Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Cake creations

Many of the cakes I make at work come from a book of designs, mainly produced by Decopac. We are supposed to only make cakes from these designs. Often, however, customers come in with a picture or idea and ask if we can make it for them. Always up for a challenge, I usually agree. I then try and get a snap of the finished article with my mobile phone. And I thought you all might like to see what I do all day...


A co-worker asked if I could draw frogs. Funnily enough, owing to an incident in my teenage years (involving a friend with a boyfriend called Frog and the signing of end-of-school shirts), I could. This cute cupcake cake was the result.

This is what his family wanted. I'm not sure what David thought of the idea. However, my newly-acquired airbrushing skills were put to good use.

See, I haven't forgotten all my chemistry!

Not quite there, but it's quite difficult to make an irregular hexagon into a kitten. You will notice that this is another cupcake cake - a species unknown in the UK but formed by arranging cupcakes on a board and then icing over the whole lot. They are supposed to be easier to eat, or something, but I've never seen one actually taken apart. Frankly it looks messy to me.

And the best for last - I was very pleased with my little ladybird. He came out just as he was supposed to. The hardest part was writing straight on a vertical curved surface. I had to scrape that name off about three times before it came out right.

Cleburne State Park: Fall and Fossils

Making the most of both our Texas State Parks pass and a sunny Saturday, we ventured out to tick Cleburne State Park off our list. It's relatively local - less than an hour away - and we had often driven by on the main highway, but not yet turned off for a visit. The park is not a particularly large one. We walked almost all the way around the edge in just a couple of hours, with disappointingly few views of the central reservoir, but plenty of rugged ups and downs and a few pretty streams to cross. And - excitingly - a scattering of shell and ammonite fossils. It's pretty awesome to think that the rock your trainer soles are now scuffing was once mud way down on the sea bed - and to kneel down and stroke the ridges that immortalise one of the creatures that lived and died there, millions of years ago.



Quite a big beastie.

Rock by the lake outflow.


The lake.

A bit of Texas countryside.

Autumn leaves.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Christmas is coming...

...and we have a Christmas tree! This is the first Christmas tree we've had since we got married (you may all say "awww" now) so we really splashed out and bought the decorations from Walmart. Seriously though, it is a responsibility. I'm pretty sure many of my parents' Christmas decorations date from the early days of their marriage; it was a humbling feeling to be sizing up baubles with the knowledge that we might well be digging those very same baubles out of their dusty box in the attic in 30 years time. Nothing does longevity like a Christmas ornament.

In which case, of course, we also need some dusty photos to dig out along with the decorations, to show the very first time they were used. Thus we have Graham decorating the tree, and Martha decorating the mantelpiece. The ones of Graham with baubles dangling from his ears and Martha wrapped in tinsel will not be appearing on this blog. Some things should not be shown to future generations (or present ones for that matter).




I hope you agree that the finished product is pretty sweet.


It's a little early to say Merry Christmas, but today is the first Sunday in Advent. So a blessed Advent to you all.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Boozy chocolate cakes

Over the last few years I have been involved in testing the idea that you can put virtually anything in a chocolate cake. Prunes, cinnamon, ginger, even mashed potato. (The mashed potato one is really good, actually, but involves about six separate bowls. Definitely a special-occasion recipe.)

Thus far, however, I had never entered the realm of alcoholic chocolate cakes. A recipe in Food & Wine magazine and a half-bottle of leftover wine in the fridge changed all that. I present to you Chocolate-Red Wine Cake, with apologies to my UK readers for the American measures. 1 cup is 8 fluid ounces. Use a measuring jug.

Chocolate-Red Wine Cake2 cups all-purpose (plain) flour
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1 1/4 tsp baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
1/2 tsp salt
2 sticks (8 oz) unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups dry red wine

Preheat oven to 350F / 180C. Grease and flour a 12-cup bundt pan (I used a 9" springform tin with a ring insert).
Beat the butter with the sugar until fluffy. Add eggs and beat until incorporated. Ad vanilla and mix for 2 minutes longer.
Sieve together the flour, cocoa powder, soda and salt. Alternately fold in the dry ingredients and the wine, until just incorporated.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake 45 min until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pan 10 min, then turn out onto wire rack.
When cool, dust with icing (confectioner's) sugar and serve with whipped cream.

I don't, unfortunately, have a photo, but this is good. It has a decided reddish tinge and winey flavour. Rent a rom-com and invite some girlfriends over.


For a more masculine cake, it's gotta be Guinness. I'd been meaning to try out Nigella's chocolate Guinness cake for a while, and was kicked into action by discovering a chocolate stout pudding recipe on another blog. So, two good reasons to buy some Guinness.

The Nigella recipe is here, and here is the finished product (without icing as Graham isn't a fan of creamy stuff).



It wasn't quite as "resonantly ferrous" as promised by the author, but having finished the remains of the can, I can tell you that the drink tasted somewhat watered down compared to a pint in an Irish bar. If you have a pub round the corner that will pull you half a pint, go there for your raw ingredient. It's a very easy cake to make, although I would mention that where Nigella says "whisk", obey her instructions. I used a wooden spoon, and this is why my cake has small white bits of unmixed flour in.


Happy cake-making!

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Texas times

The calf shot from the starting gate, with the horse and its rider in close pursuit. Before it had covered more than a few yards, it was brought up short by a loop of the lasso falling around its neck. Already the cowboy was off his horse and running along the taut line. Moments later the calf was on the ground with a rope wrapped tightly around fore and hind legs. The clock on the wall read just 5 and 13 hundredths of a second as the rider mounted his horse and two men ran out to untie the helpless bovine.


It was a Friday night and we were at the rodeo in Fort Worth Stockyards. John and Kristal, my brother and his new wife, were in town, and we were determined to give them the true Texas experience. Which is not complete until you've seen a bunch of cowboys wrestling with cattle. As well as the calf-roping competition, there were a surprising number of guys willing to take their life in their hands and try and stay on the back of a bucking bronco. Six seconds was a pretty good time for that endeavour, and a lot of them came away limping. I guess it's a macho thing.


You can't claim to be a true Texan until you've tried to consume about twice your body weight in meat and fried food in one sitting. In pursuit of this objective, and on the recommendation of some friends who obviously thought we needed feeding up, we visited the Loco Coyote Grill in Glen Rose. You can't get much more western than this: a low wooden building with a porch out front, sawdust on the floor and a menu of burgers, barbecue and fried catfish. A sign on the door advised us to leave bad attitudes outside. We took its advice, ordered a beer, added our names to the thousands scrawled on walls, window frames and furniture, and waited in relaxed anticipation for a mountain of food to appear before us. We were not disappointed. Even after eating so much we didn't want to stand up, there was enough for another meal in our polystyrene take-out boxes.






Lest you think us complete gluttons, I must add that we fitted a good amount of outdoor activity into our three days. From spotting buffalo and prairie dogs at the Fort Worth Nature Reserve to fording rivers at Dinosaur Valley State Park, and from giggling at gibbons in the zoo to pacing peacefully through the botanic gardens, we made the most of the near-perfect fall weather. And, I think, of our time together.

Monday, 26 October 2009

A week in the UK

A week in the UK goes remarkably quickly, especially when you pack it full of family and friends. The main excuse for our trip this time was Mike and Jan's wedding, a grand gathering of friends from Bristol and beyond. The bride and groom made their departure in a VW camper van, which was just fantastic - although someone really should have tied some walking boots and a climbing helmet to the back! Maybe the ribbon nose was a little more tasteful.




The happy couple. The bride's dress was beautiful and the bridesmaids were very sophisticated too, in sleek grey dresses with cream trim.



It was good to see lots of friends and find out what they're up to - from having babies and finding jobs to moving to Africa and starting new churches! Here's me with Nath and Zan:


and me with Jen and Naomi. Midlife Crisis turned out some grand music in a decidedly chilly tent, which was obviously a ploy to keep everyone dancing. Hence the well-bundled-up look.

And, of course, us. Still a happy couple even after a year of marriage!
A stroll through Bristol revealed that it still has the capacity to surprise. Down by the cathedral we ran into a full marching band and Services parade. We never did find out what it was for.


And up on the Downs a balloon landed on Graham's head...
...and on the grass a few minutes later.
On Sunday evening we engaged in the time-honoured British activities of eating fish and chips and going to the pub. All in Clifton just to show we're middle class.
On Monday I inspected the cafe and found that very little had changed, except for the staff's snazzy new aprons. It doesn't seem to have suffered at all from my absence, which made me very happy.
Heading north, we spent a few days with Graham's parents. Family reunions are always good.
Graham's uncle and aunt came to visit, and during the course of the evening we slipped upstairs to play a vintage game called Crossfire with his cousin Mark. The perfect way to feel like a kid again!
Finally, me trying to hug the whole of the English countryside. Damp and cold it may be, but there's no place like home.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Adventures in Arkansas

Saturday morning, 6:50 am. My phone bleeps. The assistant manager at work: Could you possibly come in today for a few hours? It's really busy.
7:10 am, after some deliberation: Yes, if I have to, but I'll be on overtime. Is that OK?
7:12 am: Ohhh... better check with the store manager.
Small delay, during which Graham and I, being both well awake by this time, cook and eat a pancake breakfast.
7:55 am: Never mind about today. And you're not working tomorrow either.
7:57 am: What time do I come in on Monday?
8:04 am: You're off on Monday too.
8:05 am: Graham rushes to computer to research places to go for a weekend trip. By 11:30 am we're hitting the I-30 on our way to Hot Springs, Arkansas.



Lake Ouachita (that's WASH-it-ah, not wah-CHEET-ah) at sunset

Thus began one of the most impromptu weekends away I've ever done, going from expecting to work most of the weekend to being on holiday in a few short hours. By evening we had arrived at Lake Ouachita State Park and found our campsite. This featured a nice flat tarmac driveway for the car, a nice flat concrete slab for the picnic table - and a stony slope for the tent! Having no other option, we pitched and prepared to make the best of it, and spent the night sliding down the hill in our slippery nylon sleeping bags. The next day we picked up the tent bodily and moved it to a flatter spot on another site. The following morning we were woken by a guy cruising round in a golf cart to ask us why we were occupying a site we hadn't paid for. This despite the fact that we were the only people on the entire campground!


Hot Springs itself has some resemblance to a British seaside resort in its air of crumbling grandeur. In the early 20th century the city was a hotspot (pun intended) for those wishing to bathe in the healing waters of the 60C natural springs. Imposing spa buildings and grand hotels lined Bathhouse Row, and thousands took advantage of their facilities. With the invention of antibiotics and the rise of the motor car, fewer and fewer people were content to spend their vacation sitting in a warm pond, and the inevitable decline occurred. Today the place is pleasant in a backwaterish kind of a way, but you are constantly reminded that it is a shadow of what it once was.




Actual hot springs

There are only two of the original bath houses open for business, although many of the buildings still stand and are being restored for other purposes. We spent a pleasant couple of hours splashing around in the Quapaw Baths. The four pools range from warm to very hot, and we shared them only with a scattering of retirees.



Quapaw Baths - the name inspired by Native Americans, the architecture by Arabs


Feeling very relaxed and clean, we headed over the road to BubbaLu's Bodacious Burgers for a spot of lunch. As well as great food, this place deserves a mention for its staff, who not only remembered how Graham likes his coffee, but - well, listen to this. We'd parked the car on the street. We came out of BubbaLu's. We walked towards the car. We looked at each other. Said, "This is where we left it, isn't it?" Looked at a sign. The sign said, "Reserved for tour vehicles only". We thought, "oh no!". Went dashing back into BubbaLu's. "What do we do if our car has been towed?" Very nice lady called up the city council for us and asked about it. No one knew a thing. We thought, "It's been stolen!" She asks, "Are you sure that's where you left it?" We say, "Yes.... No!" Martha dashes a few yards down the street. The car is sitting smugly just where we parked it - in the opposite direction to where we looked. We feel like a pair of idiots. Very nice lady says, "I'm just glad it's there for you". We are eternally indebted to her and need another spell in the baths to recover from the shock.


It's our car!

Fortunately the calm lakes and tree-covered hills in the area are not conducive to mental tension for long. We enjoyed swimming in the former and walking in the latter in the warm autumn sunshine and felt our spirits soothed and uplifted by the beautiful surroundings.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Bread and Cheese

The stuff of life. A ploughmans lunch in a country pub. Cheddar rolls for a picnic in the hills. Brie smeared on crusty French bread. Why, then, do Americans struggle so hard with the concept?

It's not that you can't get decent bread and cheese over here. You can - if you go to posh shops and pay inflated prices. It's that the everyday stuff is so abysmal.

Let's start with cheese. If you go to the regular packaged cheese section in the supermarket, there's a choice of about four varieties. The most flavoursome is the "sharp cheddar", which is about on a par with the mild Cheddar sold in the UK. What's worse is that the packets are all labeled "natural cheese". This makes me depressed every time I see it. What kind of a country is it where you can get unnatural cheese? And the citizens might not know the difference unless it's pointed out to them?






THIS is what receives the proud title of "American cheese". Processed, plastic-wrapped "cheese food". This is what many Americans think of when they hear the word cheese. I have a book - a novel, admittedly, but presumably reflecting real life to some extent - where a well-off 15-year-old girl isn't actually sure what cheddar is. You'd think that a country so much a leader in world affairs could come up with a few decent cheeses. Hey, it's done it with wine. Maybe cheese will be the next big thing.

So much for cheese. We move on to bread. Graham and I have recently started buying the bread made in the in-store bakery I work at, and it's made our lives so much better. At first I made bread whenever possible, but then it got to be summer, and slaving over a hot oven in 100 degree heat is no fun, I can tell you. So we tried the stuff on the supermarket shelves.

What's wrong with it? What's right with it? For a start, it's sweet. Yes, there is sugar in the bread. Or honey, or molasses, or any other kind of sweetener you can think of. Occasionally I tracked down a brand which was sugar free, but it still tasted kind of sweet. And it's floppy - this weird kind of not-fresh-but-not-stale soft texture. And the slices are small. And it keeps for weeks. I mean, seriously. Even in our frugally air-conditioned flat, this stuff wouldn't go mouldy for ages. Convenient, sure, but what in the world do they put in it? And do I really want to eat it?

I started to wonder the other day what Americans actually do with this bread. They obviously buy it, or the shops wouldn't sell it. But it makes pathetic sandwiches - nothing like the packed rolls which Subway and its ilk purvey. It makes pretty mediocre toast. I guess maybe kids would eat it. Oh of course! It's a playdough substitute. I should have known.
Culturally, Wonder Bread is associated with ... the childhood habit of playing with the malleable bread to form small sculptures or even projectiles.
(from a complete guide to American life)

And yes, I realise that British shops are not free of plastic white sliced. Nor yet processed sliced cheese. But you can buy packaged bread which has a little substance and taste to it, and ages at a respectable rate. And a mature cheddar or ripe brie without breaking the bank. Mmmm. Cheese sandwich, anyone?

But is it food?

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Dallas Arboretum

It is rare to find a place that has been planned and tended so carefully that every view, vista or passing glimpse is a beautiful one. It is even rarer that you can spend as long as you like in such a place for a mere dollar apiece. The Dallas Arboretum during August is just that place.







Dallas skyline in the distance.

An infinity pond merges seamlessly into White Rock Lake.


The garden was planted on the grounds of two estates. I believe this was one of the original houses.

For added interest, there were children's-story-themed playhouses dotted around. This rather abstract one is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I'd heard of this book a few times but never tracked down a copy, so was delighted to find an online text here.

This next is Hansel and Gretel, of course. Disappointingly there was no view of a witch being pushed into the oven when you looked through the windows. Only some old chairs.

Eragon by Christopher Paolini. He was 15 when he wrote the book and it is well worth reading. Pretty typical fantasy fare (dragons, magic, swordplay, good vs evil) and good fun.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Cute and quirky

We came home with tons of photos from our Virginia trip. Some of them don't really illustrate anything in particular, but are too good not to show off. Here's a selection.


OK, so I know squirrels are just tree rats really, but they are cute. Especially when they're trying to eat a piece of bread as big as their head.

Me in one of my favourite poses. We encountered a lot of pets on our trip. I was happy.

Real birds in a fake tree. This was an art installation in Pittsburgh, and even close up it was hard to tell that the trees weren't real.


The quintessential American country church.



My aunt and uncle are renovating a house up in the mountains, and this newspaper, dated August 31st 1919, was pasted to one wall. Doesn't it seem incredible that the "fight for women's suffrage" happened so recently?



Graham chillin' out with Mr Jefferson.



Ummm... I seem to have got the Washington Monument stuck in my head...



My new sister-in-law persuaded me to go with her for a pedicure. Don't my toes look pretty?