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Tuesday 10 May 2011

Coffee Cake and Cookery School

One of the cakes I made from the book.

I should be sweeping the front yard. I know, just know, that it is going to rain shortly, and I need to get rid of the grit and compost that re-doing out flowerpots this weekend created.

Oh well, too late. The skies just opened. I guess it'll have to be tomorrow.

Instead, I shall use this time semi-productively and get on with a book review I was meant to do ages ago.

I was sent (about ten thousand years ago) by the very kind people at Michael Joseph a review copy of Cookery School, which is a companion book to a Channel 4 TV series that was on a while ago. I didn't actually watch the programme myself, so I can't really tell you much about it, other than it was presented by Richard Corrigan and Gizzy Erskine.

I know who Richard Corrigan is, and if we're judging by appearances (which I know we're told not to, but still...), I would definitely attend a cookery school that he was teaching at. The man clearly likes a plate or two of food. This in mind, I was quite interested to see what delights lay within the book when it arrived. But more on that later.

Miss Erskine, I have discovered since reading the book, has in the past worked with Harry 'puts vegetables in cakes instead of butter and pretends it's normal' Eastwood, which made me feel quite vomitous to tell you the truth. But I also read somewhere that she used to be a body piercer, so I'm going to award her 5 Fierce Points and let her off for the Eastwood misdemeanor (for now).

(Maybe I should give Harry Eastwood a break.)

It doesn't really matter who the chefs that fronted the programme are actually, since very little of their personalities seem to shine through in Cookery School. Gizzy's sections (tips on topics such as cheese, meat and herbs) are quite conversational in style, but seem rushed (she repeats herself often and relies on the word 'brilliant' too much to describe food). They could have been much better arranged on the page, particularly the herbs feature. She singles out sorrel, for example, as being underrated and encourages readers to look out for it growing wild, but there is not an accompanying picture to show you what to look for.

The lack of clear explanation (and assumption that readers already possess a certain level of knowledge about cooking and food) continues in Richard's recipes. Ingredients I had never heard of, such as lardo, are routinely listed in recipes without footnotes. Perhaps most people already know what lardo is (did you?), but I fail to see how a book that dedicates two whole pages to a step by step process of how to peel and core apples and pears can logically assume it's readers will have a knowledge of foreign ingredients but be unable to properly cut fruit.

Perhaps I am being overly negative. But the subtitle of the book '- where anyone can learn to cook' is, I feel, misleading. It makes it sound like this is a volume for absolute beginners, which it most certainly is not. It is a collection of cheffy dishes made with expensive ingredients.

There were some things I did like about the book. It is divided into clear sections: basic, intermediate and advanced. I must admit I like the idea of a challenge to work through, and it certainly ties in with the idea of a cookery school, but again there seems to have been a strange system of classification in place for the recipes themselves. Roast chicken is apparently 'super advanced' (as is trifle), whereas guinea fowl hash with fried quails eggs is considered basic. Really, Richard? Where am I even going to get guinea fowl?

In the interest of testing out the book on its own terms, I made the coffee cake from the advanced chapter, and considered pork chops, but couldn't be bothered with all that apple and cream rubbish. I had them with cinnamon instead.

I should say up front that I did, despite my lack of love for the book overall, learn a thing or two from the process. For example, that using cold espresso in butter icing gives you amazing coffee flavour (put that Nescafé down), and how to French trim a pork chop.

If you are a cook who wants to learn how to do cheffy things in your kitchen, Cookery School might be a good book for you to consider. But if you really want a basic course in home cooking, get this or this instead. Both also happily Channel 4 tie-ins.

I didn't go in for all the piping kerfuffle, which may have been the reason it was in the advanced section. I also didn't caramalize any nuts. But here's the recipe in case you want to make an advanced coffee cake like I did.

Advanced Coffee Cake

You will need:

300g unsalted butter, room temperature
300g caster sugar
5 eggs
300g self raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
60ml cold espresso
milk, as needed

200g soft butter
400g icing sugar
60ml cold espresso

  1. Grease and line two 22cm round cake tins. Heat the oven to 180°C.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each one goes in.
  3. Fold in the flour and baking powder, followed by the coffee, and if needed, milk, to lighten the mix.
  4. Divide between the tins and bake for 30 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
  5. Cool in the tins for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack. When cool, fill with the icing, which is very easy to make: beat the icing sugar, butter and coffee together until creamy and thick.

Thursday 5 May 2011

Pretty Much Perfect Coconut-Raspberry Cake


Mauritius... Merely a happy memory. A vanilla- and coconut-scented paradise island, with sandy beaches as white as the freshly laundered shirts hanging on my washing line, that are even as I type being pelted with the best Spring rain South Wales can muster.

Still. I wouldn't have it any other way. For just this very morning - just! - I decided to take a risk and throw my lovely (but grubby) dry clean only (oh whatever) white trousers in to the washer with the multiple short-sleeved white shirts of this here flight attendant. And do you know what? They came out fine. Better than fine. Pristine even. So today, even the bad weather making me wish I were still in Mauritius isn't going to put me in a bad mood. I have just discovered I can save myself an absolute fortune in dry cleaning bills. I think that's what's known as a turn out for the books.

Today's glass, readers, is half full.

Oh, and have a look at this too. Happiness indeed. Thank you Channel 4. Mo konten twa. You didn't know I spoke Creole, did you?

(I don't.)

Fortunately, you don't need to speak Creole to make something this yummy...

I think it's absolutely one of the worst things in life (scabies and natural disasters notwithstanding) to taste something beyond perfection when travelling and know that you'll never be able to recreate it yourself when you get home. I still dream about the banana leaf curries I ate in Ipoh, Malaysia, and the fancy restaurant fare we splurged on in Sydney. I didn't think Mauritius was going to be that kind of a holiday. Yes, the seafood was beyond amazing, but give me some fresh fish and a barbecue in the Summer and what we make in our back garden will do just as well. We ate freshly prepared roti and daal in the market in Mahébourg, and they were wonderful, but I make a pretty mean roti myself, so I'm not going to be losing sleep there either.

No. What Mauritius did to me is unforgivable, and it happened over dinner. The chefs in my hotel made a coconut cake that was so light, fluffy and heady with the scent of freshly cracked coconuts that I almost had to be forcibly removed from it. Topped with a marshmallow-soft icing and strands of freshly sugared coconut, seriously, I could have eaten the whole cake.

This marks a new chapter in my life. In the past, coconut has never really been my favourite flavour. But now I am a new man. A man who eats both halves of the Bounty by himself (sharing is not caring in this case).

I knew that I would have to attempt to recreate this holiday wonder cake in my Cardiff kitchen, and considered my options carefully. Life is often cruel, as anyone who has ever dealt with a fresh coconut will know: why is it so hard to get to the precious white stuff inside? I decided that my coconut wherewithal would have to come from a tin of coconut milk instead of the actual nuts. The last time I got friendly with a coconut was too much of a work out for my liking, and in addition, the kitchen is no place for a hammer.

So I went back to my beloved Rose's Heavenly Cakes, and had a look at what The Beranbaum had to offer. She had a lot; I added some extra coconut milk to one of her stars, and the result is this coconut flavoured layer cake, filled with raspberry mascarpone cream. In the unseasonally hot Spring we've been having (until today!), I decided a completely covered in frosting type cake would be a bad idea, and besides, some Spanish raspberries seduced me in the Co-Op. Nobody is saying no to those crimson little sluts.

It's not what I set out for it to be. But it's pretty much perfect anyway.

Pretty Much Perfect Coconut-Raspberry Cake

You will need:

400g plain flour
400g caster sugar
5 tsp baking powder
225g unsalted butter, softened
5 egg whites
400ml coconut milk
2 tsp vanilla extract

250g mascarpone
1 small punnet raspberries (about 150g)
3 tbsp icing sugar, or to taste

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C. Grease and line two 24cm cake tins.
  2. Put the flour, sugar and baking powder in a large bowl. Mix together well to distribute the baking powder using a wire whisk. Add the butter, cubed, and two thirds of the coconut milk. Using an electric hand mixer, beat the ingredients just together. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and continue to beat on high speed for 2 minutes.
  3. In another bowl, mix the egg whites, remaining coconut milk and vanilla together; add this mixture in batches to the flour mix, beating well after each addition.
  4. Divide the mixture between the tins and bake for around 40 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the centre of the cakes comes out clean.
  5. Cool in the tins for 10 minutes and then unmould onto a wire rack to finish cooling.
  6. Mix the filling ingredients together roughly. Check to see if it is sweet enough - you may want more sugar, or some vanilla. Use to sandwich the two sponges together. Serve in fat wedges.
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