Friday, May 18, 2007

The Tao Of Cupcakes

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A quiet revolution has been taking place in cafes around the world. It is a revolution that is round, approximately two to three inches high, and comes in multiple colours with a plethora of flavours to make even the most stalwart dieter come skipping with delight.

It is the humble cupcake I am talking about. No longer left solely for kiddies parties, cupcakes are taking the place of fatty friands, mega-muffins and banana bread as the preferred morning snack.

But just what is it about cupcakes that has taken hold of our tastebuds?

I cast my mind back to the parties I attended as a child, and the sweet fare spread across the table that was nothing short of a sugar-fest designed to titillating our tiny tongues and send us home in an insulin haze. My party preferences were always sausage rolls and cocktail frankfurts for savouries, followed by fairy cakes and toffees for sweets. I was also partial to chocolate crackles, but knew full well that ingesting an entire one meant certain sickness – delicious as they were, they were simply too sweet. The one thing on the table that I rarely touched were the cupcakes, and I can’t help but wonder why.

Truth be told, my mother was the queen of cupcakes. The little beauties she produced were of a quality that far exceeded anything I ever saw served by other kid’s mums. Mum’s cupcake recipe was tried and true – written down in hand on a blue-ruled page, stored in a little black ring binder. I don’t know where that recipe came from, but it’s the one I still use today, and frequently see published in women’s and homemaker magazines everywhere. I guess it’s a recipe that simply can’t be improved upon.

But Mum also had a way with the icing that few others could imitate. In those days icing came in two colours – pink and green. And to decorate, Mum chose hundreds & thousands, chocolate sprinkles, or desiccated coconut. And that provided a world of choice for me.

Three years ago, I attempted to start a café cakes business. I set about creating three incredibly original cakes, two of which appear on this site (Mini Chocolate Bar Cakes and Orange Rosettes). But they were involved and hard to produce en masse. After a stinking hot night producing 45 cakes in my kitchen I dumped the idea and got a real job. But two months ago, I got the itch to bake. I envisaged a cupcake, full in vanillary flavour, topped with pure white icing and decorated with a deep purple flower. And so I produced just that. At work the next day, I boasted about these beauties to the lobby café staff, and the next thing I knew, they’d placed an order!

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Within days the people in my building had caught cupcake fever. I kept baking more than I needed, so I sent samples to work with my husband. His colleagues raved about them and suggested he try to sell them to his lobby café (a big ask since he’s not a coffee drinker and had no connection with the manager), and they took them! And then that building caught cupcake fever.

The more I sold, the more I wanted to create. The more I created, the more creative I got. I bought Jennifer Graham’s Crabapple Cupcake Bakery book, and read it cover to cover in one afternoon, then lay awake that night mulling over all the possibilities. I went to my local homeware store, Plenty, and raided their cake decorating section. I begged for the names of their wholesalers – and got them, then I asked the wholesalers to sell to me, and they did.

And the result is a set of cupcakes which I utterly adore baking, and which people around me pay money to eat.

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What is my point here? In the space of two months I’ve refined my cupcakes from a set of okay looking morsels to a commercially viable concern. I’m happy as a pig in poop when I bake. And being able to give everything to someone else to eat makes the experience that much more enjoyable!

All this has made me think you should be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. Okay, my original café cakes idea occurred three years ago. But that wish went out to the universe, and when the time was right, the opportunity came back and landed in my lap. Yes I had to take steps to bring my cupcakes into reality, but none of those steps were difficult when fuelled by my passion to create.

What I’m saying is follow your passion. Get in the zone with it. Follow it all the way through, even if it takes years to come to fruition. If that’s what lights you up, I say go for it.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Mini Chocolate Bar Cakes

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There are times in your life when you realise it’s just possible that friends can do as much for you as family can – if not more. I was nineteen years old when I first figured this out. It was my first year out of high school. I’d been working for about eight months as a proof reader in a Braille publishing facility. I still lived at home but I’d bought my first car and I was fast becoming an independent young woman.

My birthday is in September, and up until that point, my school friends and I had been in the habit of going out to restaurants to celebrate. My friends at the time were Tory, Leanne, Lisa and Tracey and sometimes Larrissa, although she came and went from the group. I hung with Tory the most, because we liked going clubbing together. We often took Tracey with us, and we frequently caught up with Lisa, who had moved into the city with another friend Peisha.

But we were all in Penrith the weekend of my nineteenth birthday, and I had been told that I was in for a birthday surprise. I had to dress up for dinner, and I was picked up at sunset by Tory, who stuck blindfold on me as soon as we got into the car. She drove me around in that state for a while and eventually when the car came to a stop, Lisa and Tracey materialised at the door of the car. The three of them helped me out of the car, lead me up some steps, through a door and whipped the blind fold off.

Voila! Staged in the middle of Tracey’s lounge room was the first surprise party I’d ever been thrown in my life. My friends had gone to great lengths to decorate the room and had even cooked a three course meal themselves. Complete with chocolate birthday cake.

I probably wasn’t as appreciative of their efforts at the time – dare I say at nineteen, I wasn’t as emotionally mature or as capable of expressing my gratitude as I am today. But when I think about the good times I’ve had in my life, the memory of that birthday always comes up, and I’m always amazed at the generosity and love that my friends showed me. That birthday was even more important than I realised at the time. We were all about to grow up, find boyfriends, move out of home, and begin going our separate ways. At that point, we only had about a year and a half of good solid friendship left. And in the case of some of the girls at the table that night, when they drifted away, they simply didn’t come back. Leanne is really the only one I still have constant contact with, thanks to email.

It’s true what they say – you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I was really lucky to have those friends. And that birthday – well it was one of my best ever.

190g butter
1 cup sugar
½ cup water
¼ cup Organic Dutch Cocoa
½ tsp bi-carb soda
1.5 cups self raising flour
2 eggs

1. Place the butter, sugar, water, cocoa and bi-carb soda in a roomy saucepan. Stir over a medium heat until the butter is melted and the sugar is dissolved. Increase the heat slightly and bring the mixture to a gentle boil. Reduce heat and simmer for a full five minutes. Note – watch this mix carefully as the bi-car soda makes it rise right up to the top of the saucepan. When it does, just lift it off the heat until the level lowers again, then continue with the simmering process. Set aside until mixture reaches room temperature.

2. Sift the flour into a large bowl. Pour the chocolate mixture over the top and beat with electric mixer on very low speed to combine.

3. Add the eggs with the mixer running, and continue to beat for two minutes, ensuring all ingredients are combined.

4. Pour batter into rectangular mini-bar cake pans. Fill each hole to about half way for a good sized cake. Bake in a moderate over for approximately 25 minutes, or until the top of the cake springs back when touched. Cool on a wire rack.

Chocolate Butter Cream Icing
70g softened butter
4 cups icing sugar mixture
4 tblsp milk
¼ cup Organic Dutch Cocoa

1. Place the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer and cream for two minutes.

2. Turn mixer off and add all other ingredients. Combine on low speed until all ingredients are wet, then increase mixture speed to high and continue beating for about three minutes.

3. Smooth onto tops of bar cakes and decorate with chocolate flakes or sprinkles as desired.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Festive Pineapple Ham

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A few years back when I was still single I decided Christmases were better spent with friends. My inaugural Christmas trip away from family was to Cairns to visit an old school friend Peisha. She was actually my first flatmate too, and was very instrumental in teaching me how to be a high stepping Eastern Suburbanite.

I had lost track of Peisha years previously. She had gone off to live in Italy, I’d had a stint in Hong Kong, and it wasn’t until 2002 when I was organising my high school reunion that I finally located her whereabouts. She’d been in Cairns for several years, and while she couldn’t make it to the reunion, we did catch up for lunch and then dinner when she was in transit to and from Italy. At dinner I quite unceremoniously invited myself to Christmas at Peisha’s. It was really rude, when I think about it.

Luckily for me, Peisha was a very welcoming host. She owned a fantastic big old Queenslander which was a complete two bedroom house upstairs and a whole second three bedroom house downstairs. I’d never been to Cairns before, so when I stepped off the plane and out of the airport, I was shocked to discover the heat was intensely overwhelming and the humidity was as thick as a blanket. I tied my long hair up immediately and never wore it down again for the whole visit.

At Peisha’s she offered me the choice of two rooms – a nicely redecorated one upstairs with a fan, or the student room downstairs with air conditioning. I took the one with the air conditioning and was every so pleased later – whenever the heat got too much, I’d retreat to my room and lie spreadeagle on the bed while I recouperated.

It was two days until Christmas so we set about planning a festive feast and headed off to the supermarket to collect all the ingredients. I decided to do my traditional apricot and pine nut stuffed turkey , and Peisha had already bought a leg of ham. Her mum had come down from Ravenshoe and her plan was to glaze the ham with a pineapple glaze that was a favourite with her family (a long line of fabulous cooks). I got up early one Christmas eve and fired up the oven to roast the turkey. The problem was the day was already stinking hot, and turning the oven on just made it worse! Peisha dragged the pedestal fan into the kitchen and pointed it at me, but I continued to perspire until I thought I was going to melt into the kitchen floor.

By the end of the day I had sweated so much on my top lip, little sweat pimples had formed. I popped them all but continued to perspire profusely, which then made the open pores sting like all get out. The turkey had to be roasted for three hours, and man did it smell good but the heat generated by the oven was oppressive. No sooner had we taken the turkey out of the oven, Peisha’s ham had to go in. And it was a beauty! Peisha and her mum had decorated it with cloves, and of course it glistened with the delicious pineapple glaze.

That Christmas in Cairns was quite literally the hottest I’ve ever experienced. It even beat the Penrith heat! But it was a brilliant visit – wild mangoes, cane toads, sea plane rides, snorkelling on the reef, fresh water crocs and indigenous dancing were all memorable features. But the greatest thing about that holiday was hanging out with Peisha. In the years when she was missing, I always looked for her – on the streets of Sydney, in buses, on trains… when ever I caught a glimpse of a Eurasian girl with long dark hair, I checked to see if it was her. So it was brilliant to find Peisha again.

1 leg of ham
1 jar pineapple jam
1/2 cup dry sherry
1 inch piece of fresh ginger, grated
200g glaze cherries
Handful of whole cloves

1. Pre heat the oven to 180 degrees celcius

2. Peel the skin off the leg of ham to expose the thick layer of fat underneath and place in a baking tray lined with baking paper. Score the fat in a criss-cross pattern.

3. Place the pineapple jam, sherry and ginger in a jug and mix. If the glaze seems a little thick, add some water a tablespoon at a time to thin it out. You want it to be pouring consistency.

4. Position half a glace cherry in the middle of each diamond scored into the ham’s fat. Fix it in place with a whole clove.

5. Once the ham is covered with cherries, brush the pineapple glaze on with a pastry brush, ensuring the entire fat area is fully coated.

6. Place the ham in the oven and cook for approximately one hour. Remember – ham is a cured meat, so you’re not actually cooking it here – you’re heating it through and infusing it with the tastes and aromas from the glaze and decorations.

7. Remove the ham from the oven and allow to stand. You can prepare the ham the day before it’s required if you like, and reheat it once it’s been sliced.