Monday, 16 July 2012

Princess castle cake

This is one of my favourite cakes, Megan's princess castle. I made it last year and am not sure how I would do it differently now, so here's how I did it, and ways I could improve it. Mental note: take "in progress" photos from now on.

There are a couple of popular variations on the princess castle cake. The first is a square cake with turrets made from ice cream cornets in each corner. I love this idea as a homemade cake made with love but I wanted to offer something more professional. The second is a square cake with turrets at each corner. This just didn't appeal somehow: what about the blank space on the top of the cake?

I started off looking at castle cakes online to get the idea for what I wanted to do. The structure of my cake is a copy of a Jane Asher cake that comes in at £350. Here it is, if you're feeling flush (available from Mine is very different both in design and price. In fact, I feel rather brave putting this up but I'm not a member of Jane Asher's professional team and have neither the resources not the experience to reach this standard. If I did, I'd be charging the price of a flat-screen TV for my cakes too.

First I had to get the body of the cake. For this I used a 23cm springform pan and the 10cm mini springform pan appropriated from my son's baking set. I've used this combination before, in this cake for my dad's 70th. 

I set the small cake on top of the large one, off centre and iced them both with white royal icing to keep them fresh. Then the work could begin. To make the turrets I'll put my hand up and admit to using mini rolls from a shop. I'm not a fan of bought cakes as part of my cakes but at the time couldn't think of a better solution. Now, I think I'd bake another square cake then cut rounds with my smallest round cutter and pile them up. There's still an issue with keeping them straight though. Any ideas, I'd be glad to hear them. Next time around I'll put dowels through the length of them; for this, I stuck them down with butter icing and shored them up with the pink stones.

The castle walls I cut by hand and wrapped around each cake, and the stairs were simple enough. Then it was just a case of doing the fiddly bits: doors, windows, window sills. All done freehand, and I'm aware that they are slightly wonky but that adds to the cake in my opinion, making it more of an old, fantasy castle.
A couple of icing discs on top of the towers and pink piped turrets again took away any semblance of realism. I don't know if I would do the turret roofs differently next time. Ice-cream cones made them taller than I wanted, and I didn't think they would take the weight of moulded fondant. I'm pretty happy with them as they are though.

And then I found the pen. I genuinely had no idea these things existed until I was poking around Hopscotch, my local baking supplies store in Barnet ( An edible pen! It's genius. 

I'm no artist, but again an impression of creeping vines was all that was needed, and it changed the whole character of the cake. It took a long time - if you try this at home, I strongly advise you get a turntable - but I think it made the final cake magical.

And there it is: the cake that taught me structure and construction and introduced me to a favourite kitchen gadget. I would love to do another one, better, but I'm still proud.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

On online recipes and marshmallow fluff

I have a couple of recipe books I use again and again, most notably the slim cookbook that came with my Kenwood Chef in the 70s, and Nigella's fantastic "How to be a Domestic Goddess". But I use an awful lot of online recipes too, especially if I have something to use that I don't bake with regularly, such as seasonal fruit.

For example, this recipe for plum crumble cake works every time:

Hunting for online recipes does come with hazards and most of these, I'm sorry to say, come from America. Don't get me wrong, I love American baking. I was given an Good Housekeeping recipe folder for my wedding that I keep going back to, and for uniquely American recipes such as pancakes, fudge and fruit pies, the Americans have it sussed.

I bought measuring cups last time I was in the States, and they are available everywhere in the UK now, so that's not an issue. The real problem comes with the ever-present spectre of convenience foods, and incorporating them into recipes.

Some people don't bake, and that's fine. They are the ones who buy shake and bake cartons, or ready-made cookie dough to bake with their children. All power to them. But who on earth would put a recipe online that calls for a tub of ready-made frosting? Americans, that's who. Making a birthday cake? Start with a box of cake mix. Want to make fudge? Just mix marshmallow fluff in a pan and add flavour. All well and good, but it's not baking.

This is my favourite, no-fail fudge recipe, with no nasty processed ingredients in sight:

Another example: Looking for a recipe for piping gel (more of which later) I found, "one pack Knox Gelatin". Well first, what is Knox? Unless you live in the States it's not available. Secondly, how much is a pack? Is it powdered or sheet? This is just lazy - if you can't put a measurement or work without brand names, don't bother posting your recipe.

To end on a positive note, I'd like to state that some of my best friends are American, and it is a country full of fabulous bakers. So here are some tips for American recipes:

Corn syrup: dissolve sugar in water until it's light and syrupy, put it in a jar and you have long-lasting corn syrup. It's a useful ingredient to have around and I'll write about its benefits for icing another time.

A stick of butter: half a pack, or approximately 125g.

Shortening: lard - vegetable lard is a fine alternative and makes a real difference to pastries.

Semi-sweet chocolate: dark chocolate. To be true to the recipe this is about 60% cocoa but I've never met a  chocolate recipe yet that doesn't taste better with 80%.

Marshmallow fluff: Don't. Just don't.

And my favourite online recipe of all time? This, from Angela Nilsen:
I've baked it loads, and it's always beautiful. And here it is. Instant popularity on a plate. Enjoy.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Swimming party cake

Welcome to my baking blog. This is where I'll post my baking successes and failures, show off my wares and publish my favourite recipes. It's also where you will (eventually) see the bakers I love and aspire to be and some of my very talented friends' handiwork. I'll probably be asking for advice too.

In an ideal world I would do this for a living, but I'm currently studying to be a lawyer as there's more call for that than for cakes. But who knows what will happen in the future. If nothing else I could be one of the TV-type professionals with a hidden hobby. The baking lawyer! I'd like to be played by Cate Blanchett please.

So to kick off, my most recent cake. I don't usually post cakes online until the child in question has seen it but as I doubt I'll have a large following by 3pm this afternoon, I think I'm safe.

Stella is a classmate of my son's, and she's having a swimming party for her sixth birthday. She originally asked for Moshi Monsters but I'm quite uncomfortable doing character cakes, especially as I can't help feeling that I may as well have bought mass-produced cake topper. So I offered Stella the swimming party option and luckily she loved the idea.

This meant I could use my imagination, go where the icing took me and have more space to change and invent things. I started with the pool - I've been there before and seen the huge inflatable octopus they use for parties, so that was my starting point.

The birthday girl is blonde so I based my main character on her. My characters are simple to the extreme - I like to call them an homage to Trumpton - but simple hair and skin colour does the job fine.

My floating girl on the lilo just happened - I mucked about with icing and she appeared. I made the lilo just for her. A little boy leaning against the edge of the pool and a pair of legs disappearing under the water made it crowded enough to give the impression of a party. The beach ball took more work than I'd thought - if I need to make three identically sized balls again, I'll measure cubes of icing before rolling them. The water rings were fun to do, and easy too, and gave me the perfect place to put Stella's name. Likewise, I bent a "noodle" (long foam floats for the uninitiated) into the shape of a 6. My favourite detail is the towel for some reason.

To make the pool itself I cut a square into the centre of the top layer before icing, and kind of gouged it out. If I did it again, I would completely cut the square out and slice it neatly with a long knife, but fondant hides a multitude of messy bits, and the taste is no different - and still the most important part.

A few tiles cut into the surround and then it was just a case of arranging my props, the best bit of any cake.

One note: Can you get long cake boards, or is it better to cover thick card in foil? In this case, because I know the mum, I used my large cake carrier but that wouldn't be a solution for future commissions. I could do with some advice from the more experienced on cake boards and boxes and how best to transport them.

I'll be posting some of my older cakes soon, some because I'm proud, others because they didn't go how I wanted them and mistakes are as valuable as failures. Not monetarily, obviously, but still.