Vintage cakes are in

Is it ok to call the 80’s vintage?  Well, I’m going to.

I love to bake.  For better or worse, I love eating good cake.  But I’m going to make a bold prophecy, based primarily on my eating preferences.

The time for fondant cake decoration has ended.  The time for dessert that involves more icing than cake is over.  Cake decorations that look more like artworks than food are done.

That’s not to insult the very talented people who can create people and flowers and a whole world of modelled masterpieces out of fondant.  It’s quite a skill, and I appreciate that.   I just don’t ever want to eat it.

The prophecy is this:  remember those Woman’s Weekly birthday cakes that your mum made back when you were a kid?  The cake numbers, the train, the swimming pool (jelly in a cake!  Amazing!)?  I think those cakes are coming back.

Luckily, the Woman’s Weekly has reissued the cake cookbook that started it all.  Check it out here.  I’ve seen it for sale for as low as $10 at Big W.

I don’t follow their instructions as to the cake itself, given most of it is based on packet cakes, but the decorations are fun, and fun to eat.

Here’s some recent efforts:

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I made this for my sister’s 30th birthday… a dolly varden isn’t just for a little girl!

And this one for a friend’s son’s first birthday:

Hamish Christening 2014 02 02 092

So very easy, and so enjoyable for kids to eat.  The adults seemed pretty happy too.

There’s just something about their simplicity that really appeals to me.  I like the idea of cakes that the eaters can have some fun with, just like we did as kids.  It’s also nice to spend some time making the cake inside exciting, rather than spending all the time and effort on the exterior alone.  I also like that the packet cake option makes a homemade and decorated cake accessible even for the busy mum or inexperienced baker.

Maybe it’s just a whole lot of memories coming back, but my prophecy is that fondant is out, and vintage cakes, with all of their imperfections, are in.


Cheap, easy and delicious pancakes

When I was young, the first dish my Mum taught me how to cook was pancakes. Her recipe was never written down, and I’ve known it off-by-heart for years.

The ingredients are ridiculously cheap, and this amount makes about 5 pancakes of a diameter of around 30cm.  Perfect for one person (but you’ll be ridiculously full) or for two people to share with some more substantial accompaniments, like chopped fruit or ice cream.

I should mention that these are crepe-like pancakes, not the thicker American-style pancakes.  While I’m on the subject, the American love of bacon with pancakes confuses me terribly.  Sweet and light with fatty and meaty?  It’s not a combination I like, but hey, each to their own.  I can’t say I understand it.

Here is my family recipe.  It’s such a reliable winner.  Note that the very first pancake you fry in a batch will be your weakest – unless you really enjoy your butter.  I tend to skip eating the first one (I feed it to my dog… I’m sure that doesn’t meet the vet’s recommendations) because all of the rest are clean, not greasy at all.


  • 1 cup plain flour
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon of oil (rice bran oil is my preference, but vegetable or olive oil will do)
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 2/3 cup water
  • Butter for frying


Whisk together the flour, egg, oil, milk and water in a big bowl, until all lumps are removed.  This should be quite a quick process.  You’ll get a feel for the right consistency with practice, but the batter should be quite thin.  The final result you are looking for is a crepe-like thickness of about 1 millimetre, so a thick batter won’t give you the best result.

Near the stove, collect your tools:  a frying pan, ladle, flipper, butter knife and the butter.  I also like to line up a plate, and switch on the oven in case I need to keep the plate or the pancakes warm (it’s just a matter of practice how fast you cook, and if you are cooking a very large batch, you might need to keep them warm if you want to serve everyone at once).

Switch on the stove, heat the pan on high.  Take a small knob of butter, pop it in the pan and lightly grease the whole of it by swishing it around the pan as it heats.

As soon as the pan is greased, take a ladle-full of pancake batter and pour it into the pan.  Working quickly, swirl it around the pan until the surface of it is covered.

Leave the pan on the stove to cook, but don’t walk away!  The pancake should be flipped over (another talent you’ll master with practice) as soon as you can see the exposed side of the pancake firm up.  Another good indicator is when the pancake moves easily when you shake the pan gently.  If you’re still not sure, take the flipper and have a peek on the other side of the pancake.  If it is golden, it is time to flip.

Fry the other side of the pancake.  This will be quicker, about a minute.  You’ll know it’s ready when it slides in the pan easily, or when it looks golden.

Use the flipper to remove the pancake from the pan, and put it on to your plate (warm it up in the oven in advance, if you think you need to).  If you aren’t serving immediately, sit it in a low-temperature oven until you’re ready to serve it.  The oven should be a temperature less than 100°C or the edges might crisp up.

Repeat for as many pancakes as your batter allows.

Serve with creativity!  Goes well with lemon and sugar, or strawberries and ice cream, or bananas and honey… use your imagination.  As a child, we used to just have them with a teaspoon of sugar, and I still love that simple pleasure.




Secret cupcake recipe

Cupcakes, and cake decorating, have had a renaissance of late.

(As an aside, I think the cupcake fad is almost over – a concerning thought for the many cupcake shops that have proliferated in recent years – but that’s a matter for another post.  And please, no more TV shows about the dream of having a cupcake store.  For the work that goes into making them, I don’t see how such a business could ever make a profit.  Rant over.)

I work in a male dominated field, so in the past I have tried to hide my love of baking.  A senior colleague gave me advice early on that I shouldn’t bring my baking in to share with others, because it undermines my professional credibility.  It shouldn’t be the case, but I think he was right.

I now save the baking for friends and family.  They appreciate it more anyway!

I’m always impressed by some of the elaborate decoration that others construct for their cakes.  So much art goes into them!  But it’s not what I do:  to me, taste is everything, and the pretty decorations are generally overly sweet, hard and throw out the balance of the cake overall.  I tend to pick them off, rather than eat them, and that seems a waste of ingredients and the talent of the decorator.

In this post, I want to share my cupcake recipe.  I kept it secret for a long time.  I guess (at least for a while) I got a bit competitive about it.  Now I have decided that it would be far better to share it.  After all, it’s a pretty silly thing to get competitive about.

The recipe started as something I got from a freebie magazine about 8 years ago (I’d give credit to that magazine, but I can’t remember which one it was!), and I have modified it and changed parts as I tried to make it better.  I am now happy that it produces reliably wonderful cupcakes.  It’s not a quick exercise, though.

I hope you’ll give it a go at some stage, and that those you love will enjoy them.  I always associate these cupcakes with happy times.

Ingredients for the cupcakes:

  • 250g unsalted butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 and 1/2 cups of self raising flour
  • 1 and 1/4 cups of plain flour
  • 1 cup of full cream milk
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

Method for the cupcakes:

Allow all ingredients to come to room temperature before you start.  It makes a big difference to the final result.  Also, the milk needs to be full cream.  My experience is that it doesn’t work as well with low-fat or lactose-free milks.

Preheat the oven.  180°C for a normal oven, 160°C fan forced.

Using an electric mixer, cream the butter in a big bowl until it is smooth.  Again, this will work much better if the butter comes to room temperature before you start.

Add the sugar gradually, beating it on a medium setting in between each addition.  This process should take no less than 5 minutes.  You’ll know that the mixture is about ready for the next step when the colour of it becomes pale, and the texture becomes light.

Add the eggs, one at a time, giving them a few minutes of beating with the mixer in between each addition.

In a separate bowl, sift the plain flour and the self-raising flour together, and then stir it through with a spoon.  I know there are a lot of sifting devices on the market, but I like to use an old-fashioned wire strainer.  It’s up to you which of them you would prefer to use.

Measure out the milk and add the vanilla to it, and give it a quick stir.

The next step is to add the flour mixture and the milk/vanilla mixture to the butter/sugar/egg mixture you’ve already made.  This needs to happen gradually.  Add a small amount (say, 1/4 cup) of the flour mixture to the butter/sugar/egg mixture, and give it a few minutes of beating on at least medium speed.  Then put a splash of the milk/vanilla mixture into the butter/sugar/egg mixture and give it a few minutes of beating.  Keep alternating the addition of the flour and milk/vanilla mixtures, giving each a good beat in between additions, until they are all combined.

Beat the mixture on a high speed for 3-4 minutes.

Put spoonfuls of the mixture into paper cupcake cases that are in a cupcake tin, or if they are the strong card kind of cases, just sit them on a metal tray.  Don’t fill them more than just over half way, or they’ll overflow as they cook.

Bake for about 20 minutes, or until golden.  If you’re not sure, tap them gently, and if they spring back firmly they’re done.  Alternatively, pull them out of the oven and listen to them.  If they’re crackling, they need more time, if they’re quiet, they’re done.

Allow to cool completely.  You should have about 24 cupcakes from this process.

Ingredients for icing:

  • 4 cups of pure icing sugar
  • 125g unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Method for icing:

Again, all ingredients need to be at room temperature before you start.  I should note that you really need to use pure icing sugar – icing mixture doesn’t work.  It is available in all of the supermarkets near me, but usually tucked away from eye level.  Check the label carefully before you buy!

Sift the icing sugar, and then divide it into two bowls.

Add the butter, milk and vanilla to one of the bowls of icing sugar.  Beat it until it is smooth, completely free of lumps.

Gradually add the remaining icing sugar to the bowl with the mixture in it, until the mixture is no longer runny, spreadable but not stiff.  It should take most (if not all) of the sugar in your second bowl to get it to this point.

Divide the mixture into separate bowls for each colour you’d like to make it, then use food colouring to add the colour.  Only use a very small amount of food colouring, as a little goes a long way.  Add it one drop at a time, and stir thoroughly.

Spread the icing on to the cooled cupcakes, and if you wish, decorate with sprinkles or other garnishes.

This icing is a soft, delicious icing – but it is not a stiff variety.  It’s perfect for traditional, wholly edible cupcakes, rather than those that are fancily decorated (but with decoration you don’t want to eat).  It makes it perfect for kids.

If you are short on ingredients, you could get away with halving the ingredients list for the icing, and then following the same method, provided you are happy to have a thinner layer of icing.  There’s no such thing as a diet cupcake – but some people prefer the slightly less sweet finish of a cupcake that has a small amount of icing rather than a thick layer.

They can be stored in the fridge, but bring the finished cupcakes to room temperature to serve.  My sister says they get even better when they are a few days old, but they’ll be stale after about a week… so eat up!