So much cake

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Every weekend at this time of year I load a cake into a box and hope the combination of dark, rainy evenings + unfamiliar heels + a tiny cocktail livener before heading out to the party won’t lead to a baked-goods-buttercream-meets pavement disaster.

Almost everyone who is dear to me has a birthday round about now. I am in the middle of a four-weekend-long baking blitz. It started with Séan (chocolate, of course), then Liz (the cake you see here), tomorrow it’s my best pal Victoria (red velvet, cream cheese frosting) and next weekend my friend Lola’s daughter Mary – astonishingly – turns 18 (60 chocolate cupcakes). Depending on chance and shared geography, the dying glimmers of winter might also find me baking for my brother, nephew and mother. My scales are WHITE HOT and my baking cupboard runeth over with sprinkles, edible glitter and tiny candles in all colours.

Liz’s cake had to be a special one.

A few years ago, Liz noticed that whenever she went to literary festivals with her husband Pete she would bump into people from Stoke Newington reading from their books, singing their songs, telling their jokes. In a moment of creative-yet-cosy inspiration, she thought ‘If we had a festival in Stoke Newington we could all stay home and sleep in our own beds’.

So in the space of a few months, she took this idea and created Stoke Newington Literary Festival on a hunch and a credit card. Five years on, Stokey LitFest is a mad success, a riot of creativity, talk, fun, songs, drink and discussion which continues our little corner of London’s tradition of dissent, debate and dissolute behaviour.

So when Pete emailed some of us a few weeks ago to ask if we could help him organise Liz’s fiftieth birthday party, of course I volunteered to make her cake. Big enough for a hundred people or so. Truthfully, I enjoy the sheer exuberance of using dozens of eggs, kilos of chocolate and packets and packets of butter, working out the architecture of the thing. Gold dust! Let’s scatter gold dust over it, why not? For Liz is golden and we love her.

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Salted Caramel Buttercream Chocolate Cake

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A quick email back-and-forth with Pete and we decided on something chocolate-y and salted caramel-y, because really who wouldn’t love that? No one we would care to share a dance floor with, for sure. A quick Google search and I came across this smack-you-in-the-face-delicious recipe on Melissa Coleman’s elegant and charming blog, The Faux Martha. For those of us with WHITE-HOT scales at our disposal (and for whom cup measures are a challenge), I’ve metric’d up the ingredients’ list here.

This quantity makes one 23cm two-layer cake; I think I multiplied it by about six or so for Liz’s cake.

FOR THE CAKE:

Dry
170g plain flour
60g unsweetened cocoa powder
1 ½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp sea salt

Liquid
150ml single cream
100ml whole milk
1 tbsp vanilla extract

Creaming
170g unsalted butter, room temperature
350g caster sugar
4 large eggs

FOR THE Salted Caramel Buttercream:
225g caster sugar
60ml water
100ml double cream
heaping pinch of sea salt
340g unsalted butter, room temperature
4 large egg whites

FOR THE GANACHE:
280g dark chocolate
70g icing sugar, sifted
200ml double cream
2 large egg yolks
40g unsalted butter, room temperature
heaping dash of sea salt

A Sweet Consolation Prize

 

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

Albert Camus

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A bowl of Bramleys from our tree.

Summer left like a well-mannered guest, slipping away quietly, without fuss. There are fewer dinners in the garden, sitting around into the night over the end of the cheese, picking at soft fruit and polishing off the last of the rosé. Washing takes longer to dry on the line. We reacquaint ourselves with the sock drawer after weeks of neglect. And then suddenly the greengrocers’ shelves are filled with figs, damsons, cobnuts and ruby-skinned pears.

Hello, autumn. We’ve been expecting you.

If I plunged my hand into a bag of favourite autumnal words, pulled out five, arranged them into an order and then created a recipe from that, this is what would happen.

Browned butter caramel apple cake

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A slice of cake for breakfast.

I made this cake with the apples from our small, espaliered Bramley, which this year is doing everything in its power to make me love its twiggy self. It is so heavy with fruit it will keep us in pies, cakes, jellies and chutneys all winter.

Don’t be put off by the longish list of ingredients. You probably have most of them hanging about anyway.

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Browned butter caramel apple cake. I think I love you.


For the cake:
250g unsalted butter, cubed, plus a little more for greasing the tin
200g plain flour
50g ground almonds
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
100g light muscovado sugar
100g caster sugar
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp cognac, cider brandy or calvados (optional but good, obviously)
About 3 cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut into chunks, about 300g prepared weight


For the caramel sauce:
120g unsalted butter
120g light muscovado sugar
60ml whole milk
Good pinch of flaky sea salt

Preheat the oven to 160°C/325°F/Gas 3. Lightly butter a 22cm springform cake tin, line the bottom and sides with baking parchment and lightly butter the parchment.

Warm the butter in a medium-sized saucepan over a medium heat (a stainless steel pan is better than a dark-bottomed one as it’s easier to see how brown the butter is getting). The butter is ready when it’s a rich shade of hazelnut brown and it smells nutty and delicious. Pour it into a bowl to cool.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, almonds, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.

When the butter is cool, tip it into the bowl of a stand mixer with the sugars and beat until creamy and light, about 5 minutes. With the motor still running, slowly pour in the eggs, pausing from time to time to make sure everything’s well incorporated. Beat in the vanilla and booze, if you’re adding it. On a low speed, beat in the flour mixture being careful not to overmix.

Pour the batter into the prepared tin and scatted the apple pieces evenly over the top. Bake for 50-60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Place the tin on a wire rack while you make the caramel sauce.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a medium heat. Whisk in the sugar, milk and salt. Keep stirring vigorously until everything blends into a smooth, silky sauce and simmer until thickened slightly. Pour half of the sauce over the cake, making sure it’s evenly distributed, and leave it for 10 minutes until it’s fully absorbed into the cake.

Remove the cake from the tin, peel off the parchment and put the cake on a plate. Pour over the remaining sauce and let it trickle down the sides. Leave the cake to cool completely then serve in fat slices with generous spoonfuls of crème fraiche, greek yoghurt, clotted cream or vanilla ice cream.

One for the road

 

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Browned butter biscuits

Tomorrow morning, Séan and I set off on our annual drive to the south west of France. That’s just the 16 marriage-enhancing hours, door to door. It’s a modern Kerouacian romp of shouting at the SatNav and arguing over whether the dog needs a wee.

Service stations are where whimsy goes to die, or at least to stock up on wiper blades and pallid chips, where low aspiration and low blood sugar meet, and weary, glazed eyes seek out sticky glazed doughnuts to fill the hungry gap between now and inevitable Type 2 diabetes. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t say ‘holiday’ to me.

Due to our (my) desire to be on holiday as soon as possible, we don’t stop much. We rely for sustenance on a hastily-scrabbled-together-at-dawn holiday picnic of egg-and-cress sandwiches, salt-and-vinegar crisps, fruit, perhaps some leftover pie or cake, sturdy biscuits which will withstand being rattled about in the car, bottles of water and a huge thermos of coffee.

Of course, some take en route sustenance very seriously indeed. You know when you get on a plane and your neighbour suddenly produces a linen napkin and a beautiful bento box filled with sushi? You never want to sit next to that person. They would be no use at all if there was An Incident. For example, if we were suddenly required in the cockpit to fly the plane, she would be unavailable to take instructions from air traffic control due to an urgent need to remove the wasabi stain from her three-ply dodo wool sweater.

I am a great believer in the redemptive power of the snack, but it doesn’t do to be too precious. Contrary to what many a modern calendar/mousemat/comedy mug/inspirational postcard might have you believe, sometimes it really is the destination not the journey.

Sturdy biscuits which will withstand being rattled about in the car

These are made from browned butter, which gives them a deliciously sweet and nutty flavour. They are a plainish biscuit, which is generally my preference. You can even leave out the rolling in sugar part if it offends your abstemious nature. They’re the sort of thing you can make when the cupboard’s practically bare and they last for ages in a tin. Perfect for a road trip. If you have one of them in your future this summer, you should try them.

Makes about 3 dozen

150g unsalted butter, cubed
1 tbsp vanilla extract
260g light muscovado sugar
1 tsp flaky sea salt
2 eggs, 1 separated
320g plain flour
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp baking powder
Golden caster sugar, for rolling

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Roll them in sugar, or not.
It’s entirely up to you.

In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan melt the butter over a medium heat, stirring frequently, until the solids go a deep golden brown and it has a rich, sweet, nutty aroma – it really will smell delicious. This should take about 6-7 minutes. Hold your nerve. Immediately pour the butter into a medium-sized mixing bowl to cool and stir in the vanilla. Beat in the sugar until well combined and glossy. Beat in the whole egg and one egg yolk.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and salt. Gradually beat into the butter and sugar until you have a smooth, firm dough. Divide the dough in two. Roll each piece into a log about 5cm wide. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate until firm, at least an hour. At this point if you like, you can freeze one of the batches of dough.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4 and line some baking sheets with baking parchment. If you are rolling the biscuits in sugar, scatter and few tablespoonfuls onto a sheet of baking parchment. Lightly beat the remaining egg white with a teaspoon of cold water and brush the dough with the egg wash before rolling in the sugar. Slice the biscuits into 5mm rounds and place on the baking sheets – leave a minimum of 2cm between each biscuit as they spread out a bit.

Bake until firm and golden, about 15 minutes. Cool for a couple of minutes on the baking sheets before removing to a wire rack to cool completely. They will keep for about a week in an airtight tin.

Cookbooks and Cake: A Winning Combination

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A delicious way to celebrate Free Cakes for Kids Hackney’s hundredth cake. On Sunday afternoon, the sun shone, cakes arrived, shortly followed by people, a lot of people, who bought lots of cookbooks and ate heroic amounts of cake. Most impressive, most unstinting in this latter effort was my friend Lola’s husband who will now forever be known as Barry ‘Four Cakes’. Neighbours came. This being Stoke Newington, some of them came bearing gifts – a little tomato plant, some homemade smoked cheese. Strangers came and sat happily in the garden, chatting, flipping through their new books. My friend Julia made a NAAFI’s worth of tea and coffee. Séan washed up with characteristic cheerfulness. The hallway was full of bikes, pushchairs and scooters. In three hours, about a hundred people came through the door and helped us to raise a thousand pounds for Free Cakes for Kids Hackney. A THOUSAND POUNDS. That’s roughly twice as much as I hoped we might make and means a lot more birthday cakes for a lot more kids. Thank you to the many FCKH bakers who brought such beautiful cakes and to those of you who came and helped to make it such a happy, successful day. See you all again next year? DSCN8927

Julia makes yet another cup of coffee. DSCN8910

The dining room turns into a bookshop for a day.
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Enjoying the precious sunshine. DSCN8946

The FCKH committee rocking their brand new tote bags.
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My contribution – a lemon and blueberry layer cake, which I didn’t even get to taste. By the time I turned around, it was but crumbs.
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Scones with clotted cream. I did try one of these and it was so good.

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A present from my neighbour, a little tomato plant. He also brought me this smoked cheese, below.
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Cookbook and Cake Sale

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My first cake for Free Cakes for Kids Hackney

Recently I signed up as a volunteer for Free Cakes for Kids Hackney. Essentially, FCKH matches up keen bakers like me with families who find it difficult to provide birthday cakes for their children. I get to bake, which I love, and a kid gets to blow out some candles. Simple.

When FCKH were trying to think of a way to celebrate the making of their hundredth birthday cake, I had an idea. My dining room table was creaking under the weight of more than a hundred cookbooks I’d been sent as a judge for the Guild of Food Writers’ Cookbook of the Year award. Why not have a cookbook and cake sale to raise some funds so we can make more cakes for more kids?

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Some books for the sale.

So if you’re free this Sunday, May 19, do come. There’ll be many of the biggest titles from 2012, so you can tuck into brand new copies of Ottolenghi, Nigella, Jamie, Hugh and Mary Berry at knock down prices – and there’ll be quite a few second-hand books too. And if that isn’t a big enough draw, we’ll be serving tea and cake, of course.

There are Free Cakes for Kids groups springing up all over the country. If you’d like to volunteer or donate, check out their website here.

COOKBOOK AND CAKE SALE

19 May, 2-5pm, 112 Rectory Road, Stoke Newington, London N16 7SD

Cash only, please.

What’s the fastest cake in the world?

 

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Cheddar cheese scones, cucumber sandwiches and dark mocha cake.

When he was a little boy, my nephew Angus’s favourite joke was ‘What’s the fastest cake in the world?’. Answer: ‘Sssccccone!’, delivered with tousled head moving rapidly left to right. His second favourite joke was ‘What’s the second fastest cake in the world?’ Answer: ‘Merrrrrringue!’, delivered in the manner of a car racing around a tough corner at Brand’s Hatch. He’s now in his second year at Sheffield University and his jokes haven’t got any better. At least not the ones he tells me.

On Friday, I invited my friends Jane and Lola to tea. A batch of scones was certainly in order, along with cucumber sandwiches and cake. A plain scone with raspberry jam and clotted cream is a fine thing indeed, but as the cake was a dense chocolate number with a rich, coffee buttercream icing I thought a savoury scone might be better. They certainly vanished very quickly, quicker, in fact, than you could say ‘Sssccccone!’.

Cheddar Cheese Scones

This is the basic recipe but you can adapt it as you wish. Add a pinch or two of chilli flakes, or some finely chopped thyme, dill, chives or oregano if you like.

Makes 6 large scones or 10 smaller ones.

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220g self-raising flour, plus a little more for dusting the cutter
1 tsp English mustard powder
Pinch of salt
60g unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small cubes, plus a little more for greasing the baking sheet
50g mature Cheddar, grated
A few grinds of black pepper

About 150-180 ml whole milk, plus a little more for brushing the scones

Preheat the oven to 220ºC/425ºF/Gas7. Lightly grease a baking sheet.

Sift together the flour, mustard and salt. Rub in the butter with your fingertips then use a knife to mix in the cheese and pepper. Make a well in the middle and use the knife to stir in enough milk to make a soft dough.

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Turn out onto a lightly-floured surface and knead very gently, just enough to bring it together. Pat the dough out into a round about 2cm thick. Dip a 7cm cutter in flour (or a 5cm one if you’re making smaller scones) and cut the dough out into rounds. Transfer them to a baking sheet.

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Gently knead together the leftover dough and cut out some more scones until you’ve used up all of the dough. Brush the tops lightly with milk. Bake for 13-15 minutes (10-12 minutes for smaller scones), until risen and golden. Cool slightly on a wire rack and serve warm with plenty of butter.

Baking for a Sweeter Tomorrow

 

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This cake is my insurance policy for a sweeter tomorrow. When you have a selection of cakes covered in icing, fruit and chocolate as we did for Séan’s birthday, a humble brown cake doesn’t exactly steal the limelight. When all else is but crumbs, there’s every chance you will have a slice or two of apple cake left the next day to enjoy in blissful isolation with a cup of coffee.

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Just the right amount of leftovers.

I based this cake on a recipe I found here. I adjusted it to work in a two-litre bundt tin as I don’t have a three-litre one, and added maple syrup to the glaze. I also sprinkled over some praline, as I think it’s often good to have a little sweet, nutty crunch with your cake, but you can leave it out if you like.

Spiced Apple Bundt Cake with Maple Syrup Glaze

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For the optional praline:

125g shelled hazelnuts
200g caster sugar

For the cake:

200g plain flour, plus a little more for dusting the tin
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp freshly-grated nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cardamom
Good pinch of ground cloves
½ tsp salt
400g apples
225g unsalted butter, softened, plus a little more for dusting the tin
250g caster sugar
80g light muscovado sugar
Finely grated zest of a lemon
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon juice
3-4 tbsp milk

For the glaze:

70g light muscovado sugar
50ml whipping cream or double cream
2 tbsp maple syrup
30g unsalted butter
1 tsp lemon juice
½ tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp salt

If you’re using the praline, make it first. Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas 4. Scatter the hazelnuts in a roasting tin and place them in the oven. If the hazelnuts still have their skins, roast for 7-8 minutes until the skins are just blackened. Tip them into a clean tea towel, cover and leave for a minute before rubbing vigorously to remove the skins – don’t worry too much about getting every speck off. If they’re already skinned, simply roast them for 5 minutes or until lightly toasted.

Line a baking sheet with Silpat or lightly buttered baking parchment. Warm a heavy-bottomed frying pan over a medium heat – it’s best to use one with a shiny interior rather than a dark, non-stick one as it will make it easier to see when the caramel is the right colour. Tip the sugar into the pan in a thin, even layer. When the sugar starts to melt, stir it gently to encourage it to melt evenly. When it has dissolved, stop stirring and watch it carefully. When it has turned a rich, golden amber, tip in the nuts and quickly stir with a fork before tipping out onto the prepared baking sheet. Cool completely then either chop roughly with a knife or pulse in a blender. You’ll have more than you need for this cake, but it keeps well in an airtight jar and you can use the leftovers to decorate other cakes and puddings.

Lower the oven temperature to 160°C/325°F/Gas 3. Thoroughly grease a two-litre bundt tin with butter. Scatter in some flour and cover the tin with cling film. Give everything a very good shake, remove the cling film and tap the tin to remove excess flour. This will show up any spots you’ve missed with the butter, so give them a little touch up.

Sift together the flour, bicarbonate of soda, spices and salt. I sift them twice so that everything is well combined but I’m sure this isn’t strictly necessary.

Peel and core the apples and grate them coarsely. Pat them with some kitchen paper to remove excess liquid. You should have about 225g apples.

In a stand mixer, beat together the butter and sugars until fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla, lemon zest and juice. Fold in the flour mixture with a metal spoon and then gently fold in the apples. Mix in enough milk to make a smooth batter. Spoon into the prepared tin and gently smooth the top with the back of a spoon. Bake for about 45-50 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the tin for 15 minutes then turn out onto a rack set over a plate.

While the cake is cooking, make the glaze. Stir together all of the ingredients in a small, non-stick pan over a low heat until all of the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat slightly and whisk until the mixture comes together into a smooth, glossy sauce.

While the cake is still warm, pierce the top all over with a skewer and pour over the glaze, allowing it to soak into the cake before pouring over more. Use a spatula to scrape the glaze which has dripped from the cake onto the plate back into the pan. Warm it through and pour it over the cake. Sprinkle on some praline and cool for a further 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.