Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Novelty Cake Tips

As some of you may know, I am part-way through moving out at the moment and so all my baking gear has been packed away in boxes for the last couple of weeks.

This makes me very sad. What am I supposed to do to destress? Without my piping bags, cake lifter, icing nozzles, spatula and madeleine tray I am nothing.

By way of compensation, I'm going to write a blog post I've been promising to do for a while. You may have noticed that although I sometimes make novelty cakes, I rarely blog about them. That's because when I construct one of these marvels of confectionery, my process is less a meticulously planned operation than a panicked, buttercream-spattered flurry of activity.

By the end, I won't know what quantities of ingredients I used, because I'll have run out and had to go to the shops so many times I've lost count. I’ll also be a nervous wreck and will have to go and lie down in a darkened room for a while.

It’s worth it though, because it results in cakes like this:

So as I don't tend to record individual recipes I'm going to lay out a series of tips to help you make your own novelty cakes. Because after all, the best novelty cakes are unique.

  • I always sketch my novelty cakes before I start trying to make them. It helps me work out what ingredients I'll need to get hold of, which types of techniques I might have to use, how I might decorate the cake and what shape baking tin is closest to the final shape of the cake.
  • Have a Google around and look at cakes similar to what you want to make. Chances are, someone will have made something similar before. That's how I found out that ice cream cones covered in sprinkles made perfect turrets for a castle cake.

  • Don't get over-ambitious with the kind of sponge you're going to use as the basis of your novelty cake. Just like a building, your cake must be structurally sound. Use a simple recipe, something that is easy to slice and has a consistent texture - try not to add anything like fruit, nuts or chocolate chips that could change the texture. Victoria sponge is a good bet, as is pound cake.
  • If you're making a cake in a novelty shape you may want to carve it out of a larger cake. Use a deep baking tin and fill it with sponge mixture to bake a large rectangular cake. Pop it into the freezer until needed and start to carve it carefully into shape with a knife while it's still cold.

Additional materials
  • You may not be able to make all your cake out of sponge. In the above picture, the dragon's neck is made of rice-crispy cake, while its legs and tail are cake pop mixture, which I also used to round out the shape of the body. 
  • For cake pop mixture, blend an equal amount of buttercream icing and sponge together to make a paste which can then be moulded into shape. 
  • Rice-crispy cake is great option in cases where sponge won't be strong enough. Melt 45g butter and 300g marshmallows and mix in 180g rice crispies then mould into desired shape and pop in the fridge to set. 

  • Choose your icing to suit your cake. If you're making an animal cake, like this orangutan, use buttercream and fluff it up with a fork for fur. If you're making something with a smooth texture, ready made sugarpaste (sometimes called regal icing) or royal icing might be better. For a scaly texture roll out sugarpaste and cut out tiny circles.
  • If using sugarpaste you will need to stick it to the cake with a thin layer of buttercream spread underneath. If you are sticking one piece of sugarpaste onto another, for instance in overlapping scales like the dragon cake, you will need to use edible glue or make an adhesive out of water icing or similar.

Finishing touches
  • Attention to detail can make a novelty cake really special. This cake I made for my friend Sophie looked a bit rubbish until I piped buttercream clouds onto it and covered it in edible silver stars and glitter. For all my animal cakes' eyes I use white chocolate chips with a tiny bit of dark chocolate piped on for pupils. The squares of sponge with peppermint icing grass and white chocolate fence-posts, complete with smears of mud, make the sheep cake into a proper little scene in a field. The dragon cake comes with a hoard of chocolate money - need I go on?
Above all, don't be afraid to experiment, adapt others' recipes and buy way way more ingredients than you think you need - you almost certainly will run out. Unless you're going to have about 2 days to make your cake, make what you can in advance. Sponge and buttercream icing will both freeze well as long as they are kept separate. Do not store either in the fridge - trust me on this!

And don't make your life harder than it needs to be. Sometimes a plain old cylinder is the right shape for your novelty cake. 

And a novelty cake doesn't have to be a montrously huge confection either. Sometimes a few little touches can transform cupcakes into magical creations.

Go forth and bake, my pretties.


Thursday, 19 March 2015

Dinky Dunking Doughnuts

This week I made another foray into the world of baked doughnuts. I've made doughnuts about four times, with varying degrees of success. They've always tasted good, but size, shape and texture haven't always been quite right.

On my first attempt, I made yeasted doughnuts and put them in my mini doughnut pan and they ballooned to massive proportions. So I covered them in sugar and pretended they were never meant to be ring doughnuts.

Another time I managed to make glazed ring doughnuts of perfect size and shape, but the texture was a bit tight and I can't for the life of me remember how I made them. And I've also made yeasted filled doughnuts, which were very nice but also very hard to fill.

This time I decided to use the cake doughnut method, using baking powder or bicarbonate of soda as a raising agent. The rationale for this was that the batter produced would be runny enough so that I could pipe my doughnuts into the pan. They were perfect - fluffy inside, round and flavoured lightly with nutmeg.

But I decided they needed something more. If you have ever been to Spain, you may have eaten churros. These are long, piped doughnuts, fried until crisp and golden on the outside, dunked in sugar and handed to you in a rolled paper cone like chips. They're divine. I've eaten them for breakfast at a cafe in Madrid, wolfed them down at funfair and even had them here in London, at Mexican restaurant Wahaca.

Churros are often served with a hot chocolate dipping sauce. It's so thick you have to eat it with a spoon if you have any left over, so rich that you'll probably regret it if you do. So I decided to make a similarly thick, chocolatey sauce, flavouring it slightly with coffee because coffee and doughnuts is one of my favourite clich├ęs.

I prefer my doughnuts dusted with cinnamon and sugar, but you could easily whip up a glaze for these, using icing sugar and a little water. Maybe also a little cocoa if you like chocolate glazed doughnuts.

The only unfortunate thing about this recipe is you really do have to have a doughnut pan to make ring doughnuts. There's no other way it will work. If you don't, they will be just as delicious in cupcake cases, especially if you brush the tops with butter and then dunk them in your bowl of cinnamon sugar.

You will need:

For the doughnuts:
150g plain flour
¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp lemon juice
75g caster sugar plus enough to dust all the doughnuts
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
½ tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tbsp butter, cubed, plus extra to brush over
65ml milk, heated until small bubbles appear
65ml plain yogurt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 beaten egg
a piping bag

For the sauce:
200ml double cream
200g dark chocolate
2 tsp instant espresso or strong coffee powder (I used Azera)
1 tsp vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 180C and grease your doughnut tin with butter.

2. Sift together the flour, sugar, salt, bicarbonate of soda and nutmeg. Add the cubed butter and rub in with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

3. Make a well in the middle of the mixture and add the wet ingredients. Fold until just combined.

4. Spoon the mixture into a piping bag and fill each doughnut hole about two thirds full, then bake for eight to ten minutes until risen and light golden brown.

5. While the doughnuts are baking, set the ingredients for the sauce in a bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. Give a stir every now and then until the chocolate melts and the mixture is uniform in colour, then remove from the heat and set aside.

6. Put your cinnamon and extra caster sugar in a small bowl and mix well to combine. Melt your extra butter, brush a doughnut all over with it, then dunk it in the cinnamon sugar - first one side then the other - and place on a cooling rack or sheet of greaseproof paper. Repeat this process with each doughnut, pausing to reheat the butter if it solidifies.

7. Serve the doughnuts with the chocolate dipping sauce (and some napkins, it might get messy).

Really, really good. And small enough to be a little bit of what you fancy without being as calorie and fat-laden as your average Krispy Kreme.

Unless, you know, you eat the whole batch yourself. I won't judge you.

Happy baking!


Friday, 6 March 2015

Swirly Vanilla and Jam Cupcakes

Cupcakes are how I got into baking. It crept up on me - my parents bought me a cupcake recipe book and all of a sudden I was "the girl who makes all the cakes". That became my thing.

An afternoon on a cupcake decorating course and I was unstoppable. I made coffee cupcakes, vanilla cupcakes, chocolate and mint cupcakes, even banoffee cupcakes. And then, suddenly, I hit a wall.

If you're an athlete, you might know how it feels. You feel that you can't go on. Your legs are leaden, your muscles are jelly. You simply cannot lift another whisk or fill another piping bag.

I'm exaggerating. A bit. But I was sick of the sight of cupcakes, sick of the taste of buttercream and most of all, sick of baking them.

Luckily, by now I was into all things baking, so I turned my attention to bread and other things for a while. By the time I returned to cupcakes, I was able to make them without totally freaking out and crying because I'd run out of icing sugar. I still don't eat them very often because they are very very sweet and sometimes make me feel sick and give me a cake headache. It feels much like a hangover.

But cupcakes are trendy, cupcakes are pretty and they are not that difficult either. Put them in a white cardboard box (easily obtainable from eBay), tie some colourful ribbon around and they make a perfect present.

I've been dying to use my duo icing set (thank you, Lakeland) so a friend's birthday gave me the perfect opportunity to crack out my cupcake skills to make something both tasty and decorative.

It's easy, you can do it to. Come on, I'll show you how. This recipe makes a batch of 12 jam-filled vanilla cupcakes.

You will need:

For the cakes:
250g caster sugar
250g butter
250g plain flour
3 medium eggs
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 jar seedless jam in your favourite flavour (fruit curd would also work)
12 cupcake cases
12-hole cupcake or muffin tray

For the icing:
3 large egg whites
250g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
300g softened butter
1 tbsp jam or fruit curd from the jar you are using for the cakes
duo icing set (optional)
normal piping bag fitted with star nozzle
palette knife or baking spatula

1. Preheat the oven to 180C and put the cupcake cases in the baking tray. Beat together the butter and caster sugar for the cakes until light and fluffy.

2. Weigh out the flour for the cakes and beat in the eggs one at a time, adding a tbsp of flour with each one to ensure the mixture does not curdle.

3. Add the vanilla, baking powder and mix in, then fold in the rest of the flour.

4. Distribute the mixture evenly between the cases and bake for 10-15 minutes until risen and golden brown. Take out of the baking tray and leave to cool.

5. Prepare the icing by setting a large bowl above a pan of barely simmering water and whisking the egg whites and caster sugar until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and whisk to stiff peaks (I often use a handheld electric whisk or even my standing mixer to do this).

6. Add the softened butter, a bit at a time to the bowl whilst continuing to whisk. When the mixture reaches a point of being stiff enough to pipe, stop and if you're using a duo icing set, divide icing into two equal halves.

7. If you are using a duo icing set add a tbsp of jam to one half of the icing and beat until uniform in colour. Then fill your icing bag with the jammy icing on one side and normal on the other. If you are not using a duo icing set add a tbsp of jam to the icing and swirl through so the mixture is streaky rather than uniform in colour. Then put in your icing bag.

8. When your cupcakes have cooled, cut a hole in the middle with an apple corer or small, sharp knife. Warm the remainder of your jam gently in the microwave or in a saucepan over a low heat until it is runnier in consistency. Spoon jam into the holes in your cupcakes with a teaspoon until they are all filled.

9. When the jam in your cupcakes has cooled and set, pipe a little splodge of icing in the middle. Then, starting from the inner edge of your cupcake case, pipe a spiral of icing. You should pipe inwards and upwards and just lower your nozzle slightly before lifting it away from the peak of the cake to break the icing away from the nozzle.

You're done! Step 10 is to have a nice sit down and bask in the reflected glory of your cupcakes.

Mmm, glory.

More baking soon,