I was in London yesterday, happened to be walking past Harrods and so, on a whim, popped into the food hall. The Harrods food hall is, obviously, preposterous…amazing produce, outrageously overpriced and great fun. Star of the charcuterie counter was a whole Iberico ham, sold complete with knife and instruction DVD, and going for a sweet £2800. That is not a typo. I betrayed my yokel roots and took an audible intake of breath.
It would however take a cold heart not to be impressed with the Harrods boulangerie counter and, obviously a tourist, I took a few snaps. Look at these expertly plaited brioche, so tempting alongside the hunks of apple and walnut slice (I think these are made from a yeasted, enriched dough topped with fruit and nuts).
Harrods has a fine array of cronuts, which looked so outstanding I was tempted to applaud. For the uninitiated, a cronut is a cross between a croissant and a doughnut – you make croissant dough, fry it like a doughnut, then glaze with sugar or icing. It’s seriously skilled stuff and, like so many of the best baked goods, started life in New York. Though these looked amazing, prices started at £4.50 and I just could not bring myself to part with the cash. (You can take the girl from the Midlands, etc.)
Lots of impressively layered drum cakes followed, plus a counter heaving with American-style pies. The Brits would call them tarts – deep-sided pastry filled with fruit, nuts, custard and cream.
I’ve studied (and that is the only word for it) food and cooking since I was a kid and in my reasonably wide-ranging experience, I’ve concluded that two nations do the best baked goods: the French and the Americans. The French are all about pretty-pretty precision, whilst our friends over the Pond like big, bold, homespun flavours. I think it’s hard to pull off French patisserie at home – but those American bakes are a different story. Inspired by my trip to Harrods, I dug out an old American favourite: Jim Fobel’s Old-Fashioned Baking Book.
I love this book. It’s a memoir-cum-recipe book, full of cookies, cakes, pies, bars and slices cooked by Jim Fobel’s grandmother in Ohio in the early twentieth century. 1932 Mystery Cake tells the story of surviving the Depression, whilst many recipes carry echoes of East European heritage: anyone fancy Aunt Irma’s Sour Cream Twists? Today I whipped up a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies, which he describes quite literally as “one of the oldest recipes in the book”.
You could use a food mixer for these, but I always prefer a wooden spoon. First, beat softened butter with muscavado sugar until smooth and fluffy.
Next you beat in vanilla extract, an egg and a drop of water. I was certain the mixture would split but Grandmother knew best – keep going and it comes together to a smooth, thick cream.
Then you simply add your dry ingredients: rolled oats, plain flour, baking powder, raisins and chopped hazelnuts. The recipe actually calls for walnuts but I’m not keen, so substitute whatever nut you like best.
Mix it all together to a stiff batter, then dollop tablespoons of mixture onto lined baking sheets. Flatten the top with your fingers, then bake at 180c for about 15 minutes until golden.
Ideally they are slightly browner around the edge than the middle – this gives you a nice mix of crunchy edges and chewy centres. Cool on the trays for five minutes or so before transferring to a rack.
These are pretty big – as big as my hand – though the original recipe has them three times bigger! Delicious on their own or, if you’re going all-American, with a glass of milk.
Oatmeal raisin hazelnut cookies
Adapted from ‘Grandma’s Oatmeal Cookies’, Jim Fobel’s Old Fashioned Baking Book, p140
135g rolled oats
150g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
200g butter (I use salted butter. If using unsalted, add a pinch of salt to the mixture)
195g muscavado sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tablespoon warm water
100g chopped hazelnuts (or any nut you fancy)
Preheat the oven to 180c and make sure the oven racks are evenly spaced. Line two or three baking sheets with baking parchment.
Cream butter, sugar and vanilla until fluffy. Crack in the egg and water, and beat until thick, light and creamy. If it looks like splitting persevere, it will come good in the end. Add all the dry ingredients and stir to a thick batter.
Dollop tablespoon-sized amounts of mixture onto your trays, allowing room to spread, and smooth the tops. (You might have to bake in batches, depending on how much oven space you have.) Bake for 15 minutes, checking half-way through to see if the trays need switching in the oven to get an even bake. Cool on the tray for five minutes so they firm up before transferring to a wire tray.