Monday, 14 February 2011

Elevenses | Red Velvet Cupcakes

Call me unromantic but I don't really celebrate Valentine's Day. Is it a bit bah humbug to think you should try and be sporadically romantic throughout the year rather than on a prescribed day in February? Mind you it doesn't mean I have anything against those of you who have indulged in the hearts and flowers today, and I most certainly don't mind when a lovely friend decides to bake K & I a half dozen of the scrummiest red velvet cupcakes as a Valentine's Day surprise.

I have been fascinated with red velvet cake ever since, as a teenager, I watched wide-eyed as Shirley MacLaine cut into a bizarrely grey armadillo-shaped cake in the film Steel Magnolias to reveal its garish ruby interior. I immediately started flicking through my mum's trusty Good Housekeeping cookery book searching for a recipe so I could get an idea of the flavours involved - no luck. Back then there were no handy cupcake shops to sate my curiosity, unlike now.

I particularly love the cocoa and vanilla undertones of red velvet combined with the coolness of the cream cheese frosting which helps cut through the sweetness. Twice I've tried to make red velvet cake and twice I've failed. There are some things I will happily hold my hands up to and admit defeat and this is one of them. Luckily I have a friend TJ who is a stellar baker and knows my weakness for the 'red cake'. He remains coy about revealing his wonderful recipe (only saying buttermilk is the key to its incredible moistness) and quite frankly I don't want him to. I've simply demanded he either open a cupcake stall or put me down for a monthly standing order of his red velvets so I can get a regular fix.

In the meantime it's easy to hotfoot it down to one of the many cupcakeries dotted around London and pick one up to snaffle for elevenses while conveniently forgetting how much red food colouring it really takes to achieve that scarlet crumb. The quality of the red velvet has pretty much become the deciding factor as to whether I duck into a cupcake shop/concession or not. I've had plenty of not-bads: Lola's Cupcakes; Ella's bakehouse; The Cupcake Company; Bea's of Bloomsbury but so far the Hummingbird Bakery are my go-to guys in London along with the Magnolia Bakery or Cake Man Raven when in New York. By no means an extensive survey I grant you so I would love to know of any new places you think I should try. The quest continues...

[Special thanks to my nephew Adam for kindly allowing me the use of his mini 'Thomas' fork - the ideal implement for eating several red velvet cupcakes]

Friday, 4 February 2011

Gong Xi Fa Cai | Happy Chinese New Year

So Chinese New Year started yesterday signaling the first day of spring. The holiday rolls on for a whole 15 days but for many this weekend is when all the festivities will be taking place.

Traditionally it's a time for spring cleaning - sweeping out the old and welcoming in the new. Decking the house with red and gold to attract joy and luck. A time of plenty, of cooking & feasting, with much of the dishes prepared during this period being symbolic and auspicious. Noodles are a sign of longevity - the longer the better. A whole fish is considered a sign of abundance and a whole chicken a sign of family unity. Jiaozi dumplings (similar to Japanese gyoza) are said to resemble old chinese coinage signifying good fortune while spring rolls are said to look like gold ingots. There are also oranges, lots and lots of oranges for giving and receiving - representing happiness and wealth.

But most importantly of course it's a time for family togetherness & reunion...oh and did I already mention the plentiful eating of food? Lots and lots of it!

So wherever you are whoever you are, whether you celebrate Chinese New Year or not - here's wishing you armfuls of tangerines (luck) and pocketfuls of ang pao (prosperity).

[Image: an old ang pao keepsake]
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