. grated cheddar cheese. Knead to form a soft dough, roll into small balls then arrange on greased baking trays ensuring well-spaced. Flatten gently with fork and bake at 180 ̊C until pale brown. Cool.
Bring 300 ml. cream to the boil then cool a little. Stir in 500 gr. coarsely chopped dark chocolate then add 4 tblspns brandy, rum or liqueur of your choice. Beat several mins with electric beater, pour into a container and chill until firm. Scoop out into small balls (a melon- baller works well), roll gently in sifted cocoa powder and chill again.