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.

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