Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Macarons - if at first you don't succeed...

Many moons ago (I had to use that, mainly because it is my middle daughter's favourite story opening and has been since she was 4, and also because I'm too darn lazy to check back on the exact date...) I wrote a blog post about macarons.  I'd heard tell about these tricky little beggars, notoriously hard to produce; so when I followed a recipe found in an Ocado magazine, I was delighted (and slightly surprised) that they turned out really, really well!  

Beginners luck!

Well, it turns out it really was a case of beginners luck because a couple of years and many kilos of ground almonds, eggs whites and sugar, and quite a few tears later, I think I've finally nailed it - again.  The main issue I experience is cracking - of the shells, and occasionally my will to live, but mostly the shells - which I think is because the mixture is too dry (i.e. not mixed well enough) but, after extensive research and so much contradictory advice, it may just be that the day had a 'y' in it.  

Anyway, the main things I learned this week are:
1. Never (ever, ever, ever,) use a different recipe when faced with any sort of time constraints unless you've tested it thoroughly, 
2. Never try and make macarons if you're experiencing any sort of stress at all (they know, they just know and they can and will sense your weakness and crush you...) 
and 3.  On the plus-side, even if they're a little cracked, flat or have no 'feet' (or in the case of one batch this week, look like they've been rapidly inflated and deflated and left looking like a post-partum belly) they taste great.  
Oh, and 4. If you eat more than 5, even in the name of research, you might need insulin on hand to avoid the need to lie down until the shaking passes.

Macarons from a non-stressful day
I did get the hang of a really useful bit of gadgetry this week - the silicone macaron sheet from Lakeland which appealed to my sense of laziness (no one really wants to be drawing 100 tiny circles evenly spaced, on sheet after sheet of baking parchment). The first time I used it, the macaron shells even defied point no. 3 above by refusing to be parted from the baking sheet (I nearly resorted to just licking them off) and had to be soaked in soapy water which quite obviously rendered them inedible! But, by increasing the baking time, I got some lovely, evenly sized shells which once cool, were easy to lift off the sheet.

Using the macaron mould

So anyway, a huge thanks to Ruth Clemens at The Pink Whisk blog for her recipe which seems with a few tweaks to be, if not foolproof (which is more to do with the baker than the recipe), then at least consistently good.  Here's my recipe for pistachio macarons with white chocolate ganache (burning a large batch of ganache whilst trying to soften it quickly on the defrost setting in the oven was another of my not-so-favourite moments this week, ah well)

Flossie Pops Pistachio and White Chocolate Macarons

Makes around 56 shells, 28 macarons

(Only to be undertaken in a positive, zen-type frame of mind, if you're stressed, please see my post on Rocky Road!!)

For the shells:
3 large eggs whites (approximately 110g)
75g caster sugar
175g icing sugar
55g pistachios
70g ground almonds
Mint green food colouring (optional)

For the filling: 
300g good quality white chocolate
100ml double cream

Two baking trays either with a Lakeland silicon macaron sheet or sheets of baking paper with 1 1/4" circles drawn at least 1/2" apart.  Remember to turn the baking parchment over and pipe on the back or the macaron shells will have pencil circles on them!

Preheat the oven to 140 degrees Celsius (fan) or gas mark 3

Grind the pistachios in a coffee grinder or food processor until they form a fine meal.

Place the egg white and a pinch of salt in the bowl of a stand mixer with a whisk attachment.  Reserve a tablespoon of egg white if you're planning to use food colouring. Whisk on a medium speed for a couple of minutes.

Slowly add the caster sugar to the egg mix, one tablespoon at a time and whisk until the mixture forms glossy stiff peaks - around 5 minutes in total. 

If using food colouring, mix a dab into the reserved egg white, add to the bowl of meringue and whisk in well.

Whilst the meringue is mixing, place the ground almonds, ground pistachios and icing sugar in a food processor fitted with a blade attachment and whizz together until well mixed.

Sieve the almond mixture into the the meringue mixture and using a silicon spatula, begin to fold together.  This is the tricky bit!

You want the mixture well combined and glossy, the meringue will lose a lot of volume. Keep folding until the mixture forms a thick 'ribbon' for a few seconds from the spatula when lifted out of the bowl.  Too dry (mixture doesn't 'ribbon') and your shells may crack, too wet (mixture is runny or forms a thin stream) and the shells will be flat.

Once you think the mixture is ready, spoon into a disposable piping bag and pipe small mounds onto your preparared baking sheet.  Remember the mixture spreads a little so pipe inside the lines.

Now warn everyone in a 3 mile radius to cover their ears - pick up the baking sheet and drop it  (carefully!) back onto the counter from at least a foot above, rotate the baking sheet 45 degrees and do it again. This is very noisy but knocks out any air bubbles.

Now leave the macarons for 20- 30 minutes to dry a little - you should be able to touch the shell very gently without getting any mixture on your finger. Once this skin has formed, place them in the oven for around 15 - 20 minutes (and do a little 'please don't crack' dance around the kitchen).  

You should be able to gently ease the shells off the baking sheet once they're ready. I like to think of it more as a drying process than a cooking process.  If using the Lakeland sheet, I reduce the oven temperature to 120 degrees after 15 minutes and leave them in for another 10 minutes.

Hopefully now you have risen, glossy, even shells and if not, please refer to point 3 above...

To make the ganache, heat the cream gently in a small pan until bubbling (make sure you don't burn it!).

Chop up the white chocolate fairly finely, or use buttons which melt quicker, place in a heatproof bowl and pour the hot cream over.

Leave for a minute or two, then whisk gently to combine.

Once cool, pop in a disposable piping bag and use to sandwich the shells together.

Good luck (and remember point 4)!! 

The successful batches of raspberry & rose and pistachio & white chocolate macarons from this week's wedding

Friday, 27 February 2015

Books

I've always wanted to write a book.  Trouble is, I seriously don't have time at the moment.  I do think I could make time however, but I haven't quite got my head round what sort of book it should be.  The bookshelves of every supermarket I see are laden with cut-price cook books and they make me feel just a tiny bit melancholic.  I imagine the writer having dedicated months of their life, developing an idea, coming up with recipes, testing, working with editors, attending shoots, reading proofs before finally receiving their hard work, complete with glossy cover and a flurry of excitement, only to end up in Tesco with a large red label and a tiny little price.

My girls (mostly) like reading too.  The eldest and youngest can usually  be found - when not upside-down somewhere, playing repetitive tunes on the piano to annoy each other (Old Macdonald's Farm for the thirtieth time today anyone?) or screaming, which are their other favourite pastimes - with their nose in something fairly commendable. For the eldest, anything mythical, greek, ancient, adventurous and magical with plenty of unpronounceable names fits the bill, currently the Percy Jackson series.  For the youngest, it's classics like Wind in the Willows, Ballet Shoes (when reading together) and the whole series of 'Daisy and the trouble with... ' by herself.  The middle one, mostly likes more pictures, and naughty boy characters (Horrid Henry, Diary of a Wimpy Kid) and absolutely, definitely does not like anything greek, mythical, classical, magical, or featuring anyone called Daisy, or anything suggested by me, or really anything that doesn't appear on a screen of some sort.  Thankfully, after spending some time upside-down, shouting at someone for playing Old Macdonald's Farm, she can be persuaded to indulge in a bit of Enid Blyton's Enchanted Wood series

I enjoy reading a lot too, but find it hard to put a book down once I've started.  My job involves way too many late nights and I actively avoid reading during busy periods to try and ensure I have a fighting chance of more than 6 hours sleep a night.  Recently though, I have found myself with a cookbook on my bedside table - not the Mrs Beeton, practical sort of affair, but beautiful staged and dressed photographs of mouthwatering food.  Both satisfying to look at and informative, I can pick it up for 10 minutes and hope the recipes and techniques of the likes of Thomas Keller and good old Jamie Oliver will seep into my head via some strange nocturnal osmosis so I wake in the morning cooking like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, rather than just looking like him.  

I think the perfect solution for me would be a book of simple, beautiful, inspirational bakes for families interspersed with some fun but not-too-challenging prose.  Easy to look at whilst still keeping half an ear on a child's daily reading, but beautiful enough to block out another trying to sabotage any one-on-one time with Old Macdonald's Farm for the 26th time today.

I would love to know what sort of food books you like reading and what you'd like to see in a baking book, whether simple and practical or more complex and aspirational, so please do get in touch via my website and send me any ideas.

Of the four cakes I made this week, I think this one will continue to be a popular theme for years to come.  It's actually surprisingly easy to make and doesn't require loads of specialist tools.  When I have a bit more time, I must get round to a tutorial!



And on the subject of literature - for those of us who were brought up on Enid Blyton, what on earth is the point of The Folk of the Faraway Tree if the names have all been changed, Rick and Frannie... Really??!



Thursday, 19 February 2015

Multifunctional Cakes

The past two weeks have presented some really fun and creative challenges.  Firstly twins with a birthday - two cakes maybe?  Or one which represents their interests and likes? I had such a lovely brief for this cake.  Edward wanted pirates and spiderman and Lara wanted Frozen and butterflies and both were very keen for a 7 somewhere!  The cake was being transported to a party so after some thought and research I concluded creating a two-tier cake would mean only one box to transport.  Rather than making one twin have a smaller tier with their design, a 'half and half' cake seemed like a good idea.  I wanted to create a topper which separated each side and luckily realised that a spiderweb and a snowflake could become a reversible divider between the plastic figures I bought for the top of the cake.  Their faces when they collected the cake were absolutely lovely :)





Secondly a birthday to be celebrated with the children in the afternoon, but cake needed for an evening adult dinner - how about a second cake for the evening? What about a party with family and another with friends a couple of days apart? I'd made a horse-themed cake a few months ago which served a smaller party mid-week and a family party at the weekend which featured a keepsake topper on a board which could be removed and placed on the lower tier once the smaller cake had been eaten (and kept afterwards).  It also means the small cake doesn't look too meagre on it's own!



For this week's cake, I created a reversible cake board too with a message from the children on one side and the recipient's name on the other and again a topper on a thin board this time which could be removed from the top tier and placed on the bottom tier for the second party (it also challenged the rule that every cake has a back! No space for mistakes here...)












Sunday, 14 December 2014

A deer little project

This Christmas period is a very different one in the Flossie Pops kitchen.  Instead of Christmas cakes, I'm busy with weddings.  Winter weddings are styled very differently and I've really enjoyed  sitting down with couples and working with different flowers, textures and colours.  When Trina and Jon attended their consultation, they had a very diverse Pinterest board for cakes - they liked so many different styles in fact we laughed that the only common theme was that they were all cakes! I know their venue well and when Trina showed me an amazing picture of a pair of pine cones dressed as a bride and groom which they wanted to use as a topper, I knew I'd enjoy this commission.  They really wanted a statement cake, but with a fun element,  so we finally settled on a white, ruffled, four-tier cake with a little diamante detail to bring some winter sparkle.  The cake was presented on a thick log-slice stand which tied in with the pinecones, twigs and winter foliage and countryside setting.





My daughters were attending a Christmas party for Brownies and Rainbows this week and I'd agreed to provide a treat for their party bags.  Originally we'd discussed iced cookies, but with four tiers of chocolate cake (and quite a lot of wastage from the trimmings) these little reindeer cake pops seemed like a perfect option!  You can use any sort of cake and frosting (you can of course buy some if you don't have the tops of 8 tiers of cake kicking around…).


Reindeer Cake Pops
(makes around 12 - 15)

You will need:
300g of chocolate or vanilla cake
50g - 75g of chocolate or vanilla frosting/buttercream or chocolate ganache
300g good quality milk chocolate
Red and black sugar balls or red smarties and writing icing in black or dark chocolate.
Cake pop sticks
Brown pipe cleaners
Small clear bags (3"x5")
Baking parchment or greaseproof paper

First place the cake in a food processor and blitz into crumbs.  Then add a heaped tablespoon of buttercream or ganache and blitz again until you get a mixture that looks like this:


Then roll the mixture into walnut-sized balls (i use a mini ice-cream scoop which makes each ball 28g).


Chill the balls for at least an hour.

Then melt the milk chocolate either or in a bowl over simmering water, or in the microwave in a deep plastic container.  You don't want it too hot, just make sure there are no lumps left!  Using plastic lolly sticks (I buy mine on Amazon) dip a stick in the chocolate and push about 1/3 of the way into the cake pop.  Then put them back in the fridge for 10 minutes to firm up.


I used some black sugar balls for eyes and slightly larger red ones for the noses which I bought from Purple Cupcakes.  You could also use red smarties and pipe the eyes on with writing icing from the supermarket.  Make sure you have them ready then working with three cake pops at a time (leave the others in the fridge), dip the pop in the chocolate and gently tap the stick to remove any excess chocolate, then place (stick up) on a tray lined with baking parchment. 



Whilst the chocolate is soft, push the nose and eyes on gently.


Once you used all your mixture up, pop the cake pops back in the fridge whilst you prepare the antlers. I used brown pipe cleaners which I cut in half then chopped smaller sections off and twisted a short piece around each end of the longer piece.  


Once the cake pops are set, pop each one in a plastic bag and twist a pipe cleaner around the top of each bag.
















Sunday, 23 November 2014

There's still time!

Since leaving London and moving to Kent ten years ago, one of the biggest differences I notice is the change of season.  Summer used to mean being too hot on the tube, winter meant being too hot on the tube because I had a huge coat on and no space to actually take it off.  In Kent, however, when I walk downstairs in the morning, the view through the landscape window on the landing, just above where the old barn doors would have been, changes so dramatically throughout the year.  Right now, I can see the fields, empty of sheep for the winter, through the almost-bare branches of the oak tree in front of the house and the brown wood of the hedgerows opposite, exposed now all the weeds have died down.  Then there's the mud (but don't get me started on that one!).  

I live very close indeed to Sissinghurst Castle which is a very popular National Trust property.  It's stunning, spectacularly manicured gardens transformed originally by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson in the 1930s draw visitors from around the world.  There's also fantastic walks around the lakes and a cafe which sits at a convenient half-way point on my favourite dog walk (handy for escaping the mud!).  Bizarrely though, I often overlook it, almost forget about the great facilities and events they hold actually on my doorstep.  

On Friday this week, my lovely friend Helen (her of the original wedding cake), booked us in for a seasonal garland workshop, run by the lovely Blooming Green, which was held in the restaurant.  It's the first thing I've done for 'me' in months and once I've overcome the guilt of not working/doing chores etc.,  I really enjoyed it.  We were working with natural greenery, foliage and berries, most of which are grown organically by Bec on the Blooming Green plot in Linton, but also included some Sissinghurst rose hips.  Bec (the grower) and her cousin Jen (who's the florist) showed us how to create garlands simply using the foliage and some string, which makes them completely compostable too. Along with meeting some really interesting people (and eating someone else's delicious cake) I came away feeling rather chuffed and just a little bit Christmassy!


 Some of the garlands created by our group


Looking rather lovely and slight festive over the fireplace at home 


So as it's almost the end of November and I think I'm finally allowed to mention the 'C' word, here's my favourite Christmas cake recipe - there's still time to make one - just pop it in an airtight container and drizzle a couple of tablespoons of brandy over it once a week between now and Christmas day to keep it extra-moist.

Rich Fruit Cake - makes one 8" cake (adapted from a Lindy Smith recipe)

One day before making - put the dried fruit, lemon zest, lemon juice and brandy in a tupperware box (or similar) and shake well - with the lid on! - and leave in the fridge overnight to soak.

Double-line an 8" round tin with baking parchment and tie folded newspaper around the outside with string (this helps diffuse the heat and ensure the edges don't burn).

Ingredients:
  • 790g mixed fruit with peel (I like the Waitrose mix with cranberries, apricots and pineapple)
  • 2 tbsp Brandy
  • Juice and rind of 1 lemon
  • 225g plain flour
  • 225g soft brown sugar
  • 225g unsalted butter
  • 4 large eggs
  • 50g ground almonds
  • 50g chopped almonds (or chopped mixed nuts)
  • 1 tsp mixed spice
  • 1 tbsp black treacle
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 115g glace cherries, rinsed (I leave them whole but you can halve them)
Method:
  • Preheat the oven to 150 degrees C (gas mark 2) and place a tray of water in the bottom 
  • Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy - I do this in my KitchenAid
  • Break the eggs into a jug and add the treacle and vanilla extract 
  • Beat the eggs into the butter and sugar mixture, adding a little of the flour if the mixture starts to split
  • Sieve the flour, ground almonds and mixed spice together
  • Add the glace cherries and chopped nuts to the dried fruit mixture and stir in a few tablespoons of flour mixture (this stops the fruit sinking)
  • Fold the remaining flour and ground almonds into the batter, then stir in the fruit and nuts mixture until well distributed.
  • Spoon into the prepared tin and make a slight hollow in the centre.
  • Bake for around 1 1/2 hours then reduce the oven temperature to 120 degrees C (gas mark 1/2) and bake for another 2 hours.  You will need to check the cake occasionally, if the top looks too brown, put a circle of baking parchment on to protect it.  The cake is ready when a skewer inserted in the middle comes out completely clean. 
  • Leave on a wire rack to cool - you can drizzle some more brandy over the cake whilst it's cooling  - prick the surface with a skewer first to help it absorb.
To store the cake, wrap it in greaseproof paper or baking parchment (never foil as the fruit acid can attack the foil) and wrap well with cling film or place it in an airtight container.  Feed your cake once a week with brandy.




Friday, 14 November 2014

The story of a wedding cake

I'm a very lucky person, I love what I do for a living (yes, despite the midnight tears and tantrums, the constant switching between icing-covered creator and responsible parent who must NOT be late for the school pick-up, the aching guilt as I 'pop the telly on for a few minutes whilst I just finish this bit…').  Handcrafting something from a pile of disparate ingredients is immensely satisfying (yes, I bang on about this too) but creating a wedding cake is a particularly lovely - and lengthy - process.

I met Charlene and Michael at an open day at The House Meadow in May 2013 and in November last year they came to my house for a consultation whilst the children were at their Saturday morning riding lesson, my husband was away and the new puppy was, well, new, small and extremely demanding.  They are a fantastic couple with great, creative ideas and luckily for me, a love of dogs!

I'd spent around 3 hours in total the day before baking samples of rich dark chocolate cake, vanilla sponge with fluffy vanilla bean buttercream and strawberry jam and lemon cake with zesty lemon curd buttercream for them to try whilst we discussed their wedding plans.  Over a cup of coffee we sat at the kitchen table and they showed me an image of a cake they had fallen in love with.  It was an unusual cake with ruffles and big fabric-effect flowers in ivory, dusky pinks and corals.  Although I haven't been able to track down the original designer of the cake, they had seen the image on Pinterest, originally from the WedLuxe blog.  This cake was going to form the basis of the colour scheme, Charlene's flowers would be big pink and coral peonies and her dress featured ruffles.


I think many couples find the process of wedding planning eats through their carefully planned budget in no time at all and I do always try and ascertain their cake budget early on in the process - I'd much rather be able to create something that the couple are happy with and is within their budget than force an uncomfortable decision about where to compromise later on.  Charlene and Michael had around 80 guests so we decided on a deep 10" bottom tier, an 8" middle tier, both vanilla sponge which is a popular, delicious and cost-effective cake and a 6" rich fruit top tier, covered in marzipan, which is Michael's favourite.  

We spent around an hour and a half chatting - after stopping the puppy chewing Charlene's handbag which he was very keen on indeed, off they went and I sat down to cost up the cake we had agreed.  I then created a cake quote which was emailed through along with our terms and conditions, options were ironed out by email and then an order form was created which is sent by email and a signed copy returned by the couple, along with a deposit. Probably about an hour and half's work in total - mainly because I didn't need to sketch any designs with this cake.

I normally begin to bake around 3-4 days before a wedding but as Charlene and Michael were having a fruit cake, it needs a minimum of three months to mature (with weekly brandy 'feeds') to ensure it cuts well and doesn't crumble - so I began baking for their early June wedding in March! The fruit cake would have taken around an hour of 'hands on' time plus baking. On the week of their wedding I began on Monday by creating the flowers and leaves from sugar florist paste which took around 4 hours.




On the Wednesday - with the dog safely away at daycare - I baked 4 layers of sponge (using 24 eggs, 1.2kg of butter, 1.2kg of caster sugar and 1.2kg of self raising flour) which took around 3 hours.  Then I left them to rest, well wrapped overnight - you can see the fruit cake in it's airtight home of the last three months on the left here.


I also covered the board, known as a cake drum, with white icing and finished it with ivory ribbon (takes around 15 minutes).


On the Thursday it was time to torte or layer the cakes.  I made lots of fluffy vanilla buttercream and vanilla syrup. Then I cut off the tops of the cakes to give an even finish and split each layer in two to give plenty of delicious filling.





In goes the vanilla buttercream, home-made strawberry jam and vanilla syrup to keep the sponge nice and moist and add lots of flavour. I didn't add jam and buttercream to each layer as it tends to slide about and bulge at the sides through the sugar paste.




Then the cake is crumb coated and placed in the fridge for a couple of hours (preferably overnight but not enough time in this case) to set and firm up before icing. This whole process took around 1 1/2 hours plus chilling time.


Then the fruit cake is brushed with sieved, warm apricot jam and covered in marzipan - another half an hour.




 Then each tier is covered in white sugar paste and left to dry - another hour plus drying time.


Then it was time to make the ruffles for the bottom tier. Working with a mix of sugar florist paste and regular sugar paste, I made the ombre ruffles, mixing the colours from the flowers in graduated amounts to create the effect. Time taken, around an hour and a half.





Once dry, I dowelled the bottom and middle tier for strength and stacked them together and 'glued' them with royal icing. This takes about half an hour.


Once set, I placed the flowers and glued them on with royal icing before finishing the tiers with plaited pink raffia.  Time taken - around 45 minutes.

Finally, on the Friday morning it was boxed up and delivered to the House Meadow which is thankfully only 10 minutes drive  away!

Total time taken: 20.5 hours - plus chilling time :)



For more images of Charlene and Michael's extremely cool wedding at The House Meadow, check out Boho Weddings Blog