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!