Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Brighton Still Rocks!

Tuesday morning and Dylan was as excited as ever to be in the Hotel du Vin. Look at his little face as he races downstairs!
We went out for breakfast and found another dog-friendly café that served us scrambled eggs and tea. I was keen to investigate Brighton’s famous ChoccyWoccyDooDah shop and café. Their chocolate cakes are very skillful and very kitsch.

Unfortunately their café was not dog-friendly so we didn’t get to try their food. We visited Montezumas instead.
I was torn as to which British pudding chocolate bar to try and plumped for apple crumble, which barely saw the afternoon. 
Elevenses was an excellent chocolate and pistachio tiffin that was vegan but certainly didn't taste "vegan". It tasted like heaven.
Go on, please, just a nibble. Please. Oh, you cow. 
Strangely we weren’t that hungry for lunch, though Petra managed to eat some more eggs. We dragged our stomachs and Dylan to the beach for another blustery walk while we planned our next doggy holiday around Hotel du Vin's locations. Cheltenham is looking like our next stop as it will dovetail nicely with a baking course. Perhaps the chain should adopt the strapline "Hotel du Vin - Avec son Chien" My French isn't great but I think that even rhymes.
I am on the train home now, trying to look nonchalant while eating an 9" sachertorte on my way. I am very much looking forward to seeing my kitties as I miss them terribly when I am away. Dylan, however, remains unconvinced.

Brighton Rocks!

The sachertorte continued its Tube journey to Victoria, where I met Petra and Dylan to catch the fast train to Brighton, having booked for two nights at the Hotel du Vin. There were two reasons we chose this hotel - firstly and most importantly, it is dog-friendly and Dylan (who is a dog) was made very welcome with his own doggy bed and doggy bowl.

Dylan in the Hotel Du Vin
The second reason for choosing the Hotel du Vin is their Sunday offer of a room for £45 if you spend £75 on food and drink. This is actually harder than it sounds and although we ate a huge dinner, downed champagne cocktails and had eggs for breakfast, we only just hit our target by eating all the chocolate biscuits out of the mini bar.

Brighton is great for dogs, great for vegetarians and great for those with an artistic bent, so there was something for everyone. I checked my bank balance, did a little dance of joy and hit the shops. The Lanes are full of cute shops selling stuff that Fitz would class as "shit you don't need". I class it as "shit you don't need but are going to buy anyway".
Who wouldn't want a cat-shaped birdhouse? 
Or a lovely cushion with cats drinking tea and eating a bird? 
Or some little canvases of Brighton rock?
I must have been so overjoyed that morning that I actually went into shopping blackout - for instance, I have no memory at all of buying this mug, but it was in my room the next morning.
I also bought a large amount of Dutch salt liquorice (bleurgh) for my mum, a T shirt for my dad and some premium catnip. You can probably guess who this is for. My dad is always on the lookout for new entries in his silent T shirt competition with his friend John. The action takes place at Durham cricket ground and the competition is so silent that I'm not sure John is actually aware of it. The rules are that you casually take off your jacket to reveal a T shirt that will arouse your friend's admiration or envy. I can't give much away, but I think May's entry involving a photo of a cat in Moscow with a Russian quote from a favourite novel is a very strong contender. 

We had lunch at Iydea, an award-winning vegetarian cafe that made a big fuss of Dylan. Petra  has him very well trained and never feeds him from the table. Personally I would not be able to resist this face.
Dylan had been very patient during the shopping and we took him for a five mile walk to Hove and back. It was sunny but windy, as evidenced by our hair/fur.

At Hove we tried to visit Heather MIlls' vegan cafe, which Petra neatly described as "looking like a local authority caff", but it was shut. Thankfully the local authority toilets next door were open. 
"Let me back onto the beach"
We had a pre-dinner slice of sachertorte with tea, then ate at the Pub du Vin. This time we chose a light main course to leave room for pudding - coffee, vanilla and brownie ice cream. After so much sea air and so much food, everyone slept like dogs. Especially Dylan.

Two days, eleven cakes

I've spent two days baking in London in both senses - 1) it's been pleasantly warm and sunny, therefore infernal on the Tube, and 2) I've been making cakes. I continue to feed my addiction to cake courses at Cakes 4 Fun, where I have done most of my cake decorating training and which I view as my alma mater. "Alma" is Latin for "nourishing/food-giving", an apt description as Cakes 4 Fun offers a constant supply of freshly baked cake. I would recommend their courses to anyone - the instructors are young, fun and talented and their culinary enthusiasm leaves you with an obsession with a passion for cake. It is also fascinating to see the amazing cakes their large working kitchen produces each day - I'll never forget the eerily realistic Mick Hucknall cake. 

Baking Day One revisited some old classics and let me try some new recipes - madeira, Victoria sponge, chocolate buttermilk cake with ganache (yum) and Genoise with Italian buttercream (double yum). 
The challenge was to find good homes for all eight cakes - big thanks to Vicky, Madi, Mary, Michelle, Tom, Joy and Annabel for helping me out. 

Saturday was a day off baking and I spent a lovely afternoon picnicking with Annabel on Wimbledon Common, a place so fancy it has special pelican crossings for horses.
How do they press the little button with their cumbersome hooves?
The picnic started healthily with a sandwich and a fruit salad, until we discovered the ice cream cabinet and Annabel treated us to a bag of Cameroons.
We went for a long walk across the Common which became a lot longer when we got lost. There were no roadsigns or helpful wardens, and neither hide nor hair of a bloody Womble. We worried that we'd be out there all night with nothing but a bag of honey fudge for sustenance. Luckily googlemaps came to our rescue, though it was too late to help the fudge.
I still like to pronounce this in the Greek fashion Oo-EEM-blay-don
Baking Day Two furnished me with a swiss roll, a red velvet and a sachertorte. When the instructor asked "does anyone know how to make a swiss roll?" I had to stifle the eight year old inside me from giving the correct answer. You know what it is. The swiss roll was absolutely delicious, crammed with whipped double cream. It was donated to an anonymous lady in the upstairs class who had tried to call dibs on my sachertorte but was told politely GET YOUR THIEVING HANDS OFF MY CHOCOLATE CAKE.

Red velvet cake is a southern treat now popular across the US and gaining a foothold in the UK. I have reservations about this cake but this is a good recipe and I could eat the cream cheese frosting by the bowlful (I did, to be honest).

I handed this cake over to Vicky without alighting from my hot little Tube carriage. We arranged that I would be in the front carriage and as the doors opened at Sloane Square, I exchanged the cake for a blast of cool air. The doors closed before I had time to shout "keep it in the fridge, it's cream cheese!" It was like a romantic moment from The Briefest of Encounters, or a flawless drugs drop. Except with cake and some baffled looks from other Tube passengers.

The third cake was the sachertorte, a dense chocolate cake made with ground almonds, a layer of apricot jam, a splash or three of cherry brandy and a thick ganache covering. This little bear was going nowhere except Brighton. With me.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Wizard of Oz Cake

The Tyneside Cinema is celebrating its 75th birthday this weekend. I love the Tyneside and go there most Sundays with my dad if I am not travelling or if he is not out with his friends drinking upwards of two pints. The Tyneside is a haven for anyone who doesn’t find Adam Sandler particularly funny, or doesn’t go to the cinema to eat a big smelly bowl of nachos. I love it for its wide choice of independent and foreign films, its regular theatre broadcasts and its famous Tyneside Coffee Rooms.

The Tyneside is clearly blessed with good taste as its birthday celebrations include a cake competition, with filmgoers invited to represent their favourite film through the medium of sponge. My dad had plenty of suggestions as well as no concept of how difficult these would be in practice. “How about seven cowboys? Or a sledge with ‘Rosie’ on it? Or a hollowed out cake with a rat in it saying ‘whatever happened to baby Jane?” How about going out with your mates to drink upwards of two pints?

A little while back, my cousin Helen saw a photo of a rainbow cake and made one this month for her friend’s birthday.
Helen is a kitchen wiz AND a very talented artist
I thought it looked great and wanted to try making one too. I wondered if there was a well known film about a rainbow, and after a couple of seconds remembered The Wizard of Oz. The seed was sown.

Stupidly, I decided to start baking at 11.30pm. I like working uninterrupted through the night. I listen to 6music shows on  iplayer so I can at least pretend it’s daytime.  A few hours later, and having mumbled “Richard of York gave battle in vain” at least a dozen times, I had a set of colourful cakes in the correct order.

The reason there are two sets is that I wanted to take a photo of the stacked cake showing the colours before it was iced, and decided the easiest way to do this would be to make two cakes.

It was only later that I realised a far easier way would simply have been to have taken a photo of the naked cake before I iced it. Not to worry, the extra cake has been successfully rehomed in Manchester with a loving family and garden access.
The offcuts looked pretty and I kept some blue sponge to make cake pops. One day soon a child is going to bite into a cake pop to find that the inside is bright blue. Then he'll fancy running about a bit.

The taller the cake, the harder it is to cover and knowing that I was going to try something slightly tricky, I covered the cake first in marzipan. Not everyone’s cup of tea but I bloody love marzipan. It means “March bread” and makes for a smoother finish once the sugar paste is put on.

I wanted to do sky blue icing with clouds, something that is relatively easy  - you roll out the blue, then drop chunks of white on top and re-roll. It means that you only get one shot at rolling. The marzipan barrier means I could at least whip off the sugar paste and try again without it getting all claggy with buttercream, and I did have to have three attempts. I’m not that happy with the way the cloud effect turned out, but it was 1am and time to press on.

I’d made the shoes in advance and used half a pot of lovely red glitter on them. The shoes presented their own special problem in that when I unwrapped the special cutter I’d bought, clearly labeled Lady’s Shoe, it turned out it did not create a shoe at all but a strappy sandal. Maybe in the cutter’s homeland of Seth Ifrica a strappy sandal counts as a shoe, but it doesn’t in my book and it certainly doesn’t in Dorothy’s. So I had to make the shoe upper myself.

The lettering was fairly simple, just the slow work that tappits involve. Less tapping and more winkling out the letter with a pin. My tappit set only has letters and no punctuation, clearly distressing for a pedant who has to write “we’re”. For the eagle-eyed reader, or any eagles reading, you might spot that the apostrophe is a piece of the letter r.

Lastly the bluebirds. It was 3.30am and I couldn’t decide if I liked them or not and decided to sleep on it while the wires dried. My dad came round the next morning and I asked him straight – “do these look like fish? Or mice with funny lips?” Maybe he’d been primed, maybe he's spent most of his life living with highly strung women, maybe his pub quiz training kicked in, but he hit the jackpot with “they’re bluebirds, aren’t they?” The cake was finished.

I can’t be at the Tyneside Cinema on Sunday for the filmcakefest, but I hope it enjoys all of its cakes. Happy 75th Birthday, and many happy returns!

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Modelling Work

Today I was asked to do a little modelling work. Not the kind where you try on clothes and scowl, I am never asked to do that. It's a shame because I am excellent at scowling. This was sugar paste modelling based on a little boy's favourite soft toy.

Last month I copied a hippo and the hippo's birthday cake for three year old Samuel from one of his favourite books. Children pay a lot of attention to the detail in illustration, and I was warned that the party hat and party streamer were key elements.
Apparently Samuel was thrilled with his cake, which is always a pleasure to hear. 

Today's animal was a little dog called Patch, who reminds me of the Snoopy dog I had when I was eight. Patch is going on top of a banana cake that his mum is baking for him. He's a lucky boy because his mum makes delicious cakes. Happy first birthday, Noah!

Monday, 16 May 2011

Tenement Museum

My cousin Sarah recommended to me the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side. I'm glad she did because it was fascinating. It looks at the life of New York immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries and recreates their tiny little apartments.

You can only go into the museum if you book a tour, and we booked onto The Moores, a cheery tale based on official records and some imagination of a young Irish girl who emigrates, marries, lives in a stinky place, has eight girls (four of whom die in infancy) and then dies herself of heart disease at the ripe old age of 36.

This is one of her two rooms, set for baby Agnes' wake. She died of malnutrition, possibly from swill milk, the practice of cutting rancid milk with water, chalk and ammonium. 

It was amazing to see how awful living conditions used to be only 100 years ago, and to wonder why people didn't just give up and hurl themselves out the window. 

The museum also had a good gift shop. Call me a Philistine, but I think this is vital and try to follow Han's golden rule of spending at least £20 on crap you don't need during a holiday. I got this. 

Fitz pushed his luck by pointing out that I was no lady, but as Meatloaf says, two out of three ain't bad. And he let me have a slice of the apple strudel he's been guarding like Smaug all week.

I'm stuck now in the airport, which must be the only place in New York where you can't buy food (I'm not counting a microwaved bagel). Still, I've got an almond Snickers for company. Well, had....

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Lions and Tigers and Bears

Fitz has commented that this blog is "mostly photos of cakes". He is a very observant man. In order to widen my interests, he took me to the American Natural History Museum (via Shake Shack for a 'shroom burger, fries and a peanut butter shake, which was a lot nicer than it sounds).

As an employee of corporate sponsor Citi, Fitz and a guest are allowed into most NY city museums free, and we were both excused the $16 entrance fee. It's little perks like this that help investment bankers get by. 

The museum was excellent and far less kiddy-friendly, draw-a picture-of-a-dinosaur than British museums have become. It had a fun way of displaying stuffed animals (well, less fun for the animals) in a backlit panorama of their natural environment.
This looks like a family portrait

The fourth floor* was about dinosaurs and other extinct animals. Fitz got very excited and ran around going "RAAAAAR!" (This is not true). I learned from a short film narrated by Meryl Streep that small mammals co-existed with dinosaurs and survived whatever wiped out the lizards. So there is hope for my cats if the Big Bang comes in the next ten years. 
This dinosaur was discovered in 1904 by some cowboys and sold to the great dinosaur hunter Barnum Brown for $250 and a six shooter. What a great job description, "dinosaur hunter". 

There was something of a cake amnesty yesterday (though I sneaked an ice cream to help me through a film with Ikea Knightley) and I have had to make do with what was already in the apartment. I am pleased with the progress I made on the handbag cake, largely unaided. These are the last two slices for breakfast today.
I am hoping that now it's gone, I will finally be allowed to cut into the apple strudel we bought at Wholefoods.
Wholefoods is a place of beauty, a huge supermarket filled with tip top foodstuffs. Just look at their dessert cabinet, it's like the eighth wonder of the world.
I still stand, though, by my rule that plainer is often better. For example, North America has a knack for oatmeal raisin cookies that hasn't quite made it to the UK.

These cookies from Wholefoods are absolutely delicious and ideal for breakfast. Once you've finished your handbag cake.

Today is my last day in New York. I've had a brilliant time and am thrilled that I managed to squeeze in a visit to Toronto. I just wish I could squeeze into my jeans....

*The pronunciation of "fourth floor" was the subject of a linguistic study in the 1960s to test if employees at three New York department stores said "fourth" with or without pronouncing the r. The employees at the expensive department store tended to pronounce the r, while the employees at the cheap department store tended not to, using a British pronunciation. The British pronunciation, previously viewed as "posh", was losing its prestige after the loss of imperial power and the rise in US national pride after World War II.  The evidence gathered by linguistics students repeatedly asking "which floor is lingerie on?" was used to show the shift adopted by the upper classes towards US pronunciation. See Fitz, it's not all about cake, sometime there is stuff about New York social stratification of non-rhotic speech. What the employees meant by 'fourth floor' was, of course 'third floor', the big sillies.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Lots of cakes/Beaucoup de gateaux*

After a light breakfast of croissants and baguette, we headed back to Queen St East to cash in Sarah's giftcard for 12 mini cupcakes at Life is Sweet.

We also went to a children's clothes shop that had a grey African parrot that danced and talked for us

a children's book store that had pet rabbits

and a pet store that sold decorated cakes and cookies so pretty we asked if they really were pet treats (they were).

Now I'm as keen on animals as the next person, particularly if the next person is a mad cat lady who genuinely believes they love her, but even I think this is a step too far.

We had lunch at Dufflet, opting for soup in order to leave plenty of room for cake. The choice was overwhelming. 

I fell back on my general rule that the plainer-looking the cake, the better it tastes, and chose a slice of lemon bundt cake. Sarah had a slice of four fruit pie; Charlie had nothing because he was asleep in his pushchair. You snooze, you lose, kiddo. We also shared a little butter tart.

All the cakes were excellent and I think Duflett might well get my vote for best bakery of the trip. Nice art, too.

We headed home to drink tea and eat the mini cupcakes, by which time Charlie was awake and able to join in the cake fun. Look how happy he is!

* my dad once told me that in Canada everything you say in English has to be repeated in French. I believed him. I was nine.