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Guinness cupcake with ganache

Ginger Guinness cupcakes for St Patrick’s Day

Regular English Mum readers will know that Ireland means a lot to us all here at English Towers.  In fact, it’s the reason why this little part of the interwebz even exists.  Long, long ago (eight whole years to be precise) we set off on a new adventure to the Emerald Isle and spent many happy years living first in Dublin, then later Meath and finally beautiful county Cavan.

Mr English is of Irish descent and the boys are proud of their heritage. Charlie can even wow you with a bit of Gaeilge if you ask nicely (although it’s mostly swears) so when Paddy’s Day approaches, it instills in us all a mixture of nostalgia and longing for places and friends left behind.

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Cherry and chocolate roulade

A cherry and chocolate roulade for Valentine’s Day

Mr English isn’t the romantic type, so we’ve never really embraced the whole flowers and chocolates thing, although we do send a card to each other (not really the same when you’re pretty certain who your secret Valentine is).  People tend to fall into two camps Valentines-wise, they either love it or hate it.  I think that if there’s a day in the year when you’re reminded to tell someone how much you love them, then so much the better.  And what better way to express your love than with cake?

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Weekend baking: easy step by step banana bread

Banana bread

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m terribly wasteful with bananas.  Mr English only likes them when they’re green and unripe, and I only like them when they’re perfectly yellow.  Once they’ve ‘gone over’ I’m afraid I tend to put them in the food recycling bin.  Every so often, though, I do remember to knock up a quick banana bread.  I’m afraid I’m not sure where this original recipe came from as it’s ancient and was scribbled on a scrap of paper, but it’s very reliable and incredibly easy.  The actual amount of banana doesn’t really seem to matter, but keep it to two or three for best results.  Oh and it’s worth adding in the extra teaspoon of baking powder, even though you’re using self raising flour, just because it lightens it up a bit.

Banana Bread

100g salted butter
175g light brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
Splash of milk
225g self raising flour
2 or 3 over-ripe bananas
1 tsp baking powder

Firstly, assemble all your ingredients and preheat the oven to 180/gas 4.  I use a re-usable bake-o-glide sheet, but if you haven’t got one, make sure you grease your loaf tin well or use some parchment paper to line it.

Cream the butter and sugar until they’re light and creamy.  Whisk the eggs with a fork and pop in the vanilla and the splash of milk, then you can dribble them into the mixture a little at a time, beating well between dribbles (technical term).

I favour a ‘half and half’ method to incorporate all the runny stuff, but feel free to just bung it all in if you’d rather:

So now add about half the flour, give it a beat, then add the bananas, mix again, then the other half of the flour.  Don’t forget the baking powder.

Flump the mixture into the loaf tin and bake for about 45 – 50 minutes.  A skewer or knife tip pushed into the deepest part should come out clean.  If it’s not quite there, give it another five minutes.

This is also really gorgeous toasted for breakfast as well with a smear of butter.  Before long, you’ll be willing those bananas to go brown so you can make this again!

Bee’s rich chocolate Bundt cake

Chocolate Bundt cake

Chocolate Bundt cake

As you might remember, I’ve got a bit of a ‘thing’ for Nordic Ware.  My love affair started with my heart shaped tin and has since progressed to individual present-shaped tins, and of course the ‘holiday tree’ pan used in Nigella’s wonderful ‘spruced up vanilla cake‘ from her Nigella Christmas book.

I should really save this recipe until Christmas because it would be perfect baked in the next tin I’ve got my eye on, the Nordic Ware Yule Log Cake Pan.  Still, watch this space – I might still resurrect it.

My lovely Dutch friend Bee (you can find her wonderful Family Food Blog here)  is something of an expert on Bundt baking.  She gave me the recipe that this cake was originally based on, taken from a cute little book she has called ‘Kiss My Bundt’ by Chrysta Wilson.  Bee says ‘I’ve played around with it quite a lot so far – I’ve added rose water, strong coffee, almond extract, Earl Grey Tea – and most recently, Frangelico and hazelnuts‘.  Basically, she says, when you come to add the boiling water, this is where you can add whatever you like as long as it’s liquid, and you keep the amount the same.

I’ve adapted this recipe to UK measurements (and fiddled with it a tiny bit) and have made it LOADS. It always comes out well as long as you remember the golden Bundt rule: you must COPIOUSLY spray the tin with cake release spray (or butter it really well), then coat in a layer of cocoa powder (you can use flour but it shows up on the finished cake – hence the hasty drizzle of melted chocolate on my one, above), turning it and tapping so that it coats the whole can, then tipping out the excess.

You’ll be surprised how liquid the batter is, but that’s the thing with Bundt tins: becuse they’ve got that big hole in the middle, the cake cooks really evenly.  If you don’t have a Bundt tin, try using a large round cake tin and upending something like a ramekin in the middle.

You will need:

300g caster sugar

180g plain flour

50g good quality cocoa powder

1 rounded tsp baking powder

1 rounded tsp baking soda

1 level tsp salt

2 eggs

250ml milk

100g butter, melted, or 125ml rapeseed oil

2 tsp vanilla extract

250ml boiling water (or other liquid)

First, preheat the oven to 180/gas 4 and prepare your tin as above.  Stand it on a baking sheet and check that it will fit in the oven.

Sift the sugar, flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt together.

In the food processor, mix the eggs, milk, oil and vanilla well together, then add the dry ingredients slowly, a spoonful at a time.  Lastly, mix in the boiling water.  Give it a final stir to make sure there’s no thick batter left at the bottom, then pour into the prepared tin (sit the tin on a baking sheet first so it’s easy to manoeuvre it into the oven)

Bake for 45 minutes and COOL COMPLETELY BEFORE REMOVING IT!!  Pop a plate over the tin and tip over with one strong, confident movement.

Serve as it is (it’s lovely and rich) or cover it with foil and warm it gently, then serve it with pouring cream as a dessert.  Yum scrum.

A chocolate cake of epic proportions for the Prof’s 18th birthday

Sam

Firstly, can I just point out that GOD, I’M REALLY OLD.  My firstborn baby boy – my blue eyed, blonde haired, chatty little charmer – is 18 next month.

I won’t gush on too much, but I’m immensely proud of him.  He’s grown into a bloody lovely, slightly enormous and very gangly fella – funny, kind and still capable of squeezing the life out of his Mum with a single hug.  He has a beautiful and very sweet girlfriend and is working really hard in the sixth form.  For his birthday, we’re taking his whole gang of friends for a big go-karting tournament at Rogue Racing in Aylesbury, then it’s back to our house for drinkies and food.

If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that generally the birthday person gets to choose what kind of cake they have.  Over the last few years this has manifested itself into a ‘pick the most difficult cake that you possible can to really piss Mum off’ challenge.  There have been requests for Black Forest Gateaux, double chocolate cheesecakes and all sorts of weirdness.  This time, though, I know exactly what kind of cake I want to make him: an enormous, chocolate extravaganza the like of which you’ve never seen before.  It started when my Twitter friend Bee, who lives in Belgium and is a fabulous baker, gave me an amazingly rich and chocolatey bundt cake recipe.  I started thinking how nice it would be layered up – maybe with ganache and possibly some of Nigella’s salted caramel sauce (if you made it thick enough).  And then I saw this picture on Pinterest:

Chocolate cake from Pinterest

 

… and we all got chatting about it on Facebook and then another friend, lovely Caitriona from Wholesome Ireland (incidentally a very good read on eating well on a budget) said ‘ooh, you could use Caramel KitKats’, and our imaginations all got the better of us and soon we were all imagining chocolate cakes of ridiculous proportions covered in all manner of confectionary…

So that’s my germ of an idea – basically, as another friend noted, a tooth-aching stack of sugar requiring a mid-scoff insulin injection.  But hey, you’re only 18 once, right?  What do you think?

Review: The Great British Bake Off: showstoppers

If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that I’m addicted – ADDICTED – to the Great British Bake Off.  I like very few television programes but I’m guaranteed to get all stabby and annoyed if you talk through the Bake Off.  Be warned.

I was delighted, then, to be sent the book from the current series: The Great British Bake Off: how to turn everyday bakes into showstoppers.  The book contains loads of Showstopper Challenges, inspired by the competition.  Each section shows the basic recipe, for example a brioche dough, and then three different challenges, for example sweet brunch rolls, a more technical Camembert brioche, and finally herby brioche rolls.  The recipes are all labelled with their difficulty (easy, needs a little skill, etc) and the recipes are all clear and easy to follow.

I was keen, after watching last night, to have a look at the instructions for Paul technical challenge, the plaited loaf (I’m definitely going to give this a go) and it seems a lot easier than on the show: explaining how to number your strands of dough from 1-8 and then placing them under or over the other strands as you go… mind you, I expect it’s a lot easier in the comfort of your kitchen than under the timed, slightly stressy atmosphere of the bake off studio!  Some of the recipes don’t have photos, which is a bit frustrating, especially with recipes like the autumn wreath – a plaited yeasted bread wreath that I think really needs a picture to help you along.

If you’re a lover of the Bake Off, there is also a new app that you can get if you’ve got an iPhone with fifty recipes from the series, searchable by occasion, skill level, etc and featuring some kind of whizzy technology which means you don’t have to touch your phone with icky fingers while you’re baking.

The Great British Bake Off: How to turn everyday bakes into showstoppers by Linda Collister is out now, priced £20 and the iPhone app is £2.99.

Strawberry and sour cream fairycakes

British summertime means strawberries, and for me, that means making the strawberry scented fairy cakes I remember baking with my Mum.  If you’re surprised that this recipe contains sour (or ‘soured’) cream, you’ll soon realise that its fresh flavour is the perfect complement to sweet, summer strawberries.  It also has the added benefit of making sponge cakes tender and light.

Lovely Yeo Valley have just added a soured cream to their range and gave me some to play with (check out the funky packaging) and it’s incredibly versatile.  It’s fabulous for dips, sauces, baked potatoes and dolloping on a spicy chilli con carne, but it teams equally well with fruit: think hot apple pie with a mountain of cinnamon-laced, slightly tangy soured cream.  It also whips quite well. You won’t get the volume of double cream, but the texture is lovely.  After whipping, fold through a couple of tablespoons of icing sugar for an almost cheesecake-like flavour. Perfect with berries and crushed meringue for a different take on Eton Mess.

For the fairy cakes, you’ll need:

170g butter, softened

170g caster sugar

3 free range eggs

1 tsp vanilla extract or paste

200g self raising flour

100g strawberries, mashed

4 tbsp sour cream

For the glacé icing:

5 tbsp icing sugar

Warm water

Method:

Beat the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.

Crack the eggs into a bowl, add in the vanilla and lightly mix with a fork.  Add it to the butter and sugar mixture a little at a time, mixing well.

Stir in half the flour, then add in the mashed strawberries.  Stir in the rest of the flour and finally the sour cream.

Bake at 180 degrees/gas 4 for 20 minutes until just golden.  Allow to cool, then sift the icing sugar and add just enough water to make a thick paste.

Dribble onto the cakes and finish with a small strawberry.

You can also find this recipe on Yeo Valley’s website.

Lemon meringue fairy cakes

I’ll be honest, I lost my baking mojo for a while.  Not even really sure why.  And it’s actually the weirdest thing that has inspired me again: Instagram.

My hideous Blackberry (well, Blackberries, I had four, all in all) was finally replaced by my phone company (they were sick of the whining… and the crying… I was on first name terms with every call centre member) by a really stonkingly handy and practical Samsung Galaxy S2.  I’m LOVING it.  The emailing, Twitter and Facebook are all top drawer and – finally – I can have Instagram!  Taking pictures has become fun again.  I’ll leave you to judge how I’m doing, but here’s my first recipe photographed, and edited with Instagram and Pixlr-o-matic.

These are slightly different, and a bit easier, than the lemon meringue fairy cakes using lemon curd as a filling. I like those too, but to quickly whip up on a lazy Sunday afternoon, this recipe can’t be beaten.  It’s a really simple ‘pound cake’ or fairy cake recipe, enhanced with lemon, and topped with fluffy meringue.

You will need:

170g softened butter

170g caster sugar

3 eggs

1 lemon, zested and juiced

170g self raising flour

So firstly, beat the butter and sugar until very pale and creamy (or whiz it in the food mixer). Then break the eggs into a bowl and gently mix in the lemon zest and juice with a fork.  Add this, a little at a time, to the mixture, making sure it comes together.  It’s a good idea to have the flour already weighed out, so if it starts to look a bit curdly, you can add in a tablespoon to bring it together again.

Plop a tablespoon of the mixture into each of 12 paper cases (I used my new Tala bakeware – it weighs a ton, but is so hard wearing and easy to clean – a must have for us cakey bakers) and bake at 180/gas 4 for 15-20 mins until they’re just springy when touched.  Set aside to cool while you make the meringue:

You will need:

2 egg whites

115g caster sugar

If you want to go mad and pipe them in an exuberant, pillowy clouds, then double up, but I used this amount and it covered 12 cakes.

It’s best not to pipe the meringue into too much of peak anyway, as it then burns under the grill before the rest of it has had a chance to colour, so try and keep your piping quite ‘flat’.  Using a large star shaped nozzle, start at the outside and work in.

Anyhoo, so using a food processor, or just a very clean bowl, a whisk and lots of elbow grease, whip up the egg whites until they form stiff peaks.  Now you can start to add the sugar, a spoonful at a time, while continuing to whisk.  Check occasionally that all the sugar has ‘melted’ into the meringue.  It shouldn’t feel gritty to the touch.   Because you’re piping, I give it an extra whizz in the machine to make sure it’s really thick and holds its shape.Then, when glossy and smooth, just pipe (or dollop) the meringue onto the cupcakes  and pop them under a very hot grill (or have a go at them with a blowtorch if you’re hard core) until they’re nicely caramelised, but hopefully not burnt.  The usual warnings about people who shouldn’t eat raw eggs apply here.

Chocolate orange brownies with bitter chocolate orangettes

Still in pursuit of the perfect chocolate brownie, then, I made these while my children were out making giant… erm.. appendages out of snow.  I would show you a video but they’re all disgusting and their grandparents might see.  I don’t know where they get it from.

These brownies are utterly lush and slightly more ‘grown up’ than the version I usually make (George’s chocolate brownies) but the recipe is mostly the same.  I think they benefit from being served warm as the ‘oranginess’ comes out more.

You will need:

200g dark chocolate (as dark as you dare – see below)

170g salted butter (MUST be salted – or add a pinch if using unsalted)

3 tablespoons marmalade (I used rindless for a smooth result)

3 eggs

200g soft brown sugar (caster is fine if you don’t have any)

110g plain flour

Preheat the oven to gas 4/180 degrees.

Melt the butter, chocolate and marmalade in a bain-marie (you know the drill… bowl over a saucepan of just-simmering water – don’t let the bottom of the bowl come into contact with water).  Don’t use the microwave – I’ve no idea why but melting chocolate in the microwave REALLY offends me.  Turn the water off when it’s just bubbling and stir the mixture gently until it’s combined.  Take it off the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Whisk the eggs and sugar together until light and frothy, then pour in the cooled chocolate/butter mixture, stir well, then add in the flour.  Stir briefly until the flour disappears.

Pour into a well-lined baking tin (I use a lasagne tin, but a square cake tin will do).  Bake for about 30 minutes or until the top is cracked and shiny.  The centre should still be slightly soft.  Serve warm or allow to cool and place in an airtight container

For the orangettes, choose a really dark chocolate – try Green & Black’s or Montezuma’s do a brilliant, rich Ecuador 70% dark chocolate that I’m just slightly addicted to.  Melt two or three squares in a tiny jug and just dip small pieces of Orangette into them.  If you have any trouble buying the orangettes (basically, candied orange peel – I got mine in my Good Fork hamper), you can make your own, or try Amazon (believe it or not).

These would be beautiful served at the end of a dinner party with the dark chocolate orangettes, little cups of very strong espresso coffee and maybe some freezing cold shot glasses of Cointreau too.

(Best get rid of the snow willies on the front lawn first, though).

Jaffa Cake Christmas Trees

So you’re going to love this. No, really, it’s a winner.

How about…

Home made jaffa cakes? Wait… wait…

In the shape of Christmas trees!

I know, right?

If, like me, you’re now wild with excitement (or even if you’re not) do have a go at making these little beauties. They taste absolutely fab and can be made in normal paper fairy cake wrappers if you’re not imbued with quite as much Christmas spirit as me.

On to the ressup, then. You will need:

115g butter

115g golden caster sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla extract

125g self raising flour

To decorate:

Rindless marmalade

100g dark chocolate

So make the sponge in the normal way: beat the butter and sugar until really light and creamy, then beat in the eggs a dribble at a time and then the vanilla. Finally, stir in the sifted flour.

If you’re using one of these silicone moulds (I got mine in John Lewis), give it a spray with some cake release (mine’s Dr Oetker and is incredibly good) to stop the little suckers sticking. Plop a scant dessertspoon of cake mixture in each ‘tree’, and bake at 180/gas4 for 10 – 15 minutes until just golden.

Allow the cakes to cool and then turn them out. If they’re a little rounded on the top, you might need to just cut off the very top (which will actually be the bottom, if you see what I mean) so they sit right.

Now, take a spoonful of the marmalade and pop it onto a board. You should then be able to cut little slivers off this blob to pop on top of each tree. Melt the chocolate in a bain marie (bowl over just –simmering water, but you knew that, right?) and spoon over each blob of jelly.

And there you have it. Chocolatey, orangey AND Christmassy. I’m LOVING that.

I’ve entered these into Choclette’s ‘We Should Cocoa’ chocolate challenge, the theme of which this month, unsurprisingly is… orange!

Little Matty’s Christening – and a bit of cupcake tower trauma

So after promising my lovely cousin, Moon and his wife Miska that I’d make cupcake towers for Mattie’s Christening, I’ve been having Laura-like cupcake anxiety dreams for the last week – nightmares about everything from collapsing towers to rock-hard icing have plagued my sleep.  I was almost glad when Saturday arrived and I could stop worrying and get on with it.  Brace yourself, then, a few gazillion photos to follow…

When I’d asked Moon and Miska what they wanted, they said ‘really bright colours’, so I chose base buttercream colours in violet, tangerine, lime and ice blue, topped with flavoured fondant in chocolate, sherbert lemon, fizzy orange and strawberry (not too much pink, obviously).  I spent a nice relaxing couple of days cutting out loads of stars and circles and also made some stars on ‘springs’ made of florist’s wire to dangle over the edge of the towers.

I was a bit disappointed as the fondant dried considerably lighter in colour, but hey, I decorated some of the stars with very dodgy ‘M’s and pearlised white writing icing and sprinkles and was quite pleased with the end result:

I then spent a very sweaty couple of hours in the kitchen baking the vanilla cupcakes, then mixing up the buttercream in batches and blending it with the colouring paste.

After the buttercream icings were completely chilled, I whipped them up again and piped them directly onto the cooled cakes. I did some with traditional swirls, some with little star clusters and a few ‘turds’, as my lovely son nicknamed them.  It started to go slightly wrong at this stage because the kitchen was so hot that the buttercream was starting to melt, so after a quick panic call to my Dad, he arranged for me to get into the venue and we transported all the cakes into their fridge – just in the nick of time.

The next morning I went and decorated all the cakes in situ and I have to say I left for the church feeling really proud of myself.  The buttercream stayed really vibrant, and it didn’t seem to matter than the fondant was slightly lighter in colour:

The actual Christening was wonderful.  Little Matty behaved so well and the Vicar was really lovely:

Everyone was so nice about the cupcakes and I absolutely adored watching this little girl concentrating so hard on choosing which one she’d have:

Matty was an absolute trooper, giving constant smiles and cuddles to everyone…

He showed off his walking:

and even gave his Dad a quick round of applause after his speech:

The hubster popped in to say hi on his way back to work:

And I was so proud of my fellas and my beautiful niece Lu, who were a great laugh and absolutely lovely company:

A special thank you to Helen at Aardvark Cakes for emergency Twitter panic support and her invaluable help and advice.

Also big thank you to Renshaw for the lovely flavoured fondant (my favourite was the lemon sherbet!).  Check out their amazing website: http://www.mybakes.co.uk/

Recipes:

The cupcakes were just basic vanilla sponges made in batches of 6 eggs (weighed in their shells), then equal weights of butter, caster sugar and self-raising flour.  Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then beat in the eggs a little at a time.  Add 2tsp vanilla extract and then stir in the self-raising flour. Spoon into 24 muffin cases (1tbsp mixture into each) then bake at 180/gas 4 for about 20 mins.  NB: if you add a tray of water into the bottom of the oven, the cupcakes stay nice and flat on top.

The buttercream was 500g butter and 1kg icing sugar (per 24).  Cream the butter then gently add in the icing sugar and a splosh of milk and beat until soft and fluffy.  Add in about 1/2 tsp of colouring paste (use less for pastel colours), beat again, then refrigerate. Before piping, whip until soft.

Jubilee cake

How to make a cake: a step by step guide

Everything you need to know about how to make a cake: step by step instructions and notes on ingredients, utensils, baking, flavouring, icing and filling.

If I had a pound for every time somebody said to me ‘I can’t make cakes’ or ‘I wish I could bake – it always goes wrong’, I’d be… well, not exactly rich, but I’d have a big pile of pound coins.

If you’ve ever uttered either of the above, don’t despair: here is how to make a cake – an easy, step by step, foolproof guide to the perfect light, spongey sponge cake, complete with tips, dos, don’ts and ABSOLUTELY DON’Ts thrown in for good measure. I’m not saying this is the ONLY way, but it’s a great way to start. And once you’ve got your baking confidence, there’ll be no stopping you.

First: ingredients

It goes without saying that the best ingredients will make the best cake. Baking is a feel-good endeavour. A sponge cake made with lovely ingredients, and lots of love, will be the best cake in the world.  I know I’ve said it before, but don’t bake when you’re tired, fed up or in a hurry.  It’ll go wrong – well, mine always does anyway.

Eggs

Fresh, free-range eggs with those startling golden yellow yolks will make better cakes than those awful, sad, battery-hen ones.

Butter

Likewise, gorgeous fresh farmhouse butter will make a cake taste much better than horrid, greasy margarine. Okay, it might be higher in fat, but hey we’re making a cake. If you don’t want fat, don’t eat cake! Moderation in all things, I reckon.

Flour

You don’t have to have self-raising flour. In fact, self-raising soon loses its raising power if it gets old. It’s easy to make your own self-raising with plain flour. Just add a level teaspoon of baking powder per 100g of plain flour.

Sugar

Plain old supermarket caster sugar is fine.  Don’t use granulated if you can help it as the grains are a bit too big and you can end up with a gritty texture (you could always give it a whizz in a grinder or blender to break down the grains).  Golden caster sugar is less refined than the white stuff – it’s lovely (if a bit more expensive) and gives a subtle hint of toffee too.

Temperatures

Room temperature eggs will whip better and incorporate more air into your mix, as will softened (not melted) butter. Take everything out of the fridge a good hour before you intend to start baking. If you need to bring your butter up to room temperature quickly, cut it into squares and plop it into some tepid (not warm) water. It’ll soon soften up.

Measuring

The easiest way to make a plain sponge cake is to just weigh your eggs in the shells (this sort of cake is also called a pound cake as it used to contain a pound of each ingredient – how anyone ever ate a cake that big, I’ll never know).  To make an average sized cake, use three eggs.  Whatever the eggs weigh will be the measurement you use for the butter, flour and sugar too. If you want to make it a chocolate cake, take out 1 tablespoon of the flour and replace it with cocoa powder (not hot chocolate powder – that’s different).  Giving it all a quick sieve will remove any lumps and incorporate more air.

Mixing

Here we go with the basic method, then…

  1. First weigh out all your ingredients. It’s easiest to crack the eggs into a separate bowl after you’ve weighed them. You never know when you’re going to get a bit of shell dropping into your cake mix.  So say your eggs weigh.. 180g. Weigh out the same amount of butter, flour and caster sugar.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar together. You want it really light and fluffy, which is a sign that there is lots of air incorporated, so keep going until it’s considerably lighter in colour. You can do this in a food mixer, or just with a wooden spoon.
  3. Now start to add in your eggs… dribble them in a bit at a time giving the mixture a good beat in between each dribble. Don’t worry too much if it starts to look a bit curdly. You can always add a spoonful of flour to bring it back to a creamy consistency.  If you’re adding liquid (ie vanilla essence or lemon juice), now is the time.
  4. Once all the eggs are mixed in, just fold in the sifted flour (and cocoa if you’re using it). Remember just to give it the minimum amount of folding. You’re not making bread so you don’t want to work the gluten too much and lose the lightness.  Next, spoon the mixture into a prepared cake tin.

Cake tins

Any old medium sized cake tin will do.  If you use three eggs you’ll find that this amount of mixture is perfect for two 22cm tins (perfect for sandwiching together with cream or jam), or one 26cm tin (remember it’s the depth of the cake mix not the size of the tin that governs how long it will take to cook).  Cake tins are measured by their diameter (the straight measurement from one side to the other, measured through the middle).  I have Bake-o-glide cut ready to fit my favourite tins, but baking parchment is fine too. For a circle, just take a square of parchment bigger than your tin, fold it in half, then keep folding the outsides in (keeping one point which will be the middle of your circle) again until you’ve got a triangle. Hold the triangle point roughly where the middle of the tin is, then nick the end off at the outside edge of the tin. When you unfold it you’ll have a rough circle.  You can also just brush the surface with butter, then add a tbsp of flour and shake it all around the tin, tapping out the excess.  Smooth over the surface but don’t worry too much.

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Baking

I use the middle of my oven and as it cooks slightly unevenly, I turn the cake around half way through cooking. A cake this large will take anything from 30 – 45 minutes at 180/gas 4 – depending on how wide/deep your tin is.  Smaller ones will take less time. Check them after 20 minutes.

If you think your cake looks done, gently touch the top of the cake – if there’s any wobble, or it feels really soft and leaves a dent – leave it a bit longer. You can check by popping a knife into the middle – if it comes out clean, it’s done.

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Leave your cake to cool on a rack, then you can ice, decorate or fill as you fancy.

Let’s take a minute here though – LOOK! YOU BAKED A CAKE!

Ganache

If you want to make ganache to fill or cover your cake, just melt half a large bar of chocolate (about 100g) in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water (just a couple of inches of water – you don’t want it to touch the bowl). When it’s melted, just whisk in enough double cream to get a nice spreading consistency. If you chill it down now, you can whip it go make it more airy too. Up to you.

Buttercream

Buttercream’s really easy to remember as it’s just double icing sugar to butter. Add a splosh of milk, a teaspoon of vanilla extract and whisk until light and fluffy. It makes great piped swirly things on cupcakes too.

So what’s next?

Once you’ve got to grips with making cakes you can start tweaking the recipe a little – maybe adding vanilla…dried fruit… lemon zest… chocolate chips or some chopped nuts… You can make the  two smaller sponges (reduce the cooking time) and sandwich them together with jam or cream, or layer them up with some yummy ganache or buttercream… the sky’s the limit! For an easy pudding, try using brown sugar, for a more toffeeish flavour, and adding chopped dates.  Serve warm with a quick toffee sauce made by melting  100g each of butter and brown sugar, then adding about 100ml of cream and stirring and bubbling until you have a lovely sauce.

If you’ve liked this post, feel free to try some of my other step by step guides, including:

How to make chocolate brownies

How to make a chicken pie

Step by step spiced orange hot cross buns

Sticky gooey plumptious scrumptious soft iced buns

Step by step pancakes

An  ‘heirloom’ personalised Christmas Cake recipe

Step by step chicken stock

Easy step by step bread, and how to knead

How to roast a chicken

 

English Mum’s big bakeoff – the entries

Wow.  There’s been such a massive response to this latest bakeoff that my usual bout of slightly shouty hysteria in collating the results (I’m technologically challenged, okay?) has lasted much longer than normal.  I actually still think I’ve managed to delete one entry, so if you’ve entered and you can’t see your pic, please feel free to email me via the contact form (don’t shout at me, though, I’m delicate).  Still, buoyed by gin and a bit of sweariness, I’m there.  So without further ado, I give you the fabulous entries.  One of which will be winning a Bush BAFF55161S Frost Free Fridge Freezer in Silver, worth £359.99 courtesy of the lovely chaps at Argos.

So now it’s over to our glamorous judge and winner of the last bakeoff, Arlene from The Fuzzy Times.  All devious approaches and offers of bribery should be directed directly to her (I’m keeping out of it), and just in case you were thinking of rubbing me off your Christmas list, I’d just like to point out that I’m not involved in the judging process and the judge’s decision is final.

So sit back, grab a coffee and feast your eyes upon the cakey beauty below (click on the pic to get a bigger image).

What’s your favourite, then?

Review: Cakes by Pam Corbin (River Cottage Handbook no 8)

I knew I was going to love this book from the moment I was offered a review copy.  I stalked our poor postie, Bernard, mercilessly every day until he was beginning to look a little uncomfortable, I was so looking forward to reading it.

Happily (for me and Bernard, it appeared.  And I wasn’t wrong.  I bloody love it. Cakes (River Cottage Handbook) is probably one of those books that could render half my cookery book collection redundant, it’s that useful. I even took it on a recent Aer Lingus flight where the lady sitting next to me in departures took a look at it, nodded and smiled appreciatively.  I mean, who doesn’t love River Cottage?  And who hasn’t watched ‘Pam the Jam’ working her magic?

And yes, I’m a sucker for a bit of pink, so the cover alone is enough to make me want to carry it around in my handbag, but the contents more than compete in the gorgeousness stakes, believe me.

I’m a page turner-over (I know, kill me now) and this book now has so many corners turned over I can barely shut it.  Pam’s recipes for retro favourites are on my must-cook list (jammy dodgers!), and so is her fabulous chocolate fudge icing recipe.  I also spied a really gorgeous gluten-free lime and coconut cake that I want to pass on to a Coeliac friend.

There are some really great old-fashioned favourites here, like cherry cake and proper fruit cake, but also some really surprising new ones to try, my faves being a really interesting looking potato and apple cake, plus a twist on the wonderful Battenburg, made with chocolate and hazelnuts.

I love a cookery book that is more than just a collection of recipes.  I want something I can take to bed (or on a plane) and read, and really get a sense of the person writing the book, and the stories behind the recipes.  This book more than delivers.

Don’t be put off thinking this is just another book about cakes.  It’s an absolute must-have for seasoned cakeophiles and beginners alike.  Grab it while it’s hot.

The River Cottage Cakes Handbook is published by Bloomsbury and available now on Amazon, priced £7.68.

Christmas Countdown: An easy two step ‘personalised’ Christmas cake

One of the things that fascinates me about cooking is the alchemy: why you need x when you bake with y, or how one ingredient affects the others in a dish.  This nosiness (teamed with an endless desire to be baking), often leads to disaster, but hey, if you don’t make mistakes you never learn.

I dislike the snobbery surrounding food, and, like Nigel Slater, believe a recipe is a guideline, not a set of rules to be blindly followed.  Take Christmas cake.  I’m sure a lot of people look at a Christmas cake recipe, with its lists of dried fruit in various quantities, and feel  thoroughly intimidated, but hey, it’s just fruit cake, so I’m going to let you have the basic proportions and let you customise your own cake.  Don’t like raisins?  No problem.  Hate peel (disgusting, devil’s toenails that it is), leave it out.

If you’re a Christmas cake ‘virgin’, then this is the recipe for you.  If you sort all your ingredients before you start, there are basically two steps.  Easy peasy.  As long as you have the basic quantities right, your cake will come out perfectly and more to the point, exactly as you like it.  My ultimate aim is to make a Christmas cake with stuff I’ve got lying around and not have to rush to the supermarket with a list as long as my arm for stuff I’m never going to use again.  I’ve wittered on a bit here so if you want, just skip to the cake recipe.

Dried Fruit

One rule here: choose what you like.  As I mentioned above, I hate peel with a vengeance so I leave it out.  Other people use glacé fruits, snipped into little pieces.  I used a 300g luxury pack of mixed raisins, apricots and cranberries which I saw in a nice foodie place and bought, then topped it up with random half packs of leftover cranberries, prunes (chopped into pieces), dried apricots and sultanas.  Pick what suits you, bin the rest.

Butter vs Oil

Generally if you need lightness in a cake, butter helps as you can beat in air and it holds it well, but I’m finding I’m using more and more oil, (you can whisk it with the eggs and get a similar airy effect), especially Rapeseed, which adds a subtle nutty flavour and, being rich in vitamin E, high in Omega 3 and half the saturated fat of olive oil is obviously a healthy option.  In this recipe you want the moistness, etc, but not the air, so use oil if you like.  I made this cake with Borderfields‘ gorgeously yellow rapeseed oil, which is my absolute favourite and it turned out perfectly.  There’s obviously a bit of water content in butter, so if you’re substituting oil use slightly less.  Having said that, don’t kill yourself (you know me, I don’t do adding up): 100g of butter will be about 90 – 100ml oil.

Sugar

Again, use what you’ve got – the darker the sugar, the more treacly the taste.  I used Muscovado.  You’re melting it, so it doesn’t matter how big the granulation is.

Honey

The honey here gives moistness and sweetness, but you could substitute golden syrup if you don’t like (or are allergic to) honey.  I used Rowse Supahoney with lemon, because I absolutely love its taste (I’m a bit into Manuka honey) and use it all the time so I had a pot open.  You could also use black treacle which gives a lovely dark toffee taste.

The Booze

No rules here.  Last year I used Morgan’s Spiced Rum which has a gorgeous vanilla flavour but not much sweetness.  I’ve mentioned a bit more in the recipe below about sweetness.  I used cherry brandy, which not only has that lovely sweet cherry taste, but gives an almondy hit too.  Use whatever you like/whatever you have.  Again, taste your mixture and adjust sweetness accordingly.  If you don’t want to use alcohol, just double up on the fruit juice.

Fruit Juice

I used cranberry juice, because I thought it would go nicely with the dried cranberries, but you can use freshly squeezed orange juice (bung in the zest too for an extra zing), or juice out of a carton.  It honestly doesn’t matter.

Spice

I make a lot of curries so my spice turnover is quite high.  All I would say is, if the jar of ‘Mixed Spice’ in your cupboard was purchased in the 1940s it’s not going to add much to your cake.  I used 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp ground ginger and a good grating of nutmeg, but use what you have: mixed spice/ginger/cinnamon/ground nutmeg (not too much, it can be overpowering).  Just make sure it’s fresh.

Right, ingredients sorted? Then we’re off:

The Personalised Christmas Cake

800g dried fruit

175ml good quality rapeseed oil or 200g butter

200g dark brown sugar

4 tbsp honey

120ml alcohol

120ml fruit juice (or two oranges, juiced)

About 2tsp spice

3 eggs

200g self raising flour (or 300g flour and omit ground almonds).

100g ground almonds

Firstly: sort everything out: preheat the oven to gas 2/150 C and double line the bottom of your cake tin/tins with parchment paper (tiger stripe pattern optional).  Weigh all your stuff, crack the eggs into a bowl and mix them… just get yourself completely ready.

STEP ONE:  Pop the dried fruit into a large saucepan along with the butter, sugar, honey, booze, fruit juice and spices.  Stir gently over a low heat until the butter is melted and the sugar is completely dissolved.  You can bring it up to a gentle bubble, but don’t let it boil vigorously as your alcohol will disappear.

Now leave it to cool.  If you add the eggs straight in, they’ll be scrambled.  Oh, and at this stage, have a taste!  If it doesn’t taste sweet enough, add something else sweet (this is often the case if you’ve used brandy or whisky which doesn’t have much natural sweetness, as opposed to, say, a liqueur – Nigella suggests a tablespoon of marmalade, which I think is a great idea).  If it’s overpoweringly, cloyingly sweet, then a squeeze of lemon, maybe?  It’s your cake – do it how you like it.

STEP TWO: When cooled, stir in the eggs, flour and ground almonds.  Pile into your one large springform tin, or two smaller ones and bake for about an hour and a half for the two small ones, or up to two hours for the large.  Test by pushing a skewer into the centre of the cake.  It should come out clean (excuse the rubbish ‘in-oven’ shot here).

And that’s it! Congratulations, you’ve made a Christmas cake (or two).

When cool, wrap up the cake in parchment paper and then foil, and stash somewhere until you need it, occasionally unwrapping your gorgeous present to stab it with a cocktail stick and slosh with a couple of tablespoons of your chosen booze.  Or just eat straight away.

You can do all that fancy pants marzipan and icing stuff, but for god’s sake don’t look to me for inspiration.  I have the artistic ability of a small pickled onion.

Make sure you write your recipe down.  You just created a family heirloom!

1970s ginger cake – the newer, stickier, betterer…er version

Mmmm sticky gooey noms...

So ginger cake, then.  Regular, eagle-eyed viewers amongst you will remember that I found my original, childishly scrawled version of this little beauty tucked inside one of my Ma’s old cookery books a while back and recreated it with some success.  Since then, though, I’ve been feverishly working on it after being stung by a comment of Hubby’s that it wasn’t ‘sticky enough’.  Several hundred attempts later, then, plus a quick lull where we were all bloody sick of the stuff – I was even taking them round to Mrs Lovely’s house and it’s unheard of for anything baked to leave the house normally – and here’s my new, extra sticky version:

75g butter

75g brown sugar

1/4 pint of milk

2 teaspoons ground ginger (make sure it’s in-date though – ginger tends to fester, unused in the cupboard and tastes like ground cardboard)

2 tablespoons treacle

1 tablespoon golden syrup

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

225g self raising flour (sifted)

So preheat your oven to 180/gas 4, then butter a small loaf tin or use a non-stick one, and set it aside.  Measure out the butter, sugar, milk, ginger, treacle and golden syrup and melt them all together over a low heat in a saucepan.

When it’s all melted together, turn off the heat and stir in the bicarbonate of soda.  Stir it while it goes all weird and fizzy, then add in the flour, continuing to go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ as it bubbles and burbles.  Carry on mixing it until it’s magically transforms into a lovely smooth batter.

Bung it in the loaf tin, cover loosely with foil to avoid crustiness (we’re after sticky here, people) and bake for about 45 minutes.  Tip out onto a wire tray to cool, or, in my case, marvel at the fact that Mr Lovely seems to be able to smell it from his house which is at least five minutes’ walk away and turns up just as it comes out of the oven, slice and serve with hot tea and lots of chat with good friends.

Ginger cake

Weirdly, this is an excellent standby recipe, as it’s one of few cakes that don’t need any eggs (I’m always running out of eggs – yup, even now I’ve got chickens).  Just thought I’d mention it.

Fetch the defibrillator! Double chocolate cookie dough brownies

So my lovely friend, fellow Disney 7 adventurer and blogger, Laura, kind of acts like my chocolate pimp – any sign of any chocolate action anywhere on the web and she’s all over it – it’s gatherered up and sent to me before I can blink.  I like this.  Which is why Laura is my friend.

Here, then, is Laura’s latest discovery – sniffed bloodhound-like from the bowels of the interweb and delivered to me ready to be fiddled with and muddled with and twiddled with and delivered to you, sparkly, new and fattening.  Aren’t you lucky?  Many thanks to the incredibly clever lady at One Ordinary Day for sharing this one.

Double Chocolate Cookie Dough Brownies

First, then, you need to make some brownies, for which you need my double, triple, quadruple, tested brownie recipe:

200g bar dark chocolate

170g butter

3 eggs

225g caster sugar

110g plain flour

110g nuts if you want, or chocolate chips, or nothing – see if I care…

So melt the butter and chocolat in a bain-marie (bowl over saucepan of just simmering water – not letting bottom of bowl come into contact with water – you know the drill).  Turn the water off when it’s just bubbling and stir the mixture gently until it’s combined.  Take it off the heat and allow it to cool to blood temperature (one doesn’t want extra scrambled eggy bits in one’s brownie, trust me).

Meanwhile, whisk the eggs and sugar together.  I don’t put raising agent in my brownie as I guess they’re supposed to be quite fudgy and heavy, but I whisk the eggs and sugar to add a few bubbles.  Don’t if you don’t want to – it’s just me being picky.

Now, pour in your chocky/butter mixture, stir until combined then bung in the flour and the whatever else you’re using: cherries/chocolate chips/nuts, etc.  Or nothing.

Line a lasagne tin or baking tin with greaseproof (or have bits of bake-o-glide cleverly cut into the right shape, if you’re really anal about it *cough*), pour in the mixture and bake for about 35 minutes  at 180/gas 4 until the top is shiny and cracked but the middle is still dense and squidgy.  Leave to cool.

Now, for the cookie dough mixture:

130g butter, softened

130g muscovado sugar

100g caster sugar

4 tbsp milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

100g dark chocolate, chopped (or chocolate chips)

200g plain flour

So whizz up the butter and sugars with the electric whisk, add in the milk and vanilla and whizz some more.  Stir in the flour (it seems a lot, but it all goes in eventually).  Finally, stir in the chocolate chips.  Spread over the top of your cooled brownie and refrigerate.

Finally, to make sure your guests really suffer a coronary, melt another 100g of chocolate and drizzle it all over the top.  Chill to finish.  Serve in very small pieces as this is very, very rich indeed.  Oops, sorry, I just drooled a little on the keyboard, let me get that…

The Friday photo(s): vanilla muffins, step by step

So it’s come to my attention that Single Parent Dad uses packet fairy cake mixes.  *Gasp*

When I recovered from the shock, I promised to do him a little step-by-step guide and he, in turn, promised to take photographic evidence for us all to have a good laugh at to prove that he’d really made them.  Just so happens that I have a spanking new bottle of something called Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Bean Paste nabbed in the fantastic Williams Sonoma on our recent trek with Disney’s Sarah (Mary Poppins) round the biggest mall in the world, somewhere in Florida:

Madagascar Bourbon vanilla bean paste

Here yiz are, then, SPD:

Firstly for the ingredients:

  • 200g plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 75g caster sugar
  • 50g brown sugar
  • 100g butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 125ml milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
  • 100g chocolate chips (optional)

You will need:

  • A set of scales
  • A bowl
  • A sieve
  • Two measuring jugs
  • a microwave oven (or a saucepan on the stove)
  • A small whisk or fork
  • A spoon
  • A spatula to scrape, otherwise a small child to lick bowl
  • Paper muffin cases
  • A muffin tin
  • An oven.  Duh.

And here’s how to do it:

  1. Firstly, and most importantly, make sure you’ve got all the ingredients.  Preheat the oven to 180ºC/gas mark 4.
  2. Grab a large bowl, a sieve and some weighing scales.  Weigh out the flour, add in the baking powder and salt, then sieve it into the bowl.  You can leave the salt out but it does add a lot of flavour, especially if you’re using the chocolate chips.
  3. Now weigh out the sugars (if you don’t have any brown sugar it doesn’t matter, use all caster sugar – I just like it as it gives a slightly toffee flavour to the end result.)  Add them to the floury stuff in the bowl and stir it all together.
  4. Put that bowl to one side.  Now measure out 100g butter.  Put it in a microwaveable jug and melt it in the microwave, or melt it on the hob:Melt the butter 
  5. Take another jug and measure out the milk.  Plop in the two eggs:Egg in milk
     
    and the teaspoon of vanilla:

    Add the vanilla

    …it looks yucky but don’t worry, just whisk with a fork or something until it’s all combined. 

  6. Get the butter out of the microwave and pour carefully into the eggy milk mixture, whisking all the time.
  7. Now grab the bowl of dry ingredients and pour the wet ingredients in.  Stir gently with the spoon until just combined.  Don’t over mix (this is the reason why everything your child makes turns out like rock cakes – overworking the gluten if you must know) – if there’s a tiny bit of powder left that’s fine:Mixture…and if you’re using chocolate chips, stir these in now.
  8. Now get the paper muffin cases and put them into the muffin tin.  Spoon one tablespoon full (or use an ice cream scoop) into each muffin case:Ready for the oven
  9. Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes until golden brown and a gentle push on the top makes it spring back up.  If it’s squelchy and your finger disappears into the muffin, it’s not done!
  10. Remove from the oven, allow to cool and either eat as they are or decorate with a little icing or melted chocolate:Blob on the melted chocolate… an icing footballer or two (although we think he’s slightly too rotund to play for Liverpool):

    Footballer

    Oh and if you have Mickeys that you stole from a Disney resort, so much the better:

    Sprinkle with Mickeys...

And that’s it.  Good luck, SPD.  We’ll be waiting for your results.

 

You can also find this post at: havealovelytime.com

In which Little Miss Lovely makes girly pink muffins and biscuits

Little Miss Lovely's Muffins

So as you know, I don’t get much in the way of girly conversation here at English Towers.  I think the nearest we got was the recent discussion about whether that pathologist in CSI:Miami is really a girl at all (oh come on, her name is Khandi).  Anyhoo, so Mr and Mrs Lovely were away for the weekend and we happily volunteered to cover a shift of looking after the little Lovelies yesterday afternoon.  Little Miss Lovely and I decided to have a girly afternoon in the kitchen while all the boys killed zombies or whatever they were all doing crowded around the X-box.  First of all we made pink muffins.  I mean really pink muffins: pink sponge cake, pink royal icing and lots of pink bits and bobs on the top.  After that we made biscuits, then we made chocolate chip biscuits, and then we smothered all them in icing and pink bits and bobs too.

Pink royal icing.  Yes of course we licked the bowl.

At one stage Middle Lovely wandered in, and quite fancied joining in but no.  He was firmly instructed that this was a girls-only baking session and any argument was followed by an instruction to talk to the hand by Madame, who was concentrating (tongue out)  on a particularly difficult bit of pink glitter addition.

Adding pink stuff: a serious business

You know the drill on the muffins by now, but here’s the low-down for Little Miss Lovely’s rather lush biscuits. 

250g butter (best at room temp)

125g icing sugar

375g plain flour 

1 tbsp baking powder

Teeny pinch of salt

This is best done with an electric whisk, but you can do it the old fashioned way if you’re a bit of a martyr.  So first beat the hell out of your butter until it’s lovely and soft.  Next, sieve the icing sugar into the butter and mix well.  It’s best not to whizz it at full power at this stage unless you want your kitchen looking like an icing sugar bomb has exploded.  Then sieve in your flour, baking powder and salt.  It’s best to switch to a metal spoon now.  Mix it all together gently until it starts to come together, then dive in with clean hands and squish it all together until it forms a dough (have patience, it will).

Now roll the dough into a sausage shape, wrap with clingfilm and chill until firm.  Then just slice it up into about 1cm slices and bake on a baking tray at 180/gas 4 for about 15 mins.  The biccies won’t spread too much so don’t cut them too thick or they’ll be like bricks.  If you like you can add about 100g chopped chocolate (or chopped nuts, lemon zest, sultanas, whatever) to the mixture  too.

White icing and pink marshmallows: a classic cookie topping

Then just allow to cool and either ice (we used royal icing turned a delicious pink with a little red food colouring), dip in melted chocolate, or eat them as they are.  Pink glitter is,  obviously, optional.

Double Chocolate and Toffee Muffins

Muffins: sneaky

So you know my sneakiness knows no bounds, but while #2 continues to refuse everything healthy apart from carrot sticks, frozen peas and the odd apple I need to keep one step ahead. Breakfast is a particular problem, as he hates milk and smoothies make him gag (we made raspberry and mango ones yesterday and they were absolutely gorgeous – he tried a sip but no, same result: think Dean Gaffney on ‘I’m a Celebrity…’). Tea is slightly easier, I made spaghetti the other day and used the same tomato sauce I make for pizza and he did eat that, but grudgingly. So in order to stave off rickets or mange or whatever it is malnourished children get, I figured even a little healthy stuff is good, even if it’s disguised with chocolate, and these little babies even surprised me.

8 oz plain flour
1 oz dark cocoa powder (I used Green & Blacks)
1 tablespoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
6 oz brown sugar
6 fl oz milk
1 egg, beaten
4 oz butter, melted
Large handful dates, stoned
4 oz dark chocolate, chopped

So, as usual with the muffins, sieve your flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt, then add the sugar. The darker the sugar the more toffee-ish the end result. Now here’s the sneaky bit. Take a big handful of the dates, and whiz them in the blender with the milk until they’re unrecognisable. Then melt your butter in a jug in the microwave, mix in the date/milk mixture and the beaten egg and stir into the dry stuff. Remember, the less you mix, the lighter the result. Finally, bung in the chopped chocolate. A couple of ounces of walnuts would be a good addition here, too. Give them a hint of a stir to combine, then divide into 12 muffin cases. I found that you get a large serving spoonful in each one.

Bake for about 25 minutes at 200 degrees, then serve warm, explaining that the little glistening golden pieces in the muffin are toffee (they do taste remarkably toffee-like, well, that’s what you use to make sticky toffee pudding, right?). Oh and remember, lying in a maternal, nutritionally responsible way isn’t really lying at all.