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.