The Great Office Bake Off

My Bake off entries

My Great Office Bake Off entries

After a two-week holiday earlier this month the main highlight of my return to work was the Great Office Bake Off. I allowed myself to get more than a little carried away in the preparation, making constructive use of that post-holiday re-entry period where you haven’t got round to arranging a social life.

Maybe people were just humouring me, but I found others were interested too. At open house the week before we had a long and detailed chat about options for different types of cake; the relative merits of a crowd pleasing chocolate cake against a quirkier but divisive lavender cake, or a visually impressive but not so excitingly flavoured rainbow layer cake. And because of my slight obsessive tendencies, all of the items needed to complement each other; it just wouldn’t do to have any flavour appearing more than once despite the anonymous judging.

The preceding weekend, ingredients were bought and practice runs carried out. Samples were handed round friends on condition that they submit to interrogation as to whether the gingeryness was *just* right. Monday morning brought team planning and analysis of the weekend’s attempts. Sceptical bosses were won round by the prevailing baking madness and demanded cake to be set aside for them on the great day. Motivational emails were sent out, and inter-floor rivalries were set in place. And the finer points of ‘cake or pie’ were debated and adjudication sought.

We could enter up to one item in each of the three categories of cake, pie and bread and after much contemplation I had decided that entering all three was eminently sensible. After an evening of cooking madness, a few hours sleep and an early morning start to shape and cook the bread, I was feeling pretty pleased with my offerings. Then the dawning realisation hit that I had made GIANT things. My triple-layer cake was taller than the cake carrier; and the excitingly expanded bread was the size of an enormous chopping board, not to mention the plates, garnishes and utensils that needed to make the trip in.

results of a busy nights baking

Prepped and ready to go, the results of a busy nights baking

Resignedly I booked a taxi to the office, and tried to think of ways to explain away my mode of arrival to my peers but failed to come up with anything better than sheer baking obsession. Happily though, everything survived the journey, and for once presentation of the final products lived up to the image in my mind’s eye, with three of my very own recipe creations beautiful presented.

The competition

The competition

An amazing 50 bakers signed up to participate, in baking teams including ‘macarons sans frontiers’ and the ‘financiers’. It may not have been the most productive day in the office, but the team-building value was immense and excitement palpable, as people snuck upstairs to give final touches to their entry, and check out the competition. When judging time rolled around, most of the staff in the building turned up, to be surprised by the appearance of celebrity judges!

Judging in progress

Judging in progress

The final products were a gin and tonic cake; a cardamom, chocolate and pear tart and a ginger tea-bread ring. And I’m happy to say my efforts were successful. The G&T cake was a winner, with the tea-bread getting a runner up prize, and the Bakers Without Borders won a prize for best team effort! To round the morning off, two of my friends won the prizes for other categories, and the sender of the overly competitive motivational emails didn’t win anything at all; overall a truly great office bake off!

The winning Gin and Tonic cake

The winning Gin and Tonic cake

Runner up teabread

Runner up ginger tea bread

Gin and Tonic cake

The winning cake

Gin and Tonic cake

I first came across the idea of a G&T cupcake when we got to try them at the third birthday party for Prudence, Sipsmith Gin’s still. At the time I remember thinking it was an interesting idea, however was underwhelmed at the gin-iness of the cakes although quantities of gin being consumed in liquid form that evening may have affected my taste buds! Anyway, come the summer and a friend’s G&T-drinking birthday garden party, the idea of a G&T CAKE popped back into my mind.


Prudence's 3rd Birthday

Prudence’s 3rd Birthday

I started researching and was surprised to find there didn’t seem to be much out there by way of a definitive recipe, however a few bloggers had shared their thoughts… Most seemed to track back to blogs from either how sweet it is or butter, sugar, flowers, but neither of these seemed quite like what I had in mind. I was looking for an impressive, large, frosted cake for a big group of people celebrating a significant birthday.  So I experimented away and produced a cake… the day was very hot, the icing very gin-y and somewhat slippery and feedback was mixed, some who don’t gin full stop (shocker), some saying there was too much gin, or too much sugar, and others saying it was a genius idea.

The cake needed a tweak or two to make it just right, and so when I was thinking of recipes to try for the Great Office Bake Off (blog post to follow) and bearing in mind my colleagues’ fondness for alcoholic drinks I decided to have another go, and a practice too to in the spirit of taking it all far too seriously.

To develop the recipe I went back to basic ideas; a lime sponge layer cake and simple vanilla frosting, and then considered how to get the flavours in. Cooking with gin would involve loosing the alcohol along the way so was a no-no, however I liked the idea of adding in some crushed juniper berries to bring some depth of flavour to the sponge.

Juniper berries in Prudence

Juniper berries in Prudence

Another concern was the potentially high volume of liquid which might mess up both the sponge and the frosting. Initially I decided to reduce down the tonic to get the flavour with less of the liquid volume, however learnt that this can be taken too far; having a syrup I could barely scrape from the pan the first time. The second attempt had a batter that still looked quite dry so I settled on reducing some of the tonic and stirring in some fresh at the end, which as an added bonus reacts with the raising agents and gives the cake a boost! I’ve also used mostly lime zest and not that much juice, however if you wanted a less potent cake you could swap juice for gin.

For the actual G&T used, I went with Tanqueray gin, partly because this was what we had open in the cupboard, but also because it has a good, juniper flavour. I’m not sure that Hendricks, for example, which is often served with cucumber (blergh) rather than lime, would be that good a fit. I was also fussy over the tonic water and used Fever Tree tonic; this is a premium brand, which is made without any artificial sweeteners and has a great flavour. The absence of Fever Tree tonic in two branches of Waitrose may have provoked my most ridiculously #middleclassproblems rant of the year…

In the frosting, I found that keeping 1 tbsp of milk as part of the liquid helps it to whip up into a fluffier mixture; after that you can add as much gin as you dare! It will set somewhat given an hour or two but you want a mixture that’s still going to hold its shape well when you ice with it.  When it came to decorating, I felt the muted colour of my crystallised lime slices didn’t quite have the freshness I wanted, so put strands of fresh lime zest on top and put slices of crystallised lime at regular intervals around the edge. My first attempt had grated lime zest in all of the frosting, and although it tasted good I wasn’t a fan of the speckled look so then decided to try putting it into a super-zesty middle filling.

Practice cake: lime zest in the icing

Practice cake: lime zest in the icing

After the bake off, I was asked for the recipe so many times that I thought I should check it before writing it down so made it the third time in a fortnight for a friends wedding cake buffet, the final vision of the recipe follows.  For this one I set aside a little of the coloured icing for the decoration, along with some crystalised lime zest. If you don’t want to make quite such a massive cake you could scale it down for smaller tins by scaling the sponge on the classic rule of one egg to two ounces each of sugar, self raising flour and butter.


  • Uses two, 9-inch (23 cm) tins, or 3-8 inch ones if you fancy a tall cake
  • Preheat the oven to 170C (150 fan)

WARNING: this cake contains semi-serious amounts of alcohol. If you use the quantities below, and cut into 12 slices you’ll have about half a unit/measure per slice. Not enough to get anyone very drunk but enough to concern someone who’s trying to avoid booze!


1tbsp juniper berries
finely grated zest of two limes
200ml of Fever Tree tonic water
10oz (275g) butter (at room temp)
10oz (275g) caster sugar
5 eggs
10oz (275g) self raising flour
1tsp baking powder
100g caster sugar
Juice of two limes
~75ml of gin.
500g icing sugar
160g butter (at room temp)
1 tbsp milk (15 ml)
~5 tbsp gin (75ml)
Zest of two limes
juice of 1 lime (optional)
green & yellow food colouring (optional)
Lime zest or crystallised lime to decorate.

Before starting on the cake mix, line the bases of your tins with greaseproof paper, and grease both the paper and the sides of the tins.
Pour half of the tonic water into a small, non stick pan and boil until reduced by about half, leaving you with approx 50ml. If you reduce this too far it will become very syrupy and hard to remove from the pan!

Finely grate the zest from two limes, and crush the juniper berries until there are few, if any large flakes. This took me a few minutes in the pestle and mortar.
Now make a standard sponge cake; for a guaranteed good result I’m a fan of the traditional approach. Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, then add the lime zest and ground juniper berries.

Add the lime zest and crushed juniper berries

Add the lime zest and crushed juniper berries

Weigh the flour and sift with the baking powder.  Beat in the eggs one at time, adding a tablespoon of the flour with each egg to prevent curdling. When all of the eggs have been added, leave the mixer to one side and fold in half of the flour, and when incorporated repeat with the remaining half of the flour.

Finally, carefully fold in first the reduced tonic water, and then the remaining 100ml of tonic from the bottle in a couple of stages. The mixture will start to fizz as the tonic reacts with the raising agents, so as soon as the liquid is incorporated spoon the mixture quickly into the waiting tins, smooth out the tops and put into the oven.

The mixture browns quite easily, so cook at 150 C in our furnace of a fan oven, probably 170 if yours is less fierce, for 30-35 minutes. (cooking in smaller tins will take less time, check after 20 mins).

Towards the end of the cooking time, make your gin & lime drizzle.  Juice the limes which were zested earlier; if you give them a quick minute or so blast in the microwave, until they’re hot but not too hot to hold, it will start to break down the cells inside the lime and mean you get more juice from them. Gently warm the juice with the sugar on the hob, until the sugar is dissolved and you have a clear liquid.

When your cakes are cooked (firm to touch, and starting to come away from the tin at the edges), remove from the oven and place, still in the tins, on a cooling rack. If you have loose bottomed tins it’s worth placing a tray underneath the rack to catch any stray drizzle. Prick the tops of the cakes with a fine-pronged fork or skewer, and stir the gin into the drizzle mix. I find it’s helpful to decant this into a jug at this point, then pour the drizzle over the sponges, making sure the whole top of each cake is covered, and distributing it as evenly as possible between the cakes. Leave the cakes to cool, still in their tins.

When the cakes are ready to ice, finely grate the zest of two more limes, setting the limes aside in case you want the juice later. To make the gin frosting, start by softening your butter in the mixer. If you don’t have a freestanding mixer, or a warm kitchen, or immense patience you may want to help it along by placing your mixer bowl in a larger bowl containing some warm (but not to boiling hot) water.

When your butter is soft, and not sticking too solidly to your beaters, add the icing sugar and start to beat slowly. As the butter starts to incorporate into the sugar it will start to look sandy, at which point you can increase the speed slightly. Slowly, the sandy mixture will start to come together, passing quickly through a scrambled-egg stage until you have a smooth mixture. At this point, you can do away with the warm water bath if you were using it.

Look at the time now,  add the tablespoon of milk and beat, then add the gin a spoonful or two at a time mixing each lot in well. Be wary of making your mixture too wet; however if you’re using less gin you may want to add some lime juice as well. If you want more gin then proceed carefully, making sure that the mixture will continue to hold peaks. Continue to whip for at least 5 minutes in total; you’ll notice the mixture becomes paler, fluffier and has more volume as you incorporate more air during this beating time.

At this point, I took out a quarter of the frosting for the filling (or a third if you’ve a three layer cake to fill). Mix the lime zest into this, and if you want, add your colourings until you reach a deep lime colour.

Pick the cake with the least even top, and after running around the edge of the tin with a blunt, flexible-bladed knife to make sure the cake us loosened, turn it upside down directly onto the serving plate. The drizzle mixture will make it very hard to re-position so try to avoid putting the top of the cakes onto any intermediary surface!

Spread your zesty frosting evenly across the first cake; staying slightly away from the edges, then, with a bit of juggling, (I found the greaseproof paper from the first cake came in handy here), turn out the second cake, and place it flat-side down on top of the first. If you have a third layer then repeat with the second half of your zesty icing.

Assembling the cake

Assembling the cake

At this stage, if you’re trying to win a bake off and want to try for a flawless finish on your cake you can brush it gently with a pastry brush to remove stray crumbs Then use a quarter or so of your remaining frosting to give it a ‘basecoat’, covering the top and sides with a thin layer of icing to seal in the crumbs. If you go for this strategy you then need to leave this to set, at least 30 mins in the fridge.

Finally, ice the top and sides with the remaining frosting, watching out for any stray streaks of green seeping out from the middle. I find a flat-sided dough scraper comes in handy for smoothing the sides, and went with a gently arced lines pattern on the top.

Decorate with crystallised lime slices or zest, or strips of fresh zest. For the cake I wanted to write on, I set aside a small amount of the coloured icing from the filling to pipe with.

G&T cake in the wedding cake buffet

G&T cake at the back of the wedding cake buffet

Moroccan Magic

For October’s Open House celebration we took inspiration from my Moroccan holiday last month; and the stash of spices I’d brought back with me, to have a Moroccan themed evening. With the aid of some cushions, rugs and mood lighting, our living room was transformed into a Moroccan wonderland. There were conversations on child labour and rug weaving (demonstrated through friendship-band making), a bit of turban-tying, and excitement at having S back in the gang after several weeks away, as well as some post bake-off analysis.


Turban-tying lesson in the Sahara

Interestingly, in the time between thinking of and publishing this blog, my friend Rich has just been featured in a blog talking about cooking a Moroccan meal and building community around food!


Tea, Bread and Olives

We started out with the ubiquitous flat bread, olives and Moroccan mint tea whilst dinner was stewing. The mint tea was made from a mix of equal amounts gunpowder tea and dried mint I bought at the airport. Although I’d not invested in the staple silver-plated teapot to serve from it tasted pretty authentic poured, from as great a height as you dare to aerate the tea, from our china pot into small glasses and mugs, with a sprig of mint and sugar cube in each.

Moroccan Tea made properly

Moroccan Tea made properly

For mains I was cooking for about 12 people, and I stuck to some standard options from the tourist-focussed restaurants we visited on my trip; a Chicken Tagine with apricots and Seven Vegetable Couscous. I steered away from the standard chicken with olives given the preferences of the small people likely to be there. After a bit of googling for inspiration, I realised that I may have to freestyle the recipes more than a little, especially given I’m not entirely sure what the contents of my spice mixes are.

For the chicken tagine, my chicken joints (8 free range legs halved to thighs and drumsticks) had been marinated over night with some Harissa paste that had been languishing in the fridge, some olive oil, a tablespoon of Ras el Hanout mix and a lemon, roughly chopped into eighths. When I got home I failed to engage my brain, and immediately started off by frying up a couple of chopped onions in a not-quite large enough casserole instead of browning off the chicken joints first.

After a bit of pan-swapping faff, we had some browned joints sitting on the softened onions, to which I’d stirred in a tablespoon of the ‘Épices au poulet’ (Chicken Spice containing turmeric and other mysterious things). A pint of chicken stock then went into the pan, along with about 100g of dried apricots, roughly snipped into halves. I gave it a quick stir, then put on the lid and left it to simmer gently for about an hour, until everything else was ready; though it would probably have been done in about 40 mins.

For the Seven Vegetable Couscous, I’d prepped four of my veg the night before in order to stand a chance of serving up at a reasonable time. In the end, I let the whole thing cook for slightly too long so the squash and carrot were falling apart, so I’ll give the times for what I’d intended to do; about 30 mins in total. I’d made far too much stock so if I repeat it I’d go with about 1.5l for this.

In a giant stockpot I softened three chopped, white onions in some olive oil. Then I added in about 8 smallish carrots, chopped into quarters/eighths lengthwise depending on size, and a smallish (just under 1kg) butternut squash which I’d washed, halved, de-seeded and sliced widthways but NOT peeled as life’s too short. I then added some coriander stems, a cinnamon stick, a tablespoon of sweet paprika (Piment Doux), one of Ras el Hanout, and one of Harira spice mix. Harira is a warming Moroccan soup, and seems usually to have a blend of paprika, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon and ginger so I’m assuming that was what the mix contained! After a good stir, I added 2 litres of vegetable stock, deliberately making extra to use for the couscous later, and put the lid on the pan to simmer for about 10 mins.

Then the peppers went in: as they’d been reduced in the supermarket this was a dozen mini-peppers halved and de-seeded but could easily be three or four normal sized ones quartered. Next were two aubergines, cut in half lengthwise then each half chopped to wedges about 1cm wide on the outside, and a couple of handfuls of sultanas. After cooking these for about 10 mins more, I took out 500ml of stock and stirred it into 500g of couscous in a giant bowl, with a bit of extra Ras-el-Hanout for luck. Then, after some multiple attempts at counting to seven and resorting to using my fingers, I added the final two veg; 200g of trimmed fine green beans, and tin of tomatoes and left it to cook for what should have been a further 5 minutes.

Seven Vegetable Couscous in Marrakesh

Seven Vegetable Couscous in Marrakesh

Then stir in some butter and chopped coriander leaves to the couscous grains and break it up with a fork. Ideally the couscous (and in Morocco that’s the name of the whole dish, not just the grain) would be served piled high in a platter with the drained vegetables arranged around them, and the reduced stock served in a jug. However, we had neither a dish large enough, nor table space to serve on so instead served from the kitchen using the couscous to divide the bowls and keep the remarkably tasty mystery-chicken-spiced gravy separate from the vegetables on the other side of the bowl.



After a reasonable break, during which time there may have been some lying down on the large mound of cushions to aid digestion, we moved on to, well, afters. Our east-london source had picked up some Hazelnut and Pistachio baklava, along with the flatbreads, and these were served with dates I’d bought semi-dry from the date market in Erfoud and an Orange and Cinnamon salad.

Buying dates in Erfoud

Date market in Erfoud

For the salad, the ever helpful A had earlier cut the zest and pith from four large, juicy oranges, before cutting them crosswise into round slices and arranging beautifully on a plate. We then made a simple syrup with 2 tbsps each of caster sugar, boiling water and rosewater. Ideally this would have been icing sugar and orange blossom water, but this combo seemed to work just fine. We then drizzled it over the oranges, sprinkled generously with ground cinnamon, and covered it and left it in the fridge whilst we ate, and for a final, Moorish touch, sprinkled over some pomegranate.