Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Snowed in and Christmas Cake decorating - Step 1

Well, we're snowed in this evening, so what better thing to do when it's cold outside than write my blog ! I had so wanted to go for a run after work today, but it was not to be.. by the time I got home the snow was welll over my boots and the traffic was practically at a standstill..

So, Cupcake and I came home and I made a start on the five Christmas cakes that are in need of decoration. I had already marzipanned three of them at the weekend, so they were ready to decorate. Well, actually that's not entirely correct, one of the cakes does not have marzipan so I will put a double icing layer on that one. So, I marzipanned two, did a one-layer icing on another and left them to dry out..

When decorating your cake this is what you need to do:

1) Get a cake board. Get a board that fits your cake nicely. Remember by the time you have added marzipan and icing, and also if you plan to ice around the base of the cake, this can quite increase the girth of the cake, so just bear that in mind ok ?

2) So, you have your board. Take a wodge of marzipan or icing and use it to stick the cake to the base of the cake board.

3) With your cake nicely secure, open your marzipan and use it to fill all of the little gaps on the top of the cake to create a surface that will look as smooth as possible when iced. Also, look at the base of your cake, if it is not perfectly flat then fill in that space with marzipan so that your cake will be a perfect round or square when iced.

4) Once you have filled the holes,done some patchwork and created the perfect shape, you can now glaze the cake and get it ready for the marzipan. BUT before you do this you must measure the cake to check what size you will need to roll out your marzipan and icing to. You can do it when it's covered in glaze if you like, it's just easier and less messy before... I use a standard sewing measuring tape.

5) For the glaze you need apricot jam or you can buy 'Apricot jam glaze'. The secret of the glaze is that it must absolutely be fruit-free and clear. If your glaze has pieces of fruit in it, and you brush them onto your cake, and then add marzipan and icing, apparently the pieces of apricot can start to go mouldy in your cake... Enough said huh ?

5) Put several tablespoons of the glaze into a saucepan and heat it gently (or chuck it in the microwave for 15 seconds or maybe less actually - it just needs to be warm and 'brushable' (is that a word ??)). If you happen to just have jam and not glaze, you can still heat the jam the same way, but you must sieve the jam afterwards, before you use it, to get rid of any fruit 'bits'. Brush the warm glaze all over the cake. I use a wonderful silicon pastry brush, but I have been known to use a traditional brush and then spend hours (or what felt like hours !) quite literally 'picking hairs'. Actually, being quite a pedantic person I quite like to pick hairs at times, but not literally !!

6) Roll out the marzipan to the desired thickness and diameter. I have a lovely smooth rolling pin which I only use for decorating cakes. Wooden rolling pins tend to be a little pitted which can leave marks on your lovely iced cake, which you want to be smooth, smooth, smooth... Use the rolling pin, and your arm if necessary to drape the marzipan over the cake. Once you are happy with the position and cover,  use your hands to secure the marzipan over the cake.

7) Once the marzipan is in the correct position and smoothed out over the top and sides of the cake, take a blunt knife and trim the excess marzipan from the base of the cake. Always leave a little more than you think you need and use the edge of the knife to press the marzipan against the cake and make a neat bottom edge. Please ensure the knife is blunt and you press lightly as the cake is now on it's presentation board, otherwise you could very easily mark your board.

8) Once you are happy with the trimmed area, clean your cake board. (I use kitchen towel dipped in alcohol to get rid of any jam drips or icing sugar dust). Cover the cake with either a perforated cake cover, or loosely with greaseproof paper and leave the marzipan to dry.

The marzipan needs at least 24 hours to dry before you ice the cake.

See Christmas Cake decorating Step 2 - coming soon !

Friday, November 26, 2010

Christmas Cake - it's not too late !

If you start now, and I mean NOW, you can probably just about get the cake done in time for Christmas. I have made six cakes in total and have been feeding them (whiskey) for the last couple of weeks. They are now ready to marzipan and ice and will be with the recipients next week or the week after (depending how quickly I manage to get them decorated).

You may be thinking in awe, what ? Six Christmas cakes ?? But actually Christmas cake is really easy to make, you just need to know a few tricks of the trade. I went on a year long cake decorating course which I thoroughly enjoyed, and of course the first project was Christmas cake decorating and baking. So, here goes...

This is my tried and tested Christmas Cake recipe taken from a book called 'The Cook's Encyclopedia of Christmas' by Martha Day. (Just reading that title tells me that it's my kind of book). My mom bought me the book a couple of years ago and the recipe makes for a nice tasting Christmas cake.

Here's how it goes:


225g sultanas
225g currants
225g raisins
115g dried, chopped prunes
50g glace cherries
50g chopped, mixed peel
45ml brandy, sherry or whiskey
225g plain flour
pinch salt
half tsp cinnamon
half tsp nutmeg
1 tbsp cocoa powder
grated rind of an orange or lemon
225g butter
225g soft brown sugar
4 large eggs
50g ground almonds
50g chopped almonds


1. The night before you want to make the cake - presoak the dried fruit in whichever alcohol you are using.
I guess I never really realised just how important soaking dried fruit in some form of liquid is, until I first tried it in a banana loaf cake. Soaking the fruit makes so much difference it's like eating a different cake. So, put all of the dried fruit mentioned above, cherries and prunes included into a huge bowl, pour the alcohol over and preferably leave over night. I also cover my bowl with clingfilm so the alcoholic vapour is not lost. :o)

NOTE: If you don't like cherries/mixed peel/raisins, then remember the above is a guide only. As long as you use the correct weight of dried fruits, then you can substitute any for your favourites. For example, Biscuit Boy adores cherries so I will often use triple the amount of cherries and half the amount of raisins, and no mixed peel, but more sultanas.. You get the idea...

Preheat the oven to 160 deg/325F or gas 3.

2. This makes enough for an 8inch round cake, so you need to grease and line that. Although I use a 7in square tin and this quantity does fine for that too. Don't forget to make the lining in the tin nice and tall, this prevents the corners of the cake browning too quickly and becoming dry.

3. Sift the dry ingredients into  a bowl - flour, cocoa, salt and spices. In a different bowl whisk the (softened) butter and sugar together until light and fluffy and then add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition.

4. Next, add the orange or lemon rind to the sugar.butter/eggs mixture, then add the ground almonds, chopped almonds, flour mixture and fruits (basically all the rest of the ingredients above !)

5. Mix all of this together and place in your prepared cake tin.

 6. Put in the oven and bake for 3 hours, do a skewer test to ensure the cake is cooked. eg if there is raw cake on the skewer that you dip in, then you need to cook it for longer. If the top of the cake is looking done, but the middle isn't you can cover the cake either with tin foil or cake liner to remove some of the direct heat from the top of the cake.

Here is the cooked cake:

As I am going to be decorating these cakes in the next few days I will do a Christmas Cake decorating masterclass which should be fun as I still have all of the bits and pieces from the course. Edible gold anyone ?? Come on, it is Christmas !!!

Let me be the first to say it, and not even in December ..

Merry Christmas !!!!!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Gosport Half Marathon 2010 - Race Review

Well, yet again there were a few lessons learned for me, and here they are so that you may learn from my mistakes ...

Please, please, pleased read the race instructions before you leave the house for the race. I have a tendency to rely on Biscuit Boy to sort out everything I need for my races, like nutrition and journey route etc; although I do actually sort out my own race kit.  I had assumed (wrongly) that there would be no showering facillities... We had just reached the (congested) motorway when I started reading the race instructions and saw that there were showering facilities and, of course, I had no towel or shower gel, or anything... Enough said.

When we arrived at the destination we joined the queue of cars heading past the school to the car park at the bottom of the road (I assume...) However, before we could reach the car park, the nice marshall told us that the car park was full and they were no longer letting cars into the car park from that entrance as they were about to close the road for the race and we had to turn back and go left at a roundabout, and then straight on, and then left again..(or something like that ...) Instead, luckily we were able to shoe-horn ourselves into a space outside someone's home... as for the rest of the cars snaking down the street waiting in line patiently to be told exactly the same thing... well I'm not sure what happened to them... Moral ? Get there in plenty of time to park...

I say luckily because by this point I was absolutely bursting for the loo. I had faithfully drunk my lucozade sports energy drink on the way down and now my bladder was aching... Into the school we went, to locate the ladies.. I located the facilities and then started following the queue, with nearly 2000 competitors (I don't know how many of those were women though), you can imagine what the queue was like.. long. I went back outside to Biscuit Boy and told him we needed to find somewhere else to powder our noses ... Of course, I had passed a petrol station just before we turned into the side road, that was, of course, empty. I remember I noticed that someone very much looking like a runner was exiting the petrol station at the time and I was thinking 'He probably had the sense to make a pee stop before reaching the race'. Moral ? The facilities at any  race are often busy before the race starts. Everyone (me included) either seems to develop pre-race nerves that makes you want to pee literally every 5 minutes before the race, or (as all runners will know) you want to try and empty your bowel, because if you don't do it now, by mile 8 or 9 or even 10 with all that jiggy-jogging up and down you are going to find yourself in trouble and with a very uncomfortable ending to your race, which quite frankly can ruin the whole race.. Moral ? Don't wait until you reach the race destination to make your first toilet stop. If there are services or a petrol station near to the race venue, go there on the way. :o)

Back to Gosport half marathon itself. They had wonderful things on offer like pre and post-race massage - for free ! (I think you could make a charity donation as a contribution.) They also had a refreshments tent and a running stall selling items, you could also get your medal engraved. Unfortunately, by the I had returned to the toilet queue through the throngs of competitors, collected my chip and attached it to my stupid laces it was 9.50 and I had 10 minutes before the race started... and I wasn't even at the start line...

Biscuit Boy tells me that he did see a cafe on the beach front that looked good, but he didn't want to waste time queueing - we're both SO impatient ! He didn't check out the facilities at the school either..

So, I joined the competitors on the start line. I noticed that you could stand according to the time that you thought you were going to do. I saw there was a 2 hours+ line and I thought I want to be in front of that this time, so I went in front. Not all races start on time and with the parking problems and the toilet congestion I had thought that we might be delayed.. and we were but only by about 3 minutes, which is not at all bad.

Now for the course, I had studied the course map in detail, this is because although I got third prize at the Tough Tracks race none of the marshalls that I asked knew how much of the race was left, which made me run slower because I wasn't sure how much energy I needed to conserve. Not good.

I needn't have worried about this today. First of all the course is most wonderfully signposted, has mile markers and plenty of marshalls. Excellent. Also, if you look at the course map you will see that it is basically 3 miles to the airfield, 2 miles in the airfield, 3 miles out of the airfield, 2 miles back in the airfield, 3 miles to the finish. Easy. So, you can roughly pace yourself based on that.

The course is flat, flat, flat. For someone that is used to cross country and off-road running, or if road-running then at least a couple of undulations along the way, this was a taste of something new. Hastings half marathon was a road marathon, but there were quite a few uphill and downhills. On this out of 13 miles you have about 25 metres of downhill as as you enter the promenade and perhaps one or two places where there are a couple of very slight declines, same for inclines, maybe one or two very slight, otherwise it's flat, flat, flat.

What do flat courses make ? Fast times. Well that's what they say anyway... I did cross the line in 1:55:05 and I had wanted to make less than 2 hours, so obviously I was pleased but I cannot say it was an 'easy' run. As far as I'm concerned, fast runs make for fast times, and I felt like I was running fast for the whole of this half marathon. On an undulating course you can almost take a breather on a fast downhill and also on an uphill (kind of), on this flat course there is no let-up and everyone is running fast. That's how it felt to me, no let up at all. A solid 1:55 of running quite literally as fast as I could.

There were plenty of water stops, 2 in the airfield and as you go through it twice that makes it 4 and also one at the 11 mile mark which I didn't use. At the first three I glugged water and had an energy gel. I wore my compression calf supports, so my calves did feel nice and supported.

Not surprisingly after this race my thighs are aching so no running for me tomorrow.

Who would I recommend this race to ? Basically, people who are not accustomed to undulating courses or are maybe used to running on a treadmill rather than outside. As I mentioned I think getting a fast time is a little bit of a fallacy. If you want a fast time you have to run fast and you can at least do that on this course. The course was well organised, the organisers had actually thought about what to put in the goodie bag with a banana, fruit cake, salt and vinegar crisps the absolutely practically perfect combination to replace lost carbs and salts in a tasty way.

All in all thank you for a lovely race and of course a half marathon PB.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Gosport Half Marathon 2010

Tomorrow I will be competing in Gosport Half Marathon.. (http://www.gosportroadrunners.org.uk/ ). Eeek !!

I have been training well and for the last few weeks I have been on a couple of eight mile runs,  this has taken about ninety minutes. I am hoping to run the course tomorrow in less than 2 hours. You may recall that I did Hastings half marathon (http://alwaystri-ingmybest.blogspot.com/2010/03/hastings-half-marathon.html) recently in 2:02 and that was a hilly course, so I live in hope...

I have been tapering the running all week, so this week my running was like this:

Sunday:  8 miles, nice and long and slow.

Monday: Rest

Tuesday: 4 mile run (Oaks Park)

Wednesday: Rest

Thursday:  3 mile road run (too soggy for Oaks Park)

Friday/Saturday: Rest

So tomorrow my legs should be nicely rested. I have all of my kit sorted, including the race belt that I managed to forget last time.  I've also been eating lots of nice carbs for the last few days to ensure my muscles are fully stoked ! It's now 10.30pm so it's an early night for me and an early rise. Gosport is about two hours drive from South London. This will be my second race running for South London Harriers.

If I have the energy tomorrow, I will update this post with a brief report and time...

Wish me luck !!

An update:  Provisional Results: 1:55:05. This is my 'unofficial' 'race' time. My 'chip' time should be quicker, probably by about a minute. So, I'm absolutely VERY pleased with the result.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Homemade Granola (Vegan)

Well, it's not like I'm stingy or tight-fisted or anything...  but when I saw the price of the granola on the supermarket shelf the other day, I thought 'There is no way I am paying all that hardearned cash' for what is basically baked oats !!!

I had a vague inkling of how to make it, it's a little bit like a flapjack recipe actually. You need oats, any sort of fruits and nuts and a binding sweetner, choose honey, maple syrup, normal syrup and you also need a little bit of oil or butter.

I looked at my book shelves for a 'proper' recipe, and would you believe that out of all of these books, not one of them contained a recipe for granola. Shameful !

So, onto the computer and there I found this wonderful recipe within two seconds flat ! (I still love my cook books tho.)

Crunchy, nutty granola is just what I was looking to make. Perfect. As usual, I tweaked the recipe to match what I had available.

This is what I did, my mods are in brackets.

125g PURE soy margarine (one of my favourites, this)
150ml maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
500g oat flakes (I used cheap muesli and picked out the fruit(!))
100g flaked almonds (I didn't have any of the below nuts so I used 200g of chopped walnuts instead)
100g chopped cashew nuts
100g desiccated coconut
100g pumpkin seeds (I used 200g as I was missing nuts and sunflower seeds)
100g sunflower seeds (I didn't have any of these...)

200-300g mixed dried fruit, such as chopped pitted dates, figs, apricots, raisins, sultanas
I used sultanas, chopped dried apricots, and chopped dates. I think the whole lot came to about 250g. You can kind of tell by looking how much you need, oh and also the dusty dried fruit from out of the muesli (waste not, want not :o))

Here is the lovely recipe method below with pictures interspersed.


1. Preheat the oven to 160°C/fan 140°C/gas 3. Place the margarine, maple syrup and vanilla in a small pan, and put over a gentle heat to melt together.

2. Mix the remaining ingredients, except the dried fruit, in a large bowl. Stir in the melted margarine mixture and mix well. Spread out in a large roasting tray and bake for 25 minutes, or until the nuts and grains are a pale golden brown, stirring every 5 minutes so it browns evenly. Note that if you do put the fruit in it will cook the moisture out of the fruit and will render it into to 'Bitter Bullets' so don't do it, as it tastes yuk ! (A bit like the 'overdone' bit on a Christmas Cake...)

3. Remove the tray from the oven and leave to cool, stirring the mixture in the tray occasionally. (If you transfer it to a bowl while it’s still warm, it will go soggy.)

When it has cooled down, add the dried fruit, stir, and put into an airtight container. Store at room temperature for up to a month.

Here it is with the fruit added ...

.. and now in the jar :

I had this for breakfast this morning, and it was delicious ! As you can see it fills quite a large jar. Do be careful and literally check it every five minutes as it can suddenly be ready very quickly. Enjoy !

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Leek and Potato Soup (Vegan)

Last weekend I was treated to lunch and a reflexology session by a couple of friends as a belated birthday present. It was my first experience of reflexology and I am still reserving judgment on it until I find out a little more about it...but it was relaxing though.

We went to Fanny's Farm for lunch, it's the most amazing, odd place, all higgledy-piggledy and seemingly thrown together. In truth, I think the place probably has grown and changed over the years so that may explain it's oddness.... Pigs and pianos ?? The Mother and Daughter team are quite formidable and I have seen Fanny and her farm featured on TV a couple of times. They produce a lots of their own products (including award winning marmelade), but they also do a good job of supporting small, local producers. Cupcake once played their piano that they have right in the middle of the place. Once we booked their treehouse for a girlie 'high tea'. I have to say it was a real treat. As you can guess I am a fan of this place. Check out their website here: http://fannysfarmshop.co.uk/

On to lunch, sometimes I don't want a meaty option, lately I don't even want a dairy option, so the leek and potato soup was perfect. When it arrived it was a huge bowlful with a roll, as this was Bonfire Night and afterwards I was heading out to help out at Riding for the Disabled in Epsom (http://www.riding-for-disabled.org.uk/)  warm soup was all the more welcoming. It was absolutely delicious, although the soup was quite smooth, somehow the soup was still quite fibrous and very thick. They had also added a lot of black pepper, which is never a bad thing for my palate. I was seriously impressed. As I left Fanny's, and marvelled at the collection of multicoloured cherry tomatoes, Fanny's daughter called over 'How was the soup?' My reply ? 'Perfect'.

So, a week later I decided to try and recreate the recipe... so, here's what I did.

3 leeks, chopped into rounds
Loads of black pepper
A pinch or two of salt (add to taste)
1 tbsp olive oil
2tsp PURE Soy margarine (suitable for vegans)
A pouring of Alpro soy cream (also suitable for vegans... I just checked. :o))
2 baking potatoes, cut into cubes
1 garlic clove, grated
Hot water from the kettle


1. I put the leeks, salt and pepper, olive oil and soy margarine into a frying pan and heated that on a medium heat until the margarine melted.

2. Then I chopped the potatoes.
3. Then I added the potatoes and some water from the kettle and some soy cream to the frying pan.
4. I then covered it and let it bubble until the potatoes were tender. I looked every few minutes and topped it with water or soy cream, as necessary. If you want a richer soup add soy cream, a thinner soup add water..

5. I had a taste and added a lot more freshly ground black pepper as it wasn't as peppery as the version at Fanny's Farm.

6. When the potatoes are cooked, it's time to tip it all into a blender.
7. I blended mine in two batches. When it was blended, I tipped it all into a saucepan for reheating at a later date.. for me, this will probably be tomorrow with some crusty bread.

NOTE: When I tasted tested this, it was not fibrous at all, but very smooth and very creamy. I am guessing that perhaps the version at Fanny's Farm is not blended at all, but is perhaps left to bubble away all day until the leeks actually disintegrate !!! Ok, maybe I'm wrong, but how else would they manage to keep the texture like that .. ??

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Running and Christmas Cakes

Well I've not given up on the runnning, but things have been a little stale lately. We only managed one run whilst in France, so since we got back I have been stepping things up a little, and what better way to do that than signing up for another race !!

So, I will be completing Gosport half marathon on November 21st. In light of this I have had to step up the training and this is why I found myself out on an eight mile training run on Sunday. I took it nice and steady, some road and some off-road and not only had I been looking forward to it, I also enjoyed it. I wore my CompressSport calf supports and afterwards my legs felt great. Not at all tired.

I had planned to run on Monday with Biscuit Boy but rain ruined play, so I didn't run. On Tuesday I went to Oaks Park and did my usual 4 mile loop through the woods which is so pretty in the late autumn. Wednesday found me doing a'super sprints' session. I had planned to, quite literally, sprint up and jog down a hill in the park, but a super long bus journey meant that I missed the train back from work. Not wanting a training session to be ruined, I did the next best thing and found a closer hill  and sprinted up and jogged down that instead. It was good, my legs felt strong and not at all heavy. That makes me happy and positive in terms of the upcoming race. I did not run today (Thursday), I am tempted to run tomorrow, but as it will be a squashed-in between work and shopping run I am considering ditching those three or four junk miles for another quality eight-miler on Saturday. Saturday I will be running whatever the weather. Then next week I will taper ready for the race, hopefully learning from previous mistakes this time !!!

Oh, and yes, in between all that Cupcake did a swimming gala and swam very well. Biscuit Boy did the Windfarmer triathlon with the weather from hell, and I have been busy making Christmas Cakes, four so far and soon to be five.... Don't ask......

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Labour of Love - Kitchen and Sanding - An Update

Biscuit Boy and I are just back from Labour of Love, our lovely village house nestled in a valley in south-west France. My project was sanding and varnishing some floors and BB was tasked with fitting the oven, hob and tiles.

Here's a few photos from the trip:

There used to be a really, stinky old woodburner in here which didn't work. Well, you put wood in it, it burned and the place remained absolutely freezing. Absolutely not what you need when it's freezing cold and you have no other source of heat. Thankfully, we do now have wall-mounted heaters upstairs, but there were a few winters where there was no heat other than this thing. We used it once, spent many euros on some logs and remained cold. So it had to go. I think this looks good. Now for some tiles, no ?


I love the contrast of the white subway tiles with the grey grout, and the grey tiles with the white grout, and the variation in laying style. I wanted the oven area to be 'similar, but different'.  I am happy with the finished effect. Now, here's a view of the whole kitchen....

Oh... and here's what I did, the floors on the top level...

The floors came out really well, I am pleased with them. In the style of my recipe writing, here's what I did:

1) Scrubbed the floor by hand with good old soap, water and scourer to get rid of water stains, paint and cement 'droppings' on the floor. Sweeping the bits up with a brush as I go.
2) Make sure the floor is clear of all marks that can be removed by hand and is now dry.
3) Get out a hand sander (or larger sander) fit with appropriate sand paper, and sand the whole floor, paying special attention to any remaining stubborn marks. Don't forget to wear your mask whilst doing this to avoid breathing down sawdust. NOTE: even if you think your floor doesn't need sanding, give it a light, quick sand anyway. Apparently it provides a 'key' for the varnish to adhere to.
4) Sweep excess sawdust from the floor
5) Wipe the entire floor with white spirit and wait for it to dry.
6) Varnish floor.
7) Wait two hours and reapply.
8)  Wait two hours and reapply.
9)  Wait two hours and reapply.

Yes, you want four layers of varnish in total for a nice hard-wearing surface. Maybe even more! You might notice that I am wearing socks in the photo above, I am about to apply one of the later layers, basically the varnish is still too soft for you to be on there in hard shoes, and if in bare feet the natural sweat from your feet could mark the floor as you will stick to it. So, keep your socks on ! You need to wait eight hours after the final layer before you allow your usual traffic on it.

We used Ronseal Hard as Nails Diamond Gloss varnish that comes with it's own sponge/mop applicator thingy and it actually works very well. I would recommend it.

If you do get to do some sanding in your own Labour of Love, then I hope that helps.