Making mini meringues Tuesday, Feb 18 2014 

Making meringues can seem really scary. They look so beautiful; surely they can’t be easy?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABelieve it or not, they are.

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It can be messy, but that’s all part of the fun.

I used Rachel Khoo’s recipe for French meringues, which is arguably the method best known to home cooks, where egg whites are whipped until stiff, with a bit of lemon juice added at the start, and sugar added gradually as you whip. An electric hand whisk is essential for this. If you have a good one (I use a Kenwood) then the mix will be ready in moments. To create these delicate shapes, I used a Pampered Chef decorating bottle and star nozzle. You really do need a piping bag or similar for times like this – it makes your life much easier, especially when you’re making large numbers (just two egg whites made 40-60 of these tiny meringues).

I then sprinkled half the meringues with Rachel Khoo’s praline recipe. Hint: buy pre-skinned hazelnuts. I didn’t even make the full amount of praline and was already cursing at the time it took to skin them (they are nowhere NEAR as easy to skin as, say, almonds). You then mix the skinned hazelnuts with caramel, which you make on the stove by melting sugar with a little water and NOT MOVING THE PAN while waiting for it to turn runny and dark (use a sugar thermometer if it helps you). Pour the nut caramel onto a baking sheet, and then once it’s cold, blitz it to granules in a food processor. Even only making a quarter of the amount of praline meant we had loads left over for another day; it would make a great topping for ice-cream, for example. I then sprinkled half the meringues with praline and left the rest plain. (Rachel Khoo sandwiches hers together with a mixture of praline and butter to create Chaumontais Kisses, but this didn’t appeal to me.)

They then had to sit in the oven for two or three hours at a low temperature, including being left to cool in the switched-off oven with the door ajar. This takes time, but not necessarily your time: you can of course go off and do other things while you’re waiting for them to be ready (like washing up your mixer and piping nozzles…!). I couldn’t have been happier with them: they were crisp and dry on the outside and slightly chewy on the inside, just the way I like them. They are compulsively moreish, completely worth the effort, and make a perfect gift for your Valentine at any time of year. Bisous!

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Floral cupcakes Saturday, Jun 23 2012 

Now that summer is (kind of) upon us, the bakist is faced with their yearly dilemma: how far is it criminal to spend time hovering around a hot oven when the sun is out?

There are several ways around this so that, happily, we can all carry on baking. There are dishes such as panna cotta, which require very little time around a stove (we’re having a ginger and tangerine version tonight), and of course the almighty cheesecake (as in the English version, which doesn’t need any time in the oven. We recently concocted a lime and limoncello cheesecake, which perhaps inevitably could have done with more limoncello).

But another great summer treat for a cooler day is the idea of the floral cupcake. I use a recipe from the Hummingbird bakery, and while they make rose, lavender and jasmine versions, I have expanded on the theme to create my own violet and calendula cakes too. What’s more, there are still numerous possibilities that I have not yet explored, like elderflower, camomile, and linden flower (yes, all of these flowers are really available online and at places like Lakeland for your delectation).

So how would one go about this in the event of wanting to create these cupcakes at home? First you need the basic recipe (the below is the one I’ve casually lifted from the Hummingbird Bakery’s Cake Days book). To this, you add your flavourings (more on this in a moment):

(makes 12-16 cupcakes)

80g softened unsalted butter

280g caster sugar

240g plain flour

1tbsp baking powder

1/4tsp salt

240ml milk

2 large eggs

Mix together the dry ingredients. To the milk, add 1tbsp of your chosen flavouring (see below; I’m coming to it, I promise). Then add this with the eggs to the dry mixture. Put the mixture into muffin cases and bake for 18-20 minutes at 190°C. Simples!

NOW for the flavouring. In France, it’s very easy to come by various flavoured syrups in the supermarket, so this is definitely something to add to your trolley next time you’re over on a booze cruise: the syrups (chiefly made by Monin, but there are other brands, including supermarket own brands) can regularly be found in such flavours as caramel, candy floss, cocktail flavours (such as blue curacao), hibiscus, and violet. Sometimes what I do, therefore, is to add the syrup to the milk where flavouring is talked about in the recipe above.

Another great idea for the flavouring is to use tea. For the Hummingbird Bakery’s jasmine version, they use jasmine tea, and I can confirm this works well. It therefore stands to reason that it would work with other teas too. Try Twinings’ Rose Garden or Lavender Earl Grey teas to impart those recognisable floral flavours into your cake mix. Whittard also has interesting options – why not infuse the milk in the recipe above with their Jubilee blend of tea (which contains marigold, apricot and peach) and top your cupcakes with edible marigold petals as decoration? Alternatively, you could buy your own dried flowers online and infuse these in hot water (make sure they are marked as being edible by the seller).

So that’s the flavouring sorted – and while your cupcakes cool on the window sill, you can think about the decoration. How, for instance, did I make my rose cupcakes look like this?

Furry friends, I will tell you.

The crystallised rose petals came from the food section at Parisian department store Le Bon Marché (known as La Grande Epicerie). While I was there I collected some crystallised violet petals too. You *can* crystallise your own flower petals (the Hummingbird cookbook mentioned above tells you how) but this is only for those on the short of money and long of time. However, you don’t need to go all the way to Paris to buy these beauties: Melbury and Appleton (who are located in London, but also sell online) are just one retailer flogging them to UK bakers. You can also decorate with sugar flowers (buy ready-made, or make your own), sprinkle with the edible fresh or dried flowers I mentioned earlier (I use edible lavender sometimes), or finish off with sugars that already have the dried flower in question running through them (I use these, but you may want to try the Ethical Community shop online; they stock organic fairtrade rose and lavender sugars to name just a few). For a funkier take on it, smash up some Parma violet sweets or throw on some lime crystals.

But all of these decorations need something to stick to! I hear you cry. (And you’re right.) And now my cupcakes have gone completely cold thanks to your lengthy blethering! (Sorry. I know they taste good warm. But they need to be cold for you to ice them properly.)

SO. Hummingbird give the full frosting quantities as follows:

500g icing sugar

160g softened unsalted butter

3 tsp of your flavouring

50ml milk

Decorations

However, even when making the full amount of cupcakes I tend to find this to be far too much, so I often reduce it by half (so if making half the amount of cupcakes, make a quarter of the amount of frosting).

All you need to do is cream the butter and icing sugar, then add the liquids. If you want to add food colouring as well, then you can (but just a few drops!).

Once you’ve spread or piped the frosting onto the cakes (if spreading, keep a glass of warm water on standby to dunk the palette knife or spoon in from time to time; it makes sure the icing ends up on the cake and not just stuck to the cutlery!), you can add your decorations (flowers, sugar, sugar paste…). Then wait for the frosting to dry before you eat your cakes…if your willpower is better than mine, you’ll be able to.

If the British weather is up to it, take these floral fancies on a picnic with you. Or, alternatively, eat them inside over a pot of tea of your choice (ideally a tea to go with your cupcakes! A flowering tea in a glass teapot would be ideal – such as Whittard’s carnation plum flowering tea, which contains jasmine.), and watch the typical British rain come down. Perfect.

Gü puddings less than gustatory Sunday, Apr 1 2012 

Friday night. Pay day. Husband not coming home in time for dinner. What better way to indulge than to pay up for something that had always been recommended to me by dear friends, but that I had never tried – Gü puddings? I was sure I couldn’t go wrong. In the supermarket I remembered the main reason I’d never tried them before – the price. At nearly €4 for two they’re not coming cheap. However, that is still only €2 per pudding, and includes a glass ramekin that you can keep. I’ve also heard they go on offer from time to time (rumour has it that at times they can be found in Britain for £1.90 per pack of 2).

I went for the version which go by the name of “moelleux au chocolat” in French. Could not find the exact equivalent product in English, but essentially it’s a chocolate fondant. Looking forward to this, I duly popped them in the oven for the 13 minutes stated at 170°C.

Now, it’s possible that I overcooked them, as I have a fan oven and temperatures and cooking times can vary slightly. However, I shouldn’t have been wrong for more than about 10°C, or about 1 minute’s cooking time, which shouldn’t drastically affect the results. And just what were the results? Something distinctively “un-Güey” – it was little more than a chocolate sponge, and while it tasted nice, it was definitely drier in texture than I had expected.

“What can I say?”, I said to friends in a Facebook status later on, “…mine’s better. That’ll teach me.” And it really had been, for just five days before we had made chocolate fondants at home, following Rowley Leigh’s idiot-proof recipe. Moral of the story? Home baking is definitely best. Sorry Gü.

Cupcakes! Tuesday, Apr 20 2010 

For my birthday, my sister bought me the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, and I have thus spent many a happy hour drooling over it. My first attempt was the basic vanilla cupcakes with vanilla frosting:

(I know, the photo’s quite dark. I’m sorry 😦   My paws get in the way sometimes 😦  )

They tasted gooooooood. But they were extremely sweet and almost more frosting than cake. This was a shame really as I tasted a little bit of the cake when slicing off the tops so that they would be flat when I iced them, and the cake on its own was lush, but couldn’t be tasted in its full glory once the truckload of icing had been added.

The cake recipes, as far as I can tell if this one is anything to go by, are fairly idiotproof. The cake itself was light and fluffy and the instructions to get there were extremely straightforward. While a reduction in icing could be beneficial, these are a delicious, indulgent treat.

Going back to the book itself, it’s full of high-quality photos and a range of dishes – the bakery cookbook doesn’t just tell you how to make cupcakes, but also muffins, pies and brownies…and cookies…which I’ll be trying out later on today. I’m also much looking forward to my visit to the original Hummingbird Bakery in London next Thursday (the 29th). Bring it.