Saturday, 31 October 2009

Halloween cupcakes. Y'know, for kids!

Today I made Halloween cupcakes with the help of two of my sisters and the "help" of my two nephews; an activity that managed to last for almost all of the afternoon, so engrossed were we all in the competition to out-gross each other with our sugar paste ghouls and monsters. For me, the severed finger and the eye balls win top prize for most repulsive treats, but the cats and pumpkins are rather sweet if you're keener on Disney-fied devils. Making sugar paste models is a great activity for children because it's just like playdough or plasticine but better, because you, er, they can eat it afterwards.

I wanted to make a cake that could equal a blood-shot eye ball in inducing excitement. And there is no treat more revered to children than the fizzy drink. When I was a child, I was never allowed fizzy drinks apart from at birthday parties or Christmas, which meant that at every occasion it was in reach, I would end up guzzling as much as I could and spend the rest of the day bouncing off the walls with a Tizer moustache. It would usually end in accusations of showing off, followed by tears before bedtime, but I bloody loved it!

Coca Cola was the most coveted of all the fizzy drinks (even though I knew it could dissolve a whole tooth if you left it in a glass overnight and take the paint off your car - I'm not sure that second one is established fact, but it certainly was for me, aged 3+) and so for the cupcakes, it could be nothing but Coca Cola, all the way. The cakes are sweet, but in a slightly spiky, intriguing way, and the cola, oil and molasses together, make the cakes very moist and dark in colour. Don't worry about levels of cola consumption here though, as there's actually very little cola in each cake (or slice of cake), so all effects should remain at a manageable level.

Although there's no time to make them for Halloween proper, extending the ghoulish festivities will be nothing if not welcome, or you can easily transform them for Bonfire Night with different sugar paste models and edible glitter stars and sparkles.

Chocolate and Cola cupcakes:


Makes 36 cupcakes or 2 x 8" sandwich tin.

10 oz (250 g) unsalted butter, softened
4 oz (100 g) dark chocolate (min 70% cocoa solids)
3 eggs, beaten
14 oz (350 g) plain flour
7 oz (175 g) caster sugar
7 oz (175 g) molasses sugar
2 oz (50 g) cocoa
7 fl. oz (200 ml) cola (full fat only)
2 tbsp sunflower oil
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp baking powder
A dash of vanilla extract

Butter Cream:

10 oz (250 g) unsalted butter, softened
1lb, 4 oz (500 g) icing sugar
5 tbsp milk
A very generous splash of vanilla
Various ghoulish food colourings (I used Squires Kitchen pastes in Black Extra, Red Extra, Mint Green and Tangerine).

  • Beat your butter in a bowl until really creamy, sift over the icing sugar and whisk together until mixed thoroughly. Add the milk and vanilla and whisk together until pale and fluffy.
  • Separate portions of the buttercream into different bowls and dye them your chosen Halloween inspired colours.

Preheat your oven to 180C (160C Fan Assisted) and line your muffin trays with cupcake wrappers or grease and line your sandwich tins.
  • Place the chocolate, cola, molasses sugar and half the butter in a saucepan on a low heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved, but avoid letting it come to the boil. Allow to cool slightly.
  • Beat the caster sugar and remaining butter together until pale and fluffy and gradually beat in the eggs.
  • Pour the chocolate and cola mixture over the sugar and butter and mix together.
  • Stir in the oil and vanilla and sift over the dry ingredients. Mix together thoroughly and spoon into your cupcake cases or pour out into your tins.
  • Bake on the middle shelf for about 15 minutes for cupcakes or 35 - 40 for sandwich cakes, or until an inserted skewer comes out clean.
  • Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes before turning out on to a wire rack to cool completely.
  • Ice the cakes with the buttercream using a palate knife and top with a sugar paste figure of your choice, or alternatively some Halloween jelly sweets.

Monday, 26 October 2009


My favourite bit about designing cakes for people is to discover that special thing that will make their eyes light up.

Last week I was busy making a secret cake for my boyfriend's birthday. The man does love his board games (and card games, parlour games, computer games, frisbee tree golfing games...) and is particularly partial to a game of scrabble. So, a scrabble board cake, I thought, would be just the ticket! But, what would be the point of making a scrabble board if you can't actually play on it? And, more to the point, what would be the point of making a scrabble board out of cake, if it wasn't entirely edible?

First off, I decided on the size of my tin - a 10" square. From that, I could work out the size I would need the board to be and the size of each square and tile. I dyed floristry paste (the icing used for making intricate sugar flowers) to the right shade of "scrabble" green (which turned out to be a combination of Christmas Green, Foliage Green and Baby Blue), rolled it out and cut it to size. Once it was set, I drew the grid on with edible liquorice pen. Then I dyed more floristry paste with light blue for double letter score squares, dark blue for triple letter, pink for double word and red for triple word. I made the little triangles to go round each coloured square, but discarded them at the eleventh hour, as I thought the board looked too cluttered, but if you make the cake bigger it will be fine. Once all the icing was dyed, I rolled them out very thinly and cut the right number of tiles in each colour. I stuck them on the board in the right places with a little blob of royal icing and used a no. 2 nozzle to pipe on the lines of the board in white royal icing.

I decided that I would make the tiles out of white chocolate plastique (melted white chocolate mixed with liquid glucose, so that it becomes malleable, like plasticine. You can make it yourself, or buy it ready made) mixed with sugar paste (roll out icing). I then cut each tile to size, rounded off the edges and used my thumb to make a shallow well in the centre of each tile, to make them more authentic. Then I left them to set slightly, before piping the letters and letter scores in black royal icing with a 1.5 nozzle. I made the whole set of a hundred tiles, so that it could be properly functional.

Then I needed to make the little letter racks. This is where I took artistic licence, as they're usually dark green, but I didn't want to make them out of a big hunk of icing, as that would make a fairly unpleasant eating experience, so I made them out of chocolate plastique again, but this time of the milk chocolate variety. I made sure they were big enough to seat 7 tiles and set them over folded cardboard. Once set, I added support "legs", also in chocolate plastique, so that they would stand up, unaided, while carrying the weight of the tiles.

I made his current favourite flavoured cake (chocolate and red peppercorn, but it can be done with any flavour) glazed the top with ganache and then covered the cake in white sugar paste before smoothing over the top and sides. Once the icing had "skinned" slightly (i.e. started to harden), I stuck the scrabble board on the top with some royal icing, made 4 plaques out of the left over triple word score red icing and piped on "SCRABBLE" in white, before sticking one on each side of the cake. Bish bash bosh. Job done.

I carried the (extremely heavy) cake half way across London to the old boozer my old boozer was having his birthday drinks in and he loved it. He is a man who really loves cake (it's one of my favourite things about him) and he would have been happy enough if I'd shown up with an uniced chocolate cake with a candle on top, but things mean so much more when they're personal. It shows that some thought has gone into what would be meaningful or exciting for its recipient, but also that they're worth that extra bit of thought, planning and effort. That they're special. Everyone needs to be shown that they're special, and what better way is there to show it than through the medium of cake? Answer: none.

Royal Icing:

Royal icing is much quicker and simpler to make than people think, and is much tastier and easier to pipe with when made fresh. Sifting, though boring, is absolutely essential with this stuff, especially if you're using it for piping, as any lumps will block your nozzle and break the line of your piping. One quantity will yield enough to ice an 8" cake or fill 2 - 3 piping bags.

1 egg white

The juice of half a large lemon

14 oz (350g) icing sugar

  • Whisk the egg white in a large and spotlessly clean bowl until at the very soft peak stage.
  • Sift over half the icing sugar and whisk.
  • Add the second half and whisk again.
  • Sift (using a tea strainer) over the lemon juice and whisk on medium speed for a good minute, before turning it up to high speed and whisking for a further couple of minutes. It should be a good consistency, but if it's a bit stiff just add a tiny bit more juice and whisk again.
  • If you won't be using it immediately, or won't be using all of it immediately, dampen a clean tea towel, ring it out and place it over the top of the bowl, until you're ready to use it.
  • It can be stored in the fridge in an airtight container for up to one week, if you dampen a jay cloth and place it on top of the icing before sealing down the lid. You'll need to re-whisk it before use.


If you're using a piping bag, place the nozzle end in a glass and pull the sides of the bag down the outside of the glass before filling it. Don't be tempted to overfill the bag as it will be more likely to ooze out of the top when you're piping with it.

Thursday, 15 October 2009


The first thing I ever learned to cook was a Victoria sponge. Or possibly vanilla fairycakes. Either way we used the same recipe for both. Like a lot of children, baking with my mum was a normal and frequent activity and it was something that all of my sisters and I loved to do and something my nephews love to do now. The smell of vanilla-y sponge baking in the oven brings back really strong memories of my old childhood home, standing on a chair to peer into the oven, while annoyingly repeating on loop, "Is it nearly ready yet? What about... now?" Then there were the scrapes. The scrapes. In all their glorious, creamy, vanilla-scented, pale yellow deliciousness. I loved the scrapes and still think vanilla sponge makes the best scrapes by far. Fortunately, my mother never used a rubber spatula, so consequently there were always generous dollops of cake mixture left in the bowl after it had been poured in the tin. My sisters and I would have long negotiations about fair distribution (in each of our favour, obviously). Eating the scrapes was always the best bit about making cakes. That is until Edwina Currie ruined scrapes for children. Luckily for us, scrapes are back in fashion and Edwina Currie is, erm, a novelist? and making awkward telly appearances on Celebrity Come Dine With Me.

I've been thinking a lot about how evocative certain cakes are for me, and how firmly they are linked with particular times, places and people of my childhood. Chocolate swiss roll reminds me of watching the Saturday matinee on telly when it was raining outside. Angel cake reminds me of long car journeys to Devon, and rolling down the windows to shout "mint sauce" at fields of sheep. Chocolate mayonnaise cake (less weird than it sounds) reminds me of falling off the climbing frame and pretending it hurt much more than it did, so I'd get the biggest slice. And Battenberg reminds me of being sent home from school when I was 7 for writing all the words in a spelling test backwards. They were all spelled correctly, I hasten to add, they were just backwards, like mirror writing. Looking back, it seems a fairly histrionic decision on the part of Mrs Hayward to send me home, but at the time I thought it was a pretty good move. I don't like Battenberg at all anymore. Maybe because, the day after the backwards spelling test, I woke up with a terrible fever and was violently sick. Still now, it's the memory of that spelling test that comes back whenever I think of that horrible pink and yellow chequered square.

I feel privileged that I was trusted to cook as much as I was. It was not only brilliant to roll up my sleeves and get messy, but it was also an amazing feeling to have that sense of achievement from seeing how much my friends and family enjoyed eating something I had made. That fulfilling sense of "I did that". Learning to cook when I was very young really laid the foundations for my passion for baking now and, more significantly, my passion for creating new recipes and flavour combinations. Because I have known, off by heart, how to make a basic (Madeira) sponge since I was a small child, I now have the confidence to play. With almost all other types of cookery, people are happy to open the fridge, see what's inside and chuck a few things together until, half an hour later, hey presto, dinner is served. With baking, it's recipe books and worried scowls. Most people I know are at ease with making up a pasta sauce without an instruction manual, but will follow the recipe for a simple sponge so closely to the letter that the fire alarm will be going off and smoke billowing into the hallway, but still they'll be insisting that "the recipe says it should be in for another 10 minutes". People see it as a feat of alchemy and, granted, some cakes take skill and effort, but if you start with the basics the rest will come. It's largely about confidence. There are a lot of things in life to be scared of, but making a cake shouldn't be one of them. If you master the recipe for my basic sponge, you'll be able to make a hundred variations in no time. But for now, let's start at the very beginning. It's a very good place to start.

Basic Sponge/ Madeira Cake

Madeira cake was called Madeira cake originally because it was designed to be eaten alongside a glass of Madeira, so you could dunk the cake in your drink. The rules with Madeira cake are that the flour, sugar and butter are measured in equal weights. I always think in ounces for this recipe (and most others too, to be honest), because it makes so much more sense. 4 oz of flour, sugar and butter will require 2 eggs. 6 oz of flour, sugar and butter will need 3 eggs, 8 oz needs 4, and so on. As long as you remember that you need half the number of eggs to ounces, you've learned the rules. Add a dash of milk to loosen the mixture and it's done. Add vanilla extract and you've got the makings of a Victoria sponge in your mixing bowl. Once you've learned the rules you can play with them, and once you've played with them, you'll understand how to break them.


8 oz Caster sugar
8 oz Self-raising flour
(plus 1 level tsp of baking powder if your flour isn't great quality)
8 oz unsalted butter, softened
4 eggs
A generous splash of milk
A dash of vanilla extract
(not flavouring!)


Preheat the oven to 180 C or 160 for fan-assisted ovens. Grease and line 2 6" sandwich tins, or 1 deep 6", or a small loaf tin or just use the batter to make fairy cakes.

  • Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy.
  • Beat the eggs and add a little bit at a time to the butter and sugar mixture, whisking between each addition.
  • Sift over the flour (and baking powder if you're using it) and mix in well. Don't overbeat the mixture or you'll overwork the gluten in the flour and your cake will turn out heavy and bready. Add the milk and vanilla and give the batter a final whisk. Taste it to make sure you've added enough vanilla extract and pour out into your tin/s or cupcake wrappers.
  • Bake in the oven for 10 minutes for fairy cakes, 15 - 20 minutes for sandwich cakes or 25 for a deep single cake.
  • Once cooked, an inserted skewer should come out clean.
  • Place the cake/s (still in the tin/s) on a wire rack for 10 minutes before turning out.
  • Ice and decorate as you wish.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Spa Hotel Wedding Fayre

I have been creating some new designs and baking cake samples this week for Sunday's wedding fayre at The Spa Hotel, Tunbridge Wells. It should be a great day set in a really stunning 18th Century Mansion, so come along and have a look, a taste and a nice chat with me. Bring along any friends, relations and work-mates who are planning on tying the knot and need some inspiration, as there will be a fantastic range of exhibition tables from bridal wear, photography, flowers and other weird and wonderful delights. There are often prizes to be won or discounts to be had on the day too, if you're lucky (though no promises, there's no way to know what the other exhibitors will offer until you're there, but you can certainly try some cakes at my table). I hope to see you there!

Friday, 2 October 2009

White Chocolate and Cardamom Cake

I'm not a huge fan of white chocolate. It's just that bit too sweet for my palate and reminds me of nursery food. I do like to use it in baking though: it's in cakes and mousses that white chocolate really shines. There's something about the combination of white chocolate and cardamom, in particular, that creates a really pleasurable balance between vanilla creaminess and something a bit more grown-up and complex. Cardamom hints at something exotic and sophisticated. Its subtle fragrance makes the combination with white chocolate playfully sweet, rather than tooth-achingly so.

A friend recently described the taste of this cake as "like Indian sweets", before declaring that this has to be the flavour of her future wedding cake. It's an ideal cake to serve after a curry or any spicy main, but hold off being too generous with the cardamom or else it can end up tasting soapy or medicinal.

This recipe can be used for cupcakes if you prefer (or don't have a 9" tin) or, if you want to make it more pudding-y, I sometimes like to use individual dessert moulds or rosti rings to cut out thin layers of the cake, which I then top with white chocolate and cardamom mousse, before setting them in the fridge. Once set, remove the mouuse cakes from their moulds (see top tip) and decorate however you like. I like to decorate mine with little handmade white chocolate roses or chocolate fans, but some sliced last of the season British strawberries or a dusting of icing sugar will look lovely too.

White Chocolate and Cardamom Cake

Preheat your oven to 180C (or 160C fan assisted) and grease and line a 9" round or an 8" square tin.


For the cake

6 oz (150 g) white chocolate
7 oz (175 g) unsalted butter, softened
8 oz (200 g) caster sugar
3 large eggs, separated
10 oz (250 g) self raising flour
5 fl. oz. (150 ml) soured cream
A splash of vanilla extract
25 - 30 green cardamom pods

For the white chocolate buttercream

8 oz (200 g) white chocolate
8 oz (200 g) unsalted butter, softened
14 oz (350 g) icing sugar, preferably cane rather than beat
A splash of vanilla extract


For the cake:

  • Break up the white chocolate and place in a double boiler or in a heatproof bowl suspended over a saucepan of barely simmering water. Make sure that the bottom of the bowl doesn't sit directly in the water or your chocolate will seize and you'll have to start again with new.
  • Smash the cardamom pods so that you can open them up to remove the black (or sometimes brown) seeds. Place the seeds in a pestle and mortar and grind them quite finely. If you haven't got a pestle and mortar, you can whizz them up in an electric spice grinder, or just stick them in a bag and bash them with a rolling pin or something heavy. Set aside for later.
  • In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.
  • Gradually add the egg yolks, a little at a time, beating after each addition.
  • Beat in the cooled white chocolate, vanilla and cardamom.
  • In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until they form peaks.
  • Sift half the four over the butter and sugar mixture and fold in.
  • Add the soured cream and combine.
  • Sift over the rest of the flour and fold in.
  • Add a couple of spoonfuls of the whisked egg white and mix in vigorously to loosen up the mixture.
  • Spoon the rest of the egg whites into the mixture and fold in. Work quickly but carefully, so you don't knock the air out of the egg whites.
  • Pour the mixture into your prepared tin, smooth over the top and place in the middle shelf of your oven for 45 - 50 minutes, or until an inserted skewer comes out clean.
  • Once out of the oven, leave the cake in its tin on top of a wire rack for 10 minutes before turning out.
For the icing:
  • Melt the white chocolate, as described above and leave to cool.
  • In a large bowl, beat the butter until really soft and then sift the icing sugar over it.
  • Beat the butter and sugar together until well combined, add the vanilla extract and cooled white chocolate.
  • Beat everything together until light, creamy and fluffy.
Place your cooled cake straight on to a serving plate and spoon the buttercream on to the cake and smooth over the top and down the sides with a palette knife. Use a bit of kitchen towel to clean any splashes of icing off the sides of the plate and decorate however you like. I used fresh rose petals which are completely edible, but try to get unsprayed roses if possible, and carefully rinse and dry them before scattering over the top. For a cake this size, you'll need about 2 rose heads.

Top Tip!

When using dessert moulds, if you find the mousse cake doesn't want to come out, try using a hair dryer at its lowest setting to gently heat the sides of the mould. Your desserts should now slide out effortlessly.