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??

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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…

‘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!)

What sort of baker are you?

Not all bakers are created the same. Some like to impress, others to bake a figurative hug into a homely-looking cake. So, what sort of baker are you?

The Tried and Tested Baker

You like safety in baking and have a small number of beloved and reliable favourites that you turn to time and time again. You probably have a Domestic Goddess idol with whom you are on first-name terms (at least in your own kitchen), quite possibly backed up with a dog-eared notebook of recipes you copied out from your mother’s cookbooks when you left home. Your top five bakes almost certainly include a Victoria sandwich, a lemon drizzle, some scones and a trusty flapjack.

Your go-to cookbook? A tome by Good Housekeeping, the Women’s Institute – or your old Home Economics notebook

The Experimentalist

You regard recipes simply as a rough starting point and love to throw in a twist of your own with each of your bakes. You’re a lover of the portmanteau bake: brownie-meets-pie-meets-cupcake. You’re an avid watcher of TV baking shows for inspiration and will fearlessly throw beetroot, za’atar or goji berries into whatever batter is before you. The results are either sublime….or ridiculous.

Your go-to cookbook? The latest book by a noted pastry chef – but you’ll use it strictly for inspiration only

The Slapdash Baker

You would like to regard recipes as a blueprint but the fact is that the ingredient list rarely turns out to match the contents or quantities in your cupboard. And even if you do have everything you need you’ll invariably have forgotten to turn the oven on, left out a vital ingredient (if you’re lucky you’ll realise before it goes into the oven), or remember half way through that you started off with the intention of making a half batch.

Your go-to cookbook? Delia or Nigella – not that it helps you much

The Perfectionist Baker

Appearances are everything for this baker. You’re not afraid to try the most complex or beautiful creation, especially if the decoration if part of its raison d’etre. Fondant fancies, Prinsesstarta, Opera Cake: nothing is too challenging. You probably set yourself a challenge to make every technical bake from The Great British Bake-Off, and you are in hot demand when birthday parties come round.

Your go-to cookbook? Pinterest – you like to keep up to date with the latest in gravity-defying cakes and frosting colour schemes

The Food Blogger Baker

Everything that comes out of your kitchen tells a story: it’s a recreation of something you tasted at a foodie fair; a recipe from your grandmother’s handwritten baking journal; or a delicacy you tasted while on holiday. You own every baking gadget under the sun and your partner gave you a KitchenAid for your birthday. You own an impressive collection of single plates, antique knives and cake stands to show off your bakes, and everything must be photographed from six angles in close up before it passes anyone’s lips. Your friends and family rarely get served the same bake twice, but your baking days are an occasion for celebration.

Your go-to cookbook? It’s impossible to pick just one from your groaning bookshelves – and there are another six next to your bed.

Baking with pre-schoolers

I’m not going to set the blog world alight by saying that baking with small children is a good thing to do. As The Scientist would say: ‘obvious blog post is obvious’. But I think where I am a bit unusual is in baking (and cooking) so much with a very young child: Munchkin is just two and we’ve been baking actively together for over a year (as opposed to his early involvement which was supervising from his sling 🙂 )

I’m sure it’s one thing along which puts most people off: mess. This is fairly undeniable, but only if you compare baking with a small child to baking on your own – unless you’re a particularly messy baker in which case the small child might actually keep you in order. In any case, I find a judicious combination of having everything set out already, and a short hop to the sink to wash off sticky fingers keeps things reasonably contained.

So, here are my top tips for baking with young children:

1. As I said already: get everything out in advance. Depending on where you do your baking you probably don’t want to leave the child unattended while you nip to the fridge or the cupboard. That includes the weighing scales, tins, jugs, spoons, knife for cutting the butter, etc etc. And if you’re super organised, get the eggs and butter out of the fridge in advance.

2. Find somewhere both comfortable and safe to do your baking. We bake in the kitchen with Munchkin standing on a high chair – it means everything is to hand, and the floor is washable. If your child is prone to expansive gestures or isn’t too stable yet, sitting at a table might be better. If the child is doing most of the tasks then you could even put the equipment at a low table and let them get on with it.

3. Get the child involved in as many tasks as you can. Even real littlies can help to stir, or to tip spoonfuls of non liquid things like raisins into a bowl. On the savoury front, Munchkin used to love snapping asparagus stalks. At the age of two he now stirs, rubs in butter and flour (he has an amusing little dancing action to accompany this!), turns the scales on, pours in liquids from a jug or a big measuring spoon, helps to crack eggs, turns the food processor on, helps to hold the electric whisk, dollops batter into the tin… There’s not much I don’t let him help with apart from the obvious heat-related things. And letting a young child know that they should stay away from a hot oven is a good lesson to learn early!

4. If you don’t like letting go of things, or the mess is getting too much, then find small, neat tasks they can do so that they can still feel involved – fetching ingredients, stirring small quantities in a large bowl to minimise spills, or sticking decorations on a finished cake. Personally I believe it’s better to do this than to be constantly cleaning their hands and faces (unless they don’t like to be messy) – and causing yourself stress.

5. Pick your recipe wisely. Go for something easy, and preferably something you’ve made before. But even complicated things might have easy steps – Munchkin helped me to make a meringue roulade mix, and then helped to spread on a filling before we rolled it up.

So, the down sides: yes, there is likely to be a lot more flour on the floor or the table than if you’d made it yourself.

But the plus side: you’ve shared an activity, and the child has learned all sorts of things about shapes, textures, counting, tastes (yes, that is inevitable and one to bear in mind with your planning if you can’t stand the thought of them eating something with raw eggs in it – see more below).

And yes, hygiene levels may be a little lower than if you were baking solo, so try to discourage double dipping of fingers or spoons if that bothers you (which probably depends on who your target tasters are). I try to keep any finger licking to the end, for example, which does mean transferring the mixture to the tins with lightning speed!

I’ll talk more next time about good recipes to choose if you’re baking with a small person, but I think that the best reason to give it a try is the memories you’ll be making. For so many people baking is utterly bound up with memories and love of the person you first learnt with, the smells, and the tastes that it brought – and isn’t that a wonderful thing to share? Even if it’s about the time that Mum accidentally let the raw egg slither on the floor (yes, I’ve done that), or the time we forgot to add the key ingredient and had to get it all back out of the tin (Munchkin was quite baffled by that one). In fact, ESPECIALLY if it’s about those things 🙂 Happy baking!

Interview with Anna Weston of A Global Bakery

This week I enjoyed a cup of coffee and a chat in Oxford with Anna Weston, author of The Global Bakery: Amazing Cakes from the World’s Kitchens. We had a long talk about baking, fancy-pants equipment, the delights of sharing cakes, and the wonderful opportunities for ingredients shopping on the Cowley Road.

I started by asking her how she chose which cakes would feature in her book. As she says in her Introduction, she began with the premise that every culture has a cake; and so she made a list of all 197 countries in the world, and started filling it with cakes. The internet, of course, was an invaluable tool in her research, but colleagues, family, and foreign exchange students were all eager to share recipes and tips for the cakes of their homelands. One of the best compliments Anna has received since the publication of the book is the number of people who have told her that a certain cake reminds them of their childhood, their grandmother, or their travels abroad. More proof for the theory that cake is a source of happy memories!

I was interested to hear how the final selection of 64 came about. Both Anna and her publisher were clear that they wanted a range of types of cakes, a good coverage of countries across the world, the avoidance of too much duplication of key ingredients (a challenge, given that many cakes from the same broad region share the same flavours – like oranges and honey in the Middle East), and of course, some personal favourites. Anna also wanted to be able to say to her readers, ‘you can do this at home’. So, no special equipment or techniques which couldn’t be easily explained. Finally, the recipes all had to be cakes – an obvious point, perhaps, but one which led to an interesting discussion of what this meant. Both of us agreed that not all sweet things can be counted as cakes, as some other food writers have expansively decided. For Anna, the defining characteristic of a cake is its texture (something which is hard to pin down in words) and its sweetness. The ingredients are less important – not all cakes include hard fats, for example. The method can also vary: the New Zealand Louise Cake which features in the book, starts off with rubbing fat into flour, like a shortbread – though it actually comes out tasting very cakey. Only two recipes in the book defy these rules: the Czech Buchty, which is a yeasted bread (the Czechs apparently don’t really do cakes) – but one which is filled with a delicious-sounding cottage cheese, poppy-seed-and-sugar-mix; and a Swiss Nusstorte (tart) which – how to put this delicately? – was the result of a heavy steer from a publisher. It is, however, ‘to die for’ according to Anna, so we can perhaps forgive it its place.

One of the most interesting things about Anna’s book is the idea of a ‘global’ bakery. It really shows us both the common features and the individual traits of cakes in different lands. The entry from Patagonia, for example, is a Welsh Cake, which was carried over by Welsh settlers and has remained a favourite, relatively unchanged over time. But at the other end of the spectrum, some cakes reveal very different local tastes: the Taiwanese Sweet Potato Cake was very unpopular among Anna’s tasters because of its lack of sweetness; while one colleague threatened to strike when faced with the Italian Castagnaccio or Chestnut Cake – a beautifully fudgy looking cake which is surprisingly low on sugar (Anna explained why: it’s traditionally served alongside sweet wine). It seems from all this that although, as the Czech example shows, cake is not necessarily universal, the desire for sweetness in a comforting slice of something, is.

We ended by talking about the way we bake. Anna is keen for people to feel they can get it right without a lot of prior knowledge or special equipment. In fact, readers may be tickled to hear that she didn’t get on at all with her own fancy mixer, and made all the cakes for her book using just an electric hand whisk (it died, presumably of exhaustion, immediately after the book was finished!). As she told me, a cake doesn’t need to be domestic-goddess-perfect: ‘people appreciate the time you’ve taken to bake.’ But will she be entering the Great British Bake Off? Not a chance. In her own words, ‘I’m a family baker. I could no more produce a windmill made of sugar than fly – and I don’t want to.’

Anna’s top tips

As well as using self-raising flour, add a good teaspoon of baking powder when making a Victoria Sandwich

Do it the Women’s Institute way: weigh your eggs in their shells, and match the weight in the flour, sugar and butter.

Want an easy cake? Go for the Bara Brith – and add two generous tablespoons of marmalade to the mixture to give it a lovely glaze and extra flavour.

Want a decadent showstopper? Make the Tres Leches (three milks): ‘Heaven with the gate shut’!

To make meringues, make sure your beaters are clean and cold

Start to check your cake ten minutes before the end of the cooking time: all ovens are different.

And finally, don’t be afraid to experiment and change things around!

European Cakes – a Feast for the Eyes

We are still held by Great British Bake Off fever here in the UK, and this week’s theme was European Cakes. The bakers had to tackle a yeasted cake of their own choosing, Mary Berry’s recipe for a Swedish Prinsesstarta, and then give their own caramelly interpretation of a Hungarian dobos torta.

Mary Berry’s Prinsesstarta (www.bbc.co.uk/food)

I’ll talk more about these cakes another time, but what the show really made clear was how beautiful European cakes are (I could add, ‘or are meant to be’ but given that presentation is not my own forte in baking, I’ll keep schtum). Presentation really matters; many of the signature cakes from Europe have very precise requirements in terms of decoration and colour, and their consumption really calls for a sense of occasion. British, North American and Australasian cakes, by contrast, are a bit more ‘homeyness on a plate’. If we like comfort, the Europeans demand elegance.

A yeasted kugelhopf (www.a-taste-of-france.com)

This is because in many parts of Europe, baking has historically been an art, executed by a professional craftsman; and I use the word ‘man’ deliberately. In Britain, cake-making has always been associated with women, and many of the current cakey idols are women: Mary Berry, Nigella Lawson (or in America, Martha Stewart, and there are many other examples, right down to the fictitious but dependable Aunt Jemima and Sara Lee). Many of the early British cookbooks were written by women (the first ‘American’ cookbook as opposed to one imported from Europe, was by one Amelia Simmons). On the European continent, that was not the case; baking, like cooking – and writing about it – was dominated by men.

A French Croquembouche Wedding Cake – with American styling courtesy of Martha Stewart! (www.marthastewartweddings.com)

Whether this is because European cakes and patisserie are so ornate that they require a professionally trained pastry cook, or whether this is why they became so, is hard to untangle. Whatever the reason, it elevated cake-making in Europe to something of an art, and one which is still practised with some devotion by men – and women – bakers today. And while I have never since my university days been tempted to try making a profiterole, let along a towering cone of them (see the croquembouche), I have to admit that I am a little tempted by the Prinsesstarta…

Good Housekeeping’s Picture Cake Making, 1952

2014-08-13 12.24.59We went to visit some very dear family friends last weekend, and as we cut into the cake we had brought with us (a Victoria Sandwich, what a shock, which I didn’t get round to photographing), we started to talk about sweet treats generally. The lady of the house brought out her own cake bible, which was a prize she had won at school, and as I perused and marvelled she generously insisted that I borrow it.

2014-08-13 12.25.49It’s Good Housekeeping’s Picture Cake Making, published in 1952. Good Housekeeping is, of course, the organisation which publishes the magazine of the same name in both Britain and the States, but it also has (and has long had) its own Institute which tests domestic products, runs classes, sell equipment and ingredients – and publishes ‘how-to’ books like these (you may remember that I quoted from a 1926 article on baking cakes in my first post). This particular book was published at a time of real transition and change: rationing was finally coming to an end in Britain, and the slew of new products made from plastics and dyes developed for the war meant that life was becoming newly colourful and exciting. This was probably the first time in over a decade that a cookbook could matter-of-factly include hundreds of recipes which called for significant quantities of butter, eggs and sugar, and its colour plates give a technicolour glimpse into the kitchens of the early 1950s.

The Kenwood mixer was a popular piece of domestic technology in the 1950s

The Kenwood mixer was a popular piece of domestic technology in the 1950s

I’m struck by a few things as I flick through the pages of the book. The first is its timelessness: lots of the cakes are still perennial favourites – the Victoria Sandwich, of course, the Dundee Cake, and the Rock Cake for example – but others surprised me by already evidently being family favourites in the 1950s – Swiss Rolls, Chocolate Crackle Cakes (the ubiquitous childhood favourites of cornflakes and melted chocolate) – and even Angel Cake, which I had only heard of in the last few years but which had evidently already made its journey across the Atlantic from America. Requiring 9 egg whites, this recipe would have been unthinkable during the rationing period.

A bevy of Swiss Rolls. I think I need to make one of these asap.

A bevy of Swiss Rolls. I think I need to make one of these asap.

The second is the complete opposite: how much tastes have changed, not only in the lurid colours, which are proudly displayed on the colour pages, but also the (to our eyes) fussy decoration and quite bizarre novelty cakes (see below for my favourite, and The Scientist’s nemesis – the mushroom cake!).

2014-08-13 12.27.39Third, is how cake then, as now, is portrayed as being absolutely bound up with family life (there is a chapter devoted to ‘Cakes for the Children’) – but then much more than now, how openly that was tied to female home-making. The marriage bar was definitely still in existence in the 1950s, and it would have been unusual for women to continue to work when they had young children. Even as more women moved into the workplace, society continued to promote and praise an image of femininity which was tied to the middle-class home. The Foreword makes this very clear:

Cake-making has an irresistible appeal to most women…Many housewives save up the necessary ingredients in order to give their families the benefit of good home-made cakes and to provide at moderate cost rich and exciting-looking cakes for special tea-parties and other celebrations… (p. 6)

Actually I think that sentiment is not entirely out of place for many women today – the differences being that firstly, generally, they have a choice to do these things or not; secondly, they are usually performing these domestic roles alongside paid work; and thirdly – no one would dream of tying that to female roles so overtly today.

2014-08-13 12.26.29I have several cakes ear-marked to try, either for their novelty, or their alluring titles. The first will be my own birthday cake: I’m tempted by this one. What do you think?

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