Time For Tea

The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee has brought to the fore a more patriotic spirit than I’ve ever witnessed in my twenty-three and a bit years of life. Perhaps it’s linked to the Olympics (#London2012) or building on the hype of last year’s Royal Wedding festivities, but I’ve seen more red-white-and-blue than ever before, from bunting on trees to Union Flag manicures. And I’ve found it all rather heart-warming. On International Day at school, surrounded by girls in glittering saris, silky Korean hanboks and intricately embroidered kimonos, I often lamented the lack of an English national dress. The British, in particular the English, truly are in my somewhat limited experience the masters of understatement and not-wanting-to-make-a-fuss, and the general disdain with which much of the population look upon the closest thing I can think of to a national dance – Morris dancing – I thought spoke volumes about our national pride or lack thereof. But the marriage of William and Kate – now Katherine – last year contradicted me, and this year’s Jubilee festivities have solidified that still further. My delving into the world of the countryside has shown me and continues to enlighten me about a new side of British life, and the combination of these two worlds – the city and the country – has led me to the conclusion that British tradition – or rather English tradition, for the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish are all proud enough to have and to celebrate their own national dress and traditions – does still exist, if in a slightly subtle form. I may live to change, alter, regret or even deny this assertion, but it’ll do for now.

Yesterday I went to my second gathering of the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club, and it was just as good as before. Three stands, three pairs of clays per stand and plenty of cake! The highlight was most definitely the wonderful, adrenaline-fueled simulated flush put on by John, Derek and Sid, our lovely instructors. I thought I loved shooting, and my second simulated experience (the first being a 20-bird sequence shot from the grouse butt at RBSS) has cemented what the first confirmed – it takes it to a whole new level. You have no time to think, it feels so much more instinctive and you do get a real adrenaline rush. I shot RBSS’s Classic Handicap with an A Class shot, and was thrilled with my 8 kills out of 20 when he only hit 12! The flush yesterday reminded me of that, and I was delighted when I managed finally to open my barrels and let the ejectors do the work (at the beginning I carefully removed my spent cartridges and looked around mid-flush for the bin to put them in). I reloaded at record-breaking speed – a personal record but still… – mounted the gun and ‘killed’ a clay that had been launched while my gun had been broken. The cherry on the cake was to hear expert instructor John King behind me say “very good shot”, a self-esteem boost if there ever was one. Needless to say I can’t wait for my first game shoot.

Shooting and hunting are, of course, part of British Heritage, dating back to Idon’tknowwhen. Having graduated from and thus left university, I think I am now safe to reference Wikipedia (and will admit a mixed feeling of guilt, rebellion and liberation in doing so) when I say that the first recorded instance of hunting a fox with dogs was in 1534. The relaxation of the law in 1831 meant that shooting was more accessible to the masses. The association of hunting (and I include shooting under that umbrella of a term) and the monarchy help give shooting its terribly British reputation – though, I believe, HRH herself doesn’t shoot, Prince Philip does, and the newest member of the Royal Family, the Duchess of Cambridge, has been photographed shotgun in hand.

A yet more quintessentially British tradition is that of drinking tea. Tea is the lifeblood of the William Powell office, and I’m sure many other offices around the country. I don’t think my mother could function without it – we used to take little sacks of teabags on holiday with us, as she could never find tea good enough abroad. It was presented to the Britons by Asterix in place of the Magic Potion, and, drunk with ‘a drop of milk’ led them to win the battle against the Romans[i]. Despite being grown abroad and only becoming popular in the UK in the 1800s, tea is most definitely an English tradition, particularly when served with cucumber sandwiches and scones – which should be pronounced ‘sconns’ not ‘scoans’ – with clotted cream and jam (my mother and I disagree on the order of application of jam and cream, meaning it was a hot topic of debate around our tea table today… opinions welcome!)

All of the above means that a meeting of the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club, guns and teapots at the ready, on the weekend of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations seemed most wonderfully fitting. I successfully managed not only to make a cake for this meet, but not to drop it; I did my bit, arriving with both my orange and hazelnut brownies (loosely based on Leon’s ‘Better Brownie’) and my pride intact. My brownies joined the cakes brought along by the ladies were not only of the same spectacular standard as last time, and to mark the occasion, they were adorned with red, white and blue stars, and union flags both edible and paper. Bunting decorated the lodge, and the beautiful LadiesShooting tea cups, saucers, side plates and teapots stood about proudly, waiting to be filled with hot delicious English Breakfast tea.

I was surprised again yesterday, this time by a spontaneous act of patriotism at a friend’s barbeque in the evening. In my role as sensible driver, I was amused and somewhat impressed when the slightly tiddly group agreed to add a new rule to the drinking game, Ring Of Fire. While the various rules are much argued over, interchanged, debated and tweaked, I’ve not yet actually witnessed the introduction of a new rule – until last night. To mark the celebrations of the Queen’s sixty years of reign, it was agreed that upon drawing a queen from the ring of playing cards on the table, the whole group had to stand and sing the national anthem. And despite their small size, sing they did. Twice before the game was abandoned did the walls of the shared house vibrate with passionate, tipsy renditions of God Save The Queen. I had the forethought to film the second performance, but sadly as it was on someone else’s camera I can’t post it on here. The gusto with which the anthem was belted out perhaps says more about the quantities of G&T and Pimms-and-lemonade consumed, but I believe it also shows that at their heart, even a group of proactive and intelligent students and ex-students with political views ranging from the redest of reds to the bluest of blues, share a love of their country and their monarch – if not the monarchy as an establishment. But I’m not going to dissolve into a debate about the monarchy here; suffice it to say, the enthusiasm and general joining-in-ness was really lovely to see.

Today I celebrated the Jubilee by enjoying afternoon tea with my family, watching the slightly damp pageant on the River Thames, followed by the Diamond Jubilee special “entertainment extravaganza”, all with yet more tea, homemade elderflower champagne, cordial and Lemon Shrub (more on those to follow in a later post) and plenty more cake. I spent last Friday baking a variety of cakes: the aforementioned orange brownies with toasted hazelnuts; wholemeal scones; a lemon drizzle cake with a hint of ginger (could have done with a bigger hint in my opinion but a nice moist loaf nonetheless); and the best Victoria sponge I’ve made to date, consisting of two wholemeal sponges that actually deigned to rise rather well, sandwiched together with only-slightly sweetened cream (a hat-tip here to the ex-colleague who introduced me to this) raspberry jam and fresh raspberries, and topped with more cream and a fresh-fruit Union Flag, inspired by yesterday’s winner of the S&CBC rosette for Best Cake. The plan was for leftovers to be vacuumed up by my friends on Tuesday after a street party here in Twickenham, but I fear the half a lemon drizzle loaf and two wholemeal scones that are left may not quite fill us up. Luckily I still have some elderflower champagne and more potent lemon shrub left over, which should hopefully distract my guests.

Shooting, barbeques, mini-flags, friends, family, copious amounts of tea and cake, pretty red-white-and-blue napkins and plenty of patriotic spirit have made the Jubilee weekend rather wonderful so far. This is history in the making, and we are living through it. We are celebrating only the second monarch ever ever ever  to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee. (The feminist in me wishes to point out that both of the monarchs to achieve this were women. Long Live the Queen indeed.) If HRH lasts another four years – and I can think of no reason to doubt her – we will have cause to celebrate the longest reigning monarch in British history; truly something to celebrate. I’d better get planning those cakes.


[i] I still think Marcus Ginandtonicus should have played a key role in ‘Asterix in Britain’, if only due to the fabulousness of his name!

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Shotguns and Chelsea Buns

Last week I encountered a chain of bad luck. One due to my own clumsiness, one actually due to sheer bad luck, and all of which culminated in me bombarding my few Twitter followers with tweet after tweet after tweet last Saturday morning, every single one of them moaning about the traffic jam I was sat in for an hour and a half. There were four key factors that led up to this moment:

  • First, last autumn a girl I was working with wrote an article about her experience on a grouse moor for a new website, ladies-shooting.com.
  • Second, I started this blog.
  • Third, a couple of months ago I was embarrassed by my mother’s proficiency and persuaded by work to rediscover my Twitter account – which I duly linked to the blog, rechristening it @TheFirstFrost – and started ‘tweeting’.
  • Fourthly and finally, due to a diagnosis of bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, I have recently found myself living back in Greater London – temporarily I might add – and thus with a slight lack of anything even vaguely country to write about.

These circumstances all combined to stick me in the worst traffic jam I’ve yet experienced as a driver. I shall explain.

A friend at work encouraged, persuaded and bribed us all to ‘follow’ @William_Powell on Twitter. So that evening, I logged onto my dormant, near extinct Twitter account and did just that. Embarrassed by the fact that my mother was more social-medialy active than I was, and armed with a brand new shiny phone and my brand new shiny blog to talk about and shamelessly promote, I decided to pay attention to my neglected Twitter account. I promptly set about hunting for people to stalk – I mean ‘follow’. Amongst my victims were my colleagues, including the girl mentioned above who wrote the piece about the grouse moor. Sheep that I am, I also set about following people they were following, picking out anyone who seemed familiar, interesting or with an interesting name. Being a lady (or woman at least) who likes shooting, I opted to follow owner of the website she wrote for, @ladies-shooting. Little did I know it would bring me one step closer to that awful traffic jam.

City-bound as I was (and still am for that matter) I’ve had to actively hunt out things to write about, and so I derived my first benefit from Twitter. @ladies-shooting kept tweeting to the world about a clay shoot happening one weekend with the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club. I looked into it, and discovered that it is a ladies-only shooting club, where everything you require is provided, from guns to tuition, good company to cake, and I swiftly signed up.

The day before the shoot saw disaster number one. I set about making a ginger cake to take along, a very simple but very lovely, until-now failsafe recipe, requiring plenty of sticky ingredients – I finished off a tin of golden syrup in the making, which my dog very much enjoyed cleaning out.

However, one foolish and distracting phone call mid-bake meant that I forgot to add the key ingredient of my ginger cake: the ginger. After two minutes in the oven, I remembered, whipped the mostly-uncooked mixture out of the oven, and grated in my stem ginger, stirring it as little as possible before returning it to the oven. Sadly my last-ditch effort to gingify the cake meant that it sank in the middle, quite drastically; the Titanic of cakes if you will. Ever the optimist, I decided that I would cut the cake into squares, ice it, and no one would ever know of my ginger omission and its results. I released the sides of the springy cake tin, inverted it onto a plate, and removed the base of the tin. I then placed a cooling rack on the exposed bottom of the cake, and with one hand on the rack, one on the plate, set to turn it right way up onto the rack to cool. At this point my carpal tunnel kicked in: I dropped the lot. Half the cake slid off the plate onto the floor (much to the dog’s delight) and the rest smashed onto the counter. The cake was, even for the eternal optimist, ruined.

Not to be deterred, I reminded myself that there was nothing about Saturday’s shoot saying that you had to bring a cake, simply that you could if you wished. Next morning, I set off in plenty of time to drive to the Oxfordshire Shooting School to join the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club for the first time, sadly empty handed but armed with my ear defenders. Traffic caused by an accident earlier in the day caused everyone on the M40 to be diverted off at my junction down the A40, the road that I needed to drive down; and so we reach my traffic jam. I sat and crawled along, occasionally lifting my foot from the clutch as I reached the dizzying heights of 8mph, only to be shown a sea of red ahead of me as all cars hit their breaks and we ground yet again to a halt. I spent longer in that traffic jam than the entire journey should have taken. And so I tweeted my little heart out, simply as a means to keep myself amused. I also encountered a traffic sign that I don’t recollect specifically seeing before, and perhaps it was the petrol fumes, but it greatly amused me, surrounded as I was by stationary vehicles:

None of us had much need to be wary of tractors; unless one planned to drive over us all and crush us into real traffic jam (tasty and spreadable, with absolutely no pips!)

Luckily for me, I wasn’t the only one delayed, and when I finally made it to the Shooting School I was just in time to join a group on their first peg, and managed a decent score of 20/30 across all three targets. There was plenty of cake provided by luckier (or simply more organised) members of the group and we stood and sat around, chatting away drinking tea from beautiful china cups with matching saucers. All in all, it was well worth the wait, though I will aim to arrive on time next time.

For any women out there wanted to get involved in shooting, I highly recommend the club as an in. I knew no one at all when I arrived, but had a thoroughly lovely morning. The range of members is wonderful – there are people from a very country background kitted out in Dubarry’s and tweed, and people like me who really really aren’t. There’s also a fantastic variety of ability – you would not be alone as a complete beginner, and the instructors are prepared for that; but there were also a couple of experienced game shots that were both educational and a delight to watch. As I watched one of the women shooting one of the more challenging driven targets off a tower, she seemed to shoot in slow motion; she made it look elegant and easy, and there never was a better reminder that you have so much more time than you think you do from the moment you call for your target to the moment when you pull the trigger.

Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club has achieved something noteworthy (aside from there being tea and cake provided at every get together); they’ve managed to create a group serious about shooting without shying away from the feminine. Everything from the scorecards to the tea sets used at the end was oriented to women. And watching the lady I described above shoot demonstrated that it is possible to be a phenomenal game shot and be ladylike with it; as with all things, it simply takes practice. I very much look forward to the next shoot, on the 2nd June in Barbury near Swindon, and hopefully I can arrive with baked-offerings next time – if I can manage to bake a cake without dropping it or forgetting any ingredients.

The Ghost of Christmas Presents Past

At the back of the house I lived in in Banbury was a little square of lawn. Well-kept and maintained by the landlord, the flowerbeds surrounding the grass sported some fairly hardy plants that could cope with the physical and emotional neglect of the residents. At the back, stood a tiny little Conference pear tree that last Autumn, either due to a freakishly warm spell earlier in the year, or simply its own enthusiasm and determination to prove itself, produced a crop of fruit so substantial that the weight of the pears snapped the main trunk of the tree (still only about 2-3cm in diameter). I called my landlord to explain that I had picked all of the not-quite-ripe pears from the tree, and strapped it up as best I could in the hope that without its fruity burden it might recover. I asked if the landlord and his wife wanted the pears, and in answer he explained, in a bemused tone of voice, that he had only bought the tree for decoration because it looked pretty.

When I moved to Banbury last year, and despite my naivety when it comes to all things country, the girls I moved in with demonstrated fairly clearly that there is a whole other category of people who are in no way country-kitchen inclined. I stuck out like a sore thumb amid the hair extensions, acrylic nails, intense gym regimes and sunbeds, with my tweed coat (and yet only Joules tweed, not ‘real’ tweed), a pair of non-fashion wellies (despite what some people I’ve met in the last year might say about Hunters, mine are green and normal, not crocodile print, patent, beribboned, high-heeled or fluorescent) and my culinary habits. Admittedly, the girl who lived there before me had enjoyed cooking also (she and I in fact became good friends, and I’ve been lucky enough to taste some of the products of her kitchen, including the best Shrove Tuesday feast in history!) so the kitchen wasn’t entirely unused, but one of the current residents described her style of cooking as “pop, pop, pop!” alluding to the noise of piercing the film on ready meals before popping them in the microwave.

The attitude of the girls probably goes some way to explaining my landlord’s bewilderment when I called him up to ask about the pears. But due to his lack of interest in the products of the pretty tree and his generosity, I was left with 6kg of under-ripe pears to play with. Even after leaving them to ripen for a few days, they weren’t sweet enough to enjoy in a crumble or cake, and so I decided to try and make chutney – the first time of doing so without my Mum taking the reins. I picked and followed a recipe from the web, and added my cranberries, apricots, chilli flakes, spices and vinegar to make a Christmas chutney. By the time I reached the end of the recipe, I was left with what seemed to me to be a slightly vinegary fruit salad. It bore no resemblance to either the chutney my Mum makes, or the chutney served in restaurants with pate and Melba toast. The fruit pieces were all still very much identifiable but warm with a sweet, tangy coating. Frustrated and disappointed, with two saucepans of this fruit mixture in front of me, and a house smelling rather strongly of vinegar, I decided I had only four options. After neither my mother nor grandmother answered the phone, I had only two: give up, or Google.

Trusty Google suggested that other, non-pear based chutney recipes had vastly more sugar and vinegar than the recipe I had followed, and so after a mercy dash to the supermarket for more vinegar and a jam pan (I was running out of room in the pans I had been using), I took a deep breathe, hoped for the best and emptied a bottle of cider vinegar into the mixture, and added more sugar. Sure enough, after more cooking time and some stirring, poking and prodding, I was left with a mixture that looked much more like chutney. The only problem was, it tasted very much more like a pickle. Never one to be defeated, I sterilised some jars, filled them with the mixture, wiped the edges and sealed them. Later on, I covered each lid in a square of  tweed, tied them with rafia and labelled them all as ‘Spicy Christmas Pickle’.

These jars of pickle – and I had quite a few of them – were the beginning of my Christmas hampers last year. It was only September, but still I started collecting bits and pieces as I went along. Empty Dowe Egberts coffee jars from the office were perfect for homemade fudge. I bought some cheap but nice jars and a basket from a warehouse sale, and knowing my mother’s taste for gardening, bought a rather lovely trug as the base for my parents’ hamper (she has sworn to actually use it to garden, and not keep it ‘for best’). Closer to Christmas, I set about making the other bits and pieces. I strained and bottled half of my sloe gin, and made up a batch of fudge from a recipe given to me by a colleague – a sort of cross between fudge and Scottish tablet, very yummy and very moreish. Then I began the epic battle with the gingerbread men. I mixed up a batch of gingerbread men, and having carefully cut them out and baked them to perfection, laid them carefully in my biscuit and cake tins until I was ready to ice them. Sadly, either a caring housemate or gravity caused the lid of the tin (balanced slightly on top, as my biscuit tin was too popular, and over filled with gingerbread guests) to close properly, and broke every single gingerbread person bar two.

After a whiny phone call to complain to a friend, I took another deep breath and piled the broken pieces into a container to be taken to work (people there were always happy to help clear away the evidence of baking mishaps), then set about making another batch. I used the opportunity to use a different recipe, as the one I’d followed originally didn’t seem that gingery or spicy to me, and I wanted my gingerbread men to have a real spicy flavour. The new recipe had black treacle (molasses) and far more spices, and I used the syrup from a jar of stem ginger instead of golden syrup to add to the flavour. After baking, I spread them all out on the kitchen counter to cool before icing – and there were quite a lot of them. My housemates couldn’t believe it when they walked into the house one evening, slightly tipsy, to see their kitchen turned into a Gingerbread Man production factory. Once they’d got over the shock, they agreed to be my taste testers, and agreed that the newest batch of gingerbread men was much tastier than the old one. And after icing in red, white and green (it was Christmas after all!) they looked the part too. Once fully cooled and set, they were bagged up in groups of four (with at least one gingerbread lady per bag), tied with red or green ribbons, and labelled for the appropriate family members.

Final additions were made: some chocolate fridge cake bars (with edible gold stars on for a bit of Christmas sparkle), soft cinnamony Snickerdoodle cookies for grandparents with false teeth, a few prettily wrapped bars of soap we’d had come in at work, novelty Geordie-themed items for my Northern grandmother, and a couple more gardening and home bits for Mum and Dad. For those recipients who I knew wouldn’t appreciate clutter, the bits and pieces were popped into recyclable cardboard boxes wrapped in wrapping paper instead of baskets, and were filled with raffia or tissue paper. The results looked pretty, were very well received and according to feedback were tasty too.

The things to remember when making bits yourself are never to be deterred, and to use your imagination to personalise and also to cover up mistakes. One of my gingerbread men was blessed (cursed?) with ginger hair for one of my best friends – only because I knew how much it would irritate him. And when I dropped the edge of the baking tray onto one still-soft gingerbread man’s arm, he was graced with a white-iced bandage and sad face when it came to icing. You can add a sense of humour to your gifts, and while it sounds cliché, people really really do appreciate the effort you’ve put in. I’ll definitely be doing it again, though possibly not next year as I think it might be my turn to cook Christmas dinner again, and there’s only so much cooking one person wants to commit to at Christmas.

Lemon Curd Love Affair

I cannot for the life of me remember what inspired this, or even planted the seed in my head, but driving down the M40 one evening, I decided I wanted to make lemon curd. I quickly checked a recipe online (the combined joys of internet on a mobile, and Nigel Slater’s lovely recipes for The Guardian) and stopped off at Tesco Express to buy a bag of lemons. The next day I whisked up about two jars of lemon curd, and provided that you’re patient, and don’t take your eye off it – multi-tasking is not a talent to be boasted of when discussing the art of making lemon curd – it really truly is remarkably easy, and so so much tastier than shop-bought. The first thing I did was lick the spoon. The second thing was to eat a full spoonful. And only then did I make lemon cheesecake cupcakes.

This was also my second venture into Proper Icing. In Summer 2010 I ended up making my first Proper Cake. I had started making a fruit cake for my friend and flatmate for her 21st birthday (fruit cake is a favourite of hers). The week before her tea-party-themed birthday celebrations, she called me and said that her grandmother (the designated cake-maker) was ill, and would it be possible to have the fruit cake as the cake for the Main Event. Worried it wouldn’t be large enough – and also, many people don’t enjoy fruit cake – I knocked up a quick, simple Victoria Sandwich, and then set to icing them. Trying to fit in with the elegant, Summertime theme of the party, I decided to ice them in lilac and white. It’s important to bear in mind at this point that I don’t like icing myself, and we haven’t had iced cakes in many, many years. Mum made us each a birthday cake every year, but long ago she started icing them in coloured white chocolate, as none of us ate the icing. So my experience of proper icing was precisely none, but not to be deterred, I rolled out my lilac icing and set to laying and smoothing it over the cakes. One cake iced in lilac, with a white fully edible icing bow, and the other in white with a lilac equally-as-edible bow, I have to confess they looked rather lovely. And aside from a brief panic when one of the bows shattered the night before the party (my boyfriend of the time, darling that he was, rushed over via the cookshop bringing the emergency lilac sugar paste, and calmed me down as I quickly rolled, modelled and assembled a replacement bow), and an incredibly tense drive from London to Northampton with the cakes on the back seat, it all went remarkably smoothly. Unknown to me, I was in fact paid for the cakes by my friend’s father, though this was arranged between him and my boyfriend behind my back and I was only told about it the next day. But this did officially make these two cakes my first ever commission.

 

At Christmas I delved back into the childhood world of writing icing, decorating the gingerbread men and ladies for my Christmas hampers – more to come on those later. But that wasn’t enough; I wanted to do something more, something easy but something proper; something with roll-y icing. Despite the lack of a captured, icing-enjoying audience, I decided that simple icing shapes couldn’t be that difficult to make. I bought a probably too-expensive set of icing cutters from The Cake Shop near work, and with tubes of writing icing left over from Christmas gingerbread men, I rolled, cut and decorated lots and lots of little icing daisies. My lemon cheesecake cupcakes were simply a lemon sponge, with the homemade lemon curd filling, and cream cheese icing, each topped with two or three icing daisies. And I must admit, they looked lovely (and didn’t taste bad either). The success of the little white-and-yellow flowers was what inspired me to make the sugar roses I described before. As for what’s next, we’ll have to wait and see.[i]


[i] Two colleagues at work have set me some cake-related challenges, so I suspect one of those will be the next Cake Adventure to be featured here. Stay posted.

Interlude: Chocolate cake – one of your five a day?

Wandering down the vegetable isle in the supermarket last week I saw a fresh beetroot. In Country Living last month was a recipe for beetroot-cured salmon, and so into my basket went a fresh beetroot. But instead of home-cured salmon, I made cake. Chocolate cake. Chocolate and beetroot cake.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve attempted this, but it was definitely the most successful. At university I lived with a lovely girl with a wheat intolerance, who on her birthday was on a diet (why?!) sooo for her birthday cake (and it isn’t a birthday without cake) I tried to make a low-wheat low-sugar chocolate cake, with almonds for flour and beetroot for sweetness. It was completely the wrong time of year, and so I used cooked (not pickled) beetroot instead of the fresh in the recipe, and the added liquid in the cooked beetroot resulted in a sort of unplanned, dense, wet truffle cake. It tasted okay, but  the minute we told the boys in the flat of the healthy vegetable smuggled into their digestive systems amid layers of chocolate ganache and clouds of cocoa, they promptly declared themselves too full to eat another bite. Overall, sogginess aside, it wasn’t a complete disaster, and looked quite pretty – fresh flowers make a wonderful calorie-free alternative to sugar flowers, particularly if you don’t eat them.

Last week’s attempt proved much more successful. Using a recipe for chocolate and beetroot cake found on BritishLarder.co.uk as my starting point, and almost following the recipe, I casually whipped up a batch of 24 chocolate-beetroot cupcakes – assuming at this point that ‘casually’ means with much trepidation and very stained pink fingers.

Officially The Best Chocolate Cake Recipe I’ve ever baked, it may well take the place of all ordinary chocolate sponge for the rest of my life. It’s moist, yummy, deeply rich and chocolatey without being at all bitter, and goes very very well with a cream cheese icing – and the vegetable-phobe at work ate and enjoyed it, and even looked for another after learning it contained beetroot. I also decided to make sugar roses for the first time – though this swiftly became a solitary sugar rose, as while it was (I personally think) successful for a first attempt, it took quite a while as I have a slightly injured hand at the moment. The rest of the cakes had a light dusting of edible gold stars so they didn’t feel too left out, and they were quickly inhaled by the girls I shot with at BUCS last weekend and colleagues from work.

     

Continuing the cupcake-theme I’m going to backtrack to my last cupcake creation: salted caramel cupcakes. The livestock-and-peas farmer mentioned recently told me in passing of his love of caramel muffins. I’m not yet an experienced muffin-maker, but it did make me want to try caramel cupcakes. The unfortunate and unwitting contestants of The Great British Bake Off has taught me never to stir caramel, or else the sugar will crystallise. Admittedly I didn’t entirely follow this, but restricted my spoon-intervention to the odd poke just to assuage my worries that the sugar was sticking to the bottom of my non-stick pan. Of course it wasn’t. I must have more faith in my poor saucepan. Anyway, one brown-sugar victoria sponge later I was making two lots of caramel – a thick filling to fill the cakes, and a runnier sauce to mix into butter cream for the frosting.

In Richmond-upon-Thames there is a wonderful, Johnny Depp-worthy chocolaterie called William Curley (you can see some of his creations here: http://www.williamcurley.co.uk). When I was at school, a friend introduced me to William Curley by bringing into school a little cellophane bag for me, sealed with a pretty sticker. Inside was a solitary sea-salted caramel chocolate, and it was melt-in-the-mouth amazing. And so out on a limb and inspired by William Curley, I decided to add salt to my caramel mixtures. My advice for others would be to spoon a little of the mixture out and add a little salt to that, see if you like it before you contaminate the whole mixture. But apparently I don’t practise what I preach, and so sprinkle by teaspoon and teaspoon by sprinkle I added sea salt flakes to my filling and icing, and made my first ever salted caramel cupcakes. Not to blow my own trumpet, but it worked! I will definitely be making these again (at some point).