Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Having myself a merry little Christmas

We're keeping the Yuletide bright and all that.

It's been a truly lovely Christmas. The snow helped - it's just fab to have snow forts and snowmen in the garden and a lovely snowy vista outside the window while we're warm and cozy inside.

On the cake side of things, it's been good too. That anniversary cake was a success, about which I am very pleased. The first Madeira cake peaked (drat!) so I sliced the domed part off, wrapped the evened-out cake in clingfilm and popped it in the freezer while I started again. The second one was much better.

I cut it in half horizontally, did the raspberry jam and buttercream filling the client asked for, masked it in buttercream and covered it in snowy white fondant (sugar paste). I piped shells around the base (somewhat ineptly, I confess). I'd used tap-it cutters and some red flower paste to do the lettering, as my piping skills aren't up to beautiful writing - heck, even my penmanship isn't up to beautiful writing - and with much faffing and cursing I laid them in place.

I piped a vine and leaves curling across 2 sides of the cake and off down one edge, and on it I placed the red flowers I'd made the week before. It looked pretty darn good, if I do say so myself. If this new laptop had a card reader I'd show you but unfortunately I can't get photos on the lappy just yet.

The main thing is that the client just loved it.

My Christmas cake from college was a thing of beauty too. It's amazing - in class, surrounded by some very talented people, my efforts look utter rubbish. Once I get them home and can look at the cake as an entity rather than a collections of minor errors and imperfections, my cakes actually looked marvellous. My sons were outraged that I "only got a Pass Plus - those teachers are far too picky and you should complain!"

Much as I appreciate the boys' support, from a technical point of view there was a lot of room to improve (damned shell borders, grr). But from an aesthetic point of view it looked lovely... and it tastes gorgeous. It did take me until Boxing Day to get the nerve to cut into it, though. ("all that work - I can't cut it, I just can't...")

That frozen Madeira cake became Miss B's birthday cake this week, and was a roaring success too. I'd made sugar paste butterflies in a several pastel shades a week ago, which I dried on a V of cardboard so the wings would stick up. They looked lovely on the (inevitably) pink cake with pink sugar flowers and glitter. Miss B herself added embellishments to half of the cake and used every single flower I'd made, plus a Christmas wreath. She was going for the snowman as well, but got distracted by eating sugar butterflies. It was a thoroughly garnished cake, and a big hit with its target audience.

The recipe for Madeira cake was one my classmate Andrew recommended (thanks, Andrew!) It's from the BBC food site, and comes from James Martin. In general I'm not a James Martin fan - a bit of a blokey petrolhead in a wannabe-Clarkson mould, I think - but fair play to the guy, it was a good recipe. I ditched some bits, but this is the part I did:

Heat the oven to 190, prepare an 8 inch/20cm round tin
cream 175g butter until pale.
add 175g caster sugar and beat until light and fluffy
sift 250g of self raising flour into a bowl and put to one side.
Add 3 eggs, one at a time, to the butter and sugar mix, and add 1 tbs of the sifted flour with each egg to stop it splitting.
Carefully mix in the rest of the flour with a splash of milk (between 1 and 4 tablespoons, just enough to make is a soft dollop-y batter) and the zest of 1 lemon.
Bake for 1 hour, but check after 45 minutes (the usual way - poke a skewer in and see if batter comes out or just crumbs. Crumbs means it's done).
If the cake is browning before it's cooked, pop a sheet of foil across the top - not fitted to the tin, just resting there. Oh, and leave the cake to cool in the tin for at least 10 or 15 minutes before you try and get it out.

To make a 10 inch square cake, I doubled the quantities. The cake got rave reviews from the grown ups and Miss B's birthday tea. The kids at the party were too busy eating the sugar decorations to care about the quality of the sponge, as is right and proper at their age.

Happy New Year to you and yours,
J x

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Jingle All The Way

Season's Greetings! Hope everyone has a lovely Christmas.

Here all is festive and twinkly. The tree is decked within an inch of its life, the wreath is over the mantel, the presents are all wrapped and I've made sure there's a Toblerone for me on Christmas morning. The house smells of pine needles, oranges, spices and nutmeg, which can't be a bad thing.

I've made mince pies - coo! The homemade mincemeat is gorgeous. The pastry is rubbish - too thick - so I definitely have a lot of work to do. Still, I am very proud of myself for having a go. Pastry freaks me out. By this time next year I want to be as blase about pastry as I am now about mixing up batches of royal icing, or making piping bags, or any of the other things I was clueless about last year. (It's good to have a goal, don't you think?)

The Key Lime Pie I was trying when I last blogged was delicious. I am glad to add that to my range of cakes, it was scrumptious. I used the 1st recipe from Domestic Goddess and it was dead easy. A tip for anyone who makes it - when you want to serve it, cut it with a hot knife; it makes all the difference.

Oh, and the big cake for the anniversary party... that's due Saturday. I'm still having kittens about it. Deep breaths.

My college course takes a two week break for the holidays. This is A Good Thing. I love the things I'm learning, I love my tutor to bits (she's fabby, you'd love her) and loads of the people in the class are top. I can do LOADS of things I couldn't do before. Not all that well, like, but I am improving steadily and I'm learning ever so much. But... it's on Thursday nights, my heaviest work day of the week and I am just so tired. A break will be nice.

As for being tired, that's partly down to 37 Christmas cakes. Or maybe 38. I've rather lost count. And that's without the 2 large ones and the 5 or 6 trial cakes. If I don't see another fruit cake until next autumn I will be a happy woman. I am so, so sick of them. This is the first time I have baked something to the point of being sick of it, and it's a bit weird. On the other hand, I think the finished cakes look absolutely lovely and I am very proud of them.

Z keeps asking what I'm most looking forward to about Christmas. I generally answer, 'Doctor Who,' which is mostly true. But above all I'm looking forward to a nice couple of days with the kids and Mark, not giving them just part of my attention because I'm trying to ice cakes or measure ingredients or juggle too many tasks at once. I have a fab family and I want a bit of time to enjoy them.

Happy Yuletide.

Book Group stuff for Lesley

Hiya Lesley (and hiya anyone else reading!)

Here's a list of books one of my Book Groups has read over the past few years -

  • Pillars of the Earth,
  • Middlesex,
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany,
  • Never Let You Go,
  • On The Beach,
  • Northern Lights,
  • The Kite Runner,
  • Of Mice and Men,
  • The Good Earth,
  • The Crow Road,
  • To Kill A Mockingbird
  • A Long Way Down
  • A History Of The Kelly Gang
  • Handmaid's Tale
  • The Master and Margarita
  • The House On The Strand
  • The Lovely Bones
  • Bone People
  • Unless
  • Sword of Honour Trilogy
  • Disgrace
  • Toast
  • Palace Walk
  • Thursbitch
  • Cold Comfort Farm
  • Porterhouse Blue
  • Life of Pi
  • Arthur and George
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime
  • The House of Spirits
  • Once in a House on Fire
  • Testament of Gideon Mack
  • Galapagos
  • Poisonwood Bible
  • The Human Stain
  • Tenderness of Wolves
  • Half a Yellow Sun
  • On Chesil Beach
  • Nineteen Eighty Four
  • Perfume
  • Norwegian Wood
  • Time's Arrow
  • The Dark Room
  • Saint Maybe
  • A Fine Balance
  • Saint Maybe
  • Freakonomics
  • Lolita
  • The Knife of Never Letting Go
  • Case Histories

I couldn't get the dratted Blog software to accept cutting and pasting so I needed to type them in. Apols for not including the authors - I kind of ran out of steam but you should be able to find them on Amazon or Google as needed.

Saturday, 5 December 2009


"Sure, no problem."

I really shouldn't say these words. They are at the heart of several successful cake ranges I do, but it does send me into a right panic while I try to work out how to do whatever it is I blithely agreed to.

For example -

"I bet your scones are great, Jay - can you bring me some to try next week?" "Sure, no problem." Had I ever baked a scone in my life? No, reader, I had not. Nary a one. Cue a mad week of trialling everyone's scone recipes, taking them to the schoolyard and getting votes for the best, and then presenting the winner to my client. It is a damned fine scone recipe.

Early January - "What i really fancy are those cupcakes in pastel colours with that nice swirly icing that you see in London - can you bring me some next week to look at?" "Sure, no problem." Yikes - icing in a pretty way. I sucked at that. I swear to god it took me 5 minutes per cupcake to get that icing right. Nearly one year on, I blast through them in no time.

February - the birthday cake order that I thought was a plain buttercream vanilla sponge cake order turned out to be fondant with a dinosaur on it. "Oh, right. OK, no problem. "Argh! I made a total pig's ear out of it, covered the bad bit with frilly icing, and put the child's name on to distract from the rather, erm, rustic look. Tasted fabulous, though, and the client was very happy. I've offered her a discount this year if she wants another cake, to make up for being my guinea pig last year. I'm much better now...

Then, in the early autumn, a very nice woman said "Do you do Christmas cakes, Jay? I'd like to order a little one, if they aren't too expensive." "Sure, no problem," said Ms Never-Made-Fruit-Cake-But-How-Hard-Can-It-Be. That was a very expensive learning curve, but I am churning out lovely wee cakes at a terrific rate now.

"Can I get a 10 inch square sponge cake with piping on it and maybe some flowers?" "sure, no problem." So, mad dash to Harrogate to get the tins in Lakeland, and I am still working on the piping and the flowers. And I need to do a trial run of how big a vanilla sponge mix it takes to make a 10 square. I'm putting my faith in maths. An 8 inch round tin has an area of 50 square inches or thereabouts, so in theory the same depth of cake in a 10 inch square would need double quantities because it's 100 square inches.

Fingers crossed.

On the whole, my confidence in my ability to solve the problem before I need to deliver the cake has put me in good stead. I am now good at all sorts of cakes and baked goods I'd never tried before and my confidence has grown enormously. I still turn down my major area of fear (pastry) but i am determined to tackle that over the next fortnight by making my own mince pies. I made my first ever batch of mincemeat today, in preparation.

And this weekend I am making Key Lime Pie, in preparation for an order at New Year. It's in the oven now. The batter tasted lovely but I am fairly sure it will be one of those bothersome collapsing cakes.
I may be in for a very limey few weeks.

Saturday, 28 November 2009


It's been a stupidly busy few weeks. I feel like I ought to apologise for not blogging for so long. However, as I've only got about 5 readers and you lot all know me anyway, it's not like there's an expectant public out there wondering what's happening in the world of Cake Box.
I was laid low with some horrid virus for best part of three weeks, B has lurched from cold to cold, M has worked away a fair bit and Christmas prep is underway. I am ever more aware that what I truly need is a 28 hour day to even attempt to keep up with stuff. Oh, and naps. I deffo need more naps.
M and I did have a truly marvellous night away for his 40th, eating some rather spectacular food from Anthony's Restaurant. The break was a real tonic - so much so that I've booked myself night in London in January to go and see Swan Lake. Again. And to see it here in March as well. I think I got a little carried away.

My mum and dad got back from their holiday in North America. Mum pulled a blinder - she brought me stacks and stacks of sprinkles to use on my cakes. She's a total star. I'll be producing fancy cupcakes for months thanks to her shopping. B is also excited - a fair bit of Dora the Explorer cake stuff ready for her 4th birthday party.
Here's a little picture of my newly organised sprinkle stash -

I also decided we couldn't live with a kitchen filled with bags of ingredients all over the place, so we rearranged he playroom end of the kitchen a bit and got a proper storage unit for my bulk ingredients. I can keep the cake boxes on the lower shelves, which means the cupboard under the stairs, the office and the top of my kitchen shelving unit aren't all crammed with food packaging. It also has a shelf just for cakes, so we have a fighting chance of being able to find counter space for our meal on a Thursday, rather than struggling in vain to find a cake-free surface.

Now that my work space was sorted, I finally got the hang of Christmas cakes to my satisfaction. Given how many people say, "I love Christmas cake by I'm the only one in my house that eats it," I decided on miniature cakes. They are 4 inch squares (plus marzipan and sugar paste, so about 5 inches when finished). If I do say so myself, they are gorgeous. White on white, white glitter, snowflakes - it's just lovely.

I was a little aghast at the amount of marzipan one is expected to use for fruit cakes (half the weight of the cake - gak!) but hell, what do I know? It certainly looks the business when finished.

The photo is a bit rubbish you get the general idea.

Anyway, I've sold 14 of them on pre-order so far. I think that's pretty encouraging. The cost is frustrating - the ingredients, the cooking time and the time scale (what with baking, marzipanning and decorating) means that even small cakes are pricey when compared with sponge cakes, or the stuff you can pick up in a supermarket. Then again, as M reminds me, I'm not competing with the supermarkets.
A big step for me this week was having the deli stock my packaged, branded goods.

I feel like a proper business, much more Official now that my cakes and cookies are in boxes and bags with ribbon and labels. I do so hope they sell, it would be a real step forward.

One of the things the deli is stocking for Christmas is a box of a dozen mini cupcakes topped with Christmas sprinkles (thanks Mum!), tied with a bow. They look ever so cute. My concern is the shelf life. They are freshly made with proper ingredients and they are very small, so they go stale in a couple of days. The trick will be to see if they sell quickly enough.
So, on the whole a busy time behind me and a busy time ahead. It's good stuff, this self-employment lark.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Sugar and Spice

Here I am, elbow deep in butter and sugar and in dire need of a sit down and a cuppa. Where's my butler when I need him?

Lacking domestic staff, I thought I'd blog about my day.

Today has been a brainstorming and trialling day. I did a mad dash to Harrogate to buy stuff at Lakeland (I can't possibly bake without their wonderful reusable baking sheets) and then zoomed home to pick up Miss B from Nursery.

I spent the drive thinking about all the flavours and foods that feel Christmas-y. Not the turkey/goose/roast spuds/sprouts sort of thing, obviously, as that's no use to a cake maker. Especially a vegetarian one. But you know, all those lovely smells that make you want to trim a tree and wrap presents.
So far I have -
Cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, chocolate, cranberries, oranges, chestnuts, fruit cake, brandy, mincemeat, Toblerones, Terry's Chocolate Oranges, walnuts, gingerbread and mulled wine.
If you think of any others, please tell me. I'm after all the inspiration I can get.

I decided that the idea to let people know I am recipe testing and offer selection boxes of assorted cake and cookie samples for a five would be a good way forward. i sent out a mass text, hoping for at least 5 responses to help cover the ingredient costs. I got 13. Coo.

I'm fiddling around with recipes old and new to come up with a winter range that fits in with those sort of flavours. I'm making a shocking mess, using stupidly huge quantities of eggs and lovely Green and Blacks cocoa but I'm having a lovely time and the house smells divine.

The first success is chocolate orange cake. I'm going to look at the price of Terry's Chocolate Oranges because I think the cake would look great with a some segments arranged on top. It's a good recipe, it's commercially viable and I think it is delicious.

I tried it in my new divided cake tin, making 4 little 6x6 cakes. It cooked in only 25 minutes and makes two lovely mini layer cakes.

Next - chocolate chilli cake. I've not done so well at the first attempt. Knowing how much I love chilli, I played it cautious so as not to overwhelm other people. Too cautious, as it turns out - you can't really tell it's there. Still a very nice chocolate cake, though. I'll try again with another version tomorrow.

Chocolate Orange Cake mark II came from an online search. It looks more like the kind of cake I'd make an serve to SJ and Rich when they came for dinner than something from a cafe. No icing as yet, and I rather like the idea of it without. However, that has retail implications; the cake will go stale quicker if its uncovered. I really like the look of it. I haven't tasted it but I've already decided I'm not going to do it commercially unless it is unbelievably lovely. Boiling the orange for half and hour and blitzing it was a right faff and adds a lot to the energy cost of the cake.

Then I moved onto cookies. C is for Cookie, you know.

Cookie number one was a spiced snickerdoodle from Rachel Allen. It's a small, domed biscuit that was terrific fun to make.

Here's the recipe:
Cream 125g of butter until soft.
Add 110g caster sugar and beat until light and fluffy.
Beat in
  • 2 eggs
  • 1tsp vanilla extract.

Sift in

  • 250g plain flour,
  • 1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg and
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder

Gently mix until you have a soft dough. Form into walnut sized balls.

Here comes the fun bit. In a small bowl or ramekin, mix a dessertspoon each of
  • caster sugar and
  • cinnamon.

Drop each ball into the ramekin and swirl it around to coat it completely. Pop them on a baking tray and flatten them a bit. Bake at 180 degrees for 15 minutes. Leave them to cool on the baking tray for a few minutes, then transfer them to cooling racks to cool down completely.

They turned out well. Mine were about 40g each, so I got 22 of them I think. (I can't check, as they were very popular and the kids have scoffed a fair few.)

Then I decided to try some butter cookies with orange zest and cranberries. They worked treat. i was tempted to coat them in chocolate but I think it's gilding the lily a bit. Actually, I think it reduces the shelf life, adds cost, makes a mess if they are stored in a warm room and the cookies are delicious without them, so there we are. Definitely a crowd-pleaser here.

Cookie 3 - Bah, humbug. I make chocolate chip cookies using Hummingbird's recipe and to be frank, it's not all that impressive. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's chocolate chip recipes are streets better. My hope was that, having successfully made the basic recipe, I could play about with it and tinker to get a lovely christmas-y cookie. I don't think I'll bother. They are large, very flat an quite gooey cookies but they just lack a depth of flavour or a really good mouthfeel. The kids liked them but both M and I were unimpressed.

Maybe I'll revert to Hugh's lovely recipes tomorrow. For tonight I have chocolate orange icing to make and a rather intimidating washing up pile.
I may be some time...

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Recipe Testing

Recipe testing is a bumpy business.

I love it because I like to try new recipes, I enjoy a change from the things I bake most days, and it's exciting when it all works beautifully. I hate it when I'm on version 9 of a slightly tweaked recipe and it's still not quite right, or becomes too expensive to be commercially viable, and my kitchen is a mess and I've run out of time and energy and I still have work to do.

Also, there's the question of what to do with all those test cakes. If we ate them all we'd be sick. I often make up plates of assorted test batches and take them to my neighbours. Well, my nice neighbours. I bypass any grumpy ones. My pal Lisa, who lives around the corner, is a BIG fan of this habit because she gets a lot of cake this way.

I also take some up to the staff at the deli. Partly it gives me some feedback on the success or otherwise of the cakes, but mostly it's just nice to do because they are so chuffed.

It would be nice to sell some of them - maybe half a cake per batch - to recoup some of the ingredients cost. I bet if I scheduled a test week and told people I'd have boxes of mixed cakes and cookies for sale that week, I'd get some takers. My pal Rebecca always says she'd buy any "spare" cake (can you believe I live in a world that has spare cake? Me neither!) but I feel a little funny putting her on the spot. (My inability to ask for money is a right pain when it comes to being self employed, I can tell you.)

Anyway, this week it's all about Christmassy things. I'm trialling spiced cupcakes, Christmas cakes, mincemeat, Christmassy cookies and all things Yuletide. I've been humming Christmas sons to myself while chopping stem ginger and grating nutmeg. I LOVE nutmeg.

I am on a steep learning curve with the fruit cakes - they just behave so darned differently to normal cake - but I am learning something new at each go. Also, Mark and I are rather enjoying scoffing the results that are a little to rough'n'ready to give away. I'd better get good fast, as I've some orders already. Ah well, fortune favours the bold.

The cupcakes show promise, although getting them to a good commercial price is a little tricky. I'm having fun with the icing - I think a cream cheese icing made with the ginger syrup and cinnamon is the right way to go. Sweet but with a lovely spice flavour. Mark finds it a bit too sweet for him but I think it's delicious. I am still trialling a bunch of recipes for the cupcakes themselves - I'm confident I can crack it this week, if everyone one is well and I've no further delays.

It must be said that is a BIG if.

Edited to add -

Woo hoo! I think I've cracked it. I've found a gorgeous spice cake recipe. Nice as cupcakes and extremely lovely indeed as a layer cake. The accompanying icing wasn't up to much, but my cream cheese icing (above) is gorgeous with it.

I must be on a roll - the packaging for the mini cupcakes looks a treat, too. If only the costs of decent packaging weren't so darned high. Ah well, the tiny cakes look lovely anyway.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Hallowe'en fever

Crumbs, what a week. And an even busier one looming.

Who'd have thought Hallowe'en was such a big deal here now? I'm all for it; Hallowe'en in Canada was one of my favourite bits growing up. And of course the desire for Hallowe'en cakes is great news for my fledgling business. However, I am a little surprised just how successful it looks like being.

First up - my Hallowe'en cake as part of my course:

I think it's pretty cool. The black glitter on the bat wings doesn't really show up on the photo, but it did look good. The lads were delighted with the web, spider and bat.

Miss B, however, gasped in delight. "It's for me! It's got a B for my name! And the other letter! That's my name on my cake you made for me. I will share it with all of us. It is my beautiful scary cake!"
She did indeed share it - I fed 8 kids their dinner last night with this cake for dessert. A big hit.

I'm really pleased with it. It's covered completely and properly with no cracks, creases or patch jobs. Smoothly covering a cake had giving me almost as much trouble in the past as making piping bags did earlier this month. It feels good to have acquired both skills.

So, I've 4 assorted Hallowe'en cakes to do - one a pumpkin, one a spider, 2 however I feel like making them, all due Friday and Saturday next week. And also a Neopolitan traybake, same time.
The Hallowe'en cupcakes have been really popular too. First interest was in the jack-o-lanterns. Then I did spiders made from M&Ms, and my fickle public (well, my kids and their pals) dropped pumpkins in favour of sweetie creepy crawlies. Not sure i can blame them, although Spider webs are a bit more of a faff to do.

The deli will be stocking them by the dozen from Monday, plus 3 private orders for, inevitably, Saturday.

If anyone fancied doing these themselves, it's pretty straightforward.

Start with a basic recipe by tipping -

125g sugar

125g soft butter

125 g self raising flour

2 eggs

splash of vanilla

into a mixer and whizzing it about until it's a nice smooth batter. A food processor would also be grand, or you could do it 'properly' by creaming the butter and sugar together by hand and adding the eggs and vanilla then flour and beating until smooth. Bake in paper cases in at 190 degrees for about 18 minutes or so. It's important not to overfill the paper cases, because you need to have space at the top of the case to fill with glace icing.

When the cakes are cool, whack off any inconvenient dome bits to give you a level surface. Eat these as you go, stick them in a bag in the freezer and use them in trifles, or sandwich them together with a blob of icing and give them to your incredibly appreciative kids. This is L's favourite part of having a mum who bakes.
Mix up some glace icing by sifting about 200g icing sugar into bowl and adding very small amounts of water or lemon juice and stirring well. Add orange food colouring (or red and yellow, as your primary school will have taught you) if you want to make jack-o-lanterns, but only add a tiny bit at a time. I split it onto 2 bowls and do a white bunch and an orange bunch, but do what suits you.

When the icing is smooth but not runny, spoon enough into each cake case to fill it to the top and leave it to set for as long as you can (makes the next bit easier.)

I'm assuming that you are doing this as a novice (you) or lazy bones (me) really, so I'm not going down the "make your royal icing, make your piping bag" route.

Using ready bought black writing icing pipe triangular faces on the orange topped cakes. On the white ones, pipe 4 curving lines close together and pop an M&M in the centre (with the letter m facing down, of course) and then touch it gently to dot two little eyes on it. You can pipe a web or a pair of spiders or a thread the spider is dangling from, or whatever you imagination suggests.

Pendant bit - yes, I do know spiders have 8 eyes not 2. But they just didn't look as appealing that way. Plus M&Ms are pretty small, so it would be rather crowded. Oh that reminds me, you can use Smarties or Minstrels or whatever if you prefer; I just like the size and shape and colour of M&Ms for this job.

Further Pendant bit - Despite what this spellchecker thinks, Hallowe'en has an apostrophe in it. Well, it did when I was taught to spell by Mrs McGugan in Central Park Primary School, and I see no reason to doubt her. She's been right about most stuff so far. It's because it was Hallow's E'en, short for Even, itself a shortened form of Evening. So there you go.

But if you spell it Halloween I will still love you.

Did I mention we are hosting a party on Saturday? We are. I arranged it with help from L before any cake orders had come in at all. I'm trying not to panic. Actually, I'm trying not to think about it at all. Heigh ho!

Friday, 16 October 2009

Baking for Beginners

This week I've been thinking about introducing non-bakers to the joys of baking.

On Wednesday I assisted Z's class in a cookery lesson. They're in Year 3, which means they are all 7 or 8 years old. Some clearly do food prep, baking, messing about in the kitchen at home quite a lot. Some have obviously never seen flour in their lives. It was an exciting morning.

The teacher seems a nice bloke. He's very keen on lots of hands-on activities, so they bake 6 times a year with a designated volunteer baker (guess who) and do loads of model building and stuff like that. I think it's great - I'm all for learning through doing, and learning through play.

We followed a recipe from the teacher. It's not the one I use, so I did a test run of it the night before, with B helping. She was a super test subject - we found out we need less milk than the recipe says, otherwise it was too sticky for her to work with. She was delighted with her scones - which she doesn't normally like - and she dished them out like an empress giving alms to the paupers. I do love that girl.

In class, I started by doing a quick talk about how to wash your hands properly. It's amazing how many people don't know how to do it. I only learnt as an adult, and I'm keen that the kids all know. Given the state of some of the grubby hands I saw heading to the sink, I'm glad I did or the scones would have been grey.

The kids worked in tables of 6 and shared out the tasks. That was so interesting to watch. Some tables rotated each task, some took dibs on the tasks they wanted, some had an individual with... how shall I put this... strong character dishing the jobs out to the other kids. Perhaps inevitably, one table went for arguing with each other and messing up each other's efforts. Ah well.

Teaching them to rub butter into the flour was good fun and resulted in a pretty substantial mess. I rather liked it.

The recipe (slightly tweaked after B's experience) was this -
340 g self raising flour
dash of salt
75g butter
75g sultanas
40g sugar
200ml milk
Rub flour, salt and butter together in a large bowl. Add the sultanas and sugar and stir. Add the milk and mix into a soft dough. Place on a lightly floured surface. Roll out to 1cm thick. (Some of the kids liked rolling so much they would have ended up with crispbreads had I not done a quick fix job before popping them in the over.) Cut out with a biscuit cutter, place on a greased baking sheet. Bake for 10 mins (I assume at 220C, like my own recipe)
They turned out OK - pretty good considering. Very pale because they didn't have an egg wash brushed across them, and thinner than I like, but not bad at all.
I'd prefer to use my usual recipe, which I'll also give you just in case anyone has a hankering for a home made scone -
500g plain flour
50g sugar
2 tsp bicarb
4 tsp cream of tartar
(you find it on the shelf next to bicarb and baking powder in the shops)
75g butter
100g dried fruit of your preference
(I like 80g sultanas and 20g dried cranberries)
300ml milk
1 egg, beaten

Preheat the oven to 220C. Sift the flour, sugar, bicarb and tartar together. Rub in the butter, stir in the fruit then add the milk and mix to a dough. Turn it out onto a floured surface and knead just enough to bring it to a nice dough. Don't bother rolling it, just pat it into shape - about an inch to an inch and a half thick. Use a cutter and just press it down - don't twist, it seals the edges and impedes the rising. Pop the scones onto a baking sheet and brush with beaten egg, bake for 10 mins then turn onto a wire rack to cool.
Crumbs, that's a long post. I stuff I was going to say about adult baking beginners, but it's getting late and I can always talk about that another day.
Must dash, those cakes won't bake themselves...

Monday, 12 October 2009

The One With SJ, or Cheesecake Misadventures

My very fab Best Woman, SJ, came over with her partner Rich for dinner on the weekend. This is almost as ace for the kids as it is for us, as my three love SJ and Rich to bits. Rightly so.

We ate a lot, we drank a lot, we lit sky lanterns with the kids before bedtime and we chatted until very late.

At one point we were talking about Dave Gorman's blog, which SJ does not read. (This is obviously an oversight on her part, as Dave is a total poppet and so spectacularly good natured and positive that I always feel happy after reading his blog.) I mentioned I had a blog too, and SJ wanted to know "am I on it?"

"erm, not yet... I've only just got started really."

So now she is. Hi SJ!

SJ loves cheesecake. She loves cheesecake. So, when she's coming to dinner, obviously I bake cheesecake for dessert.

On the whole, when baking for family and friends I prefer to bake cakes other than those I make for the deli. It's just more fun. Up until a couple of weeks ago I was baking 3 or 4 lemon cheesecakes a week for the deli, so I knew I didn't fancy making that one. I'd not done the caramel cheesecake in months; surely the ideal choice.

Except I had changed the recipe quite substantially from Annie Bell's original California Cheesecake and I'd never written the changes down. Baking something several times a week makes me lazy - the recipes are second nature and I think I'll never forget them. This is patently not the case. Oops.

I sort of remembered it. I knew I'd removed the sour cream from the cheesecake layer and did it as a top layer, like the lemon cheesecake. (This helps with the problem of the cheesecake cracking.) I remembered the sour cream was left to set like my mum's vanilla cheesecake, rather than baked like the lemon one. Not exactly precise, is it? As soon as I tasted the finished cheesecake I knew exactly what I'd forgotten and where I'd got it wrong.

The result was certainly edible, and quite nice just not lovely. I hate it when that happens.

So, here is the ACTUAL recipe for caramel cheesecake, as I make it when doing it properly:

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees
Mix together
150g digestive biscuit crumbs
60g melted butter
and press firmly into the base of a springform pan (about 23cm, but a 20cm will do if you increase the baking time by about 5 mins)
in a large bowl or mixer, beat
500g cream cheese
150g caster sugar
until smooth. Add
1 heaped teaspoon of treacle
3 large eggs
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp cinnamon
and beat until fully combined. Pour it very gently onto the biscuit base
Bake for 40 to 50 minutes until almost set but still a little quivery in the middle.
mix together
300ml sour cream
2tbs vanilla sugar or caster sugar plus a dash of vanilla extract
and pour it over the top of the cheesecake. Leave to cool then refrigerate overnight (or for at least 4 hours). Remove the springform sides and dust with
cocoa powder.

There you have it. And I owe SJ a proper one to make up for poor quality control.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Work thoughts

I don't like sat navs in cars; I like maps and roadsigns. I think sat nav makes us a bit stupid - like calculators for simple sums, and not knowing our own mobile phone numbers. If we don't do these things for ourselves we stop thinking we can. I know there are times these things are useful sometimes, but I'm all for using our noggins where possible.

However, I wish there were one I could borrow for business directions. I'm not sure where I ought to go next and if I don't plan things properly I could end up spiralling about uselessly.

I bake. That's nice and simple. But for whom do I bake and what? Shops, cafes and restaurants? Individuals, to order? Market stalls? Wedding and christening and that sort of malarkey? Just cakes? cupcakes, cookies, pies, puddings, scones, squares, brownies?

At the moment I'm a bit scatter gun really. I'm going where enquiries lead me. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but in the medium term I need to make some decisions about where I'm going. Packaging for shops is different to that for delivering to restaurants and recipes good for eaten-on-the-day birthday cakes are not the same as those that will still be delicious in a cafe after 3 days.

Selling to retail places means more steady orders, less profit per cake but more cakes overall. I'm more likely to earn actual wages. It makes having days off tricky when I have standard delivery days to meet. Do I want that while the kids are so little?

Individual orders have a higher profit margin per cake but the orders are more erratic, the packaging costs higher and earning a living is a little impractical, i think. However, I control when I work and when I don't, like not taking orders for out summer holidays and so on. And the cakes themselves are good fun, there's more variety and you get all the nice positive feedback of people getting all chuffed with their lovely cakes. I think this is the hobbyist's approach, and I don't think I just want to be a hobbyist, so it probably ought not be the core of my market unless I want premises.

Selling in shops and delis means I need to deal with labelling and packaging, and need to worry much more about products with longer shelf lives. However, that could be a really good way to get into more outlets and a more sensible income. And there's the puddings range. I'd need to think about things in individual portions as well as whole cakes.

Market stalls don't appeal to me right now. Everything I bake now is pre-sold, so here's no wastage (well, very little, but I can usually sell any spares pretty easily) whereas with a market stall you need to prepare loads of cakes for sale on the same day with no guarantee they will sell. I may change my view later, but for the foreseeable future it's not where i think i should be. Oddly, it is where almost everyone I talk to assumes I should be.

When I've finished the college course I could think about wedding and other formal cakes. There's oodles of money in it but it is very exacting and time consuming. There is clearly a demand as quite a few people have asked me about it already.

As to what i make - I like "proper" cakes, I like squares and scones. I am iffy about cheesecake because the risk of breakage is quite high when removing it from the tin to the cardboard box, and having to keep them in my (not very big) fridge overnight to set after they've been baked is a drag. I do love eating them, though... right, back to sensible thoughts. Pies. I don't want to do pies. I am still scared of pastry. I'm not good enough at fancy cakes yet but that's improving thanks to the college course (and practice). I love making cookies, that could be a goer. Cupcakes are time consuming but fun and popular.

If I focus a bit more I can be sure I am devoting my times and development costs in a direction best suited to my long term goals. Spending a month and £300 on packaging for a market I am not going to reach, for example, would be a bit dumb. no matter how pretty the packaging is and how much i fancy having a play with it.
(note to self, stop browsing suppliers online when bored - that way temptation lies.)

I still think that this is a business I could make a real go of. My advantages are that I love working for myself, I'm happy putting a lot of hours in, I enjoy the work itself, I don't have childcare costs, we can afford to take a year or two to build up the business to a "proper" wage, and I do make damned fine cakes.

My limitations are time, facilities and storage. Oh, and not driving. If this takes off, at some point I am going to have to consider learning to drive a car. Urgh. But not one with a sat nav.

Friday, 2 October 2009

The north wind doth blow...

As the weather changes, so do people's tastes. Light and lemony treats give way to warm, dark and rich cakes as it gets cold and dark outside. So, I need to change the cakes I'm making accordingly. One new cake I'm doing is Riet's Dutch Apple Cake.

Back in Canada, my mum met Riet on the maternity ward when they were each having their second kids. She was from Holland, mum was from the UK and they both were relatively recent immigrants keen to make friends.

We knew them throughout my childhood and I have two loves to thank them for. The first is National Geographic, which Riet's husband Jos introduced my dad to and we've all loved ever since. The second is the Dutch apple cake Riet cooked for us every time we visited.

I'm sure it wasn't always on the table if I think about it sensibly; but in my memory I never think of Riet without thinking of the cake too.

It is the easiest of cakes to make, if you have cup measures and a Bundt tin.

Preheat the oven to 190. Butter and flour your Bundt tin, because it is a right pain if the cake sticks.

Melt 250g of butter in a large bowl.
Using a hand mixer, add:
  • 1 1/2 cups of caster sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 tsp of vanilla
  • 1 1/2 cups of self raising flour
in that order, mixing well after each addition.
Peel and slice :
  • 3 medium eating apples
Tip two thirds of the batter into the Bundt tin. Add the apples and a dusting of cinnamon if you like. Cover up with the last third of batter and bake for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, until a skewer comes out clean. Let cool completely before you try to turn it out.

This cake is one of those that drives home for me yet again that a cake that works perfectly at home isn't always OK for retail. It's just gorgeous, it really is. But the extra surface area of a Bundt cake means that, sitting out on a cafe counter all day, it is likely to dry out. The mix is too wet to do as a tray bake (believe me, I've tried) and ditto a round cake. If the amounts are halved it works as a loaf, but it is a pretty uninspiring sight. Whereas the lovely round Bundt cake looks gorgeous.

I've spent all week faffing with the recipe trying to make it work for a client who wants it. I even tried to distract her with Italian Apple Cake (a tray bake, so easy for her cafe) but to no avail. Riet's cake is just too delicious and anything else doesn't come close.

I'm having similar problems with chocolate gingerbread - this time with icing recipes rather than the cake itself. It's a dense, moist cake with a chocolate glace icing. As the cafe staff move the slices about, the icing cracks and creases as glace icing is wont to do. It tastes delicious but it looks a right mess, and thus it does not sell. Cake not selling does not make my client a happy cafe owner. So, back to the drawing board. I've got a cake I'd divided into quarters so i can try 4 different types of icing and see what works.

Between the two cakes I am driving myself mad as well as spending a fortune on ingredients for cakes I am not selling. So far I'm disposing of the excess cake by taking slices of it to hand out in the schoolyard and to my neighbours' houses.


Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Starting out

I'm Jay. I am 40, and I live in Leeds with my family and our pet chickens. I bake cakes at home a lot, and I started my own business doing this a few months back, called Cake Box. I thought I'd blog my progress, experiments, successes and, erm, learning experiences (OK, failures and culinary disasters) as I go.

I've never had a blog before and I am a shockingly bad typist, so I apologise in advance for the many typos, missed letters and any breaches of netiquette I stumble into while I learn. However, I solemnly swear I will not use text speak and will never, ever write things like "Wot u like?!!! R U comin out 2nite?" This is because I am an old grump and I honestly don't think typing You is significantly more arduous that U. And thus ends my first rant.

Actually, managing a quick rant in paragraph 2 of my first ever blog is an achievement, even for me.

Other than ranting, what is this blog going to be about? I'll go where this adventure takes me, but I expect it will chronicle my recipe trials, learning to ice cakes like a proper professional, juggling the demands of 3 kids with a home business, and eating a lot of cake. An awful lot of cake.