This weekend has been full of baking, decorating and eating cupcakes! I made these Hummingbird Bakery vanilla cupcakes with chocolate frosting for my best friend’s birthday yesterday. They went down a treat! I can definitely recommend using Green and Black’s cocoa powder and the decorations were from Just Bake and I also received the other sugar flowers in my Christmas stocking. A few people have asked me where I get the boxes from – you can buy them online from Cakes, Cookies and Crafts.
Since I had made a double quantity of chocolate frosting for 20 cupcakes (I doubled the sponge recipe) I still had some left so tonight I russled up some more vanilla cupcakes. This time they’re for Easter and I’ve used Smarties eggs. The one in the middle is for a colleague who has given up chocolate for Lent. I used caramel dipping sauce from Waitrose – it’s a bit like dulce de leche and tastes delicious. Last weekend I baked some shortbreads from the Great British Book of Baking and it tastes fab to add a dollop of caramel to those! If you’re wondering how I’m not the size of a house making these cupcakes, I made it to my first spin class tonight in eight years. I think the endorphin kick spurred me into baking again tonight!
For Christmas pressies, I decided to make homemade vanilla extract. I can now write about them since I have given the pressies away 🙂 I was given a jar by my sister-in-law as a present last year and I thought it would be a great gift idea for me to replicate as I use the jar all the time! It’s super easy and is a nice pressie that is practical and will last for ages. I bought my little jars from a shop called Tiger. The only ingredients you need is vodka – I used Smirnoff – you don’t need anything too fancy plus high quality vanilla pods – 1 per jar. I had good customer service from Vanilla Mart and you can buy the pods in all sorts of different types and quantities.
- Cut lengthways down the vanilla pod, leaving 1 inch connected at one end.
- Put the vanilla pod in a preserving jar – it needs to have a tight fitting lid.
- Cover with the vodka to the top of the jar and give it a shake.
- Store in a cupboard for 2 months and hey presto you have your own vanilla extract for baking with!
- The vanilla extract lasts for years – you just keep topping it off with the vodka.
I got some good tips from this recipe on Simply Recipes. I was intrigued to learn that each vanilla pod comes from an orchid that has been pollinated by hand. Once the vanilla seed pod has developed, it must be hand picked as well. Who knew!
My boyfriend sends me lots of links to cool cakes he sees on the web and hints at which cakes he’d like for his birthday. I knew an Angry Birds cake was on the list after he sent me the Playable Angry Birds Cake video and this clever modelled one. I’m not all that experienced at modelling so didn’t think I’d be able to do the birds justice. In the end I came up with the idea of cupcake toppers but found there are very few items of Angry Birds merchandise out there at the moment. I bought these off eBay and they’re very reasonably priced and were delivered quickly. I made vanilla sponge cupcakes with piped buttercream (Cakes4Fun recipe) and then added the toppers. I found the pigs came out the best because the printing of that topper was the most accurate colour wise. I then bought some happy birthday candles and was set! Note to self though, don’t walk with those happy bday candles – the wicks are really short and they fizzle out in seconds!
Today is a special day, as it’s the first anniversary of the Cake takes the biscuit blog. It’s been a fabulous culinary journey so far and I intend to keep it up! I thought a Valentine’s theme post would be particularly appropriate, especially since I did promise to let you know what I would bake. First of all I made a beef and ale pie with this James Martin recipe. It’s a great one to get simmering away on a Sunday in winter and then just finish off on a week night with the puff pastry and add into the oven for 25mins. I added a heart in pastry to make this Valentine themed. It was very tasty and I’d definitely cook it again. My boyfriend did have two helpings so that was a good sign.
For pudding, clearly the most important part of the meal, I baked vanilla Hummingbird cupcakes in heart shaped baking cases. I also used homemade vanilla essence which was a present from my sister-in-law at Christmas. Add two good quality vanilla pods to sterilised jars and fill with decent vodka, shake and wait. It needs 4-6 weeks to mature so this week was great timing to use it. I then decorated the cupcakes with vanilla icing and little hearts wrapped in pink and red foil from M&S. I made these in fairy cake cases rather than bigger cupcake cases. Nonetheless my boyfriend tucked into four of them! And my housemates polished off the rest with me tonight and they went down a treat. All in all, a success and a great way to start the second year of Cake takes the biscuit!
Back in June, the day after I had been attempting to make macarons, my flatmate spent the day in the kitchens at BMA House and it turned out that the pastry chef Herman had also been making macarons! He made delicate violet ones with vanilla cream, vanilla ones and my favourite one was passion fruit with chocolate filling. Herman’s were much flatter and neater than mine and they tasted delicious! Here’s a stack of them for you to see!
Today, my friend and I (you can read her wonderful arty blog here) set out to make our first ever marcarons. After a bit of reading this week, I found out I’d been spelling it wrong and really I should be spelling it the French way. Macaroons are those traditional almond meringue biscuits with a cherry or almond on top which your Granny might have baked for you. Or you may have tried coconut macaroons. Macarons are the elusive, delicious French petit fours which come in all sorts of different flavours such as vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and pistachio.
We tried three different recipes and were hoping to pull off strawberry, chocolate and vanilla with salted caramel by the end of the day. We didn’t realise what a huge challenge we had set ourselves. We knew it was going to be difficult after reading lots of blog posts about how hard they were to get right but we thought we have all day, surely we’ll get one batch right.
First up was this strawberry macaron recipe (see pic above). The first batch cracked pretty much as soon as we brought it out of the oven…Hmm we thought – not to worry this is our first batch. The baking parchment we were using from Waitrose’s essential range literally crumbled or stuck to our macarons and rendered them useless. Next up was this chocolate macaron recipe from David Lebovitz. This recipe took him seven attempts before he perfected it! We realised we’d made the macarons too small when we’d piped them and we also tried them on the top shelf and the middle shelf of the oven. Middle shelf was definitely the way to go. The grease proof paper ruined those ones too.
After a trip out for some Sainburys greaseproof paper and some lunch we started again. This time we tried this cardamon meringue recipe and adapted it with a couple of drops of vanilla extract and instead of cream of tartar we put in a couple of twists from the salt grinder. We didn’t have any cardamon pods either. Aha! We were getting closer but still they looked a bit thin and not the lovely plump smooth macarons we were looking for. We tried one more chocolate batch. Nope – they cracked and looked a bit horrendous.
At this point we decided to do the fillings. We used some extra thick double cream and some homemade strawberry jam made by one of the chefs from the British Medical Association who knows my flatmate. Tis delicious strawberry jam, the smell of strawberries knocks you for six in the best fruity way you can imagine. It’s like about 50 punnets of strawberries have been fitted into one jam jar. We happened upon the idea of vanilla macarons with cream and strawberry jam. It was like a macaron cream tea! Brilliant! We ate loads of them. For the chocolate macarons (the ones we could salvage from the greaseproof paper) we just used the double cream.
My friend had to leave then, she had been baking with me for five hours and took some of the filled macarons with her. By now I was on such a huge sugar high I decided I just had to continue and find the perfect macaron. I peered in the free range egg box…I had just two eggs left. I cleared the decks, washed everything up again, rolled up my sleeves and took a deep breath. I made two more batches, one of the vanilla recipe with a dash of red food colouring and one of the chocolate recipe.
The pink ones were not bad but I forgot to add the vanilla extract (whoops!) and from the piping I hadn’t got them quite smooth/flat enough, despite letting them dry for a whole hour! Right, one egg left…I prayed to the cake gods that this would be the batch I cooked correctly. I swapped to a different piping nozzle – about 1/2 an inch thick and stumbled across a different piping technique – don’t go swirling round in a circle – you’ll end up piping a macaron which looks more like a dog poo – see pic below! (excuse the crudeness but that’s what the chocolate ones looked like previously). I realised you had to give the piping bag one long squeeze then stop. It is quite hard not to get a little raised bit after you finished piping but after a bit of trial and error, I got the odd one right. Then no drying out with this recipe, but I gave the baking sheet about 20 taps on the top of the cooker to smooth out the little raised bits on top. Sure enough some of them started to look like promising macarons. In to the oven they went, gas mark 4, 15 mins, middle shelf.
If anyone out there can offer up a decent macaron recipe which is consistently good, please let me know! I felt like a failed chemist in her science laboratory today. Macaron making is less about cooking and more about science. I’ve never felt such a range of emotions from baking before – there was despondency, excitement, hope, darned right frustration and perplexity. Much scratching of heads and almost foot stamping at failed batch after another.
And did I get my perfect macaron batch? You’ll have to wait ’til the next blog post to find out…