Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Shouting at 30

It's my 30th birthday on Sunday. Unfortunately, the fact that I'm going to be in Canada by then is not enough to get out of doing the customary morning tea shout, so I had to do it in advance.

It took me quite a while to decide what I wanted to make: since I quite often bring in a plate of something for no good reason, I had to go a little further for a birthday shout. In the end I chose ginger crunchies (p40), nut toffee (p221) and sponge roll (p69): three recipes that didn't seem too complicated, because I don't have much time to spare this week. I was wrong there: my uncomplicated baking turned into a major mission!

I started by making the ginger crunchies on Monday night. I'd been looking forward to trying these - I'm sure I've had them before, because as soon as I read the recipe I had a very clear picture of what they should look and taste like. They were a piece of ease to make. You just cream the butter and sugar, add the dry ingredients and some chopped ginger, then roll balls of the mixture in cornflakes. Press with a fork and bake.

Lauren had dropped in by the time I took them out of the oven. We tested one each and pronounced them quite edible. They were a bit dry, but I actually liked them a lot. They have custard powder in them, which gives them a quite distinct flavour.

On Tuesday night I came home with the intention of making the nut toffee and sponge roll. I decided to start with the toffee, thinking "that sounds like it won't take long". It seemed pretty simple: heat sugar, cream and butter (real health food, this!) until the sugar has dissolved, then boil until it reaches 'soft crack' stage, stir through nuts and pour into a dish.

So I put the sugar, cream and butter in a pot, and stirred it over what I considered to be a fairly low heat, but it started to boil before the sugar had dissolved. I turned it right down but it kept boiling. There wasn't much I could do, so I thought, "oh, well. It'll just have to be a bit sugary" and let it boil.

I was carefully checking the mixture every few minutes, waiting for the 'soft crack' stage. It hadn't got past 'firm ball' when the mixture started looking decidedly weird - sort of curdled and crusty around the edges. The recipe stated quite clearly that the mixture shouldn't be stirred during the boiling stage, but the notes at the beginning of the chapter said that toffee could be stirred occasionally to stop it from burning. I decided to give it a try.

Big mistake. Actually, I suspect the mixture was already ruined, but once I'd stirred it, it was clearly unusable. I decided to cut my losses before I wasted the nuts as well, scooped the mess off into a dish on the bench, cleaned the pot and started again.

This time I was determined to get the sugar to melt before I started boiling the mixture. I set the element at the lowest temperature and stood stirring continuously as it said in the recipe. This continued for a good 45 minutes - I kid you not - and the sugar still wasn't dissolved. A couple of times I experimented with the second lowest setting, but turned it down again whenever it showed signs of getting too hot.

Finally, I got sick of the whole thing. the sugar clearly wasn't going to dissolve at the low setting, but if I increased it, I was likely to get a twin to the solid sugary mass sitting on the other side of the sink. I came up with a theory: what if I heated it really hot, really fast? That might dissolve the sugar as well as beginning the boiling process. I tried it.

It didn't dissolve the sugar. It did start to brown and bubble around the edges, and a few brown bubbles poked through in the middle. Most of the mixture stayed a kind of sickly pale yellow. I started to smell burnt sugar, and turned it down. Assuming the mix was also ruined, I figured I could hardly make it worse, so I stirred it.

Unbelievably, doing the one thing that was specifically forbidden in the recipe resulted in a (comparatively) smooth-looking, pleasant brown mixture. I tried some, burning my finger and tongue in the process. Well, it didn't taste burnt! I shrugged, stirred through the nuts and poured it into the tin that had been waiting for about 2 hours.

After all that, I was feeling far too demoralised to start making my first ever sponge roll. I poured a glass of wine and sat down for a while. Only the recollection of Mum's assertion that "sponge roll is easy" got me up off the couch again.

The recipe looked quite straightforward. Then again, so did the toffee! I took a deep breath and had a go. I started by beating three eggs with a pinch of salt. Add sugar and vanilla, and beat it until thick. So far, so good.Then I had to fold in the dry ingredients, and the melted butter. 

I carefully folded these in with a slotted spoon, as recommended by the Edmonds book - I've found this works well in other recipes, but I wasn't too happy with the resulting mixture. I'd double-sifted the flour and baking powder, but the mixture was still lumpy. And the egg mixture didn't seem to be as thoroughly beaten as I'd thought. I didn't want to overmix, but I got it to a reasonable standard and poured it into the dish.

Eight minutes later, I took it out of the oven: disaster. It had risen in parts of the centre, but bits in the corners seemed to be mostly just cooked egg. Sigh.. remove from dish and dump on top of my aborted toffee mixture. Wash dish; start again.

With my last three eggs, I had another go. I thought maybe the beaten eggs had lost some of their air while I prepared the dry ingredients and butter, so this time I had everything ready to add. I beat the eggs for much longer this time, and folded carefully, using a rubber scraper this time. I still had a lumpy mixture, but this time I worried less about overmixing, and concentrated on getting the ingredients properly mixed through.

I got it in the oven and set about whipping the cream. As usual, I underwhipped it slightly, a habit of mine since a certain overwhipping incident at a cooking class. By the time that was done, it was time to take this sponge out.

It could have been the twin of the first one - or at least a close relative. It wasn't quite as bad, but it wasn't great. There were still patches that looked eggy instead of spongy. But I had no choice: I had run out of eggs. I had to biff it or run with it, so I decided to see how it looked when it was rolled up. I turned it out onto a sugared towel, trimmed off the edges, spread the sponge with lemon curd and whipped cream, and rolled it up. Actually, it didn't look bad at all. I rolled it in the towel and put it in the fridge overnight.

Next I turned my attention to the now-cold toffee. I'd marked it in squares when I first poured it in, so now I was able to tip it out and beak it into neat squares like a block of chocolate. Some of them shattered, of course, spreading minute pieces of sugary toffee all over my clean kitchen floor, but I was past caring.

They looked good, but how did they taste? Not bad at all! Not nearly as sugary as I'd anticipated, and there was no burnt-sugar taste in the piece I tried. It was tooth-breakingly hard, but I was quite pleased that all that work had produced something at least edible. I placed the toffee on a tray with the ginger crunchies and set it aside for the morning.

In the morning, the sponge roll wasn't looking that good. The sponge had soaked up most of the cream overnight - probably because I hadn't whipped it enough - and was looking a bit gooey. Oh well. I sliced it up, put it on the tray with the rest and took it in to work.

I presented my offerings with warnings along the lines of "not my best effort", (actually, I put a lot of effort into it - it's just not the best result!) "careful, those are hard on your teeth", and, more tellingly, "It didn't come out very well, but it took me all evening to make, so you'll bloody well eat it!" Perhaps it was this last admonition that led to the almost universal approval of what I'd made.

Astonishingly, the sponge roll was the most popular, deemed delicious by just about everyone. Even I have to admit that, while it didn't taste like a sponge roll should, it was actually very nice. I think it was really the cream, sugar and lemon curd we could taste; the fact that these flavours were wrapped in a soggy sponge apparently went unnoticed.

The toffee was also popular. Since I'd cut it in reasonably small pieces, there was more than enough to go around, but it had all disappeared by the end of the day. I have to put my hand up to devouring quite a few pieces myself: I'm still amazed at how good it was, considering how close I'd come to giving up on it and throwing it out.

The ginger crunchies were the only dish on the tray that I was entirely happy with. They'd been easy to make, tasted good and came out exactly how I intended them to. It's quite funny that, while everyone liked them, they did not receive nearly as much attention as the two far more disastrous dishes.

I've actually got a whole chapter of sponges to do: this was my first attempt. I hope I get the hang of it soon, or I'll be wasting a lot of eggs! I was already aware that sweet making was not my forte, but since last night I'm really not looking forward to the other toffee recipes in the sweets chapter. (If anyone knows the trick to getting sugar to dissolve before it boils, let me know. I'm thinking it might help to use caster sugar) As for the ginger crunchies, they're very easy and very nice. Go ahead and try them. By all means try the other two as well, just remember they're not as easy as they look!

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