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).