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.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Loafing about.

Season of mists and mellow fruit.  I bloody love the autumn, I do!  I love the way the sunshine turns from that hazy, humid summer heat to being bright and crisp and, I know it's a cliche, but really; crunching russet-coloured leaves underfoot is as wondrous today as it was in childhood.

For me, nothing is more appropriate for the autumn than a loaf cake.  It is the very embodiment of this season, if that makes any sense at all, somehow being both comforting and curiously exciting in equal measure.  Sometimes its ingredients remain a mystery until bitten.  The nuts and fruit are often undetectable at first glance, only revealing themselves once the first slice is cut. And of course, autumnal apples, pears and plums are superb in them. 

In nearly all cases, I will choose a loaf cake over almost anything else - both to make and eat.  If I'm treating myself in a coffee shop, my loaf cake radar will be quivering dangerously over the counter.  My lemon drizzle is always loaf-shaped - I just can't imagine making a round one.   The joy of a loaf cake is its innate simplicity.  To dress it up or disguise it with frosting, is somehow apologising for its very existence.  I was once rightly reprimanded by an admirer of my banana bread, for spreading a layer of cream cheese and honey icing over the top of it.  It was a moment of weakness that I don't intend to repeat.  The cake is just fine by itself - groaning with walnuts and plump sultanas and reeking of overripe banana.

Now that  I am so frequently baking to order, recreational cake-making is a rare event - it's a sad state of affairs really, as I have about a million exciting recipes that I'm dying to try, printed off the internet, torn out of papers and magazines, or hand-written on the backs of envelopes.  They are kept in a scruffy folder in the dreaded 'kitchen drawer', and whenever I open it, it scowls at me mockingly, peeping up between the scraggy bits of string,  Ikea tape measures, felt pens that ran out of ink in 1992 and broken remote controls, their batteries long since removed in order to power some other electronic device.   But when this recipe for an orange walnut loaf cake (pictured at the top of this post) appeared in the paper the other day, how could I possibly resist?   So yes - I made it and ate it, pretty much by myself, slice by slice over the course of a week, each time with a steaming mug of tea and The Archers.  And that's another really wonderful thing about loaf cakes:  wrap them well, shove them in a sealed container and they will improve beautifully with age.

A little like those crisp autumn leaves.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Quit stalling

A few weeks ago, I took part in a London-wide scheme called Love Your Local Market, in which new businesses were offered market pitches at a reduced rate to promote their wares and get some useful experience and feedback. As I do indeed love my local market, which happens to be the one on Portobello Road, I applied and therefore found myself selling cakes along this hallow'd stretch, and then on Golborne Rd around the corner, a couple of days later.

This was a massively big deal for me because my association with this particular neighbourhood goes back a long way and has provided some of my most evocative memories, and enduring influences; I first discovered it aged about fourteen, when me and my best friend Abigail had become mildly obsessed with the 1950's (a standard teenage thing, I think. Were there ever more glamorous corpses than those of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean?) Brick Lane was fantastic for kitsch homeware - Flying Ducks and vases adorned with Miro-esque abstract patterns were in abundance. But nowhere beat Portobello's covered market under the Westway for Hawaiian shirts, dresses with cinched waists and huge skirts, and mad gold stillettos - not 'vintage' back then, merely second-hand. But the biggest lure was Mr Waxy's record stall - a mecca for anyone who, like me, loved Doo-wop, Phil Spector and vocal groups such as The Platters and Smoky Robinson and The Miracles. I got my original 7" copy of The Wanderers by Dion and The Belmonts there, together with many less illustrious (and cheaper) discs. A visit to Portobello always ended with a trip to Ceres (now the Grain Store) for a slice of wholewheat pizza sold off a stall on the street in front of the shop. Mr Waxy is of course long gone, but the place still has a strong pull on me, and the idea of trading there myself made me feel quite misty-eyed.

With little time to prepare (I was only given my dates a week or so before-hand), I needed to get myself organised. I frantically ordered brown paper bags and cake boxes off the internet, and much to my tremendous delight, became the proud owner of an Urban Cakes stamp. Anyone of my generation will remember the unique joy of the toy post office set: I think this is where my love of stamping things probably started. My sister Joanna reminded me recently that we also created our own library at home, putting cards in the front of all our books and stamping the date on them when they were returned (presumably by us, to us!) Miniature shop sets were also a joy - tiny plastic replicas of Heinz baked beans and Birds custard, with the authentic packaging. It seems that it was perfectly acceptable in those childhood days, to have no loftier a career plan than to be a shop-keeper, bus conductor, or someone who worked in a post office.

I'm not proud to admit that I became somewhat territorial with my Urban Cakes stamp, bristling with irritation when the kids asked for a turn, and snapping that they had applied too much pressure, or not enough. 'I want it grainy, I want it grainy!'. I was clearly the only person who could achieve the required inky perfection.

So having got my stationery sorted, I turned my thoughts to the cakes themselves. It would have been churlish not to include a lemon drizzle, or Tahini flapjacks. Due to their popularity in various cafe's, these seem to have become my signature products, along with banana bread. However, I fancied making that droolsome squash cake with honey and orange syrup instead of the banana bread (I've overdosed on them lately), and added to these staples my new favourite brownies - made with nearly-burnt butter and cocoa, a chocolate cake adorned with summer fruit, some gluten-free walnut cookies, a cherry and polenta tart (I've eulogised about this in previous entries, I'm sure), a batch of buttery blueberry crumble muffins, and some savoury ones, in case anyone happened to be passing by around lunchtime. Best of all, a small but perfectly formed tray of white chocolate raspberry tarts (pictured above). This array necessitated many hours standing in the kitchen, stooping over bowls and peering into ovens, and my back and neck really felt it. No wonder chefs are so grumpy.

The whole thing was an invaluable lesson, I have to say. The weather was hideous (don't even get me started on this so-called summer), and as someone who has managed to avoid camping for most of their life, attempting to cover my stall, single-handedly, with a hired tarpaulin under the rueful gaze of several other not-terribly-helpful market traders, was not a high point. The endless rain meant that there weren't many people out just wandering around. And I've honestly given up trying to second-guess what customers are actually going to buy, as there has been very little consistency with any of the events where I've sold cakes. But I can more or less guarantee that I'll be out of chocolate cake by the end of the day wherever I happen to be, which proves something I guess about the allure of it. And I had pretty much sold out of everything by the end of the second day, though I have to admit that my sales were enhanced by the generosity of various friends and family who came down to show their support (and were good-humoured about my refusal to provide a discount.) I was struck by how polite tourists are (several came back in order to tell me how much they had enjoyed their purchases) and how cake, in all its spongy, sugary, moist glory, can herald the most interesting of conversations. Well, to me anyway.

Quite a few north Kensington locals seemed to approve, and inquired about the likelihood of Urban Cakes becoming a permanent fixture. I'm hoping so, because a bit like giving birth, when you insist (using many expletives) that you will never EVER put yourself through such an ordeal again, moments later you are idly wondering when you can repeat the experience because it really wasn't that bad, was it?

Friday, 20 April 2012

Savouring the savouries

Before I commence with this post - which is concerned with my new-found passion for savoury bakes - I must add a brief addendum to my last blog entry; I seem to remember discussing with great confidence my macaroon adventure at Leith's Cookery School. I even posted a photo of several healthy-looking pastel-hued meringue discs laid neatly upon a tray to illustrate it. I might have been ever so slightly smug about it.

Well, to the right here you will see what happened when I attempted to make them at home. A catastrophe. So much went wrong that it is barely worth raking over the details. And thankfully, enough time has elapsed now for me to no longer reach for the Prozac at the memory of it. Suffice to say though: Never try and judge the temperature of a sugar syrup for use in an Italian meringue by staring at it and waving your hand over the pan to see how hot it feels - you need the necessary equipment; don't mix the almond and egg-white for around half the allotted time that you were CATEGORICALLY told it would take to get it right. And don't try and squeeze the macaroon mixture out onto the tray through a piping bag with a nozzle that an emaciated ant would struggle to crawl through.

There is a lesson in here somewhere, though. Learned the hard way, but learned nonetheless: Stick to what you're good at. Know your style, and be true to yourself. If not in life, at the very least when you're making cakes.

Which brings me back - with a huge sigh of relief - to muffins and tarts.

The words Savoury and Cake, when fused together, produce something of an oxymoron in my mind. I've experimented with the concept quite often with varying results; Ottolenghi's Gruyere and Rosemary loaf cake was delicious, though I'd almost put it in the bread category, as it worked best with a dollop of butter. I tried a few savoury muffins from my go-to muffin recipe book for the Christmas Oakstock market in Harlesden that I sell at once a month. They sounded great on paper - Brie, red onion and fig, and pear, date and Stilton, but were less successful than expected, and a bit stodgy. In theory, muffin batter is a great enabler for most fillings and toppings, but getting the balance right is still a challenge. I can state here and now that I will never be labouring over a smoked mackerel, courgette, tomato, olive and basil muffin as recommended in one recipe book. Uh-uh. No way.

And as for savoury cakes. One of my favourite people in the world, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall devoted a whole Guardian column a few months back, to the joy of them, but I remain unconvinced. There is something not quite right about a 20cm round cake with bits of pepper and tomato in it. For me, you see something shaped like a cake and you expect to eat something that tastes like a cake as well . I'm all for a bit of experimentation, and regularly use butternut squash, beetroot and various other root veg in my baking, but that is much more a textural thing, plus the obvious advantage of reducing the calorie count. I just don't like any kind of food that talks in riddles. (The whole concept of molecular cooking is revolting to me. I would rather eat an apple, than a green shiny orb that has been conjured up in some kind of kitchen laboratory to taste like an apple. What in God's name is the point of that?)

Last month I was selling at a private view for an art show in Willesden ( Gabriel, who runs the gallery, suggested that as most of the attendees would be arriving straight from work, it might be worth having something more supper-like on offer to satiate their early evening hunger. So with this in mind, I pulled out a few ideas that I thought would fit the bill - carrot, spinach and cumin muffins, a Gruyere and onion tart with a caraway seed crust (pictured above) and some courgette and Mozzarella frittata-style muffins (all in addition to the usual chocolate cakes, brownies etc. I'm not that fickle)

They were great fun to make, though the endless peeling, chopping and sauteing of various vegetables was more like preparing dinner for the kids and was quite knackering. But the smells emanating from the oven were glorious, and the results were absolutely yummy. The response was great too - lots to think about when I finally get around to getting my regular pitch organised. I would add to this burgeoning repertoire the spicy blackened corn and polenta muffins that I make quite often - an Ottolenghi recipe again, and really special.

It's a weird one, this. I'm not a confident cook, and have always made a rather mercenary point of ensuring that I share my home with someone who would feed me well - be it boyfriends, roomies or lodgers (one of them probably over-stayed his welcome by about a year, due to his astonishingly good spaghetti vongole). So when I venture out of my comfort zone, I pay slavish attention to whichever recipe I'm using having little confidence in my own ability to judge the balance of flavours by instinct. But somehow incorporating main-course ingredients into my baking doesn't make it seem nearly so scary, and frankly I'm feeling rather inspired. I'm perving over as many interesting meat and veg combo's these days, as I am nuts and chocolate.

So easy too. Here's those carrot, spinach and cumin muffins:

It's probably just a phase though, because licking the bowl is nowhere near the rewarding experience that it is when there's butter, sugar and vanilla involved...

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Get A Macaroon

A few weeks ago I went on another cookery course, this time at Leiths and once again a present from my lovely friends.

I eschewed the classes that might have been more obvious for me; opportunities to practice some great classic cake recipes or further hone my pastry skills (though I'm still feeling slightly smug about my mince pie marathon over Christmas), and went instead for a masterclass in the fine - and frankly terrifying - art of Macaroons and Meringues. I had a pretty good idea that the steady hand, faultless judgement and overall finesse required to produce the dainty little circles would be extremely challenging for me, and force me, kicking and screaming, out of my comfort zone.

Now I should point out that I don't especially like those French macaroons - I admit that they're aesthetically pleasing, but they're somewhere up there with cupcakes in my pantheon of baked goods that represent something sinister and disingenuous. For me, a proper macaroon is one of those lovely, almondy cracked biscuits with a flimsy sliver of rice paper glued to their underside, and a single glazed almond pushed into their centre. My grandmother used to get them for us when we were kids, and they had the dubious distinction of being one of the few biscuits, other than Jaffa Cakes, that my sister would give a passing thought too (although she always ditched the nut).

But piled high in the window of Laduree on London's Burlington Arcade, in their candy shades of pink, green and yellow, I concede is an awesome sight.

I was concerned that this course might attract the kind of home baker who I have little in common with: Stepford-style mummies, who have been speed-balling on cupcake frosting for the last couple of years and are ready to move onto the hard stuff. Those competitive types, the scourge of the school cake-sale, who theme their kids' parties and probably spend hour upon hour piping Happy Birthday on to scraps of parchment (teeth clenched with the stress of it all) in various rainbow hues, to perfect their craft. In other words, women who make me feel hopelessly inadequate, especially in the icing department.

But I was pleasantly surprised that this wasn't the case, and to find myself partnered with a French guy called Herve, who turned out to be a very good person to work with, mainly because he was totally unflustered, very tidy and extremely magnanimous in sharing the glory of his perfect macaroons with me!

The day started with a demonstration from our tutor for the day - a reassuringly rotund patisserie chef, whose name I can't quite remember though it sounded like Wasabi. Now I love a good demo, and this one was great - I spent the whole time excitedly scribbling notes to myself like HUGE METAL SPOON! SMALLER BEATERS? DON'T OVERMIX!! Etc. Of course, reading it back later in the comparative calm of my own kitchen, it sounded more like the lyrics to a Joni Mitchell song, but I managed to remember most of the salient points.

For the macaroons, we were taught to use the Italian meringue method, which involves adding a boiling sugar syrup to the egg whites - this apparently helps the meringue to hold its shape, and keep longer before baking. This sturdy mixture is then folded into the almond paste and is ready for any personal touches that you might fancy; colouring (ours were yellow and raspberry pink), and a dab of flavour, such as rose water or framboise, or much more up my street - some coffee, chocolate or pistachio.

This is the point at which one is required to neatly pipe small circles of the mixture onto a prepared baking sheet - preferably marked in pencil to ensure perfect unity. Whilst Herve deftly filled his icing bag, I found myself having a full-scale battle with bag, spatula, scissors and icing nib. I issued so many very bad expletives during this exercise, that I thought I might be sent out of the room. And when I had finally regained some control and composure, I managed to pipe them all too closely therefore creating great long necklaces of pink meringue goo. The second tray was more successful and the finished result was actually pretty good for an early attempt.

We sandwiched our macaroons together with either raspberry buttercream or a really yummy passion-fruit curd, and I was delighted to bring mine home and show them off to family and friends. I even admitted humbly that Herve's were the more perfect yellow ones. Mine were - um - a little more rustic in appearance.

When I have another go at them - and I'm planning on it, soon - I'm going to try the ones in the Ottolenghi book, as the flavours sound so great, and they're not as poncey as some of their counterparts. But the recipe below is Lorraine Pascale's, as it was apparently a slightly altered version of this one that we did on the course. Good luck. You'll need it.,uk/food/recipes/macaroons_04669

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

A sight for sore mince pies.

For the last few weeks, I've been providing cakes to a little cafe which resides in a lovely shop called Nomad Books in Fulham. This came about because my friend Jan - a great ambassador for Urban Cakes - was in there one day enjoying a very good cup of coffee, but with a pretty manky slice of carrot cake. She told them about me, so to cut a long story short (no bookshop pun intended), I've been shooting up there once a week laden with muffins, banana breads and flapjacks, and so far it seems to be going quite well.

The other day, they asked me if I could supply them with mince pies to give out at a book signing that they were hosting. Without hesitation I said I would, despite the fact that I've never actually made one in my life. Mince pies occupy the same space in my baking arsenal as cheesecakes; I make a decent cheesecake, but concede happily that there are plenty who do them better, not least the Jewish delis who are unsurpassed as far as I'm concerned. And if I'm really honest, a stodgy Mr Kipling mince pie - washed down with a little snifter of Baileys - is something of a guilty pleasure on Christmas Eve.

But I'm always up for a challenge, and wasn't about to let 50 of the buggers get the better of me. So after giving it some thought, I did what any self-respecting west Londoner would do faced with a similar dilemma: I called Eugene Manzi.

Eugene is the Godfather of the mince pie. He starts assembling the ingredients for the filling around July, and prepares the mince so early that it's positively humming by the time its unveiled in December. But the recipe is a closely guarded Manzi family secret and, despite years of cunning attempts to extract it , I have never succeeded in breaking him. Believe me, this mincemeat is sensational and worth the effort. Last Christmas, Eugene gave me a big jar of it, assuming that I'd put it to good use in various seasonal offerings, and of course I intended to do this. But in truth - and I'm not proud of this - I stood at the kitchen counter late one night (probably having blubbed through It's a Wonderful Life or some such) and shoved most of it in my gob using a very lady-like teaspoon, which somehow made it seem slightly less gluttonous. It's what generally happens when there's Ben & Jerry's in the house as well; I'll meander by the open freezer door, and delicately spoon little shards of the cold ice-cream into my mouth until there is none left. Which is why it is banned from my life forever. But enough of my sordid confessions.

Generously, and after after some very undignified begging on my part, Eugene agreed to give me a couple of jars as he felt that he just had time to prepare some more before the festivities commence. So with a new-found confidence, realising at the very least that the filling would be really good, I set about finding a recipe that would lend itself to the volume that I had to prepare.

I ended up resorting to my all-purpose pastry recipe - which only uses a tablespoon of icing sugar - as I feel that the filling is rich and sweet enough, and I made little stars of the lids. As you'll see from the snap, they really do look rather pretty. And it was actually a very useful exercise in pastry- making as I had to do several rounds, and found that the dough was better, more rollable and consistent with every batch (regular readers will know that pastry is my nemesis.)

As it turned out, there was way more mincemeat than was necessary, so I'm going to do a whole lot more of the little beauties for Eli's birthday party this weekend. I've sort of got the hang of it now, and am really looking forward to cranking up the mince pie conveyor belt again.

But no recipe to share this time, I'm afraid. Because if I gave it to you, I would have to kill you.