Christmas Cupcakes

If you’re feeling festive but haven’t much time for baking these Christmas Tree Cupcakes are really quick to make and look impressive too.

Chocolate Cupcakes

  • 2 large eggs
  • weight of the eggs in caster sugar
  • weight of the eggs in butter
  • ¾ of the egg weight in self-raising flour
  • ¼ of the egg weight in cocoa powder
  • 12 brown cupcake cases (you can use any colour of course, but these give the cupcakes a nice “tree trunk” effect)

Alcoholic Syrup – optional

  • 80 ml water
  • 80 g caster sugar
  • 40 ml liqueur of your choice

Buttercream Icing

  • 125 g butter
  • 125 g icing sugar
  • green food colouring

To Decorate

  • silver balls / multi-colour dragées / mini smarties
  • icing tube – red, yellow, whichever colour you like for the “tinsel”
  • chocolate stars

Make the cupcakes by the all in one method.  Simply add all the ingredients to a large bowl and mix together until the mixture is light and drops off the spoon easily.  Spoon into the cupcake cases.  Bake for approximately 20 minutes at 160° C. They’re done when the centre of the cupcake springs up when you press it gently.    Remove from the tins straight away and leave on a wire rack to cool.

At this stage (if the cupcakes are for adults) I like to add a syrup made with a liqueur such as Tia Maria or Cointreau.  Gradually dissolve the sugar in the water, then boil for 1 minute.  Leave to cool before adding the alcohol.  If you have one, a medicine syringe makes it easier to control drizzling the syrup onto the top of the cupcakes.  Start with small drops to avoid the liquid just dripping off the top of the cakes and onto the worktop.

Soaking the cupcakes

Soaking the cupcakes

Make the buttercream icing by mixing the softened butter with the icing sugar.  Like Nigella, I make mine in a food processor; it’s quicker and you don’t have to sift the icing sugar first.

Colour the buttercream icing to a nice bright Christmas tree colour.  I like using gel colours for buttercream; they don’t alter the consistency of the icing as much as liquid food colourings and mix in better than the more solid paste colours.

Pipe the buttercream around the cupcake top gradually moving in towards the centre and raising the height of the buttercream.  Finish by pulling the icing tube up directly above the centre to get the “top of the tree” effect.

Pipe a swirl of icing “tinsel” in a spiral around the buttercream tree.  Sprinkle on silver balls / dragées / mini smarties for the baubles and lights and top the tree with a chocolate star.

Christmas Tree Cupcakes

Christmas Tree Cupcakes

If you’re looking for any more last minute baking ideas I’ll be on BBC Radio Derby on Christmas Eve between 10 and 11am.  All the recipes will be posted on here over the next few days.

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Maths & Baking Part 3

Well, after the fun that was the Science Grrl launch and the whirlwind of Eat Your Heart Out Mr Quirky and I were really looking forward to a fun night out as Festival of the Spoken Nerd made their long awaited visit to Derby. Well, how could I resist the excuse to spend my day off doing more baking!

First up were the props for the show. Back in the summer Matt Parker asked if it would be possible to make some custard creams in the shape of a Pythagoras triangle as a surprise for the last show in FOTSN’s run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  How could I resist!  I’d thought a little about how to decorate them but my first attempts were less than satisfactory, so I was glad of the chance to have another go.   This time, I took inspiration from making Hot Cross Buns, and simply thinned down some of the biscuit mixture with milk in order to produce a piping consistency.

Pythagoras Triangle Custard Creams waiting to be sandwiched together

I settled on a suitably maths related decoration – you might just be able to spot the infinity and pi signs I piped around the edge to mimic the classic custard cream design.

The finished FOTSN Pythagoras Custard Creams

Following on from my musings on a Menger Sponge cake I decided to go back a step and make a cake based on the basic Sierpinski Carpet pattern upon which the Menger Sponge is based.  A Battenberg cake seemed the obvious way to go.  You could make it in any combination of colours and/or flavours.  This one was chocolate and vanilla.

First you make all the sections – easy in a Battenberg tin.

Sierpinski Carpet Cake Sections

Then you simply trim and assemble the cake, as you would for a normal Battenberg.

Sierpinski Carpet Cake

Of course once you’ve made one section you can make your Sierpinski Carpet Cake as big as you want.  I did contemplate making one of the subsequent iterations, but the combination of only having one tin, and baking with a migraine meant I settled for this one.

We had a fabulous time at Festival of the Spoken Nerd – if you’re as geeky as us and like your comedy too then do go and see the show if you can.  One last thing – I haven’t yet given up on biscuits of constant width – as soon as I can get hold of the supplies I need I’ll be baking as long as it takes to nail that one.

Eat Your Heart Out

Last Thursday I was thrilled to deliver some cookies and a cake which I’d been planning for months.

Eat Your Heart Out took place over the weekend in the Pathology Museum at St Bartholomew’s hospital in London (part of Queen Mary’s University). This most unusual pop-up cake shop brought together my two passions: baking and science. As an interested non-scientist I am drawn to projects which use unusual ways to engage and educate me about scientific concepts.

I knew that it was going to be amazing from reading Miss Cakehead’s blog in the run up to the event, and have to admit to being somewhat in awe of the talent shown by my fellow cake decorators: in particular the work of Miss Insomnia Tulip, Nevie Pie Cakes and the Conjurer’s Kitchen really stand out.

I was completely thrilled then at the reaction to my Necrotizing Fasciitis cake.    Ben Stansall (AFP/Getty Images) took the most fabulous photo of my cake which was named on the Guardian newspaper’s website as one of the “Best News Pictures”  from around the world that day! (Scroll down the page to 17:24pm for my cake.)  That was just the start of a whirlwind couple of days in which we saw the photo of my cake appear on news websites from Spain, Greece, Bulgaria, Chicago USA, and various other European countries.  There was even some video footage of me finishing the cake by AFP (lots of shots of the other cakes too).

If you’ve never heard of Necrotizing  Fasciitis before (and many haven’t) then you can find out more about it here and on Wikipedia – but I would suggest only clicking the links if you’ve a strong stomach!

The cookies I made were inspired by the Wellcome Images competition.  I love the colours and shapes of individual cells and so the idea of producing some cookies based on deadly bacteria and viruses was bound to emerge.  I did some research on mortality statistics from across the world, then narrowed down my selection further based on what images were the most visually appealing.  Spanish ‘flu may have wiped out millions, but it wasn’t going to make a great looking cookie!

You can see more of the event on the Eat Your Heart Out  blog and Facebook page.   The following are just a few of my own pictures of the cake and cookies I made.  Apologies for the poor quality of the photos – we were working very late at night in order to get the cake and cookies finished, and so I didn’t have much time to set up the photos.

sponge carved and ready to cover

fondant cut away to form diseased section of the leg

Injured / Infected Leg Cake

The Finished Necrotizing Fasciitis cake

Infected Leg Cake

Necrotizing Fasciitis Cake Details

Petri Dish Cookies

Bacteria & Virus Cell Petri Dish Cookies

Top row left to right: Salmonella, Legionella, Smallpox.
Bottom row left to right: Bubonic Plague, MRSA, Ebola.

A huge thanks goes to Miss Cakehead and Carla Connolly at the Pathology Museum for organising such an inspiring event, and for asking me to contribute. This was definitely one of the highlights of my cake career so far.

Maths & Baking Part 2

I’ve been promising myself that I’d get the time to develop these ideas a bit more before blogging about them, but months have passed and we’re still as chaotic as ever at Quirky Towers so here goes.  I’ve been fascinated with the idea of communicating ideas about science, engineering and mathematics in unusual ways for a while now. Much of my inspiration for baking comes from scientific concepts, indeed I’m more likely to be found reading a book about science and/or maths than anything else.  I’m especially inspired by projects such as Helen Storey’s Primitive Streak or the Wellcome Image Awards. Here are a few of my ideas so far.

I’m a huge fan of the Venn diagram.

Venn Diagram Quiche

Making a Venn Diagram quiche is tricky, but possible.  I used the thickest foil tins I could find, and cut them up to make the basic Venn shape like this.

A Venn Diagram pizza is much easier to make…..

Bacon & Mushroom / Red Pepper

and still looks fairly recognizable once cooked…

Venn Diagram Pizza

As soon as I read about the Menger Sponge in one of my favourite books Alex’s Adventures in Numberland I knew I had to make one.  Here’s my first attempt as a work in progress.

Menger Sponge Cake


I’m determined to get better at this one.  They’re the devil’s own job to cover in sugarpaste and so I’m rethinking my approach and will have another go soon.

My first homemade Pork Pi really didn’t work as well as I’d hoped.  WID & I went to school in Melton Mowbray, so the idea of using cured meat in a pork pie really goes against the grain, but I hoped the mixture of ordinary pork and bacon would mean the shape of pi would appear once the pie was cut.  It didn’t.

Pork Pi

Like the Menger Sponge though I’m determined to have another go at this one.

I’ve got lots more ideas (biscuits of constant width) which I hope to get nailed by the time the Festival of the Spoken Nerd come to Derby later this month, so watch this space.

Skull Cake and Cookies

I had a really fun commission recently for a young man’s 11th birthday – just make it gruesome! After a brief chat about designs, the theme of skulls quickly emerged as the way forward.  We had a really, really tight deadline for this commission – just a few days instead of our usual 4 week plus lead time.  Luckily, Quirky Towers is full of books about science.  We even had a model skull!

I love making marshmallow, and have thought for a while that it would be great for brains.

Skull cookies with Marshmallow Brains

I’m not done with marshmallow brains yet though – there’ll be more to reveal later this month for Eat Your Heart Out.

The cake was really fun to make.  If you don’t have a skull shaped cake tin (and let’s face it, who does?) then don’t despair – you can carve the skull from a couple of square cakes.

From this start

I covered it roughly in fondant, allowing it to crack and dry out in places to make the texture more like a really ancient skull.

I then made a start on adding fondant muscle groups, as though the cake was a partially completed forensic facial reconstruction. The finished cake looked like this.

Skull Cake

October is officially science month at Quirky Towers. Keep your eye on the blog for more science and baking fun during the next few weeks.

Em’s Horrible Histories Party Part 2

Em’s parties are the stuff of legend at Quirky Towers.  This year’s theme was Horrible Histories. You may remember my attempts at making her a dress for the party. Well we had a great time, with lots of history inspired crafts from Yellow Moon, history games invented by Em and the usual themed baking from the Quirky Kitchen.

Here are some of my favourite photos from the day.  Apologies for the lack of quality – we were too busy having fun!

Roman Empress Hannah, WWII Mummy and Restoration Princess Emily

The wrap the mummy game – great for Halloween parties too.

What else could you possibly eat other than Pepys Pizza – pizza in the shape of Samuel Pepys face!

Personalised Horrible Histories Cookies

Horrible Histories Wax Seal Cookies

Of course there had to be cookies!

The cake had scenes from the Great Fire of London, topped with Charles II holding a bottle of champagne as a nod to the Mathew Baynton in the Horrible Histories Charles II song.

Great Fire of London / Charles II Cake

Party anyone?

HotCan Cake

Every now and again I get a commission which I really, really enjoy making. Recently, I was approached by Amber Locke of Derbyshire Life magazine and Bear PR who asked if I could make a replica of a HotCan tin.

HotCan are a locally based company who make self-heating cans. The geek in me absolutely loves how these cans work, and so I was thrilled to be asked to make the cake.

There’s some more great photos on the HotCan Facebook page. I especially love the “Angry Chef” photo with the cake instead of the original can.

Thanks to HotCan and Amber for a really fun commission.

Tardis Cake

Another year has passed more quickly than I care to admit, and so last week included the task of baking Hannah’s 15th birthday cake.

I had planned a wonderful surprise for her of a cake complete with electronics and lots of other fun cakey stuff, but all hell broke loose at the beginning of the week, and so there I was on the morning of her birthday with only the base icing done. Best laid plans eh?

Matt Smith was the obvious choice for the Doctor, as he is her favourite incarnation. The assistant is Hannah in typical teenage slouched-against-something-with-her-arms-folded fashion.  One light for the top of the Tardis was all I could manage in the end, but we did at least get that.  The sombrero is a family in-joke from a fabulous storyline idea Hannah had months ago. (She was gutted to be too old to enter the recent script writing competition.) I’m biased of course, but if perchance any Dr Who peeps may read this post (in my dreams!) then seriously, Hannah is bursting to tell someone her idea.

I’m the first to say it’s not the best Tardis cake I’ve ever done: we tried a few different techniques which were less than successful, but given the time I had to make it I was pretty chuffed.  Onwards to Emily’s 7th birthday.  At the moment she wants a street scene from the Great Fire of London.  I’m already thinking about smoke!

Tardis Cake
Photograph Copyright Wendy Staples

Maths & Baking – Part One

I’ve been thinking about this blog for a while.  It all started when I did the Geek Calendar cookies last October.  Here’s some of my maths cookies from that night, ably modelled by Matt Parker & Alex Bellos.

above photo courtesy of Ben Thompson and Geek Calendar

By the way, please, please do go and read Alex’s book “Alex’s Adventures In Numberland“. Now.  It’s utterly absorbing.

Now, I want to start by admitting that maths was about as far from my favourite subject as was possible when I was at school.  In fact I always thought that I was pretty rubbish at maths.  Six hours of possible brain injury testing after the accident proved otherwise, but that’s a whole other story.  The point is, I THOUGHT I couldn’t do maths.

It’s only with the passing of time, (well that and listening to Matt Parker talk about the beauty of a Möbius Loop), that I’ve realised that I really like maths.  I’m relatively good at it too: cue competitive “discussion” with Mr Quirky as to who’s best at navigating & packing the freezer (although I have to admit, that time he navigated through London using only the sun was awesome!).

The reality is I use maths all of the time in my work. From simple multiplying and dividing ingredient quantities, through working out percentage profits to the more complicated geometry for some of the sculpted cakes.  Whilst leafing through Hannah’s GCSE Higher Maths book, I even came across an example of using maths to ensure the right number of trays of eggs is ordered, a “Real-Life problem” I calculate every Monday! Although Ed-Excel, I have to point out that a tray of eggs is 30 not 24!

So in honour of this being Pi Approximation Day, here’s  some fun maths cookies and cakes.

Quirky Junior’s fantastic maths teacher Mrs Boyd is leaving us for the USA, and to mark this sad day  Hannah made some fabulous maths based cookies this week.

They reminded me of some I helped her make 3 years ago, before I set up Quirky Cookies & Cakes.

You can see how her piping has improved from age 11 to now.

I’d been thinking about a Möbius loop cookie for quite some time, so Mrs Boyd’s departure seemed the obvious time to have a go.  My normal cookie recipe didn’t stand up to the cooking process so I decided to try a fortune cookie mix.  I’d never made them before but I just about managed to get it to work. Next time I’ll know to make the strips of fortune cookie at least 30cm long, as most of the ones I made simply weren’t long enough to fold back on themselves.

I’ve had some helpful suggestions as to possible improvements from BakeMe.Com and my good friend Jules of  Butcher, Baker I’ll be returning to that one as soon as I’ve got the energy!

I couldn’t let today go by without making at least one pi cake.  Having compared methods with @standupmaths following his pi cupcakes earlier this year I thought it should be possible to use the marbling method to make a cake which, when cut, showed the pi symbol.

Well, it clearly needs more work, and if I hadn’t been spending most of the day finishing these and a plethora of other things, I’d have made another one.

One final thought…we were honoured to welcome Matt Parker to Quirky Towers earlier this week when he was working in Derby.  Whilst we happily chatted about maths and baking, I suddenly had the idea of a Venn Diagram pie.  I’m working on it now…so watch this space for more maths baking fun soon.

ER Hospital Cake

Although I’ve always baked traditional cakes, it wasn’t until I became a mum that I started making the carved novelty type cakes that are now my favourite to create.   So far Hannah has had everything from the Teletubbies, the Tweenies, and Groovy Chick in her early childhood, through lots of Harry Potter cakes to last year’s Twilight cake.

Twilight Cake

This year she wanted a medical theme.  ER has long been a favourite of hers; we just had to decide which bit of the set to recreate.  Hannah eventually decided on the green trauma room with her as the patient and, after several hours of watching DVDs, we found some clips which showed the whole room.

I had originally thought that in order to make the cake as detailed as we wanted to that I would have to take a whole week to make it.  However, the best laid plans etc… and after two poorly girls at the beginning of the week, and an order for Brown & Green, I found myself starting to decorate the cake on Thursday afternoon for the party straight after school on Friday. Not ideal to say the least.

Hannah was really keen to make the cake with me, but a heavy homework schedule meant that she only managed to make herself.  She did a great job for her first sugar figure don’t you think?

One of my favourite elements was the X-ray screen.  Hannah has had problems with her joints since being very young, and regularly ends up in A&E herself, so it was an obvious choice to depict her most frequently x-rayed limbs etc on the cake.

The walls were made of gum paste.  I was really nervous about these.  Normally I would allow at least 3 or 4 days for them to dry before attaching to the cake but this time they had less than 24 hours.

This wall had a blind on it, and this was made by overlapping rice paper strips,  and dusting with silver food colouring powder.

The cupboards were made by drawing onto rice paper with food colouring pens.  The rice paper simply adheres to the damp gum paste.

The coloured rice paper then had a further layer added, to make the cupboard doors and to give an overall impression of opaque glass.  At Emily’s suggestion, one of the cupboard doors was left open.

ER Hospital Cake

Given all the time constraints, I was really pleased with the finished cake.  Hannah and her friends were certainly impressed.

I really enjoyed making this cake for Hannah.  Happy Birthday to you! x