Happy Birthday, Dear Pickle

birthday 2 candleI am now mother to a two year old. That is all kinds of weird. But also all kinds of brilliant. The funny thing is, I was really terrified of this stage, but while it’s nothing like easy, it is less horrifying, and far more enjoyable, than I expected. The tantrums, while louder and more stubborn than before, are also more avoidable; when they’re old enough to have things explained to them, and can have more forewarning, you can head certain issues off at the pass.

Reading a book and sneaking a cuddle have always been wonderful things, but now they’re even more wonderful because she’s so engaged with what’s going on. She’s memorised her current favourites (The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Slinky Malinki and Wocket in my Pocket this week) and can narrate them aloud even with no book in front of her. It’s almost like I’ve accidentally trained a Victorian child to read poetry to the class! What’s really funny is she keeps in my inflections too, so it’s like listening to a slightly scrambled radio recording of myself being beamed scratchily in from somewhere in the wilds of Eastern Europe:

Shlinky Malinki was blackern black!
A TALKING and YURKING aventchrus cat!
He had bright yeyyow eyes,
A WAR-bing wayul,
An’ kink at end of his YONG black tayul.

I could listen to this all day. Or this:

Once there was a yittle girl called SO-phie, and she was having tea wiv her Mummy  in the KITCH-en. Sudd’ly, there was ring at the DOOR.

Sophie’s Mummy said, “I wonder who can THAT can be?”…

When she recites “It can’t be DADDY because he’s got his KEY”, she tends to interject “a other one Daddy”, in case I think the book is about her Dad. “A other one” always makes me laugh; her bed time snuggle toys are called Weasel and A Other One Weasel.

She was very excited about her birthday, and kept announcing “is gonna be my BIRTHDAY soon, and I will have a birthday cake and blow out candles” – which is indeed exactly what happened. In fact we made a cake together on the day before, which then got chopped up and sent off to nursery, and then I made cupcakes the following day, which she enjoyed and which went down well with all the family. I’ve finally decided that life is too short for making frosting – I enjoy the baking bit so much more – and made Hummingbird Bakery recipe red velvet cupcakes* topped with piped on canned Betty Crocker vanilla icing. I then got out my decorating stash – red glitter, candy polka dots, jelly diamonds and sprinkles – and even used the mini chopper to blitz the thin slices I’d ended up with when levelling a couple of the cakes and sprinkled the crumbs on as a decoration.

The results can be seen here:

birthday cupcakes - red velvet and vanilla icing

And the ritual candle-blowing here. I wasn’t helping, honest:

Pickle Birthday Candles Alexandra R. Goldstein

I hadn’t intended to get Ramona very much for her birthday as she’s only two and has a full complement of grandparents and other relatives ready to spoil her, but I ended up going shopping that morning and splurging without quite meaning to. The official present from Mummy and Daddy was her first Peppa Pig playset (she loves playing with some her cousins have), but she also now has some gorgeous new clothes from the fantastic Tootsa MacGinty – I can only afford them in the sale, but it’s worth the wait! – and a really lovely range at M&S (I want these trousers in my size, too! Including the adjustable waist for after cake…!). She’s also already got stuck into reading Meg on the Moon (or, as she called it, “Meg Goes to the Moon”) and Dr Seuss’s ABC. What can I say? She’s a lucky pickle.

Even luckier, she’s actually having a party in a couple of weeks when more family can join us, so she’ll be getting more birthday cakes than years she’s been alive. Which sounds like a very good deal to me.

Two years of brilliant. And so many more to come. We’re all very lucky.

*My mother has given me two excellent pieces of baking advice (other than the obvious – Know Your Oven**) which have stood me in very good stead. 1) Unless your recipe genuinely depends on using butter, use Stork instead. 2) Unless your cake is supposed to be dense, use self-raising flour for everything, even when it says plain and you’re adding more raising agents. Fluffiest. Cakes. Ever. Trust me.

**No, really. I baked the first cake at 160 for 22 minutes, and the cupcakes for 13 minutes, again at 160. I just know that for most sponge-type cakes that’s the optimal temperature for this oven. Cookies are a very good way to find out if your oven heats unevenly, as you’ll be able to see the overcooked ones, and can open the oven door to check them which you can’t do with a cake.

Thus endeth the very amateur baking lesson. 

Red velvet cupcakes with white chocolate star mold topping

I don’t have as many funky baking gadgets and gizmos are you might expect, mostly for the following three reasons:

  • I’m not rich enough
  • I don’t have enough time to get really good
  • I don’t have enough natural / scary / innate talent to miss out the practice

But from time to time I feel I need to give in and get something a bit pointless that I won’t use very much but that will let me get creative in the baking department. Especially if it’s not too expensive. This lead to me splashing out a whopping £6 on Miniamo star-shaped mini molds, that can be used for baking or setting a liquid in the fridge. It was a spur of the moment decision made in a baking shop; you can undoubtedly find them cheaper online.

My first thought was to make mini star shaped cakes in a contrasting colour-  perhaps vanilla-based cupcakes with red velvet star shaped cakes on top. Then I thought about how to embed a star shape in the top of a cake, and the experimentation began…

I switched from Rachel Allen’s red velvet recipe to Hummingbird Bakery‘s, mainly because the latter had already been adapted (cooking time and temperature) for cupcakes. I’m glad I did; lovely as Rachel’s is, the Hummingbird cupcakes were undeniably fluffier and, as the recipe calls for more colour, a richer and more tempting red.

The experiment was, taste-wise, a success. However it wasn’t perfect, and I’ll explain what I’d do differently next time as I go through…

Unbaked cakes with molds

Once I’d made the mixture, I pushed in the molds delicately in the centre. I had thought that delicacy was wise, since I didn’t want the mold to a) sink to the bottom or b) get so deeply stuck in it ripped the cake apart when I removed it. However, I was a fraction too hesitant, as you’ll see from the next picture… Next time, I would push the mold in a little further and possibly weight it with a couple of baking beans or similar.

Cakes with tipsy molds

The more hesitantly applied molds – and possibly less evenly poured in batter – resulted in some cakes with rather random angles at the top, and also one or two whose indentation was too shallow. Contrary to this dreadful photo, however, some did come out rather well, as you’ll see below!

Unfinished cake awaiting chocolate

This was one of the best ones. Please note that you have to wait until the cakes are at least 90% cool before removing the molds. If you don’t, it will just get really shredded around the edges. I suspected this, so I tested on which became the ‘sample’ cake (don’t pretend you’ve never done that). And it was genuinely in the spirit of experimentation rather than impatience, for once! The good news is, between baking and cooling you’ve got masses of time to melt some white chocolate and half-fill some molds with it. I bought 24 so I could bake 12 and prepare 12 toppings at the same time, but you could wait, wash the molds and start from there.

Oh, and a tip about cooling chocolate; it will get far less gloopy if you cool it at room temperature before finishing off in the fridge.

Chocolate molds

Then, when set, pop them out and, handling as little as possible, press them into the indentation left in the cake!

Red velvet cupcakes with white chocolate stars

Again, I would have liked the chocolate to be a little deeper into the cake – possibly even flush with the top for a quite dramatic look – but given the cocoa base for red velvet cake the two went together very nicely and the stars added an element of creaminess without the sickly edge that a huge hunk of buttercream or cream cheese icing can give (and it says something when white chocolate is less sickly than pretty much anything else. I guess it’s the amount!).

Maybe I’ll find time during maternity leave to do more baking. Then again, a first time mother with a newborn? Maybe not.

Baking meets Disney: A Little Mermaid Hen Do

Little Mermaid DecorationsI’m nervously tracking my parents on a flight to Greece; I hate flying and so does my mother, but family reasons have forced her onto a plane. The plane tracker has lost sight of the aircraft because they don’t pick up data over the sea (they must be between Italy and Athens right now) which is making me uncomfortable.

Usually I’d distract myself baking but I can’t fill the house with yummy smells because Ash will return from shul soon to begin his Yom Kippur fast. So it would be a bit mean. Instead, I’ll finally catch up on a post I meant to write an age ago.

Yesterday was the wedding of my oldest and closest friend in the world. The girl I used to make forts under the duvet with, whose shoulder I cried on when lesser men than my husband broke my heart, who celebrated the good times with me (and cake). She looked beautiful and the day went without a hitch; we took some photos in a gloriously dry and sunny Hyde Park which I really look forward to seeing. But some weeks ago, before all this matrimonial celebration, was her hen do. Following on from mine, for which I requested an old-fashioned tea party, my friend Lizzie took the helm to create a themed party for the then bride-to-be, Em.

The theme chosen was suitably Disney (we’re friends for a reason); as you might have guessed from the photos, it was The Little Mermaid

The Theme and Decorations

Little Mermaid Hen Do

Lizzie worked relentlessly and tirelessly for around two months before the day. I won’t give away exactly how she did everything as it’s not my work, but the photos in the post should give you a great idea of the fantastic attention to detail she demonstrates. Every inch of the party area was lovingly converted into an under sea grotto, with characters from the film, sandcastles, seaweed, balloons, bubbles, shells and even a treasure chest helping to set the scene. The walls were hung with underwater and sandy bottom cloths, which made for a particularly fun treasure hunt, for which Lizzie wrote a pirate-themed set of clues. To complete the beside-the-seaside feel, the entertainment was a classic Punch and Judy show!

The Baking

Red Velvet Mini Wedding Cakes

The only part of all this wonderment I asked – and was allowed – to get in on was the baking action, and I was duly granted this task. Knowing Em loves chocolate, I dipped into Nigella’s classic How to be a Domestic Goddess and fished out the recipe for the supremely rich, muscovado-sugar packed Dense Chocolate Loaf Cake. I then personalised it by whacking on some chocolate ganache and crushed pistachios (picture and recipe for ganache below as it’s one of my own / my mum’s). Alongside this was the more exciting part, using my brand new Wilton tin in the shape of cross-sections of mini wedding cakes!

Given that they really ought to have white frosting, I revisiting Rachel Allen’s red velvet cake, and then festooned the finished and iced cakes with red rose petals. I did have a shot at sugar-frosting another set of petals myself, but it went horribly wrong so I resorted a sprinkle of the fresh sort at the last minute. I also wanted to get a lot fancier with the frosting, piping finer details on and making it look sharper and more elaborate, but those plans fell by the wayside. In fairness to myself, I’d never done it before and was baking both these cakes, cooling and frosting them and knocking off a set of cookies all on the same evening after work…

Kosher vegan cookiesThe cookies, by the way, were Levana Kirschenbaum’s kosher chocolate chip cookies – recipe online -, which were made vegan by substituting a heaped dessert-spoonful of vanilla (plain will do) soya yogurt per egg at Lizzie’s suggestion. It makes the dough much more crumbly, but if you persevere they will come out beautifully light, moist and chewy. Ash isn’t prone to exaggeration for all his love for me and he said he’d “pay for them”, so they must have been nice… Oh, and it goes without saying that the chocolate chips should all be plain and lactose free for vegan chums. Excuse the slightly fuzzy photo; I was shattered by then!

The Ganache Recipe

Nigella Chocolate Cake and toppingsThis is – perhaps frustratingly – a very imprecise recipe, for which I apologise. Growing up with a Greek mother I got taught to make a lot of things “with the eye” and this is one of them. It’s annoying, I know. You need:

A block of butter

Caster sugar



Melt some butter in a reasonably thick-bottomed pan. For the loaf cake I used about a quarter to a third of a 250g block. To this I added two heaped tablespoons of cocoa plus the same amount of sugar. Stir constantly and swiftly and then start dribbling in a little milk at a time until the chocolate reaches a shiny, almost oily texture that drips from the spoon but isn’t runny. Taste a little (hot butter can burn, though, so be careful) and balance out the flavours as you prefer; the cake being very sweet I wanted a little cocoa bitterness to come through. While it’s still warm, pour over a completely cooled cake. It’s a little uncontrollable which is why it particularly suited this cake which tends to sink in the middle.

Before it had completely set I bashed the life out of some pistachios in a plastic bag with my rolling pin and sprinkled them on top.

Diabetic-friendly orange and almond cupcakes and Rachel Allen’s red velvet cake

Cupcakes heading for the oven

Cupcakes heading for the oven

It’s been a weekend of baking experimentation. I’ve been delving into my quick recipe standby, Susannah Blake’s Cupcake Heaven and my indulgence favourite, Rachel Allen’s Bake.

For once I’m going to give out a recipe because this is my adapted version of Blake’s. My father and mother-in-law are both diabetic; I’m a strong believer that diabetics are better off having less real sugar than pumping themselves with metallic-tasting sweeteners, so as a diabetic-friendly sugar substitute I prefer to use fructose. Each of the twelve cakes ends up with about 7g of sugar in (less than a teaspoon), so even only partially replacing the sugar ought to substantially alter the Glycaemic Index of each cake. They’re not diet food, but they’re less likely to deliver a blood sugar rush than they could be. Plus there’s no added fat – the only fat is in the eggs.

Wet Ingredients

2 eggs
Zest of an unwaxed orange

Dry Ingredients

35g fructose (I used Fruisana)
55g caster sugar (see Blake’s book for original amount of sugar)
80g ground almonds
3 tbsp plain flour (this is a change from Blake’s original – see book for how to alter this step to make it gluten-free)
Flaked almonds

Beat the eggs and sugars together to make a thick, pale batter. Stir in the orange zest, then sieve in the remaining dry ingredients (except the flaked almonds) and incorporate. Divide into 12 cupcake papers, filled almost to the top, and sprinkle flaked almonds (or mixed nuts) on top. Bake for approximately 22 minutes, though I’d check after 18.

Temperature? Well, that’s the experimental bit. The original recipe calls for 180 degrees, but fructose has a lower burning point than normal sugar, so you need to reduce the temperature by up to 25 degrees – especially if, like me, you have a fan-assisted oven. The cakes came out a little darker than I would like, and I’d like to see a higher ratio of fructose – I was worried to reduce it too much as I didn’t think the egg mixture would retain the right texture and without other fats it will need to stay the right consistency. Because fructose is sweeter than sugar, these have a real toothy bite to them. Experimentation continues…

I then decided to make something truly indulgent and ridiculous, and blundered across Rachel Allen’s red velvet cake recipe. It’s stunningly moist and the icing tooth-achingly sweet with its soft meringue texture. It’s the most wonderful thick, satisfying, trashy cake. Because of its richness and sweetness, it’s possible to have just one slice and not gorge, which is just as well given the amount of butter, sugar, golden syrup and the like which go into it. I made just one layer as I was short on some of the ingredients, and substituted 125ml of milk with 1/2 tbsp of white wine vinegar (left to sit for 5-10 mins) for buttermilk as I didn’t have any. I found that substitute came up for the first four Google search results, so I trusted it, and my faith was rewarded.

It’s so brilliant to look at too… mmmmm.