Saturday, 10 March 2012

No, not like the Italian dictator...

This week's first-time-make was a cream mousseline topping and filling for a coffee and walnut cake. Delia told me to do it.

Tallboy had watched Masterchef yearningly the day before and having seen a parade of patisserie, had evinced a deep longing for a coffee and walnut cake. He then buggered off for the day to give me space to roll up my sleeves and get baking. Indeed, he timed it so well that just as I heard his key in the lock, the oven started beep-beep beep-beep beep-beep to tell me to get the cakes out.

As I had doubled up the cake mixture, I decided to double up the topping/filling too. It seemed only fair. The trouble with doubling things up in your head isn't the simple things like using 120g of sugar instead of 60g. It's when you try to get clever with tablespoonsful and translate them into ml and then into other measurements. Being lazy, I'm not keen on repeated small actions. I'd rather do a single action. That's why I wrote all that code at work, so that I could achieve in a single click what it would otherwise take minutes or even hours of clicking to do. So if a recipe wants 4 tablespoons of something, a quick multiply by 15 gives me the total ml, then I wrestle the appropriate cup measure from the hook and Bob's your uncle - a single measurement. I needed 4 tablespoons of water, 4 x 15 = 60ml. Except of course that I was doubling up, so make that 8 x 15 (or 4 x 15 x 2) = 120ml or half a cup measure. Brilliant. So when I go to make the sugar syrup, I have half a cup of water in my brain. I mean the idea of using half a cup of water, not hydrocephalus. Right, one half cup of water into my pan, and then another, because I'm doubling up, right?

My second deviation from the optimal was employing my old sugar thermometer. There's nothing wrong with it, it has been my trusty friend for decades. But it was a small pan, and the liquid wasn't very deep so the bulb wasn't covered. And I had to identify a temperature of between 103 and 105 °C, an operation which involves a fair bit of squinting and face-screwing-up. Had I thought about it instead of reaching automatically into the drawer for the old-fashioned kit, I'd have used my super duper digital thermometer with the probe.

The sugar syrup needs to boil gently for ten to fifteen minutes until it reaches the right temperature. At about minute 14 it suddenly struck me that I'd used too much water and that I needed to ditch this batch and start again. A further 15 minutes down the line, I was squinting through the steam and deciding that the temperature was approximately between 103 and 105 °C and this surely would be ok.

The trick was now to pour the syrup onto the egg yolks in my mixing bowl in a continuous stream while I carried on whisking with my other hand. As I poured and continued and whisked, the mixture seemed dreadfully thin and not at all cake-coating consistency. In fact, I put the pan down for a few seconds so that I could go back to Delia to check that it was actually yolks I needed - had I managed to get an Italian meringue dreadfully wrong? Delia told me that it was yolks and to get on with it.

Now I pinched bits off the unfeasibly huge amount of butter I had weighed out and whisked them in. With my right arm wilting, I decided to apply the right kind of technology and brought my electric whisk to bear, which made things much easier, but the consistency wasn't changing any. *pinch* *drop* *whisk* Is this right? *pinch* *drop* *whisk* This can't be right *pinch* *drop* *whisk* I'm just going to do a buttercream when I abandon this *pinch* *drop* *whisk*

All the butter was now in the mix but there was no way that it was going to cover the cake for more than a second or two before it succumbed to combination of gravity and its own low viscosity. I kept the whisks going while I leaned over to scan the recipe again. Yes, I'd included what was required, and done what Delia said. Maybe the temperature hadn't been quite right. Maybe I could do with reading glasses nowadays. Maybe I'd been right the first time with the water. I turned back to the sloppy contents of the bowl and regarded them idly as I wondered what I should do. It was then that The Miracle happened and all of a sudden I had a workable cake topping in front of me. For a moment I thought the mixture had split or something similarly awful had come to pass, and turned the whisks off. I realised that all was ok and bunged in the coffee quickly before it changed its mind. A further tentative whisk and I had a perfect coffee-coloured and -flavoured cream for my cake.

I filled and topped (and sided) the cake, perching some half walnuts on top for a hint at the contents. The bowl scrapings were delish - very creamy but light and not too sweet. I was really impressed and very happy with the outcome, and glad that I'd kept whisking beyond what I'd thought was a sensible point.

Offering a slice to Tallboy, I tried to explain the trials I'd been through to satisfy his craving. I told him that I'd never done this kind of topping before, not a standard buttercream but a mousseline. "Oh," he said through a mouthful of crumbs, "like the Italian dictator?"

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