Wednesday, 31 August 2011


I made this bingo cake to celebrate my grandma, Nora Page. She was glamorous, fun-loving and a bit crackers.
She once claimed it was possible to ride a cow and set about proving it on the Town Moor. She wore jeans well into her 70s (she liked maternity jeans for the elasticated waistband). She impressed everyone by dancing non-stop until 4am at my wedding in Athens - she was 81 at the time - and gave the bishop who'd married us a big wet kiss. For a laugh. 

Like a lot of people, as Grandma grew older her mental faculties started to fail her and she began to forget words.  A conversation became a game of twenty questions. She failed the Alzheimers memory test miserably but was able to laugh about it. "Count backwards from 100 in sevens? Divn't be daft, I couldn't dae that when I was a bairn".

One evening I took her for a drink in her old haunt St Dominic's Club in Shieldfield. As luck would have it, they were playing bingo and Grandma was keen to join in.  She bloody loved bingo. When we were children we'd meet her in Newcastle every Saturday to go shopping, but come 2pm and she'd be off to the bingo hall quick as a plume a smoke. I worried she wouldn't be able to remember the numbers as by now she could no longer read or write, but years of semi-professional bingo training kicked in and she marked two tickets at a time. Just as she was about to fill a line, someone else called house. She shouted back, "You fat c*nt!" I suppose there are some words you just don't forget.

As her dementia worsened, Grandma moved into Cestria House in Jesmond, two doors away from the house where she'd lived  in the 1940s and where my mother was born. Grandma made a lot of friends there, though she sometimes liked to escape. Having learned the code on the front door lock, she slipped out one day, caught a bus into town and headed straight for the lipstick counter in Fenwicks. 

Cestria House was home to Grandma for the last two years of her life. When she suddenly became physically ill they looked after her (and us) with a love and dedication that we will always remember.

To thank them and to mark the second year since Grandma died, I made a cake for the staff and residents to share. There was only one way to decorate it - a bingo ticket. Fans of the game will recognise it as anatomically correct: nine squares by three, each row containing five numbers. The numbers on the cake represent her birthday; the number of her children (cup of tea, number 3) and grandchildren (knock at the door, number 4); the years we were born; and her age when she left us - top of the shop, 90. 

It was lovely to see the photos of Grandma still on the wall at Cestria, pictures of her smiling, dressed as a witch at Halloween, and blowing out the candles on her 90th birthday cake. I hope all the staff and residents at Cestria enjoy the bingo cake and fondly remember Nora Page.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Maple syrup cake

I've been wanting to make this cake from Nigella Lawson's Domestic Goddess for years and this bank holiday weekend I had the perfect excuse: a mini family reunion and a large amount of maple syrup.

This cake requires half a litre of maple syrup, so to get such a large amount you can either remortgage your home or ask your Canadian aunt to pop a demijohn of the stuff in her suitcase next time she visits. I accidentally emailed asking her for "male syrup", so either she understood or else she's spent the summer boiling down some Canadian men, in which case they are surprisingly tasty.

To bake the cake you need:

2 x 8 inch sandwich tins, buttered and lined
175g butter
100g caster sugar
beat these together until pale and fluffy

3 large eggs
added one at a time

350ml maple syrup
to make a smooth mixture

500g self raising flour
175 ml hot water 
add these alternately, then bake in a preheated oven at 180 degrees C/gas mark 4 for 40 minutes

You also need to flare your nostrils at an imaginary camera now and then and give it a lingering stare that suggests exactly where you'd like to pour that batter. I'm not sure it helps the baking process but it's a lot of fun.

While the cakes are cooling, you can make the icing:

2 large egg whites
125 ml maple syrup
125g caster sugar
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1/4 tsp salt

Whisk these in a bowl that is sitting over a pan of boiling water for 5 minutes until the mixture stands in peaks like meringue, then add 1tsp vanilla extract and 1/4tsp maple extract. Nigella describes this latter as "optional", which means "good luck finding this ingredient". I got some maple extract posted from Toronto - thank you, cousin! Ice the middle, top and sides of the cake giving it a swirly effect. Lastly, chop 100g pecans and sprinkle them over the top and sides.

Nigella calls this "autumnal cake"  because she made it in autumn for a birthday, but there is something autumnal about the flavours and colours, and unfortunately there was definitely something autumnal about the August bank holiday weather. The photo in the book decorated the plate with dead leaves and although there are plenty of these in the back yard, I know what the cats get up to out there and there's no way I'm sticking it next to a cake. Instead I coloured some florist paste, cut and curled some leaves and dusted them with the lovely new copper shimmer I'd just bought.

The recipe book says this cake serves eight. This might be true if you're serving eight massive greeders, but there were nine of us (and we are fairly greedy) and we only ate half of the cake.

It was lovely to see grandma looking so well (I mentioned her recent travails here) and to catch up with my aunts, cousin, sister, brother-in-law and cute-as-a-button nephew. It also gave me a hilarious new insight into my parents' life.

As we were driving west, I could hear them muttering "GP?" "Garden of Kent. Brighton" "Oh yes. A lot of Ps!". "Mmm, we're near Carlisle". It turned out they were playing the fun game known as "identifying DVLA offices from passing registration plates". When I laughed, they only dug themselves in deeper by explaining "we were bored of I spy". They hadn't memorised the DVLA mnemonics, they actually had a printed list in the glove compartment. AND IT WAS LAMINATED. When I laughed some more, they kept on digging by explaining "well yes, the last copy blew out of the window".

I asked to have a look and I took a photo. "Oh no", said my mum, quicker on the uptake, "she's going to Facebook and Twitter it". As always, mammy was right. But she forgot "blog" as well.
Too good not to share

Monday, 29 August 2011

Children's cakes

I love doing cakes for little children because they're so cute. This week I've made a christening cake and cake pops for a baby boy.

I also made a dozen of these little fellas for a two year old boy's birthday. 
Can we bake them? Yes we can!
 Lastly I made an In the Night Garden cake to celebrate a baby girl's first birthday.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Clandestine Cake Club - August

After the success of Newcastle's first Clandestine Cake Club in July, the logical step was to hold a second club in August. At last month's club there were four cakes. This month, word must have got out as there were a whopping 13 cakes. 

The theme was "the cake you've dreamed about". It seems that the ladies of the north east dream mostly about alcohol and chocolate, while some dream about fruit (the freaks).
DRINK! Pina Colada; Gin and Tonic; Zuccotto; Cherry Cola 
CHOCLIT! Sachertorte; Sweet & Salty Chocolate; Gateau Diane; Orange & Almond with Chocolate
FRUIT! Lemon & Lime with Ginger; Strawberries & Cream; Rhubarb, Raspberry & Custard; Sugar Plum Fairy
There was also a lovely carrot cake, which doesn't fit into my neat drink/chocolate/fruit dream classification system. If Ros wants to claim she dreams of carrots, that's fine by me. I often find it's a toss up between Daniel Craig and a root vegetable.
I'd had a busy day making six dozen wedding cupcakes in a warm kitchen on a warm day  and I was pleased at how peckish I was feeling at 6pm. 

I made a beeline for the sweet and salty chocolate cake, then the sugar plum fairy and the strawberries & cream cakes, hoping that the fruit would help me pace myself. Then something awful happened - three slices in and I hit the wall. I had a rest, a chat and a cup of tea and wondered aloud what gateau Diane was: "meringue, cream and chocolate". Meringue! My favourite. I scarcely had time to recite the obligatory meringue joke in my head (Geordie goes for tea with the Queen. She says, "Geordie, would you like a cake or a meringue?" Geordie says, "Nae yah not rang hinny, ah'll hev a cake"). My second wind also carried me on to a slice of the zuccotto, lemon & lime and pina colada cakes. I admitted defeat at seven slices, far short of the 11 slice CCC record set in Leeds.

One of the good things about CCC, apart from all the cake and tea and chatting, is that you get to take home the leftovers, so I took a slice of all the cakes I hadn't managed to try, including my orange and almond cake. It was a new recipe for me from Leith's Baking Bible.

To make it extra almondy, I made use of my new found macaroon skills and baked some green and pink macaroons to decorate the side and top, In my mind's eye, it was going to look beautiful. In reality, it looked shit. For a start the macaroons were, as my sister pointed out, "a bit nipply" thanks to my sloppy piping. More like on full beam. I took the macaroons off, paired them with a mint chocolate and a raspberry chocolate ganache, and gave one to my dad to try. "Nice", he said "I'd like more". Handy, because he had 16 to take home. The ladies at cake club were none the wiser.

CCC was held at the Central Bar at the Gateshead end of the Tyne Bridge. It's a lovely friendly place where all the cool kids hang out, or rather, where Han and I fail to win the Wednesday pub quiz each week. Huge thanks to Dave for hosting the cake club tonight in the  Blue Room, so smart it has its own outdoor roof terrace. I'd certainly recommend the Central to anyone who likes live music, real ale and sausage sandwiches. I'd also recommend the quiz to anyone with an in-depth knowledge of AC/DC. 

Huge thanks also to Lisa for organising the cake club so well. This event was fully booked, so if you want to scoff a load of cake and meet some new people at a secret location in September, you'd better get booking!

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Cocker spaniel cake pops

My friend Petra visited me in Newcastle this weekend with her 11 month old cocker spaniel Dylan, with whom we holidayed in Brighton earlier this year.

Petra is a keen cook and wanted to learn how to make cake pops. Dylan is just keen - keen to go for a walk, keen to meet new friends, keen to roll in cowpats and keen that my cats be released from the club on a free transfer. They might all be wearing black and white, but there was very poor team morale in the dressing room on Saturday. 

We decided to use Dylan as the model for our cake pops because he is devilishly handsome. He's a blue roan cocker spaniel so dark chocolate was the closest colour to him. We modelled his flared ears by piping chocolate onto plastic spoons, chilling them and then popping the ears off by flexing the spoon. Dylan's best friends are Rico and Cookie who have tan coats. We used a blend of white, milk and orange chocolate for them. The cake inside was chocolate orange, so the orange flavoured chocolate went nicely. Dylan has taken some back to London for a tea party tomorrow. Those London doggies live the life. 

Dylan waited very patiently while we cake popped and was rewarded with a romp on the Town Moor. Yesterday he romped on Alnmouth beach and though he refused to get his paws wet, he did manage to snag a twinkly fish hook in his fur and ran about looking like an extra from Pirates of the Caribbean. Luckily the fisherman found this hilarious (he didn't). 

A brisk walk to Central station meant that Dylan was crashed out on the train before he'd reached Durham. If a neighbour is harbouring my cats, please can you tell them that management apologise and would its little black and white army to return to the club? There'll be a group hug.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Macarons – the fickle boyfriend of the confectionery world

This week I attended Cakes4Fun's inaugural macaroon class. I'd hummed and hah'd about the wisdom of going to London during the riots, but decided that the threat of violence and arson wasn't going to come between me and cake.

For the avoidance of doubt, macaroons here mean little pastel-coloured almond meringues. They are not the coconut haystacks we used to eat in the 70s, nor are they the chocolate and coconut bar of fondant inexplicably popular in Scotland. These are, in truth, macarons. Han has done some research and tells me they should apparently be called macarons a) so that people don't expect a coconut bun with a cherry on top and b) to make them sound posher.

I love macarons (see, I sound posh already!) but they're a rare treat as they are prohibitively expensive. I'd never baked them because I'd heard they were tricky with a 50 per cent failure rate and frankly I can't cope with that kind of rejection. Not from a biscuit. So when Cakes4Fun announced a macaroon course I jumped at the chance to learn from the experts.

The instructor was Lisa, a lovely American lady who is a treasure trove of baking knowledge and a petite ball of energy. If Michael BublĂ© is reading and he's tired of that Argentinian model and wants more cake in his life, Lisa is the girl for you. (I've done my best, Lisa, the rest is up to you).

We worked in pairs. Excitingly, one of the places on the course had been purchased by a man, a creature rare as hens' teeth at Cakes4Fun. Even more excitingly, he was going to be pairing up with me. He never showed up. Perhaps he’d heard how over-excited I get.

We made two different types of batter using cooked and uncooked sugar. The cooked sugar method – Italian meringue - is more tricky but makes a smooth shiny macaroon that is slightly chewy in the middle. The uncooked sugar method – French meringue – is easier but makes a more brittle macaroon that has a rougher shell. For taste and appearance, the smooth Italian beat his pimply French cousin hands down.

Once the macaroons had been baked in pretty pastel colours, the next step was matchmaking. This is as frustrating as it is in real life. At first glance, the macaroons all look like they’d get on famously, but start pairing them up and you quickly realise that some are too big, too small, too oval or too cracked to make a real go of a steady relationship. But by and large there is the perfect match for every macaroon and that special bond can be cemented with jam, buttercream or ganache.
Lemon, pistachio, chocolate and raspberry.
Note to self: do not get drunk on the train home and let a Scottish family eat all the raspberry ones.
I’ll be honest - some macaroons didn’t bake properly. Some never found their other half. Some were simply not ready to commit. But all was not lost – as Hello! magazine would put it, the forsaken macaroons can find “the happiness of new love” in another dessert, perhaps crushed over ice cream or inside that king of puddings, Eton Mess.

I loved the macaroon course and am certainly going to try them at home, aiming to recreate Lisa’s perfect macaroon with little “feet”. 
In this photo you can see the macaron's "feet". Jeez, some people talk about cakes as if they're human.
I was given Jose MarĂ©chal’s book "Secret of Macarons" for my birthday and am going to try some new flavours, starting with Mr Salted Caramel. I’ve had my eye on him for some time and I think it’s time to make my move.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Broderie Anglaise

Today is my mum's birthday. I had set my alarm for 6am to get up early and make her a cake. When the alarm went off, I fancied lying in for a bit longer and denying I'd ever intended to make mammy a cake, but a hard stare from the cat told me to get cracking.

I'd chosen as inspiration for the cake a pink summer dress that my mum bought me when I was seven. My sister Lucy had the same dress and we wore them to my aunt Valentine's wedding. They were traditional broderie anglaise with a scalloped edge sewn with a buttonhole stitch. Unfortunately the only photo I could find of these dresses was a bit faded; even more unfortunately the photos are of us doing our favourite thing of trampolining, so the detail is  blurred. But look how excited we are! A year after the wedding we must have been growing out of these dresses, so my mother went for maximum usage by letting us trampoline in them.
The cake is a ginger cake because we all love it. I've got lots of recipes for sticky gingerbread cake that tastes fantastic but probably wouldn't stand up to the rigours of stacking and covering, so I added ginger and cinnamon to a classic sponge recipe and hoped for the best. To make it extra gingery I added a ginger syrup and a ginger and lemon buttercream.

As well as loving ginger cake, my mum loves her ginger cat. If Ridley had a little finger, she would be wrapped right round it. I made some chocolate orange cake pops as an homage to the bad little bugger.
Almost indistinguishable
Once the cake was done, my mum and I went into town and chose her a new handbag. I treated her to a scone and a cup of tea, then for tea we had chips from the chip shop. Really, she lives like a queen and is lucky to have me. And I am very lucky to have her. 

Happy birthday mammy! xxx

Biting babies

My mum used to say there was nothing better than biting a baby's bottom. She did this with impunity on the grounds that Diana Rigg said publicly on Parkinson that she too liked nothing better. She claimed she bit not only her own child's bottom, but any of her daughter's friends' bottoms too. If you don't believe me, here is the clip.

My nephew Alex has had a problem with biting recently. He is so cute that a little girl at nursery got carried away kissing him and gave him a little nibble on his face. Alex looks quite chuffed about his first love bite.
If you would like to bite a baby, it's probably best if you stick to baby cake pops like these ones I've made for a baby shower. At least they won't earn you time out on the naughty step.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

"I Don't Like Icing"

Most people like cake, but not everybody likes the icing on the cake. I admit, even I have my limit when it comes to eating a big slice of pure sugar (it's round about the half kilo mark). 

This week's challenge was to make a cake decorated with CBeebies characters without covering the cake in icing. My solution was to make a plaque of sugar paste that could sit on the cake for decoration, then be whipped off the minute the knife came out and kept for posterity/thrown in the bin.

I really haver about naming children's characters because of copyright issues, but hell here goes. I will state what anyone with eyes and a basic knowledge of children's TV already knows - it's the Octonauts. I can't pretend I have dreamed up some underwater anthropomorphic adventurers that bear a striking but entirely coincidental resemblance to the Octonauts. Children love having their favourite toys/games/cartoons on their cake and it's what they ask for. If I end up in court for it, I am sure I'll have a solid defence in claiming "a small child made me do it". 

The chocolate cake was covered with chocolate ganache (that's the one made with double cream, yum) and I piped the edges. It looked so tasty I half wished I was invited to the party myself.
The cake board is iced because I hate to see a naked board, but nobody's going to eat that. (Are they?)

Lastly, matching cake pops. No icing problems here because they are dipped in Belgian chocolate - vanilla, milk chocolate and orange chocolate with vanilla, chocolate and orange chocolate cake inside.

Keen fans of the Octonauts will notice that I have only depicted four of our eight heroes. Frankly there was no way I was going to do Professor Inkling the Octopus and hope all his legs would survive a journey. Instead I went for the more robust characters - Captain Barnacles the polar bear, Kwazii Kitten, Dr Sherrington the sea otter and Pezo the penguin. Pezo is the brave medic for the team, though I fear on this occasion there is little he can do to help Dr Sherrington.