What can we expect from the Great British Bake Off 2016??

The moment cake-lovers have waited for all year is almost upon us: the new series of the Great British Bake Off. As eagerly anticipated by fans as ever, the production team have stayed tantalisingly silent on the matter of what we can expect. We know a bit about the contestants, but what can we speculate they will be called upon to make this year?

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The regular Bake Off team is back – image from the Telegraph, crediting the bbc

The answer is extremely hard even to guess at. The skill expected of the amateur contestants has risen year upon year, and was only heightened with the move to a prime time slot a couple of years ago. The years of stumbling through on a decent Victoria Sandwich while putting a bit of lavender in a batch of scones are long gone. For several years now, the bakers have been expected to be fully conversant with complex yeasted doughs, pastry in all its forms, flavour combinations that would not disgrace a Michelin starred restaurant, and the intricacies of Continental showstoppers. Much as we joke about the inevitable soggy bottoms, they’re actually a darn sight less common than they used to be.

True, we do still get the occasional catastrophe to keep the levels of suspense high; the binned Baked Alaska, the teetering gingerbread structures, the icing that slides ignominiously off the sides of a towering cake. But on the whole, you’ve got to admit that the Bake Off contestants are a good few rungs above any of us regular amateurs, if not an entire ladder (I speak for myself at any rate😉 )

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The 2016 line-up (image from the bbc)

Take the latest batch to enter the inevitably rain-blatted marquee: among them are one man who makes his own cheese, a woman who rises with the larks to make bread, a specialist in vegan baking, and another in gluten-free flours. Many of them cite family members as being the ones who inspired them to bake from childhood. They are also very varied in their backgrounds and day-jobs; factors which seem to be of increasing importance in bringing that distinctive flavour palette to a baker’s portfolio. Old blue eyes Hollywood has admitted that it took them longer to gel as a group this year than last – perhaps the ever-rising standards have notched up the competitiveness in the tent.

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Image source (available via Creative Commons)

Will the Australian Lamington be the same stumbling block as those fiddly fondant fancies?

As to the challenges that await them, we can scarcely even speculate, though snippets in the press suggest that there will be a new emphasis on baking skills. Macarons barely raise an eyebrow in week one nowadays; the Croquembouche has already been tackled, as have Dobos Tortas, Prinsesstarta and Opera cakes. Europe, North America and Australasia are the homes of the most cake-like bakes, so perhaps we should expect Lamingtons, some of the rarer types of Kuchen, or specialities from further east. After all, the challenges work best when the bakers have the least idea of what they are actually aiming to produce. There must also be many more breads we have yet to encounter, from South America, Africa, or the Middle East. And we should not forget how trendy everything Scandi is now.
The only clue we have is Paul’s enigmatic reference to a challenge which involved Batter. Baumkuchen anyone??

Dabbling with gluten free blondies

This

GR blondie

Is a gluten-free blondie, just before it got sent off to be cut and devoured by a small hoard of sweet-toothed gamers. I made it as a special request for one of The Scientist’s friends, who has recently become intolerant to gluten. I’ve never made anything deliberately gluten-free before, but I wanted to oblige one of my best tasters, so I did a little googling around. I was concerned that it might involve a lot of (expensive) substitutes, but actually the recipe I settled on simply required the substitution of gluten-free flour for regular flour. Super simple. The best thing was that Mr GF said that while other GF cakes he’s had tasted dry, he couldn’t tell the difference between this and a regular blondie🙂 And blondies are his go-to baking request so that made me pretty happy. I have the rest of the bag of flour left, so he’ll be getting more in the pretty near future.

On a side note, blondies are one of of those fairly recent immigrants to Britain. I’ve heard them described as brownies without the chocolate in them, or alternatively, as butterscotch bars. They certainly have that fudgy consistency of a brownie rather than a cake, and although they don’t have cocoa or melted chocolate in them, they do contain chocolate chips, and often nuts too, though I left them out because I hate chopping the critters.

I used this recipe, because it looked easy, and it had nice photos in it🙂

I used Dove’s Farm gluten-free plain flour.

Chocolate cookie cake – disgustingly good!

Anyone who has dipped into this blog for any length of time will know that I feel pretty strongly about the ways that cakes make memories. At their best these can tie people together with bonds of sweetness, community and friendship which last years – even generations.


This is such a cake. It started off innocently enough – in fact as a simple chocolate chip cookie recipe. It was in the booklet which came with a mini oven my mum bought when we were children, and it became a family favourite (my younger sister called them ‘chocolate chip cuckoos’ and it stuck).

I took the recipe with me to University where somewhere along the way it morphed into a cookie *cake* (or cuckoo cake🙂 ). This simply consisted of sticking the dough into a cake tin instead of spooning it out into individual cookies. Not rocket science; more the sort of inspired idea which comes upon students late at night or when trying to avoid essay writing. In fact, that’s probably how it happened. This cake became completely beloved of my house-mates, who would all clamour to be the official tester-of-done-ness; a role which consisted entirely of eating spoonfuls of batter at intervals through the cooking process until it had reached the right stage of baked gooiness.

I can’t remember the last time I baked ‘cuckoo cake’ – it’s probably been over fifteen years. It took a visit from one of those ex-housemates this week to remind me about its glories. He was so excited that his first action was to send a photo to another ex-housemate in gloating glee. And his second was to say that it tasted just as it had in our shared student house twenty years ago🙂 I sent the rest of it home with him so that his sons could try it too. I got back possibly the best compliment I have ever had on a cake, from his six-year-old: ‘It is disgustingly good. I want to marry it!’ That’s the sort of cake memories I’m after🙂

Chocolate ‘cuckoo’ cake (makes about 12 medium sized cookies, or one cake)
125g butter/marge
125g caster sugar
125g brown sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 egg
275g self raising flour
1/2 tsp salt
125g choc chips

Cream together first four ingredients, add lightly beaten egg, mixing well. Mix in sifted flour and salt. Add choc chips and mix well. Bake at 190-200 degrees C for 10-12 mins for cookies, or 25 minutes plus for the cake. A skewer will still look a little gooey – the barely-set softness is part of the charm.

Oxford in cakes (and an All Souls Cherry Cake)

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Source

I was asked recently to write an article on cake and Oxford for the University’s alumni magazine. I said yes on the basis of one sentence in my book about one of the main characters in Bridehead Revisited eating some cake in his College rooms. Fortunately it was only a short article but I knew I’d need a bit more to work with.

First, I indulged in some reminiscing about cake in my own student days with some old College friends. That was fun, but we didn’t come up with much of historical significance. It did, however, point me to Oxford Food: An Anthology by Ursula Aylmer and Carolyn (appropriately enough) McCrum. This and some supplementary internet research means that I now know a little more about cake in Oxford.

Did you know, for example, that Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) used to entertain children to tea and cakes in his College rooms at Christ Church? Among them, of course, was the younger daughter of the College Dean, Alice (in Wonderland) Liddell?

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Alice after eating the cake she found in Wonderland. Source

You are, perhaps, more likely to be familiar with the cake which Alice finds at the bottom of the rabbit hole after falling into Wonderland: the one that has ‘Eat Me’ marked on it in currants, and which makes her grow very tall.

The cake which Brideshead Revisited‘s Charles Ryder served up, meanwhile, was a Fuller’s Walnut Cake. Fuller’s was an American company and the cake was a two-layer affair, sandwiched and topped with boiled white frosting, and decorated with halved walnuts. Fanny serves on up to her young cousins in her Oxford home in Love in a Cold Climate too; they were clearly height of fashion in prewar Oxford.

A bit closer to home was the Cake Factory on Banbury Road (possibly Oliver & Gurdon, which was a prize-winning bakery on Middle Way, which runs parallel to Banbury Road). Novelist Nina Bawden had fond memories of their cakes featuring at tea parties where men and women could mix. Since the cakes went stale quickly a fresh one was a real testament to a young man’s interest.

Just a little further one can find the pastry-encased Banbury Cake, which has been one of the staple trades for that town for centuries. There is a recipe for them in the famous collection The English Hus-Wife by Gervase Markham, which was published in 1615.

And on the other side of Oxford, the town of Abingdon buys up sweet buns to throw to the gathered crowds from the top of County Hall on special occasions.

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Source

But the cake that most caught my attention was the cherry cake which is apparently served every year at the beating of the bounds ceremony at All Souls College. Beating of the bounds is an ancient tradition where residents of a given parish travel to the far edges of their land, staking their claim to it by beating a staff on the ground. All Soul’s College lies within the parish of St Mary the Virgin, and the traditional cherry cake is a reminder of the cherry orchard which used to stand on the land.

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Oxford Food contained a recipe for cherry cake – whether it’s the one used by the chefs at All Souls isn’t specified – but I decided to give it a go. Cherry cake recipes seem to be very similar from what I can see, but this one certainly produced a light and tasty cake. Tossing the cut cherries in flour helps them to stick in the batter rather than sinking to the bottom. I only made two thirds of the full recipe (because I only had two eggs!) and it took about 50 minutes in the oven. I took the cake to a talk I gave yesterday at the Oxford Literary Festival, and was quite distracted by the rather lovely smell wafting towards me from the plate as I talked. My audience was a little shy at first, but it soon disappeared – and some of the tasters also bought the book which must be the ultimate endorsement!

Cherry Cake (from Oxford Food: an anthology)

6oz (175g) butter

6oz (175g) fine sugar (I just used caster)

6oz (175g) plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

3 eggs

6oz (175g) crystallised cherries

4oz (100g) ground almonds

grated lemon peel (optional)

Mix in the usual way by creaming the butter and sugar together, then gradually beating in the eggs with a little flour; mix in the remaining flour sifted with the baking powder, the ground almonds, and lastly the cut cherries, previously coated in some of the flour. Scrape it all into a greased 8 inch tin adn bake it for about 1 1/2 hours at gas mark 3 (325F or 170C). Leave it in the tin for half an hour after taking it out of the oven.

**With thanks to Vicky, Tamsin, Tamasin and Sarah for their helpful reminiscences and source-finding🙂 **

A very secular Simnel Cake

Simnel Cake is probably the most traditional of the Easter cakes. It has its origins in the same tradition as the Twelfth Night cake, which started off marking Epiphany (January 6th or the twelfth night after Christmas) but which eventually migrated back to December 25th and became our modern Christmas Cake. I’d even go so far as to say these were among the first properly sweet and celebratory cakes, in British history at least. The Simnel Cake has a few distinguishing features of its own: a layer of marzipan through the middle, no white icing, and twelve marzipan balls which symbolise Christ’s Apostles.

Mine was a little different and it was rather a bittersweet bake. I made it for the funeral of one of The Scientist’s friends, who died unexpectedly a few weeks ago, and at an appallingly young age. He was also a gamer, and part of the circle I regularly bake for, so a cake seemed an appropriate gift to help the others wind down after a hard day, and remember their friend. And so the marzipan balls became marzipan dice – with a gap for their missing compatriot.

I think this is the first time I’ve made a Simnel Cake, and I used this recipe from Mary Berry. She also suggests putting crystallised flowers on the top, which is an alternative tradition marking the flowering of spring. It was a nice easy bake, though I realised afterwards I had forgotten to add the glace cherries. It’s a good thing I have plans for a cherry cake…

It’s spring – let’s bake!

Has that photo got your attention?? Good🙂

It is now, officially, spring. The days are longer than the nights, and I took my hat off only ten minutes into my morning run today (that’s quite high praise for the British weather in late March🙂 ). Lambs are being born, thoughts are turning to Easter eggs, and we have a long weekend to look forward to.

So, who is planning some baking?!

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A traditional Simnel Cake (image source)

This time of year has been a symbolic one for new growth and rebirth for centuries. Easter itself, of course, is a key point on the Christian calendar, and commemorates a miraculous rebirth. Jews too, celebrate the renewal of their freedom with the flight from Egypt at Passover. But this is all overlain over a much older tradition of joy at the lengthening days, the birth of new animals, and the start of the growing season. Plus – pertinently for anyone interested in how baking fits into all this – it is the season when hens start to lay eggs again, their pituitary glands stimulated into production by the increased sunlight.

 

This is one reason why eggs are traditional at Easter. They are also round, a shape which can symbolise the cycle of life, and they hold the promise of new life inside them. Unless, of course, they are destined for a spring-time bake🙂 So let’s get baking!

The most traditional Easter cake is of course the Simnel cake (above): a fruit cake which is distinguished from its Christmas cousin by the layer of marzipan through the middle, and the marzipan balls on the top, which symbolise Jesus’ apostles (minus the traitor Judas). The Victorians favoured crystallised flowers too, which could be another nod to the change in the season.

Non-traditional types may prefer other inspiration and I’ve put together some which tickled me, from the chocolate-cornflake nests beloved by young children (Munchkin and I made some of those last week), to burrowing rabbits, hidden bulbs, and a whole host of cute bunnies, lambs and chicks. A less garish option might be the pastel-tinted beauties which seem to come up more frequently on American sites, and you could do worse for a showstopper than a gravity defying egg releasing a shower of chocolate.

Whatever you choose, happy baking, and happy springtime!

Image sources: Top row carrot-covered bunny; lamb; gravity defying egg cake.

Middle row: pastel slice – actually jewellery made by this etsy seller; berry cake; yellow flower cake; Easter Cake Pops

Bottom row: Creme Egg chocolate drizzle; Hidden bulb cake; hatching chicks; hidden carrot cake

A Quinn-tessential rainbow cake

Munchkin picked this cake out to make for Mother’s Day last weekend. The plan was that he would decorate it himself but he got bored after placing a few blueberries🙂 Still, he gave me the push to try something from Frances Quinn’s new book Quinntessential Baking and we all thank him for that🙂

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The presentation was entirely inspired by the photo in the book – at Munchkin’s insistence – but with a lot less skill…

 

I’m excited to say that I will be interviewing Frances herself at the Aye Write Book Festival in Glasgow next weekend! Fans of the Great British Bake-Off will remember her as the insanely brilliant winner in 2013; she of the secret squirrel cake and the ‘Strikingly Tasty’ chilli breadstick matchsticks (in their own giant match box).* She was a children’s clothes designer by day – she’s currently on a ‘baking sabbatical’ – and her eye for design came through in every single one of her bakes. I remember being really pleased that she won, both because her projects were so unique and also because she seemed like such a nice person!

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Her book follows the same path of beautiful and creative bakes, full of funny little plays on words (the banana llama cake made me laugh, as did the projects inspired by knitting patterns and sandwiches!). Some are more complicated than I – a somewhat chaotic baker with little talent for detail – would take on without a good solid child-free afternoon, but the book is a joy to read, and none of the projects require anything too fussy, just a good eye for detail.

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See the funny pattern on the inside of the rainbow? That’s because Frances cleverly recommends you use a regular round cake tin with a nonstick-parchment-covered smaller object in the centre. My parchment must have had some folds in it!

 

The Rainbow cake is from the lemon cake section and is essentially a lemon-infused sponge (I have become tedious with my fact about true sponges not containing fat, but in truth I’m not sure what else to call a sponge-y cake…). It is baked in a ring shape which is then cut in half to make a rainbow sandwich with plain whipped cream in the middle and on the top. The rainbow’s colours, as you can see, are made from rows of fruit (the original called for kiwi but we are green grape lovers in our house).

It was a dream to eat: the best cake I have had in a very long time. It was beautifully lemony and soft, and the choice of plain cream was inspired, giving a clean richness to each bite without more sugar. It wasn’t too big either which is a good thing on one hand for a small family – and also a disappointment as it was gobbled up so quickly!

The other project I have my eye on is also from the lemon cake section, but this time with an Easter-themed twist. Watch this space🙂

 

*the recipe for the Secret Squirrel cake can be found on the bbc website here

What do we want from our domestic goddesses?

Look at any modern recipe: what do you see? A list of ingredients, in the order in which they are needed; an instruction on the oven temperature so you can get things warming up; and a list of instructions, again in order. You may even get some nice asides like ‘Back to the frosting’, or ‘you can add some more zest here if you like’ just to give the friendly, knowing touch.

These details  – and perhaps more importantly – the logical way in which they are presented, are an invaluable part of baking from a recipe. It wasn’t always so. In baking recipes from the eighteenth century instructions were usually in one block of text, with no separating out of the ingredients at all. Oven instructions were vague to our modern eye – ‘moderate’ or ‘hot’ (the modern Aga user will appreciate this of course, but most of us want a precise number in centigrade, farenheit or gas mark). Instructions like ‘bake until it is done’ were not uncommon, and you get general impression that authors were writing for bakers who already knew what they were aiming for. It wasn’t until Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families (link to free ebook) which was published in 1845, that a nod was given to the way the cook or baker read and used the recipe. Interestingly, the result was the other way round from the one we use today: recipe summary first, then ingredients and cooking times (the thinking being that the cook would want to read through the method first, before needing to know her ingredients).

I decided to try out what this different style felt like for a modern baker. The recipe I selected was the Sponge Gingerbread from Catherine Beecher’s Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book (available here) published in 1846 as a companion to her Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School (I mentioned it previously here). I have to admit that I picked it largely because it looked straightforward and didn’t require any difficult ingredients or baking methods. Here it is:

 

Sponge Gingerbread

One cup of sour milk

One cup of molasses

A half a cup of butter

Two eggs

One and a half teaspoonful of saleratus

One great spoonful of ginger

Flour to make it thick as pound-cake

Put the butter, molasses, and ginger together, and make them quite warm, then add the milk, flour and saleratus, and bake as soon as possible

Yep, that’s it. Still, I felt confident. Sour milk, I found, could be substituted with buttermilk, or some milk with vinegar or lemon juice added to it to make it curdle. Saleratus was an early raising agent and could be swapped for an equal measure of bicarbonate of soda/baking soda. And I know how thick a pound cake batter is, right?

Well, wrong on several counts. First, I made the mistake of assuming that the ingredients were listed in the order in which I needed them – despite reading through the recipe first as Miss Acton would have instructed. I’d already put the milk in the pan before realising my mistake – luckily an easy one to rectify. Then I had a little uncertainty over the thickness of the batter – despite my prior (over) confidence. And lastly, I had no idea how long to bake it for, or for how long, and had to consult Nigella.

So all in all, quite an instructive experience. Catherine Beecher was writing for women who might NOT have a lot of expertise in the kitchen, and she was keen to teach them scientific rules for the kitchen. But even in this situation, she could assume  that they could make an educated guess as to oven temperature and ‘done-ness’ (though see her other advice here on how to do that). She also clearly had higher expectations as to initiative, memory and common sense than I was able to provide, as she did not feel the need to list her ingredients in the order they were used. The end result though? Well worth it – the closest I have ever come to a home-made Macvities’ Jamaican Ginger Cake. And that’s high praise. But can I find a single photo of it? I cannot. I’ll just have to make another…

 

 

 

 

‘Cake’ launched!

Last Thursday saw the official launch of my new book🙂 We had a talk and signing event at Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford, which is a lovely old building and the perfect place to send a book off on its journey. Local bakers Happy Cakes made some gorgeous cupcakes and everyone seemed to leave full of sugar and good cheer (even Munchkin who spent the talk watching the Minions film with his new Spiderman headphones on – always good to be kept grounded by a small child!)

Baking from Sesame and Spice

Cookbooks, even baking books, are so ubiquitous nowadays that they really need a good story to tell in order to capture the reader. I was lucky enough to stumble on one such a few weeks ago, when my lovely publisher sent me a copy of one of their other recent titles, Anne Shooter’s Sesame and Spice.

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Anne’s background is similar to my own; eastern European Jewish, with lots of family links with Israel too. Her book reflects this wonderful mix of flavours and family memory; even the photograph of a signed letter from Evelyn Rose on Jewish Chronicle headed paper sent a little shiver down my spine, and the statement that ‘The Jews’ obsession with food is written into their theology and culture’ certainly resonated (Jews don’t do anything without knowing where the next treat is coming from). Anne says that her own personal baking history was fragranced with ‘apples, honey, almonds, figs, pomegranates, cinnamon, orange zest, sesame, lemons and vanilla’. That’s a bit more exotic than my own, I must admit; my maternal grandmother had more or less given up baking her own cakes by the time we were around, and cake instead meant a marbled loaf from the local Jewish deli, a cheesecake at Shavuot, or a honey cake for Rosh Hashana (to bring sweetness to the new year). My mother, however, remembers fruited streusel cakes which came straight from her grandparents’ German heritage, and a special Polish cheesecake which I am on a quest to recreate.

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I followed my own food memories in picking what to try out first from this book, but it was a tough choice. It’s a beautiful book, full of enticing recipes and stories. I chose a double-header of ‘Grandma’s apple cake’ – a hefty, fruit-rich, round of sweetness which was perfect with a cup of tea; and the Coconut, dark chocolate and cherry fingers which were from the Passover section (during Passover Jews don’t use anything which makes food rise, in commemoration of the frantic flight from slavery in Egypt, so special rules must apply to ensure the continuation of treats). Coconut is one of the flavours I most associate with Passover delicacies from my childhood – in our family it came packaged as Coconut Pyramids which are like the British type of macaroons (as opposed to the painfully elegant Parisian macarons). They were a really easy bake – Munchkin helped me a lot with this one – and they proved to be lovely little morsels, excellent with yet another cuppa!

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This is a lovely book and I’m sure I will return to it time and time again. Apart from anything else I love looking through the recipes and reading the headnotes; for what is cake in my opinion but a celebration of our own personal histories?

Coconut, dark chocolate and cherry fingers

Makes 16

200g dessicated coconut

85g caster sugar

150g dark chocolate chuos

85g glace cherries, halved

2 eggs, beaten

150g dark chocolate, broken into pieces

Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4. Line a 30x20cm brownie tin with baking parchment.

Combine the coconut, sugar, chocolate chips and glace cherries together in a bowl until everything is evenly distributed, then mix in the eggs until you have a gooey paste.

Spoon the mixture into the tin and spread evenly with a wooden spoon, packing it down firmly. Bake for 20 minutes, until golden brown and set.

Meanwhile, melt the chocolate pieces in a small glass bowl over a pan of simmering water. When the coconut mixture is baked, pour the melted chocolate over the top and press evenly across the mixture.

Leave to cool in the tin, then cut into fingers with a sharp knife and refrigerate until really well set. Store in an airtight container at room temperature or in the fridge.

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**disclaimer: this book was sent to me by my publisher at Headline, but with no expectation that I review it or express a particular opinion. All views are my own. Recipe reproduced with permission of the publisher**