Thursday, 16 November 2017

First Class

This week I attended a very special celebration, the graduation of my youngest son from the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford.

Those of you who have been long time readers of my blog will know Jacob has not always had the easiest ride through his young life. He faces daily struggles with anxiety and depression as well as coping with type 1 diabetes. I have written about him before and you can read about his struggles herehere and here. But despite it all he has just graduated with a first class honours degree in Professional Sound Production... what better way to show those people who wanted to write off this young man when he was just eight years old, the ones who told me he would never access mainstream education. They were wrong... mainstream education with its one size fits all approach wasn't ready for this intellegent, talented, caring, funny, articulate young man and I couldn't be more proud of him.

You now need to go out there into the world Jacob and keep proving them wrong. Believe in yourself, believe in your talents and follow your dreams. It won't always be easy and you will no doubt stumble and fall along the way, it will be big and scary at times but you can do whatever you want.
You are amazing!

Monday, 13 November 2017

A Ripping Yarn

On Friday we became tourists for the day and ventured into London for a evening walking tour... but more of that later. Deciding to make the most of the fact that we had a free day and the weather was fine we headed into town at lunchtime and made our way to the National Portrait Gallery to see the exhibition of Cezanne Portraits which runs until 11th February.

For the first time since turning sixty I dicovered I qualified for a concession ticket which only meant a £2 saving but it still pleased me more than it probably should have. There have to be some benefits to turning sixty after all!

The exhibition didn't disappoint and it was wonderful to see so many fabulous portraits, some familiar and some never seen before.
Boy in a Red Waistcoat 

These are just a couple of my favourites... I just love the use of colour and the brushstrokes and as ever it made me want to take up my paintbrushes, which of course I haven't done since my last painting class almost a month ago!

Madame Cezanne in a Red Armchair

Still with a couple of hours to spare we then headed in the direction of Spittlefields and although we hadn't booked we took a chance and went to Ottolenghi. We were in luck and they fitted us in for an early dinner. As ever the service was friendly and the food was amazing. I rarely eat dessert when I'm out as so often I find it disappointing... cloying, synthetic and over sweet. But not at Ottolenghi! Stewart had a passionfruit cheesecake with a spiced pineapple topping which was delicious and I had a less photogenic (hence no photo!) chocolate rum fondant cake which was absolutely sublime. The best dessert ever!

Feeling fully replete we then headed to Aldgate for the start of our tour... and the start of my ripping yarn! Family members have taken on board that we don't really need more "stuff" and also in the spirit of my sixty x sixty project they have been buying us "experiences" rather than things for birthdays etc. One of these was a "Gangster" tour of London, which Stewart's son had bought us because of my Dad's East End gangster connections. Perhaps I should explain... my Dad (in the dark suit) was the youngest of five boys with one little sister. There was talk in the family of one of my uncles hanging out with certain gangs in the East End back in the 1950s but despite looking like they are posing for a mafia mob wedding, my Dad's only real connection with gangsters was that he was in the same regiment and in the army doing his national service at the same time the Kray twins. He certainly had stories to tell about them but no connections!

Neither of us really fancied the Gangster tour of London lead by "Nick the Greek", an actor neither of us had heard of, as it mostly sounded like a film promotional tour for said Nick. Instead we swapped it for a Jack the Ripper tour of Whitechapel and a Shakespeare tour of the city (to be taken next year).

I guess in my head I imagined walking through deserted dark and foggy cobbled Alleys but of course London isn't like that anymore... it is all slick modern office buildings and streets full of after work revellers. Standing in a modern square in front of a high rise building listening to Friday night sirens and being told this was the spot where victim no. 2 was found wasn't quite so atmospheric as I'd hoped. But nonetheless, our guide Paul was very knowledgeable and entertaining and walked us through what was in the 1880s a very poor run down area of London.

He had plenty of gruesome photos to illustrate his stories and we stood outside some old pubs where the victims had been drinking on the evenings they were killed. And of course we were treated to Paul's theory as to the identy of Jack the Ripper... but I can't disclose that of course! All in all it was an entertaining and fun way to spend a couple of hours on a Friday night.

Now if you'll excuse me I'm off to get my senior railcard before my next trip into London!

Friday, 10 November 2017

A Great Escape

Alas my blog has been neglected again but I have an excuse because I have been away. I escaped for a weekend! Back in February, Fiona, the sister of my friend Alison, hatched a plan for Alison's 50th birthday... for sixteen of Alison's friends to go away together for a weekend. For four months (until the actual birthday) we plotted and planned and kept it a secret from Alison. And then since June we have plotted and planned with Alison. Sixteen women all in planning mode... I'll say no more! But it all worked brilliantly and on Friday afternoon/evening we all rocked up to this fabulous farmhouse half way between Stratford upon Avon and Henley in Arden.

The views across rolling countryside were beautiful.

The planning mostly focused on food and drink and for our first evening together we had an amazing spread to which everyone contributed. Somehow it all came together and we feasted and drank, chatted and laughed as we all got to know each other. And as if by magic it all got cleared up and put away... never underestimate the organisational capability of a group of women!

There was of course a belated birthday cake made by Fiona... although there was so much food we didn't actually get to eat it until after we got home, but it was worth the wait.

On Saturday we ventured into Stratford where we split into teams and took part in a Trivia Trail. It was great fun and took us on a whirlwind tourist tour of Shakespeare's Stratford where we learned lots of interesting facts about Shakespeare and his family. This is my team all set to go. We ended up coming second but as there were only three teams that wasn't quite so impressive as it sounds.

There was also time to browse the shops where spotting tastless tourist tat seemed to be a thing... the Shakespeare rubber duck probably got the prize for that.

Saturday evening meant more food and drink together and we had caterers bring in a fabulous three course meal, which included all the setting up and clearing away. Such a treat!

After that you would think we couldn't eat another thing but here we all are queuing patiently for our cooked breakfast on Sunday morning. All that fresh air and laughter burns a lot of calories you know!

Some of our party had to leave on Sunday due to work commitments etc but the rest of us drove to Henley in Arden where we took advantage of the fine weather to do a five mile walk... followed by more cake and hot chocolate of course!

The walk along the canal was particularly exciting for me as I spotted my first ever Kingfisher. Well to be absolutely honest I spotted a flash of bright blue skimming across the surface of the water but the others assured me it was a Kingfisher. As it was a first for me I'm wondering if that counts as a sixty by sixty. (I'm getting desperate now!)

Back at the farmhouse a few of us braved the hot tub fortified by gin and tonics... do not be fooled, the air temperature was about 4 deg C by now! Thinking about it, that is another first for me... I'm really clocking up those sixty by sixties now!

Later that evening cosy in our pyjamas and slippers, we had a wonderful supper of the leftover food. (Why do leftovers taste so good!) Then being as it was bonfire night we watched a neighbour's fireworks display and then had our own sparklers in the garden. There may have been some gin fuelled singing (this of all things!) and dancing in the garden in pyjamas with our sparklers but I won't name any names!

It was a fantastic weekend with so many wonderful memories, spent with friends both old and new. I can't remember when I laughed (or ate) so much. Thank you all xx

(Thank you too for all the photos I've pinched to write this post!)

Wednesday, 1 November 2017


Where shall I start today?
I have ideas for posts about cake (of course), about rag rugs, social media, family... I could go on. But the chance of actually getting around to all of them as individual posts is pretty remote so I bring you a jumble of my past week instead. Shall we start with cake?

I dithered and dallied with the technical bake from the Bake Off semi final... could I really be bothered with all those ingredients, all those different steps, all that time? But in the end I caved in and made Les Miserables. They were a complete faff from start to end. So many pans, so much mess and I still can't make a proper Swiss buttercream, I didn't temper my chocolate and I certainly wasn't going to cut raspberries in half. Why would you? I guess they looked okayish, although more like sandwiches than cake, but I thought they were overly sweet and sickly and most of them ended up being binned... the ones that Stewart didn't manage to eat that is.

Last night I went to watch the final of the Bake Off with other members of the Cambridge Clandestine Cake Club at a rather nice establishment called the Grain and Hop Store. We had to bring along our signature bake so I brought along a gluten free chocolate and almond cake. It wasn't this particular one as it was too dark to photograph the one I made, but it was pretty much like this minus the strawberries. All the cake that was brought along was delicious... not a Miserable in sight! I may have had several portions of cake for my dinner! I managed not to hear the Bake Off winner in advance, as leaked by Prue Leith on Twitter yesterday, but pretty much guessed it would be Sophie. Now I'm dithering about whether to apply for next year?

I have also been busy trying to get one of my Textile Art newsletters out. Having dithered for ages about whether to send one, I had one all ready to go last Friday and then my laptop died. I had wanted to promote my rag rug wreath course that I'll be teaching at Missenden in a couple of weeks. But the newsletter didn't go and the course was cancelled... that was until I posted a photo of a second wreath in a different colourway on social media and got several enquiries about the course... it seems that blue and silver was a popular choice!  And so it is now back on again because the lovely people at Missenden School of Creative Arts have decided to take a gamble and run the course even if we don't get enough people. Fingers crossed that we do to make the gamble pay off!


I always dither when I send out newsletters mostly because without fail within an hour or so of sending it I get at least half a dozen people unsubscribe. It is swings and roundabouts because I pick up at least as many new subscribers over the weeks between sending them out but it still fills me with doubts... have I said something wrong, am I boring, do people just hate my work? In my heart I know it is nonsense because I can't please everyone all of the time but it doesn't stop me wanting to! Anyway my laptop was fixed and the newsletter went out, I have had seven people unsubsrcibe (only one of whom I actual know... that bugs me!) but I've also had interest in a course, two orders of my DVD (which is on sale at only £5 + pp) and an absolutely lovely email from a lady called Barbara who reads this blog... Hello Barbara! So it was definitely worth sending it and should you want to receive the occasional newsletter from me too, you can subscribe via the button on the sidebar... as long as you promise not to unsubscribe straight away!

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Wedding Cakes

Being a completely self taught baker and cake decorator I tend to shy away from doing wedding cakes. Whereas the odd imperfection can be overlooked on a birthday cake, it is a complete no no where weddings are concerned. Wedding cakes have to be perfect! The first wedding cake I ever made was far from perfect... but it was okay because it was my own! Back then I knew nothing about stacking cakes with boards and supports. I just made four different sized chocolate cakes and put one on top of another. I covered the whole lot with chocolate ganache and then slapped white chocolate shavings over the lot. It tasted fantastic but looked a mess! Even the little hand crafted couple on the top (Me and Stewart!) looked somewhat dishevelled! But we ate it with strawberries and cream for dessert at our wedding and everyone seemed to enjoy it.

So when a couple of years ago my friend Ann asked if I could make her wedding cake I was a little hesitant. She assured me that informal and simple was fine. So with some carefully placed flowers and piped dots to hide the cracks, I think I got away with it!

Gradually my confidence and skills increased so when my brother asked could I make his cake this year I was up for the challenge, although I didn't feel quite so confident when I found out what they wanted... Steam Punk meets Alice in Wonderland! There were many hours spent watching YouTube tutorials where I learned how to make cake lace...

And molded decorations like watches...

and roses!

And although I know it was far from perfect, they were happy with the end result.

So knowing perfection had still to be achieved, it was a bit of a risk when I agreed to make the cake for a friend's daughter's wedding. With a woodland theme, their request was for a reasonably simple cake topped with an ivy garland and accompanying cupcakes.

Last week I made 250 sugar paste ivy leaves in preparation and have spent the past two days making the three layer red velvet cake and 72 cupcakes. There were two attempts at getting the red velvet right (I now have a spare cake in my freezer) and I was on my feet baking for about eight hours yesterday. I've not slept well either  and have had recurring dreams of either not finishing it in time or of all the ivy leaves falling off.

Today it was all ready to deliver and set up... but what if I tripped up whilst carrying the boxes and dropped the cake! What if the ivy leaves really did fall off?

I can't tell you how relieved I was once it was all set up with no mishaps.

And was it perfect? Probably not, but it's the happiest I've felt with any cake I've made and I loved the finished display on the fabulous log slice cake board (made by the bride's Mum!)

So am I now ready to take on more wedding cakes? No I don't think so as I'm not sure I can handle the stress... not to mention the lack of sleep. Although I don't think I will get away saying no more wedding cakes with three family weddings next summer!

Sunday, 22 October 2017

A Skimpy Outfit

There has been a big disappointment this week that has left me feeling a little less bouncy than usual, but before I explain shall we have some cake?

I must admit that my interest in this year's Bake Off has waned slightly. I didn't really mind the move to Chanel 4 and although I think Noel Fielding does seem a little awkward and out of place at times, mostly the new line up works well... But the bakes? I think they are having a laugh! The technical skill required to make some of the bakes seems way beyond the scope of most amateur bakers and it feels as if they are coming up with more and more obscure and difficult tasks each week. As you know I stepped back from my own personal challenge of doing all the technical bakes the week of the Stroopwafel, not being prepared to buy a wafflemaker just to complete a technical challenge. But I got back into the swing of things with my Portugese Custard Tarts, or Pasteis de Nata, made unnecessarily difficult by the addition of a custard made with a sugar syrup...who on earth makes custard that way? I could have used a different recipe of course (Paul Hollywood uses a completely different method in his baking book) but I've been trying to use the same recipes as the contestants. They weren't too tricky in the end, despite the custard and the results didn't hang about for long. I may have eaten one or two... possibly more, even though I deemed them too sweet.

The next week was Italian week with a ridiculously complicated showstopper challenge to make Sfogliatelle and a tricky signature bake of Cannoli, which are not even baked but fried. The technical bake that week was really simple by comparision - a Margherita Pizza. As I often make pizza from scratch I wasn't going to bother, that was until I got a message from youngest son who was outraged, demanding to know why hadn't I made the technical bake when it was his favourite thing. I sucumbed and made him pizza for lunch. It got the thumbs up!

This week was all about forgotten bakes and mostly I think you can see why they were forgotten. Why would anyone want to bake an oversized architectural Savoy cake, a favourite centerpiece at Victorian banquets, but seldom actually eaten? Or a Bedfordshire clanger containing both sweet and savoury fillings? However the technical bake - a Cumberland Rum Nicky did actually sound quite nice. With a sweet shortcrust base, a lattice top and a rum soaked date, apricot and ginger filling I thought it sounded delicious and I was looking forward to trying it. It didn't disappoint! Especially with a generous helping of rum butter. Once again a helping or two may have been eaten.

So with all this extra baking there wasn't too much chance of me fitting into the skimpy outfit I had lined up for the play... except the play was destined not to happen. It was no ones' fault but despite weeks of rehearsals it really wasn't ready to put on for a paying audience. Although we are just a small AmDram group we do have a good reputation for putting on a high standard of entertainment and so the decision was made it was better to cancel than to put on a substandard performance. It had been in trouble from the start with one cast member having to drop out due to work commitments, another suffering one illness after another, there were lots of tricky movements and some people had an extraordinary amount of lines so we knew it was the right decision. But it was still bitterly disappointing after all the hours learning lines and sitting around at rehearsals... especially with just one week to go until curtain up. But as I've said before, village life is never dull and on Saturday evening there was a chance to dress up in another skimpy outfit as we headed off to a 1960s themed supper.

I got kitted out in a dress that came from our drama group wardrobe and as it happens one that I actually wore about 17-18 years ago to another 1960s themed evening. It wasn't quite so loose fitting as it was back then when I was newly divorced and far too skinny but I squeezed into it even finding the same earrings that I wore all that time ago. We had a fun evening of sixties music, a quiz and a reto supper of prawn cocktail, boeuf bourginon and the most enormous slice of black forest gateau... like I needed more cake. Thankfully I didn't get as drunk as I did the last time I wore it... like I said...newly divorced and somewhat emotionally unstable in retrospect.

So, here I am disappointed and feeling a little down but life goes on... there will be more plays, more cake and no doubt more nights out* before too long, so I along with the other cast members will get over it.

*Talking of nights out we were at another village event on Friday - a monthly cinema club, held in the chapel schoolroom where the film shown was Child 44. I'd read the book with bookclub and had obviously deleted it from memory... it was really disturbing, violent and I found it rather incoherent. The sort of film that makes me long for a gentle drama... and makes me think I'm getting old. Last month it was Kind Hearts and Coronets which was hilarious and charming and much more my thing.

I hope your weekend has been a good one.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Rags, Paint and a Desert Wind

Gosh, that was a weekend that came and went in a flash. Busy as ever but in a good way. I took advantage of the good weather on Saturday morning to do a couple of hours tidying up in the garden after breakfast. Not that you'd know... it's looks just a messy as ever although I filled the wheelie bin with garden rubbish. Inbetween I managed to rustle up a batch of flapjacks before anyone noticed there hasn't been much cake in the house lately.

Although I took half of them away as in the afternoon I was teaching my first ever rag rug class... nothing like a bit of homemade baking to get your students on side!

My venue was a quaint little coach house near Hitchin where I let myself in and made myself familiar with everything. This is the Ragged Life HQ, home of all things  rag rug related! Before long a group of five lovely ladies gathered for the class and were soon stuck in with a project designed to teach them the basics of rag rugging.

They were each making one of these flower trivets... I made a sunflower as my demo piece! I'm not sure I want to stand pots on it though!

Saturday evening saw a night of good food and operatic entertainment in our village hall no less. Village life is far from sedate and never boring!
Then first thing on Sunday I called for my Mum and we went on another painting day together, this time with Jamel Akib. In our first painting we were learning how to paint gold. I think this was my favourite of the five I managed to paint throughout the day.

Next we got to paint dancers using dramatic strokes in the background to create the illusion of movement.

Because I paint quite quickly I had another go at a portrait with a flash of gold... can you recognise her? I don't think she is quite finished yet so I'm hoping to fit in some time this week to work on this.

After a delicious lunch, all provided as part of the course, we learned techniques to give the impression of crumbling brickwork. I'd like to work into this one some more too, straighten things up a little... but not too much

And finally Jamel demonstrated how to get the effect of feathers on birds. I wasn't very happy with my robin  at the time having churned it out in about 15 minutes but he doesn't look so bad in the photo! It was a fabulous day where we learned so many techniques and laughed a lot... Jamel is very entertaining. But it was also completely exhausting, so I was good for nothing last night and thought I'd sleep like a log (How do logs sleep? It's okay you don't have to answer I was thinking aloud.) Instead I lay awake until about 2 am... what was that all about!

So I wasn't good for much today either although I did have a long very windy walk with Hector and took photos of the rather amazing sky. Sand from the Sahara blown in by Ophelia... or alien invasion? Zombie apocolypse? Whatever, it has turned the dog into a lunatic... he's tearing around and leaping about like he's got a rocket up his bum!

So how was your weekend?