Monday, 25 November 2013

Dearly Beloved

Hello webby world!

This weekend Mark and I were lucky enough to go to our next door neighbours' wedding.  Lucky on several counts - the kids and I had been ill all week and only just recovered in time; my ace friend Cat not only agreed to have our younger 2 for the day and overnight but also took our uber-Whovian son to see Doctor Who at the cinema; lucky to be invited to a small wedding when we are only their neighbours (although we like them enormously);  lucky to experience such an amazing wedding first hand.

I'll admit now, I don't generally like weddings. Or at least I haven't in the past. Sitting at tables with people you barely know or can't remember, tepid food brought out in shifts, the inevitable lecherous uncle making inappropriate comments about the bridesmaids... I went to some humdingers in the early 90s that left me pretty fed up about them.
 And then there are the parts my feminist head rebels against - a father handing his daughter to the groom like she is his to give away. Pfft. We're not chattel, no one gets to 'give' us like a gift. At least it's husband and wife these days, not man and wife, and no one has to promise to obey anyone.
 And the money - there are always so much better things to spend the money on, aren't there? Like houses or holidays. My favourite weddings so far have been very small affairs - a party between friends as much as anything. I have been entirely untouched by wedding fever.

Ads and Lexie's wedding made a convert out of me. OK, not about the giving away the bride thing, but on the glory of a traditional wedding. It was an Event - a thing packed full of aceness and happiness on a grand scale to celebrate two lovely people committing to each other for life.

I'm sure you all know the delights of Pintrest. One of the things that makes me laugh there is the number of already married people who have Wedding Boards. Are they planning ahead for their kids or should their existing spouses be concerned?  The boards are crammed with dresses, venues, style ideas, fancy guest books, wedding favours and entertainment concepts. Weddings are almost as big a Thing on Pintrest as the tattoos.

On Saturday we saw the ultimate expression of this. It was as if Lexie looked at everything on her Pintrest board and decided, "Why choose? Let's have all of it!"  It was AMAZING. And for a large part, home made. The work and thought that went into it all was astonishing. I am in awe.

The wedding was held at Allerton Castle, a fabulous Gothic Revival building with a wonderful galleried Great Hall complete with 80 foot vaulted ceiling and beautiful stone and oak carved walls. My jaw dropped as we drove up. Those Victorians didn't go for understated in the slightest.

We were greeted by a stilt walker handing out tiny bottles of cocktail labelled Drink Me. Then one of the groomsmen held out an ink pad of gold, silver and bronze  to press our forefingers in and leave a fingerprint 'leaf' on the print of a tree that served as a guest book. It was very pretty.  I found an online photo of someone else's on her blog to give you an idea of how it looked. It was lovely.
The ceremony itself was a nice, simple affair made dramatic by the surroundings and the astonishingly beautiful dresses of the bride and bridesmaids. Lexie is tall, willowy and beautiful. On Saturday she looked like the Happily Ever After bride of my little girl daydreams. Utterly breathtaking.

As we moved on to have the wedding lunch the scale of effort Lex, her mum and her sister put in became apparent. They'd baked the cakes and cupcakes themselves, which I knew about already (I was drafted in as a last minute cupcake icer). But they'd also embroidered a small cushion for each guest with his/her name on and placed it on the chair. Lexie told me she did the embroidering by hand and was cursing her cousin Christopher for not being a Chris - at least as Jay and Mark we were on the easy end of the spectrum!

The confetti was made with a heart shaped paper punch on the pages of old books. The flowers, arranged by a close friend, were such delicate, beautiful things they looked ready to blow away in the breeze. Lots of roses, lisianthus (one of my favourites) and tiny daisies. From each came a tiny wire bird cake holding a candle. The table was scattered with other candles in jam jars trimmed with ribbon. In fact, the display be the cakes of flowers in a teapot and cups was dropped off yesterday by Sarah, Lexie's mum, for us to enjoy at home while the flowers last. 

In front of each place setting was a tiny box labelled Eat Me. It contained two hand made truffles. Yum!

The food was great, the speeches were funny and sweet. Adnan's account of their first date on a grey and blustery Grimsby beach (Hey Rach, is that Cleethorpes? where we flew kites with the boys?) made me laugh but when he told us of his feelings for Lexie he moved me to a big mascara-laden tear. Which he spotted and teased me about after.
But THEN came the best bit.
Not the live band, who were great.
Not Lexie's quick change into a dress that had her look like Grace Kelly in High Society (I love that film).
Not the DJ playing from the list of 'always makes me dance' tracks that we all had to fill in on our RSVP slips, although that was terrific fun too.
Not even going outside in the dark to watch a fire-eater juggle, swallow and generally endanger himself with flames (although his finale with a double ended staff of fireworks he spun to make himself a human Catherine wheel was pretty darned amazing). Seriously. An actual fire eater. How cool is that!
No, for me the absolute best bit was the gentleman in spats who taught the whole wedding how to Charleston. 

It was ASTONISHINGLY good fun. We laughed, gasped, sat down exhausted to catch our breath and threw ourselves into it again as soon as we could. We bumped into each other, stumbled, lost the rhythm and found it again and by the end were doing some tolerable and extremely enthusiastic dancing in the best 1920s style. I had a blast!
Many hours later, brushing my teeth at home, I couldn't resist doing a few steps in the bathroom. I've been humming the Jeeves and Wooster theme to myself ever since.

So, even though I missed going to the fabric show in Harrogate with my ace mates Julie and Liz, even though I missed my fab pal Sue's party, and even though I missed the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special in 3D at the cinema, I am utterly delighted I was lucky enough to be there celebrating Lexie and Adnan's wedding with them. 
Congratulations to the new Mr Legge and Mrs Velic!
J x

PS - Obviously the first thing we did when we got home was watch Doctor Who before going to bed!

Friday, 22 November 2013

I did it!

Hello webby world.

I hope you are all splendiferously happy and glowing with health. I am extremely giddy and excited because I got wonderful news and I can hardly believe it!

Remember this? My application to do something that may one day lead to the slight possibility of some work in a new field? It was to attend a workshop run by the BBC for women interested in presenting local radio programmes.  It isn't a job, but who knows, one day...

Anyway, there were only 30 places, with a third earmarked for existing BBC staff. Applicants had to record 2 minutes on a given topic and submit a proposal for a daytime radio programme.You had to pass the audio part for them to look at the programme idea, and after that the CV. I sweated blood on that 2 minutes of audio. It is VERY hard to do without any umms and errs.
As my neighbour said, my application was the longest of long shots because all the media graduates and experienced people would be applying. I had resigned myself to not making the cut because it had been 3 weeks and I hadn't heard anything.

Then, last night, I got an email offering me a place.

Charles M Schultz draws happiness best

I am still in denial that I could be good enough to be chosen - I am half expecting to get a follow up email saying sorry, it was a mistake. But YAY YAY YAY! Someone listened to my clip and liked my delivery and style enough to read my proposal and like that too!

Although I would be bloody ACE on local radio because I love my city so much and enjoy sharing my enthusiasm with others. And you get to find out about  - and go to - all the super events and meet interesting people doing fab things, and get paid for it! How bloody marvellous would that be?

Fangirl gush - to be picked by the best organisation in the whole wide world as worth listening to, even just for my 2 minute audition clip, is amazing. I utterly love the BBC as anyone who reads my blog will  know from my frequently references to it and to iPlayer as the greatest thing in society. And it is the home of Jenni Murray, my total heroine and Queen of Radio. I feel like Jenni blew me a kiss and wished me luck.

So, on December 6th I will go to BBC Birmingham for the day to listen to speakers from BBC Radio, meet presenters, producers and managers of local radio and see what I think. I don't know if anything else will come of it but I'm OK about that. For now, just getting this far is wonderful.

J xx

Monday, 18 November 2013

I meant it to look like that...

Hello webby pals!

Fancy some cake? Of course you do. All the better if it's home made. And people like me are always telling you how easy it is to knock up a batch of cookies, or a birthday cake, or some scones.  Just throw it together, it'll be fine.
Sometimes we lie.

Blackberry crumble cake
Well, not lie exactly. Once you've got a reliable set of weights and measures, a couple of standard sized tins, an oven that stays at the temperature the dial claims it is and a straightforward recipe, baking is a doddle. And of course you need the correct ingredients, and not to be interrupted at a crucial moment so you can remember whether you'd added the baking powder or not, and you hear the timer go off so you can actually remove it when it's done.

Sometimes life isn't quite like that. The baby needs a change, or you answer the phone and forget the timer or the toddler twiddles the oven dial, or you're stressed or you read the recipe wrong. Or it just all goes a bit wrong and you're not sure why.

It's OK. It's recoverable. Don't panic.

I was chatting to another school parent last week about this when she said she daren't bake because she'll only mess it up.There is generally something you can salvage from a cake gone wrong.  I thought you might like to hear a few of them, on the off chance you make a mess of things someone you know makes a mess of a cake and you can help them fix it. Because I have faith in you.

It Looks Messy - Relish it. That's home made, babe. You know the labels on fancy-pants artisan scarves or jewellery - 'Some variation in texture or colour is a natural part of this hand crafted item' - don't you? That's your get-out-of-jail-free card. We've all heard tales of school bake sale items that have been bought at the supermarket and bashed about at the edges a bit to make it look home made. Home baking is supposed to look a little irregular. You don't want it to look like that mass produced Mr Kipling rubbish, do you?

Burnt top - Easy to fix. Use a bread knife to gently cut off the burnt top. Turn the cake upside down and ice as originally planned. (A cut surface can pick up a lot of crumbs, and it can mess up the appearance of your icing.)

Burnt And A Bit Dried Out - Still not a disaster. Cut the burnt bit off as above. Then make a light sugar syrup - 100g sugar, 200ml water and simmer until the sugar has dissolved and the liquid has reduced by half. Take off the heat, flavour if necessary (with a splash of vanilla or some lemon zest, just to match the flavour of your cake). Using a pastry brush, lightly coat both the top and bottom of the cake. Leave 10 mins to soak in and then turn it cut side down and ice.
This has the added advantage of keeping a cake moist for longer, so is a neat trick if you have to bake your cake in advance of an occasion (like a birthday party)

Uneven - if your baking and icing techniques have abandoned you, I suggest taking the 'More is More' aesthetic and covering it with sweets. Pile enough sweets on and no one will spot the saggy bit or the unevenly trimmed side. I made a friend a cake utterly coated with Maltesers once because I didn't have time to do the fancy icing I'd planned. It looked so over the top and indulgent it was actually better than my original design. (you don't have to wrap it in a chocolate collar like the one in the picture)

Overcooked - if you left it in too long and it's rather stale-feeling, serve it warm with ice cream or custard. A 30 second blast in the microwave, loosely covered, will make it warm and moist feeling for a short while. Warm cake and ice cream is a winner. (This also works with stale cake. I use this with leftovers all the time)

Collapsed In The Middle - There are a couple of options. You could cut the middle out, pour a glaze over it and declare it a ring cake.  Then scoff the messy gooey middle bit yourself and deny all knowledge. Or you could use a cutter - a circular one used for making scones is a good one - and cut out little individual cakes. They actually look very chic when iced. A quick glaze of cocoa, icing sugar, hot water and a knob of butter melted in gives a good mirror finish in situations like that.

The Whole Thing Looks Terrible - have you any fruit purée? Apple sauce? A jar of posh jam? Layer the cake, jam and some custard or cream. Someone dropping a pavlova called it Eton Mess once upon a time and we all fell for it. You can call yours Yorkshire Jumble, or English Pud, or whatever. The trick is to say it with confidence. (Chocolate sponge with raspberry or cherry jam is lovely, by the way. As is vanilla with lemon curd or apple sauce)

Oh God It's A Disaster - anything even vaguely edible, no matter how dry or wonky or cut into uneven chunks it is, will perform the role of trifle sponge perfectly. Even if you don't have it now, stick your chunks of cake in a bag and freeze them until you do.

I Think It's Dead - dropped it, smushed it, generally destroyed it? My gift to you, my dear maladroit chum, is one word: truffles. Cake crumbs, a bit of melted chocolate, maybe a dash of brandy or rum, or perhaps a drop of cream. Mix them well, form into balls, pop on a tray and freeze for a few minutes (or even a month) to firm up, then drop them in  more melted chocolate and remove them with a fork. Look! You made lovely homemade chocolates! You are so good to your guests.

In summary, with a little flexible thinking you can make something tasty out of pretty much any cake that isn't actually charcoal. Assuming you want to.
On the other hand, if you went to the trouble of baking something for someone and they aren't delighted with your thoughtfulness and efforts, they know where they can go. Yep, straight to M&S to buy something.  And you can open a  bottle of wine box of chocs and say to hell with it all.

Jay x

Saturday, 9 November 2013

An Apple A Day

Hello webby mates!
My house smells of apples. Our lovely next door neighbours have two big and ancient apple trees in their garden that have reacted to a warm and lovely summer by producing enough fruit to keep the doctor away for a year or five. Unable to use all those apples, they gave great heaping bags of them to me.

I've had a great day this week being a one woman apple processing unit. It could have been a tedious task, peeling and chopping 10 kilos of apples in one sitting, but with a bit of forethought it became a lovely, indulgent day. Seriously, it did. I'm not putting a brave face on it or anything.

The trick is to set up your workstation.  I put a plastic bin - one of those trofast things from IKEA that was holding Duplo until I sold it a fortnight ago - in front of the couch in the living room. I put a large stock pot with water and a slosh of lemon juice on the coffee table. A cutting board, a knife, a peeler and the TV remote and I was good to go.

While I peeled away, the bin neatly catching all the mess and the lemon water stopping the apples turning brown, I watched the first three episodes of The Blacklist. That's an entirely daft series with James Spader clearly having a ball as a charming, immoral master criminal helping the FBI. He is very fun to watch.

Peeling completed, I shoved the trofast tub out of the way and chopped the apples to an accompaniment of Masterchef and The Choir on iPlayer. I think the BBC's iPlayer is God's gift to the modern age.

I took my chopped apples into the kitchen, popped on 6Music on the radio and got to the fun bit - cooking!

I washed some empty jars and popped them in the oven at 150 degrees to sterilise while I made a compote of apples with brown sugar and cinnamon and a huge vat of applesauce.

I'd like to give you a recipe but in all truthfulness there isn't one - the apples can vary so much in sweetness that giving amounts is pretty meaningless. I plopped a saucepan full of apples and a splash of water on the hob, tipped in a cup of brown sugar, a couple of strips of lemon zest and a cinnamon stick. I stirred frequently until it was all cooked. I tasted it, added a dash more sugar and removed the cinnamon and lemon peel, cooked it through for another 2 minutes and it was done.

The applesauce was the same but larger quantities - a stock pot full of apple, a splash of water, a generous couple of handfuls of caster sugar and stir well until cooked. Add more sugar to taste as you go. I like my spiced compote rather sharp and my applesauce sweet, but it is entirely personal preference. Just taste it as it cooks and remember it's easy to add more sugar but a bit of a bugger to try and remove it.

I ought to mention that applesauce or compote does not keep like jam. It's the high sugar content of jam that preserves it for so long. Applesauce has a mere fraction of that. I keep it in the fridge because I know I use it up pretty quickly (I can eat it by the bowlful. It reminds me of being a kid and Canada.) If you are not likely to be using it in the next couple of weeks I recommend freezing it in zip lock bags. It can keep for ages then.

Once the sauce and compote were bottled up I turned the oven up to 180 and made four of Riet's Dutch Apple Cake. I posted the recipe here in 2009, and these days I do make it in loaf tins after all. I can fit four of them in the oven at a time so I'm making maximum use of 1 hour of the oven being on, and the cake freezes well. So, one cake to the neighbours to thank them for the apples and the others popped away for later.

By this point I decided I needed some different entertainment. I swapped to my ipod and sang along to Tom Petty. The wonderful Tom is my go-to guy for songs to work to. I have decorated whole rooms to Full Moon Fever. It is one of my favourite albums in the world. I tend to favour stuff I can sing along with other music. It's just more fun. Although not necessarily for anyone within earshot.

As a treat for my lovely 11 year old I used some of the compote in lieu of jam to make Jam Jacks, our name for Mary-Anne Boerman's Crunchy Oat Slices. I find them a bit too prone to falling apart but that could be me not doing them quite as intended. However fragile they end up, they are definitely delicious.

Of course you can't bake with masses of apples without doing a crumble. It's probably a Law. Ever the law-abiding citizen, I made three - one for the freezer for my parents, one for the neighbour on the other side of our house and one for us.

My New Favourite Thing for apple crumble is to chuck a few fistfuls of pecans in the crumble mix. Apples and pecans are such happy bedfellows. The flavours round each other out, adding a depth and fullness lacking when it's just one or the other. I often experience tastes like they were music, and a good combination is like a wonderful chord as opposed to an individual note. Pecans and apples are a lovely chord.

NB - Other people do that too, right? I assume they do but perhaps they don't. It's like being unhappy in an orange room because it is yelling at you or knowing which numbers are friendly (the seven times tables definitely are, the sixes less so). Everyone is a little bit synaesthetic, aren't they?

My final effort - to The Leisure Society's marvellous album The Sleeper - was to start another batch of bramble jelly. This is 1 kilo of blackberries (from the freezer, as swapped for eggs with another neighbour in September), 1 kilo of apples roughly chopped but not peeled nor cored, an a little over a litre of water. I simmered them all together until they were a total mush ready for straining then boiling up with sugar. I do love the rich purple colour, and how the stained apple chunks look like watermelons with their vivid flesh and green skin.

Anyway, at the end of my own personal Apple Day I had 4 jars of compote, 2 massive ones of applesauce, 4 cakes, 3 crumbles, a tray of slices and a vat of jelly-in-progress.  I'd watched daft telly, listened to the radio, sung lustily along with some favourites and made the house smell utterly delicious.
All in all, a very good day.