Sunday, 31 August 2014

I'm innocent .... or am I?

I don't do 'guilty' very well. As my family and friends know you can see it all over my face, I try and abide by the law - and boringly always have done!

So when I was writing the post about the Prada handbag cake last week in the back of my mind I was thinking 'what if a burly Italian from Prada S.p.A comes knocking at my door saying I have infringed their copyright'. When my sister tweeted the picture and Lottie put it on Instagram I got even more twitchy!! But my sensible head was thinking 'It was a gift for a friend, no money changed hands, no commercial profit gained, it's fine, stop worrying.......' 

So what are the rules about reproducing characters and images on a cake? In one of the two 'Character Cakes' books I have by the very talented Debbie Brown's she states 'All the cake deigns in this book are for private use only and under no circumstances would the author or publisher permit or authorise any cake to be produced for commercial purposes'.

Online there are a number of websites (mainly American I should add!) with lots of information on this topic such as and, they make quite scary reading. So I'm thinking if I do ever go professional I shall have to be very mindful of sticking to the rules!

As shown above I've done a number of character cakes over the years - mainly for my children's friends and friend's children. I'm hoping that if my past ever catches up with me then it would be defensible as 'fair use'. I hope I never have to stand up in the dock and plead 'Not guilty'.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

It's in the bag ....

I've never really been 'on-trend'. In my younger days I owned a few pairs of platform shoes, some denim flares, and one pair of red dungarees when they were in fashion but that was many moons ago! I've never really splashed the cash on handbags either so you could have picked me up off the floor when I discovered the cost of a genuine Prada bag on their website whilst pulling together ideas for this cake. Anyone got a few grand to spare??? Interestingly you can't filter according to price - seems that as the old saying goes ... If you need to ask the price you can't afford it!

Lovely Lottie, my son Owen's girlfriend, is celebrating her 21st birthday this week - and she really does know her handbags. I hope she likes this cake I've made for her, because I can't afford to buy her the real thing! Owen suggested I made a red velvet cake which is one of her favourites and a recipe I've never tried before. Basically it's a chocolate cake with the addition of buttermilk, vanilla extract and an unhealthy amount of red food colouring! I don't know why but I imagined from it's name it would have more exotic ingredients than that. Anyway it cooked nicely and cut cleanly with a sharp knife into a wedge shape.

My main worry was making the handles strong enough to stay upright when attached to the body of the bag and making sure they would survive the car journey from London to Shrewsbury. I made some modelling paste (see How to ... section) by adding 1 teaspoon of gum tragacanth powder to 225g/8oz black fondant, kneaded it in well, wrapped  it in a bag and left it to do it's magic for a few hours. I also mixed a small amount into some white fondant to make the zip and rings. The texture becomes firmer but still pliable and, after modelling into the required shape, will dry hard when exposed to air. I used modelling paste to make the tonearm for Gareth's turntable cake.

I moulded 2 handles, a triangle shape for the logo and a banner for the birthday greeting in the black fondant. Using the white fondant I moulded a few rings and a zip which, once dry, were 'painted' with a Antique Gold edible lustre dust diluted in a little clear alcohol.

And finally the lettering - my tried and tested method is to choose an appropriate font in a style and size suitable for the space available and in keeping with the design of the cake. Onto a sheet of white A4 paper from my computer I print two or three lines of the same text - this allows for piping mistakes or breakages. On a smooth surface I lay a piece of see-through parchment paper over the page of text, securing with tape if needed. Making up a very small quantity of royal icing and using an appropriate size piping tube I carefully pipe out the letters, leaving them to dry hard before attempting to peel them away from the paper. I sprayed the letters using an edible gold shimmer spray before fixing them to the fondant using a tiny dab of black royal icing.

Once all the component parts are modelled, dried and painted I carefully assembled the cake. Using quite a stiff mixture of royal icing I fixed the handles to the sides of the cake supporting them from below using plastic spacers for a few hours to give the icing 'glue' time to dry hard. I also tried to ensure they dried upright and stayed apart in the right positions. Finally the lettering was fixed in place.

So from a fashion disaster (that's me) to a fashionista - a very happy 21st Birthday Lottie xxx

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Meringues - chemistry in the kitchen

Meringues aren't difficult to get right but there are a few simple rules to try to follow to avoid things going horribly wrong.....

  1. Everything must be spotlessly clean - no traces of grease in the bowl or mixing utensils
  2. Use a glass or metal bowl rather than plastic
  3. Eggs whites should ideally be at room temperature
  4. Separate the whites carefully - even the smallest amount of yolk can cause problems
  5. Use an electric whisk and judge the time carefully
  6. Low and slow ...... a very low oven temperature and a long time cooking
There's an awful lot of chemistry and science involved in making the perfect meringue. If you are interested then Google "meringue and chemistry" to learn how protein strands, copper bowls and acids, to name just a few variables, can affect how egg whites whisk up. Some recipes suggest adding vinegar, cornflour, cream of tartar, icing sugar or salt to the basic mix of egg white and caster sugar. 
I don't add anything - just keep things simple..........any multiple of 2 egg whites plus about 125g caster sugar depending on the size of the egg.

  1. Carefully separate the egg whites into a clean bowl
  2. Whisk until the mixture is at the soft peak stage
  3. Slowly, and in small quantities, start whisking in the sugar
  4. Continue whisking until the mixture looks and feels glossy and thick
  5. The mixture should be stiff and the peaks hold their shape
  6. Line a baking tray with parchment paper
  7. Pipe or spoon onto a baking tray (the mixture will not rise or spread)
  8. Depending on the shape and size cook for 2+ hours on a low temperature*
* Is it an urban myth or has anyone ever 'cooked' meringues in an airing cupboard? I've never had an airing cupboard, or an oven swanky enough to have a plate warming section, so my top tip is to make the meringues late at night and leave them to 'cook' overnight in an oven on a very low temperature - no higher than 100°C. Rather than cooking the aim is to dry them out without colouring them too much. In the morning switch the oven off and leave the meringues to cool completely. They can then be stored in an airtight container for quite a few weeks. 
Meringues are so simple yet so versatile. You can 'whip up' a pudding at short notice, assuming your secret stash of meringues has not been found and eaten, and create a stunning summer fruit pavlova, individual nests with strawberries and butterscotch sauce or broken up in Eton Mess. I make hundreds of tiny bite size swirls, wrap them in cellophane bags tied up with ribbon and give them as gifts to my sons, nephews and nieces - they love them.......  

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Naked Carrot Cake

This carrot cake has been a favourite with my family and friends for almost 25 years. I first made it when I worked for the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) near Machynlleth in Powys. As Assistant Manager in the Wholefood Vegetarian Cafe I tended to concentrate on the cakes and puddings leaving others to create the spicy soups and colourful salads!

Other cakes on the counter included Lemon and Poppy Seed, Apricot Slices and a Chocolate Molasses Cake. I still have a little booklet, printed on pink recycled paper, sold by the Quarry Shop which has some wholesome recipes of baked goods they sold there back in the 90's - there's even a Q&A section on sugar and its substitutes, as hot a topic then as it is now.

A few years later I batch made carrot cakes for the Sandwich Shop my parents owned in Aberdovey. Over the summer months it was hard to keep up with the demand as hungry holidaymakers stocked up with lunchtime snacks to take back to the golden sandy beach. Here's my tried and tested recipe......apologies for the imperial measurements!

Carrot & Coconut Cake 
6 oz grated carrots
2 eggs
4 oz brown sugar (dark or light muscovado)
3 fl oz sunflower oil
4 oz SR flour
2 tsp ground nutmeg
2 oz raisins
2 oz dessicated coconut

Preheat oven to 180 degrees
Break eggs into a bowl with the sugar
Whisk the eggs and sugar together with an electric whisk
Whisk in the oil - the mixture should thicken slightly
Add in all the rest of the ingredients
The mixture will be quite 'wet'
Cook in individual muffin or cupcake cases or in a loaf tin
Small cakes will take 25 - 30 mins
A loaf tin size will take 50 - 60 mins 
Serve naked or decorate with your favourite icing

There are plenty of variations on carrot cake and, in the interest of cake research, I'm always keen to see what differences there are. The most recent one I've come across is Yotam Ottolenghi's version which has whisked egg whites added at the end. What I'm not too keen on is masses of icing - so much sometimes that the sweetness of the frosting dominates the subtle flavours. Dave and I were in a quite well known cafe chain in London recently and I ordered a carrot cake, pictured below. Even for me, and I have quite a sweet tooth, there was far too much icing. 

By the time I'd scraped off the excess icing there wasn't much cake left

I'm quite happy to have, and serve, my carrot cake naked - if you know what I mean!


Sunday, 3 August 2014

Here comes the sun .....

Will the Summer of 2014 go down in history as a scorcher? August seems to have started off still sunny but a little cooler than the searing temperatures we've experienced here in London over the past few weeks. 

Those of us old enough to remember the 70's have the Summer of '76 etched firmly in our minds - as day after day, week after week, the temperature hovered between 80°F and 90°F. The school holidays seemed to go on forever as we messed around outdoors, enjoyed endless parties and BBQ's and lazed on the beach. It's easy to forget the terrible drought, the scorched landscape, forest fires raging out of control and crops that failed resulting in higher food prices!

Here's a birthday cake I made back in the mid 90's which two male friends asked me to make for their sun-worshiping wives - it's unusual for guys to ask me to make cakes, most of the men I know aren't normally that organised!

At the time we all lived in Tywyn on the coast in mid-Wales and we had children of a similar age. Many an afternoon was spent with the kids on the glorious 4 mile stretch of beach between Aberdovey and Tywyn. 

Sunset on Tywyn beach

As the temperature was hitting 25°C (77°F in old money!) in London last week how I would have loved to have been magically transported to Tywyn to dip my toes in the water. Back in the 70's I'm sure we all imagined we would have our own personal flying craft, not to mention hover boots, by now!

Science magazine from the 70's !!