Pages

Monday, 18 July 2011

Leap of Faith

It may have become apparent by now, but I'm a lover of food. Ever since I was dextrous enough to slap my hands on a table, food has been something that excites me, that I want to learn about and that I want to share. My heart aches for those who have a difficult relationship with food, either through lack of it, fear of it, or through regarding it with insufficient understanding or respect, and I really believe in its power to heal, restore and transcend, if treated properly.

I have not, however, always had my current thirst for knowledge of it. I've never been a fussy eater, but like so many others, needed encouragement to push my own boundaries, both in terms of what I eat and what I cook. I have been shaped by many people in this regard. My grandmother, proprieter of 'Nan's Cafe' made me 'Uppity Cakes' because I wanted to know what they tasted like when she read me a bedtime story about them, and spotted my blossoming interest and allowed it to fire her own. My mother let me be free in the kitchen as soon as I could read 'Topsy and Tim's chocolate cook book' and is the first to pick up on comments I make on a recipe or food writer that interests me and run with it. My first love brought his gap-year restaurant job home, kindled my love of fish and recipe books, and taught me that I, too, could cook if I wanted to.

This hasn't been reflected in my choice of career, however, largely because I had no idea how to make it do so. I still don't have the long-term answer for this, but I am about to bring it a little closer. I've felt unfulfilled at work for some time now, the silver lining being the free time it allows me to cook, bake, research recipes and share food with friends. Being good at something does not guarantee enjoyment, I have learnt, and I have a GCSE in German to prove it!

Recently an opportunity to leave my job became clear and I decided to resign and give myself the push I needed to start acting on what I enjoy. Immediately, I found a position that matched my passion with my skills, and won an interview, only to find my lack of kitchen experience weakened my prospects. Undeterred, and with no other employment in sight, I handed in my notice and set about formulating a plan. If kitchen experience was what I needed, it is what I would get.

I've always been a believer that the best way to learn is to do, and that by showing someone how to do something new, two people stand to benefit. I considered my kitchen experience options and started making calls. Some nerve-wracking conversations, meetings, favours, discussions and meals (of course) later, I landed myself a combination job offer. I would split my time between an all-day seasonality-centric cafe and a modern european brasserie, both within half an hour from home, working a variety of shifts across all aspects of the business. I continue to feel very lucky for such an opportunity, and for the understanding of key people about where I'm coming from, and the fact that not even I know where I'm going to.

Having just reached the end of my first week, I am pleased to share that my decision seems to be going well! I've completed my first double shift, soon to become a foundation of my week, learnt about the opacity of chef's whites, washed, peeled, chopped, plated up and garnished everything from artichokes to tuna tartare. I have no scars yet but have been known to carry an unwipeable grin and effervescent conversation, two things that have been lesser-spotted for a while.

And so for the time being, this blog is going to recount my journey. I was asked this week if there was anything I particularly wanted to learn and I replied "Everything!!", so I will try to share my lessons with you. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Let them eat cake

I make no apology for saying that when I make a cake for someone's birthday, it's a 75% selfish act. Yes, it's time consuming, yes, I could be out, or doing laundry instead and yes it turns my kitchen into a bombsite (I have yet to work out how not to carpet all surfaces in icing sugar when making buttercream or frosting with a bowl and an electric whisk instead of an as-yet-still-coveted Kitchenaid), but I find it therapeutic and very rewarding. Not to mention an excellent outlet for creativity as long as you're adventurous enough.

My cake-making is still in it's infancy but I'm proud of what I can do and it excites me to think of all the possibilities out there still to be discovered.

For now, I'll share with you what has so far proved a reliable formula so you can give it a go and see how easy - and enjoyable - it can be.

I use Nigella Lawson's 'Buttermilk Birthday Cake' recipe from my well-thumbed copy of 'How to be a Domestic Goddess' because, just like she says, it holds it's shape well, can support weight admirably and, most importantly, tastes delicious. I combine her recipe with Lorraine Pascale's (of Ella's bakehouse and 'Baking Made Easy' fame) technique of smoothing cake surfaces before icing and the result is fantastic.

So I thought I'd share how I do this with you by using my most recent cake as an example.

My cousin, who nobody can quite get their head around having turned 40, least if all himself, likes his music. A LOT. To say that he has more records than he has probably had hot dinners is, well, probably just accurate, actually. His house moves are a total nightmare. So I hear. I've always managed to escape them, unintentionally but fortuitously. So, before I was asked, I knew I wanted to make his cake, and I knew it was going to be a turntable. A big one. The quantities below are a tripled-version of Nigella's recipe, but doubling would be enough if you didn't want some cheeky leftovers.

Firstly, have your butter warming up to room temperature and line your tins. I used a 30cm round tin, an 18cm sandwich tin and a silicone muffin tray. Grease the tins with butter using some kitchen roll before lining with baking parchment. First cut a strip long enough to wrap around the tin with a little spare, as wide as the tin is deep plus 4cm. Fold the bottom 1cm of the length of the strip and then cut at 2cm intervals from the bottom edge to the fold. This will help it to curve smoothly around the inside of the tin. Cut a disc of parchment the same size as the bottom of the tin and sit this on top of the side strip's flaps.



Preheat the oven to 180℃. Using an electric hand mixer, briefly whip 375g room-temperature butter before adding in 600g caster sugar and creaming together. I tried using vanilla sugar, made at home with spent vanilla pods in a sugar jar, once, but found this made the cake overly sweet, not a good plan when you have buttercream and icing to add later. The sugar and butter mixture is ready when the two have come together and appear to have increased somewhat in volume due to the air. Add 9 eggs, one at a time, mixing each in well for about 30 seconds.

Have two bowls at the ready: one with 750g plain flour, 4.5 tsp baking powder, 1.5tsp bicarbonate of soda and a good pinch of salt sifted together, the other with a mixture of 600ml buttermilk (you will find that shops sell this in 284ml pots; it can be topped up with milk) and 4.5tsp vanilla extract - the best you can justify buying. Next, alternate mixing in at moderate speed a few good tablespoons of each in turn. This makes A LOT of batter:



Pour the batter into the largest prepared tin. It is safer to bake these one after the other as the oven shouldn't be opened until at least 75% of the way through cooking, and if your kitchen is a relatively serene environment the batter in the other tins won't suffer for it while it waits.  For deeper tins, start by cooking for 30m before checking to see if the cake springs back when lightly pressed and a cocktail stick comes out clean. It is likely to need longer, in which case cover the top with two sheets of parchment to prevent burning. My largest cake needed about 45m.

When the cake is ready, remove from the oven and leave for 10-20m before turning onto a rack to cool, and leave the parchment intact as this helps keep the cake just moist enough. Smaller cakes will need 30m plus.


This is where the fun starts! While the cakes are in the oven, you can whip up the buttercream. Briefly whisk 300g room temperature butter to increase its surface area before whisking in a couple of tablespoons of 700g sifted icing sugar at a time. You will make a mess. Whisking through a hole in cling-film over the bowl could work, but is fiddly, and the cleanup operation doesn't take long. Each addition of sugar should be fully incorporated before the next. Once all the sugar has been blended in, add 2 tablespoons of milk (ideally whole, why skimp on the calories at this point?) and 1.5 teaspoons of vanilla essence. This is the point at which, should you be using the buttercream as standalone frosting, you could add food colouring, pastels working best. We're not using it for this, however.  If there are any particularly mutant-like lumps topping your cakes, these can be carefully carved off to create a flat surface. Then, using a pallet knife, cover the cake surfaces in buttercream like a master plasterer to smooth any dips, dents or bumps before chilling for half an hour. Repeat this so that you have 'plastered' two layers, the smoothness of the second being more important than the first. This will help the rolled icing to adhere to the cake and ensure a smooth finish, as well as adding a different texture to the finished mouthful.

Next it's time to cover your cakes. I bought a kilo of white icing and 300g of black from Hobbycraft, along with edible spray pearlescent icing, a small pack of orange icing, a pot of black food colouring paste and some cheap kids paintbrushes.  Stick the largest cake to a cakeboard, off centre in my case to allow for the 'headphones' later, using a blob of buttercream before kneading the white icing to soften. Dust a smooth work surface and a good rolling pin with a decent amount of icing sugar before rolling out your white icing into a round about twice the diameter of your cake and about 3mm thick. Use the rolling pin to lift the icing onto the cake and use the flat surfaces of your hands to smooth the icing onto the cake. You will need to carefully trim back the excess icing closely to the base of the cake. I used a thin 'rope' of black icing around the bottom perimeter - this handily disguises any uneven edges. You may additionally find it useful to dust your hands with icing sugar when smoothing the icing surfaces.  Reserving a ping-pong sized ball of kneaded black icing, create grey icing by kneading together the remaining black with white. Stick the next cake layer onto the centre of the base cake with buttercream and then protect the base cake with a sheet of greaseproof paper with a hole cut in it to fit over the second cake. This will stop you getting any grey smudged on your white base cake. Cover the second layer as before with the grey icing and then spray with the pearlescent icing, allowing to dry before removing the greaseproof and wrapping the base circumference with a black rope of icing.

You may want to cut out shapes from your leftover grey icing and spray these too, as I did with (40!) stars. I stick shapes onto my cakes with a blob of liquid glycerine, which can easily be bought from a supermarket, as this is clear and does not allow the shapes to slide.

Next for the record. I rolled out a disc of black icing as thinly as I could, whilst using as little icing sugar dusting as possible in order to keep the colour pure. This was cut slightly smaller in diameter than the top layer cake, and stuck to the top cake with glycerine. I used a clean comb to create the grooves, and painted the disc with glycerine to make it shiny.

To finish the record, I rolled an orange icing 'label', stuck this on as before and wrote on this using a fine paintbrush with the black gel food colouring. A silver candle provided the spindle. To make the arm, I wrapped a bendy straw in black icing and stuck this in a pillar of icing to the side of the top layer cake. The muffin-shaped cakes, with their lumpy tops, were perfect for headphones. I wrapped these in black icing, used a copper wire as the headband and a strawberry lace as the lead. And voilĂ ! One turntable cake!

Check out my links on the left for details of Hobbycraft stores, for the spray icing as well as lots of other exciting supplies for whatever cake YOU decide to create!

I'd like to think that my cakes go down well, they certainly seem to!


Hearts

Butterflies

Turntable