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Cooking Advice

pistachio cake

There is this silent, yet omnipresent fear within each blogger that threatens our very existence in this online world – the day blogger burnout arrives. It swoops in slowly, the recipes starting to sink like stones, the photographs blurred and flat and soon progresses to words that wont flow from your fingertips. In many ways, it mirrors that feared condition of writers block, but as a writer by trade, I have no other option but to power through that interview or the article at work because a deadline looms no matter how hard it is to get the words to appear on screen. Yet as a blogger, the responsibility is entirely your own. There is no editor tapping their foot waiting for witty and well-structured sentences to magically appear. There is no photographer patiently editing pictures for you to use at your leisure. Your subject is a bowl of butter and sugar sitting in your kitchen, unaccounted for as you struggle with the creativity to bake it into something magical. As bloggers, we take on the all-consuming task of writer, photographer, editor and social media expert. Then the piece is done and we start the process again. Those with a hardcore schedule keep at it day in day out, never seemingly losing focus and uploading beautiful and inspiring content multiple times a week. It’s no wonder that sometimes it gets too much, and you have to take a step back.

cakes

Don’t get me wrong, I love the responsibility that comes with my baking blog – I write sentences that I know I couldn’t in other articles, structure sentences the way I would a conversation and take endless photographs rather than just one beautifully crafted shot. But it is tiring and time consuming, and when your cake fails to rise for the third time in four days, it feels easy to slump on the floor and let the thing burn in the oven, convinced you are a failure and that you’ve lost your touch. It’s incredibly easy to be hard on yourself, especially when there are so many other inspiring sites and ideas out there. You feel lost in a sea of words, scrabbling to grab hold of just a few to keep you afloat, but when the sentences are jarred together for the sake of hitting publish, blogging loses its loving feeling. Recently I’ve felt the same, tempted to post nearly-there recipes with words written in snatched moments, but it feels forced and unnatural. To me, blogging is an exciting and fun way to share my love of words and cakes but when I don’t feel inspired by my own content, it’s difficult to see how any reader would feel anything but the same.

garlic mushroom pizza

Dealing with blogger burnout can seem like a risk. There is the fear that followers will dissipate, the stats will drop and the site will look tired and outdated. But there is hope in taking a break, regaining your thoughts and re-evaluating what it is you want to bring to the internet. Much like a well needed holiday, the chance to reflect rather than churn out content tirelessly will give you the space to dream up those ideas that have lingered long enough in the back of your mind. When you feel the passion once again rising in your fingertips, that feeling of incessant typing because your ideas and thoughts are too brilliant to miss capturing on the page, then it will feel like the break following the burnout was worth it.

strawberry galette

If you feel like you’re losing your grip, then you should take that step back. Go on an ideas trip – as cliché as it sounds I get my best ideas at all hours of the day, so forever carry a notebook with you and scribble down ideas as you experience life without the chains of a blogging schedule weighing you down. Be inspired by the seasons and take a trip to markets and parks to get a feel for the time of year, imagining what you would eat in that very moment that encapsulates your surroundings. Blogger burnout is not a lifelong prognosis – those ideas that fuel your desire to tell stories and take pictures will return. You just need to give yourself space to let it happen.

strawberry scones

I’ve shared a few pictures in this post from recipes that haven’t inspired me to write or been a particular success – including a pistachio cake I am determined to perfect – to show what I’ve been up to these past few weeks during my radio silence. I’ll be back properly this weekend with a delicious bejewelled pancake stack that will kickstart your weekend in style – and my return to the blogging world from my own blogger burnout.

Salted Caramel, Golden Pecan and Chocolate Celebration Cake

I am a glutton for punishment. After swearing off cake rods, foil covered boards and palette knives after making my parents’ silver wedding anniversary cake in June, my little sister began creeping towards her 21st and another cake challenge appeared on the baking horizon. My Mam was sneaky about it – there was some flattery involved during a mid September phone call – and I dutifully send in my request for another day’s baking holiday, rolled up my sleeves and order a hell of a lot of sugar from Tesco. Two tier cake part two: this time, it’s personal.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t requested to make a two tier cake but I do so love to push myself and so I sat one evening with a chilled glass of wine searching through my cook book library to find something to spark a fire within my cake baking soul. I don’t think it took me long before I had an idea sketched out on my ruled pad – an affair of salted caramel, dark chocolate and toasted pecans. A pure autumnal heaven.

Salted Caramel, Golden Pecan and Chocolate Celebration Cake side view

I must say I only came across two or three major challenges whilst making this cake; I had learned my lesson in preparedness which I will share as part of this recipe, so for the most part my haphazardness wasn’t the issue. I had also learned that two different cake batters will take up valuable time, so I set about my calculator to do some bizarre maths to concoct one huge recipe that challenged my Kmix on more than one occassion. Don’t ask me how I did it – I’ve already forgotten – but my usual tactic is to use the amount of eggs as a starting point and divide and multiply from there. But my main issue was the Italian meringue frosting, and although so beautiful and fluffy, this concoction caused many a tear during construction. Luckily I worked out a few solutions should you come across the same problem.

preparing to bake a two tier cake

Should you wish to tackle this cake, I’ve structured this post slightly differently than I usually do to show you parts that can be made ahead of time, where you should leave plenty time and to illustrate the lessons I learned along the way. I hope you enjoy it.

All  recipes are inspired by Edd Kimber’s incredible debut book The Boy Who Bakes, but with a heavy amount of quantity adaptation and my stupidly ambitious imagination.

 

Two days before

For the toasted pecans

100-150g pecan halves (I did this by sight so it isn’t an exact science)

A can of gold lustre spray (I love the Dr Oetker ones)

 

Preheat an oven to 150oc/130oc fan and line a baking tray with parchment. Spread the nuts evenly in one layer on the tray and bake for around 5 minutes, keeping a close eye on them as they will burn easily. When the nuts smell fragrant and toasty, remove from the oven and leave to cool. Shake the lustre dust can and spray evenly from around 15cm away – if you can do this outside all the better as it can make the worktop sparkly. Leave to dry then turn each nut over and spray again. Once dry, store in an airtight container – these will last pretty well, I’d say around a week.

 

For the salted caramel

300g granulated sugar

250ml double cream

20g butter

2 generous pinches of flaked sea salt

Pour the sugar into a pan and place over a medium heat. Slowly melt the sugar until it is liquid but don’t stir – swirl the pan if you need to. Keep an eye on the caramel once melted, as it beings to boil it will change colour and become golden, at which point remove from the heat and pour in half the cream – be careful it will bubble up. Stir then add the butter and remaining cream and place back on the heat to melt down any lumps. Add the salt then pour into a heatproof container – a jug is best for pouring. Cool to room temperature then cover with clingfilm and chill in the fridge. Salted caramel will last for about a week in the fridge.

I used three 20cm sandwich tins and two 15cm tall tins with removable bases for this cake, so if you want to be even more prepared, cut out your linings beforehand – this will save you time the next day.

cocoa powder

One day before

Your next step is to get all those cakes baked, so grease and line each tin using your prepared paper from the night before. I would also suggest individually weighing out everything before you begin baking – it may seem an arduous task but I’ve adopted it since I started my blog and find it helps me gather my thoughts and ensure I have everything ready to go. Plus once you’ve done all your weighing you can play this tune as you bake. It’s what I did.

 

This is my favourite chocolate cake recipe – it is fudgy but not too dense and carries a variety of flavours with ease. At some point I’d love to swap the boiled water for freshly brewed coffee – I think it would make for an excellent combination.

 

For the 3 x 20cm and 2 x 15cm chocolate fudge cakes

165g good quality dark chocolate (I used 71%)

165g unsalted butter, softened

420ml boiling water

420g plain flour

210ml buttermilk

4 ½ tbsp cocoa powder (I used Green and Blacks)

3 tsp bicarbonate of soda

510g soft brown sugar

1-2 tsp vanilla paste

4 ½ beaten eggs

Tip: I know the above sounds weird but it’s what my mathematical mind could come up with. To measure half an egg, weigh a beaten egg and divide by two – mine was 50g so I used 25g. Use one half in this recipe and use the other for scrambled eggs or a wash for scones.

how to half an egg

The recipe is the same as my Ultimate Chocolate Cake so follow the link for the method, making sure to divide the batter between the three sandwich tins and adding a little more to each of the smaller tins to give the top tier a little height. The 20cm cakes should be baked first for 20 to 25 minutes then bake the 15cm cakes – they will only need about 15 to 20 minutes so keep an eye on them but don’t open the oven door until halfway through baking.

Once the cakes have cooled the final task is to make the salted caramel frosting.

 

For the salted caramel italian meringue buttercream

400g granulated sugar

255ml water

8 egg whites

720g unsalted butter, softened and cut into small pieces

3-4 scoops of salted caramel

Place the sugar and water in a sauce pan over a medium heat and bring to the boil. Place the egg whites in the bowl of stand mixer fixed with the whisk attachment and begin to whip on medium. Place a sugar or digital thermometer in the sugar syrup and once the mixture reaches 115oc turn up the speed on the meringue to high. Once the syrup has reached 121oc, carefully pour down the side of the bowl with the whisk still running. Once the meringue has cooled to room temperature, add in the butter piece by piece until marshmallowy and smooth. Add the caramel and whisk again, tasting and adding more if required.

To assemble the cakes, dab a 20cm cake board with a little buttercream then place one of the larger cakes on the bottom. Spread over a good dollop of buttercream and drizzle with a little salted caramel (you may need to reheat slightly to get an even drizzle) and top with another cake. Repeat the steps with the final cake then give it a good crumb coating with a palette knife. Leave somewhere coolish to firm up slightly then repeat with the smaller cakes, assembling on a slice of parchment as it will need to be lifted off and placed on the bigger cake the next day. I sliced both 15cm cakes into two for a four layer effect.

Now, I would highly recommend finishing the frosting after an hour of letting the cakes rest as this will allow them to firm up and be much easier to handle during assembly on the day. The reason being Italian meringue butter cream will harden in the fridge and become a pain to work with. However it is salvageable but again, owing to experience I would advise you not to go down this route.

Confections of a Foodie Bride has a great guide on fixing Swiss meringue buttercream which is in essence a similar idea and mine unfortunately went down the cottage cheese route. The melt-and-mix method did work but it was too thick for spreading on my cakes and wouldn’t stick. I discovered that placing small amounts in the microwave to melt for 10 seconds with a vigorous stir did the trick and became marshmallowy once again.

Salted Caramel, Golden Pecan and Chocolate Celebration Cake low angle

On the day

To assemble your cake, place the bottom tier on a cake stand and stick three cake rods in the centre measured to sit about an inch flush of the top. Carefully place the top tier on top of the rods in the middle of the cake the best you can and push down gently. If it’s a bit wonky, no matter – make the side with the biggest space the front. Touch up as necessary with some more buttercream then heat the remaining salted caramel until a good pouring consistency. Using a jug or even better a chef’s squeezy bottle, run the caramel around the circumference of the top and bottom tiers, allowing it to drip down the sides. Chop half your golden pecans and scatter on top of the caramel, nestling the whole pecans in amongst the smaller pieces.

cutting the cake

I know this is a scarily large post, but I felt it important to address each issue as I faced it and to give a realistic timeline for creating this cake. But it is so worth the effort and made the birthday girl really smile. I’d advise picking up some tall spindly candles to really finish it off and give the cake extra height – and that final extravagant birthday flourish. Happy baking! *collapses*

blowing out the candles

Cinnamon Red Velvet Cupcakes

Sometimes I wonder what we ever did without the internet. How people used to queue for hours on a Saturday just to transfer a tenner to a mate. Jostling with throngs of people in Tesco on a Sunday, fighting over the last chicken for your roast dinner and ending up with frozen roasties after the tatties sell out. How Christmas shopping becomes a battle of the wits and survival, when it can all be done from the comfort of your own home with a glass of wine and a credit card.

Ok, perhaps the internet isn’t the be all and end all but when you have burning question that needs answered at 10pm, who you gonna call? Google, that’s who.

Case in point these cupcakes. I wanted to try the ubiquitous red velvet, so I searched for recipes online. I looked at tips for frosting on YouTube and decorating ideas on blogs. When my frosting collapsed into a cream cheese soup I knew exactly where to look for the answers to my sugary woes.

This post isn’t so much about the cake (it’s a delicious Lily Vanilli recipe from Sweet Tooth which you should buy immediately) but about the actual frosting. I’ve seen a lot of suggestions online on how to fix the issue, but what I really wanted to know was the reason it failed. After some reading coupled with my own frosting fails, I’ve come up with a few troubleshooting tips should you come across the same problem.

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Ingredient Ratio

A basic frosting recipe will incorporate three ingredients: powdered sugar, butter and cream cheese. Issues will crop up when the ratio of butter and cream cheese is higher than the sugar, which will bind the two and keep it fluffy. Too high, and you will risk the fats turning to liquid, too little and the taste will be overly sweet and the mixture heavy. Recipes with equal ingredients pose the biggest problem so keep an eye on your mixer as it can be overbeaten very easily.

Speed

A fast arm or a good mixer is crucial to a good fluffy frosting but it can equally be its downfall. Cream cheese can be broken down quite quickly if beaten too fast and the result will be soupy and unworkable. Try folding into the butter and sugar to keep a light texture if using an equal ingredient recipe. If you are using the recipe below, combine on low to just mix in the cheese before upping the speed to incorporate some air to make it lighter.

Temperature

If your frosting has curdled, chances are you ingredients were at the wrong temperature and have seized up. Measure your cheese a few hours before making the frosting and leave to come up to room temperature. Butter can be a little colder and is best used around three hours after removed from the fridge. Don’t leave it out too long though – if meltingly soft, the water will separate too quickly from the fat and curdled cream cheese will ensue.

Do you have any other tips for perfect cream cheese frosting? Let me know!

Frosting Red Velvet Cupcakes

Adapted from Joy the Baker

You Will Need

380g icing sugar

3 tbsp unsalted butter, left out at room temperature for around 3 hours

¼ tsp ground cinnamon, plus extra to finish (optional)

115g cream cheese, room temperature

 

Add the icing sugar and butter to the bowl of a stand mixer (or large bowl if using a handheld mixer). Start the machine slowly to stop the sugar escaping and mix to incorporate the butter. The sugar should change to a yellow tone and feel a little sandy. Stir through the cinnamon then add the cream cheese.

Beat on a medium low speed until combined. At this point the frosting will feel heavy. Turn the speed up and beat until the frosting becomes fluffy which will take around 5 minutes. Keep your eye on the frosting – if you over beat it will loosen up and become too runny to use. You can stop the mixer if you like to test the frosting, by scooping with a spoon and seeing if it will hold its shape.

Personally, I prefer frosting swirled onto my cake rather than piped and actually find using the back of a spoon yields the best results and adds a nice rustic charm. For this effect, scoop spoonfuls of the frosting and dollop on top of the cupcakes. Using the back of a spoon, coax the frosting to the paper case edges then using a firm pressure, swoop the spoon around the cupcake for a swirled effect. Sprinkle with extra cinnamon to finish.

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Two Tier Chocolate Cake

A few weeks ago, I began the story of how I made my first two tier cake. Planning a decadent chocolate affair to celebrate my mum and dad’s 25th wedding anniversary, I plotted exactly how I was going to undertake this mammoth task. After testing a delicious but far too rich cake, I went back to the drawing board and pulled out some old favourites to help create Love and Death by Chocolate – The Anniversary Edition.

I rose early, whipping up this Cherry Blueberry Frangipane Tart for that night’s dessert well before 9am, sprinkling with almonds and pressing fat blueberries into the defrosted frangipane, coffee in hand. Although it was a relatively bright day, the weather was kind to this harassed baker, totting up in her head just how many cake tins she would have to line and the sheer amount of chocolate left to chop. A cooling breeze and a little cloud were most welcome.

After the recipe test of the Death by Chocolate Cake, I had decided to return to the drawing board and plump for Edd Kimber’s Ultimate Chocolate Birthday Cake as the base for my two tier construction. Although melted chocolate and cocoa powder combine into a rich and toothsome batter, the resulting cake is moist and possesses a lighter crumb that the density of the tested version.

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The three cakes balanced precociously in the oven, the third on a makeshift shelf at the bottom – a grill pan wire rack serving as the ‘emergency chair’ for the oven. I switcherooed and turned the tins until each cake was perfectly cooked then began the task of organising enough wire racks to cool them on. Again, the grill pan rack saved the day.

What better way to sandwich this light cake together with than darkly seductive pools of dark dark chocolate and splashes of whisky? I whipped up a batch using the heated cream and pour over chocolate method and added around 3 to 4 tablespoons of Luke’s kindly donated Angel’s Share. A quick crumb coating and the bottom was ready to go. Time to tackle the top.

Finding a recipe for a loose-bottomed cake tin proved more difficult as my last-minute dash for 15cm tins rustled up the wobbly bottomed variety. Luckily Edd Kimber’s newer cake book Say It With Cake came to the rescue, offering a layered vanilla and chocolate genoise cake tower, which sat at the top of a ‘naked’ wedding cake.

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This was my first time making this precarious sponge and I do still have my reservations. A few weeks later and tired from completing an abseil off the coastline cliffs for charity (pause for applause) I rushed around my kitchen attempting to make this delicate sponge come together with all the grace of a bulldozer. Safe to say folding flour into a complex egg structure with the speed of a cement mixer was an utter fail.

Luckily my first occasion was in the daytime devoid of distractions, ropes and hard helmets. Genoise is cooked twice; first on the hob as you whisk egg whites and yolks with sugar until the crystals have dissolved and the mixture begins to warm, before it is baked in the oven. Whirred in my Kmix, the batter become thick and marshmallow like  – pillow soft with a tang of yellow from the burst yolks. Flour is carefully folded in before the foamy cake mix is scooped into the tin and baked for a short amount of time. The resulting sponge is super light and often used with air-whipped mousses to create beautiful patisserie, but I plumped for an Italian meringue buttercream speckled with vanilla to sandwich with the chocolate genoise I had baked earlier (simply substituting cocoa for a portion of the flour).

The two cakes were finished. The real headache was the assembly. Luckily I had my own executive chef on hand to offer some amazing advice when I was starting to panic. I made 3 batches of Lily Vanilli’s chocolate shards, sandwiched between greaseproof paper and refrigerated for at least an hour. Then I sprayed with edible silver spray in the garden and broke the pieces into shards. I had only managed to temper one batch and the satisfying snap was made duller by the cruel crumble of the other two. I would highly recommend the best quality chocolate that you can find for this process and stay away from white until you get dark chocolate absolutely perfect.

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After some humming and hawing, I decided to skewer the cakes with three cake rods rather than balancing on just-flush supports. I slathered the now two tier cake in another layer of ganache and quickly set about peeling the shards from the baking parchment and trepidly placing along the sides of the cake. Admittedly a few blasts of the chef’s blowtorch were required to get the shards to stick, but the cake was taking shape.

When I finished the outside of the cake, that was when I really lost it. Looking back, I totally understand why I did; I was tired and had been baking solidly since 9am the previous morning. I had also picked an unconventional method of decoration and although it was supposed to look that way I felt it looked messy and uncontrolled. I do still have my reservations about the overall look of the cake, but that has more to do with the shards not being snap-perfect and clean cut. A cry and a hug in the garden resumed my faith and I gathered the last shards, piled them on top and carried the cake into the living room on a slate to be photographed. Finally I could relax.

I want to say a big thank you to my family for really supporting me with this project. Initially worried I had asked too much of myself, mum and dad’s encouragement and last-minute runs to the speciality cake shop were a godsend. David’s advice came in so handy and I am so lucky he was there to help. Luke’s hugs and reassurance were great and everyone who commented and said it looked (and luckily tasted!) great meant so much. And thanks to you for reading this journey – I hope you are inspired to step out your baking comfort zone and tackle a new challenge. I am certainly glad I did.

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All images (excluding chocolate cakes on coffee table) by Fiona Ainslie of Memory Lane Photography.

Pesto recipe from VSPP

Pesto is a funny little kitchen basic – in many respects it isn’t one. It isn’t essential for a risotto the way a pile of parmesan is, nor the backbone of salted butter in a pan of mashed potatoes. It isn’t the milk for your tea, the loaf for your morning toast or the instant coffee to perk up your mornings. But in the way that margarine isn’t as delicious on a scone or UHT milk curdles in your cuppa, jarred pesto is a stunted fridge essential that never really gets away from the aftertaste of preservatives and added rubbish.

The real deal is infinitely better, more so because you can put your own spin on it. You can add a hint of Asian tang with lime juice, like I have, or sub in a different nut like walnuts if you wish. You could choose untoasted nuts; half basil and half rocket or add decadent chilli oil to the mix. It’s a simple kitchen staple that is so personal to everyone, that this blog post isn’t really a recipe at all, merely a guideline. Pesto is the staple for mixing up the perfect sauce for your lunchbox pasta salad, a spread for your mozzarella and tomato panini or baked onto a pizza in place of a rich tomato sauce (coming later on this week!)

What is really essential is that you step away from the jars and step into the kitchen. Pesto making is therapeutic and painterly, watching the ingredients turn from milky white garlic, to forest green basil, to soft parmesan lime and a final dollop of jade that coats a strand of spaghetti beautifully. Of course, you could zap the ingredients in a food processor but where is the fun in that? Grab a mortar and pestle and crush your way to a tastier essential. You need never pick up a jar again.

 

You Will Need

50g pine nuts

2 garlic cloves

Pinch of sea salt

80g (one bag) fresh basil

25g finely grated parmesan

Juice of half a lime

Freshly ground black pepper

75ml olive oil

 

Heat a saucepan over a medium heat then add the pine nuts. Swirl around the pan to keep the nuts evenly toasted, which should take around 5 minutes. As the oils are released, the nuts begin to toast quicker. Once lightly golden, remove from the heat and leave to cool.

Slice the garlic cloves and add to a mortar and pestle with the salt – slicing into smaller pieces helps to grind the garlic quicker. Once crushed to a smooth paste, wash the basil and add to the bowl, crushing again. Mix in the parmesan then crush in the nuts to form a pesto paste. Add the lime juice for a sour tang and season with black pepper. Pour in the oil and mix in with the pestle. Transfer to a jam jar and keep in the fridge for up to two weeks.

Homemade Pesto by VSPP

“It’s just a silly wee show, but it makes you feel great when you see something you’ve made win a prize for being quite good.”

This seems to be the sentiment surrounding my local flower show in my family. The flower show is a big display of the best in baking, cut flowers, home grown vegetables and rows of pretty jams and jellies, all housed in the local village hall for £1.50 entry. It may seem silly and old fashioned, but I utterly love it. I’ve been entering since I was nine, when I first made a fairly poor Lego aeroplane which somehow won 1st prize. Since then, I’ve caught the bug and make as much as possible to enter in alongside some of the villages top-dogs in home-baking. This year my entries were slightly limited, as I have been flat hunting (more in an upcoming post!) so my creations were made slightly hungover at 7.30am after a fun night of Morrison’s own Chenin Blanc in a box and a lot of Haribo. But like I’ve said, my determination to put down some entries before the cut off point of 10am made it easy to forgo a lie in and get stuck into a bag of self raising flour and a box of eggs.

Last year brought the complete surprise of winning a 1st for my scones, which I put down to trying a new recipe. My tried and trusted copy of Kitchen Magic, covered in flour and cake mix, has provided me with the holy scone grail. Light, buttery and best of all, simple. They were mixed together, baked and cooled well within half an hour, making it easy for me to crack on with some pancakes (a 2nd!) and my Blackberry and Mint Lemonade (a 3rd!). These little scones were then packaged up, placed on paper plates and left for their judgement day. And I am so delighted that I retained my scone crown for the second year running! (As did Miss Gizzi Erskine herself, who liked my photo on Instagram and retweeted it to her followers. Thanks Gizzi!)

But as much as I love baking competitions, I do love baking for pleasure, and I am conscious of the fact that many students will be returning to their halls, flats and bedsits in the next few weeks, eager to start university. Which has got me thinking; do students bake, or is it even possible for students to bake on such a tight budget? My answer is a resounding yes! I was baking from third year onwards, and although I did try recipes that may be out of reach for the average student (French Macaron anyone?) I did being to notice the small changes that could be made to recipes to make them student friendly. Case in point these beautiful scones. I know it is baking-sacrilege to say, but I have tested these scones with Stork and they work perfectly. Still as crumbly, still as light and still as delicious. If you can’t separate an egg or simply would prefer it in scrambled eggs, leave it out. Brush your scones with milk instead. Don’t want to buy a rolling pin? Flatten the dough using your hands (I do). And with five (potentially four, eggless) ingredients, this recipe is the perfect starter for anyone who wants to give student baking a go.

 

Adapted from Kitchen Magic by Gizzi Erskine

 

You Will Need

225g self raising flour

55g unsalted butter or stork

1 ½ tablespoons caster sugar

150ml milk

1 egg yolk (alternatively use milk to brush)

Preheat the oven to 200oc/180oc fan/Gas Mark 6. Lightly grease a baking tray with butter and set aside.

Place the flour and butter in a large bowl and using your fingertips, rub the fat into the flour. To do this, take a handful of the mix and rub with your thumb from your pinkie to your pointing finger. Do this until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir through the sugar with a round bladed knife then slowly pour in the milk to create a soft, but not wet dough (you may not need all the milk). Turn out onto a floured surface and roll out or flatten the dough with your hands to roughly half an inch thickness.

Cut out rounds using a cutter, quickly bringing the dough together to cut out more from the scraps. Alternatively, simply roll into a circle and cut into wedges. Place the scones on the prepared tray and brush with the egg yolk or a little milk.

Bake in the oven for 10-12 minutes (if cutting wedges, the scones may need a little longer) then leave to cool for 5 minutes on the tray before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely. Serve with jam or butter and feed to your new flatmates in exchange for them doing the washing up.

After four years, countless essays, a lot of all-nighters, a few pro plus, some tantrums and tears and one BIG DISSERTATION PROJECT, I have finally graduated from the University of Stirling. Writing this feels very strange, considering this university has been my life for the past four years and the thought that my academic career has come to an end is terribly scary. Considering just a few short months ago I was desperate to leave, determined to start a new chapter with a new job in a new city – having now donned the robes and smiled for the photos, that thought now seems VERY real. It means I won’t get to see my hilarious friends every day, cursing essay questions, pulling our hair out about lecturers or just generally prattling on about the bloody snow. It seems more hyper-real than leaving school; because you know that this is it, the time has come to be a proper grown up.

Being a (bit more) grown up and looking back at my time at university, there are probably three things I learned the most. Not academic advice, but life advice. University is a big adventure and the amount of lessons you will learn will be extraordinary. But these three pointers are the most valuable that I will take with me on my next venture. (WARNING: potentially soppy material ahead)

Firstly, not everyone will have the same uni experience as you. You may have a billionty friends that will streamline down to three by the end of first year. You may stick with the same people for the whole course. You may only start chatting to your classmates because you have an assignment which requires a LOT of communication (hello 32 page newspaper!). These scenarios are all cool. It will all work out. The friends that are worth their salt will stick around. They are the ones who will eat your Cappuccino Cookies, slurp your smoothies and high five you for some awesome homemade Nandos chicken. You might drink a whole box of wine together and dance to Steps videos at 2 in the morning. That’s… a little uncool, but that’s friendship.

Secondly, figure out your hobbies. Join a club. I wish I had done more of this. I would love to have four years of trampolining club under my belt, be the president of the Art and Design club and have Saved the Children like my friend Victoria. I learned this lesson a little too late. Thankfully, I did find Brig and I will ever be in debt to people like Dan Nunan who helped me discover food writing. Not only did Brig ignite a passion in me I didn’t know existed, I made some ridiculous friends who are all mental but so loving and welcoming at the same time. It sounds sappy, but being part of a club where everyone has a shared interest, puts their heart and soul into everything and most of all knows how to party will always make you feel better. Even when everything seemed like it was going wrong for me, writing about Lemon Meringue Pie and Tuscany helped me reassess what I wanted from my degree and I got it. Plus, I have some awesome memories of nights out.

And thirdly, remember who your rocks are. Your family, your home friends, your boyfriend or girlfriend or even your dog. They will keep you going. They are invaluable. They will tell you it like it is, make you stop moaning and push you towards finishing that essay. They will help you pack up your things when it’s time to move, they’ll listen when it’s all going wrong and they will cheer you when it’s all going right. And at the end of it all, they will sit proud as punch in the graduation hall, in a cafe watching the ceremony on the internet or be sat next to you, cracking jokes to cut the tension of 600 graduates desperately trying not to fall on stage. Those people aren’t going anywhere, and remember to say thank you. Whether it’s with Mother’s Day Millionaires Shortbread with Rosemary Scented Salted Caramel, the Ultimate Chocolate Birthday Cake or an impressive Anniversary Cake, say it with butter and sugar. Or of course, you can always say it on your blog, because they have supported you from day one with it, become your publicity team and always enjoy the cookies. Mam and Dad, you’re awesome. Don’t ever change.

To celebrate learning these three life lessons, making some brilliant friends and gaining a 2:1(!) in Journalism Studies, there is only one thing to do – party. And my god, do Peases know how to do this one right. Uni has taught me a lot of things, but my family have been educating me how to let my hair down for 21 years and this isn’t going to change anytime soon. Of course, as food is the common denominator in our household career of choice, the edible stuff was always going to be good. I take my hat off to my Mother; she knows how to put on a spread.

As this is a food blog, I should be talking about how to make Chocolate Nut Slab or the perfect Potato Salad, but truth be told, all I did was pitch up, put some rocket in a bowl and drink a lot of fizz. My Mum and Dad did an insane job of creating a gorgeous seafood buffet and dessert party. My sister made some amazing bunting from wrapping paper and wrapping ribbon. My Granny grated those carrots within an inch of her life. And my Granda brought the humour. The perfect package I would say.

So, in true spectator fashion, what should one prepare for a graduation buffet, or indeed any old party? The trick, as I have learned time and time again is to prepare in advance. The salads were created the night before and simply needed tipped into serving bowls. The salmon just needed slicing and the bread buttered, which was done beautifully by my Uncle Dan. The cake was a simple affair; a Victoria Sponge (of course, which you can find the recipe for here) filled with buttercream and jam, slathered with more jam and smoothed over with fondant. My mum created a little mortar board out of black sugarpaste and tied a red ribbon around a twirl of white sugarpaste. So simple and yet so effective, that there is really no need for piping, OTT decorations or sparklers (although we did have a ‘2:1’ arrangement in stripy candles).

And of course, the cake stand was littered with pre-prepared goodies; microwave tablet (easy and delicious), frozen profiteroles (sorry, who has time for choux?) and my mother’s signature Chocolate Nut Slab. Dense, full of cherries, biscuits and nuts and drizzled in a whole manner of chocolaty hues, this thing is a spectacle to behold. Served with a scoop of ice cream and a few fat strawberries, dessert was the height of culinary sophistication and a lesson in cookery and bakery time management. Lessons noted family.

I think that partying in this manner is potentially the best way to celebrate leaving university. There are no set menus, no pondering over wine lists and elbows off the tables. However, there are emergency chairs, non-matching tablecloths and an old family cake stand. There’s a lot of wine, century-old wooden bricks to play with, and a comedy mortar board for epic photograph-taking. A relaxed family do where 11 people can come together to celebrate a pretty cool achievement. Thanks guys, you all made it spectacular.

When I cook risotto, my favourite five minutes lie in the final stages before plating up. Swirling in a cool pat of butter. Grating in a large lump of parmesan cheese. Folding in each ingredient into the pan, one by one, until they melt and combine together to make a great, oozy risotto. Apart from that moment they don’t. What happened to food harmony?

Butter and parmesan were my go to staples. If a mashed tattie was too dry, add a knob of butter. If the pasta was crap, parmesan would comfort the soul. Joined together, they are the integral ingredients in making a killer risotto. But these two pairings, although helpful, cannot always save a poorly made risotto that is destined for the compost bin.

Meet risotto, my favourite dish and yet, often my nemesis. The tender rice. The sweet onions. The pungent garlic. If foodie poetry was based on any dish it would be risotto. And yet, there can be something of a love/hate relationship between me and the arborio. Sometimes in our relationship things go really well (like Rosé Risotto) or things can go really badly (like Smoked Bacon Risotto).

It’s like any good relationship really. Things will go well if you take your time, let things happen naturally and don’t force it to work. Same goes for risotto. Made carefully and treated well, it will provide you will a plate of food heaven. But if you rush it, you’ll upset it, she will huff with you and you’ll end up in food hell, with a burnt pan and risotto that has little burnt flecks swimming round its soupy texture. That will teach you for your impatience if you couldn’t be bothered to wait for the rice to absorb that last little bit of stock. Patience is a virtue in the kitchen, especially when risotto is involved.

I don’t want to put you off making it though. The beauty of this dish is that it’s so versatile; any vegetable will happily climb into the pot and give you some beautiful flavours. Soft flakes of fish and juicy strips of chicken can give carnivores their protein fix encased in the thickness of a risotto. It’s so simple, cheap and can be made in well under an hour if you take the time to care for each grain, cube of onion and glug of stock. And in that sense, its perfect student fodder that can be pulled off as ‘posh’ because all good Italian restaurants serve it.

So what have I learned in the past 6 years of making this dish? Firstly, slowly sweat your onions over a low to medium heat. Don’t fry them, or they will burn your pan and your end result will be peppered with black flecks of burnt onion. Try using a non stick pan and stick to olive oil, as butter will just burn at this point. Secondly, toast the rice for a few minutes until translucent before you add any liquid. This will ensure a nice texture when finally cooked. Thirdly, add the stock slowly. Don’t throw it all in at once, because if your temperatures too high, the liquid will disappear and your rice will be eons away from being ready. Fourthly, remember that if you do run out of stock, don’t panic. Simple top up with boiling water from the kettle until fully cooked. And of course, don’t skimp on the butter and parmesan. The whole dish won’t work unless you have something to melt into the rice and bind the grains together to create a great oozy risotto. Lastly, a small smattering of freshly chopped basil lifts this dish to a fragrant new level.

So don’t panic about risotto. Love it and it will love you and your tummy.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to let my imagination run away with me and get creative in the kitchen. Armed with only a stand mixer and my imagination, I soon created what I thought would be a masterpiece – individual pear drop meringue tarts. As I photographed my handiwork, confident that I had something brilliant to share the world, I felt like I had cracked this baking lark. And then I sliced it up. The insides oozed out like a bad cold, the meringue wasn’t crispy enough, and my laziness in procuring butter meant my shortcut of stork made my pastry taste like oil. The word disappointment didn’t even begin to describe my heartache and my so-called masterpiece went in the compost bin. If I had a dog, the poor thing would have probably turned its nose up at it as well.

Baking, in many ways, can be a science. Ever heard Paul Hollywood on Great British Bake Off talk about stretching the gluten or complicated crumb structure? As complicated and crazy as it sounds, it’s practically the same as creating an experiment in a chemistry lab. What will happen if I add more liquid? What if I overwork the dough? Who will I punch when my soufflé collapses? The whos, whats and whys of baking are largely down to someone throwing a load of ingredients together and praying for the best. Which I suppose was what I was trying to do when I created my pear mishap. Sometimes experiments work really well, like my white peach scones, but other times, it will just be a disaster. Of course for a lot of people, following a recipe can be complicated enough, so it can be ten times as frustrating when a dish still doesn’t work. I suppose cooking and baking experimentation isn’t for everyone, but I do like the idea of coming across a great combination by chance. I am by no means a professional and have no desire to get ‘cheffy’ and learn to love all these Paul Hollywood terms. I love to bake. And what’s more, the disasters will always be a plenty.

There is very little you can do to avoid a baking disaster. But, more often than not, problems will arise by simply not following the recipe. This is any baker’s main pitfall. Using the correct depth, width and size of tin will make all the difference between a cakey brownie and a soft, fudgy one. Too much or too little sugar and you’ll either be left with diabetes or a tasteless Victoria sponge. The temptation to open the oven is perhaps the biggest problem to be faced with, especially if your oven door has no window, or the light has blown. ALWAYS wait until at least halfway through baking to check, otherwise your creation will head south, collapsing like your sinking heart. And checking your oven is set to the correct temperature will be key to your success.

But what about those times when it all just GOES WRONG? That time you (sorry, I) made a tart au citron, forgetting to place the pastry case in the oven first, and then filling with the lemon mix. Then the moment you over filled it. The gung-ho optimism of “I’ll make it work!”, and the subsequent spillage all over the clean floor. Throwing it in the oven with desperation, then turning, sliding in the lemon filling that’s all over the floor, and, in a moment You’ve Been Framed would be proud of, falling straight on your arse. And then there’s that internal dilemma. Do you cry, the past three hours of rubbing butter through your fingertips, juicing lemons and whisking eggs now smeared across your skinnies? Of course, I felt like it but instead, I howled with laughter. The tart was now soaked and the pastry was raw. And what did I learn? NEVER FILL THE CASE BEFORE PUTTING IN THE OVEN!

That’s the thing about baking. You can devour cooking books and be a literary expert, but if you’ve never experienced a scrambled custard, yolk in your meringues and a chocolate sponge the same height and texture as a Frisbee (me again), you’ll never learn. And when you do, keep a smile on your face. And a camera ready for your You’ve Been Framed £200.