A couple of weeks ago, it was my birthday, and to his dad’s great dismay my son had decided that they would bake and decorate a cake for me. Whilst my husband seemed quite confident about the decorating, the baking was causing him a bit of worry (interestingly, for me it’s the other way round) and he admitted to me he had never baked a cake in his entire life. Whaaaaat?! I was shocked. Then I began to realise that a lot of things I take for granted in the kitchen are probably far from obvious to some other people. So I helped him choose a recipe which I thought would be easy (I opted for Mary Berry’s sponge cake, for its simplicity: basically chuck all the ingredients in the bowl, mix, put in the tin and bake), I pointed him in the right direction for all the decorating supply, and left him to his shopping list. On the day the baking took place I deliberately stayed out of the way because I was worried if I was too close to the kitchen I would be too tempted to stick my nose in, so I had a good tidy up in the garden instead. But my husband came out looking for me when he had questions: “You know when you’ve put all the ingredients in the bowl, do you mix them with your hands?” (Oh it was so tempting to say yes, try and picture it, I know I did…. muahahah… Now if you’re not sure: it’s normally things with yeast that you mix/knead by hand). Then a question about which tins to use, which prompted me to go in the kitchen to show him and realise he was all ready to put the mixture in the oven, but the oven hadn’t been switched on: there is a reason why nearly every single recipe BEGINS with “pre-heat the oven to x degrees” (and that would be to make sure the baking powder doesn’t stand around in the mixture, otherwise it doesn’t work as well and your cake won’t rise properly – which it didn’t). I was annoyingly impressed with the decorating though: I’ve never felt I was too good at it and it’s taken me a few attempts to get to something I was happy with, but he just does one and it comes out lovely. Grrr. And the cake tasted very good, my husband was very proud of himself and rightly so. However when I asked him if he’d enjoyed the process, the answer came fast and blunt: he hated it, found it stressful and cannot fathom how I can find it relaxing. Oh well… Looks like I’ll still have the family monopoly on cake making then 🙂
Why all this rambling on then, you’re asking? Well because a few weeks ago it was also my mum’s birthday, and I baked her something which I thought would be a good recipe to post on this blog, until my husband baked that is. So whilst I have decided to still post this, I’ve come to think it might not be as easy as I thought and so it comes with a label “not for beginners” 🙂 The recipe comes from my favourite biscuits book “Petits fours et bredele”, on baked goodies from the Alsace region in France. The biscuits from this recipe are the two-coloured ones at the bottom of the photo, the others are spiced squares (recipe here: https://aghowker.wordpress.com/2014/01/29/spicy-squares/) and of course baklava (recipe here: https://aghowker.wordpress.com/2014/05/15/baklava/)
Ingredients for 25-30 biscuits: 180g unsalted butter – 110g icing sugar – few drops of vanilla extract – 1 egg white – 10 tbsp milk – 250g plain flour – 3 tbsp cocoa powder
Pre-heat the oven to 140 degC.
Soften the butter (either for a few seconds in the microwave, or by leaving it out for a couple of hours before you start baking – you want it soft and squishable but not all melted). Whisk the butter, then sprinkle the icing sugar and whisk until well combined and with a mousse-like texture (go slowly at first or you’ll end up sniffing in a cloud of icing sugar). Add the vanilla, egg white and 7 tbsp milk and mix well.
Sift the flour in the mixture and mix with a wooden spoon.
Divide the mixture in 2 and add to one of the halves the remaining milk and the cocoa powder. I must add that at this point I tasted the mixture and didn’t find it chocolatey enough, so I carry on adding cocoa powder until I was happy with the taste, then added some more milk until the consistency of the mixture looked similar to the vanilla’s.
Fit a large star tip on a piping bag and fill the bag with the vanilla and chocolate mixture side by side. Note there is no easy way of doing this (or I had the wrong kind of piping bag!). I put the vanilla mixture if first, laying the bag on the worktop and trying to keep the vanilla on one side, then added the chocolate mixture with a teaspoon alongside the vanilla. It is messy.
Pipe lines, S shapes or circles (or all of them) on a baking tray covered with greaseproof paper. Bake for about 10 minutes or until the biscuits hold themselves (ie don’t sag when lifted off the tray) when removed from the oven. Leave to cool on a cooling rack.
The verdict: I was very pleased with myself! I always found piping quite tricky but after 2 or 3 attempts I got the hang of the pressure to apply on the bag to get the correct width, and I piped S shapes and circles which had nothing to be ashamed of. I put a good quantity of biscuits in my mum’s selection tin, and there were a few left for us which disappeared extremely quickly, so they must have tasted nice too 🙂