July 2009


I’ve often thought that making celebratory cakes to order would be the most rewarding of all jobs, for me at least. I now realise that, although this may be true, it is also pretty damn stressful, particularly when baking for your boss’s boss’s 50th birthday.

Having come to terms with the idea of selling out and baking for ‘the man’, I went into panic mode when faced with the sheer quantity of cake recipes in the seemingly innumerable cookbooks lining my shelves. It had to be special, which means ‘iced’ in my book, but also had to be suitable for transporting to the office on a packed bus. It needed to be a celebratory treat: not too worthy, not too plain, but not too light and fluffy.

When I got to the Ottolenghi cookbook, I remembered their apple and olive oil cake with maple syrup cream cheese icing, which had had my parents in raptures the first time I’d made it. This, surely, was the cake. Interesting and unusual enough for my purposes, but greedily, delectably iced. With the dawning realisation that this cake would need to feed a hell of a lot of people, I sought some expert advice (huge thanks to Sarah, and to Yotam Ottolenghi himself), and was instructed to work to 1.7 times the original quantities for my bigger tin. (Greedy cake-fiend that I am, I decided to simply double the quantities and use the remaining mixture to make a smaller, loaf-shaped version of the cake, which we enjoyed last night with custard made from the surplus egg yolks. Waste not, want not…)

Apart from the fact that I forgot to peel the apples (which didn’t matter at all in the end) and struggled to deal with the batter in even my largest mixing bowl – and that the the giant cake took hours to cool down, holding in heat like an enormous duvet – it all went very well indeed. Transportation of a large iced cake presents an interesting challenge, in this case necessitating the construction, by a willing and very helpful boyfriend, of a tall cardboard collar to go around the springform tin, raising the covering of foil and protecting the top of the icing in transit.

And most importantly, the birthday boy (and, apparently, half the office) seemed to think it was delicious. “It’s like the whole world of desserts in one mouthful”, apparently – thanks, Phil! The bought cakes were relatively neglected, which is always gratifying. As nice as it is to have any cake on your birthday, surely a homemade one trumps the rest.

"It's like the whole world of desserts in one mouthful" – thanks, Phil!
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Even after last week’s giant cupcake extravaganza, I was monumentally excited to hear that a new cupcake shop would be opening in Covent Garden’s piazza this week. Yes, you can always make your own, but sometimes you need a quick fix of sugary, cakey perfection, and Ella’s Bakehouse can certainly help you out on that score.

At £2 a pop, these delicious morsels are just the right size, with a perfect icing-to-cake balance (take note, Peyton & Byrne. There shouldn’t be more icing than there is cake). We settled on a selection of three cupcakes between the two of us, purely in the interest of research, of course.

First up, the red velvet

First up, the red velvet

The red velvet cupcake was gorgeous, and tasted just as good as it looked, with smooth, sweet cream cheese icing and chocolatey red sponge.

My favourite was to follow, however: the peanut butter cupcake. I’m only really a fan of peanut butter when it’s offset by something sweet – chocolate, most often – and so the salty, nutty chunks worked a treat alongside the topping. The edible glitter was just the icing on the cake (forgive me that one).

Clockwise from left: red velvet; peanut butter; ginger with white chocolate icing

Clockwise from left: red velvet; peanut butter; ginger with white chocolate icing

The ginger cupcake with white chocolate icing was the least successful of the three. Although still perfectly cooked and textured, I would have liked some more ginger flavour; perhaps a few little chunks of crystallised ginger in the sponge for a bit of fiery zing. Still polished the whole thing off, of course. Is it wrong that I ate it for breakfast?

P.S. I went back for mini vanilla cupcakes with buttercream a few days later…

P.S. I went back for mini vanilla cupcakes with buttercream a few days later…

Armed with cameras and peckishness, we traipsed up into Covent Garden at lunchtime to get a look at this giant cupcake we’ve been so looking forward to. The sun had decided to come out for the occasion, and a snaking queue of tourists led to a low, covered stage in the midst of the crowd. Our major concern was about whether or not the cake, when cut, would reveal an inside of normal-sized cupcakes squished together, or whether it would just be one giant cake. And how on earth would you cook such a thing?* I guess it’s that sort of knowledge (and a massive oven) that wins you the Culinary Olympics.

Doesn't look much like a real cake to me…

Doesn't look much like a real cake to me…

Rather than queue up for a few crumbs, I opted for eats from a Gujarati vegetarian stall at the food market: a thali consisting of a potato curry and a lentil one, rice, tomato and onion salad, raita, and chutney, along with an onion bhaji and a mango lassi. Delicious al fresco lunch.

*What a cop-out! It’s actually lots of smaller sponges stuck together (thanks to the Guardian for clearing that up). All of my illusions have been shattered.

In celebration of a chum’s birthday (happy birthday Helen!), Nigella was called into service last night. Not the lady herself, unfortunately, but her chocolate and pistachio cake recipe (from How to be a Domestic Goddess) was possibly even better. Yes, it does require six eggs and a tonne of pistachios, but it’s not actually as stodgy as it sounds. The egg yolks are beaten into the ground nuts and sugar, but the whites are whipped into a light meringue that’s then folded into the rest of the mixture, lightening it all and acting as a raising agent in the flour-free cake. I took Nigella’s advice and added a drop of orange-flower water to the rich ganache icing for a fragrantly exotic finish.

The perfect indulgence?

The perfect indulgence?

Far be it from me to blow my own trumpet, but reactions so far have been pretty good.

Rather than cutting myself any slack on the cooking front last night, it seemed like a good idea to cook a long-winded dinner for myself and my other half at the same time as the cake. (To be fair, it wasn’t the fault of the recipe that we didn’t eat until 10pm… I’m just not very good at speed-cooking. I’d rather take my time and enjoy cooking for its own sake, not just as a means to an end.)

I’d decided to revist the Cranks Bible for inspiration. My initial excitement upon receiving this tome as a birthday gift four years ago quickly paled into annoyance at what I perceived to be the irritatingly verbose style and unnecessarily lengthy description of many of the dishes and processes. I’m prepared to completely eat my words, however. Maybe it’s just that I’m a more confident (and definitely more knowledgeable) cook these days, but these recipes seem as appealing again now as they did when I first acquired the book and sat up night after night to pore over it and debate which dishes to cook first.

I settled upon the pilaff with broad beans, raisins and almonds, accompanied by some lemony yoghurt, and chantenay carrots braised with saffron and cumin. I’m a huge fan of broad beans and am racing through my repertoire of recipes before the season ends (Valentine Warner’s fruitalia is next on the list), and this dish allows them to shine rather than being drowned out by stronger flavours. Their fresh greenness is perfect with the nutty rice, sweetened by plump raisins and the delicately oniony flavour of fried shallots, and moistened by a blob of lemon-laced Greek yoghurt on the side.

A nugget of purest green…

A nugget of purest green…

Ricey goodness

Ricey goodness

 

The carrot recipe is a revelation: cooked gently with olive oil, cumin, saffron, garlic and Tabasco, these would surely convert any carrot-hater. Carrots that actually taste of something, sweetly spiced, without a hint of sogginess. And they still tasted delicious cold in my packed lunch the next day.

So you think you hate carrots?

So you think you hate carrots?

I’ve heard the wonderful news that a giant cupcake is set to touch down in Covent Garden market this Thursday. There’s nothing I like better than a cupcake, naturally, and I have high hopes for this one. Created by the masterly hands of Culinary Olympic winner Michelle Wibowo, it might actually be edible, even on such a scale. I may be resisting the urge to take the morning off to stake my place at the front of the queue, but my elbows will most definitely be sharpened for the occasion.

Can it possibly rival this Ottolenghi beauty?

Can it possibly rival this Ottolenghi beauty?

Cake sale time: I made the Hummingbird Bakery‘s strawberry cheesecake cupcakes for our office’s strawberry-themed charity sale (in aid of Breast Cancer Care and Breast Cancer Haven).

 

The bird's eye view doesn't really show these off, but I took this photo covertly on the bus so it can't be helped.

The bird's eye view doesn't really show these off, but I took this photo covertly on the bus (don't ask) so it can't be helped.

It’s the third time I’ve made these cakes, and they’ve always met with yummy sounds. It’s a basic cupcake mix with plenty of chopped fresh strawberries added to the cases before the batter’s added and baked, then topped with a cream cheese icing and crumbled digestive biscuits when cooled. It’s the only thing I’ve made from the Hummingbird book so far, but I’m seriously tempted by the brownie topped with baked cheesecake and then finished with raspberry cream. Too decadent?

Incidentally, the one time I wandered by the Hummingbird on Portobello Road, the queue was insanely long and the whole experience looked unbearably stressful. We cut our losses and went to Ottolenghi on Ledbury Road instead.

A very big ‘thank you’ to the lovely people at Crumbs and Doilies, who are generous enough to offer a lucky Twitter follower or two a chance at a free box of twelve mini-cupcakes from their Covent Garden food market stall of a Thursday afternoon. Last Thursday, I was, let’s be honest, messing about on Twitter when I spotted their offer and hot-footed it up the road to the market. My efforts were rewarded with this box of delights:

Didn't manage to get a photo of the full set – they were much too popular

Didn't manage to get a photo of the full set – they were much too popular.

So thank you again! We wolfed them down, and I was hugely popular in the office (for about half an hour). The sponge was tender, the decorations sweet, imaginative, and painstakingly executed. Absolutely lovely all round.

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