Monday, 14 March 2016

All About Naked Cakes

I've been making cakes for my family for as long as I can remember. Whether for birthdays, anniversaries, or 'just because', I've always tried to find some kind of excuse to try out a new recipe, style or technique. As an amateur baker, I consider myself extremely lucky; my family have always been willing to encourage my crazy ideas, test my bakes, and even ask me to create things for their own special occasions. In three weeks, my eldest brother will be marrying his girlfriend of six years, and they've asked me to make their cake.

After throwing a few ideas back and forth, Helen (the lovely bride) decided on a naked cake, something simple and rustic but extremely pretty to go with their 'no-fuss' ceremony and reception. A quick search of 'naked cake' on pinterest will return you thousands upon thousands of beautiful results. Very popular at the moment, naked cakes are exactly that - layers of sponge sandwiched with fillings but not iced on the outside, decorated instead with fruit, flowers, and icing sugar. They're the perfect choice for a rustic or vintage wedding, and are incredibly simple to put together (yay!). Naked cakes can be assembled relatively quickly with minimal stress, making them prefect for beginner occasion cake makers.

These pictures are from a test run I did when home from uni for my birthday (which then incidentally acted as my 21st birthday cake). The sponges are my standard vanilla recipe, which can be found here. I filled the larger tier with vanilla buttercream and lemon curd, and the smaller tier with buttercream and a home-made strawberry compote. The outside is decorated with cherries, strwaberries, and a small bunch of miniature roses/carnations all found at my local asda. Nothing professional was used in this cake, no fancy tools, tins or ornaments. All in I think it cost me about £15 to put together - a small price for such a pretty result. The cake was finished with a liberal dust of icing sugar, and, honestly, I couldn't have been happier with the result.

The beauty of naked cakes is that, really, anything goes. The piles of fruit, flowers and icing sugar really will hide any mishaps or mistakes. The side of the larger tier crumbled away when I took it out of the tin, and the strawberry compote began to bleed into the white vanilla buttercream, but I think it all just adds to the 'rustic' style. This style of cake is extremely forgiving, and I'd highly recommend giving it a go.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

New Year, New Me, New You...

It has been, I feel, a criminally long time since I last visited my poor little blog to write. So long, in fact, that I find myself quite unfamiliar with the layout and mechanics of the blogger site. The 'revamp' process, intended to take only a few minutes, took several broken hours over many days, and tragic levels of frustration. Regardless, though, returning to my pet project after all this time and seeing it still gets regular views makes me incredibly happy.

I will not offer excuses, but instead an explanation as to why I return, out of the blue, in the middle of February (I am under no illusion that we are actually still in the 'New Year', never fear), two years after my last recipe. The explanation has three parts:

1. Baking at uni became incredibly difficult; I didn't have the equipment (the beloved KitchenAid!), money, or a proper camera to do justice to the recipes I had planned. I could say that I didn't have the time either but that would be a downright lie. Everyone knows students don't actually do any work.

2. Changes; things in life keep you busy, when they're not in your life any more, they don't. Finding myself very unbusy at the moment, I thought now would be the perfect time to make my (triumphant) return to The Vanilla Crumb.

3. The Future; almost three years have passed since I started university, and now people are starting to ask what I will do when I graduate. The short answer is, I'd love to be able to do something like this...wishful thinking, perhaps, but it can't help to get in some practice, especially as I'm a little rusty.

Over the next few months, I'm hoping to get back into sharing my baking recipes, tips and tricks. Thanks for bearing with me while I find my feet again.


Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Wedding Cake...

So, after years and years of planning, preparation, and pestering (from me), my cousin finally got married to his lovely wife yesterday. Ceremony and reception were beautiful, but after pouring my (imaginary) blood, sweat and tears into these three tiers, understandably (I think), a large portion of my mind was elsewhere on Saturday morning.

My own preparations began the Wednesday before the wedding. After the steam cleaning of the kitchen (...I wish I was kidding), collection of the bottom fruitcake tier from my Nan's, and a mad dash (the first of a few) to Tesco to find royal icing sugar, everything was in order to start baking. Oddly, because I was only making two tiers, the whole process was a lot more relaxed than some of my trials have been. The middle sponge layer was made the Wednesday, and filled the next day, and the top red velvet tier was both baked and layered on the Thursday as well. By Friday morning all three layers were iced, and the flowers were set. Everything was assembled as late as I could manage on Friday evening (to lessen the chance of casualties during the night) before I zipped off to the bride's house for a bridesmaid sleepover. My Dad and I, along with an emergency cake repair kit - flowers, icing, palate knife etc., then made the short journey from our house to the reception early in the morning on Saturday. We lost a few flowers on the way *echem*as Dad smashed the cake on its way into the car*echem* but all was fixed once we were inside. The cake held up remarkably well and I'm so pleased with how it turned out overall. Obviously, it's far from professional, but many of its imperfections (extremely thankfully) could be masked with fondant flowers, and passed off as artful decoration *phew*.

Recipes can be found in my original wedding cake post

I started this blog with intentions of documenting my first experience of making a cake of this sort of scale, and one year on I'm astounded at the readership my humble little corner of the web has brought in. With numbers fast approaching 10,000 views, I'm honoured to think that I might have inspired a few avid bakers to have a go at making their own wedding cakes, and even to know that I've exposed less enthusiastic ones to new recipes. Thanks to every single reader who has clicked on my pages (probably just my family - thanks guys) over the past 12 months. Next step, my Brother's wedding cake next year, expect big things!

Monday, 7 July 2014

Pear, Raspberry and Honey Frangipane Tart

Last summer I spent a great deal of time condensing all the recipes on scraps of paper I had lying around into one, very satisfying folder (it has sub sections and everything, don't be too jealous). I did this partly out of boredom and want of something (anything PLEASE) to do, and partly because I hoped that if I ever wanted to try something new, I could just open this delicious folder, and be inspired.

Post-A-Level Catrin was a touch optimistic. Moving away from home and all its comforts, coupled with a dire Uni kitchen and the realisation that cake isn't actually all that great for you (shocking, I know) meant that I wasn't able to delve into the collection as often as I'd have liked over the past year. Nonetheless, when my parents needed a dessert for a dinner party a few weeks back I thought it would be a perfect place to start.

Though the British weather is infuriatingly unreliable, we are definitely heading into a period of less rain and cold, so it would seem. Taking this as a thumbs up that spring was in full fledge and summer on its way, I was looking for something lighter to accompany the chocolate cake I was sending my parents along with. I'd never tried frangipane before per se, not being a great lovcr of almonds and a detester of bakewell tarts I thought it would be kind of pointless. But, for some reason, I was drawn to the frangipane.

Maybe my taste buds have matured, I don't know, but the end result was delicious. The original recipe called for cherries, but they were out of season so I had to improvise in asda and get canned pears and raspberries. It turned out divine. The addition of a tiny bit of cardamom gives the tart a wonderfully exotic flavour, and lends a fresh taste to the dessert. Laced with honey and almonds to finish, the tart has a perfect balance of sweet and slightly savoury, crunchy and smooth. It looks impressive and is great eaten hot or cold, with cream, ice cream or custard.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Chocolate Guinness Cake

So. Here I am. Back from Uni, exams, and, frankly, an inexcusably long break from blogging. Now that I've found my feet back in Wales i.e. found a job (a girl's gotta pay rent) and had some time to relax after grueling (but totally worthless) first year exams, I'm delighted to share with you this heavenly chocolate cake recipe. Super rich, moist and dense, this cake means business. And so do I.
We're back with a vengeance.

My first experience with Guinness Cake was in a little tea shop in Falmouth, Annie's Kitchen. If you're ever lucky enough to be in the area it's definitely worth checking out, I lived in Fal almost a year and never visited another cake shop once, it was that good. While showing a friend round Falifornia (as it's known to the Uni folk) we stopped at Annie's for a slice of something nice and a drink. I decided on the vanilla marshmallow cake (my usual) in the window, but was swayed at the last minute by the glorious and intriguing 'Chocolate Guinness Cake' in the fridge counter inside. Coins and cake were exchanged (you can pay in excess of 4 quid for a pasty in Cornwall, but an amazing piece of cake at Annie's will only set you back £2.50. Frankly I'd rather skip the pasty) and a few minutes later we were sat down on the pier enjoying our treats.

Honest to God that slice of cake was one of the nicest things I've ever eaten in my life. Dark, rich, fudgy chocolate cake met perfectly with light, sweet whipped mascarpone and cream, marrying to create the ultimate chocolate dessert. I knew I would have to recreate this masterpiece somehow, but before you read on, heed this warning, this cake is not for the feint of heart. Dieters beware, even looking at the recipe will give you heart palpitations.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Wedding Cake No. 3

This was my final run through before the real thing in July. As with other trials, this post will mostly be pictures of the finished cake, and an encouragement to try making an occasion cake if you're halfway serious about baking and have enough time on your hands. Saying that, this took me less than two days from start to finish. I baked the cakes in the evening, then filled, iced, and stacked them the next day, and was done by early afternoon. Recipes can be found here.

My Gran made the bottom tier or fruitcake (wouldn't have been my choice but it's what they wanted), and very kindly iced it for me. The second tier was sponge with vanilla buttercream and raspberry jam, and the smallest tier was red velvet with cream cheese.

I invested 6 quid in some decent cutters from my local market and dried the fondant flowers in the hollows of egg boxes to give them a little shape.

Only thing I'd say would be to make the flowers in advance so they have plenty of time to dry and harden, meaning they'll be less likely to break when you're putting them on the cake. Also, for the real real thing I'll probably use royal icing to stick the decorations on as it's a much better colour match than buttercream. It also sets rock solid so hopefully flower casualties will be minimal.

As with the other trial runs, this was a lot of fun, and well worth a go, if you're into that kind of thing. Hopefully you'll get some inspiration from this post. It might sound insane but wedding cakes aren't nearly as hard to make as they look!

Monday, 5 May 2014

Carluccio's, Cardiff


Every holiday, my very good friend Dylan and I go on a little ‘dinner date’ to a restaurant in Cardiff, about 20 minutes away from our home town. We go to catch up, not-so-subtly judge restaurant grade food, and get ideas for our own culinary creations at home. It’s lovely to get dressed up for a real ‘occasion’ dinner, but let me save you some time, Carluccio’s is hardly worth the effort.


Last time we tried Jamie’s Italian, another chain restaurant, and bypassed Carluccio’s because of some unfortunate reviews on trip advisor. Having already experienced Jamie’s finest, I boldly said ‘I’ll be the judge of that’ when Dylan protested the food at Carluccio’s might not be up to scratch.

In theory, Carluccio’s has all the constituent parts of a successful eatery (1.) it’s attractive; the displays of filled oil bottles, cakes, house pastas and raspberry swirled meringues definitely draw the eye in, as do the cosy booths and innovative decor. (2.) the staff are friendly – our waitress was really helpful and kind, especially when we had to complain (but more on that later), and (3.) the menu is extensive and impressive. Definitely a better selection than the aforementioned Jamie’s.

While I went for the ‘penne giardiniera’, an unpronounceable concoction of ‘our own Pugliese penne with courgette, chilli and fried spinach balls with Italian cheese and garlic’, Dylan played it safe with a simple lasagne. They say the best way to judge a restaurant on its authenticity is to order a classic dish and see how well they do. Safe to say that Dylan was not impressed. It was ‘fine’ he said, but nothing special. That said, we weren’t paying top dollar prices for these meals, so you can only expect so much. We probably got what we paid for. My main was delicious, slightly more adventurous and a pleasure to eat. I’ll definitely be trying that at home soon. We also shared a side of vegetable ‘frittas’ – tempura fried aubergines, courgettes and peppers. These were kind of like chips, in thick strips, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. While they were very interesting and tasty, they were very heavily salted, too much so for me. Still, I wasn’t going to waste them.

Dessert was a difficult choice, with so many appetising puddings on offer. In the end we both went for tarts, me a strawberry and mascarpone, and Dylan a chocolate and raspberry, the special for that day, and were served with a nice vanilla bean ice cream. We’d both like to consider ourselves as slight ‘foodies’ (the majority of dinner conversation was spent on how to get authentic Italian just right), but I’d say that desserts are a strong point for both of us. This is why we felt a little let down by our second courses. When you deconstruct them, tarts like this are relatively simple to make, hard to do well, and easy to get wrong. The pastry was bland and seemed to have been bought in, or not fresh at least. The mascarpone filling was good on mine, but Dylan wasn’t so lucky. He pushed his plate over to me midway through his pudding and pointed to a raspberry cut in half. ‘I think it’s mouldy’. One look was conclusive. It was. Like, properly blue and spore-y. Not what you’d hope to be served in a reputable restaurant. Dylan finished three quarters of it and left a few spoonfuls and the offending raspberry before googling the possible repercussions of eating such less-than-fresh fruit. I said he’d be fine, that I’d seen people in my Uni flat eat worse...

When the waitress came to collect our plates we quietly and apologetically pointed out what had happened and the dish was swiftly taken off the bill. The manager assured us this was extremely rare and that produce is quality controlled on a daily basis. The great service we received almost made up for the whole incident.

Overall, I’d say that Carluccio’s is a fine place to visit, nice for a lunch time meal or casual dinner with friends, and I’m sure that the Deli section is brilliant (I only got a very quick look on my way out). Open from 8am it’d be an ideal place to pop in and pick up a couple of special ingredients for an important dinner, or just a nice treat to have at home, but dinner-wise, you could probably do better in a few restaurants just across the street. Yes, you’d be paying slightly more, but in my opinion it would be totally worth your while. Decor and staff are great, but the food leaves something to be desired. Offering a wide variety but of varying standard, I won’t be in a huge hurry to return to Carluccio’s, but I wouldn’t flatly refuse. 3/5 stars at best.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Honey and Almond Greek Yoghurt Ice Cream

My brother bought me an ice cream maker for my birthday. All my kitchen dreams have come true.

This was just a little experiment to test it out before I get around to using it properly, making ice cream with a egg and cream base and such, and, all things considered, it worked brilliantly. From start to finish this ice cream took under half an hour, if you exclude the freezing of the inner bowl, which took place overnight.

Ridiculously simple to use, this nifty machine will give you soft serve ice cream in under 20 minutes, but a brief spell in the freezer will yield a wonderfully scoopable dessert if you're patient enough. Combinations are literally endless, and I'll definitely be experimenting with real ice creams, sorbets and other yoghurts very soon.

pinterest worthy picture or what?

Honey and Almond Greek Yoghurt Ice Cream

500ml greek yoghurt
3tbsp honey
75g flaked almonds

1. Stir the honey into the yoghurt and pour into the assembled ice cream maker. Turn on and mix for 20 minutes until soft serve consistency. Add in almonds in the last minute and mix until combined.
2. Pour into a container and chill in the freezer until set, about 15 minutes.
3. Serve with fruit, drizzled with extra honey and sprinkled with more almonds.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Hot Cross Buns

Every year my Mum buys hot cross buns for Good Friday from ASDA. They're the squashiest, squishiest, most delicious hot cross buns I've ever had. Having a lot of spare time ('that's a firm 'no' to revision today') and a KitchenAid on my hands this holiday (brought down from the dusty confines of my room in lieu of my Dad's bread maker. Sacrilege), I decided I'd see if I could match and recreate these amazing rolls.

These turned out even better than I'd expected. Despite not having cinnamon (sneakily replaced with nutmeg and ginger - weird, but it totally worked) the flavour was delicious, and thanks to the apricot glaze these rolls were as sticky and sweet as my favourites from the shop.

I've said before, I've never really been that successful with doughs and breads, they just never seemed to rise quite right. UNTIL I found active dried yeast, a true miracle. Somehow, wonderfully, even if the dough doesn't quite proof properly (guess it wasn't warm enough in my kitchen) it works in the oven to create beautifully soft and fluffy rolls. So, make sure you're working with the right type of yeast. Active dried. Can't sing its praises enough.  

Best eaten warm and on the day they're made, these are delicious with butter, jam, or, as I found out after a night out, cheese. If you can, warm cold rolls slightly in an oven or microwave?! to make them super soft and squidgy again.

Hot Cross Buns

550g plain flour
1/2tsp cinnamon
1/2tsp ground cardamom
120ml warm water
120ml milk
1 1/2tsp active dried yeast
1 egg
4tbsp butter, melted
1 1/2tsp salt
50g caster sugar
200g (or to your taste) mixed peel and sultanas

For the 'cross'
50g flour
1tbsp icing sugar
1tsp lemon juice
1tbsp vegetable oil

1tbsp apricot jam

1. Mix cinnamon and cardamom with the flour in a large bowl. Mix yeast with warm water and whisk well, then set aside for 10 minutes until frothy.
2. Add the yeast mixture, milk, salt and sugar to the flour and mix well. Mix in the butter and egg, then add the mixed peel and sultanas. Kneed dough until smooth, adding extra flour if it's too sticky, about 10 minutes.
3. Cover the bowl of dough with a tea towel and leave in a warm spot until doubled in size, about an hour.
4. Punch down the dough and divide into 12 equal portions. Roll each portion into a ball and place on a lined baking sheet, leaving 3-4'' between each bun as they will spread in the oven. Cover with a towel again and leave to rise once more until doubled in size.
5. Mix the apricot jam with 4tbsp hot water until you have a think glaze. For the 'cross' part whisk flour, icing sugar, lemon juice and vegetable oil together until you have a pipable paste, adding a little water if the consistency is too thick. Spoon into a piping bag and either cut a small corner off or use a small, round piping tip. You can use a plastic bag if you don't have a piping bag.
6. Pipe a cross on the risen rolls, and brush with apricot glaze.
7. Bake in a preheated oven for 20-25 minutes until golden brown on top, basting with more apricot wash every 10 minutes or so.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Rocky Road

Rocky road is the holy grail of chocolate treats, a taste of heaven, and the king of sweets. A delicious mix of chocolate, syrup, biscuits and marshmallows, it's simply sublime, and needs no further introduction.
If you haven't heard of or tasted it then where the hell have you been? Go. You're wasting precious time.
Stop reading, start baking.

This recipe is perfect for kids (or big kids) to make, as there's no baking involved. It's quick, really easy and pretty much fool proof. In fact, I didn't even make this one, my Mum did, which shows you just how simple it is (but let's not even go there, shall we?). This was a trial run for a mass baking session she'll be supervising in school. If 6 year olds can do it, you can, too.

If you're looking to spice up this lovely, but pretty plain recipe, you could try using different kinds of biscuits, like cookies, or ginger biscuits maybe. You can also add in lots of extras, like raisins, glace cherries, fudge, nuts, anything like that would be great. If you're not a milk chocolate fan, I know this works well with white chocolate as well. If you're going down that route, try pistachios, dried strawberries, cranberries and shortbread. The options are endless, really.

Rocky Road
125g butter
3tbsp golden syrup
300g milk chocolate
200g rich tea biscuits
100g mini marshmallows

1. Line a 9'' square baking tin with baking paper. Combine the butter, syrup and chocolate in a saucepan and melt over a low heat, stirring often until well combined. Remove from the heat.
2. Crush the biscuits either by hand or in a bag with rolling pin until you have some fine crumbs and some larger chunks. Stir into the chocolate mixture and add the marshmallows, then stir well again until completely combined.
3. Press the mixture into the prepared tin and leave to set in the fridge for at least 3 hours or overnights. Cut into squares or fingers (small ones - rocky road is very sweet and rich!) and serve.

Rocky road should be stored in containers in the fridge between layers of baking paper to keep it from sticking, and will last about a week.