Friday, 16 December 2011

Woodland Animal Cake

For my latest commission I was asked to make a birthday cake for a one year old boy called Albert.  His bedroom is decorated with woodland animals so his mum asked me to create something along the same theme as the centrepiece for his first birthday party.
I had so much fun designing this one and creating the cute creatures to go round the outside. Here's how it turned out:

I started with a classic vanilla madeira cake, filled with raspberry conserve and italian meringue buttercream which is just the lightest, super smooth and utterly butterly creamy buttercream you can make.  I started making it a couple of months ago - it's a bit fiddly but I will never go back to regular buttercream, it pales in comparison.
Once I had covered the cake with a thin layer of buttercream and cream coloured sugarpaste I had a blank canvas for my design.  As I was decorating this cake freehand, without any moulds or cutters, the first element I had to get in place was the tree.  I rolled a layer of chocolate brown sugarpaste and used a funky new impression mat I bought which gives a tree grain texture when pressed into the sugarpaste.  I then cut out the tree shape freehand.  I deliberately made the tree longer at the top and bottom so that I could get it in the right place and then trim to size.
Next I added the grass trim round the bottom of the cake using the same technique as in the footballer cake I made a couple of months ago.  It's good to have a pattern, ribbon or trim of some sort to go round a cake as it really finishes it off and also hides any little imperfections that you may have from trimming the sugarpaste that covers the cake.
Then I had lots of fun creating all the woodland creatures that went round the side of the cake.  I wanted them to be bold and graphic but not too cartoony. I chose a few complementary colours and made everything freehand as I went along, starting with a cunning fox:
You can just about see the wee hedgehogs on the right.  There was also a bluebird flying, a few red toadstools and a badger:
And finished off with another bluebird and an owl on the top of the tree:

I created the texture on the owl's belly using the top of a piping nozzle at an angle.  I also used a different piping nozzle to cut the circles for his eyes - I find them so handy and probably use them more for cutting out sugarpaste than for piping!

I then finished off the cake with a big number one and Albert's name.  I had planned to write Happy Birthday, but I think it would have looked too crowded and decided it was better to keep it simple:

When I came home the other day the answerphone was flashing with a lovely message from Albert's mum saying how much she had liked the cake and that it really made a great centrepiece for Albert's first birthday party.  It's so nice when people take the time to say thank you, I put a lot of love into the cakes I make and it makes it all worth it when you know your creations have made somebody happy.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The art of a great food photograph

A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by Suzanne Goldenberg, a freelance photographer and journalist who offered to take some photographs to try and pitch a Brighton Bakery showcase article to local foodie magazine, Edible.  Naturally, I jumped at the chance for a bit of free publicity and we discussed a few different angles for the piece.  One of the key things that sets us apart from other cake makers is that we offer a range of vegetable based cakes, so that seemed like a good option and I set my mind to work thinking of the best veggie cakes to bake for the photoshoot.
Suzanne pitched the idea to her editor and while the article was given the go ahead, it couldn't be seen as promoting just one company due to advertising regulations.  So instead Suzanne planned to write a general article, with a reference to Brighton Bakery and some local cafes that also offer vegetable cakes.  What a shame.  Still, all publicity is good publicity, as they say, and I had a nice chat on the phone to Suzanne about the benefits of using different vegetables in cakes.  I also offered to make a cake for her to photograph for the article as I was really keen to pick up some tips about taking a good food photo as I really have no idea what I'm doing.  I was sure that a certain father in law of mine would be very happy to help out with any cake leftovers...
So last Friday I baked a firm favourite from our market stalls, Courgette and Cinnamon cake.  I thought it was a good option as it has a lovely texture where you can see flecks of courgette and lemon zest and it's set off by a pretty zigzag lemon icing on top which I hoped would add interest to the photo. 
Suzanne arrived a couple of hours later with a few props in tow - a white board to reflect the light, a small tablecloth, two chopping boards, some pretty plates and a cake knife and fork to dress the scene.  I was surprised that she was happy to take the pictures in our basement kitchen as I didn't think there was enough light, but by angling the white board it lifted the shadows and the photos came out well.
We did a few different set ups, one with the cake in its tin, un-iced on a rustic wooden board, then I quickly iced it and Suzanne took a few more shots of the whole cake on the board.  We both new that the best photos would probably be once the cake was cut, so I cut two generous slices which gave us lots of options for the set up.  Different angles, a slice of cake on a plate with a fork, slices stacked up in front of the rest of the loaf, Suzanne busily snapped away dozens of pictures, all very slightly different.  I asked loads of questions along the way and picked up some good tips.  A key thing is that she used a 50mm prime lens, which we might have to invest in - our zoom lens just can't get close enough to pick up the detail that hers can.  The 50mm lens also allows you to open the aperture very wide and take lovely pictures in lower lighting conditions, which would be a real benefit in our house! 
Like most photographers, Suzanne is very particular when scrutinising her pictures, and is happy if she gets just 3 or 4 good ones from a shoot (and I'm sure she took well over a hundred photos).  Here's her final selection:

photos ©
And here's the link to Suzanne's article on the Edible Magazine website: Courgette Muffin Anyone? 

I love how our battered old wooden chopping board has come out in the pictures, and the rustic water icing really sets off the cake with a lovely contrast.
We only got a brief mention in the article, but it was great to see how Suzanne worked, and we already have a cake photography project planned for next year, so it was well worth the price of a couple of courgettes and a little bit of time.  Thanks Suzanne x

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Last Minute Christmas Cake!

Yes I should really know better, being a *proper* baker now and all, but my family Christmas cake is still, as yet, unbaked.  My dad is a big fan of Christmas cake and I'm also hoping to convert certain non-believers in my family with this one so I have a big challenge ahead.
Usually Christmas cakes, like most rich fruit cakes are matured for at least two months before eating.  There are a few reasons for this - one, it develops and deepens the rich flavour; two, you can give your cake regular "feeds" with brandy (or other spirits of your choice) to add even more flavour, moistness and festivity; and three, it makes the cake cut better without crumbling, which is particularly important for a wedding cake, where the cake must be cut into lots of small portions.
So how do you cheat it?  According to Jane Asher, the secret is to boil the fruit mixture with whisky, stout, orange juice and treacle for ten minutes and leave overnight before adding the rest of the ingredients.  She claims it will give the same "matured" flavour, and can be made as close to Christmas as you like.
So I'm putting her to the test, although I am making a few alterations to her recipe, mainly in the addition of ground almonds, lemon and swapping the whisky for Drambuie.  I would normally lean towards using brandy, but I inherited the bottle of Drambuie along with several slightly leftfield spirits in the drinks cabinet when my grandpa died and I've been waiting for a reason to use this one.  Plus it means there will be a memory of him in our Christmas celebrations, which makes me happy.

I've just boiled up the fruit and I have to say it has already put me in the Christmas spirit, as the house is filled with delicious festive aromas.  And as it's the season of giving, I thought I would share with you my version of Jane's recipe.  I will report back in the New Year with the family's verdict!
Last Minute Christmas Cake Recipe
(makes 1 x deep 8 inch round cake)
200g currants
200g raisins
100g sultanas
100g dates, chopped
75g dried prunes, chopped
75g dried figs, chopped
150g glace cherries, halved
100ml Drambuie
225ml Guinness (a little nod to my lovely wife's Irish heritage)
Zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
Juice of 1 orange and 1/2 lemon (to make 75ml)
2 tablespoons black treacle
200g butter, softened
200g muscovado or dark brown sugar
200g plain flour
50g ground almonds
5 medium eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons mixed spice
75g blanched almonds, chopped
1. Take a large saucepan and fill the pan with the dried fruit, Guinness, Drambuie, orange and lemon juice and zest and treacle. Bring the mix to the boil and simmer gently for ten minutes, stirring every so often.  I like to add a bit of Irish Christmas spirit by singing out loud very badly to The Pogues' Fairytale of New York as I'm stirring, but that's optional.
2. Take the pan off the heat and leave to cool.  Once it's cold, tip the mix into a bowl, cover and chill in the fridge overnight.
3. The next day, preheat your oven to 140C and double line an 8" round cake tin with parchment.  Make sure your parchment is a good 4 inches tall as the cake is quite deep and can rise higher than your tin.
4. Seive the flour, baking powder and spices into the bowl of your mixer, then add all the remaining cake ingredients except the chopped nuts and beat thoroughly until smooth. 
5. Fold in the fruit mixture and chopped nuts.  At this stage you can add good luck by asking everyone in the house to give the mix a stir**.
6. Pour the mix into your prepared tin and smooth the top, making a dip in the middle so that it rises up evenly.
7. Bake the cake for 3 hours and check with a skewer to see if it's done.  It may need 30-60 minutes more so keep checking every so often and cover the top with foil if it's browning too much on top.
8. Cool the cake in its tin for 10 minutes before turning out to cool completely.
9. Once cool, wrap the cake in baking parchment, then foil and keep somewhere cool until ready to ice.  Feed the cake by skewering a few holes and drizzling over 1-2 tablespoons of Drambuie every few days.

**I remember the tradition of stirring the cake mix when my mum made our Christmas cake every year and I loved the chance to be involved from a really young age, when I had to stand on a chair to reach the bowl.  We also did this at our primary school, and all 100 pupils plus all the teachers would line up in the Dining Hall at lunchtime to stir the giant mix in the bowl.  I wonder if any schools still do that?  I hope so.

UPDATE 8th December: I baked my cake today - it took nearly 4 hours in total and it's a lovely deep cake and smells beautiful, just like my mum's Christmas Cake.  It's still cooling now, and I can't wait to eat it!