Back in my South Africa lifetime, the day arrived when the doc uttered those dreaded words,
“Ann, you have to give up drinking alcohol.”
“Yes. If you don’t, you will die. And soon.”
Well that was squarely to the point, so after going straight to the pub for a consolatory drink, the very next day I stopped what I knew was my rather excessive alcohol consumption.
Highly commendable, you might say, but the downside was that I swiftly developed a bit of a sweet tooth.
One day at work a colleague appeared with a few pieces of home-made fudge. I’d never been much into fudge before, but this was scrumptious. Unfortunately she gave me the recipe. In no time at all I was making batches of yummy fudge myself. And each batch filled a 2 litre pasta jar. Trouble was it didn’t keep. Not that it went mouldy, or crystallised or turned into anything disgusting. The stuff just got eaten too quickly.
After several weeks of this I realized it could have a serious impact on my teeth or my waistline – or both. I went cold turkey on the fudge, and it was killing me.
Then one day on a grocery shopping trip, I almost had a close encounter with a packet of rather tasty looking petit fours. You know petit fours, they’re those small square/triangular cakes draped in fondant icing[i] with a smidgeon of decoration on top. However, I did not succumb to the temptation as I was deterred by the absurdly expensive price, on a Bite-per-Rand ratio.
For the next few hours my mind dwelled on those little petit fours with their glistening yellow, pink and green glazing, the delicate shapes atop the cakes beckoning to me, like a child to toy shop. I figured there must be a way around this.
Then it hit me. Why not make some? It would be much cheaper and couldn’t be all that difficult. Was I not already famous as the Queen of Fudge Making? I shuffled through all my fancy cook books and tracked down the recipe which seemed to involve a lot of stages and some fine artwork. I decided to wait for a build up of energy.
After a couple more strolls past the cake counter in the offending store during the succeeding week, I had to bite the bullet.
I read up the method for making fondant icing – an essential to petit fours – but figured it was far too much like hard work, so opted for a soft version of royal icing instead. I made that first, which I covered with a damp towel and placed in the fridge. Making the sponge, however, was serious stuff. I got all my ingredients together – including flour, sifted three-times (overkill in my opinion, but done nonetheless).
Seeing how the recipe called for some substantial beating of eggs and sugar, I thought I’d call on my trusty hand-held electric whisk which hadn’t seen the light of day for about eight years. I gave it a test whiz to make sure the motor still turned and was instantly peppered with what appeared to be the blackened remains of something which had crawled inside the mixer and died. I thanked my lucky stars I had not been holding the whisk over the bowl of five freshly cracked eggs at the time.
I removed my chef’s hat, donned my electricians overalls and proceeded to dismantle the mixer. Half an hour and a pile of sh*t later I had it reassembled and miraculously it still worked.
One of the things I have learned in my years as the master chef of my household, is that when cooking with eggs, they should be at room temperature. Unfortunately this did not take into account that we were going through a cold snap at the time, and without central heating in this sometimes underdeveloped country, ‘room temperature’ takes on a completely different specification, closer to light refrigeration.
So what should have been a two minute job to ‘beat eggs and sugar until they leave a thick trail from the whisk’ turned into a 15 minute marathon.
The excruciating care which had to be taken to fold in the drizzled butter and the 3-x-sifted flour turned the whole effort into an endurance exercise. What a waste of bloody time. Two and a half hours after the onset of this operation, my perfectly executed sponge did not emerge from the oven in what I would consider perfect sponge appearance.
It couldn’t hold a candle to the chocolate chiffon cake recipe I have been using for the past ten years, and which I could have knocked together in my blender in the space of five minutes. But it would have to do. By this time I’d had enough of the bloody kitchen and decided to leave the decorating until the next morning.
The following day I awoke bright and refreshed, ready to take on the world. Well the world excluding my two dogs – the Mastiff and the Rottweiller – who were anxious to be fed before anything else took place. You don’t argue with them.
To supplement their doggy biscuits we maintain a scraps soup pot. It had slipped my memory that my husband had rejuvenated it with the remains of last nights supper and a clear-out of the fridge. On this particular morning the pot contained:
- cold tea;
- a hacked up not-quite-fit-for-human-consumption fillet of smoked haddock;
- a poached-egg white;
- two rancid potato pancakes;
- half a jar of 1000 Island salad dressing;
- four slices of green-specked ham;
- some burnt toast scrapings;
- an over-ripe banana,
all of which had been added to the pre-existing half-pot of Knorr Rich Oxtail Soup.
This conglomeration, united with the dog biscuits, produced a sight and smell of such offensive proportions that it was all I could do not to throw up. The dogs devoured the concoction with such enthusiasm you would think they had not been fed for a week.
Only after fumigating the kitchen and allowing a two hour recovery period from the experience, did I turn to the task of cake decorating.
Armed with knife and pastry cutter, I made a selection of shapes – circles, squares, diamonds and triangles – out of the now well-cooled sponge.
I took some apricot jam and warmed it in the microwave, ready to brush on the outside of the cakes. I carefully removed the cracked cup, which I threw away before cleaning up the microwave. I then repeated the jam warming exercise on a lower setting for a shorter period of time. This jam brushing business is apparently a prerequisite, according to my recipe, to encourage the adhesion of the icing to the cake and avoid crumb scatter.
I proceeded to apply the second-attempt runny jam. After a few minutes I had the pastry brush (well a ½” paintbrush dedicated to the purpose) covered with jam and cake-crumbs, with slightly less cake on the shapes than I had started with. Not to worry.
Place the glazed shapes on a cooling rack and drizzle with icing until the cake is covered on the top and all sides.
I turned to the icing. After giving it a thorough beating to restore it to a more malleable form, I divided the stuff into three bowls and added yellow, pink and green food colouring to each bowl respectively. Very pretty. I placed a dollop of yellow icing on the first shape and waited for it to run smoothly down the sides. It didn’t. I think I must have been a bit overgenerous with the icing sugar when I prepared the icing the day before.
I tried to help it a bit with a knife, but when I pulled the knife away, it came complete with icing, jam and cake attached. I attempted to ice the next one skewered on a fork, but the action of spreading the icing around the shaped sides resulted in the sponge breaking up and falling off the fork. Perhaps the icing should be made more runny.
I added water, administered another beating and then droolled a spoonful onto the third shape. This was better. It did run down the sides a bit, in uneven dribbles, and with a little help from the knife I more-or-less managed to get the sides covered, if a little crumby. (I had, by now, abandoned the application of the apricot jam, which clearly didn’t work.)
Round about that time my hubby came into the kitchen with some helpful suggestions, like
“Aren’t you going to put some bits of stuff on the top?” and “Why don’t you put them in those paper case thingies?”
He handed me a paper case thingie, so I picked up an iced shape and put it in. The cake now had fingerprint shaped, icing-less gaps on two sides, and paper case stuck to the rest. I licked the icing from my fingers. Hubby sensibly exited the kitchen.
With the icing now more runny, I managed to do about nine shapes. The trouble was, I had spread out the cakes on the cooling rack (which allows any excess icing to drip through) in order to be able to reach the sides with the knife, but now I was running out of space. I needed to transfer the completed ones to a plate.
Wary of fingers and forks, I used two small skewers to move each piece, until it decided it didn’t like being skewered and turned up-side-down just as I was putting it on the plate. By this time I was getting pretty pissed off with these petit f…..g fours, and told them so.
Taking a short break from the kitchen I wandered into the lounge to find my beloved sniggering to himself as he’d been listening to my diatribe. I’d be interested to know what words he would have been mutteringif he was doing this. Or perhaps not.
When sixty percent of the sponge cake was cut up and sort-of iced I decided I’d had enough. I had a bunch of odd-looking petit fours in pink, lemon and green. With barely sufficient green icing left for the last triangular shape, I spooned it onto the top. It slowly slid down the cake sides, perfectly covering every square centimetre.
Why the hell hadn’t that happened with the previous cakes?
Stuff Petit Fours! I took the remaining lump of cake, smothered it with pink icing and threw some cherries on the top.
I told my husband,
“Next time I get stupid bloody notions like this, just steer me in the direction of the nearest cake counter”.
And before you ask… No they did not finish up in the dog pot. Hubby and I ate the lot!