Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Rachel Allen, Fairy Cakes and Me!

A single serving of light, buttery loveliness.  A simple yet elusive delight.

Sponge cakes were first detailed as a recipe in the 1615 book of The English Huswife, Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to Be in a Complete Woman by English poet and author Gervase Markham.  Things have moved on a little since then!

Perhaps its best known incarnation is the Victoria Sponge named after Queen Victoria who was rather partial to a slice. 

It’s surprisingly tricky to get a sponge right.  Internet recipes and cookbooks reveal a plethora of differing ingredients, quantities and advice.  Quite confusing for the home chef eager to learn. 

I believe that if you can get a sponge right it helps with so many other cake recipes as there are some key techniques which are vital to a light tasty result.

The first thing I have learned is that baking really is a science.  Quality and quantity combined with the right techniques are essential.  You need to do your research here.  There are only four base ingredients to a sponge; butter, sugar, eggs and flour.

The essence of a good sponge lies in its light, airy quality.  How does that happen?

A sponge’s airy texture comes from air being beaten into the butter at the creaming stage which forms tiny little bubbles circled by the fat in the butter.  If we cooked this mixture it would collapse because fat melts in heat.

However, egg is then added to the mix which forms a rigid structure around the bubbles when cooked and therefore the sponge keeps its shape.

Finally, the flour forms a network around the bubbles to give the cake structure.  Also it contains a raising agent called baking powder (not baking soda – they are different).  For this recipe I’m using self raising flour but you can use plain flour with baking powder mixed through it.

Armed with this information I went off to find an expert to confirm what I believed about baking sponges. 

Rachel Allen has been writing and broadcasting about food for over a decade.  She has written several bestselling books on baking and is an established cookery teacher.  To say the least, she knows a thing or two about baking sponges.  She is also incredibly giving with her time and agreed to meet me to talk about everything ‘sponge’!

Firstly we discussed using quality ingredients.  If you have only four ingredients you must use good quality ones to get good results.  So use decent caster sugar, self raising flour, free range eggs with really yellow yolks and finally good quality unsalted butter.  Do not use margarine! 

N.B. All these ingredients should be at room temperature before you start.

Weigh your eggs in their shells and then weigh equal quantities of your butter, flour and sugar.  In many recipes you will see the number of eggs given to a quantity of the other ingredients.  Think about this for a moment, if you are using free range, organic eggs they may well come in very different sizes.  Don’t confuse them with the battery farmed ‘single size’ supermarket ones.  If we understand that baking is a science and ratios of ingredients are important then it makes sense to get equal weights. 

Secondly, regarding technique, you really need to cream your butter and sugar well to incorporate all those air bubbles.  This takes time so stick with it.  Use a large bowl to really get the butter beaten well.  The butter / sugar mix will go a much paler colour as the bubbles build up.     

Have your eggs beaten together in a bowl separately before adding to your mixture.  This will break the eggs up and help them incorporate into the butter.

At the next stage make sure you ‘fold’ the sieved flour into the mixture and don’t beat any more.  We need to keep the bubbles in there that we have taken so much effort to create.   Tip the bowl up at one side and slide the spoon under the mix and fold it over to mix the flour through.  I find it best to use a big metal spoon at this stage as it has a wider surface area and sharper edge than a wooden one which helps with the folding motion.  This is another reason why a big bowl is important as you can get a bigger ‘folding’ motion going.

How do you know if your sponge batter is right?  Lift up a spoonful and it should drop back off the spoon into the bowl with reasonable ease.  If it doesn’t, add a little milk until it does.  Bit by bit as you don’t want to over do it!

We discussed ovens.  As I have said before, ovens vary in their temperature and you may need to experiment.  Do not be afraid of failure.   Rachel reiterated this and said that practice is crucial.  Remember also that the size of your fairy cakes may vary depending on the size of cases you buy.  They are all quite different and the producers spend more time on making them look pretty than they do stating the size.

The cooking time is important when it comes to the rise of the sponge.  As the egg forms a rigid coating to the bubbles it must be given time for the proteins to set.  Think about how an egg toughens as you fry it.  Therefore, if the oven door is opened too early, the egg collapses around the bubble and the sponge deflates. 

I asked Rachel about my belief that we should initially learn how to bake without using electric beaters or mixers.  She agreed with this saying that we then understand what we are looking for at each stage a little better.  We are in closer contact with the ingredients and can spot changes during the process better. 

Bearing in mind all of Rachel’s advice let’s make fairycakes! 

This recipe should be about right for 12 fairy cakes. 


  • 3 eggs weighed in their shells
  • Equal quantities of caster sugar, butter and self raising flour.
  • A little whole milk


  • A big mixing bowl
  • 12 individual fairy cake cases
  • A 12 hole baking tray to snugly hold the cases.
  • A wooden spoon
  • A metal spoon
  • A skewer


Pre – heat your oven to 180 °C / Fan 160 °C

Have your cases in the tray ready to go.

With the wooden spoon, cream the butter and sugar together in the mixing bowl until pale and fluffy and lots of air has been incorporated.  This could take up to 10 minutes depending on how well you beat and how much your arm can take!

Whisk your eggs in a separate bowl and gradually start to add a little at a time to your butter / sugar mix.  Beat well between each addition and incorporate all the egg before adding more.  If it looks like it has split then you can add a teaspoon of flour to stabilize it.

Once all the egg had been added then sieve your flour into the bowl.  Sieving gets rid of lumps and incorporates more air.

Fold in the flour using the large metal spoon.  Check for dropping consistency.  Add milk a little at a time if the mixture is too thick.

Spoon equal amounts of the mix into each paper case to just under half full.  They will rise and you want space at the top to pipe icing and decorate your cakes.

Put them straight into the oven and bake for 15 – 20 minutes depending on your oven or the size of your cases.  Don’t open the oven for at least 15 minutes or they may collapse, although this is more important for the larger Victoria sponge.

Remove from the oven and insert a skewer into the cake.  If it comes out clean with no mixture sticking to it then it is ready. 

Put the cakes onto a cooling rack and leave until completely cool before applying your topping of choice. 


For the cakes pictured here I made a simple butter icing using double the quantity of icing sugar to really good softened French unsalted butter.

200 g Icing Sugar
100 g Butter

Simply beat the butter and the sieved icing sugar together until they form a lovely soft icing.  Put this into a piping bag and away you go.

I often make fairy cakes with my four year old daughter at the weekends.  I believe it’s important that children know where their food comes from and they have the ability to cook for themselves. 

Rachel agreed and went on to talk about the importance of skills like baking being passed on from one generation to the next.  If you teach someone to cook you are empowering them with an essential life skill.

Thank you Rachel, that’s something you do really well.

Thanks to Rachel Allen for all her time and advice and to Amy from for taking the photos of Rachel and me!

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Summery Lavender Biscuits

Home made Lavender Biscuits
Lavender is a wonderful herb. Its etymology traces back to the Latin ‘lavare’ meaning ‘to wash’ as Roman soldiers used it when washing themselves to help the recovery of wounds.

It has a wide range of medicinal and culinary uses both savoury and sweet.  Queen Elizabeth I was fond of Lavender tea apparently.
From my garden

I have been growing Lavender in my garden for years, it looks beautiful, gives off a heavenly scent and the bees love it.  It also makes the most fantastic biscuits.

One of the things I love about these biscuits is the reminder of the importance of seasonality in our eating habits.  I use fresh lavender flowers and therefore bake them only in the summer.  So for me they are one of those recipes with strong seasonal associations

This recipe is one adapted slightly from Mary Berry’s Baking Bible.

There are a few critical points to be aware of…

Firstly, we are aiming for a ‘short’ type biscuit here.  This means it should crumble in your mouth as you bite it but not fall apart completely.  Imagine a nice buttery ‘shortbread’ type consistency.  Therefore…

  1. We use a good quality ‘plain’ flour which is low in gluten.
  2. We ‘work’ our dough as little as possible at the mixing stage. 

Secondly, oven temperatures vary from oven to oven.  So the cooking time is not exact, you need to experiment and be able to judge when they are ready.  You want some colour on the biscuits, they shouldn’t be too pale.  Remember when you take them out of the oven they will be soft as they are hot, they have butter in them and butter is soft when warm.  Don’t be tricked into thinking they aren’t done because of this.  As they cool, they become crisper and firmer.

Be ready to experiment a little here and get to know your own oven.  My experience is that it is better to be a couple of minutes under done as you can always return them to the oven later.  When a biscuit is over done there isn’t much you can do about it.

And finally, use good quality butter.  Do not even think of using margarine. 


175 g of really good quality unsalted butter
100 g of caster sugar
225 g of plain flour
2 tablespoons of very finely chopped lavender leaves.


A large mixing bowl
A wooden spoon
4 sheets of greaseproof paper
A large baking tray
A wire cooling rack

Put the well softened butter and the finely chopped lavender into your mixing bowl and beat with the wooden spoon until really well mixed.  This will help to extract as much of the flavour from the lavender as possible.

Add in the caster sugar and beat again until really well incorporated.

‘Stir’ in the flour.  Don’t beat it or overwork at this stage.  You can use your hands to bring it together but don’t ‘knead’ it like bread.  However, you do want the flour thoroughly incorporated.

Divide the dough in half.  I actually return to the scales to get an exact amount.  

Place each half of the dough onto a sheet of greaseproof paper and shape it into a sausage about 15 cm long.  Roll up the greaseproof paper around the dough and bring it together tightly to form a kind of Christmas Cracker shape.  Return this to the fridge until firm, about 30 minutes but it depends on the temperature of your fridge and how often you are opening and closing the door!

Pre – heat your oven to 180 °C.  If you are using a fan assisted oven then 160 °C.

N.B. If you want to put two trays in at the same time then you need a fan oven.  If using a conventional oven then use only one tray as the heat becomes blocked by the tops and bottoms of the trays and you won’t get an even bake.

Place a sheet of greaseproof paper onto your baking sheets.

Unwrap your dough sausage and cut into nice even biscuit rounds.  Get the same thickness here or they won’t cook evenly.

Place the biscuits onto the paper lined baking trays and straight into the oven.

Cook for about 15 minutes.  I would check after about 13 – 14 minutes.  Remember that you are looking for a nice golden brown colour to them.

When done, leave to cool for a few minutes and then transfer to your wire rack to cool completely.  They keep really well in an air tight container.
Gorgeous, buttery, summery lovliness!



Sunday, 27 July 2014

Sour Dough Rules

To all my peers and tutors at Ballymaloe, I am happy to say that one of the first things I did on arrival home in Kiev was to start my new batch of Sour Dough starter.

Everyone else may be wondering what I’m talking about.  Let me tell you….

People have been eating bread in various forms for thousands of years.  30, 000 years.  The first breads were simply a mix of flour and water which was rested and then heat applied.  Breads like this still exist today around the world today such as the Indian ‘roti’. 

Now imagine this, 1, 500 years ago in Egypt, a baker leaves some of this flour and water mix overnight in a bowl.  The next day they notice small bubbles on the top but decide to use it anyway adding more flour and water to make that day’s bread.  That bread is just a little lighter and tastier than the previous.  They have prepared the first ‘leavened’ or risen bread.

So what happened here? 

There are bacteria all around us.  Natural yeast lives in the air, this yeast got into the dough the baker left overnight and started feeding on the natural sugars in the flour.  As it fed on the sugars it gave off carbon dioxide and lactic acid.  The carbon dioxide caused the bread to rise and the lactic acid gave it more taste, a slightly sour taste.  Hence, ‘Sour Dough’.

The flour and water mix is what we call the ‘starter’.

As the starter is left for longer and ‘fed’ more water and flour it becomes stronger, has greater leavening ability and develops more taste.    

This technique of making bread was used for centuries around Europe and developed in America around the time of the Gold Rush.  Rumour has it that today, some bakeries in San Francisco are using starters from this period over 150 years later.

A starter has to be fed regularly and looked after.  It’s a labour of love and some people talk about their starter as one of their children.  It’s not quick to do, it requires patience and experimentation.  So, why bother making Sour Dough bread?

The answer is it tastes amazing.  Once you have made your own loaf of Sour Dough you will compare all other breads to it.  More than that, it puts us in touch with an ancient art and helps us understand the real artisan skills of the baker. It is retaking control of the food we eat and moving another step away from the mass produced and banal supermarket culture of ‘quick and easy’ over quality.  How can we not have time for that?

Researching how to create a starter I have read a wide variety of different methods and recipes. 

This one worked for me.


I must credit The Ballymaloe Cookery school at this point as the proportions have been developed by them over many years.  Thank you Ballymaloe!

Take a large non metallic bowl or jar.  Yeast doesn’t like metal.  Put it on a set of electric scales and add 50g of strong flour or ‘baker’s flour’. 

Add 50g of good quality water such as bottled mineral water or well water.  Don’t use tap water as the chlorine will not be good for the starter.

Give this a good mix with a wooden spoon to a paste. 

Cover this with cling film and leave for 24 hours at room temperature.   

Two important points here…

  1. 100% hydration.  You need to have the exact same weight of flour and water.
  2. Leave it at room temperature.  Not in the fridge yet and don’t add extra heat such as leaving it next to the radiator.

I repeated this process every day for 6 days. 

  • Return to the scales
  • 50g of flour
  • 50g of water.
  • Mix
  • Cover

As the yeast feeds it gives off bubbles which you can see on the top of the starter.  It also gives off a lovely yeasty, beery and sourish smell.  Not to everyone’s taste but I love it. 

My starter on Day 5

It’s important to get to know when your starter is at its most active.  Quite simply, when you feed your starter and it is eating the sugars in the flour it is active.  When it has fed on the sugars it becomes quieter and settles down.  It becomes dormant.  It reactivates again when you feed it.  This means that you can leave your starter in the fridge for weeks at a time and simply reactivate it by feeding. 

When you come to make your loaf of bread you need to use the starter at its ‘active’ stage not dormant, another reason to know your starter’s activity pattern.  This naturally changes in different environments depending on temperature and humidity especially. 

Time to begin the loaf.

Day 1

Put 230g of starter into another bowl and add 120g of water and 120g of flour.  Mix, cover and leave overnight. 

Day 2

In the morning add another 120g of water, 120g of flour, mix and cover.  2 – 4 hours later it should be bubbly and ready.  This is called the ‘Sponge’. 

You are looking for the time when the yeast is active or ‘feeding’ on the sugar in the flour.  This is when you will get the best bread. When it has fed on the sugars it becomes more dormant and you won’t get the best from your starter. 

To test if it is ready put a teaspoon of the starter into a bowl of water.  If it floats, it’s ready.

The next kneading stage can be done by hand or in a decent mixer with a dough hook.  I used the mixer as it was available at the cookery school.

Put the bowl from the mixer onto your scales.


340g of your sponge
200g of water

Mix together well.  Then add…

20g      rye flour
5g        fresh wheat germ
70g      malted or granary flour
230g    strong white flour
10g      salt

Mixer with dough hook

The rye, wheat germ and granary are there for flavour and these quantities are Ballymaloe’s.  If you don’t have them you can replace the same quantity with strong white flour instead or develop a combination yourself.

Put the dough hook into the mix and turn it on to just bring the dough together.  Then allow to rest for up to an hour if you can but at least 30 minutes. 

Then turn on the mixer at its lowest setting to begin with.  It is possible to ‘break’ the gluten at this stage if you mix too vigorously so start very slowly and increase the speed gradually.

It is ready when the dough comes away cleanly attached to the hook and there is nothing left on the sides of the bowl.  This should be around 8 to 10 minutes but it could be longer.

This can be done by hand kneading – Just add 100g of water at the start and gradually incorporate the rest little by little while kneading.  Dipping your hands in the water is a good way.

Put the dough into a bowl, cover and leave to rise until doubled in size.  This could take 6 – 8 hours. I put mine in the fridge and left it overnight.

Put your dough onto your work surface.  Don’t flour it!

Fold over the dough as if you are closing a book to trap some air.  Leave it.  Do this 3 or 4 times every 15 minutes so it has rested for about an hour. 

Line a bread basket with a well floured tea towel.

Shape your dough into a ball, put into the tea towel lined basket, put this into a plastic bag and return to the fridge, preferably overnight.

Finally, pre heat your oven as high as you can get it – preferably 250 degrees C.  If using a fan assisted reduce to 230 degrees.

Take the dough out of the fridge and let it rest for 20 minutes.  

Turn it gently onto a floured baking tray.  Very gently score three lines on the top to aid an even rise.  Just use the weight of the knife and don’t score too deeply.

10 minutes at 250 degrees C then reduce to 230
10 minutes at 230 degrees C then reduce to 200
20 minutes at 200 degrees C

Ovens vary greatly.  You may need more time in the final stage.  Your bread is ready when it sounds hollow when you give it a firm tap.  It should also feel ‘light for its size’. 

Once again, thanks to Ballymaloe for all the inside information on Sour Dough!

I’ll keep you posted on how the first batch from my Ukrainian starter works out.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Why "The Red Book Cook'?

The Red Book or 'Liber Novus' is the work of Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung.  It centres around his reconnection with the soul and the recovery of the meaning of life.

How is that relevant to me?

A few years back I bought a house with a garden just outside of Kiev.

I had always been interested in cooking and for the first time I was able to grow my own fruit, vegetables and herbs for use in the kitchen.

I began to feel much more connected with the ingredients I was using and to really value the concept of freshness and locality.

I could compare the taste of sun ripened cherry tomatoes picked straight off the vine to those bought in a plastic box from the supermarket.  The difference is phenomenal.  Simplicity became of much greater importance to me.  Courgettes lightly seasoned and grilled within minutes of picking were a revelation.

This made me start to think carefully about the rest of the food I was eating.  The striking contrast between the mass produced products and those which were home grown or home made was something I began to feel more and more strongly about.

This sparked a desire to expand my abilities in the kitchen and attempt those things which I had always avoided learning such as breads, pastry, pasta or cakes.

Being able to prepare a quiche from scratch using vegetables fresh from the garden proved incredibly rewarding.  Homemade soda bread with butter I had made myself, salad leaves from the ground to the plate within minutes.  Homemade pasta with a simple sauce of herbs from the garden.

It changed the way I thought about food and the importance of it.  It brought back childhood memories of the real taste of food which had been lost over the years.  For me it was a reconnection strong enough to make me want to change careers and make a living through the production of real food.

Carl Jung recorded his recovery with the meaning of life in the Red Book and so am I, as The Red Book Cook!

Irish Soda Bread

Irish Soda Bread
Soda Bread Scones

My own journey with soda bread is quite a personal one.  My Grandma was from Limerick and I had always assumed that it hailed from Ireland.  Therefore, doing a little research for this blog I was surprised to learn that it was indeed not from the Emerald Isle but from America!  The indigenous people of America first made the equivalent of soda bread using potash as the alkaline to make the bread rise, literally, ash which is put in a pot and water is added.

It has become a staple in Ireland, most people believe due to the Irish climate being much more appropriate to the production of grains with a low gluten content better for plain flour rather than the strong flour needed for yeast leavened breads.

I often read that soda bread is one of the easiest breads to make and a good one for beginners.  While using bicarbonate of soda as a raising agent instead of yeast may be less intimidating than yeast, there are still a few really important aspects you need to get right.

1.       What makes soda bread rise?

Bicarbonate of Soda.  Or ‘Bread soda’. 

What do you need to know about Bicarbonate of Soda?

Firstly, it’s an alkaline and is activated immediately on contact with an acid such as buttermilk or yoghurt and  heat. 

Why is this important?  

You need to have your oven pre – heated and ready to bake the second you have brought your dough together. 

How much soda do I need to put in?

Exactly the right amount.  If you add too much will not make it rise more, it will make it taste of bicarb.  Not what you want.  It must also be sieved in with the flour to make sure there are no lumps.  That will turn your bread green!

For this recipe we are using 1 level teaspoon.  Take a normal kitchen teaspoon, fill it up with soda and then gently level off with a dry finger.  Don’t do this over the bowl with the flour in it!

2.       What type of flour do we use?

Plain flour.  The same type of flour that we use for shortcrust pastry.  This type of flour is low in gluten which means that we do not knead this type of bread.  In fact it’s really important to knead or work the dough as little as possible.  Working the dough will toughen your final bread. 

While a lot of recipes will mention this, I really want to stress the importance here. 

While watching Rachel Allen demonstrate this bread at the Ballymaloe cookery school, I was amazed at how quickly she brought the dough together, lightly floured it, shaped it and then got it on the tray and into the pre-heated oven.   Less than 60 seconds. 

A note on flour and liquid quantity.

Different flours take a different amount of liquid.  This can vary due to the brand or even the temperature or humidity in the room.  Be ready to experiment to get the right amount of liquid that you need.  You want to add 90% of your liquid, mix, and then assess if you need to add more.  For soda bread you are looking for dough which is well mixed, soft to the touch but not too sticky.  If you are new to bread making it will probably seem wetter than you imagined was needed.  But you should be able to bring it together.

What do you mix your dough in?

The biggest mixing bowl you can find.

The best type is a plastic washing up style bowl with a round bottom.  You need to be getting a really good mixing action going with your stiff fingers formed into a claw.  This bit is really important.  It’s a mixing motion with a stiff claw and not a kneading / moulding motion. 

OK.  Remember …

1.       Pre Heat your oven.
2.       The right amount of Bicarbonate of soda.  Sieved in.
3.       Do not work the dough.
4.       Big bowl.
5.       Claw like mixing motion.

450 grams of Plain White Flour
350 – 400 ml of buttermilk or natural yoghurt
1 level teaspoon of Bicarbonate of Soda
1 teaspoon of salt.

Large mixing bowl
Baking tray
Big sharp knife


Pre Heat your oven to 220 C.  Have it on the conventional setting and not fan.  It must be at temperature before you start to mix.

Have your work surface next to you lightly floured.
Ready to pour

Sieve the flour, soda and salt into the big mixing bowl. 

Make a well in the centre and add in about 90% of your buttermilk or yoghurt.

Buttermilk in

Using one hand in a claw shape mix together into a soft but not too wet or sticky mass.  Add the rest of the liquid if you think it’s too dry.  You may need to experiment here.

The claw!

Gather it up into a big ball and put down onto your already floured work surface.

Wash and dry your hands quickly at this point.

Very gently bring it together into a circle by shaping with the flattened palm of your hand and flatten slightly.

The dough

Lift it onto a very lightly floured baking tray.

Make a deep cross across the top about half way through the loaf and immediately put it into your pre heated oven.  This is both religiously symbolic and also helps the cooking by reducing the inner mass of the loaf.

Deep Cross

10 minutes at 220 C then reduce to 200 C for a further 30 minutes.

Remember that oven do vary and you may need a little longer.  When you take it out it should feel quite light for the size and most importantly should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.  If it doesn’t, put it back in for 5 minutes.  


To make the soda bread scones pictured at the top, simply cut the dough into 8 equal segments and reduce the baking time by ten minutes at the end.

Soda scones before baking

Follow the same recipe but add in a beaten egg to your wet mixture and 80 grams of sultanas to your dried mix before you add the liquid.  This is known as ‘spotty dog’ or railway bread. 

The team at Ballymaloe Cookery School also replace the sultanas with chocolate chips and have named it ‘stripy cat’.

Both ‘spotty dog’ and ‘stripy cat’ are gorgeous toasted with a decent spreading of real butter.

A real treat.

Spotted Dog