Chocolate peppermint Christmas brownies | Recipe

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This year we’re spending Christmas with my American in-laws, and in the name of embracing new traditions I’m getting pretty into the concept of the cookie party: literally, a party where people get together to eat copious amount of sweet baked goods (something I can definitely get behind!). An American friend shared her amazing and oh-so-simple festive peppermint brownie recipe with me recently, and they’ve been a big hit.

You can use whichever brownie recipe you prefer (my personal favourite is Nigella Lawson’s – lots of melted chocolate, no chocolate syrup) to make the base, but I’ll share the proper American one here.

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For the brownie layer:

– 1 cup flour

– 1 cup sugar

– 1/2 cup butter

– 4 eggs

– 1 1/2 cup chocolate syrup (or melted chocolate)

– 1/2 cup of chocolate drops

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Soften the butter, then beat well with the sugar. Sift in the flour, and then mix in the eggs, one by one. Add the chocolate syrup and the chocolate drops, and then spread in a greased baking tin (approx. 13×9) and bake for around 30 mins (until the mixture feels springy to touch).

For the peppermint layer:

– 1/2 cup butter, softened

– 2 cups confectioner sugar/icing sugar

– 1 tablespoon water

– 1/2 teaspoon of peppermint extract

Sift the sugar into the softened butter, then beat in the water and the peppermint extract. Taste, and if you’d prefer it to be even more minty, go ahead and add a little dash more!

For the chocolate layer:

– 6 tablespoons butter

– 1 cup of chocolate for melting

Melt the butter and the chocolate together in a heatproof bowl over simmering water, stir well, and leave to cool fully, but not set.

When you have made all three parts, simply spread an even layer of the peppermint buttercream over the brownie (making sure the brownie has completely cooled – you don’t want the buttercream to melt!), then spread an even layer of the melted chocolate mixture over that. As a final fun finishing touch, crush up some peppermint candy cane (I found using a mug to do this gently in a high-sided bowl worked better than some more violent methods!) and sprinkle this over the top of the whole thing before letting the chocolate set and cutting it up into small squares. It’s pretty rich, so a little goes a long way.

Enjoy, and have a very happy Christmas next week! xo

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Let’s make the world a better place

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I’ve been talking about a website that I want to create and dedicate to dad for some time now, and now that the Crowdfunder is finally live you can take a look at our plans and help us to make it a reality. Every little helps, and even if you can’t pledge yourself, sharing the link with anyone you think might be interested is so helpful, and very much appreciated! Here’s our campaign video so you can get a quick idea of what we’re all about, but there’s a lot more information on the Crowdfunder project page, here. We also have various beautiful rewards organised to thank people who make pledges, created by the talented illustrator Frances Ives, who will also be involved helping us to design the website and make it truly a thing of beauty when we reach our target.

A Better Place – Crowdfunder from A Better Place on Vimeo.

A Better Place will be a free resource for anyone and everyone to use, a cross between an online lifestyle magazine and a listings and product reviewing website. Our team is based in the UK and the USA, so we will do our best to cover services and products based globally, wherever possible suggesting similar products that are closer to home for people on both sides of the Atlantic.

Several websites and blogs already exist in this field, but nothing that we’ve come across so far covers all areas of life as comprehensively as we would like to, with in-depth articles and discussions of issues as well as extensive product listings and recommendations organised in a logical and aesthically-pleasing manner. The website will be quality-led; what I mean by that is that we will only feature products and services that we think can stand on their own merits as well-designed, useful, and desirable, and that also have a positive impact as a matter of course. We believe that this is the only way that ethical consumerism will ever become truly mainstream. If it’s all ‘fair trade-y’ funny smelling big jumpers and bobble hats, and ‘tribal’ jewellery, it will just remain an elaborate way of donating to charity. I guess you could say that we’re trying to take ‘trade not aid’ to the next level, searching out all the best innovative and positive impact brands and organisations around for you.

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A Better Place will be a website where you can go to inspire a positive lifestyle, whatever your budget. Whatever you need, we will try and present you with attractive ethical versions that compete with the best on the market, so that spending your money well becomes a real pleasure, not a chore.

An English professor of mine once said that sometimes a phrase or an idea strikes you particularly hard and sticks with you for years, niggling away at you. He said that it is like the grit that gets into an oyster, eventually resulting in a pearl. It is an irritant that pushes you to think about a topic particularly deeply, research it, and eventually do something about it. As my oldest friends will tell you, this idea is something that I’ve been a bit obsessed with for over a decade since I was at school and I wrote to Ali Hewson (Bono’s wife and founder of the ethical fashion label, Edun) asking if I could do work experience with her. (She sent me back a very sweet and gracious letter saying that she thought I was a bit young, but thanking me for my interest and encouraging me to stay passionate about ethical trade.)

The name, ‘A Better Place’, was inspired by a conversation with my dad that I had when I was younger; we were on holiday and he was picking up pieces of litter from the sand as we walked along the beach, and I asked him why he was picking up things that he hadn’t dropped. He answered that we had to try and leave the world a better place than we found it. A simple lesson, perhaps, but one that had a big impact on me. The blackberries in the logo were his favourite fruit, and my sisters and I have many happy memories of foraging for the berries together every year. He used to get so gleeful and boyish whenever he saw them, and suddenly dart off into the bushes with a sparkle in his eye, returning with juicy handfuls of the berries.

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I’d love to know what you think, and to answer any questions that you have about our project. If you are an ethical brand yourself, bear in mind that some of the rewards we’re offering for pledges involve various different advertising packages, so do check them out and get in touch at sophie@abetterplacejournal.com if you’d like to discuss these any further.

Thank you so much for your kind support and interest!

The Great British Bake Off-inspired florentines | Recipe

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I’m addicted to The Great British Bake Off. I don’t know why, but I am. I can see very clearly why it should be incredibly dull; pretty much everything about it has stayed the same over the course of its five seasons, from the soundtrack, the challenges, the episode structure and order, to the set inside the legendary Bake Off tent. At some point during pretty much every season someone mistakes salt for sugar, has a disastrous bake with a soggy bottom, or ends up crying quietly into their apron on national television because Mary Berry was disappointed with their flavours.

My husband can’t begin to fathom why I love it so (and I don’t blame him), but he’s realised that I tend to make yummy things during Bake Off season, so he supports me in my addiction. He has even started watching it with me occasionally, alternating between mocking it gently, and putting in requests for things for me to try baking myself. I think he’s even starting to enjoy watching it despite himself.

But you know, I think it is precisely it’s unchanging format and the predictability of the show that makes it so very comforting to watch. It’s so English; it’s like teatime and village fetes and country bake sales and talking about the weather in the corner shop. The judges are exacting, but generally in a polite, British way. And the presenters have a silly, sweet, pantomime-ish humour that adds a large dose of charm to the proceedings; they are always quick to cheer up the underdog when it’s going badly for them, or when their time to leave the tent comes. It’s lovely to get to know each new round of contestants through the stories of the things that they bake. This is reality TV at its gentlest and most unobtrusive.

I also love the way the show encourages me to try out new things. After watching the biscuit round, I decided to try making florentines for the first time – something I’ve enjoyed eating but never tried baking. I combined and adapted a few different recipes because I like my florentines to have a hint of ginger, and they came out really well. Here’s the recipe I used, in case you’d like to try them yourselves.

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Ingredients

– 150g (5oz) unsalted butter

– 175g (6oz) caster sugar

– 4 tablespoons double cream

– 2 tablespoons maple syrup

–  2 teaspoons (approx.) ginger powder

– 50g (2oz) plain flour

– 200g (7oz) flaked almonds

– 3 tablespoons mixed sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and pine nuts

– 100g (3 1/2oz) dried cranberries

– 150g (5oz) good quality dark chocolate

Grease several large baking sheets and preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4.

Combine the nuts, seeds and cranberries with the flour in a bowl. Melt the butter gently in a pan and stir in the sugar. Increase the heat and bring the mixture to the boil, before quickly removing the pan from the heat and stirring in the cream and maple syrup – it should look like a caramel mixture now. Then add the ginger and stir well again.

Pour the caramel-like mixture over the nuts mixture and stir until everything is evenly combined. Now drop evenly sized smallish heaped dollops of the mixture onto the baking sheets, making sure to leave a few inches of space around each one (they will spread like crazy!). Bake in the preheated oven for 7 minutes.

When you take them out, leave the oven on. If they are anything like mine, they will have spread across pretty much the whole tray, but don’t worry – grab a round cookie cutter/mould that is the size you’d like your florentines to be, and shape them into those rounds. The mixture should be very sticky and starting to hold a little, but still malleable enough to shape in the cutter with your fingers and a spoon. I like my florentines to be quite thick, so I packed them pretty densely when I reshaped them. When you’ve shaped them all, put them back in the oven for another 3-4 minutes to bake until they are going golden around the edges.

Remove from the oven and leave them to cool on the baking tray for 5 minutes or so, before putting them in the fridge to finish solidifying. You can break off any bits of the hardened caramel ‘glue’ that has run over to make a more neatly shaped round, if you like. If you don’t have enough baking trays or oven space, you’ll have mixture to spare, so you can now bake up the rest.

Next, melt the chocolate in a bowl over simmering water, and then leave to cool for 10 minutes or so. Lay the florentines out on baking paper upside down, and spread the melted chocolate in a layer over the bottoms. Leave it to cool some more for a few minutes once you’ve spread it, but before it’s is completely set you can drag a fork over the chocolate in several rows to make the traditional wiggly pattern. (I forgot to do this, otherwise I’d include a picture to show you what I mean!) Finally, transfer them carefully, chocolate side still up, to the fridge again so that they can finish setting. You can store them in a tin at room temperature once they have set completely. Enjoy!

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