Mince Pies

We don’t normally bake mince pies, it’s always been easier to just buy them in. But since we started baking properly, buying in something like mince pies would seem wrong. Originally we weren’t going to do any this year, but as we had some friends coming round just after Christmas, it was the ideal opportunity to make some. I would probably have just used the recipe in the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book, but as we’d just watched The Great British Bake Off Christmas Masterclass, I had to have a go at Paul Hollywood’s recipe, they looked delicious!

I broke out the Preserves: River Cottage Handbook No.2 as I knew it had a mincemeat recipe in it. What I didn’t realise though, was that you’re supposed to mature mince meat for eight weeks, so that idea went out the window and instead we used a massive jar from the supermarket. I’ll need to get my act together in the Autumn and make my own, as Plum and russet mincemeat sounds really, really nice.

Making the pastry was easy, it came together well and was popped into the fridge to rest for an hour. It was at this point that things started to go pear shaped. I rolled the pastry out between layers of baking paper, simply because our cling film isn’t wide enough. I need to buy wider cling film, as it starts off OK, but then rapidly goes down hill and starts to stick and crinkle the paper. I managed to get it to a decent size, but it was way, way too thick. I should have stopped and made it thinner, but I carried on regardless.

Now, I’ve mentioned before that our oven is on the blink, we still didn’t realise this when I cooked these though. So after the allotted cooking time was up, they came out, were inspected and rapidly put back into the oven again as they were obviously undercooked. Even after a further fifteen minutes in the oven, they were still looking a bit anaemic and underdone. As you can see from the photos, they didn’t all make it out of the muffin tray on one piece

While they may have had a bit of a soggy bottom, the majority of the pastry was cooked and they were very tasty. I’ll definitely do these again, but I’ll make the pastry thinner and make sure the oven’s working first.

Christmas Cake

I was sat at work the other day eating the last bit of Christmas Cake and I thought that I really needed to get my finger out and jot down some notes. I’ve never made a rich fruit cake before and while it was pretty nice, it wasn’t without issues, so here are those notes.

I got the recipe from the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book, it was the only rich fruit cake recipe in the book that didn’t have any brandy in it. Instead it used dark rum, I had dark rum, just enough to make the cake. I know I shouldn’t really choose a recipe based on what booze I have in the house, but I wasn’t about to go out and buy a bottle of brandy, just to use a couple of tablespoons in a cake.

The baking of the cake was pretty straight forward, although the kids found chopping the dried pineapple a bit on the hard side. I was trying to get them involved and engaged, but ten minutes of chopping dried pineapple was more then enough for either of them, it was more than enough for me! I managed to give myself a cracking blister from chopping all the dried mango and pineapple, if I ever bake this recipe again, I think I’d soak them in the rum to soften them first.

Other than the dried fruit, it was really easy and the kids did seem to enjoy themselves occasionally, especially with the stirring. It did seem to take a while to cook, it was supposed to be about two hours, but it ended up quite a bit more than that. It turns out that since we baked this, the fan on the oven has stopped working, so we can only assume it wasn’t working properly when we cooked the cake and that affected the cooking time.

We made the cake a couple of weeks before Christmas, so we should really have fed it with a bit more rum before we came to ice it. As we’d used all the rum up during the baking, there was none left for any feeding and I just like the brandy, I wasn’t about to buy any more for the couple of tablespoons worth that, in hindsight, was required. So the main note I need to make for myself if I bake another rich fruit cake, is to have enough booze in the house.

Almond Paste
After sitting for a couple of weeks, it was time to start preparing the cake for icing, which meant covering it in almond paste, or marzipan as it’s more commonly known. I decided to make our own, why buy preprepared marzipan when you’re making everything else from scratch? It was pretty easy, chuck everything into a bowl and mix until it forms a ball. The only real issue was with the egg, I only had large, I have a feeling I should have used a medium as it resulted in the almond paste being a bit on the stick and hard to work with side.

Because of the extra moisture, I decided against trying to make separate top and sides, like the book suggests. I just rolled out a large disc and dropped it over the top of the cake, after I’d slathered it in warm, sieved, apricot jam. I don’t think it looked too bad once it was one, it might not have been as good as doing it with separate pieces, but I was pretty happy with how it looked.

After a couple of day for the almond paste to dry out a bit, it was time to ice the cake. The book suggested that bought sugar paste icing should be used, but where would the fun in that be, besides, there’s nothing quite as Christmassy as spiked royal icing on your cake. After watching the Great British Bake Off Christmas Masterclass, I decided to go with Mary Berry’s icing recipe as it looked pretty easy.

The resulting icing was a bit on the slack side, which I assume was mainly due to me using large eggs, rather than medium eggs, although it look OK until I added the glycerine. I didn’t have any more icing sugar to add to thicken it, so it was slightly sloppy when it was slathered all over the cake. This meant that the spikes slowly sunk back and it formed a bulge round the edge of the base. The kids were quite impressed though and had great fun whacking the cake with the pallet knife to create the spikes.

So what was it like to eat…? Pretty nice as it goes. I was worried that the dried fruit would be all tough and chewy, but it wasn’t; I’d still soak it in the rum next time though. The cake was slightly on the dry side, I’ll be honest, but I think a feed or two would have sorted that out; so I’ll need to make sure I have enough booze next time. The icing was too soft, even after a slice had been cut and left for a few hours; it hardened at the edges, but the middle was still squidgy. I’d consider leaving out the glycerine next time, or maybe add more icing sugar to thicken it up.

Over all I was very pleased with my first rich fruit cake, the rest of the family weren’t so enamoured, only having a singly slice each. So yes, I destroyed about seven eights of the thing all on my own and it wasn’t a chore. I’ll definitely make another Christmas cake next year, but I might just go for Mary Berry’s recipe in its entirety, as it looked very nice.

Genoese Sponge

On the same day I made the brioche buns, I really fancied making a sponge cake of some description. So while the brioche was in the dehydrator proving, I broke out the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book and looked through the options. I didn’t have much flour, sugar or butter, so ended up looking at those sponges that are made by whisking up eggs to provide the lightness.

I settled on the Genoese Sponge, mainly as I had all the ingredients, but also as I had a recollection that it had been one of the technical challenges from this year’s Great British Bake Off (here’s the recipe for Fraisier cake). Making the batter wasn’t too hard, but knowing when it was "thick enough to leave a trail on the surface when the whisk is lifted" was a bit harder and I probably over whisked it.

Also the folding in of the flour and butter was a bit of a chore. Normally I’m quite good at folding things in, but the flour really didn’t want to be incorporated and every time I drew the spoon through the batter, the flour just seems to reappear on the surface unmixed. The butter was slightly easier, but I think I knocked too much air out of the mixture getting it all mixed in.

I decided to make two sponges, rather than one deep one, mainly as I wanted to pack the middle with some double cream and tropical fruit. So I divided the mix into two prepared tins and gently placed them in the oven. They didn’t rise very much, but it was noticeable that they had risen ever so slightly. After they had cooled for a bit, I turned them out and left them to cool properly on a wire rack.

Just like I always do, I over whipped the double cream. For some reason, I always give it an extra whisk or two when it gets to the soft peak stage and this tips it over the edge, you’d think I’d have learnt by now. I mixed some cubed mango and a couple of passion fruit into the cream and slathered it all over one on the sponges, the other went on top and was given a liberal dusting of icing sugar.

I thought the sponge turned out OK, it had a bit of spring to it, even though it was maybe a touch on the dense side. The passion fruit didn’t come through enough in the filling though and the pips were a bit on the annoying side, so I think I’d use a couple more and sieve them in the future. Over all it wasn’t a bad first attempt, but I’ve left plenty of room for improvement.

Interestingly, the kids were divided on it, my wee boy loved it and ate quite a lot of the next few days. My daughter on the other hand, only had the one slice, she scrapped all the filling out, ate one side of it and wouldn’t touch it again. Might need to find a different filling, maybe I should try making a crème pâtissière and doing a Fraisier cake