Baking and Fund-raising – Natural Partners

Pic of home-made millionaire's shortbread

Ah the joys of baking sweet stuff; and baking for a good cause too.

My sisters, mother and I love baking so we’re in the process of getting ready for a coffee morning on 2 November.

It’s a fund-raising event for Motor Neurone Disease, as last year my aunt was diagnosed with this awful illness. MND is name for a group of illnesses which cause damage to the nerves called the motor neurones, the nerves that carry messages to the muscles. It can result in difficulties with walking, lifting your arms, chewing or swallowing. It’s also a progressive condition which means the damage gets worse in time and there is no cure at present.

The money we raise will go towards important research. There is awful lot of important medical research which is funded through charity and people’s donations to a cause; choosing between so many valid causes can be difficult, but obviously this is a personal one for my family and I. If anyone reading this does feel moved to contribute, there’s a link to my sister’s Just Giving Page here. (And thank you ever so much in advance.)

Anyway, for our baking morning I’m planning to make one of Nigella Lawson’s chocolate cakes. It’s gluten-free and dairy-free, which makes it sound terribly earnest and “a good for you kind of thing”, but it is absolutely delicious because it’s so chocolate-y and moist. I’ve adapted it slightly according to my own baking experiments.

I’m also planning some millionaire’s shortbread with a marbled chocolate topping as most folks love the combination of buttery shortbread, super sweet caramel and the crisp chocolate topping. I was toying with the idea of coconut ice too – retro but pretty, hmm?

 

Nigella Lawson’s Dairy and Gluten-free Chocolate Cake

  • 50g good quality cocoa powder (Green & Black’s make a nice one)
  • 125ml boiling water
  • 150g ground almonds
  • 3 large, free-range eggs
  • 150ml olive oil (the mild stuff, not the extra virgin kind)
  • 225g golden caster sugar
  • 1tsp gluten-free baking powder
  • 2tsp vanilla extract or paste

Pre-heat the oven to 170 degrees C. Grease and line a loose-bottomed square 20cm cake tin.

Mix the cocoa powder with the boiling water and whisk until smooth. Leave to cool.

Using an electric hand mixer, beat the eggs and sugar together with the vanilla extract for three or four minutes until you have a smooth, pale-yellow coloured mix.

Add the eggs and whisk in one by one. Add the cocoa and water and the ground almonds and mix thoroughly (using a wooden spoon to keep the volume the eggs have added). Add the baking powder and mix in.

Bake for 40-45 minutes. If you stick in a skewer or a knife it should come out with a few crumbs sticking to it. Turn out, leave to cool and cut into squares. You can serve as a cake  dusted with icing sugar just before serving, or serve warmed with a spoonful of sweetened cream or ice-cream.

 

 

 

Cakes, Sausages and Quality Street: You Know it Makes Sense

If I knew you were coming, I'd a baked a cake, baked a cake

If I knew you were coming, I’d a baked a cake, baked a cake

Granted that most of us in the developed world eat for many reasons – few of which are hunger and the necessity of refuelling with nutrient-dense food – my family decided to use food as the basis of celebration and remembrance today.

My nephew came up with the idea of a ‘grandpa’ foods day, as today is the third anniversary of my dad’s death. I suspect that the motivation behind ‘grandpa’ foods day may have been the idea that it was a licence to eat Dairy Milk chocolate all day. My nephew is eight after all. Nonetheless, a meal which showcased all of my dad’s favourite foods was greeted enthusiastically by everyone, including those of us considerably longer in the tooth than eight years old.

The menu was thus:

My own contribution was the Coffee and Walnut Cake. Here’s the recipe:

  • 225g Stork margarine*
  • 225g golden caster sugar
  • 225g self-raising flour
  • 75g walnuts, chopped finely (the Pampered Chef vegetable chopper makes this really easy)
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1tsp vanilla extract
  • 1tbsp instant coffee dissolved in 50ml boiling water and allowed to cool

ICING:

  • 50g unsalted butter
  • 100g cream cheese
  • 200g icing sugar
  • 1tsp instant coffee, dissolved in 2tbsp boiling water and allowed to cool.
  • 8 walnut halves

1 x 20cm loose-bottomed square cake tin, greased and lined with baking parchment. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C.

Cream the margarine and sugar together with an electric hand mixer for five minutes. Add a tbsp of the flour and add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. You can add in one or two extra tbsps of flour to make this easier. Add the vanilla extract, the cooled coffee and the flour and mix well to combine. Add the finely chopped walnuts and mix with a wooden spoon until distributed equally throughout.

Spoon into the prepared tin and cook in the oven for 40-45 minutes (if you insert a skewer into the cake, it should come out clean). Leave to cool in the tin for five minutes, until turning out onto a wire rack and leaving to cool thoroughly.

For the icing, cream together the butter, cream cheese and icing sugar for five minutes and then add the cooled coffee mixture. Chill in the fridge for 30 minutes. Ice the sides and top of the cake and decorate with the walnut halves. Serves 12-14.

 

*I know, I know – purists would favour unsalted butter (preferably organic, preferably from grass-fed animals) but Stork is the baker’s secret. Light cakes every time! Don’t you reckon?

Words Vs Cake: Cake Wins

 

Delia Smith's Sachertorte - yum...

Delia Smith’s Sachertorte – yum…

Post wedding I need other topics to write about (*sighs*) so I decided to make my blog about cooking and writing.

Should the two pair together you ask? Writers, I believe from a quick straw polls of friends, are the kings and queens of procrastination… They have turned it into an art form and cooking is the ideal tool for procrastinators.

Picture the scene. You sit in front of your screen staring at the blank document in front of you. You stare into space for five minutes or so. You write 15 words. You re-read them. You discard them as utter, banal rubbish, highlight them and delete. Repeat ad nauseum.

Picture the scene two. You do all of the above, but after the 15th time of staring into space, you think to yourself: “Aha! My partner/family/friends/cat has always hankered after a home-made pork pie, one that needs many ingredients, complicated pastry techniques, tricky meat jelly developments and HOURS AND HOURS in the kitchen.”

As a writer, you abandon your screen with joy. “Hooray!” you say to yourself. “My partner/family/friends/cat need me to create said, complicated home-made pork pie. The demanding so-and so’s! I must jump to it and get myself into the kitchen ASAP. This could take DAYS.”

Do you see then the natural affinity that writing has with cooking? Baking seems to be a particular favourite. In theory as the writer cum baker allows their home-made pastry to rest in the fridge, a good 500 words or so could be bashed out while waiting.

I think not. The baker cum writer hovers by the fridge, tidies the kitchen surfaces so that said pastry can be rolled out and does a quick check of friends’ social media updates.

Which leads me neatly to complex recipes. I have scoured the internet for the complicated, the multi-ingrediented, the tough of task and the time consuming. Here they are (writers you can thank me later):

Macaroons
Sachertorte
Millionaire’s shortbread (well, of course I’m going to reference my own recipe)
Gravadalax
Christmas cake 
Swiss roll

 

The Top 10 Ingredients for an Awesome Hen Night

I promise you, oh reader, tonnes of people attended this party and drank a mere one glass each.

I promise you, oh reader, tonnes of people attended this party and drank a mere one glass each.

Stick the word ‘hen’ (bachelorette in US/Aussie speak) in front of ‘party’ and certain ideas spring to mind – mainly the lewd, rude and crude.

I am a sophisticated lady of a certain age (what I actually mean is that my idea of a rollickin’ good time is buying delicious magazine and I struggle to stay awake beyond 10pm of an evening) and thus night clubs, cocktails and chocolate shaped to resemble male body parts were never going to appeal for a party which supposedly marks the end of spinsterhood.*

I appealed to middle sister and she leapt at the challenge of a hen party. It was amazing – fizz featured heavily, baking abounded and laughter lingered long into the following day as my mum, sisters and I recounted all that had happened.

So in the spirit of generosity, I’d like to share with you my ideas for the top 10 hen night ideals:

1. Good friends. Obvs! Luckily, I possess witty and interesting chums so that was the easy part. One of the friends whom I met years ago when I moved to a brand new city was generous enough to introduce me to all of her friends so I didn’t need to find any of my own. This excellent tactic of identifying a popular and generous soul and then ingratiating self into that person’s company is one I would advise any of you moving to a new place to adopt.

2. Good bakers. I know a genius baker and she made me my very own Swiss roll, complete with my name on it too. One sister made cheese scones, another Victoria sponge and a friend brought a cupcake bouquet.

3. Silly games. Consequences and charades, namely, and a friend who is an excellent raconteur**. A few glasses of fizz and the hilarity obviously increases ten fold.

4. Prizes. Naff ones. My sisters have small children and therefore any kid’s party needs a prize for each child so no-one feels missed out. Tiger moms may disagree – does competition motivate and create future leaders? – but mum and sisters decided to apply the same principle to my hens and toured charity and pound shops to provide prizes so that every one of us won something. As a result, people won the world’s biggest bra, a Charles and Diana commemorative plate,  a bottle of femfresh (ahem!) and a Katie Price face mask (and others).

5. Oh, fizz obviously from the picture above. We sipped decorously.

6. A fine spread of gorgeous grub in general… Some of us**, ahem, maybe did not sip so decorously, but there was a lot of food to soak up the alcohol units (clean eaters, look away now) – quiche, crisps, dips***, chocolate cake, millionaire’s shortbread and pizzas.

7. Enter the wine tasting element. We used the excellent thirty-fifty company. They came to my house! They were very knowledgeable! They shared excellent wines! They identified super tasters!****

8. Wine tasting also involved cheese tasting. A match made in heaven surely…? Aged cheddar, really squidgy brie and a beautiful blue.

9. Family members who are super organised and can email folks, co-ordinate arrangements and arrange games on top of all that. Me, not so – therefore step forward Brenda, Lucy and Sally and take a bow.

10. Good friends, again! Thank you Pam, Julie, Maryanne, Lucy, Jackie, Josie, Morag, Val, Louise, Lorna, Connie, Jacqui, Helen, Astrid – and Karen, sorry you missed it for the snow!

 

*Oh, here I am being snotty about certain elements of a hen party and a willie water pistol did feature in mine. And a small, blow-up male doll with a large appendage.

**Pam, and er actually all of my friends tell an excellent story…

**Erm, the bride to be might have been one of the over-indulgers in all things fizzy and alcoholic. Yum and regrets.

***Anyone else remember that film? Weird Science… so whenever I hear the phrase ‘chips and dips’, I want to say Kelly LeBrock’s immortal lines ‘chips, dips, chains and whips’.

****I was one (ha ha ha) and then the genetic connection was proved – mum and two sisters proved to be also. Now, what can be done with said skill…?

 

Lordie… January Blues…

Image

Doing double time on the detox – cakes and wine are playing a much less significant role in my life these days, money spending is at a minimum (I’ve got a wedding to pay for, for heaven’s sake!) and, as I’ve been fairly organised so far, I can’t even write any more lists for said wedding.

Dull, dull double dull!

So, post-work I’m forced to find other ways to entertain myself, such as tidying up the kitchen cupboards. Most of it was tedious, but the ordering of the baking cupboard was joyful and it is now a thing of beauty, which leads me neatly on to another top ten list (thank you Lesley Carter) – the baking essentials:

  1. Digital scales for precise measuring

  2. Cup measures so you can easily use American recipes as well as British ones

  3. Vanilla extract/paste for delicious flavouring

  4. 70% cocoa solids dark chocolate (so many lovely things to create with it)

  5. A good, solid mixing bowl

  6. Condensed milk (see dark chocolate above)

  7. Soft brown sugar

  8. Icing sugar

  9. Stork margarine – use half and half with unsalted butter for lusciously light cakes

  10. ANYTHING from Lakeland.

Mint Choc Chip; Cake that Also Freshens Breath

Made by my own fair hand (not the hand in this pic!)

Made by my own fair hand (not the hand in this pic!)

Five months to go to the wedding and I’m still obsessing over making my own cake and what form this should take…

So, I’ve experimented with a Rachel Allen recipe for a chocolate mint cake she has suggested as a  New Year celebration option. There’s a link to the original recipe above, but my own version involved the odd substitution.

A few years ago, I wasn’t that keen on baking as it involved precision, whereas I’m an easy-osy kind of gal. Recipe says one tsp chilli flakes, I immediately think two or three. 25G grated cheese? Nowhere near enough. No onions in the fridge, let’s substitute celery kind of thing.

Then I decided on a cake and fizz theme for my birthday this year and spent a blissful weekend with my mum and sister baking cakes in advance of the event. Oh the joy of measuring, mixing, beating and watching the magic work. It also helps that an afternoon of baking fills your home with warm vanilla scents and produces such delicious results (though my whisky and sultana cake wasn’t that great…)

A few more cakes down the line and confidence creeps in – what if I swapped this for this? I’m not so keen on butter icing (too sweet) either, so mixing and matching toppings and flavourings is fun too. And you wouldn’t believe the number of great baking blogs and websites out there!

Anyway, here it is – my Rachel Allen-inspired mint choc cake:

  • 75g baking margarine
  • 75g unsalted butter
  • 150g golden caster sugar
  • 200g self-raising flour
  • 3 large, free range eggs
  • 125g plain chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
  • 50ml double cream
  • 100g after dinner mint chocolates (broken into small pieces)
  • Pinch of salt

Icing:

  • 200ml double cream
  • 200g full-fat cream cheese
  • 200g icing sugar
  • ½ tsp green food colouring
  • 20g mint leaves, chopped finely
  • After dinner mint chocolates, halved into triangles

Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease and line a 20cm square baking tin with parchment paper. Line the sides too, so that they overlap the top of the tin (it makes for a better finish on your cake).

Melt the chocolate and double cream together, either over a pan of hot water or in the microwave. Beat the margarine, butter and sugar together until light and fluffy (this takes about five minutes, even if you are using an electrical mixer). Add the eggs one at a time and then add the cooled chocolate mix and continuing beating until well combined. Fold in the four, pinch of salt and the broken up chocolate mints. Put the mix in the prepared tin and cook in the oven for 40-45 minutes.

Let the cake cool in the tin for five minutes and then turn out onto a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.

For the frosting, mix a tbsp of the icing sugar with the mint leaves and pour over 3tbsp just boiled water. Steep for an hour and then strain (keeping the liquid and discarding the mint leaves). Whisk the double cream together with the liquid until thick. Beat the remaining icing sugar with the cream cheese until combined and then whisk in the double cream. You should get a fairly thick mixture. Add in the green food colouring until you get an even colour.

Use to decorate the top of the cake and then cut into evenly-sized squares. Top each square with a halved after dinner chocolate mint.

VERDICT FROM MY FIVE-YEAR-OLD NIECE: yuck. I’ll put that down to the intense chocolate flavour… And if I was making it again, I’d split the cake and put icing in the middle too.

 

 

Everything Good Begins with a ‘C’

Chocolate cakes made at the Tennents Training Academy

Chocolate sponge topped with chocolate butter cream, white chocolate sprinkles and chocolate truffles. Mmm-hmm…

Upmarket spa days, cocktail making classes, cupcake decorating lessons or an old-school piss up…

All appear to be options for a hen night. I’d also considered another option – no hen night – thinking along the lines of ‘once again, why this unnecessary encouragement to spend money?’ But friends asked, expectations were raised and yet again the pink, fluffy roller coaster that is wedding planning swooped me up.

Customised t’shirts, pink Stetsons, L plates and handcuffs probably won’t play any part of the night; I also want to keep costs as low as possible so that rules out options too. If I had the space at home, I’d do a home-made option – come round to my house in the afternoon, drink Cava and eat cakes I’ve made.

Alas, chairs are few and we currently own a very badly behaved cat prone to throwing up, knocking over wine glasses and partial to stealing cake off plates. (Seriously, he does.)

At the weekend, my mum, a good friend and I tried out the Tennents Training Academy’s chocolate and champagne evening. We got a one-course meal, two glasses of champagne and a lesson in making and decorating chocolate cakes. Oh, and there were plenty of chocolate sampling options for the cocoa-obsessed punter…

The evening once more confirmed to me my lack of patience (those white chocolate pencils we had to create were flippin’ hard) but was indeed great fun. Since then, I’ve had visions of good, girlie fun in the training academy despite the fact that I have mild anxiety issues around group activities (wah! Too many people! Gotta talk to them all! Are they having fun, oh no they’re really, really bored…)

The academy also does wine tasting so I’m wondering about a bit of cake making in the afternoon with wine in the evening – opt in and opt out so that no-one has to spend too much money. A solution, non?

And finally, after all the sweet stuff we need to include cheese. When human beings stumbled upon the making of cheese, it was among the finest evolutionary discoveries ever. My hen party needs, therefore, to find a way to pay tribute to the world’s most magnificent food…