Saturday, 31 December 2011

Christmas cakes #2 and #3

When I started decorating cakes, my mum was delighted that she’d never have to ice a Christmas cake again. Even though she’s good at it, it’s not a job she relishes and she left the job and the theme up to me.

I went for a Russian theme because my parents, for reasons I have never quite fathomed, love Russian things. My dad did GCSE Russian at an evening class and has nearly mastered the alphabet; when my mum finally got a passport in 1997, the first place she went was Moscow. Here she is looking cold in front of some churches.

Although I based the church on a real life Russian church I was worried it looked more like the Taj Mahal, but once I’d added some fir trees and glitter it started to look more the part. I copied an Old Church Slavonic-style font and painted on “S Rozhdyestvom Khristovym - Happy Christmas” in shiny gold, glad that an A level in Russian had finally come in handy.

I have been doing some classes with Marion at Cakes, Cutters and Classes in Gosforth and at the Christmas cake class we did stenciling, a technique I’ve been wanting to learn for a while. It turns out it’s easy and fun, not least as it involves a scalpel.

Here’s how: lightly grease a non-stick board and roll out your florist paste. Turn the paste over so that the greased side is upwards and place the stencil on it.
Brush the cut-outs with edible dust or royal icing and glitter, lift the stencil off and cut out the shape with a scalpel leaving a 1mm border, then attach the paste to the cake with edible glue.

We also did brush embroidery at the class with a traditional holly, ivy and Christmas rose pattern. I gave this cake to my Grandma. As she’s from Yorkshire she might well eat her fruit cake with Wensleydale cheese. That’s entirely her business, I am not here to judge (it’s against man and God).

Marion has sold Cakes, Cutters and Classes this month and is looking forward to retirement at long last. She’s a great teacher. Like any mother, she has eyes in the back of her head for any cake-decorating naughtiness but also a gentle approach that says “here, let me fix this for you”. I wish her a very happy retirement and am delighted that she’s promised to carry on teaching.

Hope you all had a happy Christmas! 

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Christmas cake #1

Blod’s first Christmas

This year my family are getting Christmas cakes as presents. Sorry to spoil the surprise, guys, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out what the cash-strapped cakemaker in the family is going to give you.

My sister has yet to get her own cat, despite her very best efforts (trying to appropriate the neighbour’s; having a baby in a kitten-for-a-baby deal on which her husband has cruelly reneged, and teaching the baby sign language for “I want a cat”). Unless there is a small wriggly parcel under the tree for her this year, I’m afraid the only cat she is getting for Christmas is made of sugar.  

Everyone with a cat will know how much kitties love wrapping paper, particularly before you’ve put it on the present, and love Christmas trees. Mine form an orderly queue to denude my tree of its baubles and only yesterday I heard myself shouting “Get off my raccoon!” True to form, the kitten on the cake has nicked off with a Christmas bauble and is playing with wrapping paper.

The kitten itself is based on Blod, one of the most beautiful cats I’ve ever seen (and I have done a lot of research).

Blod was rescued this year from a fate worse than death (well, death) by Jake Yapp, who has kindly shared some photos and videos of him. Cheer as Blod is rescued! Sniffle a bit as Blod finds a new home! And watch possibly the cutest one minute of kitten footage available on YouTube here.

Happy Christmas, bairn! Fingers crossed for a kitten next year. The baby is very cute too. Just keep up with the sign language.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Chocolate Almond Roca Recipe

Every Christmas I make almond roca, a tradition I've inherited from my Canadian cousins. It’s like a massive Daim bar only nicer. One year Sarah made me a batch and George, who doesn't really have a sweet tooth, exclaimed "Να τρώει η μάνα και του παιδιού να μη δίνει - to have a mother eat and not give her child", which is Greek for "bloody hell, this tastes nice". If something is so tasty a Greek mother isn't trying to make you eat a family sized portion of it, it's a recipe worth sharing:

200g flaked almonds
250g butter
250g caster sugar
3 tablespoons of water
200g chocolate
  • Toast the flaked almonds lightly and set them to one side.
  • Spread a length of tin foil along a bench ready for when you pour the boiled toffee onto it
  • Heat the water, sugar and butter over a medium high heat for ten minutes, stirring continuously.
  • Once the mixture has turned a little transparent and the colour of milk chocolate,  mix in the almonds and spread it out on the foil with a palette knife. Work quickly because the toffee is still cooking. You need to catch the mixture just before it starts smoking and turns a dark brown.
Not yet. Not yet. Now!

  • I can’t stress this enough – be very careful not to stick your mitt into the toffee, it’s at about 160 degrees C and hurts like hell if it burns you, as I learned to my cost last Christmas.
  • The almond roca will set in a few minutes. Pat off any excess butter with kitchen roll and smooth on some melted chocolate.
  • Once the chocolate has set, break it roughly into pieces.
  • Pop it into some cellophane bags, tie with ribbon and distribute it to friends and family, cleverly disguising the fact you’ve not actually done any Christmas shopping.

Sunday, 18 December 2011


Last Sunday Petra and I had a gourmet trip to York and stayed at the Hotel du Vin. There are plenty of reasons we chose Hotel Du Vin – great food, great service, a Sunday night dinner deal that makes the room cheaper than the Premier Inn, but the main reason is that dogs are welcome to stay. This is important because Dylan was joining us and he is very much a dog.

He’d had a lovely time in Brighton’s Hotel du Vin in May and we’re slowly working our way round the country with him.  Another thing I love about Hotel du Vin is the complimentary half pint of fresh milk in the mini bar. I’ve stayed in lots of fancy hotels (yeah, get me) and it amazes me that so few hotels offer guests fresh milk instead of those manky little UHT pots. It costs pennies but generates disproportionate goodwill from anyone who likes a decent brew.

York was in full-on Christmas mode. Admittedly, you’re slightly hampered on a shopping and scoffing  trip with a dog, but you can eat your meals in the hotel and gaze through the shop windows at things, saving money at the same time.

You can also walk around the old city walls to avoid the crowds and have a stroll in the beautiful Museum Gardens.

I’ve been careful to take photos of Dylan with people this time, after Petra commented it looked a bit like he’d been to Brighton on his own.
Dylan stayed in the room and had a light snack on an old tissue while we went for dinner.

The Hotel du Vin Sunday night deal offers £75 to spend on food and drink on that day. We’d already blown nigh on £20 on eggs and tea for lunch, but one of the best things about being vegetarian, apart from the moral high ground, is that your dinner is never that expensive, making me a cheap date. IF ANYONE’S INTERESTED. I had mushroom gnocchi, goat’s cheese tart and the most superb pudding I’ve had in a long while: banana tarte tatin with peanut ice cream.

The next day we walked about York’s beautiful city centre and took Dylan for a muddy run along the River Ouse. Petra and Dylan’s train left an hour before mine, so I had a quick nip into some food shops.

The famous Betty’s, which has been serving treats across North Yorkshire since 1919,  was looking very Christmassy and I bought a fat rascal to take home. The first time I ever went to Betty’s it was with a boyfriend who was, to be honest, a bit of a chubster. A lady exhorted me to “enjoy the fat rascal”. I had no idea she meant the spiced tea bread and just presumed she knew all about him. Betty’s have added Christmas spice to their fat rascals this month and it was absolutely delicious.

I was also keen to visit a new chocolate shop, York Cocoa House that Lynn at Clandestine Cake Club had told me about. I bought a Snickers Brownie and a Ghost Ale Bombe, a rich bitter chocolate truffle made with Centurion Ghost beer. It was so rich that I left half for my dad. A true Yorkshireman, he rarely openly enthuses about much but ate the bombe and burst out “Oh this is gorgeous!” Not a word he often uses.

I caught the train home with my Snickers brownie for company. Our next Hotel du Vin stop is probably Cambridge in the summer, so if anyone has any tips for eating/ shopping/ dogwalking there, please let me know. Do bear in mind that anything involving Jesus College lawn and Dylan is NOT acceptable. 

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Hotel Chocolat Milk Chocolate Almonds

Just before Christmas 2010, Hotel Chocolat finally opened in Newcastle, nestled among the jewellery shops on Blackett Street. The staff welcomed shoppers with trays of complimentary chocolates and remained friendly and helpful each time I “popped by” that day.  This year as an early Christmas gift, Hotel Chocolat offered me more free chocolate from their Christmas menu and sent me a tin of Milk Chocolate Cinnamon Almonds.
My family love nuts. We eat nut roast on Christmas Day. My grandparents used to get extra nut rations during the War, claiming to be vegetarian (to be fair, they were). And a favourite Christmas treat when I was a child was a wooden bowl filled with almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts and brazilnuts in their shells, which my mum would crack open while we watched TV. Looking back, I can’t quite see why this seemed so much fun. Maybe it was the novelty. Maybe it was because we didn’t have Xbox.

Thankfully the Hotel Chocolat almonds came ready shelled and - joy upon joys -  caramelised and coated in milk chocolate. They have “a warm hint of cinnamon” – to be honest, if this were a hint to a crossword clue I’d be asking for another, but not everybody likes cinnamon as much as I do.

A fellow Newcastle food blogger had written a great review here of the very same almonds and had had the brilliant idea of baking them in biscotti.

I wondered what I could bake with the almonds that I hadn’t already eaten. Eventually I opened a little-used cupboard and the answer was staring me in the face: I didn't need to bake. I have an ice cream machine.

Recipe: Milk Chocolate Almond Cinnamon Ice Cream
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 300ml milk
  • 300ml double cream
  • 1tsp vanilla essence
  • 3 tsp ground cinnamon (I WILL have my cinnamon way)
  • 125g Hotel Chocolat milk chocolate almonds, roughly chopped. You can use more if you haven’t <ahem> eaten the rest

  • Slowly heat the milk to boiling point in a pan and whisk the egg yolks with the caster sugar in a bowl
  • While still beating, pour the milk into the egg and sugar mixture
  • Return the pan to the heat but do not let it boil or the mixture will separate. Stir constantly until the custard is thick enough to form a film over the back of a spoon.
  • Leave to cool. Once cold, add the cream, vanilla essence and cinnamon and pour into the ice cream maker
  • Once the ice cream has started to thicken after about 10 minutes, add the chopped almonds

I was left with four egg whites, a perfect excuse to make meringues. I piped them in the shape of Christmas trees and added some tiny silver dragees.

The result was a perfect Christmas treat - chocolate, almonds, cinnamon and meringue – masquerading as a snow globe. Happy Christmas! 

Saturday, 26 November 2011

But it’s not my birthday, Archdeacon

When I was 15 and bored in a GCSE Russian lesson, I started chatting to a friend of a friend about what was pretty much my only topic of conversation: how much I loved Rowan Atkinson. “Yes”, said Han, “I love him too”. There was an almost audible click in the air and we have been best of friends ever since.  When two like-minded people meet, they can be capable of great or terrible things. Or they can just while away their study periods drinking hot chocolate and arguing about who should get to marry Rowan first.

To be fair to Han, she had seen him first and had been far more diligent in her information gathering. She had a horde of untold treasures that she generously shared with me – the first series of Blackadder on video (VIDEO in the early 80s!), a programme from his one man show in London (she’d actually been to see him in LONDON!) and an autograph from Rowan in reply to a very funny letter she’d sent him (a piece of paper he’d TOUCHED!)  It seems odd now looking back to an age before the internet when you couldn’t just Google for images or news or reviews, or go on You Tube for an entire video back catalogue or go tappity tap tap “oh so that’s where he lives” tappity tap tap Google street view “that bush could do with a trim”.

When we were in our teens, pictures were hard won by going through stacks of magazines in a dentist’s waiting room, video clips were snatched by hovering over the record button at all times (advert breaks were particularly fraught), backdated reviews had to be ordered at the public library on microfiche, and if you wanted to have a sneaky peek at someone’s house armed only with a photograph and some vague geographical information, good luck to you. We laugh today about where we’d be if we’d had the internet back then. Prison, probably.

By the time we were 17, we’d met Rowan three times (always charming), got his autograph and travelled to London to see an episode of Blackadder Goes Forth recorded at the BBC. We knew Blackadder and Not the Nine O Clock news off by heart and often went into a semi-private language that was intensely irritating to everyone around us.

Then in 1990 we were dealt a double blow: firstly, instead of marrying a pair of schoolgirls  Rowan married a woman he’d actually met. Secondly, he made Mr Bean. We left school, went to university, got jobs, got older, got cats, but still watch our Blackadder dvds together.

Today is Han’s birthday and there was only one way to decorate the cake. On the top I’ve painted the Blackadder snake and dagger motif that I used to carve into school desks with a compass (sorry). It’s copied from a gift tag Han made me years ago on Rowan Day, celebrated each year on Twelfth Night with the exchange of gifts and cards, the eating of certain foods designated as Rowany (potatoes, cheese, Mars Bars) and the watching of videos.

There aren’t many Blackadder birthday quotes but luckily “But it’s not my birthday, Archdeacon” is a particular favourite. There are several Blackadder fonts available and I used the Blackadder II font as the quote is from this series (episode 5, “Beer”).

Lastly, I added the figurines sitting in order: The Blackadder, the series viewed as inferior but which does have some very good episodes and was filmed in part in Northumberland at Alnwick Castle, making it extra special. Then Blackadder II, my favourite series, in which the world realised what was patently obvious even to a 13 year old: Rowan is very handsome, even if the man himself has said the beard makes him look a bit like Peter Sutcliffe. The figurine looked a bit more camp than I was hoping, and I could say the same for Blackadder the Third, Han’s favourite series. I was pleased with the uniform on the Blackadder Goes Forth figure.

Sometimes it feels like a long time ago that we sat goggled eyed in the front row at BBC Television Centre; sometimes it feels like yesterday.  Han is one of the cleverest people I’ve ever met, combining a fierce intellect with a sense of humour so dry it could sandpaper walls. A true polymath, she’s at home in literature, medicine, music or sport and can name the X Factor contestants/Lear’s daughters/the Scooby Doo team with equal ease. If Rowan ever tires of Mrs A, I can heartily recommend Han as a replacement. Happy birthday, you fine saucy young trollop!

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Clandestine Cake Club - November

In Newcastle, you know Santa is on his way when Fenwick reveals its Christmas window. For the last 40 years the department store has entertained shoppers with an elaborate display of moving, singing automata, a bit like XFactor only better.  I love the Christmas window, though I do think they should do something about all those pesky children spoiling my view.

A few years ago Fenwick courted controversy by choosing the theme of aliens (Newcastle was NOT happy) but since then has stuck firmly to full-on Christmas and recently even had a nativity scene ('who wants that at Christmas time?' muttered my mother). This year the theme is children’s characters and the tableaux include the Wizard of Oz, Snow White, Sooty, Cinderella, Camberwick Green and Oliver Twist.
There is also Alice in Wonderland enjoying cake at the mad hatter’s tea party.
Last night, cousin Helen and I also enjoyed cake in Fenwicks, as it kindly hosted the last Clandestine Cake Club of the year. The theme was “Winter” and I decided to make an Italian Christmas panettone, banking on it being light enough to leave room for trying as many other cakes as possible. I found a recipe for cranberry and chocolate panettone on the BBC Good Food website, which is a treasure trove of tried and tested recipes. I swapped the white chocolate for dark to make it less sweet. I’d never made panettone before but it wasn’t hard, it just takes time as the dough needs to prove for a couple of hours before baking.

We had special guests at cake club:  CCC founder Lynn Hill from Leeds and Appetite magazine, who photographed the cakes while we ducked from the camera squealing “don’t publish photos of us stuffing our faces with cake”. If you see a photo of a table of women politely sipping green tea, know that it is a lie.

 Helen and I managed to try most of the cakes – my favourites were the eggnog cake - light and spiced and not too sweet (would love the recipe please!); the damp gingerbread - fluffy and delicious, and the spiced orange. Eating a dozen slices of cake is hard work and over the past few months I’ve picked up some good tips:

1) Fairly obvious, but cut a small slice. A really small slice. Then cut if in half and share with a friend.
2) Go easy on the icing. For some reason it’s very filling.
3) Save the chocolate cakes for last. For similarly obscure reasons, chocolate cakes seem more filling.
4) Remember it’s a marathon and that you need to rehydrate. Keep the tea and coffee flowing.
5) Dig deep. Just when you think you can’t eat any more, you will find some extra stamina to carry you to the finishing line.

By following these simple rules, Helen and I were able to sample at least ten cakes, then go out for a large and excellent meal at The Broad Chare, where I complained to a journalist friend that Geordies are too often portrayed as drunken fools, then tipped a glass of wine into my own lap.

Helen and I will continue our semi-professional training over Christmas in readiness for January’s cake club. Hope to see you there!
Too much cake, I can't go on. Leave me, Gary and save yourself.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Bonfire Night Cake

I was chatting recently about autumn celebrations with Han, part time Creative Director (unpaid) at Cake Poppins. We agreed that in our day, by which I mean the late 70s, the real autumn celebration was not the US style trick or treating for Hallowe’en, but Guy Fawkes’ Night on 5 November.

Historically, bonfires have been lit on this day since 1605 to celebrate the failure of a Catholic plot to assassinate the Protestant King and became a focal point for religious divides. By the 1970s, it was the night when your dad was sent to the bottom of the garden with a box of fireworks while you played with a sparkler.

Here is a photo of me and Lucy wearing matching bobble hats knitted by my mum. Note that even on a night in early November, we are wearing short skirts with bare legs. People often wonder how Geordies brave the cold on a night out. It’s simple – we start training at an early age.
The cake itself is chocolate hazelnut baked with fresh raspberries and covered with chocolate hazelnut ganache. Last month I did a course at Cakes4Fun and a tutor told us about a wedding cake he’d made, replacing some of the flour with ground hazelnuts, adding raspberries and mixing Nutella into the ganache. There is something magical about listening to a very handsome man telling you about a lovely cake and I highly recommend the experience. If you can’t get to Cakes4Fun, why not print off and laminate a recipe, find someone absolutely scrummy in the street and ask him to read it out.

Anyway I thought I’d give it a go (the baking, not the laminating) and the cake turned out a treat. I have some of the Nutella ganache left over and plan to roll it in chopped hazelnuts to make truffles. So what if I got on the scales the other morning to see the message “Err”.
I have erred and strayed like a lost ox
The cake is decorated with milk chocolate cigarellos but you could use Matchmakers, preferably the orange ones because they are the tastiest. The guy is just a guy – some towns make an effigy of a hate figure  for their bonfire but I don’t hate anyone enough to want to burn them alive. He is, however, sitting on a cigarello, so he’s not even comfortable for his impending death. The leaves are cut with a little ivy cutter, which I hoped would pass as maple, and there is a little hedgehog escaping as a reminder to CHECK UNLIT BONFIRES for animals. The cold might be God’s way of telling us to burn more Catholics, but there’s no reason to burn their pussycats as well.

I’m afraid the opportunity to pepper this blog with quotes from Blackadder has been too tempting to resist. There’s a shiny sixpence for anyone who can spot all seven. This competition is not open to employees or members of their immediate families. Unpaid or otherwise. 

Friday, 28 October 2011

Hallowe'en Cakes

This week I visited Angharad, Osian and Mari in Caernarfon. Angharad asked if I didn't mind a bit of a busman's holiday making a cake with the children for Halloween, or Calan Gaeaf as it's celebrated in north Wales. I'm always happy to make cake and popped a few baking bits and bobs in my overnight bag. Everyone travels with piping bags, yes? 

I was pleased with the Halloween cakes I made at home last week 

and decided to make some more 'bones' from meringue. We bought butter at the Waitrose where Kate Middleton is sometimes spotted shopping for Will's tea, but sadly I didn't see her. Angharad's friend recently saw the Duchess of Cambridge filling her car with petrol LIKE A NORMAL PERSON and locals say that she doesnt 'have anyone in' to help with housework. She's so great. 

The children learned how to make the swirl on top of a cupcake and Mari decorated them with the bones. 
Earlier in the day we'd visited Beaumaris to indulge Osian's interest in Norman castles and playing football, Mari's interest in jumping in puddles, and my and Angharad's interest in eating ice cream at the Red Boat Cafe. They make fantastic ice cream in all kinds of flavours and we enjoyed rhubarb crumble, Irish cream, marshmallow and jelly baby ice cream. No one was brave enough to try cheese and onion flavour though. 

Here's a photo of us atop Beaumaris castle with the Menai Strait in the background.
I also took a picture of Mari playing in the castle's chapel. Quite how a snap of an angelic little girl turned out this eery I don't know - look at the shadow on the table, it's like Satan's pitchfork. 
Thanks for having me to stay. Happy Hallowe'en, Calan Gaeaf Hapus!