Sunday, 18 December 2011

Christmas treats

I love other bloggers. It's so fab to get new ideas from people who love food and baking and messing about with recipes.
Lately I've had top fun with the blog from the very ace Mary-Anne Boermans, one of the final three in this year's Great British Bake Off. M-A is the sort of woman I'd enjoy hanging out with, and the recipes I've tried from her blog are delish. You can follow her on Twitter as @wotchers
Incidentally, I've had to go back and edit out the word 'ace' in that paragraph 3 times - I clearly associate that word with M-A very strongly!
Anyway, my most recent bit of playing as been with her recipe for millionaire's shortbread cups. Their appearance of dainty little treats are a disguise for the buttery sweet explosion of tastes that take you back to childhood. I made them last night for Luke because he's not a fan of the mince pies, Christmas cake and other fruit-laden things filling my house and I wanted him to have a baked treat he'd enjoy.  We swapped the dark chocolate for milk in this case, because that's his favourite, but I would stick to the dark otherwise to offset the super-sweet caramel.
Thanks to someone on a parenting board I play on, I also found the truly scrumptious Exclusively Food site from Australia.  It was the chocolate Christmas pudding truffles that took me there.  Chopped up Christmas cake/pudding, pecans, melted chocolate, cream and rum mixed into little balls then dipped in dark chocolate. I put a blob of white chocolate on top and a pair of sugar holly leaves and berries from my sprinkles collection to make them look properly festive (I'm going through a phase, I think - all my chocolate cupcakes look like Christmas puds at the moment too!)
I made them far too big; they should just be a little mouthful as they are so very rich. I will definitely be making more!  My 9 year old son, with tastes far above his age, thinks they are delicious.
The last bit of domestic baking I've been doing is my home made mince tarts.  They aren't technically mince pies as I don't tend to put lids on them.  I like more filling than pastry, personally.  The pastry is utterly delicious, though. It's adapted from my tutor Judith's recipe, and is called German Paste; a very rich shortcrust. I love butter, so have swapped it for half the fat.  You could stick with Judith's method of all veg fat.
Here's the recipe. It makes masses, so scale down as needed:
600g plain flour
200g caster sugar
200g butter
200g vegetable fat (like Trex)
1 beaten egg.
Stick the flour, sugar and fats into the food processor and whiz until breadcrumb-y.  Add the beaten egg and whiz again. Tip it out and pull it together into a soft dough. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate.
I am rubbish at handling pastry - hot hands, hot kitchen - so I find rolling it out between two pieces of cling film means I get thinner pastry without overworking it, using heaps of flour and making it tough.
For mince tarts I grease my tart tins, roll out the pastry thinly and cut rounds slightly bigger than the holes in the tins, pop them in gently, add a heaped spoonful of mince meat (recipe for that next time I have a moment) and bake at 180 for 10 to 12 minutes.
Right, back to the kitchen,
Happy Christmas!
Jay x

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Multi tasking

I have a lovely life. It's ace. It's a bit too full and a bit too busy and I struggle desperately for enough hours in each day but it's lovely.
Teaching Number One Son from home has been an amazing adventure so far. To a certain degree he's autodidactic (isn't that a wonderful word?) where I help set him up with resources and he cracks on alone. For other things, I'm there working one on one with him. It's built an even better relationship between us (with occasional humdingers when we clash) and has taught me at least as much as he is learning. He's also good company and I'll miss him dreadfully when he rejoins mainstream education in a year or so.

However, I do rather miss a bit of free time to manage my own tasks, work and (dare I hope for one?) social life. Home education, running a business, looking after my other two kids and their needs and all the normal household stuff is a bit much some times.

Work is very busy as well. I'm supplying three outlets, all with very different markets which means I ride out the seasonal ups and downs pretty well. I've changed what I do quite a bit: the cake box club is taking a break because I don't have the time just now for all the experimenting. I also didn't do my usual load of Hallowe'en baking for parties and so on; there just wasn't the time.

However, I have branched out in a new direction. I start running an after school baking club at the kids' primary school next week. I'll let you know how that goes. I don't really have the time for it (obviously) but I thought it would be good fun and it does me good to get out of my own kitchen for a little while, even if it's only to go to someone else's!
I did my first ever baking birthday party last month (and supplied the Narnia wardrobe cake above to the birthday girl), and I'm planning workshop days for both kids and adults in the next few months. I've had quite a lot of interest. The main difficulties I have are setting prices - something I always struggle with as I hate charging people money - and sorting out the tedious stuff like insurance and so on. Then there's the Not As Easy As You'd Think matter of finding a weekend when I'm not already committed to doing things.

The last part of my task-juggling life right now is getting ready for Christmas. If last year is anything to go by, i need to make over 40 small Christmas cakes, 10 jars of mincemeat and spend the last week of November marzipanning day and night. I'm also doing some Christmas cakes with gluten free flour this year, which may take a little bit of experimenting.

So, as I said, I have a lovely life. A busy, untidy, chaotic, frequently noisy and usually delicious-smelling lovely life. I have great kids, run a business I love and only really need an extra few hours in a day to get everything sorted. Oh, and for the laundry fairies, washing up fairies and ideally accountancy clerk fairies to come and help out a bit. And a coffee.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Autumn splendour

What an astonishing year! Hot dry spring, cold wet summer, then a dazzling week of heat and golden sunshine as we entered October, with a 15 degree drop in temperature as the cold and rain hit us once more.
September was a blur of baking, home educating, and playing with preserves. I have a cupboard full of plum jam, damson jam, chutney, elderberry jelly, rosehip syrup and elderberry cordial. The latter makes truly marvellous (if very frothy) cocktails when mixed with sparkling white wine like Prosecco or champagne. A hedgerow Kir Royale - yum!
Luke wanted to learn how to make lemon curd, too. It's his favourite thing for toast or pancakes and we'd never had a go at making it. I decided to follow Nigel Slater's recipe from the Guardian as Nigel's always reliable for that sort of thing. It was absolutely delicious, and Luke was extremely proud of his efforts.
On the cake front, the plum cake season is over; shame, I'll miss it. It's apple cake time again, and I'm looking ahead to parkin recipes too. In the name of research I bought some from Betty's tea rooms in Harrogate. I'll not be happy with mine until it can compare reasonably well with that, so I may be some time...

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Dabbling in preserves

Last year, faced with my usual disastrous tomato crop, I was ready to compost the lot of it. As each fruit ripened it was struck with blight and we didn't get a single edible ripe tomato. My ace and clever friend SJ said I should use the rest for green tomato chutney - genius!
I'd not really eaten chutney before and certainly never made it. However, I'm a game lass and thought it was worth a go. I found a likely looking recipe but wanted to tweak it a bit. The result was marvellous!
Like a total twerp I failed to write down the changes I made, so this year's deliberately-planted-to-harvest-while-green tomatoes presented a slight challenge. Mark and my pal Kate, who kindly gives me all her jam jars, both were very keen on last year's success and I felt the burden of their expectations a tad as I guessed at what I'd done the year before.
I rather overdid it on the cayenne pepper but on the whole it's turned out very well. Here's what I did:
500g chopped green tomatoes
500g diced red onion
125g sultanas
180g brown sugar
1 tsp (or a bit more) cayenne pepper
1 tsp freshly ground green cardamom
500ml malt vinegar
A quick word about the cardamom - buying whole cardamom and crushing them in a pestle and mortar makes a world of difference to the flavour of the chutney. The rest of the recipe is dead easy, so I do strongly recommend spending that 5 minutes bashing the pods open and crushing the seeds inside a bit.
Bung everything in a bit stock pot or maslin pan, bring to the boil and then reduce the heat to simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until it's all soft and thickened. Spoon into sterilised jars and leave the flavours to develop for at least a fortnight if you can. It should make 4 or 5 jars of chutney (depending on the size of the jars, obviously!)
Mark likes it with pork pie. As a non-meat-eater myself, I can highly recommend it with strong cheddar.
And possibly a nice cooling yogurt to follow, if you went a bit mental with the cayenne pepper. Oops.
I've also been making masses of plum jam. My poor tiny plum tree is so laden with fruit that 7 of the branches snapped under the weight while we were on holiday. I can't have that happening in vain, so despite the fact some of the fruit are fairly unripe I've been churning out the jam at a rate of knots.
I use 1.2kg of stoned, rather unripe, plums simmered until soft in 400ml of water. I then add 1kg of sugar and bring to the boil, skimming off the majority of the skins which rise to the top. When it reaches setting point I pour it in warm sterilised jars and seal them immediately.
I don't think I've quite got that whole setting point malarkey sorted. I pop 3 small plates in the fridge and plop a spoonful on the chilled plate, leave it a few minutes and then push it with my finger to see if it wrinkles. I have to do this a bunch of times, I haven't got the timings right yet. But I'm not letting that put me off my experiments!
My final bit of preserving this week has been VERY fun. We picked a mass of elderberries from the hedgerows on Friday. Using that 'run them through a fork' trick from Jamie Oliver I removed the berried from their stalks and gave them a wash. I boiled up 1 kilo of them with a kilo of crab apples and some water until all pulpy. I slopped it into a jelly bag which drained overnight to give me a marvellously deep purple liquid. I'm going to boil it up with sugar (600g per litre of liquid) and make elderberry jelly.
The rest of them had a more fun outcome:
700g of elderberries
1 lemon
100ml water
150g sugar

Pare the peel from the lemon into the pot, add the lemon juice, berries, sugar and water. Bring to the boil and simmer for a good 20 minutes until the berries are very soft. Taste for sweetness and ass a bit more sugar if you like. Press it through a fine sieve and you've got an utterly marvellous fruit syrup. I'm told it is a very good cough syrup and is delicious over ice cream but most excitingly, it made Mark and I vivid purple and delicious Kir Royales with the champagne SJ brought us.
How to make: Elderberry Kir
a generous teaspoon of Elderberry syrup per glass of dry white wine (or sparkling wine for a Royale)
A word of warning - adding the champagne to the sweet syrup causes a MASSIVE explosion of bubbles, so do pour it very, very slowly. It was utterly delicious.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

These Two Imposters

Fortunes up and down at the moment. I've tried new cakes, old cakes, and my first ever tiered cake (the prospect of which scared the pants off me) with both triumphs and disasters. As Kipling instructs us, I need to take both in the same spirit.

Life's been pretty hectic lately. This is no surprise - self-employment from the house, 3 kids, 11 chickens, bits of decorating to do in the house, veg beds to tend in the garden and all the other things that are part of family life mean that if it weren't hectic I'd be surprised. But it's been even more so than usual over the last month while my fabulous Number One Son has a break from formal education and we dabble in a period of Home Education. It's been wonderful but requires time I am struggling to give.

So, as the cake club weekend approached I had not done my usual recipe experimenting to come up with new treats for the subscribers. It'll be fine, I thought. I was wrong.

My rash attempt to tackle the dreaded flapjacks went properly wrong twice. TWICE. I hate my flapjacks, so I don't know which demon moved me to try again. I don't even like the flapjacks of people who make them beautifully all that much, not when I could have cookies or cake. Perhaps I should just admit they are not something I can make. Nah. I will plug away every year or so and one day I'll make flapjacks that I like.

I tried to make a Victoria Sponge following a recipe different to my usual one. Actually, cocky that it would be fine, I made a double batch and popped them in together. Both collapsed; four 20cm sandwich tins full of sunk cake. Great.

Overtired by the time I tackled the meringues, I made a basic error that I could have slapped myself for. The results were just delicious but not the sort of thing I was after. Fantastic; what was I going to do now? Only the Battenburg cake turned out well.

A wonderful thing about baking is that most mistakes can be transformed into something else. Not the flapjacks, unless we fancied unusual roofing tiles, but the others. The meringues suggested Eton mess to me, so the cake clubbers got Eton mess cupcakes. They were utterly scrumptious, they really were.

If you fancy a go, here's how -
12 vanilla cupcakes
100g soft butter
200g icing sugar
splash of vanilla
2 handfuls of berries
(I used raspberries, red and black currants and blackberries)
20 small meringues (about the size of a jammy dodger) or equivalent amount of larger ones

Beat the butter until white, beat in the icing sugar and keep going until it's all fluffy and whippy looking. Stir through the vanilla, and if the icing is a bit stiff add a splash of milk.
Bash all but 6 meringues into big chunks. If you're using frozen berries, defrost them and drain any excess juice before folding into the icing with the meringues.
Generously ice the cupcakes with the berry/meringue/buttercream mixture and top each with 1/2 of one of the reserved meringues.

I've made cake pops with mixed success a couple of times before; I certainly wasn't particularly impressed. Having bought a few from different places to sample them, I've found them over-sweet, a claggy texture and pretty disgusting, really. However, I had lots of spare cake thanks to the collapsed Vic Sponges and I do love Bakerella's blog, so I thought I'd have another go.

I aimed at a drier, less sweet mix than I'd had elsewhere and I was far more happy with the result. I dipped them in pink coating with a few pastel coloured sprinkles or glitter on each. The cake clubbers got a pair each, alongside the Battenburg, Eton mess cupcakes and some VERY fragile but rather tasty home made jammy dodgers.

Incidentally, I'll try a different recipe for the dodgers next time; something slightly more robust so they'll be less breakable. Sorry, guys.

Once the cake boxes were delivered I could concentrate on a large order for an 18th birthday. I needed to make 12 vanilla cupcakes, 12 lemon cupcakes, 24 chocolate cupcakes, 60 mini cupcakes, one chocolate malteser cake, one lemon drizzle cake, 24 plain scones, 12 fruit scones, 12 lemon scones and finally a 2 tier cake with hand made butterflies, glittery polkadots and ribbon.
I had been fretting about the cake for days. My very lovely distant cousin in New Zealand had given me the business advice of steering clear of tiers and brides, and I'd generally followed her advice. Lesley, my rather fabulous college tutor, assured me it was a doddle and I'd be fine. And you know what? I was!

I did make mistakes with the cake. I was thinking about the tiers individually, so made them proportionally high, rather than as levels of the same cake, which should have the same height. The top tier needed an extra layer. I'll get that right next time.

My experiences at college had taught me to make spares of all icing details. This was A Good Thing as several butterflies broke when the lid balances across the top of the cake, erm, stopped being quite so balanced and touched them. Knowing my clumsiness, I'd made HEAPS of spares, so could make repairs, keep spares on hand for any damage transporting the cake, and still had enough to top the cupcakes as well.

I'm still pretty pleased with it, but I could really rather do with rest now!

Thursday, 5 May 2011


Chocolate and nuts - could there be anything nicer? Whether it's almonds in milk chocolate, hazelnut praline, good old Cadbury's Whole Nut or Reece's peanut butter cups, I think nuts and chocolate make a wonderful match.

After seeing a recipe in a cupcake magazine on holiday (the Americans have cupcake magazines, gosh!) I was keen to try chocolate and peanut butter cupcakes. I didn't fancy the recipe as they gave it - too much sugar and not enough butter for me - so I spent a happy time faffing about to get one I was happy with and by George I think I've got it!
Have you bought the Annie Bell book yet? Here's the link -

because if not, you really must. It's great. I use the chocolate traybake for my chocolate cupcakes. They remain moist and delicious for several days and it is an incredibly easy recipe to do. The batter does 18 cupcakes using a 1/4 cup measure, which is about 60ml, to fill each large cupcake case and they take about 22 minutes to bake at 180 degrees Celsius

The recipe for the icing is :
100g softened butter
250g icing sugar
70g smooth peanut butter
Beat them together until light and fluffy. It should have a gently peanut-y flavour. I found it crucial not to have too much peanut butter because it becomes a bit overpowering after a couple of bites and it can lead to an oily, claggy texture, so gently does it.

I was faffing about melting chocolate in the microwave, pouring it in a piping bag and squiggling flowers and stars onto some butcher's wrap, which I then popped in the fridge to set. I plopped one of the shapes in the top of each cupcake and the effect amused me. no good for eating in the garden on a sunny day but kind of fun anyway!

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Back to reality

That was one hell of a holiday!
Florida was fantastic fun. I fed a dolphin! By hand! Stroked its chin and everything! I may need to use some more exclamation marks!!!! I was (and am) very excited about that.
I would calm down but I also need to tell you how truly awesome New York was as well. The kids managed to tear themselves away from playing on the Big piano at FAO Schwartz, riding the ferris wheel at ToysRUs and spending the year's pocket money at the Lego shop long enough to come with us to the Top of the Rock, to the glory that is MoMA, to the Natural History Museum (of Night at the Museum fame), to be wow-ed by the marvellous Hayden Planetarium (in the Rose centre, as featured in Spider-Man 2) and then around Central Park to look like extras from Enchanted. New York is like every film you can remember - "except dirtier and smellier" said my daughter.
We rode the Staten Island ferry, had lunch in Greenwich Village and visited the very lovely High Line Park. We saw the actual, original Winnie the Pooh and pals at the New York Library's Children's centre. (Said library appear in Ghostbusters, in case you were interested). The whole trip was about this good - !!!!!!!!!!!
Aren't you glad I saved all those exclamation marks for one little outburst?
Anyway, horrid jetlag and messy unpacking aside, I was straight back to work. It's not been too busy, thankfully. I need to get my body clock sorted before I embark on a major bake-a-thon.
I am inspired to try things based on the cakes and baked goods I sampled in the US. Candy apples - who knew? Apparently they're the new Big Thing. Whoopie pies and cake pops seem to have pretty much disappeared, cupcakes are still very popular despite 5 years of articles in the foodie press claiming they are SO over every couple of months. Tiny little portions of things were very popular too - mini cakes, 'bitty bites' and so on.
I went a little bit mental in the sprinkles store again. How is it possible to spend £120 on sprinkles? I am clearly a nut, but it was all so very tempting. I could have happily spent hundreds of pounds if only I could get it all home again. Still, my customers will get some very fabulous looking cupcakes and when I run out I have a great excuse to slope off to NYC again.
I feel so lucky to come back just before two long weekends and some astonishingly gorgeous weather. It makes it so hard to stay in the kitchen, it's true, but it does make life feel so much more pleasant.
On the down side, my fabulous son has had a tough week, our house is a total tip because we are still in the middle of decorating and have nowhere to actually PUT the clothes we're unpacking, Buffy the lovely hen and Lola our favourite guinea pig died while we were away, both were very young and it was very sad.
Looking at positives, we now own Amy Pond, Donna, Martha, Sarah Jane Smith, Leela and Ace the new chickens and Doctor Who returns to the telly this weekend. As the 11th Doctor might say, Hens are cool.
And so are cakes.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The final push

I'm going on holiday. An actual away-from-the-oven holiday. Soon. If I can last that long, which is in no way a sure thing.
My business has several different types of customers. I have a bunch of private commissions, where someone rings and requests a cake for a specific date. Easy peasy, I just tell them I'm unable to take the commission for that period. I have the Cake Box Club customers, who get a mixed box of lovely things once a month: again, I can schedule that to suit myself. And I have two wholesale customers who have regular weekly orders to sell on to their customers. And therein lies the tricky bit.
They still need cake to sell. I've tested every one of my products so I know which cakes freeze well and which don't - a freshly baked cake, frozen, is still very nice when defrosted - so as long as I can bake enough cake/cupcakes/biscuits to tide them over, they will have stock to sell. But I work pretty flat out most weeks. How can I fit in an extra fortnight's work in at the last minute?
(It is a truth of clients that they want the freshest possible cakes at the last possible second)

In order to fulfil this, I have been baking like a woman possessed for the past 5 days. Yesterday I made 15 chocolate cakes and 90 scones. Today I baked 7 cakes and 250 iced gingerbread men. It's been a bit manic.
Unfortunately, I managed to get a chest infection as well, so I've been a bit unwell. This has added to the strain somewhat. My knees ache because I've been on my feet for so many hours in a row and I'm not sleeping well because my endless coughing keeps waking me up. And of course there's all the stuff that needs doing in order to facilitate a family holiday.
Much of that seems to be paperwork or laundry. Laundry, like the poor, is always with us.

Mark keeps telling me that self employed people don't get to take holidays. (It's remarkable that he doesn't get the odd smack about the chops, isn't it. I am a shining example of self restraint.) I know LOADS of self employed people. Most of them take holidays. Surely it's possible if you just plan enough and slog through the tricky bit.
Anyway, I'm not quite at the finishing line but I reckon I can see it from here. And it is a sunny, gorgeous finish line.
If I make it, I promise to send you a post card!

Quick update - I did it! I'm so immensely relieved and a bit giddy with excitement.

Friday, 18 March 2011

RND hijinx

I do love an excuse to fund raise. I hate selling, I hate plugging my wares and charging people money (although I do LOVE getting paid) and I get all self-conscious about it. However, give me a cause I believe in and I am a shameless hustler demanding cash from everyone I see.

When I was just starting my business two years ago I raffled off this cake to raise money for Comic Relief
I wasn't very good at cake decorating back then and covering a cake in sugarpaste scared the bejeesus out of me, but I persevered. I raised £89 and was so pleased!

For Red Nose Day this time I decided to raffle a box of red-nosed smiley cupcakes. They'd retail at about £15 (including decent donation to Comic Relief) so my initial goal was to get at least twice what I'd sell them for in raffle tickets. I no longer go to toddler groups and other places with a nice captive audience so I thought I'd struggle to sell as many tickets this time. And to be frank, I didn't have much time to spend on flogging tickets because work has been pretty busy.

After the first go at selling tickets it was obvious £30 wasn't going to be a challenge, so the kids and I decided to aim at £50. By Wednesday that seemed far too easy, so we thought £75 would be better. My fabulous 11 year old got selling on my behalf and we passed the £85 mark. Had we the chutzpah for try for £100?

Damned right we had! After 4 days of pouncing on all the other parents in the playground and shaking our tin at them we reached a grand total of £126. Coo! That's a lot of ticket selling. Yay us!

Ever the enterprising soul, my able assistant explained he should get 10% of all ticket sales he made because Comic Relief getting 90% of something was much better than 100% of nothing and his hard work deserved a reward. I pointed out that virtue was its own reward. He looked unimpressed. Upon realising I'd saved a cupcake for him, however, he thought himself to be adequately recompensed!

I felt a bit bad that the chances of winning had become so slim because I'd sold so many more tickets than I thought I would, so I added a 2nd prize of a box of 4 cupcakes and a 3rd prize of one in cellophane with a red ribbon. The winners were chuffed to bits - it's always a nice feeling when people love your cake, isn't it - and I feel very proud of our little bit of fundraising.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Sick days

How on earth do other self-employed people manage when they are poorly?

I feel rubbish. My throat feels like someone's been at it with a cheese grater, it hurts when I breathe, never mind when I talk. My chest is sore from coughing, my eyes are gritty and I am so tired I could collapse.

However, it's a work day. So I dragged myself through yesterday to get the biggest order of the week done and I've baked for 6 hours today. My teeth are gritted, I'm counting down the minutes to being finished but I am trudging through it. I've not been at my best for weeks (months?) now and although this is just a minor ailment, it feels enough to push me near breaking point.

I'm lucky it's not a stomach bug, or I'd be forbidden to handle food for 48 hours after the symptoms stopped and I can't afford to stop for that long.

So, how do self-employed people handle sick days? With contracts to fill and inflexible deadlines, we can't pull a sicky and spend the day in bed. If we don't do the work it doesn't get done, and if the work isn't done we don't have a business after all.

Is it all about pushing through regardless? Taking lots of medication? Chugging coffee and coke to keep alert just long enough to get the work done? If there is a secret to it, I'd love to know.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Learning from my mistakes

I really like Meet The Robinsons. It's one of Disney's less well regarded movies but for several reasons I'm very fond of it. One is that it was the brand new film when we were in Disney World last time and a tiny toddler Miss B was transfixed by the character of Lewis who was meeting kids. Another is because it talks about how you learn from failures. And WOW I've had plenty of learning opportunities lately.

Here are some of the lessons I've learnt:
  • Do not bake when overtired. I've messed up 2 chocolate ginger cakes (same batch) and a chocolate malteser cake in the past few days. I had assumed I could bake them with my eyes closed by now but it turns out that when staggeringly tired I forget raising agents or miscalculated when scaling recipes up or down.
  • Do the accounts every month, not every 6 months. This ought to be a no-brainer but as work, builders, decorating and general family stuff ate up all available hours I got dreadfully behind. It's a tedious process catching up that much and it's possible I've forgotten some cash purchases so am not accurately reflecting my true earnings. I also hadn't realised I was owed £300! That's been paid now, I believe - I can check on Monday (Nice surprise though!)
  • It is not a good idea to experiment with recipes or new techniques when overtired (are you sensing a theme?) To use up one of those wrecked cakes I did some experimenting. The same bleary-eyed hard-of-thinking befuddled state of mind that caused me to mess up a cake in the first place pretty much ensured the experiment was a disaster
  • Green and Black's white chocolate does not melt to a thin enough consistency to make a good dipping coating. Adding butter to thin it curdles it, adding a tiny splash of milk makes to go a horrible colour. I think cheaper chocolate might be worth a go.
  • It is OK to say no to commissions. If I am overtired (ha!) or over-committed (double ha!) it could be the smart move to turn down some work, whatever Mark says. (Mark is a keen fan of Always Accept Work but as I am the one working myself into something of a stupor, I have decided not to take his advice.)
  • If a customer changes the rules at the last minute it is OK to say No to the whole job. I'd accepted a job for a Sunday which, on the Wednesday before, was changed to a "I need to collect it tonight and forgot to tell you." I was already baking 14 batches of cakes and cookies that day and it was demented getting a celebration cake made as well. It was nice to satisfy the customer and she's a lovely woman but I pushed myself to tears of fatigue getting it done. Not smart.
  • I need to account for my time when costing things, and do so at a proper wage. Earning £5 a hour when I am an experienced, skilled professional is ridiculous. That's under the minimum wage.
    - as a self employed woman, does that mean I'm exploiting myself? probably!
  • It is good practice to ask for some detail about the person for whom a cake is intended if the customer has no design brief other than "make it nice." Having a selection of themes to get me started on a design is a big help.
  • I am not a lazy person. I think I am, because I hate exercise and am a messy slattern in some respect. However, my Mum pointed out that I work pretty much non-stop from waking up until 8 o'clock ish most nights, and that is not being lazy.
  • It is very important to keep my laptop calendar and my iPhone calendar synched. I nearly missed 2 appointments and did miss a talk at the school because the calendars weren't synched when I assumed they were both up to date.

See? Isn't that a lot of important stuff to have learnt? I think so. But then, I've not managed more than 5 hours sleep for most of the last month, so it's possible my judgement is impaired!

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Happy 2nd Birthday

Cake Box turned 2 this weekend. Terrible Twos! As an experienced parent I know this is the point to expect tantrums, testing boundaries and heaps of creativity; so, pretty much the same old Cake Box.
To celebrate 2 years as a professional baker, I spent some of my hard-earned cash on a very posh handbag. I am not generally a designer handbags kind of woman but I really loved the bag as soon as I saw it. And what the hell - goodness knows I've earned it. I worked stupidly hard in November and December and my expected quiet month of January hasn't quite materialised.

It happens that I go away to London for the same weekend every year. Around about January 15th I go to Sadler's Wells to watch Matthew Bourne's latest ballet (Cinderella, and marvellous it was too!) and to have a little time to myself, browsing galleries, bookshops and coffee shops as well as having a prowl in the cake shops to see what's coming.

Two years ago, I had just had my meeting with the deli and agreed to start supplying them with cake after the weekend. I was giddy with excitement at actually supplying a shop! In addition to the cakes I brought her, the deli owner asked for pretty cupcakes so I spent part of the London weekend obsessively watching the people in Hummingbird ice their cupcakes using palette knives in the hopes I could manage something similar. Every cupcake took me 3 minutes of icing and re-icing to get right. Now I slam them out at a hell of a pace.

Last year I got some good ideas, including Rocky Road cupcakes that have been very successful with my customers. This year was similarly productive. I've spent all week having a go at recipes inspired by things I saw. I tried 3 different cakes while I was there. Primrose Bakery was as pretty as ever but the cake was stale again. How they get repeat business is a mystery, unless I am terribly unlucky. However, I chatted to the girl working there and got some helpful insights into what they do and what's successful for them. It was pretty much as I would have guessed, but it's nice having it confirmed.

Ellie's was much busier than last time. I expect this is because the owner has her own series on BBC2. The cupcakes are nice enough (scarily priced, but Covent Garden rents must be breathtaking).
Mark tells me I'd be a roaring success if I lived in Notting Hill - hobnobbing with media types and celebrities while I sell them my cakes, then having a shop, book deal and telly series. That's what happens in that there London, apparently. And the woman who nearly frogmarched me to the recording booth at the British Museum because of my "beautiful speaking voice " would no doubt agree.

Incidentally, I am not often embarrassed but that had me cringing. I think she mistook "loud and talkative" for "beautifully spoken," personally. However, it has been a fun thing to tease my pal Bon about, as she was the one I was talking with at the time and no one made her record her voice.
She would doubtless claim it is because she couldn't get a word in edgewise.

Anyway, I was inspired by what I saw to play about with rose cupcakes, berry crumble cupcakes and lime and coconut cupcakes. The deli will stock the first two in the next couple of weeks (woohoo!) and I am refining the third as I am not happy that it is quite what I want.

I do love a bit of inspiration.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Party games

I made a party cake for Miss B's 5th birthday party this weekend. Actually, I made 4 cakes and 2 batches of biscuits, but that's by the by. This cake became something of an epic adventure for me and I thought I'd tell you about it.

Miss B started telling me what she'd like "for my Five Birthday" a full 12 months ago. It became more and more ornate as time went by. "I want a pink cake" to "I want a cake with ponies on it" to "I want a cake with ponies and flowers and fairies and a castle and a dragon for Z and a scorpion for L and my name and a letter B and some glitter."


I offered her the Hello Kitty cake I did for her friend, or any other single idea she fancied but not an entire fairyland.

She settled on a pony stable and flowers. I have a copy of the talented but mendacious Debbie Brown's 50 Easy Party Cakes. I've used some of her designs as inspirations before and I was aware that 'Easy' is pretty much exactly what they aren't. At all. However, fortune favours the bold, and she does have a pony stable cake in the book so I thought I'd give it a punt.

I started by baking a 10" square madeira cake, using the recipe I posted a year ago. Once it was cool I cut off the rounded bit, which I sandwiched together with some buttercream and gave to the kids as an after school snack.
I baked the cake on Thursday because I knew I would need a fair bit of time to tackle the decorating. It needed to stay moist until the party on Sunday morning so I soaked the finished cake in a vanilla syrup (about 150g of caster sugar and a 300ml of water simmered down to roughly half its volume with a dash of lovely Madagascan vanilla extract.)

I cut the cake into two rectangles and stacked them, cut side down, with buttercream between them. This is my stable. To give it a sloping roof I cut a wedge from the front of the cake back at about a 30 degree angle. The kids had this with a bit of icing after school the next day. It's a good life, being one of my kids. I gave the whole cake a thin coating of buttercream - think of it like skimming a wall with plaster - and put it on one side while I did the cake board.

I dyed a big lump of sugarpaste a bright lawn green and kneaded it until the colour was even throughout. On a counter well-dusted with icing sugar I rolled it out to an oblong slightly larger than the cake board. I brushed the board with a bit of water so the sugarpaste would stick to it and carefully draped the green icing across the board. Using a smoothing tool I got all the lumps, bumps and air pockets out before trimming the edges with a sharp knife.

If you do try something similar it is important to remember to clear the decks between each stage. Tiny bits of icing in the previous colour can't half mess up the nicest bit of icing work. I must have cleaned down the kitchen counter 10 times in the course of the day, and none more fastidiously than this next step - working with white sugarpaste.

I rolled out some paste quick thickly. Using my straight edge as a rough-n-ready ruler, I cut pieces of the sugarpaste and stuck them to the 4 sides of my cake, trimming each with a sharp knife before adding the next. To give my 'stable' a clapboard finish, I made regularly spaced vertical grooves around all four sides. Between each groove I pulled my shell modelling tool in a slightly uneven way to simulate wood grain. I put a dollop of buttercream to one end of my cake board and carefully placed the partially iced cake on it.

To make the stalls for each pony, I cut three rectangle 'windows' of white paste and peeled them off. I replaced them with identically sized rectangles of lilac sugarpaste. Handles for the stall doors were little horseshoes of darker purple. The roof tiles made by cutting lilac sugarpaste in the shape of flowers and overlapped.

Modelling the pony heads was a right faff. I'd done some a couple of days earlier that I was very pleased with but the scale was wrong when i looked at the size of the stalls. I needed to make much smaller heads; fine detail is something I find very tricky. It took me quite a while and some first class cussing to get three ponies ready to put in their stalls.

This was a brutal task - sticking heads on spikes rather than anything cute and fluffy. I poked two toothpicks into the head at roughly the angle I wanted the heads to be looking, lined them up with the stalls, removed the head g-e-n-t-l-y and stick the toothpicks into the cake with little points sticking out about a centimetre. Then I very carefully eased the head onto the toothpick points using the holes I'd just made. Applying any pressure to the malleable pony heads meant they went out of shape - one needed to be scrapped and redone because it looked like it had myxomatosis by the time I'd got it secure!

I cut up a new washing up sponge to use as supports for the heads while the icing dried. And then I had a large glass of wine.

The next day, Miss B and I had great fun with lilac, pink and yellow sugarpaste making flowers to decorate the stable and board. The centres of the larger flowers were the same silver dragees I used for the ponies' eyes and the colours were repeated across the cake. I piped her name and age and, with bated breath, eased away the sponge supports for the ponies.

This is what it looked like.
Well, nearly. It wasn't nearly as lopsided as that photo makes it look - I must have had the camera at a funny angle. Anyway, I was pretty pleased with it, my Mum made appropriate Oooh and Ahh noises when I emailed her the photo and it looked great at the party.

Miss B, however: "It's very nice Mummy. Can I eat the ponies? I think I've changed my mind and really I want a Hello Kitty cake like you made for Alice..."

Sunday, 2 January 2011

A well-earned break

I've had a lovely Christmas and a riotous New year. I hope you have too.

Life over the last few weeks had been a bit of a challenge. Nothing awful, everything was self-inflicted but I'm glad they are behind me.
After speaking to several loft conversions companies we selected the one we were happiest with and gave them the go ahead. They had a slot in late Feb (sounded fine to me) or one starting the next week. I was all for the late Feb slot - we had loads of decisions to make, the loft was full to the rafters with stuff, the mortgage was only just agrees, I was very busy with work and Christmas was swift approaching.
Loft bloke Carl offered £500 off the quote plus the extra plug points in the bedroom and the larger windows I'd asked him to quote for. My lovely parents offered to loan us the money until the mortgage came through and Mark pointed out £500 was an awful lot of cake I wouldn't have to bake to pay for it. So I rashly agreed.
The guys have been very nice and are decent blokes but it is still noise, mess (LOTS of mess) and disruption. This isn't that bad for people who can leave the house but as i was working 10 or more hours a day I was stuck with it. They worked 7 days a week and I am thoroughly sick of having workmen galumphing through the place now.
They've stopped for the holidays and are so very nearly finished that it's a bit frustrating. However, it looks a super job and I know it will all be worth it once we've got the decorating done.
Another advantage to having the loft room built sooner rather than later is the kids will have a room each that much sooner. Miss B and Z are sharing. Poor Z is clearly getting a raw deal as B wakes him up, is messy and bossy and roundly abuses him whenever she's in a strop about something and poor Z can't escape. He needs some space (and I need less brawling!)

The other part of the self-inflicted challenge was my workload. This year I sold 38 Christmas cakes and turned down another 7 because I was just too busy. I did several birthday cakes, including another couple of that very popular Hello Kitty cake and I had a stall at the PTA's Christmas shopping evening.
The stall was an experiment. I had great fun with it, could have sold more than double the number of cupcakes I took, and got some Christmas cake orders and a cake box subscriber as well. I think I'd do it again, although partly because it was fun rather than because it was hugely profitable once you'd taken the PTA's cut into account.

As a result of all this activity, I worked for 8 to 10 hours a day in the first half of December and 10 to 15 hours a day in the second half. By December 23rd, my last day or work, I was a punch-drunk, gibbering wreck of a woman. The presents were all bought and wrapped, the cards posted to (most) of our friends and relations, the tree up and decorated and the house a filthy mess of plaster dust and disorganisation. I spent a good chunk of that afternoon asleep and the rest looking dazed. I think it took me 3 or 4 days to feel human again.

We had a wonderful Christmas Day. The kids were gratifyingly thrilled with their presents, the hoarfrost made the outside world look sparkling and magical and Mark cooked my favourite breakfast in all the world (eggs florentine with hot smoked salmon). We drove to Mum and Dad's for a big Christmas dinner with my brother and his daughters and our younger 2 crashed the night with their cousins while Big Lad enjoyed a bit of peace and quiet with the grown-ups.

Boxing day was lunch with M's parents, an orgy of gifts for the kids (again) including 2 of the noisiest and most irksome toys imaginable that I have banned them playing with in the kitchen to preserve my sanity, to the giggling delight of the kids, and a lovely brooch for me by Parisian jewellery designer Lea Stein. That night M and I had a late night drinking, talking and Wii-playing session with my brother, which was absolutely ace. He's a top bloke.

We had an utterly wonderful couple of days with my fabulous pal B and her family, celebrating miss B's 5th birthday with them to boot. The guys played Wii golf for hours, the kids read, played and grazed on food, B and I crammed a year's worth of chat into a day and a half, iced a cake and taught her eldest how to make scones.
I've done just little bits of baking for fun - I make lemon tarts and mince pies for fun, who's have thought it! - and otherwise have mostly messed about, gone to the movies, read, watched telly with the kids and played about. Oh, and hosted a party, but that's my own darned fault and a good time was had by all.
It's been blissful.
I've only today and tomorrow left of my holiday, and I really MUST do my accounts and tax return - oh, and college notes as well.
Or I could make myself some coffee and paint mermaid with Miss B...