The lonely baker – happy birthday to me

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents” is what I say to Jon each year when my birthday draws near. He looks blank because (a) he hasn’t read Little Women, (b) it’s October, and (c) we don’t celebrate Christmas anyway. But what I am cryptically saying is that as much as presents are essential to Christmas, so cake is essential to a birthday. (Wasn’t that obvious?)

My mum always made us amazing birthday cakes when we were little. I had a fairytale castle, a ski run, a doll in a pram, and loads of others. My brother had a football pitch, a hot air balloon, something tennis related, a fire engine, and I can’t remember what else. We always knew there would be a cake, but what it was would always be a closely-guarded secret. We would have to stay out of the kitchen while it was being done, but then before washing up we could come back in and lick the bowls of icing. It was nearly as good as the actual cake the next day.

I loved baking too, and as soon as I was old enough to reach the mixer I would also bake cakes, and sometimes I would make one for mum’s birthday because if I didn’t then no one would, because you can’t make your own birthday cake. When we were a bit older and stopped having “theme” cakes, we always got a perfect and delicious chocolate cake, the recipe for which was in mum’s tatty orange book of secret recipes, with an Evelyn Rose coffee-chocolate icing. It became THE family birthday cake, and then as time went on I would make it as the standard birthday cake for all friends and family too.

But in the last few years a sad thing has been happening. I have been diligently making cakes for Jon’s birthday, for friends’ birthdays and other family members if they are around. But on my birthday, there’s no one to make me a cake. My mum is the only one who would, but we are often not in the same place on my birthday (we were a few years ago and I asked her to make me a cake, even though it’s a bit pathetic to ask for a cake, and she did and it was amazing). When I most recently moaned about it to Jon he suggested that I leave an appropriate recipe lying around nearer the time. So a couple of days before my birthday I scribbled the recipe below on a piece of paper and waved it in front of his nose, saying “I’m leaving this carelessly lying around!” and then quite miraculously, on the afternoon of my birthday, I was presented with my own perfect, amazing and delicious birthday cake. Jon is pretty impressed with what a great cake he made all by himself, too.

Birthday cake

  • 6oz butter or margarine
  • 6oz caster sugar
  • 6oz self raising flour
  • 4 tablespoons cocoa
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 2-3 tablespoons water
  1. Beat all the ingredients together in an electric mixer (or beat thoroughly by hand).
  2. Grease a round tin (around 8 inches), and spread the mixture evenly.
  3. Bake at your normal cake-baking temperature (for a fan oven it is 160) for round 45 mins, or until a fork stuck in the centre comes out clean

The original Evelyn Rose icing

  • 3oz butter, softened
  • 8oz icing sugar
  • 4 tablespoons drinking chocolate
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa
  • 2 tablespoons boiling water
  • 3 teaspoons instant coffee
  1. Put the chocolate, cocoa and coffee into a small bowl and pour on the boiling water. Mix to a smooth cream.
  2. In a larger bowl (or your electric mixer) put the butter and cream until the consistency of mayonnaise.
  3. Add half of the sugar and cream again.
  4. Add the chocolate/coffee and the rest of the sugar and beat again until smooth and glossy.
  5. Spread on the cake and eat the rest!

My more sophisticated icing – coffee chocolate ganache

  • 200ml double cream or soy cream
  • 200g dark chocolate
  • Optional – 1 tsp glycerine
  • Optional – 2 tsp instant coffee
  1. Heat the cream in a saucepan and add the coffee if using. When it is just starting to bubble, remove from the heat and add the chocolate, broken into small pieces.
  2. Stir until it is a smooth cream.
  3. Add the glycerine if using (it keeps the ganache kind of stretchy and stops it from cracking)
  4. Cover the cake with it

I’m not doing a baby-friendly version, and I’m definitely not doing nutritional values – it’s my birthday!


“Healthy” brownies

I made my first chocolate truffles at nursery school. We must have had a teacher who loved cooking, because I also remember a day when we passed a bottle of milk around the circle, shaking it to try to churn it into butter. It was sort of like pass the parcel, but with no prizes (I’m pretty sure we didn’t succeed in churning the milk into butter – it was nursery school so we only did it for about 20 minutes before we would have had to stop for a snack and a nap). Anyway, one day we made chocolate truffles, and decorated boxes to put them in. I took mine home and put it in the fridge and proudly told my family what I’d made. My brother looked mildly interested in the fact that I’d brought something edible home from nursery, instead of another artistic masterpiece, and said he wanted to try them. He took one, took a tiny bite out of it, declared it disgusting, and spat it into the bin. I didn’t mind too much: more for me. But then he said, “Actually, I can’t remember if I liked it or not. I need to try another one.” So he took another one, took another tiny bite, said, “Eugh, disgusting!” and spat it in the bin. And then he said, “Maybe I should try another one, I can’t remember if I liked it or not” and did it all AGAIN. And then again, laughing all the time at his wittiness. And then probably again – but I can’t remember all the details, I was only 3.

Since then, probably due to this traumatic experience, I haven’t made many chocolate truffles, although writing about this has sort of made me want to. But what I have made many of, and what I am always on the hunt for, are truffly chocolate brownies. I know most people wouldn’t use the word “truffly” to describe a brownie. People more commonly talk about chewiness, gooeyness, etc. I do like that in a brownie, but very often I think brownies are too sweet and buttery and not chocolatey enough, hence why I use the word “truffly” to describe the level of chocolatiness I think a good brownie needs. I also like to cut my brownies into tiny little squares of about 1 inch, so they are quite truffly in size.

There are lots of recipes for brownies out there, and probably none of them could be described as healthy. These are maybe a bit healthier than most, partly due to their size, in the same way as those “count on us” or whatever they are called bags of crisps from Boots are healthier – “low fat, low cal – only 3 crisps!”. But also, these brownies use olive oil instead of butter and are therefore very low in saturated fats and high in the good things olive oil has to offer. I am also planning to try these  with coconut oil, which is solid at room temperature and therefore more similar to butter and may be even better, but that will be for a later post (i.e. when Waitrose restocks its extra virgin coconut oil).

The olive oil in these brownies gives them a slightly different texture to butter brownies – they aren’t quite so oozy, but they are denser and somehow more chocolatey. I think nuts in brownies are just a distraction, but if, like Jon, you disagree, then adding walnuts would make these even healthier. I think I made these with walnuts when I was pregnant, after I’d read something about how pregnant women should eat more walnuts for something, and declared them a health food and a necessity, but now I’d rather eat them nut-free.

Clearly these brownies are neither baby-friendly nor massively nutritious, but they aren’t totally against this blog’s manifesto, as they are super quick! They take barely 10 minutes to make and then about 20 minutes in the oven, and they taste great when they are warm so you could be reading this post now and be eating brownies in half an hour. They are made in one bowl with no electric mixer necessary so they require very limited washing up. Also, if you keep kosher, it’s really nice to have parev brownies which don’t use the dreaded Tomor (or any other margarine).

I made about 40 bite-sized brownies from this mix, and used a silicon baking tray that was about 7 by 9 inches. Something like an 8 by 8 inch pan would be ideal.

  • 3 oz unsweetened chocolate. This is not so readily available in England (surprisingly, it is everywhere in the US). You can buy something like this from Waitrose and other supermarkets, but it’s quite expensive. I used a bar of Lindt 90%, which worked well. If you do have to use something less than 90% then reduce the sugar significantly to compensate. Taste it as you add the sugar to gauge how sweet to make it.
  • 3 fl oz olive oil
  • 1 fl oz water
  • Approximately 6 oz caster sugar OR my current favourite combination, 2 oz caster sugar and 4oz dark muscovado sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt
  • 75 g plain flour
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
  1. Preheat oven to 350F/175C/160 fan (aka your normal baking temperature).
  2. In a large bowl, break up the chocolate and add the oil and water. Heat over a saucepan until melted. You can also do this in the microwave if you are very careful and only do it in 30 second bursts.
  3. Once melted, remove from the heat and, using a hand whisk, start adding the sugar, whisking gently to incorporate. If you are not sure how sweet you want the brownies, then taste as you go. If you’re using muscovado sugar, then you might want to keep it on a low heat for a little longer to help the sugar dissolve.
  4. Whisk in the eggs and salt, and then the flour and cocoa.
  5. Tip into your baking pan. If you’re using a silicon tray like mine, you don’t need to do anything, but if it is a metal tray then it is best to grease and line with baking parchment.
  6. Put into the oven and bake for around 20 minutes. Depending on the thickness of the brownies, they made need another 5 minutes. Test by seeing if a toothpick or fork comes out clean (unless you like very gooey underbaked brownies, in which case, take them out sooner).

*Approximate nutritional values in 1 bitesize brownie*

  • Calories: 62 kcal
  • Carbs: 7g
  • Fat: 4g
  • Protein: 1 g
  • Sugar: 4g
  • Sodium: 76mg

Chocolate mousse

Sometimes I do Weeks. Like, after a particularly indulgent, steak-eating holiday, when we get home, we do Thin Week, where  we try to eat light, healthy meals to compensate a bit for what went before. This week, for no particular reason other than that internet research over the week led me to links like these – Is Sugar Toxic?Is there a foetal sugar syndrome? and Sugar as Poison – I am doing Sugar-Free Week. I told Jon I was doing it and he huffed and puffed and said “does that mean a whole week without Percies?” I replied, “I said I’M doing Sugar-Free Week. YOU don’t have to” and he said, “Well obviously I do if you are… if there’s a THING happening, then obviously I’m doing it as well.” There’s no THING but there is a bandwagon going, so together we are doing Sugar-Free Week.

However, I’m actually not sure about Sugar-Free Week, for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t really like this whole craze of removing entire food groups from your diet for health reasons (unless, of course, there’s a live health reason, like diabetes). I particularly dislike carb-dodgers, who will eat fat and sugar and all kinds of rubbish but never Evil Wholewheat Bread or Terrible Brown Rice.

(As an aside, this reminds me of when my dad decided that he wasn’t going to eat melon, grapes or bananas anymore because they were “full of sugar”. Cake? No problem. Biscuits? Totally fine. Chocolate? You’ve got to have a square of chocolate after a meal. But melon? Take that lump of sugar away!) 

I just feel that in a normal healthy diet, eaten by a normal, healthy person of normal, healthy size, there is room for all food groups. And also I think there has to be a balance struck between health and enjoyment. I really enjoy eating, and I think it is one of life’s pleasures. Unless you really have to, I think it’s a bit hair-shirted to deny yourself some bad-for-you things some of the time.

Secondly, I actually don’t think I eat that much sugar. I do love my dark chocolate and I eat some every day. I also eat, sometimes, ice cream, more chocolate, and home-made desserts once a week. But I don’t drink fizzy drinks or juice (two of the major culprits, apparently), and I don’t tend to eat sugary snacks every day – I’d rather eat crisps. Mmm… salty, delicious, crispy crisps.

But, I do think I eat more sugar than I used to, particularly since having a baby. Since I read this article several months ago I started to think that this kind of eating was out of habit and, since I had acknowledged that, it should now be easy to stop, but it actually wasn’t. So Sugar-Free Week is an experiment: will I miss sugar, and will eating less of it make me feel better? Perhaps a week isn’t really long enough to find this out, but we’ll see.

All of this segues nicely into the recipe I want to share with you, which is for (absolutely not sugar-free) chocolate mousse. This was the last sugary thing I ate, as I made it this weekend, and so it was a perfect start to Sugar-Free Week.

This dessert obviously doesn’t fit the category of baby-friendly as even if you are OK with the sugar, the raw eggs are a definite no. But it is in the category of quick and easy things to make. This is the perfect quick dessert to make for friends or to take to friends for dinner – although it needs time to set, so it’s not the perfect dessert to make at 7pm just before your friends arrive. Make it the day before and it will be perfect. I should also add that it’s only a super quick dessert if you have an electric whisk (or Kitchen Aid/Kenwood style food mixer). If you don’t, it is possible to do with a hand whisk but I wouldn’t bother.

This recipe is unadapted, straight from Delia. I am always being complimented on it:

  •  200g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
  • 4 fl oz water
  • 1 ½ oz caster sugar
  • 3 eggs, separated
  1. Break the chocolate into small pieces and put in a large bowl (stainless steel or heat-proof glass) over a saucepan of boiling water. It is difficult, but not impossible, to burn the chocolate doing it this way (you’ll know if you burned it as it will separate into a grainy part and an oily part) so keep an eye on it and stir it regularly. You want to end up with a totally smooth chocolate paste, and when you have this, take the bowl off the heat and put aside to cool.
  2. Separate the eggs, putting the yolks aside, and putting the whites into another large bowl to be whisked. Whisk with electric mixer until they have formed soft peaks, and then add the sugar, a little at a time, until the whites are glossy.
  3. Add the yolks to the chocolate and stir again until it is smooth.
  4. Then add one spoon of whites to the chocolate and mix it in to loosen it up. Next, using a metal spoon, add the whites to the chocolate by using chopping motions, or “folding and cutting” – not stirring, as the aim is to retain the air, which will be lost if you stir.
  5. Pour the mousse into another bowl or into individual martini glasses if you like, and put in the fridge to let it set.

 This serves around 6, but obviously depends on how greedy you/your guests are.

 *Approximate nutritional values*

  • Calories: 223kcal
  • Carbs: 60g
  • Fat: 43g
  • Protein: 13g
  • Sugar: 43g
  • Sodium: 68mg