Friday, October 27, 2006

Le Weekend

Friday afternoon.... The weather is getting very cold and I have a serious belly ache from all the sour gummy bears I have eaten today at work. I think I am missing celebrating Halloween because bad for you, e-numbered filled candy has never tasted so good.

The clocks go back this weekend and I although I am really happy to have the extra hour in bed (I feel so sleep deprived this week!) I am not really looking forward to the near constant darkness it will bring. I am very lucky that I don't suffer any horrible SAD but the tendancy to curl up with the duvet, sleep longer, hug the cat for warmth, make hot chocolate, rent DVD's, drink red wine, bake cupcakes all whilst wearing flannel pajamas and cashmere socks sets in firmly. I am meant to stop by the pool for a quick swim tonight on my way home, but I can feel a chill in my bones at the very thought!

However, on the domestic front I have big plans for the weekend! My lovely friend and ex-neighbour Mrs. S is coming round to my flat for a baking lesson tomorrow. She lived in Paris for many years and is one of the only other people I know who goes into immediate, rapturous excitement at the mere mention of the really good pastry shops in Paris.

She's an éclair fan and has tried to make them herself since moving back to jolly-old England but like most people, finds pâte à choux very hard to get right. I am going to do my best to teach her to do it properly, as so much of the success is in visually knowing when to stop adding eggs and that is something that the cookery books can't really tell you for sure. Pastry is very precise and scientific I hear you say, and it is very true. But don't get me into a discussion about how humidty effects how much liquid flour can absorb on your chosen baking day or we will be here for hours! Pâte à choux is very sensitive to this so it's difficult reputation is well deserved.
Admittedly I haven't had to make éclairs very often and it has been awhile, but hey... it's all for fun and we are certainly going to enjoy eating them however they turn out. I have ordered all the right ingredients from France (which arrived on Monday) so add a little Edith Piaf background music and we will be in French pastry heaven!
My plan for tomorrow is this:

Whip up some lovely, lovely Earl Grey Madelienes and little sandwiches to keep us sustained through our lesson.
Make éclairs in both Chocolate and Coffee flavour.

Have Mr. H and Mr. S over for a taste test and some nice tea.

I will post a full report on the lesson including: (hopefully) helpful hints, photos and recipes to be posted after!

Bonne weekend mes amies!
x Arianna

Monday, October 23, 2006

Still Raining...

Also this weekend, my dear friend Mrs. R and I went to visit another lovely girl (Mrs. G) who had a baby a few months ago for some lovely chat and of course, tea and biscuits. Miss G is sooooo cute and really amazing. My friends have such good gene pools, I hope I will be as lucky! Playing with other people's babies is such fun and of course encourages all sorts of broodiness, but it was nice to leave and go off to do one of the things I do best: eat cake and drink champagne!

Mrs. R and I went off to Ottolenghi in Islington for a bit of food, namely their very lovely cakes and some champagne. We had to wait to be seated because of the awful weather, but it was so worth it. After a nice salad and some champagne, we had these two cakes pictured here....

The one on the left is a gorgeous Plum cake (although they call it a tart, strangely). The top is perfectly golden brown, slightly caramelised in places with the fruit cut and laid in perfectly symmetry. Visually, perfect. The texture of the vanilla cake was dense with a large crumb that supported the heavy sweet-tart fruit making each forkful rapturous. I fell in love with plum cake in the cake shops of Vienna and I whenever I see it, I have to order it! For a bit of something different, we ordered the Ginger Tea Cake pictured on the right. Baked in a silicone mini-bundt mould, it was intensely moist as well as being very fluffy and nice. Baking cakes like this in a silicone mould is great because you don't have a crunchy outer shell that comes from excessive flouring of the pan, so the whole cake is divinely spongey, soft and edible. The flavour was very nice, great spices although I prefer a bit more of a gingery kick. The cake was finished off with a not too sticky or sweet caramel glaze. So good, especially as we were enjoying the cakes the rain was chucking it down so hard that all the fellow cake eaters turned and gasped. Sheets and sheets of rain. A nice day to be inside with good cake! I bought a second ginger cake home to Mr. H and he grunted with approval whilst sticking most of it in his mouth in one go. Guess he liked it then. There is an excellent recipe in my new Whole Grain Baking by King Arthur Flour book for Gingerbread (or ginger cake as they call it here) that I really want to try this week. Crystallized ginger pieces....yummmm.

x Arianna

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Glory of Cupcakes

One of the best pleasures in life is the first bite into the perfect cupcake. The anticipation of peeling off the wrapper, the care you take in not dropping it or getting the icing everywhere then the contrast of creamy icing with fluffy, light cake thats packed with flavour hitting your tastebuds is a joy to rival no other.

My cooking is always focused on turning out such amazing joy, as one of the most fulfilling things in my life is to provide people I care about with something amazing to eat. I buy the best ingredients, no expense spared and take the most care I possibly can when making something to eat, baked or otherwise.

So as you can imagine, dear readers, the huge disappointment that comes with failed recipes. This past weekend I made a batch of cupcakes for a neighbour's birthday and decided to try a new recipe. The recipe is for Vanilla Cupcakes from the famous Billy's Bakery in NYC. The recipe had all the great makings of lovely cake... the right ingredients, more importantly the proper ratio of ingredients and of course, the pedigree of the Bakery itself. Friends have told me that is a great bakery and the cakes are fantastic ( it opened just after I left for Londontown). I was prepared to be happily swept away by pure cake loveliness.... However, the method of combining the ingredients seemed, well...unorthodox to say the least. The recipe called for the butter to be rubbed together with the flour and sugar before adding the liquid ingredients. Not usual cake making, but I went with it....

The batter had a gorgeous aroma of butter, vanilla and sugar that told me the flavour would be spot on, but the thickness of the batter did concern me as it seemed impossible that the cake would have enough leavener to make the magic happen. Despite a whopping addition of baking powder for extra boost as indicated by the recipe, there was no beating of sugar and butter together to produce the crucial air bubbles that give that lovely lovely fluffyness. Also, adding the sugar on top of the flour really seemed to weigh down the light and airy sifted flour I put in the bowl. But hey, just doing what I am told.

So the result....

They rose a decent amount and the oven temp was perfect ( a serious feat for my oven) so there was no cracking or excess browning. The smell was really intoxicating. I used Nielsen Massey Vanilla extract and boy could you tell. The whole house was filled with sweet vanilla fug and literally, I couldn't wait until they cooled down enough to eat.

The flavour is really, really good. However, the texture was heavy and the cakes had a large loose crumb so the mouth feel was completely wrong. Toothsome, if that makes sense? Instead of lightly dissolving in your mouth, you really had to chew the cake which is wrong, wrong, wrong! I felt like I was eating corn bread, which is not at all the texture of the most sublime cupcake in the world ( I had high hopes clearly). Even though I thought they were technical rejects of the worst variety, I still couldn't help eating several of them without icing because I just wanted more and more of the flavour.

So, I am going to give the recipe one more go as I was so bowled over by the taste. However, I am going to change the order of adding the ingredients to the traditional - tried and true, creaming method, adding the liquid in stages and sifting my flour three times. I was going to post the original recipe but instead, once I do a 're-cake', I will happily tell you all about it and post up my tweaked version.

If anyone out there has any experience with combining ingredients in the manner described above with great success, I would love to hear about it!

x Arianna