I’m back again for round 8 of Project Food Blog, hosted by Foodbuzz.com and I’m so grateful. Thank you all so much for your support and lovely comments. As the sole representative for the UK/Europe I must say that one is rather chuffed (Edit: Apparently although I’m alone in the UK I’m not alone in Europe! Hi Cristina!). This round we were asked to create a baked good including a seasonal ingredient: pumpkin.
Baking and I am not the best of friends. This is more due to my laziness than anything else – I enjoy it, but I’m always the one with the “rustic” biscuits, and it’s because I don’t like to weigh ingredients. Well, not this time. This time I decided I was going to get out the scales, be precise and measure everything, because that’s what baking’s all about: precision. Well, and a bit of magic. And that’s really where the idea for this came from – one of my favourite fairy tales: a pumpkin cake (with a twist), shaped like a pumpkin, and some little choux pastry mice. And what’s more magic than my very own fairy tale: The Tale of Feeder Lady & The Baking Banquet.
Once upon a time, in a land a little far away but not so far that you couldn’t get a plane there, there lived a girl known as Feeder Lady. Feeder Lady was the greatest cook within a 10 mile radius of Clapham Junction: she could whip up a risotto that’d have you moaning with pleasure (oo-er), roast joints that’d melt in your mouth, and mash taters that screamed ‘heart-attack-in-a-bowl’ faster than you could say, ‘cor, that’s a lotta food, love’. But Feeder Lady had one problem: her baking weren’t too hot, innit.
One day a proclamation went out that the Prince had found his Princess, they were holding a banquet and they’d requested that the land’s best cooks bring forth a baked good for their feeding pleasure. Feeder Lady read about it in the tabloids as she was having her breakfast and exclaimed dramatically, “oh no! A baked good! However shall I compete?!” Then threw her head down onto the table in a show of great despair, ignoring the fact that she’d tipped over her breakfast bowl and now had cereal and milk in her hair.
The day of the great banquet Feeder Lady watched morosely from her kitchen as she saw Gordon, Jamie and Nigella flounce off to the Palace, baked creations in tow (Nigella was separating eggs with her hands, smearing them all over her heaving bosom and letting them drip off her sodden dress into the bowl below, where she whisked them in a rather sultry fashion; far too sultry for everyday consumption, Feeder Lady privately thought).
“Oh where, oh where is my Fairy Nom Man?” Feeder Lady sighed aloud, “if only he would help me, then I could bring a baked good to the Palace too!” And she threw a handful of flour into the air for melodramatic effect.
Suddenly, there was a tiny puff of icing sugar and standing in front of Feeder Lady was a little man with a rather grumpy expression, wearing what looked like a pink tutu and plastic tiara.
“Oh my,” gasped Feeder Lady, “are you my Fairy Nom Man?”
“Me Nom Man. Me no like silly dress. Why you make Nom Man wear dress?!” Grumbled the little man, pulling at the far-too-short skirt. He pouted a little, crossed his arms and then, rather rudely, stuck his tongue out at Feeder Lady. She, however, decided to stick with the script and ignored him.
“Oh Fairy Nom Man, I do so want to go to the palace but I haven’t a baked good in the world to bring! What should I do?”
Fairy Nom Man sighed, rolled his eyes, and decided to put the dress incident behind him for now.
“Me Fairy Nom Man, me help Feeder Lady. First you fetch me pumpkin, then you fetch me mice.”
Feeder Lady was somewhat surprised by the request, but decided not to argue with the grumpy little man. She found a lovely little pumpkin and three small mice and brought them to him. Nom Man inspected them, nodded his approval, then held his wand high in the air and yelled, “NOM!”
There was yet another puff of icing sugar, and the pumpkin was suddenly transformed into a pureed pumpkin, coconut milk, candied pancetta and candied butternut squash cake, with a red bean coconut cream filling; and the three little mice into choux pastry mice with rice paper features (remarkably similar to those of Fairy Nom Man, almost as if they’d been drawn with the same hand…) and filled with pumpkin cream cheese filling. Feeder Lady gasped with surprise – they were perfect! She clapped her hands together, squealing with glee, until the look that Fairy Nom Man was giving her stopped her. She turned her squeal into a cough, avoiding eye-contact.
“Oh Fairy Nom Man, how shall I ever thank you for all you’ve done?”
“Go win contest. And NOM.” And then, with another puff of icing sugar (Feeder Lady was sure he was wasting all of this icing sugar), Fairy Nom Man disappeared into thin air.
Feeder Lady inspected her beautiful little pumpkin cake and choux pastry mice, packed them carefully into a pastry box and trotted off to the Palace to take on Nigella, where her baked goods were ooh-ed and aah-ed over, and she totally whooped Nigella’s arse and whooped it good, simultaneously scolding her for calling Teriyaki chicken ‘Chinese’ when it is clearly Japanese. Duh.
Feeder Lady returned home triumphant, now able to call herself a baker as well as a cook, and with a shiny new trophy to put in her trophy cabinet. A cabinet that was filled with a ruby-encrusted chef’s blow torch, a Swarovski whisk, golden sous-vide and… oh, but that’s a tale for another day.
I did have a lot of fun making all of this, despite my aversion to precise baking, particularly when I was drawing the features onto the rice paper and sticking them onto the choux pastry rats/mice with icing sugar (and then eating all of the leftover bits/sticking my tongue through the rice paper and watching it dissolve). It took me a total of forty-eight hours, but it was a real labour of love. The cake itself has a delightfully smokey flavour from the pancetta, but a lovely sweetness from the pumpkin, butternut squash, and red bean coconut cream filling. The flavours may seem bizarre, but they work together really well, especially when served with a nice creamy cheese, such as brie (as Momma Lee discovered when she hijacked half the cake and took it to work). The mice, too, are delicious. If you feel guilty eating some mouse-shaped pastries, you could of course make these into simple eclairs, but that’s a lot less fun, in my opinion.
Basic pumpkin cake batter adapted from All Recipes.
440g plain flour
400g dark brown soft sugar, plus 130g (for candying)
125g caster sugar
2 tsps bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp salt
500g pumpkin puree (to make fresh puree: scrub the pumpkin thoroughly, chop into large pieces and roast in the oven at 200 degrees C for 40-45mins. When cool enough to handle, remove flesh from skin and blend until smooth)
225ml vegetable oil
170ml coconut milk
160g pancetta cubes
1 small butternut squash, cubed
150ml double cream
2-3 tbsps coconut cream
1-2 tbsps azuki bean paste*
1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Grease and flour two baking tins: my pumpkin cake mold is made by Nordic Ware and holds 10 cups (which was about the amount of mixture this recipe yields).
2. Candy the pancetta and butternut squash (separately). In a dry frying pan, cook the pancetta with 65g of the dark brown soft sugar until cooked through and sticky. Be careful not to let it burn. Repeat with the butternut squash and the other 65g of dark brown soft sugar. Set aside to cool.
3. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, remaining brown sugar, caster sugar, bicarbonate of soda and salt, then add the pumpkin puree, oil and coconut milk and mix until all of the flour is incorporate. Fold in the candied pancetta and butternut squash and divide evenly between the two halves of the pumpkin mold.
4. Bake in the oven for 1hr 10mins, or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Remove from oven, cover tightly with foil and allow to steam for 10mins. Remove foil, turn out onto a cooling rack, tent loosely with foil and allow to cool completely.
5. Meanwhile, whip together the double cream, azuki bean paste and coconut cream. When cool, use the mixture to sandwich the two halves of the pumpkin cake together. I garnished mine with an actual pumpkin stem (I also experimented with pancetta strips, rolled into a tube and fried to resemble a stem) and some ivy, but feel free to go crazy: pump up the volume!
*I made the azuki bean paste myself from Just Hungry‘s page on Tsubu-an, but you can buy it from most Asian supermarkets.
For the pastry:
65g flour, sifted
For the filling:
1 cup cream cheese
1/3 cup icing sugar
1/3 cup acorn squash puree
1 tsp vanilla extract
For the features:
A sheet of edible rice paper
Cake decorating pen
Red food dye
1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C.
2. In a saucepan, boil together the water and the butter until the butter melts.
3. Take off the heat and stir in the flour vigorously for about 10 secs – until it comes together and away from the edges of the pan. Be careful not to overbeat.
4. Slowly add the eggs, making sure they’re well combined. Leave to cool then fill a piping bag and pipe a mouse shape onto your baking tray (silicone baking trays are very useful in this instance). You want the ‘bottom’ of the mouse to be higher than the ‘nose’. If necessary pipe a little extra pastry onto its ‘bottom’ and shape with a palette knife.
5. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 15-20 mins, then allow to cool.
6. Meanwhile, combine the filling ingredients in a smaller bowl, then put in the fridge to chill for at least two hours.
7. When the mice are cool, fill them with the pumpkin cream cheese mixture. There are two ways to do this: you can either create a small hole at the back of the mouse and pipe the filling in with a piping bag (be careful, you could get some exploding mice!); or you can slice the mice horizontally and fill them with 1-2 tsps of filling, then sandwich them back together again. I did a combination of both.
8. Draw eyes, ears, a nose and whiskers, and tail onto the rice paper and cut out with a sharp pair of scissors. Create a ‘glue’ from the icing sugar and cold water (you want enough cold water to form a thick paste rather than a syrupy consistency) and use this to stick the features to the mice. Take a dot of the red food dye and pop it in the middle of the ear, using a tiny bit of water to spread it around to create the inner-ear.
9. Marvel at your handy work. Then bite the head off the mouse and enjoy the creamy filling.
There we have it then, hope you enjoyed. Until next time, peace and love.