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...