Wednesday, 24 October 2012

One Sunday...

I felt like baking bread.  And not my usual lazy way of throwing a pre-mix and water into my bread machine, this time my little piggy mitts wanted to get down and dirty.  

Not Quite Nigella has a really great hot cross bun recipe using white chocolate cinnamon chips.  I can't easily get them here, but I've made the recipe using dark chocolate chips, milk chocolate chips, a mixture of both, and even exchanged the 1 tsp of cinnamon for mixed spice and made it with raisins soaked in rum (yum!).   This time I was short on dark choc chips but rummaged around my pantry and found a cup of peanut butter chips - even better!!! 

You start by proving your yeast.  In about 15 mins, the mixture of lukewarm milk and sugar awakens the little dried up organisms that give bread its rise.  I've done this many, many times but have never seen it rise like this!! 

It was bubbling and starting to overrun the cup even as I hurriedly measured out the flour!

After about 5 minutes of kneading most of the ingredients together, you sit it in a greased, covered bowl in a warm place to rise (the oven with or without the light turned on or the microwave with the door shut have always worked well for me).  I haven't baked these since Easter, so I couldn't remember if the dough was meant to be smooth or not but I didn't want to overknead it so I crossed my sticky fingers and  left it to rise for about an hour and fifteen minutes.

The ugly duckling
 Much to my relief, it again rose to high heaven (gotta love that yeast!)

Talk about doubled in size!
I gently pressed it down, added the remaining chips and then kneaded it gently to form a large ball, which I then divided into 16 pieces.

I'm lazy with forming them into balls - a bun by any other shape tastes just as sweet, no?

Leave it to rise for another 20 mins, in my case I leave them to rise in the grill while the oven is pre-heating.  It gets nice and warm in there and I don't have to worry about drafts!

If you think the rising is over, think again!
5 minutes in the oven and the yeast still hadn't run out of steam!

These buns smell absolutely amazing fresh out of the oven.

A few minutes before they were done (they take about 20-30 minutes) I prepared the glaze which is basically a mixture of water, gelatin and sugar.  NQN's recipe makes a generous amount of  glaze, so halving it provides just enough to coat the buns without having pools of sticky sugar syrup.

When I've baked these for Easter I've piped chocolate crosses on them but not today!  Today it's going straight into my gob - fluffy, sweet, chocolate peanut butter deliciousness - YAAARM!!

I want to make more
They're best eaten the same day they're baked, but I toasted one under the grill every morning for breakfast for about 5 days and they were still divine - mmmm fluffy bread and gooey melted chocolate and peanut butter chips. *drool* 

All I can say is a MASSIVE thank you to Lorraine Elliott (I love her blog - for sharing this easy, never-fail recipe for home-made sweet buns.  For anyone who's been too scared to bake bread or work with yeast, this is an easy and delicious way to get started with facing that fear!

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Too much of a good thing

I almost cried when I received in the mail a birthday gift voucher to eat at Restaurant Amuse in East Perth.  I've wanted to experience a degustation for years now, but have never been able to justify the expense.  It was the perfect present and I felt and still feel so blessed to have such thoughtful and generous friends. 

The decor is simple but the service was prompt and professional.  While the staff may not have been as warm as we've experienced at other restaurants, they were highly efficient, cool and polite - and everyone who spoke to us knew everything there was to know about what they were holding!  Not that the food itself wasn't good, but I can see where a lot of the $200 charge per head (or $125 without wines) could be applied.   

Shortly after you're seated you're given a sealed menu - this gives you the option of keeping it sealed and allowing yourself to be surprised, or having a look ahead of time.  We decided to wait until we were about halfway through before opening it:

It's not drool, I swear!
If I tried to go through each dish individually, we'd all be here longer than the 3.5 hours they recommend you allow!  In short, about a third of the dishes were amazing, a third were nice but nothing special and the remaining third were forgettable.  For both of us, the outstanding dish of the night was the smoked egg with pinenuts and 11 mushrooms.  The egg was a soft but cooked consistency and it was, as we soon discovered, quite literally smoked!

They weren't kidding!
It's creamy, smokey and full of flavour.  My only small criticism is that I think the chicken stock and pieces of skin made it a little heavy handed on the salt, but this dish was quite possibly the first one that made us sit up and pay attention.

The wines were paired perfectly with each dish and I think if you are only going to do this once, or once in a very long time (as I would), then it's well worth the extra expense, even if you do as we did and share one person's wine course between two.   

The presentation couldn't be faulted and while none of the dishes were unpleasant,  I can't say that each one of them was a knock out and for my limited stomach space, there was just too much of it.  I believe that if you're going to charge $200 for one meal, it should be near unforgettable and not for quantity over quality.  I would have happily paid half the cost for one-third of the dishes and walked away completely satisfied and possibly more impressed. 

I don't mean that it wasn't a wonderful experience, though.  It certainly was - tasting the flavours of each dish through the paired wines, learning the background to each dish, knowing I was trying something unique/seasonal..  I've never experienced anything like that before and unless I win the lotto, possibly never will again.    

In short: did I enjoy myself?  Yes.  Would I go back?  No, but that may not be because Amuse did anything particularly wrong (though perhaps if all the dishes were as delicious as the smoked egg I may feel differently).  It's just that it was quite possibly the first time I have walked away from a meal genuinely thinking of starving people in Africa: there are people out there who can't afford a dollar for food.  I spent $200 for more food than I could comfortably consume and some 3 weeks later, still feel deeply ashamed for the extravagance.

But don't despair, it'll pass; and no doubt more quickly than it should.
- Mr Bennett (Pride and Prejudice) 

The shorts

Restaurant Amuse on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

To old friends and new

When I got to highschool I was massively awkward but the complete opposite of self-conscious, ie I had absolutely no self awareness at all:  I could walk around with underwear over my head (not that I ever did) and it wouldn't occur to me that it was not appropriate.  I guess you could say I was a late bloomer to sentience.

So it was a bit scary, I didn't realise that getting this music scholarship thing (in my mind it was nothing important) would mean moving house and leaving my very tiny northern suburbs primary school and everything and everyone that I knew (and who knew what I was like and was comfortable with how I was).  I got to high school and felt like everyone was really grown up and knew everything.  I had been so secluded and cloistered, playing on footpaths with my next door neighbours and their siblings and my little brother - then suddenly there were hundreds of people every day at school, staircases to classrooms, an entire new music wing, green room, auditorium, gyms.. a far cry from the single boxed assembly area, oval, demountables, single music room, library and a handful of  other classrooms that I'd grown up with.

It was a little overwhelming.  And in my own vague way, I dimly realised that I didn't fit in, but wasn't self-aware enough to know what to do to fix that. *shudder* I know that a lot of people think school was the best time of their lives but I hated it.  Hated every single day.  When I look back, I realise that so many things outside of my control were changing and going on at the same time and really I had no idea who I was as I was changing so much myself.  I think those formative years define who you end up being and though I'm glad I survived them, I'm equally glad I will never have to go through them again.

Tenille was one of the very first people I met in highschool and one of the first who I called a friend.  She was more part of the 'cool' crowd, but accepted me despite my social awkwardness and lack of awareness (which caused me to just say whatever stupid things entered my head, no matter how offensive or silly). She also studied music and was (and still is) a gifted pianist.  Through her, I ended up meeting the girls she went to primary school with, one of whom is my best friend to this day, some 15 years on.

Facebook reconnected us some years ago and seeing my cakes develop over time, she approached me earlier this year to ask if I would be willing to make her wedding cake.  I was touched that she would trust me with her big day, and scared that I would stuff it up in some way.

Her theme was unconventional: rockabilly/vintage nautical 1950's.  She said she wanted only a small single tiered cake, as her friends were not really sweet eaters and that they were going to have a tiered cheese cake (made of cheese wheels) instead.

Along with a porcelain topper, the design elements she gave me to work with were rockabilly hearts, polka dots, anchors and red roses.   The colour scheme was red, white and grey.  I did a bit of research on what rockabilly was, and decided that the heart wouldn't be complete without the lovers' swallows, and I used Amazing Mold Putty to turn a pair of cheap earrings from Ebay into little fondant nautical accents.

Tenille would have no idea how grateful I am that we met, and though I know rationally I don't owe her anything, my inner sentimentalist really wanted to produce something unique, my way of saying "thank you".

I have it on good authority that the whole cake was eaten!
I think of all my cakes to date, this is my new favourite.  Quite often what I will envisage doesn't really translate (it may be too busy, or the colours don't work etc) but this cake is quite possibly the first time that I've been able to reproduce exactly what I've pictured.   I can also say with pride that this cake is completely my own design.  Thank you again, Tenille, for giving me this opportunity!

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Monkeying around

The SIL of an old high school friend contacted me about making monkey themed cupcakes or a cake for her son's first birthday.  We tossed a few ideas each other's way and she really loved a cake made by Bella Cupcakes (of whom I am an unashamed Facebook stalker - if I lived in NZ I'd be camped outside her doorstep begging to clean and wash dishes for free in exchange for letting me watch her work!). She sent me a pic of her son's new birthday outfit and asked for the colours on the cake to match, but keeping the monkey figurine and expression as on Bella Cupcakes' design. 

I have to say I'm really pleased with how this cake and figurine turned out - as I may have mentioned before, figure modelling is not a strength of mine, even if it's just based on simple balls and ovals, I'm not great with proportions and shaping.  This little guy took me the better part of 2 hours and many, many, many different faces, bodies, eyes, nostrils... you get the idea.  

On a less positive note, I had my iphone next to me with the picture open as I coloured the fondant - how was I to know that on my computer screen the colours are completely different!  I also added little red accents as I felt the colours needed a little 'lift' for contrast.   

Ok on my iphone the colours actually matched!
Despite everything, my customer was really delighted when she came to collect the cake.  Another success!

Not feeling the love..

I guess you can't always be lucky enough to get cake orders for designs that you love and want to create.  When the client sent me the picture of the kind of cake she wanted, I had mixed feelings.  One part of me was a little relieved as it's not a complicated design, the other part of me recoiled a little, as it's not a cake that I would ever want (no offence to the artist, it's just not to my taste).

A big part of why I love making cakes for people is being able help make their event that little bit more special, and if this is the cake that will make her day, then this is the cake that I will produce!

She asked for purple accents instead of cream (but retaining the smaller dots in cream) and she gave me the choice of cream or purple ribbon.

Client's pic on the left - my cake on the right
I used it as an opportunity to practise smoothing edges and sharpening sides, which was a bit of a fail - both times I used the upside down ganache method, when I went to remove the top board, it took a layer of cake off with it.  I felt like this cake felt the same about me as I had about it!  After much cursing the components came together and it overall doesn't look too bad, though there are many pit marks and cracks on this cake - I really think I'm going to have to do something about my Mat - either get a new one or stop using it, as having to fix all the blemishes it creates is becoming counterproductive - I've tried wiping it down, adding a thin layer of powdered sugar, using more shortening, so far nothing has been able to get rid of the tiny airbubbles and the pockmarks they create.

Anyway, the part I was most pleased with was the cross (though in hindsight I wish I'd cut the foundation level a little thinner, as the words were very hard to fit!) - I made the mold using a piece of costume jewellery I got from Spotlight, and I just love adding silver cachous to all my cakes - it was nice to bring a little bling to this simple design.

I wanted to like it, but purple/pink and polka dots used in this way is just not my thing, and I have to wonder if not liking the design psychologically made the whole process a lot more difficult than it had to be.  That maybe it was some self-fulfilling prophecy: "I hate this horrible cake, therefore I will produce a horrible cake".

When she came to collect the cake, she was so excited and happy - she said I'd brought the cake to a whole new level.  I felt almost guilty.