Life

Recipes: Jane Dunn talks sugar, cake, and the impact of pandemic baking

...Everything is about balance, at the end of the day. My recipes are designed to be for an occasion, not something you eat every second of the day

Rhubarb and custard blondies from Jane's Patisserie by Jane Dunn
By Ella Walker, PA

CHOCOLATE cheesecake crepes. Pina colada cupcakes. White chocolate biscotti. Chocolate cherry babka. Bakewell blondies. Such bakes – are you lulled into a confectioner's heaven too?

This is the pattern of food writer Jane Dunn's debut cookbook, named after her blog, Jane's Patisserie. Sweet treat after sweet treat; each one seemingly promising comfort, deliciousness and nostalgia.

The 28-year-old has been blogging her bakes for around six-and-a-half years, creating recipes designed to suit all skill levels – hence why she wouldn't dream of judging you for buying ready-made caramel (it involves far less risk of singeing your fingers on molten sugar), and gladly recommends decorating her no-bake millionaire's cheesecake with shop-bought millionaire shortbread bites.

Jane's Patisserie the cookbook presents her easy-breezy chocolate-adoring ethos in paper form – and “you can get it messy,” says Dunn, which means no more coating your phone in flour as you scroll to the next step in the recipe.

Eliminating fear around baking is something that underpins Dunn's bakes. Each comes with customisable elements, so you can amp up flavour combinations, swap in ingredients you do have for ones you don't, and avoid having to nip to the shops mid-mix for a missing item.

“I tried to cover all bases so people can just have fun with it, and not be scared,” explains Dunn. “With cooking, you can sort of wing it mostly, but with baking, it is science. So you have to get it right mostly.” She's hoping her nifty comments and reassuring advice will ease any oven-related concerns. Her honesty around her own cake mishaps help too (“I've dropped entire cheesecakes and it's been quite heart-breaking”).

Dunn grew up in Hampshire, loving baking, a fascination passed onto her by her late grandmother.

“My mum always tells me I'm so like her,” she says, emphasising the fun that can come from turning flour, butter, eggs and sugar into something spectacular and shareable.

“I like seeing people's faces – nothing is better than when you arrive at a friend's house and you've brought cookies. If somebody's having a bad day, a good day, or whatever, they're gonna go, ‘Ohh!' And then suddenly, everyone's just in a different mood.”

Realising her initial plans to study graphic design or architecture at university weren't to be, Dunn leapt into an “intense” six-month cookery course in Devon, with a view to work on patisserie in restaurants. Cookery school helped her understand that, “I want to do this with my life, completely and utterly”, she says. But the industry is a tough one, and while her peers went into the kitchens of super yachts, Rosette and Michelin starred restaurants, she found she “wasn't a massive fan” of the lifestyle and began blogging instead.

By April 2020, she'd hit around 200,000 followers, but as the first lockdown drove many of us towards banana bread and comfort baking, more and more people began to discover her blog. “I don't think I ever could have imagined it. It was surreal,” she says now, with three-quarters of a million Instagram followers to her name. “Everyone was just baking so much stuff every day. It was amazing to see it. I'd get comments from teachers saying, ‘We made this in class over Zoom!' It was the cutest thing,” she recalls.

Dunn – who is inspired by legends Mary Berry, Nadia Hussain, Nigella Lawson and Delia Smith – hopes our renewed appreciation for baking doesn't wane.

“I'd love to see it grow and people to fall more in love with [it].”

Funnily enough, Dunn admits she (shock horror) actually prefers savoury food…

“Maybe, probably because I have so much sugar in my life every day, I actually adore savoury food,” she says with a laugh. “I love saltiness. But baking is best to share. Baking is better to bring to a party.” The occasion factor, the way bakes are used to celebrate and adorn an event, is what her recipes revolve around, “so for me, I love savoury foods, but I'm always happy to bake something.”

What she does find problematic is when sugar is demonised, and when people make comments that connect food with guilt and judgement.

“I've suffered with an eating disorder in the past,” she notes, “so I find it quite difficult when people make those associations.”

Comments like, ‘that's diabetes on a plate' she says are unhelpful, potentially harmful and “can be insulting to people who do have diabetes, whether it's type one or two”. It's also unnecessary when “everything is about balance, at the end of the day. My recipes are designed to be for an occasion, not something you eat every second of the day.” Within a balanced diet, enjoying the odd slice of cake is perfectly reasonable – “even if it's full of sugar,” says Dunn, “which I think makes it taste beautiful.

“[Sugar] exists, people enjoy it,” she continues. “And that's what you should do with food, whether it's low calorie, high calorie, savoury or sweet.” It's when someone has the opinion “of food as being scary” that things may have tipped, and professional support may be needed.

Dunn's bakes focus on bringing the joy, and as you'd imagine, stumble into her kitchen and you'll find an incredible stash of sweet treats. She buys her baking chocolate in huge bags, and then, because her bakes demand it of course, she'll “go down the supermarket and buy 10 Terry's Chocolate Orange, five giant Toblerone…”

Her friends and family reckon she has the best snack cupboard that's ever existed, which is fortunate, because they – and her local coffee shop – help her keep cake waste to a minimum. “Sometimes people think I just make it and throw it away. No, no, no! My friends and family love me because I always have cake available.”

So what's next for Dunn? “I just want to roll with it and see where my baking takes me,” she says.

“I'm a normal person, just chilling, baking cake. But the rate it's grown, I'm like, how far can this go? It's just cake. But it's so much fun.” Dunn looks set to ride that icing wave, and happily take us with her.

Jane's Patisserie by Jane Dunn is published by Ebury Press, priced £20. Photography by Ellis Parrinder. Below are three recipes for you to try at home...

RHUBARB AND CUSTARD BLONDIES

(Makes 16)

175g rhubarb

300g white granulated sugar

2tbsp water

200g unsalted butter, melted

3 eggs

125g plain flour

75g custard powder

200g white chocolate chips or chunks

100g custard

Method:

1. Chop the rhubarb into pieces, and add to a pan with 50g of the sugar and the water. Place over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about five minutes, or until the rhubarb softens. Set aside to cool.

2. Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan and line a 23cm square tin with parchment paper.

3. Put the melted unsalted butter and remaining 250g sugar into a large bowl and beat until smooth. Add the eggs and beat until smooth, then add the plain flour and custard powder and beat until combined. Fold through the white chocolate chips or chunks.

4. Pour the mixture into the tin and spread out evenly. Dollop the rhubarb mixture and custard over the top and swirl through slightly using a cake skewer or knife.

5. Bake the blondies for 30–35 minutes, or until there is an ever so slight wobble in the middle. Leave the blondies to cool fully in the tin before cutting into 16 squares.

CUSTOMISE: I use fresh or tinned rhubarb depending on the season – if using tinned rhubarb, use the syrup from the tin instead of the two tablespoons of water.

You can use ready-made custard, or make up some custard using more custard powder.

You can leave out the white chocolate chips or chunks or swap them for a different flavour chocolate.

The rhubarb can be swapped for another fruit, such as cherries, blackberries, or even apples.

SALTED CARAMEL-STUFFED NYC COOKIES

(Makes 8)

125g unsalted butter

175g soft light brown sugar

1 egg (medium or large)

1tsp vanilla extract

300g plain flour

1½tsp baking powder

½tsp bicarbonate of soda

1tsp sea salt

250g milk chocolate chips or chunks

8–16 soft caramel sweets

Method:

1. Beat the butter and soft light brown sugar together until creamy. Add the egg and vanilla extract and beat again.

2. Add the plain flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and sea salt and combine until a cookie dough is formed, then add the chocolate chips or chunks and mix until they are evenly distributed.

3. Portion your dough out into eight balls – each should weigh about 110g. Once rolled into balls, flatten slightly and put one or two soft caramels in the middle, then wrap the cookie dough around the caramels and re-roll into balls. Put into the freezer for at least 30 minutes, or in the fridge for an hour or so. While the cookie dough is chilling, preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan and line two baking trays with parchment paper.

4. Take your cookies out of the freezer or fridge and put onto the lined trays (I do four cookies per tray) and bake for 12–14 minutes. Once baked, leave the cookies to cool on the trays for at least 30 minutes as they will continue to bake while cooling.

CUSTOMISE: You can substitute the caramels for spreads, such as chocolate and hazelnut spread or biscuit spread. Simply freeze teaspoons of spread for at least 30 minutes, then wrap the cookie dough around the frozen spread in the same way.

The milk chocolate can be switched to white or dark chocolate.

Make the cookie dough chocolate by using 250g plain flour and adding 35g cocoa powder.

BLUEBERRY LIME LOAF CAKE

(Serves 8-10)

200g unsalted butter

200g caster sugar

200g self-raising flour, plus 1tbsp for dusting

4 eggs

Zest of 1 lime

200g fresh or frozen blueberries

Buttercream:

125g unsalted butter, at room temperature

250g icing sugar

Juice of 1 lime

For the decoration:

100g blueberries

Lime zest

Method:

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan and grease and line a 900g loaf tin with parchment paper.

2. Put the butter and caster sugar into a bowl and beat until light and fluffy. Add the self-raising flour, eggs and lime zest to the bowl, and mix again until combined.

3. Put the tablespoon of plain flour into a bowl and add the blueberries, mixing until they are coated (this stops the blueberries all sinking to the bottom of the cake). Fold the blueberries through the cake mixture, then pour into the prepared tin and bake for 50–55 minutes, or until baked through. Remove the cake from the oven, and leave to cool fully in the tin while you make the buttercream.

4. Add the butter to a bowl and beat on its own for a few minutes to loosen and soften. Add the icing sugar and beat again until combined. Finally, add the lime juice and beat again.

5. Pipe or spread the buttercream onto the loaf cake, then sprinkle over the blueberries and lime zest.

CUSTOMISE: The blueberries can be swapped for any other berry you like, such as raspberries or blackberries. The lime can also be switched for another citrus fruit, such as orange or lemon.

If you don't want to make a buttercream topping, make a lime drizzle instead by mixing 200g icing sugar with three to four tablespoons of lime juice.

Jane's Patisserie by Jane Dunn is published by Ebury Press, priced £20. Photography by Ellis Parrinder.

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