Thursday, 24 November 2011

Thanksgiving | Spiced Pumpkin Cake

I'm not American, but I actually get more excited about the baked goods related to this holiday more than any other.  I think back to several Thanksgivings spent browsing through the heaving aisles of Zabars in New York - my basket laden with anything which had pumpkin, pecan or cinnamon in the title.

So it's usually about now I make a traditional pumpkin or pecan pie but this year I'm making Spiced Pumpkin Cake, a particular favorite of mine because it's quick, easy to make, there's no faffing with pastry, the pumpkin makes it super-moist (squash works just as well I find), and you can dress it up with a cream cheese frosting and pecans or have it just as it is.

The cake calls for mixed spice in the recipe which of course can be shop bought.  In the States there is a lovely blend you can buy called pumpkin pie spice mix - a variation of cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg - which the fabulous Apartment Therapy|the kitchn has a great recipe for. But I prefer to use a Dutch speculaas spice blend which I make myself.

Speculaas are delicious nut-brown oblong biscuits stamped with festive scenes traditionally associated with St Nicholas' Day (Sinterklaas) on 6 December that you can get year round in the Netherlands.  To me, these cookies smell and taste like Christmas.  Many moons ago I bought a speculaas spice mix from my favorite Dutch supermarket Albert Heijn and used it in everything which called for mixed-spice.  After finally running out one day I stared forlornly at the empty jar, took a look at the back and decided to make my own blend so I'd never be without it again. 

What I think is particularly wonderful about a speculaas spice mix is the subtle addition of white pepper and coriander which I love but I know won't be to everyone's taste - sometimes aniseeds are added but since I never have any to hand I don't bother - but that's the beauty of a home-made spice mix, you add and subtract to make it your own.

Spiced Pumpkin Cake

4oz/115g butter
7oz/200g caster sugar
2 free range eggs
2 tsp speculaas spice (see below) or mixed spice
1 tsp vanilla extract
250g fresh pumpkin purée (see below) or tinned
8oz/225g organic self-raising flour, sifted

Optional | Cream cheese frosting (see below) & pecans to decorate

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 

Cream the butter and caster sugar together, using a food mixer or electric hand-whisk, until light and fluffy. Beat the 2 eggs in a separate bowl and then add a little at a time to the butter and sugar mixture, then add the vanilla extract and speculaas spice mix or ground mixed spice.

Slowly stir in the pumpkin purée and when fully incorporated gently fold in the sieved flour a couple of tablespoons at a time.

Pour the mixture into a greased and lined 8in round tin or 9in-square tin. Bake for 35-40 minutes and check the cake is done by pushing a skewer into the middle. It should come out clean with no uncooked cake mix stuck to it.  Cool for 15 mins in the tin, then turn out to finish cooling on a rack.


Pumpkin puree

If you're in a rush you can of course use tinned pumpkin purée - Libbys is a good brand.  But I prefer using fresh pumpkin or squash. I'm pretty lazy and find peeling largish pumpkins pretty laborious - although peeling a squash is not too bad.    

So there are two ways you can do this.  If you've got a large pumpkin or a couple of squashes halve/quarter them, leave the seeds in and place the pieces in a baking tray, flesh-side up, covered loosely with foil and leave happily to roast at 180C/350F for 30-40mins.  Poke with a knife to check if the flesh is really soft if not continue to roast, checking at 10min intervals until it is.  Leave to cool completely, then scoop out all the seeds and stringiness, the skin should come away easily.  Place the flesh in a food processor and blitz until really smooth.  Weigh out what you need for the cake and freeze the rest of the purée into handy 100g portions, which can be used later for all manner of sweet and savory recipes.  

Otherwise peel and de-seed your pumpkin or squash, chop into chunks and put in a pan with a third of a cup of water. Bring to the boil, cover tightly, and cook gently for 10 to 15 minutes until the pumpkin is really soft. Stir a couple of times to check that it is not sticking, adding a little extra water if necessary. When done, leave to cool and then blitz or mash the pumpkin to a purée. 

1 small pumpkin or 1 large squash yields approx. 400g of puree.

Speculaas spice mix 

I use a coffee grinder to blitz the whole spices like cloves, cardamom and coriander as I can never find them in the shops ready ground, and I finely grate a whole nutmeg. The other spices you can buy ground from the supermarket. Mix to the ratios below and then store in an airtight jar.

10 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp nutmeg (grate a whole
2 tsp cloves
1 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp white pepper
1/2 tsp cardamom
1/2 tsp coriander

Cream cheese frosting

4oz/115g cream cheese
2oz/60g butter
9oz/250g icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

To make the frosting, beat the butter with the cream cheese until smooth, then add in the sifted icing sugar and vanilla essence. Spread the frosting onto the cake and sprinkle with decorate with pecans.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

London for Free

Green Garden Lunchtimes | Bunhill Fields EC1
Monday 27 June - Friday 1 July 2011, 12.30 - 1.30pm

As much as I heart London, it is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Yet I've realised with a little bit of digging you can find lots of ways to enjoy the big smoke without parting with a penny.

Next week, the City of London is running their successful Green Garden Lunchtimes in Bunhill Fields (near Old Street). An hour of freeness every weekday ranging from a handy bike surgery to tai chi & yoga classes, massage & reiki treatments, and a wildlife talk & history tour.

I trot down Old Street all the time and was completely unaware that a stone's throw away lay 4 hectares of the lovely Grade I listed green space of Bunhill Fields, hidden by the traffic of City Road. Not only is it a protected haven for wildlife and conservation but up until the late 19th century it was also used as a dissenters graveyard. Yep there are still some gravestones around, notably those of the writers William Blake & Daniel Defoe, but still it remains a very popular spot with nearby office workers and families who go there to catch the sun and feel the grass between their toes.

So if you're thinking of popping down one lunchtime next week there's no need to book just turn up and who knows I might see you there as Yoga Place, the studio I teach at, are running the free Thursday yoga class and I'll be around to lend a hand.   Also never fear, should the great British weather be less than reliable (though I heard its going to be sunny) all the talks and classes will take place under gazebos.

Bunhill Fields, off the City Road, London EC1 
(nearest tube Old Street)

Monday 27 June - Free drop-in tai chi class provided by Mei Quan Academy

Tuesday 28 June - Free bicycle surgery, maintenance and repair checks by local bike shop Look Mum No Hands!
Wednesday 29 June - Meet 12.30pm at the gardeners hut for a history tour of Bunhill Fields by the City Guides (£5)
Thursday 30 June Free drop-in hatha yoga class provided by Yoga Place
Friday 1 JulyFree talk about urban wildlife and biodiversity from the Natural History Museum.  Plus free drop-in advice and treatments from qualified experienced practitioners in Reiki, Yoga, Massage, Chiropody and Osteopathy from the Wren Clinic.

Images 1, 3 City of London Corporation

Monday, 20 June 2011

Big Hair Indeed

My hairstyling routine has been transformed: well, inasmuch as I didn't have one before and now I do. Don't get me wrong, it's not like I don't spend money on my hair. I go to good stylists (only about three times a year but still) and I rarely use anything other than Aveda products (although I have to admit to recently reverting to home dyeing - I'm not made of money). But my styling has always left a lot to be desired. I was very much of the rub-my-fingers-through-my-hair-whilst-holding-a-hairdryer-near-it school then I'd make a half-hearted attempt to use a round brush to get some semblance of a shape. It tended to look OK when it was first done but a few hours later it would invariably end up looking flat.

Now all of that has changed because I've discovered the Babyliss Big Hair. I first read about it on India Knight's blog and thought it sounded good but not for me - her hair looks to be of the big curly variety and she was extolling it's taming capabilities. I mentioned it to a few of my curly friends and thought no more about it. Then Sali Hughes did one of her video columns about it in the Guardian and as her hair is similar to mine I thought I'd give it a go.

What a revelation! I find it incredibly simple to use, and the volume I can achieve is so great I actually have to hold myself back otherwise I'd be forced to start power-dressing à la Alexis Carrington Colby to offset my bounce. I won't go into the detail of how to use the thing (check out the aforementioned video if you want to see it in action) other than to say it's a dryer with a revolving brush on the end. I know, it doesn't sound amazing but it really is. So much so that I bought one to take to Berlin and despite its size I have taken my original with me on weekends away. To really appreciate the significance of that you should remember that I am someone for whom comfort wins over style every time. Or so I thought. But now I am the queen of the do. The first time I used it Coffee Boy asked me if I'd had my hair cut - and nearly every week I get someone asking me if I've been to the hairdressers. So if you're sick of trying in vain to make your mop look top-notch, give it a whirl. For me it was £45 very well spent.

Images: 1 & 2 BaByliss, 3 Amazon

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

New Camera Fun

I had the most amazingly lovely lazy Sunday yesterday. The fact I had a lovely new camera to play with just made it all the better. I have been lusting after an Olympus Pen since they launched the E-P1 in 2009 but I didn't really feel I could justify spending money on a camera when I already have my trusty Canon and an Olympus snap camera. But the reality of my photo taking habits means that I really did want something between the two.

I find that my snap camera is great and small and light but it just doesn't allow me to take the kind of photos I really want to take, and as a result I often forget to carry it and end up taking pics on my iPhone. My lovely Canon on the other hand allows me to take exactly the kind of photos I want but its size means I have to carry it in its special bag: fine if you're going out for a specific photo walk; a bit annoying if you're just meeting a friend for a cup of tea.

Anyway, enough of the justification. Suffice to say that seeing the E-P1, plus external flash, at the knock-down price of £299 whilst browsing at the airport was enough to convince me that the time had come to embrace the in-between camera. And after only one day of playing with it, I'm already convinced I made a spot-on decision. It's the perfect size to fit in any bag I'm carrying (I don't really do small bags) and allows me enough control to bore Coffee Boy stupid while I mess around taking photos.

 So these represent just a few of my first plays with it. Having a lovely sunny Berlin Sunday to try it out on was the cherry on the cake.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Feeling Fruity

A run of sunny days and blue skies; two consecutive bank holiday weekends with another on its way; and a Royal wedding under our belts.  Is it just me or does everyone seem a little bit chirpier than usual this spring?

I certainly am, as is my desperate urge to feel the sun on my arms and legs.  But unless you're super-organised and have executed a seasonal wardrobe changeover from your winter-wear to summer - trust me I actually know people who religiously do this - you, like me, have been furiously rummaging in drawers and in the back of your cupboard for that floaty blouse and summer dress you wore to death last summer.  Having pulled them out from under a mountain of chunky winter cardies and roll necks I have to say on first glance I felt decidedly underwhelmed and well, bored.  I needed something cheerful.  Okay okay I wanted something new which wasn't an 'investment' piece (yawn) and smacked of something a bit silly and fun - so the whimsical fruity micro-trend, kicked off by those mad dangly resin banana earrings Mrs Prada sported at the end of her S/S 2011 runway show last autumn, was just the ticket.

My sister had managed to nab us both a limited edition Orla Kiely pear tote from Tesco which got the ball rolling nicely but I wanted more.  There's lots out there to play with and here's my pick of the bunch (sorry!) including some sweet fabrics for those feeling a bit crafty.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

My Day of Letterpress Joy

I have mentioned before that Coffee Boy buys me amazing presents. There have been many occasions when friends have looked at me enviously as I've told them about the gorgeous pair of boots he bought me or shown them a lovely piece of jewelery he'd got that is exactly what I would have chosen myself; they look sad as they tell me how their other halves need firm steering towards specific items or how they're forced to return things that don't fit them. But this year CB really outdid himself by buying me a one day letterpress workshop. That's right, a chance for me to create my very own letterpress stationery: it was almost too exciting.

I booked myself on the workshop and waited for my chosen date to roll around. It took a while for my day to arrive but the fact I knew that I would be one of only two participants with two tutors (a ratio of 1:1!) made the wait worthwhile. And I was right to be patient as the day itself was absolutely fantastic. I arrived just before 10.00 which gave me a chance to sip my coffee and stare longingly through the window at the letterpress goodness on offer inside: beautiful calendars; gorgeous cards; cute little magnets. Although I realised I would be unlikely to create anything quite so wonderful, I was excited to at least have a go.

A few minutes later my co-workshopper Susie arrived along with our lovely tutors Chrissie and Vicky. As we had a tour of the adorable three-floor "corridor" that the shop and workshop were housed in and then browsed through books and former attendees' work it became clear that the three people I would be spending the day with were all like-minded and easy-going; in fact it turned out that Susie and I had a somewhat scary amount of things in common! After this little inspirational interlude I realised I'd reached a decision what I planned to do: create correspondence cards with both our London and Berlin addresses on. OK, so I don't tend to write to anyone except via email but all that could change in my new world of letterpress loveliness.

On the face of it it might seem that printing with a letterpress would be fairly straightforward - and certainly everything about the process makes perfect sense. But there was so much to take in! We chose which font and which pitch we wanted to use - I went for Gill Sans because I love that deco vibe. We learned to arrange the type on composing sticks. Then we found out how to transfer and secure the blocks of type into a chase, which is a kind of frame. And then, finally, we were ready to start the actual printing process. I chose to print my addresses in two corners using metal type and black ink and then I decided to liven then whole thing up with our initials in large wooden type printed in red ink. I was so pleased with the finished articles which I printed onto a variety of coloured cards. The glorious imperfection of the printing is thankfully something that makes me love letterpress!

What an amazing, and surprisingly exhausting, day it was. As I left the wondrous corridor behind I realised I was totally shattered: in fact I couldn't remember the last time I'd learned so much in one day. There is something so satisfying about learning a new skill. Obviously I have by no means mastered letterpress printing but it feels like quite an achievement to start a day with no more knowledge about something than the fact you like the way it looks, and to end it with a box of goods produced, from start to finish, by you. Of course what makes the difference when learning a new skill is the teachers you have and in Vicky and Chrissie I couldn't have asked for anything more: they were friendly, patient and clear in their explanations.

It really was the most brilliant day and writing about it makes me want to go back and do it all over again. It wasn't cheap (although I wasn't paying so I didn't care) with the workshop, including lunch and snacks, costing £175 but actually I think that represents amazingly good value given that you have two lovely, experienced printers teaching and helping you all day. And remember there's only two of you on the course which means there's no waiting for help or equipment. If you are a serious letterpress fan I can't think of a more fantastic way to spend a day than to do a workshop at Harrington & Squires. In fact it was so good I now find myself under serious pressure to come up with a top-notch present for Coffee Boy's next birthday. Thank goodness I've got a few months to think about it. Maybe the best thing will be to buy my own letterpress and make him something. Now there's an idea...

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Bike Schemes Compared: Paris v London

On my recent trip to Paris I was keen to have a go of the Vélib' bike scheme. Despite signing up for the Barclays bikes in London I'd never actually had a chance to use them as I usually have my own bike with me. But in Paris the Vélib' scheme was offering the chance to explore a city I know pretty well but in a whole new way. I absolutely love cycling around cities: for me it is the best way imaginable to see a place. Aside from the fact that cycling is fun, there is something about the pace that is perfect: not so fast that you're whizzing by not taking things in; but fast enough so that you can get from one area to another without too much effort. I do also enjoy walking around cities but cycling has the added bonus that there are no aching feet at the end of the day.


What with our Saturday arrival in the rain and the fabulous gig, it wasn't until the Sunday that we had a chance for a proper mooch about. I had already downloaded the Vélib' app and was pleased to see that there was a docking station right behind our hotel. I wanted to sign up for 24 hours access and after a bit of puzzling at the overly complicated machine (this wasn't a bad-French issue incidentally (although that is entirely possible with my French) as the machines offer a choice of languages) I managed to enter my bank card, confirm the €150 deposit, and get my little card with my access code. I then simply entered the number, picked a bike and peddled off.

As you've probably already heard the bikes are pretty darn heavy but I thought they were amazingly easy to cycle. Just three gears and some good solid brakes: they certainly inspire confidence. The Vélib' bikes have a basket on the front with a funny twisty wire thing which I couldn't entirely fathom; I guessed it might be to thread through bag handles for security but they didn't seem terribly effective so I'm not sure. The seat posts are easily adjustable and an unwritten code seems to have developed whereby when a bike is defective in some way people drop the saddles and turn them to the rear to alert people: this is incredibly handy because if you take more than two minutes to find out your bike has a problem (entirely possible with the twisty wire weirdness) it's a right pain to swap it. When this happened to us we actually had to find another docking station as your account seems to get locked for a few minutes after returning your bike.

Anyway, all of these little things aside, the most important thing was the ride: it was surprisingly comfortable. Although the bike is heavy to move up a kerb for instance, it's amazingly easy to steer when you're riding. And the biggest surprise was how easy it was to take uphill. I for one am no fan of riding up hills (in fact I actually add the best part of a mile onto my journey into the centre of town in London to avoid Denmark Hill) and felt sure that we'd be ditching the bikes at the bottom of the hill leading up to the Pantheon where we were staying. So imagine my surprise when I found that we had ridden up the hill by mistake! It really was pretty amazing. I was so blown away by the experience of riding around town on the Vélib' that I promised myself I would try and build the Barclays bikes into my routine at home.

I didn't have to wait long as a week later Coffee Boy and I found ourselves heading into town with our helmets in hand ready to give the London scheme a go. It's difficult to compare the experience of actually hiring the bikes as I had signed us up for the scheme when it first started and we therefore had the keys that you just insert into the bike post before removing the bike itself (and then the key - don't pull it out first). Obviously, that couldn't have been more straightforward. And I was also impressed by the little lights on the post that let you know if the bike is faulty. Rather than a basket to put your bag in the Barclays bikes have a funny open-sided J-shaped basket with a bungee cord - frankly, it looks a bit rubbish but I was pleasantly surprised. The cord is very strong and holds your bag really firmly meaning that an opportunistic thief would have to work a bit to nick your goods. The other benefit is that if you have a large or awkwardly-shaped bag, or a briefcase, you're still going to be able to fit it in. The other thing I liked was the numbered seat-post meaning that once you know what height you want your seat it's super-easy to adjust any subsequent bike you hire. The Paris scheme is a much more chic beige-colour and not plastered in advertising but I am prepared to overlook the blue-Barclaysness (just) if that is the only way London is going to have such a scheme.

In every other way the pricing and set up of the bikes (gears, bells, brakes) is remarkably similar. So the ride is probably pretty similar too right? Wrong. Riding the Barclays bikes is akin to trying to peddle a tractor. Those things are H-E-A-V-Y. At first I thought I had a duff bike as there seemed to be some kind of drag going on but CB confirmed that his was exactly the same. OK, I thought, the gears are obviously a lot harder, I'll drop down from third to second - big mistake, now the bike was hardly moving and still weighed a ton. I realised how truly heavy it was as I crossed Blackfriars Bridge: rather than the slight incline I know it to be, I wondered if I'd drifted off-course to the Alpine section of the Tour de France - not fun. I checked with CB wondering if perhaps I was coming down with something and had lost all the strength in my legs but his red face confirmed that I was not alone.

Now, I'm not suggesting that I am in any way one of the fitter people likely to be using the bikes, but I reckon I probably do a lot more cycling than many of them. And if I find it hard-going, I can't imagine what it'll be like for those that haven't used their cycling muscles for a while. What really worries me is that the scheme is, in theory, a fantastic way to reintroduce people to the joys of cycling; but if my experience is anything to go by it might well put them right off. I'm not saying I won't be using the scheme again, in fact I'm sure I will as it's still an amazingly convenient way to get around, but I'm pretty sure that if I'm going anywhere that requires me not to arrive red-faced and panting then I might give it a miss - which is a real shame.

I love that fact that the London scheme has improved on the Paris scheme with things such as numbered seat-posts and well thought out luggage carrying solutions. But all of that feels a bit irrelevant if the actual riding of the bikes is so inferior. I've been reading lots of articles about the Barclays bikes and nobody has had much to say about the ride save for a few "it's quite heavy". I'd love to hear what other people's experiences have been. Were CB and I experiencing some kind of collective leg-weakening on our day or are they genuinely the heaviest bikes known to man? Let us know.

Images from top:  1. Wayfaring; 2. Cedric via Zoomr 3. Wayfaring; 4. Rui Pereira via Flickr; 5. Bike Hub; 6. 3 Days in London; 7. Scott Davis via Flickr; 8. James Guppy via Flickr
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