The not so great Basque bake-off

November 21st, 2013 § 8 comments § permalink

In which I pitted myself against a small yet obstinately hot oven, a bag of moist flour and a baking culture that harbours deep suspicions of butter. The challenge was twofold. Deliver a plain biscocho (vanilla sponge) to my son’s play school for his first birthday. And bake something a bit more  extravagant to enjoy with friends later. I am not a baker. But when your baby turns one, you slap that apron on and go cruising the internet for a suitably simple recipe.

 

Birthday boy Ben

Forgive me for saying this but Spain’s baking culture is so dour and devoid of, well, BUTTER – that emissary of melt-in-the-mouth morishness – not to mention icing or ganache, without which no pious sponge can ever be pimped into a thing of wonder. So with two cakes to deliver in one day (never before, I tell you) my last flash of equilibrium entailed opting for a box of cake mix for the vanilla sponge. Thinking being: they’re one year old, most of it will end up on the floor, plus why waste precious time on something which is dull by definition. No. Instead I would lavish all my attention on the masterpiece for home consumption.

My first easy-peasy box of cake mix exited the oven in an angry hard lump with an unattractive bulging centre and what can only be described as cake acne. I deduced from the drawings on the box that the oven had been too hot. No problem, I bought another. This was a small distraction from the major crisis I was entering into regarding the showstopper I had to produce.

 

A lethal weapon at 20 paces

 

The week prior to Ben’s birthday I was so excited. So full of love for this little being. I needed to express it. And through some mysterious internal process the medium was to be cake. I became possessed and as the day drew closer, terribly anxious. I decided on red velvet cupcakes. A veritable sensory sucker punch. Cupcakes are only now becoming fashionable in Spain and surely Getaria had yet to taste its first. But when you live in Vanillaspongeville, decent red food colouring is impossible to find.

Martha Stewart came to the rescue via her website. Strawberry cupcakes with buttercream icing. Easy (Martha’s claim) and with enough fresh fruit to charm parents weary of nasty additives. You know how they say the first rule is read the entire recipe? Before you start? You should. And of course I didn’t. Because I never do. Which, in a nutshell, is why I suck at baking. I read the cupcake recipe which seemed easy enough but not the buttercream icing recipe. Who could anticipate that a buttercream icing would require a thermometer? And sugar heated to exactly 160 degrees. Clearly Martha and I have different definitions of ‘easy’.

I realised, as I buttered the cupcake pans, that my anxiety levels were completely out of whack. It was not about the cake. Despite being so excited about celebrating Ben’s first year with us, on the actual day, I was a sobbing mess. I missed my departed parents terribly. I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of providing a wonderful life for this little man. Out of my comfort zone in a place where you can’t order a fun birthday cake or even a box of pretty cupcakes. I had managed to successfully infuse the baking of a cake with an entire existential crisis. Let it not be said that I do not, at times, overachieve.

 

I wish my parents could have met their grandson. Pictured here on their wedding day.

 

I took Martha´s hand and braved forth. The cupcake batter was delicious. Raw. Winning, I thought, feeling bolstered. The old gung-ho kitchen vixen reemerged. A batch of 12 cupcakes went in. There was a whole lot of batter left…just…in…case. And then it happened again. I took twelve rather pale (didn’t want hard edges again) cupcakes from the oven to find that some were still raw in the centre. All that strawberry pulp. Bugger. I quickly filled another cupcake tray and a small heart-shaped mould. Cranked the heat up just a little and got going with the buttercream frosting.

 

Heart-soaringly delicious batter

 

Which is when I read the recipe and realised I was just plain fucked. With no thermometer and no clue as to how sugar performed at 160 degrees, I cursed Martha and decided to blunder forth because this was the Titanic of baking and I was going down with it. With the feverish gleam of a gambler on his last chip, I separated four eggs and heated the whites with some sugar in a too small bowl, plonked in a pot of simmering water. Sure enough, the sugar melted. I whisked away, wondering what 160 degrees of molten sugar and egg white was supposed to look like. The odds were against me miraculously gauging the temperature but a giddy optimism took hold and I whisked and whisked until it became gluey, like taffy. This must be it, I thought, because what else could happen? A quick tally of all the wasted eggs, butter and batter that I had manifested in the past 24 hours brought a calm resignation. I had nothing left to lose. One egg, basically, I cackled.

 

Note crappy utensil

 

I thought of my mom whom I was missing so much. She was a wonderful cook and a reluctant baker. I couldn’t think of a single cake that defined the birthdays of my youth. Except, when I was about six years old, I was smitten with Moirs strawberry cake mix and insisted on having it a few years running. Then it struck that I was also making strawberry cake. Albeit the made-from-scratch version. So was all this about me trying to replicate my happy place? In my efforts to create a happy place for my son.  And stressing myself silly in the process. But let’s stay with the buttercream.  I was in the zone, beating the temperature-unknown sugary egg mix. Five minutes to stiff peaks, Martha said. The clear goo went a silky white and hope once again stirred in my breast. Could I still wing it? A quick peek in the oven revealed the cakes were coming along nicely. Rising evenly with edges not too brown.

 

It's no yolk

 

By God these eggs shall peak, I cried, if only by sheer force of will. And prayer and a fair bit of cussing. I prefer a multi-fangled approach. They thickened and clung coquettishly to the whisk but nothing peaked. Fine. I added the butter, whisked, tasted. A sugary mucus with globules of cow fat. Not to worry. A brisk whisk and two cups of fresh strawberry pulp later and I could almost see where Martha was going with this.

I was determined to see this fiasco through and started doing what all party planners do when they realise they’re bombing. I listened to 80s hits. I was dancing on the ceiling as the slack strawberry buttercream went into the fridge and the cake emerged from the oven. At Ben’s play school the teacher mentioned the weird lemony flavour of the biscocho but I shrugged it off with “it’s from a packet”. We had lunch with his lovely Spanish grandparents, filled the kitchen with balloons and Maya the Bee birthday paraphernalia (yet another of my childhood favourites) and just before the mini guests arrived, I took the buttercream from the fridge. Well, what do you know. The top few inches had set to a spreadable substance not unlike the topping on Martha’s cupcakes. I covered the heart – which ironically had survived the creation process in best shape – and the seven cupcakes I estimated were least likely to be raw in the centre with buttercream, perched a fresh strawberry on each and all of a sudden it looked just as it should. A nice kiddies party!

 

By the skin of my teeth

 

I had pulled it off, just like my mom had done for me. My son was so blown away by the people, balloons and gifts, the cake was of zero importance. But somehow, of everything, it had become the benchmark of my maternal fitness in this whole exercise. A rather dumb benchmark if you’re not a baker to begin with.

 

Lovely people. The key ingredient

But I did learn a few things.  Spanish flour (the plain kind) is too heavy for baked goods. Especially if the bag is left unsealed for two months. We live in a very humid place. In future I shall only bake with fresh cake flour. Am I blaming the flour? Well, yes. Mostly. Also the oven. And my fundamental inability to acknowledge and follow rules. And maybe also to focus on what Ben really wants rather than rehash my own childhood for sentimental reasons. But in all fairness, he is one year old. Maya, Willie and strawberry cupcakes are just fine. Soon it will be his call. And I will do my best to bake it or fake it. With a light and airy heart, even if the crumb isn’t.

 

Birthdays are cool, mama

Nobody’s ouma’s milk tart

December 9th, 2011 § 8 comments § permalink

To appease my acid levels after my bitch session in Do I look bloggered? and because I was feeling nostalgic, I decided to bake a milk tart for the first time in twenty years. Milk tart. That cornerstone of Boere culinaria and the absolute antithesis of newfangled confectionary. Even in our mothers’ era milk tart was considered a tad oudoos. It’s more of an ouma thing. It is currently enjoying a retro-cool revival but I have encountered a few pasty, gelatinous offerings in restaurants. Of course, always pimped as The Best Milk Tart Ever Made With Grandma’s Recipe. Did grandma have a rough time of it during the Great Depression… or are you just skimping on eggs and butter?

 

Mom's much handled recipe tome

 

I was convinced me and my grandma’s recipe could do better. And that I would find it in my mom’s big black book. Quelle horreur when a definitive family recipe was nowhere to be found! I found a milk tart crust on page 4 and further on my old neighbour tannie Evelene’s coconut milk tart, followed by aunty Elsabe’s regular milk tart towards the end of the book. All I know is I like my tart with a Tennis biscuit crust. And enough cinnamon on top. So I took Evelene’s crust and Elsabe’s filling and baked a tart that eclipsed any of my sepia-toned, butter and eggy custard memories. I will give you the recipe. If you don’t have a memorable milk tart recipe in your family, please adopt this one. Pretend. Copy and paste it any which way you like. Don’t bother with credits because this really is nobody’s ouma’s milk tart.

 

She's plain but all heart

 

Universal ouma’s milk tart recipe:

CRUST 1 packet Tennis biscuits, reduced to fine crumbs; half a cup of sugar; half a cup of flour; 125g soft butter

Cream butter and sugar together, add dry ingredients, mix well. Line a standard pie dish (pictured above), including the sides and press down gently to create an even crust.

FILLING 1 litre full cream milk; 125g butter; 1 cup sugar; 4 very heaped tablespoons flour; pinch salt; 4 eggs separated, whites beaten to soft peaks; vanilla (I used two vanilla pods but would guess a quarter teaspoon of vanilla essence should do it); cinnamon

Heat oven to 220 degrees Celsius. Pour most of the milk into a pot, leave a cup aside to add to dry ingredients. Add butter to milk and bring to the boil. Remove vanilla seeds from pods, add seeds and pods to milk. Let milk boil for a minute or three to absorb the vanilla flavour, stir to keep from burning. In a bowl, make a dough with the flour, sugar, salt, egg yolks and remaining milk. Once milk has boiled, strain through a sieve, pour over dough. Mix well and pour back into pot. Medium heat and whisk like hell otherwise you’ll have lumpy custard in no time. Allow to thicken, then add whipped egg whites.  Pour into pie dish, sprinkle with cinnamon and bake for about 20 minutes until set and crust edge is golden.

I strongly recommend you have a slice while it’s still warm. Delicious. My neighbour Simon described it as ‘quite possibly the best milk tart ever’ and Lord knows Simon’s a tough dessert diva to please.

Blommetjies & Braais

August 12th, 2011 § 1 comment § permalink

We had a day of winter last week so I bought a bag of waterblommetjies at the Spar. It felt like bredie time. And with such an oldskool dish I consulted my newly acquired C. Louis Liepoldt cookbook Kos vir die kenner, a book with over 1000 recipes that proves that at least one Afrikaner knew what mirepoix was in the 1930′s. Afrikaners, nay all white folk, may have benefited from Apartheid economically but culturally, it dumbed us down something awful. Like rocks on an island.

Savvy as Leipoldt was, cousin J warned that his book had to be taken with a pinch of salt. ‘Some of his combos are dreadful.’ Waterblommetjiebredie is a dish best prepared with restraint. Don’t innovate or deviate. It’s just blommetjies, lamb, salt, pepper and lemon juice. Maybe potato. She’s the queen bee of bredies. Leipoldt provides a few options and recommended the addition of anchovy, which I fell for. He advocates the use of suurings – those soft little wild stems with pink flowers that we used to eat as kids, before toxic sourworms hit the scene – to add zing to the stew. It rained cats and dogs so instead of picking suurings, I zested a lemon and added a bit of juice later.

But the blommetjies… Leipoldt wouldn’t have touched the gnarly old Spar blommetjies. My buds looked like cold-chain cadavers but at least they were picked early enough (pre-bloom). Soak them in vinegar water, rinse under a fast-flowing tap, top and tail the gnawed, tough bits and they should do.

 

Cap Classique

» Read the rest of this entry «

The Jelly Olympics

July 29th, 2011 § 2 comments § permalink

Yes, I shall make a wine jelly… In fact, a pinot noir jelly! Paired with duck. And something earthy and seasonal. Like beetroot. I mean, what would you do for your first ever live food demonstration at a wine festival? Absolutely nothing else came to mind. I love Pinot Noir. And duck. So look no further.

Ever made a wine jelly? Me neither. Even as a kid I didn’t like jelly. Compared to malva pudding it’s a sad excuse for a dessert. In fact, jelly was the reason I refused to eat trifle. But a wine jelly… now that I could consider. All my recipes called for pectin. But somehow pectin has fallen out of favour and is nowhere to be found. ‘Wat gebruik al die boervrouens deesdae?!,’ my inner voice squealed. Leaf gelatine was also not to be found in the village so I opted for the powdered variety. My first attempt (made with Noble Savage, a lovely affordable Cabernet Sauvignon) looked like chopped liver. I didn’t bother straining it as it was just an experiment. I then bought a little sachet of agar agar from the health store and made a sheet of jelly from Stark-Conde Pinot Noir – my wine of choice for the demo at the Stellenbosch Wine Festival. Agar agar is derived from seaweed and with a 50g sachet you could build a tornado-proof two-bedroom dwelling, seal the cracks in a family-sized swimming pool or stop the flow of the Orange river in flood. Plus it has a nasty aftertaste. I was luckier the third time around with a mixture of leaf gelatine (kindly donated by Richard Carstens of Tokara just up the road) and half a teaspoon of agar agar but the jelly was still too sour. The aim was to retain as much of the Pinot flavour as possible but nobody wants to eat sour jelly. Behold, the first three attempts:

 

Three bottles down and still no strike

From right to left: chopped liver, the Fountainhead of jellies made with agar agar and on the left, getting there with a mixture of leaf gelatine and a pinch of agar agar. But then a road trip to the Swartland lead me to the kind people of Fynbos Foods, where I managed to score 50g of pectin! Serendipity or what? As I sit here, a container with pinot jelly is setting in the fridge… or not. I’ve added more sugar and am quite frankly too tired to care. That’ll be tomorrow’s little drama. My demo at the Clover Kitchen at the Stellenbosch Wine Festival kicks off at 1. The audience will enjoy a glass of pinot with their portion of duck breast, beetroot relish and pinot noir jelly , courtesy of the kind people of Stark-Conde. It’s a food and wine pairing session after all.

On Tuesday night I subjected a few friends to a trial run. After a terrible day, Katie really took to the wine jelly. Especially the first one. I suspect a fuller bodied wine like a Cab makes for better jelly, although I hate admitting it now with so much vested in Pinot jelly. Or maybe she just needed the sugar. » Read the rest of this entry «