A tale of three cakes…

If you’ve read my most recent post, this will be quite a contrast. I don’t apologise for this. I feel it’s high time that I got back into my more ridiculous blogging style of yore, if only to raise the mood a little…

Many years ago, when I worked in a workplace that had run a very successful and competitive cake-based competition for several months, a dear colleague presented me with a copy of Mary Berry’s ‘Foolproof Cakes’ on my birthday. The inside page bears the inscription: “Happy birthday Liz! Thought this might help your quest to become CMS cake queen!”

I won my round of the office bake off, but I can’t remember if the recipe I used was from that particular volume. [It was a Victoria Sponge with a swirl of raspberry coolis in the lower layer, with fresh cream & raspberries in the middle.] In fact, it’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve realised that this volume is effectively a bible for the home baker – anyone who’s watched Mary Berry in action on GBBO knows that she is the fount of all knowledge when it comes to cake, and so far, she’s yet to let me down…

Welcome Home Serenna

Baby Serenna’s welcome home cake – a Berry Victoria Sponge turned lemon drizzle… 

Watching a lot of Mary Berry baking shows has provided me with an encyclopaedia of cake based knowledge, much of which I haven’t put into practice. But I do whip it out in conversation every so often, which can result in me having a better reputation for my baking than might otherwise be deserved – although, when the chips are down, I can generally bake a pretty good cake.

I can only imagine that it was a conversation along these lines, around a table with much vin rouge at Chateau Duffy this Easter, that resulted in my friend Helen making a request. Helen lives in St Denis, and was bemoaning the lack of English cakes locally – the kind that in Britain, you could pick up from a bake sale or local WI stall or even a local bakery. Yes, France does choux very well, but sponge? Not so much. Add to the mix the fact that Helen’s oven is a range (which Mary Berry has taught me does not do temperature consistency very well), and it becomes tricky for her to bake them herself. So, apparently, I offered to bring her a cake the next time I visited – and promptly completely forgot all about it.

Cue a Facebook comment 36 hours before I was due to depart for June’s trip, which had me scurrying to the Berry Bible. Apparently I hadn’t promised any old cake, I’d specifically offered a coffee & walnut one – which is odd, as it’s a cake I detest on account of my dislike for coffee. The Berry Bible’s only coffee based recipe was in fact a cappuccino cake: chocolate sponge with a coffee & fresh cream filling. The latter wasn’t going to be practical for a full day’s journey on strike-ridden French trains, but a simple coffee buttercream could suffice. There was a tin into which it would neatly fit, and my suitcase had room, so we were good to go – the only risk being my getting stranded somewhere on a train to nowhere and needing to use the cake as leverage to reach Limoges…

The cake caused a little consternation on Facebook. Was I really intending to travel all the way from Highbury, via Eurostar, an hour’s walk in Parisian rain, an SNCF train and then car to St Denis?? Yep. Did I think it would make it intact? Well, if it did, it would be a bonus!

Incredibly, it was pretty much fine:

Upon presentation of the cake, I was given a pair of sandwich tins and I trotted off having promised to make another one in our gite’s decent looking oven over the course of the next 8 days. Inevitably, I got distracted by fun, mud and more fun, until it was our last whole day and I realised I still had cake to make. Oh, and it was someone on the trip’s birthday, so obviously a cake was needed for him too.

Mary Berry has not made any baking shows about the challenges of making cakes in foreign countries. There was very little in my store of baking knowledge relating to important things like the ratio of baking powder needed for French flour. And this, most probably, is where my downfall arose…

I set off to make two Victoria Sponges. A cake I can make confidently and quickly – I had everything I needed (apart from the moment when I realised I’d forgotten the baking powder and then had to make an emergency trip out for more). I used the ratio of baking powder needed for our plain flour in the UK and put the first two layers in the oven where they rose, and went golden…and then sank. Horribly. I was peeved, but perhaps someone had opened the door to peek in & let in cold air? I’d have another go with the next cake. But the same thing happened again.

The lovely Helen took a look at what I’d produced and, having made the rather damming comment that “I could have made cakes that look like that in my oven!”, proceeded to suggest that I just pile all four cakes together in an attempt to make a semi decent birthday cake. She even suggested she try and find M&Ms to fill the holes between the layers – y’know, to try and make the dents look intentional…

In the end, I hid myself in a quiet corner of the gite and got to work with a jar of jam, a box of icing sugar, some butter and a hand-mixer. Buttercream was made, and a first attempt was made to make something that looked halfway presentable as a birthday cake. This was where that got me:

Disastrous Cake

This, my friends, is not something that deserves to have Mary Berry’s name anywhere near it! In fact, it ranks as probably the worst cake I have created since I was 9 years old. Brilliantly, by this point in the day, I was actually quite relaxed about the whole thing. [Previously, I have been known to throw cake disasters onto the floor and stamp on them.] In fact, it was with laughter that I drew a couple of people into my hideaway to get their response – which was effectively gales of laughter.

Trench

The trench – pre pipe laying.

With only a minimal quantity of icing sugar left, covering the whole thing in frosting was not an option, but when someone suggested that the whole in the middle was reminiscent of the trench we’d been digging on site, I was seized with inspiration. Cut a trench across the top, use jam as mud, turn colourful paper straws into pipe conduits, and use the offcuts as piles of rock and voila! A Chateau Duffy themed birthday cake:

Chateau Duffy birthday cake

The spoons would be spades, obviously…

If ever there was a cake that could possibly be something akin to a GBBO showstopper, this was it – but in true Chateau Duffy style, it was somewhat ramshackle; things had escalated slightly out of control; and nothing had really gone quite to plan. Still, served in semi-darkness with a bunch of candles on top of it, it served its purpose. And, in the words of a 7 year old present: “Liz, this cake is really tasty” – so at least it was edible, which is the most important thing.

The lesson learned from this experience? Do not rest on one’s baking laurels. A different oven is a bad enough risk, let alone a different country, complete with language barrier and foreign flour. There really is only so far Mary Berry can get you.

Lessons we’ve learned from GBBO 2014

Tonight it ends. We’ll be left with another 10 month gap in competitive baking scheduling. (Aside from that all too brief week in January when celebrities take up the challenge.)

But this year’s Bake Off will become legend in the history of TV baking – what with bingate, THE pencil and a prodigious 17 year old.

Bake Off 2014

Over the last two months we’ve learned a number of valuable lessons which are worth remembering as we prepare to bid the tent of baked goods a fond farewell…

1. Pesto is exotic and a lovely Scot called Norman was the perfect antidote to a fiercely fought Independence campaign. (See Buzzfeed for more reasons why Norman was brilliant.)

2. The BBC has discovered the loveliest teenager in all of the UK. Martha Collinson not only bakes with a skill way beyond her years, has an excellent sense of humour, did her AS levels during filming, and is a campaigner for Tearfund! All time favourite Martha moment? When she looked into the oven and uttered the words: “I could have practiced this”. Twice.

3. The Guardian could do with improving the quality of its Bake Off reporting. Now, I appreciate that there are bigger issues going on in the world right now, but the Guardian has set itself a high standard to meet with its consistently excellent live blog of every episode. [Hats off to you Heidi Stephens.] It’s just a shame that the side was let down by not one but two articles.

The first, an interview with the “russet Gandalf” (we’ll be returning to him, have no fear), included a piece of utterly bizarre logic regarding last week’s semi final. Apparently, star baker Richard had ‘come second’ and Luis had come first. I may have tweeted my quibble to the article’s author…


Several friends & family members have assured me that I was right, so I’m feeling ok about it. I just wish my first Twitter discussion with Zoe Williams had been about something a little more worthy!

The second article is a delightful run-down of all the Bake Off contestants ever. As with so many countdowns, the most recent series is too fresh in the memory to be objective about. Thus we have the tragedy of Jordan placing above my all-time favourite baker ever – fair isle devotee James Morton (12 to 13). A travesty!!

4. Always make your own fondant!

Mary Berry death stare

5. Howard (from series 4 and custardgate fame) needs his own baking show, stat! His two appearances on Extra Slice were a delight to behold – the world has a new talent and his name is Howard. [Incidentally, well done BBC for Extra Slice – that was a brilliant decision!]

6. No one’s worked out how to pronounce ‘baklava’.

7. Some people don’t understand that Bake Off isn’t Bake Off without the innuendo. Honestly, there’s a reason I don’t watch Masterchef (actually, there are several…) – what makes this show the genius it is is Mel & Sue’s endless punning and the way Mary & Paul knowingly join in. John Whaites (winner, GBBO 2012) wrote brilliantly for The Telegraph on the subject of essential innuendo“innuendo only enters the level of lewd when it is endorsed with a response”. The whole point of the baking double entendres is that they’re not deemed worthy of a retort!

8. Doughnuts can be turned into cocktails. (And this is when all Mary Berry’s baking dreams come true.)

9. A cake made up of several pancake layers with no icing or ganache in between really doesn’t look that attractive. Also, there’s no point making your own Princess Cake when Ikea serves it in their cafe.

10. Always label your creations when placing them within a communal freezer. Always check when moving tins around in a communal freezer that the owner of the tin you’ve removed knows that it’s no longer in the freezer. When a bake fails, don’t throw it into the bin. The British get VERY upset when they perceive that a baking injustice has taken place.

BBC Complaints AugustCredit. Honestly, when I saw this I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. 

Incredibly, this is the first time bingate’s been mentioned on this blog (it’s been a tough summer/autumn). I have very strong feelings about it, not least because Iain of the beard was one of my favourite contestants this year. (Beard + NI accent + baking skills = highly desirable man.) Yes, Diana’s actions may have been exaggerated thanks to the editing, but really, did he deserve to go? Especially given prior mistakes (John Whaites nearly cutting his finger off and custardgate) which resulted in fairer judging or no one leaving. I felt so, so sad for poor Iain – not least because throwing a failed bake into the bin is totally something I’d do. [I once threw a lemon drizzle that had got stuck to the tin onto the floor and stamped on it in a rage. True story.]

At this point in the series the winner almost becomes irrelevant. For the first time, this year I don’t have any terribly strong feelings about it. (Unlike the previous three series when I had definite ‘I don’t want them to win’ feelings.) I’ve liked Richard and his pencil from the start; Luis has real skills; and quite frankly, if Nancy can win after her microwave antics the other week, then excellent! (Although what ‘the male judge’ will think is another matter.)

Mary, Paul, Mel, Sue, the GBBO 2014 contestants and everyone on social media who has made this year a delight – THANK YOU! Let’s do it again next year.

Construction and confection

Cake making is something I know a fair amount about. Not a lot. Not in comparison with Berry or Hollywood, but I have a reasonable grasp of the subject. Enough to use it for illustrative purposes in every day life…

…well, when I say ‘every day life’, I mean life on a construction site. Specifically, the small patch of French land a group of dysfunctional wannabe builders like to refer to as Chateau Duffy.

I’ve made the analogy before, but I think only in retrospect. On this trip, it genuinely became the logical way for me to pass on the knowledge I’d been given regarding cement mixing in a cement mixer.

The beauty of cake making is that it’s a shared knowledge. Most people understand the principles of icing, mixing in dry ingredients, ensuring everything is combined etc – thanking you GBBO. Will, a professional builder, taught me everything I needed to know about cement mixing (which I handily filmed on my phone for future reference – do shout if you have pointing needs), but it was then up to me to ensure that anyone the task was delegated to knew the ropes too. And this was where the universal language of cake making proved its worth…

For a start, there’s not a lot of difference between a cement mixer and a Kenwood. Well, aside from the 63.5 litre difference in mix capacity. And the fact that one requires you to shovel the ingredients into it, while the other needs only a delicate spoon or a shaking of packet. Plus the important issue of cement mix not being edible (it really, really isn’t – trust me). Also, unless you have an allergy to icing sugar, I don’t think you’d need to wear a face mask to prevent the inhalation of dangerous components. But there are similarities, trust me!

Mixing

You need to regularly pause the machine in order to scrape the dry ingredients away from the sides of the bowl and into the wet mix. As is the case with icing, it’s important to not add too much water. Doing it gradually, in between the addition of bucketfuls of sand, helps ensure that the mixture isn’t overly wet. As in the world of baking, working with overly wet cement is a flipping nightmare – won’t stay where it’s meant to, runs off your implements, dribbles down the sides. Dreadful calamity. You also have to make sure the bowl’s at the right angle so that the batter/cement doesn’t splatter the kitchen or your face. Like this: 

Splattered FaceAs with kitchen mixers, it can be tricky to clean a cement mixer. Ever tried to remove firmly set royal icing from the blades of a mixer? Dried cement is very similar in consistency and adherence. The difference? I’m pretty sure Mary Berry would throttle me if I attempted to clean a Kenwood using large rocks. (Although, it is an interesting principle – that the action of the rocks hitting the bowl, with some water added, helps to break down the dried on stuff. I am wondering what could be used in a domestic context…) Oh, and as with washing up a mixer, beware splatters – again!

Splattered. Again. The front of my t-shirt reads ‘time to play dirt or tan’ – it’s my 2014 Chateau Duffy themed shirt – and was a very apt choice for that day! 

However, do you know where baking analogies fall down? When you’re trying to educate teenage boys in the ways of cement mixing.

Men MixingAs observed from atop of a scaffold. 

And the point of all this cement? Pointing. Obviously.

We did good. In fact, we did very good. What had taken our builder friend Will a couple of weeks to do on a similar project took us about three days. It helps when you have an enthusiastic team! We’ve done some pointing before on previous trips, but some of it wasn’t quite up to scratch and had to be gone over; other parts hadn’t been touched at all. By the day we left, the whole of the front of the house is now re-pointed (the less said about the back, the better) and honestly, it looks like somewhere you might actually want to live!

Before:

Chateau Duffy 2007Very much ‘before’. This was 4 years before our first trip.

After:

Re-pointed, 2014Doesn’t it look lovely? (Just imagine that dismantled scaffold rig isn’t there. And that the window was back to being a window. And you didn’t need to wear a hard hat indoors…)

It should also be mentioned that a second mezzanine level has (partly) been constructed inside the house and the level that was built last year now has permanent support. Plus, the bathrooms have started to take shape, which is a massive deal. All of a sudden there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel!

Departing Chateau Duffy, 2014Departing Chateau Duffy. [NB: that un-pointed bit at the top of the house is deliberate – there’s going to be a window there too.] 

Focaccia and friends

After a bit of a break in which to write a lot of essays, last week marked the continuance of 2014: The Year of Bread. Having pretty much perfected the basic white loaf in Brilliant Bread, I had moved on to rolls in February (which still need a bit of work, but they tasted fine) but hadn’t challenged myself to anything else since.

With the hosting of a Matryoshka Haus meal on the horizon, I decided it was time to get stuck into another recipe. What better to go with a summer meal of chicken and salad than a fresh focaccia?

Baking James’ recipes involve extra proves and less kneading, which means that the actual time spent in the kitchen fiddling with dough is limited. As I discovered when I happened to check the focaccia recipe the day before the meal, in this recipe, you can leave the dough to prove in the fridge for an extended period of time – meaning that I could put it in overnight; stretch it to the baking tray first thing in the morning; and leave it in the fridge until the final prep before baking. It’s the kind of thing that’s incredibly useful if you need to be out of the house all day.

Focaccia dough - 1st proveAfter the first prove…

Focaccia dough - final proveAfter the second prove in the fridge.

Focaccia for the ovenReady to bake.

It has to be said that unlike February’s rolls and the pitta breads I also baked on Wednesday, the focaccia was a success first time round. And the Matryoshka Haus crew was definitely the right group to feed it to – my ego was massaged with plenty of oohs, ahhs and cries of disbelief…

Focaccia doneNot too shabby, even if I do say so myself!

However, the real fun with friends and focaccia didn’t happen until every crumb had been consumed and I posted a photo of it on Facebook. It turns out that as well as having friends who appreciate good baking, I also have friends who love a good bread pun. When I awoke the next morning, I could do nothing but moan at the sight of these comments:

Focaccia CommentsWho needs Mel & Sue’s baking puns when you have friends like these?

2014 – a year of bread?

I have said many, many times that I do not do New Years Resolutions. They’re pointless. Yesterday was January 10th – the day when it’s apparently most likely that resolutions will be broken. I personally subscribe to the theory that new starts (if needed) can happen at any time of the year, all you need is determination. This is why, in the first days of a new year, I prefer to think of things that I’d like to do or achieve over the year ahead. Much more positive!

I’ve been thinking for a while that it was time to up the ante in my baking adventures. Yes, I make brownies that are near perfection (they are one of the few things that I will boast about); yes, I do a good line in scones, muffins, cupcakes and biscuits; but am I anywhere near the standard of GBBO? No. Not that I intend to reach that level, but there are some things I’d like to get the hang of.

High on that list is bread. Until 2014, I had never baked a loaf from scratch (I’d used a couple of those packet mixes you add water to), but surely it’s a good life skill to have? And who better to learn from than my favourite GBBO contestant of all-time – the snuggly jumper wearing, Shetland born, finalist James?

Having followed him on Twitter for over a year, I’d witnessed his passion for encouraging people (even beginners) in baking bread, which even included the publication of Brilliant Bread. Now, a lot of people jump on the “I’ve just appeared on a cookery competition, so I’ll publish a recipe book” bandwagon [it’s rather like celebrity fitness dvds], but this wasn’t one of them. The tweets from people using it clearly had great success, so I added it to my pre-Christmas wishlist – from which it was duly purchased by a family member who may also have wanted the book…

Brilliant Bread book

First things first, this book has the best first chapter of any recipe book I’ve ever owned. It contains no recipes, just explanations of the key ingredients, methods, techniques and varieties of bread making. I’m really not a natural baker, I often don’t understand why we do things, and I need clear instructions – so this was ideal. [I also have an incredible skill in remembering exactly what people, well, usually Mary Berry, have said in cookery shows – and then reciting these in appropriate situations, making it look as though I know what I’m doing. I don’t.]

Secondly, the chapters contain recipes in order of difficulty, so you can confidently progress through different types of bread, without fearing that you’ll suddenly hit one that takes you out of your comfort zone. I like that there’s a focaccia in the first chapter of recipes – I’m sure I’ll have some students willing to test that one.

Thirdly, it’s unpretentious. There’s no fancy equipment needed (the only new thing I’ve needed is a dough scraper that cost £1.99, I have lots of trays and tins) or terribly fancy ingredients. For under £2, I acquired a bag of strong flour and some yeast sachets – at home I had water and salt. Job done.

Fourthly, it appears to work. Admittedly, I’ve only made one of the recipes so far, but Twitter attests to its success.

As proof, here is my First Loaf:

First Loaf in progressFirst prove; second prove; third prove; into the oven; out of the oven…

First loaf - done Not too shabby? Obviously needed more flour to make it look like the photo.

Lessons learnt? Start baking bread a lot earlier than you think is necessary! I got distracted and it was 5.30pm before I got going, meaning it was 9pm before it was done – given that my evening meal plan was leftover chilli plus fresh bread, this was a little unfortunate. I think I still need some work on the shaping technique, but the slices had a good crumb and there was no proving line. (I was too busy eating the bread to take photos once it was done.)

As for baking accomplishments to achieve this year, there’s a list aside from simply working through the book:

  • Chocolate teacakes – you know, the kind with marshmallow inside. (A technical challenge in GBBO 3.) It’s been a dream for a while and now that I have both the moulds and a sugar thermometer, it shouldn’t be an issue – but it is a lot of work for only 6 cakes, and a lot can go wrong… 
  • Macarons – made without resorting to one of the cunning kits I pick up on my semi-regular visits to French supermarkets. (Now available in Sainsbury’s, but honestly, I’ve not found them to be as good as the French ones.)
  • Marshmallows – this is a follow up to the teacakes. Teacakes have smooth, unset marshmallow inside them, but I’m intrigued by the kind you’d put in a hot chocolate. Again, this is where the sugar thermometer comes in.

Obviously, I’ll need tasters/guinea pigs. I definitely need someone else with me on chocolate teacake day, because I would be more than capable of eating all 6 myself. (As an added motivation – if needed – the Lakeland moulds I have fit to the size of a digestive biscuit, meaning we’d have some of those to nibble on during the rest of the process.) Tempting?