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

 

Love of Lasagne

There is something quite therapeutic about making a lasagne.   It’s not something to be rushed or raced, it is to be lovingly created over a couple of hours on a lazy afternoon.  Whenever I make lasagne (which is quite often if I’m honest), the whole experience is something I savour – from slowly simmering the ravishing ragu to whisking up a creamy cheese sauce to complement it.

Personally, I find the whole “chuck a jar of readymade” anything into a dish a bit wrong, unless I made it of course (there’s always a couple of jars of my tomato sauce in the fridge).  It takes minutes to whip up a white sauce from roux to ready – all you need is a chunk of butter, a pint of milk & a scoop of flour!  Plus jars tend to be laced with lots of other things like additional salt, sugar & unpronounceable ingredients (if you can’t say it, don’t eat it!).

Pasta on the other hand is personal, whether you buy it or make your own, no-one should judge you – it’s down to individual choice.  I love making my own pasta, it’s something I’m truly passionate about, but I also use dried. There is a huge array of dried pasta in my pantry – a whole shelf is dedicated to it & I even have a stash of random shapes in another cupboard, because I keep any unused leftovers for other recipes (my husband will be calling Pasta Addicts Anonymous for me now).

The best bit is sandwiching all the fabulous fillings between layers of pasta, then drenching the top with grated cheese & a sprinkling of dried Oregano (gently rub it between your fingertips as you scatter it to release it’s pungent perfume).  Once finished, I like to leave it to rest in a cold oven for at least an hour, sometimes longer & on occasion in the fridge overnight, just to let everything settle & the flavours develop.  It’s definitely worth the wait!  Then it’s baked slowly for an hour – the oozy, melting cheese creating a crispy topping, as the lasagne fills the house with it’s luscious scent.

Because it’s crammed full of rich flavours, all it needs is a green salad splashed with a bit of balsamic vinegar, a squeeze of lemon & a good glass of red wine.

Share the love (of lasagne)!  A x