The great cupcake tower

December 30, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Posted in baking | Leave a comment
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Careful readers have noticed that there was a bit of a posting drought during November and December… and I think that this time I have reason (instead of an excuse) and it was all to do with cupcakes!  When my mate Debbie got engaged to Nigel earlier in the year, I offered to make brownies or some such for the wedding – as they were planning on doing as much of the day as simply as possible. But in September, the offer got upgraded – to making me responsible for the provision of the cupcakes that were to be the wedding cake!

Fortunately I didn’t have to make the cakes all myself and had Jenni, Ruth and Lucy on standby to make their share of the cakes… but was responsible for sorting out the recipes and pulling it all together for the big day. So began 3 months of cupcake thinking (and baking!).

The colour scheme for the wedding was elegant black and white (with some red and silver highlights) so we found cases that matched the colour scheme and decided that the cakes needed to have white icing with some silver glitter. This was not difficult for the vanilla cupcakes but a little more involved for the chocolate cupcakes, because I wanted to maximise the chocolate hit by using a chocolate icing as well. So it was time to research white chocolate icing…

After a bit of wandering around the internet – I found a couple of options: a traditional buttercream enhanced with white chocolate and combinations of white chocolate and cream. So the only thing to do was to have a tasting session. Thus a group  (including the bride and groom to be) was gathered up for an afternoon tea with oodles of cake.

The vanilla cakes were straight from the Hummingbird Bakery book and the chocolate cake providing the base for the icing experiment was also from Hummingbird book. (This is a straight forward recipe to make – and in the interests of heading towards consistency I was even measuring the batter into the cases to get them evenly sized – 50ml of batter gets 18 from a 2 egg mix).

The icing: I used this white chocolate buttercream and Bill Grainger’s white chocolate and sour cream icing.

The buttercream icing was simple to make – but couldn’t be left for long because as the chocolate cooled the icing became increasingly solid. The sour cream icing was a bit more involved – and it never got very thick – but repeated beatings (using the electric hand whisk) gave it sufficient structure as it got cool to be piped. But it was thick enough to make soft icing swirls.

My guests were deeply committed to the task of tasting and comparing the icings – either on the cake or as stand-alone spoonfuls – and the near unanimous conclusion was that the sour cream icing was the best as the sour cream offsets the sweetness of the white chocolate. 

But there was a need for another trial – as I had concluded that  the chocolate cake was provided an inadequate chocolate hit. So I made them a week later with more cocoa powder (60g cocoa to 180g flour instead of 40g flour to 200g flour in the Hummingbird recipe) and this was much better: stronger flavour and a slightly lighter texture.

So with the recipes perfected – it was time to distribute the duties for the big day… I ended up making vanilla cupcakes and some gluten-free cupcakes . So that was 4 dozen cupcakes… which was fairly simple, but disaster nearly struck when i made the vanilla buttercream – making enough to cover this many cakes was taxing for the Kenwood as the butter wasn’t very soft (it required 1 kg of icing sugar). But eventually the butter softened and a vast bowlful of buttercream was created. They all looked pretty good iced and ready to be boxed up.

On the morning of the wedding, the rest of the cakes were delivered to me, before  I headed to reception venue to assemble the tower.  Fortunately it was only a short drive, so no damage was done to the cakes in transit.

I had also bought a little Christmas cake to act as the top layer of the cake so there was a cake to cut and this was made more beautiful with a lovely flower arrangement in a family heirloom vase. The florist then made the tower more beautiful by strewing it with rose petals.

The tower looked pretty good… and went down really well with the guests. We had cellophane bags for people to take a cake home with them if they were too full! So happily all the cakes were distributed and hopefully enjoyed!

So thank you to team cupcake for all your help in making beautiful cakes. Thank you to all the taste-testers and those who have suffered my rambling thoughts on all things cupcake. Most importantly – CONGRATULATIONS to Debbie and Nigel and thank you for trusting me with your cake – I hope I didn’t let you down!




Time for sharing a secret: ultimate chocolate brownies

November 6, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Posted in baking, musings, puddings | 1 Comment
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One of the best things about the Great British Bake-Off was the “signature bake”: the weekly challenge to make something that each of the contestants saw as their best – the thing that they made often and made well (I am always disappointed when someone confessed that it wasn’t really a signature dish but instead something that had decided to do  in the run up to the competition because they thought they would impress the judges more). The idea of a signature bake is brilliant – something that you love making and that your friends and family love to be on the receiving end of…  I have a number of recipes that are my failsafes, the things I turn to when I just want to bake, and that I know will always go down well. But the premier example – the recipe that is without comparison – has to be chocolate brownies – to be precise Nigella Lawson’s chocolate brownies – to be found in both How to be a Domestic Goddess and Feast (appearing as snow-flecked brownies).

Having made these brownies countless times – and to near universal acclaim – I feel I should share them with you (in blog form) and also pass on my brownie baking tips – that I have discovered over time to make the brownies as near to fool-proof as possible! (Some have suggested that I shouldn’t write this post – that my secret should remain secret – but I think the perfect brownie is such a wonderful thing – the knowledge MUST be shared)

Making them: pretty simple (and I can more or less do it on autopilot now!) But step 1 is to melt chocolate and butter together – I do it in the microwave – slowly! Then while that is melting, the eggs, sugar and vanilla are mixed together – I usually do this in the Kenwood, so that mixing can occur while I get on with the next stage – but really it’s not hard and can easily be done by hand or using a hand mixer. Once the chocolate and butter is melted, it’s added to the sugar/eggs mixture and mixed until smooth (It’s better if the chocolate is slightly cool – if its hot when you add it to the sugar the mix ends up being oily – which does not change the taste but just ends up looking slightly less lovely). Then add flour and salt and mix once more and then add “the fun”.  Nigella suggests walnuts, and snow-flecked brownies use white chocolate chips – but I made an amazing discovery when I added mini-eggs to the batter one Easter and discovered that the crisp outer shell prevents the chocolate melting – so you get solid chunks of chocolate and a hint of the sugar shell. When it’s not Easter time – minstrels are the chocolate of choice – they make for an ultimate chocolate hit. Once everything is combined – its put into a lined tin and into the pre-heated oven for 25 minutes.

One of the key challenges of making the perfect brownie is to get it to be perfectly squidgy – I want my brownie to be fudgey and gooey and not at all like a cake! This requires courage from the baker  – because what you have to do is take them out of the oven at 25 minutes – when the top is dried out and crisp (usually a little crack or two on the surface). At this point – the inside of the brownie is still molten and were it to be a traditional cake – it would be considered seriously undercooked. But trust me: this is necessary to get the right texture. Then leave the brownies to cool and then preferably leave them overnight without cutting them for the goo to set into the perfect moist and fudgey middle.

Eating them: I don’t want to be boastful – but these brownies are amazing! A usual response is “these are the best brownies I have ever eaten”. They work on their own with tea or coffee or with ice-cream and even chocolate sauce for the ultimate pudding! There is always some in my freezer – so any emergency can be dealt with.

Next time: I will continue to refine and perfect – perhaps trying some other additions to the batter to see what they would do – I’m curious as to what would happen to chunks of a crunchie bar…

Recipe 70: Potentially perfect Proustian chocolate chip cookies

October 24, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Posted in baking | Leave a comment
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Growing up I was privileged to know a wonderful American family who had attending the same church as my family.  During the years they lived in the UK I was a regular visitor to their house with my family, for youth group events and just to hang out with my friends Sarah and Cindy. Being American, they had bought some strange and wonderful eating habits and foods to our bit of Surrey:  I remain forever grateful for being introduced to ice-cream as an accompaniment to chocolate cake (in honour of birthdays).  But my absolute favourite was Vicki’s chocolate chip cookies, that were more or less permanently on offer in the house – either made with chocolate chips or M&Ms (and most exciting at Christmas when the special festive colour mix of red and green was shipped over from the States).  These were perfect chocolate chip cookies – with a gooey middle even when cold, and quite thin having spread out in the middle and slightly crisp edges. When I got married, Vicki gave me the recipe, and once tried them out…But in my immaturity as a baker, they didn’t come out right… and I lost the recipe. So I have always been on the quest for the perfect chocolate chip cookie that would magically, in the manner of Proust and his madeleines (not that I have read Remembrance of Things Past) to evoke the teenage treat, and the person I once was… and remember the best of those years.

Over the last decade I’ve tried many recipes, tweaked a few promising ones – playing around with the type of sugar and the temperature and cooking time… but never quite got there. But a while back, while discussing how much I love the Hummingbird Bakery books with my friend Kath – she told me I must try the chocolate chip cookies from the first book. So this weekend, in preparation for having some girls over for afternoon tea, and an eye on taking some baking into the office – I thought I should try them out.

Making them: very promising start – the recipe makes a huge quantity and starts with butter and soft brown sugar beaten until soft and fluffy (which is an utterly delicious substance on its own). Then eggs and vanilla are beaten in, then flour and finally chocolate chips (the recipe suggested chopping chocolate – but I’m lazy so chocolate chips it was). I dollops heaped dessert spoons over 3 baking trays – making about 40 cookies in total. I left lots of space between the cookies to allow for spread – but it was insufficient because these cookies melted in the oven to flat cookies and in place they merged. But once they were out of the oven I was able to split them up once more – although none was a particularly perfect shape.

Eating them: I was pretty sure they were going to be good from the leftover batter. But then one of the baked cookies broke in half as I was transferring them to the wire cooling trays. Obviously I couldn’t  serve my guests a broken cookies: i just had to test… and I was transported back to my teenage years… soft, gooey cookie with molten chocolate bits. My near-Proustian moment had come.
Later, when they were cooled, and I had company, I had to have another – just to check – and yes – it was indeed as close to the perfect cookie as I could imagine – even when cold they had the appropriately slightly fudgey centre (previously the closest thing to near perfect has been the occasional Millies cookie – but they are not right for other reasons). Happily my other guests without the time taste machine also thought they were delicious.

Next time: I will allow more space between the cookies as they more than doubled in size once in the oven!

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