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.


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.

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?


It is well-known that when friends give birth, the appropriate gift (in addition to cute teeny tiny clothes) is home-baked goods. (Sleepless parents need the sugar.) I was reminded of this fact unashamedly by my lovely friend Hannah, when she saw this photo of some recent baking exploits:

London themed bakingIn honour of a Matryoshka Haus community meal at our place, which included a Texan visitation, I felt the need to bake London-themed treats…

This particular baking exploit occurred at the start of what felt like a week of non-stop baking. For the same gathering, I baked my second loaf of bread (better than the first and last week’s third was better again – I’m loving this bread baking lark). Next, I baked 20 cupcakes for a Bring & Share lunch at church. Then, Hannah and I confirmed a day for me to meet their lovely new daughter, and I got to work again – making my classic ginger flapjack and the Clutterbuck family favourite, Be-Ro lemon biscuits.

I’ve blogged about these biscuits before, but now they have an official name. Hannah’s husband Dan loved them so much that he decreed that they would henceforth be known as “Clutterbiscuits”, which I’m totally ok with. They are fabulously simple, yummy and versatile, which are three excellent characteristics in a baked good.

The recipe is as follows…

200g SR Flour
100g Caster Sugar
100g Margarine
1 egg (beaten)
Grated rind & juice of half a lemon

Mix flour and sugar together. Rub in fat [till it looks like fine breadcrumbs].
Add in lemon and enough egg to make a stiff dough.
[Do this gradually, sticky dough’s a nightmare. You won’t need all the egg.]
Roll out thinly and cut. [Obviously, use a floured surface & rolling pin.]
Place on a greased baking tray and place in oven at 180c for 15 minutes.

Egg hunting biscuitsEgg shaped biscuits baked & decorated for our Egg Hunting day out in 2012 – I even went to the trouble of making initialled ones for everyone there. (It must have been a study day…)

Decoration is optional. If I’m making them for an activity where they may get bashed around, I probably wouldn’t bother. In the case of the Big Bens above [yes, I know that’s the bell inside, but for simplicity’s sake!] I went with a simple lemon water icing outline of its features. Hannah & Dan’s biscuits were a little more lurid as I learnt it’s a bad idea to try and make delicate blue icing after 11pm.

Jo's birthday biscuitsPretty teapots for a 30th birthday outing to see Matilda. Again, it must have been a study day for this level of decoration…

Obviously, an interesting set of cookie cutters is an added bonus. In case you’re wondering, the Big Ben cutter is from a set of ‘world landmark’ cutters which also includes the Sydney Opera House, Pyramids, Leaning Tower of Pisa, Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. (Mine were from Lakeland but they no longer stock them. I’m sure Google could help…)

Happy baking!

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?