Sunday food links – 24 April 2016

It's not really until tomorrow, but the party is today, so we have cake. Happy Birthday, little E 😊

A busy week. For the first time since I returned to work, I have done a four day week (instead of three days); I have filled in for colleagues, adding a few extra layers to the workload; and then there was the birthday party – the busy-but-fun bit.

All of this explains the lateness of this post. Although I also thought that as my meal planning cycle is Sunday to Saturday, it might be good to switch future posts to Sunday as well.

The busyness of this meant I once again handed over catering responsibilities to my mum for most of the weeknight dinners. So most of the recipes here are for the dishes for the birthday party weekend. There were sausage rolls from Yorkshire, my mum made a quiche and some little galettes with the cream cheese pastry I had in the freezer.

The weekend was mostly catered via Nigella recipes – my go-to whenever I’m catering for a crowd. Feast is a good starting point, but there are good menus in most of her books, and a guides to children’s party food in How to Eat, Feast and Domestic Goddess that I expect I will be turning to for many birthdays to come.

The Birthday Party menu


  • Cheese scones, sausage rolls
  • Butternut squash and caramelised onion quiche
  • Spring vegetable salad (see below)
  • Parma ham, bresaola, salami


  • Oven-roasted chicken with lemon and garlic – Nigella’s Forever Summer
  • (more) sausage rolls and leftover quiche)
  • Jersey boiled potatoes
  • Green veg

Other recipes:

  • Malteser cake cupcakes from Nigella’s Feast (for the cake ‘mane’)
  • Buttermilk birthday cake (from Domestic Goddess) and Meringue Buttercream (from Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet) to make the lion cake.
  • Soft white rolls – from Feast (to have with pulled pork)
  • Smitten Kitchen green slaw (ditto)

Without a recipe:

  • A spring vegetable salad: baby carrots, sugar snap peas, asparagus, purple sprouting broccoli, and radishes – all blanched and dressed with olive oil and lemon juice.
  • Oven fish and chips
  • Slow cooker pulled pork


Making late-night birthday cake

Or How to bake a cake between 9:30pm and 11pm

Cutting the cake

There is something quite sad about supermarket birthday cakes. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve certainly bought them before now – but it’s just not the same as a homemade cake. There’s a particular large supermarket that sells a rectangular sheet cake, decorated with sweet chocolate buttercream and stars that often makes an appearance at my workplace. It looks so promising, with swirls of icing along the edges, but it always seems disappointing. The sponge is damp and collapses easily. The icing is gruesomely sweet. Even the chocolate stars on the top are have that waxy quality, more cake covering than chocolate.

I am an unashamed snob about birthday cakes. They need to be homemade, or from a good bakery. It’s not a celebration if the cake is going to coat your mouth, give you a sugar crisis, and is made of palm oil and emulsifiers. And it’s not too hard to come up with something better than those options.

Rectangular tins are perfect for low-hassle birthday cake. No complicated turning out or layering, just leave it in the tin, cover with frosting and then pop the lid on to take it to the birthday destination. I have an old traybake tin from Lakeland that I tried for the first time the other day. Although the tin is a little thin, and the non-stick looks a little fragile, its killer feature is a plastic lid with a handle that clips onto the edges for transportation. But even without a bespoke lid, if the tin is deep enough to allow the cake and icing to sit below the rim, the whole thing can be wrapped in cling film (plastic wrap) for transport.

It’s even possible to make a birthday cake if you’ve been to the pub after work and don’t get home until a bit late (as long as you’re fairly sober). Here’s how to make a late-night birthday cake:

  • Get in the door at 9:20pm
  • Immediately switch on oven, and get butter out of the fridge. Cold butter and sponge cakes don’t work well together.
  • Find Smitten Kitchen’s cookbook because you remember she has a sheet cake recipe in there (basically this one, but scaled down).
  • Find the weight of butter needed, and weigh it onto a plate. Put this into a microwave for two minutes on the lowest, lowest setting so it can soften.
  • Go back to the book and check that you really do have all the ingredients called for before you go any further. Yes, it seems OK. The only tricky one is buttermilk, but that can be taken care of with the last of the yoghurt, combined with some milk.
  • Dig out your traybake tin and check it is roughly the right dimensions. 20 x 30 cm is a typical size for a traybake recipe, but after last week and the coconut cake, I want to make sure this is deep as well. Put a piece of parchment paper in the tin – not only to stop sticking but to protect the non-stick from scratching when the cake is cut!
  • (Remember you haven’t had dinner yet, and re-heat the leftover curry)
  • Prepare the rest of the ingredients: whisk flour with the baking powder and salt in a bowl. Get the eggs from the fridge and immerse in a little bowl of warm water from the tap – everything as close to room temperature as possible. Whisk the yoghurt and milk together in a jug to make them smooth.
  • Once the butter is soft, add it to the bowl and mix it a few times to make sure it’s creamy. Weigh the sugar straight into the bowl and set the mixer running for a good five minutes or so. The mixture needs to become pale and fluffy, not sandy, and as there’s a lot of sugar in proportion to the butter, this takes a while. Don’t rush this bit – everything else is easier if you get this right. Go and eat dinner.
  • Once you have this fluffy state, add the eggs one by one (drying them so they don’t drip into the bowl). If you’re sensible, you would crack them into a cup or ramekin first, to make sure you don’t get shell in the mix. (I go for speed and crack them straight over the mixing bowl.) Mix in one at a time, until you get back to that fluffy looking mixture. Add the vanilla.
  • Now the job is to get in all the flour and the yoghurt/milk without either a) overworking the mixture once the flour is in, b) leaving big patches unmixed, or c) having it all curdle. A good rule is to alternate the two – one third of the flour; mix; half the liquid; mix; one third more flour; mix; rest of the liquid; mix; rest of the flour. This makes sure that nothing overwhelms the mixture at any one time.

Fluffy cake mixture

  • Once it’s all in (and you’re sure that you got the edges of the bowl mixed in too), scrape it all into the tin, smooth to the corners and bake. By now it’s about 10pm.
  • While the cake is baking, make some icing. The treacle chocolate fudge frosting on this page is a good option (I made it without the yolks and water, and with creme fraiche and 2 tablespoons extra icing sugar added). It uses a base of cornflour-thickened chocolate custard, with more chocolate mixed in while warm. Cover and leave until the morning. A simple buttercream of butter and icing sugar would also work.
  • When the cake is evenly golden on top, and a cocktail stick comes out clean, take it out and put onto a cooling rack. After about 10–15 minutes cooling in the tin, turned it out to cool, leaving the parchment still on the bottom. Leave to cool overnight and go to bed.

Frosting ready to spread

  • In the morning before work, put the cake back in the pan (the parchment will help). Beat the icing to make sure it’s smooth and spreadable. Scrape all of the frosting on top of the cake and spread it out with a spatula. Add sprinkles and other decorations if you want. It’s too early for piping.
  • The leftovers

100 years young – making Swiss buttercream

Buying a 100th birthday present is a difficult task. Any birthday present purchase can present problems, at least for me. I want to make sure I get it right. Something that will be valued, something that will be loved. Something that will last.
A present for someone completing a century on the planet is a little different. Concepts like ‘lasting a lifetime’ take on a completely different hue. It’s almost impossible to get something useful that they don’t already have. Beautiful things seem trivial, ephemeral.

When my gran, my closest and only surviving grandparent, turned 100 a few weeks ago, I wanted a gift to express love, but just buying an expensive thing doesn’t cut it with grandparents.


Born in 1912, the year of Titanic, she went to Jersey to celebrate her 21st birthday in 1933, hanging out with chaps in blazers and lasses in swimming costumes. Her older brothers fought in the First World War, and her husband in the Second. She was a smart and funny white-haired lady when I was born, her first grandchild, and she still is. She’s an incredible woman, as sharp and funny as ever, and coming up with a suitable gift was daunting.

We gathered as a family for a weekend of celebrating – dinners, lunches and finally an afternoon tea with cards and presents. I bought her a painted silk scarf so there was something to unwrap. But I think my main contribution to the weekend was helping with the birthday cake.

This was a real joint effort between my mum, my sister and me. Although it needed to be celebratory, and bear decoration, she didn’t want either chocolate cake or fruit cake. As she doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth, we went for lemon sponge, but that posed the question of how best to decorate it.

Having done a bit of research on smitten kitchen and sweetapolita, I decided what we really needed was Swiss buttercream. The reason for using this is that it is very stable, and can be made ahead; it is not too sweet and sickly, unlike quick buttercream or fondant; and it can be made into a smooth surface to support piped icing decorations.

Swiss buttercream is made of a mixture of meringue and softened butter. The meringue is made using the Swiss method, dissolving the sugar into warmed egg whites before beating (as opposed to the French method:whisking sugar directly into whipped egg whites; or the Italian: pouring a hot sugar syrup into whipped egg whites).

You begin by measuring the sugar and egg whites into a large heatproof bowl. I used egg whites from a carton – I know there are virtually no problems now from British eggs, and you are heating them in this recipe, but I didnt want to take any chances with a 100 year old consumer. In any case, the carton whites (available as Two Chicks in a number of supermarkets in the UK) are very convenient for weighing out a precise amount.

This mixture is then heated over a barely simmering pan of water, stirring constantly, until it reaches 60c and the sugar has all dissolved into the whites. You can check this by rubbing the mixture between your fingertips to check that all the gritty sugar crystals are gone.

Then the warmed egg white syrup is whisked into stiff meringue peaks. We made two batches of the buttercream, fearing that my mum’s handheld electric mixer might not handle a full batch. Neither batch reached stiff peaks at this stage – both were still flowing a little, one more than the other, although the mixture was quite thick and opaque.


We pressed on anyway, despite the lack of stiff peaks, and it turned out fine. I don’t think there was any difference in texture between the two final batches. The process of adding the butter tends to deflate the mixture at first anyway. As long as the mixture is very thick and holds a ribbon, it should still be fine, even without peaks.

Once the meringue is thick, and has cooled to not far above room temperature, you can start to whisk in the butter. The butter should be cubed and a room temperature, so you can easily create an impression in it with your finger, but not so soft it starts to get shiny and greasy.

Whisk in one cube at a time. The mixture will deflate, and become thinner, perhaps quite soupy. It might also split and curdle. Keep whisking and adding butter. Once the butter is almost all incorporated, the texture suddenly changes, and it snaps to a thick mixture, that holds its shape very cleanly.


This can be kept in the fridge for several days, or frozen. When chilled, the texture is much like that of butter – quite firm and almost waxy. For this reason, you should make sure cakes frosted with Swiss buttercream are served at room temperature. To bring the the buttercream back to a working consistency, bring it slowly to room temperature, or give a couple of very low power bursts in the microwave, just as you would do when softening butter from the fridge. To help the process along, return the batch to a bowl and use an electric whisk or stand mixer to whip the buttercream until it is soft and spreadable again.

Buttercream in a box

For the final cake, we layered my mum’s 8 inch square sponge layers, flavoured with lemon zest, with most of a jar of bought lemon curd.


I trimmed the edges square, and covered the cake with a crumb coat of buttercream. After chilling for about an hour, the cake surface was firm, like a block of cold butter, and we could layer on the rest of the buttercream.


Starting at the sides, this task looks a lot like plastering – apply a decent sized blob, and smooth it to an even layer. The great thing about Swiss buttercream is that it can be spread and smoothed out many times, and it will hold its texture. After covering it with a more or less even layer of frosting all over, I used a long palette knife to drag along the sides and over the top to make the surface as smooth and flat as possible. Then the cake went into the fridge overnight.


The next morning, we mixed up some fairly thick royal icing with yellow colour paste, and my sister, practiced from many school holidays working in a Thorntons shop, piped 100 on the top of the cake, and scrolls in the corners.

The final touch was to add my mum’s crystallised primroses, made with flowers from her garden, brushed with egg white and dusted with sugar.



The final cake went down well – it was moist in the centre, not too sweet. And a fitting cake to bear candles for a 100 year old to blow out.