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.
Preheat the oven to 170°C (150°C for fan oven). Place the hazelnuts directly onto a baking tray and toast in the oven for 20 minutes. While the nuts are toasting, put the caster sugar in a heavy bottomed saucepan and heat over a medium heat until it melts. Watch it constantly so that it does not burn.
As the sugar begins to turn golden and caramelise, add the hazelnuts and stir to coat them in the syrup. Continue stirring over a medium heat until golden brown. Pour the mixture out onto a baking tray lined with grease proof parchment and allow to cool.
Break the solid mass of nuts into chunks, place in a food processor and pulse blitz to desired chunkiness or powderyness. I blitzed mine until quite fine – ensuring I didn’t over blitz it as this will then turn from powder into paste. Alternatively you can bash them with a rolling-pin.
The wedding is on Sunday. It’s Friday night and I’m wondering how I’m going to get to Sunday and actually produce a magnificent, professional looking cake. Yes, I made a test cake. A little test cake. But I haven’t practiced making the whole thing, getting the quantities right – and above all icing it perfectly and getting the two tiers to stand upright, one on top of each other. Well the top one kind of ‘floating’ above the bottom one on pillars with a layer of avalanche roses and blue irises sandwiched between the tiers.
Sitting on the floor – somewhat bewildered, that Sunday after the happy couple came round for the first time – frantically thumbing through my books looking to be inspired by something impressive I came across a decadent looking layered pistachio cheesecake. A combination of creamy pistachio cheesecake, little cubes of syrup soaked sour cherries in the middle topped with a pistachio mousse and then sprinkled with ground pistachios.
This was my starting point for putting the wedding cake together. Stumbling at the first hurdle though, every component of this cake needed pistachio paste. I’d never seen in it supermarkets, but presumed it would be easy enough to find in London – I mean you can practically buy anything if you’re willing to spend a bit in fancy specialist food stores. I googled it, and although pistachio paste is a common ingredient in French and Italian baking, I couldn’t find a single source to buy it from in the United Kingdom. Ordering from online shops in France was easy enough but paying £25 with postage for a small jar of paste seemed obscene. So, my only other option was to make it.
A few weeks ago a friend announced that he and his fiancé had finally set a wedding date. It’s going to be a small wedding in the middle of April. Before I could properly congratulate him, or even think about it, the words tumbled out of my mouth that I bake wedding cakes. What I meant to say was, I have baked one wedding cake. I walked back to my desk muttering under my breath that I should think before I open my big mouth, but was convinced they’d never take me up on it. I mean, of course I’d love the challenge, but I’m no professional wedding cake baker.
The excited couple popped round the following weekend eager to hear what I could bake – and to make matters more complicated for this wannabe baker, the bride-to-be was adamant that she did not want a traditional fruit cake or a sponge cake. She wanted a fancifully decadent layer cake. Words like praline and mousse were flung across the lounge over cups of tea, conjuring up visions of the type of cake you find in little French patisseries. And she wanted these delicate layers tiered! My mind raced. As soon as they left Pierre Hermé’s new book came out, amongst various others, and sitting on the lounge floor with books strewn all around me I wondered whether I’d bitten off more than I could chew. My other half just shook his head.
This is undoubtedly my worst time of year – and can really only be described with one word – bleak. Everyone is partied out after the festive season, and generally skint as a result, spring isn’t here yet – and the grey days bleed into one another with a monochrome chill. I exist through the days with an almost permanent frown on my face – and like an angry bear all I want to do is hibernate until spring breaks with the bright yellow daffodils.
I sit in the cosy, heated front room looking out at the grey light turning to dusk hours before the end of the afternoon. I can still faintly smell the sweetness of freshly baked shortbread coming from the kitchen, and in the winter bleakness cannot begin to imagine the dry heat that surrounded me the last time I had a square of melting shortbread.
It was in December whilst road tripping in South Africa. At the end of a week of lazy days in the small Karoo town of Uniondale my Mom and I – with the intrepid fox terrier in tow – set off on the three-hour journey to Port Elizabeth to fetch my sister-in-law and nine-month-old nephew. The one thing Uniondale lacks – like so many small Karoo towns – is decent coffee, freshly percolated through fine roasted and ground espresso beans. It had been weeks since I’d had my usual morning cappuccino hit from one of the many coffee shops that lie between my apartment and work.
I don’t know where the last two months have disappeared to, but I sit here with my fingers hovering over the keyboard unsure what to type in sheer embarrassment of lack of posts over the festive season. The list of recipes I intended posting lies on the kitchen counter as a constant reminder – and does nothing but grow as I add delectable ideas to it. So my apologies. December saw family visiting, a wedding – and my first attempt at a wedding cake – followed by a rather rushed dash to the southern tip of Africa to spend a few glorious weeks in the dry heat interspersed with road trips, big blue skies, quiet glasses of chilled wine at dusk, quality time with my favourite nephew, glorious sunsets, endless beaches and radiant sunshine. And then back to dreary London I trudged, braced to face the wintery weather and a new year of work.