Wednesday 30 March 2016

Nothing Changes!

I seem to spend my life saying "When things quieten down..." or "When I've got a bit more time..." but just as I think that is about to happen something else comes along to fill my days. Nothing changes and the more I think about it that's the way it has always been. I guess it is the way I am. I need projects, I need plenty to do, I need to be busy. Which is just as well because busy is what I've been!

How was your Easter? (I'm way behind on blog reading) Good I hope! I finished off all the business baking by Friday evening and rather than have a day off on Saturday I decided to make an Easter cake for us... It took all day! But it was worth it.

I had no sooner sighed "done" than these two appeared as if by magic to "help me clear up"... every bowl, spatula and whisk was licked clean!

On Sunday the family came en masse and there were eleven of us here to eat the cake and other goodies, which was lovely. Then on Monday I went to Mum's new flat to help her with some decorating. After a day painting walls and ceilings I could hardly move!

But in between the busy bits there has been  time for relaxation too and I have got through a few books this month. The first was How to Be Both by Ali Smith. I really wanted to like this book, I really did...  but I didn't. It has won awards, it was clever, very clever but it just didn't engage me. In fact, I can barely even tell you what it was about. Two different stories with a tenuous connection through art, one set in the  1960s, one in the fifteenth century. I didn't like the style, I didn't like the prose, it irritated me and I was disappointed because I really believed I was going to love this book.

A quick read this month was The Bookseller of Kabul. I enjoyed this observation of a different culture presented by journalist  Asne Seierstad who spent four months living with bookseller Sultan Khan and his family in Afganistan. But there was a lot that made me angry, in particular the treatment of women and the values which seem so alien to our Western culture but there was also a lot that engaged me too. I can't claim to understand it but I found it an interesting read.

I also finished The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee which was a fascinating history of the gardens of Italy and the citrus fruit that grow there. It transported me to the warmth of the Italian sunshine and made me want to pack my bags. A lovely combination of travel, history, art and food from scented bergamont groves to Scicilian marmalade kitchens. A sensory delight!

My most recent read was Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming. This is our village book club choice for April. Another very quick read, it is a memoir by the actor Alan Cumming. Whilst researching for the TV show Who Do You Think You Are, Cumming not only discovered things about his maternal grandfather but at the same received shocking news from his father, a violent man who had brutalised him throughout his childhood. It is very readable, reasonably well written with humour and wit and amazingly, no bitterness.

There has also been more knitting... a pair of socks finished, another pair for Stewart.

And today I have been packing bags and ticking things off lists... unfortunately not for a trip to the lemon scented gardens of Italy but Folkstone instead. I'm there to teach a three day machine embroidery landscapes course to members of Canterbury Embroiderer's Guild over the weekend.

It might not be Italy but I'm sure we'll have fun making Italian inspired landscapes.

Friday 25 March 2016

Cake Overload

I thought I'd write a blog post, but I'm so tired I can barely string two words together. I thought I'd write about books I've been reading but that requires a bit of intelligent thought... Not getting any of that around here! Instead I'll just show you the cakes I've been making over the past few days and I'll come back and write about books when I'm feeling a little more erudite. Don't hold your breath... It could be a long wait!

It started last Friday with coffee and walnut cupcakes. My Cupcake Fridays are going well and I've started to offer gluten free alternatives too.

Then on Tuesday, for our last machine embroidery class this term I made lemon cakes with mini Easter eggs. 

There have been mini Simnel cakes...

Plus a whole load more Easter cupcakes.

Then today there were some very special cakes for a baby shower... It's a girl in case you hadn't guessed.

And finally, I've just finished this special birthday cake. The brief was for an over the top chocolate cake with flowers and pink butterflies. Worried it might be a little bit too over the top but hoping it will be okay!

All that is left to make is a chocolate cake for us for Easter as there will be eleven of us here for dinner on Sunday. Was going to start it this evening but the lure of the sofa and a large G & T was just too much. Maybe the gin has something to do with my befuddled brain... ?

Whatever you are doing this weekend, I hope you have a Happy Easter. Don't eat too much chocolate!

Sunday 20 March 2016

Brownies and Cheesecake

Time to reveal what I made for this month's Cake Slice Bakers... The choices this month, taken from Maida Heatter's Cakes, were a Cuban coconut pound cake, an apricot strip, a mocha chip chiffon cake and a chocolate brownie cheesecake. When Joe offered to make a meal for Mother's Day a couple of weeks ago, I volunteered to make the pudding. As we are all rather fond of both Brownies and Cheesecakes, having made several of both over the years, honing various recipes to as near to perfection as we possibly could, this month's choice seemed a no-brainer. Two of our favourite desserts combined into one... It couldn't fail!

The first step was to make the brownies. This recipe was almost identical to one I brought back from the U.S. after living there thirty years ago. It was always my go to brownie recipe until I discovered the soft fudgy results of Nigella Lawson's brownies... Which are by far the best you will ever taste. But I digress and I do think for this particular cake you probably need something a little firmer and drier so they don't disintegrate in the cheesecake. So I stuck to the recipe. They didn't have the crackly surface you get with a good brownie and they really were quite dry, but maybe I over cooked them.

The next step requires them to be frozen making them even more solid, before cutting them into small chunks which are then folded through the cheesecake mixture before baking. There was a huge amount of mixture.

This is then baked until golden brown and then cooled in the tin. I've never baked a cheesecake that has turned quite so golden but that seemed to be okay... it wasn't burnt! Maida Heatter suggests using an all in one cheesecake pan as it is baked in a surrounding bath of water, but as I don't own such a pan I used a springform tin and securely wrapped it in tin foil before putting it in its bath. The cheesecake didn't leak out and the water didn't seep in so that was all tickety boo.

When cool, the cake is turned out upside down onto a layer of clingfilm and it is only then that the biscuit crust is sprinkled over the base. I've never made a cheesecake before that wasn't cooked on its base.

I suppose it meant the base wasn't soggy, but instead it was rather dry and crumbly... So crumbly the crumbs went everywhere when I turned it back the right way up on its plate!

But it looked very nice and wholesome and everyone tucked in enthusiastically.

My verdict... Well it was a bugger to slice, but that aside it tasted okay. Okay enough that the whole thing disappeared rather rapidly. That said, there are not many cakes or puddings that don't disappear rapidly with my husband and four sons around. But personally, I was disappointed. I expected more and from something that took this much effort I expected a LOT more.  Brownies are wonderful... Cheesecakes are wonderful... and I really hoped that combining the two would be awesome, but it wasn't. It was okay but not great, so I wouldn't bother making it again. Often with a recipe that is disappointing I will tweak it and play around until I get something better, but I just don't have confidence that this will ever be something better. This is not one of those occasions when the sum of the parts is better than the individual parts.

At this point I will usually give you the recipe but as it is something I wouldn't make again, I don't feel I can recommend it. So frankly, I can't be bothered to type out the very long instructions. If you really want to try it then bake your favourite brownies... Freeze them until firm, cut into chunks and then stir them into your favourite vanilla cheesecake recipe before baking. I reckon that should work! Personally I'd rather just bake brownies, make a cheesecake and have them separately. 

However, do check out what the other bakers have done this month on the links below. We've had some new people join the group and maybe they had more success with this than I did. I'm interested to see how the other cakes turned out too!



Friday 18 March 2016

Five on Friday... And a bonnet!

I teach a regular machine embroidery class on Tuesday afternoons, that I have been doing for about eight years now... Maybe longer, I've lost count. Some of the ladies ( never any men) have been coming for as long as I have been teaching and there is always a beautiful selection of work produced. So to cheer up this Friday I thought I would share some of their recent work... Five beautiful floral wreaths... And an Easter bonnet!



Linda's Very Hungry Caterpillar wreath for her granddaughter... can you spot him?


And Sarah's... Sarah is one of this year's beginners.

And I know this sort of makes six... But I couldn't leave out Ann's gorgeous Easter bonnet for her granddaughter... Or it might even be her great granddaughter, I can't remember ( possibly because Ann doesn't look old enough!)
Joining in with Amy for Five on Friday

Have a good weekend... I'll be back on Sunday with my Cake Slice Bakers cake for this month.

Wednesday 16 March 2016

Great Missenden

It was a beautiful weekend in Great Missenden and despite being there to work at Missenden Abbey, I did manage a couple of early morning walks and a half hour out over lunchtime on Saturday. There are several longer walks around the area that I try to do in the summer, but given only a limited time one of my favourite places to stroll is up to the church.

On the top of a hill, it has views out over the village and the surrounding area. I have been going to Missenden Abbey for about 17 years now, initially as a student but since 2005 as a tutor.  When I first used to go, it was a rare treat to spot a Red Kite but now I feel disappointed if I don't see one. They were out in abundance over the weekend, soaring over the church yard.

I took time to appreciate the view... which looks a little misty here but is quite beautiful

And there was time to wander around the church yard. I have a fondness for church yards and like to read the headstones and imagine the lives gone before. The church yard at St Peter and St Paul in Great Missenden is always well kept with lots of fresh flowers particularly on one special grave, that of Roald Dahl.

There is also a circular bench around a tree, where I like to sit . Each seat has the name of one of Roald Dahl's children engraved on it and there is a beautiful inscription from "The Giraffe, The Pelly and Me" on the flagstones...

“We have tears in our eyes
As we wave our goodbyes,
We so loved being with you, we three.
So do please now and then
Come and see us again,
The Giraffe and the Pelly and me..."

I admit this has brought a tear to my eye before now.

Walking back down to the Abbey, there are beautiful cottages,

With lovely window boxes and flower pots. It is a very well kept village.

And of course Great Missenden is also home to the Roald Dahl museum. I have never visited as I have always felt I should perhaps have a small child to go with me, but I will one day. His stories were always such favourites with my boys and I have great memories of reading them over and over again. As well as listening to them on cassette tapes in the car. The BFG was a particular favourite, with his wonderful made up words.

It really was a flushbunkingly gloriumptious weekend!

Friday 11 March 2016


There is a great trend for all things Scandinavian at present from food to TV shows (I'm looking forward to the last two episodes of Trapped this weekend) and I confess to being as entranced as the next person. So it probably hasn't escaped your notice that "Hygge" is something being brandished about a lot this winter. Hygge is a Danish concept, pronounced "hooga", that means cosiness. Thought to be an antidote to the long cold dark Danish winters it can be experienced any time of the year not just winter and is all about creating a warm, cosy atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with people we care about. It is all about being kind to ourselves.

It has a similarity to the English word "hug", the traditional meaning of which is "to cherish oneself". And there is nothing quite like a woollen blanket in which to hug ourselves! Last summer I thought I would join in with a knit along blanket designed by Martin Storey for Rowan yarns. I was late getting started and despite a good start where I managed loads of knitted squares in the first couple of weeks, I soon fell behind and it got put aside.

But in my attempt to get things finished this year I took up my needles again and this week I finally finished my blanket. Which is indeed very cosy and warm... very hygge.

The colours are not ones I would have chosen myself and are quite dark despite looking very bright and jolly here.  But I'm quite pleased with the way it looks now it is sewn up.

And I was surprised to find it actually blends quite well with my ripple blanket which often is wrapped around my shoulders of an evening. The new blanket is destined to be Stewart's but as he is always warm I can see it covering my knees instead!

The colours even sit well with Jacob's bright blanket too... there was no thought or planning went into that one, it was just one bright colour after another and he often wears it around the house wrapped around himself like a cloak.

So now we all have blankets which is a good thing as we are all in need of a lot of hygge right now. It has been a stressful couple of weeks again when things seem to have got worse rather than better but I'm ever optimistic we will get through all this one way or another. I am hoping this weekend will offer us all a bit of time to be kind to ourselves - Mum has finally exchanged contracts on her new flat which must be a huge relief for her, Jacob has got a few days away at his Dads and I am off teaching at Missenden Abbey for the weekend which is always a restful place to be.

Meanwhile I am contemplating my next blanket. A friend forwarded me details of this beautiful Frida Kahlo inspired blanket by Jane Crowfoot and I am so tempted. Just don't mention the two granny sqaure blankets that are half finished and the bag of yarn (as yet unopened) for another ripple blanket... don't say a word, okay. Remember we are being kind!

Enjoy your weekend wherever you may be or whatever you may be doing.

Sunday 6 March 2016

A Coffee Sponge

Today is Mothering Sunday in the UK and although sons have arrived this afternoon to cook the evening meal, their repertoire does not extend to puddings. And as I like nothing better than baking a cake or making a pudding that is how I am spending a large part of today. Win, win all round really! I thought it would be a good opportunity to make my next bake for the Cake Slice Bakers but of course I can't reveal that until 20th of this month. However it did remind me that a week or so ago I made a second cake from the February choices... A coffee cream sponge. And it was far too good not to share.

This is a delicious light, delicate cake that I feel definitely falls into the dessert camp. It would make a wonderful addition to any party. It consists of two coffee flavoured fat free sponges that have almost a meringue consistency. Despite looking delicate they are quite robust and can be made ahead of time and frozen. These are then layered and covered with coffee flavoured whipped cream. I promised you delicious... Not calorie free!

If I hadn't been pushed for time I might have done some fancy piping or decoration but instead I sprinkled some crushed Flake chocolate over the top of the cake. It worked! And unusually for me I pretty much stuck to the recipe... which I can recommend you trying.

Coffee Cream Sponge Cake

  • 135g sifted plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon instant coffee
  • 60 ml boiling water
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 240g caster sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Preheat the oven to 350 F, 180 C, or 160 Fan and butter, line and flour two 9" (23 cm) cake tins
  • Sift together the flour and baking powder and set aside
  • Disssolve the coffee in the water and set aside.
  • In a medium bowl whisk together the egg yolks and 180g of the sugar, beating until the mixture is pale and thick. On a low speed add a little of the flour mixture, followed by the coffee and the rest of the flour until it is all combined.
  • In a clean bowl and with clean beaters, whisk the egg whites and salt until they form soft peaks. Add the remaining sugar a spoonful at a time, whisking until it is all combined.
  • Fold a few spoonfuls of the whites into the cake batter to loosen and then add the remainder, gently folding together until combined.
  • Divide the mixture between the two tins and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the tops feel springy.
  • Cool for 2 - 3 minutes in the tins and then turn out onto a rack to cool. Only peel the lining paper away when completely cool.
When the cakes are cool layer and cover with coffee whipped cream:

  • 28g plain chocolate
  • 1 tablespoon instant coffee
  • 1 tablespoon boiling water
  • 600ml double cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon caster sugar
  • Chop up the chocolate and melt in the microwave. Dissolve the coffee in the water and stir into the chocolate.
  • Beat the cream with the vanilla and sugar until it holds it's shape but take care not to over beat. While beating add the chocolate mixture until well combined.
  • cover the bottom layer of cake with a layer of cream and place the top layer on, covering the top and sides with the remaining cream...
... and then eat! It won't last long.

Now if you excuse me I've got today's cake/dessert to see to if I can get anywhere near my kitchen which currently looks like a disaster zone. Do you think cooking a mother's day meal involves clearing up afterwards? I hope so!

Happy Mother's Day!

Thursday 3 March 2016

Cookery Calendar Challenge

You may remember that in an attempt to spice up my day to day cooking repertoire, I decided to join in with Penny's  Cookery Calendar Challenge. The book I chose for February was Mary Berry Cooks the Perfect which Mum bought for me last month.

Making evening meals is always a bit of a challenge as I don't eat meat, Jacob doesn't eat vegetables and since having Mum with us there are things she is not too keen on either. So as you can imagine, finding things to suit everyone or that can at least be adapted to suit everyone isn't all that easy. Often I will end up cooking a couple of different things and this is what I did for my first choice from Mary's book. I decided on a Roast Chicken with Tarragon butter for the meat eaters... which I completely forgot to photograph. But I'm sure you can imagine a roast chicken, the difference being there was a layer of tarragon flavoured butter spread between the skin and the flesh which melted into the flesh during cooking. It got the thumbs up from the family.

Then to go with this I also baked an Augergine and Goat's Cheese Crumble, which was layers of grilled aubergine and courgette with tomato sauce finished with a goat cheese and breadcrumb topping. This was delicious and made lots of lovely left overs so it will definitely be added to my repetoire.

And although I had already tried two new recipes from this book, because I did them both on the same day I decided to try a third recipe which was a Chicken Korma made from scratch. Despite a long list of ingredients, most of which were spices, it was very easy to make and again got a thumbs up. But between you and me, I think that even though Mary Berry describes it as a mild curry it might have been a tad too spicy for Mum. She thought it was much improved when reheated the following day with extra yoghurt! I'm not sure this book will ever be a favourite but I will definetly use it again as each recipe is very clearly presented and easy to follow. Good basic no frills cooking!

My choice for March is going to be Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries Volume II. I'm a great fan of his no nonsense style of cooking and I use lots of recipes from Volume I of The Kitchen Diaries but despite being delighted at receiving this as a present some time ago I've never actually used it. I don't even know why not, so I'm looking forward to finding plenty to choose from in here. And if it is anythng like Volume I it will be a great read too!