Monday, November 22, 2010

FAQ about Chocolate

Dock Street Market Launch - Mike Wallis and chocolate
© Penny Andrews

The Dock Street Market launch was on Friday. After days of work, a last-minute "OMG" on my part - as in being asked to do stuff ten days in advance which isn't enough time to get ingredients sorted through my normal channels - and some rabbits being magically pulled from hats by those exceptional chaps at Riverside Sourdough and Fish&, the party was an incredible success. Lots of people had fun, and really I'm going to leave the writeups to The Guardian and Bronchia, with a side order of Ellie Snare.

What I'm going to do is talk about some of the FAQs I got on Friday evening.

1. What do we have here?
There were three basic chocolates with one having two different coatings for reasons too dull to go into here. They were Salt Caramels (described by one happy consumer as being like a really, really good quality rolo), coffee kisses, and comfit orange truffle. Nothing too fancy and they didn't really look as good as my usual standard, but that's something that will get addressed soon.

2. Can I buy them?
Not yet. I'll happily discuss orders and other enquiries as of now (feel free to email me about this), but I aim to be up and running around about mid-December.

3. What's the company name?
So far it's "Chocolates by Mike Wallis" but that'll change when we're properly up and running. It's not important. Please note that the press pack at the launch had the wrong email address for me; it's, not .com.

4. What other chocolates do you make?
Short-run bespoke chocolate is my speciality at the moment. I do limited numbers of exceptional tasting confections and the range will change almost on a weekly basis. Because I make everything with fresh cream the shelf life is no more than four weeks and is often more like six days. My specialities are citrus-based flavours and taking requests; last year I was asked to create a blackcurrant and chili based chocolate and I came up with a layered chocolate of chili jam and blackcurrant ganache that tastes divine, and very grown-up.

5. What sort of ingredients do you use?
I try to use as much fairtrade and/or organic as I can do, although with chocolate that does bump the costs up by quite a large margin. I use fresh fruit wherever possible and always, always fresh cream, even - or perhaps especially - in the caramels. I do make food with nuts, so although chocolates may not expressly contain nuts they have been made in an environment containing nut products. I do occasionally use alcohol but will make this clear on the packaging; generally speaking my chocolates are safe for kids.

6. Can I sell your chocolates in my outlet?
I'd love to discuss this with you. Please email me and we'll see what happens. Do note though that this is just me and I'm still working out how to get off the ground.

7. Are you married?
Ah, yes. But thanks for asking :)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Northern Art Pie


Last night we were lucky enough to get on a backstage tour of the Northern Art Prize, while they're still setting stuff up, thanks to the curator of Leeds City Art Gallery and Culture Vultures (who else?).

The shortlist is surprisingly good; the work on display feels like much more than what seems to pass as "art" these days, and although the exhibits were still being hung and positioned there was a bit of an excited ripple around the place when we were told - or discovered - little intricate pieces of the work that added a new layer. There is, for example, a bowl of sweets - rock - containing a poem that people can eat now or take away (but beware, rock is hygroscopic and will go soggy in your pocket!). A case of glass bottles which have, as labels, poems that indicate what the bottle originally contained (still contains? I forgot to ask). Some glass tubes that constantly play Rock, Paper, Scissors, which made me and others who knew about the RPS tournament at Interesting North chuckle. And a jaw-droppingly intricate piece made from painted jelly moulds and the tiny figures found on model railway platforms.


There are four artists, each with their own stories and backgrounds, and they'd very kindly given permission for photos to be taken for the evening; this did, of course, lead onto a discussion of rights in modern media and the debate got quite involved. It is obvious a new model of rights management needs to be brought into play, with the full consent of the artists. We don't want artists to have to become copyright lawyers in order to show their work, but in the minefield that it has become it is very hard to avoid. I'd quite like to have a chat to the artists just to see if they have a position on this, but of course it's part of a wider conversation that needs to start a ball rolling.

My favourite piece so far? Tricky to say as they're not all in position yet, but I love the work by Lubaina Himid; the whimsy and the stories it tells in micro and macro is fascinating and I look forwards to seeing the finished piece. Alec Finlay's pieces are adorable, and I do like the cabinet of remedies; again, I look forwards to seeing the finished exhibit.

The Northern Art Prize exhibit is on at the Leeds City Art Gallery from 26th November to February next year. Pop in, it's well worth a look. And the rest of the gallery is great too, especially the tiled hall where we followed the tour with the "northern art pies" competition.

Thanks to all involved! A fun event, and one I'd like to see more often. Perhaps this is the start of a sea-change in how galleries see citizen journalism...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Interesting Norf, part 2.

Mike Wallis "Baking Is Science For Hungry People"
Photo by Dan Sumption, Check out his work, it's excellent.

Part 1 of my #IntNorth experience is here.

My talk (slideshow now available on Google Docs) was about Cake, and just how awesome it is.

Feedback? Well @chrismurray0 tweeted about it and @irkafirka immortalised that tweet. I was described as "Delia Smith meets Johnny Ball" (which may go on a tshirt) and there were lots of lovely comments on the #intNorth hashtag. The official scorers were kind, too (Simon: "Mike is bobbing around in front of giant projections of cake like a demented weather man"). I know I blethered on a bit too fast, though, and some people didn't really get the talk. So, here is what I wanted to talk about, hopefully slightly more accessable than what I actually heard coming out of my mouth.

Also, I appreciate that this may be a bit TL;DR. Well, this was written as a 20-minute session, which I rattled through in what was probably closer to eight minutes, skipping over a lot of stuff quite lightly.

It was fun, though.

So, then. Cake. I just want to emphasise how important cake is; economically, sociologically, in terms of religion, history and technology. It's cruel to talk about cake when you don't have any, I know, and I'll be bombarding you with cake porn. Sorry about that.

Cake has been with us since... forever. Recently objects that are described as cakes were found in neolithic dig sites in Switzerland, and although we wouldn't describe them as being cake now, they were part of a celebratory meal, more than just your usual bread and meat. Sweetened with honey, these cakes were basically just enriched bread, risen using airborne yeast and heat. Most bread at the time would have tasted sour to us, so sweetening would have made the bread quite different to usual and hence cake as a seperate entity began to exist. During the age of Empires, like on the Greek monument shown here (slide 3), cake was sacrificed to the gods, presumably because it's cheaper and less messy than killing young ladies of a marriagable age. Or inexperienced young men, of course. Cake is still symbolically sacrificed today, too; the Chinese moon cake, for example, as well as the Christian host. Although I guess that's more of a biscuit.

So for most of history cake and bread are more or less synonymous; risen with yeasts and as yeast became more understood thanks to the baking and brewing industries around about two thousand years ago, its worth as a raising agent meant that bread gradually became more industrialised and less sour. Bakers, who were getting better quality flour thanks to milling, were looking at different ways of making cake more refined, to enhance that celebratory quality. For a very long time bakers would buy the barm, or the foam that is created during the brewing brocess. This would be skimmed off by the brewer and sold to the baker next door, who then had a lighter, airier raising agent to use in their doughs.

In Britain we do argue that bread is risen by yeast, cake by chemical raising agents or sheer bloody hard work. So things like chelsea buns (like those shown on slide 6, filled with lemon curd), pannetone, doughnuts and brioche are not cakes. By the way, Marie Antoinette never said "let them eat cake"; she may have said "let them eat brioche" but she probably never said that either as the phrase was originally written by Rousseau when Marie was very young. It was propaganda against a disliked queen, basically and unfair propaganda at that. What we can attribute to Marie was introducing the croissant to the wider world. When she moved to France she had a desire for Viennoise pastries; four bakers in Vienna made croissants, a comparatively poorly-known pastry outside the city, so she imported one of those bakers. The fashionistas of the time thought this breakfast pastry was a revelation and so the croissant became popular throughout France, and by extension, the rest of the world.

In the late 1600s someone - accounts vary - invented the egg whisk. Eggs are great; the structure and amount of protein in them means they hold bubbles really well and so you can beat bubbles into them using a wooden spoon if you have long enough. However, the whisk was an extension of bundling up twigs to beat eggs and then fishing out the broken off bits. It was possible to use something other than yeasty foam - which made cakes less dense than bread but still fairly stodgy - to make cakes rise. If you whisk eggs for long enough they form a light, airy foam which you can then add melted butter, sugar and flour to. This is known as the Genoise method and is still used in commercial kitchens today. It is a bit of a faff, though and requires plenty of time; beating eggs by hand to that stage requires a strong right arm. This (slide 9) is what happens if you don't read a recipe properly, or think you've got it right, or think you have a working oven. It's wrong. This really is a method best suited for making lots of cake in big trays in proper ovens, which is why these days we use the Victoria Sponge method at home, with chemical raising agents.

For baking powder we really only have one man to thank; Alfred Bird, an industrial chemist who married someone who was allergic to eggs and yeast. He invented custard powder that had never been near an egg, initially just for use at home; when it was accidentally served to guests he discovered a new industry, that of chemical food manufacture, and built up a company that still exists today selling custard powder that many of us have in our kitchens. Baking powder was invented so that his wife could eat bread again. Now, I love my wife dearly but this chap must have been utterly devoted to Elizabeth to invent an entirely new industry so she could have bread and custard.

Of course, baking powder revolutionised home baking. All of a sudden it was possible to make cake in reliatively small quantities and with import duties on sugar being reduced cake as we know it today started appearing more and more in tea rooms and in the homes of people who ordinarily wouldn't have had the space or money to make it themselves (and I've not even touched on oven design over the years!). As a quick aside, this phenomenon of home baking is really only common in some former parts of the Empire and Scandinavia. Even in the UK it is comparatively rare; cakes vanished during the war because of sugar rationing, and after the way industrial food manufacture took off, "convenience" being the label that sold. Prepackaged, homogeonised culture which meant that cooking food from scratch at home hit an all-time low that only started to be reversed thanks to food nuts in the 70s - thank god for Hippies - who basically made cakes not that dissimilar to the ones made by cavemen. Home baking in the UK is on the rise, but it has a long way to go, which is why I will be happy if just one of the audience who has never baked before goes home after this talk and makes a cake. So! Let's talk about making a cake.

You sort-of need all of this lot (slide 13); eggs, sugar, butter, self-raising, baking powder and vanilla. You also need baking parchment, an 8-inch tin, a decent sized mixing bowl and two spoons, one to beat the crap out of everything and one to gently turn it. An oven helps, too.

Mike Wallis "Baking Is Science For Hungry People"
Dan Sumption,

First, weigh your eggs. You have no idea how much the size of an egg can vary, and if you follow a recipe blindly which says something like "two eggs, 200g flour" you could get the proportions of liquid to solid very, very wrong and you'll end up with a horrible, dense or overflowing mess. Ok, it'll taste ok but it won't look particularly good. So you weigh the eggs and then use that weight of butter, sugar and flour; if you have 100g of egg then you use 100g of butter, 100g sugar, 100g flour.

Next, cream together the butter and sugar. It is vital that you get this bit right, as a poorly creamed start will make the cake collapse, and I'll talk about why in a moment. Creaming gets everything smooth and aligned molecularly in the bowl and gets air into the mix. If you've ever eaten a sugar sandwich you'll have a decent idea of what a blob of butter and sugar tastes like, but properly creamed it tastes totally different, smoother, cleaner, lighter. Your aim at this stage is air and smoothness. Next comes adding the egg; you can add an egg at a time or beat the two eggs together in another bowl and add it a spoon at a time, beating it in so it's properly mixed in. If you add all the egg at the same time the mix will look like it's curdled; this is fixable or even ignorable but at the expense of lightness and if you can avoid it to begin with you'll end up with a better cake. You add vanilla at this stage, if you like.

Once the egg is mixed in, fold in your flour. You were told at school that you have to fold in because you've been beating in all this air and you don't want to knock it out again; this is rubbish, frankly. You fold it in because you don't want to overwork the flour which will start to form long strands of gluten in the matrix. If gluten starts forming the cake will go doughy and breadlike and again, you'll lose lightness. Mix just until the flour is properly amalgamated, and then stop.

The thing to note here is that cake is a colloid; this is something that looks like a solution and acts like a homogeonous mass, to the extent that if you left it to stand it wouldn't separate out into its component parts of its own volition, but if you were to use a small enough filter you could force it to separate. That's the intention; a smooth, consistent matrix.

If you don't cream your butter and sugar properly, when you add the egg it looks like this (slide 19), a micrograph at 100x. In the bowl it looks like it has split, like bad mayonnaise. These large blobs are fat, which will melt and cause uneven texture and may even make the cake collapse. This next slide (20) shows what properly mixed cake batter before you add the flour looks like; you see those blobs aren't there and we've got a fairly consistent matrix of bubbles. These bubbles are important. As you heat up the mix the water inside those bubbles will turn into steam and make the bubble expand. Now, at this point those bubbles will break apart fairly easily, but when you add flour (slide 21) you can see that the walls are much thicker and can take expansion for much longer. The flour is supporting the bubble matrix, and as the cake starts to dry out the matrix can be held up under its own supporting structure. This is why it is important to keep the cake in the oven for long enough to cook through, as if these bubbles cool before drying out they'll contract and make the cake collapse.

Right, the baking medium; take a length of baking parchment, scrunch it up, unscrunch and stuff it into the tin around the base. Don't bother with greasing the tin; silicon paper will cheerfully be non-stick enough to live with here. (slide 16)

You've preheated the oven, right? I have a gas oven and GM3 is fine for me, I think it's 165C or 310F, something like that. Pop it on the middle shelf and leave it for at least 35 minutes. Don't open the door, don't knock the oven, don't do anything that might reduce the heat levels inside the oven until the cake is 90% cooked. The cake, when cooked, should be making little pops and whistles, smelling biscuitty and have a nice golden top to it. Before it's doing that don't open the oven door as it'll make the cake collapse in the way I said before. Stick a toothpick in and make sure nothing wet comes out with it, and it's done.

The lovely golden top is not caramelisation, by the way; it is a byproduct of the Maillard reaction, which involves amino acids as well as sugar. Lots of tasty chemicals are formed here, and they are what makes cake taste so nice. (slide 24)

If you do take the cake out too early then that's that; it'll collapse and there's nothing you can do about that. This (s25) is what happens, but you know what? It'll taste fine anyway, and icing covers a multitude of sins. Drizzle it in lemon juice and sugar and it'll be fine for anybody; the important thing is that you made it yourself, which always makes people smile, no matter how cynical they can be. When it comes out properly (s26) it looks like this; texture and crumb are even and look appetizing, the middle isn't sagging or undercooked and the cake holds itself up even when filled with lemon curd. Yes, again with the lemon curd; it takes two minutes to make if you're brave and I'll talk about that some other time.

Sometimes you don't need to worry about the cake collapsing; Dundee cake or Christmas cake will support its own structure because it has so much supporting flour and fat in there - a bit like laminar pastry - that it won't rise very much in the oven anyway, just dry out and let the molecular bonds form. And you don't even need to use normal sugar, sometimes; you can use good alternatives like honey or strawberry jam, which have a low moisture content and shouldn't affect the cake too much - but be careful, and don't add too much on your first outing, as it might make the cake a bit damper than you'd expect.

Finally, you know that saying, "you can't have your cake and eat it"? It's bobbins. You can have your cake and eat it, and once you have eaten it it stays with you forever, in your memories and as parts of you. Enjoy the cake, embrace it, and remember that baking is really just a science lesson for hungry people. Thank you.


There's a credits slide which is woefully underpopulated, too. Sorry about that. Some of the script is lifted from my articles at Tea and Cake and elsewhere.

Salted Caramels

Salt caramel

I've been making chocolates for an event on Friday; amongst many other things, this week has been a bit manic and I'm suffering from a serious lack of sleep so I'll apologise now for making little or no sense. Anyway! Here's my salted caramels recipe, as that terribly nice Mr Povey asked for it and I figured that more people could be interested too.

First things first: you could do with a sugar thermometer or decent temperature gauge for this. If you don't have one it's not the end of the world, but it can help.

Ingredients: 600g (1 pint, more or less) of blue-top (full fat) milk. 140g double cream, 350g sugar, 250g glucose (or honey), 1 tsp vanilla extract or a split-and-scraped vanilla pod, 20g butter, and 1 teaspoon of salt. You can add more salt if you like; I tend to use a heaped teaspoon.

Put the milk, cream, sugar and vanilla into a large, heavy bottomed saucepan and stir on a low heat until everything has dissolved. Then add the glucose (or honey) and slowly bring to the boil. When the caramel reaches 110°C it should be starting to go brown - keep the heat quite low, so it doesn't scorch - so add the butter and gently stir until it melts in. At this point fish out the vanilla pod if you're using one. Boil away until it gets to at least 117°C, but - and this is a big but - test the caramel's texture. You do this by taking a teaspoon of the mixture and dropping it into a bowl of iced water; if the caramel forms a soft ball that can hold it's shape for a couple of seconds, then it's ready. Depending on your milk/cream/sugar this can be at any point between 117 and 130°C.

When it's ready, a good golden caramel colour, add the salt, stir and pour into a baking tin lined with baking parchment.


As it cools it should do a decent job of solidifying, so you can start to mark out squares in the caramels. When it has set - and this might take overnight - you can then dip the resultant squares in melted, tempered dark chocolate and sprinkle with a few sea salt flakes.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Interesting Norf, part 1.

Apparently you can't throw a brick in Sheffield without hitting a tipped-over Reliant Robin...

Saturday morning I was up early, cajoling S out of bed and packing stuff up to go to Interesting North. We were on the 8:10 train, which at Chez Nous means out of bed at 6:30. So we got on the train with Matt & Caroline and arrived at Sheff on time, and were able to walk through the city to Cutlers' Hall, which is a lovely building filled with the remnants of a city's heritage. Checked in, got our t-shirts and badges, and a bookcrossing tome (mine was some airport-thriller type that I'll be passing on!) and some other gubbins including a PDF of Eyjafjallajökull that you can cut out and turn into your very own 3D volcano model. And two newspapers; Matt's Great Engines and the Int North newspaper itself, in which I have a photo (admittedly it's a self-portrait), and it's a magazine, so I may count it as task 24.

The hall filled up, and so did twitter with the #intNorth hashtag, and a little late we started with a very smooth rolling introduction that made us all laugh. Then we had talks. Lots of talks - 20 of them, in fact - about all sorts of things. My personal highlights were:
  • Baseball Scorekeeping; basically how you can condense an entire 3-hour game into a 6x6 box, and still be a perfect recreation of the game on a stroke-by-stroke basis. When I think of cricket scoring, which requires a 3ft piece of paper, this is genuinely innovative. And invented by a Brit. It is a great way of presenting data and the speaker has done work for Information is Beautiful because of this.
  • Fiction that references Nazis in the title; very, very funny talk that did what it said on the tin. Startling ending, but the number of really quite poor works that randomly contain the word "Hitler" in the title is quite surprising.
  • Lessons from Lego; "This is my lego collection. (audience gasps) It's sorted by size but not by colour; that would be really OCD." Hilarious, and fascinating; the debates in Lego society over the colour of minifig faces, for example. Or the bluey-grey replacement for grey that was introduced a couple of years ago. Lego for girls (astonishingly poor; Lego for girls is the same as Lego for boys, it's just Lego).
  • Eyjafjallajokull; just how the volcano went pop. Brilliant, obsessive, and fascinating.
  • Five Things Rules Do was interesting - although I'm not mad on watching other people play video games - if just for the point about rules being what they are; this was neatly illustrated by referencing Train. Chilling. But there was more to the talk than this; bending the rules seemed to be a common theme, but the double die in Backgammon was referenced to great effect.
  • James Bond: architecture Critic was a brilliantly posited argument about why Fleming hated modernism. "Would Chancellor Palpatine make an iPhone app?" was an inspired line, but the really, thoroughly thought-provoking bit was referencing There's a Horse in the Apple Store. Go away and read it.

Honorable mentions to all the other speakers; none were anything less than entertaining. Some were grim, some were exciting, some were joyous, some were filled with rigorous methodology and photos of people who were asleep on public transport, all were worth listening to and engaging with. I've not really talked about my own talk here but there was so much I wanted to say but didn't - partially because we were running so, so behind time - that I want to write it up as a seperate post.

Lunch was held at the Cathedral Crypt, the Archer Project provided soup and Howies (yes, the clothing manufacturer) provided (bloody tasty) bread from their Dohboy project. Again, well worth it.

Afterwards we all went to the pub where I, and it seemed like practically everybody else who had tipped-over Robin badges, had a couple of pints of Airtight (brewed by Thornbridge, just down the road) in exceptionally pleasant company, and then we headed home, voice broken, tired, and with a head full of lovely, buzzy thoughts.

Most of the collated data from the day is on Lanyrd or the IntNorth website itself. The twitter hashtag #intNorth picked up some interesting thoughts, and Flickr is slowly filling up with photos. I'm also quite interested in the "official score card", although it sadly didn't allow for just how late everything got.

A seriously good day, and I'll be very much up for doing this again. Wonder if we could have it in Leeds...?

(part two, containing the script of what I was talking about is here)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Last night I made cinder toffee.

craggy landscape

I love cinder toffee. I'm not that much of a fan of Crunchies, though - the size of the holes is wrong - so I tend to buy quite expensive bags of chocolate-covered chunks of the stuff from small sweetshops or stalls on farmers markets. I've made my own, too, but I keep on forgetting the details and the post-it I had on the fridge with the never-fail recipe has vanished (or fallen off, which is more likely) so I had to look a recipe up.

craggy landscape

This was less simple than you'd think; I have an entire bookcase full of cookbooks and it took me whole minutes of scouring indices to find a recipe for cinder toffee, in Domestic Goddess. None of my confectionary books had one, which really surprised me. Anyway, the recipe is simplicity itself: mix 200g sugar with 4 tbsp syrup and melt over a low heat until caramel coloured. Then whisk in 1tbsp bicarb, and pour into a greased tin.

craggy landscape

So I did all of that. Except I didn't; I dropped in a tablespoon of water too, because I know that when sugar underneath melts, the sugar on the surface will just sit there and not melt, and swirling it around too much will cause crystallisation. And instead of a greased tin I used a lined silicon mould. Anyway! I did all of that and whisked in the bicarb, which seemed like quite a lot to me, and it went all foamy and threatened to overflow the pan, so I poured it into the mould where it carried on expanding and stuck to the parchment. Thankfully it settled before devouring the kitchen and so I left it to cool. Alas! The stuck bits meant that it didn't recede smoothly and I was left with a haunting, depressed landscape that turned out to be an absolute bugger to break up.

craggy landscape

It really was horrible, breaking this thing into sensibly-sized shards for dipping. And it turned out that I'd left the caramel on the heat for about ten seconds too long as it tasted slightly too burned. I know cinder toffee is supposed to taste slightly burned, but this was just a little bit over. So! Total waste of sugar, chocolate and an evening. Except it wasn't, of course; I'm quite happy with the photographs, which do seem to be a bit on the disturbing side, especially if you don't know what they depict. It's funny how many of those holes look like screaming mouths from a mass of tortured souls.

craggy landscape

Am looking for better cinder toffee recipes.