chocolate

And now breathe…

egg hunt vintage bicycle sign

It’s been a glorious long weekend; a rich and hectic mêlée of friends and family coming and going, of feasts and wintery walks, with the frenetic, chocolate-fuelled hedonism of toddlers tempered  by evenings in front of the fire with a glass of wine and some exceptionally fine grown-up company.  It was blissful.

Today we had the long-awaited Great Egg Hunt, and the day dawned chilly and bright, with anticipation reaching fever pitch by lunchtime.  Eggs were laid throughout the garden, and this tantalising invitation was visible from the kitchen window and the driveway as Harry’s friends began to arrive…

easter egg hunt sign with bicycle and playhouse

Lola the rabbit  - Harry’s favourite hand puppet – welcomed guests from her lofty basket on this ancient delivery bike (another eBay find), surrounded by narcissi, balloons and golden chocolate eggs; a promise of what awaited our hunter-gatherers.

easter basket in bicycle

Inside the house, egg-hunting baskets stood ready for collection, from pint-sized hooped baskets for those still a little unsteady on their feet through to magnificent wicker hold-alls for those determined to speed like minesweepers through the undergrowth in search of every last egg…

easter baskets waiting for the egg hunt

The race was on; stragglers who were still wrestling with wellies or dithering over basket choice soon caught up and the hunt began in earnest

egg-hunting

Every garden nook and cranny was investigated in the hunt for Easter treasure

Playhouse

The eagle-eyed followed signs placed in vintage chimney pots and scattered throughout the garden…

egg hunt sign in chimney pot

egg hunt sign on bird table

The egg hunt was followed by a festive party tea of sandwiches and cakes for anyone who still had the space left for it after the chocolate-fest of the afternoon, then every small egg-hunter left with the contents of their basket and a bag of Bunny Tails, made by filling disposable icing bags with marshmallows and adding gift-wrap paper top cut with pinking shears and a free graphic from here;

DIY Easter Bunny Tails; marshmallow treats for Easter

easter bunny tails - marshmallow treats

Guests could also choose a bunny balloon, which I made by customising simple pearlised balloons with bunny ears cut from vellum, and a hand-drawn face.  I added a bow and then threaded and glued a stripy straw onto each stick (I got quite into this; I can forsee a future post with a menagerie of balloon animals; consider this fair warning..)

DIY bunny balloon

Bunny balloons

Tea was followed by games and general mayhem, as the sugar kicked-in.  The clear-up was worth it…. a day thoroughly well-spent.

honeycomb tissue balls strung on door

Tomorrow brings a return to the fray; nursery for Harry and work for us.  Bags must be packed and diaries checked; alarms set and clothes located.  Until then though, plenty of time for one more favourite activity.  This book might finally be the one I manage not to drop in the tub…

reading in the bathtub

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..

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?

Tagged with Temptation!

Misery, misery; if there’s one thing worse than going on a diet, it’s going on a competitive diet, where every day begins with a gleeful shriek from one’s husband as he hops from the bathroom scales and punches the air at another ounce lost.  This all started last week when my husband decided to shed 7lb from his racing-snake physique ready for the beach and the annual donning of Speedos.  I offered to join him, then waited graciously for him to protest, lest I waste away altogether. ‘Excellent plan!’ he cried instead, rather too enthusiastically. ‘It’ll be a race!!’.  Honestly, MEN, I ask you….

One week in and I am falling behind, mysteriously.  Who knew that tomatoes gain so many calories when placed on top of a pizza?  Devious acts of sabotage are called for, so I am whipping up a frenzy of Siren-like temptation in the kitchen, hoping to stop his willpower in its tracks and give me a chance to catch up.  Let’s begin with these perky tea-bag cookies, inspired by a recipe from beautiful French website Le Petrin.  Deceptively petite, these look wantonly moreish, and the perfect accompaniment to an otherwise innocent cup of coffee…

I used a basic sugar cookie recipe (bottom), then rolled out the chilled dough onto a floured surface.  I trimmed a business card into a tag shape then glued a cork to one side to allow me to place and lift it with ease.  A pizza wheel proved perfect for cutting out the shapes without pulling on the cookie dough, and I used a drinking straw to punch a hole in each tag. I wanted to move the unbaked cookies as little as possible to help then retain their shape, so simply cut around them on baking parchment and slipped each one onto my baking sheet (2). When the cookies were cool, I melted a mixture of dark and milk chocolate chips to dip them into, then strung each cookie carefully onto a bamboo skewer to harden (4).  What you can’t see here is Harry lying hopefully on the floor beneath, waiting for drips to fall…

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As a final touch, I strung initialled tags onto the cookies using vibrant, sparkly thread, ensuring of course a disproportionate number addressed to my husband. Now, where did I put those damned celery sticks?

Nigella’s Butter Cut-Out Cookie Recipe, from ‘How to Be a Domestic Goddess’:

Ingredients

Cookies:

  • 6 tablespoons soft unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and moving towards moussiness, then beat in the egg and vanilla. In another bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the butter and eggs, and mix gently but surely. If you think the finished mixture is too sticky to be rolled out, add more flour, but do so sparingly as too much will make the dough tough. Form into a fat disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and let rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. When you’ve cut out the tag cookies and are ready to bake, they should take about 10mins, though check regularly.