Three days on from my cake success and I’m still on a bit of a high.  I’ll be sharing the recipe and techniques later in the week (when I have more time) but for the moment let’s celebrate with a silly competition.

On my visit to Skye last month I picked up the above cookbook and I like it so very much I’ve decided to send one of you a copy too.   For those of you who haven’t heard of the author, Claire MacDonald is a celebrated Scottish chef who lives on an estate in southern Skye.  Her recipes are simple and unpretentious, using mainly seasonal local produce.  Though the book includes several meat based dishes, there’s plenty to interest all you herbivores too.

So, what do you have to do to be in with a chance of winning Seasonal Cooking?  Simple.  Just guess how many chickpeas there are in this jar.  🙂




Winner will be announced next Saturday.



This is the first time I’ve seen frog spawn in aaaaagggggeeeeess.  Used to see it all the time when I was a kid.  Do you reckon this is because there’s less of it about?  Or because I spend less time prodding ponds with sticks these days?


Squash and Chickpea Stew


Summer term started yesterday so baking is going to have to wait until the weekend.  The first week back is always super busy so I like to have lots of food ready to heat up in the fridge and freezer.  One such dish is the above squash and chickpea stew.  Nigel Slater recipe and you can find the recipe here

Nigel described it as silky.  I’d describe it as more-ish.  Either way, it’s fab. 

The Wedding Cake – Elephants and Baking Powder

As many of you know, I (Wendy-the-non-cake-maker) am presently trying to master the science of baking in order to make my best friend’s wedding cake next month (eeeek!).  Despite having purchased the aptly named Cake Bible and having read it cover to cover, all is not going smoothly.  In what way? you ask.  In many ways, I tell you.

Humour me whilst I tell you about a conversation D and I had last week.


On reading what promised to be a crucial section of my new baking book, I burst into tears.   One too many people had politely suggested I order a cake from the bakery and one too many of my baking attempts had been entirely inedible.   The nail in the coffin was the following paragraph:

“The larger the pan size, the less baking powder is used in proportion to other ingredients.  This is because of surface tension.  The larger the diameter of the pan, the slower the heat penetration and the less support the rising cake receives because the sides are farther from the centre.  Baking powder weakens the cake’s structure by enlarging the air spaces, so decreasing the baking powder strengthens the structure and compensates for the retarded gelatinization and the decrease in support.”

No matter how many times I read and re-read it, it made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever.  It appeared to be suggesting that something big required less baking powder and that sounded like madness to me.  Seeing my distress and knowing me well enough to understand it was caused by sheer frustration rather than any real ailment, D asked if he could help.

“Well, not unless you can tell me what this crap means!” I sobbed and read him the paragraph. 

After listening carefully D breezily announced that the writer was, as she had stated, talking about the principles of surface tension and that it was really a simple concept.  Sceptically, I listened to my science teacher boyfriend’s explantion.  It seems that the smaller an object is the greater its surface area proportionally.

“Think of an elephant.” D explained.  “Imagine the amount of skin required to cover an elephant but also imagine just how much matter is inside.  Now think of a mouse and how much skin it has on the outside but how little is inside it.”

“But it’s smaller.”  I was confused.

“Ok, think of how many acrobatic circus mice it would take to stand on top of one another and balance in formation to make an elephant sized, elephant shaped structure.”

I imagined that and giggled.

“In that structure”, he continued, “there’s a lot more skin or surface area, isn’t there?  Think of all those mice…”

Suddenly it became clear.  Baking powder makes cakes airy and big cakes can’t cope with too much air beacause their surfaces are (proportionally) smaller giving them less support.  Therefore you need less baking powder (proportionally) to make an elephant than you do to make a mouse.  Eureka!


Buoyed by my new understanding of baking I decided to take on the cake challenge yet again.  I had a lovely sounding recipe for “white butter cake” and I had made a list of hints from the exceptionally knowledgably Ms Levy Beranbaum.  Unfortunately, implementing all of her advice was not as simple as I had hoped.

  • Use aluminium cake pans – Couldn’t find those.
  • Make sure the cake pan is the same height as the cake you want to make – couldn’t find those either.
  • Make sure your baking powder is not out of date – that baking powder has a shelf life was new to me.  Checked my tin and, yup, expired 2005. Bought new stuff.
  • Use “cake flour” – this doesn’t exist in the UK.  I used Tipo ’00 instead.  It’s very fine.
  • Make sure all ingredients are room temperature – ok doke.
  • Ensure your oven is the right temperature – checked and it is.
  • Rub cake tin with clarified butter, dust with flour and line the bottom with baking paper.
  • Cook cake in the centre of the oven.
  • When cooking large butter cakes ensure you cool them thoroughly before turning out.

With all this good advice and a carefully worked out recipe (more about that another day), I felt sure my next baking attempt could not go wrong.   But go wrong it did.  See for yourself.



What went wrong?  The answer lies in the last three hints I gleaned from Ms Levy Beranbaum.  Firstly, my oven was too small to accomodate both cake tins at the same time resulting in one cake being cooked on top but not on the bottom and the other being cooked on the bottom but not on top.  Secondly, I forgot to put the baking paper in and the sponge stuck to the tin making the last hint redundant.  :-S

On the bright side, knowing where I went wrong means I know what to correct and the parts of the sponge that cooked well were absolutely delicious.  That’s progress!

Trying again tomorrow.  Watch this space…

Forced Rhubarb

Late in February little red rhubarb lumps began to nose out of the dirt.  At first I panicked slightly: wasn’t it too early for delicate young fruit to appear?  Wouldn’t they die in the frost and snow that would inevitably appear throughout the following few months?  After a call to my Dad I discovered that all was well.  Rhubarb is a hardy plant and would happily bear the cold weather.  He also told me that I could force the rhubarb for an early, sweeter crop.

At first I was hesitant – to “force”sounds so cruel – but my impatience to eat food from my garden again was too great and I decided to give it a go, appeasing my conscience by referring to the process as coaxing rather than forcing. 

The process couldn’t have been more simple.  Once the rhubarb (which was a cutting from my Dad’s own rhubarb transplanted to my garden last spring) started to prod through the ground I stuck a bucket on top of it and secured it from the highland winds with a large stone.  Keeping a plant in the dark and expecting it to grow sounded like madness to me but a wee keek every now and again told me that the rhubarb was growing fine. 

 After six weeks the fruit was so big it was struggling for space and it was at this stage that I removed the bucket and began to harvest my rhubarb.

Those of you out there who find rhubarb too sharp to eat, try forced rhubarb.  It has a sweeter, more delicate flavour that might change your mind.  My first use of my first crop of 2008 was very simple: a stewed, spiced rhubarb to stir into porridge, spoon over yogurt or enjoy with ice-cream.

Stewed Rhubarb with Ginger

(enough for 4 bowls of porridge or yogurt)

200g rhubarb, cut into 2cm pieces

30g  brown sugar (more if you wish)

1/2 tspn ground ginger

  • Pre-heat oven to 200oC. 
  • Add rhubarb to a small oven proof dish and sprinkle with the the sugar and ginger.   Cover with tin foil and bake for 30 minutes or until the fruit is soft and stewing in its own juices.
  • Eat hot, warm or cold.