Saturday, 25 May 2013

Lemon Polenta Cake

So now for something a bit different - I've never baked with polenta before, in fact I've only cooked with it once, so it's still a bit of an exotic ingredient for me. You can't even get it in Sainsbury's. Well, you can, but it's pre-cooked stuff, which is no good for baking.

I had a bit of a browse around the internet, and I have to say I was a bit worried by the photos I saw of polenta cakes - they all looked rather dry, and I know Italian cakes do have a tendency towards dryness. So I would advise you knock up a quick syrup or glaze to go over this. Or you could just sweeten some lemon juice to taste and pour it over, like I did.

Despite my initial reservations, I am so glad I made this cake. It was light as a feather, moist, and with a hint of crunchiness from the polenta. Take this recipe, my bakelings, and let each lemony mouthful transport you to Sicily or the Amalfi coast (I think that's where Italian lemons come from). But please, please, use the lemon juice. I know I'm normally all over the soggy bottoms, but this is not a cake you want to let dry out.

You will need:

200g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar
pinch of salt
100g (uncooked Sainsbury's, UNCOOKED) polenta
4 eggs
140g self-raising flour
the zest of 3 lemons

For the sweetened lemon juice:

juice of two lemons
granulated sugar to taste (I used 3 tsp)

1. Preheat the oven to 180/gas 4/160 for fan oven. Grease a sandwich tin and line base and sides with greaseproof paper.
2. Beat your butter and caster sugar together. It might be worth softening the butter first. Otherwise you will have to beat it really hard and it will make your arm hurt. I always forget to soften it and so that is why I have massive biceps. Check out me guns.

3. Beat in the salt, polenta and lemon zest. Your batter should take on the lovely orangey colour of the polenta. You can't really see it here.
 4. Beat in the eggs one by one, then sift the flour into the bowl (remember, sifting from a height gets more air in) and fold it into the batter.
5. Pour into the sandwich tin and bake for 35 minutes until golden brown.
6. Leave the cake in the tin to cool, and after about 10 minutes prick all over with a cocktail stick and pour the lemon juice and sugar mixture over a little bit at a time. When the cake is completely cooled remove from the tin and serve with whipped cream, mascarpone or ice cream.

Ciao for now,


Thursday, 16 May 2013

Home-baked business: Can you have your cake and eat it too?

The first time Sue Lane, 47, made a cake was for her daughter’s second birthday. It was a clown cake, and although the cakes Sue produces now are of a much higher standard, Chris loved it. Chris is now 22 and a graduate, and her sister Sophie is at university. Their independence has given Sue the time and financial freedom to make her cake decorating a business, but she is still having doubts.

“When the kids were younger I had to work to be able to provide for them. Now they are big enough and ugly enough to look after themselves. Now, financially, it’s a case of ‘can I actually afford to work part time and do this?’”

The cost of setting up her own business is a major hurdle. Currently, Sue makes cakes for friends and family but only charges for ingredients. This is something she started doing recently, as her hobby was costing her a small fortune.

“The biggest factor that has deterred me up til now is probably the cost of setting it all up. I probably still lack the capital to set up a business. I don’t want to borrow money so I will probably wait til I can afford to do it myself. I mostly advertise through word of mouth at the moment, so at least I can still do that.”

The complexity of setting up a small cake business from home is also a drawback: “I’ve got my hygiene certificate, but then you have to get insurance, you need to have environmental health inspect the kitchen and I would probably have to get business insurance on the car. I think you might have to get business insurance on the house as well.”

Yet interest in starting cake businesses has boomed since the advent of shows like the Great British Bake Off revived interest in baking. Simply Business, the UK’s largest insurance broker, received quote requests from 2,139 new cake-making businesses in 2011, up by 54 per cent on the previous year and 325 per cent on 2009. 91 per cent of those contacting Simply Business about starting a cake-making business were women. For many, it seems that turning a baking hobby into a job represents the perfect solution to balancing childcare and work, and the word ‘mumpreneur’ is being bandied around the internet forums and chatrooms. There is even now a support network for mums in business in the form of

Type ‘set up cake business from home’ into Google and you’re bombarded with pages from the likes of eHow and wikiHow, and threads on forums such as Netmums. But read carefully and a trend emerges: many prospective cakepreneurs abandon their plans when they realise how much work is involved in setting up a business, obtaining the necessary hygiene certificates and business licenses and insuring your home.

For many, the issue is finding the capital to start up a business from home. Robin Campbell, 32, was made redundant from her job in the city in 2008, and immediately set up Cakes by Robin. She was able to use her redundancy package to buy a mixer and about £1000 worth of ingredients, but admits that she may have struggled without that capital:

“Having worked in a bank I was perfectly aware that if I asked for a loan a bank would turn me down. Without my redundancy package I would have had much more of an issue with paying my mortgage because when I started up I didn’t have any customers.”

A 2012 report by the Open University confirmed that financial support is still a problem for small-to-medium enterprises across the board. One respondent said: “the main requirement is access to funds and no amount of advice will open that door if the economic climate is not ripe.” Another said: “banks will not lend even when there is ample equity in assets to borrow against”.

Competition is also a worry for many bakers and cake decorators. It’s hard to walk down a busy high street in the south of England without seeing a shop that sells cupcakes and makes designer cakes to order, indicating that as far as custom made cakes go, the market may be reaching saturation point. Chris Cooper, 38, of the National Business Register agrees that competition is fierce:

“Those kind of businesses seem to be very popular at the moment. I think it’s certainly becoming more competitive, because it’s getting more and more difficult for people who are setting up cake businesses to submit a name that is completely unique. Many of the good names are gone.”

Sue is relying on the individuality of her cakes being a key selling point: “There are so many people doing it at the moment, but I tend to concentrate on carving cake, and a lot of people don’t do that – they use cake cutters. I tend to think that each of my cakes is totally individual, so that no one else would make them. A bit like edible art.”

Sue also worries that turning her hobby into a job may take the enjoyment out of it, and Robin admits that she no longer bakes for pleasure: “I have got a team of people in the shop and I don’t do much decorating myself, I run the business side instead. So in some way it did take away the enjoyment, because there’s a big difference between when you make a batch of cupcakes for fun and when you do it as a job. I definitely never bake at home now.”

Despite her misgivings, Sue is still keen to pursue her dream of owning her own cake business. She says: “I have spent so much of my life not doing stuff that I don’t want to miss out on doing this.”

I would like to thank Sue Lane, @cobhamcakes and Robin Campbell, for their help with this feature.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

A Slice of the Action: The Rise of the Clandestine Cake Club

This is my first baking feature, a write up of a meeting of the Surbiton CCC that I attended on the 20th April. Enjoy!

It is 2pm on a bright April day. I can hear the jingle of the ice-cream man’s van winding slowly around the quiet suburban streets and a gentle breeze is stirring the trees that line the road, but I am not feeling very cool. At a little pub in a corner of Surbiton, I am struggling to furtively remove a large coffee and walnut cake from my car and to manoeuvre it, unobserved, under my jacket.

I am not the only person spending my weekend engaged in shady sponge-based activity. Up and down the country, a quiet revolution is gathering pace, and now there is barely a corner of England it hasn’t spread to.

Welcome to the Clandestine Cake Club. The first rule of Clandestine Cake Club is: You do talk about Clandestine Cake Club. Founder Lynn Hill, 62, will not come after you with a spatula if you do. In fact, she’s more than happy for you to tell friends and family: “It is a bit of fun and I'm more than happy for members to spread the word. The clandestine bit is the location, which is only revealed to those who book a place. It makes these events different from the norm and people feel part of something that is special.”

And spread the word they have. Almost as soon as I sidle into the back room of The Castle pub, and gingerly place my cake down on the table, other cakes start to appear. Chocolate fudge, cherry streusel, chunky apple, sticky toffee, banana loaves, chocolate and almond and sachertorte – by the time we start cutting the cakes I’m spoilt for choice. The knife trembles in my hand, the sweat beads on my forehead – can I really have my cake and eat it?

In the end I plump for the chocolate fudge cake, but commit a massive tactical blunder by cutting what I consider a small piece, and then noticing that everyone else is cutting paper-thin slivers, so as to have room to try everything. Still, in between pawing cake into my face, I am somehow able to express that I am pleasantly surprised by the broad demographic to Anita, 36. “It’s honestly for anyone; men, women, young, old and kids,” she answers.

I am also pleasantly surprised by the lack of a competitive atmosphere, having heard from another baker that she had attended a meeting that was all frosty smiles and perfect cakes. This is much more of a social occasion. Anita, stepping backwards to avoid my shower of crumbs, sums it up in three words: “What does the Clandestine Cake Club mean to me? Community, cake and sharing.”

“It’s something everyone contributes to and everyone takes something away from. And it’s really versatile. Anyone can make a cake so anyone can participate, it’s really inclusive. I think the clandestine part makes it even more fun because there’s an element of mystery.”

This inclusivity and the sense of a social occasion seem to be exactly what Lynn was looking for when she founded the club in Leeds in December 2010. She had already been holding Secret Tea Rooms at her house long before shows like the Great British Bake Off helped to spark a revival in baking, and was blogging about her experience: “No-one else was doing anything like this and I wanted to bring people together, a social gathering, through tea and cake.”

The idea appears to have really struck a chord with people all over the globe – there are now clubs in the US, China, the Bermudas, Canada, France and India to name but a few, not to mention the over 150 groups in the UK. It really is a case of the rise and rise of the Clandestine Cake Club, and now everyone seems to want a slice of the action. The ‘clandestine’ part imbues the whole occasion with a real sense of mischief, which all the bakers mention as one of the best things about it, and something that really piqued their interest. The idea of meeting up to eat cake in semi-secret came as a real novelty, as Geraldine, 39, tells me: “You don’t always get many groups that are for people who enjoy talking about cake. I haven’t come across another club that’s about cake.

“The secret bit allows you to check out different venues and you get to find out about the area you live in and find out what’s on your doorstep. The downside is you can’t advertise very well.” Laura, 35, agrees that the main point of the secrecy around location was fun. She said: “I don’t think it’s vital but the idea of eating cake in secret just adds to the fun.”

By now I’ve shovelled down some of the cherry streusel cake (still warm in the middle), and am starting to get a bit of a cake headache. But I push on with a wafer thin slice of the sachertorte, spurred on by a sense of duty to try all the cakes on the table, lest some baker be offended that my gluttony does not extend to theirs.

At this meeting, our cakes have been inspired by the theme ‘Doing a Delia’, which has resulted in a range of retro cakes, some made straight from Delia’s 70s recipes, others from her updated books or with a modern twist added by the baker who’s brought it. Paula, 55, tells me that the themes often result in crazy creations, and things sometimes get a trifle out of hand: “I once found myself sneaking out of an important meeting to build a bonfire on a cake for our November theme!”

It’s now 4pm, and we’re dividing up the cakes into our respective Tupperware containers. But there’s one thing I’m just dying to ask about. Although much about the Clandestine Cake Club is very laid back, I did discover whilst on the website that there is one hard and fast rule, which is as follows and is typed rather emphatically in bold text: “Sorry, but NO cupcakes, Muffins, Brownies, Cookies, Pies or Tarts.”

I ask Deon, 34, what he thinks of this rule. Why limit bakers’ creativity like this? As he looks slightly askance at me, I begin to feel like I’m treading on thin icing. Then he says firmly: “It’s not fairy cakes, or biscuits, or pies. It’s just cakes. That’s why there’s a place for the club: because everyone likes cake.”