Baking

Feast Days and Homecomings

Feast Days

Hello again!  It’s been a rollercoaster couple of weeks here, with my day-job taking me away on extended travels to India followed by heady reunions back home (things to remember always; the ‘welcome back mummy!’ signs tied to trees and gates all along our lane…).  I’ve spent the last few days playing catch-up, so this weekend was a chance to kick-back and relax with friends, hosting at home.  My best friend just scored a fantastic new job, so we took the opportunity to celebrate.  It was my favourite kind of meal; a small group of the loveliest of people, with a touch of style but no airs and graces, and the kind of menu that doesn’t suffer unduly if (umm, when) the wine flows too freely…

Preparation is everything, so Harry and I made a batch of parmesan and cracked black pepper oatcakes to go with cheese at the end of the evening.  I used this recipe which early readers of my blog will remember, and added a cupful of grated parmesan and a liberal dash of black pepper to the dough; they taste delicious and yet are extraordinarily simple…

Parmesan and Black Pepper Oatcakes

My other make-ahead element was individual heart-shaped Tartes au Citron, using ready-made pastry for speed.  Blind-bake your pastry and then beat together 5 eggs, 150ml double (heavy) cream, 150g caster sugar and the juice of 3 lemons, plus the zest of one lemon.  Pour into the case and bake for around 30mins if you’re making a single large tart or 15 mins for individual ones; this quantity will make you one large tart or 6 smaller ones.  I dusted with icing sugar and added fresh raspberries, serving with the leftover cream.

tarte au citron with raspberries

Asparagus is everywhere right now, enjoying its short but intense season.. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to use it, so served up a generous handful, steamed until just tender and topped with a poached egg and crumbled, grilled pancetta.  It’s a divine combination but definitely a make-in-the-moment dish; choose friends who will happily perch at chairs whilst you cook, topping up your glass and ignoring any eggshells you drop. Friends who can also be trusted not to eat all your crispy pancetta when your back is turned as you plate up the rest…

asparagus and pancetta

For the main course I grilled rustic lamp-burgers in ciabatta rolls on wooden chopping boards like these, topped with goats cheese, fig jam and served with a generous portion of oven-baked parmesan fries, from a recipe found here; you can almost convince yourself they’re healthy, though they tasted good enough to feel sinful.

To add a little style to the table I spritzed the tips of a handful of white feathers with spray glue and poured platinum glitter over them, before shaking off; they caught the light and sparkled subtly all evening; a 5 minute project which definitely punches above its weight.  (If feathers are your thing by the way, have a look at Pinterest, where they are definitely having a moment; craft projects for headdresses, garlands and gift-tags abound…)

glitter tipped feathers

glitter feathers

Our eclectic recent weather has done wonders for the garden, so I braved the rain to gather a handful of vibrant peonies for a dash of colour;

fresh peonies

And a final party trick; freezing slices of lemon leftover from the tarts into a cupcake tray to form over-sized colourful discs of ice to float in pitchers of water on the table.  Once frozen, I pop any excess discs out of the trays and store bagged up in the freezer for next time.  Smaller fruits like summer berries work beautifully when frozen in regular ice cube trays in the same way.

lemon slices in cupcake trays

Preparations done, it was time to celebrate;  homecomings and new jobs, friendships and feast days.  It’s a holiday weekend here in our small corner of the world, as I know it is for friends across the ocean; I hope that the sun is shining for you, and that summer feels close at hand…

champagne

Back next week for more crafts, and an update on the Great Sunflower Race (yay; we’re back in the game!); let me know how yours are doing if you’re growing them too…

Kate

Food for friends: Sunshine Apple Crisp

apple crisp with fork

It’s a glorious morning; the sun is shining, I’m surrounded by hungry boys (some borrowed, some home-grown), and we’re feeling in need of a treat.  Something quick, decadent and portable, that can be eaten on the lawn with fingers and requires little washing up.  Those of you who come here often will know that I don’t feature heaps of baking, but when I do it’s always simple food that requires almost no skill or experience; I know my limits.

A lightening quick post this week, therefore, with a lightening quick dish for Sunshine Apple Crisp.  It takes just a handful of minutes but will look as though you have slaved away for much longer – do not disabuse anyone of this notion.

Gala Apples

We found puff pastry in the freezer and apples in the fruit bowl; everything else you’ll probably have to hand.  You can use different kinds of sugar or different kinds of jam; you can even substitute apples for peaches or pear and it’s equally delicious.  Finer chefs than I might peel the fruit, or use a mandolin for finer slices, but I am a slapdash, carefree cook with scant concentration so you won’t see such guidance here.

Easy Apple Crisp Recipe

apple crisp cooling on tray

Eat in the garden where sticky fingers don’t matter and where spilled sugar and pastry crumbs can fall without consequence.

apple crisp serving ideas

Enjoy, enjoy!  … and I’ll see you after the weekend.

Kate

A Pocketful of Hearts

valentine

We’ve briefly come over all romantic this week, felled at last by the growing global momentum of Valentine preparations and the rosy hue of shopfronts as the world turns red for a week.  Valentine’s day here in the UK is still predominantly about celebrating grown-up, romantic love, but is gradually broadening to be a general celebration of love in all its forms.  Harry proudly – and very carefully – brought us home a large envelope containing a card he had made us at nursery which we are not allowed to open until Thursday (though Harry is adamant, in a moment of 3yr old confusion, that in fact we have to wait until Christmas);  he has red glitter in his hair and heart-shaped paint splats on his jeans, so I think we are safe to assume that Thursday is the day.

In turn, Harry and I have been busy crafting a Valentine card for his cool fairy Godmother; she’s the person in his life who brings him books about farting dogs and lollipops as large as his head, and believes that pyjamas should absolutely be worn all day if possible, thus earning his unwavering affection.

make a valentines card

To decorate the envelope, I drew a tiny heart shape on the tip of a pencil eraser and carved away the edges (do this in good lighting and when free of caffeine, red wine, or anything else that might cause your hand to twitch..). It’s soooo simple but looks great, and makes the perfect rubber stamp for kids (or adults) to push into an ink pad and stamp randomly over any available surface.  We used this ink, which I fished out of my old stamping supplies, and discovered as an added bonus that the colour turns from deep red to light pink as the pigment wears out, giving a lovely ombre effect.

make a pencil heart stamp

It’s been a while since we were active in the kitchen so we also knocked up some little meringue kisses to give to friends.  I used this recipe, which seems to produce drier, crispy meringues and allows you to whip them out of the oven sooner than usual, which is great for coloured meringues where you don’t want any browning or colour fade.  For the kisses, I stirred rose food colouring in just before the icing sugar stage, piped imperfect rosettes to fill a silicon baking sheet, and then when the meringues were baked and cool, I brushed edible glue around the base of each and rolled them in rainbow sprinkles before setting to dry on a cooling rack…

meringue kisses

little meringue kisses

With the leftover meringue, I spooned out dollops onto a baking sheet and then used a wooden skewer to swirl raspberry coulis through the peaks, giving this raspberry-ripple effect; as a treat we’ll have them with whipped cream, fresh raspberries and a glass of champagne on Thursday (after all, if you’re staying in you can afford to be a little decadent…)

raspberry swirl meringues

So, a giddy pink day to celebrate all things romantic.  Little does Mr B expect that Valentine’s Day itself will bring him the gift of 12 jars of marmalade in a vintage garden trug; I’m having to blow the dust off my Tracy Anderson bicep-building DVD before I can even contemplate lifting it…

Next time, by the way, I’m going to focus on answering some of the questions I’ve had of late about the fonts, graphics, camera and other tools and techniques I use here; if there’s anything you’re keen to know more about, please do shout and I’ll endeavour to cover it.  I should preface this by saying that those seeking technological enlightenment and cutting-edge wizardry should hastily look elsewhere; my secrets lie more in the artistic draping of bedsheets as backdrops, the procurement of free graphics, and in providing life support to an ancient entry-level printer – but that at least makes everything I do very accessible and highly replicable!

Have a lovely week..

A Marmalade fit for the Countess of Grantham

Downton Abbey Marmalade

There cannot be many things that my husband and the society grand dames played by Maggie Smith have in common, but a lifelong passion for marmalade is surely one of them.  In Gosford Park, Maggie Smith’s Countess of Trentham denounces those households shabby enough to serve shop-bought marmalade, and by series 2 of Downton Abbey, the Countess observes that marmalade cocktails are the fashionable drink-of-the-moment; a heady sign that the roaring twenties are on the horizon.

My husband prefers his marmalade  on toast, preferably daily if not twice-daily.  Like Paddington Bear, he feels somehow incomplete if he discovers himself to be in a marmalade-free environment, and when planning trips abroad will pat his pockets to check for marmalade in the way that other men check for wallets and boarding passes.

My Valentine’s gift to him this year, therefore, will be a year’s supply of marmalade, with personalised labels and even a few travel-sized jars of the exact proportions to fit in a pocket. An unusual present, perhaps, but one which I think will hit the mark.  If you haven’t tried making marmalade, or perhaps haven’t yet even tasted marmalade (an acquired taste, many believe), it’s definitely worth a try.  Here’s what you’ll need;

marmalade ingredients list

True British marmalade uses Seville oranges, a citrus fruit so bitter that were you to unwittingly suck on one your mouth would probably shrivel up with shock.  Add 2 kilos of sugar however, and it becomes blissful.  You can make marmalades with all kinds of different fruit – divine recipes abound on the internet – but classical marmalade requires a very bitter orange which is – appropriately enough – in season in the bitterest of winter months.

Once you’ve gathered your ingredients and a large pan, start by preparing the oranges…

marmalade step by step part 1

Now comes the complicated part (though I managed it, so fear not..).  Take out your muslin bag and give it a squeeze to release the final juices before you discard it.  Now add the juice of your lemon, give it a stir and pour in all the sugar.  Keep it on a low heat as the sugar dissolves, then bring to the boil.

Place your jam jars in a hot oven to sterilise; they’ll need about 10mins, then switch off the heat and keep them in there until you are ready to pot up.

If any scum from escaped orange pulp surfaces, just skim it off as you go.  If you have a jam thermometer, wait for the temperature to reach 104.5C/220 F – that’s your setting point and time to turn off the heat.  If you don’t have a thermometer, place a plate in the fridge and then periodically – and carefully – spoon a small amount of the marmalade onto the chilled plate.  When this wrinkles when touched lightly, you’ve reached setting point.

Once you’ve turned off the heat, leave the marmalade to cool for 12-15 minutes, stirring occasionally to distribute the rind.  If you pot it up straight away, the rind will all rise to the top of the jar; it won’t change the taste but aesthetically it looks a bit odd.  Take your jars out of the oven and fill each one to just below the rim.  It should look something like this;

marmalade from katescreativespace

Now place a wax paper disc on top of each before sealing quickly with a lid.  Once the jam has cooled, you can have fun with decorative labels, tags and cloth covers.  For my husband, I designed  these simple ‘Man of the House’ labels, then cut a striped cloth disc to cover the metal lid, securing with a simple rubber band.  I found some vintage silver teaspoons in our local charity shop, so I tied one of these to each jar, and then finally – given the Valentine’s theme – added a chalkboard heart peg to denote each month’s jar of marmalade.

homemade valentines marmalade

homemade marmalade gift

It will be possibly the heaviest Valentine’s gift I’ve given him, but also one of the thriftiest, which is always handy so soon after the Christmas frenzy.  If you try this do let me know how you get on, and if you’re an aficionado of jam and marmalade-making already, please do share any favourite tips or recipes; I’m a distinct amateur but can see this becoming quite a passion…

By the way; the vintage weighing scales I used for the first photo in this post were a recent find, buried in the depths of a local antiques mill; I found them in a roomful of period kitchenalia, from wooden butter pats to round wooden sieves and all sorts of mysterious turn-of-the-centry kitchen gadgetry that must have seemed cutting edge at the time.

Setting Sail!



‘Tis done! Construction on the birthday boy’s pirate ship is now complete, on schedule and on budget (and is possibly the only piece of construction ever done in our house which can make these claims).  Nobody would ever be bold enough to certify this seafaring vessel as watertight or fit to conquer the seven seas, but our fondant pirates don’t seem to mind.  It does at least creak authentically, due to the weight of the chocolate ganache, and lists atmospherically to one side, though this is more attributable to my lopsided baking than to the ocean wave.

Thank you for all the helpful comments and tips; I now feel like a fully-fledged member of the birthday-cake-baking community, at least for the next 10yrs until Harry officially declares homemade party cakes to be a bit lame and embarrassing, at which point I will hang up my spatula with a mixture of profound relief and dismay.  For those who are interested, allow me to take you on a tour of our galleon…



Our cheery-looking skipper is brandishing an unlit sparkler, ready to fire the canon; we’ll light this at the moment critique in lieu of candles.  The canon and canon balls are sculpted from fondant, rubbed lightly with edible silver dust and accessorised with silver balls.  A hidden cocktail stick secures the canon ball in the mouth of the canon; I’ve instructed my husband to try to rescue all the cocktail sticks before the eating begins.  He’s an ex-surgeon after all; he’s used to counting instruments in and out of cavities).  The steering wheel is the only inedible component, borrowed from Harry’s toy pirate ship when he protested that his cake must have a steering wheel; how right he is.

I made the sails by printing onto sheets of regular printer paper and then rubbing them with used teabags, and setting light to the edges.  It was a useful, if unintentional, way of checking that our smoke alarms are working well. (In my defence; yesterday was a VERY cold day to be faffing around outside with such things).  The bunting is not especially pirate-like, but makes our cake jolly rather than fierce, which is important when you’re staring down the barrel of only your third birthday.  I glued scraps of gift wrap onto sparkly thread and trimmed them into flag shapes.  The flags themselves are winched onto disposable BBQ kebab sticks.

My pirates are not afraid of their feminine side; they sport rose-gold earrings and suffer from rather womanly physiques; I left them looking perky and muscled and then came down this morning to find they had wilted into a sort of pear-shaped, who-ate-all-the-pies type slump. Pirate 2 looks like he is accessorising his outfit with a carefully chosen Chorizo sausage; it’s actually supposed to be a blingtastic gold trophy belt..

An equally heavyweight crow sits in his nest, surveying the seas; he wisely decided not to chance his luck on top of the mast and has taken up station at the rear of the ship instead, where a life ring is within easy reach if necessary.

So that’s all for now; we have a busy weekend ahead with Harry’s party, a grandmotherly visit, and also – excitingly – an away day for me and my mum to try a taster day of willow sculpting. Each year we try a course in some new skill which we are convinced will change our lives; industrial blacksmithing was one, flower painting another (we tend to extremes, as you see).  Mostly we drink a lot of coffee (or wine), gossip and plan projects way beyond our talent.  Tomorrow, for example, we have been led to believe we may create one of these;

Whereas I am secretly hoping I might knock up a herd of these, ready to strap to the roof of the car…

We shall see; I’ll let you know how I get on.  I’ll be back next week with 3 different kinds of stars to make for Christmas; have a wonderful weekend in the meantime, and a belated Happy Thanksgiving to all my lovely readers across the pond!

Willow image credits; 1)  Tir Grug Willow, Wales,  2) Cove Garden Nurseries, Devon

Sweet Treats and other Projects…



We’ve been busy in the kitchen this week, making edible gifts designed to stimulate the appetite of Harry’s fairy Godmother who is currently recovering from surgery.  I’m the first to admit that my kitchen skills leave something to be desired; my husband was mildly astonished by my culinary incompetence when we married – my party trick was to peel off the film from a microwave meal with one hand whilst programming it with the other – and things have improved only slightly since then.  As such, Harry and I look for recipes which produce stunning results but require very little skill.  Often, we make them up as we go, as we did with these White Chocolate and Strawberry Pastilles (above); a perfect Christmas gift for a foodie, and startlingly simple to make.  Our Edible Gold-leaf Florentines are a cheat’s version of the classic florentine, as we simply sprinkled the chopped fruit and nuts on the top of ours, before daubing with edible gold leaf…



To make these, you’ll need…

  • white and milk chocolate (chips, chunks; you choose. We used 200g of each and produced a LOT of sweets!),
  • freeze-dried strawberries – try the home-baking section of the supermarket, and if that fails you can of course use sprinkles, balls or cake decorations instead, as shown below
  • for the Florentines; a selection of chopped nuts and fruit.  We had candied peel, raisins, glade cherries and flaked almonds in the cupboard already so used those, but chopped mixed nuts would be great.
  • I used a silicone macaroon sheet from here to get perfect shallow discs, but if you don’t have one lying around (and who does, frankly?), just drop small dollops of the melted chocolate on a baking sheet and flatten and shape into rounds with the back of a teaspoon.

For both the pastilles and the florentines, melt your chocolate in your usual way (experts whizz it in the microwave; I am not very vigilant here so prefer to melt it over boiling water on the stove, using the double-bowl method).  When melted, drop small spoonfuls into your mould or onto your baking sheet, and smooth the tops with the back of a teaspoon.  Leave to set for about 10-15 minutes; you don’t want them to harden, but simply to lose some of their runniness so that the topping doesn’t cause them to spread and spill.  Now you can add your topping; for both recipes, just sprinkle your chosen topping over the chocolate discs.  For the florentines, I placed a flaked almond on each then sprinkled the chopped fruit on top.  Don’t worry if they scatter everywhere; once the chocolate is fully set you can retrieve stray fruit, nuts and sprinkles.

Now pop in the fridge for an hour to harden. Once hard, you can gild your florentines (and then remember to tell your friends later; ‘what did I do today? Well, y’know, gilded my florentines…’.  Take a clean paintbrush and use it to dab a little edible gold leaf on to the top of each one.

Once you’ve done this, you can taste-test them with any small kitchen helpers, before wrestling the remaining few precious sweets away so that you have at least a handful to package up as a gift..

I packaged our white chocolate and strawberry pastilles in a little gift box, layering with white baking parchment.  For the florentines, I used the cracker templates from the last post to make a pretty cracker using sturdy gift wrap (birdcage wrap from here), and carefully stacked the florentines in there.

A word of advice; store these beauties in the fridge until you’re ready to use them, and encourage your recipients to do the same; like all chocolate which has been previously cooked, it will take on a slightly dusty greyish appearance if you just store it in a cupboard – the taste won’t change, but they’ll be at their most shiny and gorgeous if you keep them chilled.

Other things….

Crackers!  Thank you to everyone who shouted ‘Yes PLEASE!’ last week in the cracker snap giveaway; Harry made the draw last night and later this week crackers will be winging their way to 10 readers across 3 continents.  A number of you asked where to buy snaps from so that you could source them yourselves, so I’ve done a bit of research and here’s a start point for you…

  • In the UK, try here for different sizes packs of snaps or here for cracker kits – or ebay.co.uk which always has a few sellers
  • In the US/Canada, try here for online ordering, or US friends tell me that Michaels often stocks them near the gift wrap in store at this time of year
  • For Australia and New Zealand, try here (they also shop to certain other countries)

The next big DIY; I’ve just sourced this slightly mouldy and very cheap bookcase on ebay to make Harry’s Christmas present; a play hardware store and garage (I know, I know; go with me on this one….).  He loves his kitchen and shop, so this is the last piece of play furniture that we have room for; I’m thinking petrol pump, pretend car wash – I’ll keep you posted!

The Impossible Pirate Cake: and finally, my birthday cake pirates are taking shape!  I’ve found it’s actually quite therapeutic rolling fondant in front of the TV of an evening, glass of red wine in hand – kind of like the grown-up version of Play-doh.  I’m still trying not to think about how I make the actual cake/ship itself..

Halloweenie Cupcakes



It’s been a while since Harry and I whipped ourselves up into a culinary frenzy, so with Halloween soon to be upon us we present to you… Halloweenies!! Our homemade concoction is essentially carrot cupcakes (because we love them), with whipped cream cheese frosting and fondant pumpkins (because you can never pack too many calories into a single cupcake…).

For the Carroty Cupcakes you’ll need;

  • 100g / 3.5 oz self raising flour
  • 100g / 3.5 oz wholemeal self-raising flour
  • 175g / 6 oz muscovado sugar
  • 1tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 2tsp mixed spice
  • 200g / 7 oz grated carrot (about 2 large carrots)
  • zest of 1 orange (or a dash of orange extract if you have already accidentally grated your knuckles by this point and are damned if you’re going to try grating anything else)
  • 2 eggs
  • 175ml of vegetable oil.

Mix all the dry ingredients together, whisk the eggs and oil in a cup and pour in, then sprinkle the carrot over the top.  Stir and fold until you have a delicious, gooey brown mess, then spoon it carefully into a lined muffin tin – we managed to fill 12, with Harry eating about 2 further helpings of ‘leftover’ cake mix. The uncooked batter will be thicker than a traditional cupcake batter, which means you should spill less of it en route to the muffin cases.  Bake these at 180 degrees C / 350 F for about 20 minutes.  Whip them out and they should look a little like this;

Whilst these beauties are cooling, whip up your frosting using 300g cream cheese, 50g softened butter and 200g icing sugar.  Then tackle the fondant pumpkins; I used a pre-coloured orange fondant and rolled out 12 small balls.  Using a toothpick, find a point and press firmly down the side of the ball, rolling it in your hand.  Repeat five times, rotating the ball as you go.  Make a small hole with the point of your toothpick at the top, and then press down lightly to flatten the ball slightly and deepen the grooves you’ve made.  We then added some tiny pine twigs in the top, having boiled them quickly to remove any gremlins first.

As a final touch, I wrapped each Halloweenie in black ribbon and added a Boo! motif; you can download my template at the bottom of this post.

Now, sit back and admire your efforts.  Contemplate inviting friends over to share these then decide, on balance, to eat them one by one until you are entirely unable to move.  Check upper lip for tell-tale smudges of frosting before leaving the house.

Halloweenie BOO Stickers

A berried feast for Autumn



This weekend we went blackberry picking, or, as Harry would have it, ‘hunting and catching black strawberries’. Whereas strawberries are quite robust and able to resist the pincer-like grip of a two-year old, blackberries were something of a revelation to H, given their tendency to explode into purple mush at first grasp.  Our journey along the hedgerow was thus peppered by startled exclamations & chortling from Harry and much wiping of blackberry juice from eyes, hair, clothing and the occasional unfortunate passerby.  Our exertions left us suddenly hungry, causing us to eat almost all of our spoils – so we had to start again.  I now understand why supermarket blackberries cost so much; it can take hours to fill a bucket..

We added an apronful of windfall apples from the garden and some homemade lavender sugar to make these individual crumbles, which seemed to disappear in the blink of an eye, though doubtless will reappear on my waistline shortly.  I made up this recipe, I must confess, so feel free to adapt and experiment; we love a dash of ginger and cinnamon so you’ll see both here… and whilst purists use brown sugar in the compote, we prefer our white lavender sugar for a taste of sunshine.  My quantities make 4 individual crumbles, so just flex your quantities, keeping the ratios, for the size you need.

For the fruit compote:

  • 5 eating apples, or 2 cooking apples
  • 2 cupfuls of blackberries
  • 3 tablespoons of sugar (halve this if using eating apples, which are much sweeter and less tart). I used lavender sugar, made a few months before by stirring dried lavender sprigs into a jar of sugar and sealing tight; this gives a lovely hint of flavour and aroma to the sugar which is enhanced by cooking.
  • pinch of cinnamon

Peel, core and chop the apples into bite-sized chunks, and soften on the hob with a spoonful of water and the sugar.  Set the oven to 180c/350f to come to temperature whilst you prepare the crumble.  After 5-10 minutes the kitchen will fill with the delicious smell of caramelising apple; take the pan off the hob and stir in the berries and cinnamon.  Spoon into individual ovenproof bowls or a single dish.

For the crumble topping

  • 200g / 7oz plain flour
  • 100g / 3.5oz soft brown sugar
  • 100g / 3.5oz butter, at room temperature
  • pinch of ginger (optional)
  • handful of flaked almonds or chopped nuts

Stir together the dry ingredients and then add the butter, crumbling together with your fingers till you have a lumpy, sandy consistency; don’t work it in completely as you don’t want the top to be too fine and smooth.  Spoon this mixture over the fruit and sprinkle with the nuts, if using.

Finally pop in the oven for around 20 minutes; they’re done when the top browns slightly and the filling begins to bubble.  Use this time constructively to decide whether you are going to accompany these with custard (the traditional British favourite), whipped cream, ice cream or – heart health be damned – all three.  When cooled slightly, pile these beauties onto a tray and find a nice tree in the garden under which to eat them, because food really does taste better outdoors, especially after all that hard work in the hedgerows…

The Unparalleled Nonpareil



You’ve got to admire the French when it comes to matters of the kitchen, or rather, les affairs du cuisine.  Not only are they world-renowned for their culinary outputs and inventions, they also possess just the right amount of Gallic confidence to name their creations in such a way that the world regards them with appropriate gravitas and awe.  And so, this little piece of chocolate magic, adorned with sprinkles, is known as the nonpareil; literally, a treat without parallel, supreme to everything else.  And who could disagree? Not me and Harry that’s for sure.  If a British person had devised the nonpareil, they would have named it, with hesitant and apologetic disclaimers, the Chocolate-I-Flung-Together-From-Some-Bits-and-Pieces-in-the-Cupboard, and it would have faded into unfashionability very quickly.  Instead, the nonpareil thrives as a gorgeous and simple treat, and the perfect gift for chocoholics.

To make these you’ll need:

  • Dark or milk chocolate (kids prefer milk, whereas bittersweet chocolate with >70% cocoa solids works best for grown-up, after dinner treats
  • 1/2 tsp of cooking fat for every 8oz of chocolate used; this is optional but helps to release the disks and keep them smooth
  • Sprinkles; any kind, any colour!

Simply melt your chocolate & fat together using a double-bowl on the hob or the microwave, then drop teaspoons onto a baking sheet or (even better if you have it) a silicon macaroon sheet with shallow indents, like we used below.  Use the back of your teaspoon to make flat rounds, and leave to set for about 15 minutes.

Sprinkle the still-gooey chocolate liberally with your candy sprinkles or other topping, then pop them in the fridge for 30 mins to set hard.  Use a palette knife to pop them off the baking sheet, or peel them from the silicon mat (either way this is very easy), and then allow approx. 1hr for collecting all the random sprinkles which have shot off into corners of the kitchen during this stage.  Admire your beauties, fend off attack from hungry household members, and decide whether they are too precious to give away.  If not, you could box them up like ours (below), or stack and roll them up in a pretty cellophane tube, tied at each end.

These are kitchen magic in that they are one of the simplest things you can make, but one of the loveliest to look at and the most fun for little people to make and eat. Yes, it can be a little messy, but hey – life is short, right?

Whizz-Popping Lemony Cupcakes!



This weekend we had a party to go to; a back garden festival for kids on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year so far.  The kids stayed cool by shedding their clothes at the door and heading straight for the paddling pool; we watched from the shade and provided periodic gasps of awe and praise for their splashy, athletic endeavours.  My contribution to the communal feast was these zingy cupcakes, which I adapted from a basic Hummingbird Bakery recipe.  With a zesty lemon kick, whipped frosting and a sprinkling of explode-on-your-tongue popping candy, they are about as light and summery as cakes can be – and no matter how hot the weather, there’s always a place for cake…

Ingredients (makes 12 cupcakes):

  • 120g plain flour
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 1.5 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tblsp grated lemon zest
  • 40g unsalted butter, softened
  • 120ml whole milk
  • 1 egg

Set the oven to 170c/325f and set to work; place your dry ingredients, zest and butter in a mixer and beat together until sandy in texture, then add in the milk, before following with the egg.  Mix for a further couple of minutes until the mixture is smooth then spoon into cupcake cases, filling them about 2/3 full. Place in the oven for 20-25 minutes until they look like these (below), and in the meantime prepare your frosting…

Whizz-popping lemony frosting:

  • 250g icing sugar
  • 80g unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 tsp Sicilian lemon extract or organic lemon flavouring
  • 25ml whole milk
  • curls of lemon zest for decoration
  • jar of popping candy. Mine was from here.

Beat together the sugar, butter and lemon extract, until fully mixed, then slowly add the milk.  Turn up your mixer to a high speed and beat for around 5mins until the frosting is super-smooth and light.  When the cakes are fully cooled, pipe the frosting onto each and allow to settle for a few minutes before adding the final touches..

I made these simple cake flags using my home printer, coloured paper, cocktail sticks and double-sided tape; place one in each cake and add a couple of swirls of lemon zest (make long strokes with your zester or grater to achieve this).  Finally, add a generous sprinkle of popping candy over the top; as it comes into contact with the cake it will crackle a little (it responds to any moisture), but there’ll still be plenty of pop left for the first mouthful of cake sometime later; if you listen closely enough you can hear it fizz…

Strawberry Cheesecake Cupcakes

The eagle-eyed will have noticed a distinct absence of decadent baking in recent posts, due in no small part to my determination to win our bikini-fit diet race (an alarming thought; my husband in a bikini – let’s hurriedly think of swim shorts).  Well, three weeks have passed and I have to confess that he has won, albeit narrowly. Still, second place is not to be sniffed at, so as he bounces lithely through the kitchen flexing his newly-evident abs, I am turning a blind eye and rewarding myself by baking a batch of these perky beauties (above & below), which after all are, ahem, mostly fruit…

I adapted a recipe from the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, substituting their digestive biscuit topping for freeze-dried, crumbled strawberries, and chopping the fruit finely into the sponge mixture for even distribution (the Hummingbird crew like to place strawberries directly into the cupcake cases for a fruity puddle at the base but I find that a bit gloopy for small fingers…).  The cream-cheese frosting offsets the sweetness of the sponge and the end result is a mixture of loveliness which is neither too sugary nor too tart – and just looking at them shining in their jaunty red and pink cups while the kettle boils for an accompanying cup of tea creates a sort of delicious anticipation…

To make the cakes…

Ingredients:

  • 120g plain flour
  • 140g caster sugar
  • 1.5tsp baking powder
  • 40g unsalted butter, softened
  • 120ml milk (they suggest whole milk but I use skim which works fine with less fat)
  • 0.5tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 egg
  • 12 large strawberries, finely chopped.

Mix together the dry ingredients then pour in the milk and vanilla and blend.  Beat the egg and mix in until well-incorporated.  Finally, fold in your finely chopped strawberries (or drop them into the cupcake cases if you prefer). Bake for 20mins at 170/325 degrees c/f.

And for the frosting…

  • 300g sifted icing sugar
  • 50g unsalted butter
  • 125g cream cheese – use regular not reduced fat; the consistency of the latter is runnier and will affect the end result.
  • Dash of food colouring if desired – gel colour gives a lovely intensity and won’t make the frosting watery
  • freeze dried strawberries, sprinkles or other decorations – whatever takes your fancy!

Beat together the icing sugar and butter (I use my trusty Kitchenaid for this and indeed for all baking), then stir in the cream cheese straight out of the fridge.  I added a dash of red gel food colouring with a toothpick and gave a final blitz with the mixer for a soft pink tone and a hint of raspberry-ripple swirliness.  Pipe or spread onto the cakes when cool and then force yourself to jog around the block for 20mins in order to feel virtuous and entitled when you return… then EAT!