28 February 2013

Spring Cupcake Decorating

A few days ago I noticed a novelty cake decorating competition by Cath Kidston. I had offered to bring some cakes in for the students in my lower-school form group, so I decided to hit two birds with one stone, and I hit the shops for supplies. Whilst looking for inspiration from magazines, recipe books and Pinterest, I quickly began to realise that making anything fantastically 'novel' and good enough to be worthy of note wasn't exactly going to be easy. But competition or not, I felt like going crazy with decorating cupcakes, so I got stuck in!
 I found a gorgeous flower cake topper mold from the weekly Cake Decorating magazine, which provided some inspiration. I made lemony sponges using lemon zest and lemon curd, topped with a swirl of lavender-coloured buttercream to match my cupcake cases, bought for me by the gorgeous Miriam for my birthday this year. I cut out circles of white fondant icing, and topped with the floral pink toppers. Possibly not novelty, but perfectly pretty!

 I will, however, admit to spending over two hours just on decorating the cupcakes -plus the time it took me to bake them! Mind you, I would be happy to spend all day doing that.

During the weekend, whilst looking for inspiration, I picked up this ganache mouse from Betty's. For research purposes, obviously..!
They were also doing marzipan sponge pigs, as a kind of variation on fondant fancies: "Genoese butter sponge pigs, coated in marzipan and filled with vanilla buttercream and raspberry preserve." Sounds lovely, and from previous experience, tastes even better! I have been looking at cooking, baking and decorating courses recently, and to be able to make something as complex as these is something of a dream of mine...  I think, for now though, I will focus on the cupcake basics -and why not, when they taste so good!?

25 February 2013

Bedding and Room Haul

I think it is safe to say that I had a pretty busy week off. After a long (nearly eight hours!!) journey back from seeing Paloma Faith at Ali's, I had a fair list of things to do. My Grandmother had come up for the week, so taking her dog for walks around my village gave me a chance to have a nosy around my new community.

The next few days were split between stripping wallpaper in my room with my Grandma and dealing with the pile of work and essays I had to do. I'm pretty pleased now though; the work is done, the steam strippers and scrapers have done their job, and my walls are now ready for painting! We've decided not to remove the carpet; although it is a little scary and violet, it is pretty good quality. Instead, I've ended up going with the colour rather than fight it. I'd spent ages carefully making up Pinterest pinboards with simple grey and green pallets, but by the time we had hit the shops on Saturday, I had changed my mind at least twice...
So, Saturday. We left the dog, and hopped on a train into town. After running a few errands we stopped off for coffee and brunch. While I have been going off coffee a little lately (shocking!), nothing can beat hot filter coffee from a Nick Munro cafetiere, drunk black or with hot milk. With this, I had a toasted English muffin with tomato chutney, bacon, and a side salad. Having refreshed ourselves, a battle plan was laid -objective: decorate my room.

I started at Cath Kidston, and in a blissful haze inspire by the oh-so-pretty bedroom display, I almost came out with armfuls of kitsch prints. I was really taken by the green eiderdown and two-sided antique rose duvets. After some to-ing and frowing between Cath Kidston and Laura Ashley, I settled on heathery-coloured throws and cushions from Laura Ashley. I'm still casting furtive glances over at floral teawear sets, mind.

I can't wait to get my room painted so I can start using these!! We then went to BHS to get some plain white bedding and a light shade. I got a pretty, chandelier-style cover, but I forgot to take a photo, so that will have to wait until my room is finished and I can do a room tour. I also spotted lots of nice throws and sheets in the "Vintage" collection, which would be nice if I ever feel like a summer decor refresh.

We found two pretty  accessories too. In BHS I bought a sugar tin, reduced to £2.20 because of a near-invisible dent. From a really pretty homewear/crafts shop, my Grandma bought me this purple vase, which I love.
I'm looking forward now to getting everything finished and looking pretty.... Who else has been redecorating lately?

24 February 2013

Recipe Salvaging

Today's post was supposed to be on a new scone recipe that I wanted to try, but I ended up with a bit of a mess! I haven't made scone's in a while, and though this was a simple plain scone recipe, it all turned out somewhat sloppy. So I thought I'd do a post on salvaging recipe's that haven't turned out *quite* perfect.

So things are easier to fix than others; forgotten sugar can be easily slipped into a cookie or biscuit mixture whereas pastry must be approached with care.
Curdling can be dealt with if it isn't too severe -in mayonnaise, an extra egg yolk slowly beaten in can help to bring the emulsion back together; and if a cake mix starts to separate before the flour is added, gentle folding in of the dry ingredients can help.

Butter is a big factor. In pastry you want it to be really cold. I actually like Nigel Slater's suggestion of grating in really cold butter from the freezer. Just make sure that you only cool what you need as over-chilling it in the freezer can change the consistency of butter, spoiling it for anything else that you need it for. If you've used too-soft butter in a cookie dough, consider chilling in the fridge for 15 minutes. A lot of recipes suggest doing this for this reason.
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned how I had to reheat some runny choux pastry. With a whisk and some elbow grease, the resultant chouquettes showed no negative effects. I think that the best thing that anyone can do to improve a recipe is to not worry. Do your best to adjust the consistency and quantities of ingredients, and remember to glaze or flour whatever you're making, because finishing touches make all the difference.
So what of my scones? I was worried about them being heavy from the extra work caused by folding in extra flour. And yes, they were a little small, wonky and crispy, requiring a lower oven temperature, longer baking time and foil cover. But you know what? Inside they didn't look any different to the expected results and, served warm with clotted cream and rosehip jelly, they tasted lovely.

Have you got any tips on sorting out misbehaving recipes?

20 February 2013

Marks Hall

I woke up on Sunday to startling right sunshine. For the first time in ages, I peered out of the window to not be able to see a single cloud in the sky. Ali and I didn't have any plans for the morning before going to see Paloma Faith, so we took the morning at a leisurely pace. We breakfasted in Ali's conservatory, making the most of the sun.
The weather soon closed in, and was pretty foggy by the time we went for a walk around Marks Hall gardens and arboretum. We decided to go there primarily for  the snowdrops which are just coming into season, but it was nice to stretch my legs, and the grounds were all really pretty, despite the fact that most of the plants were still in their dormant winter state.

[Thanks for this, and the breakfast photo Ali!]

All the recent rain made everything really muddy, so I was relieved to be wearing Ali's wellies. A few places were closed for winter repair work, but we were able to wind our way past the pretty streams and ponds over to the snowdrop-filled woodland.

 After that we headed with cold hands towards the cafe. I entered with good intentions about a soup lunch, but they had just sold out, so the two of us picked the cake option. Carrot for me, and citrus sponge for Ali.

After that we headed back for a few hours of prepping and preening before heading out. Taking a walk  out occasionally is refreshing compared the usually cooped-up state most of us exist in. On a day sandwiched between two of seven-to-eight hour rail journeys, this was perfect.

19 February 2013

Paloma Faith at Cambridge Corn Exchange

This is taking a slight step away from my usual blog post, but I had too much of an amazing time not to talk about it. On Sunday, I went to the Cambridge Corn Exchange with Ali, who I met on the Phoenix Forum, to see Paloma Faith on the last night of her tour. I missed out on tickets nearer me, so when Ali offered to take me along, I was pretty excited. I expected Paloma to be even better live than on CD as she prefers to perform than record, and I wasn't disappointed.
Ali and I got all dressed up -hair, make up, outfit -the full works, which was really fun. I was a little worried about wearing heels as it was a standing performance, but the added three or four inches of height turned out to be a hidden blessing -the hall was packed and I'm hardly the tallest of people, so my peep toes gave me a slight height advantage over the norm.

 I wore my antique cameo broach which I think is Victorian. None of the rest of my outfit was vintage, sadly, unlike Ali, who looked fabulous.

We had a fantastic night; Paloma Faith has an incredible voice, and is a genuinely lovely, funny person. She sang songs from her current and first album as well as a couple of covers.

I may have had to travel some 200 miles to go and see her, but it was so worth it!

14 February 2013

Winter Warmers

To celebrate our successful move into our new house, we decided to round off one of our hill walks with a indulgent Sunday lunch at a village pub. My parents are big on walking; when they were in the early stages of their relationship they were living some miles apart, and each weekend Dad would drive up to Mum's and they'd cover miles of countryside on long walks. As a consequence, I've grown up being driven two hours or so across to Wales on the search for decent walking country.

During the first few weeks after we relocated up North, my Father and I went walking every weekend while my Mother worked on her dissertation. It was still warm in the last throws of summer, and we'd sit on top of a hill, staring at the view as we ate cream cheese and seasonal fig sandwiches, marvelling at our proximity to an abundance of walking locations.

Sunday, however, was our first walk of 2013. We drove up and down precariously steep hills before parking up outside our chosen pub in one of the picturesque estate villages. And.. yuck! We started the walk on a steep hill section that was thick with mud. It was hard going on my ankles, especially as I was only wearing light trail shoes rather than proper walking boots! It was pretty fun though, and we only passed two pairs of walkers aside from us, taking the same route in the opposite direction. About half way through, just as we came up into an open stretch the clouds opened up and blew freezing sleet straight at us. My trousers weren't quite up to the onslaught, and when we reached the pub an hour later I was utterly soaked. Good fortune then, that we were presented with the best roast I've had in a long time.

My parents both chose roast beef, which was so beautifully pink and tender that even I'd of been happy with it. I chose belly pork, which came with crackling, vibrant apple sauce and such delicious gravy that I couldn't stop gushing about it. At a few pounds more than the usual pub roast the price reflected that quality, and it was well worth it. I'm afraid that I have no photos, but it looked as good as it tasted!

I got changed as soon as we got home, and resisted them temptation to curl up by the fire and have an afternoon nap like an old man. A couple of hours after getting back, I decided to make a loaf of bread, using the sour rye flour that I had picked up from a gorgeous independent patisserie.
In Paul Hollywood's How to Bake it was suggested to use two tablespoons of black treacle for added richness. As I leafed through some of our older books, I discovered that this wasn't a new idea at all... "add in the yeast with the molasses" instructs Martha Day in Complete Baking.
Had I read the instructions beforehand, I would have started earlier... the proving time was stated as eight hours! I quickly began calculating how to get it done -initial rise until half past nine, knock back and reshaping, have a quick catnap until half eleven, preheat oven and bake... It was looking set to be a long night! Luckily, being sat by the fire, the dough rose fast enough to be ready to go in the oven by ten, and the whole thing was finished before half past. Technically, a faster rise loses some of the depth of flavour, but with the rich flour and addition of treacle, I wasn't too worried.
And I didn't need to; the rye cob cooked faithfully in the allotted time with a good crust and soft inside. When baking, I always have a tin of water underneath the bread, which creates a steamy atmosphere that really improves the texture of the bread.
I'd like to bake this again on a slow Saturday, and serve with avocado and a poached egg.

13 February 2013

Pancakes, pancakes, pancakes.

Yesterday, I stumbled home an hour and a half or so later than usual after an afternoon practical exam; I  think it went well, but I was pretty tired by the time I got home; my eyes kept shutting on the train and I was somewhat concerned at what might of happened if I'd actually fallen asleep and missed my stop...

Luckily, Dad was on hand with a speedy, tasty dinner. I arrived home to a stir fry with prawns and a sweet chilli sauce. When making a quick stir fry during the week, I'll typically pick up a box of mixed stir fry veg, some fresh noodles and maybe a tin of water chestnuts too. I'll then have a look through my copy of Ching's Fast Food for inspiration on sauces, marinades and extra bits to spice the meal up. For a first attempt, my Father's stir fry was pretty good!

Afterwards, of course, we had to have pancakes for Pancake Day. I miss having our gas hob, which had a fabulous cast iron griddle attachment that was perfect for firing up for American-style pancakes. Yesterday, we got a saucepan out instead, and went for the classic English with sugar and lemon. We used a recipe from the old Katie Stewart recipe book, that somehow claimed to make 12 pancakes from the batter. We didn't even get five! Pancake batter isn't exactly high tech though, so a second batch was soon delivered for helping no.2.

We don't tend to add sugar to any drinks, so we've no need for a sugar bowl. As I hardly wanted to dump a bag of sugar on the table, I grabbed a teacup and saucer and used that to serve the sugar and all the slices of lemon. Cute, non?

Who else had pancakes yesterday (who didn't?!) What did you have -English, American or crêpe? When we have American pancakes, it has to be maple syrup, often with a poached egg first if they are for breakfast. What was your choice of topping? I personally liked Lakeland's crêpe stack:Stack of pancakes
Here's to quick and delicious meals!

9 February 2013

Cinnamon Couquettes

It's a good thing that I'm no vlogger; as I have spent the last couple of days with no voice! Luckily it seems to be due to a cold rather than another episode of laryngitis, which is a real pain. My voice has started to come back now though, thanks to spending much of the day alone working. Its funny though; you know how they say that you don't appreciate something until you've lost it? Well until today, I didn't realise how much I sing to myself when nobody is around to hear! Every time I opened my mouth to hum to myself, a sound more like a braying donkey than Beyoncé left my lips, so I soon shut up.

There is only so long that a girl can stay tied to her desk, so after a few hours work I had hit the recipe books. I was tempted by a baked cheesecake, but I still wasn't feeling up to a cold bike ride down the road to our nearest shop to get cream cheese. Instead, I got out my faithful Little Paris Kitchen by Rachel Khoo, and went straight for the chouquettes.
Chouquette, the sweet sister of gougère, is a kind of choux pastry. You'll be more familiar with choux in the form of éclairs, profiteroles and huge caramel-covered croquembouche towers, but chouquettes are lovely too; more of a tasty treat than the full-on indulgence of it's cream-filled cousins.

I've altered the recipe very little; I find it best not to meddle with pastry! My only change is in the choice of flavourings, which I am very pleased with.
 At first I wasn't too worried about this; I've made Rachel's gougère before but in the end I was actually surprised to get any chouquettes at all; I used too large a pan and the mix cooled down before it could be properly beaten, and consequently I had a very runny mix. Undeterred, I slapped the pan back onto the heat, got out an egg whisk to smooth out the inevitable lumps, and beat it all into submission. I was expecting a big sloppy mess, so I couldn't believe my eyes when after a few minutes baking the little balls of dough had tripled in size quite happily. They were all a little wonky, but I was so pleased that I managed to save the pastry that it didn't matter.

Cinnamon Chouquettes
  • 125ml of each milk and water
  • 100g butter, cubed
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 170g strong plain bread flour
  • 2 tsp cinnamon and a sprinkle of nutmeg, combined with the flour
  • 4 eggs
  • Icing sugar and cinnamon for dusting
Preheat the oven to 180'C, gas mark 4. Make sure that all your ingredients are weighed out and to hand, and that the flour is in a container that allows it to 'shoot' into the mix in one go. Whenever something is added into the mix it will suddenly look lumpy and unpleasant, but keep beating all the while and it will soon be smoothly incorporated.
First, heat the milk, water, sugar, salt and butter over a high heat in a medium pan.
When the butter has melted, turn the heat down low and quickly tip the flour cinnamon and nutmeg in. With a wooden spoon, beat the mix furiously until the dough comes together cleanly in a smooth ball. Remove from the heat, and continue to beat until cool enough to touch. Now add in the eggs, one at a time. Here you should have a glossy paste that will hold it's shape when piped.

Place a piping bag with a 5mm nozzle into a tall mug to support it, and spoon in the pastry. Hold the piping bag at 90' and squeeze out walnut-sized balls, around 2cm apart. Before you lift the piping bag away to pipe the next chouquette, flick it sideways to avoid tall tips that will burn. According to the recipe you should get 20-30 chouquettes, although I, despite loosing some pastry, got a few more.
Dust with icing sugar and cinnamon -I forgot to do this on my fist batch but it didn't seem to matter -and place in the oven for 20 minutes until risen and golden.
While the chouquettes are baking, you can quickly make up some cinnamon butter. I just keep adding each of the ingredients until I am happy with the balance of sugar butter and cinnamon, but loosly base you amounts on this:
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 50g soft brown sugar
  • 4 tsp cinnamon
Melt the butter and stir in the sugar and cinnamon. That's it!! Spoon this onto the chouquettes once they have started to cool to get a gorgeous, caramel-y topping.
How amazing is the view behind our house? I keep on finding myself working over here instead of in the box-filled study....
These should last a couple of days in an airtight container, but are so light and moreish, I doubt they'll last that long...

3 February 2013

Honey, I'm Home!!

Phew... apologies for the lack of blogging over the past week, but I have been caught up in the throws of moving house!! As we were moving just ten miles from our rented house of the last six months, we (read: Dad) decided to book a small removals firm for one trip, and then hire a van to carry the rest of the stuff across, so it has been a full on weekend. There are boxes and homeless pieces of furniture absolutely everywhere, so I've decided against photographs of the new place for now. Moreover, there is a lot of scary wallpaper and mismatched carpets to deal with! There seems to be something of a running trend throughout the house involving square-based designs on all of the wallpapered rooms.

Luckily there is no structural work at all that needs doing, so we can slowly get our way through all the cosmetic work that needs doing. It is a 1930's semi with the most amazing views over the fields behind it. Aside from the kitchen and utility areas, there are two main rooms downstairs; we've turned the front reception room into a library and study, leaving the back room with the views as the main living and dining area.
To my Mother's delight, and all her female friends and relatives awe and jealousy, we have a proper larder. The kitchen isn't exactly big, so it lets us use all our cupboard space for crockery, pans and other bits and pieces. I've already claimed a whole cupboard for all my baking bits! And I'm dropping hints about how great a KitchenAid would look in the corner cupboard -somehow though, I think that may be something that I have to fund for myself! I can't decide on a colour though -I like the pistachio green, but I haven't seen it in any of the shops that I would by from. What is your favorite colour?
I haven't been able to do much with my room yet, as we haven't had the chance to haul up the big desk upstairs. It will be great to have space for all my work, but the desk doesn't *quite* fit with my plans of a French country-inspired room. If I thought that I could get away with it, I'd try and steal Mum's gorgeous bureau, but perhaps not....
 Excellent desk; not-so-good renaissance piece.
 I do have one little oasis: the shelving units in my built in wardrobe are now nice and neatly displayed compared to the mess elsewhere. At the top, I've got a couple of boxes with Royal Doulton crockery in that my mother bought for me shortly after I was born. It was picked partially for it's name, Isabella, which I was nearly named. One of my oldest friends, my mother's Goddaughter, also has a set from Mum.
Between homework and unloading the van I christened our new house's oven (electric again, sadly, but at least it is by Leisure) with a couple of loaves of bread from Paul Hollywood's How to Bake. This was bought for my Dad, the chief breadmaker, but I knew that I would be getting just as much use out of it as him, if not more!
I made a white milk loaf, which was a nice simple mix to start with. I decided to use buttermilk to give the loaf an extra depth of flavour, which worked well. When kneading, Hollywood specified spreading a little olive oil across the work surface rather than flour, which I hadn't tried before. It helped to give the dough a really nice glossy finish after a few meditative minutes working with it.

I was pretty pleased with how these turned out, despite being in the oven five or so minutes too long (I need to get a timer for this oven!!). They could have done with a deep cut across the top to encourage a better rise. It is a lovely recipe; the milk and in the dough give a soft texture with (to use a phrase of Mr. Hollywood!) a nice crumb.

Speak soon, and I'll be keeping you all updated on the redecoration projects to come!
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