The Hoxton Wedding Cake

It’s stir up Sunday this weekend apparently. This is a good thing. It means I get to bake a Christmas cake, which is of course really quite exciting in itself. It also means I can justify writing a blog post I should have written in August.

Those of you who listen to the Electric Sheep podcast will know that my friend Hoxton got married this summer and that I made her wedding cake. I’d never made a wedding cake before. I was fairly confident about the cake baking. I’ve made a lot of fruit cakes in my time and to be honest baking fruit cakes is not that hard. It’s not like making a Victoria Sandwich.

Decorating the cake, on the other hand, was more of a worry. I did lots of research on the internet and had several long conversations with the very helpful owner of a local cake decorating shop (Sugarcraft Boutique – if you live in South London and have a cake to decorate I highly recommend you go there). I had all the necessary kit and felt reasonably well prepared. There were some things, however, that the internet didn’t tell me about making a three-tiered wedding cake and I feel it my public duty to share them here now:

1) Make sure your cakes are really quite flat before you start. Mine were gently domed. I thought this would be OK. It wasn’t.

2) Use a thick enough layer of marzipan. I don’t really like marzipan, so whenever I marzipan a cake I naturally seem to scrimp on the marzipan. This is a mistake. If you want a smooth cake you need enough marzipan to cover up all the raisin bumps.

3) Leave plenty of time to ice your cake. Don’t leave it to a few days before. You never know when your youngest child might start vomiting, thus making it completely impossible to ice a cake (unless you want to risk giving 100 wedding guests gastro-enteritis)

4) When making a tiered cake each tier sits on its own board, a piece of cardboard the same diameter as the cake itself. In order to make sure there aren’t huge gaps between each tier you should ice each tier on its own board. This means that the icing will go right to the bottom. In retrospect this seems obvious, but I didn’t think of it at the time.

5) Buy a lot of ribbon. You can cover up a lot of bumps/gaping holes/general wonkiness if you have enough ribbon.

Here is the finished article (the flowers were provided by the wedding florist):

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This photograph captures, I think, the essential wonkiness of the cake. The official wedding photography managed to make it look perfectly straight. Wedding photographers are very clever.

So, how is this related to Christmas? Well, yes, the link is a little tenuous. After many years of making Nigella’s Christmas cake I have decided this year that I am going to make the Dan Lepard cake I made for the Hoxton wedding. It was a really delicious cake. Not quite as boozy as my usual Christmas cake, although I think I might play a little with the original recipe (which is online here). I’m going to add some pecans. I decided last year that a Christmas cake is better with nuts in it. And I will definitely feed it with bourbon. Lots of bourbon. It wouldn’t be my Christmas cake otherwise.

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Knitting at the cricket (whilst wearing a cycle helmet)

During the Sky Sports coverage of the cricket on Sunday a woman was seen in the crowd at the Oval knitting whilst wearing a cycle helmet. In addition to inciting some gentle mockery from David Gower and Nasser Hussain in the commentary box, this image seems to have left some people on Twitter slightly bewildered as to why someone would do this. I was the knitting, cycle helmet wearing woman and this is my story.

It was my birthday on Sunday. It was also the last day of the Ashes and we had tickets. After the Australian’s first innings batting display and a third day lost to rain a draw looked inevitable. I was expecting a dull day of pointless cricket, possibly interspersed with showers. I packed my knitting, an umbrella and a jumper. I was prepared, I thought, for all possible eventualities.

By the time we’d cycled to the Oval the grey clouds had gone and the sun was out. I hadn’t packed my sunglasses and I don’t own a hat, so when we took our seats and I discovered that I was going to spend the whole day staring into the sun I did something that seemed to me perfectly logical (although not particularly stylish): I put my cycle helmet on. As you can see from this picture, my eyes are well shaded:

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My wearing of a cycle helmet was not an attempt to protect my head from wayward cricket balls (as suggested by the Sky commentary team) but to protect my eyes from the sun. I admit that wearing a cycle helmet at a cricket match is an odd thing to do. Knitting, on the other hand, is not.

What non-knitters don’t seem to understand is that once you are a reasonably proficient knitter you don’t need to keep your eyes fixed on your needles. Of course there is some knitting that demands your full attention. Most knitting, however, can be done whilst maintaining a conversation or keeping an eye on your children or watching something on TV.

Cricket is the optimal sport for knitting. There are plenty of opportunities to knit during a cricket match, especially a test, where nothing is really happening. In addition to the lunch and tea intervals and a sizable break at the end of each over, there’s often even time between each ball to take a quick look down at your stitches. The knitting you can do at the cricket is by no means limited to simple garter stitch (knitting every row). I chose to knit a sock at the test on Sunday – compact and easily portable. Specifically, I’m knitting Winding Way by Tin Can Knits in Dazzle sock yarn from the Natural Dye Studio. It’s mostly k2 p1 rib, but has a 15 stitch lace panel, perfect for fitting in between overs.

I’ll admit I’m not mad about cricket, but neither was I reluctant to go. That ticket was not wasted on me. I didn’t see every ball, but I’m sure I saw just as much of the game as the people around me spending the day getting steadily more drunk and leaving the stand every half hour to get more beer or use the bathroom. I had the added advantage of waking up the next day with a partially completed sock rather than a hangover.

I thoroughly enjoyed my day at the Oval. I got to spend my birthday in the sunshine with my husband watching an unexpectedly exciting day of cricket. And I also got to do a little bit of knitting.

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A Victoria Sandwich success

So, I’m back again, after another rather long blogging break. A blogging break sounds like it should be a relaxing holiday, but actually the opposite is true. Too much going on in real life but nothing really worth blogging about. Things have been plodding along. Bread is being baked, cake is being eaten, the weeds are (not frequently enough) being pulled from the allotment, and there is some crafting being done, but not really enough (I have a good excuse on this front, but that will need to wait for another time).

Today, however, something truly blogworthy occurred. Today I baked an acceptable Victoria Sandwich:

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I realise that it is a little rough round the edges. And that there’s also a large chunk missing. I was in a hurry to eat it. I had a guest to entertain and two small boys demanding cake. I was in such a hurry, in fact, that I cut into it before it was completely cool. I’m sure this must be frowned upon by the baking elite.

I’ve never really made a particularly good Victoria Sandwich before. They generally taste OK. Where can you go wrong with a mixture of butter, sugar, egg and flour? They never look right though. They either don’t rise enough, or rise too much in the middle and end up decidedly domed. This one, however, looked exactly like the Victoria Sponge I have been aiming for.

And how, you may ask, did I manage to produce this beautifully proportioned (and light and fluffy and altogether delicious) cake? The answer, as ever, is Dan Lepard. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: that man is a baking super genius. I saw his recipe for the perfect Victoria Sandwich in the Guardian in June and have been keen to try it ever since. The main difference between this recipe and all the others I have ever seen is that you add some of the flour to the creamed butter and sugar before you add the eggs. This, apparently, makes it less likely to curdle, which is, I am fairly sure, where all my previous attempts have gone wrong. Today, even though my butter and eggs were both a little off room temperature the mixture came together perfectly.

You may also be wondering why today I finally decided to face my Victoria Sandwich demons. The answer to this is that right now we have an awful lot of jam.

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My sister and I took the boys fruit picking a few weeks ago and made raspberry (a little too set) and strawberry (a little too runny) jam. I decided that neither of these would be good enough for my Victoria Sandwich, so opted to use some of my mother-in-law’s (2010 vintage) raspberry jam that had been lingering in her larder and then my fridge for a little bit too long and was in need of a good home. This, I hope, I have given it. Bobby definitely thinks so.

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My first sweet peas

A long time ago (February? March?) I sowed lots and lots of sweet peas. Today I picked my first flowers:

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Not a very impressive arrangement I admit, but they smell divine and I’m hopeful that there will be plenty more to come.

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Hungry gap jam (aka rhubarb and ginger)

We’re suffering from the hungry gap in our house at the moment. Not in terms of fruit and veg. I’m making no attempt to be self sufficient in these areas right now and my weekly organic veg bag from Local Greens is providing plenty to keep us all well fed. We’re suffering from a seasonal shortage of jam.

I’ve got a bit of thing about buying jam. I mean, why would you? Jam is really quite easy to make. It is even easier to purloin from your mother-in-law, who every year seems to have an enormous crop of raspberries from which she makes the most delicious raspberry jam known to man. This year, however, we’ve run out. And it is a long time until raspberry season, especially as my MIL’s raspberries are an autumn fruiting variety.

In order to try and see us through, at least until I can get my hands on some strawberries, I decided to make some rhubarb jam. This is not a new venture for me. I made some early rhubarb jam last year from the bright pink forced stuff. It tasted quite a lot like earth. I wasn’t sure whether this was how it was supposed to taste or whether I just hadn’t cleaned the rhubarb properly. I think possibly the latter. I also made some from main season rhubarb, which tasted pretty rhubarby, and therefore, to my mind, delicious. Although no one else seemed all that keen.

This year I’ve gone for the rhubarb and ginger jam option. I used a combination of the recipe for early rhubarb jam in the River Cottage Preserving book and a recipe that I found on a blog called, rather appropriately, Jenny Eatwell’s Rhubarb & Ginger

Rhubarb and ginger jam (makes 2 and a bit 455g/1lb jars)

600g rhubarb
500g jam sugar (with added pectin)
4 pieces of stem ginger chopped into little tiny pieces
2 tablespoons syrup from the stem ginger jar

Wash and slice the rhubarb into small pieces and place in a large pan. Add the sugar, mix it altogether, cover and leave for a while. It probably only needs a few hours, but you can leave it overnight, or the daytime equivalent if that suits you better. The sugar draws the juice out of the rhubarb and this, apparently, helps the rhubarb to keep its shape when you cook it.

Bring the rhubarb in its sugary juices slowly to the boil and add the ginger syrup. Boil rapidly for about 5 minutes, or until setting point is reached. I test this by putting a little bit of jam on a saucer that has been in the freezer, letting it cool a bit, then pushing it with my finger to see if it crinkles.

Once your jam has passed the crinkle test, take it off the heat and stir in the stem ginger. Leave it to cool a little before transferring into clean, sterilised jars.

I’m quite pleased with how the jam looks. The chunks of greenish rhubarb suspended in  red jam is definitely aesthetically preferable to the brown sludge I made last year. It tastes more interesting too, although I do wonder whether it is a little too gingery. I think I need a second opinion. Any takers?

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Sun, snow and sheep

I’ve been on a bit of a post-Easter blogging break. For the first week or so after Easter I was on holiday. Here are some pictures (with thanks to my sister and my aunt – I left my camera at home). Can you guess where we were?

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Snowy mountains, clear blue skies – the Alps perhaps? Or maybe the Pyrenees?  OK, so the mountains aren’t quite that big, but sun and snow are not generally the weather conditions you expect on a trip to the Isle of Man. We were there for a week and did not see a drop of rain until we were on our way back to the airport. A miracle.

Thanks to my Manx relatives and the Manx weather gods we had a lovely holiday. Bobby and James enjoyed riding on the steam train from Castletown to Port Erin and eating ice cream in Peel. My favourite bit, however, was a trip to Cregneash – an open air folk museum showing what life was like for a farming community on the Isle of Man in the 19th and early 20th century. Back in the days when I was a Celtic linguist (you know I have a PhD in Old Irish verbs, right?) I used to get really excited about the fact that Cregneash was the home of the last native Manx speakers. Although I do still have a soft spot for the Manx language, the best thing about Cregneash this time, by far, was the sheep. We happened to visit on the day that the Manx loaghtan lambs were first let out of their shed. Oh my goodness they were gorgeous.

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I wanted to smuggle one home in my suitcase. I didn’t of course. I don’t think my South London garden is really suitable for sheep farming. I am now feeling inspired to dust off my spinning wheel, dig out my bag of Manx loaghtan fleece and have another go at making yarn. I haven’t had much success in this area the past, but I feel it is a skill I need to master if I am ever going to persuade Ed to let me have a sheep or two of my own.

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The great hot cross bun bake off

Hot cross buns are for Good Friday. I feel quite strongly about this. Not out of any religious conviction but because that’s the way it’s always been for me. When I was a child my dad would make hot cross buns on Good Friday and these were the first and the last we would eat until the following year.*

Because I only want to eat hot cross buns on Good Friday this doesn’t leave me a great deal of time for trying out recipes. Lots of my friends have made the Dan Lepard hot cross buns, and I can testify that they are delicious (I may have accidentally eaten one, cross and all, last weekend…), but they need cider and I don’t ever seem to have cider in the house and if I did I’d rather drink it.

My sister-in-law (who has posted a recipe for rather delicious looking date, apple and brandy buns on her blog today) told me that Paul Hollywood suggests using fresh fruit in hot cross buns. Intrigued, I decided to give his recipe a go. But then my Mary Berry book, taken off the shelf so I could bake a simnel cake, fell open on the hot cross bun page, and well, it seemed rude not to.

My Mary Berry buns are on the left and Paul Hollywood on the right:

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I stuck fairly close to both recipes. The Mary Berry recipe came from her Ultimate Cake Book. I omitted the peel and added more sultanas, and, before I added the sultanas, I soaked them in bourbon for about 6 hours. I also opted for the shortcrust pastry crosses because that’s what my dad does and that’s how I think a hot cross bun should be.

The Paul Hollywood recipe is available here. Again I omitted the peel and added chopped dried apricots instead, and I glazed with a sugar and water glaze instead of heated apricot jam. I also did the second rise (the dough rises once before you add the fruit and then a second time afterwards, and then a third time once you’ve shaped it into buns) overnight in the fridge.

And the verdict? The Mary Berry buns have a better texture and were delicious straight out of the oven. The Paul Hollywood ones came out a bit doughy. They browned a bit too quickly without being properly done inside. The flavour of the Paul Hollywood ones is definitely superior though. I love the apple, sultana, apricot combination, but I think it’s the orange zest that makes the real difference. This is going to be obligatory in all my future buns.

And what do the rest of my household think? Ed agrees with me, although not about the crosses (pastry ones are definitely my preference, although I’ll admit that they are rather impractical for toasting). Bobby prefers the Mary Berry buns, he told me so. I didn’t ask James. He is rather undiscerning when it comes to baked goods. He’ll eat anything that resembles cake.

Next year I’m going to be a little braver and perfect my own hot cross bun recipe (it’s good to have goals, isn’t it?) For now though we have an awful lot of buns to eat. Once we’ve got through this lot I don’t think we’ll be wanting to eat another hot cross bun until this time next year.

*OK, so this is an exaggeration. I’m sure we did have the occasional supermarket bun, but they don’t stick in my memory like my dad’s hot cross buns.

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