Friday, 28 October 2011

Hallowe'en Cakes

This week I visited Angharad, Osian and Mari in Caernarfon. Angharad asked if I didn't mind a bit of a busman's holiday making a cake with the children for Halloween, or Calan Gaeaf as it's celebrated in north Wales. I'm always happy to make cake and popped a few baking bits and bobs in my overnight bag. Everyone travels with piping bags, yes? 

I was pleased with the Halloween cakes I made at home last week 

and decided to make some more 'bones' from meringue. We bought butter at the Waitrose where Kate Middleton is sometimes spotted shopping for Will's tea, but sadly I didn't see her. Angharad's friend recently saw the Duchess of Cambridge filling her car with petrol LIKE A NORMAL PERSON and locals say that she doesnt 'have anyone in' to help with housework. She's so great. 

The children learned how to make the swirl on top of a cupcake and Mari decorated them with the bones. 
Earlier in the day we'd visited Beaumaris to indulge Osian's interest in Norman castles and playing football, Mari's interest in jumping in puddles, and my and Angharad's interest in eating ice cream at the Red Boat Cafe. They make fantastic ice cream in all kinds of flavours and we enjoyed rhubarb crumble, Irish cream, marshmallow and jelly baby ice cream. No one was brave enough to try cheese and onion flavour though. 

Here's a photo of us atop Beaumaris castle with the Menai Strait in the background.
I also took a picture of Mari playing in the castle's chapel. Quite how a snap of an angelic little girl turned out this eery I don't know - look at the shadow on the table, it's like Satan's pitchfork. 
Thanks for having me to stay. Happy Hallowe'en, Calan Gaeaf Hapus!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Shipton Mill

Last week Petra and I went to a bread baking class at Shipton Mill in the beautiful village of Frampton on Severn, Gloucestershire.

When we arrived at the mill the employees were so friendly, funny and enthusiastic about their work that I knew we were in for a great day. Our instructor was Clive Mellum, a lovely man who has been baking for 47 years and is keen to share his knowledge of and passion for artisan bread.

Clive explained dough development and the need to balance a recipe using five ingredients - flour, water, yeast, salt and time. Time is the ingredient that large scale supermarket baking has taken out of the equation and replaced with “improvers”. There was to be none of that today.

We started by making a white dough using the “pinch back” method and while that was proving, we mixed a quick 10 minute soda bread using buttermilk and bicarbonate of soda, adding feta cheese, pumpkin seeds and herbs.
The white dough made a cottage loaf, pitta breads and a plaited loaf. We were curious to know how the seamless pockets are made in pittas. Clive said that children are also fascinated by the pockets in pitta bread and once they’ve seen it done, they can be persuaded to eat all manner of healthy food if it’s popped inside a fresh pitta. He explained how dough is carefully wrapped around a bubble, then baked. We nodded sagely. Once we (finally) realised he was joking, we saw how they’re really made: the pinned dough puffs up after a couple of minutes in the oven. 
No wonder children are so entranced by them, we were too. They tasted fantastic – light, soft and delicious, nothing like the heavy stodge sold in supermarkets. We made our cottage loaves and plaited our plaits – I’ve lost the knack for it since my hair got shorter, my plait looked like a snake that had recently had a bulky meal. While these baked, Neal gave us a tour of the spotlessly clean mill.

The mill used to house a cocoa factory that supplied Cadbury’s in Bournville. Today, Shipton Mill buys in organic grain from farmers in the UK, Europe and North America and produces a wide range of organic flours – white, wholemeal, rye, spelt, wheatfree and rare flours like chestnut and buckwheat, all of which you can buy online from Flour Direct. The mill bears the Prince of Wales’ crest, having worked with him for many years on producing organic flour.
I had no idea how much work goes into producing flour – from grain to bran to semolina (Petra and I exchanged a glance that said “so that’s where semolina comes from!”) to flour. It was like a fun school trip but without a cagoule or a squashed packed lunch.

Ah, lunch! When I’d heard about the classes at Shipton Mill, there had been mention of a lovely lunch, but I wasn’t prepared for the feast that was waiting for us back in the classroom. As well as the soda bread we’d just baked, Clive had that morning baked several other breads for us to try – salmon on rye bread; curried egg and watercress in pitta; rye bread with nuts and figs which was fantastic with blue cheese; ciabatta with olive oil and balsamic; white loaf, sourdough and a light rye that were great with brie, cheddar, tomatoes and chutneys.
After lunch came the treat I’d been most excited about: Chelsea buns using a flying sponge dough enriched with butter and sugar, just my thing. The dough was pinned out, enriched further with currants and spice, rolled and sliced into 12 pieces.
Petra and her Chelsea buns. Clive is a blur of activity.
While these proved and baked, Clive showed us a way of making shortcrust pastry that is tasty, robust and breaks all the “rules”, particularly that annoying one about having cold hands, great news for my hot little monkey paws.

Lastly we were each given a small plastic bag of 'mother', the fermentation that Clive has been feeding like a much-loved pet for the last 18 years. I was worried about getting this through security at Bristol airport and insisted on only taking 100ml in my hand luggage. It turned out I shouldn’t have worried: security were too distracted by my buns (there’s a first for everything) to worry about the odd-looking but entirely innocent package nestling alongside my toothpaste and mascara.
I’m astonished that we managed to fit so much into a day and it was clear how thrilled everyone in the class was with their box of baking. I should add that Shipton Mill does not charge for its classes; instead, the aim is to share their passion for good quality flour and artisan bread, which they did in bucketloads. Huge thanks to Lesley for all her help and to Clive for sharing his passion and expertise. Now to practise…

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Greggs goes Posh!

Cool, quirky, stylish.
I love the Newcastle skyline lampshades
If you were asked to pick three words that describe Greggs, the stalwart of the Geordie diet, these might not be the first ones you’d pick.  You might go for “Ooh hot pasties!” or “Bag of jam donuts!” or if you want to go way over your word limit “Why don’t they sell vegetable pasties in Newcastle like they do in London?”, a persistent gripe of mine. 

Greggs is close to every Geordie’s heart, from our first toothless suck on a bit of puff pastry to the “double decker” pasty trick  that Wayne taught me (two pasties, one bag; nobody will ever know your secret). There is a Greggs on every street corner in Newcastle, sometimes two. The Greggs on Clayton St in the city centre is open until 4am at the weekend doing sterling work for the inebriated. There are two Greggs at Newcastle Airport, one at Arrivals and one at Departures, allowing the jetsetting Geordie to minimise his time away from a sausage roll.

Greggs has now upped its game with Greggs Moment, their new trial coffee shop on Northumberland Street. Its décor is cool, quirky and stylish. It’s clean, comfortable and well-staffed. It sells LOADS of cake.

The sandwiches, cakes, biscuits, cupcakes, muffins and scones are all very reasonably priced. For example, my pre-lunch snack of a cream tea (scone, jam, clotted cream and a pot of tea) is a mere £3, which barely buys you a cup of hot grit in some other high street cafes.

Greggs Moment was chock-a-block on a Friday morning and I am sure the trial café will be a big success. For the time being at least, it’s exclusive to Geordies. London can keep its fancy vegetable pasties – we’ve got posh Greggs!

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Skills Swap - Chocolate

When I did the royal icing course in June, I met Negin and we’ve kept in touch on Facebook and email ever since. Not only does Negin work full time at a demanding job, she also makes beautiful cakes at La Torta Divina. She mentioned that she was keen to learn how to make cake pops, while I wanted to learn how to make chocolates. The answer was staring us in the face – a skills swap day where we could stuff our faces with chocolate teach each other a new recipe. I went to her house on Sunday armed with cake crumbs and lollipop sticks and we got cracking.

We started by making a dark chocolate ganache that would be at the centre (literally) of all three chocolate treats.  I’d read that cake pops can be made with ganache instead of buttercream i.e. chocolate cake mixed with double cream & chocolate dipped in chocolate. What’s not to like? The ganache made the cake pops rich and truffle-like. I will definitely be using this method again.

We started work on the chocolates. Negin showed me how to coat a mould with chocolate, fill it with ganache and seal it with more chocolate. We were very pleased with how smooth and glossy they turned out, and were even more pleased with how good they tasted.
The chocolates went in two by two, hurrah! hurrah!
It was at this point that Negin’s brother popped round and I learned that he’s a dentist. I had that momentary panic like when someone tells you they’re a hairdresser and you think "oh no, my hair is awful today". Would he be cross with us for eating so much sugar, or pleased that we were ultimately creating more work for his dentist’s chair? It seemed from his pearly white smile that he was cool with it. So long as we floss and brush regularly.

Negin also showed me how to make chocolate truffles by piping and chilling balls of ganache, then rolling them in cocoa or sprinkles. I was amazed to learn that in Holland, where Negin has family, sprinkles are sold in large boxes at very reasonable prices because people put them on hot buttered toast and eat it for breakfast. No wonder the Dutch are so chilled if they start the day with a treat like this. The ones we used are called Kwinkslag, which sounds like an insult bellowed at a rival by a Geordie fishwife.
The truffles tasted fantastic and weren’t too hard to make. Working with chocolate is, however, very messy. Negin’s mum agreed as she wistfully gazed at her previously spotless kitchen.
As an extra bonus, Negin and her mum showed me how to make an Iranian almond biscuit called ghorabiye. The recipe starts with 1 kilo of ground almonds, the kind of en masse baking of which I thoroughly approve and which reminds me of Greek cooking, where you start with the assumption that everyone you ever met is coming for lunch. In fact ghorabiye put me in mind of kourabiedes (say it aloud and you realise it’s the same word), the Greek almond biscuits that I used to eat by the plateful to cover up the fact that I hadn’t a clue what was being said. I did eventually learn Greek, but this in no way diminished my biscuit intake.

Tray after tray of ghorabiye were rolled, sprinkled with sugar and almonds, and baked into delicious light little biscuits. They looked great too.
I rarely acknowledge the existence of savoury food in this blog but I have to mention the aash – a thick soup – which Negin’s mum gave me for tea. It’s made by boiling brown rice, barley, lentils and carrots then adding onion, stock, fresh parsley, coriander and spinach. It’s not often that such healthy food tastes so delicious so I am definitely going to try making this at home.

Huge thanks to Negin and her mum for inviting me into their kitchen and giving me a great day of making and eating treats!

National Cake Week: Wales

This week is National Cake Week, an opportunity as if we needed one to celebrate cake in all its glory. The Newcastle Clandestine Cake Club has picked its monthly theme as cakes that represent a country. I have chosen to make bara brith from Wales.
There are few foods that I would describe as comfort food, as I find all food comforting. However one exception is the "speckled bread" fruit cake from Wales. When I was 18, I went away to a college that has long-standing connections with Wales. I was wide-eyed with shock but trying desperately not to show it; I was always hungry and was usually cold, as I lived in a house with no heating.

On the floor above me lived Angharad, a girl from North Wales who was so talented and beautiful you could envy her but was so utterly lovely that you couldn't.  Angharad used to receive parcels of bara brith from her grandmother in Wales and invite me to share it with her over a cup of tea. She taught me a little bit of Welsh, starting with what she said was the most important sentence in the Welsh language: "Ti isio panad? Do you want a cuppa?"
Angharad, Ship Street 1991. Note the picture of John Thaw on the wall.
It was a handy phrase to remember when we lived together the next year - half of Oxford was entranced by Angharad and lovelorn men used to call round in the hope of seeing her. Like a pair of ugly sisters, Gisa and I used to dispense tea and short shrift while they waited. I don't think we ever wasted good cake on them though.

Angharad and I remain firm friends and she remains ludicrously talented. She's a remarkable linguist, academic, award-winning novelist and mother to two lovely children. I was thrilled when Angharad's novel was translated into English and I could read it. Even though it's a translation, its poetic prose is startling and I am proud to have a friend who can write so well. I wholeheartedly recommend the book - you can buy it on Amazon here and learn more about her family's life on a remote Welsh farm, including her grandmother who parcelled up the bara brith.

Bara brith is delicious - the fruit is boiled in butter and sugar and left overnight, then baked with mixed spice. Angharad kindly sent me the recipe:

12oz sultanas / currants
4oz butter
cup of water
cup of sugar
one teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda

Mix these in a saucepan and bring to boil for 5 mins. Put lid on saucepan, and leave to cool overnight. Next day add:

2 eggs beaten
some mixed spice
cup of plain flour
cup of self-raising flour

Put into greased and lined loaf tin and bake for c.90 mins at 180C.

I've decorated it with a little dragon. Dragons are usually green but in Wales you find the lesser known y draig coch (draco rutilus). The cake is ever so slightly singed on top, after the  dragon got a bit carried away waving the flag for Wales, but I am sure it will be delicious. Thanks to Angharad for the recipe - diolch yn fawr, cariad!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Trick or treat cake pops

Halloween has become a lot more popular in Britain since I was a child growing up in Newcastle. In my day, Halloween meant scraping a lantern out of turnip (yes, turnip!) and going round the neighbours asking for money (yes, money!). Not any more, it's all pumpkins and treats. I'm not complaining - pumpkins are way easier to carve and I have absolutely no problem with treats. In fact I've been making some today. Here are my Halloween cake pops.

I find these pumpkin cake pops a tiny bit scary. Like they are laughing at me.
Eyeball cake pops. Blue, like Daniel Craig's. Looking at me, unlike Daniel Craig's.
Skull cake pops, cauldron cake pops, and Frankenstein cake pops. I was pleased with my idea of using silver dragees for the bolts in Frankenstein's neck.

I saw these ghost cake pops in a book on Cake Pops that has just been published. It's the best book I've seen on cake pops as it gives detailed tips on making and decorating them and is full of great ideas.
Lastly, there is my little homage to Blackadder - heads on sticks in Traitor's Cloister.
Ointment! That's what you need when your head's been cut off.
        That's what I gave your sister Mary when they done her. "There, there"
        I said, "you'll soon grow a new one."
So these are the Halloween treats. But where is the trick?
One of these cake pops is actually a Brussels sprout. MUAHAHAHAHAHA! 

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Wedding cake with fresh flowers

This weekend I did a two day course making an open stack wedding cake with fresh flowers at Cakes4Fun.

The first day was spent cutting and covering the cakes with Jen, a lovely instructor whose advice is always in my head when I’m doing cakes. On the second day we were joined by Patty, a florist with an infectious enthusiasm for both flowers and cake. I felt that I learned a huge amount from her about taping and wiring flowers, about how to use them on a cake, which flowers wilt or cause others to wilt, which are toxic and which are edible. I felt the tingle of a possible new hobby coming on and I swear I felt my credit card wince.

Jen showed us how to dowel and stack the cakes leaving a scary two inches of air in between the bottom two layers, something I have never done before. The space was filled with red and cherry brandy roses, salal leaves, rosehips, Chinese lanterns and plants I’d never even heard of like amaranthus and kangaroo paw (hilariously misheard as kangaroo poo). We also included some bird eye chillies on the wedding cake, which my mum suggested would make for a “hot night”. Ridiculous. Who would cook a curry on their wedding night?

The reds and oranges of the flowers and berries looked stunning and everyone was pleased with their cakes.

 I wish my rear view was this good
This was a really lovely course – I learned a lot about flowers, gained confidence in using them on a cake and am very keen to learn more. Plus I now have 100 wedding cake portions to eat on my own like a jilted bride.

Huge thanks to Petra and Dylan for having me to stay and credit to Dylan for his persistence in trying all week to eat the circus cake. Thanks also to the taxi driver who picked me up from Petra’s and asked if she was my daughter. She is TWO MONTHS younger than me for god’s sake. Perhaps it’s time to get some rest.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Five days, five cakes

This week I did the PME Sugarpaste five day course at Cakes4Fun. As ever, our instructors were great: Liz, a walking manual of cake making tips who has most of Blackadder committed to memory; and Lisa, who graduated from Cordon Bleu with an even higher grade than a well known cake designer. I won't name names, but I'll drop in a clue. Please call me on a premium rate number to see if you guessed correctly.

On Monday we made a cake with broderie anglaise, which reminds me of high tea with my great aunts and their beautiful hand-embroidered tablecloths. Petra and I have enjoyed eating it.
We also made a handbag cake and a Barbie cake.

Barbie cakes are a bit of a love/hate thing, generally on a sliding scale commensurate with your age. Lucy commented that Barbie looked a bit tarty. She should have seen her when she had her arms in the air getting her boobs smeared with Trex. 

Thursday was a circus cake, my favourite design of the week, and we finished the course with a three tier cake.

This was the third and final week of my PME Professional Diploma and I am eagerly awaiting my certificate in the post. I hope it's made of pastillage and decorated in royal icing.

There's been a lot of discussion in the classes about the order in which the three weeks should be done. I don’t think it really matters as each week covers different techniques but I would suggest starting with Sugar Paste, then Royal Icing, then Sugar Flowers.

I celebrated graduation with a trip to Peggy Porschen, a well known cake designer who did really well at Cordon Bleu, but...  I had a cup of tea, a salted caramel cupcake and a gawp at the beautiful wedding cakes.
I also popped into the Buckingham Palace gift shop and bought my mum this delightful Christmas bauble. The Queen paints them herself with real gold, which explains why they are so expensive. 
I can wholeheartedly recommend the courses at Cakes4Fun. All ingredients and equipment are provided so there's no need to lug half your kitchen with you; the class sizes are small at no more than eight; the tutors are very knowledgeable and friendly; it’s fun and I’ve eaten my own body weight in cake this week. 

Lastly, the weather: it has been red hot all week. Today is the first day of October and it was 28 degrees Celsius. If God is reading (he's bound to be), please can we have summer during summertime next year? 
Highbury Fields. Scorchio!