Episode 2, GBBO 2014, technical challenge

Florentines

Let’s get one thing straight right away: Florentines are not from Florence. The strongest Italian connection I could find is that they were probably created in France as a tribute to the Medici family of Italy, two of whose daughters became queen consorts to French kings — Catherine de’ Medici, who married Henry II in 1533, and Maria de’ Medici, who married King Henry IV in 1600. The most likely origin story is that they were made in the kitchens of Versailles for King Louis XIV, who reigned from 1643 to 1715, on the occasion of a visit from the Medici in-laws.

This delicate, lace-like cookie is traditionally made with almonds and orange flavors, reminiscent of Italian baking, but the use of butter and cream is strong (if circumstantial) evidence of French origins. Some say the clearest indication that it comes from France is the fact that the recipe calls for making a roux of butter and flour, a classic French cooking technique.

Over the years, Florentines have evolved to the point where they come in many different variations. While some recipes — like Mary Berry’s, which we’re making here — contain a variety of dried fruits and nuts, the classic version is made simply with almonds and candied orange peel. Traditionally flat and lacy — the thin batter spreads as it bakes, creating holes in the baked cookie — some of the more modern recipes pile on so much fruit and chunky nuts that the end result is more like a decadent granola bar then an accompaniment to afternoon espresso. Then there is the whole question of chocolate: Should Florentines be dipped or spread, sandwiched or drizzled, or simply left naked? Ultimately, the choice is yours. While Mary’s recipe calls for spreading, she explains on the Masterclass episode of this challenge that painting it on with a pastry brush actually works better. 

Mary’s Florentines were trickier to make than I thought they’d be, but you wouldn’t know it from the recipe. It seemed fairly simple: Chop up the candied fruit and nuts; melt butter in a pan with sugar and golden syrup; combine with flour, fruit and nuts; drop the batter onto cookie sheets and bake. After they’ve cooled, brush one side with chocolate. 

The fussiest part was chopping all the fruit and nuts — and then I forgot to cut up the dried cranberries! My Florentines also weren’t very uniform in size, since I didn’t weigh out the dough. (Mary suggests in the Masterclass that you can estimate it by dividing the dough into thirds and then divide each third into six portions, but apparently my estimation skills leave something to be desired.) The cookies didn’t turn out as “lacy” as Mary described them, either. But then I had to temper the chocolate, which I’m convinced would be my downfall if I were in the Great White Tent.

It’s not that I can’t temper chocolate. It’s just that I can’t seem to do it the traditional way. Perhaps I don’t have the patience, or I didn’t chop my chocolate into small enough pieces. But also, I’ve seen different instructions give different temperatures to which you’re supposed to heat the chocolate — so that’s confusing — and then you have to add more chocolate and stir it until it cools to another temperature, and then warm it up again to the working temperature, making sure it stays within a certain range. I much prefer the “easier method” laid out in this video by America’s Test Kitchen.

So here are a few helpful tips I learned from making this recipe:

  • Do all the prep work ahead of time. There’s a lot of chopping involved, so measure all your ingredients and chop them up ahead of time (and don’t forget to chop the cranberries)!
  • Take the caramel mixture off the heat as soon as the butter melts. This will leave the demerara sugar crystals undissolved, which gives the finished product a satisfying crunch.
  • Give the cookies plenty of room to spread out on the baking sheet, and flatten them with your fingers a bit before baking so they will be uniformly crisp and not chewy in the middle.
  • Leave them on the baking sheets to cool before transferring to cooling racks, since they stiffen up as they cool. If you use silicone baking mats instead of parchment paper to line your baking sheets, it will take longer for them to cool. Be patient!
  • Be sure to chop your chocolate as finely as possible to aid in the melting process. (Some instructions even call for grating or shaving the chocolate.) 
  • Brush the chocolate onto the flat (underside) of each cookie with a pastry brush, and then use a fork or a cake decorating comb to add the wavy lines. (I found that I liked the swirls left by the brush even better!)

You can find Mary’s recipe here, but I’ve adapted it for American bakers below. (I have also adjusted the temperatures she gives for tempering the chocolate, following these instructions from Ghirardelli.com, since Mary’s version didn’t work for me. Feel free to use the easier method demonstrated here.)

Mary Berry’s Florentines

Source: BBC.co.uk
(Adapted for American bakers)

Ingredients

  • 3½ T. butter
  • ¼ c. demerara sugar
  • 2 T. golden syrup
  • 1/3 c. all-purpose flour
  • 2 T. mixed candied peel, finely chopped
  • 3 T. almonds, finely chopped
  • 3 T. walnuts, finely chopped
  • 2 T. dried cranberries, finely chopped
  • 7 oz. plain chocolate (about 70% cocoa)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line three baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.
  2. Measure butter, sugar and syrup into a small pan and heat gently until the butter has melted. Remove from heat and add flour, cranberries, candied peel and nuts to the pan. Stir until well-mixed and all the fruit is coated.
  3. Divide the mixture evenly to make 18 Florentines, spooning by teaspoonfuls onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving plenty of room for them to spread while baking. Flatten them with your fingers or the back of a spoon.
  4. Bake for 8-10 minutes or until golden brown. (Don’t let them get too brown.) Leave them on the baking sheets to cool before transferring to a cooling rack. They will be quite soft when they first come out of the oven but will stiffen up as they cool. If they become too hard to remove from the baking sheets, pop them back into the oven for a few minutes to soften.
  5. To melt and temper the chocolate: Set a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water, being careful not to let the bowl touch the surface of the water. Break two-thirds of the chocolate into the bowl, then stir until the chocolate reaches a melting temperature of 110°-115°F.
  6. Meanwhile, finely chop or grate the remaining chocolate.
  7. Carefully remove the bowl from the pan and stir until the chocolate cools to 95°-100°F. Add the rest of the chocolate and stir until melted.
  8. Brush a thin layer of chocolate onto the flat base of each Florentine with a pastry brush and leave to cool slightly. Use a cake decorating comb or fork to make a zigzag pattern on the chocolate. Leave to set on a cooling rack, chocolate side up. Store in an airtight container.

    Next week: A 3D Biscuit Scene

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