How to Make Profiteroles For The First Time Ever

Once upon a time, in a land far away[i], this blog was a collection of whimsical anecdotes about baking and shooting. Somehow it has morphed into a general outlet for whatever my internal monologue is concerned with at the time – not least because I am shooting and baking vastly less than I used to. But despite the general downhill trend of baking experiences, a few weekends ago I attempted to bake for the first time this year. More excitingly, it was something I’ve never made before and have always wanted to try; choux pastry. Therefore, in homage to the heritage of After The First Frost (and because I’ve currently no more Tinder Tales to report to you[ii]) I present to you: My Guide to Profiteroles.

The Day Before

    1. Recipe & Ingredients
      The day before you want to make your profiteroles, it’s a good idea to buy the ingredients. If you also have friends coming for Sunday lunch and expecting roast lamb, it’s not a bad idea to buy some lamb too, so head to Sainsbury’s with your wife[iii]. Definitely don’t write any form of shopping list. Once at the supermarket – and only once you are there – look up a recipe for profiteroles. Try to curb your impatience as the 3G coverage in the supermarket flickers in and out, before you realise there’s free Wifi available and get slightly over-excited. Once successfully plugged into the interweb, again Google a recipe for profiteroles. It’s obviously a very bad idea to look this up in advance, check which of the ingredients you have in the cupboard and write yourself a shopping list. It is far preferable to stand in Sainsbury’s trying to remember whether the Kilner jar of flour is self-raising or plain, and wondering what impact it would have on your profiteroles if it turns out you’re wrong. Do this therefore, and decide to risk it.
    2. Mental Preparation
      Remember to put the cream and butter in the fridge once you get home, but leave the other ingredients out on the table, because it’s easier than trying to put them away. When a friend cancels the film night you had planned because he’s still unwell, poor thing, agree to go out for a quiet drink with your housematebestfriendwife to a local beer café after dinner. Have her mix a round of sweet Manhattans while you make dinner, and know that your subconscious is definitely thinking about profiteroles, somewhere in the background. As dinner is almost ready, mix up another round of Manhattans – this time to test whether you prefer a perfect one to sweet. Enjoy dinner, and when it turns out that you do prefer a Manhattan perfect, make a third to celebrate the fact while applying a little make up before you leave. End up in a deep discussion about bourbon with the very educated barman in the beer café, and instead of beer, end up trying two brand new bourbons: Elijah Craig and Basil Hayden’s (BH definitely won.) Fast forward to 1am, where your profiterole and Sunday-lunch-hosting prep should will be taking the form of you trying not to cry over the piano in a bar, distraught that you can’t play from memory the second half of that Bach piece you learned about a decade ago, and that your fingers are turning the opening waterfall of Debussy’s First Arabesque into a discordant tangle of fingers and wrong notes. It’s definitely because you can’t play the piano anymore and music has abandoned you; nothing to do with the booze. Make a mental note to be grateful tomorrow morning that the bar is closed at this hour of the morning, and only the lovely owner and his equally lovely daughter have had their ears subjected to the caterwauling coming from your hands.
    3. Rest Up
      Steel yourself for the unbelievable cruelty that is telling your housematebestfriendwife that the two of you can’t go dancing at 1.30am. Her lower lip will wobble, the heartbreak will be blindingly evident on her face, but you will have to be firm. Even when her eyes fill with tears as she begs to find somewhere still open to dance, stay strong and call that taxi. (Spoiler: it’s fine, she won’t remember in the morning.) Bed at 2am will give you plenty of rest before profiterole-making duties.


      On The Day

    4. Getting Up
      When your body clock kicks in and wakes you up too early, forgive it. On this occasion, you need to be up as your plan to clean the house on Saturday unfortunately fell by the wayside, and thus not only is there last night’s dinner and drinks mess to clear up, but a sitting room and kitchen to clean, lamb to prepare, and, of course, the all-important profiteroles. Lying in bed, drink some water and start plotting out your morning and how you’re going to get things done. Hear a groan from across the corridor as your housematebestfriendwife wakes up too. End up spending an hour sprawling on the bed, nattering together and to a friend on the phone, feeling thoroughly sorry for yourselves. Drink more water. Decide that any preparation can wait, and that coffee and breakfast take precedence. Head to a local Melbourne-inspired coffee shop for poached eggs on smashed avocado on sourdough, not forgetting the prosciutto and of course an incredible coffee. Sneak in a blueberry and lemon friand, because you can, and another cup of coffee. Decide to leave the café. Drink another glass of water. Fifteen minutes later, actually leave the café. Get back to the house just before midday, and don’t start panicking that no prep has been started. Your housematebestfriendwife will start the lamb, and you will definitely not start thinking about profiteroles. Instead, you’ll drink yet another glass of water and tidy the sitting room (read: throw anything that is looking messy up the stairs with the intention of getting it out of sight, but accept right now that you won’t get round to it, and the stairs will simply stay covered in stuff.) Try to ignore your churning stomach, and take two painkillers. No hangover here, promise.

    5. Guests arrive
      When your first guest arrives, have a slight panic with your housematebestfriendwife about whether profiteroles are really the best idea, with less than two hours before you’re due to serve lunch and the veg and mint sauce not yet cooked or made. Dig out an old cookery notebook and use that and trusty Google to look up ‘easy chocolate mousse’. Rule this out completely when you see the words “chill for at least eight hours before serving.” Decide to stick to the original plan and make profiteroles; you know you have the ingredients (ignoring the mystery of the flour); enough time to make them is optional. Hangovers have a magical effect on the laws of time and space and will make it possible.

    6. The Method
      While catching up with your friend, measure out the flour (plain? Self-raising? Only time will tell), sugar and a pinch of salt. In your hungover state, get excited to be using the bamboo salt pot you bought as a souvenir on a recent holiday to Australia, with its swivelling lid. Take a few moments to demonstrate this to your bemused friend. Alternately try to calm and ignore your housematebestfriendwife as she flaps around the kitchen panicking, and start the choux pastry. Melt the butter in the water and bring to a rolling boil. The recipe says wooden spoon – will silicon really make a difference? Decide it’s not worth the risk, and dig out a wooden spoon from somewhere. Hear someone say hello at the precise moment you tip the flour mixture into the saucepan. Utterly ignore the two new guests as you frantically beat the mixture with your wooden spoon. Beat, beat, beat, and feel better about not having done any exercise; this definitely is working the muscles in your right arm, and that’ll do for now. Continue to ignore your guests, and rely on the first guest to entertain the other two while your housematebestfriendwife gets drinks, and you start beating the eggs into the pastry batter. Remind yourself to breathe as the mixture starts looking a little like the pictures online. It’s a passable choux pastry, pre-baking at least. Encourage the guests to move through to the sitting room, speaking over your shoulder while still focusing on the pastry. Scoop the mix into a piping bag, and pipe little round dollops of mixture onto the baking tray. Realise you’ve no idea how much they will puff up – if at all – and prepare yourself that even if, despite all your thorough and rigorous preparation the day before – the baking goes well and the mixture rises, you might end up with a tray of profiteroles joined together like a batch of Hot Cross buns. Too late to worry about it now. Dampen your finger in a mug of water and push down the little pointy tops, and finally sprinkle a little water over the tray, because that’s what Google says to do.
    7. The Cooking
      When cooking profiteroles, it is essential to put them into the oven at the exact temperature at which your leg of lamb is cooking, whatever that may be. Don’t panic about whether they will take on a flavour of roasted lamb and garlic; everyone loves a savoury, meaty note in their profiteroles. Move the lamb down a shelf and slide the baking tray into the top of the oven. Absent-mindedly wonder whether baking profiteroles are affected by opening and closing the oven door while cooking. Close said door. Set a timer for 15minutes.
      Four minutes later, open the oven door to remove the lamb. Close the oven door.
      Check the lamb, decide it needs longer.
      Open the oven door, put the lamb back in. Close the oven door.
      Accept a glass of prosecco, feeling your stomach turn slightly as you do so, and finally turn to greet your guests in the sitting room. After all, it’s only been half an hour since they arrived.
      Moments later, excuse yourself again and dive back to the kitchen. Squeal loudly with excited pride when you see that against all odds, your beloved profiteroles have started to rise. Rejoin your guests.
      Leave the guests again to check the profiteroles again. Still rising.
      After a precise ‘little while’ go back and using a sharp knife, prick a hole in the bottom of each bun. Return them to the oven to dry out slightly.
      Once you’ve removed them from the oven for the final time, collapse back on the sofa with your prosecco in hand, and enjoy official success.
    8. Serving
      After gazing lovingly at your little puffed up choux buns, make the caramel cream. Fill the piping bag, and find that the swirls of once-warm caramel have set a little and are blocking the nozzle of the piping bag. Said nah will then burst its seam on one side. Decide that the filling and drizzling with chocolate sauce is asking too much – after all, how can people be expected to believe your profiteroles rose if there’s cream filling up the lovely little air pockets? Put the caramel cream in one bowl, chocolate sauce in another, and proudly serve your guests Deconstructed Profiteroles. A filled profiterole is so very gauche; assembling them yourself is all the rage right now, don’t you know?

 

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[i] Also known as Oxfordshire.

[ii] This is due to no more story-worthy online dates, rather than the result of a successful one.

[iii] In reality she’s my best friend and housemate, but if even her mother refers to you as her Wife, you kind of have to accept it. Maybe I’ll call her ‘housematebestfriendwife’ from now on.

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Farmyard Tales

As a child I used to read the Usborne books ‘Farmyard Tales’. My memories are a little hazy; someone was called Poppy, but I’m not sure whether that was the dog or the daughter; a sheep ate a lot of flowers – I remember tracing the path with my finger; there was a red tractor, but I don’t remember what role it played in the story. My one, unerring memory is that on every single page was a little yellow duck, peeking out from behind a tree or under a bale of hay or anywhere else where in real life there would almost certainly not be a nosy duck, let alone a bright yellow one. But then illustrations of children’s fiction aren’t exactly known for the factual accuracy.

A few weeks ago I visited my real-life farm again. Sir Pheasant has relinquished his hold on it back to Mr Farmer, though not altogether willingly. He still struts about the place as if he owns it, his doting covey of partridges scuttling along behind him; but since October 1st[i] he is striving to come to terms with his impending doom as the first shoot on the farm approaches, and he is making funeral arrangements with the family (current plans are to be wrapped in streaky bacon and served with a port and quince sauce much like his ancestors before him.)

Sir Pheasant’s farm is in fact called Hall Farm and there is neither dog not little girl called Poppy, but there is a gorgeous black lab called Paddy, which is close enough for me. Not many flower beds to munch, but there are sheep and I’m sure they chomp through a few meadow flowers while out grazing. And there are plenty of tractors. I’ve already posted the photo of the blue one I drove, but there are others too (though not a bright red one). Most excitingly there is a huge big yellow combine harvester (cue the Wurzels.) Mr Farmer made the mistake of referring to it as ‘she’, much as one would to a ship I guess, but in light of it – and of course to poke fun – I’ve christened said combine ‘Sally’. Sally, being so yellow, takes the place of the ever-present Usborne duck, even if she isn’t small and doesn’t sneak from page to page. She’s the yellowest thing on the farm, and that shall have to do.

If you say ‘harvest’ to me, it conjures up out of the distance a dusty image of a line of sturdy little children plodding up to the stage in the assembly hall and placing their tin of fruit cocktail in syrup or chick peas in salted water onto the pile beneath an arrangement of orange flowers with grasses and wheat, a huge loaf of bread in the shape of a sheaf of wheat and a scattering of gourds, marrows, pumpkins and other autumnal veg that wouldn’t go bad too quickly. All this to the faint notes of a mostly-in-tune robust rendition of ‘We plough the fields and scatter…’ In real life of course, this is the children’s harvest festival at a suburban school and harvest is in fact a real thing that occurs with far fewer hymns and far more poor farmers sat for hours on a combine making its way slowly up and down fields. Or to be more accurate, this year at least, sat on said combine in thick obstinate mud waiting for a tractor to come and set them free, so they can continue cutting until the next boggy patch – probably in about ten minutes time.

When I visited Hall Farm in September I got to spend a morning actually helping out – or at least I hope I helped. The first thing we did was set about welding bits of metal to bits of fence and gate to repair and reinforce. I got to be the lovely assistant, though sadly with no sequins. Still, I made do with a box of solder and we got on with the job. Gate and post fixed, it was combining time and I got to have a ride around with Sally (this time cue The Commitments). The only thing I can say is that combine harvesters are absolutely enormous. Seriously Big with a capital B. And loud. And powerful. If Sally were human, she’d be one of those amazing black women, huge, strong, sexy and formidable, with an attitude almost as big as her voice. Think Queen Latifah in Chicago. Except painted bright yellow, churning wheat and with fewer solos. I sat on the combine for a big as we attacked a dry patch of field, and after a bit I got off for the not-so-country pursuit of taking photographs. Equally as impressive viewed at a distance, in the early Autumn sunshine with dust clouds following in her wake. Sadly, I had to leave at lunchtime to face the drive back from Yorkshire to London. Or perhaps not so sadly, as about ten minutes after I left Sally embarked upon a game of Stuck-in-the-Mud without the courtesy of warning poor Mr Farmer.

Actually seeing grain being harvested was just a little bit amazing. There are hundreds of thousands of tonnes wheat held in grain stores across the country, and much of it will go off to a commercial bakery to be made into the bread we buy off the shelves in Tesco and Sainsbury’s and such. More will go to feed the animals that are slaughtered to provide the building blocks of my sausage casserole or coq au vin. The more I learn about agriculture and the production of the raw ingredients that I take so much for granted, the less inclined I am to buy from supermarkets. One of the exciting bonuses about work  (that I may have already mentioned) is the farmers’ market that is held every Thursday. In the office this translates to ‘Sausage Thursdays’; there is a man with fresh sausages cooking on a griddle, and at 9.05am once everyone’s switched their computers on, orders are taken and one kind-hearted soul pops over to the Sausage Man and comes back clutching steaming rolls filled with all sorts of combinations of sausages of various varieties, onions (or not) and range of dripping sauces. But as well as hot sausages, you can buy fresh, local meat, fish, cheese and veg. Sometimes there’re homemade baked goodies (though I still prefer to make my own) and other bits and pieces too. A few weeks ago it was my turn to host a group of friends in our own version of ‘Come Dine With Me’, and I themed my menu around British, seasonal food – and sourced as many ingredients as I could from the market and nearby deli, nicely named ‘Market Square’.

The menu proceeded thus: we had beetroot and goats’ cheese tarts to begin, with homemade pastry, a huge bunch of locally grown and freshly dug up beetroots, and British goats’ cheese. For mains, a pork and apple braise, with apples so local I picked them from the garden just before cooking, and served with squash and purple sprouting broccoli. The squash was a disappointment; I had wanted to serve pumpkin, but despite my expectations and best efforts hunting one down – it being the beginning of October at this point, and me armed with a deerstalker and pipe – I couldn’t find a pumpkin anywhere. But butternut squash sufficed. For dessert we had sticky cinnamon figs, with mascarpone and pistachios, having been assured by the good old Interweb that figs were in season, and this being backed up by their presence at the market. And finally we had a range of local cheeses, including a Sussex blue and an award-winning Sussex goats’ cheese, which I’ve sadly forgotten the name of. These lovely cheeses were accompanied by nothing other than the terribly local Twickenham Preserves’ rhubarb chutney, and crab apple and quince jellies.

Overall I was delighted with how much I managed to source from the market, and with the reasonable prices I paid. I didn’t feel ripped off in the slightest, and was happy to know I was helping local farmers get a good price for the hours of labour they put in. It’s something I’m keen to continue doing – once I’m all moved out and fending for myself (second time lucky) I’m wondering whether I can fit my weekly shop into my lunch hour, and pop to the market every Thursday. We shall see.

To top off the night, I was almost as delighted with the wine suggestions and donations from work. They’re proving to be a very supportive and helpful bunch to work with. The girls and I enjoyed a not-yet-on-the-shelves sparkling white as an aperitif, which we all enjoyed very much. Then a heavy pinot noir rose to accompany the beetroot, a dry cider with the pork and finally a tawny port to go with the figs and cheeses. I suppose in thinking [writing] about it, I should have served English wine to go with my British-grown farmer-friendly menu. Oh well, something to consider next time round.


[i] The first of October marks the start of the pheasant-shooting season, for the enlightenment any city-based readers. Let it never be said that this blog is not informative; I strive to share my muddy enlightenment, and in doing so to educate as well as shoot and bake.

No Method in my Madness

This blog was supposed to be about a City Girl discovering Country Life, shattering all illusions of Ambridge-like agriculture and Downton-esque dress codes. And it was going well. I had down-graded from Capital City to City, from City to Town; I’d learned where my full-beam headlights were, and the various types of farming and various names for a cow; and I was spending more time with rurally-minded friends willing to welcome me into their country lives without holding me accountable for either my giggle-inducing naivety or gawping stares (and verbal equivalents) at their odd habits.

Then misfortune struck and I found myself being rescued by Maman et Papa and thus back in London. Don’t worry, I thought/wrote. It’s only temporary.

Seven months after I started documenting my muddy discoveries, I’ve ended up not only living in the Big Smoke, but joining the Rat Race of commuters each morning. I’m up stupidly early, not to walk dogs or muck out horses, but to chase the bumper in front of me at a snail’s pace around the M25 every morning as the sun makes up its mind whether to battle the city smog, or to give in and force us mere mortals to accept that England is known as grey and drizzly for a reason. While I stubbornly refuse to hear my alarm clock, Mr Sun is enjoying longer and longer lie-ins, and rarely has the energy when he does wake to fight off the blanket of grey.

As previously mentioned, I’ve recently started a new job. This is partly (wholly) to blame for the lack of words on this blog in recent weeks. It’s actually really rather wonderful, and not at all as dismal a picture as I’ve painted above (except for the traffic jams. They really are dismal.) I’ve mentioned before that my new position is as Category Insight Executive at a wine agent. What I didn’t tell you is what exactly that means, for the very good reason that I didn’t know. But now I can! Sort of at least. My job is in effect studying future trends by means of data analysis. It could be a terribly boring job I’m sure, but actually even in under a fortnight I’ve discovered it’s not only a romantic product to be working around but an interesting one, and I’ve been given projects to sink my teeth into, even if they are the wine industry’s equivalent to a baby’s teething ring. I’ve had my first wine tasting, and I’ve learned just how much I didn’t know I didn’t know about wine. For now it’s only the commercial wine knowledge that’s essential – and bits of it are sinking in already; I just hope they stick. But one lovely thing about the company, aside from the chef who makes us lunch every day, is that they like every member of staff to have at least a very basic knowledge of wine itself. This means that at some point in the not too distance future, I’ll be studying for my first wine qualification. I’m rather excited.

Most of my friends will know that I’m more of a gin girl – Hendricks with cucumber, or a delicious fruit gin if I can get it. My interaction with wine has been extremely limited, predominantly because I discovered at university that cheap wines (or at least the ones I’d tasted) are really rather unpleasant. Cheap gin on the other hand is drinkable, as is cheap cider. Which means if one wants to actually enjoy the liquids passing one’s lips as an impoverished student on a tight budget, one would choose either of these two over wine – at least if one is a one with preferences similar to my own. The other contributing factor is that I Like Food. I like cooking, and I love a home-cooked meal. So even if I did ever find myself with a few pence to spare – which was increasingly rarely once I started shooting – I’d be more likely to be found down the butcher’s choosing some lovely fresh sausages for dinner than in the nearest off-licence.

Nonetheless, I’m rather excited about discovering wine. I hope I won’t evolve into a dreadful wine-snob, and if in a year’s time I’m writing about the delicately fragrant nose of a particular Sauvingon Blanc or Pinot Gris, with delicate hints of asparagus and grass, a full green flavour with toasty smoked caramelly undertones or some such; if this turns into a wannabe’s wine blog, I can only apologise. I am as I type (with my left hand only) saluting with three fingers straight, my pinky held tight by my thumb and in doing so I hereby promise to do my best[i] to keep my feet planted firmly on the ground, where possible in some muddy country undergrowth; to keep my head below the level of the clouds, even if that involves ducking come the Winter; and to ensure that all and any of my vacillations documented here are themed strictly in accordance with the theme of the this blog (however much I am failing at present.) Or I promise to try at any rate. Unless I have nothing more interesting to write about, because surely even wine-snobbery has to be better than empty space.

With respect to this blog, my lovely new job does have some points in its favour, and may yet produce more tales of rural enlightenment for your amusement. Only time will tell. They are as follows.

  1. It is not in London. It is in fact in the beautiful county of West Sussex, near plenty of shooting grounds and even some shoots, or so I have been led to believe. In actual fact my petrol-fuelled commute only skirts the dirty frayed hem of the capital city. I’m not actually in The City itself.
  2. I work opposite a gun shop! Just imagine my amazement – and delight – as I popped out during my lunch-break last Thursday, resigned to my sinking back into country life, only to discover a homeware/baking shop, farmers’ market and gun shop all within a 1cm radius of work. Please forgive the hyperbole but I promise you, they’re close. It seems all is not lost. Hurrah!
  3. I work with at least two self-confessed country bumpkins. I am not closeted with suited and booted city-folk working till midnight and drinking until 4am only to hit the glamorous shiny gym at 5am after 30 seconds shuteye. I work with people who like their home time, who like their evenings in, and at least one girl (and she promises me there are more) who shoots and even owns her own gun! A second Hurrah is called for.
  4. I work not far from a) some lovely countryside and b) a clay shoot or two (or more). I’ve been reliably informed by the very nice John and Irving in the gun shop that should I move to the area in the future, I would be able to find myself some clays to smash without travelling too far. There is a light at the end of the tunnel for my shooting aspirations (which are to one day own a gun and be able to shoot it more than twice a year.)
  5. I get to taste wine, and occasionally to bring the majority of a bottle home after a tasting. With regard to the blog, this is more exciting from the baking point of view than the country one, but it’s exciting nonetheless.In the back of my head is a box[ii], and in this box are little elves. I picture these elves sat on those high wooden stools we had in the old fashioned science labs before the melamine surfaces conquered all, in a room dusty with icing sugar and full of the sound of ticking clocks and the gentle hissing of egg-timers and hour-glasses (probably filled with ground almonds instead of sand, but that may be the macarons I made recently talking). The elves are scribbling away on rolls of parchment with Davinci-esque scribbles of cake and fairy cake ideas. For the last week and two days, the elves have been busy embarking on the idea of an alliance between the Realm of Wine and Empire of Cake… [iii]

Here my words have all but run out, I’m running on fumes as they say. I’ll try not to leave it another three weeks before posting, but please be forgiving with your expectations. I hope I haven’t left you despairing of anything vaguely muddy ever appearing on this blog again. The mud will be back, I promise. To give you hope: I have my first game shoot this coming season and at least two more Chelsea Bun Shoots before the year is out, not to mention another farm visit. To make amends for fooling you into reading this post when there has been no shooting or baking of any sort, here are some pictures of my recent bakes, as a shrug towards a baking theme.


White chocolate and pecan ‘blondies’ with a crab apple glaze
Ready for the last night of the BBC Proms

Pork and Apple Sausage Rolls with Sage and Chili
Also for the Proms Picnic

Amaretto Macarons – The First Attempt

St Clement’s Cupcakes
For the Monday Morning Meeting

I can only apologise for the lack of accompanying words. If the elves are successful, hopefully there will be more bakes to come for which I can provide some wordy descriptions to complement any photographic evidence. Right now, the elves asleep on their parchment, snoring softly onto the sketches, and as for me, my duvet is beckoning. Good night.


[i] …to love my God, to serve my Queen and country, to help other people, and to keep the Brownie Guide Law.

[ii] If you don’t have an in-head filing system, I highly recommend it. It helps keep what I call creativity but what others call madness at bay, particularly around the latter types that might be inclined to call for Professional Help. Of course it’s only effective up to a point…

[iii] If you’re not one of these people, and are inclined to accept my madness, you should definitely read a) The Land of Green Ginger by Noel Langley, if just for some of the most imaginative names you have ever laid eyes on, and b) The Phantom Tolbooth by Norman Juster, for the relief of knowing you’re not alone and giving you the (perhaps-false) confidence to make public your madness by posting it on the World Wide Web. These 6am starts are not good for me.

Pies and Prejudice

Fabulous Fortnight Part 3

 And so we come to the end of the life-changing fortnight. Though the life-changing bit had actually already happened, a long-awaited diagnosis and new career, the (hopefully annual) Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club Competition and scrummy BBQ social topped off the fortnight perfectly.

As with every meet of the Bun Club, there would be baked offerings of all sorts from members. After the success of my tiramisu at the Hen Party, I decided to make tiramisu cupcakes. The sponge, idea of how to fill them and the base for the icing were all borrowed from the wonderful Hummingbird Bakery, but the recipe for the actual icing and filling were my own doing. By digging out the middle of each cake, slicing it, soaking it in a sinfully boozy coffee-amaretto mixture and layering with creamy filling and grated dark chocolate, I hoped to create a mini-tiramisu in each pretty cupcake case. I topped them off with an amaretto-mascarpone icing with just a hint of coffee, and with a final a sprinkle of cocoa they were ready for the competition. I gently popped them into cake tins – they had to go into three separate tins; no chance of layering these cakes without smushing the icing.

Before the S&CBC competition, I drove over to Barbury Shooting School in Swindon with my old instructor and shot the 100-bird challenge. I was pretty happy with how I shot I have to say – a one or two sloppy mistakes from lack of practice (and concentration), and towards the end some very frustrating misses as my HNPP-sore hands refused to do what my brain told them to. But I came out with a not-embarrassing score, especially compared to the ladies who had shot before me, so I’m pretty content. More practice required I think. Once I get settled in my new job (insert squeak of excitement here) my plan is to find a local shooting ground and get trigger-pulling.

Shooting a 100-bird competition the day before my Proper Competition with the Chelsea Buns was perhaps not a great move for my chances on the day, fun as it was. I turned up with a stiff back, still-sore hands, sore legs to boot and a slightly tender shoulder; not the best state to start a competition. Again, my kills I did shoot well, with only one really chippy break – I actually thought I’d missed it but spectators and the scorer thankfully disagreed. Some misses were good – as long as I know where I missed it, I can correct it. You actually learn more from a miss than from a break, as long as you’re concentrating. But more frustrating/sloppy mistakes meant I lost any chance I had of winning fairly early on. Nonetheless, I was thrilled to finish the competition by straighting the final stand – always nice to go out on a high.

I volunteered to score for the afternoon’s open shoot, and while juggling clipboard, ear defenders, pen and plate stacked high by the generous BBQ man, I traipsed around the stands again to watch people who actually knew how to shoot – and shoot well – have a go at it. Once we got back to the clubhouse, I was both disappointed and thrilled to find that all sixteen of my tiramisu cupcakes had been eaten. Good news as it meant they obviously liked them, slightly sad that I hadn’t had one – but this was quickly appeased when I remembered that I had hidden four in the car in case of some late-arriving friends. And after stuffing my face with cake, decided that they were really rather tasty even if I do say so myself. Luckily for me, my arrogance was justified when Chief Chelsea Bun Victoria announced that they had won Best Cake. So I am now the proud possessor of a pink rosette for my cupcakes. Hurrah!

Earlier in the week, after finding out I’d got the job, I went out for (of course gin-based) celebrations with a friend. He jokingly commented that the exclusion of men from the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club was quite sexist, that they needed an ‘Emilio Pankhurst‘ to protest on their behalf. Though I know he was joking, it still was a little thought provoking. Another male friend from university, keen on both baking and shooting, has commented before enquiring about whether he could join. And the answer is, in general, no. The social this weekend was an exception, when the menfolk were not only welcomed but even invited to shoot. Nevertheless in general it is an exclusively female club; no Y-chromosomes allowed.

Does this make us sexist? I guess in some ways the answer is yes by definition: men are not allowed to join most shoots, in virtue solely of their being male. But the club is actually helping to redress the balance in the world of what is a predominantly male-dominated sport. Most shooting grounds will find that their client base is much more blue than pink, and guns are designed and shaped for the average male build – otherwise they’d have far higher combs and there would be no need for gadgets such as Jones stock adjusters (a life-saver for any woman with breasts above a B-cup) or comb raisers to let us dainty females keep our heads straight on the stock and thus shoot straight even if blessed with the highest of sky-high cheekbones.

I suspect it initially stems back not to discrimination of women, but to the hunter/gatherer instincts of the human race. Hunting is, as I’ve said before, embedded deep within human nature. It makes sense that we can still find satisfaction in it, even now in our grandesuperskinnyicedfrappemochaccino times. Our base instincts haven’t evolved as quickly as our taste in coffee. Back before the advent of Starbucks and even further back, if there ever was such a time, the male of the species did much of the hunting, while females were bogged down with all the child-bearing malarkey. But now in our modern, post-Starbucks world where women have proven their ability to multi-task, taking care of themselves as well as bearing offspring, why shouldn’t we be given the opportunity to shoot too? The ladies-only Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club goes some way to help redress the balance – not by excluding men, but by giving women a chance to ‘catch up’; to shoot in the company of other women and build their confidence without fear of either embarrassment or being snappily told to stop talking. It gives some inexperienced ladies a chance to learn how to hold a gun properly, and realise that they can actually break targets. And those that can already smash a clay nine times out of ten can simply practise doing so in good, girly company with plenty of tea and cake. The club would never do anything other than encourage a lady gun to go out shooting with male friends and companions in between and even sometimes straight after the ladies-only shoots, nor would it discourage men from shooting (or possibly to start a male-version of the club, for those baking-mad guns out there – The Shotgun and Homemade Pie Club perhaps?) So Emilio Pankhurst can step down, the club is not sexist. From where I’m sat, it exists simply to promote good girly fun, enjoyment of a fabulous sport and of course, practice practice practice.

Proof: a man shooting at the S&CBC Competition, taken by Kay Thompson

The weekend’s competition was a huge success. The ladies-only beginners’ and novice categories gave the girls a chance to experience a proper CPSA competition format without the pressure of shooting amid a crowd of experienced male guns. The afternoon let the Chelsea Bun HABs[i] have a go too, with the open shoot there for anyone to compete in. The BBQ on site provided more than enough tasty burgers, proper sausages and crunchy coleslaw. The bar issued numerous drinks as the clock stuck Pimms O’Clock and a couple of hours later Gin O’Clock, and the clubhouse gave home to the traditional S&CBC tea and cake, complete with tea sets and beautiful cake stands made by Victoria herself.

Having built up an appetite so large that even a BBQ and an award-winning cupcake couldn’t satisfy it, the cherry on the cake that was my fabulous fortnight was dinner at the famous pie pub in Deddington, Oxfordshire. My chicken, ham and leek pie appeared with a cloud of puff pastry rising out above my pie dish like a flaky sky-scraper, hiding a scrumptious filling that went perfectly with my glass of Chardonnay (I need to get to grips with some of this wine stuff now, if I’m going to be working ‘in the industry’) And it was a Proper Pie, with pastry lining the pie dish as well as adorning the top. As if one wasn’t enough, I ordered the apple and cinnamon pie for dessert. It arrived and took my breath away – along with my confidence in finishing it. It was the same size as my main, with the same tower of flaky pastry this time drizzled with maple syrup and dusted with icing sugar. With deliciously creamy vanilla ice cream hidden inside the pastry of all places, it was heavenly. And finished completely – only one step off licking out the dish.

A truly fabulous fortnight, and just in case anyone involved is reading this, I’d like to thank those involved: the Lancastrian Chelsea Bun for her recipe; Dad for enjoying his chips and friands, for making that Kichen-Day a success and for the celebratory bubbles after getting the job (and Mum for celebrating with me); NeuroDoctor for finding an answer to The Mystery Of The Numb Hand/Knee/Leg/Feet; Mr and Mrs Newly Wed and their wedding elves for the most wonderful First Wedding I could have been invited to; my interviewers for agreeing to give me a chance (sucking up even before day one – brownie points??); a certain someone up in York for putting me onto the job in the first place and for recommending me, and her fiancé for helping confirm the address for her thank-you flowers; the Chelsea Buns for enjoying my cakes enough to give me the rosette – my first ‘award’ for baking! – and Chief Chelsea Bun Victoria for organising such a splendid event, and for creating such an incredibly inclusive, friendly, not-at-all-sexist and encouraging club. A joy to be a part of it, not least because of all the cake.


[i] Husbands and Boyfriends

Strawberry Friands Forever

The Fabulous Fortnight – Part 1

Last-weekend-but-one kicked off what has turned out to be a fortnight of life-changing discoveries and general wonderfulness, including everything from home-cooked chips to award-winning cupcakes, county wedding confetti to clay competitions, a foot on the first rung of the career ladder to a long-dreamt of diagnosis…

First came my dad’s birthday, where I got to play chef for a day, i.e. a lovely day for me to enjoy first dibs on the kitchen! After a sunny dog-walk and swim (though for him only) via the various wild fruit plants, including plums (not yet ripe), blackberries (mostly not ripe) and elderberries (also mostly unripe), I ventured to the town-hedgerows, also known as aisles in the supermarket. Before I’d even set foot in the supermarket, my phone rang. As a result of that phone call, sat in my little toboggan-car in the car park, I picked up something far more interesting than groceries: it was my neurologist (check me out – I have a neurologist! I shall call him NeuroDoctor from now on) and he had a diagnosis for my silly hands/feet, non-carpal tunnel problem. Note to the reader: if you’ve not read previous blog posts, or are more interested in the ventures into country life that this blog is supposed to be about than my neurological conundrums, you can skip the rest of this paragraph and the next. Anyway, NeuroDoctor was calling let me know that I’ve got a genetic condition called HNPP, or HereditaryNeuropathyWithLiabilityToPressurePalsies. More importantly for me, he also told me that my MRI scan was completely clear – and sent me the photos!

This means that my brain is nice and safe (and I have proof it exists, for all my doubting friends). While my condition isn’t ‘curable’ – unless you have a spare gene knocking around (apparently I’m missing one and that’s what’s causing my problems) – it’s much more favourable than some of the things my imagination and well-intentioned friends had teamed up to scare me with, and so brings peace of mind along with the numbness. The fun thing about it is that because it’s genetic, it’s pretty damn likely that my father also has it, meaning that when I got home I had the fun of being able to say:

– “Happy birthday Dad, hope you like your present; I got you a genetic disorder!”

As well as a diagnosis, I brought back some groceries from the supermarket, and so began my day of cooking. For the first time in my life, I decided to try making chips from scratch, the idea being to prepare steak frites and salad for father’s birthday. With a rainbow of tomatoes halved, salted and left in the sun to tastify, I set about preparing my chips. As per Professor Blumenthal’s instructions, I’d picked up some Maris Pipers, and cut them into chips. The bizarre recipe includes boiling the chips to the point of disintegration, then popping them into the freezer until frozen through. Then you fry them from frozen, then freeze once again before being fried yet again just before eating. Even though 1/3 of my chips disintegrated completely at the boiling stage, I froze them anyway and alongside my a big bowl of Proper Chips (and I hope my family will agree that they were very tasty!) I served a smaller one optimistically labelled ‘scramptions’, which were thankfully all hoovered up by a very happy family (I think I got away with my overly-generous label!)

Rewind a little to the point where the chips are in their water, bubbling away merrily. While the chips bathed/disintergrated, I pulled out the meat mallet and started bashing the steaks to within an inch – or half-centermetre – of their lives. Prof Blumenthal recommends leaving your steak out on a plate in the fridge for two days to let the air circulate around it and help it ‘age’. As I foolishly read this the morning of the meal, I could only leave my steaks out for a few hours, but nonetheless I laid them all out on plates to ‘age’ as best they could in the limited time frame. Aging under pressure!

Main course now prepped with only a rocket salad to add to the mix later, and I could start the fun bit: pudding.

Dad had requested friands as a birthday cake this year. ‘Ah ha’ I thought. ‘Perfect.‘ Unknown to him, a couple of months ago a most dedicated Chelsea Bun had journeyed down from Lancashire for a shoot, complete with a tin of mouth-wateringly delicious raspberry and almond friands. I immediately begged for a copy of the recipe and started looking for an excuse to purchase a friand tin. I was sadly let down by Lakeland, who had not a single friand-anything available on their website. The one I eventually purchased turned out to be a mini friand tin, and this has left me in a quandary. Are mini friands are a bad thing – less cake than a proper-size cake? Or are they a blessing, because you can eat more of them before the guilt sets in, and look elegant and dainty in the process of devouring your mini-cakes? One good thing however is that you have more little cakes to adorn with fruit and can therefore create lots of different ‘flavours’ of friand (another excuse to eat more than one…)

Despite the debate, I had only a mini-friand tin to work with, so that’s what Dad would be having for his birthday. The bulk of Dad’s birthday mini-friands were adorned with raspberries and flaked almonds, as per the Chelsea Bun recipe, but a few were topped with fruit harvested earlier that day from the hedgerows (read: our garden and the park, while out with Pascoe the dog). This means that we had:

–       Wild blackberry friands, from the very same brambles so often stripped to make jam;

–       An apple and elderberry friand, apples courtesy of the tree in our back garden and elderberries picked walking the dog;

–       And saving the best for last, an alpine  strawberry friand with a small handful of strawberries from a plant that my Mum has tended for years that produces small fruit, like a miniature strawberry but white inside and so very tasty.

I was quite happy with the friands, though I’ll admit the ones the Lancastrian Chelsea Bun brought to the shoot were so much lighter than mine, so I might need to experiment whipping my egg whites a little more. Or possibly buying a proper size tin, for proper size cakes. Or both.

Cakes done, steaks bashed, and chips were on their third cooking. Last thing to prepare was a rocket salad, with parmesan. Rather than indulge in a whole big block of parmesan, which we simply didn’t need, I made friends with the nice lady behind the deli counter at the supermarket who cut me the world’s smallest block of cheese, for an amazing £0.32 (the price sticker was bigger than the cheese!) And that little wedge of cheese made the world of difference, accessorising the peppery leaves. With a splash of white wine vinaigrette and the rocket salad was done.
Tomatoes with a glug of olive oil, salt and pepper: done.
Steak, briefly seared on a hot griddle pan: done.
Prof Blumenthal’s chips: done, frozen, done, frozen and for a third and final time: done.

And I can wholeheartedly say it was a Pretty Good Meal. If you have a whole day to dedicate to preparation, they really were remarkably good chips, and easy to make just time-consuming. But you do get plenty of time in between the cooking/freezing to get on with other things (like making cakes). It was a pretty good day all in all, what with discovering I had a healthy brain, finally getting a diagnosis after months of mystery (not quite gift-wrapped but close!), successfully preparing home-made, thrice-cooked chips AND fruit friands (including Mum’s delicious strawberries!) and finally tucking into a very tasty meal with my family!

To be continued…