A slice of the action…

Taank Optometrists opened on Mill Road in 2003 and this year they are celebrating not only ten years of the practice but also one hundred years of there being an optometrists practice at the very same site. To mark the centenary, Taank decided to host a Bake Off on Saturday, with professionals and amateurs invited to make cakes along a glasses theme…

Stilt WalkerWith special guest David Baddiel set to judge the contest, alongside owner Anjana Taank, I knew that the day would be an entertaining one. I had been tempted to enter the Bake Off myself (though I’m not quite sure how the blog headline ‘David Baddiel at my cake‘ would have gone down…) but time factors meant it was going to be a bit too rushed. However, being at a Bake Off on Parkers Piece on a beautifully sunny Saturday afternoon felt like a very appropriate and ‘Cambridge’ thing to do and lots of passers by dropped in, as well as of course the bakers themselves and eager friends and families keen to see who would be crowned star baker. In fact there was a slightly surreal moment when I looked out of the marquee and saw people carrying cake boxes and slowly walking towards the marquee from all directions on Parkers Piece!

David BaddielWhen David Baddiel arrived he was more than happy to pose for photos and sign books brought along by fans. He admitted that the Bake Off was his first such event and that it probably wouldn’t do his waistline much good, but he and Anjana soon got in to the swing of judging the contest and quizzing the entrants about their cake designs and ingredients. There were lots of cakes to get through and so I reasured myself that not baking had actually been a good call – I don’t think David or Anjana would have thanked me if they’d had to eat any more cake!

Dame Edna inspired cakeI was intrigued as to what kind of designs people would come up with, but I have to say that every single one of the cakes looked fantastic and temptingly delicious. One of my favourites was a Dame Edna themed cake made by a lady called Christine – it was beautifully made with intricate icing designs and came complete with obligatory outlandish purple glasses, in fact I tweeted about it over the weekend and even had the real Dame Edna Everage spot it and favourite my tweet!

Despicable Me CakeThe Wooden Spoon award went to Paul Mearman, who made a cake in the shape of a glasses case, and the runner up was Reuben Daly who made an amazingly colourful multi-layered cake aptly called ‘The Spectrum’. The winner was Fiona McDuff (who some of you may know as the winner of the Cambridge Bake Off earlier this year) who made an absolutely amazing Despicable Me minion cake, complete with eye chart, Taank Optometrists logo and ‘100 Years’ glasses. She had obviously put a lot of effort in to getting it perfect and explained that the main part of the cake was made with around twelve layers! I had never seen anything quite like it before and she was a most deserving winner.

David Baddiel did a great job of judging and entertaining us all throughout, in fact I suspect he’d have a very promising new career should he ever decide to diversify into cake comedy (I adore Mel & Sue, but perhaps he could stand in when one of them is off sick…?). It was a great day out and a unique way to celebrate the centenary, and next time there’s a Bake Off near me I’m definitely entering…!

Chocolate fudge sponge cake

I decided to make a chocolate fudge sponge cake on Sunday, as a Father’s Day present for my Dad. It was my first chocolate sponge but after the success of my other recent cakes I hoped it wouldn’t be too difficult. I already had the fudge chunks in the cupboard and was able to get the rest of the ingredients on Mill Road. Although most of the chocolate sponge cake recipes I looked at suggested cocoa powder, after discovering this handy conversion table I decided to use melted chocolate instead…

Chocolate fudge sponge cakeIngredients
175g dark chocolate
125g softened butter
200g sugar
180g self raising flour
2 eggs
100ml milk
30g miniature fudge pieces
White icing (optional)

Melted chocolateI set the oven to gas mark 4 and started by lining the base of a buttered nine inch cake tin with a large sheet of greaseproof paper, adding a little more butter to the paper too. I then broke up a 100g bar of dark chocolate into chunks (it’s easier to do this before you open the packet!) and melted the pieces in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. I stirred this continuously while it melted and made sure that the bottom of the bowl didn’t touch the water and also that the chocolate didn’t boil. This took just a couple of minutes and I then set the chocolate aside to cool.

Sponge cakeI mixed 75g of soft butter and 50g of the cooled melted chocolate with 200g of sugar, before beating two eggs (one at a time) into the mixture. I then added 180g of flour, 100ml of milk and the remaining melted chocolate to my mixture – alternating between adding a little of each of the three ingredients and making sure I mixed thoroughly between adding each. I gave this another thorough mix for a couple of minutes before stirring in about 30g of mini fudge chunks. I poured the mixture into my lined cake tin and levelled with my new KBF (kitchen best friend!) – the spatula – before popping in the centre of the oven.

Chocolate fudge sponge cakeI’d normally expect one of my cakes to take about twenty minutes to bake, but this particular one took thirty before my skewer test was sucecssful. I set the cake aside to cool for a good twenty minutes before removing from the tin – which was easily done as I’d made sure the greaseproof paper lining was about 1cm bigger than the tin all the way round the edge. I let the cake cool for another half hour before making my cholcolate icing – this was made by melting another 75g of dark chocolate in a bowl over a saucepan and allowing to cool for ten minutes, before mixing in 50g of softened butter. After mixing thoroughly for a couple of minutes it was lovely and shiny in texture. I drizzled the rich chocolate icing over the cake, starting in the middle and working out to the sides – levelling off with a spatula.

chocolate fudge sponge cakeThe cake looked delicious covered in its rich chocolate icing, but it needed ‘Dadifying’ for its presentation later in the afternoon, so I used some white icing for the lettering and scattered a few more pieces of fudge over the cake. The cake went down a treat, with my Dad managing a whole three slices (!) in a matter of minutes. I shall definitely be making this cake again – next time double layered!

‘Five a day’ cake

Not that I need an excuse to bake, but yesterday was World Baking Day and I decided that it was about time I got more adventurous with my cakes. With my staples already purchased, I went to Hilary’s on Mill Road to get some fruit – a lemon, some large oranges, blueberries, strawberries and cherries (my bargain tip is the strawberries – just £1.25 a punnet!). I wasn’t sure yet quite what I was going to create, but all the fruit looked colourful and I was determined to use all of it in some way or another.

After looking at various sponge cake recipes I decided to base mine on this one, as it was for moist sponge cake – my last cake turned out a little drier than I had hoped. Instead of the vanilla extract I used fresh lemon juice.

Ingredients for '5-a-day' cakeIngredients
225g butter
400g fairtrade granulated sugar
4 eggs
310g self-raising flour
250ml semi-skimmed milk
1 tablespoon of lemon juice
Oranges & a lemon
Strawberries
Blueberries
Cherries

I preheated the oven to gas mark 4 and although the recipe says it’s for making three layers, I decided to hold off on greasing and lining my cake tins until I had made the mixture. I mixed the butter and sugar together thoroughly before beating in my eggs (one at a time). I then mixed the milk with some juice from the lemon (about a tablespoon), and added this liquid to my mixture – alternating between adding a little liquid then a little flour. Although I have an electric whisk, I didn’t use it and instead just beat thoroughly with a wooden spoon – there were a few tiny lumps of flour in the mixture, but I vaguely remembered that Mary Berry had said (during the Great British Bake Off) something about this being fine and in fact making the recipe better.

I had three cake tins but none were the same size and even though I borrowed a couple from neighbours I still couldn’t find two to match, so I used two similar ones – there was quite a bit of mixture, but not enough to comfortably fill three cake tins. I lined and greased the tins adding half of the mixture to each before putting in the oven. The recipe had said that they would take about 20 minutes to bake, though it was about 40 minutes before they looked ready (I guess it may have baked quicker if I’d used three tins). I did the skewer test (inserting a skewer into the cake, it comes out clean if the cake is ready) and although a little sticky I decided that it was fine as the cake was a lovely golden brown and in any case I wanted a moist cake. I removed the sides of the cake tins, though not the bases and then set aside to cool for about twenty minutes.

Homemade orange marmaladeThis gave me time to make some orange marmalade. I grated the zest of the orange into a separate bowl first (as I would need this later for the buttercream icing) and then cut the orange in half and scooped out the fruit from inside (turning each orange half inside out seemed a good way to do this). I then cut the fruit finely and discarded any large white bits. I heated my finely cut fruit in a small saucepan, adding a couple of tablespoons of water and after about ten minutes of simmering I added about 200g of sugar – I didn’t measure the fruit or sugar, but the general rule for jams seems to be using equal amounts of suagr and fruit. I simmered this on a high heat for another ten minutes – stirring regularly – and then put a teaspoonful on a plate in the fridge. After a couple of minutes it wrinkled when prodded, so I knew the marmalade was ready.

I carefully removed the cakes from their bases using a fish slice and spread a layer of marmalade over each. I mixed up some buttercream icing by combining 250g of butter with 550g of icing sugar before adding the orange zest I’d set aside earlier. I smeared some over the marmaladed bottom layer of my cake before placing the other layer of cake on top. I then spent a good twenty minutes smearing the rest of the buttercream icing all over the cake, making sure the sides and top were covered. This looked delicious, but not particularly healthy! So I added the remaining fruit – strawberries, blueberries and cherries – as decoration.

Five a day cakeI had never made anything as visually pleasing before and have to admit I was rather proud of my creation. I had planned to take some round to my neighbours, however all but three slices didn’t even make it out of my kitchen as word began to spread that a cake was being made. A friend said I should call it a ‘Five a day’ cake as it contains five different fruits – though you’d probably need to eat more than a whole cake to actually get your official five a day, so I’d advise against relying on it for dietary RDA’s (!). It tasted delicious and the sponge was lovely and lemony as well as perfectly moist. I will probably use the same sponge cake recipe next time, perhaps with about 40-50g more flour, though I’m definitely a few steps closer to creating my own signature sponge base – and once I’ve got that perfected, I can really have fun with the decoration!

Blooming delicious

I’d been promising myself for quite some time that I would learn how to make bread, so when I spotted that 16th – 22nd April was National Bread Week it felt like it was now or never…

Odlums flour millMy grandmother used to buy Odlums flour by the 10-stone bag and baked some 50,000+ loaves of bread in her lifetime – not because she ran a bakery, but because everyone baked their own bread every day in the rural farming village where she lived. So in the vague hope that some of the bread-making genes might have passed on to me, I asked my Mum for the soda bread recipe that both she and my grandmother used. One of the ingredients was buttermilk, but we had to wait overnight for Al Amin to get some delivered (thanks to Spice Gate – who also sell it – for pointing me in Al Amin’s direction as they were out of stock), so we decided to make a traditional Danish bloomer first.

Danish BloomerI had wondered what exactly a Danish bloomer was, though – as I was reliably informed by the half-Danish Mr Mill Road – bloomers originated in Denmark. So armed with our recipe (see left) we set about adding the yeast to 100 ml of the water and giving it a good mix. We then sieved the flour into a large bowl and  added the salt, before making a well in the centre. The yeast blend was added and also the remaining 340ml of water, before combining with a wooden spoon. After a couple of minutes it was time to get our hands dirty and we moulded it until a dough consistency was formed. We then dusted the worktop with some plain flour before kneading it for a good ten minutes; and although it had felt a little sticky at first, it soon reached the right texture as we began kneading. I could attempt to explain how to knead dough, but Paul Holloywood does it much better in this one-minute video.

After our ten-minute biceps workout (that’s what it felt like!) we shaped the dough into a slightly flattened ball and placed in a plastic bowl before covering with cling film. The bowl then went into the warm airing cupboard for a good hour, though we did excitedly check on it several times in the interim. We could see the dough had risen (though not quite doubled in size – as we’d hoped it would) and it was now time for our next ten-minute kneading session. The dough then went back in the cupboard for another hour, which was just enough time for us to pop out for a pint (well, April is Community Pubs Month!)

Danish BloomerWhen we removed the dough from the cupboard we put it in a low flat baking tin and shaped into a bloomer shape, before making five diagonal cuts across the middle with a knife. At this point, a friend popped over for an unexpected cuppa and it fortuitously transpired that in a former life he had been a baker! He explained that resting it in a very warm place for about fifteen minutes before putting it in the oven would help, and so we sat the baking tray in the closed grill area directly above the oven (we had already preheated the oven to gas mark 8 about ten minutes earlier). After the required fifteen minutes we removed it and the outside of the dough was just beginning to change in texture. It went straight in the oven for about twenty five minutes and when we removed it the outer edges were nice and crispy, and when we tapped the base of the bread it sounded hollow (another top tip from our baker friend). The smell of our freshly baked bread was amazing and after letting the bread sit for about half an hour to cool down, it was time to cut our inaugural slice… the texture was perfect and we enjoyed a couple of slices with just butter. The loaf kept well and remained nice and soft in the middle for the three days it took us to eat it all.

Oat bread recipeNext on our agenda was the soda bread. I picked up the buttermilk from Al Amin the following day and we set about preparing our ingredients. Although the recipe that we had used flour and a little oatmeal, for some reason we decided to experiment and use just oatmeal (no flour), so I guess we were making oat bread/cake… We spent a good half hour using a rolling pin to crush the oatmeal into small flour-like grains (another bicep workout!) before putting in a large mixing bowl with the bread soda (which I bought at Arjuna) and salt. We then added the buttermilk – which smelt a little like yoghurt and was thicker in texture than we had expected – and mixed thoroughly to form a dough. As we weren’t using yeast, there was no need to knead the dough or let it rise/prove, so we just rolled it on a well floured worktop for a minute or two in order to shape it into a ball.

Oat cakeThe oven was preheated to gas mark 6. We then placed the oaty dough onto a baking tray and cut a traditional cross in the centre, before putting in the warmed grill area for fifteen minutes (as with our bloomer). It was now ready to go in to the oven. We kept checking on it and after about forty minutes it looked ready, so we removed and did the hollow base test. We then left to cool on a wire rack and waited until the following morning before trying some. It was rather heavy and not at all like soda bread, but neverthless tasty – even more so when lightly toasted with butter and honey.

We had great fun making our bread and will definitely be doing it again, as the eventual plan is to try and bake all our own bread. Though I think it may be a while before we find our own recipe that’s both tasty and quick to make, so for now we’ll just keep on experimenting…

Orange buttercream marmalade sponge

Orange buttercream spongeI’ve been an avid viewer of the Comic Relief Celebrity British Bake Off over the last few days and have spent a lot of time dreaming about a multitude of cakey possibilities. So with Saturday all to myself, I decided that a spot of creativity was in order. I looked through the Bake Off recipes online and after much salivating and deliberation (would a hive cake really be a step too far??) decided that a two layered cake ‘seemed’ doable. I had never made one before, but figured it was about time I tried…

Beehive CakeI had planned to make two sponge cake layers sandwiched together with some buttercream and raspberry jam, with more buttercream on the top and fresh raspberries for decoration. But there were no raspberries in the shops of Romsey and I had to improvise. So I decided to use marmalade and oranges instead of jam and raspberries. I bought all the ingredients at the Co-operative though I must mention that Hilary’s were very helpful indeed and said they’d have some raspberries for me first thing on Sunday morning – which was great, as I will be making another cake very soon!

I started by lining two 7 inch cake tins with very soft butter and put a circular cut out of baking paper in the base of each, and I put the oven on to gas mark 4. I had looked at a few sponge cake recipes and they all seemed to suggest that for the cake mix I would need equal amounts of sugar, butter and flour plus an egg for every 200g or so of dry mix. So I started by mixing 250g of softened unsalted butter with 250g of caster sugar. I then beat four eggs into the mixture followed by 250g of self raising flour, and gave this all a good mix with an electric mixer. The consistency seemed a bit thick (it had been suggested that a ‘dropping’ consistency was best) so I mixed in a couple of tablespoons of milk to soften it up a little.

Marmalade layerI then added my mixture to the cake tins and levelled them off with a spatula before putting in the oven for about 30 minutes. As they were pretty big cake tins they wouldn’t both fit on one shelf, so I swapped them over half way through cooking. When they were ready (looked golden on top and a skewer I inserted came out clean) I took them out of the oven and put them to one side for a few minutes to rest; and after about ten minutes I removed them from the tins and put on wire racks to cool completely. It was now time to make the buttercream – I made sure I used soft butter and continually stirred about 200g of it whilst gradually mixing in 400g of icing sugar – this got quite messy and it was at this point I realised I had forgotten to put my apron on! When it reached a smooth consistency I stirred in the zest of an orange.

Orange buttercream spongeOnce my sponge cakes had cooled completely it was time to get layering! I spread a thick layer of marmalade over the top of one of the cakes (I would have made my own marmalade but didn’t have time this weekend, though will definitely be trying it at some point given the success of my jam attempt). I then turned the other cake upside down and spread a thick layer of the orange buttercream over it, making sure I spread it right up to the edges. Then I flipped the creamed cake back over and placed on top of the marmaladed one (this had to be done in one swift move!). This looked pretty tasty, but I still had plenty of buttercream left and was determined to make something that had more of an aesthetic wow so I spread the remaining buttercream over the top of the cake. I also had a little bit of orange zest left so sprinkled this over the cake. The result – delicious orange buttercream marmalade sponge!

I was very pleased with my first ever layered cake. Though when I took the cakes out of the oven they hadn’t risen quite as much as I’d hoped, so next time I will probably add a teaspoon or two of baking powder to the cake mixture – I was reading the Afternoon Tease blog yesterday and spotted that she had made a very similar cake last year, and the only difference in the sponge mix was that she had added a little baking powder (if only I’d spotted her recipe before I made my cake…!).

Delicious homemade orange buttercream and marmalade sponge cake!

My friends and neighbours were also very pleased with my baking efforts, for which they are a very willing set of ‘testers’ (!) and now there’s only two slices left. In fact, make that just one slice…!

Chocolate truffles!

I’ve had a very busy few days, but in an attempt to squeeze in some much needed ‘me time’ I decided I’d try my hand at making chocolate truffles. I had never made truffles before – of any kind – so this really was an ‘experiment’. Much as I love eating chocolatey truffle delights, I figured I probably ought to share the finished product with friends (well thirty odd truffles would be a bit much for one person) and given that one of my friends is a vegan I thought it only fair to make some for him to try too (by the way, November is World Vegan Month, but more on that another time).

Those of you following me on Twitter will know that I’d been trying to track down some vegan cream over the last few days, and thanks to @JudeClarke (who knows a thing or two about baking – and music), @CraftyGlitten (do check out her craft blog) and @MillRoadCo (the Mill Road Co-ordinator) I found just the thing in Arjuna. I wanted a vegan thick double cream equivalent, as the recipes I looked at all seemed to suggest double cream was key to getting the consistency right. As it turned out, Arjuna didn’t have a double cream equivalent as such, but they did have (vegan) spray whipped cream so I decided to give that a go.

Armed with chocolate, cream and cocoa powder, it was time to get started! Firstly I broke two bars of Montezuma Dark Chocolate (which is vegan friendly) into pieces and put in a glass mixing bowl, which I then placed over a saucepan of simmering water. The chocolate melted fairly quickly and I stirred it continuously to make sure there were no bits left (and that it didn’t boil). I put the bowl to one side to cool for about three or four minutes and then mixed in a small splash of Marsala wine (the same wine that’s used in the base of tiramisu desserts) which I’d bought at Limoncello. I then put about a third of the melted chocolate mix in a separate bowl – for making the vegan truffles.

For the vegan ones I added some of my vegan cream – as it comes in a spray can it
was hard to measure just how much I was using, but I’d say about a 30cm ‘length’ of cream. I just stirred it in slowly with a spoon until it was all mixed in together. For the non-vegan one I used about two heaped dessert spoons of extra thick double cream (from the Co-op) – which I then slowly stirred in to the melted chocolate until it was one smooth paste. Each mixture then went into its own square dish, and I smoothed each one down so it was about 2cm high – the paste mixtures were thick enough that even though they didn’t take up all of the base of the dishes, they held their shape. I then put each one in the fridge.

This gave me about ten minutes to sit in the garden with a well deserved cuppa. At this point on a Sunday, if I’m cooking, my neighbours cat would usually pop over and say hello, in the hope that I’m making some kind of chicken dish that he needs to test for me – but unfortunately he passed away on Wednesday afternoon (RIP Marley) and so I sat on my own, pondering the possibilities of feline re-incarnation and wondering just where the idea that cats might have nine lives came from.

After a ten minute break I got my truffle mixes out of the fridge. I cut each one into long slabbed strips of chocolate, with a knife. Just to make sure the truffle slabs didn’t start to melt I popped them back in the fridge for another five minutes. I then removed each slab and cut into pieces so that I then had about twenty five cubes of creamy chocolate truffle mix and ten cubes of the vegan one. I dusted each lightly with cocoa powder… and volia!

I had half expected things not to turn out right, especially as I couldn’t find the vegan cream I was after. But I was really impressed with the resulting truffles. Word had got round west Romsey (well, my neighbours!) that it was truffle day and I didn’t have to go far to find friends eagerly anticipating a chocolate fix – namely as far as my living room and next doors. Though I did pop across the garden and offer some to other neighbours too. Everyone loved the truffles, though I noted that the vegan ones were a tiny bit crumbly in texture – I think I will rectify this in future by not adding quite so much cream to my melted chocolate; and next time I’ll probably be a bit less liberal with the cocoa powder too.

If your past dessert attempts haven’t been too successful, or you are put off by the ‘baking’ aspect of cakes, then I suggest trying your hand at chocolate truffles. They are so easy and there’s no cooking required – except for melting the chocolate, but that’s half the fun (and you get to save on washing up by eating all the melted chocolateness that doesn’t quite make it into the mixture!).

Chocolate truffles – deluscious!