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

 

 

Gentlemen Prefer (Chocolate Chip) Blondies!

Even in Summertime, soggy mornings make me think of massive mugs of heavenly hot chocolate, teeming with a mountain of mini marshmallows on a cloud of whipped cream, dusted with chocolate shavings.  It’s guaranteed to put a smile on even the sourest of faces, especially if there’s a chunky chocolate chip cookie to dunk in it. I must admit, I like my hot chocolate made the old-fashioned way – boiled milk, slowly poured over flakes of grated chocolate & whisked up until silky smooth with a delicate foamy froth.  After one of these & a cookie, I can take on the world (albeit slowly!).

Over the weekend, I was invited to a beautiful ladies’ afternoon tea at one of my lovely friend’s homes & took some of these naughty chocolate chip delights as a little gift for her (fresh flowers are nice, but you can’t really eat them!).   These are based on a blondie recipe & are really rich & indulgent, because they are full to the brim with so much chocolate, then swirled & drizzled with more chocolate (just to make sure there’s enough in them!).  The chocolate chip & peanut butter version was a kind of happy mishap – I was experimenting with the recipe & added a splodge of smooth peanut butter into each scoop, encasing that nutty, buttery centre in the cookie dough.  As they bake in the oven, the peanut butter starts to melt & infuse the cookies (& kitchen) with that nutty flavour & sweet scent.  Of course, they are drizzled with melted chocolate too & a few chopped, salted peanuts sprinkled generously on top – the slight saltiness complements the chocolate so well!  These are not for the faint-hearted, nor are they for everyday munching really – they should be a treat, or for those days when you’re just feeling a bit pants & want a “pick me up”.   If I’m feeling particularly decadent, I’ll make some with plain chocolate chunks & shards of stem ginger (my favourite), or chopped dried apricots with white chocolate pieces.  The choices are as endless as your imagination!  The best bit?  They are really easy & take minutes to make.

What you need:

100g vanilla or caster sugar (I make my own vanilla sugar, so it’s naturally flavoured)
125g light Muscovado sugar
150g melted butter
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
300g plain flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (the proper stuff, not “essence”)
Half a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
200g milk chocolate & 100g plain chocolate, chopped into chunks (I chuck mine in the fridge for an hour, then whizz them up in the food processor)
200g milk chocolate (for melting)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 170*C.  Prepare a couple of baking sheets by lining them with greaseproof paper (no washing up tins later!).

Gently melt the butter & set aside to cool slightly.

In one bowl, sift the flour & bicarb.

In another bowl, mix the Muscovado & the vanilla sugars.  Muscovado is a bit moist, almost like damp sand in texture, so break up any lumps with a whisk or fork.

Pour the melted butter, egg & egg yolk into the sugars, along with the vanilla extract.  Whisk together until just combined & you get a creamy, caramel coloured liquid.

Slowly add the sifted flour & bicarb to the caramel liquid, stirring well until it is all incorporated & turns into a lovely firm cookie dough.

Add the chocolate chips to the cookie dough, distributing evenly.

Get yourself a medium sized metal ice-cream scoop (one with a spring loaded handle is best), then scoop dollops of cookie dough up & drop them onto the greaseproof lined baking tray.  Leave a good couple of inches between them all – they will grow!   If you want to save some for another day, you can always freeze a few scoops at this stage &  just defrost them when you fancy a treat.

Bake in the centre of the oven for between 16-18 minutes, then gently transfer the cookies onto a cooling rack.  If you put the tin next to the cooling rack, you can actually pull the greaseproof paper onto the rack & then move the cookies directly onto the rack after.  They will be soft until they cool, so be careful as they are more delicate than they look.

Once cooled, put another sheet (or the same one) of greaseproof paper underneath the cooling rack.  Then melt the chocolate & drizzle over the cookies, making whatever pretty patterns you like & even adding more chocolate chips or chopped nuts on top.   That’s it!  

You might want to leave them to set before indulging, or you’ll get into a chocolately gooey mess!   Diamonds may be nice but chocolate is everyone’s best friend (especially when you share).  A x

 

 

 

An Afternoon Tease

It’s May Day, Bank Holiday & the sun is shining (a bit rare for a Bank Holiday, I know!).  It might not be warm enough to sit out in the garden just yet, but it evokes fond memories of being a young girl, barefoot in the warm garden sunshine & the anticipation of indulging in various delectable delicacies – I can still hear the faint clinking of china cups & saucers, as I watched plates piled high with treats being loaded onto the table, one after another.

All my friends know that I absolutely love making afternoon tea – all those miniature, elegantly decorated cakes, plump
sultanas embedded in fluffy scones, fragrant ripe strawberries perched on pastry cups & delicious, dainty sandwiches, crustless with cream cheese & cucumber.   Then there’s the endless cups of Earl Grey tea, with wafer thin lemon slices floating like lilypads on the surface,
sometimes accompanied by a flute of fizz (or two – sometimes three because there’s no such thing as leftover fizz, it’s a myth).

One of the best things I learned is to soak your fruits to plump them up – nobody likes shrivelled sultanas in their scone!  Make a pot of tea & let it cool until just warm, pour over a large handful of dried fruit in a bowl.  Give it a stir, put a plate on top & leave it overnight – next morning, sumptuous sultanas!

Of course, everyone does it their own way – my son doesn’t like fruit in his scones, so he has plain or walnut ones (actually, he makes the best walnut scones!), along with a tall G&T over cucumber & ice rather than tea or fizz.  

However you do it, it should be fun, frivolous & fabulous!  A x

 

 

 

 

Preekend Profiteroles

It’s fabulous Friday, the weekend is almost here (we call it the Preekend because it’s pre-weekend), so I like to make something special.

When I was a young girl, my Mum & Grandma would bake all kinds of wonderful delicious treats, including the most beautifully light, crisp choux pastry (pâte à choux).  I remember sitting in the kitchen, watching in amazement as my Mum vigorously beat the dough with such ease, making it seem so effortless.  Of course, I learned later on when I made my own that there is a lot of effort that goes into them & appreciate them so much more.   They might be simple to make, but you need strong arms!

Once cooled, the dough would be piped onto a prepared baking tray (this was my job – buttering the trays & sprinkling with a little cold water), before being transformed in the oven from little balls (or thin strips if she made éclairs) into lightly puffed crispiness.  Then they would be plumped up with whipped cream & generously drizzled with Mum’s homemade silky, glossy chocolate sauce.

They even freeze well (unfilled), so you can have a stash ready for unexpected guests or just as a treat when you fancy them.

Those plump little pastries would melt in a crisp, gooey cream & chocolatey mouthful within seconds, although lingering much longer in my memory.  A x