Barbara Young meets Debbie Hopkins of The Homemade House, to find out how to make delicious edible Christmas gifts with a personal touch.
There’s something just that bit extra special about receiving homemade Christmas goodies cooked with love and care, and this year it’s no surprise that when it comes to gifts many of us are choosing a more personal and affordable choice.
According to Debbie Hopkins, owner of The Homemade House, the joy of giving can be made even more memorable by taking time out in the kitchen to create a selection of delicious sweet treats and as I discovered you don’t need to be an expert baker or chef to create a selection of seasonal favourites, ideal as gifts for friends and family.
By coincidence I joined Debbie, a self-confessed foodie with a passion for cooking, in her homely teaching kitchen near Sleaford, where The Homemade House offers a wide range of personalised workshops, on National Chocolate Day, which seemed apt considering what we had planned. On the menu to make was salted caramel fudge, chocolate truffles, Christmas tree chocolate lollies, loaded buttons, dipped cinder toffee and an introduction to sugar craft, which saw my first attempt at decorating individual Christmas cakes.
Debbie’s infectious enthusiasm for baking while sharing her knowledge to help inspire students is evident from the moment she welcomes you into the light and airy spacious kitchen which is well equipped with everything you’ll need to succeed and more! Before we began, Debbie introduced me to her new Vorwerk Thermomix, a state-of-the-art, multi-function kitchen appliance which is all the rage in many of the best professional kitchens. Debbie has been so impressed with it that she has trained as an independent Thermomix advisor. Billed as ‘the ultimate food preparation device’, it’s a clever 20-in-one, all-singing-all-dancing robot sous chef with a touchscreen to control temperature, time and speed, which can transform even the most tentative cook into a creative chef while delivering assuring consistent results.
“Although I was sceptical about it at first, I’m now a convert,” says Debbie. “It’s a very clever device aimed at anybody who enjoys food as it makes cooking more simple and is also time saving. You don’t have to be a professional cook to enjoy using it, you can be an absolute beginner, or like me, a very experienced cook who just wants to extend their skills.”
Wife of Chris Hopkins, director of Turnbulls, and mother-of-four, Debbie is an experienced and skilled teacher, who previously worked as a mental health nurse, as well as being part of several local government initiatives to encourage young and disadvantaged people to learn to cook. Clearly a “people person”, her teaching style is encouraging and aimed at building confidence in the kitchen. With a lifelong passion for cooking and baking, Debbie enjoys sharing her expert knowledge, welcoming students of all abilities to enjoy a taste of making traditional homemade treats with a personal touch.
The first challenge of the day was to make buttery salted caramel fudge with just six ingredients: white chocolate, golden syrup, butter, condensed milk, brown sugar and sea salt.
“This recipe is easy and so much nicer than the fudge you can buy,” says Debbie, who is also a great advocate of cooking with children from an early age. “My philosophy is if you cook from scratch, you can not only choose where to buy your ingredients, you also know exactly what’s going into each recipe.
“Salted caramel is always a popular flavour because it’s a combination of sweet and savoury – it makes a delicious change from the usual kind, such as plain vanilla or chocolate.”
Although we chose to use the Thermomix, you can easily make this in less than 20 minutes using a large heavy-based saucepan.
Christmas chocolate truffles
Ideal for chocolate lovers and so easy to make, these indulgent favourites are always a popular Christmas gift, especially when presented in individual clear gift bags tied up with festive ribbon.
“My unique selling point is always to use the best quality ingredients you can source,” explains Debbie. “If you’re going to take the time and trouble to bake, you want to make everything as delicious as you can and if you compromise on the quality of the ingredients, you can always taste it in the finished product.
“I always recommend using premium brand chocolate as it makes all the difference to the taste. Although I buy my Belgian chocolate wholesale, you can also find excellent chocolate bar choices in supermarkets such as Lidl and Aldi.”
Moving on with creative chocolate work, Debbie explained how to make ganache in preparation for the truffles. Ganache, which is a mixture of cream and chocolate, is versatile and can be used for many dishes including toppings for sponge cakes or warmed up to go with ice cream or desserts.
She recommends mixing melted dark and milk chocolate with Elmlea, a blend of buttermilk and vegetable oils, rather than fresh cream, to help improve shelf-life. For best results, make up the chocolate ganache for a few hours or even better, the day before you plan to make the truffles. If you’re in a rush, increase the ratio of chocolate to help the mix firm up more quickly.
Debbie explains: “If you’re using dark chocolate, use equal amounts of cream, so for 100ml cream, use 100g chocolate; whereas if you’re using milk chocolate, the ratio of chocolate is doubled, and with white chocolate which has no cocoa in it, you’ll need to treble the amount so use 100ml cream with 300g chocolate.
“Make sure the mix is stirred well and spoon the chocolate into paper cupcake cases and place in the fridge – using these means it’s easy to peel away the set chocolate before dividing into equal quarters.
“It’s also a good idea to wear food preparation gloves as rolling the truffles is a messy process, which also makes it an ideal opportunity to get creative with children of all ages and it’s always a bonus if they’re making something they really like!
“Young children don’t always find it easy to concentrate so break the session down into manageable bits and then come back to do each stage.”
Next, we coat the rolled truffle balls in sieved cocoa, finely chopped nuts or melted chocolate, then place in the fridge to set, before repeating the process, so they are double coated.
For any artistic confectionery work, Debbie explained that chocolate needs to be correctly tempered; this is the process which makes chocolate smooth, glossy and crisp. Correct ‘tempering’ – heating and cooling chocolate to stabilise it – also keeps it from quickly melting on your fingers, and allows it to be used more easily for dipped and chocolate-covered treats.
Debbie demonstrated how to transform simple shop-bought cinder toffee into special treats by dipping them in a light covering of prepared melted chocolate before pressing the base gently onto edible patterned transfers. Allow to cool in the fridge before popping them in a gift bag.
Using the same chocolate mix, we also made Christmas tree lollies using a piping bag held between thumb and forefinger and working quickly to pipe a series of fine lines across a lolly stick placed on a sheet of foil to prevent sticking. Before they set, sprinkle with an assortment of miniature sprinkles and toppings.
Decorated chocolate buttons are also easy to make using the same technique. Pour the mixture into a piping bag and starting from the centre pipe approximately 12 chocolate rounds, before adding a choice of decoration, or to make them into chocolate lollipops, simply insert an ice cream stick into the sides of the buttons.
The art of sugar craft
Working with icing and sugar can be as easy or complicated as you like, but for first-timers and nervous novices, Debbie recommends starting with ready prepared sugar paste which can be found in most supermarkets which is easy to roll and used to create figures or in moulds.
Debbie had already prepared several individual fruit cakes, using a recipe adapted from Jane Asher’s ‘Last-Minute Christmas Cake’ (perfect if you’ve been too busy to make a traditional bake ahead of time), so all that was left to do was roll out the marzipan and icing before topping off with a colourful festive decoration.
“Take a piece of paste and warm it up in your hands before working it on a flat board,” explains Debbie. “This process, which is called conditioning, softens the paste. You can also add a product called Tylo, a powder which has a hardening agent and helps to roll out the sugar paste thinly and knead this well in.
“Tylo also helps to prevent sticking so makes it easier to get the paste out of a mould and is also useful if you add water and make into edible glue.”
Debbie also demonstrated adding colour to the paste using professional grade gel paste, which is more concentrated than supermarket brands, so you only need very little to produce vibrant colours.
“When starting out in sugar craft, I would recommend going to local independent shops where they make cakes, such as Sugar Art in Lincoln, as they can advise and guide you as to which are the best products to use.”
Another good tip from Debbie is that if you find your sugar paste becomes cracked and dry, use a little bit of Trex vegetable fat on your fingers and work this into the paste, which will give it more elasticity and make it more pliable.
Put a sprinkling of icing sugar on a board before rolling out the marzipan and icing so that they are both smooth and not too thick, using a small rolling pin.
“I always recommend using metal cutters as they are better than plastic and give a sharper cut,” says Debbie. “Cut out the marzipan and icing so that they are slightly larger than the surface and cover the top of the cake, using a thicker layer of marzipan to cover any imperfections or indentations on the top.
“Then warm a little apricot jam and having placed your cake on a cake card to prevent it slipping, lightly brush the top before adding the marzipan.”
Having got the sugar paste to the right consistency, we took a small section and gently pressed this into pretty festive silicone moulds shaped like Christmas baubles made by Karen Davies Sugarcraft, making sure each reached into every nook and cranny to pick up the definition and edges. Another good tip from Debbie is that you could also paint these, put a hole in the top and hang them on the tree.
To add the colourful sugar paste embellishment on top of your cake, Debbie recommends painting alcohol on the back of the decoration to make it sticky before positioning it.
“Use clear alcohol, such as Bacardi, to paint on top and add the sugar paste decoration as this will evaporate so you won’t taste it.”
For a final touch, use edible pearl spray over the top to give it a lustre, and help bring out every intricate detail before finishing it off with a glittery ribbon around the edge.
Debbie’s one-to-one masterclass flew by quickly and by the end of our session, which had been the perfect blend of fun combined with learning new skills, we had created a mouth-watering selection of Christmas treats which you would be proud to give as presents.
Debbie’s courses are ideal for anyone and even if you have never baked before, you’ll be inspired to give it a go!
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