today i made a cake

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I get this burning desire to bake a cake. And that is what happened today.

I enjoy eating cake as much as the next person, probably more. Even though I am completely adequate at making them myself, my experimentations don’t always work out. I don’t think they even equate to failure, more often I would describe it as a lack of success. Delicious as it was, my latest cake lacked the finesse and technical completion that I was ideally after.

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Oftentimes my cake’s shortcomings occur because of my lack of discipline with my measuring cups, but this time it was a prime example of my ideas not being totally thought through from the get-go. I was trying to get creative with the simple concept of a Victoria sponge cake. Fluffy clouds of sunshine yellow batter cut in half by a thick layer of sweet cream and crimson strawberry jam, elegantly topped off with a dusting of icing sugar. What could be better?! I thought my idea was going to be better; I wanted to replace the layer of cream with a layer of meringue.

I hate cutting a cake in half to add the centre; I brilliantly decided to bake the meringue in between two layers of cake batter and safe myself some time.

Here’s how it played out.

The whole event was a bit of a trial – to begin with I couldn’t find my electric beater. Even though sponge is so light and fluffy when its cooked, the batter is unusually dense and I had a very difficult time incorporating the butter into the sugar and flour with an old-fashioned beater – a task similar to mixing cement with a wooden spoon. I fought back tears and curse words, and gave up at least twice before I was ‘happy’ with the batter. And then I moved on to the meringue with as much positivity as I could muster.

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I love making meringue, even when I have to use a hand-held beater; I love watching the egg whites fluff up and adding the sugar teaspoon by teaspoon makes it seem like there isn’t that much sugar going into it. As I added the final dash of sugar and a whisper of vanilla, a new sense of optimism had been whipped into me. That feeling didn’t last long.

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After smearing the bottom of my cake tin with half of the sponge batter, I topped it with the meringue and dotted it with flecks of blood-red jam. It was at this precise moment, as I stood there admiring the how smooth and plump my meringue layer was, that I put two and two together – I was about to cover my meringue, silky and light, with this thick and heavy cake mix.

Gravity is a thing that we have known about for centuries; what goes up must come down and all that jazz. Like a multi-coloured cocktail, a heavier substance will sink to the bottom of a lighter one. I almost lost it as I watched the top layer of cake getting swallowed up into a pure white sea of sugar. I baked it anyway.

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It was edible, it was delicious, it was not at all what I had wanted to create. The base was light and spongey, bright yellow from all of the egg yolks that I had used and the top was sweet and crunchy. It was kind of like a spongey, jammy version of my meringue cake, funny that!

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Even though the main event was a bit of a fail, each component worked relatively well, here are the recipes I used:
1 cup of self-raising flour
1 cup of diced, slightly warmer than room-temperature butter
1 cup of sugar
2 eggs and 2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon of baking powder

2 egg whites and 1/2 of a cup of sugar made more than enough meringue. Because of the meringue, the cooking time was longer than a usual sponge – 40 minutes at 170°C as opposed to 20 minutes normally.

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writing, comma food

I have recently begun reading ‘Will Write for Food’, by Dianne Jacobs; a charming guide to all things falling under the grand canopy of food writing. Each chapter of the book ends with a series of tasks, designed as an aid to improving one’s writing and I thought it would be an interesting experiment to share my journey through each section by publishing my musings for each task encountered.

A summation of the first chapter’s tasks is to explore finding your own voice and writing style by describing a favourite food while looking at similes, metaphors and enhanced descriptions.

For integrity purposes, I have left all editing and annotation visible, as it is really about the journey and the process as opposed to the finished product.

I ate a lot of cherries while I was in Spain. I am a huge cynic of anyone who overuses the word ‘literally’, while saying I ate them by the tonne may be a slight exaggeration, but I did literally eat bucket loads of them. Breathing in the warm summer air, my mind easily floats back to a time when my mind life was filled with nothing but fluorescent, deep red orbs, when the staining, tartly sweet taste of them barely ever left my mouth.

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What draws me to eating, and cooking with cherries is their sheer versatility; plump scarlet slithers in a cherry jam, velvety sweet in a clafoutis or bursting with juice at the end of the season, melting in your mouth like a molten ball of summer.

In my opinion, half of the satisfaction of eating cherries comes from the preparation; such an awakening of the senses! The sun beating down on your shoulders and the lactic acid building up in your arms as you reach for the sweetest fruits on the highest branches, everyone worker bees in a row at the kitchen table removing stalks, removing pits and slicing fruit in half, purple-stained hands adding each crescent moon into jam pot.

There comes a point, midsummer, when a cherry tree’s output becomes exponentially greater than a human’s rate of consumption. An afternoon of jam making makes easy work of a big bucket of cherries morning’s pickings, but what are you to do with the other two buckets?

Cherry pie
Cherry juice
Cherries mixed through gooey vanilla ice cream
Cherry crumbled topped with shards of caramelised sugar
Cherry-infused vodka, gin or brandy

As the blood-red sun begins to set on the summer’s horizon, and the soft, ripe fruit is given away to anyone who will take it, you stop loving cherries; you think you can’t stand the sight of another cherry, let alone the taste.

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Until next summer.

mother’s day jamming

Rhubarb and feijoas are the ingredients to some of my oldest, and fondest childhood memories. They remind me of my mother and my grandmother and every time I see either of them I can immediately taste their tangy bitterness and smell the sweet aroma of them stewing on the stove.

Feijoas are little green fruit native to South America, they aren’t easily found in Europe but are abundant in New Zealand during a short period in late autumn. They are in such an excess that by the end of the season people are literally giving them away by the bagful on the side of the road. Because I managed to find some recently, and because it’s Mother’s Day, I thought I would share some thoughts on preserving these little beauties.

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The ones that I got were a little old; not so good for eating but perfect for stewing or preserving.

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I love making jam, I have previously mentioned my goal of living a lovely little self-sufficient life in the countryside one day so I see jam making as a very useful skill to have. As a child, I remember my grandmother being a very avid jam maker and her jams always tasted miles better than anything you could ever get from the shop. Was it because it was made with love, or because it wasn’t made with a mountain of preservatives? Who knows?

I was introduced to jam making in a more practical sense when I was in Spain last summer; I was staying on a cherry orchard where there were more cherries than you can imagine. Having all the cherries I could eat at my fingertips was great for the first few days, until my stomach began to churn at the mere sight of them.

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After experimenting with cherry cakes and cherry muffins and all other means of cherry flavoured things, we found that we still weren’t using them up fast enough, so with the help of David Lebovitz’s jam recipe we got jamming.

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I used this same recipe for my feijoa jam and it can be used with any fruit that you need to get rid of. Because the seeds of a feijoa are small and edible, like strawberries or boysenberries, this fruit makes a lovely thick jam because the seeds contain pectin; a natural thickening agent. Cherry flesh doesn’t contain a lot of this – the stems and stones do, but they aren’t edible. So if you are using cherries add lemon (or any other citrus) juice, lemon juice contains pectin and will help thicken your jam.

Begin by slicing your fruit into pieces as small or as large as you want. Use as much fruit as you want/have/can be bothered cutting up. I like my jam to be chunky yet spreadable so I cut mine like this:

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Place the fruit in a large enough pot that they only come about half way up the sides, for safety/mess reasons. You can also add any flavouring you want; I used ginger and vanilla. Cover the pot and cook on a medium heat for about 20 minutes. Add ¾ of the fruit’s mass worth of sugar, crank up the heat and stir constantly. It will begin to bubble violently and then all of a sudden it will stop bubbling and have thickened. Leave it to cool for about 10 minutes and transfer into sterilised jars. You can sterilise an old jar by heating it in the oven for about 15 minutes, add the jam while the jars are still warm and make sure you fill the jars right to the very top so they are airtight.

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I know that this sounds like a lot of sugar, and the healthier ones of you will try and get away with adding less. Don’t. it will only end in heartbreak. The sugar is not used here to sweeten the jam (it does that, but that’s not the main reason), the sugar is absorbed by the water from the fruit to the point that the water takes on a gelatinous texture. If you don’t add enough sugar, this reaction won’t happen.

If you are opposed to using so much sugar, add less, a bit of water and make stewed fruit. Serve hot with vanilla ice cream, custard, over oats at breakfast time or just by itself!

the cheese diaries

Hobbies are a good thing to have, we all need hobbies. I have been reading a lot lately about artisanal cheese makers and the ever-expanding market in which these cheese makers have found themselves in. So, to mark two years since I arrived in France, I decided to try my hand at home-crafted cheese. I have his romantic idea of moving to the countryside somewhere and becoming an artisanal handyman, where I would make cheese from the goats I milked, and make jams and preserves from the fruit on the trees that I prune and tend to.

Dylan and goat- Benimaurell, Spain
Dylan and goat- Benimaurell, Spain

Obviously, with this post celebrating ‘French-ness’ I should be making a French cheese; camembert, gruyere, reblochon, etc. But these cheeses are pretty difficult to make and I don’t want to start my cheese making career off with a failure, so I think I will just work up to that.

To start off with, I decided to make ricotta. Ricotta is an Italian cheese similar to the Spanish ‘queso fresco’. The name means ‘re-cooked’, i.e. the milk is heated to a higher temperature than other cheeses. The milk being heated to a higher temperature means that ricotta is not a live culture cheese, it does not need time to develop mould over time in order to gain its flavour texture and of course, its smell. Cheeses like ricotta, feta and queso fresco can all be eaten the same day they are made. This is good news if you have a short attention span and love cheese.

nutmeg and cinnamon ricotta
nutmeg and cinnamon ricotta

Cheese production can be on as small or as large of a scale as you want it to be, for this reason instead of a recipe, I will give you somewhat of a maths equation… for every 1 litre of milk, you will need 7.5mls of rennet or other acid and 1.5 cups of boiling water.

Firstly, let’s talk rennet. Rennet is an enzyme that curls milk, it is naturally produced my calves to solidify milk particles and make them digestible. Rennet is also the reason why some vegetarians do not eat cheese- as it is an animal by-product. There is such thing as vegetarian rennet if you want to make vegetarian cheese. When I learnt to make queso fresco in Spain, we used lemon juice as the acid does a similar job. I experimented with a mixture of rennet, lemon juice and apple cider vinegar.

ALWAYS sterilise your equipment
ALWAYS sterilise your equipment

Rennet is a sure-fire way of knowing your ricotta is going to work out and the concentration is always going to be the same. Lemon juice doesn’t have this consistency as one lemon is going to vary from the next. Apple cider vinegar creates a nice tart and dry ricotta, so it is perfect to use if you want to cut the ricotta into slices. If you are more partial to crumbly cheese, then I suggest you use lemon juice.

Ricotta can be served sweet or savoury. For the sweet version, add a teaspoon of sugar to your milk, for savoury, add a teaspoon of salt. I did both versions and both are delicious, I also added a pinch of nutmeg and cinnamon to my sweet ricotta.

Place your milk in a large saucepan and warm on a very low heat; you only need it get it to about 22°C – or just below room temperature. If you have a milk thermometer you can use it, if not use your judgement after a couple of minutes. With a cheese like ricotta, the creamier the better! So use full fat milk, the highest fat content I could find was 4% so I suggest you look for something similar.

Next, take it off the heat and add your rennet or acidifier. There is no need to stir it as the curds will automatically cling to each other. Leave the milk to curdle for at least an hour.

curds and whey
curds and whey

After an hour, a large clump of curds will have formed in a sea of whey. Cut through the curds with a wooden spoon and pour over the boiling water; this will help separate the curds and the whey even further. Leave for an additional ten minutes before straining the curds through a cheese cloth and placing it in a mould to set. Discard the whey if you like, but it is very high in protein so it can be added to a smoothie for a bit of a health kick!

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Place the mould in the refrigerator for another hour to get rid of as much liquid as possible, now it is ready to eat! You could also place it is a bath of high concentrated salt water for several more hours if you want to turn it into feta (highly recommended also).

What I love about ricotta is that it is so versatile; eat it as it is, incorporate it into a salad, use as the base ingredient of a cheesecake or spread on toast with a drizzle of honey.

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My next entry into my cheese diary will be a harder cheese, I am not sure what though. My two choices are blue vein cheese or camembert, camembert will be a bit more difficult, but do you think I am up for the challenge? What do you think?