Wednesday, 30 December 2009

With bells on...

There are many reasons why I love Christmas, and one of them is undoubtedly a license to bake in abundance. There are no end of excuses to rustle up a cake at the slightest provocation - usually the many visits to friends and family, where there is now an expectation that I'll roll up with some kind of an offering. And I'd hate to disappoint.

So with the addition of Eli's birthday on the 21st, it is a veritable bakathon in my house. The season's tally kicked off with my usual chocolate cake, as well as some really delightful cranberry and white chocolate cookies (from the Ottolenghi book), which were thin and crispy rather than dough-y - almost like Florentines, as my cousin Xanthe pointed out. I also made a batch of the much anticipated plum and marzipan muffins (pictured), which I actually think tasted better on the second day, perhaps because the fruit compote had really congealed, and the crumb was slightly soggier - not always a good thing, but in this case an advantage.

Next up was the marmalade Dundee cake. Now I love a fruit cake, but acknowledge that they're usually more something to be admired, rather than lusted after. I don't think people usually wake up in the middle of the night craving a slice of fruit cake as they might a doughnut or blueberry muffin. But I have to say, this recipe - the star of Dan Lepard's live bake-along - was about as moreish as it can get. I took it to my brothers house on Christmas day, and despite the fact that we were all groaning with over-indulgence by the time it was cut in the mid-evening, it still went down a treat, and was enjoyed again on Boxing Day. It looked gorgeous too, with its glazed almonds on top. I get quite misty-eyed at the thought of it.

On Christmas Eve, I once again trowled the Ottolenghi book for inspiration. I found a sticky chocolate loaf - dense with agen prunes and glazed with Armagnac - but as I had neither to hand, I used 'regular' prunes and some brandy, but I don't think it suffered too much as a consequence. The recipe was actually for two 500g loaves, but stated that you could make one bigger cake if you adjusted the cooking time. I'm not sure whether this was the cause, but disappointingly, mine sunk in the middle. This has never actually happened to me before, so I was mildly traumatised. But I wrapped it tightly in greaseproof paper and tin foil, and when it was unleashed with my friends Sean and Gina several days later, it really did taste amazing. The dip in the middle certainly appeared to be a cosmetic hitch, and nothing more terminal flavour-wise.

Finally, I made the Apple and Olive Oil cake again, and this time I really nailed it. Rather than baking it in two sandwich tins as I had done the first time, I used one deep 20cm tin which I insulated with several layers of greaseproof paper (a la Dan Lepards masterclass), and cooked it for nearly an hour and a half; longer than the second time, when I maintain it was very slightly underdone. It survived the long journey south to Lou, Wol, Charlie and Frank, our friends in the 'burbs, and was roundly enjoyed by all (I also saved a couple of slices - one for Wyn for fixing my car, and the other for Omari in the office who you may recall loved this cake so much that he actually commissioned me to make him a whole one).

So the New Year is nearly upon us, and I have come to realise the hard way that the Christmas weight-gain armistice really doesn't exist. I don't know why I spend the week eating chocolate coins for breakfast, Lebkuchen for lunch and enormous hunks of stilton with cranberry sauce as a midnight snack, believing that somehow, because all one's usual routines, rituals, timetables and commitments are so totally disrupted during the festive break, that it can't possibly impact on my waistline. I came to work today and was actually waddling rather than walking, and unless I'm mistaken I can confirm that my coat - yes, my coat - is feeling tighter!

I'm still ruminating over whether to knock up a little lemon drizzle for January 1st though - well, citrus fruit is quite good for de-toxing isn't it?

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Be prepared.

It's not the destination but the journey that counts, as my yoga teacher is so fond of pointing out. Admittedly it's a rather spurious analogy as far as baking is concerned, as it is undoubtedly the end product that denotes success if you happen to be making a cake rather than performing a Sun Salutation.

But bear with me here.

There is a science to baking, and unlike other cooking where a level of spontaneity and experimentation is positively encouraged, the quantities of flour, ratios of ingredients and size of tin etc, are all of paramount importance if you want a good outcome. I have spent hours on forums discussing the merits of a 2lb loaf tin, and get very frustrated if a new recipe describes the tin in diameter rather than weight. I've had the ruler out more than once.

The other day Dan Lepard, who's How To Bake column in The Guardian really was solely responsible for starting me on this particular journey (it was his recipe for peanut butter cookies), announced on his website that he was going to attempt a live bake-along online. Very regretfully, I couldn't take part though I loved the concept, and eagerly read all the follow-up posts after it had taken place. In one message, somebody mentioned that the section on using greaseproof paper was especially helpful.

The cutting and moulding of baking paper has long been an issue for me; it is my least favourite preparatory activity, and always has me wishing for a kitchen assistant - perhaps a little elf in a Cath Kidtson apron - who would dutifully line my tins for me, grate all the orange and lemon zest, and do the washing up afterwards.

So after being directed to the youtube link, I asked my 14-year-old son Caleb if I could watch the clip on his computer. It was a revelation. Dan was so deft with the scissors it was more like origami, folding the paper 3 times and leaving it as a high column, rather than trimming it down to the height of the tin. And cutting 3 discs to line the bottom, which apparently guarantees much more even baking - especially if it's something like a fruit cake which requires a longer cooking time.

Whilst I was literally squealing with pleasure, and commenting excitedly on the fact that Dan uses the same brand of paper as me, I became aware of the look Caleb was giving me. A kind of withering pity best describes it. It's hard to explain under such circumstances that, contrary to appearances, I was actually quite cool once.

Still, he won't be complaining I'm sure, when he's tucking into a slice of the marmalade Dundee cake that was the subject of the bake-along, and which I shall be making over Christmas.

PS. The picture is an almond and clementine cake with bitter chocolate icing - nothing to do with anything I've written about here, but so pretty I felt impelled to share.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

A Fete worse than death.

For most people, the school Christmas Fayre is something to look forward to; A glass of mulled wine, a few festive carols and an opportunity to mingle pleasantly with your fellow parents. Not me. My competitive baking anxiety starts as soon as I open Eli's bookbag to discover the tell-tale raffle tickets, and a flyer announcing the event.

This year it was compounded by a hideous lack of time, and a couple of other very pressing baking challenges - clementine and oat muffins for a family get-together, and a real, bonafide commission from Omari at work, who loved his slice of apple and olive oil cake so much that he paid me 20 quid for a whole one! And this time, I decided to take Ottolenghi's advice and bake the cake a couple of days in advance, so that the complex flavours would really kick in, icing it at the last minute. (A word about this - much as I love the idea of making cakes for profit, I can't bear not being able to try them! Poor Omari was subjected to an interrogation the following day; Was it moist? Did it cut OK? Was it properly cooked all the way through? I can't imagine Nigella Lawson haranguing all the recipients of her offerings in such a desperate fashion.)

So for the fete, I once again rolled out the rye brownies. A bit of a cop-out, but if it ain't broke...

I was working on the tombola on the day, and am genuinely ashamed to admit that I sent Eli over to the cake stall to COUNT how many brownies were left - not that many as it turned out, but as soon as I had handed out the last prize I was over to the stall myself where I (and again - shame) brought a couple - 50p each!

Towards the end of the day, the raffle prizes were announced, and Eli and I dutifully waited to find out if we'd won a Nintendo Wii - highly unlikely as I'm notoriously unlucky with such things, and had only brought a couple of tickets, flogging the rest at the office. So blow me down, when the name of one of my work colleagues was announced as a winner - OK, not me personally but close enough. I hurried to the stage excitedly to claim the gift on her behalf- a bit like the Oscars when the star doesn't turn up and the schmuck who presented the award has to slope off with it.

And the prize? A voucher for a bespoke cake courtesy of my baking nemesis, Bonnie. The horror, the horror...