Things to say and do

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In the next few days, I’ll be making projects from my book, Gifts from the Garden, at various points across north and east London and I’d love it if you would join me. If you don’t it’ll just be me, weeping into my dried lavender over what might have been, like a demented, sherry-swigging old fool. And none of us want that.

So, tomorrow night do come to the verdant and lovely N1 Garden Centre at 6.30pm – not only can we get to know one another a little better, there’ll be that added delight of running about a shop when it’s closed.

If you can’t make that, I am running two events at my house this weekend as part of the fabulous StokeyLitFest. Come and sit in my kitchen, walk around my garden, eat nice things, come out smelling fragrant and wonderful. All that for four quid. That’s Saturday or Sunday at 3pm. I hope to see you then.

Cookbooks and Cake: A Winning Combination

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A delicious way to celebrate Free Cakes for Kids Hackney’s hundredth cake. On Sunday afternoon, the sun shone, cakes arrived, shortly followed by people, a lot of people, who bought lots of cookbooks and ate heroic amounts of cake. Most impressive, most unstinting in this latter effort was my friend Lola’s husband who will now forever be known as Barry ‘Four Cakes’. Neighbours came. This being Stoke Newington, some of them came bearing gifts – a little tomato plant, some homemade smoked cheese. Strangers came and sat happily in the garden, chatting, flipping through their new books. My friend Julia made a NAAFI’s worth of tea and coffee. Séan washed up with characteristic cheerfulness. The hallway was full of bikes, pushchairs and scooters. In three hours, about a hundred people came through the door and helped us to raise a thousand pounds for Free Cakes for Kids Hackney. A THOUSAND POUNDS. That’s roughly twice as much as I hoped we might make and means a lot more birthday cakes for a lot more kids. Thank you to the many FCKH bakers who brought such beautiful cakes and to those of you who came and helped to make it such a happy, successful day. See you all again next year? DSCN8927

Julia makes yet another cup of coffee. DSCN8910

The dining room turns into a bookshop for a day.
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Enjoying the precious sunshine. DSCN8946

The FCKH committee rocking their brand new tote bags.
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My contribution – a lemon and blueberry layer cake, which I didn’t even get to taste. By the time I turned around, it was but crumbs.
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Scones with clotted cream. I did try one of these and it was so good.

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A present from my neighbour, a little tomato plant. He also brought me this smoked cheese, below.
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Cookbook and Cake Sale

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My first cake for Free Cakes for Kids Hackney

Recently I signed up as a volunteer for Free Cakes for Kids Hackney. Essentially, FCKH matches up keen bakers like me with families who find it difficult to provide birthday cakes for their children. I get to bake, which I love, and a kid gets to blow out some candles. Simple.

When FCKH were trying to think of a way to celebrate the making of their hundredth birthday cake, I had an idea. My dining room table was creaking under the weight of more than a hundred cookbooks I’d been sent as a judge for the Guild of Food Writers’ Cookbook of the Year award. Why not have a cookbook and cake sale to raise some funds so we can make more cakes for more kids?

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Some books for the sale.

So if you’re free this Sunday, May 19, do come. There’ll be many of the biggest titles from 2012, so you can tuck into brand new copies of Ottolenghi, Nigella, Jamie, Hugh and Mary Berry at knock down prices – and there’ll be quite a few second-hand books too. And if that isn’t a big enough draw, we’ll be serving tea and cake, of course.

There are Free Cakes for Kids groups springing up all over the country. If you’d like to volunteer or donate, check out their website here.

COOKBOOK AND CAKE SALE

19 May, 2-5pm, 112 Rectory Road, Stoke Newington, London N16 7SD

Cash only, please.

Beware of Crocheters Bearing Gifts…

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I attempt to master a double crochet stitch.

There was a great, whispered scandal in my family when Auntie Dolly’s granddaughter rejected the wedding dress she’d crocheted for her as a surprise. It wasn’t a scaled-up version of something which might primly cover up a loo roll, rather a two-ply marvel of gossamer beauty and intricacy. At least it was to my seven-year-old eyes.

All of those Blair girls had good hands. Each one of them could make pretty much anything, but they all had their specialist areas. My grandmother Barbara was the compulsive knitter. Auntie Louie was a marvellous baker. There was always something sweetly delicious in a tin at her house. But Dolly was the crochet queen. She could, with a certain amount of accuracy, have been called Auntie Doily. She once crocheted my mother a highly-unseaworthy bikini in shimmering white and gold, sort of Ursula Andress meets the Women’s Institute.

To be fair, a surprise wedding dress isn’t high on any sane person’s wish list. Nonetheless there was much Cissie-and-Ada-esque bosom heaving and lip pursing over the tea cups when The Ungrateful Granddaughter rejected it in favour of some synthetic lace number bought from a shop. The Blair sisters’ outrage was assuaged only slightly when The Unwanted Wedding Dress won first place in the craft section of the village’s flower and vegetable show.

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The tempting, colourful shelves of Knit With Attitude.

I thought of Dolly when Erika Knight’s new book, Crochet Workshop: Learn How to Crochet with 20 Inspiring Projects dropped through my door. Though I’m a keen knitter (thank you, Barbara), I’ve never mastered crochet. Along with the usual blankets, cushions and mittens, Erika’s projects include more unusual things such as bejewelled brooches, a laptop cover, a rag rug and a dog bed. It’s a very pretty book. I would say that. It’s shot by the wonderful Yuki Sugiura, who took the pictures for Gifts from the Garden and is also one of the most elegant people I’ve ever met.

The book has clear, detailed instructions for a novice like me, but I like to learn things in company if I can. My friend May Linn Bang, a fiendish Norwegian knitter, recently opened a gorgeous wool shop in Stoke Newington called Knit With Attitude. On her beautiful shelves you will find yarns of every imaginable shade and substance: lambs’ wool of course, but also alpaca, llama, bamboo, silk, hemp and milk fibre, and all carefully sourced to be eco-friendly and sustainable (this is Stoke Newington, after all).

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Every month, Maya hosts Stoke Knittington in the shop, an evening to get together with fellow knitters and crocheters to make things over a glass or two of wine, bowls of crisps and lots of local gossip. I won’t be crocheting a surprise wedding dress anytime soon, but by the end of the evening I’d just about mastered a double crochet stich without bursting into tears or flames. I think Auntie Doily would have approved.

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Maya knits.

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Stoke Knittington nights.

Stoke Knittington meets on the second Thursday of the month, 6pm. Suggested donation, £3. 10% off yarns bought on the evening. Yarns also available mail order.

Knit With Attitude shares its space with Of Cabbages and Kings, a great source of British arts, crafts and gifts.

127 Stoke Newington High Street
London N16 0PH

www.knitwithattitude.com

Happy Birthday, Sweetness



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It was Séan’s birthday last week. He insisted on making his own cake to take into the office. I’m fairly certain this is the first cake he’s baked in the 15 years we’ve been married. I did not help. It turned out brilliantly. I was slightly irked. I threatened to install the new router on the computer, fix the dodgy loo cistern and put a new blade on the lawnmower.
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The cake Séan made.

Of course, I did none of these things. They don’t sound much fun to be honest. Instead, for his birthday party yesterday, I made three cakes. That’ll teach him. Eighteen of us went to The Russett, a great café along the road from our house, for roast chicken and then piled back into our kitchen for crisps, cakes and prosecco.
I’ll blog the rest of the recipes over the next week or so, but I’m starting with the red velvet cake because this is the one the birthday boy requested. As it’s his birthday, I bent my usual house rules about using only seasonal fruit and veg. Don’t judge me (yeah, Nick).
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Marmalade and chocolate cake, red velvet cake and apple and cinnamon bundt cake.


Red Velvet Cake
I’ve made this cake loads of times, for birthday parties, engagement parties, bridal showers and just for the plain old love of the light sponge combined with the tangy cream cheese icing and mountain of fruit. It’s very easy, very pretty and is always a big hit. I was once stopped in the street by a woman I didn’t know who’d had a slice at a friend’s party to say it was the best cake she’d ever tasted. Sweet.
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Leo, being patient.

For the cake:
300g plain flour, sifted 2tbsp cocoa, plus a bit more for dusting the tins 1 tsp baking powder 1tsp bicarbonate of soda ½ tsp salt 250ml buttermilk 1 tbsp red food colouring 1 tsp cider vinegar 1 tsp vanilla extract 320g caster sugar 120g unsalted butter, softened, plus a bit more for greasing the tins 2 large eggs


For the icing:
110g unsalted butter, softened 500g full-fat cream cheese, room temperature 1 tsp vanilla extract 300g icing sugar, sifted A couple of punnets of raspberries A couple of punnets of blueberries

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas mark 4. Lightly butter two 23cm springform cake tins and dust them with cocoa powder.
Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt into a medium-sized bowl. I like to sift everything twice so all the ingredients are well blended.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, food colouring, vinegar and vanilla. It will be the most beautiful colour.
Using a stand mixer, beat together the butter and sugar. Don’t expect it to become light and fluffy, but it should be well blended. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in a quarter of the dry ingredients followed by a third of the buttermilk mixture. Repeat until all of the ingredients are incorporated, ending with the final quarter of the dry ingredients (dry, wet, dry, wet, dry, wet, dry).
Divide the batter between the prepared cake tins and bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cakes comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool in the tins, on a rack, for 10 minutes. Turn out of the tins and cool completely.
To make the icing, beat the butter in a stand mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in the cream cheese a little at a time until everything is very well blended. Beat in the vanilla. Beat in the icing sugar until everything is smooth.
When the cakes are completely cool, place one cake on a plate, spread some of the icing on top and arrange a generous layer of raspberries and blueberries over it, pressing lightly so they stick to the icing. Place the second cake on top and cover the whole thing with the remaining icing. Top the cake with the rest of the fruit.
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A slice of red velvet.

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Not much left …

A Sweet Thank You

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Cookies, as far as the eye can see.


I spent a happy evening turning the kitchen into a factory. A biscuit factory to be precise. In the space of a few hours I made eight dozen chocolate crackle cookies and four dozen oatmeal and raisin cookies. When I bake like this I go into a sort of trance of measuring, whisking, beating, sprinkling and rolling, punctuated by the ping of the kitchen timer. I rotate the baking sheets through the oven and put them onto the table in the garden to cool quickly between batches, enjoying the cooling blast of evening air.

Clearly even I can’t eat that many cookies, at least in one session. I parcelled them up in little bags to give to my neighbours and my favourite local shopkeepers. So if you’ve chatted with me over the fence, sold me a book or a bra, a lamb chop or a cat collar, a newspaper or a bunch of flowers, the chances are you’ve already tried the pretty Christmas Crackle Cookies here. If not, they’re fun to make in a mud-pie sort of way. I’ll post the oatmeal cookies in January, when we can all do with a cosy, chewy, pretending-to-be wholesome (they’ve got OATS in – they’re practically health food) cheer up. In the meantime, thank you to all of you who visit my blog and leave such lovely comments, both here and on Twitter. I wish you all a delicious Christmas and a sweetly chewy New Year.

Christmas crackle cookies

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This makes about eight dozen cookies, but you can halve it quite easily if that’s too many for you. The dough also freezes well so you could keep some of the packages in the freezer, ready for when you want to rustle up a quick batch.
I took as my inspiration for this recipe Martha Stewart’s recipe here, though I tinkered with the method quite a bit. My tips for success are these:

  • Chill the dough for at least four hours, or overnight if possible. Take the packages of dough out of the fridge one at a time – you want the batter to be very cold when you work on it.
  • It helps if your hands are really cool. Run them under the cold tap or dip them in chilled water from time to time. You’ll need to wash them quite frequently anyway, as it’s a rather sticky business.
  • Handle the dough as little as possible to turn them into little balls. They don’t have to be perfectly round. Roughly round is fine – the oven will do the rest.
  • It’s quite pleasingly messy, so line your work surface with baking parchment or clingfilm to make cleaning up easy.

225g plain chocolate
about 70%, broken up into small pieces
370g plain flour 
100g cocoa 4tsp baking powder 
½ tsp salt 
225g unsalted butter, room temperature 
400g light muscovado sugar 
4 eggs, lightly beaten 
150ml whole milk 
2 tbsp Kahlua, optional 
2 tsp vanilla extract

Icing sugar and caster sugar for rolling

Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely-simmering water (the water should not touch the bottom of the bowl). Melt, stirring from time to time. Cool.

Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. If I’m making this quantity, I sift it twice to make sure it’s well blended.
In a stand mixer, beat the butter until smooth then add the sugar and beat until very light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs about a tablespoon at a time, beating until well combined after each addition. Beat in the vanilla and Kahlua if using, then the cooled chocolate.

With the beater on a low speed, add a third of the sifted flour mixture, then half of the milk, and repeat, ending with the last third of the flour. Mix until just combined – with this large quantity, I finish it off by hand, but with a half batch you should be fine. Be careful not to overmix though or the cookies will be tough – the dough should be soft and cakey, rather mousse-y. Divide the dough into eight flattish discs of about 220g each and wrap them in clingfilm. Refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4. Line baking sheets with non-stick baking parchment. You will need to cook these in batches. Make sure the sheets are cool and the oven back up to temperature before you embark on each batch.

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Ready to roll.

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Ready for the oven.


Place a large sheet of baking parchment or clingfilm on your work surface and set up a bowl of caster sugar and a bowl of icing sugar, ready to roll the cookies. Remove one batch of dough from the fridge and use a teaspoon to scoop out little balls of dough. Roll them quickly into balls roughly the size of a small walnut. Toss them first in the caster sugar then in the icing sugar until they’re well coated, then arrange on the prepared baking sheet about 2cm apart. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until flattened and the sugar coating has split into a crackle pattern. Transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely. They will keep in an airtight container for about 4 days.

Don we now our gay apparel. Or not.

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My nephew Angus with Barney Candy Striper.

Last Thursday was one of my favourite days of the year: Stoke Newington dog walkers’ Christmas party. The morning when a few dozen people and dogs gather by the ponds in Clissold Park at our normal dog-walking hour of nine-ish, and – for one day only – our paper cups are filled with mulled wine rather than coffee. Christmas cake and mince pies and biscuits and brownies are scattered across the picnic table in a haphazard selection of foil and Tupperware. I always bring my chorizo sausage rolls. I get up early to make them so they’re still warm. I reckon that should stand me in good stead with Santa and the Baby Jesus.

Barney even had a special outfit. I made it for our Church Street Christmas carols and mulled wine evening last week. There was a Most Festive Dog competition and I hoped dressing him up as a parcel would distract from his eternally-serious terrier face. It didn’t. He was trounced by his pal Roxie, a smiley Staffie who in the summer won Most Regal Dog (headscarf, pearls, tiara) at our Jubilee street party. We now call her Roxie Two Time and she may be the most famous dog in Stoke Newington, possibly the world.

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Roxie and Willie, in Jubilee finery.

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Roxie, Most Festive Dog.

So being a thrifty sort who believes firmly in cost per wear, I thought Barney could don his splendid bit of doggy couture for the dog walkers’ party. (Aside: More correctly, haute glueture as it is, I believe, a fine example of all the good things that can happen when you bring together felt, ribbon and glue gun.) He wore it for approximately 30 seconds before I had to admit that given the dripping, sloshing, gushing rain it would only weigh him down in the inevitable flood and he would be swept away to Finsbury Park and beyond. So he went nude, which is his favourite state.

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Pah! Rain.

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Stoicism, N16.

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Dorie and Taz.

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Karen’s homemade chocolates

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I always take a batch of Doggie Breath Bones too.

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Intrepid Lexie.

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Barney, nude.

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Barney, with Nero, a slightly larger dog.

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Composition: Damp leaves, damp dog.