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.

Pumpkin spice and all things nice

When one visits the USA at any point between August and Thanksgiving, it is compulsory to consume as many pumpkin products as is physically possible. During the 10 days that I was resident this autumn, I’d like to think that I more than did my part in the annual celebration of all things pumpkin.

Now, I am a pumpkin fan. I love a good savoury pumpkin – preferably roasted with chilli, or in soup form; pumpkin pie is hands down my favourite aspect of Matryoshka Haus’ annual Thanksgiving; last year’s discovery of this pumpkin loaf recipe has become a firm favourite amongst those for whom I bake; and I claim credit for innovating the coffee-free pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks (“grande steamed skimmed milk with two pumps of Pumpkin Spice” – yes, I am *that* person). For me, a trip to the East Coast in the fall was an ideal opportunity to avail myself of as much pumpkin as possible.

I’m aware that many would turn their noses up at such an escapade. The sort of people who crack jokes on Twitter about the stereotypical consumer of a PSL (who invented the acronym in the first place). The kind of person who thinks the gratuitous addition of pumpkin to everyday items is nothing short of a shameless marketing tactic… However, I turn up my nose at them!

Pumpkin Patch

My pumpkin odyssey began innocuously with a slice of pumpkin loaf accompanying my Starbucks order. It’s fine – probably not as good as the one I make at home – but when in Rome…

Pumpkin Cider at Harpoon

Then there was pumpkin cider, drunk in the brewery that produced it. To be honest, I’m not sure I could have identified the pumpkin had I not known about it, but nonetheless, a good cider on a chilly Vermont day was much appreciated. Plus, I’d just visited a genuine New England pumpkin patch.

Dunkin Donuts proved to be a purveyor of an exceedingly excellent pumpkin donut, with a pleasing orangey hue and a cracking glaze. There is no photographic evidence of this as it was eaten in a frenzied hunger on board a train back to New York.

A photo posted by Jackie (@jocose_jackie) on

If there’s one retailer that fully embraces the world of pumpkin, it’s Trader Joe’s. I ‘popped’ into its Brooklyn branch on a Sunday afternoon, which was a big mistake as seemingly every local resident had had an identical idea. I was confronted with a multitude of pumpkin options: pumpkin O’s cereal (like Cheerios); tortilla chips & salsa; panettone; yoghurt; various baking mixes; oh, and dog snacks. Yes, pumpkin dog snacks. There are over 40 items in Trader Joe’s 2015 pumpkin collection and I’m pleased to report that I only bought one of them – a jar of pumpkin spice! I was very tempted by the pumpkin spice cookie butter though…

Pumpkin Pop Tarts

My Target shopping expedition (no word of a lie, I had been making my Target shopping list for weeks beforehand – it was probably the most organised element of my whole holiday!) yielded pumpkin Pop Tarts. (Yes, I know that they’re ridiculously unhealthy and just plain awful, but I have a childish soft spot for them.)

Shake Shack pumpkin goodness

Shake Shack delivered autumn in a small tub, in the form of a slice of pumpkin pie, swirled with cream. So a dessert that bore no resemblance to the original dish, but tasted fabulous. (Note to self: this should not have been bought to consume on the subway home, it got messy.)

Incredibly, there was a pumpkin option that I searched for and did not find: a pumpkin cupcake. New York’s cupcake game has gone seriously downhill since I last visited in 2009 – although I did at least manage to find a chocolate one with swiss meringue frosting, a combo that remains top of my cupcake combo leader board.

Pumpkin M&Ms

Oh, and I rejected a third opportunity to sample pumpkin spice M&M’s, because quite frankly, they sound WRONG!

Just in case you thought my love of pumpkin might have dissipated since returning to the UK, let me share with you my favourite discovery on last week’s trip to Morrisons: Ben & Jerry’s Pumpkin Cheesecake ice cream. De-lish!

B&J Pumpkin

 

My sister used to comment that my travel journals (completed for every international trip I take) were merely chronicles of what I had eaten and when – and this blogpost would certainly meet such expectations. However, there’s also plenty of food I haven’t mentioned (the best apple pancakes I’ve ever consumed, for example) – and will go unmentioned, for there are much more interesting things to write about!

Macaroons & Margaritas

Sometimes, life is just too short to make everything from scratch – and you know what? Often people don’t even notice…

On Sunday, thanks to the virtue of a time difference that lends me a two day birthday, I was justified in celebrating my birthday the night before its official date. I decided to make it an occasion for cocktails and cake, because, quite frankly nothing says birthday (or potentially even Sunday) than cake and cocktails.

Yes, I made some cake from scratch – there were ginger biscuits (the recipe of which I will post next time I make them as they were meant to include dark chocolate and I forgot) and my very special brownies; plus slightly cheating mini tarts (well, ready-rolled pastry is quite a big cheat I guess). There was a carrot cake that may have originated from a Sainsbury’s packet mix – but I was very honest when it was complimented. Then, there were French style raspberry macaroons…

Anyone who knows anything about baking knows that these things (which are hugely popular at the moment) are rather complicated and thus, it was with some interest that I discovered packet mixes for a variety of flavours in Carre Four – the local supermarket when at Chateau Duffy. Given as I return to Limoges next week, I thought it was worth testing the mix so I’d know if it was worth buying others.

If you’re familiar with the Betty Crocker style mixes, you’ll know that the usual method is as follows:
Open packet; empty into bowl; add eggs/liquid; mix with electric whisk; pour into tin; bake…

With the macaroons this was not the case. My method went something like this:

  • Locate translation of package instructions. (Found here 3 months ago).
  • Make jam element of package in saucepan, carefully ensuring it didn’t burn.
  • Separate 2 eggs and place whites in mug. 
  • Get electric whisk ready.
  • Discover macaroons need to begin their bake in a cold oven. 
  • Realise oven won’t be cold until following morning.
  • Put eggs to one side.
  • Accidentally wash up mug containing egg whites.
  • Sleep.
  • Separate another 2 eggs.
  • Whisk whites with electric whisk, ensuring bowl is completely dry.
  • Add mix. Combine.
  • Drop teaspoons of mixture onto lined baking tray.
  • Bake. Realise they’re going to spread too far.
  • Cool with oven door open. 
  • Sandwich macaroons with jam.

See, when it comes to French packet mixes, nothing is simple. But, aside from the mixture spreading in the oven, they worked rather well. Another time I’d bake each of the two trays separately as they were rather different in quality at the end. They certainly looked pretty in pink…

The other cheat came in the cocktail element of the evening. There was no cheating as far as the G&T’s and Pimm’s were concerned, but quite a considerable amount of it with the frozen margaritas. 
Ah yes, frozen margaritas! A Texan discovery that has been dreamed of since. Lacking a slushee maker, I had to come up with an alternative method. My solution owed something to a Texan suggestion – that you pre-mix the margarita (they sell such things in pouches in Walmart, not so in the UK), pour it into zip-lock bags and freeze it. Because the alcohol won’t actually freeze, it simply goes slushy – which is the precise consistency you want. On discovering a pre-mixed bottle of margarita in Sainsbury’s, I decided this was the way to go. I mixed it with a small quantity of soda water to ensure that it froze, and left it for 48 hours. The arrival of my guests provided two extra ingredients: Agave Syrup and festive straws. With this, adequate frozen margaritas were created. They may not have been perfect, but they were enjoyed by all…
I should point out that Baby J was only participating in the festive straws element of the cocktails. 
We did not serve him booze… 
Here’s to more cheating, more macaroons, more frozen magaritas and most of all, more birthdays! 

Educated family adventures

Something I’m trying to ignore this week is the fact that, although it’s half-term at Vicar School, the other half of my life (i.e. the church job half) is very busy. So busy in fact, that I had to turn down an invitation to Texas. As four friends jetted off there over the last few days, I have to admit to being just a tad jealous.

But half-term does at least mean a free Monday, which happily coincided with my mother paying a visit to my sister. A day-trip to Oxford seemed like a good way to spend some quality time together, especially as we designated it a ‘Laurel day’ – a day named after a family friend with whom days out invariably involve travelling from cafe to cafe and a lot of cake. We got in some culture at the Ashmolean (though there was little point in staying long as its cafe was shut), consumed tea and a pastry, visited the covered market, ate lunch, shopped a little, and walked through some colleges. All in all, I think you’d agree, a very cultured day…

You know you’re in Oxford when even the street names get educational:

One of the best things about Oxford is its covered market (location of the original Ben’s Cookies and a eat-in Pie Minister). A gem of a shop is cake decorating related, with windows full of impressive creations. I decided that its creation of the Bodleian could be an excellently apt wedding cake, but that a comparison with the original was essential:

In case you can’t tell, the cake’s on the left…

The last time the three of us went on a cultural adventure, it was our weekend in Paris. There we created the ever-fun statue game, so it was great to have another opportunity to play it. Sadly, there were few opportunities, save this one in the (very quiet) courtyard of the Bodleian: 

It always seems as though people are trying to find a deeper meaning to everything in the city of dreaming spires – even the graffiti:

I’ll leave that last one to your own interpretation…

A week of baking travail

Last week it felt like every time I found myself with a spare moment, I ended up in the kitchen doing something that involved cake. I baked on Monday and Wednesday night (having already stashed half the results of a baking session the week before in the freezer in readiness); frosted after midnight on Thursday night and was wielding the piping bag again by 8am the following morning – it was extreme. The things I do for friends and country…

Big plans were afoot for the long weekend – and not just Royal Wedding related ones – the forthcoming wedding of two commoners was much more distracting, in the shape of the bride-to-be’s hen weekend. Organised by someone who doubles as a primary school teacher, the event was planned with military precision – for the afternoon tea/lunch on Saturday we were allocated a specific food item to bring and share, much in the way our class parties were organised, back in the day. Somewhat unsurprisingly, I was allocated cupcakes.

Thing is, life’s been slightly on the stressful side lately and when such times hit, I find that my baking mojo ebbs away, so I cheated. Yes, I did the unthinkable and sought the aid of Betty Crocker (well, they were on special offer too). I figured I could get away with it on two counts:
(i) Her mixes do taste good.
(ii) The cake wasn’t going to be the most important part – the frosting was.
[Incidentally, I trialled two non-Betty vanilla mixes at the same time and they were not good.]

I didn’t skimp on the frosting (ok, well I did on the chocolate one, but only because BC’s came free with one of the mixes) and made vanilla buttercream Hummingbird style, dividing it up so I could colour it in pretty colours. (Also meaning I could create a system by which to identify three different cake flavours. Oh yes, I’m even that anal when it comes to cake.) Several hours of effort, which I loved and enjoyed immensely, seemed to be successful and I feel looked particularly good in the midday sun and on a new, travel-proof, cake-stand (my parental Easter gift).

Honestly, you can’t go wrong with some pink sparkles & writing icing…

To make up for my cupcake-cheating, I went to town for my other baking task – a contribution to the Royal Wedding street party. I took a risk and tried a brand new recipe, which was particularly dangerous as I wouldn’t be able to taste it until it reached its intended destination. Having spied a simple and yummy looking recipe on the fabulous Caked Crusader blog a few weeks ago, I decided to bake a Golden Crunch cake – essentially a vanilla sponge with a coconut and jam topping.

 

The many stages of cake…
sponge with jam; coconut mixture (in lovely pink Avoca bowl/jug); ready to bake; finished.

Simple it was and definitely something I’ll make again. The only addition I’d make to the recipe (linked above) is that you can afford to be more generous with the jam, I think mine could’ve done with more. Once at the dessert stage of the gathering, I made a dash to find it and check that it actually was edible and not poisonous – sure enough, it really was quite moreish. (I did then spend some time hovering at the table encouraging others to try it, I think I might now be eligible for the WI.)

FYI, this cake doesn’t need to be served with coriander – it’s just that I used the same plate for my savoury as my sweet and hadn’t quite finished my Moroccan salad…

Some final tips/thoughts/suggestions:
  • Read The Caked Crusader. The recipes are great, she writes in a hilarious fashion and it’s generally only updated once a week, so not awfully overwhelming. (I will forgive her for featuring Mayor Boris’ favourite cake recipe a few weeks back.) 
  • Check out Asda’s baking paraphenalia section. I only discovered this yesterday (so several days too late) but it is both varied and cheap. Lots of different kinds of sprinkles and writing icing that comes in sparkly pinks and purples. (Although it does also sell pink food colouring, which I feel is slightly pointless.) 
  • Cupcakes react very well to being frozen and then frosted. Helps make optimum use of limited time. 
  • I still have 24 large carrot cake cupcakes in my freezer and no occasion with which to get rid of them. Suggestions welcome.