Do we need an excuse for cake?

I enjoy cooking of all sorts, but I’m especially fond of baking. I’m sure there’s all sorts of psychological analysis I could put here. Things about an underlying thing of buying friendship, and the need to be in constant control. I know there are some deeply unhealthy aspects to it, beyond the whole fat and sugar end.

I always look for reasons to do various things. In college, I’d bust out a batch of mini éclairs just because we were having people over for drinks. I would go on epic baking sprees for parties. I still do. Last month, we had what ended up being a very small party. As usual, I cooked for about 50.

This was one of about three trays of cupcakes I made for Adam to decorate. They were given out free at an ale festival last year. The only purpose was to get people closer to the booth.

There’s always a reason to come up with for making a cake, or cupcakes, 0r cake pops, or cookies. (I haven’t made éclairs in years, though. Once I moved away from my chocolate supplier it just didn’t cut it. And yes, I had a chocolate supplier. It was an amazing restaurant supply shop tucked away in a side street of Chelsea. I miss that place. It was awesome.)

Lately, my excuse has been shows. If Adam has a show opening, or is working at an event, I bust out the cake. There are commercial reasons for it, and they do serve to bring people closer, and there have been sales because people walked in when they saw cupcakes.

This week, there’s another show opening. It’s getting to be an amazing line up, and I’m looking forward to just seeing all the art. And the question is out there… should I do any food for it? Beyond just the basic question of whether it’s worth doing for this show is the slight complication that I’m out of town the night before the show opens.

I honestly don’t know what to do. I want to bake. I enjoy baking. I’ll even admit that I love the praise. I’ve always loved the praise. Being praised for my cooking is right up there with being praised for my writing.

So that part of me, the part that wants to be special for something in a room full of extraordinary work by extremely talented artists, wants to figure out some way of going to London on Friday, getting home in time for a day-long event, and still, somehow, having food ready for the opening at 3:30.

Is that me being selfish? Is it simply attention-seeking rather than being something to actively make the show better? What do I get out of it, long term?

I’ve contemplated things around my baking and cooking. I’d love to figure out a way to do it as a sideline job. It would be cool to cater things other than just Adam’s shows and our own parties. (The only time I was incredibly foolish to attempt the catering of was our own wedding, especially considering all the other things we’d done as a DIY thing, including the production of a zine-type program.)

The problem, of course, is that I don’t know where to even start with such an enterprise. I’m putting all my marketing efforts into the freelance writing stuff, now that I’m able to get back into it in the UK, so I don’t have the time or money to do the same for another small business. I think there’s only so much that can be done by word of mouth, especially when all I’m doing is food for our own things.

None of this answers the urgent question, anyway. I still have to decide whether there’s a benefit to baking a load of bite-sized confections before I go away. What does everyone suggest?


The diet dessert

We’ve developed a loose routine for our family. We get together with Adam’s parents on Fridays for cards. Over the past month, we’ve added a meal to it and started taking turns hosting.

This has occurred at the same time as three of us are on diets (though of various levels of seriousness and commitment). As it works out, the fourth is also the odd one out anyway (Adam’s pescetarianism usually gives him a different main, and his dislike for sweet things usually leaves him out of dessert).

I have taken this as a challenge. My general goal is to do a healthy, low-fat main and a dessert that is a lower calorie/sugar/fat thing but still tastes like it isn’t.

The first try was a sort of lemon posset/fool thing that worked really well, but it was a bit sharp. I’ll have to try that one again before posting a recipe, I think.

For last night’s try, I documented it just in case it came off right. It worked great, so here you go… a fairly not bad for you hazelnut cheesecake tiramisu sort of thing.

An introductory note: I made it with two layers, but it would probably be better served by doing it with one thicker layer. It was just a bit more sponge-heavy than I really wanted, so it’s a matter of taste.

These amounts made for a dessert that ended up as 4 servings.


The ingredients I used:

  • Hazelnut liqueur (ours is some own brand thing I picked up at Aldi before Christmas)
  • Hazelnut syrup (the sort you use for coffee, which I get at Costco or Makro, but is usually available from most coffee chains)
  • Plain ol’ sugar
  • Stevia sweetener (I found Pure Via sachets on offer at Morrisons)
  • Fromage frais
  • Reduced fat cream cheese
  • Roasted and chopped hazelnuts
  • Whole hazelnuts
  • Sponge fingers

Step one

The assembly, step one:

I poured around 3 tablespoons of the liqueur and 1 tablespoon of the syrup into a bowl, then dunked the sponge fingers into the liquid mix.  I prefer the fingers to have a bit of tooth to them, so it was a quick in-and-out dunk on each side.

I layered the dunked fingers along the bottom of my dish. (In this case, it was a 6-inch-ish square plastic container.)

Step two

The assembly, step 2:

I combined about 1/3rd the pack of cream cheese (about 4 tablespoons), around 6 tablespoons of fromage frais, 1 teaspoon of sugar, 1 tablespoon of syrup, and 2 stevia sachets in a bowl. I whisked everything until it was well blended and creamy.

I then stirred in about 2 tablespoons of chopped hazelnuts and then spread the mix evenly over the sponge finger layer.

Step three

I then repeated steps one and two, with my second cream layer only including half measures of the cream cheese, fromage frais, and syrup, with the other ingredients left out. My second sponge layer used up the remaining liquids from the first round of dunking.

Doing this made the dessert a bit taller, but (as I mentioned) fairly sponge-heavy. It could also work to combine the two cream layers into one and cut out the second layer of sponges.

I used the whole hazelnuts to decorate the top, then put the whole thing in the fridge, covered, for a few hours to set.


So there it is!

One thing I will add as a final note, it could probably be made without the stevia (using a bit more sugar), but I’m getting really experimental with the sugar/stevia combination.

I think it gives a more rounded sweetness, with the sugar giving the front-of-mouth sweetness you’re used to and the stevia giving more of a side- and back-of-mouth sweetness that is a bit lighter and more unusual.

The combined effect is one that gives a sweeter sensation without the syrupy quality that a similar sweetness level using just sugar tends to have.

The makings of a meal

Somebody once said to me, ‘If you have an egg, you have a meal.’ I think that’s a load of crap, but that’s because I really don’t like eggs. In stuff, fine. Scrambled (American style) every now and again, slathered in ketchup, sure. But an egg in general, no. Just… no. (The sight of a runny yolk on somebody’s plate will put me off. Even thinking about it now makes my stomach turn.)

Though I don’t agree with the item in question, I do have a few other things that are in the ‘if I have it, I have a meal’ category.

This stock photo is kinda what the cupboard always looked like as I grew up...

Growing up, we always had jars of stewed tomatoes in the cupboard. Each summer, my mom would grow loads of tomatoes in the garden, and the season was inevitably marked by a sweltering day in the kitchen. Hot as hell outside, and big pans of boiling water going on the burners. The tomatoes would be blanched for easy skin removal, then cooked down a bit, then put into big jars. The jars lived in the cupboard above the fridge, and they would aid a number of recipes through the year.

My black thumb keeps me from growing and canning my own, but the need to have tomatoes in the house has stuck with me. As long as I have tins of tomatoes at hand, I can go to town. Chili, pasta sauces, salsa, soups. It’s the basis of many meals for me, and probably the closest single thing I get to the whole ‘have it, have a meal’ idea.

Of course, there are other items that I generally have on hand at all times. My stupidly large range of spices are always handy, but I’d be crippled without cumin, cayenne, basil, oregano, salt, and pepper.

My kitchen always has onions and garlic.

Next to the tomatoes, there are always a few cans of beans. (I sometimes have bags of dried beans, but the forethought required makes them impractical for the last minute dinner decisions I prefer to make.) Cheap kidney beans are the ultimate staple, but I try to get a variety whenever it’s a 5 for £2 or whatever at the supermarket.

All of this does indicate the type of food we prefer — spicy. Last night, we had tacos. Based on our staples (which also generally include frozen veggie mince, one of the only meat substitute veggie foods that I can stomach), the only thing we had to go out to buy was the taco shells.

I gave Adam a vague recipe while I got everything ready for the bin collection today. It’s all very ‘chuck in some of this and a bit of that’, and reflects an attitude that knowing which spices go into a mix means that you can do the spice mix better than the packet.

I also taught him how to do the cheap and easy salsa that I throw together every now and again…

  • 1 can chopped tomatoes in juice (I’m a strong believer in it being better to use ripe tomatoes in a tin than to use unripe fresh tomatoes when they’re out of season)
  • 1 medium-ish onion, chopped up
  • half a large bell pepper, any colour, chopped up
  • a handful of cilantro (or coriander, whatever you want to call it)
  • salt (to taste, but it generally takes more than you think)
  • pepper
  • cayenne pepper (to taste, but a little goes a long way if there are spice wimps about)
  • cumin (another one that’s more than you think…I go with around a tablespoon)
  • lime juice (a couple glugs from a bottle or the juice of around half a lime)
  • oregano (a teaspoon or so, but kinda optional)

Dump all the ingredients into a container for a hand blender or food processor and blitz it for a bit until it’s all a small chunky consistency. It doesn’t need to be perfect, or entirely even. A bigger chunk every now and again can be nice.

It’s good to go after that, but gets a nicer flavour after a bit of time in the fridge.

As with all of my recipes, it’s not a hard and fast rule for any of it. Most things I do are just vague combinations that can be tweaked, omitted, added to, or bastardised as the situation calls for.

Cooking for two

I’ve always intended to cook for two, but somehow always managed to cook for about 20. Unchecked, I cook large. I cater. I cater for parties larger than I have friends.

This was from Christmas. It was more than enough to feed the 4 meat-eaters at the table. As was the turkey. As were the 8 tuna steaks I made for the single pescatarian. As were the side dishes. As were the mini quiches. As were all of the various 'bits' I had just in case somebody wanted something different.

As a side note, when I do have additional people here, I cook even larger. My fear is not having enough, that somebody will want seconds or thirds or seventeenths and I’ll have to say no. The massive amounts of food I prepare has become a standard joke amongst our friends. If we have a party that involves food, there will be enough. There will be more than enough. There will be too much.

This is the same when it comes to cooking on a smaller scale. Our everyday dinners are for two. There are only two of us. So what compels me to take out the giant stock pot purchased at Ikea (to some confusion on the part of Adam, who sensibly wondered what I’d possibly need something that big for seeing as how there are only two of us) when I’m only making dinner for two?

Maybe it’s some idea that there will be ‘leftovers’ that we’ll have for lunch the next day, and maybe for another dinner later in the week. That’d be great, but it doesn’t ever happen. (Well, that’s not entirely true. It happens in the case of lasagne, but that’s more because Adam’s kinda like Garfield with lasagne. And sometimes chili, because that’s always better after it’s sat for a day.)

No, there’s no taking a packed lunch to work, and there’s no reheating it later in the week. As we both work from home, lunch is whatever grabs our ‘nads in the moment (usually a Pot Noodle for Adam and some sort of soup or peanut butter sandwich for me). It’s rarely the same as what we had the previous night. And because I like cooking, I don’t go for the reheating option.

I also don’t tend to remember to freeze things (again, except lasagne) for even later reheating. I put things in the fridge and then, come Thursday night, it’s the shameful dumping of plastic containers into the compost bin.

I’ve started getting better about it, though. It’s been an inadvertent upshot of the whole diet thing. Because I’m measuring everything to work out the calories — and know I won’t be doing seconds, thirds, or seventeeths — I end up doing just enough for the night I’m cooking. There’s less waste, which is good, too.

And I’m not actually saying that in the whole hippie bullshit ‘let’s care about the earth to pretend like we’re better people than we are’ thing. Because I’m not a good person (at least not that sort), I don’t really give that much of a shit about the earth, and I don’t think that the environmental impact of me having a full compost bin instead of a half-full compose bin is going to tip any scales towards imminent destruction.

No, as far as I’m concerned, the less waste is good because it means less of a chore on Thursday. It’s good because it means less mental gymnastics in trying to remember just how long ago I made something. It’s good because I don’t feel obliged to eat something because it’s still there.

Tonight was a victory in all of this. I made a sort of chicken cacciatore type thing with some pasta, and made just enough to fill our plates. We had a reasonable amount, and that was it. There’s none for later, there’s none for tomorrow, there’s none for next Thursday’s bin.