- Food & Drink
I can’t decorate cakes. I’ve tried. I’ve studied how to fold icing into petals and make choir boys out of Walnut Whips, and the results always look like the aftermath of nuclear strike. When I’m rearranging the drooping bouquets of sugar flowers over the bubbles and tears in the grubby fondant, I ponder why this is. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because I’m a bit of a slattern.
I’m slatternish about many things. Taking off make up, polishing shoes, matching socks, stacking pans neatly in the cupboard rather than ramming them in and hoping they don’t crash out in an avalanche of lids and aluminium. But baking is where my slovenliness really gets stuck in. Or, being slovenliness, settles back and idly does nothing.
I think it’s the emphasis on precision that brings out my inner Domestic Demon. Every gramme must be measured, every degree in temperature adjusted to. In my head I know this, but my heart – which seems to have more of a direct link to my hands than my brain – rebels. Extra shakes of flour and knobs of butter find their way into the mixing bowl and I often play chicken with the oven timer.
Generally, things work out. At least, when it comes to the baking bit they do. But with the decorating, every lazily measured ingredient and lackadaisically rolled slab of icing shows. I’ve had to accept that I’m psychologically unsuited to icing cakes, which made the Band of Bakers 1st birthday party a bit of a poser.
The theme was ‘celebration’, which conjured images of bunting, multi-layered cakes, chocolate curls and swags of icing. All of these could be found on the buffet table. Choux buns stood proudly, meringue kisses were crispy and triple decker sponges loomed like skyscrapers.
And there was what I did. I made a tower out of popcorn, pretzels and M&Ms. Because if you can’t do things the right way, you may as well make a 2 foot high feature of your failings.
Popcorn cakes are, unsurprisingly, an American thing. The internet bulges with recipes for them, but it was this one from Cookies and Cups that I settled on.
I adapted it for British measurements, changed around the quantities and made it in 3 cake tins so it could be stacked into a pillar of diabetic horror at the party. The 3 layers blended a bit when stacked, so using pillars between each cake would improve the final look. And next time I think I’ll shape the popcorn mix into balls, stack them in a pyramid and then cover the lot in spun sugar for a very childish version of croquembouche.
Popcorn, pretzel and M&Ms cake
Sunflower oil, for greasing
150g popcorn kernel
250g salted butter, chopped
2 x 180g bags mini marshmallows
1 x 185g bag chocolate M&Ms
1 x 185g bag crispy M&Ms
150g salted pretzels
1 Brush 3 cakes tins – 15cm, 20cm and 25cm – with sunflower oil and set aside.
2 Add enough sunflower oil to a large pan to just coat the bottom and place over a medium heat. Add the popcorn kernels, cover and cook over a medium-high heat, shaking the pan occasionally. The popcorn will start popping and will keep popping for a few minutes. Once it has slowed down to one or two pops, remove from the heat.
3 Tip the popcorn into a large bowl and pick out the unpopped kernels. Set aside.
4 Wipe the pan clean, then melt the butter in it. Add the marshmallows and cook, stirring, until the marshmallows have melted. Remove from the heat and set aside for 5 minutes to cool.
5 Stir the M&Ms and pretzels into the popcorn (you need an enormous bowl for this). Pour in the marshmallow mixture and stir to coat. Divide between the cake tins and gently pack the mixture in. Set aside to set for an hour or two.
6 To serve, run a warm butter or palette knife around the edge of the cake tins. Place a plate on the pan and then flip the tin to slide the cake out. Run the knife around the top to loosen the cake tin bottom. Stack the cakes on a serving plate and serve using a sharp, serrated knife.
There’s something smugly pleasing about turning an inedible lump of food waste that was destined for the bin into a slab of tasty sponge cake. Albeit, only smugly pleasing if I ignore the fact that I allowed some food to go rotten in my fridge in the first place. I gloss over that bit of the bin cake process and just focus on the magnificent results.
The reason I let the milk go sour is because I’m currently working my way through Tea Mountain. This isn’t an actual mountain, but a large silver caddy filled with bags of fancy leaf teas I’ve been given or bought over the past year or two.
Fancy leaf teas are the kind of thing that appeal to me when I’m feeling aspirational. “How sophisticated!” I think, “I’ll invite my friends round, we’ll drink tea from a teapot, eat tiny cakes and discuss literature, the arts and political stuff.”
In reality, when I invite my friends round, we drink wine, eat chips and play increasingly obscure games of Shag, Marry, Kill (the round where I had to choose between Robert Peston, John Simpson and Andrew Marr was particularly tricky). The bags of hand-plucked white tea and rosebud strewn black tea stay in their caddy, unwanted and ignored. When I do remember to drink tea, it’s a tan-tights stew of builders brew made with papery bags and a splash of milk that has to be suspiciously sniffed before being poured.
But I’m trying to make my way up Tea Mountain and drink it down to size. My bleary mornings are now sluiced with sencha tea from Japan, jasmine tea from China and, weirdly but not unpleasantly, gingerbread flavoured red bush tea from God Knows Where. And none of these teas need milk. Which means the milk sniffing is now 100 times more likely to result in gagging and retching.
Hence the sour milk. And even more hence, the sour milk, chocolate and ginger cake. It’s a solid little cake hewn from lumpen milk and the ends of bags of flour and jars of ginger. If I’d had some dark chocolate tucked away in the cupboard I would’ve chopped it up and added it with the ginger.
The cooking time is approximate because my oven can, at best, be described as capricious. At worst I’d say it’s just plain broken and I’m hopeful that one day soon I’ll have an oven that doesn’t pick temperatures on a whim and occasionally swing the door open when my back is turned. Still, the cake came out baked and if I can make a cake out of spoiled dairy in a creaking heap of an oven, then I’m sure you can too.
Sour milk, chocolate and ginger cake
60g butter, melted, plus extra for greasing
200g self raising flour
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
125g soft light brown sugar
60g stem ginger in syrup, drained and chopped
2 medium eggs, beaten
300ml sour milk (or buttermilk if you haven’t been slatternly enough to let a load of milk go sour)
Preheat the oven to gas mark/180°C/fan oven 160°C. Grease a 20cm square cake tin and line the base with milk. Set aside.
Sift the flour, cocoa powder, spice, bicarbonate of soda and a pinch of salt into a large mixing bowl. Stir in the sugar and stem ginger.
Beat the eggs and sour milk together and then stir them into the dry ingredients to combine. Scrape the batter into the cake tin and bake for around 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean.
My name is Jassy Davis and I'm a freelance food writer, recipe developer and food stylist. I write for magazines, websites and I'm the co-author of The Contented Calf Cookbook.
You can contact me at email@example.com
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