Thursday, 19 September 2013

Back to Black.

Not that I expect you've noticed, but I've been keeping a low profile of late.  I admit it.  I have had Baker's Fatigue.  My baking mojo detached itself, folded itself away and hid in the airing cupboard.  Luscious photographs of cakes and cookies, staring out at me lustfully from weekend newspapers, raised little more than a sleepy eyebrow.  Some sexy new piece of kit, purchased online, which would usually  have had me hiding behind the front door waiting for the postman, languished at the post office for days until I could summon enough enthusiasm to go and collect it.

I mean, I've been baking.  A lot, actually.  There were hot cross buns at Easter, a rye loaf and custard tarts for Mark's birthday, two bosom cakes (I know), a riot of maple-syrup based concoctions for Canada Day, more chocolate cakes, lemon drizzles, brownies and muffins than I can reasonably keep track of.  And a shed-load of Tahini flapjacks.

But I cannot deny that I have been experiencing something of a malaise.  There are two significant factors, I think.  Firstly, I am still grappling with my new oven.  Despite a fair bit of experimentation with tray-height, temperatures, putting the cakes in to the left or the right, and spinning them around mid-way through,  I really haven't nailed it, and some of my creations have suffered as a consequence.  It seems to be especially resistant to loaf cakes, which is a big problem and the cause of much anxiety.  Only yesterday, a banana bread seeped over the side of the tin, creating a weird sheet of banana-flavoured cake which looked rather like a map of the British Isles.  A shame that That's Life isn't still on, as I could have sent it in to Esther Rantzen.  I also think the weather has had a lot to do with my apathy; Don't get me wrong, having a proper English summer was an absolute joy.  But being stuck in a hot kitchen, while London sweltered in 30 degrees, was far from joyful.  On a few occasions, I was up at dawn in order to beat the onset of sunshine.  And let's face it - the desire to eat cake when it's humid and sticky is as resistible as having to make them.
Apple and blackberry oat crumble

On one especially sultry day, I was selling on a stall at a local community event, and had to watch helplessly as the top layer of my chocolate cake slid - in slow-motion- off the bottom layer, while the gorgeous summer fruits that had adorned it so prettily plopped onto the table.  It was just like that scene in Titanic, only I wasn't playing the violin.

And when the baking becomes a bit of a chore, writing about it does as well.

I was kind of wondering if it was going to become a chronic condition or whether the first glimpses of Autumn might brighten my mood, and send me back to the hand-mixer with renewed vigor.  But what actually did it in the end was a massive pile of freshly-picked, juicy blackberries.

Mark was in south Wales last weekend, and foraged a huge quantity of this most heavenly of berries from his mum's garden, delivering them to me in a giant plastic container.  They were already ripe, and I needed to use them quickly before they went too meh.

So yesterday afternoon I set to work, and in much the same way as those posh chefs always insist on cooking a piece of pork or whatever  '3 ways', I decided that it would be churlish to employ the fruit in only one dish.  I settled on a yummy apple, blackberry frangipane tart, topped with shaved almonds, and a simple apple and blackberry crumble, replacing half the flour with oats in the topping, adding some cinnamon and liberally sprinkling the fruit with lots of soft brown sugar so that it would go all caramel-y.

The 'third' option was some really moorish blackberry friands with star anise (I actually made these a few weeks ago for a family 'do', but I'm warming to the three-ways theme, so forgive me for the slight poetic license).  It was an Ottolenghi recipe from absolutely ages ago, and mainly came about because I had a ton of frozen egg-whites and was trawling the internet looking for ideas on how I could put them to good use.  The recipe requires 10, which would have created a lot of redundant yolks. The little treats were delicious - very light and moist - and the spike of star anise really bought something to the party.  It also gave me a good excuse to use my new mini-loaf tin, and although I may not have been literally cancelling appointments in order not to miss the delivery, I was nonetheless very happy to receive it.  The friands are pictured at the top of this post.

I've reprinted the recipe below, because having un-earthed it, it would be mean not to share the love.

Apple blackberry frangipane tart

Blackberry and star anise friands

340g egg whites (10 egg whites)
100g plain flour
300g icing sugar
180g ground almonds
2 tsp star anise, finely ground
⅓ tsp salt
Grated zest of ½ lemon
220g unsalted butter, melted and left to cool, plus extra for greasing
150g blackberries
For the icing (optional)
70g blackberries, plus 10 extra, to garnish
2 tbsp water
300g icing sugar, plus extra to dust

Heat the oven to 170C/335F/gas mark 3. Use melted butter to brush the bottoms and sides of 10 mini loaf tins (4.5cm high x 9.5cm long x 6.5cm wide), or similar small baking tins, and chill. Put the egg whites in a large bowl and whisk to froth them up a bit; don't whip them completely. Sift the flour, icing sugar, ground almonds, star anise and salt, add to the egg whites and stir until incorporated. Add the lemon zest and melted butter, and mix just until the batter is smooth and uniform.
Pour into the baking tins, filling them two-thirds of the way up. Halve the blackberries and drop into the batter. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven, leave to cool a little, take out of the tins and leave until completely cool.
To ice the cakes, put the berries and water in a small bowl and use a fork to smash the fruit in the water. Pass through a fine sieve, pressing the pulp against the sides. Pour three-quarters of the purple juice over the icing sugar and whisk vigorously to a uniformly light-purple, runny paste. It should be just thick enough to allow you to brush it over the tops of the cakes, and will set as a thin, almost see-through coating on top with some icing dripping down the sides. (If not, add more juice.) Place a blackberry on each friand and dust with icing sugar.

So high-five for blackberries.   They really are a divine and underrated little fruit, and have made a tremendous contribution to my mojo bursting open the airing cupboard door and announcing to the world that I'm Back!  And after've got to have friands*.


Sunday, 20 January 2013

My baking resolutions.

 Well, that was a somewhat mad, manic and unexpectedly busy end to 2012.

Several Sundays spent shivering on Portobello Road, attempting to flog 'Christmas' flapjacks to tourists (they had orange peel and treacle in them, so I felt justified in labelling them accordingly); making mounds of cupcakes (yes I know, but in business one cannot afford to allow ones own personal preferences - or prejudices for that matter - cloud ones judgement); preparing nine Victoria sponges for a wedding, including one massive four-tiered job (for which I made my own strawberry jam - a first); and then finally, as the festive season hit its peak, I sold mince pies and delicious spicy butterscotch brownies to very merry revellers at the Guilty Pleasures screening of Bad Santa at the gorgeous Troxi Cinema in east London.  Sharing the love with various elves, Christmas trees and glitter-strewn fairies was a privilege indeed.

But now it's 2013, which seems a little weird and implausible and I need to really focus on what baking challenges lie ahead.  The problem with making loads of cakes to sell, is that it necessitates being much more sensible about managing one,s time, and hours spent just arsing about in the kitchen experimenting and becoming half-hysterical at terrible mishaps, pretty much cease.  I feel quite nostalgic for whole mornings spent on soggy macaroons or ill-risen hot-cross buns.   Toiling over a tray of delicate little praline pastries, when most of them refuse to be shoe-horned from their tin and are therefore rendered useless, is a luxury I simply can't afford. So really, truly my MAIN resolution for 2013 is to start having fun again.

But there are other issues that require urgent attention:
The Granola tart
  • Piping skills - we are not talking here about that particular talent for mixing icing to a precise consistency and filling a plastic bag, but shop-bought Writing Icing - the sort that comes in little user-friendly tubes, that can be handed to small children in order to decorate fairy cakes.  I'm envious of the efforts of the least accomplished home-baker, who can make a passable attempt at writing someone's name atop a cake.  God knows I'm not comparing myself to the professional patisserie chefs, spending hours in the kitchens of Konditer and Cook, or Maison  Blanc, inscribing the monikers of lucky recipients to decorous perfection.  I've always made out that I sort of intend it to look a little bit amateurish -  a touch of Keith Haring, a dash of urban graffiti...but the truth is, I don't WANT Jackson Pollock adorning my cakes!  How many chocolate cakes have I ruined at the 11th hour with childish scribble?  It's the nerves. 
  • Right now, dear readers, I view this blog as a kind of confession booth, where I'm sitting in the half-light facing the shadowy figure of Dan Lepard or Mary  Berry, revealing with  excruciating candour my darkest secrets - the stuff that stops me from sleeping at night.  So my second resolution is to take the 'oops' out of my pastry.  I mean, it's improved, there is no doubt about that.  I have more or less settled on a ratio of flour, butter, icing sugar and egg that is pretty much foolproof.  But just before Christmas, I was making some mince pies, and rolled out the pastry only for it to virtually disintegrate beneath the pin.  It had the consistency of a face pack.  I finally managed to create vaguely pie-shaped receptacles out of it, employing a method last used whilst making a play-doh dinner service 40 years ago.  But they were ridiculously over- flaky once finished, and full of holes through which the mince escaped.  This is basic stuff that shouldn't happen anymore.  I must sort it out.
  • I need to stop being stubborn about lining cake tins. I have so far snubbed the pre-bought cake liner, in favour of the laborious and time-consuming act of cutting the baking paper to size and sliding it in place with lashings of melted butter.  It's more of an aesthetic thing, really - I like the appearance of golden crumbs of banana bread stuck to a big greaseproof rectangle, rather than those symmetrical little ridges.  But in fairness, I can't really explain my resistance to using silicone baking utensils.  I guess I just don't trust them. However, I have succumbed to using a plastic sheet for my biscuits, which I suppose is some kind of progress.  I know we're not exactly talking the industrial revolution here, but it's a start.
  • I must use shortcuts less guiltily.  Although Delia took the concept way too far:  tinned stewed beef?  Eugh.  But for me, other than the aforementioned lazy Writing Icing option, I will always take the long road;  stewing fruit from scratch, garrotting nuts with a half-blunt knife, melting butter in a pan rather than the microwave, grinding spices in the heaviest mortar ever  - nothing to do with the quality of results really, but it makes me feel better having toiled, laboured and possibly chopped half a finger off in the process.  And it doesn't matter how many times Nigella or her kind tell me that shop-bought puff pastry is completely passable, I will never go there.  And I doubt if I will ever invest in a sexy free-standing mixer either, preferring the more labour intensive hand-held variety.  This, despite developing a rather worrying vibrating arm in recent weeks.  I wonder if I could sue Kenwood?
So back to having fun.  At the beginning of the month, the kids, Mark and I spent a Sunday with our friends Lou and Wol, and were charged with providing the pudding.  Weary from my December labours, I considered nipping to M&S to purchase, but then decided to put one of several Panettone's acquired over the festivities to good use.  So with a quick glance at what I had lying around the kitchen, I set about cutting it into fat strips, making some creamy vanilla custard into which I plopped the slices until they were sodden, then pushing them carelessly into an oven dish, dousing the whole thing in rum, scattering plump raisins over the top of it and shoving it in the oven.  It was like a slightly devilish eggy-bread (it's pictured at the top of this post).  Free-styling like this was a truly joyful experience, and so was eating it. A few days later I made a milk tart topped with homemade granola, which Eli had been nagging me to bake again for months.  It was a Dan Lepard recipe from ages ago, and we ate it - just the four of us - for breakfast and dessert for a good few days, adding a generous dollop of squirty cream if we wanted it to be a bit more fancy.

Mmmm, just for the hell of it.