Sunday, 2 December 2012

Welcome to Karen's Kitchen, incorporating my cakes and my Barnet Baker blog. I'm still in the process of building this blog so please bear with me while I get it sorted,.

Eventually I intend to have pages for each of the kinds of cakes I bake, along with price lists. In the meantime you can contact me on the following:

T: 07818 405501
T: @karensskitchen

Pages will go up as they are filled. Currently working: The Barnet Baker, and Kransekage.

Please enjoy these pictures while you wait!

Monday, 17 September 2012

Why fairy cakes win

Note: The cakes shown on this blog are not new to anyone who knows my work. However, this article is here to kick of National Cupcake week. Over the next week I'll be making new cupcakes every day and putting them up on I'll be blogging about my week of cakes (with pictures) next week.

I recently had a strange experience: I saw a display of cupcakes that didn't make me hungry. This is very rare for any cake - most of them look appetising to me - and I set about working out why. It could have been the thick chocolate icing and glitter making them look slightly mucky, or the fact they had clearly been rushed in finishing. But what was really offputting was the size of them.

When I was young, we make fairy cakes: small, fun cakes that were perfect with a beaker of milk. Then muffins came to town. Compared to fairy cakes, muffins are huge but then they can be: they are made with oil, not butter, they are far less sweet and they are not covered in icing.

When did the cupcake become the size of a muffin? There is a general feeling with cakes that bigger is better but that's not true. With a small iced fairy cake in front of me I feel I'm in for a treat, with a giant muffin-sized one I feel intimidated. If I want a large cake I'll go for a slice of something: Carrot cake, for example, or Victoria sponge. A cupcake, on the other hand, should be small but perfectly formed, indulgent but not excessive.

If I use an American cupcake recipe, I always get almost 50% extra from the mix. I can only assume that American cupcakes are either muffin sized or significantly larger - can anyone shed any light on this for me? A rudimentary web search on the difference between the two seems to reach a consensus that they are the same just with different names. However, many people claim cupcakes are larger than fairy cakes. My favourite answer was: one is made by Americans, the other by fairies.

This is why fairy cakes are better:

1. Cakes are very sweet. It may seem obvious, but too much will leave you feeling full, queasy and dehydrated. A cupcake you can hold in your hand and eat in three bites will make you happy and satisfied without bad after effects.

2. You can go mad with the toppings. On a large cake, the prospect of so much sugar is terrifying. On a small one, it's wonderful. A tall swirl of icing on a fairy cake is still edible. Simple decoration looks better, and fancy decoration more impressive.

3. You can make more. 12 large cupcakes or 18 fairy cakes? I know what I'm going for. Everything looks better in large quantities, and design-wise they are far more pleasant to look at. Plus, you can feed more people, and no-one feels bad eating two. In fact, with a large cupcake, nobody will want to eat two.

4. When doing fondant icing for a picture cake, you can decorate on top of the cake and the icing becomes king. These Pac-Man cakes look like a picture, not a big pile of cakes. The fondant is thick but the cake is the right size to make a perfect combination of light sponge and sweet fondant.

5. Flavour. The most important aspect of any cake. I love making cakes from anything from beetroot to dark chocolate to fresh fruit. In a small cake these flavours are king - you can taste every key ingredient. In a muffin-sized cake with icing, they almost certainly just end up tasting sugary.

And in case you need any more convincing, butter icing as just that: butter. I'd hazard a guess that a fairy cake has around a teaspoon of butter on top of it, a muffin sized one about two.

So I say bring back the fairy cake. Let us have a sweet treat with our afternoon cuppa, not a massive dinner-threatening snack. A cake children can hold and eat, not one they have to dissect and lick the icing off first. Let us free ourselves from massive portions and get back to the Instagram-tinged cakes of our childhoods. Let fairy cakes rule again.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Marshmallow teacakes

Today I made my first attempt at marshmallow. In fact, I made teacakes.

Flicking through my recipe books to find inspiration for a friend's birthday treat, I came across these in Peyton and Byrne's British Baking. I've had this a while but never made anything from it, partly because a lot of the recipes are ones for which I already have good recipes, partly because my friend had a disappointing lunch at Oliver Peyton's St James' Park restaurant (mine was lovely) and partly because I don't find the excuse to bake new recipes as often as I'd like.

Anyhow, it's rather a lovely book with lots of traditional baking recipes in it from jammy dodgers to banana butterscotch pudding (find it here: and the teacakes caught my eye mainly because I fancied trying something new. In fact, I'm not even much of a fan of the shop-bought version, finding them rather cloying and thick. I prefer the Danish flødeboller, which have a thin wafer base, light, uncooked filling and a very thin layer of chocolate (Try them from
But a light biscuit, soft marshmallow (not the set one with gelatine) and melted chocolate cannot fail to tempt, and I particularly like how egg yolks and whites are both needed - that's a tidy recipe.
Can I just state here that making marshmallow is brilliant. Egg whites, sugar, syrup and vanilla essence are heated over a pan of water and whisked constantly to become frothy and light. Then an electric mixer turns it into a meringue-like substance that pipes happily onto the biscuits. It's baking alchemy of the kind I love most.
Here's the making of the marshmallow:

I failed to get a decent picture of the piles of marshmallow piped onto the biscuits but they looked ace. With smaller bases and some coconut, they would be perfect as they are.
So far so good but I was nervous about the chocolate. I'm always apprehensive about working with chocolate and usually opt for a ganache but in this case I was following the recipe exactly. I melted half the chocolate in the usual way then added the other half, finely chopped, and let it sit for 7 minutes. I couldn't see it working but it did. I suppose the temperature of freshly melted chocolate would be too much for the marshmallow so this was a good solution for the right texture without the heat. It still seemed a little cold as the chocolate covered unevenly, and didn't reach the base. It's very possibly my technique but I can't see too many ways of spooning chocolate over a biscuit.

The resultant teacakes are, erm... rustic. I would like the chocolate to have been thinner and neater but they have a satisfying home made quality nevertheless. And most importantly, they taste amazing. The marshmallow is soft and melts in your mouth, the base is light and buttery and the chocolate set but not crunchy. They are not sticky or heavy at all but light and moreish. I may well try to make them again, but better. Or I may find every other marshmallow recipe I can lay my hands on and try them instead. Either way, marshmallow is the most fun I've had in the kitchen in a while and I suggest you try it immediately.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Homage to a small appliance.

 My Mum bought a Kenwood Chef in the early 70s and it's been there almost all my life, mixing cake batters and pastries, mincing pork for leverpostej (Danish baked liver pate), liquidising a variety of good soups every winter.

Best of all, every year we use the fantastic shaping device on the mincing attachment to crank out hundreds of vanillekranse (those small round Danish butter cookies). The mincer is old and it slips so it takes one person to grab the attachment and pull back with all their strength while the other feeds the dough into the machine and tries to grab the long star-shaped strands shooting from the other side without squashing them. Sadly there are no photos - it's all hands on deck.

A few years ago some family friends came across the exact same model in an attic. Somehow it ended up with me and it's the best thing I own. Here it is:

A few years ago I bought a brand new dough hook and went bread mad. I think it was the rye bread that did it - not long after, my beloved Kenwood died in a cloud of smoke. After completing a triple-sized batter mix, luckily. My marriage ended the day after - it was an omen.

Things started looking up when my parents took the mixer to a man in Lincoln who replaced the motor for a nominal fee. He loved the mixer, said he was dying to get his hands on one. And my almost-40-year-old mixer was back on its feet, in a clumsy metaphor for my life.

The motor isn't brilliant: it cycles a little on certain settings, and I'm nervous about exposing it to too much pressure, but to all extents and purposes it's still going strong.

I gaze longingly at shiny new Magimixes and Kitchen Aids of course, with their curves and colours and shiny new steel. But there's something about the A901, with its straight edges and clunky appearance. It's form out of function; a reliable Land Rover to the curvy Magimix's flashy Range Rover Sport. More Tom Baker than David Tennant, it may not be as nice to look at but it's the best there has been, and it's mine.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Princess castle cake

This is one of my favourite cakes, Megan's princess castle. I made it last year and am not sure how I would do it differently now, so here's how I did it, and ways I could improve it. Mental note: take "in progress" photos from now on.

There are a couple of popular variations on the princess castle cake. The first is a square cake with turrets made from ice cream cornets in each corner. I love this idea as a homemade cake made with love but I wanted to offer something more professional. The second is a square cake with turrets at each corner. This just didn't appeal somehow: what about the blank space on the top of the cake?

I started off looking at castle cakes online to get the idea for what I wanted to do. The structure of my cake is a copy of a Jane Asher cake that comes in at £350. Here it is, if you're feeling flush (available from Mine is very different both in design and price. In fact, I feel rather brave putting this up but I'm not a member of Jane Asher's professional team and have neither the resources not the experience to reach this standard. If I did, I'd be charging the price of a flat-screen TV for my cakes too.

First I had to get the body of the cake. For this I used a 23cm springform pan and the 10cm mini springform pan appropriated from my son's baking set. I've used this combination before, in this cake for my dad's 70th. 

I set the small cake on top of the large one, off centre and iced them both with white royal icing to keep them fresh. Then the work could begin. To make the turrets I'll put my hand up and admit to using mini rolls from a shop. I'm not a fan of bought cakes as part of my cakes but at the time couldn't think of a better solution. Now, I think I'd bake another square cake then cut rounds with my smallest round cutter and pile them up. There's still an issue with keeping them straight though. Any ideas, I'd be glad to hear them. Next time around I'll put dowels through the length of them; for this, I stuck them down with butter icing and shored them up with the pink stones.

The castle walls I cut by hand and wrapped around each cake, and the stairs were simple enough. Then it was just a case of doing the fiddly bits: doors, windows, window sills. All done freehand, and I'm aware that they are slightly wonky but that adds to the cake in my opinion, making it more of an old, fantasy castle.
A couple of icing discs on top of the towers and pink piped turrets again took away any semblance of realism. I don't know if I would do the turret roofs differently next time. Ice-cream cones made them taller than I wanted, and I didn't think they would take the weight of moulded fondant. I'm pretty happy with them as they are though.

And then I found the pen. I genuinely had no idea these things existed until I was poking around Hopscotch, my local baking supplies store in Barnet ( An edible pen! It's genius. 

I'm no artist, but again an impression of creeping vines was all that was needed, and it changed the whole character of the cake. It took a long time - if you try this at home, I strongly advise you get a turntable - but I think it made the final cake magical.

And there it is: the cake that taught me structure and construction and introduced me to a favourite kitchen gadget. I would love to do another one, better, but I'm still proud.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

On online recipes and marshmallow fluff

I have a couple of recipe books I use again and again, most notably the slim cookbook that came with my Kenwood Chef in the 70s, and Nigella's fantastic "How to be a Domestic Goddess". But I use an awful lot of online recipes too, especially if I have something to use that I don't bake with regularly, such as seasonal fruit.

For example, this recipe for plum crumble cake works every time:

Hunting for online recipes does come with hazards and most of these, I'm sorry to say, come from America. Don't get me wrong, I love American baking. I was given an Good Housekeeping recipe folder for my wedding that I keep going back to, and for uniquely American recipes such as pancakes, fudge and fruit pies, the Americans have it sussed.

I bought measuring cups last time I was in the States, and they are available everywhere in the UK now, so that's not an issue. The real problem comes with the ever-present spectre of convenience foods, and incorporating them into recipes.

Some people don't bake, and that's fine. They are the ones who buy shake and bake cartons, or ready-made cookie dough to bake with their children. All power to them. But who on earth would put a recipe online that calls for a tub of ready-made frosting? Americans, that's who. Making a birthday cake? Start with a box of cake mix. Want to make fudge? Just mix marshmallow fluff in a pan and add flavour. All well and good, but it's not baking.

This is my favourite, no-fail fudge recipe, with no nasty processed ingredients in sight:

Another example: Looking for a recipe for piping gel (more of which later) I found, "one pack Knox Gelatin". Well first, what is Knox? Unless you live in the States it's not available. Secondly, how much is a pack? Is it powdered or sheet? This is just lazy - if you can't put a measurement or work without brand names, don't bother posting your recipe.

To end on a positive note, I'd like to state that some of my best friends are American, and it is a country full of fabulous bakers. So here are some tips for American recipes:

Corn syrup: dissolve sugar in water until it's light and syrupy, put it in a jar and you have long-lasting corn syrup. It's a useful ingredient to have around and I'll write about its benefits for icing another time.

A stick of butter: half a pack, or approximately 125g.

Shortening: lard - vegetable lard is a fine alternative and makes a real difference to pastries.

Semi-sweet chocolate: dark chocolate. To be true to the recipe this is about 60% cocoa but I've never met a  chocolate recipe yet that doesn't taste better with 80%.

Marshmallow fluff: Don't. Just don't.

And my favourite online recipe of all time? This, from Angela Nilsen:
I've baked it loads, and it's always beautiful. And here it is. Instant popularity on a plate. Enjoy.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Swimming party cake

Welcome to my baking blog. This is where I'll post my baking successes and failures, show off my wares and publish my favourite recipes. It's also where you will (eventually) see the bakers I love and aspire to be and some of my very talented friends' handiwork. I'll probably be asking for advice too.

In an ideal world I would do this for a living, but I'm currently studying to be a lawyer as there's more call for that than for cakes. But who knows what will happen in the future. If nothing else I could be one of the TV-type professionals with a hidden hobby. The baking lawyer! I'd like to be played by Cate Blanchett please.

So to kick off, my most recent cake. I don't usually post cakes online until the child in question has seen it but as I doubt I'll have a large following by 3pm this afternoon, I think I'm safe.

Stella is a classmate of my son's, and she's having a swimming party for her sixth birthday. She originally asked for Moshi Monsters but I'm quite uncomfortable doing character cakes, especially as I can't help feeling that I may as well have bought mass-produced cake topper. So I offered Stella the swimming party option and luckily she loved the idea.

This meant I could use my imagination, go where the icing took me and have more space to change and invent things. I started with the pool - I've been there before and seen the huge inflatable octopus they use for parties, so that was my starting point.

The birthday girl is blonde so I based my main character on her. My characters are simple to the extreme - I like to call them an homage to Trumpton - but simple hair and skin colour does the job fine.

My floating girl on the lilo just happened - I mucked about with icing and she appeared. I made the lilo just for her. A little boy leaning against the edge of the pool and a pair of legs disappearing under the water made it crowded enough to give the impression of a party. The beach ball took more work than I'd thought - if I need to make three identically sized balls again, I'll measure cubes of icing before rolling them. The water rings were fun to do, and easy too, and gave me the perfect place to put Stella's name. Likewise, I bent a "noodle" (long foam floats for the uninitiated) into the shape of a 6. My favourite detail is the towel for some reason.

To make the pool itself I cut a square into the centre of the top layer before icing, and kind of gouged it out. If I did it again, I would completely cut the square out and slice it neatly with a long knife, but fondant hides a multitude of messy bits, and the taste is no different - and still the most important part.

A few tiles cut into the surround and then it was just a case of arranging my props, the best bit of any cake.

One note: Can you get long cake boards, or is it better to cover thick card in foil? In this case, because I know the mum, I used my large cake carrier but that wouldn't be a solution for future commissions. I could do with some advice from the more experienced on cake boards and boxes and how best to transport them.

I'll be posting some of my older cakes soon, some because I'm proud, others because they didn't go how I wanted them and mistakes are as valuable as failures. Not monetarily, obviously, but still.