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.



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.”


A little collage


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

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

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:

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

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.

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.



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.

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:

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.

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

My Parisian Birthday

There comes a point in every single girl’s life when it seems like every other bugger on the planet is getting married and having children.  Personally, I was entirely unprepared for all the ways in which the changes in my friends’ lives would change my own, an example of which was how I chose to celebrate my birthday this year.  In order to avoid the inevitability of my being the awkward odd number at my own birthday celebrations, I chose to run away to Paris with my mother for the weekend.  And what an excellent decision that was.

November in Paris is gorgeous.  Skies transform rapidly from clear blue to angry grey, trees vary from bare and spindly to golden and luxurious, and the temperature is just right for wandering around wearing cosy winter clothes without needing to strip each time you reach a restaurant or shop.  I suppose all of these things are true of November in London, too, but – you know – it’s PARIS, so it’s more gorgeouser than London.  (Note: I realise that’s not a word, and I don’t care.)

Of course, it wouldn’t be my blog without a good smattering of photographs of delicious food.  And booze.

Birthday lunch:


Birthday dinner (a…..MAZING):


Oops, we accidentally had to kill time before getting the Eurostar back to London:


So aside from eat, what did we do?  In a Parisian nutshell, we walked a LOT, we looked around the beautiful Panthéon and its crypt, we failed to find the Catacombs, we bought beautiful scarves from a fabulously chic Parisienne in the Latin Quarter, we walked along Rive Gauche, we stumbled upon a stunning foodie shop, we walked a bit more, we avoided the rain by spending two hours on a tourist bus, we took surprisingly good photographs of the stunning sights from the bus, we accidentally went into the Gents’ loos in Ladurée, we lost a Remembrance poppy, we shopped on Champs-Élysées, we stayed in a lovely little boutique hotel in a fairly grotty area near Gare du Nord, we (actually, I) resurrected a few bits of my A-Level French and we came home with very sore soles and very happy souls.