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.

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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…

Let Them Drink Tea

There are many disadvantages of being thrust back into London life, somewhat against my will – to list but a few: the traffic, rush hour and normal; the sheer quantity of people filling the streets, pubs, shopping centres and green spaces; and the aeroplanes passing over my head ever five or ten minutes, jetting off from Heathrow to some unknown destination, almost certainly glorious, tranquil, vibrant and fascinating if only in virtue of the fact that I am not on the plane. But there are also advantages: I get to spend time with my parents, and now that I’m not a hormone-saturated teenager that is a much more appealing prospect than ever before. And I also get to revisit some of my old haunts, not least The Tea Box in Richmond.

I have waxed lyrical about the afternoon teas enjoyed after every meet of the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club, but I’ll admit I have predominantly focused on the cakey side of things. But another simple joy of these sessions is the opportunity to enjoy nice tea, brewed in a proper tea pot and sipped elegantly (of course) out of a proper porcelain tea cup, complete with saucer.

My introduction to tea was a slightly unusual one. My mother lives on the stuff – we actually used to pack small airtight bags of tea bags before going off on holiday. I think if you cut her she’d bleed milky PGTips. My father is just as huge a fan of coffee is my mum is of her tea. He’s been known to both grind and roast his own coffee beans at home, and we have a vast range of coffee making apparatus including a traditional Costa Rican ‘coffee sock’ brought back from my Gap Yah travels, a big plastic coffee syringe, and even some sort of high tech coffee syphon that looks like it belongs in my school’s chem labs rather than my parents’ kitchen. But despite my parents’ obsession with tea and coffee, I never liked either, or indeed any hot drinks at all, not even hot chocolate or warm milk.

This continued until I was 19, when, one evening on a particularly unpleasant part of a trek across Costa Rica, I found myself in a sodden tent, camped in the rain at the top of a mountain with a bad stomach bug, having walked since the small hours of the morning and set to get up at 4am the next day to do the same thing again. Feeling very sorry for myself in this pathetic state, I was offered something we hoped would turn out as hot chocolate – we didn’t know whether the dehydrated milk would work (and the chocolate did have little specks of white floating at the top). I guiltily accepted – guiltily because I still didn’t like hot drinks. But it gave me something warm and comforting to hold and to help encourage the blood back into my fingers. For further warmth and to mask my guilt, I forced myself to drink it, and by the end of the mug had decided that I no longer hated hot drinks. In Nicaragua I had my first ever cup of coffee, and then my second, third and countless more, all served hot, black and very sweet just as the locals enjoyed it. But I still didn’t tea for a few months more, until I had returned to the UK  and was taken  by my then-boyfriend to a new teashop that had opened in my absence.

The menu at the teashop was dauntingly extensive for an inexperienced tea drinker such as myself, particularly when I was adamant that I didn’t like ‘normal’ (read: English Breakfast) tea. However, after some persuasion I agreed to try a first flush Darjeeling recommended by a lovely waiter we’d come to know through our frequent visits there. And I was hooked. Since then I have progressed from Darjeeling to become an avid drinker of the more readily available Earl Grey. The unfortunate consequences of this included my old roommate (she of the straw mattress) complaining that I made our flat smell like “the bottom of a tart’s handbag”, and at work being accused of drinking the ‘posh’ tea. Now, finally, I can enjoy an English Breakfast if not too strong, but would choose Darjeeling, Earl Grey or almost anything else, almost every time. I was lucky enough to find myself attending York University, York being the home of the infamous Betty’s (if anyone reading this works at Betty’s or knows someone who does, please please tell them to bring back the Engadine Torte, which was heaven on a plate and went so well with an Earl Grey tea). Needless to say I spent as much time as my student budget would allow in Betty’s (not enough) sipping tea. I was brought a packet of Moroccan Mint Tea from Fortnum and Mason as part of my birthday present, which was delicious and refreshing. University was a time of enlightenment as far as me and tea went, as well as the philosophy and politics I was there to learn.

One of the lovely things about tea is the history that goes with it. Someone told me what they claimed was the story behind the origins of Earl Grey tea, though as I don’t know quite how true it is please don’t forward it on as fact or my old university lecturers will never forgive me. Apparently, an envoy of Earl Grey (a British prime minister in the 1800s) saved a boy’s life while travelling in China. The boy’s father was a mandarin and as a mark of his gratitude he presented the envoy with some tea to take home to his master. This blend of tea was given to the Earl back in the UK, who liked it so much he asked his local teashop (allegedly Twinings, but this could just be clever marketing on their part) to recreate the tea. When the details of the blend were recorded in their ledgers, they were recorded under his account and thus his name: Earl Grey.

Regardless of the veridity of this tale I like the romance of it, the romance tea and its complex history. I like the delicacy of the flavours, and also of the teapots, strainers, cups and saucers that come with it. My favourite teaspoon was given to me by my ex-boyfriend, and is from the teashop where I first enjoyed a pot of tea. It has a slim, delicate stem carved almost like bamboo, with a tiny silver teapot adorning the end, and I adore it. I love carefully spooning tea leaves into the strainer in my little one-person tea pot, or scooping them into a strainer to put straight into a mug. I love pouring tea from a pot into a tea cup, and yet I get a whole different satisfaction from a steaming (Earl Grey) tea, made in the mug with a simple tea bag. If you have read my blog before, and if you intend to read it again (and I hope you will) you should remember that every time I sing the praises of cake, talk about new recipes I’ve tried or cakes I’ve sampled baked by others, I will always be enjoying said cake with a pot, mug or cup of tea, drunk black and sugarless, just as my darling-Darjeeling waiter first taught me.

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.

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).