Saturday, 18 October 2014

10 most common cooking mistakes

I'm in the November edition of Glamour magazine (p.86) talking about the most common culinary mistakes. Here are some more pointers that may be helpful.
frying onions, garlic, bay leaves
1) Cooking at the right temperature
If you are frying onions, cook them low and slow. It's going to take longer than you think to caramelise them, up to 45 minutes. But this patient approach will be worth it.
If you are cooking or frying meat or fish, make sure the temperature of the pan and oil is high enough. You want your pan almost smoking before you add your protein. If you try to lift your meat/fish and the pan isn't hot enough, the bottom will stick to the pan.
2) Calibrate your oven.
This is easy. Just because your oven say it goes to a certain temperature, doesn't mean it actually does. Get to know your oven, where the hot patches are, if it heats evenly on both sides, left and right, especially if it is an old oven in a rental property. Improve your kitchen ability by buying a cheap temperature gage. Place it in your oven, on a middle shelf and whack your oven up to its highest temperature. Leave it for at least half an hour to get to the hottest point. If the top temperature of your oven is 280cº/550fº and the gage is 20º lower then you know when reading a recipe to adjust the temperature by 20º. (However, during the research for this piece, I noted that on shopping sites, the temperature of the oven is never mentioned! Surely the most important element?) Remember, if you think you are a bad baker, it may not be you, it might be your oven.
Ultimately it is worth investing good money in this essential bit of kitchen kit which you will be using for years.
3) Taste your food.
One of the biggest mistakes that home cooks make is not tasting their food regularly throughout the cooking and, crucially, under-seasoning. The reason why restaurant food tastes good is because they use plenty of salt. They salt a little bit at the beginning, some more in the middle, then top it up at the end. When they say in recipes, salt to taste, do precisely that. Taste. Salt it. Taste again later. Salt again.You want to salt it so that it doesn't actually need to be salted at the table. AND use good sea salt like Maldons then you will get all the essential minerals too. Restaurants also don't skimp on oil and butter.
4) Use the right amount of water.
Cooking pasta? Then make sure you have enough water, that the pan won't burn dry. Dried pasta needs plenty of hot salty water to cook properly. Always slightly undercook what it says on the packet. Buy dried pasta with the longest cooking times, this is generally better quality. NEVER buy quick cook pasta, it's horrible.
Cooking rice? This is much trickier. You need to put in just the right amount of water, not too much, not too little. The general rule is 1 cup rice to 1 1/2 cups water but brown rice needs more water than white rice. Other rice tips:
  • Most rice should be rinsed several times before cooking, until the water is almost clear.
  • Putting half a lemon in your rice cooking water will help it become fluffy
  • Buy fresh rice. Yes that's a thing. Look at best before dates and choose shops where they have a hig turnover of stock. Old rice can be soaked.
  • Rice finishes off by cooking in its own steam. Leave the rice to rest a while before serving so that the molecules can redistribute themselves, meaning it will be fluffy throughout.
  • Buy a saucepan with a tight-fighting lid in order to create a steamy environment in which to cook it.
  • Even better, buy a rice steamer. That's what Asians do. Then you will have non-sticky, separated rice every single time.
5) Resting food.
I mentioned leaving rice to rest before opening the lid of the pan and serving it. This rule goes for meat and firm fish like tuna too. If you are a cooking a tuna steak, leave it to rest for five or ten minutes before serving it. Don't believe me? Do an experiment then: cook two pieces of tuna, remove them from the pan and try to cut one immediately. It will be difficult and the cut will be rough and uneven. Wait five minutes and let the other piece rest. Try cutting it and you will see that the knife goes through it like butter.
Another thing: don't fiddle with food as it's cooking. Wait until it is time to turn that piece of fish. If you try to turn it too early, it will stick to the pan.
6) Use the right size receptacle.
This is similar to the cooking pasta issue. It's no point cooking your pasta in a teeny little pan, it needs room to expand. Make sure you also have a large sized colander to drain it in.
Ditto salad bowls. People try to make salad in a small bowl, leaving no room to toss it and no space for dressing it properly. So, use a large salad bowl, to allow air, texture and lift into the dish and not to crush or damage the delicate leaves. To make the dressing, use a jam jar with a lid and shake it until emulsified. Then, feel free to use your (clean) hands to thoroughly distribute the dressing around the salad leaves. Perfect salad.
Different kinds of tomatoes
7) Storing food correctly.
I never ever put my tomatoes in the fridge. Because I don't want them to taste mealy, I put them in the fruit bowl. Discipline yourself not to put them in the fridge if you want a good tasting tomato.
Store cheese in a cool, dry place. A contributing factor to how good a cheese tastes, is not so much making it but storing it, being the 'affineur' as they say in France. This is a whole skill in itself.
Rinse berries with diluted vinegar as soon as you buy them, this way they will stay fresh longer and won't go mouldy (this can sometimes happen within a day I've found, this useful trick really works).
aubergine curry with fresh herbs, fresh spices
8) Buying fresh food.
Beans and rice need to be fresh. Old beans take forever to cook.
Buy fresh eggs, ones that float in cold water are old. But with some recipes such as macarons, older egg whites are better.
Fresh herbs will make the world of difference to your food, there are very few cases where using dried herbs is as good, mint is an exception. Buy fresh lemons, always have lemons in your fridge rather than lemon juice from a bottle. Lemons can be used for so many things, to enliven fish, to squeeze in place of vinegar on salads, to grate onto rice or stews (really healthy too), to clean a bowl before making meringue, to add zest to a cocktail. I always have lemons in my kitchen.
Buying fresh spices is also important. An Indian housewife would never think of using some old dusty Schwartz jars at the back of her cupboard. She goes out every week and buys fresh spices. This is the difference between a lacklustre curry and one zinging with flavour.
If you can, shop small and often, like Parisian housewives. We are encouraged by huge supermarkets, delivery charges, declining small high street shops, to shop in bulk once a week or so. True, this may be convenient but it's not great for your cooking. Going to a real outdoor market or proper shops where you can touch and smell the produce, is far more inspirational.
chopping garlic, knife skills

9) Buying and using good sharp knives
I don't have great knife skills but they are markedly improved by good knives. When chopping, make sure you steady your chopping board by putting a tea towel/dishcloth underneath. Do not put your knives into the dishwasher, wash them by hand. But do not throw knives into a sudsy sink full of water, this way you can easily cut yourself when going to do the washing up.
Burnt food
 10) Cooking for the correct amount of time.
This goes for cooking long enough or cooking briefly. It requires looking at your food properly, using all of your senses, sight, touch, hearing and smell.
Have the courage to allow things to cook, to brown properly. Don't whip the bread out of the oven too early. With a tarte tatin, make sure you cook the apples in the sugar and butter for long enough so that it properly caramelises. When testing cakes, put in a skewer, and make sure it comes out dry and that the cake is golden, not pale.
For crisp vegetables, blanch them, don't drown them.


Do buy these things:
A timer
A digital thermometer
Rubber spatulas
A silpat or good silicone/baking parchment
Decent saucepans with heavy bottoms and lids that fit, one small, one medium, and one very large.
At least one great all purpose knife
Good sea salt
Don't buy low-fat anything or skimmed anything. It's bullshit.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Squid ink marbled bread with Richard Bertinet in Bath

The Royal Crescent, Bath, and pot of squid ink

Squid ink marbled loaf
In the basement room of his cooking school in Bath, Richard Bertinet flexes his large shoulders as he lifts up the dough with dusty hands that are like shovels. Flour is billowing everywhere and I hear the slap of the dough as it hits the counter. "frasage, decoupage, montage au bout, decoupage, soufflage, patonnage, couchage, etirage, buchage " he says "these are the stages, this is how bread was always made."
Bertinet making bread, Bath
Built like a labourer, Richard Bertinet has been baking bread for 25 years. He came to England at the age of 22, "to meet a girl". He stayed two weeks, liked it, and ran out of money. It was time to get a job.  He got his first job from Robin Hutson, starting at the Chewton Glen hotel in the New Forest where he worked in the pastry section. There Richard perfected the techniques he'd learnt during his apprenticeship in France. By 2000 Bertinet had his own consultancy. Now he has a world famous cookery school and two branches of the bakery in Bath, and he's on his fourth book.
When I dropped in, armed with a ramekin of squid ink, Richard had just come back from the Cake and Bake show. "Of course they aren't interested in me, the audience wants to meet bakers from the TV." he said with a laugh.
Is it not insane that cooking gameshow (Masterchef, Great British Bake Off) contestants are more popular, more sought after than serious baking teachers like Richard?
L'amateur du pain by Poilane, book
Bertinet talks as he folds the dough, pointing with a large floury index to a book,  Le guide de l'amateur de pain by Poilane, who died in 2002. "I was fortunate to know Poilane before he died." murmured Richard. He gives me a running commentary on the history of bread making while he works... "From 1700 to late 1800 bread was made at home. The housewife would make it, using a housewives technique and it was taken to the bakers to be baked. In Marrakesh, it's still done that way. As the population grew it became impractical to bake in bulk in this way, it became a man's job.
"Bread used to be heavy, it was all about filling you up. The technique changed, more water, more air. With lighter bread, it became more digestible."
At the Bertinet cookery school, people fly in from all over the world to learn his techniques. There is a Rodin-esque sculptural beauty to watching Richard work, and his French accent reminiscent of Depardieu is a poetic rap interspersing the rhythm of his labours...
"You have to talk to the dough. Breathe it. Live it. Todays flours are improving all the time, even from ten years ago. Now very strong flour has 14.5% protein." He uses Shipton Mill, Waitrose, Matthews.
Richard Bertinet working with dough, Bath
I mention the trend towards sourdough.."If you don't understand how to make dough properly, forget sourdough. It's so frustrating... when you make pottery, do you make fine bone pottery on day one? No. Of course not."
Is being French an advantage or a disadvantage do you think?
"An advantage in Britain. Nobody knows what class you are." Which is an indictment of British society really, we are still ranked as soon as we open our mouths.
Richard Bertinet, baker in Bath
Richard takes my pot of squid ink and adds it to the dough, grimacing as he spreads it criss cross with a plastic spatula, into the folds. The next day I will turn up the Aga to full heat and bake this marbled dough on the floor of my roasting oven. I was originally inspired by the black baguette of Gontran Cherrier in Paris and so, chatting to the friendly restaurant manager at the Allium Brasserie, I asked where I could buy squid ink in Bath. I planned to do a bread experiment with Richard Bertinet the next day, I explained. I'll ask my husband, she said, he works as a sous chef at the Royal Crescent hotel.
Bertinet, making squid ink bread, Bath
The next day I took a taxi (I had to take taxis everywhere as I was carrying a heavy two tiered wedding cake and it was raining. It was all very MacArthur Park) to the Royal Crescent which is, of course, one of the things you just have to see in Bath. It is a beautiful crescent of Georgian houses. The Royal Crescent hotel is bang in the middle of this majestic sweep, all stairwells, crystal chandeliers, formal gardens, marbled floors, and leather sofas. There were lots of young subservient footmen in uniform, a bit like Thomas the gay one in Downton (who I fancy despite the fact he is evil.) Anyway, her hubbie, the sous-chef, came up from a basement holding a small white china ramekin of black squid ink then I sped on my way to Richard Bertinet's cookery school in another Georgian back alley.
Squid ink bread
I had stayed the night in the centre of Bath at the stylish Abbey Hotel and dined at the adjoining restaurant Allium Brasserie, headed by chef Chris Staines. At first glance I wasn't inspired by the menu (which was rather meat dominated). But I was wrong. For once fine dining was sparkling with flavour when so often it is form over content. I particularly liked the truffle and jerusalem artichoke salad, the light fluffy gnocchi and the lychee panacotta with granita which, overtired from my day, I asked if I could be served in bed. Pudding in bed! What luxury! They didn't demur. Why don't hotel guests do this ALL the time?
Abbey Hotel, Bath
Allium Brasserie, Bath
Allium Brasserie, Bath

Friday, 10 October 2014

An afternoon with the Jam Mistress, Vivien Lloyd

Vivien Lloyd
The flake method of determining if there is a 'set'
Straining jam


In my recent sojourn to Somerset and Bath, I met Vivien Lloyd and her husband Nigel at her home in Midsomer Norton. Vivien produced a book, First Preserves, about jam making, preserves, chutney and pickles a couple of years ago. I didn't realise that this very glossy and professional-looking book was self-published until I visited her.
Vivien Lloyd comes across as rather angry about jam but this intensity is a product of her passion. The natural authority with which she talks, glasses perched upon her nose; she reminds me of an Anne Robinson of the preserves. She can be blunt, even harsh, about the woolly amateurish recipe developing of less trained jam makers. No wonder, as Vivien trained as a Women's Institute judge 21 years ago when the regime was rigorous.
 "You had to make 5 preserves a day, one day a week for between 18 months and 2 years, you had homework, a working notebook, an exam, you had to regularly enter competitions and shows". 
The repertoire you had to master commenced at the start of the preserving season, September to March; split into Autumn preserves and after Christmas marmalades (to coincide with the citrus season).
There are 12 different disciplines in which you must be proficient or even expert.
  1. Jam 
  2. Marmalade
  3. Jelly
  4. Pickles} fruit, mustard, vegetables
  5. Chutney
  6. Vinegar} fruit, herb
  7. Sauces} ketchups (plum, tomato, mushroom)
  8. Candied fruits
  9. Mincemeat and Curds (not strictly preserves)
  10. Bottling
  11. Squashes and syrups
  12. Liqueurs
As a W.I. judge you were expected to make all of the above at least once each calendar year. Vivien remarked that the hardest thing as a judge is the comments. You must not only tell the competitor what is wrong with their entry but also how to put it right.
I use the past tense here because according to Viv, standards at the W.I. have slipped. Vivien says the training isn't worth doing anymore. W.I. judges no longer have the same rigorous standards, they do not know how to steer competitors to improve and celebrity culture has taken over in the rigid world of preserves.
 "There are only three women judges who know what they are doing in the W.I., two are in their 80s and one is pushing 70. They come from the great preserving areas, with a strong tradition in jam making, a culture from which the great judges have emerged, are Yorkshire, Cheshire and Shropshire."
Why is that?
"They are traditional fruit growing areas."
Vivien complains, with a voice trembling with feeling and disappointment, that:
 "The W.I. has dumbed down the judging, there is poor feedback and lower standards.
A true preserver, you've either just made something, are making something or thinking about making something. It lives within me, I'm not someone who dips in and out of it. I am the jam mistress."
Woe betide any jam making pretender who is not doing it by the book.  This is her scrupulous analysis and testing of the recipes on the Great British Allotment Challenge.
For the last ten years the Marmalade Awards, has had 2000 jars enter. Vivien won best in show in 2008. She holds up a jar of Korean marmalade 'Yuzu and Tangerine', which was a double gold winner at the Marmalade Awards this year, and wrinkles her nose:
 "32% sugar? It's not marmalade, it's a fruit spread. Legally, it must have 60% sugar to be a marmalade. Why is Fortnum's, who were one of the judges, not  promoting real marmalade? It's part of our cultural heritage."
The 60% figure was set by British scientists at Long Ashton, Bristol, in the 1920s and was based on scientific principles.
"At 60% with any fruit, your jam is stable with a natural set and will last at least a year. It means that your jam will have a bright colour, it will set as a gel, it will be preserved properly and will have the proper balance of flavour." 

 Low sugar alternatives have a looser quality and often resort to preservatives (Potassium Sorbate) to lengthen shelf life. Clippy Mckenna is campaigning for jams with less sugar to be allowed. Vivien, although she considers Clippy to be a worthy opponent, thinks that the trend towards less sugar is based on the fact that as a commodity, sugar has gone up in price. Sugar has been demonised, regarded as poison, but as Vivien explains, "I don't sit and eat a jar at a time".
"If they reduce sugar in jam", she points out, "it won't make any difference to the obesity crisis."
Defra put out a proposal to amend the legislation to reduce sugar to 55% or 50% with apple, which has gone through in Scotland (ever the unfortunate guinea pig territory for experimental legislation, e.g. the poll tax). The consultants for this kind of food legislation are big businesses like Pizza Hut, who obviously know nothing about jam. So Vivien decided to visit her local MP for Wells, Tessa Munt, to resist this change. Tessa Munt immediately saw the seriousness of the situation - "I'm going to get a debate on this in parliament" - and even asked Vivien Lloyd to help write the speech. Vivien is mentioned in Hansard. For the time being, the Defra amendment has not been implemented, but the reduction in % of total sugar content is still a possibility. 
Tessa Munt told Vivien that this is one of the most popular issues she has ever tackled, everywhere she gets stopped and people say, "Well done about the jam, Tessa".
One of the things that Vivien prides herself on is that her recipes give an accurate yield. Most of them are for four jars of 250g. Doing preserves in small batches means that you can make them more quickly, get a set. Before the 1920s no jam or marmalade recipes gave yields.

Vivien has plans to teach jamming boot camps, some at the Seville Orange farm, Ave Maria, in Spain, and in the USA, France and Australia.
One year, Vivien sent a jar to the Queen and is very proud of her letter back. The Queen is a marmalade fan.

Vivien Lloyds preserve making tips:
  • Damsons are her favourite fruit. 
  • Jellies: people make them too liquid.
  • Jelly is harder than jam. Only make small quantities at a time. You get a quicker set, 4 minutes. The longer you boil, the quicker you are boiling the flavour away. Yield in recipes is often wrong. Amount of sugar depends on pectin and acidity of fruit. She doesn't macerate.
  • She does the added check of weighing after she has reduced her fruit then adding the correct amount of sugar. Marmalade has double the sugar to fruit.
  • Do a pectin test: to a tablespoon of cooked fruit, add a tablespoon of white spirit or meths. It will immediately form a jelly if there is enough pectin.
  • Don't use jam sugar. It makes a rubbery set. Make your own pectin if the fruit you are using doesn't have enough.
  • Marmalade is a citrus fruit jam.
  • The muslin bag should contain all the trimmings, peel and pips, which contains the pectin.
  • Grapefruit pith will 'go clear', translucent, just like Seville oranges.
  • Always lid marmalade.
  • Marmalade requires slow, gentle, cooking. Don't rush, otherwise the peel won't be tender.
  • Men tend to like a thick macho rind in their marmalade, but the finer you can slice the peel, the more pectin and acid.
  • Reduce marmalade liquid by a 1/3rd, warm the sugar, which helps it to dissolve, and you are less likely to get crystallisation, peel should disintegrate between your fingers. 
  • Relishes and chutneys are not to be confused with each other: chutney is slow cooked and takes a couple of months to mature. Relish is a quick cook, is sharper and can be eaten immediately.
  • Use a plastic spoon for tasting chutney.

Find out more at VivienLloyd.com

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

How to make a wedding cake

I took this course with wedding cake maker Sandra Monger at Vale House Kitchen; a cooking school surrounded by the rolling green hills of Somerset. Started by Bod Griffiths and his wife a year ago, they also do courses in butchery, fishing, foraging, knife skills, preserves and seasonal cookery.
I've never known how to do this kind of formal baking so this was a great opportunity to try my hand at it. Sandra, in the wedding high season mid-May to mid-October, makes 2 to 3 wedding cakes a week, charging between £400 to £600 each. This might sound a lot but when you consider that she makes all the iced flowers herself -a bride might casually request a cascade of roses on the cake- that alone will take Sandra a week to make. Each wedding cake takes one to two weeks to make. The great thing about her job, says Sandra, is that "all my customers are happy. They are going through a happy period of their lives."
There are trends in wedding cakes, as in everything else: fruit cake was the traditional wedding cake, now most people request a sponge cake while fruit cake has fallen from fashion. With a sponge cake you need a larger cake, fruit cake, being denser, can feed double the amount of people. If it is a tiered cake, perhaps the smallest tier might be a fruit cake, often used for the first child's christening (although today in post-christian UK 'naming ceremonies' are all the rage), or perhaps to send finger slices to absent relatives. Obviously fruit cake lasts longer than sponge cake. This season the trend has been for lemon drizzle flavoured wedding cakes and lace decorations, piped by hand by Sandra. Customers are increasingly influenced by American baking TV programmes such as Cake Boss, so flavours are becoming more exotic - pineapple, mango, coconut, chilli chocolate and salted caramel.
Couples often want 'Hello' magazine-style big-tiered cakes, but may not have many guests. In that case Sandra will make the other tiers out of cake dummies, polystyrene cake models, which she will cover and decorate so that they blend in with the real cake.
The most exotic wedding cake she has ever made was one for a gothic couple with a wedding on Harley bikes on a cliff top. She made a grey and black cake with turrets and sugar bats, she charged around £900 for this time-consuming yet fun work of art.
A wedding cake is rather technical: you must make them straight and level, as a piece of architecture, that must hold several levels upright. You have to think about weight and balance.
It's also easier to make cakes when the weather is cooler or if you have a cool kitchen. (I learnt this last year when I wrote and tested my forthcoming book MsMarmitelover's Secret Tea Party in sweltering heat. Not fun.)
So here is a step by step, if you want to attempt this at home. I'm going to assume that you have already made the cake bases: 2 x 8 inch deep sandwich tins.  We are making a two layer cake, one with a real cake, the other with a dummy. However, you can make two real cake tiers.
Equipment:
1 base 'drum' cake board (which is thick)
2 x 8 inch hard cake boards (which are thin)
1 x 5 inch hard cake board.
Clingfilm
A serrated bread knife
A 6 inch dummy cake
A spirit level
Cocktail sticks
A cranked palette knife
Plain side scraper
Set square
A preferably plastic rolling pin
A white non-fluffy apron
A pastry brush
A cake smoother with with one flat edge, the rest rounded
Baking parchment (not greaseproof paper. What is the difference? Greaseproof paper is not non-stick. It is best used for wrapping things, it's cheaper than baking parchment.)
Coloured large head pins
2 thin dowels

Ingredients:
Buttercream: proportion is always 1:2 butter: icing sugar. So in this case we will use:
500g of softened butter 
1 kilo of icing sugar.
1 tsp of vanilla extract (or lemon or orange or whatever flavour you want)
1 jar of Seedless raspberry jam
Icing sugar for dusting.
1 kilo sugar paste, ready to roll (what the American and now even the British are frustratingly calling fondant. It's not bloody fondant. Fondant is stuff you melt to pour over French fancies)
Coloured paste
Royal icing:
330g icing sugar, sieved if opened packet
2 large egg whites, 
1 tsp lemon juice

Making sugar craft decorations:
Floral paste/Gum paste
You will need Trex or similar
Cornflour
Cocktail sticks
Oasis or an upturned sieve
Coloured paste
A J Cloth
An elastic band.
Tiny rolling pin
Rose petal cutters
Ball tool.
Small paint brush and water
Piping bags and nozzles (1.5mm and 2mm)
Flower punch cutters
Step 1: Soften the butter and make the buttercream. You want to soften the butter to the point of almost melting, you can microwave it at 1/3 power for a couple of minutes. Use salted butter or add a tsp of salt. Add the flavouring of your choice. With icing sugar you can use it straight out of the box if unopened; if opened, sieve it first to get rid of hard lumps.

Step 2: Clean the boards with anti-bacterial wipes and cover one of the thin 8 inch boards with cling film.
Step 3: Cut a square of parchment paper and unwrap your cake bases. Sandra tends to use cake that is a couple of days old. She usually freezes them in advance and defrosts them half an hour or so before using. When she bakes them she greases the sides of the tin and cuts out a circle of parchment paper for the bottom. She has also found that baking her sponge for longer at a lower temperature, 150º rather than 180º, prevents doming.
Step 4: Levelling the cake. Use a serrated broad bread knife and separate the two halves, the most level side on the surface. Get down low, you want the cakes at eye level, and, going slowly, by hand, cut off slivers from the top of each cake half until they look level by eye. You then put the other (dummy) cake next to them, both cakes should be the same height. Then use the spirit level to check if they are level.
Step 5: Creating more layers. Put each cake half on a piece of parchment paper. Put 4 cocktail sticks around each cake half, at the halfway level, this will help with cutting an even layer. Again using the serrated bread knife, slice each half into two crossways. Go very slowly and rotate each cake on the paper as you go.

Step 6: Adding the filling. On the cake layer that you want as the foundation for your cake, with a cranked palette knife, carefully spread on the buttercream, using a firm rocking motion, all over. On the bottom of the next layer, add a layer of seedless raspberry jam. Alternate these fillings so each layer has a layer of jam and a layer of buttercream. Put the cake in the fridge to chill.
Crumbs: save these and freeze them for use in cake pops. You can put the buttercream crumbs in there too.
Step 7:  Shaving the sides. Centre the cake by using a plain side scraper to nudge it upright. Using the knife, shave the sides of the cake, going slowly, shaving off small amounts.





Step 8: The crumb coat. Add a layer of buttercream to the top and sides, using the cranked palette knife. Then put the clingfilmed 8 inch hard board on top of the cake, use the spirit level to check the cake is level. Use a set square to check the sides are completely square. Then, keeping the cake on a piece of parchment paper in order to rotate it (or use a lazy susan if you have one), use a plain side scraper to smooth the sides. (Stainless steel ones are easier to wash.) A crumb coat is a thin base layer that makes subsequent coating easier and smoother. It also prevents crumbs from coming off into the rest of your icing. Put it in the fridge to chill again.
Step 9: Remove from the fridge and peel off the cling filmed hard board. Fill in any cracks with buttercream and the cranked palette knife. Put back in the fridge.
Step 10: Rolling out the sugar paste. Prepare yourself for this step. Don't wear fluffy clothing or apron. Wear a white apron. Close the windows. Try to shoo away flying insects. Remove all pets. Tie back your hair. Take off all jewellery on your fingers and wrists. Remove any crumbs from the surface, you want a clean surface to work on. The sugar paste is a total fluff magnet.

Step 11: Knead the sugar paste. Knead it on a clean, crumbless surface with no icing sugar. It's important to knead it well to prevent it from cracking when draped over the cake. Then form a ball.



Step 12: Dust the surface with icing sugar and roll out the sugar paste. Do quarter turns as you roll so that you get a good circle. When you turn it, do it by carefully putting your hands underneath the circle, do not let your thumbs press the top of the sugar paste. You want a blemish free surface. Roll the circle until it is big enough to easily cover the top and sides of the cake.

Step 13: Remove the cake from the fridge and brush it with hot water with the pastry brush. This makes it sticky. Then carefully lift the rolled out sugar paste with your rolling pin and making sure the one side of the circle touches the bottom of where your cake meets the work surface, drop the circle of sugar paste onto your cake. Using the cake smoother, 'iron' the top, which will have the effect of lengthening the sides slightly.
Step 14: 'Skirting' the sides. To smooth the sides, both use your palms on the outside to attach the sugar paste to the sides of the cake. Pull the bottom edge out so that when you smooth it, it will not form creases. Use the flat bottom of the smoother against the work surface and use it to smooth and push in the sides of the cake
 Step 15: Trim off excess with a big knife. Try not to snag the cake. Go slowly, cut in small segments. Keep the excess in cling film.

With the fake dummy cake, do the same process, even wetting the polystyrene mould. It's easier than with real cake.

Step 16: We are going to do a coloured base to put the cake on. Covering the drum board with sugar paste makes it look more finished and professional. If you want coloured sugar paste, then add a small amount of coloured paste with a toothpick to your sugar paste. Start off with a little and add more, kneading it until it is perfectly blended to the shade that you want.

Step 17: Roll out the sugar paste into a circle slightly larger than the drum board.
Step 18: Wet the drum board.
Step 19: Lift the sugar paste with your rolling pin and drape it over the drum board.
Step 20: Smooth it out with the cake smoother. Trim with a small knife. If you wish, use a punch cutter to make decorations.


I'm afraid I went a bit mad and did a psychedelic acid house marbled effect. (I was making this cake for my mum's birthday and I chose her favourite colours: lime green, turquoise and peach, for the cake. She once 'had her colours done' and these are her colours. She's worn them religiously ever since.) You can do this marbling effect by colouring two balls and twisting them together, then rolling it out.
So now you have your iced tiers. As I said, wedding cakes are about structure, you need to make sure that your tiered confection stands up, is strong, and doesn’t sink, tip or collapse.
Sandra has had only one disaster when transporting a wedding cake; she took it to a venue with a cattle grid. The delicate 3 dimensional sugar craft tea pot on top of the cake got crushed when she drove over the bumps (speed bumps are a particular hate for wedding cake carriers). The mother of the bride was awaiting her at the end of the driveway at the venue. Somehow Sandra managed to divert the mother so she was none the wiser and sneak the cake into a basement room. Sandra’s husband talked her down off the ledge and drove into a nearby town for emergency repair supplies. She managed, by sheer force of adrenalin, to recreate the teapot in half an hour. Now Sandra always carries a wedding cake ‘crash kit’ consisting of: rolling pin, sugar shaker, box of icing sugar, piping nozzles, bags, sugar flowers, ribbon. 

Step 21: Select some ribbon to use around the cake that complements your icing colours. Use ribbon around the circumference of the cakes to measure a length of greaseproof paper or baking parchment paper. Measure the height and circumference of both cakes and cut out two strips. (Remember that your cakes will be larger than the cake tins that you baked them in, because you have added buttercream and sugar paste icing.) 
We are going to ice some scalloped swags, using a 1.5mm plain icing nozzle, onto the cake. Smaller scallops are easier than large.
Step 22: With your measured section of greaseproof or parchment paper, fold it in half, then again, then again until you have a folded section of about 2-3 cms. Use the bottom of a jar or cup to draw a curve at the top then cut out the curve. Unfold it and you have something a bit like a paper chain with a scalloped edge at the top. Wrap it around the cake, the ends should meet more or less exactly, joining up the scallops and use two large headed pins to pin the paper to the cake. Repeat with the smaller cake. Sandra uses this technique for all sorts of patterns. Sometimes she draws a template onto paper and then pin pricks the pattern into the icing. 
Step 23: Use another large headed pin to lightly scratch the outline of the scalloped pattern around the cake, rotating the cake as you go, on the icing. Repeat with the smaller cake. When you have finished, remove the pins and the paper.
(Cocktail sticks and pins: count them in and count them out. The last thing you want, especially if you are running a commercial cake business, is for someone to find a pin in their piece of cake. When Sandra delivers the cake to a wedding venue, she has a careful list of everything inedible in the cake, from cake boards to dowels, wire, decorations to give to the caterers.)
Step 24: Make royal icing (icing sugar, egg white, lemon juice as in ingredients list) and colour it if you wish. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth, royal icing sets very hard once exposed to air. Have a tall glass or jug with a damp cloth in the bottom. You can more easily fill your bag this way by standing it in the glass/jug. If you store the icing bag tip during pauses tip down into the damp cloth, this prevents the nozzle from drying up and crusting over with dry icing.

Sandra has come up with the most ingenious icing bag technique: she uses two bags, one for the nozzle and one for the icing.  This means she can easily change colours of icing and nozzles. Cut a small tip off the icing filled bag and a larger tip off the nozzle bag, enabling you to force the nozzle to the bottom but still holding it securely.
She fills one icing bag with a tablespoon of her coloured icing. You don’t need much for the scallops. Place the icing-filled bag into the bag with the nozzle, making sure the tip fits into the nozzle. 
The decorative icing. This is probably the hardest part of making a classic wedding cake. It takes a long time, even years, to become proficient at piping decorations. Sugar craft is a whole art in itself. My Caribbean neighbour says that, in Jamaica, the bride's mother would make the cake for her daughter’s wedding but that for decoration, she would take it to the local cake decorator, often someone working from home. There are cake decorators in every area. 
Sugar paste icing, royal icing is there primarily to preserve the cake, a bit like pastry with pies, rather than for flavour. It makes it easier to transport also. Royal icing will last for years. But the decoration is for beauty. 


Step 25: Piping scallops. First of all, try it on a bit of paper before attacking the cake. Anchor, lasso is what I call the technique. Squeeze the icing bag slowly but firmly with consistent pressure and make a point, then continuing to squeeze, loop the icing string to the next point. Once you are a bit more confident, have a go on the cake, where you have scratched out the pattern as a guide. I’ve done quite a bit of piping on biscuits but it’s much harder to pipe vertically! There are special tilting stands to make things easier. (You can end up buying tons of equipment bits and bobs when it comes to sugar craft. It’s like Accessorize for bakers.) Don’t worry about the perfection of the joins, we will be putting tiny sugar flowers on those bits. In fact one will only see the loops between them. If you make a mistake, just wipe it off quickly. If you really go wrong, wipe the sugar paste gently with a damp cloth, then let it dry and start again. 
Step 26: Assembling the cakes. With your mini trowel, I mean, cranked palette knife, plaster a bit in the centre of the drum board, spreading it out to fill a small circle in the middle. Then carefully bring your cake to the edge of your paper and, handling it underneath, slide it off carefully and place into the middle of the drum board. Very lightly use your fingers to nudge it into the centre of the drum board.

Step 27: Now take the small 5 inch cake board and place it by eye in the centre of the top of the large cake. With a cocktail stick, scratch lightly in the icing around the cake board. Remove the cake board.
 Step 28: Dowelling. You will need two thin dowels and a hacksaw for this. First of all, ‘de-nib’ the dowels so that they have a flat end. Then about 2 centimetres in from the edge of the scratched small circle, press the flat side of the dowel into the cake until it reaches the drum board. With an edible pen marker, mark where the dowel reaches the top of the cake. Remove the dowel. Make the other one. The two dowels can be cut to make four dowels, so mark in all, four pieces of the same length. Cut them with the hacksaw.
Push the dowels in at equidistant compass points a couple of cms (3/4 inch) within the scratched out circle. Your cake is now dowelled. If you are making an enormous wedding cake, you may use larger dowels. The bigger and heavier the cake, obviously the more load bearing framework is needed, sometimes 8 dowels are needed in the bottom layer.

Step 29: Putting on the top cake. Ice with the cranked palette knife over the joins of the dowels and in the centre of the bottom cake. With the palette knife, spread some more royal icing onto the small hard cake board. Carefully lift the dummy and press it onto the small hard cake board. Then place the dummy cake onto the centre of the base cake. 
Use the cake smoother to press down on the top, cementing the tiers together. 

Step 30: Add the ribbon. Take the colour of your choice and wrap it around the base of your largest cake. Allowing for an inch or a couple of centimetres overlap, cut it. Do the same with another piece of ribbon for the smaller tier. Then with Pritstick or similar, glue the ribbon to itself around the bottom of the base cake and the bottom of the smaller cake. This 'ribbon trick', which hides any unevenness of the cakes, hides gaps between the tiers and will make the cake look finished. Real cakes are often uneven and dummy cakes are always perfect. The cakes in Peggy Porschen's books for instance will be iced dummies, to make sure they are straight and picture perfect for the photos. (My forthcoming baking book MsMarmitelover’s Secret Tea Party will however feature real cakes in all the photos. I don’t mind a little bit of wonkiness.) Choose your best section of piping for the ‘front’ of the cake and put the ribbon join at the back. 

 More piping styles: use slightly softer royal icing for this; adding a few drops of water until you have ’soft peaks’.

Piping a snail trail: this wasn’t too hard once you got the knack. Practice on a bit of paper: squeeze, hold it, pull down, squeeze, hold the nib near then pull down, repeat. I piped this around the bottom of the cake between the drum board and the ribbon. Again, this makes it look finished. I used a 2mm plain tip/nozzle for this. 

Daisies:
Plunger cutters: roll out your gum paste on a bit of trex and cornflour then cut out flowers with the plunger cutter. Easy peasy. Attach, if freshly done, dabbing with a fine brush, with water to your swag joins. Or, if done later, pipe a little royal icing to stick it on. 

Finally: wind some ribbon around the baseboard circumference. Glue with Pritstick around the rim of the drum board to stick.  

To make a rose:
Step 1: Break off a ball of gum paste, size of a malteser. Work it, knead it.
Step 2: Then put Trex on your hands.

Step 3: Rub the ball into a cone shape. Dip one end of the cocktail stick into the Trex and insert it into the wide end of the cone. Normally you would make several of these and leave it to dry for two to three days.
Step 4: if you want a coloured rose, select your colour and knead it into the gum paste.

Step 5: Make a miniature dusting bag by cutting a section of J cloth, putting cornflour into the middle and then attaching an elastic band around the top.
Step 6: Rub some Trex into the work surface. Roll out your gum paste using the tiny rolling pin.
Step 7: Select a petal cutter the same size as your dried cone, cut out 5 petals. (Put any excess gum paste into a plastic bag.)
Step 8: Using the ball tool, stroke the edges so that they are thinner and have a 'petal' edge.
Step 9: Wet the cone with the brush and the back of a petal. Making sure that the petal stands 2mm above the cone, wrap the petal around the cone to conceal the cone.
Step 10: Continue using the natural curve of the petal and attach each petal to the outside of the cone, brushing the water at the bottom. Leave to dry until set.
Step 11: You will continue with larger petal cutters until you have a full rose.
You can do this with marzipan, chocolate paste, salt dough.
You can do cookery, fishing, butchery, preserving and foraging courses at Vale House Kitchen in Somerset near Bath.
To commission a Sandra Monger wedding cake go here.