I’m starting to realize that I can’t do everything by hand. And I don’t mean that in the sense of handmade… but that sometimes, you just need machine power when baking. Case in point – these Nanaimo Bars.
When I was studying pastry in Vancouver, our course had us doing almost everything by hand. Whether that was whipping cream, or making meringue, there were few things that we did with our Kitchenaid mixers. One of the few things we did with a machine was an italian meringue – and I resigned myself to not making them while living in this tiny flat. (I also resigned myself to not making marshmallows while here, as it’s pretty much the same process.)
As I couldn’t bring my Kitchenaid mixer from Canada, and had no room to put one here even if I did, I didn’t bother to buy a hand mixer. Maybe it’s because once you go Kitchenaid you never go back? Or perhaps my hand mixing at school had made me cocky? Bah ha ha, you puny machines – look at the strength of my arms!!! Mwah ah ah…
But seriously – if I could whip cream by hand, and make meringues (just not italian), why did I need a hand mixer? Well folks, creaming butter, that’s why! It is easy to do when you’re just softening it for a cookie dough, but trying to incorporate air and make it fluffy?! My upper body strength has its limits. So the next time I need to make a fluffy layer, I may just review my aversion to hand mixers.
For anyone not already aware, Nanaimo bars are something from the West Coast of Canada (named after the city of Nanaimo). They are so ubiquitous that as a child I thought they were as common as chocolate chip cookies. It’s a crust of digestive/coconut/nut/chocolate, covered with a buttery custard layer, and topped with more chocolate. Normally the crust contains graham crackers, but over here I substituted with digestive biscuits.
I personally was never the biggest eater of Nanaimo bars, as I found them too sweet/rich as a child, but homesickness has crept in. Either than or my new Canadian coworker, lamenting the lack of these delectable bars, persuaded me to break out the ol’ wooden spoon.
Maybe you will too? Or do you have one of those fancy hand mixers?
Add the egg, and stir until it has cooked and thickened.
Remove from the heat, and stir in the crumbs, and nuts.
Press firmly and evenly into the pan. Chill in the fridge while making the second layer.
For the custard layer, cream together the butter, custard powder, and icing sugar, until light and fluffy.
Add whipping cream, and whip until light. Spread over first layer, and chill until firm.
For the chocolate topping, melt the butter and chocolate together over a bain marie, being careful not to overheat.
Remove bowl from the heat, and allow to cool. Once cool, but still pourable, spread over the custard layer, and chill to set.
*Bain marie is a fancy way of saying hot water bath. It is used to describe cooking items in the oven surrounded by water (to ensure even cooking), or cooking items in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water. In our case, it means the latter.
A while back, while hunting for danish inspiration photos on Pinterest, I stumbled across a beautiful recipe on Hint of Vanilla for a Rhubarb Danish (check out her blog, not only is it amazing, but she’s Canadian!). The shape of the danish was unique, and the piping of the cream with the St. Honoré tip was beautiful. Quite frankly, her danishes (what is the plural of danish?) look so good you might as well stop reading this now, and just head over to her blog – trust me, it’s better!
I’ve been wanting to try her recipe, or at least a variation of it, ever since. As I was buying rhubarb for my skillet cake (as well as to infuse some gin, like our sloe gin) I decided to buy a whole kilo and experiment. Since I was sending these with Richard to his work, I knew I couldn’t pipe cream on top, like the original recipe. So I decided to add creaminess with a pastry cream, piped under the rhubarb, flavored with blood orange and vanilla! After all, orange is a great complement to rhubarb, and I was buying them anyways for other recipes.
As I was making this recipe on my two days off, and was trying to cram like 8 recipes in those days, I tried to go the lazy route. I had seen puff pastry and pie dough in the grocery stores, and assumed that you could probably buy ready to roll croissant or danish dough. Wrong… wrong, wrong, wrong. I had hoped to spend my days off doing so many things, and didn’t want to make danish dough. It’s not hard, just time consuming.
So because I already had my other ingredients, I decided to just suck it up and make the dough. Except I misread my recipe twice, and had to make the dough three times (!!) before I got it right (that is what happens when I rush things). Then, of course I was trying to rush my turns, and was freezing the dough in between to chill it quickly… and forgot about it between the first and second turn. When I tried to roll it out, it was still too cold and I broke the butter sheet… gah! So please, don’t look too closely at the dough in the photos, and do what I say, not what I did.
The layers weren’t very nice in the end, but the flavor is still there. These two days weren’t my best because I was trying to do too much. I ended up not doing everything as well as I should have.
I made a half batch recipe, which makes about 7 proper danish, with scrap left over. The full recipe makes 15 danish, and the excess can be used to make the little mini bite sized ones.
If you find that you have extra pastry cream left over – don’t worry! It tastes amazing and you could pretty much just eat it with a spoon… or dip fruit in it… or pipe it into tart shells and top with fresh fruit! It’s pretty versatile.
Mmmmm… now I want to make these again, but take my time to do the dough properly! If you’re feeling up to it, danish dough isn’t really hard, just takes a good couple hours to make. However, if your shop has it for sale, you might want to take the easy route! This recipe looks long and daunting, but trust me, these aren’t as hard as they look!
For the rhubarb, slice each stalk in half, down the middle, and place in a dish. Zest and squeeze the juice of half the orange, and cut open half the vanilla pod and scrape the seeds. Place the zest, juice, vanilla seeds, and pod in the dish with the 40g sugar and rhubarb. Toss to evenly cover the rhubarb and allow to sit for at least an hour.
For the pastry cream, combine the milk, sugar, zest, from the second half of the orange, and remaining vanilla seeds and pod. Bring the milk to a gentle simmer, and remove from the heat. Cover and allow to seep for at least 30 minutes.
Once the cream has infused long enough, whisk the egg yolk with the cornstarch, and pour in some of the milk mixture to thin it out a little. Bring the milk to a low boil and slowly pour into the cornstarch mixture, while whisking vigorously.
Return the whole mix to the pot and bring to a boil over a medium heat, while whisking the whole time. When you feel the mixture start to thicken, briefly remove from the heat and whisk, to prevent the egg from over cooking. Then return to the heat and bring to a boil. Once boiling, continue to cook for 10 seconds to ensure that the corn starch is cooked out.
Remove from the heat, and stir in 2-3 tbsp of the blood orange juice. Pour through a sieve onto a large piece of cling film. Wrap the pastry cream in the cling film to make a little parcel and allow to cool in the fridge. If you have extra juice, pour it over the rhubarb.
To make the danish dough, the method depends on which kind of yeast you are using. If fresh, add it to the cold milk; if active dry, warm the milk to 115°F (45°C) and dissolve the yeast in it first; if instant, mix in with the flour. Depending on your yeast, place the ingredients in the bowl in the following order: milk, egg, sugar, flour, salt, and butter (in small pieces).
Mix the ingredients together until they resemble a shaggy mass, and then turn out onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead the dough slowly for 2 minutes, just to get the ingredients combined and the butter worked in, then up the speed to fast for 8 minutes. Wrap the dough in cling film and allow to rest in the fridge for 20 minutes.
While the dough is resting, make the butter block. Wrap the butter in cling film, and pound with a rolling pin. Continue pounding the butter, and folding the edges over, until you can fold the butter and it doesn't crack. Shape the butter into a 20cm square and set aside at room temperature until the dough is ready.
To encase the butter, roll the dough out to a 20cm rectangle, on a well floured surface. Cut a cross into the dough and pull out the corners. Roll them out while keeping the middle slightly raised. Brush off any extra flour, and place the butter block in the middle.
Cover the butter with the dough flaps, one at a time, brushing off the extra flour, and pinch to completely seal.
To make the first turn, gently press the dough with a rolling pin to merge the layers together, and then roll out in one direction to 45 cm long. Fold the top third of the dough down, brush off the extra flour, and fold the bottom up to cover. You should have a rectangle of dough with three layers. Cover in cling film and allow to rest for 30 minutes. You can speed up the rest time with a brief turn in the fridge, but need to make sure that the butter stays soft.
For the second turn, roll the dough in the opposite direction as before (rolling the open ends out) and complete the turn as the first. Allow to rest for 30 minutes again.
Complete the third turn, same as the second, and allow to rest for 20 minutes.
Once the dough is ready, roll it out on a well floured surface to just larger than a 21 cm x 70 cm rectangle and then cut the edges of the dough to 21 cm x 70 cm. Cut the dough into 30 squares, 7 cm x 7 cm. Using a round cookie cutter, cut 15 circles from half the squares.
Remove the rhubarb from the dish and line up the stalks on a cutting board. Using the same circle cutter, cut circles of the rhubarb, using a small sharp knife if necessary. Cut 15 circles of rhubarb and the chop up any remaining rhubarb to top the scrap pieces.
Brush a little water around the edges of the full squares and top with the ones with the circles cut out. Pipe a bit of the cream in the middle and top with the circles of rhubarb.
For the scrap circles, pipe on a small mound of cream, and top with some of the chopped rhubarb.
Place all the danish on parchment lines trays and sprinkle with some turbinado sugar (demererra sugar) if you like. Cover the trays with upside down plastic bins, or loosely with cling film, and allow to proof for 1.5-2 hours, or until well puffed and you can start to see the layers.
While the danish are proving, preheat the oven to 340°F (170°C).
Bake the danish for 20 minutes, or until golden brown. rotating after 10 minutes if necessary.
Remove from the oven, and allow to cool on racks. If desired, make a simple glaze with water (or milk) and icing sugar, and drizzle over the top.