Rose Cupcake Bouquet

 

 It’s January and I’m having a cuppa at my friend, Mel’s. She’s trying to persuade me to do a cake course where you learn to make cupcakes that look like a bouquet of roses. Lovely idea but this is way out of my league. I politely decline. 

Thing is, some friends know you better than you know yourself. She’s surprisingly persistent and two things swing in her favour: 1) when I started this blog I made a pact that I would take any food-related opportunities that came my way (however much out of my comfort zone they were); and 2) my mother-in-law’s 60th is coming up and true to tradition, I want to make her something homemade. I’ve done the photo albums, the collages, the cakes, and more recently, the knitted scarves (scarves are the extent of my knitting skills); so I am looking for something new. 

Fast forward two months, and I find myself on a Saturday night at Cafe 7 in the centre of Norwich with seven others. We are greeted with hot drinks, delicate pieces of cake, and a slight horror story of a drunk man who  loomed at the glass door and tried to get into the class the previous night. 

  

First we learn to put together the bouquet box with cellophane, tissue paper and fancy ribbon; then as an interlude we ice biscuits using different techniques to create sunflowers, daffodils and even hyacinths. It doesn’t matter that I’m a complete novice, I’m loving it. 

  

Next comes the icing of the buns to make then look like roses. Here we go, I think, the moment where I really show myself up. But Lynne – cafe owner and teacher – is wonderful and patient and even goes so far as to hold my hands (or maybe I hold hers?) while I use the icing bag for the first time. You need strong hands and mine are surprisingly little, but I make up my own method, and they look…..alright!

By 8.30pm our time is up – we’ve been here for three hours and all my cakes and biscuits are sitting in boxes ready to go. Lynne has had the patience of a saint and her husband is standing at the door; they’ve been working since 6am and I imagine, would love to get home. In my new found icing-enthusiasm I am buying some last-minute cake nozzles from Lynne. 

I turn to get some purse and then everything happens in slow motion: my cake boxes are falling and falling to the floor; I have let out a scream; my friends are open-mouthed. It’s a scene of carnage. Thank goodness for Lynne. I can only imagine what she was shouting internally (I JUST WANT TO GO HOME!!!), but to the outside world she is a pillar of calm. She picks up the wrecked cakes and biscuits ( I can’t look; I have my eyes shut), and she goes off and whips up more pink icing while I scrape all the old stuff off my buns then begin the icing process again. 

It is slightly stressful icing under such circumstances – everyone in their coats keen to get home – but the pressure produces pretty good cakes, and even my wonderful mother-in-law is fooled a few days later, thinking they are just a pretty bunch of flowers. 

  

I’ve definitely been bitten by the icing bug, and much to Lynne’s delight, I’m sure, I’ll be frequenting other of her cupcake courses. In the mean-time, I have much to thank Mel, who have me the push I definitely needed to try something new.

TOP TIPS

  1. Use the Vanilla Cupcakes and Vanilla Icing recipe from The Hummingbird Bakery cookbook to make these cakes. 
  2. Buy the best vanilla essence money can buy. Something like Nielsen Massey’s Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Bean Paste (£5.99 for 118ml at Morrisons).
  3. If you live in the area, get down to Cafe 7 and book onto one of their very reasonable cupcake courses: http://cafe7surreystreet.co.uk/page2.html 

  

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Camp-Fire Potatoes

  

Monday 23rd March

Today does not start well. Ollie has barricaded himself in his bedroom and is refusing to go to pre-school. He has taken the return from Center Parcs badly. He is worried and angry that other people might move in to our ‘village’ (villa) before we next return in two years’ time. I try explaining renting to him, but it only serves to anger him further.

I am trying to get Daisy ready for her school trip to Holt Hall where she will learn Stone Age survival skills. The letter calls for ‘old clothes’ and Wellington boots; Daisy comes downstairs in extremely stylish ‘old clothes’, perfectly matched with a pair of red Converse trainers. I can’t fight battles on two fronts so I turn a blind eye.

I finally extricate Ollie from his room and get them into the car; we are seriously late. The key goes in the ignition. The car does not start. I try again. And again. Panic rising. Emergency Plan B: The kids scramble out of the car and on to their bikes. I run alongside them like an eager dog, nervously shouting out my anxieties about Daisy missing the school bus if they attempt to slow down.

Back at the house, the road-side recovery man arrives mid-morning. He opens the bonnet, sucks his teeth and tells me what I already know: the battery is dead. His extensive tests tell him the battery needs replacing; it’s old (the original VW battery), and has exceeded all expectations, but now I must part with a hundred quid and get a new one. 

I agree and then notice that one of those pesky kids have left an internal light on. I think this has got more to do the flat battery than its age. The sceptical side of me thinks I may have been duped, but the man is sincere and quietly spoken; and the fact that he owns a 27 year old red Volvo (my favourite car after a Saab 900), and travels around the Highlands of Scotland in it, makes me forgive him slightly.

Next problem: the blog-site has been on the blink for 24 hours. I’m not going to lie, I feel sick about it. It’s locked me out and I’m worried that all that work, all those words have vanished. I call the person I always call in a crisis: my father-in-law. He is my go-to troubleshooter. 

His knowledge knows no limits. He has remotely fixed our boiler with careful instructions over the phone on a cold winter’s night; he has explained repeatedly the lunar phases and why they occur when I had to teach Year 6; he has answered untold existential / spiritual questions from Daisy (he is a vicar, after all): Who is God’s mother? Where is heaven? What’s the difference between Catholics and Protestants? is always met with the same “Phone Pops” response. 

Luckily for me, he’s also a computer whizz and fellow blogger. His advice today is to delete the blog app and re-upload it. I laugh nervously then do as I’m told. I must trust the man a lot or be mad because I am ignoring the big DELETE THIS APP AND ALL FILES WILL BE DESTROYED warning. Fortunately he wins again and I am back at the writing desk.

At school pick up, Lucas, my pyromaniac protege, comes racing out of Daisy’s class. He’s coming for tea.

“Daisy and I were the best fire starters at Holt Hall!” He tells me. 

“Yes!” I shout far too loudly, and give him a big high five. 

Daisy comes out of school disgruntled.

“We were only allowed to pile up a few sticks,” she says, “and then we had to stand ten metres from the fire in case a spark flew out. They didn’t even use flint to start the fire.”

I worry that my fire-starting lessons, where they are allowed to throw on wood and poke the embers with a stick, may be a little too advanced for their seven years. Lucas asks on the way home if we can have a fire in the garden. I don’t need asking twice: a fire cheers up any day.  

  
I have baked potatoes that have been in the oven for half an hour (they are only slightly warm) I double wrap them in tin foil with a large knob of butter, then bury them in the fire. We let them cook for half an hour, then beg for a tin of beans from our kind, obliging neighbour. 

With a rack from the oven balanced over the fire, we heat the beans in a pan. This does not work. The beans are cool ten minutes in, so I shove the pan in the embers. I am sure this is not advisable but it works. 

  
Most fun is retrieving the cooked potatoes. Lucas pokes around in the ash with a big stick and shouts if he spots something silver. I get them out with a big spoon. 

The potatoes are cut open and eaten with butter, beans and grated cheese. It’s like the food of the Gods.

  
For pudding Daisy and Isla make hot chocolate and we heat it again in the embers and drink it with slabs of Lyons Golden Syrup cake. Camping food if ever I saw it. 

Everyone is very happy, possibly me most of all. 

Fried Potatoes and Eggs



A short post tonight, in fact lack of wifi nearly meant no post at all. We have finally made it to our wonderful weekend away (sixteen of us) to celebrate the big SIX-O of a special family member. 

Above was this morning’s breakfast. To continue last night’s post on baked potatoes, it goes without saying that you should always put a couple of extra spuds in the oven: they make great fried potatoes the next day and give you a meal in minutes. 

I needed some serious stamina today, hence the breakfast. I had to pack and wrap; assemble a cake and do finishing touches to a photo album; all the while sweating away as the heating was on full.  It is an inevitable part of going away that I must always be drying clothes right up until the last minute. Sometimes I even take a bag of damp clothes with us to our destination to dry there. It’s infuriating but some things never change.

This morning while eating my two eggs, fried potatoes and cherry tomatoes, I wrote a timeline of everything that needed to be done and when it would be done. I got up to 11am and screwed the list up into a ball. I was going to have to wing it: according to the list there was not enough hours in the day for what I wanted to achieve.



This photo sums up my last moment of calm until now; It’s been non-stop. But here we are in a house in the woods, far away from any traffic or street lights and altogether with family members, which last happened a year and a half ago, so it’s been very much worth it. 

Cheesy Jacket Potatoes



I thought I knew everything there was to know about jacket potatoes: 

I had formative experience with the Spud-U-Likes of the late ’80’s, shared with my dad on winter evenings at Leeds bus station.

Then there was the foil-wrapped potatoes of the ’90’s, coated in olive oil and salt and baked until golden. (Our family were early adopters of olive oil in the UK due to my ma’s brief foray into the business world of import-export).

More recently there’s been the fad for just scrubbing your potatoes, and sprinkling them in sea salt whilst still damp. Thus, resulting in crispier skin.

What more is there to know? Well it seems I am somewhat late to the party when it comes to these cheesy, stuffed, very-simple and very-delicious potatoes; the concept is not new to me, but their versatility is, and therein lies the beauty.

On a recent trip to York (my former Homeland), I find myself in my usual spot at Polly’s kitchen table; chewing the fat, kids running amok. Polly is a friend of old. A true friend. The type of friend you would allow to ‘trim’ your hair EVEN THOUGH she has NO hairdressing experience. The type of friend who, even after giving you what can only be described as a ‘wonky bowl-cut’, removing at least ten inches of your luscious, long locks, you would still forgive. She’s that kind of a friend.

I digress. I’m sitting at her table, (probably going through old school friends and what they’re up to now; we never tire of that conversation), and I watch Polly get a tray of jacket potatoes out of the oven. It is not near tea-time. What is this super organisation? 

Turns out you can make these cheesy potatoes in advance; stick them in the fridge; stick them in the freezer; get them out when you need them. To me, this is a revelation: no more waiting for an hour until your spud is done, blood sugar steadily dropping. (Yes, I could use a microwave but 1. The taste is not the same, and 2. My husband threw ours away).

So now these have become a staple in our house. We have them once a week on nights like tonight, when we’re getting in late and we need food in fifteen minutes. 

INGREDIENTS 

  • potatoes for baking, preferably King Edwards or Maris Piper
  • coarse sea salt
  • grated mature cheddar 

METHOD

Preheat oven at 210C/425F/gas mark 7.

Scrub the potatoes. Remove any bad bits with a sharp knife. Whilst still damp, rub them in sea salt.

Put them on a baking tray and cook for approximately an hour. 

Remove tray from oven and leave to cool. Go out/ go to work / have fun. 

Come home. Put the oven on before you even take your coat off: 200C / gas mark 6. Put kettle on. Grate lots of cheese into a bowl. Make yourself a cup of tea. 

Cut the potatoes open. Scoop out the flesh and mash in a bowl with the back of a fork. Add a big handful of grated cheese. Mix and mash a bit more.

Stuff the potato skins with the cheesy mix. Sprinkle some extra cheese on top. Put in the oven until heated through, about 15 minutes, depending on how long you’re willing to wait.

Switch oven to grill-mode (if you have that option) and grill for five minutes to get the cheese lovely and bubbly. 

Sit down and enjoy. Feel smug that you’ve done a meal with some forward-planning. 



(Excuse the aubergines. This post is not about them.)

Nutty Chocolate Brownies (dairy & gluten free)



6.50pm, Wednesday eve

We’re dealing with anger-management issues at the moment. Namely that Ollie needs to learn to ‘use his words’ rather than throwing things when angry. 

For some reason we are discussing this as we park up his bike in the garage. It has something to do with him being cross with me for ‘hurting his bike’s (aka Stinger’s) feelings’, but I’m not sure what I’ve done.

The kids burst through the front door and dump down their bags and shoes and coats in the hall. I’m telling them about the bad, old days when I used to feel pushed to the limit with tantruming toddlers, and it was recommended to me (by a fellow sufferer) to scream into a pillow when things got REALLY bad. 

Obviously the children want to try this out immediately and rush into the lounge to scream into cushions. I worry that the neighbours will think they are the screams of children being suffocated to death. 

I repeatedly ask them, shouting over the screaming, to go upstairs and put on their pyjamas. Ollie gets as far as the hall and flops down onto the floor, refusing to move. My blood pressure’s going up. It’s been a long day and they JUST NEED TO GO TO BED!

I persuade, I plead, then I use the, ‘Right you’re making me really angry!’ line. (In truth, it’s taken me about 10 seconds to get to this point.) 

Ollie sits up casually and says, “Why don’t you just go and scream into a pillow, mum? It’ll make you feel better.”

D’you know what? I think, I might just do that! But instead, I turn back to the kitchen and head straight for the brownies baked earlier this afternoon. I tear off the foil covering them and sit down, still in my coat.  I take a bite of the chocolatey, chewy deliciousness and instantly feel a bit calmer. I’ll tackle bed-time in a minute, I think. 

Except that Daisy is now screaming: Ollie has made it upstairs and is whipping her with his pyjamas….

Maybe it’s better if I just stay here and eat another slice, I decide. 



Ingredients

  • large eggs, 2, beaten 
  • baking powder, half tsp
  • almond milk, 3 tbsp
  • dark chocolate, 75g chopped
  • Pure Sunflower Spread, 150g
  • walnuts & peacans, 40g of each chopped
  • soft light brown sugar, 240g
  • vanilla extract, three quarters tsp
  • gluten free self-raising flour, 150g
  • salt, pinch of

20 x 30cm baking tray, greased and lined. 

Method

Preheat the oven at gas mark 3/170C / 325F. 

Melt the chocolate and margarine in a heat-proof bowl above a pan of boiling water. Make sure the water is not touching the pan.

When they have melted, put the bowl aside to cool down a little. 

Whisk the eggs, milk and vanilla essence together.

Pour the melted chocolate mixture into a large bowl. Add the chopped nuts . Then stir in the liquids (milk, egg etc). Finally fold in the flour and baking powder. 

Pour the mixture into the tin and cook for approximately 30 minutes until the top is crisp, but the centre is still slightly gooey.

Leave in the tin until completely cool, then cut into squares. 

This is my first attempt at dairy & gluten-free brownies and they taste amazing! Make sure you use dark chocolate with a high cocoa content; too much sugar in the chocolate will make the brownies too sweet.

 And you may need to turn up the temperature slightly on your oven. Above is the temperature that worked for me, but other recipes state 180C or gas mark 4. 

An adaptation of Pippa Kendrick’s Chocolate Nut Brownies from her amazing book, The Intolerant Gourmet.

http://www.lovefood.com/guide/recipes/16901/gluten-free-chocolate-nut-brownies-recipe

Irish Soda Bread

6.50am St. Patrick’s Day.

Daisy enters the bedroom to put forward her I-can’t-go-to-school-because-I’m-ill case. Ollie’s standing beside her. It’s well-argued: she has a sore throat, a cold, a tummy ache AND to top it all off, her shoulder injury, sustained from Sunday’s blog writing, is still playing up. 

She looks and sounds ill, and I DID make her go yesterday. I take a deep breath,

“If you’re that ill, then you can stay off.”

“Yes!” shouts Ollie, and punches the air. “You’ve done it, Daiz!”

I feel like I may have had the wool pulled over my eyes. 

They leave the room joyously, arms wrapped round each other’s shoulders. They are the best of friends: Daisy cannot believe she’s been allowed a day off; Ollie can’t believe he’s got a companion for the day. 

They play Secret Club; then organise all the plastic animals into family groups; then draw a collaborative treasure map. There’s not an argument in sight. Obviously this will not last, especially with the escalating feeling of mania in the air. 



 As a calming down excersise (what planet do I live on), I decide we’ll make some soda bread for St. Patrick’s Day. All the recipes state: ”This is easy to make! Ready in seconds!’ They lie. Or rather they don’t take into account that some people might be trying to make it with children. 

There should be a disclaimer on any recipe that contains such ingredients as treacle and honey (which this does): Be warned – these ingredients may cause an almighty mess when handled by children, and the ensuing clear up will add considerable time to the making of this loaf/cake/dish.

My children don’t even like black treacle and yet Ollie holds a spoon of it, destined for the mixing bowl, at a great height and tries to catch it on his tongue; Daisy, I find, squeezing spoonfuls of honey onto a medicine spoon and administing it to herself. It’s mayhem.



After repeatedly hearing myself use the phrase, “You’re really upsetting mummy now!” (not sure why I have to speak in the third person when I’m cross…), I manage to usher them out of the room so I can put the loaves in the oven, (one normal, one gluten-free).

We eat the soda bread warm with a delicious vegetable and sausage soup. Over lunch I try and explain about St. Patrick’s Day and the origins of soda bread, but I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Somehow I bring the potato famine into it, and then I make it sound like everyone in Ireland is poor and surviving on soda bread. Ollie goes silent and puts down his slice.

“So we’ve made this bread for the people? The poor people in Ireland?” he asks quietly. 

I try to backtrack, but the damage is done: Ollie looks like he might cry and Daisy looks distinctly put off her bread. I am cursing myself for starting down a path with only half a fact.

If can avoid the pitfalls outlined above, this really does make a wonderful lunch and soda bread is a relatively quick loaf to make (depending on who you’re baking with….)

Ingredients

  • 450g self raising flour
  • 50g rolled oats
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tbsp black treacle
  • 1 tbsp runny honey
  • 450ml milk
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp melted butter

Method

Grease an oven tray and preheat your oven to 180 (fan) or 200 degrees.

Mix all the dried ingredients in a large bowl. 

Mix the treacle and honey with the milk and lemon juice (easier said than done – the treacle is not very mix-able)

Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients.

Slowly add the liquid. Mix together to form a dough. You may not need all of the liquid. Shape into a round and place on the oven tray. Score a X on the top with a knife. 

Bake for 50-60 minutes until golden; and hollow sounding when the bottom is tapped. 

Brush with the melted butter and leave to cool. 



Thanks to this great Guardian article: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2014/feb/05/how-to-bake-perfect-soda-bread

And to this favourite website for the inspiration for the soup: http://agirlcalledjack.com/2015/03/16/ham-pea-mint-casserole-30p/ 



Quick Beef Rendang 

7am Monday morning.

 Mother’s Day is over with a bang. Ollie has just been reminded of the 24 hour devices ban (no telly, iPad) due to the remote-throwing incident last night. 

He storms out of the bedroom. At the door he turns dramatically and says,  “It’s pathetic!” 

I feel quite pleased for him. Daisy’s been banding that word around a lot recently, normally aimed at Ollie, and he’s been desperate to use it too, except he doesn’t have a clue what it means. 

The ‘pathetic’ outburst must’ve made him feel better because he arrives back in the bedroom five minutes later. “Happy Valentine’s Day, mum!”

He is brandishing a Mother’s Day present made at pre-school. He put it in a safe place (the shoe rack) and has only just found it. It’s a lovely clay pot with buttons pushed into it as decoration. 

I tell Daisy that her blog post last night was very popular: its readership smashed any daily record of mine. She’s very level-headed about it, and not for the first time, I’m glad she does not seem to have taken on my excitable, some would say, highly strung tendencies. 

It is a very cold, grey day, but at pick up the unexpected happens: the clouds part and the sun comes out. I’ve been indoors most of the day, so I persuade the children outside with a post-school hot chocolate. 



Ollie spots my Mother’s Day chocolates on the tray and squawks that he wants a ‘Boozy Boozy chocolate’. What a great name! I wonder if Booja would consider rebranding?



We have lots of roast beef left from yesterday so I decide to make a quick version of Rendang. It’s an Indonesian dish which appeals a lot because I lived there for a period. It should take about four hours to slowly cook the beef, but this version takes the flavour and does it in half an hour. Incredibly tasty way to use up leftovers.



Ingredients: serves 2

  • onion, one
  • ginger, thumb-sized piece
  • garlic, two cloves
  • coriander stalks, bunch of
  • turmeric, half tsp
  • cinnamon, half tsp
  • lemongrass, one tsp (I only had dried)
  • dried red chilli, half
  • star anise*, one
  • keffir lime leaves*two: torn
  • coconut oil, one tbsp
  • coconut milk, half a tin: 200g
  • 200ml of water or leftover beef gravy
  • 225g leftover beef, roughly chopped

To serve

  • lime, juice and zest
  • dessicated coconut*, toasted if you can be bothered!
  • coriander leaves, bunch of
  • poppodoms*(not typical Indonesian fare but good with it!)
  • 240g jasmine or basmati rice

*optional

Method

Put the following into a food processor and blitz into a paste: onion, ginger, garlic, chilli, coriander stalks, turmeric, cinnamon and lemongrass. 

Heat the coconut oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the lime leaves and star anise. Fry for a minute until fragrant.

Add the paste to the pan and fry on a low heat for 10-15 minutes until golden. Add a little more coconut oil if needed. Stir occasionally.

Add the beef to the pan, plus the coconut milk and 200ml of liquid (water/beef stock/left over gravy). Season, bring to the boil, then simmer for 15 minutes. 

Grate the lime zest from half of the lime and squeeze in a quarter of the lime juice. Serve with coriander and dessicated coconut, with poppodoms or chapatis on the side.



Inspired in part by Jamie Oliver’s Beef Randang.