Friday, 15 October 2010

My Top Five

My family love making lists. Nothing is considered too obscure or mundane to fashion into a Top 10, given half the chance. Hours have been spent ruminating over our collective favourite comedy films, the 50 greatest singles from the 60's, Beatles love songs, iconic soap characters...Rainy afternoons are enlivened by intense debates about who would make it into our Ultimate Spurs Vl, and recently my sister and I were delighted to receive an email from our brother which took each of our family cats through the ages, and gave them a pop star alter-ego (eg Rusty - Captain Sensible, Tinker - Diana Ross. You get the drift).

So it seems only fitting to apply this slightly fanatical and undeniably nerdy principle to my baking. In time-honoured tradition, I've been mulling over this list for several days, so here it is: My Top 5 ingredients!

1 Cinnamon

My favourite spice by a mile! There is barely a cake in my repertoire that doesn't benefit from a teaspoon of cinnamon, and it is the perfect companion for oranges, pears, sultanas, dates, honey...I could seriously go on and on. Its presence in banana bread and malt loaf is mandatory, and I should add that it's my preferred accompaniment for porridge as well. If a recipe includes cinnamon, I will almost certainly try it. It's a kite-mark for yumminess.

2 Figs

I know I've mentioned them before, but I'm passionate about figs. Fresh or dried, their sticky, natural sweetness can't help but thrill. And I know that some people struggle with their texture, but I absolutely adore it. Also, unlike other fruits, they are rarely seasonally inappropriate; they can work as happily in a tart for a picnic on a summer's day, as they do a traditional Christmas pudding. I will always consider purchasing anything with the word fig in it: lipsticks, sweaters, body lotion, candles - if it's the colour of fig, or mimics the smell I'll wear it, sniff it or slather it.

3 Almonds

Of course, I laboured over this decision as I'm mad about nuts en masse. So I included almonds based on their extraordinary multi-tasking skills, and cunning ability to create lightness and moisture once ground and stirred into the batter. My healthy chocolate cake would not be half as nice without 80 grams of them mixed in with the rice flour and butternut squash. Shards of toasted almond flakes always look gorgeous scattered over the top of a cake and though adding a delicate flavour, never overpower. The cherry and polenta tart pictured above illustrates this rather well, I feel. And of course, almonds provide the basis for marzipan and this can only be a very good thing indeed.

4 Apples

Or pears or plums. Which I know is cheating, but it's hard to pick just one orchard fruit in preference to another. But apples just get the edge based on their unsurpassed greatness in a classic tatin or crumble. And they feature heavily in two of my all-time favourites - both to bake and eat, the rye apple cake and apple and olive oil cake - both of which I've eulogised over on these pages before. An apple in a recipe always provides comfort and a promise that all will probably go well. They are the friendly family GP of the fruit world.

5 Dark chocolate

There is surely nothing more uproariously enjoyable than stirring some decent dark chocolate in a pan and marveling as it begins to melt and take on that velvety sheen. Shove in some butter or cream, and it's enough to make you swoon. My wonderful, seminal rye brownies and heavenly ginger and treacle biscuits use tons of the stuff - chopped roughly in the latter. Not to mention countless muffins, layer cakes, cookies and most things which say fudge. And occasionally I experience what I can only describe as a proper craving for one singular square of Green & Blacks 70% on the bus home.

So here is a recipe which features #1, #2 and #4 on my all-time list. They're not pretty, they're not clever, but quick and delicious.

Apple, brazil nut and fig muffins.


250g plain flour, 11/2 tsps baking powder, 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon, 50g brazil nuts (chopped), 175g unrefined caster sugar, 1 medium egg, 300ml buttermilk, 50g unsalted butter (melted), 1 medium apple (cored and diced), 75g dried figs (organic ones taste nicer).


  1. Sift the flour, baking powder and cinnamon into a bowl and stir in the brazil nuts and sugar.

  2. Beat together the egg, buttermilk and melted butter until blended, then stir into the dry ingredients to make a smooth batter.

  3. Fold in the apple and figs and spoon the mixture into 8 paper cases. Bake for 25 - 30 mins at 200C, gas mark 6 until risen and golden.

  4. Leave to cool, but serve on the same day as they went a bit gloopy once left.

Just the job if you're feeling a bit listless. (Sorry).

Wednesday, 22 September 2010


This post is little more than a thinly disguised cry for help to fellow bakers. Those perhaps who, unlike me, paid attention to the 'science bit' during their cookery classes, and are therefore much more knowledgeable on why certain extraordinary things occur when you bake a cake.

Happily, things rarely go wrong in the kitchen these days, but it always feels like its more by luck than judgment. I guess it's just an instinct thing; I feel my way around the process with a kind of bakers braille, relying on my senses to know when something needs to come out of the oven, or when enough mixing has taken place. However, why kneading dough in a particular way, or folding ingredients into a bowl rather than stirring them, or the ratio of baking powder to soda should affect the outcome remains a mystery to me. And as at school, if somebody starts to patiently explain the facts to me, my eyes glaze, I start to fidget and my brain effectively shuts down.

Ditto with cookery shows on TV. I'm rapt by the drama of a souffle sinking or a pudding failing to rise, but the minute an explanation is proffered, I drift away.

Generally, it's not a problem. I almost feel inclined to celebrate my ignorance and just enjoy Not Knowing The Answers, and not caring to know. Whilst knowledge and information are so easily accessed, it's kind of liberating to wallow in one's own daftness. I feel the same way about this as I do about faith and spirituality; As somebody wiser than me once said on the subject: 'All we know for certain about the existence of God and the afterlife is that we'll never know, and we should glory in that' (or something.).

Which segues perfectly into whether or not to put a finished cake in the fridge! For this is my dilemma. I have noticed recently - especially while I've been baking so very many cakes - that some can sit quite happily in the fridge for a day or two, and as long as they're allowed to rest at room temperature for an hour or so before cutting, they lose none of their texture or flavour. My healthy chocolate cake with mascarpone icing for example, can be made way ahead of time and might even be improved by its fridge gestation. Ottolenghi actually advocates chilling his apple cake wrapped in cling film for a couple of days before icing it, and Omari at work, who has commissioned two such cakes, reported back that he left his in the fridge and ate a slice a night for the best part of a week!

But the Coffee and ginger cake with pistachio icing was a disaster once chilled - it completely hardened, and never recovered. It actually tasted stale. When I made it again, I avoided the fridge completely and the difference was immense.

I've never put a banana bread in the fridge, or come to think of it, any of my loaf cakes. I was concerned that the Pear and cardamom loaf which was jammed full of very ripe fruit from my brother's pear tree, would suffer from being left for several days, wrapped in greaseproof paper in an airtight container. I imagined that the pears would all ferment, and that it would taste strangely medicinal, but it was delicious - better, in fact. Equally flapjacks and brownies benefit from a day or two of idleness before being scoffed.

Even I can surmise from the ingredients in these various offerings, that a certain theme emerges; Neither the chocolate or apple cakes contain butter, and I guess its the butter which is likely to harden up again in the fridge. But the chocolate custard muffins, and the little lemon tarts (pictured) - both crammed full of fat - survived in the cold without a hitch. So bang goes that theory.

So any hard and fast facts on the subject will be welcomed. Though I can't promise to stay awake whilst I try to disseminate the information.

And on the subject of instinct, I made a vegan cake last week (below), replacing some of the ingredients which I felt would make it taste too hippy-like, and deploying an icing recipe from another source entirely - it involved crushing fresh blackberries through a sieve and mixing the juice with icing sugar. I then spread the pulp over the top of the cake with a few whole fruits, gave it a dusting of sugar and it was glorious! This was something of an epiphany for me: not following a recipe slavishly and being satisfied with the results. Maybe it will signal the dawn of a new baking era - one where I am more maverick and carefree in my approach. Chilled out perhaps.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

I'm still (cake) standing.

I liken my first experience of bona-fide cake-selling, to giving birth. At the time it felt like an endless, and very stressful, labour. But with a few days passed since I sold the last slice of apple cake on Saturday afternoon, I reflect on it all with misty affection and quite fancy doing it again!

Of course, the whole thing would have been a lot less arduous if it had been possible to suspend my other parental and day-job duties and just stay home and bake till it was all done. As it was, and with the inevitable intervention of the Rest Of My Life, I found myself icing chocolate cakes and slicing brownies at 3am for several nights on the trot, and was so sleep-deprived that I actually burst into tears during the baton-twirling task in Ultimate Big Brother. And it wasn't all about the baking; I also had to get my head around other perplexing issues, such as how to provide enough napkins, paper plates and forks without actually buying them. (I was virtually chased out of Wholefoods Market by a security guard after wandering back onto the high street with 50 serviettes stuffed into my bra), and how on earth I was going to transport everything in the boot of my car without it all hurling sideways. Oh, the perils of trying to set up a little cottage industry!

But nonetheless it happened, somewhat haphazardly, and it was good fun and also, as I had hoped, an incredibly useful exercise in what works, what doesn't and who buys cakes when they're wandering around a film festival getting sloshed on cheap red wine.

For the record, the Tahini flapjacks, Rye brownies and Honey and orange syrup cake all went quickly, as did the two lots of cookies (the Dark chocolate and sour cherry variety are pictured below). The cupcakes, which I included rather grudgingly, were ignored by the adults at the evening event, but sold out during the kids' screening (though I did discover that one little girl of about three, who returned to the stall several times, was systematically dropping them on the floor and stamping on them! I had to fight the urge to march into the cinema and demand that she sit on the naughty step until an apology had come forth. I think I'll have to seriously de-sensitise if I want to carry on with this selling lark). I also learnt the hard way that toiling over an admittedly lovely, but quite complex Blueberry and creme fraiche cupcake recipe is not a good use of time, as 3-year olds are unlikely to notice the difference.

The Light chocolate cake (pictured) went well, and was a great talking point due to its virtuous ingredients. And the Apple cake with maple icing was a slow-burning, word-of-mouth triumph - people were coming up to me asking for a slice long after I had sold out, having seen other satisfied punters roaming around with enraptured expressions on their faces. As I've said before, I take no credit for this. It's a wonderful recipe which really has the wow factor.

I'm doing it all again next weekend, and have already started to plan what I'm going to include for Round 2. Being a glutton for punishment, I don't intend to repeat anything! After all, where's the fun in that? So I'm going to make some little lemon and poppy-seed tarts that I've never tried before, and having trawled through my scruffy old recipe folder, have decided to revisit one of my absolute perennial favourites - a Cherry and polenta cake. Yum. I'm excited already.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Window shopping.

I'm bricking it. After months of blathering on about my intention to make a business of my cake obsession, I'm finally being forced to do something about it.

Encouraged by my friend Jan, and emboldened by the consistently favourable response to my last few offerings, I contacted the Portobello Film Festival to see if it would be possible to set up a stall at their launch party in September. The festival director's enthusiastic and unhesitating "er..OK then", has made it necessary for me to consider all the practicalities of baking on a grander scale than I've ever attempted before, not to mention the vexing question of what and when to prepare it. I am also having to turn my thoughts to the acquisition of a trestle table and enough stands, trays and other motley paraphernalia required to make it all look half presentable.

I'm sure it will be a worthwhile experiment though. I've long been intending to test my capacity beyond the usual tea parties. And they can be stressful enough.

So on my way to the office this morning, I pressed my nose up against the shop window of Ottolenghi in Kensington. In fact, this is a daily ritual and the staff tend to regard me as they would a rather tiresome stray cat who hovers meaningfully around the door in the hope that some scraps might be thrown their way. But the manner in which they present their patisserie is beautiful, and a good (if not somewhat lofty) yardstick as to what works visually.

I'm thinking that a reasonable amount of chocolaty treats should be on offer; some brownies, and my light chocolate cake smothered in raspberries. And something slicked in gooey pale icing - the apple and olive oil cake perhaps, carrot cake or that wonderful coffee and mascarpone cream delight that I used to do a lot. Some cookies - easy to consume on the go, and as it's my current obsession, I won't be able to allow the event to pass without some crowd-pleasing muffins. Bursts of vivid colour are essential to a mouth-watering display, most effectively provided by arrangements of summer fruit sitting atop the cakes, or perhaps constrained by caramel on an upside down tart.

I adamantly refuse to acknowledge the cupcake craze. I hate those little buggers, and no amount of sickly Krazy-color frosting will persuade me otherwise. The same can be said for macaroons and whoopie pies; A baked good is no place for a fashion fad, it's just not dignified. Sarah Jessica Parker endorsing the Krispy Kreme donut was enough to ensure that I would never allow one to pass my lips.

But I digress. I might be tempted to include some of the more esoteric recipes that I've tried lately - the Tahini flapjacks that I made last weekend were yummy, as was the date cake with a tamarind drizzle. The coffee, ginger and pistachio cake pictured above was no slouch either. I'm guessing that the festival patrons will be a reasonably discerning bunch, and will expect something more sophisticated than a few iced yum-yums. And if not, they'll be too drunk to notice, anyway.

I also made some cookies on Monday for my God-daughter Claudia who has just given birth to her second baby. Based on the certain fact that for the foreseeable future she will only have the use of one arm (due to the permanent carrying and feeding duty of the other), I scoured the net for a recipe that would provide something vaguely nutritious in a low-maintenance bite-sized format. I was not remotely surprised that the winning formula was found on Dan Lepards site (I know I know, but he's the gift that keeps on giving) - his one-a-day cookies, which appeared in the Guardian a few years ago, were little nuggets of goodness, packed with wholemeal flour, seeds and grated apple (and butter and sugar, of course - how could it call itself a cookie otherwise?), and they fulfilled the job nicely. In the recipe Dan mentions that he got 12-14 biscuits out of the dough, but I managed around 20 - reducing the calorific value considerably!

So I'm off on holiday next week, and no more baking till I'm back. I'm approximately five days away from wearing a bikini and it's keeping me awake at night. But upon my return, I'll be planning my first commercial spread, and may even have to treat myself to an Ottolenghi purchase instead of just gazing at it. For research purposes, obviously.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Muffins are top!

The last couple of weeks have been all about muffins.

As previously mentioned, I'm preoccupied with the creation of the Perfect Muffin, and consider a successful batch to be something worth bragging about.

The recipe's that I've been experimenting with lately have all been from a book entitled Mad About Muffins - a dreadful, forcibly jolly title, entirely lacking in aspiration, that I don't approve of at all. For some reason that I can't explain it makes me think of Prozac. But I must concede that its author - one Diana Bonaparte - definitely knows a thing or two about the subject.

Over the years, there are various techniques that I have learnt are essential where muffins are concerned; the batter must not be over-mixed, the use of an electric mixer is probably not a good idea and the butter (if it's being used, sunflower oil will often suffice) is usually better off melted. A light, airy sponge is actually not desirable as a good muffin should be a little heavier and even somewhat lumpy.

So the first recipe that I used from the book was Peanut butter, banana and chocolate - these were just OK - I thought the dollop of smooth peanut butter in the middle would be inspired, but actually it just meant that the roof of one's mouth became coated with it, overwhelming the palate and making the identity of the more subtle flavours hard to fathom. I was hoping that they would provide some much-needed comfort following England's humiliating exit from the World Cup, but they didn't quite live up to this mammoth task (in fairness, no cake would). Having said that, I very much approved of the addition of 20grams of wholemeal flour (many of the recipes suggest this).

I then moved onto Blackberry and white chocolate, and these were a triumph. As I'm writing, I am relieving the sensuous pleasure of pulling one apart and observing the fruit exploding ghoulishly. Were it not for the school summer fete looming large on the horizon, I would have personally eaten about a dozen of them, instead of offering them up for the cake stall (I did however, resist buying them back as I did with the rye brownies at Christmas!)

And earlier this week, I interrupted a birthday cake commission to knock out two of the recipes: Golden syrup and oat (don't be fooled by the oat thing - yes, they were in there, but this was effectively a syrup sponge in muffin form. Not that I have a problem with this) and Cinnamon, sugar and banana. Both of these had some nice little added nuances - the former was brushed with warmed golden syrup once they came out the oven, which produced a sweet, sticky glaze (pictured), and the latter was topped with a sort of crumble of unrefined sugar, butter and Cinnamon which added a pleasing, unexpected crunch once bitten.

A word about bananas: I hadn't realised until quite recently how important it is to use very ripe, or even over-ripe bananas in one's baking. For this weeks muffin extravaganza, the skin of the fruit I used was literally black, and the flavour was just great. If perky yellow bananas are used, be prepared to taste the potassium - good to know that such a life-enriching mineral is present in one's creations, but being able to identify it is not so fabulous.

Overall, most of these recipes worked really well, and there are many more on my To Do list. I think I'll try the Orange and almond to take to friends in Hove next weekend (it was Karen who gave me the book, so it seems only fair). They have made up for some disappointing muffin excursions in recent months, the most notable of these being the Plum and marzipan from Ottolenghi's book. They sounded so exciting, but just didn't quite live up to their promise. Though I don't think that any have quite rivalled his Carrot, apple and pecan that I made for Caleb's birthday. They continue to provide the benchmark by which all subsequent muffins should be measured.

So anyway, here's one of the recipe's. Enjoy. I took the last one of these to the cinema with me yesterday and ate it with a coffee shop cappuccino in preference to a bag of popcorn!

Golden syrup and oatmeal

Makes 10 muffins.

For the batter:
285g plain flour
125g light muscovado sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
50g porridge oats
6 oz milk
2 medium eggs
100g salted butter
75g golden syrup

For the filling:
10 tsp golden syrup

For the topping:
20g porridge (or jumbo) oats
20g demerara sugar

For brushing:
60g warmed golden syrup

  1. Preheat oven to 200c/gas mark 6, and line 10 sections in a muffin tray.
  2. Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into a large bowl, pushing the light muscovado sugar through the sieve with the back of a spoon. Stir in the oats.
  3. Combine the milk and eggs in another smaller bowl and mix thoroughly with a fork.
  4. Melt the butter in a microwave or small saucepan, then stir in 75g of the golden syrup and mix well.
  5. Add all the wet ingredients to the dry and fold the mixture together until just moistened.
  6. Spoon in enough of the batter to half fill each prepared muffin tin section. Place a scant teaspoon of golden syrup into the centre of each and then cover with the remaining batter.
  7. Sprinkle the oats evenly over the muffins, then the sugar.
  8. bake for 20-22 minutes until the muffins are well risen and golden.
  9. Transfer to a wire rack and brush with the warmed golden syrup.
My batch lasted for 4 days in an airtight container.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Sea cake & eat it.

I've just come back from a week in Thorpeness. It's an annual thing which has been going on since I was a baby, and it is truly my favourite place in the whole world. It is my plan to retire there someday - I will potter around my garden, bake homely cakes in a big unfitted country kitchen and stare at the sea at dusk from a rocking chair set at the window. (Actually this makes me sound like Grandma Walton, so I might need to re-think.)

Of course, baking in this environment is always hugely enjoyable. Apart from anything, there are about 18 of us who go each year, so I don't have the problem of eating too much of it myself. I'm lucky if half a slice actually passes my lips. (Don't imagine for a moment though that I don't make up for it in other ways, with the local fish & chips, Sunday dinners and barbecue's. I'm always half a stone heavier by the time I get back)

I always plan in advance what I'm going to make, so that I can pack the right cake tins, and any speciality ingredients that I might not be able to get hold of in the local Co-op. I also take my measuring spoons, digital scales, favourite spatula and for the first time this year, my electric hand-mixer. I seem to spend more time on this than actually packing clothes or anything else remotely useful.

The house which we usually stay in was being refurbed this year, which was a shame because its huge, bonkers kitchen plays host to some of the most extraordinary baking paraphernalia I've ever come across - I think most of it was purchased in the 1940's and 50's and indeed some of them seem to still bear the stains of grease and lard from that era too. Super-sized cast-iron bun-trays and loaf tins clearly designed to make industrial-sized batches of bread practically fall out of the cupboards as you open them.

Our house this year, though boasting more mod-cons than our usual, had a lamentable lack of utensils, and I found myself doing most of my mixing in a fruit bowl.

However, this didn't dampen my enthusiasm as there is something utterly inspiring and wonderful and magical about going about one's business in the kitchen whilst the sound of the sea can clearly be heard from the french windows.

In addition to a few fail-safe recipe's that I felt would fit the mood of the place - the Butternut squash cake with orange and honey drizzle, and those perennial Rye brownies - I thought I'd try my hand at an absolutely classic Victoria sponge, and a cheesecake this year.

I've never actually made a cheesecake before, which is odd because I adore a good one and frequently order it in restaurants. Plus of course, there's the ethnic thing: I remember vividly trips to Reubens delicatessen on George Street when I was child and that dense, lemon-y, texture of a slice with that almost rubbery glaze on top. Yum. Perhaps it was this memory which cowed me. I also have many friends who make divine cheesecake, so I've never really felt that there was a gap in the market.

But there was something about Dan Lepards recipe which inspired me - perhaps it was the addition of passion-fruit and the fact that it was baked and not chilled. It appeared to be one of those recipes with distinct stages, and I love the challenge of those. So I started with the base by pushing a basic crumble mixture into the bottom of the tin and sticking it in the oven for 20 minutes or so. Then the really fun bit, which was creating the passion-fruit and orange curd - after several minutes in the pan this watery amber-coloured mixture looked quite unpromising, but just as I was about to give up on it, it bubbled into a creamy, fruity, gloopy sauce which I could have quite happily eaten by itself, straight from the saucepan. I also loved the fact that I was instructed to remove and then replace the passion-fruit seeds - I actually have no idea why this benefited the outcome, but it was such a ridiculously but enjoyably anal activity that I didn't for a moment question its importance. The cake was honestly delicious. We had it for tea that afternoon unchilled, and therefore still soft and a bit wobbly. Though it was still great the next day after spending the night in the fridge. I only remembered at the last moment to take a quick picture of it, and it barely does it justice - the whole thing was so handsome.

On our last day, I made the Victoria sponge. I virtually cut my teeth on basic sponge cakes, and my older son always preferred them as his birthday cakes, so I've baked many over the years. But I couldn't resist the recipe which appeared in the Guardian recently in Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's pages, though he acknowledges that its based on Mrs Beeton's classic version. The most liberating thing about this was the measuring; Weigh 4 eggs and match this exactly with the amounts of flour, sugar and butter. It was 230g in this case. How clever is that? I shall always use this method to make sponge cake in the future. The other element that added greatly to the success of this endeavor was the suggestion that a couple of table-spoons of milk should be added if the batter didn't fall quite easily off the spoon once mixed. Again, so incredibly simple but it made a huge difference ensuring that the cake was light, airy and exactly as it should be. Filled to the brim with some decent raspberry jam and lashings of whipped cream it was the ultimate teatime treat and the perfect way to end our week in my paradise.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Dough Oh Dear*

I've seen a recipe for an oat and cranberry loaf that I'm dying to try. But when?

There are certain baking endeavors that are so time-consuming, and demand such a level of constant attention that finding the time is a real challenge. One really does have to commit to a day spent, if not literally in the kitchen, in close enough proximity to return for kneading, prodding and just general staring-intently-at-the-dough purposes. Yeast-based products fall into this category, as does - in my case, at least - pastry.

Pastry is something of a thorn in my side; as much as I love the idea of a light and delicate crust enveloping some luscious filling, I make excuses to myself not to attempt it. This is largely due to the fact that whenever I've given it a go, the results have generally been underwhelming. And as much as I'm sure that if I 'praactise praactise praactise', as Vera-Ellen is urged to do repeatedly by her European dance teacher in the Stanley Donen musical 'On The Town', I never quite feel the inclination to waste precious baking time on a project that may well disappoint and frustrate.

I love to crash around in my kitchen making things, so when an opportunity arises to do so, I'd rather have fun than spend the time pondering why only half a pastry dish is covered, despite an almost OCD'ish attention to the detail of the recipe, and why the dough is the approximate thickness of a carpet rather than a dainty sliver. Quite recently I made a pear tart with a chocolate crumble topping - a delicious, sticky mess of a thing but definitely lacking the patisserie-style finesse that I was hoping for.

However, over Easter I made some heavenly hot cross buns, and on this occasion must admit that I actually relished the challenges that each stage presented - starting the night before with soaking the flour and yeast in stout with a myriad of spices. But they took all day. I confess: Eli missed his football training in the morning, and Caleb had to find his own way back from a party because I just couldn't tear myself away. I heartlessly put my own culinary needs before the social lives of my children. The result was worth the effort though - they were perfection ( And admittedly the sense of achievement was immense (the dodgy mobile photo really doesn't do them justice, trust me.)

So with a bank holiday looming, maybe I'll give that loaf a go. What the hey - I've got nothing better to do, after all.

*With apologies to Julie Andrews.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Pretty as a picture?

In common with many keen amateurs, I have a vast selection of cook books, and naturally favour those with an unapologetic emphasis on cakes and puddings. There are two or three perennials, and I also keep an extremely unruly folder of dog-eared recipes torn from magazines over the years. These wilting pages are probably the most often revisited, and the many buttery stains and splashes of barely mixed batter obscuring the type bear testament to this.

Luckily for me, many of my friends work in the magazine industry, and occasionally I receive a big jiffy bag of new books that they have thoughtfully wrestled from their freebie cupboards.

Being a creature of habit, it usually takes me a while to 'bed' the new books in, and quite often they'll be shelved and remain unopened until I can face the task of troweling through them. As I've mentioned elsewhere on these pages, I suffer badly from Choice Anxiety, and if I already have a backlog of recipes to try, I panic at the thought of adding more to my repertoire (I'm imagining that Woody Allen might suffer similarly if ever he took to the kitchen). However, when my beloved ex-Mother-in-law decided to pay us a visit I decided to branch out and see if I could find something suitable to try amongst the pages of the new tomes.

It is widely acknowledged that the enjoyment of food is a multi-sensory experience; the look, smell and feel of it is nearly as important as the way it tastes. But this fact is apparently something utterly lost on the food stylists responsible for the photography in a book entitled (rather perplexingly) Fresh Baked (what other kind of baked would it be? Stale? Passed its sell-by date?) The cover features a shot of three very anemic looking mini-sponges which are being drizzled on from a great height by a sickly looking yellow liquid that looks alarmingly like mayonnaise. I've never seen anything less appetising. Equally, all the pictures within feel almost apologetic; set against a spartan white background, and endlessly employing the technique of allowing the shot to go a wee bit out of focus at the edges, which looks more like someone nudged the photographer at a salient moment, rather than anything remotely artistic. There's something slightly WW2 about the whole thing - I almost expected tripe to make some random appearance. It transpired that the noctious looking yellow goo was in fact a passion-fruit cream, which sounds quite nice, but now that it's mayo in my head there's no rescuing it.

Undeterred, I felt vaguely excited by a recipe for a pear, cardamom and sultana cake, three winning ingredients in an irresistible combination. So I decided to give it a whirl. My only reservation was its use of self-raising flour which I just don't appreciate; mixing the raising agents with the flour at source is just plain sinister. But I'm grown-up enough to acknowledge that this is an irrational complaint, and I persisted anyway. The cake, despite its chillingly Presbyterian setting on the page, actually turned out very well. My more homey version is pictured above. Next time though, I'll ensure that the pears I use are a little over-ripe as it needs the naturally occurring sugar of the fruit to make it really more-ish.

PS. For an example of the way a cake should be represented in a recipe book - to induce immediate salivation and a trance-like march to the larder - I urge you to check out the chocolate genoise royale in the Baker & Spice book, Exceptional Cakes.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

The future's bright...

Last week I was giddy from baking. Half-term meant time off work, and rubbish weather necessitated days languishing indoors with the kids which for me can only result in one thing.

Factor in Caleb's birthday and the inevitable tea party to celebrate the occasion, and I can barely recall any other activity taking place - the week passed in a veritable haze of flour and icing sugar.

My first creation was a fig and walnut cake, which was rustled up on Thursday. I don't think I've mentioned it before, but I really love figs. I love them fresh (though God knows, it's hard to find perfectly plump and sweet raw figs in the UK), I love them dried. I love them in savoury dishes and in cakes. And I can happily just munch away on them by themselves with no embellishment whatsoever. If I were a guest on the BBC's Saturday Kitchen, I would quite possibly select figs as my Food Heaven (the hypothetical decision about what I'd chose, and even more vexingly what my Food Hell would be - considering that I will eat virtually anything - has almost taken over from the agonising choices I'd make on Desert Island Discs. I've literally spent hours of my life making that list, and then changing it. And don't even get me started on my top 10 films.) So anyway, this was a Nigel Slater recipe ( and it was simple and fun to make. I may have left it in a smidge too long, as it was slightly crusty on the outside. But the extremely indulgent cream cheese icing disguised its shortcomings, and it was really delicious.

I started my tea party baking on Friday - 2 days before the big event itself. I once again had a go at Ottolenghi's Sticky chocolate loaf that I first made over Christmas, though this time I honoured the recipe and made two 500g cakes rather than one big one. Much more successful second time around - they both came out perfectly with no distressing dips in the middle.

I cleared the decks on Saturday, and spent the entire day holed up in the kitchen. The birthday cake was, as always, a doddle. I had great fun with some Barbie writing icing; a quartet of slightly sickly looking pastel pens with a glitter finish. I'm not sure what my 15 year old birthday boy would have made of it had he clocked them, but as I only used the blue and silver, he was none the wiser. I'll save the princess pink for a more suitable occasion.

I also knocked out a lemon drizzle (the best I've ever tasted, and fool-proof:, and a batch of Ginger macademia cookies, which are just sublime - as Dan Lepard rightly points out in the recipe; you can use unsalted nuts, but the saltiness against the buttery biscuits is such a heavenly combination - I highly recommend.

I saved the best, and most challenging, till the day of the party. Despite weeping copiously at the demise of Ambridge's patriarch Phil (I was listening to the Archers omnibus), I managed to pull myself together long enough to get cracking with Ottolenghi's Orange polenta cake. I'd been eye'ing this up since getting the book back in November and had been waiting for an excuse to make it. It's one of those cakes that you prepare in stages - it requires patience and a steady hand. The first part of the process is making the caramel; I have attempted caramel on many occasions, and have never quite managed to pull it off. Predictably, this day was no different, and not only did I lose my nerve midway through the boiling stage and take the pan off the heat several minutes too soon, I also flooded my oven with leaking hot toffee sauce which still bubbles menacingly every time I switch on the damn thing. (I'll get around to cleaning it eventually). Also, the recipe suggested a 45 minute gestation; however, the cake was still more-or-less raw after this time, and ended up being in for around an hour and a half. Despite this inauspicious start, the cake turned out beautifully - truly a work of art. I used a combination of blood and regular oranges for the top of the cake, which created a really stunning almost mosaic effect. And the marmalade glaze, painted on once the cake was cold, really sealed the deal (see photo). It tasted great too, with a subtle citric flavour, and I love the slight bite you get when polenta is added.

At around midday, and with perilously little time before our salivating guests were due to arrive, I started frantically grating carrots and apples, and chopping pecans for some muffins - another Ottolenghi recipe that I couldn't wait to try. As you may have gathered by now, I'm preoccupied with both finding and baking perfect muffins. In fact, the other day I picked up a wheat and gluten-free Cinnamon and apple version from Luscious Organic, and it was horrid- like cardboard. So I had high hopes for these babies, and was especially excited by the crumble topping, which included various seeds - pumpkin, sunflower and sesame, as well as some oats and light muscavado - bound together with honey and a little butter. I felt that they would be a welcome addition to my tea table, offering a 'healthy' alternative to all the sweeter, chocolate-y treats. One could even argue that they provided at least two of the required five-a-day! Again, and as I'm consistently finding with Ottolenghi recipes, they needed way longer than the suggested 30 minutes in the oven. They were incredible though - light and moist with that crunchy top (not a great snap, but you will get the gist). They improved with time as well - I had my last one for breakfast four days later. Perfection? I'm not sure. But definitely getting there.

A very satisfying week's work, all-in-all. And apart from the latest goings-on in Ambridge, relatively drama-free.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Painting and decorating.

In the last few weeks I've been baking birthday cakes. For cash. And as much as I'm thrilled that anyone would want to pay me actual money for my efforts, I experience the most extreme anxiety when it comes to decorating.

The main event is so damn easy - I have made my 'light' cake many times now, and its never been anything but perfectly tasty, moist and moreish. The white chocolate version is slightly more labour intensive, but always equally delicious. They're the cake equivalent of Lennon and McCartney - one is rustic and homey, the other more complex and edgy but together they produce magic. (I really do apologise for these gratuitous analogy's that crop up every now and then. I have a terrible tendency to meander - even as I'm sitting here I'm trying to think of an excuse to mention Coronation Street)

But oh, the decorating...

The thing is, my vaguely Keith Haring-inspired naive style is fine for my kids and near relatives. They can see the humour in garish hearts, and spindly writing-icing typography - (think those fuzzy title credits for that old cartoon series Roobarb & Custard). It's all perfectly charming in an amateurish way. But I always feel like I have to raise the bar for my 'customers'. It's actually the anticipation that is most crippling - the certain knowledge that an accidental blob of metallic green goo, or badly centred greeting will not only look unsightly but will expose me as the fraud, the cuckold that I truly am. Poor Eli had the misfortune recently to wander into the kitchen whilst I was mid-flow, politely inquired if there was a bowl to lick, and was subjected to a torrent of expletives. He was rightly confused by the outburst.

Then just as I'm feeling marginally more secure, I'll go to a tea party where a Konditor and Cook cake is presented with a flourish, all perfectly beautiful duo-toned lettering, so pretty and inviting. Ho hum. I think my efforts are destined for one of my favourite websites Cake Wrecks (, which is a homage to gloriously badly decorated cakes everywhere.

Having said all that, I've had no complaints so far - perhaps my policy of loading on lots of summer fruit or white chocolate buttons disguises my aesthetic short-comings. And I have no such concerns for Caleb's cake which I'll be doing next week - in fact, I've got a little pot of sparkly burgundy fondant and a teeny-tiny paint brush that I haven't attempted to use yet. The poor boy doesn't know what I have in store for him (and come to think of it, neither do I).