One Man’s Minute is Another Man’s Hour

Sewing Basket Cake

Sewing Basket Cake

That’s not an actual saying, I just made it up, but it suitably represents one of the themes of this post, which I will get to in a bit. But first to the cake pictured. This is the cake I finished on the weekend for my (former) boss who retired on Monday. I think you can guess where her passions lie… (If you are interested in sewing/knitting/felting then check out her popular blog, Fadanista).

This cake took up the better part of seven evenings and a whole weekend to complete. Leaving out the baking time, and time spent ganaching the basket and the lid, I probably spent close to 10 hours decorating. Which brings me to the title of this post. This sewing basket was a project taken from the Cake Decorating series of magazines, published by DeAgostini, which I have subscribed to and seem destined to keep receiving until I am cold in my grave. (Frankly, the featured projects in each issue after about issue #100 are just plain ugly). This is a typical example of a project found in this magazine for which the decorating time is given as 2 hours!!! Seriously? I am not a novice, and it took me ten. Here is their project:

Magazine cover

Magazine cover

And here again is mine:

Pin cushion and yarn

Pin cushion and yarn

Pretty similar? So where do they get 2 hours from? It was at least 30 minutes covering that yarn ball. That’s a lot of sausage rolling! Ok, so it was a labour of love with a pleasing end result, but a project I may have thought twice about if I had known exactly what I was in for.

Anyway, here are some details. The basket part was a 9″ square chocolate cake covered first in chocolate ganache. Then I covered the top of the cake with a thin layer of marzipan and an additional layer of black RTR icing (sugarpaste). The sides were covered in chocolate brown RTR. The lid was a 1″ layer of additional chocolate cake on a 9″ cardboard cake board. The top of the lid was covered in ganache and the sides were in chocolate brown RTR. Then the top of the lid and the sides of the basket were piped in a basketweave pattern with chocolate coloured royal icing. The lettering was also done in royal icing. All other decorations were made with coloured RTR and modelling paste. I used various silicone moulds, texture mats, stitch wheels, embossers and my good old hands.

The non-edible parts were the two “pins” made from standard cake decorating flower stamens, the ribbons around the board and the lid, and a polystyrene foam ball inside the ball of yarn.

Boy was this sucker heavy!

One major problem was the fifty shades of brown I had to cope with between different brands of chocolate RTR and different batches of royal icing I mixed myself. In this photo you can see a marked difference between the lid and the basket. It was basically tantamount to the difference between milk and dark chocolate.

Fifty Shades of Brown

Fifty Shades of Brown

Thankfully the dark brown ribbon I put around the lid seemed to bring the tones closer together, and a lot of it was covered by the piece of “fabric” that adorned the top.

Now, I do love it when you find a great tip on the internet. After baking the first of two cakes for this project I was frustrated by the amount of waste that occurs when you have to cut off a domed top. Especially if what you are left with is not quite as tall as you would like. A quick trip to Googleland took me to a blog called A Cozy Kitchen where I found a great tip about tying a wet towel around the tin. No, not a whole bath towel. Something more like a long-ish hand or gym towel. A clean one…

Here is the difference between the first and second cakes:

Without towel

Without towel

With towel

With towel

What a difference! I gained at least an inch of height by not having to remove the dome. Thank you Cozy Kitchen person!

The domed cake became the source of my cake lid and I had to cut it twice to: a) remove the dome; and b) halve the remainder. Here is my own tip for bakers on how to cut even layers with just a ruler, some toothpicks and a nice long serrated bread knife.

Step 1: Stand your ruler up against the side of the cake and insert a toothpick at the desired cutting point.

Step 2: Repeat this around the whole cake spacing the toothpicks about 3 inches apart. Be sure to push the toothpicks in for about two thirds of their length, and make sure they are horizontal(!) I pushed mine in further after taking this picture.

Toothpicks level

Toothpicks level

Step 3: Start cutting with your bread knife literally resting on the top surface of one of the toothpicks. Don’t start at one side and try to cut all the way through to the opposite edge. Instead, using a back and forth gentle sawing motion, only cut about one third to one half of the way in and keep rotating the cake as you cut.Having it on a turntable is ideal. Make sure you can always feel the knife touching the tops of the toothpicks.

Step 4: Once you’ve done a full circuit you can cut in a little deeper until the layer has been cut through.

When you remove the cut layer, if you kept your knife resting on your toothpicks you should see the toothpicks nicely exposed but still lightly embedded in the bottom layer.

Exposed toothpicks in bottom layer

Exposed toothpicks in bottom layer

Using this method I can almost guarantee you’ll end up with neat level layers of equal thickness all around.

Level layer

Level layer

And the leftover dome? Goes well with leftover ganache! Or better yet, freeze it and keep it for cake pops, rum balls or some sort of fantastical invention involving warm chocolate sauce and cream…

A final note in this extraordinarily long post, on basketweave piping. This was my first ever attempt and after producing deliciously straight lines on the lid I thought it was a piece of cake. (Pun intended!)

Easy peasy basketweavy

Easy peasy basketweavy

I changed my tune considerably after attempting to do the vertical sides of the basket part of my cake. Lesson learnt? Get your royal icing consistency absolutely right and try it out before you start on vertical surfaces! When the horizontal strokes start sagging southwards it really bursts your balloon. It needs to be quite close to firm peak consistency. And it really helps if the RTR you are icing on to is set hard already because you can scrape off your mistakes and do-over.

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A Birthday Blessing

Patchwork Owl Cake

And the winner is…

Back in June I posted about entering an annual cake decorating competition during the Perth Royal Show. Well today (September 27th) is the first day of “The Show,” and is the day on which all the competition winners were announced, AND it is my Birthday. All three things made the day a bit special for me, not least because I had some success in the competition. Huzzah!

The Patchwork Owl cake pictured above is my second attempt at this cake, and the one I entered in the Novelty Cake Class (Amateur Section). Below is a reminder of my first attempt.

Patchwork Owl Cake

Patchwork Owl Cake Take 1

My immediate observations about my second attempt are: the eyes are less weird; the eyebrows are much less imposing (are they eyebrows? Who knows?); the wings are more symmetrical and evenly shaped; and above all, although you can’t see it from the photos, all the joins between panels are sooooo much neater. I was tremendously pleased with my entry, all the more so because I won 1st prize in the Novelty Class, and the Lady Rita Court Prize for the Exhibitor Gaining Highest Points in the Amateur Section.

Even though I took much greater pains over the second attempt, trying to achieve perfection, I was much quicker about completing it this time and could easily knock this one off in a weekend. I think I prefer the colours I chose this time around as well.

Owl Face closeup

Whooo’s looking at you kid?

Side view

Side view 1

The cake inside is Madeira Cake, which is especially ideal for carving.

Side view

Side view 2

The other class I entered was the Decorated Cake Class in the Student Section. This had to be a 1 tier decorated cake fit for a special occasion. This was my entry:

Bone China Cake

It is called a Bone China Cake, and I consider it an homage to Wedgewood. It had to feature a message of some sort to denote the occasion, and obviously I made it to be for a 60th Birthday celebration. The cake inside is a chocolate mud cake with a chocolate ganache crumb coat.

And how did I go? My cake came 3rd. Huzzah again! Although I wasn’t in 1st place, I was very pleased to see that the winner was a fellow student from the cake decorating course I am attending. Well done Dana!

Top view

Top view

Side detail

Side detail

And to top all of that off, the points I earned with these two entries earned me the Roma McLaglan Memorial Trophy and Sash for Exhibitor Gaining Highest Points in the Student/Amateur Sections! (Phew! That’s a mouthful). Now isn’t that just the icing on the cake? Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun, but do please pardon it.

But wait, there’s a little bit more. Several friends messaged me this evening to say that they saw my Patchwork Owl cake in a new story on TV this evening which was covering the opening day of the Royal Show. What a shame I didn’t see it. Sadly I have to wait until next Friday to go to the Show myself and see my cakes on display with all the others. I shall be on tenterhooks all week.

So, a very pleasing milestone in my cake decorating learning journey, and a wonderful blessing on my Birthday. It is all starting to feel quite worthwhile! I will finish with a big thank you to my teacher at Cake Tinz n’ Thingz, Tammy, for her encouragement to enter. Thank you Tammy!

Whooooo’s for Cake?

Patchwork Owl Cake

Patchwork Owl Cake

If you were up for some cake, it would not be a piece of this one. It is many weeks old and was baked and decorated for practice purposes only. Why? Because I have decided to go in my first ever cake decorating competition, at the Perth Royal Show.

The Royal Show is a community event staged annually by the Royal Agricultural Society in September/October and has been running for an incredible 170 years! “The Show” as it is familiarly known locally, showcases Western Australian agriculture, rural communities, small business and entertainment at an event in our capital city, Perth, for ten fun-filled days. There is everything to offer from animal showing, wood chopping and baby animal farms, to stunt shows, equestrian events and the ever popular sideshow alley and showbags. Never mind that you have to mortgage your house to afford a day spent at the Show.

A wonderfully old-fashioned and yet timeless element is the range of competitions run for bakers, sewers, craft enthusiasts, amateur artists, woodworkers and so forth. Prize money is generally very small but the glory lies in the receiving of ribbons and awards and competition can be fierce.

So I have decided to enter a cake (or two) in the decorated cakes section, in either the Student or Amateur categories, or perhaps both. The pictured patchwork owl cake is from a design by Lindy Smith and could potentially go in a Novelty Class.

Embossing fun with cutters

Embossing fun with cutters

I am fairly pleased with it even though I learnt a number of lessons along the way, and can’t help but look at it with a critical eye. It was carved out of a 25cm Madeira Cake, which is great for carving but always seem to come out horribly dry despite an inordinate amount of butter being in the recipe. I enjoyed the carving and found it much easier than I imagined it would be.

Given my previous post on furry edges, I can see that I need to smarten up my act in that respect. Another challenge was the embossing of some of the panels of colour with daisies, leaves, etc. Too light a touch left me with vague and indistinct patterns, and too heavy a hand made the patterns liable to stretching and distortion when I laid the panels on curved parts of the cake. The top of the head, which is judiciously hidden in these photos, looks a complete dog’s breakfast because of this problem.

Elaborate but effective eyes

Elaborate but effective eyes

Hollowing out those eye sockets was no picnic either. Creating identical hollows was nigh on impossible and it became a classic case of the more you tried to correct bits, the more damage you did to the end result. I need a creative solution for scooping out neat concave hollows. Any suggestions?

But the greatest challenge was that of neatly abutting the different “fabric” panels against each other. The joins between wings and head are pretty rough and definitely need to be improved upon. Well-wishing friends tell me otherwise, but my OCD dances a merry jig when I look at those joins and I just can’t be happy with the disorder. Ah me!

Claws, not carrots!

Claws, not carrots!

Flaws notwithstanding, it all seemed to come to life when the beak and claws were added. Not that I have ever seen an owl with orange beak and claws, but then neither is it common to see owls with gerberas for eyes and maple leaves and daisies adorning their wings. A friend made me laugh when she declared that the claws looked like carrots and were making her hungry, but not nearly so much as another (male) friend who, swept away with the enthusiasm of it all, suggested how I might improve it by adding sharp brown claws. I told him that as a child’s cake it was meant to induce joy and pleasure, not trauma and nightmares! To be fair, he was in hospital after a nasty road accident, and drugged to the eyeballs with painkillers…

My verdict on this cake – many hours of work, and many lessons learnt, but a visual feast (albeit inedible by the time I had finished).

Mignardises? Merveilleux!

Mignardises

Mignardises

These tempting little morsels are called mignardises, which, in effect, is another name for petits fours – little sweet bite-sized treats. Although mignardises are meant to be enjoyed at the end of a meal, I made these for another morning tea at work (we seem to have quite a few!). This recipe in particular is from the Women’s Weekly “Sweet Things” cookbook, and is called Raspberry and Pistachio Mignardises. Those quick of eye will notice a few blueberries in this picture – a shortage of raspberries (I sampled too many) led to some improvisation. To great effect, I might add, as the blueberries worked every bit as well as the raspberries.

They are baked in a mini muffin tin, which I sat on a flat baking tray to prevent the bottoms and sides from over-browning. The batter is primarily made up of a mixture of icing sugar and ground almonds, which may sound sickly sweet, but they are so small that it didn’t seem to matter. The colours make these particularly pleasing to the eye when you see a whole tin of them like this.

A little snippet of info at the bottom of the recipe says that the baking of mignardises in France goes back to the 18th Century, when pastry chefs baked such treats in the residual heat of their cooling ovens at the end of a meal. Their purpose was to extend the pleasure of the meal.

The word mignardises apparently comes from old French and meant ‘cute’, ‘graceful’ or ‘pretty’.

Cakes and More Cakes

Flower cake

My first term of cake decorating classes ended just before Easter, and our final project was a covered fruit cake with flowers. I don’t especially enjoy making sugar flowers purely because of the time involved. For someone with back and pelvis injuries like me, it is never easy to sit for long periods working on something like this. This saddens me a little, because at the end of it all, I really rather liked my cake.

The flowers we made in this project are dog roses, eriostemon, and basic blooms. They were coloured using petal dust and finely grated artist’s pastels (non-toxic). The great thing with the pastels is the ease with which you can mix your own colours. The leaves are rose and ivy. I was never very sure about the colours I was choosing, but they seem to harmonise well. It felt a great shame to have to break them off the cake before cutting it.

At around the same time my brother came home to Perth for a visit from the UK, where he lives, and we were able to celebrate his 50th birthday with him. This is the cake I created. I feel I am truly getting the hang of covering fruit cakes smoothly now.

50th birthday cake

50th birthday cake

And finally, I made another cake for a colleague leaving our office. He is a devoted fan of a local Australian Rules Football team called the Fremantle Dockers, and so I decided to make a little team guernsey to sit on the cake. I made a template for the guernsey in Photoshop, with each block of colour being a separate black shape. Then it was just a matter of cutting out the shapes and sitting each piece on the purple background guernsey shape.

Fremantle Dockers cake

Fremantle Dockers cake

While trying to use some plastic letters to lightly imprint the covered board, so that I might use the imprints as a piping guide, I pressed too hard and left a rather deep imprint. I am increasingly finding that the greatest area of creativity in cake decorating lies in covering up your mistakes! The solution here was to press all of the letters in, and fill in the imprints with the mauve royal icing I was going to pipe with. I actually rather liked the effect in the end!

Of Beasties, Blooms and Butterflies

Cupcakes

A recent spate of life events brought me to a cupcake-making frenzy. The result was a cavalcade of cupcake creations (apologies for the un-intentional alliteration).

The first event was the departure of a colleague from work who went on maternity leave. My decision to make cupcakes for her morning tea was quite last-minute and on a day when the energy levels were particularly low. I was tempted not to make them at all but unfortunately had already shot my mouth off at work about bringing cupcakes the following day. As it turns out I came up with a solution that was quick and required minimal energy – a packet mix for the cupcakes themselves (the kind that include ready-made frosting), and a selection of ready-made cupcake toppers from the local supermarket. All that was needed was some imagination and appropriate color selection. Let it be said that Betty is the mother of invention – Betty Crocker that is – for it was a Betty Crocker brand packet mix chives and I was very happy with the result.

My only beef with Betty is the amount of ready-made frosting that comes in the packet. The packaging featured the extravagant claim “now with more frosting!”, but the amount supplied was barely enough to cover half of of the batch. Nevertheless by adding additional icing sugar to the frosting I was able to stretch it a little further. The cupcake flavor was strawberries and cream, hence the pink coloring you can see in the picture. The frosting was a pale mauve, and the whole was completed to my satisfaction with the silicon teacup-style cupcake cases and matching saucers. What I didn’t think about was the fact that I knew that the departing colleague was having a boy. Nevertheless she appreciated the cupcakes and I was quite pleased with the result.

Butterfly cupcakes

Butterfly cupcakes

The next occasion came over the Easter break. It was a 1st birthday party for the baby of a friend. We were a bit of a tandem team as she made an awesome butterfly cake and I made accompanying butterfly-themed cupcakes. I am particularly pleased with how the butterflies which I made out of sugarpaste turned out. At the birthday barbecue the cupcakes were arranged around the cake and made quite a festive and enticing sight. My only criticism is that I find it quite difficult to manage the basic spirally swirl without creating a somewhat lopsided effect. Leaving that aside, both the cake and the cupcakes were a great success with both being devoured by adults and children alike with great enthusiasm.

Butterflies and Blooms

Butterflies and Blooms

Shortly after the birthday barbecue another colleague was leaving work and to mark the occasion I again volunteered to make some cupcakes. I had some butterflies leftover from the baby birthday but not enough to make a full batch. So I decided to be a little creative with a simple theme of flowers and butterflies in yellow and white. I think these cupcakes with a layer of fondant icing on top, bedecked with appropriate toppers, are in fact my favorite of the three. I guess it is the simplicity of the colors and the decorations both. Suffice it to say I would be very happy if I never saw another cupcake case for at least another six months.

O Toothsome Titbits!

Salted Chocolate Pistachio Fudge

Salted Chocolate Pistachio Fudge

A recent spurt of inventiveness led me to carry out a couple of baking experiments that by some miracle came out out nicely. To be truthful I can’t really credit a capacity for creativity when in actuality it was more a matter of laziness – I simply couldn’t be bothered browsing through recipes and making trips back to the supermarket, when on both occasions I was passing the supermarket on the way home from work.

For this first one I had a basic recollection of a fudge recipe, and so knew what I needed and what I had at home. And while making it I decided to improvise a little, and the result – Salted Chocolate Pistachio Fudge.  Here’s the recipe:

Salted Chocolate Pistachio Fudge

1 cup shelled pistachios, coarsely chopped
250g dark cooking chocolate
250g dark chocolate melts
395g can sweetened condensed milk
65g butter
Malden sea salt flakes

Melt the chocolate, condensed milk and butter in a small saucepan over a low heat, stirring until completely smooth and combined. Add the pistachios, and then sea salt to taste (I used about 1 scant tablespoon).

Pour the mixture into a 20cm square cake tin lined with foil and smooth it out as best you can. Work quickly as it stops being spreadable pretty quickly as it cools. Refrigerate until set. Cut into 1″ squares.

The basic fudge recipe comes from an old Christmas Recipes book put out by Family Circle, and even without the salt is a sure hit. But be warned, it is so rich you can’t eat more than one square at a time (I know this for certain, I’ve tried!).

IMG_0338

These sweet and sticky beauties I came up with from scratch as I wandered around the supermarket looking for inspiration. I call them Caramel Ginger Pods. My Mum once made a recipe that used Arnott’s Gingernut Biscuits as a ready made casing for some sort of lime and cream cheese filling. I was taken by the simplicity of the concept but quite unhelpfully, Mum had no recollection of it whatsoever.

I knew, though, that you had to heat the biscuits in the oven, sitting in a round-base patty tin, to soften them. But for how long, and at what temperature, I knew not. But I thought I’d give it a go anyway. I wanted to do a gooey caramel filling instead of cream cheese, and thought immediately of Nestlé’s Top ‘n’ Fill Caramel. I took inspiration from a recipe on the back of the can, which combined the caramel with white chocolate melts.

(The appearance here in this blog post of two related products that sit side by side on the supermarket shelf – Sweetened Condensed Milk, and Top ‘n’ Fill – is purely coincidental!)

Back at home I had a vague inkling that I might in fact have had a recipe somewhere that used the Gingernut technique for its base. My memory served me well and I found the recipe in a little Women’s Weekly /CSR recipe book called Cakes, Biscuits and Slices. The amazing thing is the recipe was called Caramel Meringue Pies! The difference was that it required Butternut Snap Biscuits, and used Top ‘n’ Fill on its own as the filling. Plus I wasn’t doing a meringue topping.  So I now had the oven temperature and time, and the rest is history. Here’s my recipe:

Caramel Ginger Pods

250g packet Gingernut Biscuits
380g can Top ‘n’ Fill Caramel
1 cup white chocolate melts
1 tube white chocolate writing fudge (alternatively use melted white chocolate and a piping bag)

Preheat oven to 160C. Place one biscuit in each hole of a 12-hole round-based patty pan and bake for about 10 minutes, or until the biscuits feel soft. Immediately on removing the biscuits from the oven, press each one down into the patty pan hole to make them into a concave shape, and allow to cool.

Meanwhile melt the Top ‘n’ Fill and white chocolate in a small saucepan and stir until smooth. Spoon the filling into each cooled biscuit cup and refrigerate until cool. To finish off put a squiggle of the writing fudge on top of each.

Tip #1: I found the Gingernuts had a tendency to try to revert to their flattened shape when I pressed them down with a spoon. A much more effective measure turned out to be pressing them down with the large marble mortar from my mortar and pestle, which exactly matched the size of the biscuits. Be quite firm.

Tip #2: Butternut cookies could work as well for the bases.

Tip #3: You could try substituting caramelised Sweetened Condensed Milk for Top ‘n’ Fill if you can’t find it, but there’s obviously a little more work involved in boiling the can of condensed milk to caramelise it.

Tip # 4: Like the fudge, they are rich and sweeeeet!

Now finally, a word about the title of this post. Toothsome is an old-fashioned word you don’t hear much these days, but which I had always thought described a figure with prominent teeth, as in the minion below that I recently made out of sugarpaste. In fact it is an adjective to describe something delectable or appealing in appearance. You live and learn…

IMG_0273

As Australian as the Capital of Monaco?

Monte Carlo biscuits

An Australian favourite

January 26th is Australia Day, and although I made this homemade  version of a classic Australian treat a couple of weeks ago, I thought it fitting to blog about them on the Australia Day long weekend. These are homemade Monte Carlo biscuits. (We generally call cookies biscuits in Australia, although chocolate chip cookies are never anything but cookies!).

Monte Carlos are a classic cream biscuit manufactured by another Australian icon, Arnott’s Biscuits. Arnott’s have been producing Monte Carlos since 1926, and for some reason they took their name from the city of Monte Carlo. Almost everyone loves Monte Carlos. Dare I say, with tongue in cheek, it is positively un-Australian NOT to like Monte Carlos.

There are a great many recipes to be found online for homemade Monte Carlos, but I made mine from a recipe in Anneka Manning’s Mastering the Art of Baking, where for obvious legal reasons they had to be called Monte Creams. I’m not sure why those legal reasons don’t apply to all the recipes on the internet… The homemade versions are lighter and more buttery than the commercial biscuit, but that is what makes them so delectable. And they are extremely easy and quite quick to make.

I found this fabulous old bit of film reel on YouTube which shows biscuits in production at an Arnott’s factory in 1951. Monte Carlos make an appearance towards the end. I am fairly sure that the crackers shown at the beginning are SAO biscuits (never a big favourite of mine), and those described (and shown) in the middle sound like Iced Vovos (never say no to a Vovo). I think I also saw Delta Creams (always the ones people choose last. Don’t know why – they’re kind of like Oreos). You can’t help but feel admiration for the women packing the SAOs who know by memory and instinct how many to pick up in one go to make a full packet.

My absolute favourite Australian biscuit, also manufactured by Arnott’s, is the Tim Tam. I do have a recipe for homemade Tim Tams but have not yet braved what looks like a messy process, to see how they turn out.

Le Rouge et le Noire

Le rouge et le noire

Tartelette

In my family we have fallen into a pattern of always having Christmas at my sister’s house, and it traditionally befalls me to bring an additional dessert. Additional because it has also become a tradition that my sister makes Nigella’s Eton Mess for dessert (her husband takes care of the lunch itself).

In choosing what to make, I wanted something simple and not too sweet, to complement the gooey, creamy and very sweet multiplicity of ingredients in the Eton Mess. I headed to the supermarket with a particular recipe in mind, but my plan was completely but willingly derailed by the vista of berries available in the fruit section. I have no idea why, but Perth has undergone something of an insurgence of berries in the past 12 or so months.

It used to be the case that for about 5 minutes during Summer one could buy, in Perth, a limited variety of berries (and cherries), primarily blueberries and occasionally raspberries. These could be had at mortgage-your-house and sell-your-children prices. It seems like there has been a relaxing of import laws or attitudes to imported fruits, because the first big change was the appearance of U.S. cherries outside of our own season. Hooray. Then blueberries from New Zealand started appearing on the shelves, for what seems like a much longer season, and at more affordable prices. Cherries used to be around $20 (Australian) per kilo, sometimes higher, and blueberries were about $8 per 125g. Try to picture just how very few blueberries there are in 125g.

But wait, there’s more! The whole point of this berry specific monologue is that I was almost forced to genuflect in front of the berry display when I saw not just the usual strawberries and blueberries, but raspberries, blackberries, and redcurrants too. REDCURRANTS! I have never in my life seen redcurrants for sale in Perth. And these were not even imported.

Every pastry book I own seems to include a recipe for Summer Berry Tartlets and whenever I have come to those pages I have always looked wistfully and with yearning at those artfully arranged little cairns of berries, that always seem to include redcurrants. And thus I would sigh with resignation that I should probably never be able to recreate them as pictured. Well now my wish has been granted! In a way…

Tartlettes en rouge et  noir

Tartlettes en rouge et noir

The tartlets pictured here are my own creation and not Summer Berry Tarts. I am calling them Tartelettes en rouge et noir, for two reasons. The first is obviously because of the colour combinations. The second is that the idea of red and black made me think of Stendhal’s seminal novel Le Rouge et le Noire (often translated as The Red and the Black). I first read this novel while on a long visit to my sister in Los Angeles, and loved it (the book, that is, but also L.A).

Stendhal

By Creator:Johan Olaf Sodermark (1790-1848) ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I like to think, though, that this choice goes beyond the superficial coincidence of the title. The Red and the Black is the story of a young man from the provinces, Julien Sorel, whose romantic illusions about city life and society see him trying to raise himself up from his humble beginnings on the basis of his talents and his willingness for hard work. Being myself a country girl who quickly saw that small town life was never going to be sufficiently fulfilling, I feel I can relate. And like Julien, I found that reality did not exactly match my romantic illusions, and very often has become overwhelming. Unlike Julien, thankfully, I have not ended up committing and being tried for a crime of passion, but like him I have struggled to make sense of life and I join Stendhal in questioning the existence of truth when every human being directs their own actions according to their interpretation of the actions of others.

My very first post in this blog was the story of how I had fluttered in many ways and flown in none. All such flutterings had been attempted with requisite talent and hard work, but generally came to nothing once my romantic allusions did not stand up to comparison with reality. I have stated that I think my efforts in baking have broken this mould and am starting to fly. If ever I needed proof of that, the success of these tartlets has shown me it is so.

Now to the tartlets themselves. I made the shortcrust pastry with the only plain flour I had in the house – Khorasan flour – which resulted in a surprisingly gentle but beautifully crumbly shortcrust pastry. So here is my recipe:

Tartelettes en rouge et noir

PASTRY
185g plain/all-purpose flour (I used Khorasan flour)
55g caster sugar
2tsp water

ALMOND FILLING
60g butter, softened
75g light brown sugar
1 egg
1 tbsp plain flour
80g ground almonds

FRUIT TOPPING
One punnet each of blueberries, blackberries and redcurrants
Apricot Jam (for glazing)

FOR THE PASTRY
Process the flour, sugar and butter in a food processor until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. (Alternatively chop the butter coarsely and rub into sifted flour and sugar with your fingertips). Add the egg yolk and as much of the water as is needed to only just hold the dough together when you pinch a bit of it between two fingers.

Tip the crumbly pastry mix onto a pastry mat or lightly floured surface, and press the mix together until it holds in one big mass. Then briefly knead the dough gently for no more than about 20 seconds, until smooth. Don’t worry if there are splits at the edges, you don’t want a stretchy bread-like pastry – crumbly is the goal.

Roll the pastry out between sheets of baking paper and a thickness of about 3mm (1/8 inch) and cut out 12 x 8cm (3 1/4 inch) circles with a round cutter. If you cannot get 12 out of the pastry after the first roll, gather up the offcuts and press it back into a ball without kneading it, and re-roll to cut out the remaining rounds.

Grease a 12 hole muffin pan and ease the pastry rounds into each hole. They should come up the sides to about 1/3 of the hole. Prick the base of each pastry case thoroughly to let out the air bubbles that get trapped as you put them in the holes.

Refrigerate the cases for 30 minutes before baking them in the oven at 200℃/400℉ for about ten minutes. The cases should come out of the oven BEFORE they start to brown. Keep the oven on while you make the filling as the tartlets will be baked further once filled.

TIPS:

  • Use an oven thermometer to get the temperature right – don’t trust your oven’s thermostat!
  • Sit your muffin tray on a baking sheet to stop your pastry cases from coming out browner on the outside than on the inside. The baking tray acts as a diffuser of the oven’s direct heat.

FOR THE ALMOND FILLING
Beat the butter, sugar and egg together in a small bowl until well combined and smooth. Then mix in the flour and ground almonds. Spoon the mixture into the baked pastry cases and bake for a further 10-15 minutes at 200℃/400℉, or until the edges of the pastry start to turn lightly brown.

FOR THE FRUIT TOPPING
Allow to cool completely before  glazing with melted apricot jam and then arranging the fruit on top. Glaze the fruit also for a glistening shine.

Enjoy!

The True Meaning of PDF

Merry Berries

Merry Berries

Never mind Portable Document Format, I’m talking about Purely Decorative Food!

Christmas  this year has, for me, been characterised by a great deal of fun had baking. But not everything I made had to be eaten, although much of it was. These little Santas were incredibly easy to do and they looked great. The idea came from the Coles Magazine app, and consists of little more than mixing 125g of cream cheese with 2 tablespoons of icing sugar, and piping on the heads, pompoms, and buttons. Larger strawberries could have accommodated beards as well. Some chocolate ganache I had on hand was added to the mixture to pipe the eyes. Simple, effective, and they tasted darn good too!

Santa's little helpers

Santa’s little helpers

Another decorative project I indulged in was this Meringue Tree which became the centrepiece of our table at Christmas Day lunch.

Meringue Tree

Meringue Tree

This was actually a nifty little kit put out by Coles (a gratuitous plug, I know, but look – I live near a Coles Supermarket so I’ll probably never mention Woolworths  in my blog, other than right now). Everything was included, except the little figurines which I plucked from my snowy village tableau, which I couldn’t be bothered putting out this year because, ironically, the day I did my decorations was too hot. (Curse these Antipodean opposites!)

Halfway there

Halfway there

It even included the gold lustre dust, the paper cone and the white chocolate melts to stick the meringues on with. The lidded plastic trays that the large meringues sat in will be usefully re-purposed for other baking projects. Note the taint of OCD which made me position each meringue with its swirl pointing in the same direction. It also caused me great angst to find that the meringues were not proportioned to exactly fit in offset concentric circles around the cone.

Meringue parts

Meringue parts

Last year I took advantage of a similar kit (from the same supermarket chain) to make a Gingerbread house, but as far as my OCD was concerned, that was like a red flag to a bull – sooooo untidy! This, at least, was acceptably neat.

Then of course there was my Christmas plaque from a previous post. Here’s a quick visual reminder.

Sugar paste Christmas plaque

Sugar paste Christmas plaque

But my pièce de résistance was the Christmas cake. I used the same recipe for the fruit cake as I did for the mini Christmas cakes.

Christmas Cake

Christmas Cake

I followed the recipe and instructions for the spiky Royal Icing given by Mary Berry in a Great British Bake Off Christmas Masterclass. As amazing as it looked, there were two hard lessons learnt (unintended pun alert!): the quantity of icing was rather excessive for the size of cake it was intended for; and it sets like plaster. It took considerable muscle power to crack that shell when I served it up for extended family at a Boxing Day morning tea, and was the cause of great mirth as a result. But even so it tasted good.

All in all, a very satisfying Christmas. Probably the first such Christmas in years.