Cherry Pie

What better reason for trying an exciting new recipe than a visit from lovely family?  None.  My wonderful Mum and her wonderful fella John made a Sunday day trip to see me in London this weekend, which was an absolute joy.  John – a self-confessed foodie – had never experienced the modern day marvel that is Whole Foods so I took them for a jaunt along High Street Kensington to have a mooch around one of my favourite shops of all time.  He was like a kid in a sweet shop, which was a joy to behold!  Bewitched, bewildered and billed, we walked back to my house for a feast of duck with baked honey-balsamic figs, sautéed potatoes and fine beans, followed by home-made cherry pie.

Pastry
250g plain flour
50g icing sugar
150g unsalted butter, cubed
2 egg yolks
4tsp cold water

Cherry filling
800g fresh cherries
100g caster sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
1tbsp lemon juice
½tsp vanilla extract
50g cornflour
½tsp ground cinnamon
good grating of nutmeg

Milk for brushing pastry

Sieve the flour and icing sugar into a bowl, add the butter and rub in with your fingertips until it becomes a sandy consistency.  Add the egg yolks and water, mix up to a soft paste then wrap well and chill for at least 30 minutes.

Pastry stage 1

Pastry stage 1

Pastry stage 2 - sandy consistency

Pastry stage 2 – sandy consistency

Pastry stage 3 - ready to refrigerate

Pastry stage 3 – ready to refrigerate

Pit the cherries.  If you’re brave and have plenty of time on your hands, do it manually.  If you’re sufficiently lazy to buy yourself a cherry pitter (*raises hand*) it’ll take you about 10 minutes.  BE WARNED: however you choose to do it, wear an apron over a short-sleeved top and be prepared for your kitchen to look like a crime scene and your hands to look like prime suspects.  Those juicy little beauties splash.

Cherries - pitted

Cherries – pitted

Throw your pitted cherries in a big bowl and scatter over the sugar, lemon zest and juice, vanilla, spices and cornflour.  Stir through thoroughly, cover and refrigerate for at least an hour to allow the cherries to macerate.

Cherries - ready to macerate

Cherries – ready to macerate

Butter and flour your pie dish.  Halve your pastry and roll out one half between two sheets of cling film.  Peel the top sheet off and use the other to move the pastry to the pie dish.  The pastry will be fragile so be careful not to manipulate it too much.

Pastry case

Pastry case

Give the cherry mixture a good stir, then tip the lot into the pie dish.  Roll out the second batch of pastry and cut fine strips for the lattice top.  Lay the first strip across the middle, then across the middle the other way.  Keep laying strips across, being careful to fold strips back when another needs to be woven underneath.  When you’ve finished weaving the lattice, smush the ends into the edges, then brush with milk and refrigerate for another 30 minutes.  Preheat the oven to 200C.  

Cherry pie - almost there...

Cherry pie – almost there…

Cherry pie - laying the lattice

Cherry pie – laying the lattice

Cherry pie - lattice complete

Cherry pie – lattice complete

Bake for 15 minutes at 200C, then reduce the temperature to 160C and bake for a further 35-40 minutes or until the filling starts to bubble.  If the pastry starts to brown too much, cover loosely with a sheet of foil.

Cherry pie - baked

Cherry pie – baked

Cherry pie - with "slices" taken out

Cherry pie – with “slices” taken out

Cherry pie - a "slice"

Cherry pie – a “slice”

Serve warm, with vanilla ice cream or crème fraîche.  YUM.

Gin & Lime Cake II

In May, I enjoyed a fantastic long weekend in Wales with a dozen friends who were climbing Mount Snowdon for Opera for Change. Its director (and brother of my most fabulous friend, Cat) is the multi-talented Andy, alongside whom I catered the weekend’s meals. We had an absolute blast that weekend. I digress. When Andy’s birthday rolled round (today, in fact) I took the opportunity to give the Gin & Lime cake another bash, hoping to improve upon my first effort. If the reviews are to be believed, I must have achieved my goal.

Sponge
225g unsalted butter, room temperature
350g caster sugar
4 large eggs (I used duck eggs)
Zest of 2 limes – about 1½ tbsp
1tsp vanilla extract
375g plain flour
2tsp baking powder
¼tsp salt
60ml decent gin (I used Tanqueray)
60ml milk
Juice of 1 lime

Syrup
180g caster sugar
5tbsp gin (Now, personally, I think this could have handled more than 5tbsp gin as the flavour was very subtle – next time, I might try 6 or 7.)
Juice of 1 lime

Buttercream
250g unsalted butter, room temperature
375-500g icing sugar, depending on how sweet your sweet tooth is
Zest of 2 limes
Juice of 1-2 limes (start with one and see how your texture is doing – you’ll need to balance the fluid with the icing sugar)

Shopping list tip: a bag of 5 limes will do the job for this cake

Fully line your tin with baking parchment (to prevent the syrup from escaping or making the cake stick irretrievably to the bottom. This recipe works best as a single layer ‘tray-bake’ rather than a stacked cake, so a square or rectangular tin works well. It doesn’t really matter what size you choose as long as you adjust the timing so that you bake it until it’s done. I didn’t fancy schlepping a cake box across town to the pub so I used a broad-based paper carrier bag that had once contained lots of delicious chocolates. In a moment of unprecedented forethought that impressed even my mother (the queen of forethought), I measured the bottom of the bag and made my multisize tin fit (11” x 8” (leaving enough mixture for three small cupcakes (for Quality Control purposes, you understand)). I then discovered – to my delight – that it was almost exactly the size of my placemats, so one of those served as a cake plate. In the words of The A-Team’s stogie-smoking Hannibal Smith: I love it when a plan comes together.

I digress. Again. Preheat your oven to 180C.

Stage 1

Stage 1

Beat your butter until it’s creamy, add the sugar and beat for a good 4-5 minutes, until fluffy and pale. Add one egg at a time, beating thoroughly after each one. Zest the lime directly into the bowl and add the vanilla, then beat again.

Mix the flour, baking powder and salt together in a separate bowl and add half to the butter mixture. From this point onwards, avoid over-beating otherwise your cake won’t be as light as it could be. Beat gently, then add the gin, lime juice and milk, and beat gently again. Finally, add the rest of flour etc and beat just until thoroughly combined.

Pour into your tin and bake for around 35-45 minutes, testing with a skewer to make sure it’s properly cooked.

Oven ready

Oven ready

About 15 minutes into the baking time, put your syrup ingredients in a small saucepan and heat very gently (I have six heat settings on my hob and used the second) for approximately 10-15 minutes, stirring all the time. The idea is that you want the caster sugar to dissolve into the gin and lime juice without burning off too much of the alcohol – it might not all dissolve but the syrup will start to appear clearer, at which point take it off the heat and wait for the oven timer to ping.

Syrup, before heating and after

Syrup, before heating and after

When the cake comes out of the oven, sit it on a cooling rack but leave it in its tin. While it’s hot, stab the cake enthusiastically with a skewer, then use a soup spoon to drizzle the gin syrup all over the cake (if you pour directly from the saucepan, you’re less likely to get even coverage). Leave to soak and cool completely.

Baked sponge - warm, skewered and soaking in gin syrup

Baked sponge – warm, skewered and soaking in gin syrup

Standard buttercream instructions: throw the soft butter in the mixer and give it a good blast until it’s creamy, then sift the icing sugar in. Either mix it in gently with a rubber spatula or cover the mixer with a tea-towel before switching on at a low speed, otherwise a cloud of icing sugar will billow up into your kitchen, which will (a) make you choke and (b) necessitate the immediate recruitment of a white-coat-clad clean-up team. Zest the two limes directly into the bowl and blitz for a good 5 minutes. The longer you beat, the fluffier it will be.

With the employment of a cunning cake-lowering-in-and-lifting-out device made from foil lined parchment and a bit of home-made bunting, the cake was ready for its journey to the pub in Angel.

Bunting-clad, packed and ready for the tube journey

Bunting-clad, packed and ready for the tube journey

I was pleased to see that the mice in this establishment were so refined that they used cutlery to half-inch a bit of cake.

In situ, after the 'mice' had been

In situ, after the ‘mice’ had been

Where there’s a will, there’s a wedding cake…

A few months ago, my Mum’s colleagues Andy and Clare asked me to make their wedding cake.  Having sung at weddings for more years than I care to admit, I’m acutely aware of the honour of being asked to contribute to such an event, and of the significance of every detail to the couple in question.  So after discussing their thoughts, I considered it carefully and decided that – with a trial or two – I could do it.  Andy and Clare are designers, so they care a great deal about the aesthetic and fine detail of every element of their day.  Fortunately, my perfectionist streak and control freakery are irrepressible.

First stop, pink sponge recipe (improved once again)…

Quantities for a 13cm tall 5-layer 20cm sponge:
415g unsalted butter (room temperature)
415g caster sugar
2tsp vanilla extract
415g self-raising flour
3tsp baking powder
2tbsp low fat yoghurt
355g egg white (available in cartons from Two Chicks)
Gel food colourings

For the 14cm tall 5-layer 26cm sponge, I doubled these quantities, baked six sponges and discarded the palest.  You might wonder why I didn’t just split the doubled quantities between five sponges rather than making six and discarding one.  The reasons are twofold: (a) I didn’t want the cake to be so tall that fondant covering became impossible, and (b) I knew I had to mix the doubled recipe in two batches because I could only fit two sponges in the oven at once, and when cake mixture sits for too long before baking, it can go over and yield sub-standard results.  I could get away with leaving one sponge-worth to sit for 20 minutes but not for much longer.  Make sense?  It also gave me the opportunity to Quality Check the sponge and – honestly – this was one of the lightest, fluffiest sponges I have ever baked.

I’m a firm believer that the quality of ingredients has a direct impact on the quality of the result, so I raided Waitrose of its finest goods.

Only the best will do

Only the best will do

In brief, method:
Preheat to 180 (150 fan).  Weigh empty mixing bowl.  Beat butter, sugar and vanilla until almost white and very fluffy.  Add half the flour and baking powder and beat a little.  Add half the yoghurt and beat until combined.  Add the rest of the flour and beat a little.  Add the rest of the yoghurt and beat until combined.  Weigh full mixing bowl, then divide mixture into however many bowls you decide you want.  Whisk the egg white to soft peaks and set aside for a moment.  Thoroughly mix your gel colouring into each bowl as desired.  Split the egg white between the bowls and fold in thoroughly.  Bake 20cm sponges for around 11-13 minutes; 26cm sponges for 17-20 minutes.

26cm sponges ready to be stacked

26cm sponges ready to be stacked

I reduced the sugar in my buttercream because fondant is incredibly sweet and I didn’t want to be responsible for children at the wedding bouncing off the walls until midnight.

For 20cm cake (enough to stack and thinly coat before fondant; not enough for a buttercream finished cake):
250g unsalted butter
375g icing sugar
1-2tbsp whole milk

For 26cm cake (likewise):
500g unsalted butter
750g icing sugar
2-4tbsp whole milk

Beat into submission – 5 minutes or more.  The longer you beat, the fluffier it’ll be.

I did a thin layer (shown below), refrigerated it for ten minutes, then did a slightly thicker layer over the top.

Stacked

Stacked

Now, my mother quite rightly pointed out that Andy and Clare planned to keep the top tier until after their honeymoon, so nobody would ever see a slice from each tier together and therefore colour matching wasn’t a burning issue.  However, aforementioned control freakery dictates that when the newlyweds return and defrost their top tier, they should experience a carbon copy of what they had on Le Jour Grand.  It’s only right, right?  So, I reserved a little splodge of each sponge mixture from the bottom tier so that I could match the top tier to it.  Go ahead.  Judge me.  (N.B. The palest sponge was rejected at the stacking stage.)

Colour matching

Colour matching

Next came fun with fondant.  My NEMESIS.  The fondant for The Big’Un had to be rolled to at least 54cm in diameter (which is only 6cm short of the depth of a standard kitchen worktop, I am told).  Big.  So I used about 2.25kg of Renshaw’s fondant for this one, and about 1.25kg for the 20cm tier.  Wrangling so much fondant at such a massive diameter was really challenging for me, and I can’t say I was entirely happy with the finish but I did the absolute best I could, and the flaws were concealed by the top tier and forgiving lighting.  Thankfully, the top tier was absolutely perfect (even if I do say so myself).

20cm teir, covered with fondant

top tier, covered with fondant

When it came to decorating the bottom tier, Andy and Clare found a gorgeous peony skeleton motif that would tie in beautifully with their fresh peonies.  I drew the motif on grid paper, reduced it by 75% on a photocopier then traced the full sized one onto a long strip of baking paper, flanked by a smaller version either side.  I then pinned this strip to the cake, used a blunt instrument to create a slight indent on the cake so that I could pipe the dots in the right place without the indents being visible.

Tracing the peony design

Tracing the peony design

Skeleton peony detail piped by hand

Skeleton peony detail piped by hand

You’ll notice that the fondant goes all the way to the bottom of the cake.  Beneath is a thick cake drum the exact diameter of the cake itself.  I used a cake lifter to place it carefully on the base of the cake box as soon as I had finished the fondant so that I didn’t need to move it again before I sat it on its gorgeous wooden plinth at the venue.  The slightest misplaced fingerprint could’ve been a significant problem.

At this point, I sat down for a hard-earned gin cocktail.

Gin, Cucumber, Mint and Lime Spritzer

Gin, Cucumber, Mint and Lime Spritzer

The following morning, I woke bright and early, mainly to check that the cakes were still there and hadn’t inexplicably imploded overnight.  A short drive later, I was nervously assembling the cake at the venue with the help of some plastic dowels to make sure the top tier didn’t sink into the bottom.  Finished with a ribbon chosen by the bride herself and some stunning peonies that matched her bouquet, the cake sat in its spotlight.

Stacked, dressed and in situ

Stacked, dressed and in situ

With the bride's bouquet, ready to be cut

With the bride’s bouquet, ready to be cut

In all its glory

In all its glory

My favourite review was given the following morning by almost-three-year-old Maisy:

Maisy’s Mum Lucy: “Did you have a nice time yesterday?”
Maisy: “Yes.”
Lucy: “What was your favourite bit?”
Maisy: “The cake.”

Boom.

A little collage

Gin, Lemon & Lime Cake

Unfathomably (he paid me to say that), my friend Nick just turned 40 so I asked him what variety of baked goodness he might like.  When he chose a lemon cake, I confess that my heart sank ever so slightly, echoing the woeful rise I’ve achieved with previous lemon cake exploits.  A week or two later, another friend and fellow gin fan Lexie sent me a link to a Gin & Tonic cake recipe.  As fortune would have it, Nick rather enjoys a G&T so I decided to try and break the lemon cake curse by throwing gin into the mix.

Personally, I think it’s a little rude to tinker with someone’s carefully crafted recipe before you’ve tried it so I fully intended to give this cake a bash entirely unchanged, but one unexpectedly dead lime, forgetting to buy tonic and the fact that Nick had previously requested lemon buttercream on his lemon cake meant that a little jiggery-pokery was necessary.

(Also, I’ve converted the original cup measurements to metric weights, as I find it easier.)

Cake
375g plain flour
2tsp baking powder
¼tsp salt
225g unsalted butter, room temperature
350g caster sugar
4 large eggs
2tsp vanilla extract
1½tbsp freshly zested rind – ideally from limes, though I had to sub in a bit of lemon
60ml gin
60ml milk
juice of 1 lime

Drizzle
200g icing sugar
2-5tbsp gin
juice of 1 lime

Lemon Buttercream
250g unsalted butter, room temperature
500g icing sugar
zest and juice (approx 2tbsp) of 1 lemon

I followed the brilliant instructions on the original recipe, except I was too late to spot the advice about starting with 1-2tbsp of gin for the glaze; I went all-in with 5tbsp…  And I don’t regret it.

If you bake frequently, I’d encourage you to stick one of these brilliant multisize square cake tins on your Christmas list.  They give pleasingly sharp corners and take up very little cupboard space.  (Middle-aged comment alert.)

A fully lined 10" square tin

A fully lined 9″ square tin

A VERY orange egg yolk (Old Cotswold Legbar)

A VERY orange egg yolk (Old Cotswold Legbar)

Mmmm gin

Mmmm gin

Look closely to see the zest

Look closely to see the zest

Pouring the highly alcoholic glaze

Pouring the highly alcoholic glaze

Cooling and soaking

Cooling and soaking

For the buttercream, beat the butter until soft, then add the icing sugar.  Combine by hand with a rubber spatula before giving it a good beating in the mixer.  Zest the lemon directly into the bowl then add the juice.  Beat again.  I made mine on an extremely hot day so I had to add more sugar to get it to the right texture.

MANLY cake

MANLY cake

Nothing delicate or girly about this monster.  Excellent.

Flavour feedback: fresh, citrus flavour with a delicate but detectable tang of gin if you breathe in right after you take a bite.  A definite winner.

 

Pink Rainbow Cake (New & Improved): A Christening Cake for Tilly

I loved making the pink rainbow cake back in January but I must admit that it was quite high on admin, what with whisking egg whites and folding them in after the colouring process, and I also found the texture to have a slightly more ‘chewy’ quality than I would have liked, so I set about devising a new recipe. I’m delighted to announce that my cakes-perimenting (forgive me) proved worthwhile and this new recipe boasts a delicious flavour, light sponge texture and is white enough to offer a decent pink.

Pink Rainbow Cake Ingredients:
277g unsalted butter (room temperature)
277g caster sugar
277g self-raising flour
2tsp baking powder
238g egg white (15tbsp)
2tsp vanilla extract
1½tbsp low fat yoghurt
Gel food colourings

Method:
Base-line two (or more, if you have them) 20cm loose-bottomed sandwich tins. Weigh your empty mixing bowl and take note of the figure.  Preheat your oven to 180C.

Briefly beat the butter, then add the sugar and beat for a few minutes until pale and fluffy. Sift the flour and baking powder into a separate bowl. In a third bowl, use a fork to blend the egg whites and vanilla extract together. Add a couple of spoonfuls of the egg mixture to the butter mixture and beat, then add a couple of spoonfuls of the flour and beat; continue alternating until everything is in, then add the yoghurt and mix briefly again.

White cake mixture

White cake mixture

Weigh your full mixing bowl and subtract the weight of the empty bowl so that you know how much mixture you have.  Allowing at least a 10g margin for the mixture that will be irretrievable from the bowl, divide your figure into four and weigh the mixture into four small bowls.  Colour each bowl individually, being careful to not to leave any lumps of gel colour unmixed.

Colouring, spreading and baking

Colouring, spreading and baking

Bake in batches, two tins at a time, for approximately 12 minutes per batch. I’d advise baking the darker sponges first to see how much the tops brown; you might decide to cover the paler sponges loosely with foil at the 8 minute mark. If you do this, they might need a couple more minutes in the oven.

When sponges are this shallow, a skewer isn’t necessarily the most sure-fire way to tell if they’re baked. I rely instead on a gentle prod with the pad of my finger – if it leaves a dent and you hear a crackle of bubbles beneath it, the sponge needs a couple more minutes. You can see from the texture whether it’s properly baked or not.

Remove from the oven, carefully run a knife around the edge and remove the sponges from the tins, sliding them onto a wire rack.

Stacked and cooling

Stacked and cooling

Buttercream
I added an extra teaspoon of milk to my buttercream recipe so that it was a little smoother for the purposes of getting a good finish beneath my fondant:

Ingredients:
250g butter, room temperature
675g icing sugar, sifted
2tbsp + 1tsp milk

Method: beat the butter on medium-high for a couple of minutes – it’ll look almost whipped when it’s ready. Add the icing sugar, and (unless you’d like a fine film of icing sugar to cover every surface in your kitchen) either cover the bowl with a tea-towel before putting the mixer on, or combine it slowly with a rubber spatula before blasting it in the mixer. Beat it on medium-high speed for a minute or two, then add the milk one tablespoon at a time. Ambient influences might mean that you need more or less milk than I did so it’s best to add it gradually and see how it feels. The longer you beat the buttercream, the fluffier it will become. I beat mine for up to 10 minutes.

For this cake, I had been asked to fill between each layer with buttercream and jam, so spread a mean layer of buttercream, then used a high quality seedless raspberry jam on top. Against the vibrant pink of the sponges, the jam takes on a brownish hue, but it doesn’t show when the cake is cut so there’s no need to add colouring. If you’re using jam, be aware that it makes your stack of sponges significantly more mobile so keep an eye on the vertical line to avoid getting a Leaning Tower of Cake.

Buttercream and jam

Buttercream and jam

Basecoating with buttercream before fondant covering
I learned something about this recently. I learned that it is 100% worth the effort of clearing space in your freezer to accommodate a cake mid-icing. I did a very thin crumb coat, then put the whole cake in the freezer for no more than 5 minutes – just enough time for the butter to become more solid and adhere properly to the sponge. Then I hoiked it out and applied the second layer, which was then significantly smoother.

Base coat of buttercream

Base coat of buttercream

Covering with Fondant
Next, I measured the cake diameter and walls to determine how big my fondant needed to be. I set the timer for 10 minutes (which is the maximum time the cake could be in the freezer again) and put my smoothly buttercreamed cake back in the freezer whilst I cleared the decks of my miniscule kitchen and prepared everything I needed for the fondant. I had to colour my white fondant pale pink, so I used Trex to grease the inside of the KitchenAid bowl, then threw in 1kg of fondant in hand-torn chunks, together with about a teaspoon of Trex and a tiny bit of Claret gel colouring. I set the dough hook running on the slowest speed and stayed nearby in case it had a tantrum. It coloured the fondant beautifully and I avoided getting any annoying fibres from my clothes embedded into it. Win.

I switched off my halogen hob at the mains (I learned that lesson the hard way), dusted its surface with cornflour (possibly a little too much, because I’m PARANOID about the bloody stuff sticking) and laid my non-stick rolling pin out ready. I very carefully kneaded the fondant and shaped it into a round, then flattened it a bit with the palms of my hands – moving it around the surface all the time – before rolling it to the right size. The timer buzzed, so I got the cake out of the freezer, steadied my shaking hands, rolled the fondant onto the rolling pin and draped it gently but quickly over the cake before dumping the rolling pin and setting to work smoothing the fondant to the cake. It seems the warmth of my hands was enough to soften the buttercream so that the fondant adhered to it. A quick once-over with the smoothing paddles, a trim round the base, a bit of tucking in and I was tickled pink (pun intended).

Tickled pink

Tickled pink

Decoration
The decoration for this cake looks beautifully simple but has its challenges. The first thing I did (a couple of days in advance) was roll out some white fondant, cut and emboss some pretty butterflies with a plunge cutter, then sit them in between the humps of a chocolate mould to dry with their wings up.

Butterflies with their wings folded

Butterflies with their wings folded

Royal Piping Icing:
225g icing sugar, sifted
1 egg white
1 tsp lemon juice
½tsp glycerine

Whisk the egg whites until frothy. Add the sugar a spoonful at a time and fold in with a rubber spatula. Add the lemon juice and glycerine and stir. I then give mine a blast with the KitchenAid to get rid of any lumps and make it nice and smooth.

Assembly
Having tried a couple of other methods (one of which being the ill-fated “freehand”) to get piped icing decorations right, I have discovered that my ability to get things central is a reliably out of whack so this time, I CHEATED. That’s right, folks. I’m a cheat. And I recommend you cheat, too.

I printed Tilly’s name off in a font I liked, then I took one of the 8” greaseproof circles I use to baseline my tins, folded it into six equally spaced sections and traced Tilly’s name with a pen smack bang in the middle, and marked each crease clearly at the edge. I laid the greaseproof circle centrally on the cake and used the blunt tail of a pen to create a faint indent on the top of the cake. I was then able to pipe over this accurately. I used a 1.5 nozzle and went over the letters twice to make the name stand up nicely; I prefer this to using a larger nozzle.

Cheating

Cheating

Feint imprint

Feint imprint

Perfectly central piped name

Perfectly central piped name

Got to be happy with that

Got to be happy with that

Next came the lines for bunting, for which I used a 2 nozzle (if you fit your piping bag with a coupler you can easily switch between nozzles). I found this really tricky and can’t honestly claim to be happy with my result but I am told that I’m my own worst critic so I didn’t lose too much sleep over it.  I popped six of my butterflies on the joins between each swag of bunting and let them set in place.

Bunting swags

Bunting swags

For previous bunting-adorned cakes, I have painstakingly measured my flags by hovering a ruler over the fondant so as not to make dents with it and using a knife to cut each flag. BUT I don’t have to do this anymore because I have an OCD Chef Chopping Board which is, frankly, the best thing ever. Once my flags were done, all I needed was a steady hand and tiny blobs of royal icing to attach the flags to the cake and a white grosgrain ribbon round the base.

Beautiful in its simplicity, I hope you’ll agree.

A Christening cake for a little girl

A Christening cake for a little girl

In all its glory

In all its glory

 

 

Giraffe Number 1 Cake

My lovely friend Jo’s little girl Sophie turns one this month, so Jo asked whether I might have time to bake for her party (which was yesterday). Over a post-rehearsal glass of wine, she mentioned that the theme was safari animals and over the course of the next few seconds we batted back and forth, finishing each other’s sentences to come up with a winning idea: a big number 1 cake decorated as a giraffe! A quick search on Pinterest kyboshed the notion that this was an original idea but this didn’t matter; it merely provided confirmation that it would work.

Having recently used Dan Lepard’s Chocolate Vanilla Marble Cake for Lindsey’s 40th birthday cake, I knew it worked for number tins (besides which, it seemed fitting for the inside of a giraffe) so I plumped for the same recipe rather than an arguably more robust but less interesting vanilla sponge.

Smaller dollops, as mentioned in my blog post about Lindsey’s 40th birthday cake

Smaller dollops, as mentioned in my blog post about Lindsey’s 40th birthday cake

Swirly swirly

Swirly swirly

Buttercream crumb coat

Buttercream crumb coat

The buttercream crumb coat.  It’s not as smooth as I would’ve liked because the cake doesn’t resist the pull of the palette knife very well, so I didn’t want to be overly picky about smoothing and find that I fatally wounded the giraffe.

1.5kg yellow fondant

1.5kg yellow fondant

I coloured a rather hefty 1½kg of fondant in yellow because I didn’t want to leave ANY possibility that I mightn’t have plenty.  It would’ve been awful to feel I had to roll it more thinly than I wanted and find it split as I moved it.  Of course, I have lots left over but that’s fine by me.

A yellow number 1 cake

A yellow number 1 cake

Now, I’m not going to pretend this was easy; it really wasn’t.  I made sure I rolled the fondant to 5-6mm so that it withstood a bit of jiggery-pokery, but all those corners were tricky because they put pressure on the fondant and threatened to make holes.  I had to work pretty quickly, pressing against the walls in a slight upwards direction to prevent the weight of the fondant from creating a tear.  Getting into the inner corner was a total nightmare and if you look closely you can see substantial imperfections, which led to an artistic decision you’ll see later on…

Setting the scene

Setting the scene

I only bought 500g of blue fondant on the grounds that it’s pretty expensive and I was planning to do a tree so I could cover however much board didn’t have blue on it.  I rolled it fairly thinly and made sure that the gap was in one corner, then rolled a randomly shaped bit of green to overlap – it didn’t matter that it was wonky as I knew it’d be covered later.

A tense moment

A tense moment

For reasons that I imagine are obvious, I didn’t ice the giraffe whilst it was on the board, so I used a Wilton cake lifter, a steadying hand and lots of ‘oh-please-don’t-fall-apart’ wishes to move the giraffe into position.

Phew.  A brief lie-down now, I think.

Phew. A brief lie-down now, I think.

Alas, no time for lying down, for now it was time to decorate!  Allow me to introduce you to my model: this is Gerald.

Hello, Gerald.

Hello, Gerald.

I rolled out some chocolate-flavoured brown fondant, which I chopped into random geometric shapes and secured in place with a little egg white painted on the back.  I can’t claim it’s in any way realistic but there’s something pleasing about it nonetheless.

Next, I rolled a ball of the brown and sliced it through just to the side of the middle and reshaped the larger bit for the eye.  I then laid it on a bit of yellow, which I trimmed to be just a little bigger than the brown, and cut an eyelid to fit over the top.  I fashioned something a bit like a Shu Uemura false eyelash, leaving a good amount at the bottom so that I could tuck it under the upper eyelid.  Splishy splashy with egg white, plus a tiny bit of yellow and Bob’s yer uncle: a decadently lashed eye with a cheeky glint.

Lashes (with thanks to Shu Uemura for inspiration)

Lashes (with thanks to Shu Uemura for inspiration)

A giraffe's eye in sugarpaste.  What did you do with your Saturday afternoon??

A giraffe’s eye in sugarpaste. What did you do with your Saturday afternoon??

With lashes like that, it struck me that this was no longer a Gerald.  This was a Geraldine.

With lashes like that, it struck me that this was no longer a Gerald. This was a Geraldine.

Next came a nostril and a simple thin sausage shape for Geraldine’s mouth, which was positioned in such a way that I could use leaves to cover the flaws in the yellow fondant under her chin.  What a cunning plan, Baldrick.

A cunning plan, (Sir) Baldrick.

A cunning plan, (Sir) Baldrick.

A cake of this size takes quite a long time to cool down, so I had used that time to cut out lots of leaves from two different green fondants I happened to have in the cupboard, plus a few orange flowers.  I just positioned them fairly randomly over the green patch, making sure I covered the join and curled a few up the sides of Geraldine’s neck.

For the ears, I cut a leaf-shaped bit of yellow and used the pad of my index finger to press into the palm of my hand and create a cup-like shape.  I popped a little brown in the middle and then placed it in a chocolate mould (an egg cup would do, I expect) so that it dried into the curved shape.  A very simple short, fat yellow cylinder topped with a bit of brown made the horn, which I poked in to the top of Geraldine’s head with a cocktail stick.

Finally, a yellow satin ribbon pinned to the sides of the board and Geraldine was ready to party.

Geraldine, the Number 1 Giraffe Cake.  Literally.

Geraldine, the Number 1 Giraffe Cake. Literally.

What the inside of a giraffe looks like, obv.  Farewell, Geraldine.

What the inside of a giraffe looks like, obv. Farewell, Geraldine.

P.S. In case you’re interested, Geraldine was actually created two weeks in advance, wrapped very carefully in greaseproof paper, then cling film, then foil and placed in the freezer.  About 30 hours before cutting, she was unwrapped and placed in the fridge for 8 hours, then sat on the kitchen counter to defrost entirely.  It seems she didn’t suffer at all for this experience.

Decorating a 30th birthday cake with lace and glitter

To be honest, I don’t think it really matters how you decorate a homemade cake; people tend to be over the moon not to be eating a Colin the Caterpillar cake from Tesco’s, so anything in addition to the homemade flavour is merely a bonus.  That said, it’s rather nice to make an effort for a birthday, especially a ‘big’ birthday.  Our fabulous Australian colleague Lauren turned 30 last month, so I wanted to decorate her cake in suitably stylish manner but was a little short of faff time because I put it together on a school night, so I took my previously blogged-about lace decorating a little step further.

This is a three-layer Devil’s Food Cake with chocolate buttercream.

Drape and dust...

Drape and dust…

Carefully remove lace...

Carefully remove lace…

Print, cut out and lay over the cake...

Print, cut out and lay stencil over the cake…

Dust with edible glitter...

Dust with edible glitter…

Lift off the stencil, then remove the baking paper skirt round the plate...

Lift off the stencil, then remove the baking paper skirt round the plate…

...and TA-DAA!  A classy 30th birthday cake for a classy girl.

…and TA-DAA! A classy 30th birthday cake for a classy girl.

White Chocolate Cheesecake (go large)

A very lovely colleague – Natalie – abandoned us on Friday to move back up to her hometown of Derby.  To bid her a fond farewell and satisfy her sweet tooth, I baked Mary Berry’s white chocolate cheesecake, which was absolutely delicious.  As I was catering for lots of people, I increased the recipe by half as much again and baked it in a 25cm springform tin, which worked beautifully.  So the quantities became:

75g unsalted butter
40g dark chocolate
225g Digestive biscuits

450g white chocolate (I used Green & Black’s)
600g full fat cream cheese (I used Philadelphia)
225ml soured cream
3 eggs
1½ tsp vanilla extract

I followed Mary’s instructions; it came out beautifully and was extremely well received.  A little photo-diary, in case it’s of interest:

Melted dark chocolate and butter for the base

Melted dark chocolate and butter for the base

The lazy girl's method for crushing biscuits

The lazy girl’s method for crushing biscuits

The lazy girl's way of combining biscuits and melted chocolate

The lazy girl’s way of combining biscuits and melted chocolate

Cheesecake base (a soup spoon works beautifully for this, by the way)

Cheesecake base (a soup spoon works beautifully for this, by the way)

Melted white chocolate

Melted white chocolate

Mixed eggs, cream cheese, soured cream and vanilla

Mixed eggs, cream cheese, soured cream and vanilla

White Chocolate Cheesecake (and some token fruit)

White Chocolate Cheesecake (and some token fruit)

Now, I’m rarely enthusiastic about white chocolate and – to be perfectly honest – I’m not exactly a superfan of cheesecake either, but this was rather delicious.  The soured cream balanced out the sweetness of the white chocolate, the texture is light and the chocolate in the base lends a little decadence.  Not that one really needs extra decadence in a dessert that contains 4½ bars of white chocolate…

Salted Caramel Chocolate Tart

I went to a wonderful wedding back in January, which boasted many, many incredible features – one of which being the food.  Pudding was a stunning salted caramel tart topped with chocolate ganache and I promised myself there and then that I would give it a shot.  Four attempts later and I’m ready to share my findings.  It’ll be a relatively lengthy post, this one, so perhaps get yourself a coffee before you start…

Sweet Crumbly Pastry: 
125g plain flour
25g icing sugar
75g unsalted butter, cold
1 egg yolk
2 tsp cold water

Weigh the dry ingredients into a bowl, then rub the butter in with your fingers until it reaches a sandy consistency.  Add the egg yolk and water, and bring the pastry together with your hands into a ball.  Flatten it into a fat disk and wrap it in clingfilm.  Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and prepare your tart ring or loose-bottomed tart tin.

Sweet pastry, rested

Sweet pastry, rested

Tart ring

Tart ring on a lined baking sheet

Most recipes advise you to roll pastry onto a floured surface, but I prefer rolling it onto a sheet of clingfilm.  Sweet pastry is delicate and has a tendency to fall apart when manipulated, so the clingfilm enables you to move it to the tin without it splitting as it can when draped over a rolling pin.  Grab the clingfilm with the pastry on it and tip it upside down over the tart ring.  Leaving the clingfilm attached, carefully press in to the corners, against the ring.

The joy of clingfilm

The joy of clingfilm

Peel away the clingfilm and discard.  Leave the excess pastry draped over the sides so that the walls don’t drop during baking.  Stab the base all over, then refrigerate again for 30 minutes.  Meanwhile, centre a shelf and preheat the oven to 170C.

Sweet pastry case

Sweet pastry case

Line the pastry case with baking paper and fill with baking beans, making sure they push right against the edges to reduce the risk of the pastry shrinking away from the sides.  Bake for 20 minutes.  Slowly remove the paper containing the baking beans, then loosely cover the pastry walls with a thin strip of foil to shield them from browning too much.  Return to the oven for 5-10 minutes, until it’s a nice golden colour.  Remove from the oven, trim the edges and leave to cool.

Ceramic baking beans

Ceramic baking beans

Blind-baked sweet pastry case

Blind-baked sweet pastry case

Trimmed sweet pastry case

Trimmed sweet pastry case

Sea Salted Caramel:
65g whipping cream
1/2 vanilla pod
100g sea salted butter (cubed, at room temperature)
145g caster sugar

N.B. I don’t have photographs of these stages because caramel can transform from all-going-well to absolutely-ruined-start-again in seconds, so I didn’t want to risk ruin by standing around with a camera at crucial moments.  

Remove the seeds from the vanilla pod and drop the seeds and the pod into a small saucepan with the cream.  Bring to a rapid boil, take off the heat then leave on the side to cool a little.

Preheat the base of a second saucepan on a low heat.  Cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of sugar.  When it begins to melt around the edges, gradually add a little more sugar, concentrating on covering the melting sections first.  Continue gradually adding more.  When you want to bring unmelted crystals into the melted sugar, be sure only to stir in tiny circles, never allowing any air to fold in.  Watch for: an amber colour, a fine mist starting to come off the pan, and tiny bubbles in the middle of the pan increasing in speed.

Take the caramel off the heat.  Add a tiny bit of the cream/vanilla (don’t remove the vanilla pod yet), stirring simultaneously.  It will bubble up a lot, so keep your face and hands clear of the steam.  Continue adding cream until it’s all in and smooth.

Once all the cream is in and the caramel has cooled a little, add the butter a few chunks at a time and stir in.  Don’t worry if it looks split at any point; it will emulsify eventually.  Pour caramel into a heat-proof dish (still including the vanilla pod) and leave to cool.

Chocolate Ganache:
230g dark chocolate (I used Green & Black’s 70% cocoa solids), finely chopped
250g double cream
60g unsalted butter, room temperature

Place the chopped chocolate in a bowl large enough to hold all the ingredients.  Bring the cream to the boil.  While the cream is heating, work the butter until it is very soft and creamy and leave to one side.

When the cream is at a full boil, remove from the heat and – working with a rubber spatula – gradually stir the cream into the chocolate.  Work SLOWLY, starting in the middle in tiny circles, and gradually widening out to the edges.  Continue this pattern, without creating bubbles, until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth.  Leave the bowl to cool for a few minutes before adding the butter in two batches, stirring in the same pattern as before.

Tip: rescuing split chocolate ganache
Making chocolate ganache can be really tricky as it’s sensitive to things like room temperature, the speed of stirring and all sorts.  If it splits (you’ll see fats separating out of the chocolate and the texture will be odd), don’t panic; you can probably still rescue it.  Leave it in its bowl and pop it in the fridge for about 15-20 minutes.  The fats will have settled and partially solidified on the surface so it’ll look awful.  Take your clean rubber spatula and give it a good stir.  It should come together.  You may find a few tiny spots of butter, which are easily plucked out and discarded.  Don’t refrigerate it again as you’ll need it at a spreadable consistency.

Assembly:
Very simple, really.  Depending on the equipment you’ve used, make a decision about whether it would be better to leave the pastry case in the tin/ring so that the walls have support or to remove it now before it has been filled.

Pour the caramel into the pastry case and distribute evenly, all the way to the edges.  Gently spread the ganache over the top, being careful not to push down and displace the caramel.

(Your caramel will look more even and liquidy than this because mine had cooled a little too much so I had to spread it manually with a palette knife – but it was still gorgeously gooey when we cut into it.  Yours should be a pour-able consistency.)

Sea salted caramel

Sea salted caramel

Salted caramel chocolate tart

Salted caramel chocolate tart

If you like, you can finish with a dusting of icing sugar or grating chocolate over the top.  Cover with an upturned bowl or a cake box lid and leave at room temperature to set into a sumptuous texture.

Salted Caramel Chocolate Tart Slice

Salted Caramel Chocolate Tart Slice

This final photograph was an earlier – good but not quite as good – version but the picture is far superior to anything I could take so I’m posting it anyway.  (Thanks, Andy.)

Salted caramel tart slice (attempt 3)

Salted caramel tart slice (an earlier attempt)

A joyful, colourful 40th birthday cake

I would like to open this post with an apology for the handful of dedicated readers among you who might feel a little short-changed, owing to my recent radio silence.  I beg your forgiveness.  I have been baking and cooking like a machine but have failed to find the time to blog about it all, which I hope to rectify in the coming weeks.  So, with that awkwardness behind us, I move on the highly important subject of a very special friend’s very special birthday…

My vivacious, glamorous friend Lindsey recently turned 33 (+VAT) and asked me to create a cake for her party.  She set very few criteria, provided some ideas and then let me run with it.

Criteria:
1. quality of bake and flavour must be greater than or equal to aesthetic impact
2. go easy on tooth-enamel-dissolving sweetness; needs to taste ‘grown up’
3. to serve approximately 75 people

Ideas / Relevant Information:
1. Lindsey’s childhood birthday cakes were always shaped as the relevant number
2. Lindsey put together a Pinterest board featuring lots of colour, miniature bunting, hundreds & thousands etc

I leafed through my numerous books and flicked through several websites before choosing Dan Lepard’s vanilla chocolate marble cake recipe, which he paired with crème fraîche icing.  From the recipes I had studied, this one was by far the most promising in the ‘grown up’ flavour department.  I also hired a couple of huge number tins – a ‘4’ and a ‘0’, each measuring 14″ x 10″ – from the lovely people at La Cuisiniere in Clapham.  Some head-scratching maths and a pinch of guesswork concluded that I should quadruple the recipe for each tin.  So, it went something like this:

These quantities are for one 14″x10″ number tin (double it if you’re doing two tins, obv):
400g unsalted butter
100ml sunflower oil
300g crème fraîche
700g white caster sugar
4 tsp vanilla extract
8 medium eggs
400g dark chocolate (I used Green & Black’s 70% cocoa solids)
200ml milk
800g plain flour
8tsp baking powder

For the method, follow that link above and use the instructions straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

Epic marble cake - the cast

Epic marble cake – the cast

The lovely lady in the cake tin shop assured me that buttering and flouring each tin would be sufficient to get the cakes out, but is this a risk one really wants to take?  Within the realms of occasion cake baking, can you imagine anything more heartbreaking than making a HUGE sponge mixture perfectly, baking it perfectly, cooling it properly and then screwing the whole thing up because it wouldn’t come out of the tin??  No.  If ever a baking situation called for figurative belt, braces and a good elasticated waistband, this is most definitely it.

Belt, braces and elasticated waistband

Belt, braces and elasticated waistband

I had the benefit of two KitchenAid jugs, so mixed up a vanilla batch in one, covered it tightly with clingfilm and left it in a cool room while I mixed up a chocolate batch (if you do this, bear in mind that you’re halving everything above for each batch except the chocolate and the milk, the entire quantity of which goes into the chocolate mixture).  

KitchenAid earning its keep

KitchenAid earning its keep

Chocolate sauce ready to go into the cake mixture

Chocolate sauce ready to go into the cake mixture

Ready to marble...

Ready to marble…

Having seen a slice chopped out of these now, in hindsight I would marble them a bit more enthusiastically.  I tried to get a good mix of the two flavours throughout whilst maintaining definition between them but one or two slices still came out mainly chocolate, which wasn’t ideal.  Next time, I’ll use smaller spoons and checkerboard three or four layers of small blobs, marbling each layer before spooning out the next.

The first layer of marbling on the '4'

The first layer of marbling on the ‘4’

Filling quite close to the top to guarantee the right depth of sponge

Filling quite close to the top to guarantee the right depth of sponge

I filled the tins right up to just about an inch short of the top edge so that the sponges would rise above the tin but not overflow.  I then trimmed the top off so that I knew that each sponge would be the same height.  Conveniently, I had enough mixture left over to make myself a couple of “quality control” cupcakes.

Quality Control muffins

Quality Control cupcakes

I baked each tin at 180 for 1 hour (rotating at the 30 minute mark), then tested with a skewer.  At this point (with both tins), I reduced the temperature to 160 and baked for a further 10 minutes.  Leave them to cool entirely in their tins to reduce the amount you need to schlep them around.  Also, don’t underestimate how long it’ll take these beauties to cool down before you ice them.

I covered two boards with rolled fondant (I would get fatter boards next time, because these are a little too flexible for the amount of manipulation they had to endure – the fondant covering suffered for all the messing about).  I splatted a few blobs of icing onto the top of each sponge before turning them onto the boards so that they didn’t slide off while I decorated.  That would’ve just about ruined my day.

A nerve-wracking moment

A nerve-wracking moment

A small flaw, but a really annoying one

A small flaw, but a really annoying one

When I tipped the ‘4’ out onto the board, a small chunk of chocolate sponge came away (marked in the above photograph), so I thought little of it and patched it back on with icing.  Sadly, the texture of the sponge and the consistency of the icing didn’t really lend itself well to a patch job.  I battled (gently) with this little spot before finally conceding that it would never be perfect but could be concealed with decoration later.

I mixed up a triple batch of Dan Lepard’s crème fraîche icing for each cake, which was 225g crème fraîche to approximately 850g-1kg icing sugar, depending on the consistency you’re after. Decorating the ‘4’ cake took me two solid hours.  This is partly because it was really fiddly, but also because I made the icing too thick – I used less icing sugar for the ‘0’ cake and it was a much quicker exercise.

About an hour in to the application of sprinkles

About an hour in to the application of sprinkles

I popped the ‘4’ onto my tilting turntable and covered the whole cake with a thin layer of icing.  The surface area was so huge that by the time I had covered the whole cake, the bit I did first had dried, so in order to make the hundreds and thousands stick, I had to dampen it down a little and smooth it out.  When it comes to the technique of sticking hundreds and thousands to vertical surfaces, I wish I could claim to have a miraculous technique to share.  I do not.  But what I will tell you is that there is as much skill in managing the hundreds and thousands that roll or bounce off the cake as there is in managing the ones you get to stick.  I placed my empty (and clean) grill pan under the lowest bit of the turntable in the hope of catching as many as possible, but there were still THOUSANDS all over my kitchen (many of which are still in residence behind my fridge… must pull that out…).

A small representation of rogue sprinkles

A small representation of rogue sprinkles

It was virtually impossible to cover the inside edges of the ‘4’ with sprinkles because the space is so tight, and extremely difficult to get a smooth finish on the icing (especially in the aforementioned damaged bit) so I had to cut my losses and rely on soft evening lighting to help me get away with it.

Move along; nothing to see here

Move along; nothing to see here

I had my technique down by the time I got to the ‘0’.  I used the world’s tiniest non-stick palette knife to slather icing smoothly on a patch of cake, quickly slapped it with sprinkles and overlapped the edges of that patch to do the next.  I even managed to get sprinkles all over the inside walls but – of course – couldn’t retrieve the fallen ones in the middle so they just happily rolled around.  I did briefly consider disinfecting my vacuum cleaner nozzle and getting in there, but then envisaged the ones that were beautifully stuck to the cake lifting off and shooting into the Hoover so I decided against that.  Instead, I blew up a few tiny balloons and squooshed them into the middle gaps to cover a multitude of sins.

Ta-daaa!

Ta-daaa!

In case you’re interested, for the bunting, I covered two bamboo skewers with colourful washi tape, then used a craft knife to cut out coloured card and stamped a festive message on it.  A couple more tiny balloons (creatively held in place with hair grips as I forgot to take cotton) and hey presto!  A 40th birthday cake FULL of childish joy and colour, whilst packing a serious ‘grown up’ flavour.  WIN.