Thursday, February 26, 2009

Guaranteed, Fail-safe Chocolate Cake

Here are a few more of my cakes. Both of these were very simple to do and fairly quick.

What jungle party would be complete without a few ferocious jungle animals, aside from the children I mean. This spotty crocodile is my version of a crocodile cake found in The Australian Women's Weekly 'Kids' Party Cakes (published 2005) on page 115. The original cake had crushed up lollipops on it, but as the cake was for young children I was worried about the choking danger of boiled lollies so I improvised with my trusty piping bag.

To make a number cake such as this take some grease proof or baking paper, trace the number required, cut out the shape (remember to cut out a separate triangle for the centre of the four, circle for the six and nine and two circles for the eight), place it on you iced cake and press the hundreds and thousands into the icing. You will need to press reasonably firmly so the hundreds and thousands stay where you want them and do not roll around on the cake and spoil the edges of your number. To decorate the side of the cake you need to take hand fulls of hundreds and thousands and press them onto the side of the cake. I would recommended doing this while the baking paper is still on the top, in order to protect the cake surface. WARNING: this is VERY, VERY messy. I ran out of hundreds and thousand so I went for a swirly, random effect on the side of this cake, so there were patches of plain icing and patches of colour. The end product looked OK and all kids love as many hundreds and thousands as they can get, so the extra ones on the edge were well received.

I used my fail safe chocolate cake recipe for both of these cakes. I used to use a butter cake for kids parties but found some of the children did not like it so I use one that they all seem to like now.

Chocolate Cake

125g/4 oz of softened butter
1 cup/250g/8 oz caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/4 cups/155g/5 oz self-raising flour
1/2 cup/45g/1 1/2 oz cocoa powder
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 cup/250 mls/ 8 fl oz milk

Before you start grease and line your tin and turn on the oven. I always forget to turn on the oven to heat up and then realise half way through making the cake batter. Cream butter, sugar and vanilla extract together until the butter changes to a slightly paler yellow colour. I prefer to use vanilla extract or vanilla bean pods over vanilla essence as it gives the cake a nicer flavour. They do cost a bit more but are well worth the money for the flavour the impart. Add the eggs and beat until the mixture becomes paler still and increases in volume slightly. Dissolve the bi-carbonate of soda in the milk. Sift you flour and cocoa into a bowl. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture one third at a time, together with one third of the milk. Beat and scrape down the sides of the bowl between each 'batch'. Beat the mixture for about 30 seconds on high and then transfer it to your tin. Bake in a 180*C/350*F oven for 40 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean with no cake batter stuck to it.

Once the cake has cooled enough to handle and safely remove it from the tin place the warm cake on a plate and wrap it in glad wrap/cling film and put it in the fridge. I refrigerate the cake overnight. Remembering to take it out of the fridge after about two hours and check for condensation under the cling film or this will pool on the plate and possibly make the edges of the cake soggy. By placing the cake in the fridge it gives the cake a fudgy consistency and makes for a very moist cake which will keep well for a few days in the fridge before you need to ice it.

I never have time in one day to bake a cake, wait for it to cool and then ice it, so I always bake my cakes at least one day in advance to prevent MCDS, which is of course the most common affliction to effect Mums the world over. MCDS or Mummy Cake Decorating Stress, is a direct result of BPB (Birthday Party Pressure) and I have learnt over the years that in order to avoid this dreadful affliction cakes are best planned well in advance, all ingredients shopped for (not on the day - as I learnt the hard way!) and all willing little helpers safely at school or asleep. Thus endth the lesson.

Make you cakes always rise grasshopper (if they are supposed to that is) :)

How many daffodils can you buy for £3.00?

These are the daffodils we purchased on Sunday afternoon from a hedge vege flower stall at Vazon Bay. They were 30pence a bunch so I bought ten bunches. I know they do not look much in this photo but just until you see them four days later.

Hedge vege prices for daffodils range from 20 pence to 50 pence per bunch. I try to buy bunches where few of the buds have started to open so that they will last nearly a full week.

Just a gorgeous reminder that spring is on the way.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The colour of February...yellow

Before I moved to Guernsey I had always imagined the winters in Europe to be grey and brown and bleak but I must say that February in Guernsey is far from this. Guernsey’s climate is closer to that of France than England; as a result of this warmer climate, flowers that would not dare to show their heads in the UK until late March or April are more than happy to brighten our February days.

The daffodils pop up everywhere imaginable, primroses dot the roadsides, the gorse is in full flower with its heady fragrance carrying on the chilled air and there are yellow daisies, which seem to be popular in Guern gardens, providing yet another flash of yellow.

Roadside daffodil stalls appear out of no-where. You just pull up in the middle of the road and get out; all the traffic will politely wait while you select you flowers and put your money in the tin. Hedge Vege stalls work on an honesty system, so people just put out these little boxes, which balance precariously on the granite walls, full of whatever they have a surplus of and people put money in the tin/glass bottle provided. The most cars I have seen at a Hedge Vege is five. They were all stopped on the same side of the road but some were parked nose to nose. Shoppers didn't want to block both sides of the road so they pulled over onto the wrong side of the road instead to park, very considerate wouldn't you say. The system seems to work and if you are caught stealing from a Hedge Vege (as a person was last year) you get sent to JAIL!

During the summer we ‘renovated’ the garden bed which runs across the top of our front garden wall. The wall has a granite front and a block work back. The centre has been filled up with rubble and then lined with the most horrendously coloured, blue plastic which sticks up all along the edges. Not a good look. My bright idea was to remove all said plastic, not to mention the thousands of kilograms of soil, and reline the garden bed with something a little less lurid, replace all the soil with fresh compost and da-da (because I couldn’t find out how to spell vioa-la?) a stunning new garden wall. Simple! The best laid plans, as they say.

Off I go to the garden shop to buy a bottle green soil sifter and umpteen bags of compost, chicken poo and blood and bone. I pull up in the drive way, leap from the car, sifter in hand and start to shake my way through the soil. Why did I want to sift the soil I hear you ask, well lean a little closer and all will be revealed. The previous owners had planted hundreds of bulbs along the wall; daffodils, hyacinths and even a gladiolus. We live about 200 metres from the coast and the wind can be bit strong here, to say the least. Last year we eagerly awaited the arrival of our blooms. It was a bit like reading the latest mystery novel; we had moved in to our home in August and all the wall bulbs had finished flowering by then so we had no idea what lay beneath the soil. The first green shoots appeared and even my husband and the children were excited. As our garden’s ‘story’ began to unfold, new characters seemed to be arriving daily, steadily growing taller and sturdier. Then the first bud emerged. The kids rushed to tell me as they had actually been walking the wall to check for buds, several times a week. I think there was some type of competition going on as to who could spot the first bud. There was no prize just the smirking satisfaction of being a better bud spotter than you sibling! Kids!

More and more buds sprang up. The first hint of yellow was visible as they began to unfurl. Flashes of pink appeared here and there from the hyacinths. The garden’s ‘story’ was a fabulous one and I just could not wait to get to the climactic finale. Then came the ‘Once in Twenty Year Freak Storm’ which flattened and salt-scorched all in its path. Not one of our characters survived the brutal onslaught. The daffodils planted had been tall varieties so they really did not stand a chance against the gale force nine winds. Nature ripped out the last few pages, so we never found out how the story ended.

So I sifted, to remove all the existing bulbs, in order to keep them as use them elsewhere in the garden and plant shorter varieties which can cope with the wind. In four hours I managed to sift three metres of wall, only thirty or so left to go!!! My back ached, as I am 5’10 and the garden wall was below waist height, I had to hunch over to work in the bed. My arms throbbed from digging and sifting, no wonder cocktail barmen have such good arm muscles with all the shaking. Not that I’ve looked of course.

Plan Two, Version B: do not remove all the soil, just about the top thirty centimetres then mix the sifted soil with compost, chicken poo pellets and blood and bone and add that back to the bed. I did the digging, mixing and replacing of the soil and engage hired help who would, in fact, work for free i.e. husband and children. My husband turned out to be the world champion soil sifter, although he was unable to fully extend his arms for about a week after this soil sifting tournament. The children were the bulb locaters who would locate the bulbs in the soil and place them in the bulb receptacle; the blue bucket. In the end we had to enlist the storage capacity of three bulb receptacles, two buckets and one tub. This fact should have alerted me to the quantity of bulbs I was going to need to plant along the wall but I was in a ‘GARDENING FRENZY’; as my loyal soil sifter informs me.

We completed the entire wall in eighteen hours, spread over three days. My soil sifter nearly instigated a rebellion but when the job was finished and I promised I would never ask him to touch the bottle green implement of pain ever again, he leaned back, beer in hand, and said ‘You know it’s going to look really good when it’s all in flower.’

After such a mammoth effort from my family I planted the bulbs during the week, as I felt I may be pushing my luck if I asked for any more assistance in the garden for a little while. I planted five bags of 100 Tête-à-Tête daffodils and fourteen packs of twenty muscari armeniacum or grape hyacinth bulbs. 780 bulbs! I actually bought our local garden centre out of the muscari bulbs and they were not going to get anymore in, so I drove to another garden centre at the other end of the Island and bought them out too. Alas I was unable to find anymore so the last three metres of our wall lies unplanted. I was going to plant more of the Tête-à-Tête but then I was worrying about damaging those bulbs when I went to plant more muscari in October so I decided to leave it bare. Now all the daffodil bulbs are flowering, I must admit it does look a little odd with the bare end but after our bizarre soil sifting ceremony, which lasted four days in all (including my solo effort), perhaps this is what the neighbours have come to expect. The muscari are yet to show their little blue faces, although plenty of green leaves have arrived?. My husband asked if we were going to replace them if they failed to flower, that was only until I pointed out that this would mean more sifting. He has decided he quite likes the daffs by themselves.
(For those of you unfamiliar with Guern/UK flower varieties the photos are as follows: 1. daffodils and celandines on the Port Soif Nature Trail, 2. Celandine on the Port Soif Nature Trail, 3. Primroses from our garden, 4. the ever spiky but sweet smelling Gorse.)

Sunday, February 22, 2009


On the weekend we normally bundle the family into the car for our regular weekend Island drive. We set a time frame, usually from one to two hours, depending on how accommodating the kids are feeling, and head off into the wide blue yonder; well grey really at this time of year. Today we happened upon 'White Gable'. We first encountered this house last year when the owners advertised their open garden in the Guernsey Press (the Island's local newspaper), or it may have been the Globe (a free newspaper), I can not remember which. The family have planted thousands of snowdrop bulbs in the field at the rear of their home and welcome the public into their garden for a few weekends during the snowdrop season. You pay a small donation for the privilege and the family donates it to their selected charity.

Last year we were told that the family had sold the property and this would be the final open garden. They even invited the public to come back, once the snowdrops had finished flowering, to remove clumps of the plants to take home to their own gardens. By sheer chance we turned down their road on our drive today; believe me once you have experienced the winding, and often confusing, mainly unsigned roads of Guernsey you will appreciate that it was most definitely chance that we ever found this house again. There at the entry to the property was a large chalkboard displaying a invitation which warmly invited passers-by to come in to see the wonderful snowdrop field. It appears the new owners are more than happy to continue the tradition, or perhaps the sale of the property never went ahead; either way it was a lovely and most unexpected surprise for us. In our previous visit the tiny carpark in the house's cobbled courtyard was full to overflowing with visitors, however this year we were fortunate enough to have the entire place to ourselves. Judging by the magnitude of this year's stunning floral display not many spade-wielding members of the public had availed themselves of the offer of free snowdrops.

In the time we have lived in Guernsey we imagined that we had seen much of the Island but in recent months we have taken to driving down Ruette Tranquille at random, just to see where it will take us. Ruette Tranquille are narrow roads, of one car width, where the speed limit is fifteen miles per hour and pedestrians, bicycles and horses have the right of way. Most of these narrow roads are edged by mounded earth 'walls' which are about waist height, although in some areas of the Island they are well above head height. It is in these roads, where the head height, vegetation clad 'walls' seem to loom up from the edges of the bitumen, you have a sense of the surreal. You are enclosed by tiny plants which seem more at home at your feet than at eye level; where you need to look up to see sky and you are unable to ascertain if the road actually ever does end, as you can never quite see past the next bend. Even if you wanted to get out of your car in order to scramble up the 'walls' and see what lies hidden beyond you could not, as the roads are so narrow you are unable to open the car door. It is in these places only travellers on foot are privy to the secrets of the hedgerows; perhaps someone is trying to tell us to get out of our car and experience things at a slower pace.

In amongst the snowdrops a few winter crocus add a welcome splash of colour. The plump, squat purple and yellow blooms offers a foil to the delicate, swaying white of the snowdrops. It was one of those scenes you hold in your memory as its picture postcard quality makes it seem as if you have stepped into a fairytale and you are merely waiting for the singing Princess to dance across the field followed by her loyal entourage of cute and fluffy animal friends. This is perhaps why my daughter insisted on my taking eleven photos of her, in varying Princess like poses amongst the flowers. A little girl's dream come true.

What fairy tale is complete without a magical mushroom for the gnomes to hide under?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Winter Wonderland

I realise the snow fell in Guernsey eighteen days ago but I did not get myself organised in time to start my blog. Actually I meant to start posting in the first week of January but once again time rushed by and seven weeks later I finally get started. We made this handsome fellow in our front yard. He was taller than our youngest, dressed warmly for the occasion and completed with a particularly fine carrot nose. My son christened him with the most original name of 'Snowy'. Snowy managed to hold onto life for three days until finally on the morning of the fourth day all that remained was a pile of soggy clothes, two beach spades, two rocks and a rather sad looking carrot.

The seat in our garden look as if it may be a suitable place for Snowy to sit survey his wintery domain. Our bird bath froze. Our trampoline had about 20cm of snow built up on the edges. The old hills play set was groaning under the weight of the snow. There were kids everywhere on the streets and our kids, along with the other children in our Clos made a snowman on the traffic island out the front of our house.

The photos below are at Port Soif. It was a truly bizarre sight to see snow covering the beach right down to the water's edge. The last of the snow did not melt off the dunes until four days later.

We were just as excited to see the snow as the children. I have seen snow twice before and my husband once, however neither of us had ever seen it falling. It really was a magical experience. As the snowflakes were swirled around in the wind I could see how it might inspire tales of dancing snow fairies. I'm glad we do not live somewhere it snows all the time as I think to see it so regularly may make it loose its magic.

Snow is not that common in Guernsey and definitely not usually this deep. The whole Island shuts down as they have no way of clearing or salting the roads due to the danger of the salt being in the water catchment area. The radio had been advising people not to drive their cars because of the danger of ice on the road.There was 42cm of snow at the airport. I think we had about 15-20cm in our garden. We had our first snowball fight, in the dark, at 6.10am in the morning while everyone else in our neighbourhood was tucked up in bed. Those CRAZY Australians again!

After his first trip out into the snow our son announced that we had better rush to the shops. When my husband asked him why he said we would all need some tennis rackets for our feet so we could walk in the snow! We went for a walk on the common, sans tennis rackets, and to the beach at 8.00am, when the Sun was just peeping over the horizon. There were already groups of kids 'sledging' on boogy boards and baking trays down the hills.

All the buses and taxis had been cancelled and I told my husband it was not a good idea to ride his bike to work because of the ice on the road, so he's having a 'Snow Day' (a-la Simpsons, however there will be no big sing-song in a circle!). When they announced on the radio that all the schools had been closed and I am surprised that you couldn't hear the screams of excitement coming from our house in Australia.

We had to take our youngest inside as she started shrieking, and I mean shrieking, as she was so cold. We all had five layers on but only had our gumboots, oh sorry wellies, on our feet and even with two pairs of socks the cold still crept in.

We had to run the heating all day today to try and melt the snow off the roof so the weight of it doesn't crush the house, or at least that is what my husband had been told; someone could be having a lend I think!!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Let them Bake Cake....

I enjoy cake decorating, I suppose it is a bit of a creative outlet for me. I loved art at school but it is difficult to fit it into my everyday life, at the moment, so cake decorating will have to suffice. I think my enjoyment of it stems from the happy memories I have of the cakes my Mum used to make for me as a child. YouTube and the Internet have alot to answer for by way of encouraging me in my icing endeavours. There are some very talented and inspirational people in the world and seeing their creations keeps encouraging me to try new techniques and ideas. My family are more than happy for me to pursue this interest as they always end up enjoying the results.

My husband phoned me from work one afternoon to ask how my day had been and suss out what we were having for dinner. I told him I had been on YouTube for the last hour. This made him very curious as I usually do not scour the Internet for jokes or images of people injuring themselves in weird and wonderful ways. He asked me if someone had emailed me a link to a joke, but I said no, there was something I wanted to research and that I thought,perhaps, YouTube may hold the answer. When I told him what I was researching the resulting peels of laughter could be heard for miles around. What is wrong with wanting to know how to make those fabulous icing roses, I ask you!

YouTube has some wonderful instructional videos on how to create icing (buttercream) roses. I am afraid I am one of those ridiculous people who, quite often, makes a new recipe when people are coming for dinner. So naturally my first attempt at icing roses would be for a retirement party for one of the teachers from my children's school (pictured above). They turned out 'alright' but I had made a white chocolate ganache to ice the cake and this showed how truly yellow Guernsey butter is as the butter in the roses seemed to make them look a little more like primroses than the white roses I had hoped for. The cake looked a little too like a wedding cake in the end, but live and learn. The teacher who was retiring said she liked it.

My next attempt were these cupcakes. I never realised how tricky it is to get the cake to stay below the top edge of the paper case so you have a flat work surface. There was rather alot of trimming involved but I had plenty of willing helpers to eat the off-cuts.

We held a Rainbow themed birthday party and this teddy's rainbow bow tie suited the theme wonderfully. I even managed to find (purely by chance, not by skill or design, I assure you) some rainbow teddy party bags. This teddy cake can be found in The Australia Women's Weekly 'Party Cakes for All Occasions' cookbook (published 1990) although they have included it in some of their more recent cake books as well.

What Princess Party is complete without a pink and purple princess cake. I did not own a dolly varden cake tin so rather than buy one (as, lets be honest, how many of this type of cake are you going to make to warrant purchasing a specific tin) I made four smaller cakes, stacked them on top of each other, refrigerated them overnight and then cut them into a skirt shape. I have included a photo of before this regal miss was 'dressed', as when my husband came home, opened the fridge door and saw this cake he said he felt our children were a tad young for a stripper party!

When my son announced he would like a Pirate party I was racking my brain for cake ideas. He had had a Pirate Party once before when he was very small and I had made him a pirate ship cake. I looked at treasure map and treasure chest cakes but nothing really inspired me until I was flicking through The Australian Women's Weekly 'Party Cakes for All Occasions' cookbook (published in 1990 with the clown on the front, in case you want to look for it)and there it was, the perfect piratey cake - Skull and Crossbones. Once again the Australian Women's Weekly comes through. In Guernsey you can buy these particularly disgusting eyeball lollies (sweets). They come in their own individual hard plastic shell, which is probably just as well or otherwise, you would be in danger of being overcome by their pungent aroma. They do have one redeeming feature; they make fabulous Skull and Crossbones eyes. Sadly this poor chap has a slight squint.

We were invited to our first Halloween party and I offer to help with some of the food. Here is what I came up with. The ghosts are white fondant icing, cut with a scone cutter and rolled thinly on the edges, to give that floating appearance, then draped over a chuppa chup lollipop. The icing underneath is purple but I decided that it did not blend well with the other Halloweeny colours so I just made sure the ghosts' hems covered it. The eyes are just dabs of icing gel. One more thing, make sure you use icing sugar (powdered sugar) on your work surface to stop the icing from sticking. A friend of mine uses cornflour to the same effect.

Last year our school held an end of year BBQ with a Fourth of July theme so I baked these.

These are from another Australian Women's Weekly cookbook, 'Kids' Parties', published 1991 with some children in fancy dress on the cover. They were quite simple to make as you just pipe on the lines, put the cakes in the fridge to let the icing harden a little and then smooth them over for nice clear stripes.

Two of the teachers from my children's school were celebrating a joint, surprise 60th Birthday Party. I was asked if I would mind making the cake. I was more than happy to but I always get stressed when I make cakes for other people as if I somehow stuff up the recipe and the cake tastes like the bottom of someone's shoe my friends and family will tease me about it ruthlessly but I will know that there was a problem. If I make a cake for someone else I always worry that I will be whispered about in dark corners as the woman who makes those truly revolting cakes. Fortunately this time there were plenty of off-cuts with leftover icing so my family was able to assure me of the acceptability of this particular cake. I had never made numbers before so the '6' ended up a little short so I could fit it on the board.

So there you have it, a few of my icing endeavours from the last year. Some worked, some did not but all were eaten, which is the main thing after all.

Who, what, where and when.

Hello. I suppose this is an appropriate beginning for my first post. You would think that after reading so many other wonderful blogs I would come up with a more interesting and original post, but alas after taking months to decide as to whether I should start a blog I am now at a bit of a loss as to what to write!

I am an Australian living in Guernsey in the Channel Islands. My family moved here in July 2007. My husband applied for a job in Guernsey in January of that year. We heard nothing in relation to the job for several months and so we assumed, that as the job was advertised worldwide, they were not going to contact the unsuccessful applicants. Well, he received 'the' phone call in March, we were on the plane on a whirlwind five day visit/job interview in April, we sold our house in Australia in June and set foot on Guernsey soil in the first week of July.

My husband was worried if we had made the right decision in moving to Guernsey, but I said if we moved there and in a few years it did not work out we could always move back to Australia, but if we do not take this chance we may well be regretting our decision and lack of courage for the rest of our lives.

We have been called 'brave', to our faces and probably 'crazy', behind our backs for moving our family so far from home, but I am a believer in the saying 'You only live once.' I think you need to grab life with both hands, in a choker hold if required, and strangle as much happiness, enjoyment, new experiences and love out of it as you can, as you never know when your time on this world will be over. When an opportunity presents itself, take it, as it will likely never come again.

My husband always laughs and says that we never really have a plan we just seem to lurch from place to place, idea to idea, with a 'that sounds good; lets do that now' attitude and fortunately it has always worked out for the best, eventually.

Nineteen months on and we have settled into our new home. We thought moving to another English speaking country would make for a smooth transition from an Aussie to Guern way of life. How wrong we were! Guernsey is beautiful and the people are friendly but it is all the little things which have involved the near vertical learning 'curve' - slightly different sense of humour, way of doing things, way of saying things, road rules, rules at the supermarket, rules at school, social rules, what is considered rude, what is considered polite, social standing and understanding, all the little nuances of life; basically what it means to be a Guern. We live on this lovely island the very least we can do is attempt to understand it and its people as best we can. It is, after all, these very differences which makes moving here an exciting, once in a lifetime adventure.

I can call it an adventure now, as the initial shock of moving here as faded over time.