Performance anxiety at the school Christmas fair

December 8, 2009 § 2 Comments

Attending the school Christmas fair has become one of the landmark events leading up to Christmas in our social calendar.  It has become a badge of honour to bring in a batch of freshly baked home-made cakes to sell on the cake stall (rather than produce something plastic wrapped from Costco as I am afraid, Dear Reader, some parents do…)  I can’t be alone in worrying about whether my cakes will sell.  Fear not, follow my top tips below and cake stall success is virtually guaranteed.

This year, in consultation with son Arthur whose opinion was sought as to what would appeal to his classmates, I decided to bake a batch of chocolate muffins.  These ticked all the right boxes – quick, easy and cheap to make, easy to transport and, with their sprinkling of chocolate chips on top, all-important visual appeal.  The recipe, which I give below, comes from a little book “Alison Holst’s Marvellous Muffins” which my mother-in-law Monica brought back for me after a trip to New Zealand.  Baked goods including both muffins and the curiously named friands are big in the Antipodes.

The muffin mixture is gloriously mud-like and improbably runny and lumpy but this means it is just right. Here it is, in double quantity, in my trusty stainless steel All-Clad mixing bowl:

The muffin mixture is spooned into cases and each is topped with a sprinkling of chocolate chips.  I chose a pleasingly contrasted mixture of both white and dark chips.  The chocolate chips are I think essential to the success of these muffins as without them both the texture and flavour of the muffins are a bit dull.

Fresh out of the oven they look like this:

As soon as the muffins had cooled, off to school we went bearing our cake box proudly.

I had planned to position the muffins artfully in pole position at the front of the stall (it is mortifying if your cakes don’t sell) and then head for the dining room for a well-deserved cup of coffee.  It was not to be. The cake stall was short-staffed so I ducked under the trestle table and got stuck-in.  After initial panic, we soon had the stall under control.  The art of origami was mastered and several dozen cardboard cake boxes were swiftly assembled; cakes were unpacked and displayed as prettily as we could manage, items were priced, the money was managed and we were soon operating like a well oiled machine.  We managed to sell the lot without resorting to heavy discounting.  After all, as the old Yorkshire saying goes “any fool can give away t’cake”.

After my morning’s experience my 5 top tips for bakers are:

1) Appearance is everything – people buy with their eyes
2) A single large cake is easy to make and is much in demand
3) Slabs of neatly sliced rocky road and attractively decorated cupcakes also sell well
4) Sending in cakes decorated with wet icing is just unkind to the poor souls manning the stall
5) If you choose to decorate your cakes with blue and black icing, they will appeal only to a niche market of small boys under the age of 4…

Does anyone out there have their own top tips for cake stalls, whether recipes or practical ideas?

Recipe for double chocolate muffins

This recipe comes from a little New Zealand book “Alison Holst’s Marvellous Muffins”.  I give below both the cup measurements from the original recipe and metric weight equivalents.  if you choose to use the cup measurements, please remember that Australian/New Zealand cup sizes are, annoyingly not the same as US ones.  You have been warned!

The recipe makes 12 standard-sized muffins.

Ingredients

1 and 3/4 cups (245g) plain flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup (225g) caster sugar
1/4 cup (35g) cocoa powder
100g butter
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 cup (250ml) natural yoghurt
1/2 cup (125ml) milk
1 teaspoon natural vanilla extract
1/4-1/2 cup (25-50g) chocolate chips, a mixture of dark and white if you like

Sift the dry ingredients (excluding the chocolate chips) into a large mixing bowl.

Melt the butter and add it to the other wet ingredients and mix until smooth.

Add the combined liquids to the dry ingredients and fold together but do not overmix so that the mixture is smooth.  Lumps are desirable at this stage.

Divide the mixture evenly between 12 muffin tins lined with muffin cases.  Sprinkle with chocolate chips.

Bake at 200 degrees C for 10-12 minutes.  Cool on a wire rack.  The muffins freeze well.  Take them out of the freezer and warm them through in a low oven for 10-15 minutes when you’re ready to eat them.

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Battle of the bakers: exhibiting at Guernsey’s North Show

August 28, 2009 § Leave a comment

I’ve cherished the ambition for a number of years now of entering some home-made produce into an agricultural show.  Being an urban dweller, opportunities to visit rural shows are thin on the ground, but if you happen to be in Guernsey in August (as we were on our family summer holiday) you can’t fail to miss the three events on the social calendar, the South Show, the West Show, and the biggest and best of the lot, the North Show which hosts the famous Battle of the Flowers (more on this later).  Curiously, there is no East Show – presumably because the east of the island is dominated by St. Peter Port or Town as the locals call it.

All three shows were heavily trailed on the local radio stations: after all, Island FM’s strap line is “Breaking News Across the Bailiwick” so it wasn’t long before I realised this could be my big opportunity.  I seized the moment and telephoned Mr Dorey, the show organiser and soon found out how to register.  I had to attend Castel Parish’s Douzaine Room, a local community hall, between the hours of 3.00 and 5.00 on the Saturday afternoon before the show.

I turned up at the appointed time to find the hall bustling.  The first thing I had to do was become a member of the North Show Agricultural and Horticultural Society, annual subscription £15.00.  Oh no! I quickly learned that  in order to qualify as a member not only do you have to be resident of Guernsey but of three specific parishes, Castel, Vale and St Sampson’s.  Fortunately, this is Guernsey where a relaxed attitude is taken to addresses of convenience.  In return for fifteen quid they were happy to accept the address of our holiday apartment which we would occupy for precisely one week.  They didn’t even rumble me when I mispronounced the name of our parish Castel, which in the local accent is pronounced Cattle.

Phew.  Next hurdle was choosing what to exhibit.  I picked up a handsome looking Show Schedule, homed in on the baking section and practically with my eyes closed stuck my pen down on a random choice which turned out to be local speciality Gâche Melée.  I had no idea what this was, but it seemed to be a popular choice and, what the heck, I had a few days to research it before the show opened on Wednesday.

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Back to our holiday apartment in Vazon Bay and within minutes, with the help of the miraculous iPod Touch, a WiFi Hotspot and of course the assistance of a 10 year old boy, I had discovered that Gâche Melée was a rustic apple cake. That sounded manageable.  After copying down seven different recipes, I stopped – they were all similar but subtly different, the kind of dish that is handed down mother to daughter with each family taking pride in their own version.  The ingredients were simple enough: apples, flour, sugar, fat in the form of suet or butter, liquid in the form of egg or milk, plus a little spice – nutmeg or cinnamon.

Game on!  I reckoned I could show the natives a thing or two so decided to experiment that evening with the most cheffy of the recipes I’d found – a version which caramelised the apples and used loads of butter.  The recipe was simple enough but, oh dear, I hadn’t reckoned on the self catering oven which was completely devoid of markings, temperature controls and instructions.  My first attempt to achieve a moderate heat resulted in a super-hot grill, whereas my next attempt heated up just the oven base.  After a little trial and error, I found a workable baking heat and put my gâche in to bake.

Here is the end  result.

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Hmm.  It tasted OK but wasn’t going to win any prizes in the looks department.  That self-catering pyrex dish didn’t really cut the mustard in the style stakes either.  I was going to have to raise my game.  I decided that for the Show itself, I should stick with what worked and use a prizewinning recipe.

Presentation is important too so next day in St Peter Port I called into well stocked kitchen shop Lelievre’s, just on the harbour frontage, and picked up a square metal tin (so important for a non-soggy crust) and, my secret weapon, a modish square plate to present my creation!  The helpful staff also told me how to pronounce gâche melée the local way – you should say gosh molloy rather than putting on your best French accent.

The morning of the Show dawned and I was up at 5.00 am to make sure my Gâche Melée was as freshly baked as it could be.  I’d prepared the apples the night before so it was pretty easy to throw together.  I forgot to mention earlier that not only was I winging it on oven temperatures but I had no scales either, so it was completely put together by eye.  I was pretty pleased with the end result:

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I cut a neat but generous square for the judges, positioned it artfully onto my new square plate then packed up the whole lot and transported it on my bike to Saumarez Park, the show venue, a mile or so up the road. There was an air of purposeful activity in the showground.  Guernsey cows and goats were being installed outside, and there was a steady stream of people coming and going through the main show tent.  Exhibitors were giving there vegetables, baking, mini gardens and so on the final primping.  I placed my gâche in its right place on the long trestle table assigned to baked goods, slipped the brown envelope with my exhibitor card next to it and had a quick look at the competing entries – mine didn’t look half bad in comparison – I could be in with a chance.

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Back to the apartment for a well-deserved breakfast.

We made a family outing to the Show later on that morning, admiring the perfectly groomed animals and the too-perfect horticultural produce.  The laden tables were a sight to behold.

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11.00 o’clock was the designated time for judging.  As you can see, the entries were protected from flies, and perhaps greedy spectators, by netting.

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Once the judges had made their decisions and awarded the coveted red and blue cards it was the moment of truth.  I wasn’t expecting a first place, after all as a non-Islander, it would be pretty embarrassing.  I needn’t have worried.  Marion Legg won first prize with this entry, generously proportioned, crusty and golden-brown and sensibly cling-filmed.

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Would the blue card and second prize be mine?  No, this went to Sarah Giles with her appealing, crumbly version.

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There was still hope – there was no shame in a third prize.  Could this be mine?

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No! Sadly not, as this was awarded to Janet Le Pelley (a good Guernsey surname). I was disappointed and would have to try again.  With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder if a more rustic traditional presentation might have suited the judges better.  Also, I think you get a lighter textured gâche if you chop the apples, add them to the batter and bake straightaway without leaving the mixture to stand.  I had prepared my apples in advance causing the juices to run and dilute the batter producing a dense clafoutis like result rather than the more cakey texture of the prizewinners.

Tension relieved, we were able to enjoy the rest of the show. The main event is the Battle of the Flowers, a competition for floats decorated with flowers, both artificial and real.  Here are two of my favourites:

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Both took first prize in their respective classes and the Viking Longship was the overall Battle of the Flowers Champion.

It’s time I gave you the gâche melée recipe.  We all enjoyed testing it and it definitely has potential to become a family favourite – quick and easy to make, the children enjoy it and it makes good use of apples, (both cookers or eaters work).

Recipe for Gâche Melée

Ingredients

1 and 1/2 lb apples peeled, cored and chopped
3 oz granulated sugar
2 oz suet
4 oz self-raising flour
1 beaten egg
1/2 teaspoon powdered cinnamon

Combine chopped apples, sugar, suet, flour and cinnamon in a bowl.  Mix thoroughly then mix in the beaten egg to form a softish batter.  Add a tablespoon or so of milk if it seems to stiff.  Spoon into a prepared baking tin – a rectangular 6″ by 7″ metal baking tin lined with baking parchment is recommended. Sprinkle the surface with a little additional sugar and cinnamon  Bake for 30 to 40 minutes at 180 degrees C or until the top is a deep golden brown.  Serve with cream, custard or ice cream or just enjoy it on its own as a cake.  It transports well for picnics.

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