Saturday, 31 December 2011

Christmas cakes #2 and #3

When I started decorating cakes, my mum was delighted that she’d never have to ice a Christmas cake again. Even though she’s good at it, it’s not a job she relishes and she left the job and the theme up to me.

I went for a Russian theme because my parents, for reasons I have never quite fathomed, love Russian things. My dad did GCSE Russian at an evening class and has nearly mastered the alphabet; when my mum finally got a passport in 1997, the first place she went was Moscow. Here she is looking cold in front of some churches.

Although I based the church on a real life Russian church I was worried it looked more like the Taj Mahal, but once I’d added some fir trees and glitter it started to look more the part. I copied an Old Church Slavonic-style font and painted on “S Rozhdyestvom Khristovym - Happy Christmas” in shiny gold, glad that an A level in Russian had finally come in handy.

I have been doing some classes with Marion at Cakes, Cutters and Classes in Gosforth and at the Christmas cake class we did stenciling, a technique I’ve been wanting to learn for a while. It turns out it’s easy and fun, not least as it involves a scalpel.

Here’s how: lightly grease a non-stick board and roll out your florist paste. Turn the paste over so that the greased side is upwards and place the stencil on it.
Brush the cut-outs with edible dust or royal icing and glitter, lift the stencil off and cut out the shape with a scalpel leaving a 1mm border, then attach the paste to the cake with edible glue.

We also did brush embroidery at the class with a traditional holly, ivy and Christmas rose pattern. I gave this cake to my Grandma. As she’s from Yorkshire she might well eat her fruit cake with Wensleydale cheese. That’s entirely her business, I am not here to judge (it’s against man and God).

Marion has sold Cakes, Cutters and Classes this month and is looking forward to retirement at long last. She’s a great teacher. Like any mother, she has eyes in the back of her head for any cake-decorating naughtiness but also a gentle approach that says “here, let me fix this for you”. I wish her a very happy retirement and am delighted that she’s promised to carry on teaching.

Hope you all had a happy Christmas! 

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Christmas cake #1

Blod’s first Christmas

This year my family are getting Christmas cakes as presents. Sorry to spoil the surprise, guys, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out what the cash-strapped cakemaker in the family is going to give you.

My sister has yet to get her own cat, despite her very best efforts (trying to appropriate the neighbour’s; having a baby in a kitten-for-a-baby deal on which her husband has cruelly reneged, and teaching the baby sign language for “I want a cat”). Unless there is a small wriggly parcel under the tree for her this year, I’m afraid the only cat she is getting for Christmas is made of sugar.  

Everyone with a cat will know how much kitties love wrapping paper, particularly before you’ve put it on the present, and love Christmas trees. Mine form an orderly queue to denude my tree of its baubles and only yesterday I heard myself shouting “Get off my raccoon!” True to form, the kitten on the cake has nicked off with a Christmas bauble and is playing with wrapping paper.

The kitten itself is based on Blod, one of the most beautiful cats I’ve ever seen (and I have done a lot of research).

Blod was rescued this year from a fate worse than death (well, death) by Jake Yapp, who has kindly shared some photos and videos of him. Cheer as Blod is rescued! Sniffle a bit as Blod finds a new home! And watch possibly the cutest one minute of kitten footage available on YouTube here.

Happy Christmas, bairn! Fingers crossed for a kitten next year. The baby is very cute too. Just keep up with the sign language.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Chocolate Almond Roca Recipe

Every Christmas I make almond roca, a tradition I've inherited from my Canadian cousins. It’s like a massive Daim bar only nicer. One year Sarah made me a batch and George, who doesn't really have a sweet tooth, exclaimed "Να τρώει η μάνα και του παιδιού να μη δίνει - to have a mother eat and not give her child", which is Greek for "bloody hell, this tastes nice". If something is so tasty a Greek mother isn't trying to make you eat a family sized portion of it, it's a recipe worth sharing:

200g flaked almonds
250g butter
250g caster sugar
3 tablespoons of water
200g chocolate
  • Toast the flaked almonds lightly and set them to one side.
  • Spread a length of tin foil along a bench ready for when you pour the boiled toffee onto it
  • Heat the water, sugar and butter over a medium high heat for ten minutes, stirring continuously.
  • Once the mixture has turned a little transparent and the colour of milk chocolate,  mix in the almonds and spread it out on the foil with a palette knife. Work quickly because the toffee is still cooking. You need to catch the mixture just before it starts smoking and turns a dark brown.
Not yet. Not yet. Now!

  • I can’t stress this enough – be very careful not to stick your mitt into the toffee, it’s at about 160 degrees C and hurts like hell if it burns you, as I learned to my cost last Christmas.
  • The almond roca will set in a few minutes. Pat off any excess butter with kitchen roll and smooth on some melted chocolate.
  • Once the chocolate has set, break it roughly into pieces.
  • Pop it into some cellophane bags, tie with ribbon and distribute it to friends and family, cleverly disguising the fact you’ve not actually done any Christmas shopping.

Sunday, 18 December 2011


Last Sunday Petra and I had a gourmet trip to York and stayed at the Hotel du Vin. There are plenty of reasons we chose Hotel Du Vin – great food, great service, a Sunday night dinner deal that makes the room cheaper than the Premier Inn, but the main reason is that dogs are welcome to stay. This is important because Dylan was joining us and he is very much a dog.

He’d had a lovely time in Brighton’s Hotel du Vin in May and we’re slowly working our way round the country with him.  Another thing I love about Hotel du Vin is the complimentary half pint of fresh milk in the mini bar. I’ve stayed in lots of fancy hotels (yeah, get me) and it amazes me that so few hotels offer guests fresh milk instead of those manky little UHT pots. It costs pennies but generates disproportionate goodwill from anyone who likes a decent brew.

York was in full-on Christmas mode. Admittedly, you’re slightly hampered on a shopping and scoffing  trip with a dog, but you can eat your meals in the hotel and gaze through the shop windows at things, saving money at the same time.

You can also walk around the old city walls to avoid the crowds and have a stroll in the beautiful Museum Gardens.

I’ve been careful to take photos of Dylan with people this time, after Petra commented it looked a bit like he’d been to Brighton on his own.
Dylan stayed in the room and had a light snack on an old tissue while we went for dinner.

The Hotel du Vin Sunday night deal offers £75 to spend on food and drink on that day. We’d already blown nigh on £20 on eggs and tea for lunch, but one of the best things about being vegetarian, apart from the moral high ground, is that your dinner is never that expensive, making me a cheap date. IF ANYONE’S INTERESTED. I had mushroom gnocchi, goat’s cheese tart and the most superb pudding I’ve had in a long while: banana tarte tatin with peanut ice cream.

The next day we walked about York’s beautiful city centre and took Dylan for a muddy run along the River Ouse. Petra and Dylan’s train left an hour before mine, so I had a quick nip into some food shops.

The famous Betty’s, which has been serving treats across North Yorkshire since 1919,  was looking very Christmassy and I bought a fat rascal to take home. The first time I ever went to Betty’s it was with a boyfriend who was, to be honest, a bit of a chubster. A lady exhorted me to “enjoy the fat rascal”. I had no idea she meant the spiced tea bread and just presumed she knew all about him. Betty’s have added Christmas spice to their fat rascals this month and it was absolutely delicious.

I was also keen to visit a new chocolate shop, York Cocoa House that Lynn at Clandestine Cake Club had told me about. I bought a Snickers Brownie and a Ghost Ale Bombe, a rich bitter chocolate truffle made with Centurion Ghost beer. It was so rich that I left half for my dad. A true Yorkshireman, he rarely openly enthuses about much but ate the bombe and burst out “Oh this is gorgeous!” Not a word he often uses.

I caught the train home with my Snickers brownie for company. Our next Hotel du Vin stop is probably Cambridge in the summer, so if anyone has any tips for eating/ shopping/ dogwalking there, please let me know. Do bear in mind that anything involving Jesus College lawn and Dylan is NOT acceptable.