Wednesday, 26 August 2009

House hunting

While visiting my parents last week I decided to do a spot of house hunting. The first was quite small, only eight or so bedrooms, open courtyard for afternoon tea and a drawing room with only enough room for one piano. Cramped, but cosy, we'd cope, but it might be a struggle. It's saving grace however was the beautiful walled garden and large greenhouses. Definitely something that would be worth compromising for.

Then I saw this, large with the grandeur that befits our cat (because yes, he is the head of the household). It comes not only with cottages for the staff, it's own hydro-electic power station and a large kitchen with downstairs scullery, but with a whole separate room for making jam. Now that's what I'm talking about.

In all honestly the prettiest places we saw were indeed the staff cottages.

I could just see us in one of these, N curled up writing, and me sewing or knitting, Sniff lounging in front of the fireplace or pottering in the garden.

One day....

Ah, I love the National Trust.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The taste of summer

The last couple of days here have been glorious sunshine, the kind of summer I long for now. I think I've mentioned before that I didn't used to be a summer person, and in some respects I still thrive in the autumn (like Siri, it's the spiced warm flavours and more wintery recipes that dominate my repertoire), which is probably why our shrugging off of the hot weather here and holidaying in the New Zealand winter felt more like a bonus season than a missed opportunity for beach trips and sunbathing.

However, there are many things about summer that draw me in every time, and make me realise that what I really want is a true mix of seasons rather than the seemingly eternal "blah" that most people associate with the British weather (it's not that bad. Well, not always at least). There are two things for me that would make me wish for longer summers, and that's tomatoes and bread. Throw basil into that mix, perhaps with a dry white wine and you've got me, hook, line and sinker.

You can probably guess that we spend most of the summer combining tomatoes and bread as much as possible. Okay, frankly I tend to force this into the depths of winter if I can, so it's not strictly a summer thing, but we all know that those summer tomatoes beat everything else hands down. Usually I roast a bunch of tomatoes whilst making bread and then we have dinner that involves dipping bread into warm roasted tomatoes and their juice. Then suddenly last week I was hit with inspiration, and honestly, I can't believe I hadn't done it before. This time I took some semi-dried tomatoes, chopped them up with some of their oil, tore a whole load of basil and mixed them together, then poked the mix into my rising dough.

The result? Heaven! N said he thought it might be the best thing I've ever made. Fortunately I'd made a huge batch, so for lunch the next day I sliced the pieces in half and made sandwiches. Oh-so-good.
So, before the summer is over, before those light evenings disappear, make some of this, pour yourself a glass of wine and relish that vitamin d while it lasts.

Semi-dried tomato and basil focaccia - makes lots.

I cut it into probably 8 pieces, and careful it is very hard to resist not stuffing your face with all of them, there was nearly a fight in our flat over the portions. N won, in case you're wondering, because coming between that man and food is a dangerous business and no mistake (it's almost as bad as coming between Sniff and food, and you don't wanna go there).

500g strong white flour (or plain if you're out, like I was)
15g fresh yeast (or 10g dried instant)

50ml olive oil (the better the quality, the better the bread)

320ml water (I weight mine for accuracy)
Large handful of basil

semi-dried or roasted tomatoes (it's up to you, I used some from a local deli, but next time will just roast my own: punnet of cherry tomatoes, halved and laid cut-side up in a roasting pan, spray with oil and a dash of balsamic vinegar if you like it, sprinkle of salt and some more basil, cook at 190C until just going black at the edges, which will depend on the size of your tomatoes, usually about half an hour for me)

Place the flour and yeast into a bowl with a pinch of salt and stir (if it's fresh yeast crumble it over the top of the flour), make a well in the middle of the flour mix and pour in the oil and then the water. Mix until just coming together and then turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and kneed for about ten minutes, until it is smooth, elastic and no longer sticking to the work surface. Alternatively, place in a mixer with a dough hook and mix until the dough is smooth and elastic. Place bag into the bowl, slightly oiled and leave to rise for about an hour in a warm draft-free place, covered with a cloth.

Meanwhile, oil a large sheet baking tray (like a shallow swiss roll pan).

Once the dough has doubled in size, knock it back gently and then place the dough in the centre of the oiled pan and gently spread it out to the sides using the balls of your hands. You can oil your hands it if helps. Leave to rise for another 45mins or until almost double again.

Meanwhile tear the basil and place in a bowl with either a dash of olive oil, or oil from the semi-dried/roasted tomatoes. How many tomatoes you use is up to you, I like to have lots, so used a large handful. Chop the tomatoes into about thirds and toss with the basil. Leave to stand for five minutes.

Preheat the over to 200C. When the dough has risen, gently poke bits of the tomato and basil mix into it reasonably evenly all over it, any leftover oil rub over the dough. Then cook for 25-30mins until just going golden at the edges. Remove from the over and stand for five minutes before eating.

Friday, 14 August 2009

It's time for cake.

There's about to be a celebration. Just a little one, it'll involve going to the pub and drinking some very fine organic cider and ale. It will probably involve stopping on the way at the luxurious knitting shop and buying purple wool.

What's there to celebrate, I hear you ask? Well, a collection of little things that are about to coincide. Firstly, I think today I will finish the main writing of my thesis. I don't want to get ahead of myself, but I think there are only a couple of hundred words left to write. Quite the achievement for me, especially considering how much baking I've managed to fit in around it! Secondly, I'm going Up North next week to visit the folks. They've just returned from the most amazing holiday ever, and I haven't been back since December, so it's time. I want to swap holiday photos, knit and sew with Mum and steal as many of my father's amazing photography skills as possible! Finally, it's about to be the weekend. It may seem silly, but it's been "one of those weeks" and not having to get up early tomorrow is such a great and wonderful thing that I think it warrant a raising of glasses. Many glasses!

I think you should all celebrate with me, and so I bring you cake. Yep, this is the very recipe I used for the wedding cake. You should make it, you should treat yourself this weekend because I think y
ou deserve it. It's rich, chocolatey, incredibly moist, and doesn't involve any boiling of eggs! Go ahead...

I'm afraid aside from the finished cake I don't have many photos as I was a little tied up in making everything as perfect as possible to grab the camera - and those sticky chocolatey fingers weren't going anywhere near my nikon! I have however got a couple of the filling and icing process which I'll share because for large cakes the technique I used was really helpful.

Super Sexy Chocolate Cake
- serves you! (and maybe a friend or two if they're very lucky)

This recipe makes a large three layer cake, and made up the smallest "tier" of the wedding cake. To make the larger ones I just made lots and lots of this batter and hoped for the best. I also baked it at a lower temperature for longer. I totally recommend you indulge in the cake and share it with friends. Trust me, those will be friends for life! The other alternative is to make a simple two-layer cake and freeze the remaining batter. It freezes and thaws so well that it could mean in a few weeks time, when you're craving chocolate cupcakes, you've got the wherewithal sitting waiting!

I did everything in my mixer (because otherwise my arms would have fallen off I made so many batches,) but I've written it out for mixing by hand because frankly it's such an easy cake turning on
the mixer might seem like effort!

3 cups plain flour
3 cups caster sugar
1 1/2 cups cocoa powder

250ml Buttermilk

3 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
12 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature

3 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups freshly brewed coffee, cooled to room temperature

Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease and line three 8" round tins (or two and keep some batter aside)

In a large bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, and cinnamon, until combined. Add the butter and buttermilk and stir slowly until moistened. Once you're now longer puffing clouds of chocolatey flour in the air (I speak from experience, don't try this on high on your mixer!) you can start stirring faster until it's light and fluffy.

Whisk the coffee into the beaten eggs (the coffee must be cool or you'll cook the eggs, a big no-no!). Then add to the batter in 3 additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl and beating only until blended after each time. Divide the batter among the prepared pans; each tin will take about 3 1/4 cups of batter if you're using three tins,

Bake for 38 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove and cool completely before taking out of the pans (these are really moist cakes, so heed this instruction!).

When stacking I filled mine with a layer of swiss meringue buttercream and then strawberry jam. To avoid over-spill of the jam I piped a ring of buttercream around the edge of the top of each layer, like this:

This not only stopped the strawberry jam escaping, but helped with the stacking and overall icing.

I used the following icing recipe and loved it. I was worried because lots of people say it doesn't work, but if you keep mixing it does. You definitely need an electric hand whisk, or better yet a mixer for this as you need constant whipping action. If you don't have one, and don't need the cake to last long (as if it would!) then I highly recommend whipping cream by hand into peaks and then icing the cake with that. It'll make it like chocolate, strawberries and cream, oh yeah!

Chocolate Swiss Meringue Buttercream

1 cup sugar
4 large egg whites
12 oz butter, softened (the softer the better in my opinion)
1/2 cup of melted dark chocolate

4 tablespoons cocoa

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Whisk egg whites and sugar together in a big metal bowl over a pot of simmering water (I actually used the mixer bowl as it made the whole thing quicker and easier in the long run) until you can’t feel the sugar granules when you rub the mixture between your fingers.

Move the bowl to the mixer and whip the mixture until it turns white and about doubles in size. Watch for any steam or condensation, you do not want that getting into the mix or it won't whip properly (I put a tea-towel around the bowl as I lifted it to make sure)

Add the vanilla and whip to combine then add the butter a bit at a time whilst whipping (I was putting in about a tablespoon each time, I know it takes forever but it's worth it), then pour in the melted chocolate and the cocoa. Whip, whip, whip! It might seem like it takes forever to come together, (and you'll know when it does) but stick with it and you'll have a great icing and one that can withstand all sorts of pain (like travelling in a hot car!).

Monday, 10 August 2009

Just because...

...I can make a wedding cake, doesn't mean I can boil an egg!

Hatred of soft-boiled eggs (or any form of cooked eggs other than rock hard ones mashed with salad cream) + getting distracted by playing with the cat = strange alien egg formations in an over-boiled saucepan. Nice.

Back soon with a recipe for the most delicious chocolate cake ever (yep, it's the wedding cake one) and more "oh aren't I crazy to take on so much" confessions.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Let them eat cake

Are you ready?

Last Sunday N drove very very carefully from North London to Cambridge, with three very fragile, moist and decadent chocolate wedding cakes nestled in the boot and backseat of the car. I winced at every slight acceleration, every tiny curve in the road, and at every traffic light that flipped to red at the last moment (it was a lot people, the traffic light gods were not on our side). But we made it, without incident, and after the slight panic over cake stands, and only one minor disaster, the cake was be-decked in ribbon and flowers and standing proudly ready to go.

And here it is:

Many apologies for the not-great photos. I'd had a few classes of champagne by this point, to quell my nerves, and drink to perhaps the most perfect couple I know tying the knot. (I managed not to blub during the ceremony, but it was a close call!)

The florist is the one who did the great job with the flowers, so I can't take credit for that, but the cake and ribbon is all me, and I have to say I was a little bit proud. There are two moments that stand out for me. The first was when people started walking into the hall and taking pictures of the cake. I never thought that something I made would warrant other people taking photos. I mean, yes, I take pictures of the things I make all the time, but to see other people doing it during ooh's and aaah's really made my heart swell a little. It made me ponder how perhaps I could do this sort of thing after all.

The other moment that really got me was when the bride, my amazing friend D, cut the cake and then leaned in, put her nose milimetres away from it and took in a huge satisfied nose of chocolate fumes and grinned. It was at this point that I knew it would all be alright. She was happy with it, and that's all I wanted. I stressed during the whole thing that it wouldn't be perfect enough for their big day, and I didn't want to let them down. I got that big sigh and grin from her and knew I'd done okay. I relaxed, and took a large satisfied gulp of wine. Everything was okay.

I'm so pleased I did it. It was worth all the stress and worry just to see D eagerly scoffing a piece of chocolate cake in her beautiful dress with a massive grin on her face. She'd been so relaxed about the whole thing (seriously, I've never heard of a bride who says things like "as long as we've got a cake made by you that tastes good we don't care what it looks like" and actually means it!), and I think that's the only thing that made it possible. I'm not the world's greatest cake decorator, in fact I'm not that great at all, and know I could never actually make wedding cakes professionally, but to do something to make a friend happy is something that makes me happy, and I'd do it all over again for her.

I'd crack, separate and whip 14 egg whites to make four batches of icing, I'd chop over a kilogram of chocolate and melt it, I'd cover myself, the flat and every available surface with batter, strawberries, cocoa, and swiss meringue buttercream, I'd discover splatters of jam on parts of my arms days later despite showers, I'd blue-tak cake bases into boxes so they don't move in transit, I'd even tie 112 bows of ribbon (more on that in another post). I'd do it all because that smile of genuine pleasure on a friend's face is the best reward I could ever have.

Thank you D and A for trusting me with your cake. (and thank you N for putting up with a flat full of chocolatey mess, and an exhuasted stressed little me, and still being good enough to drive me to the wedding after having been at another wedding the night before - seriously, how much is this guy amazing?!)

p.s. - I'll post more about the process in a couple of days. I know it's Thursday, but believe me I'm still recovering from the carnage!