I’m the world’s worst baker, with the world’s best intentions. Every so often, usually on a Sunday, I get the baking urge and approach the task full of enthusiasm. And it all goes so well. Right up to the point when I open the oven door and pull out my finished creation. Or, rather, my cracked, burnt, lopsided, often inedible, finished creation.
So, now, it’s war. It’s baking v me. And I’m determined I’m going to win. I’m not interested in learning how to make choux pastry – I’m not even that bothered about making a sponge cake. But I’m a grown woman and I really should be able to make a decent brownie or lemon drizzle by now. It really can’t be that hard, can it?
Frances Quinn, baker extraordinaire, doesn't have these problems, of course. I am one of her 18,000 followers who stalk her on Instagram daily. I marvel at her work, mainly because her bakes aren't bakes in the true Mary Berry sense of the word (France is not the go-to girl for a traditional Victoria sponge). Her recipes are fun, quirky, simple and brilliantly inventive – cake porn, if you will: giant strawberry Jammie Dodgers, bourbon biscuits and sponge made to look like slices of real toast.
Frances' recipes are fun, quirky, simple and brilliantly inventive – cake porn, if you will
"Just don't be scared of it," she laughs, when I blurt out my woes. "I get things wrong all the time."
What, you, Frances Quinn, winner of The Great British Bake Off 2013? The same person whose showstopping Midsummer Night's Dream cake Paul Hollywood called “minutes away from perfection”?
"Ohhhhh, yessss! My freezer's full of broken biscuits and mashed-up cake. I just buy lots of ice cream."
"Yes, if your cake’s a bit dry, crumble it up and turn it into a pudding. Or, whip up some cream, chop up some fruit and make an Eton Mess. Scrape off any burnt bits and it'll be fine!"
Oh, Frances, I like you already.
"Or, or… you could make my cake fudge! It's AMAZING! I think I'm going to put a recipe in my second book. Just mix your cake and biscuits bits together, add mascarpone and cream, some melted chocolate, nuts and dried fruit – whatever you've got lying around; just make it up as you go along. Flatten the mixture into a tin, put it in the fridge and chill."
This I make a mental note to try. But, first, I need to go back to the bit where she said she got cakes wrong. Surely she must be able to knock out a perfect buttery Kouign-amann or 20-layer Schichttorte with her eyes closed by now?
"Not always. That's the nature of baking. Sometimes I do a recipe one day and it's one way; the next time, it's completely different. Things vary – the oven could be playing up, flour can be different, eggs can be a different size.
"Just don't worry or overthink it. If it doesn't work, it doesn't matter. Baking can be so unnecessarily complicated. In my book, I've tried to make it easier by rounding off all the weights of ingredients.”
“One thing I would recommend though is buying an oven thermometer. Ovens can lie. The dial will set to 180ºC when inside it might be 20 or 30 degrees different. They'll make a difference and they only cost a few quid."
"Digital scales are great, too. Place your bowl on, set to nought, then you can use it to weigh and mix your ingredients, plus it saves on washing-up. And buy a set of good baking tins – cheap ones can warp and cause uneven baking. I recommend ones by Master Class and Alan Silverwood. I'm not a fan of silicone – it just goes flabby with age and I think it makes cakes taste funny."
“You don’t need to spend loads. Collect little baked-bean tins, as they’re great for mini cakes. Wooden latte stirrers make good decorating tools for things like my Coffee & Walnut Wall.”
And if the cake’s a bit lopsided or cracked? (My speciality.)
“Toppings! I'm a great fan of chocolate ganache to hide things. Or mascarpone mixed with double cream (to make what I like to call 'maschilly'). You can also combine mascarpone with jam, lemon curd or caramel. And, although you wouldn’t think it, flavoured marzipan is really easy. I have a basic recipe in my book with lots of different variations: coconut, raspberry, pistachio…
“The only thing I don’t do much of is fondant. I find it too sweet. My worst nightmare would be if anyone asked me to make a Peppa Pig cake.”
My mind switches to a Tesco's caterpillar cake, lurking in my fridge at home.
So, I venture, would you ever buy a cake?
“Oh, yes – I love the cinnamon buns from Gail’s bakery in London.”
But what about, say, a chocolate cake from Tesco?
(Go on, Lucy, say it out loud – what you really want to say is a chocolate cake shaped like a caterpillar.)
I can tell the poor girl is trying to be polite: “Well, maybe, if I had no time, but, well, um, they can sometimes taste a little bit… synthetic.”
Of course. Frances, I shouldn’t have asked. As a self-confessed queen of cake-sale fakery and mince-pie bashing, you can leave all that to me. Except I'm not going to do that any more. Next time I hit the kitchen, I'll be baking with abandon – and most likely making lots and lots of Frances Quinn’s amazing cake fudge.
COFFEE & WALNUT WALL
For the cake:
- 3 tbsp instant coffee
- 3 tbsp freshly boiled hot water
- 3 tbsp whole milk
- 150g butter, softened
- 150g light muscovado sugar
- 3 eggs (at room temperature)
- 150g self-raising flour
- 150g walnuts, toasted and chopped
For the topping:
- 250g mascarpone
- 1⁄2 tsp vanilla extract
- 50g icing sugar
- Dash of milk or cream, if needed
- 1 tbsp cocoa powder
- 1 tbsp cinnamon sugar
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
You will need:
- 20cm-square, loose-bottomed tin, greased and lined with seatbelt straps
- 8 wooden latte stirrers, 19cm long
- Preheat the oven to 180ºC/fan 160ºC/gas mark 4. Mix the instant coffee with the hot water, then stir in the milk. Set aside to cool.
- Using a hand-held electric whisk, or in a free-standing mixer, beat the butter and sugar together for five to 10 minutes, or until the mixture is very light and creamy and has taken on a pale café-au-lait shade. Break the eggs into a mug or jug and beat with a fork. Gradually add the egg to the creamed butter and sugar mixture, beating well after each addition. Should the mixture look like it’s curdling at any point, add a spoonful of the flour. Sift in the flour and fold it in until just combined. Finally, stir through the coffee and chopped walnuts.
- Spoon the mixture into your tin and smooth the surface with a cranked palette knife. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until the cake has risen and a skewer pushed into the centre comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin for 15 minutes before removing the cake and transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
- Once the cake has cooled, make the sweetened mascarpone topping. Put the mascarpone and vanilla extract in a bowl and sift in the icing sugar.
- Beat together until creamy and well combined, adding a dash of milk or cream to slacken the mix slightly, if necessary. Spoon on to the cake in dollops and spread over with a palette knife to create a smooth, level surface.
- To create your brickwork pattern, lay four of the wooden latte stirrers on the cake, flat side down, to form four horizontal parallel lines with a 3.5cm gap between each stick. Cut the remaining sticks into 4cm pieces – you will need 15 pieces in total. Lay these pieces vertically between the horizontal sticks to create a varying brickwork pattern. Your smallest brick should be no less than 3cm wide and your biggest no more than 5.5cm.
- Sift cocoa powder into some of the brick shapes and cinnamon sugar into the others, creating two different shades of brickwork. Finish with a light dusting of cinnamon to create depth and shadow. Carefully remove the latte stirrers to reveal your brick wall. If you leave the cake in the fridge for an hour, the moisture from the topping will darken and enhance the colours of the bricks. Bring the cake back to room temperature before serving.
Quinntessential Baking by Frances Quinn, Bloomsbury . Find Frances' blog here.