When was the last time you saw something on your plate and said it looked ‘too good to eat’?
Usually intended as the highest form of praise, this kind of comment makes me ever so slightly uneasy. As a bit of a baking perfectionist, I like my food to look beautiful, but it should also be inviting – I want people to see a dish and immediately lick their lips, grab their spoon and dive right in. That’s not to say I don’t have a lot of time for food that looks like an incredible work of art, but it really has to deliver on taste too.
When I was little, my cake decorating options were limited to the contents of our family kitchen cupboards. Candied orange and lemon slices and tubes of synthetic tasting ‘Writing Icing’ were the height of sophistication, with a liberal scattering of silver balls featuring on pretty much everything I made, and Smarties were a favourite for creating brightly coloured borders on cakes. When I got a little older, thick veined leaves were picked from our garden, coated in chocolate then peeled away – a nifty Josceline Dimbleby trick for creating life-like chocolate leaves – but that was considered pretty fancy, and about the extent of my creativity.
Nowadays there’s so much choice it’s almost overwhelming. Go online and you’ll find thousands of shops full of sugar paste and sprinkles, edible glitter and glue, moulds and cutters and all kinds of other amazing contraptions for creating the most incredible decorations. Head into a boutique bakery and you’ll find the same thing – masterpieces masquerading as cakes, too beautiful to believe they are edible let alone even think about eating. And of course, for every shop churning out these incredible looking confections, there’s a recipe book.
When I received a copy of Peggy Porschen’s Boutique Baking to review, I’ll admit to being slightly concerned that it might all be a bit too much. So many of these books are filled with the most ridiculous recipes, requiring dozens of different pieces of equipment and hours of your time to try and recreate something that is clearly unachievable, but this book is anything but. While it does involve a fair few techniques and stages to each recipe, each is laid out so well, with straightforward, well explained steps, that I think even someone new to baking would find it a joy to work with.
The recipe I decided to try first was these sticky toffee cupcakes. It’s testament to how enticing this book is that I decided on these first as I’m not even a particularly big cupcake fan – I always thought I’d take a rough and ready muffin or ugly squidgy brownie any day over a prim and pretentious cupcakes with its simple sponge base and overload of super sweet icing on top. But, dear reader, these aren’t just any cupcakes. They’re Peggy Porschen cupcakes.
Apparently sticky toffee cupcakes are the bestselling item in Peggy’s bakery. I think I can explain why. Where an ordinary cupcake tends to consist of a slightly drab, dry sponge topped with tons of brightly coloured frosting, these have so much more to them. The cakes themselves are thick with rich brown sugar, sticky soaked dates and chopped walnuts for added texture and crunch. While still warm from the oven they are then soaked in a sweet sugar syrup – Peggy’s trick throughout the book for a super moist sponge and one I’ll definitely be repeating – before being hollowed out and filled with a core of creamy caramel. The whole thing is then topped off with a cloud of slightly tangy caramel cream cheese frosting to create a cupcake that looks utterly irresistible but definitely not too good not to dive straight in.
Quadrille books have kindly given me permission to replicate the exact recipe below. It’s so delicious that I honestly wouldn’t change a thing, although if you’re not feeding a crowd of hungry colleagues (like I was) you might want to look at halving the recipe as twenty four cupcakes is a pretty hefty amount for any normal household.
I’ve already got my eye on a number of other recipes from this gorgeous baking book, including lots of lovely layer cakes, some simple baked doughnuts and a batch of beautiful biscuits. Which even I might forbid anyone to eat if they turn out as pretty as Peggy’s . . .
Peggy Porschen’s Sticky Toffee Pudding Cupcakes (from Boutique Baking by Peggy Porschen)
(makes 24 large cupcakes)
For the cake mix
70ml boiling water
290g dates, pitted and roughly chopped
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
130g unsalted butter, softened
240g Muscovado sugar
290g self-raising flour
1 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
3 large free range eggs
145g walnuts, chopped
For the sugar syrup
150ml caster sugar
For the filling
Approx. 250g dulce de leche or soft caramel
For the frosting
200g full fat cream cheese
200g unsalted butter
500g icing sugar, sifted
120g dulce de leche or soft caramel
Preheat the oven to 175 degrees C. Line two 12-hole muffin trays with cupcake liners.
For the cakes
Place the chopped dates in a bowl and pour over the boiling water. Leave to soak for 20 minutes then drain (if there’s any water left) and break the dates into smaller pieces. Add the vanilla extract.
Cream the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy.
Sift the flour and bicarbonate of soda into a separate bowl and set aside.
Whisk the eggs lightly in another bowl then slowly combine with the butter and sugar mixture. If it starts to separate or curdle, stop adding the egg and beat in a couple of teaspoons of the flour mixture.
Once all the egg is incorporated, fold in the remaining flour followed by the soaked dates and chopped walnuts. Stir until the batter is just combined then divide between the cupcake cases. Each should be about two thirds full.
Bake for 15 – 20 minutes until the tops are golden brown and spring back to the touch. Remove from the oven.
For the sugar syrup and filling
While the cakes are baking, bring the sugar and water to the boil in a small pan then simmer until all the sugar crystals have dissolved. Set aside to cool slightly.
While the cakes are still warm from the oven, brush the sugar syrup over using a pastry brush.
Once completely cool, chill the cupcakes for one hour, or until the cake feels firms to the touch. Then, using a melon baller or teaspoon, scoop out the tops of each cupcake.
Place the dulce de leche in a piping bag and pipe into the scooped out centre of each cupcake for your caramel core.
For the frosting
Beat the cream cheese in a mixing bowl until light and creamy. Beat the butter and icing sugar in a separate mixing bowl until very pale and fluffy.
Add the cream cheese to the butter and sugar mixture a little at a time until combined. Add the dulce de leche, beat until combined then chill until set.
To frost the cupcakes, fill a piping bag fitted with a round nozzle and pipe a swirl of frosting on each cupcake.
My decorations were made with purple petal paste, rolled out thin and cut into letters with a knife. I then left it to set hard before dusting with edible gold dust.
These cupcakes are best frosted on the day you want to eat them – the cream cheese frosting means they should be stored in the fridge if not all eaten on the day, and I find cake always tastes a lot better at room temperature.