2021 Crazy Cake Day #1

Many years ago, I tried to make vegetarian rolled fondant. It was a complete disaster.

So when my daughter asked for an octopus cake for her birthday, I first wondered if I could manage to do it in buttercream frosting. I quickly decided that, no, it was really only going to work in fondant. So …

I spent a couple of hours on Tuesday scouring the city for the ingredients. They were easier to find this time—vegetarianism has become more commonplace, so gelatine substitutes are now available in some mainstream grocery stores. I took it as a good sign. My fondant would work this time.

I baked the cake (chocolate), and made the filling (peanut butter), and on Wednesday sculpted the octopus’s body. After a night in the refrigerator, the cake was ready to cover in fondant. Thursday morning I got to work.

The first batch of fondant was marginal at best. It had little elasticity, and I had to roll it out in pieces, rather than one big sheet to cover the whole cake. No worries. I managed, and the result was only a little bit lumpier than I’d hoped.

But I’d used nearly all my fondant, and I still had eight legs to make.

So, I made another batch. This one would be better, of course, because it was the second try. And it seemed to be going better for a few minutes. But by the time it was finished, it was clear this batch had even less elasticity than the first. 

At least I didn’t have to roll it out thin. It worked fine for the legs, as long as I worked slowly and didn’t try to curl the legs too much.

It took quite a long time to smooth all that lousy fondant into what looked like one continuous animal, but eventually I managed. Then I had a fabulous time painting it, watching the octopus colouration take shape.

It took a bit of trial and error to work out how to make zillions of suckers—thinned fondant piped into balls, partly dried, and then shaped before allowing them to harden. Then it took ages to place them all. I finished up just as my husband was putting dinner on the table. 

It was a heck of a lot of work for one cake.

But the final octopus looks like it could swim away any moment. And more importantly, I think my daughter is truly impressed—a rare feat.

Inspirational Flavours

I was surfing the internet last week for something different to do with lentils and found a recipe for an intriguing lentil stew topped with roast broccolini and lemon on Bon Apetit’s website (Marinated Lentils with Lemony Broccolini and Feta).

I didn’t have broccolini, but I did have an overabundance of zucchini (surprise, surprise … It’s January; of course I have too many zucchini).

I was intrigued by the idea of roasting lemon, so I substituted zucchini and spring onions for the broccolini in the recipe, vaguely took inspiration from the herbs and spices in the lentils, and ran with it.

The result was delicious and refreshingly different from my normal lentils. The roast lemon was good—sour, bitter, and slightly caramelised. It enhanced the lightness of the vegetables and was quite pretty, too. And the spicy, tangy lentils were a nice complement to the vegetables. I can envision the dish working well with many different vegetables—eggplant, green beans, even beetroot—a great way to highlight an individual vegetable against the richness of lentils.

It’s gotten me thinking about other places I might include roast lemon slices—in mixed roast vegetables over couscous, in a lemon/butter sauce over pumpkin ravioli, floating atop a bowl of vegetable soup … there are lots of intriguing options. I love when a recipe inspires new ways to prepare old ingredients.

Pumpkin Scones

Necessity is the mother of invention.

That may be so, but laziness is invention’s maternal grandmother.

I was lazy on Sunday morning. I wanted pumpkin muffins, but I didn’t want to have to grease and then wash the muffin tins.

So I made up a new scone recipe to satisfy my pumpkin cravings. The results were delicious and satisfying. Best of all, there was no greasing and washing of muffin tins. Here’s the recipe in case you’re feeling lazy too.

2 cups barley flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp each of cloves, nutmeg, ginger and salt
125 g (1/2 cup) butter
1 egg
1 cup cooked, mashed pumpkin
1/4 cup cream
1/2 cup brown sugar

Sift together the flours, baking soda, baking powder and spices in a large bowl. Cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg, pumpkin, cream and brown sugar. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and mix until just moistened. Knead lightly and briefly until the dough comes together into a ball. Divide the dough in half. Pat each half into a round about 2 cm (3/4-inch) thick and cut into 8 wedges. Place the wedges on an ungreased baking sheet and bake 11-12 minutes at 200ºC (400ºF) on fan bake.

*I added nothing to these scones, but they’d be excellent with dried cranberries incorporated into the dough. I expect that replacing half a cup of the barley flour with cornmeal would be a nice variation too.

Cinnamon Muffins

I’m still revelling in our glorious new kitchen—it’s such a pleasure to cook and bake in! It inspires creativity.

This morning I tried out a new recipe for cinnamon muffins, and I think I hit on a winner. They’re quick to make and taste delicious!

1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup wholemeal flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 Tbs cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs

Topping: 2 tsp sugar and 1/2 tsp cinnamon

Combine the flours, sugar, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl. Whisk together the milk, oil and eggs in a separate bowl. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the wet, mixing only until combined. In a small bowl, combine the sugar and cinnamon for the topping.

Fill greased cupcake tins with the batter. Sprinkle sugar/cinnamon mix over each muffin.

Bake 15-17 minutes at 190ºC (375ºF). Allow to cool 5 minutes in the pans before turning them out.

Makes 16 muffins.

Loving Leftovers

We christened the new house last weekend with a celebration party for one of my husband’s students who just finished his PhD. As I suspected (hoped?), visitors gravitated to the kitchen, congregating beside platters of finger food under the warm glow of cafe lights. 

Food-wise, we went Mexican for this party—quesadillas, empanadas, corn chips, guacamole, salsa, bean dip, and biscochitos (anise-flavoured cookies from New Mexico, not Mexico, but …) for dessert. Great finger food and perfect or standing around the kitchen grazing all evening.

As usual, we made enough food for twice as many people as we invited. Now we’re blessed with party leftovers for lunch.

Yesterday I had a generous plate of homemade corn chips smothered in cheesy bean dip, salsa, guacamole and sour cream. Today I’m considering toast with beans and salsa (because we devoured all the chips and guacamole). Tomorrow, who knows what I’ll come up with? Plus, there are extra beans in the freezer for dinner later in the week. All that extra party prep pays off in easy, delicious meals afterwards.

A great excuse for a party!

Enjoying the New Kitchen

Rain pounded on the roof and hissed against the windows. Wind whipped around the porch, tossing deck chairs everywhere. I lay warm in bed, only vaguely registering the weather, grateful once again to be in the new house and not in the shed.

We’re still settling into the house, but we’ve already given the kitchen a workout. Some days, when I step into that room, I wonder what we were thinking—it’s so huge! Then I cook something and appreciate every inch of space.

It’s been hard to get a photo of the foods we’ve baked–they’re eaten so quickly.

We’ve been craving all the baked goods we haven’t been able to make in the past three months. In the first twenty-four hours after moving in, we baked eight loaves of bread, three dozen cookies, and a batch of lemon scones. Over the next four days, we added pizza, Not yo’ mama’s mac and cheese, quiche, apricot tart, chocolate cupcakes, and homemade granola to that list. Moving into our second week in the house, we’ve made Mum’s fluffy buns, bean burgers, oven baked French fries, Irish soda bread, spaghetti with tofu meatballs, and roast vegetables.

Visiting some of our favourite foods after too many months without them has been a delight. It may be time to head to the library for some inspiration now—think what new things we could make in the fabulous new kitchen!

Chocolate Currant Upside Down Cake

Usually I bake a fancy cake for Queen’s Birthday, because any birthday is an excuse for cake. Heck, any day is an excuse for cake. But Her Majesty’s birthday is an excuse for FANCY cake.

This year, however, my cake baking abilities were limited. I made a chocolate blackcurrant upside down cake in the microwave, of course, since we’re still living in the shed. 

It was, perhaps, the ugliest cake I’ve ever made—rivalled only by the red currant upside down cake I made a couple of weeks ago. Something about the currants makes the cake slump in a truly unattractive fashion when flipped.

Good thing Her Majesty was busy this evening and couldn’t make it. We slathered the cake in generous helpings of whipped cream to hide its ugliness.

But there was no hiding the amazing flavour. I’m quite fond of blackcurrant and chocolate together, and the cake featured both flavours perfectly.

Below is the recipe. I’ve made this with frozen red currants as well, and it’s equally good.

Topping:
60 g (1/4 cup) butter
1/2 cup sugar
approx. 1 cup frozen (thawed) black currants

Cake:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup wholemeal flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp vanilla

Make the topping: Melt butter in a 23 cm (9-in) square microwave-safe baking pan. Sprinkle sugar over the butter and then spread the currants evenly over the butter-sugar mix. Set aside.

Cake: Combine flours, cocoa, salt, and baking powder in a large bowl. Whisk the sugar, eggs, oil, milk and vanilla in another bowl until well mixed. Pour wet ingredients into the dry and stir until just moistened. Pour batter over the topping in the baking pan and bake in the microwave on high for about 7 minutes (the top should still look quite sticky and wet). Turn the cake out onto a plate immediately and leave the pan over top for a few minutes to let all the sticky goodness drip onto the cake. Serve warm with whipped cream.

Microwave Sticky Citrus Cake

I’ve been playing around with microwave cakes since my last cake post, and in particular upside down cakes. The topping soaks into the cake, taking care of any dry bits if the cake is accidentally overcooked. And who can resist upside down cake anyway?

My most recent concoction was a citrus cake. I was aiming for something akin to sticky orange cake, but within the abilities of my pared-down shed life. It didn’t quite get there, but it was pretty darned good nonetheless. I see more of these cakes in our future. Here’s the recipe, if you want to give it a go.

Topping:
60 g (1/4 cup) butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 lemon
1 orange

Cake:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup barley flour
1/4 cup fine cornmeal (polenta)
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 tsp vanilla
zest of 1 lemon
zest of 1 orange

Grate lemon and orange rind into a medium bowl and set aside. 

Topping: Peel the remainder of the white pith from the lemon and orange and slice them thinly. Melt butter in a 23 cm (9-in) microwave safe pan. Sprinkle brown sugar over the butter, then arrange citrus slices on top.

Cake: Mix flours, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl. Whisk brown sugar, eggs, vegetable oil, orange juice and vanilla together with the citrus zest. Combine the wet and dry ingredients and pour over the topping in the pan.

Bake 6 minutes on high in the microwave. Invert the pan immediately onto a plate and allow the pan to sit on top for a few minutes for all the gooey bits to drip onto the cake. 

Make Marcella Hazan Proud

On Sunday my husband and I decided to make lasagne for dinner—and not just a meal’s worth, but enough to freeze for quick mid-week meals. With the garden full of late-summer vegetables, it was a great choice. We divided the work as we usually do—I would make the pasta and my husband would make the sauce.

Then I remembered I’d already packed up the pasta maker and taken it to the new house. How was I going to roll out the pasta?

I heard Marcella Hazan scoff from her grave. She never used a pasta machine. No good Italian would be caught with one of those.

It was time for me to learn to roll out pasta the ‘right’ way—by hand.

Thankfully, Ms. Hazan includes detailed directions in The Classic Italian Cookbook. With the book open on the benchtop, I began kneading and rolling my dough.

“I expected more swearing,” my husband commented ten minutes later. And there might have been, had I not had experience with pasta dough before. But the instructions were comprehensive and my dough compliant.

It still wasn’t easy—to stretch and coax the dough so thin without ripping it or letting it dry out was a challenge. It was also quite a workout—by the time I’d finished I was sweating and my arms were tired.

But it worked! My pasta sheets weren’t quite as thin as those I make with the pasta machine. And they were ragged oblongs instead of the neat rectangles that emerge from the machine. But they did well in lasagne. The thicker sheets had a nice toothsome quality. 

Marcella would be proud.

Still, I’ll be glad to go back to using the pasta machine in the future. 

Summer Soup 2020

No pandemic hoarding here, just the usual late season batch of Summer Soup. I’ve written about Summer Soup on numerous occasions (2015, 2016, 2018, and twice in 2019). We’ve been making it annually for at least a decade, and it has always been a family affair. In the early years, the children’s vegetable chopping efforts were more symbolic than helpful, but as their skills improved, their input became critical to the relatively rapid production of vast quantities of soup. 

This year, with our upcoming move, the garden output is less than in many years, and there’s so much to do, I wasn’t sure we would have a chance to make Summer Soup. In the end, I did it alone. Starting at 7.30 am, with many interruptions to help move furniture and tools, I began picking and processing vegetables. I pulled the final jars out of the canner shortly before 11 pm.

I listened to music and podcasts while I worked, and I got some brief help from my husband, but it wasn’t the same without the rest of the family there. Neither was the output—13 quarts of soup and 4 quarts of stock. 

I’m not disappointed—thirteen meals plus flavouring for four more will be lovely in the coming weeks and months—but I look forward to getting back to the family production of Summer Soup next year. It’s not just soup; it’s a celebration, and not nearly so much fun alone.