Cakes, Cookies & Celebrations!

It’s been a very busy couple of weeks here, so apologies for the delay in writing – we had three birthdays within the first three days of August, plus there are a few more to come & a wedding anniversary at the end of the month.  The anticipation of August arriving always hits me as July begins & reminds me of when I was younger – birthday parties being planned by my Mum, all kinds of pastries & party foods being prepared & she would always bake me a lovely birthday cake.  One year, she made me a fabulous cake in the shape of a punk rocker’s head, covered in fluffy buttercream & complete with a magnificent multi-coloured mohican hair style! Everyone loved it & we all had different coloured tongues by the end of the party!  If only I had a photo of that cake, but it didn’t last very long!

My Grandma used to make the most amazing velvety rich chocolate cake, which was a well-loved family favourite.  It was truly lovely – light, creamy chocolate buttercream would sandwich the fluffy, moist layers of cake together & completely coat the outside in a smooth, simple layer.  Grandma would freeze some, so she always had a slice ready for unexpected visitors (you never know when you will need cake!).

It doesn’t matter what your age is, everyone likes a good birthday cake & for me, homemade means so much. Someone has taken the time to create something personal, just for you, rather than nipping down to their local supermarket & buying one (I’m not dissing shop-bought cake – some are lovely, but it’s just not the same).  When I worked in an office, I would make cakes for business clients & deliver them on the way to work as a surprise. Now I just do it for family & friends – sometimes I’ll even make a bunch of flower cookies (edible flowers – what’s not to love?!).  It’s just a nice way to help someone start their special day with a smile!

The best recipes are those that work for you with little fuss & no faffing – the “chuck it in a bowl & whisk” kind of recipe.  This is that kind of recipe, because I love how easy it is.  I have adapted a traditional Victoria Sponge recipe that was handed down to me & it is quite versatile – I have adjusted it to make various other cakes over the years, so you might want to try adding other ingredients & have a play around to find your favourite too – my Husband absolutely loves the coffee & walnut version of this cake.   One tip I will share is to go easy on the wet ingredients, as they will affect the moisture of the cake & you might just end up with a soggy mess. Cake is all about balance, so remember that when you are baking & you won’t go far wrong.

What you need:

4 oz Plain Flour*
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
4 oz Softened Margarine or Butter (personal choice here)
4 oz Vanilla Sugar (pop a vanilla pod in some sugar overnight)
2 large Eggs

* If you are making chocolate cake, replace 1 oz of flour with 1 oz of cocoa powder, plus a teaspoon of coffee granules – trust me, this will make the chocolate flavour more intense.

(These amounts make a dozen cupcakes or a 7 inch sponge cake, so you might want to double the recipe to make more, depending on the size of your cake/party – for each 2 oz of additional ingredients, add one egg & one teaspoon of baking powder).

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 190*C.

Prepare your tins – lightly grease with butter, then sprinkle flour inside & tap it all around to cover the butter, shaking out the excess.  This makes them sort of non-stick & the cake will be much easier to remove later.

Cut out a circle of greaseproof paper to the size of the base of your tins & lay in the bottom.

Cream the butter & sugar in a mixing bowl – you can do this by hand with a wooden spoon or with an electric mixer (I have done both & it takes about the same time).  The colour of the mixture will become a light cream & the sugar will lose it’s grittiness.

Measure the flour into a separate bowl & add the baking powder.  If you are using cocoa powder, add this along with a teaspoon of instant coffee granules.

Crack one egg into the creamed butter & sugar, then sift in half of the dry ingredients.  Cream these together to make a smooth cake batter, either by hand with a wooden spoon or with an electric mixer.

Repeat the above step with the remaining egg & dry ingredients.

If you are making chocolate cake, add a splash of milk (about a tablespoon is enough) & whip it up again briefly, just to incorporate everything.

Pour the batter into your prepared baking tin, using a spatula to ensure you get it all out of the bowl.  Smooth gently to the edges of the tin to make a level cake, then put in the centre of the oven for 18-20 minutes.  It is important that you do not open the oven during the cooking time & make sure there are no draughts – any gust of air will make your cake go sad & sink in the middle.  If it does this, don’t worry about it too much – you can always cut the cake into pieces & use it to create a different shape.

Test the cake is cooked by inserting a skewer in the centre of the cake.  If it comes out clean, the cake is cooked.  If not, give it another couple of minutes or so in the oven.

Once cooked, place the tin on a cooling rack & leave for a couple of minutes to cool.  Slide a pallet knife around the edge of the cake to separate it from the tin, then gently tip it onto the cooling rack to cool completely.  Never leave your sponge in the tin to cool completely – it will just go heavy & dense.

While the cake is cooling, make your filling.  If you’re making chocolate cake, you really need a chocolate filling.  I have on occasion used a jar of chocolate spread – it’s OK, but it needs to be very soft to do this so pop the open jar in a pan of warm water (not boiling though!), just for a couple of minutes.  It should loosen up nicely & then you can spread it between the cake layers.  If your cake is going to be eaten that day, you could always use fresh cream, whipped up with a teaspoonful of icing sugar to help keep it firm.  However, if you’re making a cake in advance, I recommend homemade buttercream as this will keep for a few days in an airtight container & it freezes well too.

To make the buttercream, you will need to use 5oz softened butter or margarine (again, this is just personal choice) & 10oz icing sugar.  This is more than enough to fill & cover a double layer cake or a dozen cupcakes.

Using a flexible silicone spatula, beat the butter to make it soft & smooth.  Add half of the icing sugar & using the back of the spatula, press the sugar into the butter to make a paste.  Once all the icing sugar has been mixed in, add the rest & repeat.  You should be left with a very thick buttercream icing (yes, your arms might ache a bit, but that’s the hard bit done).  If you do it this way, you don’t get clouds of sugar dust in the kitchen & everywhere else (your hair, your clothes, the kids, the cat – you get the idea).

In a bain-marie, melt a small bar of milk chocolate (about 3-4oz should be sufficient).  If you don’t have a bain-marie, put some boiling water in the bottom of a pan & a bowl over the top with the chocolate in it (not touching the water!).  This is great if you’ve got broken leftover bits of chocolate in the pantry (yes, even I laughed at that – leftover chocolate is a myth in our house, just like leftover wine).  Once melted, let it cool for a few moments before pouring it into your buttercream (otherwise it will curdle & you will have to start again).  Give it a good whisk (get the electric one out for this), until the chocolate is mixed in & then add a tablespoon of milk, just to give it a silky smooth consistency & a nice satin sheen.  It should be easy to work with & thick, so you can either pipe it onto your cake or use a pallet knife to spread it onto the layers.

Once you’ve smoothed your buttercream onto your cake, you should start decorating it before the chocolate sets!  I like to use huge white chocolate buttons to add a bit of contrast, some of my own chocolates (I made a heart shaped cake for my Husband’s birthday using them), or pipe on some chocolate swirls & squiggles all over – it’s your design, so have some fun!  That way, every one is unique & you can even do some chocolate writing on top – just melt your chocolate as I mentioned before, put into a piping bag made from some greaseproof paper, then snip off the end & get writing!  Once everything is finished, pop your cake into the fridge for an hour or two to set (this also makes it easier to slice).

If you make cupcakes instead of a large cake, these are more portable & you can make all kinds of fabulous treats!  Create cupcakes with googly eyes using mini marshmallows & different sizes of chocolate buttons, or make cupcake shoes adorned with pretty pink cookie flowers.

Remember, this is cake – it’s for eating & you’re not going to hang it in the Louvre, so if it’s not perfect, that’s OK.  Get the kids involved, have fun creating your own mini masterpieces & enjoy yourselves!  Make some cake, make a mess & make some memories.  Whenever your special day is, have a Happy Birthday! A x

 

Me & Chocolate Got a Thing Going On …..

Chocolate: just the mere mention of this innocuous little word conjures up all kinds of delightful thoughts, evoking memories of sumptuous tasting treats, that unmistakable texture in your mouth & familiar sweet scent.   The Latin for cocoa is “Theobroma”, which literally translates as “Food of the Gods” & kind of sums it up really. It’s one of those special treats that can be quite mesmerising, especially if it’s “the good stuff”!  This can be anything from that inexpensive but delectable store brand that just hits the spot, to the purse-draining handcrafted, mouthwatering delicacy that is almost erotic & should come with an 18 rating on the wrapper!  Whatever does it for you, I won’t judge – chocolate is personal in every way.

The simplest of recipes will produce the best results, so I would suggest finding one that you are comfortable with & use the best ingredients available to you.  The standard recipe is equal quantities of chocolate to double cream (so 150g chocolate & 150ml double cream, for example).  Personally, I like to use a blend of milk chocolate & plain in mine, so that it’s got that right amount of “bite” & the ganache is not too sweet (otherwise you get a sickly, cloying chocolate that will set your teeth on edge & make you look like you sucked a lemon).  My tip is to taste a variety of different chocolates to find which ones do it for you – get them home, eat a couple of pieces together until you discover the right combination to give the taste you want.  Write it down, make some notes & then you can increase the quantities to make a decent sized batch.  Get creative, use a recipe as a basic template & experiment with it!

Once you have made the ganache, things get really interesting – you can add alcohol, chopped nuts, dried fruit, biscuit, etc.  The only limits are your imagination & your pantry!  Another tip is always use a bain-marie (a dry bowl over a pan of hot water) to melt your chocolate with the cream.  It is important not to let the water touch the bottom of the bowl & also, be careful not to get any water in your ganache (or melted chocolate), because it will go gritty & horrible, end up in the bin & you will be a bit miffed (trust me, you might even invent a few swear words too!).

When you have made the ganache, leave it to cool for a couple of hours in the fridge.  After this, you can start to make your truffles. I have made them in all kinds of random shapes (sculpting a pair of ladies’ size three shoes from a large piece of chilled ganache was an epic challenge, but worth it), however I would suggest starting small & making little balls to begin with.  Simply scoop out a little ganache using a teaspoon or a melon baller, set aside on a parchment lined baking tray, then continue until you have made lots of little chocolate truffle balls.

Once they are done, you can roll them in a little powdered chocolate or chopped nuts if you want to keep them simple.  Or, you can dip them in melted chocolate using a fork, tap it on the side of the bowl to shake off the excess (like excess chocolate is really a thing!), then slide the coated truffle onto a parchment lined baking tray using a toothpick. Then simply decorate them as you like – coat in coconut, roll in chopped roasted nuts, sprinkle with sugar or drizzle melted white chocolate patterns on top.   It’s up to you!

There are moulds you can use to get your ganache into little shapes, which are best to use when it’s still warm & before chilling – just press the ganache firmly into the mould shape to expel any air bubbles, then chill.  If you find moulds a bit fiddly like I do, then try using a piping bag to create shapes – I made squillions of lovehearts using a piping bag & they were all unique, which makes them so much more special.  Once cooled, they can be decorated however you choose.

One of my favourites is my Black Stone Cherry Chocolates, inspired by one of my favourite rock bands.  Once dipped in chocolate, before they dry I like to drop some chunky pieces of Amarene cherries on top with a drizzle of the syrup mixed with Bourbon (you know the one).  These have a nice kick to them & play a rich little riff on the tongue!

The best thing about making your own chocolate treats is that you can always have a secret stash in the back of the cupboard, just for those little emergencies when you need a shot of sweetness.  Share the love & a little bit of chocolate!  A x