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

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.

 

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.  

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)