Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Talking about Cake (again)

In other news, my cake talk to the WI is available!
Cake talk to WI by nalsa

I had *enormous* fun doing it.

Review: Hotel Chocolat "Your Eggselency" Easter egg

Full disclosure: I was sent an egg by Hotel Chocolat via Beth from Jam & Cream PR, in exchange for a review. One thing I learned during writing this review is that if you type the word "egg" often enough it ceases to look like a real word. "Chocolate", however, always remains real.

When I was a kid the most important thing about Easter was the chocolate. Quantity was far more important than quality, and with care I could get it to last until Whitsun, although this was entirely down to getting a mountain of cheap eggs from many different relatives. But, as a kid the only eggs that were generally available were ones that these days are two for a fiver in the cheap supermarket of your choice. Thornton's might have done eggs, but they were far too expensive for the likes of us.

As an adult I don't have hordes of family members giving me Easter eggs any more. Thank goodness; the chocolate on your average egg is often only distinguishable from grouting by the colour, is as thin as cardboard and contains the tiniest of sample packs of chocolate bars you could get every day in the newsagent. But these days there is an alternative; boutique chocolatiers have been springing up and the one that seems to have become most widespread is Hotel Chocolat.

Now, I like Hotel Choc stuff, as a rule. The chocolate is great quality and the fillings are fun and flavoursome. I've been getting TCTC boxes for about five years now, but not really thought about getting an egg; these days I don't go through chocolate as much as when I was a lad and keeping chocolate through to Whit is less of a priority. But! An egg! Can I feel like that kid again?

So, a sucker for a bad pun, I opened up "Your Eggselency"; first impressions were

  • this feels heavy
  • ooh! silver paper
  • where's the stuff?

Because eggs contain stuff, don't they? These days the stuff is rarely inside the egg, it's in vacformed plastic holders hidden beneath the egg. Not in this egg, though. Inside each silver foil-wrapped half were tissue-wrapped five miniature eggs, each with a different filling. I shall come to them in a second.

No, the first thing is the chocolate. This is thick chocolate, and it's so thick that it is quite hard to break through; no bad thing, in my opinion. Each half-egg is a different chocolate, one milk, the other dark and so in Chez Nous this saves arguments; the Lady of the House prefers milk, and I'm fine with either but like the complexity of dark. And so to the taste; this is quality chocolate, the milk rich and sweet and with perfect melt-in-the-mouth consistency, the dark slightly bitter and complex with a faint lemony tone to it. They both taste of chocolate (unlike cheap eggs which tastes of slightly rancid sweetened fat). It smells right, it sounds and feels right when you do manage to snap it, but above all it tastes like chocolate ought to taste.

If I have one complaint it is of the texture of the dark chocolate; it is ever so slightly gritty at the start of the taste, like there is too much cocoa in it (if you can have such a thing). I've been making chocolates with some 80% Callebaut recently and it feels a bit like that in the mouth; don't get be wrong, this is exceptional chocolate, but sometimes the higher percentage ones can do that.

No complaints about the milk, though; I barely got a look-in. I like Hotel Choc's lower sugar, higher percentage milk chocolate bars and would love to see an egg made from that, but in the meantime this is some tasty chocolate to be getting on with.

As to the miniature filled eggs; these are truffles in a crisp shell, and enormous compared to normal truffles! Five flavours with varying degrees of success; some of them tasted just like alcohol with little to make it stand out from the rest (still tasty, mind you). But the orange and vanilla was sublime and could stand on its own merits. A box of them would certainly keep me going 'til Whit. Well, maybe.

But, this egg is not cheap; you get what you pay for, of course, but this is not an egg aimed at children. There is an interesting nostalgia thing here, where the target audience are people like me who enjoyed easter eggs as a kid and then grew up into an adult with a little disposable income and a hankering for the joy of being a child again. I'm a big fan of this sort of thing and it is with no small measure of enjoyment that for a moment, I felt like that kid again.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Clandestine Cake & Buns and Roses

You know that life has taken an odd turn when you find yourself in front of an organisation known for home baking (as well as jam, crafting, nude calendars and a quietly social, lefty agenda) about cake.

Before that, though, I had to run the gauntlet that is the Clandestine Cake Club. My word; the biggest yet, we had at least 16 cakes and about 36 people turn up to pack out Primo's in the Corn Exchange. Theme was savoury and "saucy sweet" so I eschewed savoury and came along with a new cake of my own invention; apple and fennel seed crumble cake with toffee sauce. The apple cake was one thing (standard cake mix + 2 chopped apples + crushed fennel seeds + crumble topping sprinkled on before going in the oven); the toffee sauce was a joy of melted butter, cream, milk, sugar, vanilla and lemon zest that I brought along in a jar and warmed through as we were setting up.

The cakes we had were of the usual great home baking quality. Of the savoury cakes my favourite was a basil & parmesan loaf cake that tasted like pesto; brilliant stuff (I had two half-slices). The sweet cakes were great, with a sachertorte and the instantly recognisable Raymond Blanc's lemon tea loaf making an appearance. We had a couple of fruit loaves that were lovely and an apple and cheddar cake that was intriguing, and an interesting marmite and chocolate cake that seemed to polarise opinion. A chocolate and aubergine torte was fun (and not at all auberginey), and the last cake I was capable of trying was an apple & maple syrup cake made with olive oil; lovely, rich and it finished me off.

After much tea I gathered together a small group who were being as nuts as I was and attending both events, and we wandered up to Buns & Roses.

Ok, so B&R isn't your stereotypical WI; the average age sems to be "early thirtysomething", tattoos and interesting piercings are common enough to be almost de rigeur, and these guys go through great amounts of booze, but it is still the organisation that kept the tradition of home baking alove as much as it were able in the age of convenience food and supermarkets. If there is one group of people in less need of a lecture about cake it would be a bunch of artisan patissiers.

My talk kicked off as it has done for a while, by referencing Allie Brosh, and then it was off; from neolithic lake villages in Switzerland, taking in classical civilisations, etymology, middle ages, Chaucer, Alfred Bird, hippies, Belle Lowe (and swearing about Ferran Adria), Lemon Curd and Caramel, personal philosophy, SCIENCE and the future, and how important it is to experiment once you've got the basics down pat. I ended up talking for at least 90 minutes, probably a bit longer (certainly longer than the minidisc recorder was capable of - 75 minutes - which I'm a little annoyed at as I was hoping to podcast it). Marie Antoinette was mentioned, because it's probably her fault that croissants are the universal breakfast item they are today instead of an extinct pastry from a Viennoise baker.

People asked questions. I attempted to answer them.

Links, then:
  • Allie Brosh (again)
  • Tea & Cake and the associated blog, Teas & Cakes (soon to be incorporated into the main website)
  • My basic cake recipe and some of the wittering alongside it is also on T&C (but not the science, and not my "for the love of whatever deity you hold dear, don't open the oven door every ten minutes" shouting.)
  • The science comes from a combination of my own experimentation, Belle Lowe and Harold McGee. History partially from Nicola Humble and Andrew Dalby.
  • Caramel comes from my blog post about Millionaire's Shortbread; to make caramel sweeties boil the mixture for maybe another three minutes - to the soft crack stage - and add half a teaspoon of sea salt. Leave to cool on a lined baking tray - don't leave it longer than an hour or so, otherwise it'll start to absorb atmospheric moisture and go gooey again - then cut into squares and dip in chocolate.
  • The Lemon & Poppyseed cake (including a "I dropped it" story I'd forgotten to tell, with is a shame because I do pathos really well) is also on the blog.
  • Bakewell slices are also on the blog.
  • The Tea Loaf recipe; blog.
  • Lemon curd is not on the blog:

    Whisk together 3 eggs, 100g sugar, 3tbsp honey, then zest and juice 3 lemons and whisk thm in too, so it's a nice smooth mixture. Melt 75g butter to foaming in a heavy bottomed saucepan, pour over the whisked together eggs & juice, and stir until well combined. Pour back into the pan and stir over a gentle heat until it thickens, which happens very suddenly. Don't overcook, or it turns into scrambled eggs. Makes enough for a 1lb jamjar. Takes longer to measure out the ingredients than it does to cook.

  • I think that's it.

Particular highlights: mentioning Alf Bird inventing a culinary industry by accident because he wanted his wife to be able to enjoy custard and bread, despite being allergic to eggs and yeast, raised an "aww!" from the audience. Someone coming up to me at the end and offering cake to try (great texture and good ganache topping). Being informed that I'd forgotten the most important part of cake making; licking the bowl. Someone audibly slapping their forehead when I was talking about caramels.

I hope that I wasn't patronising, accidentally sexist or offensive, and that everybody took something away with them that was useful. I had a whale of a time talking to the WI, and am grateful for the opportunity to do so.

Next Leeds Clandestine Cake is on April 14th at Harvey Nicks. This one promises to be something else.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

T&C goes to B&R

t&c t-shirt


This is just a quick note to mention that I'll be talking at Buns & Roses on Thursday 17th March.

Buns & Roses is also known as "Leeds City WI". Let me make this clear, because it's freaking me out a little: I shall be talking to the Women's Institute about Cake, and if there are a body of people who know cake, these are them. So: a wodge of history, some science, some philosophising, and at least one disaster. Maybe some decorating, but only a little bit. For a change I'm not constrained by a 5 or 20 minute time slot, so I can expand a bit, talk slightly less manically (yeah, that might not happen) and go into the two main digressions I never have time to do; Caramel, and Lemon Curd.

Come along! All welcome; free for the WI, £3 for non members. Details of location & other relevant contact info are on the B&R website.

(If you've not seen it before, the somewhat manic, five minute version of this talk is here on Youtube)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Pancake day!

Gosh, pancake day has come upon us again! It seems to turn up with alarming regularity these days, which is probably another sign that I'm getting older. Anyway, my impeding decrepitude is not the point of this particular blog entry.

The point of shrove tuesday is that we use up the rich, expensive and perishable ingredients we have kicking about the place, and no matter how glossy your pancake recipe is, the point is that it should be all about the fillings, not the pancakes themselves. Which doesn't mean to say that you can't have a great pancake recipe, of course, but to be a bit more adventurous with the fillings.

Pancakes themselves are a bit like historical cake; early forms of the usual types of cake were basically griddled blobs of flour & egg, and scotch pancakes (or drop scones, basically the same thing) were just thicker versions that could be carried and stored for slightly longer. Regular pancakes make a great transport mechanism for other foodstuffs, a little bit like a warm, comforting sandwich only without the faff of making bread. As a qucik snack, there's nothing finer.

Proper crepe are thin and light, but fragile and you need to be sure of your pan and flipping skills; perhaps better to think about is the classic British pancake, slightly thicker than a crepe but not as thick as the American buttermilk pancake or drop scones. Thickness of pancake is all about the mixture you use - a runnier mix makes a thinner pancake - so perhaps it's worth thinking about the recipe.

You need: plain flour, eggs, milk and salt. I rarely measure out my ingredients for pancakes, preferring to judge the texture by feel, but let's start with about 100g flour in a bowl with a pinch of salt. Make a well and crack an egg into it. Start whisking the two together and slowly add milk, a glug at a time and whisking until smooth, until it reaches the consistency of double cream. It normally works out at 250ml milk to 1 egg + 100g flour, but use your best judgement; add more flour or more milk if you feel it is necessary. Then leave it alone for an hour.

Next, it's all about the pan. Heavy is the watchword here; it needs to be a substantial pan, and if it's nonstick the surface has to be smooth, without scoring. Melt some butter in the pan over a medium heat, and then pour it into the batter, whisking as you go. Take some kitchen towel and gently wipe the surface and then put the pan back on the heat before pouring in the batter; think about rolling the batter around the pan, and leaving enough room for a spatula to get under to flip it, so in an 8" pan stop pouring batter when you have a circle 4" in diameter in the centre of the pan. Roll it around so it covers the surface, and then leave on the heat until the top surface is cooked and little bubbles are forming; then flip it with a spatula. Don't toss it, especially if you've been drinking, unless you don't mind picking bits of pancake off the light fittings.

As for fillings, then think about the rich food that would have been given up for lent, a period of fasting. I like to make a good tomato sauce and sprinkle it with cheese after filling pancakes with it, or some creamy garlic mushrooms with parsley and nutmeg. You might like to think about meaty fillings, or making cannolini, baking spinach and ricotta filled pancakes in a creamy bechemel before serving (pancakes make a great alternative to sheets of pasta - even lasagne can be made with them). Sweets? Lemon & sugar is the classic but I can't imagine how it started, as these aren't necessarily rich fillings to have prior to fasting. Still, it's very tasty. Try something different, though: beat the juice and zest of a lime into 250g mascarpone with about 50g caster sugar, perhaps? Or make a hot marmalade and cointeau sauce and serve with ice cream. Caramelised apple slices, nutella and cream cheese, nuts and jams and all sorts of things of that nature all lend themselves to pancakes beautifully, so experiment with what you have stashed away in the cupboards or fridge.

And tomorrow? Go for a run :)