Sunday, July 31, 2011

Totally edible birthday card!

Leigh's brother is a joint owner of a local business which is celebrating it's 1st birthday in August. To celebrate, they're running a birthday card competition for their friends and customers and here is our entry...

It was Leigh's idea to make a completely edible birthday card - and I thought about this website and its 3D gingerbread houses, so we started thinking about how to make it with gingerbread. We did a practice run, which was a good job we did as there were lots of bits and pieces we were able to refine for the finished card.

So the final effort comprises 2 pieces of gingerbread (made using this recipe - but only half the quantity and that was still enough to make a practice card [about A5 size], the real card and a ton of gingerbread biscuits), one with a car shaped hole cut out of it (the shape of the business' logo). We also made sure we cut holes into the appropriate edges of the front and back so that they could be joined together with strawberry laces.

Leigh filled the car shape with melted mint boiled sweets to make a window - he did try making his own sugar syrup to hard crack stage, but it didn't come out as clear in tests!

Here's the rehearsal card with our own boiled sugar

(actually, looking at this photo, with the table behind the card the window doesn't look too bad. Take my word for it though, you could not see through it!)

And the final version with melted down minty sweets which is very clear, as you can see in the first photo above.

I iced a message on the front, and Zachary decorated with glitter. Inside, we used edible paper to colour and cut out a heart shape and the initial letters of our names (Leo helped to press the shapes of the letters into the paper for easy cutting out!).

Now just need to wait and see how the competition goes...

Friday, July 29, 2011

It's nearly time...

Woodland Fun

Went back to Sudbury Hall and the Museum of Childhood today with Annie and the boys. They had a woodland craft tent up and I managed to find my way home with a squirrel and a bunny!!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ice Cream cupcakes

My sister's sister-in-law made these cakes for her little boy's birthday party and thought they looked fab so sent me the link - here. The video to help with the icing's pretty good too.

My sister's staying with me tonight, so we've had a go and they're ace. I used my own cupcake recipe and cooking times and temperatures and they seemed to come out fine - much to my surprise. Baking in cornets?? I think I need to use slightly less mix in the cornets so they don't rise quite so much, and I also needed to use a bigger piping nozzle so that the whirly topping looks more in proportion to the cornet (and so hopefully the flake stands better in the icing!) but otherwise they taste fantastic!

Coffee kisses

I made these biscuits this morning. The recipe suggests sandwiching them together with buttercream, but as mine came out of the oven slightly (ahem!) different sizes and they tasted great on their own I left out the buttercream. They are quite light and deliciously chewy - although need to see what they're like tomorrow, that's usually a good test of quality in my cooking!

Anyway, my aunt visited today, tried one of the biscuits, and said 'oh, these are nice. I used to make some like this, called coffee kisses. I used to sandwich them together with buttercream!' Brilliant.

175g self-raising flour
100g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter, chilled and diced
2 teaspoons instant coffee
1 egg

(plus buttercream if needed)

Preheat oven to 170C/160C-ish fan/325F/gas 3.

To make the dough in a food processor, put the flour and sugar into the bowl and pulse a couple of times to just combine. Add the butter and process until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Dissolve the coffee in 1 teaspoon boiling water. Beat the egg until frothy and mix in the coffee. Pour into the processor and run the machine until the dough just comes together.

Tip the dough onto a work surface and divide into 16 pieces. Flour your hands well, then shape each piece into a neat ball. Arrange them well apart on the prepared baking trays (covered with greaseproof baking paper) and bake in the heated oven for 12-15 minutes until light golden and firm to the touch.

Leave to cool for a couple of minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool completely. Use the buttercream to sandwich together in pairs.


We have a very fancy- rice cooker, that also steams, slow cooks and makes porridge. I tried to steam some fish in it tonight without putting in any water. Took an embarassingly long time to work out what the problem was....

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cherry, almond and lemon mascarpone tart

Made on request for my husband's birthday this weekend in lieu of a more traditional cake. I will be making this again!

375g block dessert pastry (I made my own sweet shortcrust)
about 700g cherries, stoned (I think I only used about 500g in the end - just need enough to cover the top of the tart)

Frangipane -
100g unsalted butter, softened
100g golden caster sugar
100g ground almonds
1 egg
splash of Disaronno or Masala if you have it

Mascarpone mix -
2 x 250g tubs of mascarpone
zest and juice of 1 lemon
140g icing sugar, plus extra for dusting

1. Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface to just thinner than a £1 coin (I used Rachel Allen's tried and tested roll out between 2 sheets of clingfilm technique). Use to line a 22cm loose-bottomed tart tin, leaving an overhang on the sides. Leave to chill in the fridge on a baking sheet. To make the frangipane, whizz everything together in a food processor until combined.

2. Heat oven to 200C/180C fan/gas 6 and line the tart case with baking parchment and beans. Bake for 20 mins, then remove parchment and beans, lightly prick base with a fork and continue to bake for 10 mins until pale and biscuity. Spread the frangipane over the base and return to the oven for 15 mins until cooked. Remove from the oven, trim the sides of the pastry and leave to cool completely.

3. Beat the mascarpone with the lemon zest and juice and the icing sugar. Spread over the frangipane. Arrange the cherries on top, dust heavily with icing sugar, remove from the tin and serve.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A few thoughts on the weekend

Saturday afternoon - packed the boys off to Nanny and Grumps for the afternoon, evening and night. Woohoo! I practised my DIY skills by putting the blackout blind in the boys' room back up - well, I was forced to! Leigh said that as I knocked it down, I had to put it up... But he did help me with the drilling, which was much appreciated. Blind still up.

We went out for a meal to the lovely Restaurant Sat Bains in the evening - extravagant, but oh so good. Even caught a glimpse of the man himself in the kitchens as we were leaving. The best part about the evening - actually having time to spend time getting ready, rather than my usual last minute check in the mirror to make sure that none of my hair is sticking up in a strange direction. I even painted my nails, which I haven't done for ages. Not a particularly bright or noticeable shade, but somehow just having painted nails makes me feel a bit different. Like a bit better version of myself who's actually made an effort with her appearance!!

Sunday morning saw the double treat of a lie-in AND breakfast in bed. Yum. We picked up the boys and took them to the shopping centre for a bit. They got a bit overexcited in Lakeland, and a rather desperate shop assistant tried to pacify them with stickers - which read 'Buy 1 get 1 free!'

Kung Foo Panda is great. The fight animation is simply amazing.

Finally an Odd One Out competition - here are the last 4 eggs laid by the chickens...

Sunday, July 10, 2011

More cupcakes

After my cupcake making and decorating course, I was inspired to try a few random cupcakes, this made all the easier by one of the tips I picked up - using the same weight of ingredients as the eggs. So it is pretty straightforward to make a 1 egg batch of cupcakes, you just weigh the egg and then use that weight for everything else. I needed to remember to reduce the amount of other liquid (like flavouring) going it, as we used 3 eggs on the course, but otherwise this worked well and meant that we could produce 12 cupcakes, 4 each of 3 different flavours. Great!

Leigh, Zachary and I made a batch each - Zachary wanted chocolate cakes, I tried out my idea for an amaretto and cherry coke cake, and Leigh took charge of a margarita cake.

Here is Zachary's chocolate cake - when we got to the stage of adding the flour, we added a tablespoon of cocoa powder first to the scales, then topped up to the required weight with flour. It came out really well, and apart from a bit of mixing (and my hand in the finish on the icing), Zachary did it all himself!

The next one is my idea for a margarita cupcake, which Leigh made - lime in the base and tequila added to the icing.

The lime cake was lovely, although I only suggested using lime juice (as the limes had previously been used in some strawberry and lime margaritas...) and I think it would benefit from some zest as well. The icing - well, this might sound a little strange but I could feel the tequila more in the back of my throat than actually taste it. May need to add more if I want to keep it alcoholic, or it could just be a lime cake.

I love Amaretto and cherry coke to drink so thought I'd have a go at this combo (with apologies for the slightly wonky icing!).

The cupcake course leader mentioned that she makes Bacardi and coke cakes, and just uses a tablespoon of coke as flavouring in the cakes so I thought I'd give this one a go.

Couldn't really taste the cherry coke very much so I would be inclined to try out cherry syrup next time. The amaretto in the icing, again ended up more a suggestion than actual flavouring, so I added a little almond essence, which enhanced it.

However I think in the future, unless I needed it to be alcoholic, I could keep it just as a cherry bakewell cupcake and use essence only.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Breathless Cars

Heard this on Chris Evan's breakfast show on radio 2 a few weeks ago. Really like it!

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Calke Abbey

We took a trip to beautiful Calke Abbey on Sunday. The estate is huge - when you arrive, you drive into the Park (which has it's own entrance fee) and then into the Stables area. In the Stables area are a children's play area, shop, restaurant, and the visitor reception, from where you go through another gate to get to the house and gardens. We have been to Calke twice before, although didn't make it past the Stables either time!

This time we got through and it was great. The information leaflet describes it like this -

"Calke Abbey is a Baroque house built on the site of a former priory and completed in 1704 for Sir John Harpur. The family name changed to Crewe and then to Harpur Crewe and the family wealth was accumulated through clever marriage and the proceeds of land ownership. Throughout the generations the family displayed a range of eccentric characteristics from being strangely reclusive to fanatical collectors. The National Trust has decided to show Calke as a graphic example of 'the decline of the great country house' that occurred during the early to mid 20th century."

This is a pic of Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe's room - apparently the family living here before the National Trust took over hadn't been able to throw anything away!

I really enjoyed visiting the house - it seems strange but I got more of a feel for the house and what it must have been like to live there with it all decaying and in decline, than if all the rooms had been show-rooms. There were some gorgeous features (I particularly liked the fancy drain pipes!) and the family were indeed fanatical collectors - glass case upon glass case of shells filled many of the rooms (like the bedroom above - all those cases on the left) The kitchen was also fab, getting a really good look at the old oven and range and the equipment. We couldn't take the pushchair in so Leo was walking, which meant that we saw a few of the rooms at a brisk trot rather than having a good wander, but it was still fun. There was an I-Spy sheet for Zachary to fill in and he loved that.

The gardens were beyond the house and although we didn't get a long look there, we could see how busy they still are, full of vegetables and flowers.

We also had a bit of fun managing Zachary's toilet requirements...2 al fresco wees! At least the people who saw him seemed to find it funny rather than slightly offensive! But a great day out.

Monday, July 04, 2011

It all started so innocently...

I thought the boys might like to do some handpainting this morning. Got them aproned and wellied up (note, all activity to take place in the safety of the garden), spread out wallpaper for them to use. Lovely.

Then I thought it would be a good idea to bring out a bucket of soapy water so that they could wash hands before going back into the house. As soon as I brought it out, Leo had his hands in it. Lovely. Then he had his hands in his hair. So Zachary, not wishing to be outdone, screamed with delight and leapt over to the bucket to copy his brother. chaos ensued!!

To be honest, after Leo had done the first set of hair handprints, I just let them get on with it because, let's face it, he was going to need a shower anyway!!! And after carrying him up to the bathroom so that he didn't touch anything, I needed one too!

Saturday, July 02, 2011


For my birthday earlier in the year, Leigh paid for me to go to a half-day cupcake making and decorating course. It was today and it was great! Run by the lovely Strawberry Cupcakes.

There was about 15 of us, and we started the day by making the cupcake mix and then these were baked for us while we had a play with sugar paste and making fancies for the tops of the cakes. Now, while I can manage colouring sugar paste and cutting out shapes, when it comes to sugar roses I am completely inept. I understand the theory perfectly, but it's all a bit delicate for my sausage fingers! So I'll stick to the butterfly stamper.

Once the cupcakes were ready, we made butter icing and then piped onto the top of the cakes, finally decorating them with the flowers and butterflies we made earlier.

It was really good and I picked up a few tips. Now I usually make my cakes with butter, but we used margarine today and to be honest I haven't been able to tell the difference taste-wise. It might be noticable if I tasted a butter one and a margarine one side by side. We also added a flavour to the cupcake mix - about a tablespoon of one of the syrups you use to flavour coffee! I didn't realise you could use those in baking, but they came out really well.

Also the tops of the baked cupcakes were lovely and flat - I can never manage this at home! The course leader said she thinks it's because she cooks the cakes for longer at a lower temperature - 150C for a fan oven, and 25 minutes baking. I'm going to try it for my next batch.

I was hoping to get a good reliable recipe for a frosting too as mine never seems to quite come out right. Again, we used margarine rather than butter, but otherwise the recipe was the same as I use at home. It must just be a practise thing - getting used to when the mixture looks right for piping. The piping was fun though - and I must remember to use bigger nozzles because the piping looks much better, and the disposable icing bags were very handy!

We were also talking about interesting flavour combinations for cupcakes and I've a few ideas to try out now...

Leo's Flirtation Technique

As successfully deployed at least 3 times at Dylan's birthday party this afternoon.

Approach target (ahem), lady, and give winning smile. On receipt of return smile, pull slightly at t-shirt in what would appear to a casual observer to be a slightly distracted manner, but is in fact a cunning and subtle way to show off a very cute tummy. Wait for appreciative response, then wander off with a wave and a bye bye. Maintains air of mystery until the next meeting...

Friday, July 01, 2011

Baked Alaska

Rah! Baked on Tuesday and came out a success! Leigh's homemade ice-cream was ace (vanilla and strawberry), the meringue was gorgeous and it was accompanied by Nigella's butterscotch sauce. Was very nerve wracking watching it in the oven trying to work out if I could see ice-cream seeping out of the bottom, but was all fine. We served it to table on the baking tray it had been cooked on but it would probably have been better if it had been transferred to a plate first. As soon as the first slice was taken, the rest slid slightly and came into contact with the hot baking tray causing the ice-cream to start melting and the meringue to lose some air. Not disasterously, but it would have kept a bit longer had we transferred it immediately.

It was totally yum! Best part is that it won't keep, so we (sadly!) had to eat the whole lot in one go. Shame.

Here's the ice-cream on biscuit base

Covered with meringue pre-cooking

On leaving the oven

And a slice of loveliness!

I'm going to set out the recipe as I made it, so there are slightly different instructions to Rachel's.

Baked Alaska (Rachel Allen)

1 litre home-made ice-cream

For the biscuit base -
25g butter at room temperature
25g caster sugar
1 egg yolk
1/8tsp vanilla essence (we've got a jar of vanilla sugar at home [caster sugar with some left-over vanilla pods in it], so I just used that instead of adding the vanilla essence.)
60g plain flour
Pinch of baking powder

For the meringue -
3 egg whites
Pinch of cream of tartar
200g caster sugar

1 litre round heatproof pudding basin

When Leigh made the ice-cream, he lined the pudding basin with clingfilm, and then set the ice-cream (after churning) into the bowl, wrapped the cling film over the top and then put the whole thing into the freezer to set. This meant that when I came to put the pudding together, I didn't need to mash the ice-cream into shape and leave it to re-freeze. Also the ice-cream came out of the bowl easily later, without messing about waiting for it to thaw slightly, using hot water to help ease it out etc.

Making the biscuit base - need to do this ahead of time as it has to cool completely before you put the pudding together.

Cream the butter until soft. Add the sugar and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the egg yolk (and vanilla essence) and beat until combined. Sift in the flour and baking powder and mix until all the flour is incorporated. Bring the dough together in a ball, slightly flatten it with the palm of your hand and place in a plastic bag or wrap in clingfilm. Allow to chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

When the dough is ready to roll, preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4/165ish fan. Place the dough on a lightly floured work surface, sprinkle on a bit more flour and roll out keeping it round and giving the dough a quarter turn each roll to prevent it from sticking to the surface. Roll out the dough to a thickness of 1cm.

Measure the diameter of the pudding basin and cut out your dough 3cm wider than the basin. (see my careful cutting on the photos! Not.) Carefully lift the dough onto a large baking tray lined with parchment paper and bake in the oven for about 8-10 minutes or until pale golden. Allow to cool, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. When cold, return it to the baking tray.

Before you prepare the meringue, preheat the oven to 220C/gas 7. In a large, spotlessly clean bowl, whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form. Add half the caster sugar and the cream of tartar and whisk until stiff peaks form and the meringue is satiny and glossy. Fold in the remaining sugar with a metal spoon.

Ease the ice-cream onto the biscuit base. Quickly spoon the meringue thickly and in peaks over the ice-cream, spreading it down to the base and covering the edge. Place immediately in the centre of the hot oven for 3-4 minutes or until the meringue is set and pale gold in colour. Serve straight away!

Rabbit towel

It is finished and I'm really pleased with the result. I added ears, a nose and whiskers to the hood, 4 paws and a tail to the main towel. As I mentioned in a previous post, I did have some trouble appliquing the paws, but found the answer was just to decrease the thread tension further. Down at 1, the stitches came out much more evenly, and although it was still difficult to feed through the needle, I used some curtain lining material to back them behind the main towel and this seemed to provide a smoother surface for feeding through the machine. I have since discovered there is such a thing as stabilising fabric which actually washes out and is useful for appliquing towel as you can get an even smoother surface.

I found out a lot of this in stages as I was attaching the paws - so the first one is a bit dodgy, and the last one is pretty good!

I've also attached a button and loop to this towel, which I found in the latest issue of Making magazine - they've got a hooded towel 'make' in there and the button is great. Zachary likes it so much he's ordered one for his bear towel. I also think that using the button may help me make a better fireman towel, because I'll have something more resembling a coat for buttons without having to attempt another poncho towel and get myself wound up with the double bias binding and making sure the head hole is the right size!

Here's a photo of the towel laid out

And modelled by Zachary

And Obi-Wan Kenobi!

Toilet Tales

Now that Zachary is au fait with the whole toilet-using thing, I thought I might share some of our recent experiences.

The first thing to say is that if there is ever going to be an awkward time to be needing the toilet, Zachary will undoubtedly need it, and not be able to hold on. On the hard shoulder of the motorway in teeming rain (thank you Leigh for sorting that one out). At the supermarket when you've just reached the point in the store which is furthest from the toilets. Or in a cafe, just as you've all sat down, removed coats, got Leo in a highchair teas have arrived - this usually necessitates removing Leo from highchair, asking waitress to watch the table and not clear it, gathering valuable belongings and making a dash for the loo!

I also have fun choosing whether to try the cubicles or a disabled loo. Now the cubicles have the advantage that I'm not blocking the disabled loo, but if Leo is out of the pushchair, they're a bit tight on space for all 3 of us. Often what happens is that as I turn to help Zachary, Leo runs amok in the rest of the toilets. Today, I caught him running past our cubicle holding a toilet roll which looked suspiciously soaked through. We left hurriedly!

Cubicles are fine if I'm on my own with Zachary, but are a fairly public arena for those times when he asks "what are you going to do Mummy? A wee or a poo?" My changing to subject skills are being rapidly and finely honed.

The disabled loos are usually bigger and better if we're all three, and if I need the loo as well. Unfortunately, Leo is now tall enough to reach most locks and handles on the disabled toilet doors. Which are unreachable when you're sitting on the toilet. Today as I sat, Leo unlocked the door. I asked Zachary to lock it again - Zachary looked on and laughed! After a bit of shouting he did eventually re-lock the door, and then it was a battle of wills between the 2 of them who would win. Fortunately Zachary won! This time.

Au Revoirs

My mummy lifeline for the last 2 years is moving to Cardiff today. So I am quite sad about that. But trying not to be - looking forward to visits to Torchwood land hopefully!!