Thursday, 29 December 2011

Christmas cake - an attempt at fondant icing

As is our family tradition, the icing of the Christmas cake was up to me this year. In the past, I've made figurines out of white marzipan to sit on top of the royal icing...

...but this year I decided to go for some fondant icing. Which turned out to be far more difficult than I expected. Making the icing paste is straightforward enough - icing sugar with not very much water, plus food colouring (be prepared for funny-coloured hands for a few days afterwards if your mixing's anything like mine), but rolling it into thin shapes turned out to be pretty tricky - as soon as you do, it starts to dry out and crack.

Anyway, I eventually achieved this poinsettia:

But I clearly need more practice. Next year's Christmas list has one entry already - cake decorating lessons!

Rocky road crunch bars - Nigella's delicious recipe

A very quick bake that I made over Christmas to be eaten on boxing day was Nigella Lawson's rocky road crunch bars. Really easy, really delicious:

I used digestives instead of rich tea biscuits (I bought the wrong type by accident, but they worked very well - although perhaps were less crunchy than the name of the recipe intends) and I added a small pot of cut up glace cherries to give a bit of chewiness.

Delicious. Moreish. May have been the cause of my stomach ache after I ate about 5 in a row...

Mini bakewell tarts

And so, to my favourite bake of the last week - mini bakewell tarts. Essentially, these were the product of some left over shortcrust pastry from the banoffee pie, jam and royal icing from the Christmas cake and ground almonds from the lebkuchen! So, my recipe was a bit of a mishmash of various others, and probably not the easiest way to make them. But they worked really rather well, so here it is anyway:

Katie's mini bakewell tarts

First of all, grease up a deep 12-hole muffin pan and get your oven on to 170 degrees.

For the rich shortcrust pastry (enough to make about 12 tarts - or 6 tarts plus a banoffee pie case):

- 125g butter
- 100g icing sugar
- 250g plain flour
- Half a vanilla pod
- 1tsp lemon juice
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 tbsp cold milk

Using a food processor (or a serious amount of elbow grease), cream the sugar into the butter until white and fluffy, then quickly mix in the flour, lemon juice, egg yolks and seeds from the vanilla pod - do this with as little mixing as possible to keep the pastry light and stretchy. Once this has all mixed together, add the milk and gather together into a ball. Put in the fridge for half an hour to firm up a bit.

Once it's a little less sticky, roll out the pastry on a floured surface, then cut small circles using a pastry cutter, to be the same size as the bases of your muffin tin. Drop these into the greased tin and then cut long strips, about an inch wide, to form the sides of each pastry case. Make sure that you've pressed the sides right into the base so that there are no gaps - use a bit of extra pastry to fill any holes, before scraping a pallette knife across the top of the tin to neaten up the tops of the cases.

Prick the bottom of each case with a fork, then spread about half a tsp of raspberry jam into the bottom of each case.

For the frangipane (enough for 12 tarts):

110g butter
110g caster sugar
2 eggs, beaten
80g ground almonds
2 tbsp plain flour

Mix it all up in a bowl (nothing special about this part of the recipe) then divide it evenly between the pastry cases (on top of the jam). They won't be full to the top - the frangipane will rise during cooking, plus you need to leave some space for icing!

Bake in the oven for around 25 minutes, or until the frangipane has started to turn golden brown. Cool in the tin first, then put the tarts on a wire rack to finish cooling once the pastry's hardened a little. Fingers crossed for no soggy bottoms!

Once the tarts have cooled, ice in whatever way you like - I used some leftover royal icing from the Christmas cake, but a bit of icing sugar and water is just as good - keep it nice and thick for either piping on or just spreading a layer over the whole tart. Finish with a silver ball, or a glace cherry, or whatever you fancy!

Eat with lots of cream. Mmmm.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Jamie's banoffee pie

Not being a big fan of Christmas pudding (just too rich - plus the thought of eating something over a year old has never really appealed), every Christmas it's my job to create an alternative pudding to have after the turkey. Something not too rich, but still festive - past successes have included a Christmas chocolate cheesecake and various varieties of trifle.

This year, it was the turn of the banoffee pie - and Jamie Oliver's fantastic recipe from the 'Jamie's Kitchen' book is one of my favourites. Sadly it's not online so you'll have to buy the book to get the whole thing, but here's my abridged version of something similar:


6-7 inch pastry case (make your own sweet shortcrust - or buy it - see my recipe in the next blog post)
One jar of Dulche de Leche caramel (Waitrose do it in the baking aisle)
About 3-4 bananas
A pint of double cream
A handful of hazelnuts and almonds
Icing sugar
1tsp instant coffee
One vanilla pod


Once you've cooked and cooled your pastry case (making sure to avoid a soggy bottom), spread the dulche de leche over it, about a centimetre thick - this will be all of a small jar or about two thirds of a big one. Then, slice up the bananas to about half a centrimetre thick and lay the pieces out to create a solid layer of banana - cut some slices up small to fill the gaps.

Whip the cream until it's starting to make soft peaks. Scrape the seeds out of one of the vanilla pods, and add these to the cream. Then dissolve the instant coffee in about a tablespoon of boiling water. Mix this into the cream too - use all of it for a stronger coffee taste or just half for a subtle hint. Whip the cream with these added ingredients to make stiffer peaks - but be careful not to overwhip (as I did...) Spread this out on top of the banana layer.

Finally, rinse the almonds and hazlenuts in a little water, then put them in a bowl with a few tablespoons of icing sugar. Mix it all up until all the nuts are coated, then tip them onto a baking tray. Bake in the oven (around 180 degrees) for about 10 minutes, until the sugar has caramelised a little. once they're cool, heap them onto the top of the pie.

Serve immediately - or it keeps for 4-5 days (and a day/night in the fridge does wonders for the flavours melding). Yum!

Christmas Lebkuchen

It's been a while since my last post - November and December turned out to be pretty busy - but there have been plenty of opportunities for baking around Christmas - so many, in fact, that I spent about 8 hours on Christmas eve in the kitchen...

So, most of what is to come was the product of a huuuge day of baking - although these weren't. Every year I bake something (normally of the small cake/biscuit variety) to give to people for Christmas presents - providing whatever you make looks (and obviously tastes!) good, they're the perfect gift for those people who have everything - and your boss!

Anyway, this year's offering was lebkuchen - delicious spicy German cake/biscuits that are not only delicious but last really well, so great to give away. All you need is a nice cake tin (John Lewis always do great ones at Christmas), a bit of ribbon and you're away.

The recipe I used (to great success) was this one from the BBC:

I made it completely as written, changing only the icing - I missed out the egg as I was giving the cakes as gifts, and just went for icing sugar and water instead.

I do recommend taking the cakes off the hot tray as soon as possible after taking them out of the oven, to cool on a wire rack - when they first come out, they'll be pretty soft, but they soon crisp up on the outside (while keeping deliciously soft on the inside). And I don't recommend trying to do anything more exciting with the icing - I tried to do different colours and patterns, but actually the rough texture of the top of the biscuits makes them difficult to decorate - so a bit of plain white icing definitely looks best:

Straight out of the oven

After icing (the rest got eaten too quickly to take a photo of them all!)

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

After dinner mint macaroons

This week, I decided it was time for a baking challenge - so I decided to jump in at the deep end with that most challenging of biscuits: the macaroon.

Having read a good amount of recipes, blogs and general macroon-related paraphernalia, I discovered not only that there are a huge number of slightly different ways to make macaroons (although I still haven't quite worked out the difference between the French method and the Italian method..!?), but that the general consensus is that they're difficult. And that most people apparently have to throw away several batches before getting them right.

Having made them, I've now discovered one of two things. Either, I've got a gift for macaroons. Or, I've got much lower standards than the rest of the internet population. To be honest, the truth is probably somewhere in between...

Anyway - here are my macaroons - not perfect, I admit - the first batch were slightly overcooked, and therefore a bit more brown than green (these were baked in an Aga, so it took a little time to find the exact temperature), and they're not all quite circular or smooth... but for a first batch, I don't think they're half bad:

So, the recipe. In the end, I adapted a few different ones to come up with a recipe which was somewhere between the two popular extremes of vaguely laid-back and pendantically anal - and here it is:

125g icing sugar
125g ground almonds
3 medium egg whites (around 90g)
2 tbsp water
110g caster sugar
Green food colouring

Preheat the oven to 170 degrees.

First, blend the icing sugar and ground almonds in a food processor to get the mixture as fine as possible - and pick out any stray bits of almond peel. Pour into a large bowl and mix with 40g of the egg whites (which is approximately an egg white and a half) until it forms a thick paste.

Using an electric whisk, whisk up the rest of the egg whites (50g - or thereabouts) until it forms fairly stiff peaks.

Mix the caster sugar with the water in a heavy-based saucepan, and put it over a high heat - melt the sugar, and allow it to boil and heat up to 115 degrees C. Use a baking thermometer for this part - if it's anything like mine, it'll be too bubbly to work out when it's got to the right consistency!

As soon as the sugar syrup is up to temperature, add it to the egg, and whisk at a high speed until the mixture is stiff again, and shiny. Add your food colouring now - drop by drop is safest, but it'll take at least half a teaspoon to get to a decent strength of green.

Finally, use a spatula to gently fold the meringue mixture into the almond paste - it's important to get it as smooth as possible, but avoid losing any of the air and lightness of the mixture. Add any more food colouring as required.

Now, spoon the mixture into 1.5inch circles on a flat baking tray, lined with baking parchment (or even better, one of those non-stick reusable meringue sheet). The circles should be as smooth as possible, and about half an inch high. Alternatively, pipe the circles - this will make them more even and smooth. Allow at least half an inch between circles to allow for spreading.

Slam the baking sheets on a hard surface a few times to smooth out the mixture a little, then leave them to sit for 30 minutes to spread and smooth some more.

Then - at last - they're ready to bake! Into the oven with the door slightly ajar for 12 minutes - but check them (and turn them if the oven has a tendency to cook unevenly) after 8. It's vital that they don't colour at all.

Allow them to cool on the baking paper for a good 15 minutes or so before trying to move them - use a palette knife to remove them smoothly from the sheet.

And finally, stick them together! I used a white chocolate peppermint ganache for this, the recipe for which I found at:

Pipe the ganache onto one round (I did this using a make-shift piping bag made from a folded cone of greaseproof paper), right up to the edges, then stick the other round on top - pushing gently so that the ganache shows nicely at the join. This ganache recipe has quite a strong flavour, so if you want to taste the almond of the biscuits, try to use the ganache sparingly - while still making sure it looks good, of course!

And finally, stick the macaroons on a baking tray in the fridge for a while - a couple of hours will do. If at all possible, don't cover the tray so as to avoid any condensation forming and dampening the biscuits.

Then, eat! Perfect with a cup of coffee after dinner... yum.

Mary Berry's Tarte Au Citron

For a dinner party this week I decided to make Mary Berry's Tarte Au Citron - as featured on the recent series of the Great British Bake-Off:

Great recipe - one of the most lemony tarts I've ever tasted - and the basics of the recipe are fairly straightforward. However, my particular version was far from perfect, and I think I've learnt a few lessons...

1. It's equally important to check that your tart tin is the right depth as it is the right diameter. Mine was not - meaning that my lemony filling didn't fill it up, and the tops of the pastry case got a bit browner than they should have done during cooking...

2. It's a good idea to actually take the tart out of the tin... I didn't quite manage to do this for over an hour after cooking - by which time the pastry had cooled enough to weld itself somewhat to the bottom of the tin...

3. In fact, it's quite a good idea to NOT make a tarte au citron at the same time as preparing the rest of a dinner party, as it does seem to lead to general chaos...

Anyway, despite a few problems, the tarte did taste rather good - as is evidenced from the fact that I didn't manage to take a photo of it before half of it got eaten:

And of course the main thing - I avoided the soggy bottom!

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Berry pink cupcakes: the verdict

The first two cupcakes have been eaten, so it's time to announce the verdict, which is... (drum roll, please)...

Not too moist! In fact, perfectly so. This was two days after initial baking, and they were delicious. The raspberries and cranberries in the cake bring quite a strong, and sweet, flavour, so I'm glad I went for a simple vanilla icing. And as a variation, I think a lemon butter icing could also be delicious - and a good way to counteract some of the sweetness.

Yum - will definitely be making these again!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Blue Peter Brownies - a classic

Whenever I'm asked to bake at short notice, this is my go-to recipe. It takes no time at all to make and cook, and is a guaranteed winner - I can't remember the number of times that I've been asked for the recipe after sharing them.

The recipe originally came from an episode of Blue Peter - well over 10 years ago. Although I copied it down religiously from Ceefax, it was a few years before I actually tried out the recipe - but once I did, it wasn't long before I did it again... and again...

Blue Peter Brownies
Makes 12

100g butter
225g caster sugar
40g cocoa
2 large eggs
A few drops vanilla essence
50g SR flour
50g chocolate chips

Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees, gas mark 4.

Beat the eggs in a large bowl, then add the sugar and mix until smooth.

Melt the butter in a small pan, then mix in the cocoa powder. Add this mixture, and the vanilla essence, to the egg and sugar mixture.

Sift the flour in to the mixture, and mix together gradually until completey smooth. Add the chocolate chips. Done!

Spread the mixture into a lined baking tin (one of those small, rectangular, ones - around 10" x 7") and place in the oven. Cook for around 20-25 minutes, or until the top has begun to brown.

Leave to cool in the tin for 5-10 minutes, then turn out onto a baking rack. Or on to a plate, and eat while they're still gooey. Mmm.

Berry pink cupcakes

Cooking for a birthday party this week, I decided on two recipes - a brand new, experimental recipe suited to the birthday girl - Berry Pink Cupcakes - and my favourite go-to recipe - Blue Peter Brownies (more on those later).

So - the idea behind the cupcakes was, essentially, the colour pink. My favourite - and a favourite of my friend of the birthday party, too. I didn't want to stick to food colouring, however, but decided that most of the colouring would come from fruit. I spent a while umm-ing and ahh-ing about which pink fruits in particular - and a fair bit of research to work out quite how I would use them, before coming up with the recipe below.

Did it work? Yes - and no. The cakes are a beautiful purpley-pink, but the addition of all that raspberry puree, without taking away any of the egg from a standard sponge recipe, made them rather moist. Perhaps they'll be delicious (I haven't actually tried any of the cooked product yet) - but I think they might just be a little too damp for cupcakes. The icing's great, though - so I'm sure that'll carry them through.

A final note - I did attempt to create some candied raspberries to decorate these cupcakes... but failed. The recipe that I used was one where the raspberries are dipped in a meringue-like mix, sprinkled with sugar and left to dry out... But, it's now 24 hours later, and my raspberries are far from dry - and more like eggy, sugary mush. I'll add a fresh raspberry to each cupcake just before serving - and at least I got some good meringues out of the leftover mixture...!

Berry Pink Cupcakes
Makes 12 with space for icing (or 8 if you want them spilling over the top of the case)

For the cakes:

120g baking margarine
120g caster sugar
2 small-medium eggs
120g SR flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
50g ground almonds (optional - I added them to help the cakes keep fresh for a few days before serving)
100g raspberries, pureed and strained (around 100ml of liquid)
50g rehydrated cranberries (place dried berries in a bowl of water for around 30 mins or more)

For the icing:

250g icing sugar, sifted
80g butter (leave it out of the fridge for a few minutes to soften)
25ml milk
A few drops vanilla extract
A few drops pink/red food colouring

Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees (gas mark 4).

Place the margarine, sugar, eggs, flour, baking powder and almonds in a large bowl and mix using an electric whisk or mixer, until smooth - this won't take long. Gradually add the pureed (and strained - use a sieve to remove the seeds) raspberries while continuing to whisk - don't add them all at once, or else the mixture will curdle. Chop up the cranberries into smallish chunks, and mix them all in.

Divide the mixture evenly into 12 muffin cases (the large size) in muffin tins. Bake for around 15 minutes, or until just starting to turn golden brown.

To make the icing, place all ingredients except the food colouring into a bowl and mix with a wooden spoon until smooth. Then, whisk with an electric whisk for around 5 minutes until the mixture is light and fluffy. As you whisk, add the colouring a drop at a time until you reach the desired colour.

When the cupcakes are cool, ice thickly using whichever method you prefer (I went for spreading with a knife this time - but I'll be trying piping soon) and decorate with pink sprinkles. Add a fresh raspberry to each cake just before serving. Enjoy!

Monday, 10 October 2011

Amazing battenberg

While I'm on the subject of battenbergs...

Reproduced from the BBC Food website

Wow. Maybe one for the Queen's jubilee next year...?

The cake that started it all...

It was this coffee and walnut battenberg that prompted my grandmother to say "I think you're in the wrong career":

I'm not sure I can lay claim to being a professional-standard baker just yet, but it did get me thinking. I love baking. I love sharing my baking (both the food itself, and pictures and recipes). And I have a lot of friends on Facebook who love commenting on my baking.

So - time to get a blog and do this properly.

My aim: to share my baking experiences, favourite recipes and even the disasters (of which there hopefully won't be too many) with the world at large. And, to create my own recipes, trial them and tell the world about them. I'm full of ideas - and now I have an outlet for them! Now, all I need is willing eaters to sample the various concoctions which could come out of this...

So, anyway - back to the cake in hand: Mary Berry's Coffee and Walnut Battenberg. Unlike many, I haven't been glued to this year's Great British Bake-off - not least because I didn't actually know it existed until last week. However, having watched one of Mary and Paul's masterclasses, I am now a fan, and couldn't help but give one of the recipes a go myself.

The full recipe can be found at:

Essentially, it's a standard 2-egg sponge, with some added ground almonds (to help with the keeping), a little baking powder (it's an all-in-one - so this helps it to rise), then divided into two, cut up, stuck back together again and rolled in marzipan. Easy.

The tricky bits:

- Creating the divide for your tin! I actually didn't have a 7 or 8 inch cake tin to hand, as is suggested in the recipe, so used a 6 inch Christmas cake tin instead. I found that this size actually created slightly more square pieces than in the version seen on TV - although did come with the added challenge of having rounded corners to be trimmed. Not that any of my family members minded eating the leftovers. I used baking paper, with a little tin foil inside the actual dividing barrier, for stiffness. And make sure that the baking paper flaps well over the edges of the tin, to avoid it curling inwards during cooking.

- Leaving the cake to cool for long enough so that it cuts evenly (use a bread knife). It's far too tempting to cut it up as soon as it comes out of the oven! I left mine for just under 10 minutes, and that worked fine.

- Sticking the pieces together - it may sound obvious, but make sure you stick the flat sides together to obtain an even chequerboard throughout.

- Rolling your marzipan to the right size. I actually failed to measure the size of my cake correctly, and ended up with some leftovers. However, the bonus to this was that the marzipan ended up nice and thin, which is no bad thing - this is quite a sweet recipe, and I think having the marzipan too thick would make it almost sickly.

- Making sure you have enough icing sugar. I did not. However, butter icing is easy enough to make with caster sugar, as long as you beat it vigorously enough. And to roll out the marzipan, 'flour' your surface with caster sugar, then give it a bit of a bashing with the rolling pin to make it a little finer before you start. Or I'm told you can put caster in a food processor to make it into the consistency of icing sugar - although I couldn't be bothered!

- Don't get your fingernails stuck when crimping at the end. Note to self: cut fingernails before baking - no one wants little lines in their battenberg!

Overall, I was very pleased with the results - and the cake got eaten up in one sitting, so it can't have tasted bad either!