Thursday, 30 June 2011

Cake over Coniston

It's still warm and sunny in the Lakes so I have felt compelled to do some country walks and spent £2.25 on "Five Easy Walks Around Coniston". My rules on country walking are simple:

1) Invite a man along so he can carry the rucksack (Fitz spotted this ruse immediately)
2) Always kiss at a kissing gate. If you don't know the other person very well, a formal handshake is acceptable
3) There MUST be a tea room during or at the end of the walk. Or both.

Yesterday's five mile walk on the western shores of Lake Coniston ended happily enough with a maple and walnut Lakeland ice cream, a lovely ice cream only available in the North West. Every time my dad visits Morecambe, he buys me a two litre tub and drives home as directly as possible. 

Today's walk was a whopping seven miles on the eastern shores of the Lake, so a proper tea room was in order. We stopped at Brantwood for tea and cake; I had coffee cake and Fitz, who only two days ago was pooh-poohing cake yet is now in love with chocolate tiffin, had chocolate tiffin.

Brantwood was the home of John Ruskin and is now a museum, but Fitz refused to look around on the grounds that it would be boring. So all I know about John Ruskin is what I learned this week from Caitlin Moran's chapter on tidying the lady garden in her book "How to be a Woman", which I am thoroughly enjoying: "In the 21st century, modern boys watching hardcore pornography are now as panicked by pubic hair as Victorian art critic John Ruskin apparently was, in 1848, when he was so alarmed at the sight of his new wife's pubic hair that he refused to ever consummate the marriage". I bet they don't mention that in his Lakeside museum.

The Lakes are always beautiful but the sunshine has made them even more so. It's also allowed me to rock the sundress & walking boots look, which all the cool kids will soon be copying. 
There were a couple of mysteries on the walk, like this sleeping cat ornament in the middle of a wood. I think it was a Roman-style tombstone for a pet who'd gone to the big catbasket in the sky, but it had been too painful to inscribe hic situs est Mr Fluffy.

And why had someone neatly carved this message onto an abandoned piece of wood?
More pressingly, work where? And what kind of cake is it? I will never know.

In the evening we had another treat available only in the North West - a trip to Booth's supermarket. I love nebbing around supermarkets, especially abroad, to look at all the lovely food. I came back to Tethera cottage with a box of violet creams for the old lady hiding inside me, and a bar of Galaxy Bubbles, which is like Aero but much nicer.

My Aunt Kate (Kate being one of the few permitted names in our family) emailed me today to ask if I knew what Tethera meant. I didn't, even though the other two cottages here are called Yan and Tyan which together with a rudimentary knowledge of philology, should have given me a clue. Yan, tyan and tethera are of course 'one, two and three' in the dialect used by shepherds across the UK for counting. I looked this up on Wikipedia and was DELIGHTED to find the word for 15 in this Brythonic Celtic language is bumfit. Bumfit. I am going to use it more often in conversation.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Banana loaf

After the excitement of a family wedding, we have come to Coal Yeat Cottages near Coniston in the Lake District, set in 25 acres of stunning scenery (it's on the far left of this photo).

It can be hit and miss booking a self catering cottage online - you might end up next to a busy road that has been carefully omitted from a photo, or have to endure the kind of decor that even your granny would disdain. Tethera cottage is definitely a hit - it's beautifully decorated and so tranquil that all I can hear is nesting swallows, clucking chickens and Fitz blethering on. The cottage is also well equipped (dishwasher, dvd, Sky TV and even digital radio so I can listen to my beloved 6music) though amazingly the weather has been so warm and sunny that there is little call for indoor entertainment. Pop go my plans for another trip to the Lakeland Pencil Museum.

There was a warm welcome at Tethera cottage - not only were we provided with basics like tea, coffee, milk, bread and butter, there was the unexpected gift of homemade banana loaf. I was thrilled.
So far we have made friends with Pumpkin, the neighbour's dog, who is extremely good at chasing sticks and was not caught out for a second by Fitz's trick throws.
Yesterday we sunbathed on the shore of Lake Coniston across from the island that inspired Swallows and Amazons. Sadly I forgot to take my camera, so there is no photo of the clear  waters or of Fitz's bright blue swimming shorts. Having worked up an appetite by lying about, we went into Coniston for a sausage sandwich in a cafe. It was there that I had this conversation with Fitz:

- "Did you see at the counter what kind of cakes there are?" (I was pretty sure I'd spied some chocolate tiffin).
- "No".
- "For you, Fitz, cake is just something that other people eat, isn't it?"
- "Yes. They just sit there taking up space".

Heartbreaking. Still, it leaves more homemade banana loaf for me.

Wedding cake

My family has been in a state of high excitement as we've celebrated the first family wedding in ten years. My sister Lucy became Mrs Mark Wright at the weekend and we are all delighted.

I set about making the cake several weeks ago, baking a 12 inch fruit cake that would have time to mature. I forgot to make a wish when I mixed it, unless you count "I hope I get a slice". I was more careful with the next two tiers - chocolate orange, then lemon - and took requests. Lucy suggested a win on the lottery, my mum hoped for a baby girl, and I plumped for health, happiness, holidays and a kitten.

Lucy had asked for a plain white iced cake with pink ribbon and wedding toppers of her, Mark and baby Alex. This sounds simple but plain is hard to do - there are no flowers or decoration to patch up uneven covering. 

I made the wedding toppers referring to the notes I'd made at Cakes4Fun when Pen taught us modelling, chuckling at the instruction "make groom's trousers HIGH for support. Think Simon Cowell". I attached Alex to Mark's lap by sliding a piece of spaghetti into his stomach, completing hiding the waistcoat I'd carefully embossed and shimmered. The naked lump behind him is the bride's torso waiting for its dress. When I attached the toppers to the cake on the wedding day and turned the bride upside down to apply glue, she had a shamefully bare flesh-coloured bottom. I felt that I should have made some bridal pantaloons.
While I'm on the subject of flesh: when I was seven, I had a set of crayons with names like 'poppy red' and 'ocean blue'. Even in the late 70s, it was becoming unfashionable to describe the beige-y pink as 'flesh' and it was renamed 'salmon pink' as the crayon world woke up to the fact that beige-y pink is not the flesh tone for everyone. Yet in the 21st century world of modelling paste, I'm surprised to find this colour is still referred to as 'flesh'. Perhaps because it's the base for other skin tones too, or perhaps they're just a big bunch of racialists.

I carefully copied the belt design on Lucy's wedding dress, then cursed myself as I covered most of it up with the bouquet. The last thing to add was the hair, for which I used a craft gun and a slimy mix of brown sugar paste and Trex. It goes into the gun in a slippery brown sausage that looks disgusting. Having carefully modelled tiny little ears on the bride, I cursed myself again that I was about to cover them completely with hair, and toyed with the idea of leaving a bit of ear poking out between the locks of hair, an effect known in my family as 'monkey ear' and utterly reviled. I have done many horrible things to my sister over the years, from trying to convince her that she was growing a moustache when she was 12 (she wasn't) to telling her and her friends during school lunch break that the kitchen freezer had broken and they were giving away all the ice creams (they weren't). However, giving her monkey ear on her wedding cake would have been a step too far. The ears were covered up.

I stacked the cake on the wedding day at Bramall Hall, a beautiful Tudor building set in its own park, and the cake sat on a Jacobean dresser carved with wooden foxes.
The ceremony was beautiful, though the bride and groom were each flanked by a man with a noose around his neck. 
If there was a hidden warning, Mark chose to ignore it and happily signed the register, watched over by a small toy owl nestling on a light fitting.

The official photographer Sam Ryley made sure that the photographs were fun to do and very kindly took this photo of me, the cake, and Lucy reflected in the mirror. I like it and so must our mother, who described it as "a good photo of a scrawny lady. No offence intended". I hope she enjoys the official wedding portraits just as much.

We had a lovely wedding breakfast; the speeches were funny, the cake was cut and the first dance was danced. It was a very happy occasion. I got my wish for a slice of fruit cake twice over and I hope that Lucy and Mark get all their wedding wishes too - health, happiness, perhaps someone I can buy cute little dresses for, and a kitten. Possibly twice over.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Prom cake pops

When I was a student, I often wondered why people resented us. Twenty years on, battling my way through Jesmond Tesco with its 7 foot tall blond men and its perfectly coiffed girls in their pyjamas, I realise why - we're jealous. They look like they're having so much fun - parties, cool clothes, good music, festivals, and massive student debts. 

It's the same with sixth formers - they all look like they've stepped off a catwalk and ooze with confidence.  I wondered if we were the same 20 years ago and that I'd simply forgotten how we were, so I checked some old photos. My memory was not wrong - we were minging. Badly dressed, hairy, boyfriendless. Our idea of a good time was getting out the fondue sets our parents had been given as wedding gifts and stored in the loft. We'd make a cheese fondue and a chocolate fondue and eat until we were nearly sick. Oh yeah, I can add "chubby" to the list of our attributes.

This is David Mitchell's description of teenage life in the 1980s: "In my day, teenagers were expected to stay in, grimly getting on with their homework, shuddering at the prospect of human contact and meekly looking forward to the next series of Blackadder. That's what it was like for everyone, right?" It is shockingly accurate.

Certainly in the 1980s we didn't have the US-style prom parties that are popular today. I've been asked this week to make cake pops for a pre-prom party in the shape of little pink dresses and tuxedos.

My 18 year old self would have been flabbergasted - a dance! With BOYS! And little cakes on sticks! I might even have turned off my Blackadder video for a minute and put on some make up.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Yellow Rose

This was the first sugar rose I ever made. I dusted it yellow because it was yellow roses that Wayne used to give me. He grew them in his garden and they had a fantastic scent that could fill a whole room.

It was a yellow rose that he gave me when I went to Ireland last June and I sent him photos of me and 'Rose' in Dublin and Kilkenny. It was yellow roses that I sent to his funeral a month later. He died at midnight a year ago today.

Wayne was kind, clever, handsome, charming and generous. Every day I thank him for what he taught me and what he gave me over the last five years, which has helped me reach the happy place I am in now. I just wish he could have been happy too. 

Night night, sweetheart x

Monday, 20 June 2011

Happy Father's Day

My dad has plenty of interests that keep him busy - walking, cycling, watching cricket, drinking upwards of two pints with his friends, dragging me to cultural events and speaking Russian in a ridiculous accent. 

For Father's Day, I decided to make him a cake that would celebrate at least two of these hobbies and plumped for a Russian film and the Tyneside Cinema. Actually another of his hobbies is to watch a film and then make a pretentious comment about it to his friend at the cricket. John - if you're reading, he doesn't actually spot these things for himself, he just looks them up on Wikipedia. 

I chose a Soviet poster that reads "You - have you enrolled as a volunteer?" and changed it to "You - happy father's day!" I traced the image onto a fruit cake I'd iced last week and painted it on with cocoa butter. I was pleased with the result - I've not got an artistic bone in my body but I'm canny with a bit of tracing paper.
"Sorry about the smudge"
Like a lot of men, my dad has no interest in soft furnishings but there is one set of curtains that he loves - the ruched pink curtain at the Tyneside cinema that is raised with a satisfying "shhhhhhhh" at the beginning of a film. He once commented that if he ever wins the lottery, he would get a curtain like that for his bedroom window (presumably my mother would be spending her half of the winnings on a divorce, citing unreasonable behaviour).

I tried to recreate this curtain on the cake but wasn't happy with the result.

He, however, was happy with the result - he had his hands on a massive cake. Luckily another of his hobbies is scoffing.

I also made a brief nod to his love of drinking upwards of two pints with these Timothy Taylor's Landlord cake pops.

I mentioned last month his silent T shirt competition at the cricket, in which you wear a T shirt that will arouse the interest or envy of your friend. My dad's been on a roll recently, scoring with his Bulgakov T shirt from Brighton and his Dapper Dan T shirt advertising the fictional hair cream George Clooney uses in O Brother Where Art Thou. I think I might have put paid to his winning streak by insisting he wear a T shirt with my company logo and take a photo to prove it. So here he is at Durham cricket ground, gamely displaying an admittedly feminine logo. If I start getting a load of orders asking for cakes shaped like cricket pitches, I will know who to thank. To be honest I have  a lot to thank him for.

Wishing happy father's day to all the dads, especially mine, and thinking of those who have lost theirs 



On Saturday I visited Lucy in Manchester with her two oldest friends, Beth and Anita. She doesn’t want a hen night, so we thought a day of eating would be an acceptable alternative.

As I had no time or kitchen to bake a cake, Beth went Konditor and Cook in London and bought a delicious curly wurly cake (ask a Scotsman to say “I could murder a curly wurly”. Hours of fun). I decorated it in the traditional hen party style of a tiger wearing a veil with the Lucyword “nuptula”, which clearly means a lady who is getting married soon.

We had dinner at Green's, where vegetarians can enjoy the luxury of menu choice. We must have been bamboozled because we all plumped for the same thing – vegetarian black pudding, all the taste with none of the blood, and vegetarian sausage and mash. If I had to choose a last meal prior to execution, it would be sausies and mash. Beth, Lucy and Anita said their last meal would be more cheese-based and Beth wanted a full four hours to enjoy it properly. Frankly I think the executioner might see through her stalling tactics.

With only a week to go before Lucy’s wedding, it was time to unseal a document she had written with Beth over ten years ago entitled “The Ideal Man”. Commendables included “likes a drink”, “likes his food”, “hygiene”, “good name” and “cat lover”. We scored Mark highly in all categories, though he “could do better” when it comes to loving kitties. Lucy’s list of things to avoid was longer and more prescriptive. Again, Mark scored very highly as he has short clean fingernails, has never owned a snake as a pet or received a criminal custodial sentence, is not “a knobhead who thinks he’s marvellous” and doesn't  have any "minging jewellery". Nor is he a Mackem. We agreed that Mark is the ideal man and that after ten years of research, Lucy has indeed found Mr Wright.

We left on Sunday morning, leaving Mark to enjoy his first father’s day and waving goodbye to this smiley little sweetheart.

See you all again next week!

Royal love birds

Ha! I left the word 'icing' out of the title to trick you into reading my blog. You thought you'd get a lovely read about Kate and Wills and a photo of them smiling like saints, but instead you've got the first module (royal icing) of my PME diploma. Well you're here now, so let's get cracking.

I did the course at Cakes4Fun, a place that does exactly what it says on the tin: they make cakes and it's a lot of fun.

There were eight ladies on the course (for the avoidance of doubt, I'm counting myself as a lady) and as usual they'd come from so far away that my journey from Newcastle seemed like a hop, skip and a jump. One had come from Germany, another from Switzerland. Her husband works for Nestle and gets to bring home free chocolate. She must REALLY love him.

We made two cakes, which in truth were polystyrene dummies.

They look just the same as cake but don't taste quite as good. The first cake was covered with royal icing, a laborious process that takes several days of smoothing on fine layers of icing, leaving them to dry for hours, sanding them and then adding another layer. It's called royal icing because it's a royal pain in the chuff. It is a technique that's taught in the same way that trainee hairdressers learn to do a perm, something you need to know but will never need to do.  No one asks for a cake covered in royal icing because a) it is time consuming and therefore expensive and b) they've invented sugarpaste. Mercifully it was sugar paste that we used to cover the stacked four tier cake.

Once the cakes were covered, the fun began and we learned some royal icing piping techniques that we definitely will use again because they're so pretty.
Broderie anglaise love birds. GET A ROOM!
Lace and snail trail 
Brushed embroidery
Bridge and extension work. The birdcage represents the claustrophobic trap of marriage something pretty 
Scrolls and piped flowers (on top)
We looked at some great books on royal icing. I have a current embargo on buying more cake books but it's my birthday next month IT'S MY BIRTHDAY NEXT MONTH so I've added some to my Amazon wishlist, please and thank you very much.

We were covering dummy cakes but there was a ready supply of real cake from the kitchen. These are people who take a real pride in their cake and happily take time to pipe ganache and add sprinkles onto a mid morning snack. Here are just some of the treats we had:

I had a great time on the course, met some lovely people and learned a huge amount in a week. I'm very much looking forward to modules 2 and 3 in September, as well as a macaroon class in August.

In a brief round up of other London news:

  • Monday: a comedy hero described my cakepops as ' like little cakes on a stick' (just as well he steers clear of observational comedy). 
  • Tuesday: the tapas at Elaine's King William pub in Hampstead is delicious as ever
  • Wednesday: Dylan has had his first hair cut

  • Thursday: Taste Festival London charges £22 entrance (it can taste right off)
  • Friday: the Turkish food at Tas is still fantastic
As I packed my case on Saturday morning, I laughed at my optimistic inclusion of a sunhat and sunglasses lying unused at the bottom of the case, shook out my umbrella and headed for Manchester.

Friday, 17 June 2011

AIOTM (aiotm) cake pops

I'm in London this week and tret mesel to a night of comedy on Monday. I saw the live recording of As It Occurs to Me, a free weekly podcast written by Richard Herring and performed at the Leicester Square Theatre for an audience of hairy men who work in IT and like self-referential, puerile filth. I certainly like this, even though I don't work with computers or have a beard.

Earlier that day I'd left the cast some AIOTM cake pops to enjoy during rehearsals or to throw into the audience that evening, calling "they're nice, they're like little cakes on a stick. See if you can catch this and write some porn about it going in your vagina or something". With a sales technique like this, perhaps Herring should rethink his stance on not doing adverts. 
He also kindly complained in his daily blog that these little cakes were making him put on weight. Sales are bound to rocket for "What Is Love Anyway programme sponsor Cake Poppins". Until now I've relied on promotion by word of mouth, which is highly effective and hasn't cost me a cocoa bean. However Richard Herring's free podcasts, both AIOTM and Collings & Herrin, helped me through a difficult time last year and I felt it was time to say thanks.

Richard Herring produces a programme for his UK tour each year and instead of charging the audience for it, asks for a donation to SCOPE, raising about £40,000. The production and printing of the programme is funded through donation and advertising - I spotted my opportunity. Instead of merely making a donation, the shrewd business woman hiding inside me decided to take a quarter page advert for his new show, What Is Love, Anyway? I am pleased with the advert, even if I do have to sing Howard Jones 1983 hit every time I see it. 
Fitz has pointed out that there is minimal overlap between comedy nerds and people who love cake, even offering to draw a Venn diagram with only me in the middle, in a world where I have to sell cakes to myself. Which is about as self-referential as you can get. But surely beardy men know that women find flowers boring and that what they really want is some little cakes sporting an obscure comedy reference or a differential equation? Just nothing worthy of a restraining order, please.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Illustrated cake pops for Helen

My cousin Helen Hancocks is finishing her degree at Manchester School of Art this month and her final year show is open for viewing from this Friday. I love her work and, independent of all familial feeling, believe that she will do brilliantly in the world of illustration. She is very dedicated, has a great imagination and great skill that allows her to bring her ideas to life. She also makes lovely cakes.
If any children's book publishers are reading (they're bound to be) I urge you to print her story of a penguin being stolen from Dublin Zoo. It's fantastic and is based on a true story. Admittedly the bad guys being a trio of cats is artistic licence.
My office is like a small gallery of her prints and drawings. If you would like to see more of her work you can call around and have a sneck, or visit her website or go to her final year show at Manchester Metropolitan University from 17 to 22 June. Sadly I can't be there in person but I will be there both in spirit and in cake, having made some cake pops as a tribute to her trademark cat drawing.

The cake pops are intended for her opening night tomorrow Friday 17 June so get there early. The cappuccino ones, however, might already have gone... 

Monday, 13 June 2011

Sunday School for Cakepoppers

I've been asked to run some cake pop classes in Jesmond this summer and thought it best to have a trial run. I lured in two friends as guinea pigs with the promise that it would be even more fun than our school cookery lessons, and that they would not have to sketch the internal workings of an electric oven. 

I set Lu and Annabel to work crumbing cake. After doing four large bowls, they saw through my plan - we couldn't possibly use all these crumbs in a day and they'd unwittingly done a month's supply for me. Thanks, girls! I probably couldn't get away with this in a real lesson.

We started with madeira cake mixed with lemon buttercream and chilled the cake pops while we moved on to chocolate cake and chocolate buttercream. I learned an important lesson - reduce the normal quantities or else the class ends up with an awful lot of cakepops. Still, it means there's more to enjoy. 
Almost as if they've been told "make it look like you're having fun"

We dipped the cakepops in white, milk, dark, orange and cappuccino chocolate. Lu and Annabel excelled at dipping and made full use of the sprinkles, or 'doodlydaddlies' as our ice cream van lady used to call them. Annabel commented that while my mantra is 'less is more', they embraced 'the more, the merrier'. The exciting new sprinkles I'd found in New York finally saw the light of day - skulls, autumn leaves and pink edible foil hearts.

And of course once you've dipped a cake pop in orange chocolate, there's nothing better to do than paint on a tiger face and make it some ears from half a callet (that's the fancy word for chocolate button). We even managed the tricky two ball manoeuvre to make a Russian doll.
I love seeing which colours people choose and what ideas they come up with, mainly so I can copy them and pass them off as my own. Annabel's bold purple flowers and multi-coloured cats might well be recreated soon, as will Lu's idea of drawing children's faces on them and writing children's names (real names that is, not 'stinker' or 'fatty bum bum'. Though there could be a market for mildly abusive confectionery). 

Lu's husband and boys came to collect her and were pleasantly surprised at how many cake pops were coming home with them. Jake's face is the very picture of anticipation, he really should be in adverts. 

Annabel had the joy of bagging and tying all her pops and took this photo.
Both she and Lu genuinely seemed to enjoy an afternoon of hard work and said the lesson was brilliant, which was very heartening. I certainly had fun and hope they take up my kind offer of abandoning their careers in order to come and work in my kitchen. As for the forthcoming lessons, I'll put out dates very soon.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Death by Cake

My lovely friend Kate celebrated "not a big birthday at all" with a lunch this weekend at the Black Bull in Corbridge. Her husband Marc had asked me to make her a birthday carrot cake with the theme of Murder on the Orient Express. Specifically, a scene of the murder victim with a knife in his chest.

It's not often that I'm asked for carrot cake and even less often that I'm asked to depict a murder scene, but I was game. I've never read Agatha Christie's novel, but Wikipedia told me that it's about a person who gets done in on a train, which came as a surprise. The dead man is Mr Ratchett, also known as Cassetti, a nasty piece of work by all accounts. I modelled him on Kate's husband and made the murder weapon by glueing modelling paste to a piece of linguine and painting it with the beautiful silver highlighter powder I smuggled home from New York.

Silver highlighter is no longer available in the UK thanks to EU regulations. I've heard many a wistful sigh from cake makers about days when the EU weren't overly bothered about edible powders and concentrated more on deadly German cucumbers. Incidentally, edible glitter can't be digested by the body and, like sweetcorn, passes through the alimentary canal untouched. So if you eat enough edible glitter, you apparently get a glittery poo. I would love to test this and think it would work best if the results can be captured in a nappy. If anyone has a baby they'd be happy to feed with glitter, please could you get in touch?

Anyway back to Mr Ratchett and his imminent death by linguine. It was strangely satisfying to slide the knife into his chest and part of me wished I practised voodoo. I might do a nightclass in it this autumn.
I'd Googled images of Murder on the Orient Express and shamelessly copied them used them as inspiration for a design with burgundy carriage decor, a snow scene through the window and travel trunks.
The star of the show, Hercule Poirot, came in the form of cake pops. Twenty of them. Marc had asked me to avoid making them look like Hitler, so I modelled them on David Suchet and his splendid moustache.
The Poirots were bagged up for the party, the little ribbons passing (I hoped) for bow ties. 
Kate very generously shared both her cake and cake pops with all her guests, which we managed to eat even after a huge lunch (I highly recommend the deep fried halloumi as a vegetarian alternative to fish and chips), a solid foundation for the day of drinking that lay ahead.

Happy not a big birthday at all, Kate! x