Red velvet cupcakes

Red velvet cupcakes
Red velvet cupcakes

My husband, who works as a journalist, didn’t get much of a Christmas break this year. In fact, he had to work all of the major public holidays and only narrowly made it home on Christmas Day in time for his roast dinner.

To get him and his colleagues through the day, I baked a batch of red velvet cupcakes which I hoped would provide some Christmas cheer.

Although I have to admit that when it comes to red velvet I still always think back to the movie Steel Magnolias where the groom’s cake was a giant armadillo and someone said “People are gonna be hacking into this poor animal and it’ll look like it’s bleeding to death!”

Ah well, hopefully everyone else will just see them as festive red!

I went straight to the Magnolia Bakery recipe which I’ve used many times, but this time actually started analysing the ingredients. This has never happened before, and I guess is a side effect of this blog/project.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the inclusion of baking soda rather than baking powder. After doing a bit of reading, I discovered that there are different times and uses for these two leavening agents, as summarised below:

  • Baking soda, also known as bi-carb soda, creates carbon dioxide gas when heated which in turn helps your cake or cookies rise. The main problem is that it has a strong, unpleasant taste that is somewhat metallic. However, this taste can be neutralised by mixing it with acids like lemon, buttermilk, yoghurt, etc.
  • Baking powder is made up of baking soda, a powdered acid and cornstarch so effectively the metallic taste has already been neutralised. It is used when making cakes or cookies without acidic elements.

The next thing of note, which is actually linked to the leavening agent, is the inclusion of vinegar in the recipe. When you use baking soda in a recipe, you will often see vinegar as well because it reacts with the soda and creates a fizzy liquid/slurry. This mix is then folded into the finished cake batter the same way that egg foam is added to lift a sponge mixture.

One tip, if you are using a baking soda / vinegar slurry, make sure you use the batter immediately to make the most of the leavening mixture.

Science lesson over and time for the recipe!

Magnolia Bakery red velvet cupcakes

3 cups plain flour
¾ cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups caster sugar
3 large eggs
6 tbsp red food colouring (I only used half – think this might be an Australian vs American food dye thing)
3 tbsp unsweetened cocoa
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp cider vinegar
1 tsp baking soda

Preheat oven to 175°C. Grease and lightly flour 2 cupcake pans (24 cupcakes).

In a small bowl, sift the cake flour and set aside. In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until very light and fluffy, about 5 mins. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. In a small bowl, whisk together the red food colouring, cocoa, and vanilla. Add to the batter and beat well.

In a measuring cup, stir the salt into the buttermilk. Add to the batter in three parts alternating with the flour. With each addition, beat until the ingredients are incorporated, but do not overbeat. In a small bowl, stir together the cider vinegar and baking soda. Add to the batter and mix well. Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the batter in the bowl, making sure the ingredients are well blended and the batter is smooth.

Divide the batter among the prepared pans. Arrange the oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and bake the cupcakes, switching positions of the pans halfway through baking, until a tester comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Cool the cupcakes in the pan 10 mins, then remove from the pan and cool completely on a rack before icing.

Simple buttercream icing

1 cup butter, softened
3 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt

Mix all ingredients together with a whisk until pale and fluffy.


Lemon sour cream pound cake

Lemon sour cream pound cake
Lemon sour cream pound cake

This is about as simple and straightforward as it gets, so the perfect first post about making cakes.

Pound cakes are so named because of their ingredients – equal measures of flour, sugar, eggs and butter.

Originally weighed out at 1 pound each, the recipes have been modified over the years because nobody bakes cakes that big any more.

There have also been a number of other modifications made because the original recipe can turn out a very dense, rich cake that may not appeal to modern tastes.

Leavening agents like baking powder are now often added to give the cake height, and ingredients like sour cream or buttermilk are often swapped in for eggs to lighten the texture.

You can also flavour your cake to your liking. I’ve gone with a classic lemon, but you can consider chocolate, coffee, vanilla, berry swirl (using fruit jam), nut or even green or chai tea.

I went for 4oz (or ½ cup) for the basic ingredients then added 1 tsp baking powder and swapped out ¾ of the eggs for sour cream.

The cake itself was an absolute breeze to make, there was barely any washing up to do and the cake itself was delicious.

This is definitely going to be a default cake for me, and I plan to try out a number of flavour combinations over time.

I think it’s also helped me get my head around butter-based cakes in terms of ingredient ratios and also basic techniques like creaming the butter until light and fluffy and not overbeating the eggs.

Lemon sour cream pound cake
Lemon sour cream pound cake

Lemon sour cream pound cake

4oz flour
4oz butter, softened
4oz caster sugar
1 ¾oz egg (equated to 1 large egg)
3oz sour cream
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp lemon zest, finely grated
Juice of 1 lemon

Sift together the flour and the baking powder, then set aside.

Cream the butter and the sugar together until pale and fluffy.

Add the egg and beat gently until incorporated.

Slowly add the dry ingredients and sour cream bit by bit, alternating between the two.

Pour the mixture into a lined loaf tin.

Cook at 165 degrees for 30 minutes.

Once cooled, drizzle with a glaze made up of icing sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest.

Introduction to cakes

I’m really excited to start this part of my curriculum because I’m a massive cake fan. I’ve been baking them for years, but always followed a recipe without much thought about what I was doing.

I wanted to take things back to basics and look at the different types of cakes. I’m then going to test out recipes over the course of the next few months.

So, the majority of cakes fall into one of two categories – fat-based or egg foam-based.

Fat-based cakes

These cakes are generally firmer and denser than foam cakes, and as the name suggests they are based around a fat such as butter, shortening or even oil. Most start out with the creaming method where butter and sugar are mixed together until they create a ribbon texture before dry ingredients are added. The other distinguishing feature is the inclusion of a leavening agent such as baking powder or baking soda.

Fat-based cakes include American-style cakes such as pound cakes, tea cakes and layer cakes. They are often paired with a rich icing such as buttercream or fondant.

Egg foam-based cakes

These cakes are always based on the foam of whipped whole eggs, yolks, whites or a combination. Sometimes the eggs are heated before whipping to increase their volume. Dry ingredients are then folded in gently with great care taken not to knock the air out of the whipped eggs. Leavening agents are not required because the egg creates height in the cake, but can mean that the batter is more fragile and can collapse easily.

Foam-based cakes include genoise, biscuit jaconde, chiffon and angel food cake.

Other cakes

  • Flourless cakes – these can be baked, such as with rich chocolate torte using almond meal instead of flour, or unbaked like a chocolate mousse cake.
  • Cheesecakes – again, these can be baked or unbaked depending on the texture and type of cake you’re after.

Baking tips and considerations

  • Pan preparation – before you start your cake batter, ensure your pans are prepared and ready for the oven. High-fat cake pans should be sprayed with non-stick spray and the bottoms should be lined with baking paper. Foam-based cakes must not be sprayed, but should still have a layer of baking paper across the base.
  • Mixing – if using butter for a fat-based cake, ensure it is softened to room temperature to help with the mixing. Also, ensure you scrape down the bowl as you mix for an even batter. For foam-based cakes, make sure your bowl has no traces of oil when whipping the eggs and fold dry ingredients in gently.
  • Temperature – make sure you pre-heat the oven and bake the cake at the correct temperature for the size and type of cake. As a general rule, smaller cakes require higher baking temperatures and shorter baking minutes.
  • Baking – don’t open the oven door too soon, or your cake may fall because the proteins and the starches haven’t gelatinised. Make sure you have sufficient space around your cake to promote circulation of air and even baking.
  • Doneness – it’s important to do this before the cake is removed from the oven. Fat-based cakes should shrink slightly away from the sides of the tin and have a springy texture when pressed lightly with your finger. Ensure the colour is appropriate and even, and also check that the centre of the cake is cooked through by inserting a tooth pick or knife into the centre of the cake.
  • Cooling – don’t let the cake cool in the pan because it will sweat and absorb excess water. Fat-based cakes should be turned out of their pans 10-15 minutes after coming out of the oven. Always invert onto a wire rack or a cool, clean surface.

Gateaux St Honoré

Gateaux St Honoré
Gateaux St Honoré

This is going to be my last pastry/crème based post for a while before I move on to cakes and biscuits.

I thought I’d go out with a bang and attempt a Gateaux St Honoré, something Michel Roux calls “the pinnacle of the patissier’s craft”.

Bo Friberg talks about it being the “show me what you can do” test that a prospective employer would set young pastry chefs.

The reason it gets these accolades is because you have to show off so many different techniques to achieve the final result.

The Gateaux, named after the French patron saint of baking, comprises:

  • Layer of puff pastry
  • Layer of choux pastry
  • Choux pastry buns
  • Caramel
  • Crème Chiboust (crème pâtissière lightened with stiffly beaten egg whites)

It is sometimes simplified by using crème Chantilly instead of crème Chiboust and after looking at that list I can see why.

I’m lucky enough to have some rough puff leftover in my freezer, so at least don’t need to worry about making that.

I’m using my existing pâte á choux recipe and at the last minute opted for the simpler crème Chantilly – partly out of time restrictions with guests arriving, but also because I inconveniently ran out of eggs!

Roll out the puff pastry and cut out a circle. Pipe a swirl of choux pastry over the base, starting at the centre and ending at the edges.

Pipe 16 individual choux buns, and place the buns and the base in the oven at 180 for 20 minutes. Remove the choux buns and leave the base for a further 20 minutes.

Make your crème Chantilly and pipe cream into each of the dried out choux buns.

The caramel is made by bringing 1 cup of caster sugar and ¼ cup water to a high heat. Once it starts turning colour, reduce the heat until it reaches a golden colour.

Dip the choux buns into the caramel and place around the edge of the base.

Pipe crème Chantilly in the centre of the base, then sprinkle on cocoa powder or grated chocolate.

I know this is the cheat version, but it looks great!!

Gateaux St Honoré
Gateaux St Honoré

Just as a final note, I thought I’d do a quick summary of my journey so far:


  • Pâte brisée
  • Pâte sable
  • Pâte sucrée
  • Pâte á choux
  • Rough puff
  • Chocolate pastry

Crèmes and other fillings

  • Crème pâtissière
  • Crème Anglaise
  • Crème Chantilly
  • Ganache
  • Frangipane

Other bits and pieces

  • Meringues
  • Sorbet

I still have a lot to cover, especially when it comes to crèmes, but figure I can continue learning and practicing them as I move further along.


Chocolate ganache truffles
Chocolate ganache truffles

So I had a brilliant plan to show off my latest pastry filling, ganache, inside raspberry macaroons.

I don’t know why I thought macaroons would be so easy to make – must have something to do with the number of baking shows I’m watching on TV at the moment – but suffice to say, they turned out a mess.

I’ll spare you the details for now, but be warned this will be a future post when I get onto biscuits.

With my ganache made and chilling in the fridge, I decided to keep things simple and make truffles. Surely I couldn’t mess them up??

Ganache is an incredibly useful and simple recipe that can be tailored for purpose – whether it be for truffles, as a filling, or as a glaze.

One of my favourite ever recipes is Michel Roux’s Chocolate Raspberry Tart made with shortcrust pastry, a layer of raspberries then smothered with chocolate ganache –

Traditionally it is made using one part chocolate to one part cream, with butter added for glossiness and extra flavour. Egg yolks are sometimes added for richness, or alcohol such as brandy or fruit liqueurs.

Ganache recipe

200ml heavy cream
200g good quality chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids)
Small knob butter

Heat the cream in a pan until hot but not boiling.

Chop the chocolate up finely and place into a heatproof bowl.

Pour the cream over the top and stir until incorporated.

Add the butter and mix through until melted.

To make truffles, add a splash of liqueur in with the butter and refrigerate until set. Use a spoon to scoop out bite-size pieces and roll the mixture into balls using the palms of your hands. Coat in cocoa powder or crushed nuts.