Adventures with gluten-free flour, chapter 1: Banana & Chocolate Bread

Well, firstly, in the interests of full disclosure, it’s an absolute cheat to call this “bread” just because it’s baked in a loaf tin. Make no mistake, for this is CAKE.

I recently – and undoubtedly temporarily – gave in to the sure knowledge that wheat is not my friend. I’ve known for many years but, y’know, wheat is in, like, cake. Delicious cake. And bread. And pasta. And tortilla wraps. And pitta. And pretty much everything I love. In order to soften the blow, I have embarked upon experiments with wheat-free flour to see whether I can still make delicious treats whilst respecting what my body is trying to tell me. As my first stop on this particular adventure, I chose something quite high in richness and flavours derived from ingredients other than the flour: banana and chocolate bread (cake).

175g unsalted butter
175g sugar, sifted (roughly half soft light brown, half golden caster)
2 large eggs (from happy chickens)
1tsp vanilla extract
175g gluten-free plain white flour, sifted
1.5tsp baking powder
pinch salt
2 old bananas, peeled and mushed
175g dark chocolate, finely chopped

Banana & Chocolate Bread - kit form

Banana & Chocolate Bread – kit form

Preheat the oven to 170C and line a loaf tin with a strip of baking paper.

This is the flour I used, which I bought from Tesco’s for £1.70 (1kg). It’s a carefully calculated combination of rice, potato, tapioca, maize and buckwheat (which, in the same way that chickpeas do not contain chicks, does not contain wheat).

Banana & Chocolate Bread - gluten-free flour

Banana & Chocolate Bread – gluten-free flour

So, pretty standard method. Beat butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. In a mug/jug, use a fork to break up the eggs and vanilla extract. Add to butter mix one tablespoon at a time, beating between each addition. As you approach the end of the egg, chuck in a bit of flour to prevent it splitting as you beat. Sift in the rest of the flour, baking powder and salt, and beat until just combined. Gently stir in the mushed banana and chopped chocolate. Load the mixture into the lined tin, chuck it in the oven for an hour (it might need a little longer – check it with a skewer). Have a peek at it about half-way through baking and loosely lay a bit of foil over the top to stop it colouring too enthusiastically.

Banana & Chocolate Bread - cake mixture

Banana & Chocolate Bread – cake mixture

Banana & Chocolate Bread - chopped chocolate

Banana & Chocolate Bread – chopped chocolate

Banana & Chocolate Bread - mashed banana

Banana & Chocolate Bread – mashed banana

Banana & Chocolate Bread - oven-ready

Banana & Chocolate Bread – oven-ready

Banana & Chocolate Bread - baked

Banana & Chocolate Bread – baked

I’m delighted to report that the difference between this and its wheat-rich sibling is negligible.  Well worth a bash.  Yum.

Banana & Chocolate Bread

Banana & Chocolate Bread

Easter Weekend: an embarrassment of riches

I always feel that the four-day Easter weekend – much like New Year’s Eve – comes with a pinch of pressure to Make It Count.  Rather than subject myself to the inevitable rail-engineering-works-bus-replacement-induced rage that comes hand-in-hand with visiting my family at this time of year, I chose to stay in London.  I planned only one thing in advance and left the rest of the weekend wide open.  It paid off.  I had four of the most rewarding, restorative days I can remember.  Highlights included:

Fabulous dinner with Mike and Michelle (long-serving readers might remember that it was these lovely folks who introduced me to the life-changing phenomenon of Christmas Pie) and George.  I even managed to get there early enough to meet their beautiful, smiley baby daughter Eva before bedtime.  They cooked up an absolute storm, including homemade smoked mackerel pâté, Yotam Ottolenghi’s chicken with Jerusalem artichokes, shallots, saffron and other delicious things, finished with a totally sinful and yummy trifle.  I have rarely felt so full.

Discovering that I’m not quite as hopeless with a needle and thread as I had always believed.  I had bought a navy jacket which I liked, but which fit everywhere except the ribs, where it bagged far too much (smug face).  So, after trying on about a dozen other jackets and finding nothing I liked more, I stared my ineptitude in the face, gritted my teeth, furrowed my brow and dug out my rather sparsely furnished sewing kit.  Not only did I successfully tailor the jacket to nip in at the ribs (ahem, don’t look at the lining, ahem), I also customised it.  Gok would be impressed.  Actually, he probably wouldn’t be, but my Mum is, and that’s good enough for me.

Discovering that Kensington High Street was a ghost-town on Easter Sunday but that the gorgeous art shop was open, and a perfect place to indulge my creative side with some quiet browsing.

Using up leftover Christmas giftwrap to make three large origami boxes for organising my sock drawer.  I realise this seems unfeasible.  Something that NO NORMAL PERSON WOULD EVER DO.  I did it.  And I rather enjoyed it.

Completing a brilliant bread baking class at the Notting Hill branch of Jamie Oliver’s Recipease with my buddy Cat.  It’s utterly fantastic – book yourself a lesson if you have the chance.  The place is custom-designed for these classes and you get to take home a bounty of wheaty-goodness.  They even feed you a bacon sarnie (made from the bread rolls you baked) while you wait for your loaves to bake.  Amazing.

Recipease spoils: white bloomer, white rolls, focaccia and white bread filled with Parma ham, sundried tomatoes, olives, Camembert and rosemary

Recipease spoils: white bloomer, white rolls, focaccia and white bread filled with Parma ham, sundried tomatoes, olives, Camembert and rosemary

Recipease spoils: white bread filled with Parma ham, sundried tomatoes, olives, Camembert and rosemary

Recipease spoils: white bread filled with Parma ham, sundried tomatoes, olives, Camembert and rosemary

So, it’s now Easter Monday evening and I am spending my time glued to my iPhone, anxiously awaiting news of my dear friends Liz and Olly, whose baby girl is considering relocating from the comfort of The Mother Ship and taking up residence amongst the rest of us.  It’s taken her longer than anticipated to make her move – these decisions are important, after all – so we are all very impatient to meet her.  Come on, Tiny Person.  It’s time.

Pink Macaroons

There are some very good reasons why places like Ladurée charge a small fortune for their beautiful, uniform, delicious macaroons.  One of those reasons is the fact that it’s exceedingly difficult to make a decent batch yourself at home.  I’ve made chocolate macaroons several times with varying degrees of success, but never have I been moved to throw a batch in the bin.  Pink ones, however…

My gorgeous cousin Lucy (aged 11) gave me a beautiful book by Peggy Porschen for Christmas, which is packed full of delightful recipes and decorative ideas to which I aspire.  Ms Porschen’s macaroons jump off the page as tiny squidgy circles of joy, so I chose her recipe for this project.  Contrary to the chocolate recipe I had used, this one called for an Italian meringue base, which requires a sugar thermometer.  I don’t have a sugar thermometer but I found myself uttering the question, “Meh.  What’s the worst that can happen?”  I really should know myself well enough by now to know that this is when I should down tools and either procure a sugar thermometer or choose a different recipe.  I didn’t.  Can you see where this is heading?  I’ll take you on a whistle-stop tour of things I did wrong, then we’ll get to the second attempt…

Pink Macaroons - meticulous circles drawn on baking paper

Pink Macaroons – meticulous circles drawn on baking paper

Pink Macaroons - boiling sugar for Italian meringue

Pink Macaroons – boiling sugar for Italian meringue

Absence of sugar thermometer necessitated some educated guessing.  No idea whether this was a problem or not.  If it was, I suspect it was quite far down the list…

Pink Macaroons - Italian meringue (FAR too pale pink)

Pink Macaroons – Italian meringue (FAR too pale pink)

Peggy Porschen’s recipe tells you to reserve 1tbsp of egg white and colour that before adding it to the Italian meringue, which is fine if you know what impact your colouring is going to make.  Sadly I wildly underestimated how much colour I’d need so the pink was far too pale, and then browned in the oven.  So I got a rather insipid peachy colour.  Hurrumph.

Pink Macaroons - a vain attempt to get a bit more colour into the macaroons

Pink Macaroons – a vain attempt to get a bit more colour into the macaroons

Pink Macaroons - piped and ready to go

Pink Macaroons – piped and ready to go

Pink Macaroons - fail

Pink Macaroons – fail

So, I was annoyed about the colour and that was entirely my fault, but I was more annoyed by the lack of characteristic foot on the bottom of the macaroons.  These were just fairly bland mini meringues.  Hurrumph (again).

On to my second attempt, for which I sought a different recipe that bore more resemblance to the chocolate recipe of Pierre Hermé with which I was already familiar.  This recipe was courtesy of the fabulous and reliable Pink Whisk.

Wounded from my previous failure, and therefore even more suggestible than usual, I was helpless against the claim on The Pink Whisk website that it is nigh-on impossible to make macaroons without a food processor.  As I’ve “needed” one a few times recently, it seemed a justifiable spoil (and it was the cheapest I could find).

Pink Macaroons - whizzing the ground almonds and icing sugar in my impulse purchase

Pink Macaroons – whizzing the ground almonds and icing sugar in my impulse purchase

Pink Macaroons - colouring the egg white

Pink Macaroons – colouring the egg white

Pink Macaroons - folding the sifted dry ingredients in

Pink Macaroons – folding the sifted dry ingredients in

Pink Macaroons - ready to pipe

Pink Macaroons – ready to pipe

I did follow the instructions to the letter, but I suspect I may have folded  a few too many times, so my lovely pink macaroons are a little flat and a little larger than I had intended.  Not bad, though, eh?

Pink Macaroons - piped (slightly slapdash)

Pink Macaroons – piped (slightly slapdash)

Pink Macaroons - feet!  They have feet!

Pink Macaroons – feet! They have feet!

Pink Macaroons - sandwiched

Pink Macaroons – sandwiched

Well.  They’re not perfect, but I am rather pleased with them nonetheless.

Update (1 April 2013):
And here they are in all their glory, as part of the Scarlett Willow photo-shoot…

Scarlett Willow Walnut Tray with light blue edge (coming soon)

Scarlett Willow Walnut Tray with light blue edge (coming soon)

Vanilla Cupcakes

Sometimes, it’s the most straightforward tasks that present the most significant opportunity for failure.  I was asked to provide a dozen cupcakes for a photo shoot, which would be appropriate for a shot with children.  While I didn’t fail, per se, I can’t honestly say I was delighted with my efforts.  I stupidly used cases that were too tall for my taste, and I inexplicably shook like a leaf whilst trying to get a nice swirl on the tops, so they aren’t perfect.  Which they should have been.

I’ve used so many vanilla cupcake recipes over the years that I can never remember which is best, so I just went for a one egg Victoria sponge mix, adding just ¼tsp vanilla extract.  I whizzed up a small batch of vanilla buttercream, and coloured it to tone with the sprinkles I had selected for the job.  (Incidentally, had these been for a children’s party, I would have selected bolder sprinkles but I had a variety of considerations for these, primarily the fact that these cupcakes are to be props, and not the main event, so should not even attempt to upstage the products by which they will be surrounded.)

Vanilla Cupcakes - regretting the massive paper cases...

Vanilla Cupcakes – regretting the massive paper cases…

You’ll need to look really closely, but in that teacup are some of the multicoloured sprinkles, with which I wanted to tone the buttercream.  (Yes, there’s an argument to suggest I have too much time on my hands.)

Vanilla Cupcakes - mixing buttercream to tone with sprinkles

Vanilla Cupcakes – mixing buttercream to tone with sprinkles

I double-cased these cupcakes because I’ve quite enjoyed that effect when I’ve seen photographs of other people’s, but these were so huge that I didn’t think it worked so I removed them.  I do wonder whether they helped them to bake more evenly, though.

Vanilla Cupcakes - buttercream application

Vanilla Cupcakes – buttercream application

Vanilla Cupcakes - swirly

Vanilla Cupcakes – swirly

Vanilla Cupcakes - sprinkled

Vanilla Cupcakes – sprinkled

Update (1 April 2013):
And here is one vanilla cupcake with the gorgeous little Isabel, as part of the Scarlett Willow photo-shoot…

Personalised Kiddiwinks placemat from Scarlett Willow

Personalised Kiddywinks placemat from Scarlett Willow

 

Carrot Cake & Cream Cheese Icing

I used to dislike carrot cake intensely.  I simply couldn’t see the point of it.  Why use up all those calories on something that makes a pathetic attempt to appear vaguely healthy, when you could use them on some perfectly decadent chocolate-y goodness instead?  I held fast to this opinion for a very long time, until my dear, dear friend Sara asked me to bake a carrot cake for her birthday a few years ago, and I took a slice – largely to check that I hadn’t done something stupid like use salt instead of sugar.  As it turns out, carrot cake is delicious, and it has since become one of my most popular cakes, converting many a carrot cake cynic along the way.

Some may find it controversial that I omit walnuts from my carrot cake but I tend to avoid using nuts in all situations in which I don’t know each and every person for whom I am catering.  One only need accidentally feed someone with a nut allergy pesto (which contains pine nuts) once to learn that particular lesson.  She was fine, incidentally, but I shaved a good decade off my own life expectancy with that particular moment of idiocy.

300g soft light brown sugar (sifted – it can get lumpy)
3 large eggs (from happy chickens, please)
300ml sunflower oil
300g plain flour
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
1tsp baking powder
1tsp ground cinnamon
½tsp ground ginger
½tsp salt
¼tsp vanilla extract
300g fresh carrot, peeled and finely grated (approximately 3 medium-large carrots)

100g unsalted butter (room temperature)
600g icing sugar
250g full fat Philadelphia cheese (straight from the fridge)

Preheat the oven to 170C and base-line three 20cm sandwich tins.

Weigh out the dry ingredients (sugar in one bowl; everything else in another), and grate the carrot very finely in a third bowl.  I use a Microplane fine grater so that the carrot is reduced almost to mush, and it melts into the texture of the cake.

Carrot Cake - kit form

Carrot Cake – kit form

Throw the eggs, sugar and oil into the mixer and blitz it until it looks a bit like glue.

Carrot Cake - glue

Carrot Cake – glue

Add the other dry ingredients in three batches, beating thoroughly after each addition.  When everything is in, fold the carrot in thoroughly with a rubber spatula.  The mixture will be much more fluid than most.  Pour into the three tins, and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the sponge bounces back when touched.

Carrot Cake - batter

Carrot Cake – batter

Carrot Cake - ready for baking

Carrot Cake – ready for baking

Leave the cakes in the tins to cool slightly before turning out on to a wire rack.

Carrot Cake - cooling

Carrot Cake – cooling

When you’re ready to make the icing, put your icing sugar in the jug, and chuck in the butter in little blobs. Cover the top of the bowl with a tea towel before setting the mixer running on its slowest setting. Mix until it looks like the texture of sand / breadcrumbs. Throw all the cream cheese in at once, cover the bowl again and mix on slow until combined. Then remove the towel and hike the speed up to medium-high for 3-5 minutes until the icing is lovely and fluffy. Watch and listen to it carefully, and be VERY careful not to over-mix it, as it will become sloppy.

Before you start with the icing, I’d recommend cutting up about 6 pieces of baking paper and slotting them between the bottom sponge and the serving plate.  This way, you can slop it about to your heart’s content and you won’t have to clean the plate when you’ve finished.

Carrot Cake - construction

Carrot Cake – construction

Carrot Cake - look at that lovely texture

Carrot Cake – look at that lovely texture

I’d also recommend doing a thin layer of icing over the whole cake and refrigerating it for 15 minutes or so before doing the final layer.  This way, you’re less likely to have sponge crumbs ruining the appearance of your silky icing.

Carrot Cake - crumb layer

Carrot Cake – crumb layer

Carrot Cake - swirly

Carrot Cake – swirly

Carrot Cake - complete with little pearly bits

Carrot Cake – complete with little pearly bits

Carrot Cake - jus' chillin'

Carrot Cake – jus’ chillin’

Carrot Cake - slice

Carrot Cake – slice

This cake was for a photo-shoot, so I hope to be able to half-inch a professional shot of a slice or something when the results come in – watch this space.

Update (1 April 2013):
And here it is, as part of the Scarlett Willow photo-shoot…

Personalised Aprons from Scarlett Willow

Personalised Aprons from Scarlett Willow

 

Pistachio, Chocolate & Apricot Tartlets with Pistachio Macarons

Oh, how I love a good dinner party.  I particularly love throwing them, as it gives me the opportunity to try new things, though I tend to chuck in something tried and tested so that we have something to eat if my experiments are unmitigated disasters.  Yesterday evening, my unsuspecting guinea pigs were my good friends and Coro colleagues Angharad, Freddie, Cat, Robbie and Richard, and their menu was as follows:

Starter: seared scallops served with crispy pancetta, lambs lettuce, homemade salsa verde and roasted cherry tomatoes (chosen because I’d never cooked scallops before)
Main: Boeuf Bourguignon served with seasonal purple sprouting broccoli, mange tout and fresh bread (this was the tried and tested bit, which was made using a combination of Raymond Blanc’s recipe and one I had used a few years ago, the source of which I forget)
Cheese: delicious artisan cheeses from The Handpicked Foodstore, which included Farleigh Wallop Goat’s Cheese by Alex James (creamy, tangy, yum), Perl Las Organic blue (strong yet subtle) and a slow-baked Calabrian fig ball, which is an amazing accompaniment – I strongly encourage you to try it.  I also picked up a nice stinky Brie de Meaux and a British cheddar to complete the set.
Pudding: Chocolate mousse tartlets on pistachio pastry, topped with glazed apricot and served with a pistachio macaron.

Sadly, as my iPhone serves both as camera and DJ in my world, I couldn’t take photographs of all the food without interrupting proceedings so I’ll focus mainly on the pudding, but I just want to share a photo of how the boeuf started out… (bear in mind that there is another chunk of beef of the same size hiding beneath the one you can see):

Boeuf Bourguignon, stage 1

Boeuf Bourguignon, stage 1

[To get an idea of scale, bear in mind that blue bowl measures approximately 30cm across.  Yes.]

So.  Pudding.  Now, I shan’t mislead you, dear reader.  This was neither a straightforward nor quick pudding to make, but by goodness was it worth the effort.  It all started with pistachio pastry cases.

240g plain flour
65g raw pistachios (without shells)
50g caster sugar
125g unsalted butter, cold
1 large egg yolk
45-60ml water, cold

I don’t have a food processor, so I used the little bowl attachment for my stick blender to blitz the pistachios into dust, then combined them with the sifted flour and sugar, stirring them through with a fork.  Then I started rubbing the butter into the dry mixture before blitzing it in small batches to make it a sandy consistency.  I stirred in the yolk, then added the water a little at a time until the pastry started to come together.  Once I had formed it into a bowl, I wrapped it in cling film and chilled it for an hour or so.

Pistachio Pastry - chilled

Pistachio Pastry – chilled

Now, you’ll notice that I’ve prepared the work surface as though I planned to roll it out, which I did, but I realised very quickly that this isn’t the kind of pastry you can roll out, so I tore off chunks and pressed them carefully into the tartlet cases with my fingers, using a sharp knife to remove the excess that came up above the edges.  I tried to make the pastry fairly thin so that it didn’t overwhelm the pudding.

Pistachio Pastry - filling the cases

Pistachio Pastry – filling the cases

Pistachio Pastry - pricked

Pistachio Pastry – pricked

I pricked the bases with a fork, then added baking paper and baking beans, baked for 10 minutes at 210C, then removed the baking beans and baked for a further 5 minutes until they were crisp and golden.  (As a side note, I HATE baking beans.  Or rather, I hate how inept I am at using them – I always manage to lose control of them as I remove them, and end up chasing the tiny fiery spheres around my kitchen.)

Pistachio Pastry - filled with tiny fiery spheres

Pistachio Pastry – filled with tiny fiery spheres

Next, I made the chocolate mousse, which is a wonderfully simple and reliable recipe from the French patisserie genius, Pierre Hermé:

170g dark chocolate (the best you can get your paws on)
80g whole milk
1 large egg yolk
4 large egg whites
2tbsp caster sugar

Melt the chocolate in a bain-marie, using a large bowl that will hold all the ingredients.  Set aside to cool a little.  Heat the milk in a small pan until it reaches boiling point, then pour it over the chocolate and gently combine with a small whisk.  Add the egg yolk and stir through just until it’s incorporated.  Whisk the egg whites to soft peaks, then hike up the speed and gradually add the sugar while it’s still whisking, continuing to firm peaks.  Add a third of the egg whites to the chocolate and beat in to lighten the mixture.  Then use a rubber spatula or metal spoon to fold in the rest of the white – be gentle and try not to lose too much air.

Chocolate  Mousse - melted chocolate and boiling milk

Chocolate Mousse – melted chocolate and boiling milk

Chocolate Mousse - folding in the egg whites

Chocolate Mousse – folding in the egg whites

Chocolate Mousse - filled cases

Chocolate Mousse – filled cases

(You’ll notice there was enough mousse left over for a cheeky little “test” portion.)

These went in the fridge for a few hours, so in the meantime I made the pistachio macarons.  This was somewhat experimental as I didn’t find a recipe I liked online, so I adjusted Pierre Hermé’s chocolate macaron recipe and crossed my fingers that it would work.  I made half a batch, which yielded about 32 (so 16 sandwiched macarons).

50g ground almonds
125g icing sugar
30g raw pistachios, without shells
50g egg white (start with 2 large egg whites, beat lightly with a fork, then you can weigh out exactly 50g)
a tiny bit of green gel colouring

Line a large heavy baking sheet with parchment paper, and fit a piping bag with a 1-1½cm round nozzle.  Set aside.  In a food processor (I used my little stick blender arrangement again), whizz your pistachios and almonds for a good few minutes until they are really fine.  Ideally, the bits need to go through a sieve.

Pistachio Macaron - blitzed pistachios

Pistachio Macaron – blitzed pistachios

Sift the almonds, pistachios and icing sugar together.  Carefully measure out your 50g of egg white, then whisk them up to medium-firm peaks.  In 3 or 4 additions, use a rubber spatula to fold the egg whites into the dry ingredients, popping in the tiniest bit of green colouring with it.  It will seem like there’s far too much dry stuff but it will work eventually.  Don’t worry if it looks deflated and a bit runny – that’s good.  It should look like cake batter.

Pistachio Macaron - the batter

Pistachio Macaron – the batter

Use a little bit of the batter to stick down the four corners of the parchment paper (otherwise you’ll be battling to keep it down while you pipe).  Pipe 2.5cm rounds, leaving 2.5cm between each.  When you’ve finished piping, firmly grab the baking sheet with both hands and give it a good bash on the counter to get the air out of the batter.  Leave the sheet on the counter for 15 minutes while you preheat the oven, which allows them to form a light skin before baking.

Pistachio Macaron - piped

Pistachio Macaron – piped

Now, at this point Pierre and I have a small disagreement, largely because chocolate macarons don’t show browning from a hot oven but the pale green pistachio ones do.  So, while Pierre recommends starting with an oven temperature of 220C, I wonder whether 200 might be more friendly but don’t believe me until I’ve had a second chance to make these.  When the oven is up to temperature, pop in the baking sheet, immediately reduce the oven temperature (Pierre says 180C; I’m thinking maybe 150C) and stick a wooden spoon in the oven door to keep it slightly open.  Bake for 10-12 minutes until the macarons are smooth and just firm to the touch.

The macarons need to be removed from the sheet immediately and, because they’re sticky little buggers, you’ll need to get some steam under them to loosen them.  Pour the tiniest bit of hot water between the parchment and the baking sheet, and tilt to distribute the water – you’ll be able to see it bubbling beneath the paper.  Then use a fish slice or similar to lift each macaron and pop it on a cooling rack.

Now, I was able to cheat at this point because I had some chocolate ganache in the freezer which I had made a few weeks ago but ganache is dead simple to make, and you only need a little for so few macarons, so try this:

50g dark chocolate (high quality)
50g double cream
1 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature

Chop the chocolate quite small and throw in a bowl.  Smush the butter and set aside.  Bring the cream to the boil, then very slowly stir into the chocolate with a rubber spatula – the heat of the cream will melt the chocolate.  When the mixture is smooth, leave the bowl on the counter for a couple of minutes to cool a little before adding the butter in two additions, using the rubber spatula in circles widening slowly from the centre to the edge.  When the butter is all in, you should have a smooth, glossy ganache.  Chill it for about 15 minutes, stirring every 5, until it gets to piping consistency.  Sandwich the macarons with the ganache.

By now, the chocolate mousse should be nicely set.  Allowing about 1-1½ apricots per tartlet, start to slice one at a time, as finely as you can.  Bringing one tart at a time out of the fridge, lay the apricot slices on the top, starting at the outside edge and working in.

Apricot Tartlets - layering the apricot slices

Apricot Tartlets – layering the apricot slices

Apricot Tarlets - three down...

Apricot Tarlets – three down…

When you’ve finished, heat a couple of tablespoons of apricot jam in a small saucepan and paint on with a pastry brush to glaze.  Stick them in the fridge until you’re ready to serve.  At which point, chop up some pistachios to sprinkle on top, and dust a little cocoa on the macaron (please try to ignore the dent in my macaron, where the cooling rack fell on it…).  In an ideal world, serve with a lovely dessert wine (this one was particularly delicious and is available from Waitrose for an indulgent £14.49).

Pistachio, Chocolate and Apricot Tartlets with Pistachio Macarons

Pistachio, Chocolate and Apricot Tartlets with Pistachio Macarons

Chocolate Guinness Cake

February is a big month for birthdays in my office. I baked a carrot cake with cream cheese icing for Tash (and failed to photograph it, hence the lack of blog post) and, when I asked Lisa what she would like for her birthday, her first response was “something with that icing – I love that icing”. I selfishly took advantage of her non-specific request to make something I’ve long been wanting to try: Chocolate Guinness Cake.

Many wonderful bakers have created recipes for this, but none was quite what I wanted, so I selected bits from three recipes to create my own:

Ingredients:
250g unsalted butter (soft)
200g soft, dark brown sugar
100g Green & Black’s 70% cocoa solids chocolate
2 large eggs (from happy chickens, please)
200ml Guinness
275g self-raising flour
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
1tsp baking powder
30g cocoa
50g unsalted butter (room temperature)
300g icing sugar
125g full fat Philadelphia cheese (straight from the fridge)

Preheat to 180C, and grease and line a 23cm spring-form or loose bottomed tin.

Guinness Cake - kit form

Guinness Cake – kit form

Beat the sugar and butter until it is fluffy and pale, then keep mixing on a slow speed while you pour the chocolate in.

Guinness Cake - silky smooth

Guinness Cake – silky smooth

When fully combined, add one egg, mix thoroughly, then sift in a third of the dry ingredients and mix in. Add the second egg, mix thoroughly, then sift in another third of the dry ingredients and mix. Add the Guinness, mix thoroughly, and sift in the remaining third of the dry ingredients and mix. Scrape down the edges of the bowl and give it a final whizz. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 30-40 minutes (check at 30 and if a skewer comes out gooey, put it back in for five minutes). Allow the cake to cool in the tin.

Guinness Cake - oven ready

Guinness Cake – oven ready

Guinness Cake - baked

Guinness Cake – baked

Put your icing sugar in the jug, and chuck in the butter in little blobs. Cover the top of the bowl with a tea towel before setting the mixer running on its slowest setting. Mix until it looks like the texture of sand / breadcrumbs. Throw all the cream cheese in at once, cover the bowl again and mix on slow until combined. Then remove the towel and hike the speed up to medium-high for 3-5 minutes until the icing is lovely and fluffy. Watch and listen to it carefully, and be VERY careful not to over-mix it, as it will become sloppy.

Guinness Cake - iced

Guinness Cake – iced

Guinness cake - sliced

Guinness cake – sliced

Verdict: D-e-licious.

Lemon Drizzle Cake

I don’t have the best track record with lemon cakes, as the long-suffering readers amongst you may recall from the post in which I raged about my attempt to do Delia’s lemon curd cake last summer.  So it was with a little trepidation that I volunteered to make a lemon drizzle cake for my (now ex-) colleague Matt’s last day.  Naturally, I was seduced by the words “perfect every time” as claimed by this fabulous blogger in her post about Nigella’s lemon drizzle cake recipe.  If anyone could screw it up, I could, so I decided to put the claim to the test.

The cake needed to feed around 20 people, so I doubled the recipe to make two loaves.

Lemon Drizzle Cake - kit form

Lemon Drizzle Cake – kit form

Lemon Drizzle Cake - sponge mixture

Lemon Drizzle Cake – sponge mixture

Lemon Drizzle Cake - oven ready

Lemon Drizzle Cake – oven ready

Lemon Drizzle Cake - lemon syrup

Lemon Drizzle Cake – lemon syrup

Lemon Drizzle Cake - drizzle drizzle

Lemon Drizzle Cake – drizzle drizzle

Lemon Drizzle Cake

Lemon Drizzle Cake – with stab wounds from pre-drizzle prep

Lemon Drizzle Cake - iced

Lemon Drizzle Cake – iced (not elegant, but delicious)

I doubled the icing just like everything else, and used about half of it.  Though I do love to over-cater, I don’t think it needed quite that much icing.

The verdict: success!  These went down really well with all of my colleagues.  Light, fluffy, juicy, fresh and perfectly risen.  Thank you, Nigella, for restoring my faith in lemon cake recipes.

Wizard of Oz Cake (including Rainbow Cake V)

My most glamorous friend Jessie was somewhat irked when her gorgeous daughter Livia requested a “fairy princess cake” for her fourth birthday as it meant (a) Jessie’s world would become even more pink and (b) she couldn’t have the rainbow cake on which she had set her heart when she saw my previous attempts.  Not one to be so easily beaten, Jessie gently suggested a Wizard of Oz theme, which went down a treat with the discerning Liv.  So, here we are.

If you’re a regular reader of my scribblings, you will have endured plenty of Rainbow Cake waffle (see I, II, III and IV), so I shall keep that part short, focusing on the decoration bit later on.

Wizard of Oz Cake - colouring the rainbow sponge

Wizard of Oz Cake – colouring the rainbow sponge

Wizard of Oz Cake - pleasingly colourful greaseproof paper circles

Wizard of Oz Cake – pleasingly colourful greaseproof paper circles

Wizard of Oz Cake - stacked up

Wizard of Oz Cake – stacked up

I applied a layer of buttercream all over the cake to make it as even a surface as I could, and to give the fondant something sticky to which it would adhere.  I measured the cake’s top, sides and the board, and decided I needed the green fondant to measure 45cm in diameter, so rolled it accordingly.  At this juncture, it becomes relevant to explain exactly how small my kitchen is.  It’s really small.  With a substantial seam ruining my tiny patch of worktop, the largest surface on which I can roll out fondant, pastry etc is the halogen hob.  This is absolutely fine and workable, provided I don’t accidentally knock one of the knobs and switch on the heat.  (Can you see where this is going?)

As I draped the rolled green fondant over the cake, I noticed the first signs of weakness on one edge, and I thought “Oh, no-no-no, I’m not having another cake-tastrophe like that” so I quickly put my hand on it to take the weight and work to secure the fondant to the buttercream before the weakness developed into a rip.  It was then that I felt the weird heat of the fondant and worked out what I must’ve done.  Mercifully, it seems that the heat wasn’t on for long enough to ruin it (because that would have meant throwing away the entire endeavour and starting from scratch) nor start a fire.  I have now added ‘switch off the [insert expletive here] hob before rolling anything’ to my list of preparatory steps.

Wizard of Oz Cake - covering with emerald green 'grass'

Wizard of Oz Cake – covering with emerald green ‘grass’

Now came the Yellow Brick Road, which presented its own challenges, including rolling it to the right thickness so that it wasn’t too wedge-like but was dense enough to remain vibrant yellow with no green hues coming through, cutting it to the right shape before draping it on the cake, draping it in such a way that it covered the most offensive imperfections in the green, smoothing it in situ without warping the shape, adhering it to the green without saturating it with water which could make the green seep through, that sort of thing.  But I did it.  Then I gently trailed the blunt edge of a fondant sculpting tool across its surface to create brickwork, being careful to make the brick sizes match the perspective implied by the shape of the road (which becomes a rather ridiculous detail to care about when you see how MASSIVE Dorothy is, in relation to the road).

Wizard of Oz Cake - building the Yellow Brick Road

Wizard of Oz Cake – building the Yellow Brick Road

Now, to the all-important sculpting of our leading lady.  This was, I think, my third foray into sculpting with sugarpaste, and my first attempt at making a person.  I did a trial Dorothy a week or two ago, and she turned out creepy and ugly, which wasn’t exactly my desired outcome, so I turned to trusty Pinterest to see what other people had done.  I chose elements from my favourite three and set to work.  This is how I did it:

1. Starting with the torso, I made a blunted cone from white, then poked a cocktail stick down its centre for stability, leaving almost a centimetre poking out of the top.
2. I mixed up a decent quantity of pale blue (always make more than you think you need, as it’ll be impossible to match the shade later) and rolled out a simple rectangle for the bodice of the dress.  I used edible glue to attach it to the torso, then cut a couple of strips for the straps.
3. I mixed up something flesh-colour-adjacent, and made a simple sphere for the head, which I skewered onto the torso’s cocktail stick.  I used the edible glue to attach a little button nose.
4. Two simple cylinder shapes worked well for the arms, and as I was going for a cartoon style, I decided I needn’t spend hours sculpting hands – I just gently flattened the ends to make paddle-shaped hands.  I cut another cocktail stick in half, prodded it horizontally through the top of the torso and poked each arm on, letting the hands fall where they may.

Wizard of Oz Cake - Dorothy, phase 1

Wizard of Oz Cake – Dorothy

5. Next, I divided my remaining blue sugarpaste into two and rolled out two circles, quite thinly. When it’s this thin, the sugarpaste dries out pretty quickly so I had to work relatively fast to ruffle each circle, then stacked them up and folded them in two because my top-heavy Dorothy was going to be sitting down.
6. Two more flesh-coloured cylinders and Dorothy had legs.

Wizard of Oz Cake - Dorothy, phase 2

Wizard of Oz Cake – Dorothy

7. Hair.  TRICKY.  I briefly flirted with the idea of piping brown buttercream through a grass nozzle but I really wanted to do plaits, which would’ve been impossible, especially with hot hands like mine.  I went for three slim strips of brown sugarpaste but realised the back of her head would be bare, which is just weird.  I cut shorter strips and glued them across the back, starting at the bottom, leaving the ends hanging slightly to give a bit more volume underneath the plaits.  (I can’t believe I’m writing about hair volume in the context of a person made from sugar.)
8. I laid out three strands and loosely plaited each end before securing it over the top of Dorothy’s head, at which point I took the blunt side of a sculpting tool and gave her a centre parting all the way down.

Wizard of Oz Cake - Dorothy, phase 3

Wizard of Oz Cake – Dorothy

Wizard of Oz Cake - Dorothy, phase 4

Wizard of Oz Cake – Dorothy

9.  Ruby slippers!  These were just a couple of blocks of white sugarpaste, which I roughly shaped and then painted first with water, then with red edible glitter.

Wizard of Oz Cake - the all-important Ruby Slippers

Wizard of Oz Cake – the all-important Ruby Slippers

Then it was time to put it all together and apply the finishing touches, i.e. little punched flowers to hide visible imperfections in the rolled fondant embellish the scene, and a blue gingham ribbon pinned to the silver board.

Wizard of Oz Cake - from the back

Wizard of Oz Cake – from the back

Wizard of Oz Cake - from the front

Wizard of Oz Cake – from the front

Wizard of Oz Cake -  boxed up and ready to go

Wizard of Oz Cake – boxed up and ready to go

And finally, the birthday girl’s reaction…

Wizard of Oz Cake - The Big Reveal

Wizard of Oz Cake – The Big Reveal

Wholemeal Bread (and a Jolly to The Cotswolds)

The last time I made bread, I was struck by how wonderfully rewarding the whole process was.  I don’t make enough bread.  So, this is my first ever simple wholemeal bread, made to Britain’s bread king Paul Hollywood’s recipe.  I shan’t type it out here for fear of copyright infringement; instead, I shall wholeheartedly recommend you buy his books.  I think they’re utterly brilliant.

I made this loaf in preparation for a weekend with three mates in the blissful surroundings of a thatched cottage in The Cotswolds.  I made a rookie mistake, insofar as I had woefully misjudged the culinary theme for the weekend, into which something as healthy as wholemeal bread clearly did not fit.  But I had fun making it, and was glad of the opportunity to walk off a few calories round some astonishingly muddy fields with Suzzie, Amy and Martha.  Photo diary follows…

Wholemeal Bread - keeping yeast away from salt, so as not to kill the yeast

Wholemeal Bread – keeping yeast away from salt, so as not to kill the yeast

Wholemeal Bread - bringing it together

Wholemeal Bread – bringing it together

Wholemeal Bread - after 10 minutes' kneading

Wholemeal Bread – after 10 minutes’ kneading

Wholemeal Bread - first prove in the airing cupboard

Wholemeal Bread – first prove in the airing cupboard

Wholemeal Bread - after the first prove

Wholemeal Bread – after the first prove

Wholemeal Bread - ready for second prove

Wholemeal Bread – ready for second prove

Wholemeal Bread - second prove in the airing cupboard again

Wholemeal Bread – second prove in the airing cupboard again

Wholemeal Bread - ready for the oven

Wholemeal Bread – ready for the oven

Wholemeal Bread - mmm

Wholemeal Bread – mmm

A walk down Hidcote Lane

A walk down Hidcote Lane

View of Hidcote Bartrim from the top of the hill

View of Hidcote Bartrim from the top of the hill

Stratford Old Town at dusk

Stratford Old Town at dusk

The sunset, taken from a moving car

The sunset, taken from a moving car