Friday, 8 February 2013

Hi Honey, I'm home!

Hello bloggy friends!
Long time no post. Did you miss me? (Of course not - blogs left ignored for seven months by their owners aren't likely to linger in the minds of others, I know. But humour me. I'm an invalid)
Sorry I disappeared. I've had an ... eventful few months. And by eventful I mean challenging. And by challenging I mean atrocious and never-to-be-repeated.
Between a depression so crippling I haven't been able to leave my room for days at a time, discovering that what I thought was just a different way of being fat was in fact a major hernia that had been tearing for 7 years, and having an additional stay in hospital a month after the operation because of infection, I've been Proper Poorly. I've tried to keep the business ticking along in the background as best I could but the surgery and subsequent infection have had me out of action for six weeks.
However, I'm on the mend now and ready to get back to my life. Well, from the surgery and stuff. Depression is a different kettle of fish. Let's not worry about that too much though; I've lived through it many times before and I know how it works. I need to keep faith that it won't last forever, get all the help I can, and one day I'll realise I'm out the other side. Until then it's just a case of 'Keep on keeping on.' Which I can do, incidentally, as I took the precaution of having an amazing partner, family and gigantic circle of friends.

Geez, I didn't mean to get bogged down in that stuff so much. My apologies, my lovelies. Let's get down to baking, shall we?

Something that tickled me pink last autumn was that I was invited to speak to a Church Ladies' Guild about baking. Me. To a sort of WI thing, composed of more mature ladies of the parish who'd no doubt been baking since Adam was a lad.  Did I mention they wanted to pay me?

I can only assume they had me confused with someone else.

I had a marvellous time. I love love LOVE to talk. I love to show people how to do stuff, just as I love being shown new skills. I get such a buzz out of teaching someone a new way of doing things, and seeing them get all chuffed with their competent, achieving, bad-assed selves. And I like talking about the science-y bits behind baking.

The Guild and I had agreed I would demonstrate making scones and covering a Christmas cake with marzipan, sugar paste and a few simple decorations.  I took along jam and cream too. The people were so positive and friendly. (Hmm, do you think the freshly baked scones, homemade jam and cream had anything to do with that?)  I realise that talking and baking must be a doubly ace way to make a living!

I also did my kids' primary school fair, have done two more sets of Baking Club with 8 and 9 year olds, and started another set of Family Cake Decorating evening classes at the high school. That is particularly fun to do. Just a few techniques and a little bit of guidance and people can do SO much. It makes me very happy seeing people proud of what they've achieved.

I haven't played around with recipes much for a good long time. I spent the autumn re-learning to knit and crochet so I could make Christmas presents for all my lovely friends, and doing bits of sewing as well. I think that making things - baking, knitting, sewing, planting, preserving - nurtures the soul. Doing something practical is a a great weapon against depression.  I take it as a Very Good Sign Indeed that I spent last night browsing muffin recipes to bake this morning.

So, here I am making plans, looking to the spring with some optimism, and smelling the lemon and raspberry cornmeal muffins bake in the oven while the coffee brews.

Happy new beginnings, my lovely friends.

Messing About Muffins

(slightly adapted from this recipe, after experimentation)

1 cup fine cornmeal
1 cup plain flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp bicarb
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
1 1/4 cups sour milk (or milk with a dash of lemon juice, or milk and plain yog mixed in)
2 eggs
1 small glug (a tablespoon or two?) vegetable oil
zest of a lemon
1 handful of fresh or frozen berries, tossed in a sprinkle of flour

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C and line a muffin tin with 12 paper liners
Sift together all the dry ingredients
In a jug, beat the milk, eggs, oil and lemon zest until well combined. Pour into the dry ingredients and stir until only just combined. Muffin mixes need to be lumpy - weird but true.  Fold the berries in very gently. I found using the 1/4 cup measure as a scoop was about right for 12 muffins.
Bake for around 16 to 20 minutes - less with fresh berries than frozen.
These are not sweet cake like muffins. They are proper muffins like those I grew up on in Canada - best served split open with a bit of butter, a strong mug of coffee and a broad and friendly smile on your face.
Good day, eh.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Playing with chocolate

Here I am, bright eyed and bushy tailed and feeling positive about the recipe testing. Well, mostly. It's Vegan Chocolate Cake Day and the first batter is in the oven.
I thought you might like to follow how it's all going. I converted the American recipe to metric for ease of use.

Joy The Baker's Cake (ish)

Dry -
380g plain flour
300g sugar
50g cocoa
1 tsp bicarb
1/2 tsp baking powder
Wet -
250ml warm strong coffee
125ml vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla
Sift the dry ingredients together to thoroughly combine them. In a jug, mix the wet ingredients together and pour them into the dry ingredients. mix until combined. This is a very thick batter indeed - i kept re-reading it hoping for more liquid. 
Joy bakes hers in a bundt tin. I've gone for a deep 8"/20cm tin because the extra surface area of bundt cakes means they tend to dry out more quickly which is no good for a cafe, which needs cake to remain saleable for longer.
As it's a very deep cake it needs 50 minutes to bake. 180 degrees C, as usual.

On reflection, I would be better with two sandwich tins. It rose much higher than I expected and I was concerned that the outer bits were overdone by the time the centre was cooked.  It smelled good. I cut it horizontally (ish) and spread it with the third glaze (see below).

Oh, funny story - We have some friends who wanted to serve a raspberry sorbet and langue du chat biscuits for dessert at an event.  The recipe was American and asked that the biscuits be baked at 320 degrees. My friend didn't look at the oven dial and think "Mine only goes up to 250, so something must be wrong here." Nope. She thought "I can only get up to 250 so it might need a little longer."
She didn't notice that the American recipe was in Fahrenheit and her British oven was in Celsius.
The biscuits were charcoal. She decided raspberry sorbet on its own was dessert enough. Smart woman

Cake from AliciaK at Instructables (mostly)

180g plain flour
200g sugar
35g cocoa
1tsp bicarb
1/2tsp salt
250ml warm water or coffee
80ml vegetable oil
1tsp vanilla
1tsp cider vinegar

Sift the dry ingredients together. Beat the wet ingredients together in a jug and pour into the dry. This one's a very wet batter! Pour into a 9"/23cm square tin and bake for 30 mins.
This came out of the oven looking dark and moist. It is a low traybake, good for parties and multiple servings.

Glaze 1

50g Trex
50g sugar
100ml water
250g icing sugar
20g cocoa

Heat the fat, sugar and water together until dissolved. Sift in the icing sugar and cocoa, beat well and pour over the cake.
I started out with a straight substitution - vegetable fat for butter. I make this glaze a lot - it's runny and if left undisturbed will set with a lovely dark gloss.
Unfortunately, this was one of those moments when I am reminded that I am just a domestic chemist. The sugar crystalised immediately. I tried sieving out the chunks of sugar but it was still gritty.  Total failure as a glaze. On the plus side, I bet it would make a kick-ass beauty product.  Forcing it through the sieve left me with soft, silky hands.
Ho hum.

Glaze 2

200g dark chocolate (check no milk solids!)
80ml soy milk

Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl, stir in the milk, spread over the cake
Wow, soya milk much more yellow than i expected. Smells a little strange. However, melted with athe dark chocolate it seemed to work well.  A more bitter topping than I'd planned, and definitely a 'Grown up' icing rather than a kid's cake.

Glaze 3 - 

200g icing sugar
30g cocoa
splash of coffee

Sift the cocoa and icing sugar together, mix in the coffee until smooth.


Cake 1 was too dry as a deep cake. However, the mouthfeel was better overall, and it certainly looked the part. The dark chocolate with soya milk made the cake too bitter. 
Cake 2 was very moist and had too little substance to it. Miss B loved it, but all the adults found it too insubstantial and commercial for 'real' cake. Glaze 3 worked a treat, though. Although not overly rich in flavour it added moisture and sweetness to the cake.

Therefore, I am going to bake Cake 1 in two sandwich tins for 22 mins, and use Glaze 3 both between the layers and over the top of the cake.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Me and my big mouth

I did it again.  That "sure, no problem" thing.
A new vegetarian cafe is opening in Leeds next week and is interested in stocking some of my cakes as a trial. This a A Good Thing - a potential 4th outlet for my stuff.  However, they'd like vegan cakes.
I was a vegetarian for a good few years.  I still claim to be a veggie because it stops people serving me meat but I'm not vegetarian because I eat fish and am not nearly so worried about rennet and so on these days. I love veggie cafes - the old cooperative Roots and Fruits was one of my favourite haunts; it's great to have a decent choice of things for lunch apart from cheese or egg sandwiches. I like vegetarianism and love heaps of vegetarians.  I love my vegan pals too (waves at Ali and Kram).
I have a number of dairy free recipes that are wonderful. They produce lovely, long-lasting cake with a delicate and moist crumb. I'm totally fine making dairy free cakes.
It's eggs.  I don't like cakes without egg in.  They aren't fun to make (at least in my experience so far.) They aren't as reliable and the texture isn't right. Those I've had in cafes have been rather heavy, wholemeal-y and worthy. Cake can be a lot of things but it really oughtn't be worthy.
Then there are our 9 free range hens in the back garden - as spoilt a bunch of birds  I've met. They looked under the weather so I was making them porridge with Marmite and calcium earlier this week (Yes I know it sounds vile but they love it and it is ferociously good for them). Our household eggs come from them and my business eggs come from a lovely free range flock that the extremely ace Ian Taylor keeps. I know veganism is more complicated than just animal welfare but I do think the eggs I use come from very well looked-after chickens.

Eggless cake recipes are often American, with things we find harder to source here.  Heaps of them call for apple sauce, which is not sold in the gigantic jars in the supermarket like is was in Canada when I grew up.  I don't have time to make my own applesauce before making my own cakes. Some recipes call for cane juice, egg replacer, or xanthan gum (I have no idea what that is).

So there I am, talking on the phone to the nice woman about her new cafe and saying "Sure, no problem," in answer to her request for vegan chocolate cakes while inwardly shouting Oh Bloody Hell, How'm I Going To Manage That?? (Recipes and suggestions welcome!)

And that is how, instead of having a morning off, I will be spending tomorrow experimenting with vegan recipes.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

O Canada

It's July 1st. The garden fence is bedecked with maple leaf bunting, there are flags in all the flower beds, the kids are wearing red and white and I am in my official Olympic Team Canada Hockey shirt.  Happy Canada Day!
I wanted to bake something to celebrate.  Some years I make maple cookies, a variant on gingerbreads with a healthy dose of maple syrup.  Some years it's maple and pecan melting moments. If I think of a quintessentially Canadian baked treat, I think of butter tarts.  However, it appears most others think of Nanaimo bars.
I have to admit I'd never heard of them until a Canadian acquaintance asked if I could bake some. I guess they hadn't spread to small town southern Ontario by 1985, the year I left to live in the UK. However, I googled for recipes and they look delicious.
 The story goes that Mabel Jenkins, a woman from just south of Nanaimo British Colombia made these bars for a baking competition in the 1950s. They became hugely popular, spread far and wide, and apparently have been sold by the mighty Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee and doughnut chain. (Although the idea of going to Tim Horton's for anything other than a Dutchie is madness).
I didn't get the chance to bake them for my fellow Canuck when he originally asked. I thought Canada Day would be the ideal opportunity to rectify that.
I followed the recipe from here for the most practical of reasons. Many recipes call for almonds, which I do not have. This one had walnuts or pecans - I have both and I LOVE pecans. A clear winner for me!

115g butter
50g caster sugar
30g cocoa
1 beaten egg
200g crushed digestive biscuits
50g dessicated coconut
50g chopped pecans (or walnuts, or almonds, blah blah blah.)
Melt the butter. Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar and cocoa. Add the beaten egg and return to the heat briefly, beating furiously to stop the egg getting scrambled.  Once thickened, remove from the heat and mix in the digestive crumbs, coconut and nuts. Press the mixture into an 8" square tin and refrigerate for 1 hour

50g soft butter
2 tbs custard powder
splash of vanilla
230g icing sugar
2-3 tbs double cream
Beat the ingredients together to make a spreadable buttercream, adding just enough cream to make it easy to work with. Spread across the base layer and refrigerate for 30 mins

120g dark chocolate
1 tbs butter
Melt the chocolate and butter together in a bowl over a pan of hot water.  When liquid enough to pour, spread across the custard layer. Chill for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

As I type, the tray of bars is cooling in the fridge ready for slicing. They are VERY rich and sweet - I haven't had a finished bar but the constituent parts are enough to dissolve my teeth just looking at them. The kids are dying to tuck in. I'll report back when I can tell you how the bars have gone down.

Happy 145th birthday, Canada!

Edited to add - Oh. My. God. Terrifyingly sweet and rich, yes, but absolutely lush. The kids are already begging for more. If you fancy some, I'd drop by our house sharpish!

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Tumbleweeds roll by

Hello Blog!

It's been 2 months since I last wrote anything, which is most remiss of me.  I'd like to say I was too busy lazing about in the sunshine or I was off having a fabulous time but actually I've been working.  And working. Then some more work in the gaps between the work.  I moved past busy and over-committed into Holy Crap I Need More Caffeine Stat.

A lot of my business has been to do with teaching.  I know, right? Me, actually teaching people things. Teaching used to figure on my Most Unlikely Job list, alongside athlete.  But here I am, over a year into home educating my son and running classes and workshops for baking and cake decorating.
I've done a couple of workshops here for 4 to 6 people. The kids' workshop had them making sugarpaste decorations, icing and decorating a celebration cake, using royal icing on biscuits, baking and icing cupcakes.   They took home all their creations and were so proud of themselves.  I got some lovely thank you notes; they were a wonderful group.  I'd post photos but I haven't asked their parents for permission and I do hate it when people put photos up without agreement
My next kids' workshop is this weekend.

Then there was a cupcake evening with 5 adults. They were all novice bakers so we went through basic techniques, made vanilla cupcakes and lemon and raspberry cupcakes, did buttercream icing with palette knives and piping bags, made sugarpaste decorations and drank Prosecco. Oh, and ate little cheese and marmite pastries I'd baked.  I am DEFINITELY making those again, they were delish.
Anyway, my adult students did marvellous work and have done so great baking at home as well, judging from the photos they're sending me.  I will do another class like that in a heartbeat (even though as the tutor I don't get Prosecco. Bummer.)

My other teaching work has been at local schools.  Lesley from Thomas Danby, my amazing tutor, would no doubt laugh her socks off at the thought of me teaching anyone cake decorating techniques.  I felt like the duffer of that class; there were so many talented people there I was often intimidated. But the level of stuff I'm teaching is the sort of thing I do week in and week out so i can teach it with my hands tied behind my back.

On Mondays I teach 15 people how to pipe royal icing, apply buttercream, model with sugarpaste and coat celebration cakes with sugarpaste. And example of the things wee do is the photo. The students are all women and girls - the youngest about 11, the oldest about 17 and their mums.  They are a lovely bunch. My favourite bit is watching them leave with the things they made, buzzing with a sense of achievement and happiness.  Passing on how to do something is VERY rewarding indeed.  I love what I do and I especially love helping others get fun from doing it too.

Tuesdays are more challenging.  It takes place in a primary school and is for family groups.  The age range is Reception to Year 10, with 22 people including the 5 parents.  Such a large group and enormous age range is very hard to manage successfully. Individually they are all very nice but as a group it's kind of overwhelming.  I have to dash between them so quickly, helping each one as s/he need it and setting projects that all skill levels can work within. I am always exhausted after that class.

I've also had more private commissions this last few weeks.  Some have been pretty straightforward. There have been red velvet cakes, cupcakes, plain birthday cakes with a message piped on. There have also been reflecting the passions of the recipients - hiking, lawn bowls and flowers, in one case and lilies of the valley, forget-me-nots, poppies and daffodils in another. I was very proud of the flowers; quite a few things I'd never tried before. But they are awfully time-consuming and time is something I'm running short of just now.
 I think I'm averaging about 48 hours a week at the moment. Combined with Home Ed and parenting  - not to mention the twin horrors of laundry and washing up - I'm pretty much exhausted.  Today I hit the new low of having a glass of coke with a coffee chaser in a bid to keep going.

Still, I've no business to complain. I have a business I love, I'm in demand and never have to advertise for work, and I am getting better at it all the time.  I can sleep later on. 2013 maybe.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Call me Zeitgeist-girl

I am so *very* up to the minute! I've been reading loads of baking blogs and saw something I fancied trying. As we get to weather for days out and picnics -  actually, we're in weather to stay in and avoid the torrential rain but hope springs eternal - the idea of easy to pack, hard to damage portions of cake seem just the very thing. So here we go, push up cake pops.

Crap name, must actually call it something decent.

  Anyway, I started with a tray of cake, done in two colours. I had been tempted by disposable icing bags for use in my workshops and hadn't used them myself, so I took the opportunity to have a go with them as well. I tinted the icing two shade and if I were making a bigger batch I might use 3 different colours.

Don't they look fun? They pass the first test, which is that my kids are clamouring for them. The pass the second test, which is that Himself thinks they look great. Obviously the important thing is that they taste great.  I haven't tried an assembled one yet, because I'm about to have my dinner, but I've been cheekily scoffing the trimmings and I can vouch for their deliciousness.

After that, I must do a costing. If the unit cost if more than any sane person would pay I have to give up on a project. This happens quite a lot. Decent ingredients are really rather expensive.

Then it's longevity I look at.  I will make some and store them in the cupboard, fridge and freezer and see what the various shelf lives are. In general, a fridge KILLS cake, and it drives me bananas when people store it there.  Fridges dry cake out.  However, as these are totally enclosed they ought to be fine. I think.  Hence the testing.

If all of these are positive, and to be frank I usually go back and tweak the method about a million times, I can finally look at selling them.

I think they'd be lovely for both the milkshake bar and the soft play centre. The down side is that there is a lot of plastic packaging. It can be put through the dishwasher and re-used, and is fully recyclable but it does go against the grain to have such a heavily packaged, non-biodegradable product.

Anyway, that's the latest experiment. What do you think?

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Cake Boxing Guide To Life

Hello, lovely blog-reading pals!
I've not done any writing here for 2 months, which is a bit rubbish.  I've been stonkingly busy with work, Home-Ed, and some substantial home life upheavals and I'd just not had anything to say that wouldn't have included big dull moans about how tired I was.  I thought I'd spare you all that guff.
Anyway, here I am on a cold, rainy April afternoon juggling cake baking, chores, preparation for some work up ahead and teaching No 1 Son some maths.  None of these was engaging my interest very much; it was all a bit routine. So I got to thinking about how to make my day better. And because I'm friendly-like, I thought I'd share my conclusions with you.

I'm always telling my kids they they are the most powerful people in their own lives. They may not control everything that happens to them but they can choose how they react and what changes they make. If my day was to feel better I needed to practise what I preach.

1. Being Awesome
Deciding that you will be the kick-ass fabulous You for the day is generally a good plan.  I like Awesome Me way better than Can't Be Bothered Me, although she has her time and place.  Awesome Me is more likely to get stuff done, and more likely to make sure she fits something ace in to her day.  The act of deciding to Be Awesome means I approach the day in a more positive, productive and flexible way. My eldest approves of Awesome Me, which is a high endorsement indeed.
Should you feel you need inspiration for Being Awesome, why not visit The Bloggess? She'll steer you right.

2. Coffee
I love coffee.  I really, really LOVE coffee. One of the things I like most is what it stands for - a couple of minutes break from what I'm doing, a small gesture of being cared for (because coffee made by someone else is the best kind). Having a small indulgence definitely makes a day nicer. I've gone from instant to cafetiere to individual filters to cheap espresso machine to proper espresso machine and I don't begrudge any of the money we've spent. Proper coffee is delicious. Not to mention the caffeine kick. All hail the Goddess of Coffee!

3. A List
Everything is better if you have a List. Sometimes the List is so long that I intimidate myself, but at least once it's all written down I'm not trying to remember everything. Also, they mean I can easily prioritise things because I can see them all at once rather than remembering in a panic that I meant to do such-and-such before ringing so-and-so.  And of course the MAIN joy of a list is crossing things off it. For that reason I write mine the old fashioned way, with a notepad and pencil. My laptop or iPhone can do lists too, but crossing items off is less fun that way.

4. Tom Petty
Happy guitar music is one of the most ace ways to banish tedium.  It helps if you know the words and can belt out the chorus along with the laconic Mr Petty but fake it if necessary.  Free Fallin', Yer So Bad, Learning to Fly, You Wreck Me... I love heaps of them. Oh, had a thought! There's also Tom Petty in The Travelling Wilburys, and that gets you George Harrison, which leads neatly onto the Greatest Pop Song Ever Written, Here Comes The Sun, and by extension all of The Beatles' music. Crappy days are less crappy when you sing to happy guitar music.

5. Growing Something
Not a beer belly, not a hairy chin (middle age can be a bitch for both genders.) I mean growing plants. My preference is for stuff you can eat rather than the strictly decorative stuff, but to start with I grew winter pansies in pots by my back door and those made me happy too. Nowadays we rock an Allotment Chic look i.e. very grubby with scaffolding plank raised beds and plumbing tubing as hoops to hold the netting in place. But just having a small plastic trough with cut-and-come-again salad seeds planted there would do just as well.  I get so much happiness from having some of my own grown veg in my dinner. I really can't recommend it highly enough. 15 minutes a day outside faffing with the garden does me no end of good.
Not glamorous, but wonderful anyway

6. Fridge Magnets
Built in fridges that coordinate with the kitchen are kind of depressing.  I like a busy fridge.  Ours, as you can see, is full of stuff the kids made, receipts, invitations, reminders, vouchers, tickets, and lots and lots of fridge magnets. They are one of my favourite souvenirs because they don't take much packing room, are cheap and easily available, and I look at them all the time. Especially the ones from New York. I nearly always wish I were in New York at any given moment.
Also, if you are feeling really fed up you can use the magnetic letters to spell rude words.  A small act of rebellious silliness can do a soul a power of good. It's quite important to remember to change them before the kids come in, though. Oops.

7. iPlayer
Thank you, BBC, for the wonderful, marvellous delight that is iPlayer. The laptop plugs into speakers in the kitchen, and I can listen to ANYTHING while I work.  Only caught Woman's Hour on the Jane Garvey days (ho hum) but missed the Jenni-Queen-Of-Fabulous-Murray shows? Easy peasy, click on iPlayer and there it is. Stories, music, comedy, current affairs, documentaries: the delightful boffins at the BBC give them all to us. Adam and Joe's 6Music show was my favourite but now they're off doing other stuff like writing movies, so I dabble with different shows.  I keep forgetting I shouldn't listen to The News Quiz when I'm mixing things because the Kitchen Aid drowns out what they're saying.  However, with iPlayer I can rewind the radio. Modern life is brilliant.

8. Exercise
Just kidding.  No, honestly, I'm joking. I know all the theory about how good exercise makes you feel and how it helps in innumerable ways but I hate it worse than rats. With the exceptions of skating outdoors and rowing on the boating lake in Central Park I have hated pretty much every bit of exercise I've ever tried. Walking is good, because it takes you places. Getting tired, sweaty and wheezing for no actual purpose is my idea of hell. How about a nice cup of coffee and a slice of cake while you read your book instead?

See? There are heaps of things I could do to make my dull day better.  So I did.