Tuesday, 26 June 2012

June 25th - The Importance of Birthday Cake

Dear Nigel,

It's one of those rights of passage through which we mark our lives, but birthdays figure large even when we make them small. For children they have an almost reverential significance. And, wobetide the mother who didn't think to bother with a birthday cake this year. Children will never forgive you. You will take their pained expresions to the grave with you - and they will never, ever forget. So beware. This applies mostly to 'older' children (of ANY age). They will always expect a cake.

Over the years i have made many, many Birthday cakes. Some people are gifted in the art of sugar decoration - the rest of us construct something of a Blue Peter model with playdough icing and bits of swiss roll and chocolate fingers stuck together, perhaps in the shape of Thomas the tank engine or a fairy princess castle.

My Jane Asher books of novelty cakes all seem so amazingly simple, but less so when you're there at three in the morning trying to create the same effect, wondering why you've just spent the last seventeen hours in purgatory when to pick one off the counter at Marks and Sparks would have been certainly worth every single penny. But no, you are doing this for your loved one, the apple of your eye, your little cherub - and they had better bloody well appreciate all your effort.

And, strangely enough, they do. They love the lopsided writing of their name, the way the candles slide off the cake and drip every where. They appreciate your effort even when it goes ever so slightly wrong. I remember one year making the most spectacular rocket cake for Chris when he was about eight. It was about three feet tall with different sections and engines firing at the base. It looked perfect. And as i gazed at it with an ever-so-slightly self-congratulatory smile, i suddenly remembered that the party was being held at the village hall at the other end of the village and i had now to transport this three foot cake all the way there as it was fully-assembled. (Most of it made it there, anyway.)

When the Birthday cake is for an adult or older teenager it is mostly about the taste, but when it is for younger ones looks are everything. I think you could get away with icing a cardboard box as long as you stuck candles on it and took it away rapidly and sliced something up into paper napkins in the back room to put into take home bags. And is it ever eaten anyway? or just squashed and nibbled and thrown aside in favour of a small chocolate bar and a plastic novelty toy.

As Sophie and Molly are almost exactly twelve months apart, i thought this year to make a joint party. This took more than a little selling to Sophie who obviously thought she was being ripped off somehow and that Molly would get more, having a whole Birthday too on another day. I almost suggested a shared Birthday cake, but thought better of it: that almost certainly would have been the last straw. So i'm making two cakes for the price of one and averting another world war. (She's still in the corner muttering about who should get the presents and whether she's even going to invite Molly at all.)

While small children tend to have definite ideas about what shape of cake they want - a pirate ship, a teddy bear, a castle - older members of the household often have definite ideas too. There are those, like Hannah, who will have anything as long as it's a chocolate cake of some sort. I like fresh fruit and cream or a plain non-sweet ganache filling. And others, like Will, just want a very plain cake but their very favourite. He likes lemon drizzle cake (and you can't get plainer than that). But if that's what he wants, that's what he wants, and candles will fit on any kind of cake. I often make him two - one to share and one to smuggle away.

You are making a wonderful- looking strawberry mascarpone tart. In truth, almost anything covered in slices of luscious red strawberries would have that necessary wow factor as far as i'm concerned. The base of the tart is crushed sweet oat biscuits and you observe wryly that you 'want it to be more crumbly than the average cheesecake bottom, which can vary from the rock hard to the down-right impenetrable.' We've all been there with the pneumatic drill trying to bore through to the bone china plate beneath. The filling is a rich custard cream made with eggs, sugar and mascarpone with a little vanilla extract mixed in. I am very fond of vanilla bean paste which you can also get. I like the addition of tiny seeds added to a custard.


Wednesday, 20 June 2012

June 19th - A true Peak District Country Fair and junk food revisited

Dear Nigel,

A Summer's day and, after what seems like weeks of rain, there is a break in the clouds and we are off for a traditional day out at Edale Country Show.

Big shows abound, ever more spectacular tent cities floating in their sea of mud. Small Country shows are still marked by their personalities, local references and 'in'-jokes. We go hoping to bump into a few old friends and are not disappointed. I am hoping that a helping of Punch and Judy and high-speed sheep shearing will be able to compete with the high octane thrills of theme park rides. In the end it is the free events that entertain the children most. The birds of prey in flight and a caving tunnel made from a large drainage pipe set up by the national trust, with hard hats and torches for the young explorers,

Food, as ever, plays a large part in the proceedings. Whether in the tea tent with its long line of wobbly trestle tables and styrene cups, or outside at the smoky barbeque and lengthy queue, or the lure of the inevitable ice cream van. We join the queue for hotdogs and i get an overwhelming urge to consume a hamburger. Not exactly something to write home about you might think, but i cannot be alone in having a pathological aversion to these things, brought on solely from a history of enforced appauling weekend barbeques with their monotonous set menues and enforced jollity.

Maybe you have had the misfortune to be invited to one of these? Usually overseen by Lord-of-the-Barbeque (-and these days such barbeques are getting to be almost the size of a small car); his (let's face it, it's almost ALWAYS a man) audience is captive and hungry, very hungry, for  a helping of charred carpet dosed in lighter fuel marinade with a perfect square of bright orange plastic on the top and wrapped in a bap and paper napkin (which taste remarkably the same).

I allow my tastebuds to lead me and the resulting hamburger, firm and meaty and flavoursome, coming from Watson's Farm Shop so the sign tells me, restores my faith in the hamburger as a vehicle for lunch on the move.

After Hobbyhorse racing in the ring and the invisible fly-fishing demonstration by three old men in flat caps the children clamour for ice creams. And why not? The van is from the Peak District Dairy in Tideswell, but the kids want Mr. Whippy. Looking closer i see the dairy is serving their own version of a Mr. Whippy. This product is a revelation to me: so nice to see that junk food can be taken, upgraded and sold back to us again. All in keeping with the ethos of a locally-produced country show.

You are out, eating in the rose garden with friends. "In the evening, the smell of the roses, light, fruity, romantic, wafts over to the garden table". You make a Summer hummus for people to dip into as they talk, with freshly boiled broad beans and dill - "a brighter, fresh-tasting recipe for Summer". There is roast lamb with cumin and fresh mint to follow (-no charred carpet for you) and a rocket salad. Your recipes are swayed by heady visits to the Lebanese shops on the Bayswater Road. The spice paste the lamb is wrapped and roasted in consists of garlic, cumin seeds, mint and lemon juice, together with salt, pepper and olive oil. Enough to get the taste buds tingling once again. Even with a slight chill in the air food this good only tastes better when infused with Summer's heady perfume.


Friday, 15 June 2012

With love from Spain, and a little spit and sawdust

Dear Nigel,

My older daughter wafts in from Spain on a tide of Spanish dialect and memories of her Spanish family and friends made whilst spending a year au pairing near Madrid. She brings with her an unusual present from her Spanish hosts - some kind of purple silicone flying saucer which all modern Spaniards seem to use to flip their tortillas apparently. She purchases a cheap non-stick frying pan (as apparently none of mine are good-enough) and declares that she is going to wow us with her recent culinary prowess and make tortillas for lunch, for us and for all her friends and family as she 'does the rounds' with her frying pan and purple flipper in tow.

My eyes marvel at the sheer quantity of olive oil that the potatoes seem able to soak up when cooked this slowly. I wonder at how her Spanish family managed to remain so slim but am told they all run and cycle everywhere and even the old people all work-out in 'green gyms' in the middle of parks. The resulting tortilla is dome-shaped and slightly wobbly to the touch. Cheap to make - and i guess Hannah's become a bit of an expert on those grounds alone over the past year - and actually very nice to eat with a plate of salad. We feast. It's great to have her back home if only for a few days. Then she's back to another family near Barcelona who speak no English at all. Nothing ruffles my dynamic redhead.

We are settling in slowly here and boxes are nearly all unpacked. I decide to take us all to the village pub for dinner. We arrive late-enough to find them actually open this time, and populate most of the bar area between us. Something in the simple white-washed manner of the place takes me back to the way pubs used to be a few years back when i was a teenager. (O.K, many, many years ago, then).

In the years before Weatherspoon amalgamation and food-first, drink-if you're lucky pubs, there was a time when pubs kept strict drinking times. There was something almost traditional and English about the call for last orders and the occasional illicit 'lock-in' in our favourite pubs, like 'The crooked billet', where there was no bar and beer was pumped from the cellar. Where old furniture (now called 'shabby chic') had horsehair and stuffing falling out of it and great dips where the bottoms of many a healthy farmhand had furrowed.

And characters like Brian Penny at 'The king William' - like an extra from 'Tess of the D'Urbevilles' - with his shire horses and curtain of a beard, laughing raucously as we sat in the foreboding shadow of a selection of well-sharpened mantraps and scythes. (No doubt health and safety would put a stop to all that these days. And characters like Brian are replaced by young barristas - proficient in the art of the skinny latte as well as the uncapping of a bottle of refrigerated cider.)

Pubs have moved on and been disneyfied and yet somehow we are the loser in all of this. Character has been ripped from its sockets and replaced with antiques manufactured in China.

This pub smells of all that is ancient. Fittings are oversized and handmade. We are made welcome even as i struggle to stop my younger children stabbing each other with the darts. The food is hearty pub food and we eat heartily to keep the cold and rain out. Back home to the seeping warmth of a wood-burning stove that reminds me again why we came to live just here. 'Perfick'.


Wednesday, 6 June 2012

June 6th - A village Jubilee

Dear Nigel,

Two days after moving house and there is a chance to meet the rest of the village at the Jubilee Tea Party. I congratulate myself on finding the iron in and among our mountain of unopened boxes, and duly ironed tea party dresses for myself and the little ones. I needn't have bothered; the weather and the sudden drop in temperature made certain that most of the village were dressed in ripped barbours and leggings. It wasn't long before we too were head to foot in raincoats and my daughters' vintage dresses covered in as many stickers from the children's sports as they could plaster on.

The proceedings started with a traditional rendition of the national anthem. Only when it was nearly half way through did anyone realise that there wasn't an introduction and we were supposed to be singing. So there was a quick rewind of the tape and we started again.

I stood outside in the drizzle cheering on the children in their sports, who seemed oblivious to the cold and wet. At one point a field of cows got out and threatened to trample onto the playing field. But luckily they headed down the road instead. There were commemorative mugs to paint for the children in the back room, and then we headed into the village hall for the tea itself.

I had been under the impression that not many people seemed to have turned up for the celebrations - at least the audience for the sports was a bit sparse. But when we went in to the warmth of the hall suddenly a room full of people seemed to have nipped in on the quiet, having bi-passed both the children's sports and the national anthem, and were raucously tucking in to the banquet of cakes on offer. The Women's Institute appeared to have taken over, as they so often do on these occasions, and the teapots were flowing and  raffle ticket money extracted with the sort of intimidation the average loan shark would do well to emulate.Never had a cheap bottle of wine suddenly looked so enticing. Secretly we were all hoping for the Bagshaws farm meat voucher. Naturally it was the first to go.

You have been making gooseberries with mascarpone cream. One of my favourite fruits, it's season is so perilously short: three or four weeks according to you. I particularly love the 'edible' gooseberries - the fat pink hairy ones that you can't buy in the shops but catch occasionally in old gardens, and pluck and devour whole before anyone sees you. My mum rarely seemed to gather enough for a whole crumble...

The ordinary green cooking variety is best poached. You like it with 'a jug of yellow organic cream', while i prefer mine with thick plain yoghurt or mixed in to a fool. Your recipe for mascarpone cream appears to be similar - a kind of rich vanilla custard - and i may give it a go if i can find any fresh gooseberries anywhere : I've not seen any as yet.

For supper you are steaming sea bass with ginger and cucumber, and just a small amount of chinese spicing. I am rather heartened to see that as your kitchen doesn't have a large-enough steamer for this, you 'get by with a Chinese wicker basket suspended over a heavy casserole of boiling water'.

With best wishes from the cottage at the end of the world,