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...

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Spurs take the biscuit!

On Monday I made some superb cookies - Rye and Raisin. I found them on Dan Lepard's website, whilst trawling through the recipe's in search of mince pies.

Elsewhere on these pages, I have mulled over the importance of being in the right frame of mind to bake successfully.
So bearing in mind that I am a Tottenham supporter, and that they had beaten Wigan FC 9-1 the previous day, my temperance was most definitely good as I gathered my various utensils to start on the cookies. In fact, I was euphoric.

There were a few distinct reasons why these biscuits worked, I think: Firstly, I only put four patties of dough on each baking tray, rather than trying to save time and squeeze more on - which inevitably results in the cookies spreading into each other, and necessitates some stringent knife-action to remould them whilst they're cooling. I also didn't press the doughballs down on the tray, I just left them as little golf-ball sized blobs, so that they didn't flatten quite so much whilst cooking. Lastly, I ignored the recipe's instruction to remove after 12-15 minutes, and took them out at 10, despite the fact that they were still wobbling and appeared to be barely cooked.

The result was 16 perfect cookies - crisp on the outside, soft in the middle and exploding with raisins, which made them even chewier. I could have happily eaten five of them (but didn't)

The other smile-inducing event of the weekend was, at last, the ownership of the Ottolenghi cookbook - given to me by my brother as a belated birthday gift. It's cake-porn, pure and simple (the savoury stuff is, of course, unbelievable too). I'm struggling to decide what to attempt first, but there are some plum and marzipan muffins in there which made my heart quicken. I might send some to Aaron Lennon and Jermain Defoe as an early Christmas present.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

My Baking Crushes.

I was sitting in a coffee shop earlier this week with my work friend Jan (we were having a 'meeting'), discussing cake and the emotional connotations that it has. Whilst doing so, we were scoffing the leftovers from my birthday tea party which we had spirited into Cafe Nero, knowing full well that anything that they had to offer couldn't in any way compete with the sheer, moorish heaven of what I had produced. I know this might sound a little arrogant, but I consider myself nothing more than a vessel in which to carry forth the God-like baking genius of messr's Ottolenghi and Fearnley-Whittingstall.

I am not the first person to have blogged about Ottolenghi's Apple & Olive Oil cake - it has been reprinted and salivated over by many others. But never has a cake been more worthy of the adulation that it recieves. For a start, it was a joy to make - one of those occasions, when one feels really certain that the outcome will live up to its promise. The cake itself was almost panettone-like - so light, with huge shards of bramley apple piercing it's surface. And the maple syrup icing mixed up beautifully and spread on the cake in luscious perfection. The above photo barely does it justice (my 'cameraman' was absent that day). When I served it up on Sunday, there was literally no sound in the room for around 10 minutes, other than a kind of low gurgle of appreciation. And the leftovers were recieved at work with equal enthusiasm, as the last slice was fought over.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Honey & Orange syrup cake is a more humble affair, but every bit as lovely - so clever in that you can literally taste every ingredient - the cloves, nutmeg, squash and of course the sweet yet citrus-y syrup that hits your tongue right at the end. It also improves with age, so by the time I took it into work, it was probably at the peak of its powers. One women came over and announced solemnly that it was 'the best cake I've ever eaten' (I'm not sure why she was so solemn - I like to think it was in reverance for my skill and generosity in sharing it!)

For the tea party, I also made my 'signature' light chocolate cake, and Dan Lepard's hazelnut brownies (again - I love those babies) - both delicious, though the brownies may have been left in the oven a tad too long, due to me being distracted by Strictly Come Dancing during the baking process.

I have realised that my favourite recipes generally have one common feature, irregardless of which one of my baking crushes has devised it: They all keep the sugar content to a minimum - not free (which would be horrid), but allowing the other ingredients to shine through.

Which brings me back to the coffee shop, and the overly sweet muffins and pastries that are generally on offer, certainly at the 'chains'. It was probably my dissatisfaction with these sickly treats that actually got me baking in the first place - a yearning for something with a bit of subtlety and finesse.

PS I will soon be adding all the recipes that I've mentioned so far in these postings, and apologies for not getting round to it yet.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Curious combinations.

I always get a little frisson of excitement when confronted with a recipe that challenges the conformist view of what ingredient goes with what. At the moment, I'm salivating at the thought of baking Ottolenghi's Apple and Olive Oil Cake with maple syrup icing. Just typing out the words is enough to induce something akin to an orgasm. And Nigella's Rosemary Rememberance Cake is reported to be a joyous eating experience, though herbs in this context may appear a tad unsettling.

It's all a bit Willy Wonka, and that can only be a good thing in my book.

In much the same way, it seems like a strange contradiction that some of my most coherent baking musings happen whilst I'm at my thrice weekly Bikram Yoga classes. Clearly there is something about attempting a 360 degree backward bend in a room heated to sauna temperature, that induces a weird kind of clarity in my brain. I can calmly plan menus for tea-parties, create a shopping list, and even visualise my forthcoming cake-making session with extraordinary accuracy. I'm guessing that when Bikram Choudhury developed his ground-breaking yoga method in the misty hills above Calcutta, the ability to multi-task in this fashion whilst doing so, was not necessarily a priority for him. And I doubt that the class instructor will imagine that my beatific smile is less to do with finding inner peace than having a Eureka moment about where I might source some hemp flour.

Tomorrow, I'm going to make a stoned fruit and yoghurt cake with a whole plethora of plums that I have lying around - nothing remotely challenging in that combination admittedly, but it does include semolina which I've not tried before, and I love the sound of that. I'm saving the Ottolenghi cake till next weekend, when I'm having a little birthday soiree. I'm not sure what else I'll be preparing for the party - I'll wait till my next yoga class, and decide then.

PS. The snap is actually a Gruyere and Rosemary cake - another Ottolenghi recipe, and a rare savoury moment for me.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

The icing on the (cup) cake.

I'm quite aggrieved about Halloween. Why we're suddenly all expected to have parties and spend money on gratuitous Trick or Treat paraphernalia, I don't really know. But on the plus side it gave me a very credible excuse to make some heavenly Pumpkin and Ginger Cupcakes. This recipe appeared in last week's Guardian, and I'd been fantasising about baking them ever since. They didn't disappoint - in fact: Wow.

A word about butter-cream icing: After endless failed attempts and years of practice, I think I've finally found a formula that produces the right consistency for perfect frosting. Get your butter really soft, and beat it with half the icing sugar, using a wooden spoon, until you get a nice paste. Then add the extra's of your choice - mascarpone, cream- cheese, cocoa or whatever - give it another good beating, then add the remaining icing sugar and beat again. Put it in the fridge and remove about 20/30 mins before use.

So back to Halloween. After an early flurry of ghosts and ghoulies, all was quiet until about 9pm when there was a knock at the door. I opened it, and was greeted by a boy of around fourteen standing by himself, wearing an anorak and a pair of trackie bottoms. 'So where's your costume then?', I asked him. Nothing - just a slightly lethargic stare. I sent him away with no more than a snack pack of Sunny Maid raisins as a penance for his lamentable lack of effort, figuring that if he couldn't be bothered to even scowl at me in a threatening manner, he was unlikely to hurl any eggs at my window. I certainly wasn't going to honour him with a pumpkin cupcake.

Friday, 30 October 2009


I was sorry to hear this morning of the death of Norman Painting, who played Phil in The Archers for 60 years. I'm an Archers junkie - for me, it's right up there with steamed puddings, and FairIsle sweaters for invoking a sense of nostalgia, albeit for a way of life I've never actually experienced.

My childhood home was a fifth floor flat in a mansion block off London's Edgware Road, and our only exposure to the wide open spaces of rural England were our yearly sojourns to the Suffolk coast. I do, however, vividly recall sitting at our sunny kitchen table while mum listened to The Archers as she did the ironing, and being admonished with a sharp 'Shhhh' if I tried to interrupt her.

My mother was a fabulous, funny woman with many talents, cooking absolutely not being one of them. I don't recall her ever baking - the closest thing to a dessert that she ever produced was an occasional Angel Delight. Which makes my love of the art all the more baffling. My favourite cakes also tend to be those that one can imagine being rustled up in batches in huge country kitchens - banana bread, tea cakes, fruit loafs, muffins - who's childhood these belong too, I don't know - certainly not mine, but nostalgia is as much about a kind of wistful imagining as bona-fide memory, I think.

The only time I remember a home-baked item being brought into our flat was when my sister returned from school one day with a cake that she had prepared during her Domestic Science class. I will never forget it. It was purple for a start, and the shape, size and weight of a brick, with mysterious craters all over its surface. The five of us - mum, dad, my sister, brother and I just stood in a semi-circle and stared at it silently, before mum produced a knife and started chipping away at it, like a sculptor about to start work on a new statue. It tasted of sugar and food colouring, but we ate it anyway - a culinary experience I'm definitely not nostalgic for, but a bona-fide memory for sure.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Beauty is in the Rye of the beholder. (sorry)

I really love rye flour. If rye flour were an actor it would be Jimmy Stewart. If it were a garment of clothing it would be a well-worn cashmere sweater. If rye flour were a sitcom it would be Father Ted. And as much as I'm slightly alarmed that I'm sitting here, quite seriously dreaming up these analogies, I really do feel that its praise is overdue.

Two of my all-time favourite recipes use rye flour - the brownies previously mentioned, and an apple cake that first appeared (once again) in Dan Lepard's column in The Guardian. On Monday, for no good reason, I decided to bake them both - a rye-fest. One of my principal reasons for loving this flour is that you don't need to sift it. And the cake is prepared almost entirely in the saucepan - you melt the butter, sugar and some golden syrup over a low heat, then bung everything else in for a quick stir before putting it in a loaf tin, sprinkling some flaked almonds and demerrara sugar on top, and it's good to go.

This baby has never let me down - and I'm not the only person who basks in its reflected glory. If you go onto Dan's website, there are pages and pages of eulogies to the Rye Apple Cake, plus endless photo's of its golden loveliness. So here it is - not the most luscious photo, as most of it was eaten before I got around to snapping it. But you'll get the gist, I'm sure.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Let's whisk again!

After some distinct peaks and troughs in the course of my baking week, I finally got my mojo back on Friday night.
In fairness, I was back on safe turf - three birthday cakes: all chocolate, and practiced, tweaked and fine-tuned over several years. But for reasons I can't explain - maybe the planets just aligning at the right moment, or a divine ability to transfigure the winner from the previous evening's Masterchef final - I was absolutely in the zone and as focused as hell.
The cakes were for my brother-in-law, and two nephews - their 50th, 21st and 18th respectively. I decided to present the boys with one of my 'light' cakes each - no butter (apart from a teensy bit in the frosting), and butternut squash as it's central moisture-inducing component. I know I've expressed a queasiness for vegetables as a baking ingredient elsewhere on these pages, but this cake never disappoints. And you wouldn't know it was so virtuous from the flavour and texture, which are heavenly. These two were knocked out during an enjoyable evening session, whilst watching Corrie on the kitchen telly.
The following morning, I started on the third offering - my 'signature' chocolate cake - so wet, it's almost gateau-like, and encased in white chocolate icing. I spiked it with fresh raspberries, with a few mulched and smeared through its centre - just for good measure. With a masterful flourish of writing icing, and some strategically scattered sugar crystals (they're naturally coloured, and come from Wholefoods - I love them) the job was done. All three cakes took up residence in the fridge until the party later on. And I have to admit, I couldn't resist peaking at them at regular intervals throughout the day - they just looked so damn pretty!
All went well, and the cakes were rightfully swooned over at the party. Ian's was the first to get demolished, followed by Stefans. Danny's was spirited away, so that the family could enjoy it for themselves the next day. However, on the way home, whilst they waited for a mini-cab on Ladbroke Grove, a gaggle of howlingly inebriated girls attempted to steal it! My sister Joanna, in an inspired move, I think - told them that it had been puked on, thus ensuring it's hasty return! (The awful girls still got away with a bottle of champagne though). An Urban Cake indeed.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

That's The Way It Crumbles, Cookie-wise.

As with Brownies, the quest to bake a faultless Cookie can be a long and arduous process . It should be so simple: No complicated methods, no tricky elements to bring together - just some butter, sugar, eggs, flour and a filling of your choice to contend with.

But I believe that beneath this deceptively simple narrative, there is a complex and challenging subtext that has to be patiently deconstructed before the story can be fully understood. It is essential, for example, that the oven be precisely the right temperature, and that the cookies are removed at exactly the right moment to avoid either being too gloopy or too brittle - and it can take nerves of steel, and supreme self-confidence to judge when this moment is. And like Brownies, I've tried countless versions in my quest for greatness. (By the way, Dan Lepard's Rye and Hazelnut Brownie recipe is my current favourite - the perfect balance of crispy outer shell and gooey centre, plus the rye flour gives them a gutsy, rustic flavour - pictured).

So yesterday, I thought I'd try some Nigel Slater cookies which appeared a couple of weeks ago in the Observer Food Monthly - Hazelnut and choc-chip. (I should point out that I will always favour a recipe if there is a nut option, as I could cheerfully live on them in any manifestation). It specified that the butter be at room temperature and cubed before being creamed with the sugar. So here again I got out my new electric mixer, to see if I felt more at one with it this time. And yes, it made light work of the beating but as I eyed this airy mixture, I wondered whether this was in fact the right consistency for a cookie batter - after all, a decent cookie requires a heavier crumb, I feel.
Twelve minutes in the oven, and the results were - well, just OK really (see pic). Not as good as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's White Chocolate and Cranberry ones, which prescribe melting the butter first. I definitely favour this method. So again, a somewhat discouraging baking afternoon, and no word yet from the cake sale front line.
A little postscript: I am a great believer that one has to be in the right frame of mind before embarking upon any kind of cake making - positive, motivated and in general good humour. Earlier in the day, I had badly chipped my front tooth, and despite my colleagues assertion that I looked a little bit like Jane Birkin - 'if I squint a bit and turn my head to the side' - I knew that I more resembled a reject from the Jeremy Kyle Show. This was all very distressing, and impacted negatively on the outcome of the cookies, I sure. I've now been to the dentist and had it fixed, so I'm feeling more hopeful about tomorrow's birthday cake marathon...

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Fear and loathing in the playground.

Tomorrow is the day of the cake sale at my son's school. Even as I type those two words, my stomach churns with trepidation. Promoted as a benign event to raise funds for our children's educational establishment, the cake sale is in actuality a seething mass of fierce competition and playground back-stabbing. There are three parental tribes when this thrice yearly event comes around: The home-bakers, The poncy pretenders and, God forbid, the ones who nip into the corner shop on the way to school to pick up a pack of Mr Kipling Bakewell Tarts with an overdue sell-by date. I used to be in the middle category - I'd disingenuously buy some authentic looking mini-muffins or chocolate rice-crispie squares from Sainsbury's, and hand them in with the vague intention of claiming them as my own work.

Of course, since I've had the baking bug, it's taken on a whole new perspective. A few months ago, I enquired about renting a pitch at a school table-top sale. When I mentioned in passing that I proposed to sell cakes, the event organiser visibly paled. "Bonnie* does the cake stall" she whispered. Then added darkly: "Her lemon drizzle sells out before she's even taken it out of the box". How could I possibly compete with this? As if Bonnie and her infamous lemon drizzle wasn't enough to knock my confidence, my contribution to the last cake sale was far from perfect. I delivered a batch of slightly soggy blueberry muffins (I hadn't drained the fruit properly) and some banana fudge cookies that my kids declared 'tasted a bit funny'.

When I returned from work that evening, I subjected my poor son to a harsh interrogation: 'How quickly did they sell? What did they charge for them? Did you see anyone actually eat one? Did they look pleased or a bit sick?' He was bewildered.

For tomorrow's sale, I'm making chocolate and hazelnut cookies - a Nigel Slater recipe I haven't tried before. Though when all's said and done, a cookies a cookie. Or is it? *Name changed for my own protection! PS The above gratuitous snap is of a banana bread I made last Friday.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Adventures in Bobby D's

I've been baking now for about 3 years, and my pleasure intensifies with each magnificent cake I produce. Conversely, a bad result can cause misery for days. For all this time, I have doggedly resisted the purchase of an electric hand whisk, despite many of my favourite recipes demanding it. There is something about manual beating that appeals to the puritan in me. To look at a lovely cake, knowing that you have toiled so hard in its preparation, adds to the pleasure and satisfaction. I'm Jewish after all, and all good Jews need to suffer a bit for their art. However, after a particularly prolific baking weekend, and a right arm with an abnormally bulging bicep, I decided that it was time for me to drag myself into the modern age and buy an electric mixer. Needless to say, this momentous decision induced purchase paralysis on a massive scale. The more I googled, the more indecisive I became. In the end I just bit the bullet and headed, as I do so often in a crisis, to Robert Dyas (or Bobby D's, as my friend Rachelle's husband calls it) on Kensington High St. I would need pages to explain my love for this store - where else can you buy gel stilletto pads, baking beans and a car vacuum cleaner? I love its' random product diversity. So I finally plumped for James Martin's hand mixer, mainly because it had an extra attachment - a balloon whisk, which I thought might come in handy. As previously reported, my first attempt to use it did not go well - whether this was strictly down to the overuse of the new machine, I don't yet know. I'm making three birthday cakes this weekend, so let's see what happens. I've a feeling though that my right bicep might still be getting bulgier yet.

A Cherry and Almond cake is no place for a potato.

My love affair with vegetables - in cake baking terms - is over. I have recently been flushed by the success of the chocolate cake which uses squash and ground almonds instead of butter, and the peach and poppy seed muffins which employ sweet potato to provide their moistness to winning effect. But my attempt to produce a cherry and almond cake with the aid of little more than a maris piper has pushed me over the edge. I had an ominous feeling about it as I was finely grating the potato. Though moist, it seemed powdery and unappealing. I was also using my new electric hand mixer for the first time (more about this later), and admit that I may have over-beaten, revelling as I was in the new sensation of not getting a sore arm whilst whisking. The recipe also insisted that glace cherries should be used to spike the almond sponge. Hmmm. I was unconvinced, never having been a fan of their sticky sweetness. So anyway - the cake comes out of the oven, and looks a treat - a furtive prod does not belie the disappointment to come. I cool, stick the layers together with good cherry jam and liberally sprinkle with toasted almonds, icing sugar and a little cinammon. It's as pretty as a picture. I take it to my cousin's house later that day for a tea party, and impatiently wait until the first slice is served. The reaction is positive, but I'm gutted - it's as dry as a bone, and heavy too. The flavour's nice, but boy it would have been sooo much improved with 125g of butter. And I think drained tinned cherries would have worked better too - so what if some liquid seeps into the sponge? I'll try it again, but with some distinct modifications. Or just forget this recipe and revert to my failsafe, and unendingly delicious cherry and polenta cake (not a potato in sight).