A tale of two cakes

'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of sunken cakes, it was the age of over-risen cakes, it was the epoch of moist cakes, it was the epoch of dry cakes, it was the season of light, springy cakes, it was the season of dense, heavy cakes, it was the spring of iced cakes, it was the winter of eggy cakes, we had every chance of a successful bake, we had no chance of a successful bake, we were all going to be successful cake makers, we were all going direct the other way – to buy a tesco value cake.'

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Although this blog is entitled the tale of two cakes, it is in fact the story of many cakes. There have been dry cakes, sunken cakes, cakes that have exploded, iced cakes, eggy cakes, dense cakes and curdled cakes to name but a few. But perhaps I shouldn’t complain. If there were no bad cakes, perhaps it would be harder to spot the good ones.

But I am getting ahead of myself. A brief recap of things I have failed write about recently.

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Last week we had a three day wine (and spirits) course from John Downes, a Master of Wine, which was very enjoyable and informative. I’m hardly an expert after three days, but it’s amazing how much being given a few simple, straightforward facts can help your understanding of something that appears to be such a huge and complex subject. We managed to cover (briefly) wines from all the major regions, and then port, sherry, champagne and sparkling wine, including methods of production. However, whilst it’s a novelty to be drinking at 9:30am on the first day of the course, when you’re having your second glass of port poured on the third day at 10:00am you begin to think three days is probably enough. Of course, everything at Tante Marie seems to come with a catch, last week’s being that we had a written test to actually receive a wine qualification.

Budget lunch woes have been dominating as well. Since the planning has actually got underway, the nature of the exam has become more apparent. It is an ongoing balancing act not only to create a meal for £8.50 (four people, three courses), but to make it tasty and include skills which are actually going to tick the boxes required. At the moment the menu reads as asparagus and pea tart, followed by grilled mackerel with a fennel and rocket salad, finishing with a bread and butter pudding. But the exact details seem to be changing daily.

An apple strudel. It may not look like much, but I assure you it was one of the nicest desserts we've made so far.

And lastly, I managed a very respectful 73 in my intermediate practical exam which I was fairly happy with. There were no major issues in my feedback session, and most of the things sound like mistakes I should be able to avoid in the future.

Now, back to the important stuff, cake. Monday afternoon was the final cake decorating class and we had to finish all our flowers/models etc and get them ‘glued’ onto our cakes. A rather stressful two hours, with people’s flowers snapping left right and centre, but miraculously, come 4:30 everyone had a completed cake in front of them. They go on display in the school next week, so I shall try and get some more pictures then.

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The decorating classes were a really interesting experience, and not really like anything I’ve done before. It’s definitely the sort of thing that would be exponentially easier the second time you did it, so I’ll have to have a go on a Christmas cake in a few months time.

So this was, on balance, a good cake experience. What followed, less so. On Tuesday, we had a theory class, a large part of which was devoted to flour and raising agents, which to my mind means cake. And sure enough, in the class there are 6 various cakes sitting on the worktop. However, all was not as it seemed. These were cakes that had all been deliberately baked with errors so you could see exactly what happens if you over mix a cake, use too much raising agent etc. Of course, in the name of research and learning, all the cakes were tried, and then pushed to the edge of the plate and not touched again. It really is the case that having items side by side exacerbates the shortcomings of some.

Guinea fowl on pea and lettuce fricassee

And the week drew to a close with a frankfurter kranz. It is pretty much just a basic sponge cake, baked in a ring mold, but it needs to rise perfectly as it then has to be sliced into 5 layers. Through what was no doubt pure luck, mine actually managed this relatively successful. But the week’s cake theory and clearly made an impression as everyone seemed far more critical of their cakes than usual, noting elements of overwhisking, uneven distribution, and a sort of ‘exploded’ cake, the reasons for which were harder to identify. In other words, cake theory may have ruined the magic of cake.

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This weekend, I hope to get another review written up as I’m heading to The Square, Phil Howard’s restaurant, on Saturday night with the family. Having recently read The Square cookbook, I’ve got high hopes, as I really like the thought process and ethos that appears to go into the cooking there, but I’ll talk about that more on Sunday. Probably.