Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Healing Power of Cake

Last summer I lost my lovely man. Wayne’s death, after years of struggle with a pernicious illness, was not a surprise but it was a shock. I’d never known real grief before: the inability to eat or sleep, the panic attacks, the dull physical pain like a brick under your ribs. It seemed so unreal that for a few weeks I thought it was a hoax and waited for him to call. A week after his funeral I was made redundant from the company I’d helped him set up five years earlier. I felt that I had lost everything and missed him dreadfully. I couldn't see a way forward.

A year ago today, three months after his death, I couldn’t bear it any longer. I left a brief note of apology, overfed the cats and went to bed for a long sleep. My parents found me two days later. There was no shortcut – I had to rebuild my life.

One of the things that helped me feel better was baking. Doing something practical seems to use another part of the brain and lets the rest go for a break. At the end you have something to show for your work: a nice warm cake that you can give away or share. Cake is for happy occasions – birthdays, christenings, engagements, weddings, anniversaries, celebrations. Cake makes other people happy. And it was making me happy.

I took an intensive course in cake decorating and loved it. I felt like I had come home. It was addictive and all I wanted to do was make cake, then decorate it. So why not? I had no job and nothing to lose.

I hesitantly floated the idea with my dad one Sunday afternoon: “I’d love a job where I can just potter about in the kitchen with the cats, listening to 6music and making cakes”. Quick to crush my dreams, he shook his head: “Never in a million years”. He was, of course, right: there was no way cats could be allowed in a working kitchen. Nor would there be much pottering.

Once I’d made my decision, I set about it with an ambition I thought I’d lost years ago. Wayne had left me with some money and some good advice, for which I thank him every day.  In the past few months, which have shot by like a montage set to an upbeat song, my kitchen was upgraded and I registered as a food business. I got a company name (thanks Lucy), logo and website. I got customers. I gained a stone in weight. I fought an infuriating legal wrangle and won. I took more cake courses and spent long, long hours in the kitchen baking and decorating. I felt so tired that it hurt. I felt invincible.

Today I feel happier and stronger than I have in years, perhaps ever. My cake decorating skills are still decades behind where I would like them to be, but it will be decades of learning something I love. I feel capable of doing anything, though admittedly the fleeting idea about doing the Great North Run was a step too far.

A fellow Classics graduate far more eloquent than me captured it perfectly in a speech three years ago:

“Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy to finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life”.

I am grateful for the love and support of my family and friends and am sorry for the upset I caused them last year. I would like to say I’ve forgiven those who kicked me when I was down, but I’m not there yet. It was good, however, to be reminded of the fight inside me. I am lucky to be here and am enjoying every minute.

To anyone who feels they have a mountain to climb and is wondering if it’s really worth the effort – try it. You might enjoy it. There might be some nice people along the way. There might be a shop selling tea and cake. The Classics graduate who said she used rock bottom as a solid foundation was JK Rowling. And she did all right, didn’t she?

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Clandestine Cake Club - September

Last night I took my friend Kate to the Newcastle Clandestine Cake Club. I explained the idea: a dozen different cakes to eat at a private venue. No charge, just friendly people, a cup of tea and the chance to take home any leftovers.

Naturally she was reluctant, but once I added that all the cakes would contain at least "One of Your Five a Day", she accepted the invitation faster than she can spot a stray apostrophe. (We once passed a cookie shop displaying a massive biscuit that said SORRY YOUR LEAVING. We winced simultaneously).

There were eleven cakes, eight of which contained fruit.
Clockwise from top left: amaretto cherry bakewell cake; lemon cake with cream; raspberry and white chocolate cake; hummingbird cake; polenta and orange cake; spicy pear cake; apple and cheese cake; toffee apple cake 
Three cakes contained vegetables.
Clockwise from top left: carrot cake; parsnip, ginger and lime cake; a nice teacup; chocolate and beetroot cake
I had seen the recipe for spicy pear cake on the CCC website here and was keen to give it a try. I liked the autumnal taste of pear, cinnamon and nutmeg and I love cinnamon cream cheese frosting. Certainly nobody could claim it wasn't fresh: Cake Club starts at 6pm and the cake had gone in the oven at 5pm. The cake and I arrived slightly late and slightly warm.

Keen as ever to get as many of my five-a-day through the medium of cake, I also tried the parsnip, lime and ginger cake which was moist and zingy, as was the lemon cake with cream. I've always wanted to try a beetroot chocolate cake but have been put off by the grating of the beetroot, but now I've eaten one so dark and rich I will definitely try marrying baking one. I love bakewell tart (in my view, a senior member in the cake royal family) and the amaretto cherry bakewell was spot on. I faffed a bit when the leftovers were being portioned up so I only managed to get my paws on two slices: the polenta and orange cake, which I am eating as I type - I love the slightly gritty texture of the polenta; and a slice of hummingbird cake, which is pineapple and banana cake and is for later.

Kate did not faff when it came to leftovers as she needed to take some home for Marc, claiming that he is practically skin and bones. Perhaps he will now forgive me for using him as the model for a murder victim on Kate's birthday cake.

The venue for the evening was The Knit Studio, which is tucked away in the cloister of the 13th century Blackfriars Priory in the centre of Newcastle.

The Knit Studio offers beautiful yarns, patterns, books, knitted goods, quilts and fabrics. There is a large craft table, copious amounts of tea and coffee, and a very knowledgeable and friendly owner. It made me want to relearn knitting and finish that dolly's scarf I started 30 years ago. The studio also runs events and workshops in knitting, sewing, crochet and spinning. Not the hideous kind of spinning where you get hot and sweaty on an exercise bike, but real spinning. 

The "husband sofa" for the safe deposit of men. 
I feel much the same way about him myself, pet *dreamy face*
Thanks to The Knit Studio for being such great cake club hosts and thanks as always to Lisa for organising it so well. Once again this event was fully booked, so if you would like to eat a huge amount of cake in a non-judgemental environment, visit the website for details of the October club. 

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Salted caramel macaroons

Last month I mentioned that I had my eye on  a certain Mr Salted Caramel. Yesterday I finally made my move as I had a carton of egg whites that needed using. Heh, that old excuse. Works every time.

Initially I wasn't sure it was going to work out for us. The mixture seemed too wet and the piped macaroons wouldn't form a skin. 

Oh ye of little faith! Just as some were once sceptical at the choice of Daniel Craig as James Bond and then he turned out to be to-tal-ly lush,  my macaroons turned out splendidly: smooth, good-looking with a hard exterior but soft on the inside. 

I wasted no time sealing the deal and made salted caramel to sandwich them together. I wondered about decorating them with shimmer, or a dragee, or a small pair of pale blue speedos, but they needed no adornment. Perfect for a Sunday afternoon treat.

Let's just hope they don't let me down by marrying Rachel Weisz. 
The name's Caramel. Salted Caramel.


Saturday, 17 September 2011

Smoky choc cherry cupcakes

Ruth Clemens recently posted a recipe for smoky choc cherry cupcakes that she’d created for last year’s Great British Bake Off. The recipe uses sweet smoked paprika. I love smoked cheese and I’m sure if I weren’t vegetarian I’d love smoked meat too. Something about smoked sweet paprika – both the challenge of finding it in the first place and the promise of an interesting cupcake – was irresistible.

I didn’t realise how hard it would be to find normal-sounding ingredients but Newcastle city centre gave me a tough time. I drew a blank on black cherry jam but managed to find some red cherry conserve in M&S. That’s more or less the same, isn’t it? I bought a tin of black cherries and found out that the syrup is a surprisingly nice drink. I also found out that if your blender makes a terrible noise when blitzing the cherries, it means you’ve NOT bought pitted cherries.

The cupcakes turned out just as Ruth promised: moist and chocolatey with a hint of smokiness. The swirls of dark chocolate ganache mixed with cherry jam set off the cake brilliantly.

To decorate the cupcakes I wanted to try a new way of making sugar butterflies. Many moons ago, a lecturer commented a propos of nothing “If you want students to remember something, tell them in an aside”.

He was right. I’ve no idea what the lecture was about, probably how lush Homer was or summat, but I remember the aside. Recently, I had some classes with Alan Dunn and as an aside he mentioned that a paper cutter can be used with florist paste to create some very delicate cake decorations. I hurried off to Hobbycraft and bought this Martha Stewart butterfly paper cutter.

Using it with sugar is tricky work – the florist paste needs to be very thinly rolled and allowed to dry a little before it is slotted into the cutter. I even dusted the inside of cutter with cornflour.

I painted the butterflies with edible gold dust, rendering them even more delicate and difficult to handle. An easier option is to attach edible gold leaf to the florist paste before cutting. It's a good idea to attach yourself to a millionaire before attempting this, as gold leaf is eye-wateringly expensive.

Lucy is here this weekend to do the Great North Run half marathon. She’ll need the calories so she can have the lion’s share of the cupcakes. Going for gold, bairn!
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Run like a bastard.

Friday, 16 September 2011


This summer I found a hedgehog outside my back door. I rarely see hedgehogs in Jesmond and this sighting was particularly unusual because it was broad daylight.

It had rained the previous night and the back steps had been thick with snails. I wondered if the hedgehog had gorged on snails to such an extent that it had been unable to haul itself back up the steps. Let's face it, we all know the feeling.
My mum, who knows about such things, pointed out that hedgehogs are nocturnal, so if you see one during the day it often means they're ill. We made a nest for her (she did turn out to be a lady hedgehog) and left out a plate of cat food, which disappeared.
This is a reconstruction using actors
The next morning she was still there. She looked very fat and I wondered if some hoglets were on their way. There are few things in life cuter than a baby hedgehog, but I didn't feel my back yard was the best place for them.
I called Northumbrian Hedgehog Rescue, who asked if I could bring the hedgehog to be checked at their centre in Longframlington. That was the one day I couldn't  - I had to finish a wedding cake and take it to Manchester. Northumbrian Hedgehog Rescue quickly rallied their troops - I was tickled to hear the call go out "there's a woman in Jesmond with a big fat hedgehog". She was bundled into a cat carrier and within minutes a neighbour was at my door to take the hedgehog into Northumberland.

I called to check on her a few days later - she wasn't ill or pregnant but she was a very dirty girl. She'd been named Kate after me.

To thank Northumbrian Hedgehog Rescue for taking in the little grubster, I sent them some hedgehog cake pops. The cake pops are chocolate cake dipped in milk chocolate and coated in chocolate sprinkles. Hedgehogs are probably my most popular cake pop.

 If you would like to offer the centre a donation of time, supplies or money, their contact details are at the bottom of this lovely little article about Andy the hedgehog who refused to eat anything apart from fairy cakes. I hope he enjoys the cake pops.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Sugar Flowers

This week I did the five day PME course in Sugar Flowers at Cakes4Fun, which is a mere 150 metres from this house

If you’re in your 30s and as a child watched BBC while eating your tea, you will probably recognise the bowler-hatted man coming out of 52 Festive Road. Putney was home to the man who created Mr Benn. When the humble bank clerk wasn’t solving problems for dragons or elephants or cavemen, he lived just round the corner from Cakes4Fun and is commemorated on a paving stone outside the original house. This thrills me out of all proportion.

Once again, the other ladies on the course had come from all over the world – Budapest, Johannesburg, Dubai, Arizona – so my journey from Newcastle seemed neglible.

My knowledge of flowers is minimal and stretches as far as “red ones, white ones, yellow ones” so I had plenty-plenty to learn. Monday was a gentle start making a plaque with non-wired flowers.
Work started in earnest the next day with a woodland bouquet using the pulled flower method. I finally found out a) what the holes in a celpad are for (Mexican hats), b) what the mysterious little celpad stick is for (Mexican hats) and c) what a Mexican hat is.  The pulled flower method had the highest casualty rate and it was a lot of work to create a small bouquet. I love the blackberries.

The next three days covered wired flowers – open rose; lilies and orchids; and a bridal bouquet.

At the end of each day spent cutting, veining, wiring and dusting petals comes the heartbreak of binding, when you have to say goodbye to some petals that break or don’t stay on the wire. It’s sad to spend so much effort creating a beautiful petal that in the end doesn’t make the final cut. Like spending years raising a child only to have him support Sunderland. The back up plan, apart from having lots of children and dressing them in black and white, is to make lots of spare petals for the reserve bench.

My favourite flowers in the bridal bouquet are the apple blossom and Sweet Williams. Kate Middleton included Sweet Williams in her bridal bouquet and the flowers were renamed Prince Williams in our class. My own William is sweet as a little pie and it turns out that Mr Benn's first name was William.
Sweet Williams
Sugar flowers demand concentration and it was surprisingly tiring work. Luckily we were kept energised with a constant supply of delicious cakes, cake pops and cookies.
I had a great time on the course, met some lovely people and felt that I learned a lot. Making sugar flowers taught me to open my eyes and look closely at a flower with all its idiosyncracies in the hope of recreating it in sugar. 

In other London news:

Helen and her fellow illustration graduates put on a successful exhibition at the Coningsby gallery and I bought three more pictures of cats for my pension plan office wall. I mentioned Helen’s work here and am very proud to say that, having graduated this summer with a first class degree in Illustration, she already has a contract to publish her first children’s book in spring.

Annabel is becoming increasingly addicted to courses at Cakes4Fun. Having got her hooked with the soft stuff (“go on, try a cupcake course or a cakepop lesson, you'll like it”) she’s rapidly moved onto the harder fixes of stacking tiered cakes and today has made this beautiful butterfly cake. The bag of chocolate truffles she made at an evening class was excellent company on the train home.

I had a lovely time staying with Petra and Dylan, both of whom celebrate a birthday this week.
STILL in our 30s
Petra had a birthday dinner with friends and Dylan is celebrating his first birthday today by holding a soiree for his two best friends Rico and Cookie. I’ve said it before, those London doggies live the life. Happy birthday, handsome!

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Alan Dunn Classes

Gateshead has a lot to be proud of. In recent years landmarks have popped up south of the Tyne that are already nationally famous - the Angel of the North, the Millenium Bridge, the Baltic art gallery and the Sage music centre. Newcastle has long since stopped looking down its nose at Gateshead and now casts an envious eye at its neighbour across the river. It has even started rebranding itself “NewcastleGateshead”. A glossy magazine recently explained "think Buda and Pest, two cities divided by a river". Not sure I'd go that far pet, but Gateshead is daein' canny.

Another name upon which Gateshead can pride itself is Alan Dunn, sugarcrafter extraordinaire. I mentioned a demonstration by him in July and was keen to have some tuition in making flowers. I was tipped off about the best way to contact him (codename Alice), negotiated the release of some cupcakes and arranged two tutorials for this week.

The first flower we did was a peony. Alan showed me how to cut, vein, soften and wire the petals, make the centre, add stamens, and tape everything together. It looked so easy: “oh yes, roll, squish, clag it together” but you forget you're watching 25 years of skilled practice. I flailed about like a contestant on the Generation Game and vowed to take more notes and pay closer attention to the next step: dusting the flower with colour and adding foliage.

My homework was to practise making another peony. “If only school had been this much fun!'” I thought. But by Thursday night, some French irregular verbs would have seemed quite palatable: 2am is not the best time to realise you have no glue and the wrong kind of stamens, but I did my best. Dawn broke, as did several petals, but by breakfast I at least had something to show and didn’t have to claim “the dog ate it”.
Can you spot the difference? Er, yes...
The second lesson was lily of the valley, a pretty stem of buds and flowers. We also made wired butterflies, two of which got the full works with shimmer and glitter, while one was painted like a cabbage white. It made a lovely bouquet with the peony and lily of the valley.

We were kept company by Alan's beautiful assistant Liz, who made up for a lack of opposable thumbs with heaps of enthusiasm and chat.

I ended the week at a group class in Witton Gilbert, County Durham, home of 80s pop sensation Prefab Sprout. Alan had to endure hours of the gentle ribbing that men get from women when they're hopelessly outnumbered (eight to one, he didn’t stand a chance). I suspect he's used to it. We made ylang ylang berries and blossoms, which are very pretty but mean I've had The Chiffons' “do-lang do-lang” chorus stuck in my head all day. We also made yam leaves ready for inclusion in a bouquet of perfume flower and Christmas cactus later this month. Homework is to make more of these. Homework for the homework is to buy some glue this time.

I can wholeheartedly recommend Alan's classes for a very friendly atmosphere of chat, gossip and a million and one tips on sugarcraft – the best place to check out which flowers are coming to a town near you is here. You’ll also be in for some nice 80s musical treats, though I can’t see any Prefab Sprout. Yet…