Thursday, 7 August 2014

A pause for a wedding...

So, this week's lovely news is that on Monday I attended the wedding of my brother in law and his lovely fiance - now wife. It was a joyous occasion, held in a beautiful country house called St Audries' Park on the coast of Somerset.

The engagement wasn't a lengthy one - when these two make a decision, it's full steam ahead! 

Back in February, I had a call from the bride to be asking if I would be willing to make the cake for their Regency themed wedding. I was delighted to accept, although it was my first white wedding cake, and the bride and I discussed the colour scheme (yellow, gold and royal blue) and the flowers (roses).

So I browsed the internet - and watched the bride's favourite version of Pride and Prejudice - for inspiration.

I found a few links to cakes with lovely domes of roses and ribbons wrapped round them.  The bride wanted to incorporate the iconic pearls from the Pride and Prejudice theme and wasn't sure what colour roses she wanted. 

I mocked up a few different cakes with cardboard cutouts and sent her photos of them.  I sent over several different versions with the pearls differently positioned and with different coloured roses positioned in different ways.  

The bride and groom preferred quite a simple design, with a middle tier wrapped in lace, and ribbon and pearl swags on the top and bottom tiers.  The top of the cake would feature rose blossoms, and a few further blossoms would appear on the lower tiers.  We also chatted about colours a bit further and decided that blue ribbon would be better as it would work with the bridesmaids' dresses. 

There was a slight challenge in that neither the bride or the groom like fruit cake - but thankfully the groom loves chocolate and I have a great recipe (in a book I mentioned in another post, Sweet Things by Claire Macdonald) which produces a dense, rich cake which I hoped would provide a stable bottom tier to support the lemon drizzle and victoria sponge above. 

Once I received the fabric swatches in the post I went out to buy ribbon and sugar paste.  I started by mixing a golden yellow (the yellow on offer was too bright and so I used peach, ivory and lots of yellow gel food colouring.  I started by making the yellow roses, then the ivory ones. 

I made six large roses and six bud sized ones in each colour.  I then used the remaining paste, along with edible lustre powder colouring, to make lots of pearls for the swags. I used a Lakeland edible lace mould and magic icing to create the lace for the middle tier.

I made the bottom, a 12 inch tier on a 14 inch base, with 3 layers of the rich chocolate cake recipe increased by a third (using a whopping 7 and a half bars of dark chocolate!) then added another 2 and a half bars of cooled, melted dark chocolate into freshly made buttercream.  For the middle tier, I used the James Martin madeira cake recipe, splitting a double quantity between two 10 inch pans, drizzled with a sharp lemon syrup and filled with Delia Smith's lemon curd and cream cheese frosting.  The top tier was made with two 7 inch cakes made using my Mum's easy sponge cake recipe  All the tiers were then crumb coated with vanilla buttercream.

I then covered each tier with white icing and put on the edible lace on the middle tier, and used a piping bag with magic icing to pipe the swags onto siliconised paper so I could position the pearls.  I left them overnight to set, then peeled each swag off the paper. I brushed the back of these with a very thin layer of the magic icing and brushed the cake with a very thin layer too, to stick them in place.

So: here is the finished cake - not bad for my first 'white icing' wedding cake I don't think...

Thursday, 24 July 2014

A sudden urge to paint...

I was in the middle of writing a post earlier and I suddenly got what I can only describe as 'the itch' - that really strong urge to pick up a paintbrush, and a picture forming in my head. It's not the most technically perfect or accurate picture but I am pretty happy with it anyway and I thought I'd share.

Happy Friday! 



Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The joys of silliness

I've mentioned before that I am lucky enough to have lovely in-laws.  My father in law and I don't see eye to eye on every issue, but often on the big topics - family, happiness, being kind and respectful to people - he comes out with something that really speaks to me. 

The last time my parents-in-law came to visit, we were walking the dogs and the conversation somehow turned on to the joys of being silly.  He said how sad it makes him when he comes across someone who feels too embarrassed to ever let themselves be silly or childish.  As he put it, life is enough of a challenge, without being afraid of what other people think.  It's important to let go.  This really struck a chord with me and got me thinking about the things I like doing that other people might think are silly - but that make me really happy.

I love flowers.  I'm not fussy, they can be wild or cultivated ones, and quite often I will stop in my tracks, even in the middle of the street, to take a photo of, or sniff, a lovely flower.  I especially love roses, bluebells and fuschias.  I love the feel of petals.  If you are walking along, and see someone's legs sticking out of a hedge, and the sound of a phone camera going off - there's a good chance it's me, taking a photo of a blossom on a branch because I think it's pretty.  I never do anything with the photos really, other than look back at them occasionally - but I really enjoy it.

I love fussing friendly dogs and cats.  No matter how tiny or how doddery, if an animal makes a fuss of me, I make a fuss of it.  And yes, if this is your pet, yes I will probably talk to it in a really silly voice.  I will definitely tell it how cute it is. And I might even get down to its height to give it a scritch on the chin or rub its belly.  I'm not so good at human interactions though - especially early doors - so don't expect great conversation!

I love bubble baths. And I take paperback books in with me, and damn the consequences!  Books, and baths, are for enjoyment.  People stare in horror at the bent spines and curled pages of some of my favourites - I just see hours of accumulated happiness.

I love making snowmen.  Wonky, badly proportioned, funny looking snowmen.  Snowmen made from three inches of snow scraped off the whole garden, with a carrot for a nose.  And I love making snow angels, and leaving hand shapes in the snow or frost on cars.  I love making the first footprints in the snow in the garden, and throwing big handfuls of it around. Basically I love snow, provided I don't have to drive in it - and I reserve the right to dive into it just like I did when I was five.

I love licking the spoon.  I think of it as the cook's prerogative.   If I'm making some nice cupcakes, or a chocolate ganache, or creamed potatoes, and I've finished dishing up, no matter who is in the kitchen with me, I reserve the right to get a good mouthful before it all goes in the dishwasher.  And Millie gets the tops off strawberries, carrots and potatoes. It's a thing.  Think of her as cook's helper.  

This is not up for debate, or subject to sensible conversations about calories or nutritional content.

I love snuggling in my pjs - especially under a soft blanket while watching films.  If family or friends pop round unexpectedly in the colder months and find me in this semi hibernated state, well, they just have to deal with it.  And yes, the pjs are covered in cartoons, or cute animals, or are very brightly coloured.  I am totally over the slinky pyjama phase of my early twenties.  Comfy and fluffy all the way. 

I love terrible jokes - including awful puns.  The kind that make you groan and roll your eyes.  I love cracker jokes at Christmas.  I am the one at the works do, resolutely wearing a silly hat (possibly upside-down), glass of wine in hand, listening to all the jokes to try to work out if there are any new ones this year.

I love watching my favourite films again - even if they are, in reality, a bit dreadful.  And if those films have songs, not only will I say the words to all the bits I know (in the case of Muppet Christmas Carol, which I have watched every Christmas since I was 8, that's just about the whole film) I will also sing all the songs.  If you can't stand that habit, well, best just put your fingers in your ears, because I just can't help myself!

I love poring over maps and imagining that one day I will go to the places on the map - and reading up on them, and even actually planning the trip, even if I never get there.  I had a whole trip to South America planned.  Even if I am never lucky enough to make it out there, I had so much fun reading up on the towns and cities I wanted to stop off at.  Maps are like the doors to adventure, standing slightly ajar. I've even been known to copy out maps and colour them in.  Oh yeah - that's another thing I love!

I love doodling and colouring in.  From plans of things I want to do to our house, to little pictures of flowers, dogs, cats, buildings and people, to colouring in the lettering on notebooks, I just love messing round with pencils and pens.  I have to keep scrap paper on hand as I am a little bit nervous I will doodle over something important otherwise.  I've had plenty of funny looks over the years - but I keep on pushing that pen around the page!

And lastly (for now, though I have loads of silly habits), I love making random lists.  You may have guessed this by now... But since I am great at stating the obvious, I thought I'd better mention it...

Anyway, I need to stop typing and get some rest - but I would love to hear about those things that rock your world regardless of what other people may think!

Looking forward to catching up on this week's blogs, lovely peeps


Friday, 11 July 2014

My 1950s makeover

I went to a lovely hen do for my fab sister in law to be a couple of weeks ago.  The theme was Tiffany's - both Breakfast at Tiffany's (so the bride-to-be had a gorgeous Audrey Hepburn makeover) and also Tiffany blue boxes with white bows.

As part of the celebration, the head hen kindly organised the opportunity to book a professional makeover and up-do ready for our 50s themed night out. Having had just one professional makeover in my life (at Bloomingdales in New York) and never having had my hair pinned up by anyone other than my mum (when I was aged 7 and under) and my good friend Emma, naturally I jumped at the chance like an excited puppy at a squeaky toy...

The artists

Hair by the owner of Butterfly's Cuts
Makeup by Hannah Mullet

Both these talented ladies work together and separately around the Yeovil & Weymouth and do a variety of different styles, not just vintage.

The face

This started with a light layer of concealer round the eyes (I had had a late night, which tends to make me look like some strange panda-human hybrid) and a layer of foundation, and she was so gentle on my skin I barely felt a thing.  She then began to focus on my eyes.  Now, I've tried the 50's flick at home a few times (or so I thought) but this lovely lady gave me a masterclass.  She ran a liquid liner along the edge of my closed lid and did two or three long strokes, then gave me strict instructions to keep my eyes closed long enough for it to dry so it stayed put! This was followed by a black mascara, loaded onto the top lashes but just applied delicately on the lower lashes - not something I would have dared to try myself.

Hannah chose a pink for my lips, which stayed put brilliantly through all the food, bubbly and cocktails.  She then highlighted my cheeks with a co-ordinating blusher which was pinker than I would normally use - and I loved her choice! Finally, a light dusting of bronzer, and the look was complete.

The hair

As a person who doesn't often experiment with my hair further than brushing it into a ponytail, I had no idea what to choose.  I left the decision in the hands of these two lovely ladies, who opted for a style called 'Victory Rolls.' I have to admit this does sound a little bit like some kind of delicious cake... to me at least!  The styling started with the top of my hair being pinned into loops; then, one by one, tiny pin curls were worked into the back of my hair at lightning speed. 

 I couldn't believe how dexterous and gentle this lady was, we chatted away as she pinned my hair bit by bit and in no time at all, I had an elegant up-do. The picture on the left is after about two hours of my seriously bad but enthusiastic dancing and as you see, it still looked amazing. I have never had curls stay in all night and it was so comfortable.

The final look

And now to reveal a few shots of the finished style...

I hope you can all forgive me for the ludicrous amount of selfies on this post, but I really wanted to share the fabulous work that these ladies had done and I enjoyed the transformation so much! I mean, I am lucky in so many ways and have a great life which I wouldn't change, but nonetheless I did find it fun to try on a totally different style (and maybe persona) for the day.

I enjoyed my 50s style makeover so much that when my husband took me to the cinema the other day, I tried some of the makeup tips Hannah gave me.  Sadly, I had no chance of recreating the wonderful hairdo (I wish) but still! It was really fun to take time to make myself up, which isn't something I do too often. I quite liked the results! So, thanks to Hannah and Butterfly's Cuts, I have some new looks and style tips I can add to my (very limited) repertoire.  I would definitely recommend them to anyone looking to have a party involving makeovers if they live near enough.  The package they offered was fantastic value for money, and their professionalism and friendly approach was second to none.

Anyway it's way past time for me to finish this post, feed the dogs, and get some rest ready for a busy weekend ahead - I hope that for you the sun is shining, the weekend either bustles or hushes - as you prefer - and I look forward to reading your blogs when I get half a minute!


H xxx

Thursday, 3 July 2014

So, what have I been up to?

I have been rattling on about how busy I've been, but not actually mentioned any of what I have been up to! I thought I would write a quick post with some of the bits and bobs I have been doing...

First and foremost, the play unfortunately had to be postponed.  The good news is, we do still plan to put on a play at Christmas - a panto of Robin Hood.  Fairly different from Shakespeare for sure, but I am hoping we'll still manage to have fun - and this time have the momentum to put on a great production.  

At the moment we're doing some fund raising, ready to start rehearsing in late August - meaning I have had to do some home baking and also attend a food hygiene course.  I actually wanted to do this for my own reasons, as it is a useful qualification to have, but I have been informed by the council that if I intend to make cakes 'as many' as three or four times in a year for fetes or fundraisers, I need the certificate, and may also need my kitchen inspected.  Seems a lot of fuss for a few cupcakes, so after this local fete, maybe we need to go back to the drawing board in terms of fundraising!

In May I went on a girly weekend, offshore, for the first time in ages.  My lovely sisters in-law arranged a trip for my sister in law to be, as a sort of secondary hen do. I really welcomed the chance to spend time getting to know these three wonderful women better.  It was also an opportunity to slow down almost to a stop, as we were on Sark, one of the smaller channel islands.  There are no cars allowed on Sark, but at just two square miles in size, it's easy enough to get everywhere on foot. 
My sister in law Liggy was our tour guide, as she has actually lived on the island for the tourist season a few years running. She is a font of knowledge, and showed us the quiet paths and beauty spots she fell in love with while she was there.

The pace of life feels very natural and relaxed.  We popped to the local Friday night disco at a pub called The Mermaid, where the DJ, Roger, is in his 80s, and plays everything from the Beatles through to Tiesto, quite a playlist!

It was an interesting walk back to the B&B, as there are no street lights, and at night everyone navigates the roads by moon and starlight; due to the lack of light pollution, the island was the first place in the world to have designated Dark Sky status.  You can see well enough to walk, although avoiding puddles (and horseapples) can be somewhat challenging... It was a fantastic weekend away, and so nice to recharge my batteries a little.  I have so many lovely pics, I will have to try to make time for a whole post about the island later on.

I've also been attempting to get my allotment slightly more under control in the last month or so, and though I haven't done brilliantly at that, I have managed to harvest some crops.  I am a little disappointed in myself that I haven't made time to get it really sorted, as this year has been the first really good spring since I took it on, and we could have had fantastic yields if I had managed my time a bit better (and also not been unwell, which I have less control over).  But as with everything else, it's been a learning curve.  We've had some really good soft fruits, and for the first time this year I have enough blackcurrants to make a whole batch of jam, which I am really pleased about. It also looks like it's going to be another good year for blackberries and crabapples, which is great.

I've been doing some bits round the house, too; we have rearranged some furniture and also put up another shelf in the study.  I also made some cushion covers with a bit of Cath Kidston fabric I got in their sale (and have made about a hundred fantasy projects with in my head) and a random cotton fabric my mum brought over.  I used a mini cushion pad for the small cushions, and pillows for the large ones, as our sofa cushions are quite wide.

The Cath Kidston is a lovely hard wearing linen-cotton mix, which is so tactile - I don't know how you all feel about this, but personally speaking I only like to use fabrics I enjoy touching.  I am not a big fan of some of the man made fibres, no matter what results might be possible.  The fabric remnant I used on the reverse looks to me like an 80s bedsheet - a scarlet with white squares.  It has that lovely washed-in feel.  I was pretty pleased with how they turned out.

Finally, I went to my soon to be sister in law's hen party.  It was fab - I will do a separate post on the amazing 1950s makeover, with links to the ladies who did my hair and makeup, because I loved it so much! The lady who masterminded the whole day asked if I would make some Tiffany cupcakes - I think they turned out pretty well! I also made some Tiffany blue lemon cheesecakes, though they didn't look as neat as I wanted, partly due to the warm weather, and partly because I couldn't work out a way to get the bows on (I thought icing would be too sweet).

I will have to leave the rest of my news for another evening as this post is already getting very long, but I hope you have all had a fun couple of months and I look forward to reading all your blogs


Tuesday, 1 July 2014

I've been very kindly nominated for a Liebster award

So a few months ago I was very kindly nominated for a Liebster award by the lovely Zana of Zana's homemade, where you can find scrummy looking pickles, beautiful garden pics, and absolutely heavenly crochet using an amazing, fresh palette of colours... 

...and now the embarassing bit; I haven't managed a post since. Life has been super busy and it's been hard to find time for a lot of the things I love, including my fledgeling blog!

The Liebster Award involves answering the questions on the nominating blog, then choosing 5 - 11 blogs to pass it on to with 7 questions that you have made up and leaving a comment so that they know they have received it, including a link back to the person you received the award from.

Answering Zana's questions...

What is your favourite book of all time? - For me, this is such a difficult question!! I love reading and have loads of books... I'm leaning towards Equal Rites by the great Terry Pratchett - but if you ask me again tomorrow you might get a different answer!

What is your favourite colour combination?  Another really difficult one... probably cream and a lovely rich red (today!)

Who would you like to be stranded on an desert island with? Ray Mears. No question. I like my food - and he's the only one I can think of that would know how to find it! 

What is your favourite dessert (sweet)? Probably something simple and homely like a hot ginger sponge with honey and custard.

Do you have a hankering to see what is on the other side of the hill? I love travelling and have been to lots of wonderful places - and I am naturally curious - but at the moment I am just trying to focus on what is beautiful this side of the hill

What is your favourite breakfast? I think it has to be homemade eggs benedict - which I want to try with a homemade muffin as I suspect it would be even nicer...
Do you have any regrets? I try really hard never to have regrets as I think they are bad news emotionally speaking - but I did have a very old friend who I lost contact with, due to a complicated set of circumstances - and he died unexpectedly without me trying to set things right.  I regret it very deeply - but I have tried to learn from it by not sweating the small things and trying never to bear grudges.

Now my 7 questions:

What is your favourite animal or bird and why?

Who, outside your family, has inspired you the most?

What is one thing you have always wanted to do but never quite dared to?

If you could travel to any era, past or future, when would it be?

What is your favourite skill or hobby?

What song or piece of music really moves you (or moves your feet)?

Which woman from history would you love to meet?

And the 5 great blogs I would love you to check out:

The lovely, crafty Emma at Crazy Colour Crochet

Carrie's gorgeous allotment blog at Grow Our Own

Joy at wonderful Joyjinks Creations who is both kind and extremely creative

Misbah's fantastic foodie blog at Tales of a Foody Mama, which never fails to make me hungry

The fabulous Domestic Novice, with posts crammed with sumptuous photos and tales of adventure



Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Hellos and goodbyes

Hi my dears!

Sorry for the long delay - and sorry for worrying you - it's been a strange few weeks.  I was a bit under the weather for a couple of weeks (I seem to be catching one cold after another at the moment) and then when I got better enough to feel like moving, the spring cleaning bug bit.  We decided to ditch the old leather sofa with its dead springs and get something more modern and comfy and easy to clean - with 2 dogs, something with washable covers suddently becomes a priority!  

We took the plunge and went to IKEA rather than saving for something more pricey and living with a dusty sofas for another couple of years.  Assembling it did take a couple of evenings (especially as there were some bolts missing from one box) but we were pretty pleased with the results.  The ottoman is stuffed to the gunnels with my crafty bits and hubby's board games...

Here's our new suite (you'll have to forgive me for not whacking the cushion on the chaise before taking this one!):

We have also rearranged some furniture so that we can at least make a start on the next stage of redecorating the house - moving the kitchen.  This means the study now has a piano in it - which in a small space is a bit of a squeeze but it is manageable. I hope now that we have some proper shelves for all our bits of paper, we will be less inclined to just pile things on the desk, as it becomes such a dust trap.  

We hired a skip to get rid of the old sofa - and some furniture waiting in our garage to be got rid of - along with heaps of stuff that just needed to be binned.  Before coming here we had moved house quite a lot (moving in together, then to a second rented house) and just piled all our stuff into each house.  Our wonderful friends and family helped with all these moves - so appreciated - but most of them are as sentimental as I am, so our attempts to bin things during the moves were often met with, 'oh you CAN'T throw THAT out!!' from all corners!  

LWH is the smallest house we have lived in, however, and some of it just had to go.  We don't have space to hang on to everything. I can't tell you the relief we felt piling it all up to be binned.  It did bring home to me, though, just how wasteful and throwaway our society is and how much junk we accumulate. 

Following the DIY and the throwing out frenzy, the house is a bit emptier but needs a good scrub ready for the family to come over for Easter day. I get to see both my brothers as well as Mum and Dad which will be lovely, as it has been too long since we were all together. 

I really feel like treasuring family at the moment, as my husband had some awful news on the weekend - his cousin's son, who was almost exactly the same age as he is, died on Friday evening.  I'm sad that I never got to meet him;  I've met his mum and dad on a number of occasions - warm, loving people who are quick to smile and to make friends - and by the tributes on his facebook page, their adored son was very like them.  He was a music lover and by all accounts a kind, helpful, thoughtful man - a profound loss to his parents, brother, partner and all those around him.

I hope all of you are having a lovely spring and I look forward to catching up on all your blogs soon!  Hopefully I will manage a few more pics in the next post....


Hazel xxx

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Moist chocolate sponge cake recipe (gluten free)

Hi all!  

Well, firstly, thank you all so much for your kind words and thoughtful comments, I just love reading them! It's been a busy few days here at the little Welsh house.  I've been working on getting things ready for a production of Macbeth, which I'm directing ready for a performance in June.  We also met friends for a meal in Cardiff and then went to see Wicked at the Millenium Centre (which was way better than I expected, I really enjoyed it), rebuilt our hens' run in the back garden which blew down during the storms, and then the last few days I have been endeavouring to get things a bit more under control on the allotment.

Anyway, I promised a recipe for a lovely fellow blogger Joy - a gluten free rich chocolate sponge cake.  This is great for celebrations - it is solid enough to ice easily without being stodgy and it keeps well for a good few days.  It also freezes well if you like batch baking.

It's one I came up with when two of my friends were diagnosed with coeliac disease - I wanted something easy that I could bake for parties so they didn't feel excluded. I like this recipe because it doesn't require special flour or additives and you can have a bit of a play with the quantities to get your preferred texture without it going horribly wrong.  

If you don't like chocolate, you can replace the cocoa with cornstarch, just make sure to use baking powder and add whatever flavour you like - I feel it does need a little something to cut through the richness of the almonds, so I don't personally recommend it plain.  Vanilla extract or a few drops orange essence and a couple of pinches allspice are favourites of mine.  In fact I sometimes include all three of those flavours in with the cocoa as they add a certain richness.

Rich chocolate cake


4 medium or large eggs
250g/9 oz butter
250g/9 oz muscovado or dark brown soft sugar
150g/5 oz ground almonds
100g/31/2 oz cornflour/cornstarch
2-3 heaped teaspoons good cocoa powder (I use Green & Blacks which is Dutch processed)
level teaspoon (gluten free) bicarb of soda OR (gluten free) baking powder
teaspoon vanilla extract


Preheat your oven to about 160C.  In a large bowl, cream the butter with an electric whisk until really light and fluffy.  Add the vanilla extract, then the eggs one by one, whisking each time until the mixture is well combined and looks creamy.  

In a separate bowl, mix all the remaining dry ingredients together well.  Pour on top of the egg, sugar and butter mix and fold in gently with a metal spoon until well combined.  

Grease a loose bottomed cake tin (I use about an 8 inch diameter one) and dust with either cornstarch (fine if you plan to ice the cake) or a little cocoa (if you plan to just dust with icing sugar to serve).  

Pour in the batter and spread out well, then pop in the oven for 25 - 40 minutes.  The cake is done when it is solid and a sharp knife or toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.  It isn't as quick to burn as a classic sponge but if it is browning too quickly, just tweak the temperature down a little.  It will rise but don't panic if it sinks a little after cooking
It tends to flatten itself down nicely but it will still have a great crumb inside.

This cake is really good warm with vanilla ice-cream or cold with a good buttercream.  For a slightly less naughty topping you could also make an orange drizzle with orange juice and a little brown sugar.  It also looks good sprinkled lightly with a little icing sugar while still warm.  I got the striped effect on the one above by sprinkling the sugar on through a cooling rack which I thought looked nice.

Happy eating!

H xxx

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Losing the plot - to the weeds

Alpine strawberries!
I come from a long line of keen gardeners - despite which my knowledge is still about as scant as my time. My great grandparents on my dad's side were market gardeners and my grandparents on both sides were keen amateur gardeners - my grandad even managed to grow strawberries reliably in the far highlands of Scotland.   

Mostly homegrown veg for tea
My mum and dad have had their allotment, conveniently located behind their house, since I was about ten, but the truth is, in my teenage years, I didn't pay enough attention to the wealth of information they were sharing with me.  I didn't want to go out to the garden and weed, and I didn't know how lucky I was to be able to eat strawberries fresh from the vine on a summer day, or taste loganberry jam, or pick sharp, ripe apples from the tree.  

When I got my own place, I started to miss the space to grow things fresh.  When we moved to Bridgend, I got myself on the waiting list at the local allotments, and popped down on a weekly basis to nag them - as advised by the committee.  The land of the allotments were a gift to the people Brynna from a local estate called Ewenny way back in the middle of the nineteenth century.  By the way, if you have an interest in the Bridgend area and its history, I thoroughly recommend you check out the wonderful Hello Historia blog. 

Scrummy pumpkins - great for garlic mash
The soil at the allotments has been enriched and improved by generations of wonderful gardeners - I even inherited some lovely alpine strawberries that were hiding in the grass.  People from the local area are still enjoying all that the allotments have to offer for everything from growing veg to keeping geese and pigeons.  Despite my lack of knowledge, the soil is so fantastic that almost everything I have planted down there has grown.  Last year, although I only used about a third of the space, we got a useful amount of fruit and veg, and as my fruit bushes mature I really hope I will be able to make at least one batch of jam just from my own yield with no top up this year.

Sadly, I have found it almost impossible over the last few months to get down to my plot at all.  The light in the evenings has been very limited, as I am sure you know, weather has been awful, and due to the level of rainfall, even when it has been a sunny day I have hardly dared touch anything for fear of ruining the soil. 

Helping hands are so welcome!
I had some help from a friend back at the end of December, who very kindly spent a whole day helping me to eliminate some of the more dangerous triffids. We cleared a whole bed to plant some onions, and cleared in and around the blueberry bed.  

Since then I have been down to top up the blueberry bed with some nice acid mulch in the form of the pine needles from our Christmas tree and some used hen bedding.  But the plot was overgrown when I got it, and my battle against the weeds is a slow, ongoing battle, which often feels like a full on retreat...

Some of last year's yummy crops
Sunday was the first day I have managed to get down to the allotment to do any actual weeding and planting since the New Year.  I was inspired by the lovely Carrie at Grow Our Own to go and get stuck in at last.  What a lovely feeling to be there in the early spring sunshine, with my hands in the soil, planting food that I hope we will enjoy in months to come.  

Redcurrant cordial
At this time of year - the lean months - I try to focus on the delicious fruit and veg that we can look forward to. I am already excited to see how big my blackcurrant will grow this year - I really think it was worth removing all the baby berries two years ago to help it to thrive.  It is looking really healthy, and I am hoping for a small but decent crop this year.  Mum and dad had a glut of redcurrants last year, and I tried my hand at making cordial for the first time - I made redcurrant and summer fruits. I would simply love to make more flavours this year, as my hubby drinks squash like there's no tomorrow.

Dreaming of strawberries and fresh rocket,


Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Mum's easy sponge cake - big traybake

This recipe is so flexible, it can be scaled up or scaled down as needed to make cupcakes, muffins or sandwich cakes, but this quantity will make a good sized traybake..

6 free range eggs
375g/13oz self raising flour (I use Allinson's Nature Friendly and it reliably makes good cake)
375g/13oz granulated sugar (I usually use Silver Spoon)

As a tray bake, iced with sprinkles
375g/13oz soft butter or margerine (I prefer butter)

you will need:
a large oblong baking tin or roasting pan
an electric whisk
greaseproof paper

makes 12 big portions of traybake

Line the cake tin or roasting pan with greaseproof paper. 

Preheat your oven to about 150 C, or 160 C for cupcakes/muffins (I used to use about gas mark 6 in my gas oven). 

Before you do anything else, weigh the eggs in their shells.

As traybake squares
Then weigh out the same quantity of self-raising flour, butter and sugar - the amounts above are a guide.

I know it sounds over the top, but it's how my mum taught me and whenever I stick to this method, I get good cake.  It's easy to do and it does make a difference.  Eggs can vary hugely in weight, but if you weigh them, the quantities will always be in the correct proportion.

I didn't used to bother mixing the ingredients in a certain order, but after some experimentation, this is the method that I find reliably results in yummy cake:-

In a bowl, whisk together the butter and sugar until the mixture looks fluffy and almost white. 

Next, add the eggs one by one, whisking as you go.  Just a tip: mum always taught me to
As cupcakes, iced
crack the eggs into a cup before pouring it into the mixture - this way if one of the eggs is bad, you don't waste the other ingredients.  I didn't do this once, and I ended up throwing out a 6 egg batter. 

At this stage, add any flavours you want - some of my faves are a bit of good vanilla essence, two teaspoons of dried ginger or a few tablespoons of cocoa powder.

I don't bother sieving flour, but if you want to, go ahead.  Flour these days is generally of a good and consistent quality and doesn't tend to contain stones and chaff!  Generally speaking I don't .

This is the stage to fold in any chocolate chips, nuts or dried fruits.  If you are adding dried fruit, mix it into the flour first.  It seems to stop it sinking to the bottom quite so much.

As a Vicky Sponge, with buttercream and jam
Finally, take a spoon - preferably a nice big metal spoon (I have one from my grandma that I like to use) and fold in the flour.  

I find that the folding method of scooping the mix and spooning it over the flour in a sweeping circular motion keeps all the air in the mixture and makes for a cake which is light as well as rich. 

Pour/scrape your mixture, which should be nice and thick, into the paper lined tray, and put onto the middle shelf of the oven, where you can see it.  Depending on the type of tin you use, the cake will take between 20 and 40 minutes (or up to 60 minutes in a deep, round tin, by which time the cake will be drying out - for round tins, a 4 egg mix is better; 10-12 mins for cupcakes and 15 mins for muffins).

If the cake starts to brown on top but is still very runny underneath, turn the oven down by
As breakfast muffins, wholemeal with honey, lemon & pumpkin seeds
10 degrees C.  The cake will increase in volume and will be thicker in the middle than at the edges, and is done when a toothpick or thin knife comes out clean when poked right through the cake.  If you test your cake and it is not done, never slam the oven door, always close gently.  Slamming makes your cake collapse and undoes all your hard work!

Once cooked, this cake can be enjoyed hot with custard, or cooled, with or without icing.  If kept in a tin, it should stay nice for up to a week.

Enjoy with coffee, tea, hot chocolate - or just in your pyjamas in the dark at 4am with a naughty grin on your face, because frankly who wants to wait till breakfast time.

H xxx

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Foraging for food....

About a third of this year's crabapples
As a kid, my sister and brothers and I spent countless hours - often with our parents - gathering what people are suddenly, and rather glamourously, terming 'wild food'. When I was a kid, if we called it anything, it was called foraging, or, if we were looking for something specific, would be called after the item in question, with 'ing' on the end.  'Mushrooming', 'blackberrying' and 'bilberrying' loomed large in my childhood as outdoor pursuits - well, this is what my siblings and I used to say, though doubtless my parents would be horrified to see what I am doing to the English language here!  

We would also pick chestnuts in season to roast on our very eco-unfriendly coal fire, and we would look for cob nuts in the woods opposite our house, but the squirrels always seemed to get the lot. I even remember crab fishing off Skarfskerry pier near John o'Groats when we went on holiday, and taking them home in a bucket of seawater for my Nana to cook for lunch the next day.  I think this must have been a rare success, as I also distinctly recall failing to catch anything on a number of occasions!
Homemade jam and jelly

I was never a fan of mushrooms, to the absolute bewilderment of my dad and sister.  Dad was so fascinated by fungi that he would keep an eye out on every country walk, and when something interesting - or edible - was due to sprout, we would all cram into the car to find likely spots.  As I didn't really get much out of eating the spoils, I learned to get the enjoyment in spotting the mushrooms and toadstools themselves.  To this day, I still surprise (or perhaps bore!) walking companions by suddenly saying 'Look at that bracket fungus!' or 'I think this is a ceps!' to which the response is usually 'where?!'  Even now, I can't help but take photos of interesting examples I come 

This passion for picking wild fruits and nuts is still with me.  Last year, with its late spring and long hot summer, followed by a moderately wet, warm autumn as the fruits were ripening was especially good for crabapples, bilberries, and in the case of varieties that fruited before the rain came in, blackberries.  I even saw wild raspberries this year for the first time - the fruits were tiny and full of seeds, but had a delicious, fragrant and less sweet taste than I am used to.
This batch of crabapple jelly had a gorgeous ruby hue

I was lucky enough to pick several pounds of crabapples - three varieties - from round the rugby field where we like to walk the dogs, although I was glad we are both tall, as someone had the lower ones before I got there! I turned these into three types of jelly; crabapple, crabapple cider and crabapple, red wine and bramble jelly.  I think I got about six or seven pounds of jelly in the end.  If you can blag some jam jars from friends or family, this delicious, slightly sharp jelly is so, so cheap to make - it is simply the cost of the water, the electric or gas to boil out the juice and sterilise the jars, and the sugar (a 5kg bag being about £3.50).  These little apples contain so much pectin that the jelly sets beautifully.  A posh jam making book will tell you to strain the juice through a muslin cloth, but I got fab results with an old cotton teatowel which had washed a bit thin over the years.

Freshly picked sloes - tiny but tasty
I also picked some sloes (a small, bitter relative of the plum which has a spiced flavour, great for making sour jellies to have with cheese) I used them to make sloe gin; even after a just a few months of steeping, this was way better than any commercial variety I have ever had.  This year wasn't ideal for sloes - the cold start to the year seemed to prevent many fruit from setting, so I only got enough for a litre of sloe gin.

I went blackberrying twice last autumn - once near where I live, and once near my parents' place.  Both due to the weather (it rained just as the local ones ripened, so many just mouldered on the vine) and the fact that folks in Bridgend seem to be much savvier blackberry pickers than in Newport, I got a much smaller haul locally.  I also feel a little disloyal saying this, but the blackberries picked in Newport also tasted better.  They are a particularly good variety - large, firm and juicy, with a wonderful flavour for eating fresh or in pies, cakes or jams.  I made most my part of the haul into jam - again, inexpensive as it only cost the price of the sugar and the pectin - around £2-3 for 8 jars of jam.  Friends and colleagues have learned that if they save their jars, they get paid in jam, so I have a massive collection in my understair cupboard!

My favourite forage this year was on a hill my family have been going to for years, overlooking the Bristol channel.  On a clear day, as this was, you can see the whole Severn estuary, with a view of Bristol sprawling into Avonmouth and the two bridges spanning the expanse of water and mudflats between England and Wales.  From a distance, with the sky soaring, these massive man-made structures give a false impression of fragility and seem strangely delicate in the vast space that surrounds them. 
Pounds and pounds of scrumptious berries!

Most of the family went, as well as Millie, and we had the biggest haul any of us could remember. This was mainly due to the conditions being perfect for ripening the berries, but perhaps partly because my brothers and I are now adults, so we pick faster - and, of course, don't eat half as we pick!!

We were picking a kind of wild blueberry which, where my parents and I are originally from, are called bilberries, but in this part of Wales are called wimberries. (They have yet another name in West Wales, I believe!)  This local variation in names is possibly why when we first moved to Wales and excitedly talked about bilberries, everyone looked at us blankly...

Bilberry plants, known as 'wires'
Our bumper haul of bilberries or wimberries was about 3 3/4 pounds - enough for my dad to make bilberry pie AND jam - which he was simply delighted about. I am still saving some of this jam, because it can be years between batches if the weather is not suitable.  

These little berries are so loved in some circles that I am told  greengrocers in Wales used to pay local kids to bring them down from the mountains in punnets during the long summer holidays.  Given how high they need to grow to really thrive, the incentive must have been good! Of course this is no longer a possibility in our world of supermarkets - so if you want them these days, you have to go and get them yourself.

I love finding these various gems in the hedgerows and byways - it makes me feel so much closer to nature and the elements - and to my parents and grandparents and their forebears who have passed on the knowledge of these simple, natural pleasures down through my family to me. 

Wishing you all the wild strawberries, garlic, blueberries, blackberries, sloes, damsons, raspberries, chestnuts, hazelnuts and crabapples you can find this year - and whatever else you like to eat besides!


Monday, 10 March 2014

Lovely baking!

 One of my favourite hobbies is baking!  I especially love baking cakes and pies, and I thought I'd share a few of my most enjoyed moments in the kitchen.

One of my most precious memories is making Christmas cakes with my Nana.  Nana is my mum's mum and is very precious - she is my last living grandparent.  

Although I have many happy memories of baking with her, she is no longer able to stand in the kitchen long enough to make a cake.  She is a feisty lady who isn't shy about giving her opinion.  

Unlike most people I know, she wouldn't hesitate to tell me if she thought the Christmas cake I put in her hamper this year could be improved - so when she said how much she enjoyed it, I was really delighted!  My recipe is based on an old Mrs Beeton one, with a few additions.

Before second coat of jelly
Fully glazed
This is how I decorate my Christmas cakes - it's based on an old Welsh tradition that is believed to be linked to 'smuggler's bounty' - heaping dried and glace fruits on cakes when they were available, and glazing with jam to give a 'jewelled' look. I first tried this because I am not that fond of marzipan and white icing, and I've never looked back!  

Traditionally, the fruit and nuts would be heaped in a pile in the centre of the cake, but I like this slightly more, well, Victorian look!  I spread jam or jelly underneath, add the sliced fruits, nuts and candied ginger in rows from the centre or from the corner, then add another thin layer of jam or jelly on the top. It's best to use a light colour so you can still see the fruit's lovely colours.

This year, I also made mince pies. I made my own mincemeat, using some of the mountain of apples from my mum and dad's allotment, using Delia's recipe: Delia's mincemeat.  I have a bit of a tendency to tweak the ingredients to the ones I have available and adjust the spices to taste, but it's an absolutely great recipe and reliably results in delicious mincemeat.  It's well worth making a little in advance.   

These little fruit pies are so tasty.  This year, I made them with a crumble topping, by keeping back about a third of the breadcrumbs from making the pastry and stirring in a little muscovado sugar, and making a rich buttery pastry with the other 2/3, using egg and a dash of milk and a little icing sugar to sweeten.  The self raising flour means the pastry rises slightly and has a lovely texture.

Another of my favourite bakes is these spiced orange cake squares.  I just added a little allspice, vanilla and natural orange essence to a normal sponge batter. I then did a traybake and cut into squares and popped into individual cases.  To decorate, I just cut a rough star out of a clean plastic cocoa tin lid, rested it on the top of each square, and sprinkled icing sugar, caster sugar and a pinch of allspice mixed together while they were still warm. I thought they looked really cute!

A bake I really enjoyed was the 'Emmatines' I made for Emma's birthday.  I did two types - little squares and cupcakes.  Emma loves teal and showed me the cakes she was dreaming of - and I did my best to recreate them!  I was much happier with the cupcakes than the squares, but as it was my first attempt icing cube shaped cakes I decided not to beat myself up too much.  I must admit despite taking the day off work, I was tearing my hair out a little, because I was also trying to get her quilt finished, but thankfully I did manage it all in time to drive to Manchester for the party!  These were in little gold foil cases - which aren't very eco friendly, but it was a very special occasion...

The last bakes I want to share today are some tear and share breads.  I am sure we cake lovers all have that friend who doesn't share our love of cake and sweet things, and in fact prefers savoury - but nonetheless deserves some love and care on their birthday because they are an all round wonderful person.  So the first of these breads was a personalised bread, made of lots of little stars (because this person is a star) with the birthday girl's initials on. This was made using my parsnip tear and share recipe.

Before rising
Ready for the oven
The finished loaf
The second tear and share I loved making was a cheese and onion bread for the work Christmas party, which i made in the shape of a Christmas wreath. I was worried this wouldn't work - and was so delighted when it did. I've included these before photos so you can see the sort of proportions used to make the loaf so that it kept its shape.

Hope you've enjoyed - and I look forward to hearing about your cooking exploits too!. Happy baking, folks....