Treat me: Buttercream nirvana

You know how a picture is worth a thousand words? Then feast your eyes on this…

Easy French Meringue Buttercream

This is a bowl of French meringue buttercream. It’s frosting heaven. My friend Agnes texted me instructions on how to make it last week after I issued a desperate SOS for advice (so handy having a pastry chef on speed dial, don’t you think?) Here, in slightly longer form, is how to achieve this nirvana at your place. It is so amazingly delicious that when you’ve made it you will want to lock yourself in a room and just eat the whole lot, spoonful by silky spoonful.

How to make French meringue buttercream
This makes a lot – easily enough for a large layered cake and a batch of cupcakes – so you have three options: halve the recipe, eat whatever’s left over or – more sensibly, freeze the remainder in a covered container.
You do need a freestanding mixer (or a very heavy-duty electric hand mixer) and candy thermometer for this – the wooden spoon trick won’t work here. You can boil the syrup until it reaches the soft ball stage, but using a thermometer is much less stressful.

320g caster sugar
170g water
4 egg yolks
2 eggs
500g butter, at room temperature, sliced into 2cm chunks
1 tsp vanilla paste
food colouring – if using

Put the sugar and water in a small saucepan. Stir well, then boil until the temperature reaches 118C.
While the syrup is boiling, put the egg yolks and eggs in the bowl of a freestanding mixer and whisk until they are light and fluffy.
When the syrup has reached 118C, carefully drizzle it into the egg mixture (beating all the time). Beat on high until the mixture is thick and pale, and the sides of the bowl are cool to touch.
At this point, switch from the whisk to the paddle attachment and start adding the butter, a piece at a time, until it is all mixed in. Don’t fret if it starts to look a bit like mayonnaise, just keep beating it. When the butter is all in, and the mixture is a big cloud of loveliness, add the vanilla and colouring. It’s fine to leave at room temperature overnight (as long as it doesn’t get too hot or cold) and it keeps in the fridge for a week, though you’ll need to beat it again.

Have a great weekend, everyone. I promise no pink food next week! x

How to store feta and divide eggs

Do you ever feel like your life is being sucked down a big hole called the internet? Me too. I mean, I’m exceptionally grateful that you’re reading this, but I do wonder sometimes if we would all be less busy if we spent more time IRL* rather than online.

That said, I must thank the gods of the internet for saving my bacon on several occasions in the last few weeks. Here are my internet takeouts** this week, in the hope that sharing them here will save you precious time that you can spend lying on your sofa with a book.

1. How to store feta: We eat a lot of feta in this house, but I am forever either a) throwing some out after it’s turned furry in the fridge or b) eating too much of it to avoid it going mouldy and being thrown out. So discovering that you can store it in brine has changed my life.
All you need to do is make up some brine – use 3 tsp salt to 500ml water – and pour this over the feta in a suitably sized plastic container with a lid. The feta should be immersed in the liquid. Seal the lid on, put it in the fridge and hey presto, no more stinky, wasted cheese.

2. How to deep fry without a thermometer: On Thursday morning I bought a new candy thermometer. On Friday morning I managed to smash it. On Saturday morning I needed to make a batch of doughnuts and lacked the will or time to go and buy a new thermometer. Rather than guess, I turned to my handy Mr Google and the best tip I found was also the easiest. Plunge a wooden spoon handle into hot oil and if the oil bubbles up vigorously, it’s at the right temperature. Easy. Safe. Cheap. Brilliant.

3. How to divide an egg in half: Beat the egg until yolk and white are well combined, then measure out 1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp – it will weigh about 26g for a large egg.

4. What to do with leftover croissants: We never have leftover ones anyway, but should this happen at some stage, this is what I’m going to do with them (if you don’t have time to click the link, know this: split croissants horizontally, fry in butter. Eat.)

5. What to do if you’ve got that cold that’s doing the rounds: Thankfully I haven’t had occasion to try this turmeric cure, but I am intrigued by it.

What have you learned this week?

* See, I’ve been spending so much time online I even know the geeky acronyms. IRL is short for ‘in real life’.
** I’ve also been spending a lot of time in meetings (a place where good sense and ideas go to die), where speech is peppered with words like ‘stakeholders’, ‘takeouts’ and other corporate hideousness. Ugh.

How to make a castle birthday cake

It’s taken me a while to be able to write this. I can still remember the excitement tinged with fear, the screaming, the pain, the mess and the outpouring of gratitude when it was all over.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to share the story of the Small Girl’s birth in minute, bloody detail (though her father happily tells all and sundry the worst bits, usually at the most inappropriate times) – not when her fourth  birthday party is still fresh in my mind.
While there was a sleepless night beforehand (mine), screaming (a natural result of 10 small children being in a room with chocolate), mess (I’m sorry, rubbish collectors) and blood (the birthday girl cut her foot on something, acted like she needed amputation), it all went off without a hitch. Special thanks to my parents-in-law who are excellent cleaner-uppers in the manner of these two.
But I am taking full credit for the biggest success of the day – the castle birthday cake. Here, in response to popular demand, is how I made it.

How To Make A Castle Birthday Cake (And Survive)
I am not one of those cake decorating sort of mothers. My mother wasn’t either, and since we all turned out mostly ok, I’m not too worried. When approaching this project I decided the only way to get through it was to remember it needed to suit the aesthetics of a four year old – ie, as long as it was pink, bore some resemblance to the one in the picture and there were some marshmallows lurking nearby, it would be fine. Here’s how I did it:

1. The Inspiration
I found the model for this cake in More Birthday Cakes For Kids, an Australian Women’s Weekly title from the library. The AWW books are birthday legends for my generation, and I must say they are rather more reliable than the AWW-branded cake tins (she says, bitterly, after the one she bought on Thursday leaked).

2. The Cake
The original recipe suggested using packet cake mix (the horror!), but I turned instead to this white chocolate mud cake recipe. It’s incredibly easy – just melt and mix – and the cake can be frozen. It stays fresh for days and is firm enough for the castle construction. I used a 23cm square tin, topped with a 20cm round one. The amazing thing about the recipe I used is that it comes with a table of ingredients scaled to fit different sized tins – genius.
If time is really short, or you are not remotely a baker, a good cheat’s version would be buying two sponges from the supermarket. There was a point at about 10pm on Friday when I wished I had thought of doing that earlier.

3. The Construction
The turrets are icecream cones on a base of Shrewsbury biscuits sandwiched together with icing. Warning: all the children will want one of the biscuits, so make sure you have spares (or that your husband hasn’t eaten them while he is keeping you company during the building process). Make sure the cake is cold – from the fridge, when you are carving out the corners for the biscuits to sit in. Don’t worry if it looks weird at this point, the icing will cover a multitude of sins.

4. The Icing
My amazing pastry chef friend gave me an incredible icing recipe, which I will share with you later in the week. Whatever you use, remember to chill the cake first (I stuck mine outside in a light southerly gale for 15 minutes) and do a light crumb coat. Resist the temptation to stab your father-in-law and husband when they mock the appearance of the cake at this point. It’s a bit like seeing someone in their Spanx – it will all come together when they have their posh outfit on top.

5. Disaster Recovery
If all else fails, remember three things: marshmallows will hide any faults of construction; a neat shot of whiskey will calm your nerves and help you get to sleep and lastly, your daughter will love it.

Speaking of the daughter, it’s time for me to go and whip up a birthday breakfast. What secrets of successful birthday cake baking do you have to share?

Party planning 4.0

There is a major event in our lives in a fortnight’s time and I need your help. The Small Girl is turning four (four! how did that happen?) and The Party is the subject of much discussion.

Previously, we’ve used her birthday as an excuse to entertain our friends – and in some cases, their children. This time it’s all about her friends – and their parents, some of whom are unknown quantities. Needless to say, I am nervous.

In part, this is for the obvious reason that inviting a dozen small children to rampage through the house on a Saturday morning is hardly conducive to a relaxing time of it. We’ve been to so many parties recently – most involving bouncy castles and pirates and pass-the-parcel where every child gets a fancy gift – that I feel expectations are getting higher by the minute.

Then there’s the food. Some people have separate food for the children and adults, some have a free-for-all. There is always a cake of extreme proportions – sometimes outsourced, sometimes lovingly created (and probably sworn over) by the adoring parents.

We seem to have settled on the cake – but then the other requests are coming thick and fast. She pores over the picture of the ‘Welcome Table’ groaning with a clove-studded ham, star biscuits and various other delights in Nigella Christmas and says, ‘can we have that when it’s my birthday please?’ Don’t even start me on the supermarket, where her eyes light up as we march at speed through aisles of rubbish. “We could have those biscuits/marshmallows/fizzy drinks at my party, couldn’t we?”

While there will be no bouncy castle at our party, nor any vile Cheerios (honestly, I can’t believe people still feed those to their children!), we are going to have fun things to eat. The question is, what?

What would you feed a dozen children and probably at least as many adults on a Saturday morning? And do you have a great cake/cupcake recipe that can be made a couple of days in advance?

Kitchen DIY: Homemade date syrup

I realised, slightly late in the piece, that it was a bit irresponsible to post a recipe for something using homemade date syrup without actually sharing how to make it. So, without any further ado, here’s how to make date syrup at home.

Easy Homemade Date Syrup

Homemade Date Syrup
This is quite different to storebought date syrup, sometimes called date molasses, which is cooked down to a more syrypy consistency. The DIY version has a fresher, slightly less sweet taste – and it’s still good to eat by the spoonful.

1 cup (about 200g) dates, chopped
1 cups (250ml) boiling water

Put the dates in a small, heatproof bowl and pour over the boiling water (add a little more if it doesn’t quite cover the dates). Cover and let stand overnight or for at least eight hours.
The next morning/when you get home from work, put the soaked dates and water into a food processor or blender and whizz until smooth and well combined.
Scrape this mixture into a clean jar and store in the fridge.