For a birthday cake with a difference, I’ve just cooked up a batch of Valentine Warner’s Orangey Honey Buns. They’re from his 2009 spring/summer cookbook (What To Eat Now – More Please!), but I think a taste of spring in the depths of this cold, damp winter is no bad thing. I know Warner isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I find his goofy, greedy enthusiasm infectious – like Jamie Oliver, he’s the sort of inspirational TV cook who makes me crave fresh, seasonal food and gets me back in the kitchen even when I’m exhausted and short of ideas.

When I first saw these adorable little cakes, made from a sweet, yeasty dough, being prepared on Warner’s television show last year, I’ve been desperate for an excuse to make them. Heart-shaped silicone muffin tray procured, I spooned in the surprisingly small quantity of sticky dough, packed with egg for a lovely glaze on the finished buns, and left them to prove. My cakes did not reach impressive heights – perhaps one of the downfalls of a freezing cold flat – but rose satisfactorily in the oven. The next stage is to make a syrup of sugar, water, orange zest, honey, Cointreau, and a drop of orange flower water, before packing the buns into a sterilized jar and pouring over the syrup. They’re drinking up the fragrant, boozy liquid as I type, ready to be presented to the birthday lady tomorrow. Happy birthday, Jessie!

They'll be even tastier tomorrow…

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Celebrating a friend’s last day in the office seems like the wrong thing to do, somehow; sometimes a good wallow is needed before the drinking can begin. Since we all needed to line our stomachs and indulge ourselves a bit, Nigella’s chocolate fudge cake seemed the perfect solution for Bryn’s leaving cake. A fitting farewell, because I know he has a bit of a soft spot for the lady herself, and suitably greedy for someone who’s been an enthusiastic consumer of pretty much anything I’ve baked for the office over the past couple of years.

As well as being packed full of Nigella’s usual indulgences (plenty of butter and decent chocolate), I can honestly say that this is the first sponge I’ve ever baked that contains sour cream and corn oil. Maybe those are the secret ingredients that kept the sponge moist and light, even after an hour in the oven and still by the end of the following day. I couldn’t smother the finished cake in the chocolate fudge icing as much as one would have hoped (Nigella recommends spreading the icing round the sides of the cake too – impossible when you have to put it back in the tin and cart it across London, I’m afraid), but I think I’m right in saying that it went down pretty well nonetheless…

 

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In a change from my usual, knee-jerk reaction to a birthday – bake a cake! – I decided to make something slightly different for my uncle’s 40th birthday last week. Well, not that different. It still involved baking. But I didn’t think I could come anywhere near the standard of the cakes made by the birthday boy’s partner, so I went for a chocolate and raspberry tart from Michel Roux’s Pastry (another one of my birthday presents).

I’m not one to shy away from making pastry anyway, but Michel’s pâte sucrée was the easiest I’ve ever made, in spite of the lack of an available slab of marble to make the dough on; his methods are clearly illustrated and straightforward. Hurray! The only blips were in my own amatueurish handling of the dough, probably rolling it too thickly and trimming the case a bit too short, with hindsight, and not supporting the sides adequately with baking beans (aduki beans don’t really do the job, I’ve discovered). The result was that the sides of the baked case had collapsed somewhat, as you can probably tell in the photos below; I like to think that it made it look more ‘homemade’, rather than just a bit ramshackle, but many more tarts will need to be made in an effort to improve on this front.

The difficult bit done, I finished the tart by filling the cooled pastry case with halved raspberries and chopped mint, then making a ganache with dark chocolate, cream, glucose syrup and butter, to cover the fruit. With a few more raspberries arranged on top, the tart was ready for chilling and dragging over to the other side of London. I hear it went down well, in spite of a hangover’s ability to confuse the palate, rendering it impossible to distinguish between mint and basil…

Prettier than I remembered it!*

Prettier than I remembered it!*

 

Wonky pastry.*

Wonky pastry.*

 

 

*Photographs courtesy of Ian Johnstone – thanks!

One of the perks of knowing cakey people is the wonderful presents, like this one presented to me at my birthday party on Saturday by the lovely Helen from the Poppyseed Bakery (who I’m lucky enough to actually know):

l–r: apricot and almond flapjacks; millionaire's shortbread; personalised birthday cupcakes; brownies with white chocolate and raspberries; and chocolate tiffin

l–r: Apricot and almond flapjacks; millionaire's shortbread; personalised birthday cupcakes; brownies with white chocolate and raspberries; and chocolate tiffin

I got a lot of lovely presents for my birthday, but this really took the biscuit (you’ll have to allow me that one). The brownies, which were apparently inspired by the mention of some similar ones on this very blog, were the best I’ve ever had, and everything else was even more delicious for the unexpectedness of this perfect gift. Thanks, Helen!

Brave man that he is, my boyfriend baked me a birthday cake this year. Sensibly, he attempted to do this in secret to avoid the inevitable attack of control freakery from yours truly, but time and the unmistakeable scent of a baking chocolate cake got the better of him. He chose Rick Stein’s ‘gateau lyonnais’, a flourless chocolate cake made with chestnut purée and laced with rum. I can’t tell you much about how he did it, but I do know that it was utterly delicious and much lighter and softer than it looked. We ate the first slices with whipped cream, but I’ve now resorted to leaving a knife on the cake stand and whittling away at it as the fancy takes me.

Chocolate heaven!

Chocolate heaven!

By happy coincidence, my dad’s birthday falls two days before my own. This has many advantages (which outweigh the struggle for birthday card display space that took place annually when I lived at home), chief among them being the opportunity for an extra-big birthday feast. This year, we ate at the Lake Isle in Uppingham, of which more to follow, but my contribution to the birthday weekend came in the shape of Nigella’s butterscotch layer cake. I’d made it before, but this time decided to follow Nigella’s advice for customisation and add a layer of sliced banana to the filling. My dad, who spent his childhood despising bananas with a passion before becoming slightly obsessed by them in later life, seemed pretty happy with the result: a rich sponge made with equal quantities of light muscovado and golden caster sugar for extra butterscotchiness, layered up with caramel cream cheese icing (not forgetting the banana).

The first step is to make the cream cheese icing, by dissolving caster sugar in water over a low heat, then boiling until darkly golden and whisking in double cream.

 

Boiling up the caramel

Boiling up the sugar syrup

 

The finished caramel, with cream added

The finished caramel, with cream added

Once cool, a cup of the caramel is beaten into an awful lot of cream cheese to make the filling and topping for the finished cake. A note of caution here: when checking to see if your caramel is sufficiently cool, do not, whatever you do, stick the whole of your little finger into the middle of the bowl. I speak from experience.

The sponge mixture, which has double cream beaten in at the end of the mixing process, yields a dense, heavy sponge that I wasn’t completely happy with in the end. Maybe I’ve been spoilt with ultra-light Victoria sponges, but I’m sure this could have turned out better.

Halfway there… the banana and butterscotch combo had a hint of Angel Delight about it – no bad thing!

Halfway there… the banana and butterscotch combo had a hint of Angel Delight about it – no bad thing!

 

The finished cake, drizzled with reserved caramel

Ta-dah! (Drizzled with reserved caramel.)

 

Looking a bit battered… but wouldn't you after being dragged halfway across the country? It tasted pretty good!

Looking a bit battered… but wouldn't you after being dragged halfway across the country?

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!