Friday, 30 March 2012

Birthday Baking

I wasn't allowed any closer!
The Tiddlers
 So spring has sprung, the main lambing season  is in full swing and the cacophony of tractors, Sheep in labour and bleating lambs fills the air. The countryside is anything but peaceful on a sheep farm during lambing. The beautiful daytime weather and chilled nights we have recently enjoyed are causing problems for some of the labouring sheep and their newly delivered woolly offspring. The animals cannot adjust their inner temperature gauges and they develop pneumonia. The  poor sleep deprived farmer has been running around vaccinating sheep at every turn. He explained all this when us townies went to coo over the new babies. (I try hard not to think about where they will end up in only a few months time!)

 As spring has marched along it has brought with it an eagerly awaited event: Young Master Vander-Cave's Birthday. Unfortunately for him it was a school day which somewhat dampens the celebrations as far as he is concerned. To help make the school day festive  his school allow children to bring in cake or sweets for the whole class. Of course we can't send in sweets it just has to be cake. Master Vander-Cave had already requested Chocolate fudge cake as his birthday cake and "cakes with chocolate sprinkles for the class cake"  To try and keep the workload to a minimum I decided cupcakes were probably the best option. What I didn't realise was that 34 cupcakes were required! Clearly the Kenwood would have to take the strain, again!

My new favourite The Hummingbird Bakery cookbook had just the recipe I needed. Vanilla Cupcakes with Vanilla frosting which I could then decorate with the requested chocolate sprinkles.

Hummingbird Vanilla cupcakes

makes 12 cakes
120g plain flour

140g caster sugar
1 ½ tsp baking powder
a pinch of salt
40g unsalted butter, at room temperature
120ml whole milk
1 egg
¼tsp vanilla extract

For the vanilla frosting:
250g icing sugar, sifted
80g unsalted butter, at room temperature
25ml whole milk
a couple of drops of vanilla extract

Line a 12 hole cupcake tray with 12 cupcake cases.

Preheat the oven to 170°C (325°F) Gas 3.
Put the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and butter in a freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment (or use a handheld electric whisk) and beat on slow speed until you get a sandy consistency and everything is combined.
 Gradually pour in half the milk and beat until the milk is just incorporated.

Whisk the egg, vanilla extract and remaining milk together in a separate bowl for a few seconds, then pour into the flour mixture and continue beating until just incorporated (scrape any unmixed ingredients from the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula).

Continue mixing for a couple more minutes until the mixture is smooth. Do not overmix.

Spoon the mixture into the paper cases until two-thirds full and bake in the preheated oven for 20–25 minutes, or until light golden and the sponge bounces back when touched.
A skewer inserted in the centre should come out clean. Leave the cupcakes to cool slightly in the tray before turning out onto a wire cooling rack to cool completely.

To make the frosting:
Beat the icing sugar and butter together in a freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment (or use a handheld electric whisk) on medium-slow speed until the mixture comes together and is well mixed.

Turn the mixer down to slow speed. Combine the milk and vanilla extract in a separate bowl, then add to the butter mixture a couple of tablespoons at a time. Once all the milk has been incorporated, turn the mixer up to high speed.

Continue beating until the frosting is light and fluffy, at least 5 minutes. The longer the frosting is beaten, the fluffier and lighter it becomes.

Spoon or pipe the frosting onto the cold cupcakes.

For my decorations I piped the letters of my son's name and happy birthday onto giant Chocolate buttons and placed a chocolate button on each cake. I used White cooking  chocolate which I placed into a plastic disposable piping bag. I microwaved the chocolate in 20 second bursts on medium power until the chocolate  had melted. I then snipped just the very tip of the icing bag off which gave me a perfect piping hole to pipe the letter onto the chocolate buttons. I was also able to re-melt the chocolate in the bag when it started to solidify by popping it back into the microwave for another 20 seconds.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

A bit about me......

I am just about a 30 something city girl who is mum to one amazing young man.  I am married to my school sweetheart and attibute the success of our long marriage to the PlayStation (for him) and wine (for me!). When not baking I enjoy watching Desperate Housewives, as you can probably tell by my name!  My friends have been known to call me Bree (although not perhaps in her current situation).

Due to a series of late night, spur of the moment, decisions (which have taken us around the country) I have found myself living in the back of beyond on a sheep farm and living the rural life.  I now have only my vaguely trusted internet connection to keep me in touch with the John Lewis sales and Fat Face.  Thankfully the local town does have a Starbucks and Costa so I am still able to indulge in my passion for a skinny latte and blueberry muffin.

My passion for baking stems from a childhood being raised by a Yorkshire woman with a family of five to feed.  At school I went on to complete a GCSE in Food and Nutrition, somehow only gaining a Grade D!  I must have had other distractions at that time, that's all I can say..........*winking at Mr V-C*

These days I am very well known for my Hostess-with-the-Mostest skills and love nothing more than feeding any family or friend who is able to actually find the farm!  I am slowly learning the love the rural life, although the sight of me in my pink stripey wellies still makes the farmer laugh!


Baking With PVFS

For those of you who have never heard of PVFS it is not a new baking ingredient or utensil but the condition I found myself diagnosed with shortly after Christmas this year. I have not mentioned my illness in my blog before now because I kind of thought people reading a baking blog want recipes and a feel good factor and todays blog is probably neither.  My dear friend Gem suggested I should blog about my illness to explain how PVFS is affecting me and how my baking has been affected by it. Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome is similar to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and from what I have so far gleaned about the condition it is diagnosed after a viral illness where the main virus finishes but the fatigue symptoms continue. This is the point where I should probably put my hand up and admit that I never really bought the whole Chronic Fatigue Syndrome phenomena although I had changed my views when a close friend of mine developed CFS a couple of years ago and I saw how her life was changed by this terrible, persistant fatigue. Because I didn't see this friend regularly I didn't fully understand the debilitating nature of the illness. Now sadly due to my own illness I totally understand and feel sad that I really have had to walk in her shoes to fully understand this condition. I know many people in the health profession and wider world think that PVFS is a made up condition and that it is a 'malingerers' disease. I am sure some of the people in my life think I need to just buck up my ideas and get back to work and on with life. Sadly this couldn't be further from the truth for me.

I have always been a really active person who was never happier than when I had lots to do and lots of good friends surrounding me. My average week consisted of working a full time job in a stress filled profession, running a household on a day to day basis, being a full time mum to a active 11 year old (along with support from my long suffering husband), cooking from scratch most days, baking three or more times a week, blogging, running three to four times a week (to counteract the baking!) and keeping up with friends and family scattered around the UK and abroad. For relaxation at the weekend we would often have guests for the weekend or we would be visiting previously mentioned friends in different parts of the country. I loved it all, okay maybe not the long commute daily, but everything else! All this was done with a full face of make up and styled head of hair and well accessorised outfits (other people have said this about me, this is not be being vain!).

Currently I am lucky if I manage to get up, get dressed and put on the make up each day. I decided early on in this illness that having a shower, washing my hair and putting on my make up were important to me to make me feel more like the person I remember I was. The hair rarely gets blow dried and sometime I forgo the makeup if there is something else I need to do (like the occassional school run). I have lost so much of what makes me me. I am grieving for that person and am trying very hard not to look back at what I used to achieve in a day, a week, a month but look forward and celebrate when I do complete a task. It is hard to describe the fatigue I feel on a daily basis. Everyone gets tired but this is somehow worse because sleep doesn't seem to relieve it. It really is a bone weary feeling, a feeling of being hit by a bus. I am unable to concentrate for long periods due to a mind fog and give me something harder than a "chick-lit" novel to read and I am stumped. Writing this blog at times is beyond my capability, my spelling, word selection and composition become unintelligible.Thankfully Mr V-C steps in and becomes my editor.  I suffer from extreme sensitivity to lots of noise, crowded places make me feel drained and confused, decision making is impaired. If I do too much in a day (which is a fraction of what I used to achieve) I find I develop an instant sore throat and my muscles and joints burn with a ferociousness I have never experienced before. At times I can't move my arms due to the muscle strains.

 I am trying to learn to pace myself and balance the days when I have a bit of energy with the wiped out days. The good days are when i try to bake although not anywhere near as often as i used to, the recipes are much more basic than i used to tackle, the kenwood chef does the hard work and  MR Vander-Cave clears up afterwards while I rest.   But at least I get to bake. Baking has been my passion for many years, so continuing to occasionally produce a batch of cupcakes, cookies or Muffins is quite honestly saving me from insanity! Well, Baking, phone calls from my closest friends and family and Mr Vander-Cave's love, support and bad jokes are what keep me sane.

So thank you to all the people mentioned  above. Thank you to anyone reading this, if you are a CFS/PVFS sufferer you are not alone and I hope you have the love, support and a passion to see you through this illness. If you know someone with CFS/PVFS please don't underestimate how much the occasional phone call or text really does make all the difference and allows the sufferer to feel included in the life and world that is going on all around them, without them!  And finally I promise just baking and tales from the back of beyond  from now on!

 P.S. Just so you know I will recover from this illness.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Healthy Muf-fun!

After my success with the low fat banana and blueberry muffins I started to have a look through my old muffin recipes, of which I have many.

I first fell in love with baking muffins when Mr Vander-Cave and I went to America for a holiday. We were lucky enough to be invited to stay with freinds who had upped sticks and moved to Long Island. They lived at Cold Spring Harbour, which was so beautifully tranquil but just a short train journey away from the manic energy of New York City. We really were able to see the two sides of New York! We did all the tourist stops in the city including the top of the world trade centre(15 months before it was raised to the ground on one of the most terrifying days in modern history) . The flip side was seeing the surburban lives of Long Island residents; being invited to a Barmitvah party, having coffee with the Long island ladies who lunch and watching little league football. Our hostess for the week is a fellow baker and took me to her favourite local book shop, I really wanted to get some classic American cookery books so under her guidance, I bought the classic "Joy of Cooking" and several American muffin baking books. The muffin books were a revelation. No creaming ingredients, no scales needed and fabulous flavours, all produced in under 40 minutes. I was hooked.

Over the years I have made many of the recipes in these books but until a few days ago had never ventured into the chapter entitled "Somewhat healthier muffins". What had I been missing all these years; big flavoursome muffins with between 170-208 calories each. The first recipe I tried from the healthier muffin chapter was carrot oat muffins. Very low fat and only 191 calories. Being a carrot cake fan I was a little dubious as to how these would taste without the cream cheese frosting, but with the sultanas, crushed pineapple, carrots and lots of warming spices I didn't miss the frosting at all. Even Master Vander-Cave was impressed (he is one of my biggest critics) and he was getting some of his 5 a day so what more could anyone want!
At this point I ought to say a bit about making muffins. Before you start it is really worth investing in some measuring cups if you don't have any. I had mine as a wedding present and they are still going strong 16 years later. When mixing muffins one should use no more than 20 strokes of the spoon using a folding motion. When filling the muffin cases, fill them to three quarters full to get a good "muffin top"! If making   less than 12, fill the remaining holes in the tin with water, this helps cook the muffins evenly.

Carrot Oat Muffins
Makes 9 muffins, each muffin contains 191 calories and 4 grams of fat.
All ingredients should be at room temperature.

1 cup  plain flour
1 cup porridge oats
1 1/2 tsps baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
a pinch ground ginger
a pinch fresh nutmeg
1/2 cup crushed pineapple in unsweetened juice
1/3 cup buttermilk
2 large egg whites lightly beaten
2 tbsp corn oil
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 cups shredded carrots
1/2 cup sultanas
icing sugar to dust (optional)

Preheat oven to 200c and place 9 muffin cases in the muffin pan.

In a large bowl stir together the flour, oats, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt and the spices.

In a large jug stir together pineapple, buttermilk, egg whites, oil and vanilla.

Stir the brown sugar into the pineapple mixture until well blended.

Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients; add the pineapple mixture and stir to just combine.

Stir in the carrot and sultanas using only a few light strokes.

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffins cups.

Bake for 17-19 minutes or until a cake skewer inserted into the middle of a muffin comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and leave the muffins in the pan for 2 minutes then remove to a cooling rack to finish cooling.

These muffins keep well for several days and freeze well for up to a month.

My second Healthy muffin attempt is one for all the chocoholics who want healthy chocolate muffins.

Double chocolate Muffins
Makes 12 muffins each muffin contains 197 calories and  5 grams of fat.
All ingredients should be at room temperature.

1 3/4 cups plain flour
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup of  good quality cocoa powder
2tsp baking powder
1/4 bicarbonate of soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup corn oil
2 large egg whites lightly beaten
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk chocolate chunks
Preheat the oven to 190c place 12 muffin cases in the muffin pan.

In a large bowl stir together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, bicarbonate soda and salt until well combined.

In a large jug stir together buttermilk, egg whites, oil and vanilla.

Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients; add the buttermilk mixture and stir to just combine.

Lightly stir in the chocolate chunks.

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffins cups.

Bake for 15-20 minutes or until a cake skewer inserted into the middle of a muffin comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and leave the muffins in the pan for 2 minutes then remove to a cooling rack to finish cooling.

If you wish to be particularly saintly omit the chocolate chunks which gives a calorie count of 175 calories per muffin.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

A diet Spring clean!

It is the first week of March and there definitely seems to be hints of spring popping up about the place. Daffodils are starting to show their sunny heads, the blueberry bushes are starting to burst their buds, Mr Vander-Cave is muttering about potato varieties for the coming season and the sounds levels on the farm are increasing.  The main lambing period is fast approaching and preparations need to be completed.  Master Vander-Cave came back in this morning, after accompanying the farmer on his twice daily sheep welfare (ante-natal) check, to tell me that one of the ewes had lambed by itself in the field.  He had helped the farmer and his son collect the sheep and it's new born lamb to take them back to the barn because it is too cold for the lamb to survive out in the field.  I do sometimes feel I am living in the middle of the BBC Lambing Live programme!

With thoughts of warmer weather in my mind I decided I really need to start eating a little healthier. As I start to come out of winter hibernation and shed the jumper and chunky cardigan combo I wear for much of the winter (and preferably the half stone of insulating fat that I have had warming my midriff) . Living in a stone and wooden barn with stone flooring can be quite chilly, do you know!

Of course the problem with healthy eating is that cake is not particularly compatible with this lifestyle and to be honest, for me, life without cake is one I do not wish to participate in.  I know one can go into any supermarket and find shelves groaning under the weight of so called "diet cakes" which are usually either labelled low fat or low calorie and often made by diet companies as treats that fit in with their particular diet plan. My big problem with these cakes is that they are often tasteless and full of additives to compensate for the missing fat or calories. I would much rather have a smaller piece of calorie laden, flavoursome, home made cake or eat said cake slightly less often, whilst adding some exercise into the mix. Better that than eat one of these 'cardboard slices' which are (usually) individually wrapped for convenience, which is ridiculous because you need to eat half the packet to get one decent sized piece of cake!

Having said all of this I did find myself (and my trusty Google search engine) searching for healthy cake recipes. Many of the recipes I found had strange ingredients never heard of on this side of the 'pond' and used chemically enhanced sweeteners which kind of defeats the object of healthy eating to my mind. Eventually I struck gold with a great recipe for blueberry, banana and oaty muffins. This recipe is a winner as far as I am concerned because it utilises blueberries which we often find ourselves over run with during the summer months.  It also has oats and bananas in which are a slow release carbohydrates which keep one feeling fuller for longer and all wrapped up in a generous sized moist muffin with only 206 calories.
I was totally over excited about making these muffins and half expected to be sorely disappointed by the end result but I am pleased to report they turned out beautifully, moist and flavoursome and exceptionally easy to make.

Blueberry banana oaty muffins
300g self-raising flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
100g light muscovado sugar
50g porridge oats plus 1 tbsp for topping
2 medium bananas (the riper the better)
284ml buttermilk *
5 tbsp corn oil
2 egg whites
150g blueberries

Heat oven to 180C and line a 12-hole muffin tin with paper muffin cases.

Mix the flour, bicarbonate of soda and 50g oats into a large bowl. Hold back 1 tbsp of the sugar, then mix
the remainder into the flour mix.

Make a well in the centre of the bowl .

In a separate bowl, mash the bananas until nearly smooth. Stir the buttermilk, oil and egg whites into the mashed banana until evenly combined.

Pour the liquid mixture into the well and stir quickly and sparingly with a large metal spoon.

The mix will look lumpy and may have the odd fleck of flour still visible, but don't be tempted to over-mix.

Tip in the blueberries and give it just one more stir.

Divide the mix between the muffin cases - they will be quite full - then sprinkle the tops with the final tbsp of the oats and the rest of  the sugar.

Bake for 18-20 minutes until risen and dark golden on top. Cool for 5 mins in the tray before lifting out onto a rack to cool completely.

I have frozen half my batch and they can be individually defrosted, wrapped in foil and popped in a warm oven for 5 minutes  to refresh them.

Ingredient note
*If you are unable to get buttermilk it can  be replaced by a makeshift buttermilk by mixing a tablespoon of lemon juice with  280ml skimmed or semi skimmed milk and leave it to stand for 5 minutes to ferment and then use as in the recipe.