Gastrobabble

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


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You know what I’m going to say and you are going to roll your eyes at it but really, making homemade marshmallows is incredibly simple. The difficult part is getting round to buying a sugar thermometer (which is easily obtainable from Amazon or any good kitchenware shop – I got mine from Divertimenti and had change from £5). Once you have a sugar thermometer, you can a) make all sorts of sweeties and b) snigger in a puerile fashion at the different temperatures marked on it (“hard ball”, “soft crack”…come now confectioners, you filthbots.)

Why bother going to the trouble of making your own marshmallows? Apart from the customisation factor (any flavour you want, any colour you want), homemade marshmallows are incredibly light, fluffy delicate things. It’s like eating a cloud, kitten and yummy fog all rolled up into one chunky square.* If you’ve made a meringue, then a marshmallow is simply the next-door neighbour. It’s whipped egg whites stabilised with a sugar syrup heated precisely to 122c (the “hard ball” stage…you have my permission to snigger at the back) and gelatine. Honestly, the most troublesome thing about making marshmallows is the washing up and that’s a small price to pay if you’re a mallow addict like me.

*N.B. No kittens were harmed in the writing of this post.


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If you’ve never been enamoured of gnocchi because you’ve always found it too doughy and stodgy, you’ve never had homemade gnocchi. I too, dear readers, was once like you: suspicious of the plump little dumplings which look suspiciously like Adipose. Make it once and you’ll be converted, it’s idiotically easy: mashed boiled potatoes made into a dough with flour and egg and then fleetingly cooked before being enveloped in whatever flavours come to hand. I used Giorgio Locatelli’s recipe (skipping out the oven-drying-out phase and using plain flour in lieu of ’00’ grade flour) and they still turned out like fluffy little spuddy pillows. If that doesn’t entice you, then you’re clearly a lost cause.


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“See Naples or die”

Well, apparently that’s what the locals say in Naples. I’m not sure if that’s a threat or a testament to the sights of Naples (actually, having been to Naples, I’d suggest that it’s most likely the former but I’ll save that for my memoirs. Out at Christmas at all reputable book retailers etc.)

ANYWAY.

What I really want to talk about is this sugary looking confection which I conjured for a recent charity bake sale at work…

Neopolitan layer cake

Never mind that I almost cried making this cake (due to extreme tiredness and lack of proper sustenance apart from two iced buns and a Heston spiced shortcrust mince pie).

Never mind that it turned out slightly lopsided because as it turns out, the oven in my flat is on a slight tilt.

Never mind that I had a batter calculation error which left me with less layers than I originally planned for.

Because as much as it looks like this cake has been manufactured by Katie Price and will probably vanquish the enamel right off you teeth within fifty paces, the nifty inclusion of a fresh strawberry puree in the strawberry layer brings a welcome tart tang which makes the cake sing. I know what you’re thinking – fresh strawberry puree sounds like an absolute sodding arse to make. If you’re a soup fanatic or hopelessly middle-class, you’ll own a hand blender and it’ll be a whizz (HAHA). If not, I imagine that a potato masher (or fist if you’re endearingly macho) will do pretty much the same thing.

Anyway, what with the craze for multicoloured layer cakes and the surprise factor once you cut it open, this is one of those perfect party cakes. It’s the kind of thing that cries out to be eaten alongside board games, skewiff party hats and with a smear of buttercream left on the tip of your nose.

Neopolitan layer cake cover image

Neopolitan layer cake

Inspired by the ever-marvellous Sweetapolita and I Am Baker, I cobbled together a combination of my favourite chocolate and white cake recipes and modified it for a strawberry layer too. All with UK measurements so no messing about with US cup measures (I am always exceedingly suspicious of measuring butter by cups. Probably due in part to the mess factor.) Unlike other multicoloured layer cakes, you can’t knock up one batch of batter and tint it different colours – each layer needs to be made separately so I’d recommend making the sponges the day before they’re needed (they keep very well wrapped in clingfilm and kept in the fridge for a few days) and then all that’s needed is an assembly job.

Ingredients

For the chocolate cake (adapted from Tarek Malouf’s recipe for Brooklyn blackout cake from The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook)

100g salted butter

260g caster sugar

2 large eggs

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

45g cocoa powder

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

170g plain flour

160ml milk

For the strawberry and vanilla layers (adapted from Edd Kimber’s raspberry ripple cake recipe from The Boy Who Bakes)

335g salted butter

335g plain flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

400g caster sugar

6 large eggs, separated

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

185ml milk

250g fresh strawberries, washed, topped and pureed

Pink food colouring (I tend to opt for Wilton’s rose gel icing)

For the icing

250g salted butter

150g icing sugar

2 tablespoons plain flour

100ml milk

Pink food colouring

Jam of your choice to sandwich the layers (I went for a combination of St Dalfour strawberry and Tiptree Christmas jam)

For the chocolate layer

Preheat your oven to 170c/325f/gas mark 3 and prepare a 23in springform cake tin.

Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time until fully combined. Now add in the vanilla extract, cocoa powder, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. Once those are fully combined, alternate between adding one-third of the flour and milk and mix until well combined. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 50-60 minutes. Leave to cool for 15 minutes before unmoulding.

For the vanilla and strawberry layers

Preheat your oven to 180c/356f/gas mark 4 and prepare aforementioned 23in springform cake tin.

Beat together the butter and 300g of the sugar until fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time until fully combined and then add in the vanilla extract. Once fully combined, alternate between adding one-third of the flour and milk.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites to the soft peak stage and then gradually add in the remaining 100g caster sugar until the mixture becomes stiff and glossy.

Divide both the batter and egg white mixtures equally into two. One half will be baked as is to form the vanilla layer and the other half will be combined with the strawberry puree.

Side note: as I only own one 23in cake tin, I had to bake each layer separately. So, I didn’t fold in the egg whites until each layer was ready to bake because I didn’t want to lose the air and lightness by combining in advance. If you are more organised than me and have more than one cake tin, then a) well done, I salute you and b) carry on, you know what you’re doing.

For the vanilla layer, fold the egg whites into the rest of the cake batter until fully combined. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 50-60 minutes. Leave to cool for 15 minutes before unmoulding.

For the strawberry layer, mix the strawberry puree into the egg, butter and flour mixture and then add the food colouring in to tint to your desired shade of pink. Fold in the egg whites once you are ready to bake the layer, pour into your tin and again, bake for 50-60 minutes. The strawberry puree makes this layer quite moist so it may need slightly longer than the other layers. Check with a knife, cake tester or toothpick before removing from the oven.

For the buttercream

Start by making a milk and flour roux: whisk the milk and flour in a small saucepan on a low heat. Once it starts to thicken, take off the heat and leave to cool whilst you make the rest of the buttercream. Using a handmixer, beat the salted butter until fluffy and creamy. Gradually add in the icing sugar, tasting after each addition – you want to aim for a buttercream that is still slightly salty to provide a counterpoint to the sweet sponge. Consequently you might not use all of the icing sugar specified in the ingredients (to be honest, I never measure how much icing sugar I use, I always do it by taste). Once the butter and sugar are fully combined, mix in the roux, at which point the buttercream should take on a whipped consistency. Tint with food colouring to desired shade.

To assemble

Carefully cut your layers in half. As you can see from my picture, I only managed to successfully do this with the chocolate layer because a) I assembled it at 11:30pm at night and was deathly tired and cold, b) I cut the strawberry layer unevenly so only one half survived and c) I divided the batter unevenly so there was only enough for one vanilla layer. Learn from my mistakes gentle readers. And don’t despair if you do make mistakes because you can always tell people that you originally intended four layers. SHH. It’s our secret. Never tell.

Sandwich together your layers with a jam of your choosing. You don’t have to go for a mismatched combination like I did. That was a failure on my part for not conducting a conserve audit before proceeding to assemble this.

Start off by icing with a thin crumb coating (that chocolate layer will flake off like a bastard, just to warn you). Chill in the fridge for 20 minutes to set (or overnight). Once this has set, you should be able to frost the rest, free of the worry of errant crumbs in the final outer layer. I finished it off with a spatula (a palatte knife would be preferable but I realised that I no longer own one) for a smooth and clean finish and multicoloured sugar sprinkles.