Mendl’s Courtesan au Chocolat

We Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is a joy to watch, both for the eyes and the senses. The meekness of the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, located somewhere in the Alps and ravaged by war and poverty, is set against the grandeur of the equally fictional Grand Budapest Hotel, the place to be if you had some cash back in the 1900s. The plot follows the misadventures of Gustave, the first ever concierge of the popular hotel, as he trains the future owner of the hotel, Zero, who starts his career as a bellboy. The cast is exceptional, with Ralph Fiennes playing the leading role and rendering a magnificent (and very camp) Monsieur Gustave. The film also features its own pastry, local pastry chef Mendel’s Courtesan au Chocolat which, much in the same way as the rest of movie, is the result of a very vivid imagination.

The dessert, which looks very similar to a religieuse, consists of three choux buns filled with chocolate pastry cream, decorated with pastel-coloured icing sugar and butter cream and topped with a coffee bean. If you are interested in what is claimed to be the original recipe, here is an article fully dedicated to it. It looks impressive and, believe me, it is. As complicated as it might look, however, it isn’t. Once you have made your choux buns and have filled them, it’s just a simple assembling job. The recipe below is my take on Mendel’s Courtesan. I started off by following the recipe in the article above, then decided to make it my own. The quantities below make 6 whole desserts, plus you’ll have extra choux buns in case some of them don’t come out as planned. The whole recipe takes about 2 hours to make (although I suggest you make the pastry cream the night before), so don’t panic and get baking!

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Ingredients (for the choux buns)

  • 100g plain flour
  • 75g unsalted butter
  • pinch of salt
  • 175ml water
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature

Ingredients (for the chocolate pastry cream)

  • 300ml whole milk
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 60g golden caster sugar
  • 25g dark chocolate
  • 1 tbsp plain flour
  • 2 tsp corn flour
  • 2 tsp cocoa powder
  • 1 sheet of gelatine

Ingredients (for the icing and butter icing)

  • 50g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 250g icing sugar, for the butter icing
  • 2 tsp whole milk
  • 500ml double cream
  • 3 x 100g icing sugar, one for each colour + extra milk
  • violet, pink, green and blue food colouring

Method

  1. To make the choux buns, start by putting the water, salt and butter in a saucepan over a medium heat. Melt the butter and bring to the boil, then take the saucepan off the heat and add the flour all at once. Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture comes together. It will look like a lumpy mess, but that is perfectly fine.
  2. Put the saucepan back over a low heat and slowly dry out the lump of pastry with a wooden spoon. Keep on cooking the pastry until it easily comes off the sides of the pan and it forms a cohesive lump of dough. Transfer to a big glass bowl and leave to cool slightly. Pre-heat the oven to 200C and line two baking trays.
  3. Once the dough has cooled to slightly below body temperature, start adding the eggs, beating them into the pastry one by one with a wooden spoon. Be confident the pastry will eventually come together and keep on beating with the spoon. The consistency you are looking for is soft but holding, so that if forms a beak when it falls off the spoon.
  4. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle, then pipe mounds in three sizes. As a guide, the bigger ones should be about 5-6cm in diameter and about 3 in height, then you will need some medium ones and some small ones. Use all of the choux dough you have and remember you need at least 6 buns per size. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove from the oven, make a small indentation on the bottom of the choux buns with a sharp knife and put them back in for another 5 minutes to dry out. Leave to cool on the side.
  5. To make the chocolate pastry cream, slowly heat the milk in a saucepan with the dark chocolate pieces. In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar, flour, corn flour and cocoa powder until pale and frothy. When the milk has come to a boil, slowly pour it onto the yolk mixture, whisking continuously. Transfer the mixture back into the saucepan, then heat over a medium heat to cook the flour off. Keep on whisking as the mixture will thicken very quickly.
  6. In the meantime, soak the gelatine leaf in a bowl of cold water for about 15 minutes, then add it to the cooked pastry cream. Whisk until smooth. At this point, you can also add liqueur or chocolate flavouring, if you like. Cover the pastry cream with a sheet of clingfilm and leave to cool completely on the side.
  7. To assemble the dessert, make some butter icing by mixing the softened butter with the icing sugar. Add the milk to soften the mixture, then beat until fluffy and pale. Divide the mixture in two, then add the blue food colouring to one half. Transfer the two mixtures, the white and the blue one, into two piping bags fitted with a small star nozzle.
  8. In three bowls, make the icing mixtures to decorate the choux buns. Mix each batch of icing sugar with 2-3 tsp milk and the pink, violet and green food colouring. You are aiming for a thick but glossy paste to cover the choux buns, but try not to make too liquid or it will run off the buns. Whip the double cream with 2 tbsp icing sugar and transfer to a piping bag fitted with a small star nozzle. Using a piping bag fitted with a small nozzle, pipe the chocolate pastry cream in the middle buns, then pipe the whipped cream in the big and small ones. Now you are ready to assemble.
  9. To assemble the courtesans, dip the biggest buns in the pink icing paste, the medium ones in the green one and the small ones in the violet mixture. Position the biggest choux buns on a serving plate, then pipe a small mound of plain butter icing on top. Place the medium choux bun onto the bigger one, using the butter icing to stick them together. Repeat by piping some more plain butter icing on top of the medium bun, then position the small one on top.
  10. Use the blue butter icing to cover the joints by piping small star-shaped collars all around the base of each bun, when it joins the following one. Pipe the remaining double cream in a star-shaped pattern at the base of the biggest choux bun. Leave to harden slightly, then serve and enjoy.

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Red Velvet Melting Moments

I have to be honest with you: there’s not much red going on in these and neither is there any velvet. The recipe is from Edd Kimber, the first winner of the GBBO series, who states he decided to combine two of the main classics: melting moments and red velvet. The thing is, these remind me more of whoopie pies and, as I said at the beginning, the red hue does not come through once baked, possibly because these are too dark. That said, they are very nice and I have had quite the positive feedback from these, including my hairdresser, who is usually subjected to pictures of my creations but had never got a chance to taste them herself.

The decoration on top is highly optional. I do like the ridges as they add an extra dimension and I had eyed this type of cookies a while ago, so wanted to give them a try. The filling is a standard cream cheese one, but feel free to use your favourite butter icing recipe instead or substitute that for an equal amount of jam, for instance. The original recipe also called for lemon extract in the filling, but I decided to ditch that and keep it nice and simple instead. A gentle dust of icing sugar at the end would probably increase the dramatic effect.

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Ingredients (for the biscuits)

  • 250g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • red food colouring
  • 225g plain flour
  • 35g cocoa powder
  • 85g icing sugar
  • 30g cornflour
  • 1 tbsp milk

Ingredients (for the cream cheese frosting)

  • 50g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 125g icing sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 50g full-fat cream cheese

Method

  1. Line two baking trays with parchment.
  2. To make the dough, put the butter and vanilla into the bowl of a freestanding mixer equipped with the paddle attachment, then beat on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add enough colouring to tinge it a deep red, then sift the remaining biscuit ingredients into the bowl and mix until it comes together to form an uniform dough. Add the milk if you see the mixture is too dry.
  3. Using your hands, roll the dough into small balls (even number!) and place them onto the prepared baking trays, leaving some space in between them. Dip a fork in plain flour, shake the excess off, then press it lightly onto each of the biscuits, leaving an indent and pressing the biscuits a little flatter.
  4. Transfer the trays to the fridge for at least 30 minutes. I like to give them an extra 5 minutes in the freezer right before I bake them.
  5. Pre-heat the oven to 160C.
  6. Bake each batch for 20-25 minutes, then remove from the oven and allow to cool on the trays before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.
  7. To make the filling, cream the butter with the icing sugar and vanilla, then beat together until light and fluffy. Add the cream cheese and beat until just combined. Transfer the filling to a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle, then pipe a good dollop onto half of the biscuits and sandwich with the remaining ones.

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Pink Chess Cake with Ombre Icing

Yes, I know that, strictly speaking, I have already posted about these two items separately. If you can’t remember them, here are the links to the Chocolate Chess Cake and the Ombre Icing posts. However, this is a cake I made for the 6oth birthday of one of my partner’s work colleagues, Stef. She loved the way I decorated the cake with different tinges of pink buttercream in the shape of roses and asked me to make a similar one. The cake, however, had to look beautiful both on the inside and on the outside, so we opted for a chess cake. Being it for her mum, though, she asked me whether I could make it a pink checkerboard cake and I do like a challenge.

It only took a few twists of the original recipe to make this stunning cake. I decided to fill it with mixed berry jam to echo a traditional Victoria sponge, but the possibilities are, I believe, endless. Also, needless to say, this cake requires you to be extremely patient and to be proficient enough at piping, as that is what makes the sponges and the buttercream decoration. If you don’t like the method indicated here to make a checkerboard cake and you prefer something a little bit more defined, then I suggest you bake 4 different sponges (this is a three-layer cake, but you’ll need the extra sponge to compensate), 2 for each colour, and then you cut equal circles from the cake and re-arrange them as needed.

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Ingredients (for the cakes and filling)

  • 400g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 400g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 6 large eggs, slightly beaten
  • 400g plain flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 tbsp whole milk
  • pink food colouring
  • 200g mixed berry jam

Ingredients (for one batch of butter icing, you will need at least 4)

  • 125g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 400g icing sugar, sifted
  • 3 tbsp whole milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • pink food colouring
  • dark chocolate, to write on top (optional)

Method

  1. To make the sponges, start by pre-heating the oven to 180C and greasing and lining three 20cm round tins. The quantities above might make more mixture than needed, but I always prefer to have extra than to have to improvise.
  2. Put the butter into the bowl of a freestanding mixer equipped with the leaf attachment and beat until very creamy. Gradually beat in the sugar, followed by the vanilla extract. Occasionally scrape down the sides of the bowl to ensure the mixture is evenly combined.Keep beating until the mixture is very fluffy and much lighter in colour.
  3. Gradually add the eggs, beating well after each addition. Scrape the sides down to ensure the whole butter mixture is thoroughly incorporated. beat on medium speed for about 5 minutes, then slowly add the flour and the baking powder and keep on beating until the mixture is even and you can’t see any lumps.
  4. Transfer half of the mixture to a big bowl, then add enough pink food colouring to tinge it a good shade of pink. Remember when baked the colour tends to fade slightly. Add 1 tbsp milk to the pink batter and the remaining milk to the plain one. Transfer both cake batters into two piping bags with no nozzle.
  5. Snip the end of each piping bag so that you end up with a hole about of about 1cm, then start alternating the colours and piping circles in the baking tins. Start from the outside and move towards the inside, ensuring the colour rings are even and alternated between sponges (if you started with a pink outer ring in one tin, the remaining two will have to have the plain one on the outside).
  6. Bake each sponge for about 20-25 minutes until well risen. Check with a skewer that the sponges are cooked, then remove from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool. After about 20 minutes, remove them from their tins and invert them onto a towel on the wire rack. Peel the parchment off the bottom and leave to cool completely.
  7. Now that your sponges are made, you can start making 1 1/2 batches of butter icing to sandwich them together and make the crumb layer. The latter is a plain butter icing layer on the outside of the cake which ensures no crumbs get mixed up with the intricate outer design and spoil it. You will need to apply this in two stages, so allow plenty of time for refrigerating the cake.
  8. To make the butter icing, put the butter and the icing into the bowl of a freestanding mixer equipped with the leaf attachment, then beat on medium speed until creamy. Slowly add the icing sugar (this can get very messy!) until fully incorporated and increase the speed to high. Beat for a few minutes, then add the milk and vanilla and beat the mixture for a good 3 minutes, until fluffy and very light in colour.
  9. Transfer the mixed berry jam to a small bowl and lightly beat with a fork to loosen it up. Transfer about 1/3 of a batch of butter icing to a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle and get your sponges ready. Place the first sponge onto your cake base/platter, then pipe a thick and even circle of butter icing on the edge. This will ensure the filling does not escape while assembling. Fill the space in between with half of the jam. Top with another sponge, ensuring the outer layer is the opposite colour to the one of the bottom sponge. Use the rest of the butter icing to pipe another ring and fill it with the remaining jam. Top with the third and last sponge.
  10. Now spread the remaining butter icing onto the top and the sides of the cake using an offset spatula or a rubber one, ensuring all the gaps between the sponges are filled and the cake is evenly covered. The final result doesn’t have to be perfect as this layer will be covered with another one. Refrigerate the cake for about 30 minutes, until the butter icing is solid.
  11. Cover the cake with another layer of butter icing, this time ensuring the finish is as smooth as possible, especially on the top. Take your time and don’t rush things as this can be quite tricky. Don’t panic if the butter icing is slightly uneven as you can sort it out with the next step. Refrigerate the cake for a further 30 minutes.
  12. Remove the cake from the fridge and warm your spatula in a jug of hot water for a couple of minutes or under hot running water. Use it to smooth the surface of the butter icing and remove the excess one. The warmth from the spatula will help the butter icing to slightly melt and fall into place. Once done, refrigerate the cake for 15 minutes and prepare more butter icing mixture for the next step.
  13. Now, I find it easier to colour the butter icing gradually as I go and to start from the bottom of the cake as it ensures the roses do not fall off and have something to lean on. That said, if you prefer to make different butter icing colours at the same time, please be my guest.
  14. Start adding a few drops of pink food colouring to the butter icing until you tinge it of a delicate shade. Remember you will have to build up with the colour and in my experience there is a limit to the amount of colour butter icing can take and how dark it can get. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle and start piping rosettes all around the base of the cake in an even layer. Once you have completed a layer, squeeze the leftover butter icing back into the bowl and make it a darker shade. As you create each shade, use the darker one to fill the gaps left between the rosettes in the previous colour. This will ensure the colours blend in more gradually. For this cake, I had to leave the top free so as to be able to write something onto it. However, you can also choose to continue the decoration as on the sides (in which case you might want to double the rosette layers you make per shade) or do something else altogether, the choice is yours. Once you are done decorating your cake and are satisfied with the end result, chill it in the fridge for at least 1 hour, but ensure you serve it at room temperature.
  15. If you’re wondering why it looks like the writing is detached from the cake, it’s because I wrote the different letters on baking parchment and then transferred them onto the cake. I wanted it to be perfect and didn’t trust my piping skills enough to do it on the cake directly. If you serve the cake at room temperature, the chocolate will slightly melt and the letters will adhere to the cake better.

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A very moreish Chocolate Cake

Chocolate cake. Ok, I’ll say it again: chocolate cake. Honestly, I think a post about this should have no further introduction. What’s not been said about chocolate cake? And, most importantly, what’s not to like? To those of you do not like chocolate (and I know there’s plenty out there, my best friend’s boyfriend, to give you an example), I offer my deepest condolences. I recently watched an episode of The Taste – the new cooking TV reality show with Nigella in the judge panel – about comfort food. Well, for me, nothing evokes the image of comfort better than a big slice of dark, intense and creamy chocolate cake. Not even a bowl of pasta. Such a pity that no-one on the show actually prepared one.

Anyway, back to this cake. I always like to try out new recipes and this is no exception. The recipe for the cake comes from the Add a Pinch blog, which labels it “The Best Chocolate Cake Recipe {Ever}” (I reduced the amount of sugar if compared to the original). I decided to put my own frosting on it as I wasn’t impressed with the one which came with the cake. On that note, I also hope the quantities got a bit lost in translation, otherwise eeek! 340g of butter! I also did not like the fact there was no chocolate in a chocolate cake. Cocoa powder, yes, but no chocolate. That’s why my chocolate solid frosting has some good quality 70% cocoa solids dark chocolate in it. The cake is moist and crumbly, but utterly delicious. Maybe not the best chocolate cake ever, but a good contender for the title.

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Ingredients (for the cake)

  • 250g plain flour
  • 250g caster sugar
  • 88g cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 235ml hot coffee
  • 235ml whole milk
  • 118ml vegetable oil
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste

Ingredients (for the chocolate frosting)

  • 50g unsalted butter, softened
  • 250g icing sugar, sifted
  • 100g dark chocolate, melted
  • 3 tbsp whole milk
  • 1 tbsp creme de cacao blanc (or any other chocolate liqueur)

Method

  1. Start by greasing and lining 2 x 20cm round cake tin. Don’t use a springform tin here or the mixture will ooze out (it’s very liquid!). Pre-heat your oven to 180C.
  2. In the bowl of a freestanding mixer (or in a normal bowl), sift the flour, raising agents, cocoa powder and sugar, then mix together.
  3. In a small jug, combine the eggs, milk, vanilla extract and paste and vegetable oil. Pour into the bowl with the dry ingredients and mix over low to medium speed until fully combined.
  4. Slowly add the hot coffee and beat on medium to high speed for a good couple of minutes to incorporate as much air as possible. Divide the mixture equally between the two cake tins and bake for 30 minutes.
  5. Check that the sponges are cooked through with a skewer, then remove from the oven and set on a wire rack. Remove from the tin after 10 minutes and leave to cool completely.
  6. Right before you are ready to ice the cake, prepare your icing.  In the bowl of a freestanding mixer combine the softened butter and the icing sugar, mixing well with the paddle attachment to combine. Add the milk to obtain a creamy consistency, then slowly pour in the melted chocolate and beat over high speed until light and fluffy. Lastly, add the chocolate liqueur and mix that in too.
  7. Transfer about half of the chocolate icing to a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle, then spread the rest on one of the sponges, which you should have positioned on your cake stand. Sandwich with the other sponge, then use the icing in the piping bag to pipe small stars or rosettes on top. Work quickly as the chocolate will harden in no time. Dust the cake with some icing sugar and drizzle over any remaining melted dark chocolate (I had about a tablespoon left in the bottom of the bowl), then apply to face and enjoy.

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Traditional Christmas Cake

I know I have already posted a fruitcake recipe, but seeing as that was a non conventional one, I wanted to give you the recipe of a more traditional Christmas Cake. This recipe is from the Betty’s Cookery School in Yorkshire and, as far as tradition goes, it ticks all of the boxes: strong taste, full of plump dried fruit and deliciously boozy. I also thought it would be a nice idea to give you an alternative way of decorating the cake. Rather than covering it in marzipan and then a thick layer of white icing, which then solidifies and becomes a real threat to your teeth, this Christmas forest decoration is both stylish and impressive, not to mention extremely easy to make. The idea comes from Mary Cardogan, a well seasoned baker.

I started my Christmas cake a good moth in advance. As you all know, this type of cakes benefit from ‘maturing’ or ‘feeding’, that is being regularly brushed with more alcohol to keep the cake moist and make it last longer. On that note, I suggest you warp the cake tightly in both baking parchment and foil and keep it in a cool place. Feed it regularly, but make sure you don’t do it more than 3 times per month and leave at least a week between each feed. As for the liqueur, I went for a golden Sherry, but feel free to swap for Cointreau, brandy or the like.

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Ingredients (for the cake)

  • 250g sultanas
  • 100g currants
  • 400g raisins
  • 75g mixed peel
  • 165g glacés cherries
  • zest 1 lemon, juice of 1/2
  • zest 1 orange
  • 80ml Sherry
  • 175g unsalted butter, softened
  • 175g dark muscovado sugar
  • 25g black treacle
  • 3 medium eggs
  • 225g plain flour
  • 1 tsp mixed spice (or 2 tsp made of your combination of favourite spices)
  • 40g ground almonds

Ingredients (for the pistachio paste & decoration)

  • 100g shelled pistachios
  • 100g icing sugar, sifted
  • 100g golden caster sugar
  • 100g ground almonds
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 medium egg yolks
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • green food colouring
  • 2 tbsp apricot jam, warmed up

Ingredients (for the icing)

  • 2 medium egg whites
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 2 tsp liquid glucose
  • 300g icing sugar, sifted

Method

  1. Start the day (or a couple of days) before by soaking the fruit. Tumble all of the dried fruits in a large bowl with the lemon and orange zest. Pour over the lemon juice and Sherry. Mix the fruit thoroughly to combine. Cover with cling film and leave to stand overnight.
  2. The following day, line the base and the sides of a deep, loose-bottomed 20cm cake tin with baking parchment. Ensure there is enough paper overhanging at the top, this will protect the cake top while baking. Heat the oven to 140C.
  3. Use a wooden spoon to beat the butter, muscovado sugar and the treacle in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Stir the beaten eggs into the butter mixture, a little at a time, to avoid the mixture curdling.
  4. Once all of the eggs have been incorporated, add the flour, spices and ground almonds. Gently fold together with a large metal spoon and thoroughly combine. Add the fruit to the cake mixture and fold through until combined.
  5. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and level the top off. Put in the oven and bake for 2 hours. Check if the cake is cooked with a skewer: if it comes out clean, then remove from the oven. Otherwise, bake for another 15 minutes.
  6. Let the cake cool in the tin. When you can hold the tin, remove the cake and leave to cool on a wire rack. Once it has completely cooled, brush the top and sides of the cake with Sherry, then wrap in parchment and foil as per above.
  7. Once you are ready to ice your cake, start with the pistachio paste. Grind pistachio in a food processor as finely as possible, then tip into a bowl with the sugars and the ground almonds. Add the egg yolks, lemon juice and vanilla extract, then mix to combine. Use your hands to knead the mixture to a firm dough, then shape into a ball. Pinch about a third of the mixture, wrap it clingfilm and set aside.
  8. Dust your work surface with icing sugar, then use a rolling pin to roll out the remaining paste to a thick sheet larger than the top of the cake. Brush the top of the cake with the apricot jam, then cover with the paste. Trim the excess at the sides with a sharp knife.
  9. Next, move on to the icing. Beat the egg whites, lemon juice and glucose in a freestanding mixer, then slowly add the icing sugar. The final result should be a thick bright white icing. Use a rubber spatula to spoon the icing on  the cake, then swirl it over the top and tease it over the sides.
  10. Last, make the pistachio trees. Add a couple of drops of food colouring to the leftover pistachio paste, then knead that thoroughly to combine. Pinch small balls of paste, then flatten them between your fingers. Don’t worry if you get a few cracks, that is desirable. Stack the discs on top of each other and have them decreasing in size as you build up. When you get to the top of the tree, pinch the last ball to a point, then place on top.
  11. To decorate the cake, place the pistachio trees on the icing, then dust liberally with icing sugar. Sprinkle a few silver edible balls on the icing and, if you want a little bit of extra sparkle, dust with some edible glitter.

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Fondant Fancies

If you are British, love the UK and its culture or have spent some time here, you will be familiar with fondant fancies. These pale, pastel-coloured little cakes are quite popular as an afternoon tea-time treat and go really well with a cup of tea. They were also one of the technical challenges on the GBBO, just to give you an idea. The difficult bit is balancing the different stages. First you have to make the cake, then put the marzipan on top, cut it into squares, cover them with butter cream and finally smother them in fondant icing. One really good thing about them is that you don’t have to stick to the recipe you’ll find below (which is Mary Berry’s), but you could just as easily custom them by changing the flavours and the colours – I did it.

Allow plenty of chilling time once the small squares have been covered in butter cream and make sure your fondant icing is liquid enough but still hold its shape, or smothering the fancies will be your worst nightmare. Also, you can buy fondant icing in supermarket, but it comes in solid blocks. You’ll need some electric beaters or a very sturdy wooden spoon (and some good muscles!) to mix some water in and turn it into a smooth liquid. As I said, there are a few steps in the process, but don’t let that frighten you as the result is outstanding. I have made these cakes twice already and they have been a roaring success both times.

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Ingredients (for the sponge)

  • 225g self raising flour OR 220g plain flour + 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda + 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 225g soft unsalted butter
  • 225g caster sugar
  • 4 medium eggs
  • 1 lemon, grated zest only

Ingredients (for the assembly and decoration)

  • 250g soft unsalted butter
  • 200g sifted icing sugar
  • 3 tbsp sieved apricot jam
  • 200g marzipan
  • 1 kg fondant icing
  • 50g dark chocolate, melted
  • food colouring (optional)
  • flavouring (optional)
  • water

Method

  • Start by lining a 20cm square cake tin with some baking parchment and buttering the sides. Pre-heat your oven to 160C.
  • Make the cake batter by creaming the butter and sugar together, then adding the eggs and last the flour and lemon zest. You’ll get a soft and spongy mixture which needs to be transferred to the cake tin. Level the top as you would normally do, then use your spatula/preferred implement to push some of the batter from the centre of the cake towards the edges and the corners. This will avoid the cake rising too much in the middle and you having to trim off most of the sponge to obtain equal cubes.
  • Bake in the oven for 40 minutes and check for doneness with a toothpick or a metal skewer.
  • Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the cake tin for approximately 20 minutes, then turn out to a wire rack, flip it upside down (put a cloth between the cake and the wire rack) and leave it to cool completely.
  • Now, at this point, I suggest you wrap the cooled cake in clingfilm and put it in the fridge overnight. This will ensure that the cake stays moist, the flavour develops and it’s easier to cut the following day. If you want to do it all in one day, then give it a good hour in the fridge or, if you want, half an hour in the freezer.
  • While the cake is chilling, you can make the butter cream. Put the softened butter in a big bowl and use an electric whisk to make it all nice and fluffy. Start adding the sieved icing sugar a little at a time, making sure the sugar is fully incorporated in the butter before adding any more. Keep your beaters still, then turn your bowl with your other hand to beat the mixture evenly. I have a KitchenAid, but I still prefer to do this with a good old electric whisk. Mix in all of the sugar, then put to one side. If you want, you can add a couple of drops of flavouring.
  • When the cake has thoroughly chilled/cooled down, it’s time to add the marzipan topping. Dust a working surface heavily with icing sugar, then roll out the marzipan to a slightly bigger square than your cake base. Use that as a template. Once you have rolled out the marzipan enough, position your cake tin on the marzipan and use a sharp knife to cut alongside the edges. This will ensure a snug fit on top of your cake.
  • Now take your cake and keep the base on the top as this will always be a more even surface. Brush the apricot jam on top, then use your cake tin base to transfer the marzipan on the cake and press lightly to make it adhere to the jam. Leave to stand for about 15 to 20 minutes, then arm yourself with a ruler!
  • Now, we want cakes which are 4x4cm, so perfect cubes. If you have used a 20cm tin, you should be able to get 5 per each side for a total of 25. My tin is slightly bigger, so I always have to trim the edges (which is good as I obtain a smoother finish). Use your ruler to make marks every 4cm, then take a dry very sharp knife and use it to cut alongside the marks and obtain first big slices of cake, then small cubes. Your finished product should look like this:

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  • Once you have cut them all, it’s time to start applying the butter cream. Arm yourself with some patience now as this can be very stressing! Save about 70g butter cream and put that in a piping bag – this will be used for the small dot on top. Take a snife/palette/spatula and use it to apply an even coating of butter cream on the sides of the cake. Don’t put it on top (where the marzipan is) or on the bottom but cover the sides only. Don’t panic if it looks messy or is really rough as you can smooth it out later.
  • Once you have done the sides of the cakes, snip the end off your piping bag and squeeze a small blob of butter cream on top of each one. The end result, once again, should look like this:

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  • Now, you can either attempt to smooth the butter cream while it’s soft or you can refrigerate the cakes and do it later. I tend to go for the second option or I’ll probably end crying in a corner, covered in butter cream and screaming for help. Little exaggeration there, but I find chilling the cakes now (1 hour in the fridge will be enough), then dipping a spatula knife in some warm water, drying it with a towel and using that to smooth the surface works a lot better.
  • Once you have smoothed them all out, it’s time to ice them. Cut your fondant icing in fairly small cubes, then put them in the bowl of a freestanding mixer and start adding water a couple of tablespoon at a time. Once you have reached the consistency you like, add a couple of drops of food colouring (or paste) and mix that well in to obtain a pale coloured icing. Transfer to a bowl.
  • Now, arm yourself of a fork, a wire rack and a large surface. Place some baking parchment on the work surface so as to catch the dripping icing (and chocolate later). Use the fork to stab each cake from the bottom, but make sure you go in at an angle. This way will be much easier to drop them on the wire rack. Dip each cake in the icing, swirl it around and use your finger to ease any excess icing off the little cakes, then put each cake base facing down on to the wire rack. Leave there to solidify for a good 3 hours or overnight, if possible. Don’t put them in the fridge or they will lose their shine.
  • Once the cakes have all hardened, drizzle the chocolate on top and leave that to harden too. I like to serve them in white muffin paper cases, I think it adds a bit of wow factor. Enjoy!

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3 Liqueur Cupcakes

These were the lucky outcome of a small experiment in the kitchen. It all started when I set off to make the Espresso & Brandy cupcakes from here. I soon realized, however, that I did not want to have to make some coffee just to use 1 tablespoon (especially as I have a 6 cup caffettiera). Instead of using coffee, I thought, why not use a coffee liqueur, such as Kahlua? Unfortunately (or luckily?), my liqueur cabinet is always adequately stocked. Not that I sneak downstairs when my partner is fast asleep and drink in the solitude of the night, but I do keep a good assortment of booze for baking and cooking. You would be amazed at how many uses a bottle of brandy can lend itself to. Anyway, I decided to slightly change the frosting recipe too, thinking 5 tablespoons of liqueur would have made it exceedingly runny. Therefore, I decided to match the flavour of the cupcake by adding some Kahlua, followed by some Brandy (the only one in the original recipe) and, weirdly enough, some Malibu (a coconut flavoured liqueur). The result was a deep success, with my partner (who doesn’t like sweet things) even declaring the icing reminded him of ice-cream. Yippee!

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Ingredients (for the cupcakes)

  • 185g unsalted butter, softened
  • 185g golden caster sugar
  • 185g self-raising flour
  • 3 large eggs
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tbsp Kahlua

Ingredients (for the icing)

  • 150g unsalted butter, softened
  • 150g full-fat cream cheese
  • 400g icing sugar, sifted
  • 1 tbsp Kahlua
  • 1 tbsp Brandy
  • 1 tbsp Malibu
  • cocoa powder, optional

Method

  1. First of all, line a 12-hole muffin tin with paper cases and pre-heat your oven to 180C.
  2. In the bowl of a freestanding mixer, cream the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy, then slowly add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
  3. Incorporate the flour and the salt, then pour in the liqueur and beat well until very smooth and pale.
  4. Divide the batter between the paper cases (I used an icre-cream scoop), then bake for 35 minutes, until the sponges spring back when lightly pressed.
  5. Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely.
  6. In the meantime, prepare the icing. In the bowl of a freestanding mixer, combine the butter with the cream cheese, then slowly add the icing sugar and use a rubber spatula to mix that in with the butter and cheese mixture.
  7. Using the paddle attachment, beat the icing on high speed until very light and fluffy, then gradually add the liqueurs, mixing well after each addition.
  8. Transfer to a piping bag with a star nozzle attached and, once the cupcakes are cooled, pipe big swirls on the top surface, trying not to break the flow and to pipe moving from the outsides to the insides. Dust with some cocoa powder if you want to.

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Layer icing

Right, let’s talk technique. How many of you know what ombre icing is? In case you don’t, it is a technique used with buttercream (or any other kind of frosting) whereby you use your icing in different shades in order to create a gradual effect. You can find plenty of examples on the Internet, here are some. The most widespread form of ombre icing – which I read seems to be quite a big hit these days – involves piping small dots of icing on the cake side and then smearing them with either a palette or the back of a spoon, so as to obtain a drop-like effect. Very cool, I have to say, but extremely long winded and meticulous. In this post I wanted to show you how to use the same principle to obtain a stunning centrepiece and still obtain a well decorated cake.

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  • First of all, start by making your own buttercream. There are different schools of thoughts on the matter, I merely mixed the same amount of softened unsalted butter and sifted icing sugar in a freestanding mixer equipped with the paddle attachment and let it do all of the dirty work (well, I still had to clean afterwards…).
  • Unless you are planning to divide your icing in different bowls and colour them separately, I suggest you use the same container for the icing and build the colour gradually. On top of being extremely easier, it saves you having to wash up thousands (!!) of bowls.
  • Before you start adding food colouring, cover the cake with an even layer of neutral buttercream. This will act as the base for the coloured frosting. It will also allow you to fill any gaps between the layers and to create a smooth, even and crumb-free surface on which to attach the icing.

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  • Here I used a chocolate & caramel layer cake for the base, but a normal Victoria sponge cake will do. I reckon you’ll need approximately 500g buttercream to cover the whole cake.
  • Make some more buttercream and start adding the food colouring drop by drop. carefully check how the icing slowly colours and stop adding food colouring when you have reached the desired tone. For the first layer, I would suggest opting for a fairly pale colour.
  • Using a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle, start piping swirls at the bottom (or on the top, depending on how you want to start) of the cake and cover the whole outside of the cake making sure you keep the icing on the same line so as to make a ring on the outside of the cake.
  • Gradually add more food colouring to your leftover icing and keep on creating rings around the cake slowly building up in height and colour.

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  • As you can see from the picture above, you might have to pipe small dots between the swirls as there obviously tend to be uncovered bits. That is fine and it adds to the overall charm of the cake.
  • The cool thing about this is that you control the colour you get. I went for shades which were clearly different (it adds to the dramatic effect), but you might choose to opt for a more gradual approach. Below is the finished result.

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Orange and Honeycomb biscuits

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I was terrified by the idea of making biscuits. I have made chocolate chip cookies before and, to be honest, they are very idiot-proof. Biscuits, however, require more attention and, if you like, skill. I was therefore glad to find these on one of my favourite blogs, Spoons’n’Spades by Paula (please note, the blog does not exist anymore).

Ingredients

  • 250g self raising flour
  • 2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1 large orange, zest and juice
  • 155g butter, cold and diced
  • 115g clear honey
  • 1 Crunchie bar (or 50g honeycomb + 50g finely chopped chocolate)
  • 50g butter, soft
  • 115g icing sugar

Method

  1. Into a large bowl, mix together the flour, bicarbonate of soda, caster sugar and the orange zest.
  2. Rub in the cold and diced butter until you have a breadcrumb consistency.  Stir in the honey and mix to form a stiff dough.
  3. Take teaspoons of the dough and roll them out into balls.  Place them onto lined baking trays, spaced a little apart, and flatten them gently with the palm of your hand.
  4. Take the Crunchie bar and crumble it into very small pieces. Scatter on half of the biscuits (or on all of them, as I did).
  5. Bake in a 190c preheated oven for around 10 minutes, or until they are cooked through but haven’t yet started to colour.  Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool completely.
  6. To make the icing, beat together the soft butter, icing sugar and 1 teaspoon of orange juice until you have a smooth mix.
  7. Spread a small amount onto the top half of the biscuits, then sandwich together with another one.

Tips

  • The dough you will work with is sticky and hard to start with, so obtaining perfectly nugget-size balls can be hard. Keep on working them with your hands and the warmth from your body will gently melt the butter and make the dough more elastic and pliable.
  • To ensure all of the biscuits were of the same size, I used a measuring teaspoon and piled the dough in it, then scraped it on top as you would do to obtain a level teaspoon’s worth of flour