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.