I’ve written this blog a thousand times since posting the last one. Over and over in my head; littered in note pads; hacked out on keyboards… Each one peppered with different flavours of experience and time stamped with incidents relevant to that moment. They started descriptively with no stove and old smelly carpets before swirling for months in renovation dust. They lifted like scraped layers of paint bubbling off window frames and hung like splattered washing up bubbles popping on the side of the bath as dishes dried so out of place away from the kitchen when there just was no kitchen sink. As the months stretched apart, writing a blog worthy of breaking the silence became impossibly hard. And so their fates were all the same – shovelled up and discarded like the hundreds of heavy duty bin bags worth of rubble that have been carted to the tip over the last eighteen months.
This post was supposed to be called strawberry cream puffs… light, airy choux buns filled with a perfectly balanced pungent strawberry cream, and topped with a white chocolate and strawberry ganache. Delicate, delicious, summery morsels. But not all my baking adventures end as I intend. I think as a rule baking lends itself very well to recipes turning out as they should – they are precise formulas that if followed exactly usually produce the desired result.
I have been wanting to make these for weeks and weeks (having been slightly obsessed with summer and strawberries in a vain attempt to affirm that despite all the rain it is actually summer), but having struggled to find the key ingredient – freeze-dried strawberries. And so the weeks have slipped by whilst I fannied about sourcing the deep red berry powder on the internet. For some bizarre reason this ingredient cannot be found in shops in London – not specialised delis, nor major supermarkets, nor health food shops stock it.
The last three weeks (bar the jubilee sponge) I’ve tried to ignore all things baking and or blog related. The reason? I’ve been on a rather extreme detox. Twenty-one days without caffeine, alcohol, wheat, gluten, dairy, fruit (besides bananas), red meat, sugar or anything processed… Apparently even sauces like vinegar and soya sauce constitute ‘processed’ foods. So it’s been a rather bland few weeks crammed with lots of fresh leafy green veg, legumes, soya, chicken and fish. It’s been an absolute test of willpower – and quite a few nights in the pub sipping water. Today is day twenty-one.
I sat on the couch this morning, fingers tapping impatiently, as the sweet scent of creamy scone and sticky baked strawberries wafted out of the kitchen. The sweetest thing I’ve had in the last few weeks is 100% natural, dried Ugandan banana bits (without added sugar) from the health food shop and my mouth was literally watering, waiting to sink my teeth into soft, warm strawberry scone slathered with sticky sweet jam and whipped vanilla cream.
Once they were out the oven and slightly cooled, I pried a butter knife into the side of one and gently split the crumbly scone. Impatiently I dolloped ruby jam on it and topped it with freshly whipped vanilla cream. I had just one bite, and it was sublime. It’s hard to tell whether this was down the quality of the scone, or my anticipation of something sweet and forbidden. That aside, I think baking ripe strawberries and cream into scones creates an additional layer to this simple pleasure. Don’t be afraid to use overly ripe, slightly squidgy strawberries – they will just become stickier, sweeter and more melty.
The window is streaked with fast falling raindrops as the chive blossoms in my window ledge herb box are battered by the rain. It’s the last day of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations – the somberest day of cathedral services and processions, mimicking the weather. A cup of tea steams in front of me and I shudder as my eyes flick from the rain soaked street to the tv – throngs of people line Pall Mall, cheering and waving flags amid bobbing umbrellas as the Queen steps out onto the balcony at Buckingham Palace. She waves, and the crowd erupts.
London has been hijacked for four days of spectacular pomp and celebrations, like only the English can, to celebrate Her Majesty’s 60th year on the throne. And celebrate, London has. The city has been clad in red, blue and white bunting – with street parties, tea parties, 1000 boat flotillas, processions, concerts, trumpeters, firing squads, singing, cheering, and flag waving and heartfelt patriotism across a diverse nation, come rain or shine.
I don’t know what has happened to the last few weeks. They seem to have whirled by in a blur of grey skies, tremendously monotonous rain and an intensively all-consuming course that finished with a two-hour oral exam where I had to get 80% to pass. It was stressful. And in between all this we’re trying to buy a flat – which no matter how romanticised my idea of it is, it is just plain painful. A welcome reprieve to all this – was having a houseguest move in ten days ago. She is also buying a flat and due to ‘unforseen’ delays (namely that the seller’s solicitor will only communicate via post) she’s been left with couple of weeks between flats.
It was her birthday this last weekend – and so this cake is for her. Although rather gaudy, it’s a fun cake of decadently rich chocolate sponge, smothered in a white chocolate, vanilla and sour cream ganache – and finished with a light marshmallow meringue frosting (in various shades of pink).
It has been two weeks since the wedding – a crazy, unusual, exciting two weeks of house hunting filled with things I’ve never had to think about before, like standard variable mortgage rates, and freehold vs leasehold, and why combi boilers are better than condensing ones. But that’s a whole other story – for another day’s rationalisation of why we’ve settled on a flat with a kitchen that has no oven and hasn’t been updated since the 1960s.
I’ve only just about managed to get the stickiness off my revolting rented linoleum kitchen floor. In the franticness that led up to the completion of the cake all manner of meringue, cake mixture, sugar, eggs and frosting ended up splattered and trampled into the floor.
Was the wedding cake a success? I grimace at the question – I was not entirely happy with it. Or should I rephrase and say that it just didn’t look exactly how I imagined it would. Some of it was out of my control – the avalanche roses and blooming blue irises that were meant to wedge the two tiers together in a statement of floral opulence were left out of water overnight by the florist. And so when I got them, the few I could use were so wilted they couldn’t hold their shape, let alone fill the gap between the two tiers. This also meant that the tiny imperfections at the bottom of the top tier were very visible. I had hoped they would be hidden behind big curling petals, but alas.
These quantities will make enough icing for a 9 inch cake, plus some extra.
In a large metal bowl over a saucepan of simmering water whisk the egg whites and sugar occasionally until the sugar has completely melted. You will know it is completely melted when you can feel any sugar granules when you rub a bit between your fingers.
Take the mixture off the heat, wipe the bottom of the bowl to prevent any water condensation getting into the mixture as this will prevent it from whipping. Whisk with an electric mixer until the mixture is white and glassy and doubles in size. Whisk in the vanilla.
Add the butter, a third at a time and continue to whisk until the mixture thickens and comes together. This can take quite a few minutes – don’t panic, just carry on whisking.
Preheat the oven to 150°C (130°C for fan oven). Whisk the egg whites until they start to go frothy white. As soft peaks start to form add one tablespoon of sugar at a time until it is all incorporated. The mixture will go stiff and glossy. Add the vanilla extra and continue whisking until the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture holds stiff peaks. You will know the sugar is dissolved when you rub a little bit of the mixture between your fingers and it does not feel gritty.