Dan Lepard's Cinnamon Honey Fruit Cake

You can't please all of the people all of the time.  And in my house at Christmas, I end up pleasing nobody any of the time - not even myself.

Decorated by my beautiful, two-year-old assistant
When I was young, my mother used to run her own catering business and every November she went into a frenzy of Christmas cake baking and decorating.  As I grew older, she used to let me have a hand in making the family one.  My involvement ranged from eating the marzipan offcuts, slathered with apricot jam (hence why I'm fat) to making little snowy peaks with the back of a teaspoon and fixing slightly wonky robins and snowmen to the top of the cake.

When she returned to 'proper work', we stopped having a family Christmas cake so a few years ago, I decided to resurrect the tradition.  And what a minefield it's been.  First off, there's my grandfather who hates marzipan and icing.  He'd really like a Dundee cake.  Suggesting he remove the icing and marzipan from the cake and just eat the middle is tantamount to suggesting he eat cranberry sauce with his turkey.  For the record, he doesn't like Christmas pudding either.

Then there are members of the family who only like the marzipan and icing bit.  I figured a bit of Jack and Mrs Sprat logic might work here with my grandfather eating the cake, the others eating his discarded marzipan - but no, that's not good enough because the cake taints the marzipan with dried fruit flavour.

That blue-iced cake
Next we had the sulky faces the year I decided to make a cake with characters on it.  I used blue icing - shock horror.  Apparently, you may only ice Christmas cakes with white icing and still call yourself an Ingram.  At this point in my life I was quite happy to have my married name to fall back on.

That year I also decided to make a yule log as a sop to the non-fruit cake lovers.  This went down really well until the following year when I was trying to decide between fruit cake and chocolate and my mother announced she'd also be making a Stollen.  I asked why.  There are never more than five adults present on Christmas day in my family any more (sad times).  With the requisite mince pies and Christmas pudding, this seemed a little excessive.  So I ended up baking neither and my mother's Stollen was so cement-like, you could have used it as a door stop.

This year, with my girl and her love of cooking, I decided to make a proper cake again, and chose Dan Lepard's Caramel Christmas cake.  It was a behemoth of a cake, smelt amazing and took forever to cook.  But the finished cake felt really dry.  Rather than feeding it for weeks on end, I decided to let people try it with a view of making a second for Christmas.  Apparently, it was the best fruit cake the testers had ever tasted.  Great!

The un-iced version of the Cinnamon Honey Cake
And then suddenly, it was two days before Christmas and I had no Christmas cake.  Luckily, I'd also tried Dan's Cinnamon Honey Fruit Cake a few weeks back to great success.  This is rammed solid with fruit, and is beautifully soft and moist so doesn't need to be fed for weeks on end.  Save for a minor disaster that saw Miss A left unsupervised in the kitchen for five minutes - during which time she decided it would be helpful to mix the three eggs she'd cracked with my 2kg jar of caster sugar - it all went swimmingly and we had a brilliant emergency Christmas cake that tasted like it was made weeks ago.

To save on the calories and flying in the face of arguments over how much icing and marzipan should be on a cake, I went for a simple top-iced cake and opted to use Dan's Brandy Butter Frosting which was great for Miss A to swirl across the top and then decorate all by herself.

As always, Dan's recipes are real winners.  Yes, I've left this post too late for you to make them for Christmas, but the Cinnamon Honey Fruit Cake is a great cake for any time of the year.

Chilli and Almond Biscuits

I am rubbish at blogging.  It's been over a month since I last posted on here.  Like a lot of people who start blogs, I had the best of intentions, but life just keeps getting in the way at the moment and if I can't think of anything vaguely interesting to write about, I get into the head space of 'who cares that I made somebody else's cake recipe yesterday?'  And so I don't bother to write about it.

Hot stuff!
Having spent three hundred and sixty six days of (mostly) using other people's recipes and writing about them for the 366 Recipe Challenge (there are a few of my own recipes scattered throughout the blog), the drive for writing on Small Bites hasn't been there.

I must refocus myself for the New Year and include this as part of my action plan for 2013.  Assuming that The World doesn't end on 21st December.  And if it does, I would quite like it if The World would be so kind as to wait to implode until I've been out and had my birthday lunch.

Anyhow, onto the biscuits.  This is a partner post for a post that's due to appear over on the 366 Recipe Challenge.  I know that technically finished back in September, but I really wanted to take part in the Food Blogger Cookie Swap this year.  And to take part, you had to have a blog that had been in operation since before 15th August 2012.  Small Bites was a little too new to allow me to participate so I used my old blog for qualification and will do lots of linkying between these two posts on Dec 12th - the official 'recipe reveal' date.

Because I am particularly indecisive, I opted to bake three kinds of cookies and ask my work colleagues to vote which were their favourites.  True to form, they picked the chocolate ones, but my favourites were these delicious little savouries, courtesy of Dan Lepard's Short and Sweet.

Ready for the off
They not only appealed because I generally prefer savoury snacks to sweet, but I also loved the baking the blurb for the recipe.  The baking world is bursting at the seams with smutty innuendoes about soggy bottoms, squidgy or nice firm buns and perfect (Paris) Brests.  Dan describes these as 'mildly hot and a pleasure to nibble'.  Oooer, Missus!

With copious amounts of cheese and nuts, how could these be anything other than amazeballs?  I ended up sending a few to each of my Cookie Swap buddies as a bonus.  And they appeared to go down well even though they're not the most robust of biscuits for surviving transport by Royal Mail.  Feedback from work colleagues included 'can I have the recipe for your rather excellent chilli biscuits?' and 'mmmm...hot stuff'  I trust that particular person was referring to the food!

With Christmas coming up, they would also be great with a glass of wine if you have non-fussy visitors.  And you can make the dough in advance and chill it for a few days before you bake it, allowing you to show off for unexpected guests.  The only thing I found was that the chilli flavour was far more intense in the 'mature' ones.

Luckily, this is one of those recipes that was first published via the Guardian so if you don't own a copy of Short and Sweet, you can find it here.

Chocolate and Cherry Bagels. Or Buns.

I've been told recently that some people find me intimidating.  Seriously?  Me?  Intimidating?  I'm actually quite nice.  If anything, I'm really quite shy.  My shyness often manifests itself in a tendency for verbosity which I know some people find irritating.  But I honestly couldn't compute the notion that I'm intimidating.

Decadent bagels for breakfast

So whilst I had a little navel-gazing time last night, I thought about why I might be  perceived that way. And the only thing I can put it down to is that I am quite good at getting things done.  I'm in no way perfect.  I often leave things hanging open-ended.  Like the pile of filing that is on the floor next to my chair as I type.  I should be sorting it into a folder rather than blogging.  But in about twenty minutes when I've finished typing, I'm most likely to step over it and go and do something else like prepping my stuff for work in the morning.  I will come back to it.  But because filing doesn't light my fire, I will put it off until I'm really bored.

Whereas something like baking, I will make time for whenever I absolutely can.  Which is why on Friday, I was multi-tasking by speaking to a journo about the 366 Recipe Challenge whilst kneading the dough for my bagels.  She asked that same question everyone asks about the challenge.  "How did you find time to do it?"  I responded "By multi-tasking, actually, I'm kneading bagels while we talk because the only free time I have today is while Miss A is napping".  I had my Crackberry nearby too because although we finish at 12pm on Fridays, I have a big project going live tomorrow and I wanted to monitor any unforeseen disasters in the final hours of testing.

Nice buns
Could that be construed as intimidating?  The ability to do more than one thing at once?  I know other people don't know how I can manage a full time job, a toddler, running, cooking and blogging.  But I'm rubbish at long, empty tracts of time without anything to fill them with.  And if I have any such unplanned breaks in my schedule, my default response is to go do some work-work (thus avoiding housework).

I'd made my own bagels using a Dan Lepard recipe for the 366 Recipe Challenge and really enjoyed the process.  Because I am genuinely tight for time, I've not made them from scratch again since, but Miss A and I ritually eat bagels on Saturday and Sunday mornings for our breakfast.  We split one (proper ones, not the plasticky New York Bagel ones).  She has hers with chocolate Philly and banana and strawberries.  I have mine with peanut butter and banana.  But this weekend, I decided to do something a little different and the chocolate and cherry bagels were born.

The dough I made on my last attempt was really hard to work with so after a little research, I decided to use my own dough recipe and use a little oil in the hope of smoothing the dough and making it more elasticky.  Plus I eschewed Dan's 10-second knead method and went for a full ten-minute work out seeing as I was on the phone.

For decadence, I added Waitrose chocolate chunks (other brands are available) and dried sour cherries. But then I got cold feet when it got to poaching.  I was worried that the chocolate would melt in the boiling water and so I used half of the dough to make buns and the rest for the bagels.  Luckily, both worked and both went down well with my chief taste-tester.  Two days later, they're also great lightly toasted and slathered with unsalted butter.  Perfect winter fodder.  I also intend to bake these again in a few weeks using blueberries, white chocolate and a touch of mixed spice.  I love that one dough recipe gives the two options.  And you could pop it into a loaf tin and have a great slicing loaf too.

Bagels - pre glaze
I'm going to enter them into the Calendar Bakes November Challenge hosted by Dolly Bakes and Laura Loves Cakes which this month is Bread, Rolls and Cakes.

Recipe - makes either eight bagels or eight buns

  • 450g strong white flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 7g sachet of easy bake yeast
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 275ml water (two parts iced to one part boiling, mixed)
  • 2 tsp vegetable oil
  • 75g dark chocolate chunks (I use Waitrose as they tend to stand up better to hot temperatures)
  • 75g dried sour cherries
  • 2tbsp malt extract or dark brown sugar for poaching if making bagels (I used sugar this time but think malt extract works better and is less streaky)
  • 25g caster sugar for the glaze

  1. Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl.  Mix in the yeast, sugar and salt.  Mix the water and oil together and then pour into the flour mixture.  Stir until it starts to form a dough then use your hands to bring it together into a ball.  Place onto a clean, flour dusted worktop and knead for ten minutes until smooth and elastic.
  2. Place into a clean, lightly oiled bowl.  Cover and leave for thirty minutes.  Turn out onto the floured work surface, knead briefly for a minute or two then return to the bowl for another thirty minutes.
  3. Work the chocolate and cherries through the dough then cut into eight even pieces.  Mould into balls, taking care to poke the cherries and chocolate slightly under the surface of the dough - this stops them burning when they cook.  Place on a lightly floured tray and leave to rise for another thirty minutes.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350F/180c/160 fan/Gas 4 whilst the dough is proving.
  5. For bagels: Put the malt extract or brown sugar into a large saucepan filled with water.  Bring to the boil.
  6. Using the handle of a clean wooden spoon, poke a hole through the middle of each dough ball and stretch until roughly the size of an old fifty pence piece.  Drop the bagels carefully into the water, two at a time and poach for thirty seconds each side.  Remove and place on the baking tray.  
  7. For buns: I usually bake my buns in a smallish roasting tin with a two-inch side or in my springform cake tin.  I pack them quite close together so they smoosh together when baking and pull apart nicely.
  8. To Finish: Bake the bagels or buns for 20-25 minutes until golden brown.
  9. Just before the end of the cooking time, mix the sugar for the glaze with 2tbsp water in a small saucepan and then heat until the sugar is dissolved.  When you remove the buns or bagels from the oven, quickly brush the tops with the glaze before leaving to cool.

Cookie Monster Cupcakes

To trot out an old adage, "Time waits for no man".  My twelve-year-old self has awoken to yet another day when I find myself trapped in the body of a thirty-*ahem*-something and having to pretend daily that I am a competent Project Manager, mother and Domestic Goddess.  To the outside world, I'm quite good at faking it.

Since finishing my last blog, the one question I keep getting asked is "How did you find the time to do it all?" People who don't know me assume that I don't work or have a retinue of helpers to free me up some time to cook and blog.

But the honest answer is either "I just don't know" or "If you really want to do something, you make time".  Which is why I'm sat here at just after 6am on a Saturday about to waffle on about some cupcakes I made a few weeks ago.  I've always been a poor sleeper and regularly join the lovely HelsWats in the #twoamclub on Twitter.  This morning is no different and so faced with the choice of further decluttering of my life or writing about cake, the cake won.

It's also why my blogging antics will be much less frequent now.  The 366 Recipe Challenge was, quite frankly, exhausting.  For a year, every spare moment was spent thinking about food, eating food or writing about food.  Or thinking about writing about food.  It paid off because the blog has now had over 60,000 page views which is awesome.  But besides neglecting the housework, I also had to let many other things in my life slide away.  Most importantly spending time with people that I love and doing the things that I love.

Before anyone goes running off to ring ChildLine, of course I didn't neglect Miss A.  Hopefully the blog is testimony to my intent and her involvement in it.  But I have recently had someone who had the temerity to imply that I was a bad mother for putting her into nursery so I could work hard to keep a roof over her head.  I really must stop being so sensitive on this issue.  My life is ruled by a happy, healthy, loving, well rounded child.  And I wouldn't have it any other way.

But in order to have a happy, healthy, well-rounded child, she needs to have a role model to emulate.  This is something I've only recently realised.  How can she grow up to form healthy relationships if she sees a mother who has no life of her own.  As a child growing up with a single mother, my mum never went out anywhere.  Yes, she had friends and interests and her own business, and maybe it is a sign of the times we lived in then, but I don't remember her going out for an evening out until I was ten.  

Consequently, as an adult, I have spent years fighting a fear of new places and people.  Situations like this fill me with fear and I have been known in the past to even eschew nights out with some of my oldest friends because I'm just too plain nervous of the situation.

One of the best things to come out of my blogging year was biting the bullet and going to cake club.  It made me realise that actually, I'm missing out on a lot of enjoyment in life by hiding away each evening, writing a blog.  Even when I run, I'm too much of a wuss to go to running club in case 'nobody speaks to me' (a favourite childhood excuse for not going to dance class or swimming club) so I run by myself at 5am, making the excuse that it's the only time I can fit it in to my busy life.

But I don't want my daughter to grow up with this same insecurity and so I'm pushing my own boundaries to try and find a healthy balance and become a role model.  A happy toddler needs a happy mummy.  And this personal challenge is turning out to be quite a pleasant mouthful of elephant to swallow.

Anyway, what has this got to do with Cookie Monster cupcakes, I hear you ask?  A few weeks ago, I went on a night out with work.  This is something that would ordinarily have me running for the hills, or at the very least making the excuse that "I'm washing my hair that night".  But I decided it was time to bite the bullet and go out.  Even if it meant I was the only female in a group of 16.  And an enjoyable night it was too. If a little messy.  

The barman lining up the now infamous cocktails
After a fair bit of alcohol was consumed, we had a couple of rounds of the now legendary Cookie Monster shots.  For the uninitiated, these consist of Kahlua, Chambord and Baileys.  And if you happen to drink at SevenShed in Bristol, you get a flaming Sambucca in the saucer as well.  Lethal!  When I finally got over my hangover (about a week later - the perils of being over thirty) I remembered that Cookie Monster cupcakes were on my to-do-list for the 366 Recipe Challenge, but I'd never found the time to do them.  And so it seemed to be the right time to give them a go.

There are many different methods for making them on the interweb, but I couldn't find one that appealed so just made up my own recipe.  And the two chief taste-testers (Miss A and my boss) gave them the thumbs up.

I started with a basic pound cake recipe for the cupcakes, substituting 40g of flour for cocoa and baked this into cupcakes.  The domed head was then created from cake-pop mixture - a combination of crumbled cake and cream cheese.  They need to be solid to hold the cookies.

Some recipes then use dyed coconut for the fur but as I was road-testing these for my godson who can't eat coconut, I went for a buttercream topping, piped using my grass nozzle.  Finally, because I was a total numpty and forgot to buy cookies, I had to make an emergency batch of cookies to complete the cakes.  Luckily, as part of the old blog, I tried the best ever cookie recipe by Sadia, one of my lovely Twitter friends.  You can find her recipe here.  I used half the quantities and made them the size of an old 50p piece (for those of you old enough to remember).  This left me with plenty of spares.  For....erm...quality assurance purposes.

Et voila.  Cookie Monster cupcakes!

For the cakes - makes 6-8 depending on the size of your cases

Pre-decoration.  They could work as frogs too.

  • 250g softened butter
  • 250g caster sugar
  • 4 medium eggs
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • pinch of table salt
  • 210g plain flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 40g cocoa powder

For the topping

  • 50g full fat cream cheese
  • 250g icing sugar
  • 80g softened butter
  • 1tbsp milk
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • blue gel food colouring
  • black icing (I used a tube of premade icing I had lurking in the cupboard) or black gel food colouring
  • giant white chocolate buttons
  • mini cookies
  1. Preheat the oven to 180c/160c fan.  Line a muffin tin with paper muffin cases.  You will need about twelve to sixteen cakes.  Half are used to make the domes for the heads.
  2. Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Incorporate the eggs one at a time.  Mix in the vanilla extract.  Sift in the flour, cocoa, salt and baking powder and then mix until you have a nice even batter.
  3. Half fill the muffin cases.  You may need to bake in two batches if you only have one tray.  Bake for 20-25 minutes until risen and springy to the touch.  Leave to go completely cold.
  4. Pick the worst looking cupcakes (about half of mine would normally be classed as disasters) and crumble them into a clean bowl.  Mix in the cream cheese until you have a stiff, mouldable mixture.  Divide into six to eight pieces (depending on how many cakes you kept) then shape into domes the same size as the cake.  Place on a plate and chill for thirty minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, make the buttercream by mixing the butter and icing sugar together with an electric mixer until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.  Add the milk and vanilla extract and beat until light and fluffy.  Tint with enough blue gel food colouring (the liquid stuff is no good as it makes it runny) until you have your desired shade.  
  6. To assemble, place one of the domes on top of each cupcake.  Create two slits near the back of the dome and place a chocolate button in each.  Add eye detail with the black icing.  Cut a slit in the front of the dome to make the mouth shape.  It needs to be big enough to hold a cookie, but not so big that the cookie falls out.
  7. Using the blue buttercream and a piping bag fitted with a grass nozzle, pipe fur on to the cake then finish with a cookie in the slit for the mouth.

Here we go....again!

Well here we are at the inaugural post of my latest blog.  This is the one where I fill you in a bit on what you can expect so that you can either (hopefully) bookmark the page and come back to visit again; or decide that it's probably not for you (I sincerely hope not).

I've recently spent a year blogging over at The 366 Recipe Challenge.  This saw me try a new recipe every day for a year, then photograph the results and blog about it.  Blogging daily for a year was pretty intense.  It started out as a bit of a random challenge but morphed into a personal odyssey.  At the end, I was overwhelmed to get 50,000 page views over the year - and the stats are still rising steadily even though I've stopped posting.  More astonishingly, people kept asking when I was going to start a new blog.  I still can't quite get round the fact that people are interested in reading what I write.

After a lot of Advanced Pondering (I can't navel gaze*), "How to Eat an Elephant..." was born this very morning.  I did have another working title that was quite dear to my heart but I just couldn't think a way of kicking it off.  However this title sprang into my head this very morning as I was lying in bed, contemplating the massive personal mountain that lies ahead of me over the next year or two.  A very good friend of mine - who swallowed The Management Buzzword Dictionary - is forever telling me to not try and eat the whole elephant and to only take tiny bites.  So this will be the story of my tiny bites of elephant as well as some jolly big bites of some very good food.

Although my last blog was very food-oriented, it also became a brain dumping ground for all manner of things that entered into my head and needed a home.  This blog will be in the same vein - just more measured in its output and less frequent.  The prose in the 366 Recipe Challenge was literally just whatever was at the forefront of my frontal lobe, spewed straight across the keyboard of my Mac.

I like to think that I have a reasonable grasp of spelling and grammar, but I cringe when I get round to re-reading old posts and discover that my fingers were unable to keep up with the stream of consciousness that was flooding forth.  So I'm setting out with the plan of actually re-reading and editing what I type before I post.  Whether or not I'll stick to that is anyone's guess.

Food wise, you'll most likely find an awful lot about baking.  I discovered a passion for this over the last year.  Of course, there'll be some Christmas stuff coming up.  Other than that, I'm not really sure.  You will probably be relieved to know that I have no intention of trying to catch and cook an elephant. Not even a small one.

So there you have it.  Post number one.  I'll follow it up shortly with something else when I get round to doing something interesting with food. Until then, I hope you like the accompanying pic.  It was sent to me by another good friend recently whilst we were both lamenting our current lots in life.  I think everyone needs to be reminded of this once in a while.

Becks x

*My navel hasn't been seen since about 1983.  These days you can fit an entire Malteser in my belly button.  Don't ask how I discovered this.  I just did.  And yes, it melted before it got fished out.