Friday, 9 May 2014

How not to bake a bone-shaped cake: Clandestine Cake Club April

As a child, I enjoyed being the centre of attention. Kind people might have called me 'confident'. Those more realistic might have described me as a show-off. One of my favourite toys was a magic set and I loved putting on elaborate magic shows for poor unsuspecting guests and family members. I loved magic and was often practising card tricks and slight of hand vanishing acts. I was enthralled by Paul Daniels and at one point actually wanted to be him when I grew up (…or a female version at any rate).

In adulthood, I have thankfully put my desires to be a professional magician to one side. These days, it is the alchemy of baking that holds me in its thrall. Is there a happier thing to do than bake a cake? I love every part - the careful weighing of ingredients, the mixing together, the sneaky taste of cake batter, the smell and anticipation as the ingredients work their magic in the oven, the patience required as the cake cools, the decorating and finally… the eating! Perhaps the best thing about cakes is that they are designed to be shared and, as such, bring happiness to others. 

The ingenious Clandestine Cake Club was founded on the notion that the sharing of cake is wonderful and special thing. Thanks to its founder, across the nation (and world, in fact) a love of cake is bringing strangers together. The idea is a simple one; each month the organiser chooses a theme and members must bake a cake that meets with the theme and bring it along to the meeting to share with others. No judging, no individual cakes - just whole cakes for sharing and enjoying. We all try a tiny (or not-so-tiny) slice of each and at the end of the meeting share out slices of each cake to take home.

I joined my local branch of the CCC in November last year and have thoroughly enjoyed each meeting. Themes have included 'Euro delights', 'What's your tipple' and 'One of your five-a-day'. This month though was the toughest challenge to date. Over the next few months, my local town is playing host to a fantastic hare hunt. Planted throughout the town are fifty or so giant hares which have been decorated by local artists, celebrities, school children and businesses. At the end of the year, the spectacular hares will be auctioned off for charity. Our challenge this month, was to use the hare hunt as inspiration for an appropriately decorated cake.

Now, I do love to bake cakes and I even quite enjoy decorating them but (and this is a big but), I am not particularly imaginative. I like to look at a cake and copy the decoration. And I am definitely not any good at 'shaped cakes' so a hare-shaped cake was out of the question. A happy Saturday afternoon spent hare hunting gave plenty of food for thought - a pyramid-shaped cake as an homage to the splendid egyptian P-hare-oh perhaps? A millionaire's shortbread inspired cake in support of the Million-hare which sits in the window of a local hairdresser? In the end it was the 'Bare Hare' that caught my imagination. This hare finds its home at the Royal Agricultural University and depicts the anatomy of a hare - bones, muscles and all. I instantly thought of a blood-red velvet cake and then set upon my design. A bone seemed an obvious choice seeing as the traditional red velvet icing is white. It was here that my 'good' idea ended. Unsure as to how to create a bone shape (cutting the shape out of a rectangular sheet cake would be the answer next time (next time? I think not, but you never know!). Instead I decided upon a loaf cake for the main part of the bone with two heart shaped cakes for the ends. A little trimming and I'd have the classic bone shape. Or so I thought.

Having turned my kitchen into something resembling the scene of a massacre, I came to the conclusion that (as suspected), shaped cakes are definitely not for me. My bone cake ended up being ENORMOUS. Worried it might be dry, I split each cake in two and iced the middles. The icing on top went badly. In haste, I didn't have time for a crumb coat and so it was liberally speckled with bright red crumbs. Mr LBG suggested another layer of icing. It seemed like such a good idea! Not so much. The cake was now white but, much as I love a cream cheese frosting, this ended up with almost an inch of icing. Just a touch on the sickly side.

Not to be discouraged, and putting aside all sniggers from Mr LBG about how it looked rather… rude, I persevered. A small family of fondant hares added a cute touch to my otherwise monstrous bone. I carried it on a huge tray to the gathering where it loomed large amongst an array of beautiful, artistic and more elegant creations! A good time was had by all however and it is the taking part that counts, of course.

A big thank you to our organiser for another fun evening of cake! Here are a few of the more elegant creations…

Red velvet 'hare' cake

'The Sneaky Harebush'

'The Original Hare'

Carrot cake with a strawberry hare

'The Hare that was Never There'

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Final roast of the season? A herb and garlic paste for roast lamb.

Is there a finer feast than the 'Great British Roast', I wonder? I enjoy so many different styles of food but a traditional Sunday roast delivers comfort like no other. I would be hard pushed to choose a favourite meat to roast. Would it be beef, served pink with billowing yorkshire puddings and creamy horseradish sauce? Or lamb which reminds me of my childhood (it was the family favourite) and of Spring? Perhaps chicken with bread sauce and a sage-scented stuffing - the ultimate comfort food, surely? Pork with crunchy crackling and apple sauce takes some beating too. Game, when in season, is frequently on the menu is our household too.

At this time of year though, I'm always drawn to lamb. I love to roast it with strong, woody herbs like rosemary and thyme and love it too, slightly charred, on the barbecue once the weather allows. Recently, rather than stuffing slivers of garlic and sprigs of rosemary into slits in the meat, I have been making a delicious herby paste to smear all over the lamb before roasting. I push it deep into slits in the meat to ensure the flavours really penetrate the meat. A little goes a long way and the recipe below was plenty for a sizeable half-leg of lamb. I know many who claim not to like anchovies, but I defy anyone to recognise the flavour here. They simply add a lovely salty, savoury tang which goes brilliantly with the distinctive sweet meat.

Throughout the Winter and early Spring we have a 'roast' most Sundays. Usually in the evening once Master LBG is tucked up in bed, it is our way of enjoying the very last bit of the weekend and banishing the Sunday night blues. Accompanied by a decent bottle of red, it is a tradition that we love and always insist on a 'proper' pudding afterwards. Sometimes, the feast will move to lunchtime so that our son can join in or friends can join us too. A lunchtime feast is always jolly and tends to be followed by a dog walk and an evening film with cheese on toast if we have space.

This weekend we enjoyed what I suspect may be the last 'proper' roast for a while. Mr LBG would probably like us to have a roast with all the trimmings every Sunday throughout the year but I'm afraid I simply can't bring myself to sit down to gravy and roast potatoes once the warmer weather arrives (ever hopeful). Instead we'll enjoy roast chicken with roasted vegetable couscous, butterflied leg of lamb barbecued with an array of salads or rare roast beef with a Thai-inspired salad. Mr LBG may be disappointed but I look forward to the fresher and lighter flavours of late Spring and Summer. Do you sit down to a traditional roast or special meal on Sundays? Do you adapt your Sunday feast according to the seasons or stick with the traditional accompaniments year round?

Herb and garlic paste for roast lamb
Enough for half a leg of lamb (approx 1.5kg)

4-5 decent sprigs of fresh rosemary
Small handful fresh thyme
2 medium cloves garlic
2 anchovy fillets
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper

1. Strip the leaves from the rosemary and thyme sprigs. Roughly chop the rosemary.
2. Roughly chop the anchovy fillets and garlic.
3. Using a pestle and mortar, grind everything together until you have a smooth-ish paste.

To prepare lamb:
Using a sharp knife, make deep slits through the fat and into the meat of the lamb. Rub the paste all over the lamb, pushing it down into the slits where possible. Roast as usual.

I am entering this herby paste into this month's Cooking with Herbs blogging challenge hosted by Karen over at the fabulous Lavender and Lovage. This month she has asked that we try to use fresh herbs in our recipes so I hope that she will approve as these herbs came straight from the pot outside my kitchen door - from pot to paste in all of five minutes. I love to grow fresh herbs but am hopeless at remembering to water them. Rosemary and thyme always seem to survive my very erratic watering habits and I therefore use them both a great deal in my cooking!

Cooking with Herbs Lavender and Lovage