The causes of baking fails are many and varied, and often involve not reading a recipe properly, branching out and making changes to it (except that’s also how you get new recipes, which are automatically classed as experiments, and so exempt from being a baking fail and are just a process of gradual refinement when they don’t work. And occasionally a bad idea that just had to be tried to get it out of your system), substituting ingredients when you find you’ve run out of something, and not using the right technique (especially likely when following a rather vague recipe, and sometimes a result of getting hypnotised watching the KitchenAid and beating something a bit too much). Capricious things like the weather can also get in the way (pate sucree on a hot sticky day, anybody?).
But, much as I might’ve mentioned, just once or twice in passing, the temperamental oven known as the Evil Smeg***, I would never had expected it to be the primary and indisputable king of potential baking fails. Until.
Until I went and made a Christmas cake. Baking something that’s meant to cook for 40 minutes and turns out to be done after 25 can be adjusted for by getting used to watching the oven like a hawk, and thinking recipes are just a little variable. Cracks on top of everything (another reason for my love of brownies, which are meant to have cracks on top) can be justified by beating oneself up for possibly beating other things too much. But when something has to bake for four hours, it’s a pretty good indicator that when it starts to look crispy after one and a half, that something is awry. Very, very awry.
So check your ovens, chickens. Especially if you live in new-and-slightly-dodgy apartments. And umquestionably if you happen to have a Smeg oven. For less than $10, you too can have kitchen anecdotes and no more burnt baking. And one less excuse for a baking fail...
I’d love to hear if anybody else has had similar experiences, or other appliances with attitude. And, from a practical point of view, anybody cooking recipes from the blog might want to look at how long it was meant to be cooked for, and not how long my one took.
* I suspect an awful lot of modern chefs would like to view it as a profession, or perhaps a calling, but it started out as a trade. When that was viewed as a good and reliable thing to do, and not as the start of a long trail of one-up-man-ship and superiority complexes.
** This happens more often if you have a serious addiction to cake batter (or brownie batter, friand batter, muffin batter...).
*** Which sounds a little too much like a dodgy sci-fi villain...
The strangest things can be found in the most unexpected places. Although toast isn’t randomly encountered all that often. Buttered toast even less so...
There are exceptions to everything, especially at unseemly early hours in inner city parks.
Finding Lucy in the sky without the help of any diamonds can be accomplished with a simple (but not easy) recipe of working excessive hours (preferably in an occupation you despise), studying, traipsing about to far-flung and uninteresting corners of the city (in the name of said despised, and now thankfully former, occupation) and... having to write poetry.
The poetry was part of the studying, and related to a rather random subject on “Isms”. Surrealism, existentialism, postmodernism... and, in particular, workaholism. And it related, specifically, to the surrealist portion of this whistlestop tour of the misunderstood and at risk of being pretentious.
Surrealism comes easily to a person who spends 30 out of every 24 hours at her desk, on an assortment of buses and taxis, and occasionally under her desk. Attempts at capturing surrealism don’t require anything as complicated as standing under a melting clock with a jam jar, waiting for consternation to walk your ferret. It’s right there, just waiting to be unleashed into a raging torrent of whoomph! Fortunately*, I have no intention whatsoever of poking around in search of said raging torrent and inflicting it on the unsuspecting and innocent** interwebs.
Just one small bit of blank verse meets psychedelia meets exhaustion is remembered. It surfaces at times when efforts feel especially futile and the world seems a little odder than it ought to...
Whether to eat the toast or bang your head against it, I still haven’t quite figured out. But finding buttered toast lurking in the hedges in Surry Hills seemed sufficiently incongruous to have brought the idea to quite unexpected life.
You can find other unexpected things in inner city parks in the early morning, too...
Penguin in the park photographed by the very lovely Sarah Garton of Mint Photography
*But not quite so fortunately as the eventual change in occupation and abandonment of the practice of napping beneath my desk
This metallic tiered cake has been much admired around the interwebs. Its unabashed glamour and air of laid-back approachability make for a striking result, although that might be more anthropomorphism* than any baking should be burdened with...
In a gold sequinned Donna Karan cocktail dress, you might not manage to steal all of the cake's thunder, but you could bask in its reflected glory...
* Can it be anthropomorphism for something inanimate and edible? There ought to be a separate sort of word for that...
There are some words that I just don’t understand the point of. These tend to be synonyms for words that just don’t seem need to have an alternative... the first one that got my goat was purchased. What’s wrong with bought? There are plenty of variations on how to come by something other than in the transactional sense, but when you hear somebody say that the “went to the shops on the weekend to purchase a new TV”, it just seems a terribly precious sort of phrasing*. Although they may very well think that’s also true of people who waffle and use far more punctuation than required.
There are others, too – the current pet one is upcycled. This seems to be the new and fashionable word for something that used to be called recycled. And, presumably, is different to plain old re-used. I guess there’s a bit of a point, in that recycled suggests a different sort of subsequent use to the original use, whereas re-used just implies repeated use of something in the same way. So then, upcycling would involve using it not only differently, but better. Or maybe just making it better. Perhaps these things just need a lot of turning over and shaking in order to make sense...
It happened, though - I was converted to upcycling (the practice, if not yet the word). And it happened with this...
Turning an old record into a clock isn't wildly unexpected just by itself (the recycling bit), but cutting a city skyline (and not just any city, but New York City) around the edge is just brilliance (the upcycling bit - it really does improve on the original article). And it made the leap from things that look cool online to things that look cool and you want to have in your house in real life.
I'm not sure if this cake stand will make the same leap, but for a crafty-minded soul with a stash of old and questionable LPs, it's a thought. It could be the perfect way to serve some recycled cookie cake, though...
Record cake stand from The Bothered Owl
All this analysis was prompted** by food (quelle surprise!)... particularly this food...
Recycled cookie cake from Fig Jam & Lime Cordial
Things to do with leftover cookies – break them into little pieces and drown them in chocolate. It’s like the baked goods version of rocky road. Rocky biscuit, perhaps? This looks like a great idea, especially for those of us prone to making far more baking than can possibly be eaten before it starts to get a little bit crunchy round the edges (for squishy things), sticky in the middle (for crunchy things) or otherwise not quite as good as it ought to be, but still eminently suitable for being coated in chocolate.
It’s not at all that I’m averse to there being innumerable different ways to describe things. So many things (the world, my life, food reviews/blogs and, possibly most significantly, fiction) would be unutterably the worse for a lack of synonyms, adjectives and other-ways-to-say-stuff. But I’m not sure I can even begin to find the words to describe the wonders of new ways to use chocolate...
* Heaven help me with the toilet / lavatory and the napkin / serviette
** Wow! A reason for unnecessary analysis... that doesn’t normally happen...
Strange names for pubs have long been a source of amusement, and were anticipated as a bonus novelty of visiting London – surely, there would be eccentrically named drinking dens in abundance. The trip wasn’t overflowing with ale (more like beset with bakeries), but there were enough oddly named pubs to not disappoint.
One particular pub managed to fill the entire funny name quota in one fell swoop...
“D’you feel like a pint after work? Great, see you down the Fat Badger at six thirty”
“Sorry, going to be late home tonight – got to get to the Fat Badger for the meat tray*”
“So, you two met at the Fat Badger? Really?”
Lots of pubs are equal parts historical and funny, with long and convoluted tales of how they got their names. Names like the Elephant & Castle. If you feel like (depending on your point of view) being better informed, or ruining the magic, this might be a useful resource...
But I still think that this one might be my favourite pub name ever. The Tipsy Penguin might not be bad, either.
Sadly, since our return, I've discovered that The Fat Badger is no more, having closed. It used to be found on Portobello Road in Notting Hill, London. Hopefully the locals have found a new (and funny-named) watering hole to replace it...
* Or... the tombola. Oh dear.
All pictures on this post by the Sticky Penguin
Devil's advocacy is a grossly underrated (and often underappreciated) skill*. I even loved the movie. And I've never been the world's biggest fan of avocado. But that didn't stop me laughing out loud when I found this poster...
* Although I'm not sure whether it's so much as skill as perhaps an innate tendency, especially for a bolshie penguin.
The first reference I came across to steampunk sent me Googling in mystification. It seems to pop up all over Etsy with lots of cogs, wheels and widgets applied to cufflinks and jewellery and things. And once there’s a trend, it gets applied to cake...
But this goes one step further – a car made out of cake. And not just the bigger-is-better Cake Boss style of cake, but a technical replica.
Life-size cake model of a Skoda Fabia - pictures via Paul Tan and Emails Collection. I love that it has glacé cherries and raisins in it, and isn't just a plain boring cake!
It's got an engine made out of cake, too...
Skoda Fabia engine via Paul Tan (he also lists the ingredients, which are pretty mind-boggling!)
That amount of sugar power makes just using ethanol in biofuels look like the tip of the iceberg, really! Now, that would be a useful way to reduce waste and save money - if baking fails could just be squished up and used to power your car. Until then, though, there are cake balls... yum!
Cake balls from Honey Bee Bakery on Flickr
On our first encounter, the Alot very nearly made me cry – whether from utter hilarity or the sheer unexpected joy and relief that somebody else looked at the world that way. You’re not barking mad and alone! he grunted Other people are barking mad in just the same way! But they can make it funny, and drawl cool pictures as well as being a stickler for correct phrasing and punctuation*.
The Alot was introduced to me by email (everybody meets online now, even improbable grammatical creatures) by a sporty, bouncy friend who (the Sportalot?) and he brought a much-needed smile to a tired Friday afternoon. My attempts to convey my excitement about the Alot to the Other Penguin resulted in further amusement, but mostly to him!
That very weekend, while pottering through Paddington, a shop window grabbed my attention. Nothing unusual there – window displays grab my attention just like children grab jellybeans. And this was the relatively-newly-opened Romance Was Born store – not exacly a mecca for muted understatement under any circumstances, the fact that the window didn’t contain a circus act or dancing girls was perhaps cause to remark.
This was what I’d seen...
Kate Rohde Renaissance Dinosaur via The Lisbon Sisters
Displayed on a circular table in the middle of the shop was a neon-furred Alot. Talk about a makeover! There was excited jumping about and squeaking at the Other Penguin.
I love the idea of having an Alot of my own (it's so adaptable, it would be the perfect pet. And there are so many of them!). And I bet they love cake, too...
* Using spaces between what ought to be two words possibly doesn’t quite qualify as punctuation. Whether there’s a specific word for it I’m clearly not enough of a stickler (or a fusspot) to know. But you know what I mean, hopefully!
Chocolate can be a fickle and demanding mistress. It needs to be lavished with attention. It can react badly if overheated. It always needs more time. And if, heaven forbid, you wander off and leave it unattended, it can split beyond repair. Even with the greatest of care, it can still go to pieces for reasons you simply can’t fathom. But you just can’t refuse it, even though you know the risks. And sometimes, the risks can be worth it – just look at these brownies, with layers of white and dark chocolate in every bite...
Baking with chocolate has all sorts of variables to throw a recipe out of kilter. The different levels of cocoa, cocoa butter and sugar in different types and brands of chocolate can change the texture, the taste and the intensity of flavours. So when I breezily decided to see what happened to my favourite brownie recipe when made with white chocolate instead of dark chocolate, I was expecting all sorts of trouble. I sought a modicum of safety by making a half batch with each of white and dark chocolate, putting the dark chocolate on the bottom layer so that if the white batch turned to squishy goo (or even to gooey squish) it might help create some structure. And the double chocolate hit? An added bonus!
The result was far better than I’d expected. Both layers had the fudginess I think is essential in brownies, but the texture of the white layer was a little less dense. The flavour of the white chocolate came through in the finished brownie and balanced the intense chocolateyness of the dark layer – these are the sort of brownies that you could eat three of in one sitting without curling up in a quiveringly gluttonous heap afterwards. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not, though…
If you need a little (or a lot) more chocolate in your life, here’s how to make Sticky Penguin’s Two Tone Brownies
What you need
Dark chocolate layer
75 g dark chocolate
99 g butter
93 g eggs (1½ beaten large eggs – another 1½ gets used in the white chocolate layer, so you don’t end up with half an egg!)
65 g caster sugar
35 g soft brown sugar
½ tsp vanilla extract
28 g cocoa powder
37 g plain flour
1½ tsp baking powder
White chocolate layer
75 g white chocolate
99 g butter
93 g eggs (1½ beaten large eggs)
125 g caster sugar
½ tsp vanilla extract
60 g self raising flour (I’m sure there was logic at the time in using plain flour with baking powder in one layer, and self raising in the other layer, but quite what it was, I have no idea)
78 g dark chocolate
What you do
1. Line a 9 inch square baking tin with non-stick paper
Make the dark chocolate brownie batter
2. Melt the dark chocolate and butter in a large bowl over a saucepan of simmering water.
3. Whisk the caster and soft brown sugar with the eggs and vanilla until evenly combined.
4. Sift in the flour and cocoa, and stir until no streaks of the dry ingredients remain.
5. Pour the dark chocolate batter into the prepared tin and refrigerate for half an hour.
Make the glaze and the white chocolate brownie batter
6. Preheat oven to 160C.
7. To make the glaze, melt the dark chocolate and allow to cool. Put the cooled, melted chocolate into a piping bag or zip-lock bag with the tip snipped off.
8. Melt the white chocolate and butter in a large bowl over a saucepan of simmering water.
9. Whisk the sugar, eggs and vanilla until evenly combined.
10. Sift in the flour and stir until no streaks of the dry ingredients remain.
11. Pour over the cooled dark chocolate batter so that the bottom layer is completely covered.
12. Pipe lines of the chocolate glaze the length of the tin, about 1½ cm apart. Turn the tin 90 degrees and gently run a butter knife across the glaze to create a feathery pattern.
13. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the edges of the brownies pull away from the tin a little and the centre is just set.
14. Allow the brownies to cool completely in the tin before removing and cutting into pieces (I cut mine into 20).
Ever since I was eight years old, I've wished for a hanging chair. It was an egg-shaped wicker coccoon, piled with cushions and swinging gently on a broad verandah edged with terracotta pots of red geraniums, in the (very specific) dream house of my imagination. A family with a penchant for pottering around open homes and display villages on occasional weekends clearly get you started young!
It wasn't something I grew out of, and I still dream of beautiful hanging chairs and red geraniums (the ideal house has changed a little, though). This Melati design, with its bright colours and flower details, is a great modern update...
And, while a glass of lemonade and a bowl of fresh raspberries might be an ideal snack for whiling away an afternoon just hanging out, snoozing and daydreaming, this striking cake seemed to be the perfect visual match...
Cake from D<3 Photography on Flickr, taken at Sugar
They're both bright, summery and a little bit retro, which feels just right for a new lease of life on an idea from a long time ago...
Is anything really possible? While hard work, practice and serendipity* can bring many things within your grasp, others seem to defy the laws of nature and physics. But perhaps it’s just a matter of perspective. After all, if penguins can find ways to fly...
If these flying penguins wanted to call my place home, I’d be very happy about it...
And, if penguins can fly, surely it can be possible to bake seven impossible things before (or just for) breakfast! Perhaps if a penguin runs fast around the kitchen fast enough, centrifugal force will eventually propel them into flight...
* Or, depending on your personal views and levels of cynicism, good fortune or sheer dumb luck...
Not having a proper dining table can be a nuisance and a half. Our postage-stamp-sized table barely accommodates two people and their plates, and only if they keep their elbows to themselves. Side plates and condiments are entirely out of the question. Consequently, the table is apt to become a respository for files, handbags, post and assorted flotsam and jetsam. Meals get eaten on laps, food gets photographed on the ottoman or the kitchen counter, and visitors get a rather more casual dining experience than I might wish for*.
Wouldn’t it be convenient if you could have an enormous dining table just when you needed it? And then it magically disappeared after you were done. Nothing as pedestrian as disguising it as a table tennis table, using it as a desk, or folding it up into a cupboard. As an added bonus, it could even turn into something else useful (and preferably small). Like an ice cream machine. Or a cat!**
What I need is a periodic table...
If I had one, I could do matching cookies to celebrate, like these beauties...
Periodic table cookies from Not So Humble Pie (she has a great collection of scientific baking, for anybody so inclined); Pratofundo has a beautiful set of periodic table cookies, too
Or I could just keep wishing for a cat. It might be more likely!
* With the possible and occasional exception of a harried and sticky penguin bustling round the kitchen.
** It makes sense if you think about it, especially if you have a cat who is wary of visitors and who hides in another room. Even more so if you have a trifle-eating cat, as it would certainly stop him from jumping onto the table... although perhaps portions of dinner would also mysteriously disappear!
Falling down the rabbit hole once the endless distraction of the interwebs takes hold usually happens from the comfort and familiarity of the couch. But I imagine it looking a little more like this...
You wander along, gazing all around, led onwards by the glimpse of something a little way ahead. Perhaps looking for somewhere like this...
Garden cottage from Marie Claire Maison via Please Sir and sfgirlbybay
Just imagine what might be waiting for you inside...
Cosy corners and cups of tea can also be the perfect incentive to come out of the rabbit hole, too. How do you keep away from those black holes of time online?
According to the sort of bad joke usually reserved for Christmas crackers (and dads), polar bears don't eat penguins because they can't get the wrappers off. If this doesn't make any sense, chances are you're not familiar with the penguin biscuit, a chocolate biscuit similar to (but not quite as good as) a Tim Tam.
But before all those penguin biscuit lovers come chasing after me with pitchforks*, let me distract you with some other ways to keep your penguins and polar bears separated...
Those little penguins are just too small to clamber up onto the cake, but look lovely hiding on the edge of the pedestal (though it's harder to see that cake bunting from down there). Penguins on cakes aren't so very unusual, but baby penguins are certainly rarer (hopefully not from being eaten by polar bears).
Or you can hide in plain sight...
Miniature icebergs by Atsuhiro Hayashi via Teacups and Rain
These tiny sculptures have a transient beauty a little like clouds - they must be so tricky to make before they melt.
Maybe the trick to keeping the penguins safe from the polar bears is to eat them up before they get the chance!
* I really mean people who love penguin biscuits, but penguins who love biscuits in general might be getting jumpy as well!
It takes a certain peculiar leap of logic to get from Next Top Model to cakes. That, or a predilection for baking combined with a slightly-guilty overindulgence in reality TV.
This cake mail postcard had previously caught my eye...
One of the pitfalls of Tastespotting, and sites of its ilk, is that things jump out as visually appealing before you have any idea how they’re made. This means that squashed-looking but astonishingly delicious things might be overlooked – although it’s a pretty small risk, given there’s not much that gets on those sites that doesn’t look like it could teach quite a few glossy magazines a thing or three. As a euphemistically termed “rustic baker”, I tend to be equally intrigued by anything that looks a little rougher around the edges as those that look like works of art – and the same goes for stories of baking fails, which give hope to the rest of us that they happen to the best in the business as well.
Baking’s something I do to feel domesticated, and baking with mixes feels like... cheating. Like if it turns out well, you’d have to admit it wasn’t really you that made most of it. And it’s a small slide downhill from there to buying one from Bourke Street Bakery and squishing the edges to make it look more likely to be homemade.
The more recipes I try out, and hunt down, the more I find things that are so quick, easy and reliable that they take away the apparent convenience of baking with mixes. This one is definitely next on the list when one of those is called for...
Gluten free five minute chocolate mug cake from Almost Bourdain
And, most importantly, packet mix muffins (at least the sort usually found in the penguin household) taste far, far better as muffins than as the batter that precedes them. And an entirely inappropriate and disproportionate part of the fun of baking comes from eating the scraps left in the mixing bowl. Without that, the experience feels cheaper, shallower... the one night stand of baking, if you will.
Although this one might be a more achievable, and worthwhile, place to begin...
Banana pudding from Magnolia Bakery, made by A Cupcake Or Two
Because I can delude myself that it’s just a small and harmless pudding, and has no correlation to proper baking at all. Really...
* Even that become less of an option once you know how quick it is to make pastry from scratch. The availability of low(er) fat pastry and the lack of availability of time occasionally triumph, though.
** On the muffins. Of course that’s what I mean...
Disclaimer: some of the recipes linked to on this post are made with (gasp!) packet mixes. But they look very enticing all the same - are they convincing you? Or are you already a convert...?