That is to say my “Chocolate Truffle Cake Bombs With Salted Caramel Popcorn Buttercream Centres” that I entered into the Women’s Institute 2018 Tea and Tents Bake Off competition won the chocolate category and everyone who’d had one came around my campsite later to see if there were any left, but my friends had already happily gobbled up the extras!
When I was standing waiting with other entrants to place our stuff on the tables, someone told me that the name was “too clunky” and mocked me for how I wasn’t likely to win with a name like that. Hm.
But that’s one of the things I keep reiterating on the podcast: you need to know each competition and how judges look at things. While I hadn’t done this level of WI competition before, I have competed in and won smaller WI bakeoffs, and I know that in this sort of casually-judged tasting contest a lot of the decision rests on appealing to the judge’s head before the food is even in their mouths. So while that title is indeed clunky, it’s deliberately throwing a pile of delicious-sounding words at the judges to make them think, “Oh WOW, that sounds AMAZING.” Part two of this strategy is ensuring you are BRINGING IT in terms of a multi-flavour punch. You can’t lure them in expecting something big and then have wimpy flavours. But I know how to deliver flavour, and clearly this strategy works!
By popular request, I’ve posted the vague-sorta-recipe for the winning chocolate entry below.
In contrast, the strategy that keeps failing me at WI contests is to bother with anything decorated, although I did know that going into this contest and did it anyway to amuse myself even if it wasn’t likely to win. The chocolate balls were actually my secondary entry; my primary one was built of the sugar cookies my WI friends always say they love, arranged in a decorated way to celebrate the camping event itself:
Decoration is only minimally acknowledged at these events, if at all, and I believe the winning cookie was a more complicated flavour profile. Because again, what wins these particular contests is complexity of flavours above all else.
But I know most of my blog readers are here for the decoration stuff, so here’s a little bit on how I made the cookie construction:
First I nailed and glued an upright A4 sized MDF board to an existing Mike McCarey board I had in my supply, and covered the whole thing in foil. Then I made several dozen square sugar cookies (with this recipe) and filed the edges so they’d fit properly onto the upright background and the base of structure. I affixed the background ones on first with royal icing after tinting them in a blue gradient, tipping the whole assembly back so they could dry firmly in place overnight. A little too firmly, actually…in prepping this piece to be weather-resistant on a camping ground, I adhered them so well that people couldn’t get them off to eat later!
I made jumbo letter cookies for the name of the event and used two different knitting texture mats to make them look “knitted” since yarn crafts are a major part of the event.
For both the ampersand and the campfire, I used a tea cup cutter to continually re-introduce the titular tea motif for the event:
The little cabins were cut using the Sweet Creations 3D Mini Gingerbread House Cookie Cutter which appears to be out of print but it looks like it can be found on ebay and other resellers. I put the side walls on the outside of the front and back to make the cabins more cube-ish (all held together with royal icing and left to dry overnight). I then decorated all of the sides with brown fondant textured to look like wood, and made ovals cut in half to layer as shingles. The cutter looks like this if you’re searching for one:
For the tents, I made two small squares with two small triangles with an edge to match (this was easy using my two Ateco graduated sets in square and triangles respectively), and then with a third square cookie I cut a piece off and filed it with a microplane grater to make a pointed edge. Again, the pieces were glued together with royal and allowed to dry overnight.
Then I covered all of that in blue fondant (triangle sides first and then a long rectangle over the top), cut a bit of white with the same triangle cutter and affixed it in place, then cut blue with that same cutter and affixed one edge with the other curled open.
For the trees, I just did a basic wet-on-wet multi-green, although I also made some with the dough itself tinted green so the judges could taste the cookies without icing if they desired.
I covered the base in tiled cookies and then used stiffer green royal icing with the grass tip all over, placing the trees, tents, cabins, and campfire as I went.
Even though the judges didn’t pick this display to win, it was a hit with my local community, specifically a very aggressive wasp that kept coming in while I was decorating! It decided one tree cookie in particular was the greatest thing ever, and when I went to get my child from school I came back to find the wasp buried face-deep in the partially-dried icing:
Obviously I couldn’t serve that cookie at that point. I mean look at the hole it ate through:
And no matter what I did, the infernal wasp wouldn’t leave me alone, even when I put that now-scrap cookie to the side. So when it decided my empty green icing bag over on the counter was also interesting, I managed to grab the bag, sealing the wasp inside to its doom. I cut my coupler out for vigorous washing later (even though the wasp hadn’t gotten down that far), killed the wasp in the bag, and threw it away.
I’ve since installed these traps around our yard and house, filled with watered-down strawberry jam with vinegar added to keep honeybees safe but let me get my sugar work done safely!
Given how many wasps we had at the camp site, I’m going to bring one of these with a hanging pole next year! It’s already making a huge difference for our house. I’m used to having children lingering around when I’m doing decorating work but I won’t put up with stinging beasts wrecking my icing!
Anyway, those were my creations for Tea and Tents 2018. Here’s the sorta-recipe for the chocolate balls for those who are interested. Note that it’s an “about that much” kind of recipe because I didn’t measure as I went. The caramel popcorn is adapted from this recipe by Emma Christensen.
NOTE THAT THIS RECIPE USES CHOCOLATE CAKE BALL MATERIAL. That means you will have to either have that kind thing on hand (as cake decorators generally do) or you will have to bake the cake and make the ganache in advance. I haven’t put a prep time on this recipe because if you have to make the entire cake first, that adds a lot of time.
- 43 grams unsalted butter
- ½ cup light brown sugar (packed)
- ½ teaspoon vanilla
- ¼ teaspoon sea salt flakes
- ⅛ teaspoon bicarb of soda
- 70 grams already-popped popcorn (I used Tyrell Posh Lightly Salted this time but I've made this same popcorn in the past with fresh-popped as well)
- table salt
- 207 grams of unsalted butter, softened (as in the rest of the 250g block you used 43g of for the caramel)
- Powdered sugar/icing sugar (I didn't measure, it was several cups' worth I think)
- 10-15 drops of Foodie Flavours Vanilla
- 10-15 drops of Foodie Flavours Caramel
- This is the sort of thing cake decorators generally have in their freezers from carving cakes, made up of cake cut-offs and in my case any ganache that was on the cake plus extra leftover ganache. It is not an exact amount of anything, but I had a large Ziploc freezer bag full and I used about two thirds of that, plus a side tub of ganache. The chocolate cake cutoffs were all from my standard cake recipe which is this BBC recipe (but I lower the sugar to 300g and increase the cocoa to 95g), and my standard ganache recipe is equal weights of double cream and dark chocolate. So if you don't have any cakeball material already, you would need to bake that cake and make enough ganache to cover and fill it, and then mash all of that up together into a sticky paste with as few lumps as possible.
- To make 30-40 balls I used four 100g bars of dark chocolate, but I had leftover buttercream so if you want to make more, have more chocolate on hand.
- Preheat the oven to 120C/110C (fan)/250F.
- Melt the butter in a nonstick pot over medium heat. Add sugar and mix thoroughly.
- Increase heat to medium high and bring to a boil, stirring regularly with a silicone spatula, scraping the bottom of the pot frequently. Boil for 3-4 minutes or until you see the first wisps of smoke coming from the mixture, then remove from the heat immediately. The mixture will look cloudy and may still have some separated butter. Continue to mix off-heat until it comes together in a thick mixture.
- Put the popcorn in a large bowl with plenty of room to mix. Carefully pour the hot caramel over the popcorn, mixing as you go so it doesn't all clump up. Mix as well as you can for even distribution.
- Spread the coated popcorn out on a nonstick cookie sheet (best if you can line it with a washable tray liner such as a silicone mat or a woven cookie liner) and bake for an hour, keeping an eye on it and rotating the tray if necessary.
- Remove from the oven and sprinkle lightly with table salt.
- Let cool completely on the tray while occasionally taking "quality samples".
- Put the softened butter in a stand mixer and whip it up a bit so it's creamy. Add powdered sugar in small amounts, scraping the bowl as necessary, until you've got a fairly stiff buttercream sweetened to your tastes. Add the flavourings, mixing thoroughly after each addition, and test after a few drops of each to adjust it to your taste.
- Chop up the caramel popcorn into small pieces with a large knife on a cutting board, and then mix into the buttercream.
- With a small spoon, scoop out small lumps of the buttercream (about 1-2 cm wide) and roll into balls. Chill until firm.
- Make a flattened ball of the cake ball mixture about 5 cm wide. Push a firm ball of the salted caramel buttercream into the cake ball and wrap the mixture around it, rolling in your hands to smooth it out. You'll soon get a feel for how much is a good amount to cover the buttercream without the end result being too huge to bite, so pinch off any excess if necessary. Place these balls on a board or tray and chill to firm them up.
- Melt the dark chocolate in a narrow, deep bowl in small amounts at a time in the microwave, going low and slow and mixing in between. Do not melt until fully liquid or you'll ruin the temper of the chocolate! Melt it until lumps remain and then stir and rest repeatedly until the lumps are gone, then add a few extra unmelted lumps and mix gently until those melt.
- Take the chilled balls out of the fridge a few at a time and dip them into the chocolate on the edge of a fork (the fork shouldn't pierce the ball, just hold it). Tap the fork on the edge of the bowl to allow excess chocolate to drip off, then place them on a silicone or other non-stick tray until the chocolate hardens. Rewarm the chocolate and/or add more as necessary.
- Store refrigerated until just before serving.