28 July 2011

I think that you can put pretty much put people into one of two camps: those who love animals and those who are happy to give them a miss. I fall into the first category, though I'd class myself as really 'a cat' person. However my days of being a 'cat person' came to sudden halt seventeen years ago when I left home and David and I got our first home together. You see it is true when they say that love is blind, because I, the 'cat person', moved in and subsequently married a man who has an allergy to cats: a man who I'd say falls into that second category. During the past seventeen years I've opted for second best with hamsters and rabbits, which were all very cute and fluffy, but pets in my life gradually tapered out. Since having children we've not had any pets. Maybe it was a subconscious decision not to mix animals and babies in those early days. For the past six years we've been a non-pet family of four.

However, Lily has recently been making noises about wanting a pet. Arthur is the next Johnny Morris in the making so he'd no doubt be by her side on this current pet campaign. Much to their delight I am on their side too. David however is on the other side.

Other than the two opposing camps David and I find ourselves in regarding our love or not for animals, we have two difficult arguments on the subject. It's very much head versus heart. David isn't strictly anti pet. I believe he would be happy for the children to have a pet, but when they are a bit older to take on the responsibility of owning one. He also thinks that hamsters, which are our most realistic option at the moment, don't live longer enough and the children would be heart broken when a couple of years in it joins the giant hamster wheel in the sky. He argues that if we put it off until we move house in a couple of years time and get a 'proper garden' we could get a rabbit which ought to live for  considerably longer than a hamster. We had a few hamsters years back and they never got past their second birthday's. It's a very practical and sensible argument; I can see that.

However, I truly believe that a pet is so important in a child's life. They can learn and experience so much through having a pet; how to love, how to care, how to respect and how to take responsibility. Secondly, Lily, unlike Arthur, wasn't a born animal lover. She really wants to be, but it's fair to say she can be nervous around them. But she really does seem to want a pet and I think it would do her good. The pet thing is coming from her, rather than me putting the idea in her head, so maybe the time is right. I don't want to put it off until we move. Two years, could easily morph into three or four and Lily could be ten before she has her first pet. Precious time wasted.

Lily currently has a 'pet shell' that she keeps in a box in her bedroom and Arthur will nurture any ladybird or ant (which he collectively calls 'animals') that he finds in our garden. Somehow, I feel that we are currently selling them short.

If I Had A Cake Shop It Would Look Like This

25 July 2011

We were doing a food shop this weekend when, whilst in the bakery section, Lily saw some fondant covered 'character themed' birthday cakes. She let out a shrill and dragged me over to them saying how much she'd like one for her birthday. My reply was 'Your birthday is not until March and I will NEVER 'buy' a cake, I will always make your birthday cakes'. What ever was she thinking.

But it's true, as a keen baker of cakes, I tend not to buy them. However that has recently changed since discovering a 'proper' cake eatery on my doorstep; Treacle & Co. It isn't somewhere I hang out regularly, it's a place for a treat every now and again. I've been a few times now and it never fails to disappoint.

The cakes are simply amazing. They look too perfect; too pretty to eat. The display of cakes that you are met with when entering the cafe can be difficult for those who find decisive thinking a challenge. Lavender victoria sponge with vanilla buttercream and fresh berries, a rich chocolate beetroot cake, banana & whisky loaf cake with pistachios and chocolate chips, treacle tart with clotted cream and raspberries, very gooey salt caramel tart; they all sound so tempting don't you think? I ought to add they they also do a breakfast and lunch menu too, but for me it's tea and cake every time.

I can't praise the food enough. But it's the decor that's completely and utterly spot on too.  Even the staff that work there look the part; like models out of the latest Cath Kidston brochure. I love the old 'Birds Eye' tiles they've used on the walls, the animal table lights and the pretty window displays that always catch my eye when I walk by. Cake's are served on pretty vintage plates with dainty cake forks and the menu's written on old blackboards. Piles of cookbooks line the shelves as do a number of specialist teas that you can buy to take home. Plus there is always a pile of daily newspapers to browse through and they have highchairs and the odd kid's picture book for any young diners.

On the occasions that I have been in, I have taken either Lily or Arthur and they have loved it. Lily is old enough to appreciate all the decorative touches too. She'll always end our time at the cafe with a trip to their WC. Really? you may be thinking. But this loo has been beautifully wallpapered with the black and white pages of a vintage animal encyclopedia and Lily loves to pick out her favourite animals. It's all part of the experience for her. 

This little cafe offers a bit of sugar-coated escapism. Maybe it is just me, but as I step into this cafe I feel like I am stepping into another world, Mr Benn style. It's vintage, it's retro, it's nostalgic, it's warm and cosying. It's done so well, it feels sincere, not at all staged. It really does prove that a treat of tea and cake once in a while is good for the soul. Very good indeed.

Moving On

22 July 2011

 photo: bean-sprouts blog.

Today Lily is breaking up from school for the summer holidays. But the thing that makes this time around different is that come September she won't be going back to her school joining her classmates in their new classroom with their new teacher. She'll be the 'new girl' at her new school starting all over again. They'll be new friendships to build, new rules and routines to learn and a different environment to slot herself into. 

Anyone who knows us or reads this blog will know of what we've been up against with schools. I won't bore you with it - it's old news now. I covered it all in previous posts that you can read here and here. But we're basically moving Lily to a new school that we hope and believe will be better all round. It's a good local school that, unlike her current school will take her through to the end of her junior education. I can't see that far ahead, but for now, at least, it is the best option that has come our way.

It was however a difficult decision to make pulling Lily out of her current school a year earlier than her natural time there would have ended. She started there two years ago and shy little girl in a big school. She's leaving there with her confidence increased ten-fold and a true passion for learning. I have her school to thank for that. They've worked magic with her and I truly believe that without their nurturing environment and exceptional teaching Lily may not have got a place at her new school, and that could have made for a very different educational path ahead.

But, I think any shedding of tears today will me mine, rather than Lily's. Throughout her two years at school four of Lily's close friends have left due to relocation or a place becoming available at a more local school after a long time on the waiting list. So Lily, sees her self as 'just the next one' to move on. We plan to keep in touch with a handful of her special friends as they live so near and we'll try and arrange a get-together during the summer in the park or on the beach.

"Aren't you sad to be leaving your friends?" I asked her. "A little bit. But I'll make lots of new friends Mummy, so it doesn't really matter" was her reply. Six-year-old's can be extremely excepting of change. It's us parents that find these transitions harder I think.


20 July 2011

I'm probably going to open up a can of worms with this post. It's the final week of term and school is almost out for summer. This week Lily bought home a letter in a small brown envelope. It contained a polite note from a collective of parents of children in her class, offering other parents a chance to contribute some money that would be put towards a thank you gift for the class teacher and her assistant.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think that teachers do an amazing job and I truly believe that Lily has been blessed to have the teacher she's had for the last academic year. But when did all this 'showering teachers with gifts' start? When I was at school it didn't happen. The nearest thing to it would be if a long standing member of teaching staff was to retire. Then a collection would be arranged and a gift presented in assembly. But these occasions were few and far between. Now it's an annual event. Many 'big' high street shop are displaying their ranges of teacher gifts and cards. Somehow its saddled itself up there with Valentine's day and Halloween and people seem to be buying into it; quite literally.

There is a pressure of sorts. I dare say the teacher's aren't at all bothered. In fact, some may almost dread the onslaught of cards, chocolates, wine, bath oils and whatever else they might receive. With thirty plus children in a class that's an awful lot of stuff. On the other hand you might choose to not join the band wagon, but do you want your child to be the one who doesn't bring in anything for their teacher on the last day of term?

I can see why the note went out about contributing towards a gift. It cuts down on overall gifts and it means the teacher will actually get something nice and useful, as the mother's behind it would, I know buy something 'just right'. But, I don't feel comfortable with it; donating money. Surely the gift is from the child to show their appreciation to their teacher. How is me pulling some money out of my purse teaching Lily anything positive?

Knowing that this was on the horizon, I spoke with Lily about it a few weeks ago. She really wanted to give something to her teacher, teaching assistant and, as she is leaving the school, something to her head mistress too. She then said that she would like to make them presents. I am totally and utterly comfortable with that. We sat down and surfed the net for inspiration of what to make. We came up with these 'teacher boxes', which Lily & I covered with patterned papers and fixed with a ribbon tie. We then bought a number of goodies to fill the boxes with from hand cream & nail files to penny chews and paperclips. Lily was immensely proud of them and so enjoyed making them. She has been excited all week about presenting these gifts to her teachers.

Lots of mums reading this are probably saying that they don't have time to make presents. I don't have time either. I ordered the boxes online late one night, shopped for the content whilst in town last week and almost burnt Sunday lunch whilst juggling cooking with helping Lily assemble and decorate the boxes. I'm not trying to give this 'perfect mummy' image or prove a point; not at all. It was just important to both myself and Lily that we created some time to put in a bit of thought and effort, rather than do 'cash' or buy something the high street shops are flaunting at parents at this time of year. The 'easier' options just don't cut it for me. That's just my personnel opinion.

But I do find myself asking this; is making time to teach our children real appreciation and expressions of thankfulness becoming a dying art into today's hectic time-starved family lives? Do you still make your children write thank you notes or do you just fire off a quick thank you text? Feel free to post your comments below.

Lazy Mornings

18 July 2011

image by fault magazine.

We've had, it appears, a little shift of routine to our weekend mornings. It started a couple of weekends ago. The first time David and I put it down to 'a one-off', the second time we said it was probably a 'phase', but this weekend we both dared to admit it could actually be the beginnings of something good. Something really good. An extra half an hour in bed.

The children tend to wake up around 6 a.m. Full of beans they bounce straight into our room and demand to be taken down for breakfast. During the week it's what we do as the day has to start then, but at the weekend it can be rather harsh, particularly in the winter when it is freezing cold and still feels like the middle of the night. But a few weekends back, when they jumped on the bed at 6 a.m. we suggested that they went and played together in Lily's bedroom. They did and they've now made it their weekend routine. Obviously one us still has to go into Arthur's room and get him out of his cot and change him into a fresh nappy, but then he's off to climb into bed with Lily where she will read books to him for a while. Then they will get out of bed and play in one of their bedrooms and then the others. 

Technically we don't get a proper lie-in. Lily is a loud reader and they have yet to learn the art of playing 'quietly'. So we're awake, but we can dose and enjoy a coffee in bed and maybe catch up on yesterday's newspaper that we took to bed to read, but fell asleep within five minutes of being in close contact with a feather & down pillow. Sometimes we just talk. We talk about all the stuff that builds up during the week and is mentally filed under 'things to discuss on the rare occasions that we are in the same room without the kids and not working'. It could be as dull as which internet provider we're going to switch to as the current one is screwing us over, or it's a chance to discuss work issues that we couldn't face going over the evening before.

But the thing is we can talk in a calm and peaceful environment and allow our exhausted selves to come to before starting another busy day. It's still a long way away from the kids taking themselves down and getting their own breakfasts (and maybe bringing us up a cup of coffee), but I am for the time being extremely grateful for small mercies. For the past six years, we've been dreaming of when mornings might be 'kinder on us', and it looks like they might now be here.

The Power of Flowers

15 July 2011

I love flowers. They are a bit of a vice of mine. I wouldn't like to add up how much I spend on flowers a year. Don't get me wrong, I don't have Elton John style habit. I don't have cascading floral blooms billowing from vases strewn throughout my home, but more often than not there will be a vase of flowers in my living room. Usually just something seasonal and simple; tulips in the spring, peonies or stocks in the summer. They instantly brighten a room creating a happy welcoming space.

Every now and then I will pick up some flowers from my local florist, Viva Verde in Hove. It's the most gorgeous shop. It's crammed with beautiful bits and pieces that compliment the ever-impressive selection of overblown blooms for sale. Antique pieces of garden furniture sit alongside vintage teacups, plant pots, interesting vases and various curios. The owner Lynnette has given her shop a very personal style which makes it stand apart from your average florist. Miles apart in fact.

But it's not all about looks. Lynnette and her staff are generous with their knowledge, happy to advise on flowers that they sell. I often go there to buy flowers to decorate my cakes and their advice on 'long lasting' and 'good traveling flowers' is always much appreciated. 

But what I love the most about my local florist is that every time I go in my eyes are greeted with a floral rainbow of blooms quite different to what was there on my last visit. Nearly every time I visit, there will be some extraordinary bloom to tempt me. Whether a bunch or a few stems, I can take some blooms home to live in my living room and make that makes me happy.


14 July 2011

Stop and think about make-up for a moment; the act of drawing and colouring-in your face. It's a rather odd thing really isn't it? But it's something I do every day without fail. Women tend to fall into two categories; those who don't bother with make-up and those who can't leave the house without it. I certainly fall into the latter. With me it's the eyes. I've been applying eyeliner since I was a teenager. In fact, I can distinctly remember switching from black to brown eyeliner in 1994, when I saw a friend at Art College using brown to great effect. I still wear brown eyeliner now. The same make up routine for seventeen years; now I'm sure that is 'out of fashion'. The thing is, I don't care. I think I will keep on wearing my brown eyeliner forever more - it's part of me. Without it I don't look like me. 

I guess I picked up my love of make-up from my mum. I remember as a child, watching her morning make-up routine. My mum would apply her make-up at the breakfast table as my dad would sometimes sleep in as he did shift work. One thing you need for a successfully applied face is good light after all, a half lit bedroom just won't do. My mum would use a duo eyeshadow, usually green and brown and mascara. She'd also pluck her eyebrows which is another 'must' of mine these days.

I have a morning routine that goes something like this. Get out of bed / put in contact lenses / shower / clean teeth / apply makeup / dress / dry & style hair. On a few occasions I have switched the make-up and hair drying. If Lily comes into the bedroom and sees me 'all done' but without my eyeliner she will question me informing me firmly but nicely that I ought to colour-in my eyes before I come down the stairs. I apply my eyeliner and her face noticeably relaxes. I wonder if she'll be a make-up woman when she's grown up. My money is on that she will be.

A Morning of 'What If's' & Toasted Teacakes

13 July 2011

It's the calm before the storm here at the moment. At the end of next week the schools break up and summer officially begins. That will mean the beach, the local parks and all our usual haunts will have to be shared. On Monday Lily's school was closed for an inset day, so Arthur and I had the pleasure of extra company for the first twenty-four hours of our week. The weather was on our side, with the sun glaring down before it had even reached 9 a.m. so I decided to take them both down the West Pier Playground a-stroll-along-the-beach away from home.

There is something quite lovely about getting to this busy playground straight after breakfast, in the summer weeks before the schools break up - you can often find you have the place to yourself, or at the most sharing the facilities with just one or two others. I make a point of avoiding playgrounds in the summer from mid morning onwards as they get so crowded. It can become all to easy to momentarily loose sight of your children amongst the sea of other children running around at the speed of knots and I for one find the whole experience quite stressful.
At the playground, Lily and Arthur were quite happy paddling in the shallow pool whilst I watched on sitting on the bench dryside. Something, I can't remember what, caught my attention for a nano-second and I took my eyes off them both. A moment later Lily was calling to me between fits of laughter, 'Look mummy, Arthur's being so funny; he's trying to swim'. I couldn't see him as Lily was standing in my sight line, so I got up and walked towards the water. I caught sight of Arthur. He'd lost his footing in the deeper part of the pool and was trying with all his might to get his body upright, but each time he pushed himself up from the bottom of the pool his head would go under pulling his body down with him. He was frantically struggling in complete silence. I rushed straight into the water and pulled him out coughing and spluttering. Lily looked somewhat taken aback at my actions, unaware of the serious nature of what had happen.

Back on dryside I changed Arthur out of his swimsuit, towel dried his hair, gave him several tight hugs to calm him down and counted my blessings. Then deciding to cut our playground time short, we headed to the nearby cafe on the beach for toasted teacakes all round. I think the teacake soon put Arthur's ordeal to the back of his mind, but it shook me up for the rest of the day. It really did give me one of those stomach churning frights, the kind where you ask yourself lots of questions starting with 'what if ...'

A Tune for Tuesday No. 8

12 July 2011

This tune is up there in my favourite all time songs. When it comes on the radio, I have to stop what I'm doing, turn up the volume and just listen and absorb it all in ... to me it's a three and a half minute musical masterpiece. The video is a montage of beautiful images. Just lovely.

Lemon & Thyme Shortbread

8 July 2011

I am ending the weekly marathon of cake recipes with one that is strictly not that. It's a biscuit recipe; a sophisticated, melt-in-your-mouth biscuit. The magic of these biscuits is that they work perfectly with a cup of tea as an afternoon pick-me-up, but they can take on a completely different guise as a dessert biscuit when served with berries and cream. If I haven't already convinced you to make these, I'd like to add that the dough is excellent to freeze. It's a lovely feeling to know that there's some biscuit dough in the freezer lying in wait for a warm oven.

Lemon & Thyme Shortbread Biscuits

Makes approx 48

400g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
2 tbsp finely chopped lemon thyme leaves (or ordinary thyme will do)
225g unsalted butter, softened
300g caster sugar
2 tbsp finely grated unwaxed lemon zest
1 free-range egg beaten
Juice of a lemon

1. Sift the flour and baking powder into a large bowl and stir in the salt and thyme.

2. Cream together the butter, sugar and lemon zest until pale and fluffy. Add the egg a little at a time, beating after each addition, then slowly add the dry ingredients mixing well and dribbling in a little lemon juice until the mixture comes together as a dough. Go careful with the juice as the dough shouldn't be too wet.

3. Roll the dough into two log shapes each about 5cm in diameter. This way, each log will make roughly 24 biscuits, so you could save one log for a later time should you wish to do so. Wrap each log tightly in clingfilm and place in the fridge for a couple of hours. However it will remain good like this in the fridge for up to two days.

4. When you are ready to bake the biscuits, preheat the oven to 190C/375F/GM 5. Line a couple of baking sheets with greaseproof paper.

5. Unwrap the clingfilm and slice off rounds of approx 5mm in thickness. Place these on the baking sheet making sure you leave some space between them as they will spread somewhat in the oven. Bake for 10 - 15 minutes, until the edges are just tinged and golden. Carefully remove them with a palette knife and place them on a rack to cool. Enjoy.

Chocolate Brownies

7 July 2011

I've often found that Chocolate brownies can be hit and miss. But since coming across this Linda McCartney recipe seven years ago I wouldn't consider using any other. The recipe makes a generous batch which, once you've tasted one, you will be thankful for.

Chocolate Brownies.

300g unsalted butter
300g good quality dark chocolate (70%) broken into pieces
5 large eggs
450g granulated sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
200g plain flour
1 tsp salt

A baking or roasting tin 34 x 25 cm, 6cm deep

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C/350F/ GM4. Line the baking tin with baking paper.

2. Melt the butter and chocolate together in a heat-proof bowl suspended over a saucepan of barely simmering water.

3. Beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla extract together in a bowl until the mixture is thick and creamy and coats the back of a spoon.

4. Once the butter and chocolate have melted, remove from the heat and beat in the egg mixture. Sift in the flour and salt and continue to beat until smooth.

5. Pour into your lined tin, ensuring the mixture is evenly distributed. Bake in the oven for 20 - 25 minutes, or until the whole of the top has formed a little brown crust that has started to crack. This giant brownie should not wobble, but should remain a little gooey on the inside. Leave to cool for 20 minutes in the pan before turning out and cutting into 28 portions.

6 years ago today

It was six years ago today that we moved to Brighton. As we drove down the motorway with our life-long belongings packed into brown cardboard boxes and a colicky three-month old, we were excited about starting our new 'family' life by the sea.  Unknown to us, while we were making that journey a terrible event was unfolding in London. Four terrorists detonated three bombs on London Underground trains and a fourth aboard a double-decker bus. Fifty-six people were killed in the attacks, and about 700 were injured. It wasn't until we unpacked and plugged in the television that evening we saw the severity of the attacks. I will certainly always look upon this day each year with bittersweet feelings.

Things have really changed for us in those six years. Back then we knew only one other person here; Phil 'Hair', our good friend and hairdresser. I know I'm fussy as to who I will let near my hair with a pair of scissors, but that wasn't the reason we came here (well, not the only reason). Six years on, this is home. We've made the most amazing friends. Everything that was so new is now so familiar. I love our city with its faded Victorian grandeur, fresh sea air and individuality. I love the fact that my children know no different to living in this vibrant city. I love the fact that when I see the pier all lit up on a summer's evening still get a thrill. It's my patch now I have no desire to leave.

The Simplest Orange & Almond Cake

6 July 2011

Now this recipe is a real gem. Never before has a handful of ingredients and a bit know-how received such appreciative swoons and gushes. I came across this recipe a couple of years ago in the Observer's Food Monthly. It belongs to Rosie Lovell who the Observer introduced as 'the queen of the new cafe society; a comfort cook who hangs out with musicians in her Brixton deli'.

I read the article and made the cake. It was sublime. At the time I was writing food related features for the UK design blog The Beat That My Heart Skipped, and I contacted Rosie and she supplied us with a few of her amazing recipes from her beautiful cookbook Spooning with Rosie. I'm now a bit of a Rosie fan, it has to be said.

As I made this cake for an occasion, I tampered with it a little. I added a topping of glazed flaked almonds and some orange rose petals to enhance the overall beauty and to ensure those appreciative swoons and gushes. But when making this at home I stick to the original plain version dusted with a little icing sugar and serve it with a dollop of plain yoghurt and maybe some fresh raspberries on the side. Mmmm.

Orange & Almond Cake.

Makes 12 slices

6 medium free-range eggs
300g golden caster sugar
200g ground almonds
1 large juicy orange
2 tbs water

For the topping (optional)
1 small juicy orange or satsuma (or just use a splash or two of orange juice from a carton)
15g butter
1 tbsp golden caster sugar
50g flaked almonds

1. Grease and line a 25cm loose-bottomed cake tin. Preheat the oven to 160C/Gas2.

2. Separate 3 of the eggs, putting the whites aside in a mixing bowl. Beat the egg yolks with the remaining whole eggs in a large bowl.

3. Add 200g of the caster sugar and all of the ground almonds and mix thoroughly. Grate the orange zest and add this too, keeping the rest of the orange for later.

4. Beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Using a slotted metal spoon, fold the egg whites into the thick cake mix, a spoonful at a time. Be careful not to knock the air out of the whites.

5. Now pour this foamy cake mix into the lined tin and place in the oven for 40 - 60 minutes. The cake is ready when an inserted toothpick comes out clean.

6. Leave the cake to cool in the tin and make the syrup. Put the remaining caster sugar in small saucepan and add the juice from the orange and a few tablespoons of water. Place this on a really low heat in order to dissolve the sugar and slightly reduce the syrup. Using a toothpick, plant holes all over the cake and pour over the syrup. Allow the cake to cool and absorb the syrup before removing it from the tin.

7. If you want to go down the flaked almond topping route, here's what you do. Put the juice from an orange or a splash of orange juice from a carton into a small non-stick frying pan with the butter and sugar and melt it all together. After it has sizzled for a minute or so and begun to caramelize, add your almonds. Give it a stir and occasionally tip the pan to keep it all moving. Once all of the liquid has disappeared and the nuts are glossy and coated in the orange-scented glaze, remove to a plate to cool. Then sprinkle with merry abandonment on top of the cake. 

Chocolate Guinness Cake Recipe

5 July 2011

As promised, I am showering you with cake recipes this week - my all time top five no less. Today it's the turn of the wonderful Chocolate Guinness Cake recipe. The addition of the Guinness gives the chocolate cake a rich fudgy taste which is set of perfectly with the White Chocolate Cream Cheese Icing. It only uses a wee bit of Guinness so teetotaler's, expectant mother's and children are free to indulge should it take their fancy. I made and took this cake to my niece's engagement party earlier this year only to leave the party with the job of producing the wedding cake. So beware of the repercussions baking this cake could bring you. It really is that good.

Chocolate Guinness Cake

Serves 10-12

250g softened unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
200g soft dark brown sugar
100g good-quality dark chocolate, melted
2 large free-range eggs
200ml Guinness
275g self-raising flour
30g cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1tsp bicarbonate of soda

For the icing:
200g cream cheese
75g icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 tbsp soured cream
125g white chocolate, melted

1. Preheat the oven to 180C/ fan160C/gas 4. Grease and line a 23cm loose-bottomed cake tin.

2. Beat the butter with the sugar until pale and fluffy - this may take around 5 minutes or so. Gradually beat in the melted chocolate until smooth, then beat in the eggs one at a time.

3. Gradually whisk in the Guinness. You will have a smooth batter at this point. Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda, then fold carefully into the chocolate mixture.

4. Pour into the tin and bake for 35-40 minutes until a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin, then turn out onto a cake plate.

5. For the icing, beat the cream cheese, icing sugar and vanilla extract together until smooth, then mix in the soured cream and melted chocolate. Spread evenly over the cake and serve. If you want the icing a little firmer before spreading, pop it into the fridge for 10 minutes or so.

The dark sponge against the pale icing is quite stunning, but I do have a weakness of decorating my cakes with a little floral sprig or two. So finish the cake as you see fit and enjoy.

My Top Five Cakes

4 July 2011

Last week I was very busy with cakes. Yes, I know I was going to move on from the cake business thing, but every now and again I'm asked so nicely to bake a cake that I just can't say no. I do love to bake cakes particularly those that are central to happy times, celebrations and milestones. They might only be a bit of home-baked sugar-sweet sponge but they make people so happy and on occasion quite delirious.

It was my good friend Celia who commissioned me to make five cakes for her mother's 80th birthday party. The big bash took place over the weekend in London. The venue was the local church hall and the menu was tea and cake. Yes, literally. No faffing around with sandwiches and alike, but straight into the cake course. Now that's my kind of party! What I liked best about this commission was that I was left to my own devises creatively. The selection that I finally settled on consisted of the following; Courgette Cake (with a Lime Cream Cheese Frosting and Pistachio Nuts); Chocolate & Guinness Cake (with White Chocolate Frosting); Orange & Almond Cake topped with Almonds; Chocolate Brownies; Lemon & Thyme Shortbread Biscuits served with Seasonal Berries and Creme Fraiche.

I chose these five cakes for their variety and interest, but also because I have now made each of them so many times I believe that I have them down to a tee. A few people have been asking lately if I ever share my recipes. 'Of course' is my answer. They're not really mine at all. Some are old recipes that exist on dog-eared magazine tear outs, some are from much-loved recipe books and some are borrowed with a couple of my own tweaks thrown in. But they have become part of my baking repertoire and thus I have great affection to them all. So over this week I am going to post these very five cake recipes, starting with the Courgette Cake, which was taken from the cake bible itself How To Be A Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson. Keep these recipes to hand then should a bout of baking come over you in the very near future you'll be well prepared to fully embrace it.

Courgette Cake (with a Lime Cream Cheese Frosting and Pistachio Nuts)

2-3 courgettes
2 large eggs
125ml vegetable oil
150g caster sugar
225g self-raising flour
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp baking powder
lemon curd for the filling
200g cream cheese
100g icing sugar, sieved
I lime
2 – 3 tbsp chopped pistachio nuts

1. Preheat your oven to 180C/ gas mark 4 and grease and line 2 x 21cm sandwich tins.

2. Wipe your courgettes with a piece of kitchen towel and then peel on the coarse side of a grater. Once you have your pile of grated courgette, take a handful at a time and squeeze over the sink to remove excess water, placing the drained courgette in a bowl ready for adding to the mixture in step 4.

3. Put the eggs, oil, and sugar into a large mixing bowl and beat until creamy. Next sieve in the flour, bicarb and baking powder and continue to beat until well combined.

4. Now add your grated courgette and stir briefly until the mixture is flecked emerald green.

5. Divide the mixture equally between the two tins and bake in the oven for approx 30mins. The sponges are ready when slightly browned and firm to the touch. Once cooked place the tins onto a rack to cool for 10mins before turning out to cool completely.

6. Once the sponges are completely cool, you are ready to fill and ice. For the filling simply spread generously with some lemon curd. To make the frosting beat the cream cheese together with the sieved icing sugar. When your cream cheese and icing sugar are combined add a squeeze of lime for a delicious zing.

7. Smear the top of your cake thickly with the frosting. If you want to firm the icing up at all, place the cake in the fridge. Alternatively you can pop the icing in the fridge for 10 minutes or so to firm up slightly before spreading on top of your cake.

8. Just before serving sprinkle with the chopped pistachios and place a coordinating flower in the centre as a finishing touch. The inclusion of the flower is very much my little piece of creative freedom, but is by no means a necessity.

* Please note that this recipe is for a 2 layer cake. However this weekend I made a 3 layer version by adding half the ingredients again to fill a third cake tin.