Cake in the shape of …

My son’s class is having a bake-off in aid of a cancer charity, and he has begged me to take part.

This is problematic. I don’t do pretty cake. I do tasty cake – I’ve shown you the brownie and the ginger cake; I also like making lemon drizzle or rice crispie cake (of which more later) or Victoria sponge or rocky road or millionaire’s shortbread. I like making these because I like eating them. I do the kind of cake that makes people say “Well, you can tell it’s home made. Is there any more?”

Occasionally I am called upon to make a cake in a Shape. Children have birthdays and ask for cakes with knights and dragons, or jungle animals, or a tv character. And we sigh, and remember that it’s an honour and a compliment to be asked … and stay up until stupid o’clock swearing we’ll never touch fondant again.

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However, there are some workarounds. Pictured is an example of a “jungle animals” cake as requested by my then-3-year-old. No fondant modelling, just liberal buttercream to cover up the architecture. A number three is relatively easily carved out of two round cakes – practise first using any paper you can find, cut into circles the size of your tins, then use that as a template and use a bread knife to cut the excess away.

Redundant cake. Oh dear.

It was also remarkably easy to slice because it was effectively a big long thin shape. Don’t try to be clever – slice a party cake into a grid, or for small parties send a chunk home so everyone gets some.

Or forget shaping altogether and go for a very few easy models and a bit of imagination. A few Lego men go a long way, as do fondant ants. Oh the ants.

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Since then, though, I’ve learned the trick for Making A Shape Cake: don’t use cake. Use rice krispie cake, greased foodsafe gloves (or greased sandwich bags but that’s more fiddly) and mould while it’s still warm.

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Ingredients

Two bags of dairy toffees, unwrapped (the most laborious part of the make)
One bag of marshmallows
Some butter
Box of puffed rice cereal

Melt the toffees in a large bowl – I used a microwave on one-minute blasts. When they are nearly melted, add the marshmallows and a knob of butter and heat again until all melted.

Quickly mix together, then fold in the rice cereal around 100g at a time, until the toffee mixture is well distributed.

Put on your plastic gloves (or sandwich bags) and rub on a further knob of butter as though you’re applying hand cream. Liberally, all over. Then take handfuls of the mixture and mould into the shape you need. Work quickly and smoothly, and leave to set.

This makes good rock, walls, clouds, etc. You can fondant or ice over the top if you are just using it architecturally, but you need to let it cool first.

*****

My birthday cake? Listen: I have three sons. My next birthday cake is going to be a classic Barbie doll with a ball dress made of sponge and badly-piped buttercream, because I’m not sure I’ll get to make one otherwise. And it’s going to be a bit wonky, but it’s going to be tasty cake, too.

 

Shortcuts in home cooking

oozing goodness

There is a spectrum in cooking, from restaurants at one end, to cooking only what you grew yourself at the other. Using jarred sauces or ready meals falls in-between, and you can find people very ready to have an argument about where the line falls between “cooked from scratch” and not, or between “home cooked” and not.

I don’t particularly care whether a stranger – or even a friend, to be brutal – thinks I cook “from scratch” or not. There are so many competing pressures on you when you have children to feed. You have to balance variety against food miles and familiarity, quality against cost, and so on, and that’s before you start to fret about artificial additives and salt content. As long as I think I’m striking the right balance, and my children are healthy, anyone else can get stuffed (with ready-made organic lentil stuffing).

Where on the spectrum do you fall?

Before we had any children I was far closer to the DIY end than I am now. We tried new foods, and I happily spent hours after a full day’s work fiddling in the kitchen. Nowadays, as I’ve mentioned before, the children want feeding All The Time, but they won’t give you more than two minutes to prepare anything. Moreover, once they’re over about one and a half they have Opinions about food. I remember a conversation between friends some years ago where one said she tried hard not to give the children the same meal more than twice a month; another friend (with twins, and I think that’s significant) said she felt she was doing well if they weren’t given the same meal more than twice in a row…

In surveys I tick the box labelled “I cook from scratch most days”, because my definition of “from scratch” is “from a collection of ingredients that could have made something else”. If you look in my trolley at the supermarket you can’t tell quite what is on the meal plan this week. Those sausages might be grilled with vegetables, or baked with pasta, or in a Sunday brunch sandwich. Those tinned tomatoes might end up in a casserole, or a chilli, or bolognese. I try to avoid ingredients that limit your meal plan, such as a jar of pasta sauce, which can only be pasta sauce.

This isn’t a pious post, by the way. I am not trying to convert you to hand-knitted lentil bake. I just need to start off by explaining my position: time-poor but slightly fussy.

So I take shortcuts – of course I do. Shortcuts include simplifying the menu (remember macaroni cheese!) and getting someone else to do the grunt work. You can buy nearly anything already chopped up or cooked – believe me, I’ve tried nearly all of them.

We did not like frozen cauliflower florets, but frozen diced onions and frozen sliced carrots are now saved in my Favourites for the online shop. I also buy fresh shredded (that is, grated) carrot. Shredded carrot and diced onion is the base for anything Italian I ever cook, with diced celery if I have an extra minute without someone’s choosing to wipe his nose on my leg.

Frozen diced onion is a bit wet, so you need to fry it off before you put anything else in the pan. No good on a burger, but absolutely fine as the base for something like a stew or soup.

But if I tell you nothing else today, I want to tell you about frozen mashed potato. It sounds disgusting, and it’s no substitute for proper home-made lumpy mash with just slightly too much butter in it, but it means I make cottage pie and fish pie.

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It comes in weird nuggets. You can lay them straight on top of the fish and white sauce (remember? I promised I’d explain further) or mince and vegetables, then happily into the oven. Fork them over once they’re nearly cooked and nobody can see the joins.

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Free yourself. Cook food they like without having to shriek “Don’t kill your brother” from the kitchen for an hour every day.

Most importantly, though, is to remember that meals don’t have to have a name. It doesn’t have to be suitable for a restaurant menu. They can have “chicken, toast and peas” if that’s what there is and that’s what they’ll eat.

Happy Half Birthday

When you are small, it’s an awfully long time between birthdays, and the difference in age between four and four and a half is very significant.

In our family we mark half birthdays, so that the children know precisely when they can start to say “… and a half”. We mark the day with a half-birthday half cake.

The first time I posted about half-birthday half cakes on Facebook, a friend (who is an accomplished baker and usually quite bright) asked where I had bought my half-circle cake tins. I think she felt a bit daft when I said I had baked a round cake and cut it in half…

This week we are celebrating an adult half birthday – since ordinarily we adults avoid sugar where possible, we do tend to jump at any remotely legitimate excuse for cake.

The half-birthday boy or girl chooses the flavour and decoration of the cake. Previous examples have included a green-iced chocolate cake with fire-breathing dragon (optical illusion with a toy dragon and half a cake candle), and more recently a “Horrible Histories” cake – a chocolate cake with mint chocolate buttercream and “HH” in mini marshmallows (and mint green edible glitter, which isn’t really visible in the photo).

HH cake

One of the chief benefits of a half cake, incidentally, is that the two end slices of an iced half cake are extra frosted (top and two of three sides). I’m not a big fan of icing, but many people are.

To work, then. The cake is to be ginger, with chocolate truffle filling. I need to control the sweetness of the truffle, so it doesn’t overpower the ginger, so I shall be using dark chocolate and lemon essence. Alternatively, try whisky, or coffee and chilli. You don’t taste the latter two they just dial down the sugar and dial up the ginger.

The cake recipe is adapted from The Perfect Cookbook by David Herbert.

Ingredients

60g butter or baking spread

125g golden syrup

100g plain flour

25g self-raising flour

1tsp bicarbonate of soda

2-3 heaped tsp ground ginger

1-2 tsp mixed spice

1tsp ground chilli (optional)

100g caster sugar

125ml milk

1 egg

160ml double cream

75g dark chocolate

2-3 drops lemon essence or 5-10ml single malt

Preheat the oven to 170 C and line a 20cm (8″) round tin.

Melt together the butter and syrup.

Combine the flour, sugar, bicarb and spices. Mix in the milk and egg, and when well mixed add the butter mixture. Mix well – the result will be very runny, like cream.

Pour into the lined tin and bake for 50-55 minutes, when a skewer will emerge clean, and the top is dark, springy and shiny.

After five minutes, remove from the tin and cool on a rack. When cool, cut into two equal semi-circles.

Beat the cream to stiff peaks, then melt the chocolate. Fold the chocolate into the cream with the lemon essence (or whisky), then use the mixture to sandwich the cake.

Leave to set.

lucy cake

The cake can be baked into a large loaf tin (it goes sort of sticky like Jamaican Ginger Cake from a shop) or into individual bun cases (in which case cooking time is drastically reduced – check after fifteen minutes).

The basic truffle mixture (cream, chocolate, flavouring) can be used as a rich trifle layer or as tart filling (bake the case blind, fill with truffle filling and top with fruit or nuts as desired). With alcohol you need very little to flavour a large quantity so be frugal. You can use white or milk chocolate instead of dark, to taste or for visual impact – or even try marbling – but they are very sweet.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have spoons to lick.

Chocolate and cherries

I love playing with my food – that is, taking a recipe and messing with it and saying “hmm, what if…?” Having people over is a perfect excuse for experimentation, and most friends don’t mind being a guineapig.

We had a slightly retro Christmas as far as food went, and I was dying to make a proper black forest gateau, following Delia’s recipe from How To Cook. But too many people claimed not to like cream cakes, so I made a big vulgar trifle instead. It was amazing, though I say it myself.

But I couldn’t give up on the Black Forest completely, so when two friends came round for supper I decided to go for an unusual version I’d been building in my head – the Black Forest brownie.

This was the simple, last-minute version, involving a slab of normal chocolate brownie (using the Hummingbird Bakery Traditional Brownie recipe), a tin of black cherry pie filling, half a pint of double cream, and about 50g of dark chocolate. I dolloped the pie filling lumps on to the brownie, reserving some of the sludge. I whipped the cream to stiff peaks, then folded in the sludge, and carefully added this on top, before grating the chocolate over – I use a rotary grater for this kind of job, which incidentally is perfectly safe for the preschooler to use, when I feel inclined to let him join in.

Et voila! Not beautiful, not gourmet, but very rich and very tasty.

However, it did need tweaking, and was boozeless because of its audience. Here, therefore, is the recipe I would recommend if you feel tempted.

Ingredients
200g dark chocolate, roughly chopped
175g unsalted butter or baking spread
325g caster sugar
130g plain flour
3 eggs
a tin of black cherry pie filling
or a punnet of frozen black fruits
300ml double cream
100g dark chocolate
1tbsp cherry liqueur or brandy

Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/Gas 3.

Melt together the chocolate and butter using a bain marie or microwave.

Add the sugar and stir really well until incorporated, then add the flour and then stir really well.

Add the eggs and mix until thick and smooth, then pour the mixture into an 8″ round springform tin (preferably lined with silicon paper).

Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until it starts to crack and flake on top. Leave to cool and set.

If you have chosen to use fresh or frozen fruit, soften in a pan with a spoonful of sugar, then leave to cool.

Whip the cream to stiff peaks. Melt the chocolate, then fold it into the cream with the booze.

Carefully spoon out on top of the brownie, still in the tin.

Next, spoon the fruit mixture over the top.

Chill and leave to set. Just before serving, release from its tin, and dust with icing sugar or grated chocolate.

It will look more like cheesecake, but taste nothing like. Try it with me!

White Sauce Makes Friendship Better

Do you remember how you made all your friends? Most of them drift into your life and gradually become friends … but Nicola and I bonded over white sauce.

Now, obviously there’s a proper way to make white sauce, starting with a roux, getting a pan and a whisk dirty, and requiring precision timing and one’s full attention.

However, nothing I cook can have precision timing or my full attention nowadays because of the small children: for example, the toddler has recently learned how to climb on to the window ledge, but not how to climb down. I have neither the patience nor the resources to spoil batch after batch of white sauce.

About two or three years ago I learned the Mumsnet Microwave Method, and it changed everything. Suddenly I could make white sauce again, so fish pie (of which more in a later post), macaroni cheese and lasagne were all back on the menu.

One afternoon, in a queue to pick up from pre-school, idly discussing what we were making for the children’s tea, I referred to macaroni cheese as a no-stress quick and easy dish. Nicola, whom I knew vaguely but not well, was unconvinced. So I taught her the Mumsnet Microwave Method, and we’ve been friends ever since.

Method?

You will need a 2pt/1L microwave-safe jug, a microwave, a fork, 10floz/300ml milk, 1oz/25g cornflour and an optional 1oz/25g butter.

Measure the milk into the jug, then add the cornflour and butter. Mix vaguely with the fork.

Microwave on full power for one minute, then mix with the fork.

Microwave on full power for one minute, then mix with the fork.

Microwave on full power for one minute, then mix with the fork.

At this point you will start to think nothing will ever happen. Have faith.

Microwave for a fourth minute on full power. Behold! Smooth, lump-free white sauce. Add parsley, cheese, brandy, etc as required.

The method also works for custard (10floz/300ml milk, 1tbsp custard powder, 1tbsp sugar).

Scaling up to a pint yields variable results. You need a big jug to avoid catastrophic overflow, and you need to start with a two-minute blast. But when you’re making a cauliflower cheese, half a pint won’t cut it.

We’re all winging it, aren’t we?

Anty is always telling me I should write a book with all my parenting hints, tips and hacks. I’m never quite sure if she’s joking. In any case, a sporadic blog has got to be less painful than a manuscript and inevitable rejection!

Parenting is hard: harder than I thought possible. I mean, you can provide food and clothing and housing and stuff, but psychologically … it’s like an assignment you can never pass.

But here’s the secret: everyone is just winging it. We’re all doing the best we can with the resources we have. And any information sharing we can possibly achieve that gets us one step closer to feeling like we’re getting it right has got to be worth it.

So my intention is to populate this blog with the hints, tips, hacks and secrets that drag my life over from “WHO ARE ALL THESE SMALL PEOPLE AND WHY DO THEY KEEP ASKING ME FOR THINGS?” to “Hey boys, your tea’s ready”.

In the meantime, if you don’t already know how to make handles from a drinks carton, learn now. It will save a lot of spills.

(image from babble.com)