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