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.