chickens

The Easter Hatchery

So there we were, surveying the garden and trying to decide where to locate the various bits of hideous plastic play equipment we’ve acquired since H was born, when I decided to seize the moment. ‘Where are we going to put the chicken run?’ I asked, casually, when my husband appeared to be distracted and only half-listening.  Immediately he sprung to attention and fixed me with a steady stare; ‘Chickens???’.  Sigh.  I have long maintained a mild obsession with acquiring some chickens and creating a pseudo-rural idyll where they can peck contentedly around the yard.  The trouble is that whilst I am imagining ambling down the lawn daily to collect a handful of gorgeous, still-warm eggs, my husband is quite rightly imagining that the clearing out of hen poo and the collecting of various tragic hen body parts tossed around by the local foxes will fall to him, and is thus far from keen.

Until the day that our visions collide, therefore, I will stick to making chicks the easy way, predominantly with fondant icing.  With the holiday weekend almost upon us and lots of family to visit, Harry and I set about making these freshly hatched cupcakes today, and are mightily chuffed with the result, despite the jaunty angles and tendency to wobble. Recipe and tips below for those with the time and inclination for a bit of sculpture; anyone who has ever mastered Play-Doh will find this a doodle…

Baking and Making:

  • Set the oven to 170 degrees and make your cakes; I use the Hummingbird Bakery vanilla cupcake recipe which we adore and manages to compensate for my culinary inadequacies every time, producing scrummy cakes… but any one will do.
  • Begin work on the chicks… start by rolling out balls of yellow fondant (either pre-bought or home-coloured)

  • Decorate the heads with stars of white royal icing (for shells), and more for eyes.  I added a dab of red colouring for that newborn glow, and snipped tiny candy hearts in half for the beaks

  • Whilst the chick heads are drying out a little and the cakes are in the oven, have a general clear up; enlist help to ensure all the residual cake mixture is scraped cleanly out of the bowl….

  • Place a disk of your yellow fondant on each cupcake, flattening the edges to avoid ridges.
  • Add a larger white fondant disk to cover the cake, having first cut out a star shape in the middle
  • Secure your chick head in the middle of each cake using edible glue, apricot jam or glaze. Don’t do what I once did and use a cocktail stick, unless a visit to the hospital emergency room is on your schedule.

  • Tada!! Job done.  Eat all of the leftover cake bits and icing. Feel a bit sick and have a lie down.

For any that survive the initial family tasting session, they also look good as gifts…I used a bit of fusilli to imitate straw (below) and Harry will be giving this one to his Granddad tomorrow…

Channeling Martha with a spot of dip ‘n dye

I was lying on the sofa the other day, idly trying to choose which of the few remaining chocolate Mini Eggs to eat first; should it be the pastel pink one, or the soft purpley-blue one? (Note the deliberate use of ‘first’ here; it was clearly never going to be a trade-off).  It reminded me that Easter is just around the corner and that Martha Stewart is no doubt at this very moment engaged in vigorous preparations for her extensive annual Easter home-makeover.  I prefer a rather more minimalist approach myself, saving the creative double-barrels for Christmas, but the one thing I do love doing is dip-dyeing eggs to make a simple centrepiece, or even a colourful addition to picnics when the weather allows.

The one big drawback here in the UK is the distinct lack of white eggs, unlike in the US where white eggs are the norm.  Apparently sometime back in the 60s, the UK government announced that brown eggs are better for you, and farmers and the general public immediately switched allegiance and the white hen egg was quite literally bred out of circulation.  The health-benefits story turned out to be entirely untrue, but brown eggs are now the norm and so for this I used white duck eggs, from Prince Charles’s very own Royal farms, and thus retailing at about £10 an egg.  Alright then, £2 a box.  Even so…

1. Hard-boil your eggs, boiling rapidly for 5mins then cooling gently in the pan for 15 mins to ensure a gradual reduction of heat, preventing the shells from cracking.  In the meantime….

2. Prepare several small bowls with 1 tbsp vinegar, food colouring of your choice and enough warm water to cover the egg completely. I used plain blue and green (above), then also mixed pink and blue food colouring to create a lavender colour, and experimented with different shades and depths of colour as I went along.

3. Add the eggs in turn and check colour regularly – leave for anything from 30 seconds to 5 minutes for deep colour, before extracting with gloves or tongs. Don’t wipe the eggs but instead rest of a piece of kitchen roll or place in egg cups.  Martha’s minimum wage elves apparently build her custom-made draining boards with a grid of nails specifically calibrated for optimal egg drying, but for us mere mortals an egg cup is more than sufficient.

4. The eggs look beautiful just grouped on a tonal plate as below (this one is from Wedgwood’s Vera Wang ‘Chalk’ range and I use it constantly…), or you can experiment with speckle effects using either undiluted food colour (if you’re intending to eat the eggs) or artist’s ink or paint if not.  Be warned that using anything pink/red based could leave your kitchen looking like a scene from CSI, with extensive blood spatter pattern effects across every surface.

The good thing is, once you’ve finished displaying them (no longer than a week after cooking, and keep in the fridge in the meantime), they taste really lovely too, despite H’s obvious suspicion…