Biscuits with Bartok 2 – Soft-bake chocolate and fennel cookies

I must admit there’s been a bit of slippage this week on a number of fronts. I have, however, managed to produce my second biscuit for the musicians, a decadent soft cookie oozing with chocolate, complemented by the flavour of fennel seeds. However, a lag means I did this after the gathering. In fact, the visiting musicians sojourn turned out not to be Biscuits with Bartok but Biscuits with Linux. For some musicians, talents extend  beyond music and with help, after several attempts and considerable tenacity, my old laptop has Linux installed and the hamster in the hard drive is on steroids. I thought I had lost it forever after a de-fragmenting disaster.

No more am I chained to my desktop in the office.  I can now sit in comfort by the fire, using one or t’other of the dogs as a footstool and listen to selected vinyl or CDs, since I’m next to the stereo. What better way to blog? Tablet not required for the time being. I’ve been reliably informed by The Man Named Sous, my own personal techni-geek, that the time is not right to invest in a tablet and we will be better placed to buy in a couple of months as new products are on the cusp of release.  I have already decided that although I like my iPhone, the Android system will be the way to go and I have all but ruled out iPad, probably in favour of a Nexus 10. More on that another time.

Biscuit procrastinations

I am embarking on only my second biscuit-making event and I have already been overwhelmed by the choices out there.  Then I was gifted my biscuit epiphany when Cookies, Cakes and Bakes featured some enticing recipes from Annie Bell’s Baking Bible.  I was, of course, obliged to buy the book and although it hasn’t yet arrived, I found a very appealing recipe from it online for soft-bake chocolate and fennel cookies.

Mid-week entertainment

One reason for the slippage this week was the rare opportunity to see a tour by Scottish Opera performing at the village hall in Benbecula. Every year, Scottish Opera take their Opera Highlights tour to very small venues in rural and isolated communities around Scotland.  The tour visits Uist every 2 years, visiting Stornoway on alternate years. The troupe of 4 singers plus pianist offer a pared back performance with minimal props which showcases their vocal talents.

I love opera and regularly went to Scottish Opera performances at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh and I very much miss the opportunity to enjoy the live experience, so this concert was a very rare opportunity to hear opera excerpts and not to be missed.  We were very lucky the concert went ahead at all.  The singers were stranded on Barra after a performance there.  The weather closed in and ferries were cancelled.  Fortunately, they made it across in a weather window on the morning of the concert.

The weather had been tricky and perhaps unsurprisingly, the concert was reasonably well attended but not busy as people were reluctant to venture out.  This was no doubt exacerbated by the fact that our mobile cinema, The Screen Machine had set up for a couple of nights. Despite the weather, it had somehow made it through the storms.  This pop-up cinema is Britain’s only mobile cinema.  The theatre folds out from an articulated truck that tours the Highlands and Islands to bring new cinema releases to audiences and really is a fantastic innovation and a lot of fun to go to.  Sitting in the dark watching a blockbuster, possibly in 3D, one can get lost in the performance only occasionally being reminded that you are in a pop-up cinema in Uist when the wind rocks and sways the theatre.

Unfortunately, a clash of programmes such as the cinema and opera on the same night can deplete audiences significantly in such a small community as ours. This could discourage a return visit, for example, I have been to concerts where visiting musicians have had an audience of no more than a handful of people, which is discouraging for them and offers no incentive for a return visit.  It therefore pays for visitors/event organisers to check what else is on any given night and make sure there is not a clash. As residents, we certainly feel that we should attend anything of interest otherwise it could be the case of use it or lose it.

Had the opera not been on, we would have gone to the cinema, although the choices of The Hobbit and Quartet would have pushed it into second place as we saw The Hobbit in 3D in Glasgow before Christmas and Quartet is probably not to our taste.

The opera was thoroughly enjoyable with a programme of popular arias (from La Traviata, Cosi fan tutte and Carmen) and less familiar and intriguing pieces. My favourite was The Executioners Song from Ines de Castro by Scot James MacMillan, an opera commissioned by Scottish Opera in 1996.  The darkly humorous libretto was delivered with conviction by baritone Duncan Rock, his vocal and acting performance stealing the show for me.

The Middle Eight

Sitting next to my vinyl and CD collection brings the opportunity for a blogging soundtrack, not that I can’t do this by using iTunes on the desktop, but the experience isn’t the same.  It’s not as loud for one thing! I also don’t download for a number of reasons; sound quality, tangible enjoyment of holding a CD / record, ownership, for starters. Browsing and selecting music also served to remind me that as well as biscuits, I am procrastinating over gigs too.  Planning trips to the mainland including London and Glasgow over the next couple of months means we will try to tie in a few gigs with trips.  There are a lot of good options coming up.

We have been swithering over whether or not we should get tickets to see Neil Young in June. The fantastic Jeremy Deller conceptual art work below sums this up. This was a phrase borne out of the procrastinations by Neil Young over work commitments when he would regularly ask his manager ‘What would Bob Dylan do?’ Bob Dylan later had the same manager and similarly asked him ‘What would Neil Young do?’ Deller, Jeremy - What Would Neil Young Do? - Conceptual art - Computer print - Other/Unknown theme

We have seen Old Shaky twice before, in 1992 with Booker T and the MGs and again in 1997 (I think) with Crazy Horse.  The venue is off-putting as it is the aircraft hangar that is the SECC in Glasgow.  We have experienced a few less than intimate gigs at this venue and on occasion, poor sound quality.  It’s just too big, as are the ticket prices.  Over the last few years, we have tended to prefer gigs in smaller venues with more sane ticket prices.  The atmosphere is always better with the artist connecting better with the crowd in a smaller setting and vice versa.

That aside and unresolved, the decision will likely be taken out of our hands when the gig sells out. Then came the news that Wilco Johnson, original guitarist with the great Canvey Island blues outfit, Dr Feelgood,  has announced he is terminally ill and is to go on a final blast of gigs across the UK.  Of course, I would love to go, but knew these would sell out quickly and they have, regrettably. Dr Feelgood had a reputation as an engaging live act in the early 70’s thanks largely to Wilco’s stage presence and choppy distinctive blues guitar style. Dr Feelgood have been credited as one of the founders of British Punk, discussed in the excellent film Oil City Confidential which captures the early days of the band’s history.

I listened to a very uplifting and moving interview on Radio Four a couple of weeks ago when Wilco spoke candidly about his illness and his desire to give this last tour while he was still well enough to give his best and thank his fans.  He was so positive and grateful for the life he has lived, tinged with no regret or sadness that he will soon leave this mortal coil.

Smaller venues such as the excellent King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow offers a chance to see contemporary proggers Amplifier. We saw Arch Drude and forward-thinking Mofo Julian Cope there in a memorably intimidating performance. Strikingly tall and thin, he was wearing 6 inch crepe heeled boots and sported face paint, wandered into the audience and stared various people in the audience out.  We hid well away from the front and it was a great gig. We were also very lucky to see another of our favourite songwriters, the thought-provoking Warren Zevon at a small venue in Glasgow not too long before his passing.

To the current, a Richard Thompson gig in Edinburgh is another possibility as well as seeing Polish metal band Riverside.  Devin Townsend has also announced another short UK tour.  That is a given.  Finally, sadly nothing on the horizon from Tool who, after 7 years still can’t seem to decide if they will release an album this year or not.  The band’s enigmatic singer Maynard James Keenan appears to be focussing more on growing award-winning wine at his California vineyard.  Rock and Roll!

Blogging soundtrack:  Opeth: My Arms, Your Hearse

Devin Townsend: Epicloud, from the track ‘Grace’;

‘Laugh! Love! Live! Learn!!’

Soft-bake chocolate and fennel biscuits

chocolate and fennel biscuits 055

These were delightful and would not be half as good without the revelatory addition of the crushed fennel seeds, and, to some extent, the apricots.  Genuinely one of the  best cookies I have eaten, really unusual and very chocolatey with the 81% cocoa solids chocolate I used. I’m really getting into the biscuit-baking and don’t really know why anyone would, other than for convenience, buy biscuits from the shops.  Home-made are simple to make, free from the usual additives/preservatives and are considerably cheaper.  I got 36 out of this recipe which was allegedly for 20.  Although they were a bit more expensive to make than last week’s peanut butter cookies, they still worked out at about 10p per biscuit.  That for a real luxury bite of deliciousness.

Ingredients

125g unsalted butter, diced

200g golden caster sugar

1 medium egg

½ tsp vanilla extract

100g ground almonds

75g plain flour, sifted

1 tsp baking powder, sifted

1 heaped tsp fennel seeds

100g dried apricots, chopped

200g dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids), coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 200C (fan)


Method

  • Cream the butter and sugar together in a food mixer then beat in the egg and vanilla extract. Add the ground almonds, flour and baking powder and process to a soft dough.
  • Coarsely grind the fennel seeds in a pestle and mortar and stir into the cookie batter with the apricots and chocolate.
  • Put a big heaped teaspoon of the mixture onto greased baking trays, spacing them well apart and cook them in batches.
  • Bake for 8–10 minutes until golden around the edges but pale within. Leave the cookies to cool for 3 minutes, then loosen them with a palette knife and leave to cool completely.

Enjoy when barely cool and the chocolate is still gooey with a wee cup of tea (as my gran would have said).

chocolate and fennel biscuits 4

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Biscuits with Bartok 1: Peanut butter cookies

Once a week The Man Named Sous gets together with friends to play some music in his acoustically wonderful workshop.  Musical choices for violins range from Bach to Bartok. A lot of Bartok’s work is delightfully infused with the essence of Hungarian and Romanian folk music and other music native to the Carpathian basin and beyond.  His duets are refreshing to listen to and fun to play, therefore popular in the repertoire.

Every musician, of course needs a break from the rigours of the musical challenges. Although we supply the coffee, our hosting skills to provide sweet treats to go with the oh-so-wet coffee are perhaps not as spot on as would be customary and sometimes there is nothing much at all to offer. Meanwhile, cakes and biscuits are contributed by the visiting musicians. Poor show, shame on us (well me actually, the cook).

It would be somewhat of an understatement to say The Man Named Sous likes biscuits.  Hot drinks are simply too wet without them, apparently. The problem is, I am not that partial to biscuits, although there are a few I do really enjoy; amaretti, biscotti, Florentines. Yes, a good biscuit for me means Italian and only consumed in earnest with coffee.

I enjoy making cakes and desserts, usually because of the complexities of processes, combining different elements; creams, meringues and pastry to deliver the dessert.  I love the dark art of baking bread, constantly striving for success and improvement. However, I have singularly failed to engage with biscuit baking to any extent.

Inspired by Bartok and embarrassed by lack of hospitality (in fairness, I have managed the odd bit of cake – we just have to remember not to eat it all beforehand), I am planning a more consistent approach.  I aim to provide a new biscuit each week for the musical gathering, hopefully for a run of 10 weeks (although work may impede occasionally) to see where my biscuit baking foray takes me, hopefully building confidence to produce some unique creations by the end, or at least unique in my culinary repertoire.

For the first ‘Biscuits with Bartok’ I’m going for a straightforward confidence building peanut butter cookie.  I’ve still got my head in the Wahaca cookbook and found this recipe.

Peanut butter cookies

The beauty of this recipe is the speed and ease with which these biscuits can be made – thanks to the assistance of my KitchenAid.  I’m sure it would be pretty quick by hand too. The recipe states it makes about 25 biscuits, but I got about 45, which was great volume and hence value (about 7p per biscuit) compared with inferior shop-bought biscuits. The recipe gives a cooking time of 12-15 minutes at 180C, but my first batch were a bit burnt round the edges at 12 minutes, so 10 minutes was fine for my fan oven.  The biscuits turned out to be lovely, very simple to make, are very light and have a melt-in-the-mouth texture. They were perhaps a bit too rich and buttery for me (I know, that’s the point!). However, The Man Named Sous says differently and so they will devoured with fervour.

Preheat the oven to 180C

Ingredients

180g plain flour

3/4 tsp of bicarbonate of soda

pinch of salt

225g unsalted butter, softened

200g light brown soft sugar

1 egg plus one egg yolk

200g crunchy peanut butter

1 tsp vanilla essence

120g roasted salted peanuts

Method

  • Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt.
  • Cream the softened butter using a food mixer (if you have one) until pale, light and fluffy.
  • Add the sugar to the butter, then the egg and egg yolk.
  • Gradually mix in the flour, peanut butter, peanuts and vanilla essence.
  • Put the mixture in the fridge to firm up for 30 minutes.
  • Line baking sheets with silicone/parchment and place a heaped teaspoon of the mixture onto the sheet to form each cookie.  Leave plenty space (about 5cm) between them to allow for spread during cooking.  Top each with a half peanut garnish.
  • Bake in batches for 10 minutes and cool on a wire rack before storing in an airtight jar.
  • Get the kettle on and enjoy with your brew of choice.

Peanut butter bisciuts Peanut butter bisciuts 2