Saturday, 4 December 2010

Smug, me?

Was it only last week I was avoiding making pastry? And here I am all self-satisfied and smug, whipping up a batch in between other jobs.

I've made about 9 batches of mince pies this week. I'd done them with butter rather than Stork as per Judith's recipe because that's what I had in. I am a MASSIVE fan of butter, I think it is utterly delicious. That probably explains some of my girth, I expect. However, I am swapping to vegetable fat for pastry now we've done the shopping as it gives a slightly crisper pastry.

My mincemeat of choice is Rachel Allen's recipe in Bake which I made last year by the vat and am still using up. It's really easy and very tasty; the shop bought ones taste a little naff by comparison.

For all non-mince-pie related activities this week, it's been cookies, more Christmas cakes and egg free cake. I get a bit antsy about egg free cake. It isn't as structurally sound, it goes stale quickly and it doesn't have quite the same mouth-feel (pseud's corner, I know. But true anyway). I know some people require it for religious or moral reasons but, having 7 lazy cosseted hens in the garden, I feel free range hens do have a pretty good time of it and the eggs are wonderful. But it's not my call - it's up to the customer. Hell, I won't eat meat so I'm hardly in a position to comment on other people's dietary restrictions.

After some mixed results I tried this recipe. It's egg-free but not dairy free so it suits my Hindu customer and my egg-allergic pals but isn't suitable for vegans. It's a bit weird to make - basically you're making a sort of condensed-milk-alike solution by simmering sugar, syrup, milk and butter together, then stirring the dry ingredients in. I baked it for 25-30 minutes in a 20cm square tin. It would have done as a low traybake but I added a second layer with a chocolate ganache in the middle layer.

It was very good. Not overly sweet and very rich (110 grams of cocoa will do that) but the icing and ganache helped with that.

So, eggless cakes which used to make me so nervous are now easy peasy and I'm confident with the whole mince pie thing. Smug, me?

Monday, 29 November 2010

Pastry adventures continue

I don't know about you, but I LOVE snow. Proper snow; dry, squeaks-under-your-boots snow. Not that rubbish slushy stuff. This weekend we've had lots of proper lovely snow and I am feeling about as festive as is possible with 4 weeks to go until Christmas.

Last night I made another 9 little Christmas cakes (demand is quite high this year) and today I decided I'd better get back to my experiments in pastry making so I can do mince pies. Being a bit of a wuss i found 4 or 5 little jobs it was *essential* I do first but by 11a.m. I stopped my displacement activities and bit the bullet.

My tutor Lesley said she used the Roux brothers' shortcrust pastry recipe. I didn't find it online although I did laugh watching a telly clip of them bickering in the 80s. Googling also threw up stuff by their son/nephew and I can understand SJ's crush on Michel Roux Jr. He's always ace.

My other tutor, Judith, was amazingly kind. She uses a recipe called German paste. She not only gave me the recipe (in an official catering format, which threw me a bit) but also a big splodge of pastry dough to have a go with.

German paste uses slightly different proportions to the shortcrust recipes I'd been used to. It is 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat and 1 part sugar plus an egg. I rolled it out between two pieces of clingfilm as recommended by Rachel Allen and tried to remember to keep it THIN. It felt much greasier to work with and I have to admit I was a little sceptical as I watched it in the oven. There were no temperatures or timings given so I tried 190 for 12 minutes. It looked a little underdone so I left it a further 3. The finished mince pies were rather shiny so perhaps I didn't need an egg wash.

Mark commented that he likes a more biscuit-y pastry like the mince pies from the supermarket. Yuck. However, I found a recipe on the BBC Food site that claimed a more biscuit-y taste so i tried that. The suggested method is to squish a ball of dough into the tartlet tins. Hmm. Many of the comments below the recipe from people who'd tried it suggested adding an egg and rolling it out as a big improvement and that's the route I took.
The cooking time was given as 20 minutes. That seemed a little long but I trusted the recipe. Oops. They were definitely overcooked.

By this time the mince pies from Judith's pastry were cool. Mark and I tucked in to them with cups of tea. Wow. I mean really, Wow. I apologise for my doubts, they are utterly delicious - quite crisp and just meltingly tasty.

Next test is to try and make it myself.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Steep Learning Curve

I've had for first attempts at mince pies this year. As will all new endeavours, it's a pretty steep learning curve. I can honestly say I'm learning loads of things not to do.

I knew Nigella was being a pain about all that darned putting stuff in the freezer. She says to add enough orange juice to get the dough to start coming together. That took a lot of orange juice. An awful lot. Far more than I thought. But hey, trust the recipe and all that, right? Stick to it the first time and tweak it on subsequent trials.

Nah. It was a disaster. I am convinced the dough didn't come together with the small amount of orange juice expected because the butter in the pastry was frozen. Once it warmed up slightly - i.e. when I came to use it - it was a horrid sticky gloopy mess. It's in the bin.

Rachel Allen suggests putting the pastry between two large pieces and cling film when rolling it out. That worked really well. I never roll pastry out thin enough, I know I don't. This helped me to roll it quite thinly without added more flour and risking the pastry becoming tough.

Rachel's cutter sizes were a bit weird. They didn't work for me at all. The lids were too small, although those covered with a star rather than a lid fared better. The pastry as a tiny bit underdone and was far paler than I'd expect for something given an egg wash. I think the oven was a bit low; perhaps 190? and I think I'll try 210 next time.

The pastry itself was delicious. lovely and light and flaky, so a thumbs up on the taste department. I need to practise more with the amount of mincemeat to go in it. It's a pain when it overflows but I do hate an under-filled mince pie. The home made mincemeat is delicious and I want heaps of it.

I'll keep plugging away at it in between this week's commitments. I want to have a decent mince pie ready for December 1st. Given the number of Christmas cakes I need to do before then and now, it'll be a squeeze but I am confident I'll manage it.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Best laid plans

I haven't made any mince pies. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that. I got a last minute order for a complicated cake, the deli needed "one of everything" and I spent all Friday baking large and complicated celebration cakes for private customers.

My favourite of these orders was for 13 fancy cupcakes for a Bat Mitzvah. I thoroughly enjoyed making such pretty things and it gave me a chance to use the lovely laser cut wrappers I'd bought.

The actual order had been for 12, incidentally. But they were to go in a twirly cupcake stand and they hold 13 so i baked an extra one. I rang to deli to advise them. 20 minutes later there was a slightly panicky return phone call - "actually, we are loaning them our cupcake stand and we've just had a look at it - it hold 24! Whoops. Can we borrow yours?"

Personally I kind of like that they need 13; a Bat Mitzvah occurs when the girl is 13 years old, so it's a nice bit of symmetry. Shame to have to break into a second pack of those fancy cupcake wrapper, though.

The other 2 jobs on Friday were unusual at best - a joint cake for a 66 year old golf enthusiast and her 8 year old football-mad grandson, and an 80th birthday cake featuring crosswords
and jigsaws. I fretted about the latter particularly. However, the customers were pleased and it's all good practice.

Making little football boots out of icing was quite fun. Piping the letters on the crossword was quite neat too; the long straight lines of black had me scared to breathe while I did them, though.

I think I'd have enjoyed the job more had I not been so pushed for time. It was a lot to do in a day and I had to help out at the school disco in the middle of it all. I didn't sit down until nearly 10 p.m. and I'd started at 8 in the morning.

So, here I am, still got pastry in the fridge and not done a thing with it. "Get on with it woman!" I hear you cry. Well,maybe. But the deli rang with a catering order for 6 loaf cakes. I've not got enough loaf tins to do them all at once so once the first batch are cool I can get on with baking the second. When getting one of the first lot out of the oven I knocked the grill handle above it, which fell into the cake. So I'll need to bake that one again. I tried very hard not to swear.

To complicate matters further, it's Mark's birthday in tomorrow. Cards to get, presents to wrap and theoretically a cake to bake. He has gallantly said he'd like grill-handle-bashed apple cake. Accommodating fella, isn't he.

And today we gave the go-ahead to the loft conversion company. They will be starting in 7 to 10 days and the loft needs clearing by then. We're still finishing off the decorating in the little bedroom. Argh.

All of which begs the question, what am I doing blogging at a time like this?
Excellent question. I'd best get back to work.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Feel the Fear...

There are some irrational fears I have. Driving a car, carpet sharks (they're real, I swear, they just disappear when the light comes on) and making pastry.

The lack of car driving is a fairly substantial stumbling block for some forms of business expansion. I believe there will come a point when the desire to drive for the business will be greater than my fear I will kill someone with a car and I will finally learn to do it. Or I'll earn enough to hire a driver.

Carpet sharks are unlikely to create a problem in a baking business.

Pastry... well, pastry is a different thing entirely. If I could do it with confidence I could expand my product range. It can't be that hard, loads of people manage it. Last year I swore I'd get the hang of pastry in 2010 and I'm swiftly running out of time.

You will no doubt be stunned to hear (yeah right) that when a client asked if I do mince pies I said, "Sure, no problem". I thought it would force me to pull my finger out and get down to it. Then I faffed about thinking about whether or not to buy a food processor which everyone says makes pastry easier - but how long would it take to recoup the cost? In the end I got a little trigger happy at John Lewis online, when buying the replacement dishwasher and ordered a cheap Kenwood model which was delivered yesterday.

Christmas is not nearly as far away as I would like so Finger-Pulling-Out day is clearly upon me.

I like to be thorough when I try something new. I have all my favourite baking books splayed around me and I am making their recipes for pastry one by one. Rachel Allen's shortcrust is resting in the fridge as I type, Nigella Lawson's mince pie pastry is weight out and chilling in the freezer before mixing as per her instructions. Personally, Nigella's emphasis on iced water,
chilled orange juice and frozen ingredients is rather freaking me out. I have warm hands and a hot kitchen and I'm trying not to feel doomed before I start.

Next will be Nigel Slater's recipe from Appetite, which is heavier on the butter than the others - sums Nigel up in a sentence, bless his delicious fattening soul. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's
recipe uses 2 egg yolks and I expect will be too expensive for me to use commercially. Annie Bell favours the inclusion of ground almonds, Prue Leith is a fan of egg yolk but uses one to Hugh's two.

I'll let you know how I got on.

As for the business...
I guess the biggest change is in the number of hours I am working. I am definitely full time now. There's a happy balance between work for the Deli and the play centre - one is busiest on
pleasant days when people pop out for coffee whilst the other is heaving on rainy days when kids need a dry place to run around. I do marginally more work each week for the play centre and it's confined to one mad busy baking day. The Deli remains 3 deliveries a week.

Another change is in the number of private commissions I'm doing. I've put a few photos up of some recent ones. The Hello Kitty cake was a roaring success. I have concerns about using a copyrighted image and have contacted the copyright owner for advice but they took so long getting back to me (have yet to hear!) that I got on with it.

The cake with heather and white roses had me scratching my head for a while. The family has roots in Yorkshire and Scotland and wanted to represent both florally on the cake. It's the biggest cake I'd done (12 inch square). I found the madeira cake recipe x 1.5 was about right for each layer. I bottled out of doing my own white roses and bought some instead. The heather was a result of something Lesley said when I was fretting about modelling heather, "or maybe piping it would be better." Of course! Heather is a brown twiggy stalk with loads of tiny little round flowers in clusters, and I could definitely manage that in royal icing.

It took longer than I thought (doesn't it always) but I was pleased with the result. The client was absolutely thrilled, yay!
Oh, the lettering was white overpiped with a thin line of the heather colour. It looked much better on the cake than it looks in the photo!
The black and white cake was a rush job and they didn't want to spend too much. A parent from school needed a 40th birthday cake for 3 days to go with a black, white and silver themed party. I went all Mary Quant with circles and trimmed the base with black satin ribbon with a band of silver across the centre. I think it looks pretty effective.

Anyway, all this blogging is just an excuse not to make that pastry. Best get on with it!

Monday, 4 October 2010

People are Lovely

(An unashamedly non-baking post)
Isn't it lovely when people are unexpectedly ace? I know there are rotters in the world (and the Government, mutter mutter) but there are also so very many kind, thoughtful people who are just Good Eggs.

Recently I had transport problems. My Vespa had a terrible petrol smell all of a sudden. It seemed it was leaking petrol but only when the engine was running. This was definitely Not Good.

My friendly and accommodating garage promised to slot me in the very next day if I could get the bike to them. They didn't really have a gap but "seeing as it's you, we'll sort something out." I thanked him and promised him a cupcake.

The next day the leak became a gush and the bike's rear wheel skidded in the petrol slick, causing me to come off. It was a bit painful and a lot embarrassing (and nearly gave my poor partner a heart attack in the car behind me). The bike limped along another 200 yards and conked out completely. It started to rain.

I rang the garage and mewled pathetically down the phone at them, "whinge, whinge, broken down, whinge, fell off, whinge, raining, whinge." Their van was miles away. However, he rang back and had managed to find a way. He came himself (he isn't a mechanic) and brought one of the mechanics he'd pulled off another job, came out with a very small van that could manage a Vespa. We got the bike limping along as far as the garage, they squeezed time in their very busy fully booked day and they repaired the minor fault that had caused the problems. And they charged me £13.

I love my garage.

Then a neighbour had a bit of bad luck. We rallied 'round as good neighbours do and again I was struck by how nice it is that people are friendly and helpful to one another. Just a bit of consideration makes the world so much more pleasant.

So here's a list of (some of the many) lovely, thoughtful and ace people I am appreciating:
Mark, who brought me coffee and chocolate in bed on a bad day
Ali, for sending a lovely email when I needed one
Rebecca, for all the kind things she does for my kids and for endless coffees in the morning
Emma, for sharing her exciting news with us
Lesley, for being astonishingly supportive above and beyond the call of duty for a tutor
Val and all her staff, for being the cornerstone of my business
Mum and Dad, for being about as ace as it is possible for parents to be
Claire, for recommending me for a profitable job
Luke, for being an all-round star
SJ, for gardening help and suggestions
Rose, Lucy, Jo and Debbie, for running a wonderful film making programme my son loved
Tracy, Ro and Helen T, for online chats

I hope your life is similarly blessed with superstars

Monday, 27 September 2010

Link-y post

Here are some links to Good Things -

  • the lovely plum cake - which is dead easy as well as delicious, so what's not to like?
  • my talented friend Jo's blog about her sewing projects (and life in general)
  • Nic's exciting blog about her plans to travel the UK learning about becoming a smallholder
  • A shop I like to browse for baking things
  • Read It Swap It, a great idea; swap your old books for something new to read
  • a very lovely yarn shop run by friendly and helpful people
I'm assuming you all have iPlayer in your favourites bar already, so i won't bother with that other than to say having Radio 4 on iPlayer is one of the greatest inventions of the 21st century.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Back to school

Just a quick one this time. The kids are settling into school with the usual ups and downs, gardening projects and household stuff grind ever onwards. I am starting to wonder where all this Free Time I was promised has got to - despite a week of all three kids in full time school I seem to have dashed trying desperately to cram all the work into the available hours.

There's been a real shift in my workload and in my working days. The soft play centre wants to try having all their weekly cake done on one day, which turns Wednesday from my day off to my busiest day. The Deli has been really quiet, and orders are down by about a third. I got in touch to chat about it; if there was a problem with the quality or appeal of my cakes, i needed to address it immediately. However, it's been a drop in sales across all product ranges and apparently lots of other retail outlets are finding a similar drop.

I guess that credit crunch is still, erm, crunching. (What is the correct verb for a credit crunch? Answers on a postcard...)

I'm getting quite a few requests for birthday cakes by word of mouth or from my association with the play centre. I've got a busy couple of weekends lined up with them. This is great for the business but not much good for helping me get my raised beds finished in time to plant the spring bulbs.

College restarted. It's lovely to see everyone again but 3 hours for swearing at royal icing and blocked piping tubes made me feel like we'd never left. I love what we learn to do but the process is often rather fraught with cussing and stomping off for emergency caffeine rations. Which is counterproductive, of course, as what is really needed is a steady hand. Steady hands after a full day or work and kid-wrangling are rare enough. Caffeine fuelled steady hands are rarer still.

What I really ought to be doing is promoting the relaunch of the cake box scheme. It is planned work at retail profit margins, it's quite labour intensive but it's worth it. However, the thought of selling makes my toes curl. I might just put it off a little bit longer...

Friday, 10 September 2010

Coming over all Keats-like

Here we are in Autumn and I'm feeling very Ode To Autumn- 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness' and all that sort of thing. (A-Level Eng Lit lingers in the brain somewhat)

Still worshipping the twin gods of Seasonality and Local Produce, I've been dabbling with more recipes. I can get away with lemon and raspberry cake for another few weeks because my own raspberries are only just coming out. However, the Big News in the garden at the moment is the plethora of plums (what a nice bit of alliteration). I've made 6 jars of plum jam and we still have a good crop on the trees. So, plum cake it is.

I've tested 3 recipes so far. One of them was horrid - claggy and pointless. One was not bad but had no longevity and the taste didn't really wow me. It was essentially a vanilla sponge with halved plums on top. The other - the first one I tried - is lovely. It's full of chopped plums, sultanas and cinnamon and it tastes only just sweet enough. For the moment I can use my own plums too (if Z and I don't eat them all first) so I get the double glow of using things from the garden and being in touch with the tastes of the season.

As always, I get other people's verdicts too. I sliced it up and took it to the playground at school pick-up time. It was enthusiastically received. In fact, my lovely mate Julie only waited until she'd got back to her house before texting me an order for it for the next day. The deli is keen as well. The cake did quite well in on practical issues, too. I wrapped a large slice and put it in a tin, and put another slice in the freezer. The frozen slice was pretty good and the fresh slice kept a decent texture for 3 or 4 days before feeling a bit stale. That makes it a goer - Hurray!

Apples are also coming into season again, which means Riet's apple cake is back on the menu. I've rather missed it. I'll do a dummy run before I start supplying the shop with it but I expect to be selling it within the month.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Balancing act

The summer holidays are well underway. The weather is a little ropey and as a result the soft play centre is incredibly busy; if they are, so am I. With M down south a fair bit, L enrolled on a film making project in the city centre, all three kids wanting heaps of fun and me having a fair whack of work ahead, some delicate balancing of time and energy is needed.

This is one of the few holidays I've dreaded. The other one was the year M told me the week before the summer holidays started that he would be working away the entire time. Other than that, I LOVE the holidays and resent the return of school terms when school gets the best of my kids and I get the tired and grumpy bits at either end of the day. So, a fairly new experience for me to look at the holidays and think, "How am I going to manage it all?!"

After a stint of being all in a tizz, I thought about it logically. Around my work commitments I have Monday mid morning to mid afternoon free, same again Tuesday. Wednesday I'm free from 9 through til Thursday lunchtime, and I'm free from Friday afternoon until Sunday afternoon. This means we can have short activities or outings on Monday, Tuesday and Friday, and we can have full days out on Wednesdays. Other than that the kids can play here or at friends' houses. That's not half bad. They can have a really nice summer that way, even if it isn't the overnight trips hither and yon they are used to.

So, what could we do that wasn't too expensive, too tiring (for me, if I've got to come home and work at the end of the trip), was fun for all 3 of them and didn't involve needing a car? A mix of stuff at home and trips out, and if we can swing a London trip while M's down south, all the better.

We thought about things we liked to do and wrote our ideas on slips of paper which we put into 2 jars - Home and Out. At the start of the week we pick 6 or 7 slips out and stick them on a list, then we work out which days that week it would be best to do them. Here's our list for this week:
Science experiment
Play on the Wii
Go to the park
Board Games

We went to the park yesterday, then they played on the Wii while I worked. Today is the Library then swimming. Wednesday looks good for baking and doing a science experiment. Other choices for the holidays include having a sleepover, going to the museum, watching a DVD, a family hike and an arts and crafts day.

On the whole I think it will work out well. The kids all made suggestions (although I vetoed several of L's, which involved spending lots or having a car. The boy aims high.) They love choosing things from the jars and keep going over to check the week's list.

Their enthusiasm for it is a great relief to me. I had a sizeable amount of guilt because I am working while also looking after them. Until now they've had train trips to York and Halifax, overnight visits to friends pretty much all over the UK, 3 or 4 days each summer staying with M near London, trips to the zoo... a pretty good time of it, on reflection. I just can't provide that now because of my work commitments and I was feeling guilty for denying them all those lovely things.

On the work front I have a small wedding to do cupcakes for, a christening cake possible in a few weeks, heaps of regular work and some new recipes to try. I did promise I'd get to grips with pastry this year and I've totally failed to do that, and I need to look into packaging and couriers in the coming months with a view to mail order cake. But mostly my plan is to just get through the necessary work as best I can while the kids are off and leave all the optional stuff for when they are back at school and I'm not wasting valuable playtime.

I hope everyone is having a lovely summer,
J x

Monday, 26 July 2010

Time for cake

It occurred to me that I've been a bit slack in posting recipes. I realised this today, staying at Mum and Dad's house. I wanted to bake soda bread and make butter with B and her cousins while Z was mountaineering with his dad. I couldn't remember the quantities so I googled my own blog on Mum and Dad's laptop to look it up (Baking For Beginners Part 2). Googling one's own blog might be the height of onanism, but I honestly was just after the recipe.

Anyway, I had a look at what else I'd posted so I could make some other bits and pieces and it struck me I ought to have some more things up here. So, here are the bookends of my baking career -

The First Cake I Baked
(insert fanfare)
When people ask me about how I got into baking as a career they ask if I'm professionally trained or if I've just always baked. I usually answer, "I didn't bake before I had kids." This is not strictly true. I baked every Sunday morning for about 3 years, and I always baked the same thing - a loaf of banana bread. I'd take slices of it into work with me when I was working in the Call Centre - godawful job and no place for a grown up - and on Wednesday, the last day it would be still nice to eat, I'd bring the rest of it in to share with the people I worked with. It's easy and it's fast to mix up. It is also the only recipe I know in ounces because that gives it a 2, 2, 4, 6, 8 rhythm that is easy to remember.

2 (eggs) 2 (bananas) 4 (ounces butter) 6 (ounces brown sugar) 8 (ounces self raising flour)

See? Easy peasy.

Beat the butter and sugar until light. Mash overripe bananas and tip them in, along with the eggs. Mix well. Sift in the flour and combine well. Pop it into a lined loaf tin and bake at 180 for about an hour (or until a skewer comes out clean). You may need to cover it loosely with foil for the last 15 minutes to stop it browning too much.

You can add nuts, chocolate chops, sultanas, anything you like. It's best left to cool totally before slicing; otherwise you risk breaking it. Lovely spread thinly with butter. Oh, and ace for picnics because it's fairly robust, a compact shape that won't get too bashed and it's easy to have whopping thick slices or thin delicate slices depending on how many picnickers you are trying to eek it out for.

My Most Recent Cake
(insert double fanfare)
Raspberry and Lemon Cake

Sift together
225g self raising flour
175g caster sugar
1 tsp baking powder
Stir in
75g ground almonds
zest of a lemon
In a large jug, mix together
250g plain yoghurt
3 eggs
150ml vegetable or sunflower oil
and pour it into the dry mix. Stir until combined, then carefully fold in
150g frozen raspberries

Bake at 170 degrees for about 70 minutes - keep checking after 50 mins and cover as necessary. I like it in a 23 cm round springform tin but a 20cm square tin would also do.

When cooked, leave the cake to cool a moment while you make the glaze.
100g sugar
30-50ml water
juice of that lemon
Simmer in a saucepan until its volume has reduced by at least half. Poke holes in the cake and pour the glaze over it. Leave it to absorb before you remove it from the tin.

So there you go - where I started and where I'm at now. I hope you find something you like.

I'm off to bake with giggly small people. Wish me luck!

Friday, 16 July 2010

Taking Stock

Somehow these past few weeks have got away from me. There I was thinking the summer was months away, and it turns out the kids break up from school next week.

The glorious heat and sunshine of June gave me a bit of a break. Orders from the soft play centre dropped like a stone - who wouldn't rather be in the park in such weather - and the deli orders dwindled. Hot weather isn't cake weather. It's weather for ice creams, bowls of strawberries, long cool drinks with straws and parasols in.

As well as working in the garden and having some super days out with the kids, I used the time to take stock a little. I've done my accounts and have a clearer view of what is working and what isn't. I also know precisely how little money I've made, which sent me into rather a bad mood for a bit. It's one thing having a rough idea. It's another thing entirely to see exactly how much has come in and - more depressingly - gone out during the 18 months I've been Cake Boxing.

I need to keep looking for ways to make the business more profitable. If your target is to achieve minimum wage pretty steadily and you can't even manage that, there is something askew in the business model.

On the plus side, I've had loads of work from a variety of sources. The cake box scheme was enthusiastically received and people have asked that I tell them when it's starting up again. The birthday cake and cupcake orders are picking up from referrals and word of mouth. Now that the weather's less clement the play centre is heaving and they are selling stonking amounts of my cakes and cookies. My seasonal cakes and new ranges at the deli have been very successful too.

Speaking of seasonal, I've spent a week faffing about with raspberry and lemon cake ideas and I think I've got a winner now. It's not very sweet despite a fair whack of sugar; raspberries can be quite tart. I have to use frozen berries because fresh ones vary so much in price and in quality. That's rather a shame and if I were baking just for the family I'd stick to fresh. Still, it's a nice balance of flavours, a good moist texture and should also have a pretty good shelf life (important for the deli!) and I am rather proud of it.

On the home front our lives are going through some changes over the next couple of months. I'll be interested to see how they all pan out. The Big Lad, all 11 years of him (eek!) is off to Scotland camping with Scouts for a week and will be starting high school at the end of the summer. The Divine Miss B starts school and already wears her new uniform most days out of sheer excitement. Z's the only one whose life carries on as normal, moving up a year in school.

For the first time in 11 1/2 years I will be finished with toddler groups, NCT groups, CBeebies and daytime childcare. From 9:15 to 3:10 I will be left to my own devices - well, from October anyway, as B is part time for the first little while. I'd like to get all dreamy at the prospect of some free time but in fact I've already crammed my days with work until at least Christmas.

Hmm - a rather bitty blog post this time, isn't it? Sorry. I'd like to revise, rewrite and refine it to make it a better read. However, the number of half-finished blog posts I've got cluttering the place up ought to teach me to post this one now before it joins the others in the Land Of Unfinished Blather never destined to see light of day. So that's what I'll do and you'll have to tolerate my ill-formed ramblings as they stand.

Have a lovely summer,
J x

Sunday, 30 May 2010

In The Merry Merry Month of May

Sorry it's been a month since I last wittered on at you all. I've been rather busy. May's not been entirely merry*, but it's had its good points.

I did my first wedding order, which was for cupcakes. Don't they look pretty? Perhaps individually placing each silver dragee along the spiral is a little fiddly, but I think it gives a lovely result.
My second wedding order went a bit wrong. The bride has called it off, so I have sent her mum a refund, minus the money I'd already spent on things for the order. It's a shame, as I was quite excited about doing it but heck, I'm not the one having the big emotional crisis.

I got that contract with a new outlet, and I started supplying them this weekend. I did the planned tasting session for both partners in the business and it went very well. But heck, why wouldn't it? What's not to like about someone offering you several different cakes and cookies with a nice cup or coffee and tea on a busy morning. We settled on what they'd start with and I gave them some advice about storage of the cakes to prolong shelf life and manage their stock. The longer the cakes and cookies keep fresh and look good, the better. Stale cake is somehow more depressing than no cake at all.

I'm not quite sure how much work it will mean - like my work with the deli, there will no doubt be a settling in period. However, I set my terms out clearly with regards to collection versus delivery and the notice I require. It feels good to have agreed this stuff up front.

I had my lovely weekend away in early May. It was fab to see my very lovely pals Laura and Alison again and the Gifted Children's May Ball gig was absolutely ace. Almost all of my science crushes were there, and most of my comedian crushes too so it was pretty much perfect. I really wish my pal Rach could have joined us, though; she would have loved it. Marcus Brigstock and Tim Minchin in one evening... on second thoughts it might have been too much for her and she'd have swooned. I wasn't wearing shoes suitable for carrying swooning mates.

I had some baking related adventures too. I took a cake to Absolute Radio for Dave Gorman. He does a bit in his stand up routine about never eating carrot cake again. I'd talked to him after the gig and he said "convince me I'm wrong, send me a cake." It was a lot more eccentric a thing to do when I was carrying a cake through London and knocking on the radio station door than it seemed in my kitchen, but what the hell. His producer and production assistant came to meet me and were really lovely. I saw Frank Skinner. He said Hi! Coo.
And the next day Dave and his co presenters Danielle and Martin mentioned it in the podcast (May 8th, at 33 minutes ish on the podcast, not that I'm obsessed or anything). They said it was "amazing cake, genuinely moist and delicious and lovely." I am all chuffed.

On the Saturday night I went to see Wicked, the musical, which was great fun. I met a Canadian woman there who wanted to learn to bake. We had a good chat and exchanged email addresses, and I am now helping her get started by email. It's fun. I get to be a mentor; how neat is that!

Then it was home again and back to work. As I've mentioned before, tastes change with the seasons. I've stopped offering chocolate gingerbread loaf until the autumn and needed to replace it with something more spring-like.

I've faffed about with a recipe and come up with a very nice elderflower cake that is currently selling well in the deli. I want to find an affordable berry cake recipe too, for summer. Some are just too expensive to be viable commercially, but I am confident I'll find something. I like the faffing.

Whoopie pies are selling well, too. They are as trendy as trendy can be right now, and although a bit of a faff to make are really delicious. I took some to the deli at the beginning of the month and they've been selling steadily ever since. I also got more positive comments from their inclusion May cake boxes than I've had for anything else ever. Evin the non-cake-eating deli owner loves them.

I truly hate their name, though. Whoopie pies. They are not pies. They do not fart when you sit on them. Still, what's in a name, as Juliet so naively asked. (Quite a lot, Julie my poppet, and if you'd picked a bloke with a different surname it would have been a longer play.)

I had another baking session with Z's Year 3 class this month as well. It was a bit, erm, interesting but that was the fault of the rubbish recipe and the teacher rather than the kids. The recipe was for chocolate chip muffins. The taste was bland, some parts of the recipe were pointless and messy and the flashes, bangs and burning smell coming from the staff room microwave was enough to give me nightmares. I won't bother typing of the recipe for you all because I promise you it was rubbish. 50g of melted chocolate and no cocoa between 12 muffins doesn't make a batter chocolatey, it makes it beige. Buying cheap nasty Asda Value bars of chocolate and asking the kids to bash it into chips rather than buying chocolate chips is also a mistake. A frustrating and messy one. Not one group managed to follow the recipe correctly, the teacher did not provide the correct implements and does not understand the difference between millilitres and grams, and I had a lot of rescuing to do to make sure all the kids got their 2 muffins.
Still, the muffins did rise impressively and the kids liked them. And that is the main thing.

The difficult parts of this month have been overwork, managing a poorly child, and being overtired. That the dishwasher packed in this weekend was pretty much the final straw, and Saturday found me sobbing like a toddler. I even regretted starting the business at all. However, a bit of sleep and a morning of doing nothing constructive whatsoever restored me to normality. Well, mostly, but enough to get by.

If I am going to continue making a go of this I do need to think carefully about how much work I take on, how to juggle family and work life and possibly stop doing other external stuff like volunteering. So obviously I'm doing another book swap party fundraiser this year and have offered some help to Cubs. And the school summer fair. Argh. However, I've partially opted out of my book groups until I've got a little more time and I'm looking at ways of managing the household more effectively. And I'm thinking about turning down a cake request that i think will be a pain to do and will mess up part of next weekend for insufficient financial reward. Just because I can do something doesn't mean I have to. That's the joy of self employment.

*That's a Stephen Foster song, by the way - In The Merry Merry Month of May. He wrote that in 1862. Why my head is cluttered with such stuff I do not know, but there you are.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Happy days

Friday was in all respects A Good Day.

Well, maybe not the part with the torrential downpour as I fetched the kids from school or the messy kitchen and the laundry I'm ignoring, but let's not sweat the small stuff.

It was Number 1 Son's birthday. He was delighted with and appreciative of his presents, he was very sweet with his siblings about the cards they'd made him. It was one of those lovely family moments when the kids are being gorgeous to one another and everyone is happy.

I sent him off to school with M&M cookies to share with his class. It was his specific request, and a pretty good choice. They are really tasty and stupidly easy - people dropping in for coffee when I'm baking a batch always comment on how quick they are to make. The recipe is based on the chocolate chip cookie recipe in the River Cottage Family Cookbook, which I will harp on about until you've all bought it.

melt 125g butter
stir in 100g granulated sugar (or caster if that's what you have in)
and 75g soft brown sugar,
then 1 egg
and a generous splash of vanilla extract.
Sift 150g plain flour and
1/2 tsp baking powder into the mixture.
Stir in 100g of chocolate M&Ms (much better than Smarties - they keep their colour when baked and they're not from Nestle)

Use a tablespoon to dollop the sloppy batter onto baking sheets and bake in a preheated oven at 190 degrees Celsius (ish) for 8 to 10 minutes. Cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool properly.

We get about 20 to 25 cookies from this. They keep for a good week in a tin, theoretically, although they are very moreish and tend to... erm... mysteriously evaporate in my kitchen.

Luke reports his class was very pleased. As they should be - I had the odd one for quality control purposes and they were very yummy.

On the way home from the morning school run I bumped into some of the very lovely parents of Luke's classmates who were heading up to the coffee shop. I had an extremely civilised hour drinking coffee and chatting with them. While I was there I received a phone call from someone starting a new business who was looking for a cake supplier.

Back at home I returned the call and am giving her a price list and suggestions that I think will suit her particular customers. We hope to meet up next week if possible to discuss my becoming her supplier. I am very excited about the possibility of a new outlet.

Next, I iced Luke's birthday cakes. I used the chocolate traybake recipe from the Annie Bell book (which again I highly recommend) and set about making LEGO blocks from a traybake. Luke owns more LEGO than LEGOland does, so I think I'm on to a winner.

I started by colouring sugarpaste in red, yellow and green - I meant to do blue but the colours I had weren't quite right, either navy or baby blue. I should get some royal blue for future use. Anyway, the green looked fine. Then it was time to get the cakes right.

LEGO is all about maths. If I didn't get each piece right in relation to the others, it wouldn't have looked right, so I got out my I measured a block of LEGO to get the proportions. I made the 8 block 23cm long by 11.5 cms wide, the 4 block 11.5 square and the 2 block 11.5 cm by 5.25cm. At those sizes, the little dimple things (what on earth are they called?) ought to be 3cm in diameter, so I fudged it with a cutter 2.5 mm across that I flattened a bit.

If I did it again, I'd smooth the edges on the dimple things a little better. I could do with a second cake smoother to help me do the corners slightly more crisply but on the whole I think it's pretty good. The birthday boy was very pleased indeed.

We all went to Pizza Express to celebrate. The waitress was lovely (we gave her some cake) and the kids behaved so nicely we were really proud of them. The whole evening was a pleasure.

This week it's all hands on deck. I'm doing my first order of wedding cupcakes and I'm putting together a tasting plate for the woman interested in my cakes. She's had the trade price list and seems perfectly happy, which all sounds pretty encouraging. And of course there's the usual deli orders, college work and a training day for the kids because of the election. Wish me luck!

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Spring has sprung

I've not blogged in nearly a month. Between the two and half weeks Easter hols with the kids, a few more baking jobs than usual and work in the garden, it's all been a bit of a blur.

I've used some of my college-taught skills in real, paid work - the best indication that it was a constructive use of my time and my fledgling business's money. I got a real kick out of modelling with marzipan at the end of last term, and it gave me the confidence to try making a garden cake for a 70th birthday.

I covered the cake with white sugarpaste over the marzipan. Next, I cut a circle out of the top of it and inserted a circle of green sugarpaste as a lawn, and cut a wiggly corner out for the vegetable patch.

I used sugarpaste to make the cauliflowers and orange carrot bases, with marzipan coloured green for the leaves and carrot tops. The terracotta pot was sugarpaste too. The picnic blanket, trowel, book and champagne bottle were all marzipan. I dipped the top of the champagne bottle in edible glue, then in very fine gold powder (edible, of course) to get the foil effect. The trowel was an absolute pig to get right. I gave it about 4 coats of silver paint, which was sticky horrible stuff and ruined one of my nice brushes. I don't think I'll try that again!

The soil was demerera sugar over a thin layer of royal icing to hold it in place. I used royal icing to pipe the foliage using two shades of green and 3 different sized leaf tubes in an effort to get a nice lush effect. The flowers were sugarpaste in yellow and peach, carried across as a detail on the picnic blanket to make it all fit together nicely. The base of the cake was edged in yellow satin ribbon.

On the whole I'm very pleased with it. I know that damned number 7 looks like a number 1 so everyone said "it's for a 10 year old?" But it's the only number 7 I had and I totally suck at piping. But in the main, it's a pretty cool cake.

I also did bags of heart cookies as party favours for a 50th anniversary. I printed the names and date of the wedding on parchment and cut it into labels. I tied up the bags and labels with pink gingham ribbon, and they did look just gorgeous. I think I'll do something similar for the next party we have. The customer was delighted.

The third job this month - apart from the cake boxes and the deli cakes, of course - was a 1st birthday party cake and 48 mini cakes. The party was in lieu of a naming or christening, and the customer wanted pretty pastels and a Number 1 on the cake.

I basically did a version of B's birthday cake, but with flowers I'd piped myself. I used an edible marker pen to add a little detail to the pink butterfly at the front of the cake and edged the base of the cake with tiny lilac fondant flowers.

The mini cakes were in the same colours - lilac, lemon yellow and pink - and some had the same flowers or butterflies on to carry the theme across. The rest had sprinkles in the appropriate colours. I do so with I'd thought to take photos of the minis in their boxes; they looked just gorgeous and really set off the large cake beautifully.

The customer was utterly delighted. She texted me after the party to say the cakes were a triumph and she'd been tempted to pretend she'd made them herself. I'm so pleased it went well.

I'm getting a bit over-ambitious with thoughts for L's birthday next week, and my first wedding cupcake order looms.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Baking for beginners part 2

Last week I had my fourth baking class with Year 3. I was lucky enough to get to pick the project (and as a consequence provide them with all the stuff, hey ho) which gave me a little freedom. The previous time I had been very frustrated when an economising gesture ruined the biscuits the kids made because a cheaper, substituted ingredient caused them to collapse.

I thought it would be fun to do bread and butter; this is mostly because I think it is fun to make things the kids tend to assume you can only buy ready-made.

Because of time constraints I went for soda bread. Soda bread is dead easy. As I did the previous 3 times, I tested the process with Z and B on the weekend. I think if a 4 year old can manage it with supervision, 8 year olds should be able to manage it with minimum intervention. B was delighted. She had 'her' bread with the chilli we had for dinner that night, enjoyed a toasted slice with 'her' butter for breakfast, and showed off about it to her pals at Nursery. Quite rightly, too.

Our trial run established that double cream needs to be definitely at room temperature to make the butter and that soda bread takes less time than we usually spend. Oh, and that the oven needs as much time to heat up to the required 230 degrees as the bread takes to make, so it's best to turn it on before starting.

The kids were rather incredulous when i told them what we'd be making. As before, some had made bread before while some wouldn't know a rolling pin if it fell on their heads. I was pleased to see they all remembered how to wash their hands properly. They all did a super job.

DIY Butter -
200ml of double cream at room temperature. This is very important.
a jar with a tight fitting lid
Shake, shake, shake and shake. Remove the butter from the jar, press all the liquid out. If you are going to keep it for any length of time, rinse it over and over again to make sure you get every last bit of buttermilk out. Salt it if you like. If divvying up between loads of kids, put a heaped spoonful in mini cupcake cases and pop in the fridge for a bit.

Butter was the big hit. I talked them through the phases they could expect but the kids still pulled on my apron every 30 seconds to ask "is it butter now?" First the butter sloshes about a bit, then it barely seems to move as it becomes thick whipped cream. That lasts a while. Next is the slightly grainy phase when it looks a bit rubbish really. Then, suddenly there is a big SLOSH as the fat comes together to make butter and splashes about in the remaining buttermilk. Opening the jars to see their dollops of butter was so exciting. The kids all shouted to have a go squeezing the buttermilk and they were so keen to taste it.

Soda Bread
Sift 250g plain flour with
1 tsp salt and
1 tsp bicarb
Add 2 tsp brown sugar
Stir in 225ml plain yoghurt or buttermilk
Knead for a minute or two. Form into as high-domed a ball as you can. Slash the top with a deep X (or, if making it for a table of 6 kids, a star) and bake at 230 degrees for 12 minutes. Turn the oven temperature down to 200 degrees and bake for a further 15 minutes.

When the loaves had all been baked - in the same oven at the same time - the result was amazing. The loaves were each an accurate reflection of how the groups did. I've never seen such a blatant physical manifestation of cooperating and erm, not.

Two tables worked together very well. One of them in particular got a little enthusiastic about the kneading part and made the most beautiful loaf of soda bread I've ever seen. I was so impressed. Z's gang was one of those who did well, which is nice to know but not really surprising. They are a lovely group of kids.

Two tables pulled it together in the end after a rocky start, and produced prefectly edible bread, if not entirely appetising. One table (yes, the same one) did nothing but argue. They took twice as long as the others, clearly forgot to add the bicarb, didn't knead because none of them would get their hands sticky, probably added the salt three or four times over (based on the finished result) and produced an utter disaster of a loaf. It looked like home made salt dough we do for playdough, but baked to have a stiff crust around it. It would have been disappointing to take home and probably woulod have made them sick if they'd actually tried to eat it.

I went home and baked a replacement for them, although I did send their effort into the class as well. I felt a bit grumpy about it when I was dashing back to the school in the pouring rain, but it wasn't really much bother.

I had a very proud parenting moment when L told me I shouldn't have baked them a new one. "It is the natural consequence of their actions, Mummy. How else will they learn not to fight and to follow instructions?" Ah, the sweet pleasure of having your dearly held parenting beliefs repeated earnestly to you by your 10 year old...

He is of course entirely correct. However, on the off chance the 5 kids concerned did try and eat their grim slab of crusted dough, I didn't want to be responsible for making them sick. Plus it's nice to have something to show your parents, even if you did need a bit of a nudge (OK, a blatant replacement). I'm crossing my fingers for a better go next time.
When I saw the class in the playground the next day, they were all dying to tell me how they'd shared the bread and butter with their families and how their mums/dads/grans had pinched the biggest bits. It was lovely to see them so proud of themselves.
The bread was suffiently successful that several parents asked me for the recipe later. I feel pretty good about that -a nice result for my first attempt at a classroom activity.
As ever, I recommend getting Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's wonderful Family Cookbook, which is where I got the recipes. It really is a super book.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Horses for courses

I criticised Nigella's roll out cookie dough here last time. I find the dough is either too stiff from the fridge or too sticky in the warm kitchen and that Goldilocks time frame of Just Right lasts about 2 minutes. Rebecca disagrees - her kitchen is pretty darned cold and the dough works just fine there.

A few weeks back I gave a link to the Red Velvet cake I use - of the 3 or 4 I've tried, it's the recipe that works best for me although I use a different icing and do half the recipe. Andrew gave it a go and it was a disaster (it really was - I saw it!) When i gave them a wedge of Red Velvet, Jude said it was her family's favourite cake, Liz says hers didn't like it much.

Zach loves the muesli bars. Sair and Cath love the muesli bars. Emma says they are the nicest thing she's had. Michelle thinks they are horrid.

I try pretty hard to make as many people happy with my cakes as possible, obviously. It wouldn't be much of a business if I didn't. But in the past couple of weeks I've noticed how tricky that can get. I need to taste things myself, get Mark to taste them (he's more discerning, which is a nicer way of saying he's more likely to criticise) and have to get 4 or 5 other people's opinions or I end up with a pretty skewed product range.

I've made a mental list of who is a reliable source of tasting. Rebecca's family hate fruit in cake, as do Michelle's, and are keen fans of chocolate cake as long as it doesn't look like chocolate malteser cake. If it does look like chocolate malteser cake, if better be the real thing or they will be disappointed.
Sarah F's family like to try pretty much all kinds of cake but Sarah doesn't like apple or banana. Claire H's kids always have interesting points of view and don't always go for the obvious choices. Lisa and her family are keen to try any and everything and will rank them in preference, which was very useful when I was sorting out apple cakes. SJ loves cheesecakes. Val doesn't like sugar at all.

An added complication is that my palette is changing a bit. I'm not keen on the taste of royal icing (overexposure, I expect) and I'd rather eat a vat of buttercream icing than a tablespoon of sugarpaste. I am definitely keen on less sugar than I used to be. I spend so much time breathing in icing sugar as I sift and mix that I prefer the less sugary things. However, my two biggest selling items are both very sweet indeed. Butter, on the other hand... There's never too much butter, a perspective that Mark and Val both dispute.

So here I am, juggling feedback and tasting notes, suggestions and recipes. At some point I just have to go with what I think works.
You can't please all of the people all of the time etc. The joy of self-employment is that, on the whole, you can please yourself.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Looking back, looking ahead

Do you remember when I talked about those three words that cause me all the trouble? "Sure, no problem."

I did it again.

You see, Tom and Abigail's family have been mighty good to me. How could I turn down their mum when she wanted a complicated cake for her eldest? I did the twins' cakes in Jan, I did their Grandma's 60th cake in Feb and today I have done their big brother's 7th birthday cake. In fact, this time last year (when I had never, ever covered a cake in sugarpaste) it was his 6th birthday cake that was my baptism of fire.

Oh god it was awful. It took 2 1/2 hours and I hadn't a CLUE what i was doing. I had gaps and seams all over the place, which I covered with a frilly band of buttercream. The whole thing tasted nice but it looked a amateur to the point of incompetence. Thank heavens I didn't charge much. I was so embarrassed that I offered the family £5 off the next cake as recompense for my ineptitude. Bless them, they said they'd loved it and were pleased.
Are you braced? It's very embarrassing... (Lesley, I give you permission to laugh)
Really braced?
OK, here goes -

Thank your lucky stars you can't see the sides. On the plus side, I can feel proud of how far i;ve come in a year.
This year he wants a dinosaur cake with a volcano. Did I say, "no, don't be daft"? Did I say, "sorry, too busy with Mother's Day baking." Of course I didn't. I said, "sure, no problem." Then I woke at 3 a.m. fretting about how to do a decent job.

I have spent an age on it. As anyone in my Cake Dec class can attest, I am not the speediest or tidiest of people when it comes to icing. The kitchen has 4 bowls of coloured royal icing, 5 balls of coloured sugar paste, a liberal dusting of icing sugar everywhere, nearly every icing implement I own strewn across the counters and I've started eating the rest of the mini eggs as a stress response.

It's finished now. Dan's mum kindly supplied 2 small plastic dinosaurs and I've added one of those firework type candles so the volcano can erupt at the appropriate moment. I would be rather proud of it but I am too cowed by the mess I need to clear up before I can start on tonight's baking for the deli.

Better get on with all that clearing up so I can get back to work. Once more into the breach, dear friends...

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Spring forward

The season is on the change, Mother's Day approaches - or is that Mothers' Day? I'm never sure if it is 'the day for your Mother' or 'the day belonging to all Mothers' and I do hate apostrophes in the wrong place. Oops, got off topic a bit.

Easter's not far off either.

The birthday cakes are all flowery and springlike and I've spent an unsuccessful 2 hours trying to make daffodils out of icing.

With the change of seasons comes the change in people's tastes. Unlike summer, a nearly chocolate-free zone, chocolate is still very big in spring. It's all those Easter eggs, I think. Lighter and freshers flavours move up while the spices that saw me through the winter season are much less in demand. Time to change what I'm making.

I've just had my meeting with the deli to decide on the Mother's Day range (I'm sticking to that apostrophe til someone tells me otherwise). It's gone well. I'm doing sugar cookies in the shape of teapots and teacups, lemon cupcakes with sugarpaste icing tops (and flowers and butterflies) and a decorated lemon layer cake.

The sugar cookies worked out really well. I have a regular moan about the stickiness and faffiness of cookie dough for cutting out rather than splodging. Splodge recipes are so much easier. The various cut-out recipes are either bland, too sweet, too sticky or stiff to handle - I'm looking at you, Ms N Lawson - or a little unreliable.

I've decided to go with the Hummingbird recipe, with extra vanilla because I like it and no salt because it doesn't need it. It's quite a sweet sugar cookie (the hint is in the name, really) so it doesn't desperately need to be fully iced, but it's not so sugary as to put your teeth on edge.

Cream together
200g butter

280g caster sugar

1tsp vanilla

1 egg and beat well

Sift in
400g plain flour

1/2 tsp cream of tartar

Mix, chill for a bit if you have time, roll out to about 5mm thick and cut with the cutters you like best (or your kids are insisting you use. I find mothers rarely have free choice on these things. for years it was dinosaurs in our house, and when B finds out I have a crown cutter she's going to be ecstatic!)

Bake at 180 got about 10 minutes and ice or not as the spirit moves you.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Ups and downs

It's been a trying couple of days.

In a rash act of over-ambitious parenting a couple of weeks ago, I decided that trying to engage the kids in the Haiti Earthquake appeal would be A Good Thing. It seemed particularly important because at the jaded age of 10, L asked why we should bother sending money. "Shouldn't someone else do it? Like the Americans? They're rich and they're closer."

After delivering a lecture on the importance of everyone doing their bit, the brotherhood of man/sisterhood of women, how if someone needs help and we can give it it's our duty as fellow human beings to do so blah blah blah... I thought a more hands on approach might help.

When L was in Year 1 the Tsunami struck south east Asia. He was less of an old cynic then, and wanted to send his toys to the kids who had lost their homes "cos they probably haven't got stuff to play with." Lovely thought, but we decided raising money for food and medicine might be a bit more crucial. We baked biscuits, invited his class and parents over after school to a juice'n'cookie thing and raised about £65.

Z in particular is dead keen on that sort of thing; he loves a project and he loves to bake. With 2 kids in classes and one at nursery, that would be a lot of potential invitees if we did a repeat performance. We decided instead to do a Cookies for Cash sale after school in the playground. Z and B helped ice some of the 240 cookies I baked, my fabulously supportive pal Rebecca baked another 4 dozen and we set up shop. L took trays around the far end of the playground and was a very good salesman. Z helped man the main stall. I bothered my online friends for sponsorship and raised £40 that way.

A less wonderful bit - YIKES that was a lot of work. I was already rather busy with extra baking for Valentine's Day, Mark was away, I had my college course to fit in. Because the kids wanted to decorate them, I baked the faffy, roll-and-cut-out type for the first 128. That was kind of dumb. They take about 3 times as long as the nice easy dollop-y cookies. Just as i was getting horribly tired and uptight about how many cookies I still needed to bake, I had a thought... The kids were in school. They were not helping with cookies from this point forward so they won't care about icing. Super fast chocolate chip cookies it was! I got 112 done in no time flat. Still very tired, but chuffed.

Then I did all the sensible prep work - got bags of change from the bank, talked the staff of the fruit and veg shop into letting me have some of their brown bags for packaging, printed off signage emailed to me by DEC, packed up trays, tubs for money, aprons (to look the part) and gloves for all of us (it was snowing at times) and off I went.
The sale was a roaring success. We were mobbed and pretty much sold out. All in all it looks like we've raised about £160 for the DEC appeal, which is wonderful.
Then came the horrid bit. Towards the end of the sale a woman came up to me. It was a bit mad, swarms of people and I didn't recognise her at first. She lives diagonally across from me. She was coming to tell me that we'd been burgled.
On the whole, we got off lightly. It is just stuff, after all. They'd kicked the panel of the front door in and stolen the telly. Then got into a waiting taxi. So here we are, missing a telly. Plus the remote for the Sky box, and the PS3 remote, and possibly Z's camera, which isn't where I thought we'd left it. And my wallet. And there's the rub.
I was baking scones and cookies that morning. To stop my rings getting gunked up, I took them off. Because I've baked (and washed up) so much in the last fortnight, the skin on my hands is very dry, cracked and itchy, so I thought I'd take all my rings off to prevent any of them irritating me with dough under the bands.
Usually I put them on the cluttered edge of a shelf, but on Monday when I did that, the sapphire ring fell and I thought I'd lost it. When I found it I decided I needed to put it in a more secure place, so the next time I took the rings off I zipped them in the coin purse section of my wallet.
As I left to go to the sale, I thought having my wallet in my pocket in such a busy, chaotic environment wasn't wise so I took it out of my pocket and put it on the stairs. Clearly it would be safer in my locked, alarmed house in broad daylight.
Apparently not.
My sapphire ring and my double diamond ring are gone, and that's a damned shame. But so is my wedding ring, which was my grandmother's before me. I haven't slept all night for going over and over the stupid, unlikely, unusual chain of events that caused my wedding ring to be in my wallet on the day we were robbed.
Our friends and family have been ace. Rebecca took the kids and fed them, Mum and Fad drove over from Wales so I didn't have to be alone. The divine SJ and Rich turned up with comfort, chocolate and a telly for us to borrow. My bro rang, Sarah C popped over to check I was OK, Sarah F rang and offered help several times, and I've had lovely texts and emails offering help from our lovely pals. I was reminding the kids that although 2 blokes did something rotten to us, many people have done kind, thoughtful and decent. The world has lots of good stuff in it, even when we are feeling down and got at.
However upbeat I'm being, though, I suspect it's a tough day ahead. I have lots of baking to do, I am utterly exhausted, I've got a very distressed 10 year old to soothe and there's loads of stupid admin type crapola to deal with because of the burglary. Wish me luck, guys, because I think I'm going to need it.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Share and share alike

I love other people's recipes. Of all the possible hand-me-downs I think they are my favourite. Books are nice, clothes for the kids a real boon, and if I ever have any inherited wealth (which is extremely unlikely) I'm sure it would be lovely; but for reliable honest-to-goodness happiness it's hard to beat a tried and trusted recipe from a friend.

I've blogged Riet's wonderful apple cake before. I've passed on Danielle's Chinese Chews recipe so often that I store it on the desktop, ready to print. FP Bean Stew from my online pal Millie is one of our standard dinners now.

The greatest of them all has to be Grandma Curl's Potato Salad recipe, which Dar and Kir's grandma Pearl Curry taught my mum to make back in the 70s. She taught me and I taught Mark. I can't imagine a summer without it. If you ask very nicely (and you remind me) I will post it at some point.

The next best thing to family recipes are recipes from cookbooks that other people swear by. My lovely and baketastic friend Rachel told me to buy Annie Bell's Gorgeous Cakes and it's been one of my best ever buys. I use it all the time.

My pal Lynne was asking about a chocolate cake that even non-bakers would find easy. My tutor Lesley was after a reliable, delicious chocolate cake that both children and adults love, and the answer to both of them has got to be the Annie Bell traybake. It's dead easy and utterly delicious. It's also very moist and last a fair while. You wouldn't think it had to because it is scrumptious and surely will be gobbled up, but in fact it does matter because the cake is huge.

So, here you go - my favourite chocolate cake recipe for when you have loads to feed:

75g cocoa powder
200ml boiling water
1 tsp bicarb
and set aside for a few minutes.
Whisk together
4 medium (or 3 large) free range eggs
370g light muscovado sugar
180ml vegetable oil
then stir in
200g self raising flour
Add the cocoa mixture, mix thoroughly and pour into a baking tin about 23 x 30 cm (9 x 12 ish inches). Bake in a medium hot oven (180 degrees ish) for about 30 minutes. If your tin is smaller and deeper it might take 40 minutes. Let it cool before icing.

In a bowl over a pan of boiling water, melt together
150g dark chocolate
3 tbs milk
and keep stirring until smooth. Pour it over the cake and scatter M&Ms or other sweets, glitter, 100s and 1000s, silver dragees... just cover it with bright and shiny stuff. It looks lovely and partyish.

I didn't use it today for Z's 8th birthday party because he wanted a Number 8 cake, and 2 round cakes was the smart way to go, but I did bake one anyway this morning for a customer with a family party this weekend. I hope you enjoy it as much as they will.

Now wish me luck, my lovelies, because the over excited birthday boy woke us all up at 5:30 this morning and his party and sleepover is starting in an hour. It's going to be a loooooooooong night.
J x

PS - Lesley also asked which Red Velvet cake recipe I use. I have a bunch, but I think I like the Magnolia one on the Guardian's website best. The quantities make 24 large cupcakes or 2 layer cakes, so most of the time I halve it.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Birthday boy

It's Z's birthday on Friday.

You probably already know this if you live within 150 miles of us, because Z has told EVERYONE. His entire school. The postman. The staff in Tesco. The woman from Freecycle who came to collect a car seat. Absolutely everyone.

Anyway, he's having a birthday party at home, with a sleepover for some of the kids afterwards. He wants to watch a movie with popcorn and eat a party tea of macaroni and cheese, pizza and scotch eggs and possibly melon. Bizarre, but there you go. He also wants a chocolate cake, traffic light jelly, whoopie pies, cookies, cupcakes and "just whatever else you want to make, Mummy."

Aw, thanks, chick.

Oh, and could I please bake cookies for his class of 31, possibly M&M ones and maybe little ones saying Zach Is 8 or something?


I think we'll just go with M&M cookies, myself. I'm all for simplicity, it's my new plan.

Last year I let myself get talked into tiny cupcakes with the initial of each child in the class piped on. That was a nightmare; it took us a good hour to remember the names of everyone in the class and I was all uptight that we'd have forgotten someone who would then be all upset. (We didn't) Anyway, I don't need that kind of palaver and with a college course, work cakes to do and a large number of party cakes requested all to be done Thurs/Fri, I think 31 M&M cookies is more than enough work.

My preferred recipe is from the lovely Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Family Cookbook. It's a super book, so do go and buy it if you haven't got it already. It explains the history and science of food as well as how to cook stuff. It's ace.

So, M&M cookies mostly like Hugh's recipe except he used chunks of chocolate -

125g melted butter
100g sugar (granulated or caster, whatever you've got to hand)
75g soft brown sugar
mix the butter and sugars together until well combined.
1 free range egg
2 tsp vanilla extract
and beat until smooth.
150g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
into the batter and then stir in
100g of M&Ms (or chocolate chunks or smarties or whatever you like)

This is a very sloppy liquid mixture. Splodge tablespoons of it on lined baking trays and bake for 8 to 10 minutes in a medium hot oven (around 190 degrees - nearly everything is cooked at that sort of temp) Do leave plenty of space between the cookies because they will spread.

Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes or so before you move them to cooling racks.
Makes about gooey 18 cookies.

By the way, as there is no creaming of butter and sugar needed and the batter is very liquid, it is a great recipe for kids to do. It's dead easy and really good.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Cake Tourism

This weekend was my escape to London for the marvel that is Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake. It was sublime, as always, and I laughed heaps and wept buckets as is only right and proper at such an event.

While I was in London, I thought I ought to take the opportunity to do some research. I visited Jane Asher's shop for a few bits and pieces, I spent a wonderful hour in Pages catering supply shop indulging in dreams of expansion and equipment. But mostly, I went to bakeries and cupcake shops, took photos and ate cake. Lots of cake. So much cake that I threw most of it out after I'd tried a bite.

My good friend Rebecca asked her good friend Beth, who lives in London, to recommend cake places to visit. Her recommendations were super, for which I am very grateful. Thanks, Beth!

Lola's is a cupcake concession in Selfridges and Harrods. They are very pretty, do loads of flavours and have LOVELY packaging. I am envious. The sponge itself is very white, which puts me off a bit because in my experience butter and free range eggs mean a yellower cake. I am a firm believer in butter and free range eggs.
Lola's cupcakes have icing very nearly as deep as the cake, and they are covered in all sorts of nice things. Luke tried one and was very keen.
They also do big cakes. I liked this one, with mini cupcakes on top of an iced layer cake - cake studded cakes amuse me.
Selfridges food hall also sells loads of other nice cakes. I loved the tiny celebration cakes, edged in ribbon rather than dratted piped shell borders.
Hummingbird cakes remain very, very sweet, with loads of icing but looking really cute. They do Chocolate malt cupcakes now - clearly inspired by my success with chocolate malteser cakes. As if. Still, I get to feel smug about being there first.

I also went to the Primrose bakery - gorgeous 50s diner styling, a nice cup of coffee and pretty cakes, although the one I bought was rather stale. The loaf cakes were rather strangely sunken in the middle - the sort of thing that would have made me think my cake had gone wrong, if I'd done it. However, the pretty curling ribbon used to tie up the boxes, the blowsy, old fashioned roses in a pitcher on the table and the pale yellow colour scheme were all lovely and made it a nice place to spend half an hour.

I had a look at the stuff from Patisserie Valerie, a new cupcake place called Ella's (nice enough, uses loads of edible glitter) and a good browse around the cake stalls of Borough Market too.

Things I learnt - red velvet is still a very popular cake and I was right to try and push it. The mini cupcakes I do are also very big down south. Lots of celebration cakes I saw were finished with a border of ribbon rather than the piped icing, and cakes on a black and white motif were popular.
Flavours I saw this time that I hadn't seen before are chocolate beetroot, rocky road cupcakes and earl grey cake. I got a lot of ideas for cake decorations too.

All in all it was a pretty constructive trip.

Friday, 8 January 2010

say cheese!

The lappy and the cameras are communicating - for now, at least - so I have some photos of cakes I've done in the last couple of weeks. For reasons about which I am not totally clear, they have appeared in reverse order and I can't shift them about, so they start with today's cake and move back.

Here are the two cakes i did for our friends Tom and Abigail, who are twins. Tom wanted Dinosaurs, and i obliged as best I could. Abigail wanted a fairy. I bought a little figurine, which my eldest regarded as cheating. Ah well - I am very pleased with the result anyway. Most importantly, the kids were delighted.

The Divine Miss B had her 4th birthday party on Friday. She had a chocolate malteser cake, iced in a pale yellow buttercream with sugar paste butterflies (made by my own fair hand and dried for a few days to get the wings to stick up) and a letter B cookie. She was very, very chuffed.Below is a view of some of the stuff I baked for her party. The bright, low winter sunshine made getting photos a little tricky, and the pictures of some of the other stuff didn't come out as I'd like. However, I love the Happy Birthday banner made of iced sugar cookies so I've posted this one anyway.
At the back on the left is a cake stand that was my grandmother's, I think. The top layer contains mini cupcakes in the same lilac, pink and lemon colours as the cookies. The bottom layer has star sugar cookies in lemon. Then there's The Cake (all hail the cake!) followed by cupcakes iced in pale pink buttercream with silver glitter and Dora the Explorer wafers on. They are in Dora paper cases, too, but you can't see that from here. The jelly has B's name written across it (I ordered the personalised mould from Letterbox, and it's very cool.)

I also did lemon Viennese cookies, banana loaf and a chocolate cake with pinks smarties, silver hearts and silver glitter as well. Despite 10 party goers, 8 adults, two families visiting later and my own band of cake scavengers, we are still totally inundated with baked goods. Perhaps I overdid it a bit...

The photo below: This was the Christmas cake I did for college. Aren't the trees cute? It is really, really delicious. Pop over and I might share a bit with you.

Remember how worried I was about the anniversary party cake? Looks pretty good, doesn't it.

That's all for now. Enjoy the snow,