Ghostly Pumpkin Cupcakes

I mentioned in my previous post that I’ve never tried pumpkin in a sweet dish before. With Halloween around the corner I decided it was a good change to change all that. I bought a stack of pumpkins on the weekend and started having some fun.

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My first stop was incorporating pumpkin into cake. I absolutely love all the spices that make up pumpkin pie spice, so I just knew I was going to love these. But I also wanted to incorporate some of Halloween into them as well. Here’s where the ghosts come in.

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Spiced Pumpkin Macarons

Halloween is very much not a holiday celebrated in Australia. Yet we seem to go along with it anyway. We don’t really get into lantern carving thing, and Trick or Treaters are usually met with scorn, confusion or a mixture of both. I couldn’t even tell you what candy corn tasted like. Ask most Aussies, and they’ll tell you it’s an American holiday not to be celebrated here. There’s a clear divide between the lovers and loathers of Halloween.

But we still get a bit of the Halloween fever here. This is probably mostly driven by the commercial side, with supermarkets and retail outlets stocking heaps of Halloween merch and covering their stores in black and orange decorations. People throw Halloween parties, as will pubs and clubs. Some of my favourite local music events happen on Halloween, Creepshow at The Espy being my absolute favourite. It usually involves watching lots of my favourite Melbourne bands playing sets in crazy costumes to a mosh pit of us crazy fans in equally crazy costumes. Good times.

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So while we’re not huge on Halloween and while there’s seldom an occasion to bake for, I find myself following my American friends and baking Halloween-themed stuff anyway. It’s well and truly Spring here, but I love being inundated with all the Autumn colours you Northern Hemisphere-ians are experiencing right now. Any excuse to pretend it’s Autumn.

Another thing we don’t do in Australia is sweet pumpkin food things. Pumpkin is the kind of thing we have with a Sunday roast. It’s a savoury fruit. The prospect of making it sweet seems utterly foreign. I keep promising myself I’ll try some sweet pumpkin dessert soon to see what all the fuss is about, but in the interim I thought I’d start with something more familiar inspired by the pumpkin pie.

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Apple Confit

I’m the kind of person who never read recipes first. I’ll be flicking through a cook book, see a picture of something that looks good, quickly browse the ingredients and if I have most of them get started straight away. If it’s a standard thing I’ll have trouble even following the recipe, I’ll just use the quantities and the general order of ingredients as a guide.

About three years ago I saw this recipe for apple confit and needed to make it. After dinner was done and people were washing up I started on this recipe. It obviously wasn’t a standard thing so I followed the recipe as I went along. I put the confit in the oven and referred to the next step to see what I had to do once it was out of the oven. Then I saw it: “Refrigerate overnight until firm”.

Oops.

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I announced we were eating it warm, unfinished and accompanied and resolved to return to it properly prepared one day. One day took quite a while to come around again. But when it did, I was prepared this time.

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Jelly Slice

When we’re doing the grocery shopping, we’ll inevitable turn down the aisle with all the jellies. Next to all the various types of jellies is a shelf full of box-mix chilled desserts, amongst them a packet for jelly slice. Without fail, every single time Cameron will ‘notice it’ and mumble some variation of ‘mmm, jelly slice’. This is always a not-so-subtle hint towards me that next time I’m thinking of making a dessert, I should make jelly slice. Or even if I’m not thinking of making dessert, I should make jelly slice. Or basically that jelly slice should spontaneously happen pronto. So I decided to surprise him with a batch one weekend.

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Jelly slice isn’t something that was a part of my childhood, or even adulthood, but it was very much a part of Cam’s. It was a dessert his Oma used to make for them all, and has continued on to be one of his favourite things. I was yet to try it for myself, so it seemed like as good a time as any to see what all the fuss was about.

Jelly slice is a tri-layered Australian dessert. It consists of a biscuit base, a cream, custard or cheesecake centre, and a layer of jelly on top. It’s delicious and incredibly simple to make.

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Lolly Bag Cake

I often get told from friends and family, and sometimes even people I don’t know, that I should go on MasterChef. I kind of imagine that this is how people with voices like tortured cats end up on Australian Idol or X-Factor and end up embarrassing the hell out of themselves: well meaning people want you to follow your hobby to wonderful goals, but it takes more than a passion for singing or food to make the grade. I’m okay at baking, but I don’t have the skills in a lot of mediums necessary to avoid total annihilation. I’m also insanely indecisive, slow, messy and I always think I know better than the recipe. Knowing me, I’d be an hour into the challenge and still standing in the pantry trying to work out what to cook.

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But there is one thing that makes me entertain the idea for a moment: pressure tests. These contestants get to not only meet, but be mentored by the most accomplished pastry chefs in the world. They then get to attempt these wonderful recipes with every ingredient and tool right there at their disposal in a professional kitchen. I always watch those episodes with the deepest sense of longing. I’d jump at the chance to get to create all those stunning desserts that are practically impossible to make at home.

This year, one of the first such pressure tests was provided by Bernard Chu, an accomplished Melbournian pastry chef of LuxBite. It was Kids Week on MasterChef, and he bought in a cake that perfectly fit this bill: his Lolly Bag cake. This layered beauty was the perfect nostalgia trip of many of the lollies we grew up with as kids. As soon as I saw it, I knew I just had to make it.

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I’ve had moments like this after many Pressure Tests or other dessert challenges. The recipe goes up on the MasterChef website, I go to look at it and quickly become dismayed by the ingredient list. Or the required equipment. Or the cost. Or all three at once. I almost had that same moment while reading through this recipe and doing the maths. But no, I finally decided, I was not going to be defeated by it. I was going to save it up for a special occasion and tackle this beast of sugary goodness.

I don’t know if I wanted to bake it or taste it more. Mostly I was skeptical that all those flavours could go together and not confuse the palatte, so I had to try it. I suppose I could have made the trip to LuxBite and just paid $7.50 for a slice, but that’s just not my style.

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The post that is going to follow is going to be enormous, I should warn you. As you may have guessed from all those layers, it’s a long and involved multi-step process. It will look intimidating, but when you break it down you’ll find it’s really quite easy. It’s a relatively technical cake, though not the worst. Having experience with things like making sugar syrups, whipping meringue to perfect soft peak, making ganache and baking sponges will help a lot. If you’ve never done any of these things you may want to have a play around with individual components in easier desserts before taking on the whole lolly bag cake.

I made a number of changes to the recipe to make it home-kitchen friendly, as well as a few other preference changes. This is as specialty-equipment free as possible, but you will want a candy thermometer and a stick blender at the very least. You will also need enough freezer space to freeze at least one layer at a time, preferably enough for the whole cake to sit in later. I’ve documented every step along the way to give you a visual guide of what bits and pieces are supposed to look like and will be providing plenty of anecdotes in the hope of guiding even the most beginner of bakers through this challenge. So hit the jump to read all about it!

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Choc Banana Vertical Layer Cake

Last week I blogged all about the footy and mentioned that it was finals time. Last Saturday was the biggest event on Melbourne’s calendar (in most of our potentially biased books): the AFL Grand Final. On the Friday I had to travel through the city to get to work and walked past the massive crowds of brown, gold and purple buzzing with excitement during all the pre-final celebrations. It’s one of those moments that make me swell with pride and want to just hug Melbourne in general. I love our game and I love everyone who loves our game. Whether my team has made it or not, I just love footy finals fever.

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Despite my attempts to persuade him otherwise, my partner is not a Carlton supporter. While he’s now a Carlton member and is gradually falling in love with my team, and while I keep telling him he really should switch teams, there’s no luring him away from his. Melbournians, and loyal footy fans elsewhere across Australia, are more likely to part with a limb than their life-long team, and so it is with Cameron. He comes from a family of almost all Hawthorn supporters, a family that had a lot to celebrate this year as their team made the grand final. Getting tickets to the AFL grand final also usually requires losing a few limbs. He, his uncle and brother are all Hawks members but still missed out, so we all headed to his place to watch it on telly together.

Cam asked me if I was going to make something for our gathering, and if I’d make him something Hawthorn. I always said I’d never bring myself to make anything opposition-team themed until I’d at least first made something Carlton. With the Carlton cupcakes made for our last final a few weeks ago, I had to oblige. Coming up with the what was effortless once I factored in everyone’s likes and requirements. Cam’s brother and sister-in-law are vegan, so I wanted to make it accessible for everyone. Which, honestly, didn’t require many adjustments at all.

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