Sunday, 24 July 2011

Paws with Pride

Today Newcastle celebrated its second Paws with Pride, part of this month's Northern Pride festival. It's a very inclusive event with a lot of families and children (I even saw a nun) and as many animals as Leazes Park could hold.

I was delighted to be asked by the event organiser Ken Mortimer to make a rainbow cake.

I decorated it with the Northern Pride logo and cunningly invented a Paws with Pride logo on the side, using the rainbow petals and a paw print. Really, I don't know why I haven't gone into brand design. I also modelled a Westie and a brown dog of indeterminate heritage. The book described him as 'Santa's Helper', though I doubt that's a category at Crufts. I used a redundant garlic press to make the Westie's face fur and was pleased with the result, not least as it's a lot easier to clean than a craft gun.

The cake inside is seven layers of cake in the colours of the rainbow, which is why I call it rainbow cake. Perhaps I should go into brand design AND marketing, the brilliant ideas just bounce off me like fleas. 

One person who I believe will have a brilliant career in art and design is my cousin Helen. I mentioned her work in June and am very proud to say she's just graduated this summer from Manchester School of Art with a well deserved first class degree in Illustration. She drew this animal tea party for me and I LOVE it. 

There were dozens of gorgeous dogs competing at high level events like Waggiest Tail, Dog the Judge Would Most Like to Take Home, and Campest Costume. I failed to win Prettiest Bitch - not pretty enough and not enough legs. There were huge dogs, teeny tiny dogs, huggy dogs, dressed up dogs and Cutey McCute puppies. 
"Watch the sandwich". Worked a treat.
Glenn. Retired young from farm work as he ran away from the sheep.
One of these, please
Ten week old chihuahua. About as big as a kitten
Hard to capture on a photo, but this is the tallest Great Dane I've ever  seen
A male dog. He didn't seem bothered.
The rest of the animal world was represented by cows, ponies, alpacas, hedgehogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds of prey and snakes. I helped out for a while on the Wildlife Sanctuary  stall and met some lovely people, but kept a close eye on the snake under the tombola.

One of the few animals not present was cats, which people were asked not to bring after the Feline Federation described the event as 'hell on toast'. Cats were represented in a photo competition for Bonniest Cat.
Aaah, kittehs
Mia was gutted I'd not sent in her photo as she was sure she'd triumph 'because I'm proper mint'. 

Paws for Pride was a lot of fun and the perfect weather helped. I'm already looking forward to next year's and will not forget to nominate a Bonniest Cat. It just might not be Mia.

Friday, 22 July 2011

London nommage

On Tuesday Helen and I arrived in London and, peckish as ever, headed straight for Bea's of Bloomsbury for afternoon tea. 
I had a feta, houmous and courgette sandwich, a delicious combination I've never tried before. Then we got straight to business with a lovely stack of scones and cakes. Special mention must go to the financier and to the blonde brownie. As well as Bea's cakes, we liked her lampshades and artwork.

Stupidly we later decided to haul our stomachs up 200 steps at Covent Garden tube station and nearly came a cropper. We'd gone to London not only for the nommage, but to see Rufus and Martha Wainwright at the Royal Opera House with tickets very kindly given to me by my friend Keith. As Helen and I necked champagne cocktails before the performance, we were thrilled to see Bellatrix Lestrange at the bar looking well, despite being killed only two days earlier by Julie Walters. 

The next day we trotted around Primrose Hill breathing in its superness and gazing at things we couldn't afford. One shop was rehoming kittens and we had cuddles from some nine week old cuties. I was very tempted to take a couple home but I knew the kind of bullying they'd get.
Spare the rod and spoil the child
Instead I contented myself with this cat from Liberty's. I disregarded the fact that it is a child's plate and I already love it. I use it for putting cake on.

By 3pm it was time for afternoon tea, this time at Fortnum and Mason's. Han took me there three years ago to try their ice cream sundaes when we went to London on a stalking theatre trip. It was time for Helen to be initiated. The sundaes are so good it's hard to choose - the ginger and honey beekeeper? the one with all the nuts? mint choc chip and kendal mint cake? In the end we both plumped for the Lazy Day Sundae with vanilla and strawberry ice creams, fresh strawberries, whipped cream and what did it for me, meringue. The waiter asked if we wanted one to share. As if! In truth the ice creams were so enormous that one between two might have been a good idea. Still, we did our best.
Spot the difference
There was just time to stagger over the road to Laduree to buy macarons for the journey home. We got green apple (quite sour), rose (gorgeous) and salted caramel (sweet baby Jesus I have died and gone to heaven). Bye bye London - you've got the noms!

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Alan Dunn

On Monday I went to a demonstration by Alan Dunn. Not a shouty demonstration with police kettling and placards reading "DOWN WITH CUPCAKES!", rather a sugarcraft demonstration in a church hall where the only kind of kettling involved cups of tea.

Alan Dunn is a celebrity in the sugarcraft world. He has written 15 books and travels the world - Brazil, Japan, South Africa, USA - giving classes and demonstrations. Amazingly for someone with so much experience he is young, born the same year as me so yes, YOUNG. Very young. He's managed to acquire over 20 years experience by starting when he was a teenager and gave his first dem aged just 17. He grew up in the north east a few miles from me. I often wish I'd discovered cake decorating much earlier in life, even though I'd have missed out on many happy hours in an office making chains out of paperclips or falling asleep at my desk. 

Alan made a spray with a gardenia, an eyelash orchid and gumnuts ("because I like the funny name") while chatting with the two dozen ladies who watched goggle eyed as he effortlessly brought the flowers to life.

He interspersed his instructions on how to make the flowers with tales of his travels, from the Korean spaghetti with tiny octopuses on it to the koala droppings that smelled amazing (it's the wet eucalyptus). He also showed us a photo of a stunning cake he'd made last week for Bucks Fizz and admitted with admirable honesty that he's a big fan. 

At the end of the dem our names were pulled out of a hat, as is the tradition, and I was the lucky winner of  the flowers he'd just made. It made up for the disappointment of not winning £161 million on Euromillions last Tuesday even though it was my birthday. I guess not buying a ticket didn't help.

My recent birthday celebrations were a good excuse to break the embargo on buying more cake books and I tret mesel to Alan Dunn's new Tropical and Exotic Flowers for Cakes, a beautiful book available in shops this August. I was pleased to find frangipani explained, as an Australian friend had been asking how to make them for a beach wedding. I won't tell you what Alan says his friends in Australia call frangipanis*

*ok, it's scratchy fannies. Rude!

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Four Puddings and a Full Stomach

Last night I went with cousin Helen (that's her full name) to a pop up restaurant at Vallum Farm. The farm is only 20 minutes drive from Newcastle but is set in the middle of Hadrian's Wall country, named after the vallum earthwork that runs from coast to coast alongside the Wall (and they said a Classics degree wouldn't come in handy...)

The chefs were Sally Walker and John Connell of W & Co who cooked using local produce much of which - vegetables, smoked fish, lamb and ice cream - was grown and prepared at the farm.

The meal started with a glass of prosecco with peach and some canapes including rosemary and cheese biscuits, which we scoffed so quickly that I forgot to take a photo.

Helen and I both had beetroot plate for starter (we had no idea you can get yellow beetroot, let alone stripy beetroot), then yes! an amuse-bouche. I love that word. We had pea shoot and truffle oil chilled soup. Helen had the lamb which she said was melt-in-the-mouth and I had courgette flowers with polenta and aubergine relish.

Stripy beetroot, pea shooter, lamby lambkins and courgette flowers
Special thanks to Sally who made my vegetarian main course so special - too often restaurants fob off vegetarians with pasta or risotto (like I couldn't make that myself) and if I see another bloody goats cheese tart I'm going to do something drastic like tut a bit. Courgette flowers are a rare treat I usually only get in Greece and are certainly something I wouldn't make myself. Sally said throughout her career male chefs have pushed the vegetarian option onto female chefs and that she learned a lot working in one of Ireland's top vegetarian restaurants. So next time I'm offered a bowl of tomato penne, I'll presume it's a man who has failed to put a second's imagination into my meal. We need more lady chefs! Rant over.

Helen and I kept reminding each other not to eat too much and to leave plenty of room for what was, for us, the main course - pudding. We were well advised because there was not one but FOUR puddings. First, an amuse-bouche of Vallum Farm vanilla ice cream with mascarpone and coffee, served in a coffee cup and so generously sized it could have stood as a course on its own.

Helen and I had been torn ordering pudding; she went for Northumbrian strawberries with lemon posset and Pimms gelee while I went for malted chocolate terrine with a little glass of milk that tasted EXACTLY like popcorn. I had a pang of pudding envy over the lemon posset as it was perfectly balanced between the tang of yoghurt and the sweetness of a panna cotta. If Helen had similar pangs, she was in luck as I admitted defeat three quarters of the way through the rich terrine and she finished it off for me like a big greeder. We finished with a pot of tea and a plate of petits fours, another excellent French idea i.e. extra pudding. We staggered home and went straight to bed.
Ice cream, Geordie strawbs bathing in booze, chocolate terrine and petits fours
And the fourth pudding? That was in a goody bag - two tubs of Vallum Farm ice cream and some shortbread. I realise that I've ended my last two blogs admitting I've eaten cake for breakfast and this one, I'm afraid, is no different. I breakfasted on the shortbread. I have no shame.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Pig 'ole Door

Today my cousin Helen and I baked an old family favourite, pig 'ole door. It's a cross between a cake and a biscuit with raspberry jam in the middle and icing and coconut on top. It's absolutely perfect with a cup of tea and tastes of childhood as our Grandma used to bake it for us. It probably has a proper Yorkshire name but I've no idea what it is**. We call it 'pig 'ole door' because it's baked in a large slab that apparently looks like the weight used to block the pig's little door in a sty. If anyone wants the recipe*, feel free to ask. It's not a closely guarded secret.

Our Grandma redefines "stalwart". She is 95, registered blind and struggling with arthritis. She still lives on her own and is keen to keep it that way. Three weeks ago she fell and broke her hip, picked herself up and BAKED A CAKE. Two days later, she admitted she didn't feel all that good and had a sit down. She didn't want to make a fuss by ringing her alarm for help, so waited until we realised something was amiss. Grandma has had a hip replacement and is doing well with her physiotherapy.

We sent her a box of pig 'ole door to help her with her recovery and her first ever cake pops. 

* a few people have asked for the recipe, so here goes:

12oz plain flour
pinch of salt
3 tsps baking powder
6oz butter at room temperature
6oz caster sugar
1 large egg, beaten
raspberry jam
icing sugar
desiccated coconut

Preheat the oven to 190oC/375oF and grease a baking tray.

Mix the flour, salt and baking powder, then rub in the butter. Add the beaten egg to bind the mixture - if it's still too dry to roll out, add a little water or milk. 
Roll out half of the mixture to about 1cm depth and place on the baking tray. Spread with jam, then roll out the second half and place this on top of the jam. Prick it all over with a fork to make air holes. It will look like a big wobbly edged slab but don't despair, it will look pretty soon.
Bake for about 25 minutes until it is golden brown. Allow to cool, then ice and sprinkle on the coconut. Slice into squares and enjoy with tea. 

** my dad has tried and failed to leave a comment on this blog, so he's texted me some Yorkshire names and literary references: "Pig 'ole door is really called Yorkshire cake except in Haworth where it is called Stanbury cake. There are 18 references to it in the works of the Bronte sisters. Some experts think their brother Branwell took some to The Black Bull pub hoping to entice a young lady to join him in merry romp on the moors."

Tsk, the things some young ladies will do for cake.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Carousel Cake

I've been wanting to make a carousel cake ever since I bought a PME rocking horse cutter in January. This week I found several excuses to do so:

  • it was my birthday on Tuesday and I could see no reason not to celebrate turning 39 by making myself a cake better suited to a small child.
  • Renshaw have just brought out new regal icing colours including ruby red and my favourite duck egg blue and I was keen to try them.
  • Wednesday saw the first Clandestine Cake Club in Newcastle with cakes themed as childhood summer memories (for all the summery cakes, see here).
  • my alma mater Cakes4Fun are running a competition entitled 'What Summer Means to Me' that I wanted to enter. For me, summer is a travelling fair and here is why. 

New York has Central Park, London has Hyde Park and Newcastle upon Tyne has the Town Moor, home to a couple of hundred cows and little else. At the end of June every year since 1882 the cows clear off to Benidorm on a cheap 10 night deal while the moor hosts one of Europe's largest travelling fairs, the Hoppings. This short video neatly shows the contrast.

As a child the most exciting day in the year for me after Christmas was the day I went to the Hoppings. I remember almost levitating with excitement as we approached the rides. The smell of chip fat and candy floss blended with diesel generators and the throaty thud of pop music still plucks at my heart. I remember the time it was so wet when I was 7 that the mud came over the top of my wellies (I was undeterred - nothing kept me off a waltzer); the time aged 10 that me and my cousin slipped the safety bar inside an American Egg and rattled about inside it like a couple of tictacs; and the time we lost Yvonne inside the helter skelter on my 6th birthday trip and I loudly suggested that she'd been stolen by the gypsies, just as our mothers had warned.

Here's me 35 years ago by the dodgems sporting a little dress and hat that my mum had sewn.

Last year, Caroline and I took her girls Hannah and Becca to the fair and they loved it.

So my summertime theme was a fairground ride. I tried to tone down the out and out kitsch of a carousel horse but kept the mirrors, the gold and the garlands of flowers around the horses' necks. 

The cake could  even go round and round and I made a three second video of my cousin Helen moving the turntable of it springing into life. Watch here and be amazed!

After ten days of Hoppings fun, the rides are dismantled, the travellers move on and the cows come home with as much duty free as they could buy. In much the same way, my cake was dismantled. It didn't have far to travel and there was still some left for breakfast.

Clandestine Cake Club - Newcastle

Yesterday saw the inaugural Newcastle Clandestine Cake Club organised by Lisa Vincent.  The rules of Cake Club are simple: you bake a cake based on a theme, meet somewhere you can get a brew, eat the cakes, then take home any leftovers. You are allowed to talk about Cake Club, and you do not have to have a fight with Brad Pitt (more’s the pity). A few of us had watched with interest and envy as Clandestine Cake Clubs popped up all over the UK including Leeds, Manchester and London. It was time for the Geordies to get baking.

There’s something slightly daunting about turning up to a club where you don’t know anyone and the only thing you might have in common is a love of cake, but the lure of noms won over any shyness. We met at the lovely Settle Down Cafe, who kindly stayed open late for us.

The theme was childhood summers - I made a lemon sponge carousel cake (I’ll explain elsewhere why I made such a ridiculously ornate cake); Lisa made a strawberry layer cake with fruit grown at her own allotment; Carol made a banana rum cake with cinnamon frosting; and Val made a raspberry, almond and white chocolate cake that was neatly described as “like Bakewell tart but even nicer”.

Thankfully there were some non-baking guests to help eat it all. The cakes were truly delicious and as each contained fruit, we reckoned we’d eaten four of our five-a-day.

The next Newcastle Clandestine Cake Club is on Wednesday 24 August and the theme, pickpocketed from South Lancashire CCC, is “fantasy meets reality – the cake you’ve dreamed about”. The venue is secret – it’s not called clandestine for nothing – until you book a place.

And guess what I’ve had for breakfast? Mmm, leftover cake….

Monday, 11 July 2011

Pineapple cake

My Bulgarian friend Teo is on a campaign to get me to eat more fruit, in the belief that most of my meals consist entirely of cake. He is, of course, wrong as I also eat biscuits and chocolate. So far Teo has brought me half a dozen mangoes, a bag of grapefruit and this week, two pineapples. I thwart his five-a-day attempts by baking the fruit into cakes. I found a lovely BBC Good Food recipe for caramelised mango upside down cake and have rung the changes on it using apples and also my recently acquired pineapples.
The correct way to serve fruit: before and after
It's not the prettiest of cakes but it is very tasty and is great served hot (i.e. fresh out of the oven. Turns out mothers are fibbing when they say eating hot cake gives you tummy ache. Hot dinners don't, do they? I can't believe it took me 30 years to see through this foul lie). Looks can be deceiving. I worked many years ago in Maison Blanc and always wondered why the ugliest cake - apple tarte tatin - sold out first. When I finally tried a tarte tatin, I realised why. It's de-bloody-licious.

The pineapple cake would probably have stood me in good stead for several meals, but luckily half a dozen friends came round for tea and cake this morning after they'd done the Race for Life. I also made some Race for Life cake pops.
The cake was all eaten, but Kate brought me a bag of manky bananas left over at the end of the race. And we all know what happens to manky bananas, don't we? More cake. It's like Terrence Malik's Tree of Life, except easier to understand.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A Taste of Summer

When I go on holiday, I know I am going to miss my kitties. What I wasn't expecting was how much I'd miss my kitchen. It was as lovely to put my pinny back on as it was to be headbutted awake by William. Probably more so to be honest.

As it's been warm and I'm still officially "on holiday", I sunbathed in the garden. We are lucky to share a garden that is beautifully maintained by Terra Firma in Hexham. Rosie has planted the garden so that from April to October we always have flowers and as one plant wilts, another blooms, like a firework display in slow motion. Yesterday the smell of the lavender wafted over to me and reminded me to make lavender cupcakes.

Flower-infused confectionery isn't everybody's cup of tea ("ugh, Parma Violets") but over the past ten years, after a trip to Frinton-on-Sea when the spirit of a little old lady jumped inside me, I have been obsessed with violet creams. I also like rose and lavender creams, but my favourites are the violet ones, not least so I can make my little joke by calling them "violent". 

To infuse the cupcakes, you soak a few tablespoons of dried lavender flowers in milk for a day, then add it to the batter and to the frosting. The scent of warm lavender when the cupcakes come out of the oven is beautiful. The recipe suggested decorating the frosting with sprigs of lavender, but I didn't really want a little twig on my cake so I made some purple lavender blossoms. OK, they are way way bigger than a lavender flower and yes, I've used a jasmine cutter, but the colour is pretty close and look, I've even added a yellow centre with cocoa butter.  
The lavender in the garden is visited by bees, the big fat bumbling ones that look like they're about to suffer engine malfunction and fall to the ground. They are slow easy prey for the cats, who I worry might get stung on their mouths. I keep shouting "not the stripy ones!" as they sail through the air after an insect. When Mia was a kitten, she was stung on her paw and refused to walk on grass for the next six months, convinced it was this that had made her little foot swell up.
Poor baby
The safest kind of bees are made of cake and dipped in chocolate. It seemed the perfect excuse to bring out Callebaut's new honey flavoured milk chocolate. I was very excited to discover honey flavour chocolate, which is absolutely delicious. The bees' little wings are made of florist paste, which I picked off when I ate one, feeling like an evil schoolboy.
So that's my taste of English summer - lavender and honey. While William keeps a lookout for bees.

Monday, 4 July 2011


I've come back from a week in the Lakes with some manky bananas in my rucksack. There are only two options for manky bananas: 1) the bin or 2) banana loaf. I don't like wasting food and I do like cake, so I ticked option 2.

While I was in the Lakes eating bananas, I noticed Fitz had a curious way of eating them. He peels the whole banana, throws away the skin, and then eats the fruit. Surely not even monkeys do this?

I decided to share this eccentricity with friends over curry at the weekend (an excellent South Indian meal at Rasa, I was thrilled when they opened in Newcastle) and was met with blank stares. It turns out that half of my friends, whom I'd previously thought were normal people, choose not to use the handy fruit-in-its-own-holding-device as Nature surely intends, but instead peel the whole fruit. One friend commented "the skin might flip over and put banana on my hand - ew!" But surely you're going to get more banana on your hand if you hold the entire fruit naked? And if you're an A&E consultant, is this really the most minging thing you might get on your hand?  

I was reminded of a piece of gossip about a chap at college. "So posh", whispered a friend, "that when someone visited him in his room, he was sitting on his own eating a banana ON A PLATE WITH A FORK". This upper class banana method is demonstrated here at 2.25 by my future husband Rowan Atkinson.

Anyway, back to the manky ones. I used to make a banana loaf with walnuts but after a colleague once asked for a nut-free banana cake, I've become very fond of the Hummingbird recipe with ginger and cinnamon. It's lovely on its own but can you jazz it up too.

For instance, if you've just come back from holiday and realised you've gained another half stone, why not slather a load of chocolate buttercream on top? Or if you've come back from holiday to find mammy has cleaned your flat, why not make two banana loaves and send her one as a thank you?
Post script: my aunt Kate has alerted me to a third option for manky bananas: " bananas freeze well in their skins, and can be hauled out and used later, thus eliminating the 'have to do something straight away' pressure. Canadian freezers tend to be full of disgusting looking, blackened bananas , which when thawed, slip out of the skin easily and work just as well." I'll certainly be giving this a go.

Lastly, William has asked if I can show everyone a photo of him doing his impression of a banana. He's a funny one. 

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Aga cake

My friend Heather has asked me to make a cake for her sister Helen's birthday this weekend. We hummed and hah'd over which passion Helen would most like on her cake - her garden, her car or her kitchen and plumped for the kitchen. Heather sent me some photos of Helen's beautiful cream Aga in her kitchen decorated in hot pink and lime green and I came up with this cake. I'm not sure if fridge magnets really would stick to an Aga in real life, or if the top of the range is the best place to keep a vase of fresh flowers, but the great thing about the medium of cake is that it allows you a lot of artistic licence.

The cake is two 8" fruit cakes, dowelled and stacked, as it needed to serve 60. Heather is part of a large family. She is the youngest of five and has four children of her own, the eldest of whom is 15 (this seems ridiculous as it was only five minutes ago that we were 15 ourselves) and the youngest of whom is two and has the most beautiful head of auburn curls that you will ever see on a child.

Heather is my oldest friend (in terms of how long I've known her, not in terms of age. I have some friends who are MUCH older. Some are even in their mid 40s). We used to get the bus to school every day together and talk about boys, until Heather passed her driving test, at which point we would drive to school every day in a Nissan Cherry called Norman and talk about boys. Heather's family have also been very welcoming to me - some of my happiest teenage memories are of chipping off wallpaper in the Cheviots and listening to Paul Simon. Or drinking cider in Blyth park and wobbling back to Heather's house to stay the night. 

Heather emigrated to Canada a couple of years back with her husband and children (it would have seemed rude not to take them) so I don't see her as much as I'd like to. She's back this summer and brought me a little present from Canada. I mentioned turtles in my blog from Toronto and complained that my Canadian family have been hiding them from me all my life. Finally I have my own bag. Thanks Heather! And happy birthday Helen!

Saturday, 2 July 2011


It was sunny and warm by 8.30 this morning and on the last day of the holiday, Samson put in an appearance for a tummy rub.
It was a shame to make a new friend just as we were leaving the cottage and there followed a brief argument as to whether to spend a beautiful day in one of Britain's most beautiful places, or whether we should drive immediately back to Newcastle in case someone broke into the car in Coniston village, that infamous den of thieves, and stole the Andrex and shampoo we were taking home. Luckily sense and my threat to sulk ALL DAY prevailed and we did a five mile walk to 'popular local beauty spot' Tarn Hows, the prettiest walk we've done all week. 

As well as some stunning scenery, we saw a brown striped sheep, a teeny tiny frog (I went all city, "ew it's on my iPhone case"), a tempting prospect at Tom Gill waterfall and, blessed relief on a hot sunny day, an ice cream van. 

I don't often go for strawberry ice cream, but as this was made with real fruit, I threw caution to the wind. There's just no stopping me sometimes. I might not be the only one of my schoolfriends for whom strawberry ice cream has the bitter tang of regret after Chloe, an excellent cook, once made us some fantastic strawberry ice cream at her house, then instead of giving us a second portion, made us go for a walk by the river. Twenty years on, this is still hotly lamented whenever we get together. 

For lunch I had another cream tea ("hey, I'm still on holiday") and another ice cream (in your face, Chloe). This time it was Lakeland's Thunder and Lightning, vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and little melty bits of cinder toffee. 

And that was that. All my attempts at prolonging the fun on the way home - can we stop at Grasmere for gingerbread? can we stop at Castlerigg to look at some stones? - were overridden and my mumbled protest 'Han would let me' held no sway. 

Still, I love coming home. Round about Carlisle I start singing Paul Simon's Mother and Child Reunion as I anticipate seeing these furry little faces again. They might even have brought me a tasty treat...