Gastrobabble

A quest for gastro-liberation, an excuse to buy more cookbooks…


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Think pink

I am, by nature, a colourful person.

I have a penchant for:

  • colourful coats
  • colouring my hair
  • colourful language

So, why has it taken so long for it to occur to me that eating a plateful of pink is one of life’s unsung glories? And I’m not talking the sugary, insipid pink that adorns nouveau-vintage bakeries. I mean magenta and cerise, bold colours that feed the eye as well as the palate.

If you don’t love beetroot then I’m not sure this dish will convince you. If you’ve never had roasted beetroot, then let me try. You know that jammy caramalised thing that happens to onions and roast peppers? That happens to beetroot too. And everything that I suspect that you distrust about beetroot (that distinctive earthy aroma; the memories of half-open vacuum packs, a mocking reminder of abandoned health kicks; borscht) becomes immaterial when you roast beets. It becomes much softer and soothing and tastes less like a punch in the mouth from a forest floor.

There. Convinced enough to try?

Roasted beetroot and walnut tagliatelle

Beetroot and walnut tagliatelle

Bunch of raw beetroot

Tagliatelle

Tub of mascarpone cheese

Three cloves of garlic

A lemon

A generous handful of shelled walnut halves

A handful of rocket

Goat’s cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat your oven to gas mark 6/200c. Wash the beetroot, decapitate their leafy tops and place in a baking tray with plenty of olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast until tender. (The beetroot that I used were small walnut-sized beets which took about half an hour to roast. Larger ones the size of cricket balls will take about 50-60 minutes.)

Whilst you are waiting for them to roast, have a glass of wine and cook your pasta in plenty of salted water. Drain and rinse in cold water.

Lightly toast your walnut halves in a small pan, for a few minutes (try not to let them colour, you just want to enhance the nutty taste). Put to one side until you are ready to assemble your dish.

Once the beetroot is cooked and cooled, peel and quarter them. Crush the garlic cloves and gently sautee in a glug of olive oil for a few minutes until soft and aromatic. Add in your beetroot, pasta and walnuts and swirl the mascarpone through. Add in the juice of the lemon to loosen up the sauce a little. Finish by stirring in crumbled goat’s cheese and rocket; season to taste; and serve.

A note: If you find that mascarpone makes too claggy a sauce for your liking, creme fraiche would be an excellent substitute here. Too fatty? Try low-fat Greek yoghurt or half-fat creme fraiche. Not naughty enough? Double cream. It also occurs to me that a soft, creamy blue cheese would not be out of place.

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Layer up (baby, it’s cold outside)

Ever since I stumbled across Sweetapolita’s blog, I’ve been consumed with the desire to make a skyscraper of a layer cake. The kind that looks like a gleaming palace of sugar and butter; a veritable Taj Mahal of cakes.

My few attempts so far have been verging on the impressive:

Funfetti cake Devil's food cake Brooklyn blackout cake

(funfetti cake with meringue buttercream; devil’s food cake; Brooklyn blackout cake)

Batter behemoths these may be but they still did not quite scratch that layer cake itch that I seem to have contracted from reading American baking blogs. So, when the rainbow layer cake craze swept the blogosphere, the garish, kitschy baker in me was hopelessly bowled over at first sight.

The problem is that this isn’t the kind of cake that you just knock up without a recipient in mind. (Believe me, I am a girl who will bake for the slightest reason imaginable but even I cannot justify a five-layer cake for a whim. And greed.) Spurred on by the success of my battenburgs and with my best friend’s birthday looming, I eagerly seized upon the opportunity to make its slightly more sophisticated cousin, the ombré cake.

No, no, no! Not hombre cake. (Arf.) An ombré cake. Over to dictionary corner:

om·bré

adj.

Having colors or tones that shade into each other.

Ombre cake cross section

So, armed with a bottle of pink food colouring and a whole day set aside in pursuit of baking excellence, I managed to sneak in a final food challenge before the year ended.

Not only does this cake have an amazing surprise factor (falling only slightly short of having a woman pop out of the cake, I feel) but it is buttery and moist. Everything that you feel a birthday cake should be, this is the living embodiment. So with promises of an empty plate and icing smeared round your mouth (like at your fifth birthday party), make this and quiver with anticipation at a true birthday surprise.

Surprise ombré cake with whipped buttercream
Adapted from Raspberri Cupcakes 

Whipped buttercream is my new obsession, flown back over with me from New York this autumn. I had an ethereal experience with the Magnolia Bakery red velvet cupcakes and it has resulted in me using their recipe for whipped buttercream for everything, short of brushing my teeth. It sounds more complicated than it really is; a standard buttercream which is stabilised with a milk and flour roux. Some alchemy occurs when you add the roux to eliminate the grittiness which is present in normal buttercream. Instead you end with with puffy, cloudy drifts of shaving foam smooth icing.

Completed ombre cake

For the cake:

335g plain flour

225g butter, softened

400g caster sugar

225ml whole milk

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 large eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Food colouring (liquid, gel or paste)

For the whipped buttercream icing:

350g butter, softened

500g icing sugar

A heaped tablespoon of plain flour

Whole milk

Preheat your oven to 180c/350f/gas mark 4 and grease and line as many similar sized cake tins as you have. (I used one 20cm and one 21cm as I figured the cake would need trimming down any way, so what was a centimetre between friends?)

In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Do this for longer than you think necessary. Put a timer on for 3 minutes and using a hand blender, whizz until it looks cloudy and almost white. Then add your eggs in, one at a time and combining in fully after each one.

Bowls and batter

Ovoid segue: make sure your eggs are room temperature if possible. If you keep them in the fridge (as I used to do before I made a frivolous purchase of a ceramic chicken, called Henry) then place your eggs in a jug or bowl of hot water from the tap. A minute in hot tap water will warm them up nicely.

In a measuring jug, combine the milk and vanilla extract. In another bowl, combine the rest of your dry ingredients (flour, salt and baking powder). Alternative between adding the  dry and wet ingredients until fully combined into a smooth batter. (Adding a third or quarter of each will work fine).

Divide your batter between five bowls and add your food colouring as desired. If you are going for the rainbow, don’t scrimp and go bright as you dare. For a gradient effect, start with the darkest layer first and work your way up to the lightest. Use a silicon spatula to combine to ensure that the colouring is fully and evenly distributed throughout each batch of batter. If you are compulsive like me, you will probably use scales to divide up your batter (it will work out to around 200g per batch, for five layers).

Batter in bowls

Bake each layer for 15-20 minutes, until an inserted tester or knife comes out clean. The sponge should not wobble but feel just set when lightly pressed with your finger. Leave to cool in the tin for 5-10 minutes before unmoulding onto sheets of clingfilm or baking parchment. Once cooled, wrap and chill in the fridge for ease of icing later. (As this sponge is quite moist, you will need to keep each layer wrapped separately to prevent them sticking together).

Whilst all the layers are chilling in the fridge, make the buttercream. Firstly, make your roux by combining a heaped tablespoon of plain flour and a generous glug of milk in a small pan. Whisk over a very low heat to create a smooth paste (keep adding milk if the paste becomes too solid. The roux should be of a thick custardy consistency. If it’s lumpy, don’t worry. Either push it through a sieve or pick any large lumps out). Transfer to a bowl and leave to cool. Meanwhile, cream the butter until light and fluffy and gradually add in the icing sugar (you may not use the whole 500g, so keep tasting and adding the sugar according to taste). Add the now-cooled roux and beat in well, until fully combined.

Whipped buttercream

A note: you will notice that my icing was brown. This was because (middle-class food woe alert) my stupid Sainsbury’s Local only sells fairtrade golden icing sugar (STUPID). So rather than snowy white buttercream, I ended up with dreary beige buttercream. So, in honour of the Birthday Girl’s tastes, I decided to make a chocolate whipped buttercream. Once you’ve made the buttercream, add in cooled melted chocolate. I used 180g of dark coffee chocolate but I think it could have done with double that amount for a stronger taste and darker colour.

The time to assemble your masterpiece has arrived. Trim the crisp edges of all your sponges off. Place in a bowl because by now you will be peckish and will want to pick at them. Using approximately half of the buttercream, sandwich each layer together with a generous dollop of icing. Use a palatte knife to smooth and spread the buttercream right to the edge of each layer.

Sandwiched layers

For a flawless finish, cover your cake in a crumb coat of icing. This is essentially a thin layer of buttercream, smoothed around the outside of your cake which is then chilled in the fridge for 15 minutes. It eliminates the possibility of any stray crumbs wandering into your frosting and ruining the effect. Decorate as you wish – I went for a border and heart using coloured sugar sprinkles. I would not be averse to multi-coloured sugar strands, raspberries, dessicated coconut or chopped nuts. I was very close to using edible glitter and still rue to decision not to create an Abba disco cake. Alas.

Sprinkles on the cake

This cake keeps in the fridge overnight, uncovered once iced. Leave out so that it comes to room temperature before serving.