Sunday, 23 August 2009

Garden Update

I hadn't been out in the garden much over the past week but to my surprise and delight when I went to go and tend to it yesterday this was waiting for me:

Yes, after much waiting the aptly named 'Gardener's Delight' cherry tomatoes are finally beginning to ripen. Perhaps it's a bit sad, but it was cause for much excitement. Although not ripe by a long way yet, the mystery tomato plants donated to me by a friend at work are a mystery no longer, betrayed by their rounded bell shape, they are apparently plum tomatoes. Lucky, as this means that I have a lovely mix of salad and cooking tomatoes. I can't wait to make a rich ragu with chunks of beef and vine ripened tomatoes picked just minutes before they're in the pot.
The beetroot tops are so colourful that despite the fact that they're a lovely salad leaf, I can't bear to cut even a few off.
The beetroot and radish are next to each other but unfortunately the radish tops (below) became a nursery to hundreds, and I mean hundreds of cabbage white caterpillars. Being the soft hearted type I left most of them to it.

It's no great loss. The humble radish isn't one of my favourites, and at any rate the caterpillars have restricted themselves to the tops, leaving the lurid purple roots untouched. This picture really doesn't do justice to the colour of these radishes. It nicely illustrates another reason to grow your own veg, ie. you can grow stuff that a supermarket would never stock.

Finally, I managed to find a slightly better picture of the wedding cake I made before we packed it up. Still can't quite believe I made that.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Wedding Cake!

It took two weeks, 1.5 kilos of flour and sugar, 3 kilos of butter 5 kilos of icing sugar and 8 kilos sugar paste but this was the finished wedding cake I made for my friend's wedding which was last Saturday. Myself and Mr. Tarts carried it down Norwich to Maidenhead in what I can only describe as the most tense train journey I have even been on, but it got there in one piece, with both of us slightly worse for wear. Unfortunately we had to leave to catch the train back before either of us got to taste it which was slightly disappointing, but I've been promised some slices by the bride.

I'm rather pleased with myself, having never made anything like it. I even learnt how to make the sugar roses which are on the top.

Now that it's completed, I'm not quite sure how to fill my days now.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Want to lose weight and eat healthily? Then grow your own vegetable garden!

Our garden has recently undergone a radical transformation. When we bought the house it had a small patch of well tended lawn and rose bushes in its borders and it was therefore doomed from the start. In the six years the Tarts have been together we have killed no less than 3 lawns. We're unwilling killers, but it always happens. We like how it looks but we've no interest in paying it any attention. I like to think that this stems from a buried need for substance over aesthetics. Sometimes its more than neglect, its manslaughter, as in the case of lawn victim #3. We went about clearing out the brick outhouse (its a Victorian terrace so there is a room stuck on to the kitchen which is only accessible by going outdoors. It still has a drain hole where a toilet would once have been) which had been filled with not only our castoffs but the previous owners too. We did this in the winter, moving all the rubbish from the outhouse into the garden, piling it on the lawn, intending to get a skip within days to put all this stuff in. But the months dragged on and it wasn't until last month when we finally cleared it all, filling a builder's sized skip to the brim. Alas, the lawn that had been underneath it was dead, leaving just rock hard mud in its place. Neither of us had any shred of enthusiasm for buying and laying new turf. So instead, we decided to bring life and hope where there had once only been doom and despair, by growing vegetables!

I remember my dad growing fruit and veg in a small patch in the back garden. My earliest memory is of a bed of strawberries, which then changed to strawberries, beetroot and carrots and I remember my mum boiling up the beetroot to eat in salads, something which I now view as a criminal way to treat beetroot. Beetroot is at its absolute loveliest when gently roasted for an hour or so with a little bit of water, balsamic vinegar and salt. It should then be eaten warm with soft melting goats cheese and a little more balsamic vinegar. Boiling and pickling beetroot is equivalent to the treatment of my lawn, neglectful and uncaring. The final years that I remember my dad growing anything there were tomatoes in grow bags and endless amounts of runner beans. All summer there were runner beans to not only be eaten, but topped, tailed, stringed and sliced until my fingers were white, wrinkled and sore, before they were duly boiled to a soft mush to suit the tastes of the majority of my family. The only joy I ever really had in runner beans was observing the change from bright red flower to tiny crescent bean and finally to its fully formed state. That and eating the actual seed part of the bean raw, first admiring its mottled burgundy and cream skin and then its smooth sweet flavour (the only perk of being head bean preparer). Our garden will be different.

It took us over a week to dig up the remaining turf, break up the hard compacted soil and most labour intensive of all, sieve out the many, many, many stones in the top soil with riddles. Whilst it sounds a chore, we actually found it quite therapeutic and enjoyable, to sit in the garden sifting out the stones, watching the pile of soft, fine earth pile up over our feet and then finally levelling it out. If you stepped on this soft soil you sank about a foot deep into it. The sense of satisfaction when it was done was lovely, but we felt a little redundant the next day as we had no more sieving to do.
I'd been growing some tomato plants from a pack of seeds I got free with a Good Food magazine and they were thriving but crowded in their pots, so they were the first to be planted into our newly prepared soil. So now there are 18 tomato plants flourishing, tied to large sticks I cut from the trees at the back of the garden. Four of the plants have just flowered, and it is all very exciting.

Even more laden with excitement are the seeds I sowed just under a week ago. Three rows of carrots, 3 rows of beetroot, 2 rows of purple radish and two rows of romaine lettuce. According to the seed packets, the carrots take 3 weeks to show a seedling and all the others take a week. So we were astonished to see seedling from all of them already. The radish are the fastest with their rows clearly visible. The beetroot are second behind them, with dark magenta stems now protruding, some with dark purple veined leaves. The lettuces are third with small seedlings ow becoming visible and as expected, carrots are last with what appears to be a few overly enthusiastic seeds already germinating. Every morning we now have to go out and check on the progress of them.

Whilst talking to a guy at work I remarked about my recent labours in passing and found out that he too grows his own veg, a lot of it, and he very kindly donated to me a bit of his surplus. Two tomato plants and a courgette and aubergine plant. Sadly the snails got to the aubergine before it even reached the soil and died, but the other three are planted and doing well. The previous owners also left us some strawberry plants in a blue plastic storage tub which I've now transplanted into the hanging baskets they also left to us. Both are far more useful than the broken lawn mower, broken lamp, rusting mountain bike and giant dog house they also bequeathed to us.
Unfortunately we've come to this late in the growing season, so despite having some leek seeds, I would be able to sow them until next spring. Just more to look forward to really.
Anyway, here's a couple of photos from the garden after we'd just completed it. When the seedling are a bit more visible, I'll post some more.

PS. In other news I have officially been asked by my friend to make her wedding cake. 75 guests, 3 tiers, 3 different cakes and only 3 weeks to make it in. Now there's blogging material.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Cake Break

There will be no cakes for a while as I'm bent on losing as much weight as possible in the next two months in preparation for a wedding I'm attending. I've promised to take cakes for the hen-do though, so that will be the next update probably.

Good god, healthy eating is such a load of boring arse.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Pie and Cake

Food is comforting in the Tarts household and as we're dealing with post-holiday -oh dear god we're back in Britain-misery, I decided to cheer us up with a round of pie and brownies yesterday evening. Bacon, mushroom and cheese pie with lovely buttery shortcrust pastry. I've now taken to always using the Nigella Lawson pastry recipe from Feast. 450g plain flour, 225g butter (rubbing in the butter to this massive amount of flour would take ages so I just bung it in my food processor) and 3 eggs. Makes enough pastry to make 2 pies so I wrap one half up and store it in the freezer. Much cheaper and nicer than the ready made stuff and less hassle than walking to the shops to buy the damn stuff anyway. As for quantities for the filling, I just go by eye really. I always seem to make just the right amount. It's become quite a talent in a way.

Here be pie. No particular reason for the dinosaur decoration other than it makes us smile:

And for pudding: brownies and ice cream. I decided to use the blocks of Willie's Supreme 100% Cacao I bought from Waitrose a while ago. They are interestingly packaged, very tactile and aesthetically pleasing and reassuringly heavy. I tasted a little bit that broke off and can only equate it with eating a teaspoon of coffee granules. Intensely bitter and it dries your mouth. It certainly isn't chocolate to eat 'raw'.
I tried the brownie recipe from the chocolate maker's book Willie's Chocolate Factory Cookbook. I've never found a recipe for brownies that required so many eggs, 8 in total; 6 whole and 2 yolks. There is satisfaction to be had in using so many eggs, although I'm not entirely sure why that should be.
Brownie recipe:
250g cacao, grated
300g unsalted butter
6 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
300g golden caster sugar
80g plain flour, sifted
Preheat the over to 180 degrees C (fan oven) and line/grease a brownie pan
Melt the cacao and butter in a bowl over simmering water.
Meanwhile, whisk the eggs and sugar until pale.
After allowing the cacao and butter to cool slightly, pour into the eggs and sugar and mix, then fold in the flour.
Bake for 25-30 min
And then you get this:
My only complaint would be is that the brownies actually rose, rather than remaining intensely gooey. I would put this down to too many egg whites in the mix and the whisked mixture was certainly very frothy. Still delicious though.
And finally a pic of some of the goodies I brought back from Rome: Sombrero hat pasta, which I don't intend to eat but rather just display in a nice jar, Limoncello (of course), this variety is from Sorrento, and a big tin of tiny Amaretti biscuits that I'm trying to construct a cake recipe around. They are truly moreish. We also brought back packs of speciality Italian biscuits, but those have been largely scoffed. Shall have to go back to Rome to get some more.

Monday, 18 May 2009


Back from our holiday to Rome. If we didn't have our cat to return to we probably never would have left, it was that glorious. Lazy breakfasts and dinners outside the Pantheon, freedom to smoke whilst enjoying our meals, not getting asked for change by rough looking chavs, although there were many beggars in Rome, most of whom were wearing clothes and shoes in better condition than ourselves, but at least they don't insult you when you turn them down. Instead of people walking around all day with cans of Stella/Tenants/Strongbow in hand, the Romans walk around eating ice cream at seemingly all hours of the day. Fiuminco airport was relaxing in comparison to Gatwick with no barking announcements to not do this or that. Even an effort had been made to make the security bollards outside Fiuminco pretty by planting small trees in them. And this is an airport which has suffered numerous terrorist attacks and even a hijacking, and still they don't feel it necessary to order its visitors around like disobedient children. As we were flying business class we were allowed into the BA lounge which even had a smoking room, which aside from the fact that it looked like the lobby of a Travel Lodge, was wonderful. I could go on, but the short of it is that England really does suck, which I already knew, but now having experienced a taste of life on the continent it has become all the more pronounced. So vaffanculo England.

Photos of lovely Rome, just a few of the near 400 we took during the week:
In the doorway of the Pantheon:

The view from our breakfast table:

View of the Roman Forum from on top of the Palatine hill:

Remains of the temple of Saturn in the Forum:

A bad photo of one of the many ice creams I enjoyed that week:

The Italians have as many flavours of ice cream as we do flavours of crisps. This particular one was Double Melting Chocolate with Mint Choc-Chip, and like all the ice creams I had, it was incredibly good. We always went to the gelato shop which was opposite our hotel and open until 2am. There is something tantalisingly decadent about finishing a long dinner at midnight, strolling through the winding alleys of Rome, undisturbed by huge gangs of pissed retards simply because they don't seem to exist there, and getting a huge ice cream at 1am. Other flavours enjoyed by me were: Black cherry, Melting chocolate, pistachio, Baci (a type of chocolate that we don't seem to get here, or at least I've never seen it, consisting of chocolate, praline and a whole hazelnut), and Nutella. I barely even scratched the surface with regards to flavours of ice cream but we ate so well during the day that as much as I wanted to, I couldn't eat gelato as well. Yet another reason to return as soon as we can afford to.

I did intend to take many pictures of the food but often just felt too embarrassed to do such a thing in a restaurant. That and I just wanted to get stuck in. I did manage to get a photo of one of the desserts we had a restaurant somewhere between the Spanish Steps (which weren't all they're cracked up to be, in my opinion. Yes, they're nice but when you've spent the day in the Colosseum its a bit of an anti-climax) and the Trevi Fountain (which is stunning).

Again another bad pic but be reassured that this was a delicious slice of chocolate cake. It had a thin sponge based soaked in orange liquor, a light and fluffy chocolate mousse filling about an inch thick, a second top layer of chocolate sponge and finished with a glossy dark chocolate ganache, served cold. Beautiful. A lot of the cakes I saw look almost as if they had been baked in a pasta bowl. The vast majority were a very shallow dome shape which was interesting. I've no idea why this appears to be the tradition.

Anyway, returning from holiday is always a miserable process so I'm baking the favourite meals of Mr. Tarts tonight to cheer us up: bacon, mushroom and cheddar pie and chocolate brownies.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Banana Bread

Banana bread is the only cake as opposed to pastry that's acceptable breakfast food. I've been trying to cut down on the old sugar intake but a merciless sweet tooth needs to be fed occasionally, so banana bread that takes it sweetness mostly from the fruit in it seemed a reasonable compromise. Like brownies, there are as many recipes for banana bread as there are bananas in the land but I decided to try out the one from Rachel Allen's Bake! and it is probably the best recipe I've tried for it with lots of nuts, dried fruit and glace cherries. I'm feeling lazy so I won't reproduce the recipe. Have the lovely photos instead:

And I am fully aware that I've recreated 'The Scream' in cake art with the rather wonderfully positioned cherry. Either that or it looks a bit like a sex doll's face.
Anyway, me and Mr. Tarts are off to Rome for a week in 32 hours. As is obvious from the hourly countdown I'm rather excited. Photos will inevitably follow.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Easter! Simnel Muffins and Brownies

Dieting over Easter is tricky. So instead of baking a large simnel cake as I have done in previous years, I made a few simnel muffins to share around my family. I've got several books with recipes for simnel muffins/cupcakes but I settled on the recipe from the Crabapple Cupcake Cookbook and tweaked it slightly to suit my own tastes, mostly removing about 100g of the dried mixed fruit and replacing it with glace cherries ad secondly using marzipan and sugarflowers to decorate the top instead of icing and a chocolate mini egg as I loathe the combination of dried fruit with chocolate. Ergh. These muffins were wonderfully moist, no doubt due a ball of marzipan in the centre of each cake. Just a note on the recipe, it says it makes 11 but I managed to get 12 very generous muffins out of this with plenty of batter left in the bowl to eat raw. It's important to point out that this is no bad thing.

Makes 11 cakes.

100g shop bought marzipan, plus extra for decorating (I used M&S's as its all natural etc)
1.5 cups plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 teaspoon mixed spice
pinch of salt
200g softened butter
1 cup soft brown sugar
3 eggs
425g mixed fruit (or in my case 325g mixed fruit plus 100g glace cherries, syrup rinsed off)
2 tbsp milk

Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C. Line a 12 hole muffin tin with 11(or 12) papercases.

Roll the marzipan into 11 small balls a set aside.
Sift together the flour baking powder, mixed spice and salt.

In a separate bowl, cream the butter and the sugar. Add the eggs one at a time, ensuring each is well mixed in before adding the next, but do not overmix.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet and beat on a low speed until just combined the add the fruit and the milk.
Put a tablespoon of the mixture into each of the muffin cases and then place a marzipan ball in the centre and then add enough of the mixture to cover the marzipan.
Bake for 25-30 minutes (although some of mine needed about 35/40 minutes). Leave to cool before decorating.

To decorate:
The marzipan I used was sticky enough to adhere to the top of the muffins without any aid, but you may need to use apricot jam if this isn't the case. Roll the marzipan out to thickness of the £1 coin and use a scone cutter to cut out. Place on top of the cooled muffins. To ensure the sugar flowers stayed in place I used a little bit of liquid icing, such as writing icing. Just dot a little on the top and press the sugar flower on. Mine turned out like this:

And for those in my family who don't like simnel cakes, I made chocolate brownies. I shan't reproduce the recipe as everyone has a recipe for chocolate brownies, indeed, I have at least 15, but the standard one I use is a recipe I clipped out of a copy of Olive. Its meant to have nuts in it, but just as dried fruit is a ruination of chocolate, so is the inclusion of crunchy nuts in the middle of smooth, gooey chocolate brownie. Such pleasure should not be interrupted by a lowly nut. There's plenty of that nonsense already.

I did cut this into squares and pressed solid mini chocolate eggs into each one but I failed to capture the beauty of them before they were all gone. Always a good sign.

Friday, 27 March 2009

My Birthday Cake

I'm no party girl but my best friend came to visit to celebrate my birthday with me and my boyfriend. I decided to have a go at a chocolate and vanilla marble cake with the intention of then also marbling the icing too. The cake was beautiful and I piped icing on with the original idea of swirling the icing to give a marbling effect. However, as with so many things in life, some things are just best left as they are, so this was the finished cake:

Mother's Day Baking

Seeing as birthday cards to me arrived late and my sister's never even turned up, I've decided the (Royal mail, of course) post is too unreliable to send anything of monetary value through it. With that in mind, I decided to send some baked goods instead. I was lucky enough to be given loads of lovely cook books for my birthday so I took this recipe for Lemon and Poppyseed cupcakes from Cupcakes! and they turned out absolutely beautifully and were incredibly moist. To make them a bit more gift like looking I decorated them with vanilla buttercream and added a lemon swirl made with the Lemon Sauce recipe in the same book and finished them with some sugar flowers I bought from ebay.

And here they are finished:

Here's the recipe. It's in American units which I've always found incredibly infuriating, especially when recipes call for sticks of butter. So a while ago I invested in a set of the Nigella Lawson measuring cups which helps alot, but I still feel out of my comfort zone. I need proper units of measurement! The upside of this book is that while it doesn't give proper units of measurement, at least it converts sticks of things into cups of things. Half a stick of butter is equivalent to a quarter cup apparently.

For 12 cupcakes:

1 cup plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp grated lemon zest
1 tbsp poppy seeds
1/2 cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (About 190 degrees C, I think). Line the cupcake tin.

Sift the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt into a bowl ad set aside. In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the butter and sugar until blended and light in colour. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until each is totally incorporated and the batter is creamy. Add the poppyseeds, lemon zest and vanilla. On a low speed add half of the flour mixture and mix until just incorporated. Add the buttermilk and mix and then the last of the flour until the batter is smooth.

Fill each paper case with a 1/4 cup of the mixture and bake until the top feels firm, which should take about 18 minutes. Leave to cool for a few minutes in the tin before transferring to a cooling rack.

As for the buttercream I never use a recipe for it and I tend to mix it by eye (and taste of course), but if pushed I'd say I used 1/2 a pack of butter (125g) and a half to 2/3s pack of icing sugar (so, 250g-300g) and a tsp vanilla extract.

For 1 cup of the lemon sauce:

1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks (I save the whites in a freezer bag for later use in healthy scrambled eggs or unhealthy meringue)
1 cup sugar
2 tbsp cornflour dissolved in 1/4 cup water
1 tsp grated lemon zest

In a medium saucepan, heat the butter and lemon juice until the butter melts and the mixture is hot. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks, eggs and sugar to blend them and then whisk in the dissolved cornflour. Slowly pour in the hot butter and lemon juice, whisking constantly. Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over a medium heat, stirring constantly, until it just boils and thickens, about 6 minutes. When thickened, the sauce will leave a path on the back of the spoon when you draw a finger across it. (The sauce will thicken further as it cools). Strain through a sieve to remove any lumps and then add the lemon zest. Transfer to a bowl. To store cover with clingfilm, pressing the film against the sauce so it doesn't develop a skin. It can be refrigerated for up to 3 days, or stored in the freezer in an appropriate container and kept for up to 3 months.

Smooth the buttercream with a spreading/palette knife onto the cupcakes. Using a piping bag with a small nozzle, pipe the lemon sauce in a swirl onto the icing and top with a sugarflower/decoration of your choice. Yummy!

The book is wonderful and I can't wait to bake every recipe in it. Unfortunately I'm on a bit of a lull from baking as I'm trying to lose weight. But Easter only comes once a year and what better way to celebrate resurrection than with cake, I ask you?
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