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.